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Director’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten Tony Scott Films

There was no other artist on the planet like Tony Scott. Behind that epic cigar and under that iconic sun bleached pink cap there resided an intense desire to blast celluloid with a distinct visual aesthetic and brand cinema forever with pictures that exploded out of the mould, caught the projector on fire and often inspired quite divisive reactions. Why have one steadicam stationed at a traditional angle when you can have multiple cameras on all kinds of rigs panning, gliding and pirouetting all over the place? Why use generic colour timing templates when you can saturate the absolute fuck out of every frame, sprinkle in the grain and turn up the yellows until you scorch your irises? Why employ pedestrian editing when you can zip, zoom, use jagged swaths of movement, arbitrary subtitles and hurtling fast motion to tell your story? Tony has a huge bag of tricks that was constantly evolving over the course of his career, and for anybody who could both catch up to him and appreciate the aesthetic he left us a wealth of cinematic treasure behind after his tragic and untimely death. These are my top ten personal favourite of his films!

10. The Hire: Beat The Devil

This is one in many short films sponsored by BMW, all featuring Clive Owen as a 007-esque getaway driver for hire at the wheel of a Beamer. Scott’s entry definitely leads the pack though, get this: The legendary James Brown (James Brown playing himself) has made a deal with The Devil (Gary Oldman) for fame and fortune and now that old age has struck he wishes to renegotiate. How to settle matters? Brown and Owen in the Beamer race Devil and his trusty butler/driver (Danny freakin Trejo) along the Vegas strip at sunrise. Oh yeah and Marilyn Manson makes a hysterical cameo too. It’s a balls out fucking freaky wild ride with Oldman making scary, flamboyant work of ol’ scratch and Scott amping up the stylistics to near excess. Favourite scene: that Manson cameo, man. So funny.

9. Spy Game

Robert Redford and Brad Pitt headline this highly kinetic tale of espionage, mentorship, loyalty and resilience while Tony fires up what little action there is terrifically. It’s interesting because this isn’t an action film, it’s got depth and personality, the visual tone serving the affecting central relationship well. Favourite scene: Brad and Robert argue morality atop a Berlin apartment rooftop, Brad loses his cool and whips a chair off the edge as Scott’s cameras dutifully circle them like restless seagulls.

8. The Last Boy Scout

A tumultuous production ultimately led to the first in the ‘unofficial L.A. Noir buddy action comedy trilogy’ written Shane Black, to be followed up years later with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. Tony lends his sun soaked grunge to this tale of an ex football pro (Damon Wayans) and a disgraced Secret service agent turned PI (Bruce Willis) navigating a dangerous underworld conspiracy while trying to put up with each other. This is one hilarious, high powered ride with super nasty villains, a terrific supporting turn from Danielle Harris as Willis’s rebellious daughter and a playfully sadistic streak to the intrigue. Favourite scene: the shocking opening sequence set during a rain soaked NFL game gives new meaning to going the extra mile for that touchdown and sets the gritty, sarcastic tone well.

7. Unstoppable

This exciting riff on the runaway train shtick sees railway workers Denzel Washington and Chris Pine try and prevent a renegade unmanned locomotive from crashing in a densely populated area, causing cataclysm. Tony keeps the pulses racing and the action almost literally nonstop in his final film before passing. Favourite scene: the hair raising climax.

6. Crimson Tide

Denzel again! He goes head to head with Gene Hackman in this explosive submarine picture with uncredited writing from Quentin Tarantino and fantastic supporting work from James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen and others. Tony loved wide, expansive settings to play in but he works just as terrifically in a confined space here, letting the energy reaching a boiling point. Favourite scene: a fierce verbal battle of wills between Hackman and Washington over a tense mess hall dinner.

5. Déjà Vu

Time travel gets a twist in this trippy, exciting and surprisingly emotional tale of one ATF agent (who else but Denzel??) using a state of the art SciFi technique to take down a dangerous terrorist (Jim Caviesel). Scott uses many elements played both backwards and forwards to keep interests locked and please the crowd. Favourite scene: When all is said and done Washington shares a final moment with a witness (Paula Patton) that calls back to earlier moments of the film and caps this story off nicely.

4. Enemy Of The State

Chase thriller, espionage intrigue, mob war-games, Gene Hackman basically reprising his role from Coppola’s The Conversation, a trademark Mexican stand-off shootout, this prophetic, endlessly exciting film has it all. Will Smith and Hackman team up awesomely in this fast paced, prescient, frequently scary and rousing thriller that has a cast you won’t believe, some showcase explosions and enough excitement to go round.

