Tag Archives: casey affleck

Laika’s ParaNorman

ParaNorman is a film that’s just about as close to perfect as you can get. Released by a low profile studio called Laika that specializes in gorgeously crafted stop motion animation adventures, this one has the irresistible flavour of retro Universal Studios monster movies put to use in a smart, engaging story full of well written characters, maturely imparted themes and wonderful pathos. Young Norman (Kodi Smit McPhee) can see, hear and converse with ghosts, and that generally makes him a bit of an outsider in his town. When the spirit of a deceased relative warns him of some vague impending doom encroaching on the region, it’s up to him and his merry gang including best buddy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) his ditzy sister (Anna Kendrick), and Neil’s hilarious jock brother (Casey Affleck) to solve the spooky mystery of a centuries old witch who has risen the dead. It’s a brilliantly told story with boundless animation, a sharp script full of subtle, off the cuff humour, heartrending sadness at the core of its narrative and some of the most dazzling animation this side of Burton/Selick. The voice cast is peppered with carefully chosen talent like Jeff Garlin, Bernard Hill, John Goodman, Christopher Mintz Plasse, Leslie Mann, Elaine Stritch, Alex Borstein and more. Jodelle Ferland voices Aggie the witch as a tragic character with the same haunted complexity she brought to the role of Alessa in Silent Hill. Laika studios is also responsible for gems like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, Corpse Bride and last years Kubo & The Two Strings, they are a brilliant bunch who are trailblazing storytelling in exciting new ways. ParaNorman has to be my favourite though, it’s an enthusiastic love letter to golden age horror and an emotionally mature study of what it means to be different, how people react and the damage that can be done simply by not accepting someone for who they are. Trust an animated film to inject themes like that and explore them thoroughly while still having a blast of a fun time. I can’t say enough good things about this film.

-Nate Hill

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Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve

I enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve for a number of reasons, chief among them how decidedly different it is from Eleven. It’s like they not only chose to set it in Europe, but also to stylistically change the glib, cavalier Vegas aesthetic for an oddball, impenetrable Euro vibe that’s a lot weirder and more dense this time, and as such we have fun in a new fashion than the first. There’s also not just the laser focus of one singular, do or die heist but rather a string of robberies, betrayals and loose subplots flung around like diamonds, as well as a few cameos buried like Faberge Easter eggs. Good old Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) has tracked down Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Tess (Julia Roberts), Rusty (Brad Pitt) and their merry band of thieves across the pond to Europe, and he wants his money back from their epic Bellagio/Mirage/MGM Grand heist. This sets in motion an impossibility intricate, knowingly convoluted series of mad dash heists and classy encounters with the finest arch burglars Europe has to offer, including legendary thief the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) and hilarious fence Eddie Izzard in full fussy mode. Everyone from Danny’s original team returns, from the scene stealing, cigar devouring Elliott Gould to the bickering brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan. Hell, even Topher Grace as himself is back, and that gigantic Vegas tough guy that fake brawled with Clooney the first time turns up for a spell. There’s fresh faces abound too, including sultry Catherine Zeta Jones as a cunning Interpol agent who’s on to their trail, no thanks to Pitt who happens to be dating her. Oh, and how about the surprise cameo which I won’t spoil except to say it’s tied into another pseudo cameo that’s so ingenious it can’t be explained, you just gotta see it. To be honest, the whole heist plot is one fabulously befuddled bag of nonsense, tomfoolery and monkeyshines, made no clearer with flashbacks, gimmicks, ulterior motives and cinematic trickery until we’re left wondering what in the fuck exactly happened. More so in Twelve though it’s about the journey, and not the destination, whereas Eleven made it clear that sights were set on completing that heist with dedicated tunnel vision. Here one is reminded of a bunch of Italians sitting around having coffee and chatting amongst themselves while they’re late for a meeting; they’ll get there eventually, but right now all that matters is how good the conversation and camaraderie is. Speaking of sitting around and talking, my favourite scene of the film is with Danny, Rusty, Matt Damon’s Linus and Robbie ‘Hagrid’ Coltrane, who plays an underworld contact. They’re sat in a Paris cafe talking, and they use nothing but a nonsense gibberish vernacular that seems to make sense to them all but Damon, but probably doesn’t to any of them, but the key is that they all remain cool, bluff each other out and have fun. That sums up the film in one aspect, a breezy blast of silliness that shouldn’t be examined too hard, but rather enjoyed at a hazy distance with a glass of fine wine. Good fun all round.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven

I’ve seen Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven so many times I couldn’t count on the hands I have, or all twenty two of those attached to the gaggle of slick, fast talking lounge rats who pull of the most laidback, easygoing casino heist in Vegas history. Most heist flicks have a breathless cadence and at least one high powered action sequence. Not this baby. It’s like the weekend R&R of robbery films, the classy brunch of crime stories. Hell, even Heat, as hypnotic and subdued as it was, had gunplay here and there. It’s in that refusal to get its hands dirty, the insistence on a relaxed, pleasant vibe that has made it the classic it is today. George Clooney and Brad Pitt are iconic now as ex jailbird Danny Ocean and fast food enthusiast Rusty, two seasoned pros who plan to take down tycoon Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, looking and sounding more constipated than a police commissioner at a 420 rally) and his three giant casinos. To do this, they round up the most eclectic bunch of scoundrels this side of the wild bunch, including fussy, flamboyant businessmen Elliot Gould, slick card shark Bernie Mac (“might as well call it white jack!”), twitchy techie Eddie Jamison, dysfunctional petty thief Matt Damon, eternally squabbling wheelmen brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan, acrobatic guru Shaobo Qin, rowdy safecracker Don Cheadle (with a piss poor attempt at a cockney accent, I might add) and grizzled grifter Carl Reiner. Oh, and a sultry Julia Roberts as Danny’s ex wife, because no caper flick would be complete without the high stakes and charm of a woman involved. What a pack. The logistics and steps of their plan have a labyrinthine feel to them, especially the sheepish twist that seems just easy enough to work and just far-fetched enough to earn friendly chuckles. Soderbergh did his own cinematography for this, which explains why the vision here is so singular and unforgettable; he shoots Vegas like a subdued nocturnal dreamscape full of fountain soaked vistas, dazzling light displays and ornate casino floors, and directs his actors with all the lithe, cordial and cucumber cool personas of the born n’ bred Vegas characters you can spot whilst on vacation there. Ebert wrote of this, “Serious pianists sometimes pound out a little honky-tonk, just for fun.. this is a standard genre picture, and Soderbergh, who usually aims higher, does it as sort of a lark.” Oh, Roger. This is my main pet peeve with film criticism and analysis: the distinct differentiation between ‘genre fare’ and ‘high art’, a snooty attitude that devalues both forms and axes a rift into a medium that at the end of the day, is all storytelling. Some of Soderbergh’s best films (this, Out Of Sight and last year’s Logan Lucky) are exercises in storytelling without the burden of subtext or lofty behind the scenes ambition, and are somewhat the better for it. Rant over. In any case, this is style, charm, wit and lovable caper shenanigans done just about as best as they could, and remains one of my favourite films of this century so far.

-Nate Hill

David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints


Downbeat yet beautifully moving, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a surprise for me, a visual and emotional bouquet of muted style, lighting and music that instantly transports you to the time and place it lives in, as well as beckoning you straight into the characters’s hearts, hearts which all have the capacity for love and reverence, or the blackest of deeds. The people in this film are just that: human beings, not caricatures moulded by the written word, you feel every pang left by a violent act in both victim and perpetrator, and sit alongside them as they wade through heartbreak. A soulful Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play two outlaw lovers who cause a deafening shootout with police in the stunning prologue, both killing and wounding multiple officers. The outcome sees Affleck jailed hundreds of miles away and Mara left alone to give birth to and raise a daughter he may likely never meet. He does get out though, and meanders his way through rural Texas to find them, when trouble arrives once again, as it always does. A local policeman (Ben Foster) has grown fond of Mara, while her stern father (Keith Carradine) takes notice of Affleck’s return and bristles up real good. At it’s heart this is a tragedy, even if on the surface one sees potential for a love story. There’s a Bonnie and Clyde vibe to be sure, but it’s as if we are privy to what happens in a ‘lovers on the run’ tale after the fact itself, as if the film begins at the end of a conventional such story, and achingly shows us that happy endings simply don’t exist, especially for people like this. Now, there’s been obvious comparisons to Terence Malick’s work, which are of course somewhat warranted, but this film is it’s own beast. Brought to shimmering life by the lens of cinematographer Bradford Young and blessed with a mournful lullaby of a score from Daniel Hart, this one shakes and stirs the viewer with a gorgeous look at beauty through the crystalline prism of sorrow. 

