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Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock

I feel like a lot of people were expecting a vast, loosely paced biopic from Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, but what they really got was a tight, sardonic, laser focused and surprisingly emotional look at the relationship with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), during the making of Psycho, and the monumental struggle it took in bringing the now iconic horror film to being. It’s about adjusting your expectations really, and keeping them in check, and you can enjoy what is one of the best films of that year. Meticulously casted with a galaxy of brilliant actors, royally mounted in terms of production design and costume (Oscar shamefully glossed over it in those categories) and written with brittle, whip-crack wit by John J. McLaughlin, it’s a treat for cinema lovers and Hitchcock junkies alike. Anthony Hopkins plays the old goat as a stubborn, eccentric, obtuse man, a filmmakers who is so fascinated by the universal revilement he’s met with upon pitching Psycho that he morbidly just has to see the production through, even if it means friction from all angles including Alma, the studio, the censorship board and everyone in between, not to mention mortgaging his snazzy mansion in the process. It’s an interesting look at one of the most important mile markers in the horror legacy, the dawn of the slasher film and Hollywood’s begrudging shift from camp to lurid exploits in the fright flick, which saw Alfred gleefully starting the snowball effect with Psycho. James D’arcy is uncannily perfect as Anthony ‘Norman Bates’ Perkins, Scarlett Johansson captures the virility and charisma of Janet Leigh magnetically, and Jessica Biel does great work as Vera Miles, looking almost unrecognizable. Hitchcock based the character of Norman Bates on famed serial killer Ed Gein, and as such the filmmakers have him appear to Hopkins in ghostly fashion, played grimly and excellently by character actor Michael Wincott, a supernatural stylistic flourish that some hated for its gimmickry but I found a neat, provocative touch. The cast gets deeper with work from Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Ralph Macchio, Richard Portnow, Michael Stuhlburg, Frank Collison and Kurtwood ‘Red Forman’ Smith as a crusty chairman of the censorship board. Hopkins slithers expertly into the prosthetic makeup and opaque personality of the character, clearly having a mischievous blast and cutting loose from some of the more laconic roles he’s done, it’s one of his most engaging performances. Sure it’s not a grand old biopic of the guy, spanning years and leaping multiple story arcs, but I found the intimate focus on his marriage and Psycho to be deliberate, riveting and well deserving of any audience’s attention, especially for fans of that era of Hollywood. A winner.

-Nate Hill

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Fernando Meirelles The Constant Gardener

Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener is a film you just can’t get enough viewings of, it’s such a dense, sumptuous and emotionally complex piece that each revisit rewards with new angles on story, perspectives on character motivation and comprehension of subtle, hazy moments in the performances that you didn’t pick up the first few times because the visual element just overwhelms you at first. This is a cool flick for me because it’s based on a book by John Le Carré, a spy novelist whose work I often find too dry and lacking in warmth, but not here, I saw this during it’s theatrical run way back when and have loved and felt connected to it ever since. It doesn’t hurt that it stars Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two of the most intuitive, brilliant performers of their generation, and if there’s a duo who could do justice to a story like this, it’s them. Fiennes plays Justin, a reserved, introverted diplomat in Africa. Weisz is his wife Tessa, a fiery, outgoing humanitarian worker. They couldn’t be more opposite, as we later learn through fragmented flashbacks, but the film throws us in the deep end by telling us right off the bat that Tessa has been murdered. So begins an elliptical mystery shrouded in a poignant love story, a conspiracy thriller that uncoils patiently, each clue spreading the seeds for ten more. Tessa was working in the field researching the actions of drug companies in this third world region, she may have been having an affair, and she was pregnant. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but so is the risk for Justin to become too entrenched in a quagmire of lies, red herrings and dead end crossroads, and, just like Tessa, lose his way. Who really knows what’s going on in such a chaotic part of the world? Does Pellegrino (Bill Nighy) the mysterious CEO of big pharma? Perhaps Sandy (Danny Huston) Tessa’s friend from the embassy? Or is it Dr. Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite, excellent in the haunting third act), an elusive aids worker, who holds the secret to her death? It’s not easy resolution this film is interested in, but rather overturning more stones that lead to more mysteries until one feels wonderfully beguiled, a true sign that script and edit are firing on all cylinders. Many things are hinted at, including whether or not the drug companies are illegally testing non FDA approved prototypes on poverty stricken locals under the guise of medicine, which seems just scary enough to be true. The film dangles answers just out of reach, and even in the eerie eleventh hour where Justin finds himself stranded in a desolate plane of Africa, you get the sense that the resolutions he comes too are only the half of it, if that. Meirelles also directed City Of God, another film set in an unfortunate area of the world, he brings a jagged, splintered perception to the editing and narrative, a perfect garnish to the already impenetrable nature of Le Carré’s literary work. Cinematographer Cesar Charlone (also responsible for City Of God) films with elemental grace and captures the light brilliantly. Weisz and Fiennes bring out humanity in Le Carré’s work that he probably didn’t even know was there, and are beacons in a weathered storm of indifference and injustice. Not an easy film to absorb, but what it withholds in straightforwardness (which is a plus quality in my books anyways) it makes up for in beauty, mystery and nuance. One of the best films of the last few decades.