3. Man On Fire

Denzel Washington’s Creasy is the titular incendiary avenger in this south of the border tale of revenge, kidnapping, redemption, cruelty and corruption. It’s a startling film and the first one that felt like Scott’s specific calling card style had been fully formed and delivered to us in a package that many (including those pesky critics) weren’t ready for. Grainy, choppy, putting us right in the passenger seat with Creasy and his sketchy frame of mind, this one is a master stroke of filmmaking.

2. True Romance

This would be first on the list if it were a singularly ‘Tony’ film but it’s just as much Quentin Tarantino’s show and as such is kind of a two man dance, not to mention the legendary ensemble cast. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are an early 90’s Bonnie & Clyde on the run from just about every nasty villain you could think of in this cult classic that just gets better every time you watch it (I’m well over a hundred views myself).

1. Domino

This just has to be Tony’s masterpiece, and he crafts it without compromise or apology. With a framework loosely based on real life bounty hunter Domino Harvey, he boldly hurtles towards the asphalt horizon with this hyperactive, unique, mescaline soaked, badass adrenaline rush that is an experience like no other. Critics pissed on it but fuck them, it’s a gem, really, a visual and auditory juggernaut that doesn’t just light up your TV screen but pretty much makes a break for your circulatory system and bounces around your veins for two hours. This is the one I’ll always remember Scott for.

-Nate Hill

Harold Ramis’s Bedazzled

In most movies The Devil is a dude, but what if ol’ scratch appeared as a super attractive girl, namely Elizabeth Hurley? The power of persuasion would be given a significant boost as it does for Brendan Fraser’s Elliott, a hapless schmuck with no friends and no girlfriend. Harold Ramis’s Bedazzled is a lighthearted, irrelevant piece of leisure that doesn’t take itself too seriously or think too hard about its central premise, and nor should the viewer. Fraser is a whirlwind of physical comedy, beginning Elliot’s arc as one of those horrifically animated dweebs who everyone in the workplace avoids. When Hurley’s smokin’ hot Satan tags him as the perfect sap, he’s given seven wishes in exchange for his soul and the opportunity to win over a colleague (Frances O’Connor) who he has always loved. Cue a series of increasingly hysterical vignettes in which he tries his best to distill just what it is that girls find attractive while Hurley keeps cleverly sabotaging his efforts and making things go wrong, sardonically commenting on his plight from a female perspective. This is a very entertaining experience because Fraser, ever a cartoonish comic dynamo, gets to play like seven different characters including a ‘sensitive’ ginger, a flamboyant intellectual, Colombian drug lord and, my favourite, a seven foot tall NBA player complete with white dude black guy hair. There’s also a sweet, happy last minute ending that some say is tacked on but honestly Elliott, despite being a bit of a doorknob, is an ultimately very sweet guy who learns along the way exactly what the would might be and that it ain’t worth trading for nothing, he kind of deserves a a kickback after all that. I’m aware this is a remake and haven’t seen the 60’s version but will get to it, but found this quite the fun film!

-Nate Hill

The Farrelly Brothers’ Shallow Hal

The Farrelly Brothers have always intentionally made comedies that walk an ever so fine line between being mean and good natured, whether it’s delightfully offensive (Me Myself & Irene) or benignly reined in (Stuck On You). They just understand and have this certain symbiosis with off colour humour and the fact that most of the films would be boycotted out of the theatres in this age of hysterical hyper sensitivity is a fair reminder that jokes are just jokes, everything is fair game or nothing is fair game and hey, fat jokes are just plain hilarious in the right dosage. Shallow Hal was a pleasant surprise for me, it’s their most compassionate and mature film while still retaining that edge where you’re not sure if they’re laughing at the disabled, blind, fat, deaf or what have you or with them. They’re laughing with them.

Jack Black is Hal, a man whose dying father (Bruce McGill) imparted words of wisdom to him on his deathbed at the age of nine, telling him to never ‘settle for average poon tang’ and always go for ‘hot young tail.’ Well you can imagine how that could fuck with someone’s head at that age and as such he grows up into a superficial snob who looks at women with skin deep lenses and has no use for anything but physical attraction. After he’s stuck in an elevator with self help guru Tony Robbins (self help guru Tony Robbins) and given a little hypnotic boost he can now only see inner beauty in anyone he looks at, and vice versa. When he meets three hundred pound Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) he perceives a slim supermodel type while everyone around him can behold the real thing. It’s a tricky concept that you shouldn’t put too much thought into lest you think too hard and logic sets in but it’s a breezy film that is more interested in the implications of its concept rather than semantics.