-Nate Hill

Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace 


While not quite in the pantheon of powerhouse that the filmmakers intended it to be, Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace is still a bleak, devastating picture. This is a film about endings, and not resolute, satisfactory ones either. Set in a borderline derelict mining town somewhere in the rust belt, industry has come to a grinding halt, giving way to the inevitable rise of rural crime, spreading like a cancer across land that once flourished and prospered. Every character in the film meets their bitter end somehow, and what’s fascinating is that earlier in life they all could have been more whole, and come from some other, brighter genre film, but the lives they’ve led set them on the same course as their county, and one by one we see them reach the last bend in the road, and the light in their life unceremoniously flicker out, leaving a cold shell. If I’m making this sound depressing, I’m doing my job well. This is a soul crushing film, with no light at either end of the tunnel and all glimmers of hope already extinguished before the opening titles even show up, so just make sure you have Finding Nemo or Wallace & Gromit queued up next in line if you give it a go. Opening with a prologue that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you know right off the bat what you’re in for, as we’re introduced to Woody Harrelson’s Harlan Groat, an absolute monster who runs everything from underground fight clubs to an intricate web of meth trade in the region. Groat is at odds with steelworker Russell Baze (An implosive Christian Bale), a hard man with anger issues just looking for an excuse to get fired up. Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck in the film’s best work) is a broken Iraqi war vet who got on the wrong side of Groat’s gang, and has since disappeared. Since the law won’t venture into the near mythic backwood hills where Groat skulks, Baze goes vigilante, waging personal war and raging against a light that has long since gone dead. This is a big cast we’re looking at here, and some of the subplots either distract from the main show or just seem like overkill, like Zoe Zaldana as Russell’s ex who has since shacked up with the local Sheriff (Forest Whitaker), or an underused Sam Shepherd as his uncle Red. Willem Dafoe has a nice bit as a seedy but sympathetic local gangster though, it’s always nice to see him, as well as Tom Bower as the salt of the earth bartender. It’s all about Woody and the danger he brings, he’s terrifying in the most mundane of exchanges, and lethal when he gets worked up. The feeling of economic decay follows him like a noxious cloud, his brittle ruthlessness a mascot for the hard times that many a town in the US has fallen on in recent years. One need only look at the poster to see the obvious and intentional shades of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and though the film wears its influences on its heavy flannel sleeve, it finds its own dark, despairing poetry, and leaves you gutted in the final, anticlimactic frame. 

-Nate Hill

“You got a problem with me?” – A review of Out Of The Furnace by Josh Hains

Scott Cooper’s sophomore film Out Of The Furnace follows Russell Baze (Christian Bale) through the empty, broken down streets of Braddock Pennsylvania like a lonesome ghost. He works in the local steel mill where his slowly dying father once worked, using what little money he makes to pay off his brother Rodney Jr.’s (Casey Affleck) gambling debts to sleazy local bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe), all the while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana). That all comes crashing down when Russell gets into trouble with the law and spends the next four years in prison, getting periodic visits from Rodney with updates on the state of their father’s health, Lena, and Rodney’s own exploits overseas in Iraq. Both men are broken and trying to keep it together for the sake of each other.

In due time Russell is released back into Braddock, the once thriving city on the verge of death with the mill soon to be closed. Things are different now for Russell, the times have changed, people have changed, and he has no other choice but to suck it up and trudge forward into the unforeseeable future. Rodney has picked up a deadly new habit, bare knuckle boxing, his way of violently paying off his debts to Petty before the stack gets too high. Russell tries talking him into a “normal” job to no avail; after multiple horrific tours of duty in Iraq, Rodney has been left shaken, twitchy, and is a mere shell of the man he once was. All that seems to be left is violence, anger, and undying love for Russell. Rodney begs John Petty to get him into bigger fights in backwoods New Jersey, dirtier, bloodier fights held under the watchful eye of local sociopathic hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).

By this point in a standard issue revenge thriller, Rodney would have been long dead, but Cooper wisely makes the decision to give us time to settle into this world, and come to understand characters who feel like people, and not just cardboard cut outs. That the latter half of the movie devolves somewhat predictably into the same kind of movie it was previously avoiding replication of, is a disappointment. However, what does occur is given room to breathe. Cooper might be following the tropes of the genre, but he at least has the sense to let it unfold slowly and organically. Very little feels forced.