-Nate Hill

Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN

WONDER WOMAN is a rather terrific film. Yes, it follows the template of an origin story, and it is somewhat uninspired at times following that formula (first reel death, sacrificial death at the end of the film, “surprise” villain), but regardless of the generic template used, the film and its star propel forward creating a very engaging, entertaining, and invigorating film.

The constant comparisons to CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER does have some slight merit, but it is a rather lazy comparison. Sure, both films revolve around a set piece pertaining to each World War, and sure it’s a ragtag crew of soldiers that support the hero in their take-down to essentially end the war; yet there is so much that separates the two.

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The craftsmanship of WONDER WOMAN stands superior.

The cast of this film may be one of the best ensembles constructed for a comic book movie. Supporting Gal Gadot is Chris Pine (in probably his best performance to date), Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston, Ewan Bremner, Said Taghmaoui, David Thewlis, and a scene-stealing Robin Wright. All of these characters, regardless of screen time and/or limited development are giving a substantial amount to do and say, and casting each specific actor to their respective role immediately creates authenticity for that character.

Hans Zimmer’s theme for Wonder Woman, which made its debut in BvS, is perhaps the best piece of music that he has ever composed. When it cues itself up to Gadot kicking German ass in the film, it creates even more excitement for the viewer. The action pieces in this film are incredible.

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Everyone deserves full credit for this picture. Gal Gadot completely owns the role while simultaneously propelling herself to a bonafide movie star. Director Patty Jenkins has become a rising star within Warner Brothers, and Zack Snyder deserves his due credit for discovering Gadot and creating the aesthetic that WW cultivates.

WONDER WOMAN didn’t save the DCEU, it was doing just fine before this film, but it certainly stopped a lot of the negative press. Though those who constantly fill their social media feeds with unapologetic bias and echo chamber nonsense will remain undisturbed. This film may not completely warrant the abundance of overwhelming and over the top accolades, it is a very fine picture, and don’t be surprised if this film has legs going into awards season.

Jackman Unleashed Week: Gavin Hood’s X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

The idea behind this film was to franchise origin stories, including a Magneto film that turned into a soft reboot of the X-Men films with FIRST CLASS.  We were also supposed to get a solo Gambit film that is still currently in development limbo, and a Deadpool film with Ryan Reynolds that eventually took seven years to get off the ground.  What ended up happening was an unintentional Wolverine trilogy.

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This film has some major flaws and is an imperfect picture.  The two sequels, THE WOLVERINE and LOGAN, remain superior films to this, yet Origins still remains my favorite Wolverine film warts and all.  The X-Men franchise has never taken continuity into consideration.  Actors were recast in important roles, most notably in this film Danny Huston as William Stryker and Liev Schreiber as Victor Creed/Sabertooth.  Timelines get blurred, especially after the hard franchise reboot of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and what ends up happening is reinvented origins for Wolverine.  Basically, the takeaway here is that the timeline continuity of the X-MEN films is almost as confusing as the TERMINATOR saga.

What saves this film for absolute failure are two important factors and why this remains my favorite Wolverine centered film.  Firstly, the opening credits sequence is phenomenal.   Spanning the course of every major American war from The Civil War to Vietnam we watch Jackman and Scheiber, brothers in arms, relentlessly fighting and almost single-handedly winning each war for America.  As the wars rage on, Logan observes and acknowledges Creed’s bloodlust and morality eroding.

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Secondly, which is encompassed in the opening credit sequence, the relationship between Logan and Creed.  They’re brothers, they share the same mutant powers.  Freakish regeneration and organic weapons from their hands.  What sets them apart is important.  Creed isn’t as strong as Logan when it comes to regeneration, he would not be able to survive the Adamantium process as Stryker tells him.  Most importantly, Creed lacks the morality that Logan attains.  Logan has empathy, Creed does not.