Black is good enough in his first big time starring role and the Farrelly’s populate the film with an ever eclectic bunch of people like Joe Viterelli, Susan Ward, Kyle Gass and Jason Alexander as Hal’s asshole buddy who..ah… well I won’t spoil it but it’s a classic Farrelly sight gag. It’s actually Paltrow that grounds this thing though, the film has great compassion for her character despite ruthlessly making fun of her the whole time and like I said it’s a very fine line but it somehow works. She’s very aware of her weight, her situation and even cracks self deprecating jokes. She’s smart, funny, caring, compassionate and the film asks you to see those qualities set apart from her physical appearance. The best scene in the film sees Hal visit a children’s burn ward for the second time. Of course the first time he went he couldn’t see their obvious scars and as such treated them as he would any other adorable kid. When the spell Robbins put on him is lifted and he can see everything again a small girl who he played with last time approaches him and wonders why he hasn’t visited since. Of course he can see her scars now and doesn’t immediately recognize her, but when she reminds him of her name and he does… well it’s the sweetest, most honest moment of the film and hits the main point home hard. (Also the only time in any Farrelly film I’ve teared up by the way, but shhh). So the film has this irreverence that’s always there in their work, this cheerful aim to make fun of things you’re ‘not supposed to laugh’ at. Anything out there is to laugh at though and that’s just the way the world works. The film understands this as well as compassion, perspective, understanding, character while still being an off the wall, bonkers comedy and I loved it for that.

-Nate Hill

Clint Eastwood’s The Mule

Talk about laidback and low key. I knew by the trailers that Clint Eastwood’s The Mule wasn’t going to be an outright thriller or anything intense despite the subject matter but I really appreciated how wistful, elegiac and at ease with itself this film was. Eastwood is knocking at 90’s door and is still spry as a sprite, once again taking both acting and directing duties in the story of Earl Stone, an elderly horticulturalist turned drug mule for the Mexican cartel. Earl is an egocentric social butterfly who could never seem to find time for his family or put them before his needs. His wife (Dianne Wiest) resents him, his daughter (Alison Eastwood) full on abhors him for missing her wedding. Only his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga keeps getting more fantastic with each new role) holds out hope and still welcomes him with open arms. He’s all but broke when his garden centre is foreclosed upon, until a chance meeting puts him in touch with underworld operatives and before he knows it he’s ferrying lump sums of narcotics across the states for very dangerous people. This character fascinated me because even when he gets this extremely lucrative opportunity that allows him to partly buy his way back into his family’s life, he doesn’t understand or ignores the fact that if they knew where he got all this money from he’d be more in the doghouse with them than when he started off. This is essentially a story about a guy who never took responsibility, who never took life seriously enough to have a proper legacy until he gets an eleventh hour chance to do so. There’s a workaholic DEA agent played excellently by Bradley Cooper and they share a few chance encounters that capture the essence of this story nicely. They’re two men on opposite ends of the law and very different places in their life who are nonetheless able to share a few moments, enlighten each other’s perspectives and be all the wiser because of it. I loved this story because it ably showed how even in one’s twilight years when one is *still* making mistakes, it’s not too late to reconcile or turn it all around. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter

Making films about mental illness is always tricky because of how sensitive, subjective and all too easily misunderstood and misrepresented the subject matter can be. Take one wrong turn and your script can be hokey, let one performance have an ill advised timbre and the whole thing feels hollow and under researched. With all that in mind I can say that Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is one of the most moving, mature, heartbreaking and realistic portraits of an ailment I’ve ever seen, not to mention an overall superb piece of filmmaking.

Michael Shannon shines bright in another deeply felt, wonderful performance as Curtis, a blue collar Ohio family man with a loving wife (the always amazing Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter (Tova Stewart). He has what his best friend (Shea Wigham, seriously is this guy even capable of a wrong note? He rocks) describes as a “good life”, until things go wrong. One day Curtis begins to have dark, threatening and very realistic nightmares. He imagines massive, menacing lightning storms on the horizon that begin to rain a thick, oily substance and his reality becomes an anxiety laced, constant source of panic. How does one deal with it? Well in a lesser film things might become rote or sensationalistic but instead we see him visit his estranged mother who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia, pick up books at the library to understand mental illness and rationally try to process his dreams. But his delusions are strong, and soon he has spent money his family doesn’t have on feverishly landscaping a tornado shelter into his property to weather the oncoming storm, a storm that seems to exist only for him and causes anger and confusion from his wife.