Things quickly turn ugly for Rodney and Petty, and when both go missing, the local law led by sheriff Wesley Barnes, exhausts all possible means in an attempt to find the pair, but can only go far because law enforcement lives in fear of DeGroat’s brutal reign of the area, and the fact that it’s outside of Braddock police’s jurisdiction doesn’t help matters either. So Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) cautiously take matters into their own hands the only way they know how.

Christian Bale delivers his most believable performance to date, fully embodying the heart and soul of Russell Baze, right down to the slightest nuances and subtleties of the man. He’s a truly masterful actor, strutting his stuff in such low-key fashion that because of the deep naturalism, rawness, and intense realism he imbues, within the first few minutes it stops feeling like a performance. It becomes, real, as Russell battles his inner demons and carries the weight of the world on his lean shoulders right up until the final frames fade to black.

Woody Harrelson knocks it out of the ball park as Jersey backwoods hillbilly sociopath Harlan DeGroat, topping his wildly over-the-top performance as Mickey in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. If you thought Mickey was a bad dude, wait until you watch DeGroat force a hot dog down the throat of a woman at a drive-in movie theatre in the films unnerving opening sequence. Harrelson has an uncanny ability of inhabiting even the most repulsive of villains with some semblance of humanity, and toward the end of the film does so with nothing more than an all-knowing expression upon his face and burning in his eyes as he delivers a couple heartfelt lines.

With this performance, Casey Affleck shed the boyish light his previous performances have always been garnished with, trading it in for a toned body and volatile outbursts of pent-up rage. He gives the more energetic performance of the two brothers, effortlessly capturing Rodney’s broken down mannerisms. Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard each provide the right amount of nuance and naturalism to their perfomances that blend evenly with their bleak surroundings and the trio of astounding lead performances.

In a scene near the midsection of the film, Russell and Lena have a conversation on a bridge about their future after Russell has been released from prison. Despite Russell’s plea to make things right between them, Lena cannot commit to him anymore because she’s carrying Barnes’ child. In a moment that ought to shatter even the hardest of hearts into a million pieces, Russell congratulates Lena, assuring her she’ll be a good mom amidst tears from both of them. This scene assuredly carries the finest moments of acting we’ve seen from Bale and Saldana to date. 

The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey) is impeccable, capturing beautifully and quite often starkly, the dreary and dirty grit of Braddock, the crispness of the violence, the cold bitterness of the dialogue dripping from the tongue of the people inhabiting the film. Scott Cooper directs this film with ease, honestly and authentically capturing the bleak essence of the dying town, the harsh realities of the effects the economy is having on the people, and the brutality that is the violence that twists their worlds upside down in the blink of an eye.

 

Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

It is not easy to quantify Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.  At times, it is a very taut drama with an engrossing story, yet the narrative unravels a bit, and finds itself spiralling into subplots that tend to take away from the emotional core and impact of the story.  
There is a lot to like, more than a lot to like; there are things to absolutely love about the film.  The performances are paramount.  Casey Affleck has never been better in the token stifled and stoic man who has internalized all of his pain that we surely have seen on screen before.  Lucas Hedges plays Affleck’s nephew, and surprisingly received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor (Ralph Fiennes from A BIGGER SPLASH, anyone?).  Michelle Williams is wonderful as Affleck’s ex-wife, and Tate Donovan and Matthew Broderick show up in small roles.  If there’s an unsung performance in the film, it lies within Kyle Chandler, who plays the deceased brother who shows up plentiful in Affleck’s flashbacks.
Kenneth Lonergan is not a filmmaker for everyone, his films are dark and keep a flame of intrigue lit, yet at times he will purposely detach us from the emotional story, and take us to a small arc that really doesn’t go anywhere.  Specifically in this film, there is a small scene where Affleck’s nephew (who he is the sole guardian of) visits his mother played by Gretchen Mol, and her fiance played by Broderick.  While the scene is a believable progression of the story, it is scenes like this that remove us from the core of the film.
The film’s narrative is akin to a relay race, with each act of the film, supplementing a baton pass.  At times, there is a slight fumble, but the rest of the race runs smoothly, and as expected from a filmmaker like Lonergan.  The best elements of the film lie within Affleck and his story, the final confrontation between Affleck and Williams is heartbreakingly wonderful.  It is not only the best moment in the film, but it is one of the best moments of this year in cinema.  This isn’t a bad film, by any means, but had the filmed stayed laser focused on Affleck and his tragedy, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA would be more than deserving of the hype and praise it entered the awards season with.