Violence is what both of them were born into, what their sole purpose became as they aged into warfare.  Creed’s bloodlust overtook him and what little compass of morality he had was disbanded, while Logan was more sensible – more in touch with humanity.  This comes full circle in the botched third act of the film that turns Wade Wilson into this super mutant Weapon X.  It is a silly ending that promises the future reconnection of Logan and Creed.  Regrettably, that never happened; which is a total and complete shame considering this year’s LOGAN was the perfect opportunity to do so.

Casting the dated CGI and third act aside, this film is still steeped with fertile X-Men lore.  We get a cool glimpse at Taylor Kitsh as Gambit, which leaves us wondering what could have been had he reprised his role in future films.  Taskforce X led by Stryker (who does Brian Cox’s original turn absolute justice) is a very fun aspect of the film yet is underutilized.  Aside from Logan and Creed, the team is made up with Reynolds as Wade Wilson (pre Deadpool), Daniel Henney as Agent Zero, Kevin Durand as Fred Dukes/Blob, Will.i.am as Wraith, and Dominic Monaghan as Bolt.

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This film could have been monumentally better, but if you take it for what it is, it remains an incredibly enjoyable picture.  Had the film focused more on Logan and Creed fighting their way through major wars, or made Taskforce X the focal point, this film would have been fantastic.  What we’re left with is an at times clunky vehicle with an easter egg packed third act that left most Wolverine diehards disappointed.  Regardless of keyboard warriors trolling of this film, it’s a lot of fun with colorful dialogue, heavy adult themes, and a once in a lifetime performance from Liev Scheiber as Victor Creed.  ORIGINS: WOLVERING rightfully earns its keep as the starter for one of the most beloved superhero trilogies in recent memory.

The Constant Gardener: A Review By Nate Hill

Usually, I’m not super hot on adaptations of John Le Carré novels. His style tends to veer towards dense, impenetrable narratives that confuse and confound me, and are further frustrating because they have such wonderful casts and production value (I’m lookin at you, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The Constant Gardener, however, is a breathtaking story that I’ve enjoyed very much since I saw it in theatres at probably too young an age. It fashions a story that although is complex and refuses to be straightforward about what it’s trying to say, contains essential beats and stunning performances from its actors. It’s also set apart from other Le Carré yarns for having the most humanistic, compasionate core to its story, centering it’s focus on the atrocities that humans can commit upon each other in mass, faceless fashion and showing us the sparse, golden good deeds that a few kind people can put forth to counter such madness. An organic, emotional theme is nice compared to the clinical, detached style we usually see from this writer. The film is lucky in the sense that it has deeply gifted leads: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two actors who always resonate with a relatable human kinship in their work, and are both superb here. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British ambassador in a god forsaken African region whose luminous wife Tessa (Weisz) is found dead in a remote area under suspicious circumstances. She was investigating several high profile pharmaceutical companies, under scrutiny for their sociopathic, amoral drug testing trials on the poverty stricken Africans. Intrigue strikes in after this, as shellshocked Justin pieces together what lead to her death, and how he can cripple those responsible using espionage and a level of keenness that’s well above both his pay grade and mental constitution. Flashbacks abound as we see Justin and Tessa’s early years unfold, adding all the more to the lumps in our throats as we know the ultimate outcome which the film frankly showed us in the opening frames. Welcome supporting turns come from other UK geniuses like Bill Nighy as an icy CEO, Richard McCabe as Fiennes’s courageous brother in law, Danny Huston as a shady friend of Tessa’s and Pete Postlethwaite as a mysterious doctor who figures later in the plot. Cinematographer César Charlone makes sweeping work of bringing the chaotic nature of Africa to life, it’s people, landcsape and aura beautifully rendered in shots that evoke the best of Monét and similar artists. Such beauty brought forth from a story filled with unpleasantness is interesting, almost a refusal to present the depressing story in any other fashion than to show us the virtue in tragedy, the cost of lost lives and unchecked corruption present for all to see and wince at, yet somewhat quelled by the undeniable forces of light also in play. Rachel and Ralph’s work is an example of this; They are compassion incarnate, pools of hurt, determination and love for one another in the face of evil, unfair odds. They should both be very proud of their work here. Direct Fernando Meirelles has helmed Blindness and the classic City Of God, and as such is no stranger to infusing pain and sorrow with esoteric, positive qualities. He takes full advantage of the African setting, where suffering is commonplace and along with his entire troupe, throws all the lush, alluring kindness straight into the face of horror in an audacious stylistic set of choices which make The Constant Gardener one of the most achingly well constructed romantic annd political thrillers of the decade.