There’s always two sides of the coin in stories like this, the literal and what’s perceived internally by the protagonist. Certainly in many cases it’s up for debate what’s really going on but for me this was a story of him losing his grip on reality, teetering on the edge of a psychotic break and honestly what better use of metaphor for that than a giant incoming storm? There are two scenes that stand out to me as some of the best directed, acted and overall crafted sequences I’ve ever seen in cinema. The first takes place at a company lunch for Curtis’s job, where he and Wigham get into a heated argument and it escalates into him having a full blown, wide eyed meltdown, ranting like someone who’s lost it which, naturally, he almost has. It’s painful because his wife and daughter are standing right there and this is hard for them to see but what lifts the scene up is instead of her storming out, retorting or going numb she simply walks over to him, puts her hand on his face and tries to comfort him, to calm him down. Talk about using one’s intuition in a scenario like that. The other is the final scene of the film which I can’t say much about without spoilers but it’s a brilliant way of illustrating acceptance, understanding and the willingness to move forward when a family member becomes ill and needs love and support. I could go on for paragraphs about this one but I’ll close in saying that few films approach this material with the tact, careful imagination and reverence for humanity that we see here. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Dwight Little’s Murder At 1600

What if someone were murdered in the White House? Dwight Little’s Murder At 1600 explores this notion with considerably less flair that Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power but is still a solid, enjoyable thriller that doesn’t break new ground but works mostly thanks to a terrific leading turn from Diane Lane and a good one from Wesley Snipes. He’s a DC homicide cop, she’s an ex Olympic sharpshooter turned Secret Service agent and together they’re tasked with finding out why a mystery girl turned up savagely killed in the wee hours. Of course any murder in such a high profile location is going to be one elaborate mystery filled with many agendas, that of the president himself (a surprisingly low key Ronny Cox), his kid (Tate Donovan), his top general (Harris Yulin), secretary of defence (a scheming Alan Alda), the shady head of secret service (Daniel Benzali) and others. Does it all add up and make sense once the final bullet has been fired? Well, technically yes but there’s a few cliche eye roll bits along the way, like that classic final beat where the bad guy, all but thwarted, makes a last minute dash for someone’s gun and causes one final ruckus. The story works well enough and although it kind of dips into hectic, run of the mill action later on it still holds interest enough. Honestly Diane Lane makes it worthwhile, I could watch her in anything, she’s that good, and the earnestly platonic chemistry she has with Snipes works big time. I enjoyed a nice cameo in the opener from SNL vet Charles Rocket too, who died under weird circumstances and I’ve always enjoyed as the sleazy bad guy in Dumb & Dumber. Decent flick.

-Nate Hill

Composer’s Corner: Nate’s Top Ten original scores from Tangerine Dream

The 80’s are coming back in a big way within film and television and with them comes the always awesome sonic synth sounds of that era. One of the pioneering musical influences and inspirations in this movement is German electronic group Tangerine Dream, consisting of group members Edgar Froese, Paul Haslinger and a whole host of others who contributed over the years. They literally have hundreds of albums due to the simple fact that they loved to experiment with sound and release all sorts of eclectic material, first on tactile vinyl and these days strewn across the internet like hidden treasure. They also worked heavily in film, lending their pulsating, ethereal, gorgeous and incomparable aesthetic to many genre cult films throughout the 80’s. They are my favourite film composers of all time and it’s hard to pick but I narrowed their work down to ten of my favourite original compositions for film! Enjoy:

10. Rainbow Drive (1990)

This is admittedly an unspectacular film, an L.A. noir starring Robocop’s Peter Weller as one tough cop caught up in your garden variety political conspiracy complete with extortion and murder. The score here is driving, grungy while still airy with just the right hints of menace and murky danger. Favourite track: the moody, slow crawling opening theme.

9. Flashpoint (1984)

Another noirish conspiracy flick, this is set in the New Mexico desert and sees two opportunistic border guards (Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams) run afoul of dark forces headed by a cynically corrupt federal agent (Kurtwood Smith) and apparent ties to the Kennedy assassination. The work here is arid, dusty and atmospheric, accenting the remote, lonely locations well and swelling up portentously when danger looms over the sun n’ sand drenched horizon. Favourite track: Highway Patrol, a clap of rolling backroad thunder that suggests the danger to come.

8. Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985)

This old school fantasy is mostly remembered for a young Tom Cruise as the hero and Tim Curry as evil itself with a demon getup that puts the Devil from Tenacious D to shame. Dream composes a lyrical, melodic playlist here that holds the beautiful imagery and special effects onscreen nicely. Favourite track: ‘Loved By The Sun’, a particularly lovely passage of ambience.

7. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)

This fierce, arresting adventure film sees several lowlifes and hard-cases from around the world transporting giant trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. You can imagine the fun that Dream would have composing this score and they don’t disappoint, their score doesn’t properly kick in until we first see the trucks nearly halfway through the film, but when it does you feel it like a sonic boom. Favourite track: ‘Betrayal’, an intensely affecting, dark hued composition.

6. Michael Mann’s Thief (1981)

The elemental group goes decidedly more urban in Mann’s early career crime masterpiece about an expert safecracker (James Caan) taking one one last heist. The music is moody, dark and nocturnal to suit Mann’s blooming aesthetic we know so well today. Favourite track: ‘Final Confrontation’, a sweeping piece that plays overtop a blisteringly cathartic slow motion shootout and carries over into the end credits with epic grit and grace.

5. Mark L. Lester’s Firestarter (1984)

Drew Barrymore and David Keith battle nefarious government forces in this thrilling Stephen King adaptation, made more so by Dream’s rhapsodic score, which suits the supernatural, trippy tone of this story so perfectly. Favourite track: ‘Charley The Kid’, a layered, star speckled composition that has a forceful edge appropriate for the character but also a playful curiosity that reflects her childlike mind.

4. Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile (1988)

A film about a potential nuclear attack on Los Angeles seems like it would have a traditional Hollywood-esque score but this is the brilliant, unconventional cult classic that is Miracle Mile and it greatly benefits from the talents of Dream to make it so. Their proverbial surname fits like a glove here because there is an overall dreamy aura to this nocturnal neon nightmare, I’ve had a few dreams myself about impending, inevitable nuclear or otherwise inflicted disaster, probably why I connect so well with this material. The score may seem counterintuitive but there’s a momentous drive to it and lighter, brisk areas to underscore the very sweet romance at its core. Favourite track: ‘Running Out Of Time, which sets the ‘anything can happen’, pins and needles apprehensive mood just amazingly.

3. Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013)

Any hardcore GTA fan knows that the main musical component that everyone looks forward to and remembers are the car radio soundtrack choices, but there’s also original scores deftly layered into the action, missions and cutscenes. Everything from heists to shootouts to plane rides to car chases to boat derby’s and every spectacle in between is outlined here in a California-lite series of compositions that see Dream slightly evolve out of their 80’s synth sensibilities yet still retain the essential soul that says ‘this is our work.’ Favourite track: ‘North Yankton Memories’… because I couldn’t count the amount of times this brilliant piece kicks in the minute I do something naughty, that two star wanted level pops up and the LSPD come careening down the highway after me.

2. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)

Atmosphere haunts this cult vampire western about a young cowboy (Adrian Pasdar) seduced by a gorgeous waif (Jenny Wright) and swept you in the brutal nomadic lifestyle of her roving clan. Desert sunsets, blood on chrome, choking smoke, hurtling police vehicles and the occasional moment of nocturnal solitude, it’s a rigorous, ravishing aesthetic and Dream gives it their all with an intermittently droning and ariose work. Favourite track: ‘Mae’s Theme’, a low key, hovering piece that accents the tragic nature of her character.

1. Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983)

This film is something of an artifact, hacked to pieces in the editing process by the dipshits at Paramount, causing Mann to disown the film and yank any distribution rights. One day he’ll cool off and we’ll get a decent Blu Ray. It’s a stunning piece of pseudo Lovecraft WWII supernatural horror and one of my favourite films. Dream’s score echoes throughout the halls of this Romanian structure as German soldiers, metaphysical warriors and Jewish historians try and piece together the meaning behind this ancient place. Favourite track: ‘Gloria’, a synth laden piece with orchestral strains and beautiful vocal work, full of mystery and reverence.

-Nate Hill