Tag Archives: David Thewlis

Alejandro Amenábar’s Regression

If you’re going to make a horror film about misdirection and surprises, at least make the revelations later on in your narrative count for something and give the initial setup some weight and relevance. Alejandro’s Amanábar’s Regression is a piss poor attempt at what I just vaguely outlined as well as in telling a coherent, believable story that arrives somewhere satisfactory.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was spooky mass hysteria revolving around continued reports of satanic ritual abuse and here those who suffered it, those who perpetrated and covered it up and those who investigated it are explored, starting with Ethan Hawke as an intense local detective in a small town who takes special interest in the case of a teenage girl (Emma Watson) who claims to have been tortured and abused as a young girl, by several cultists including her father. Together with a wry psychoanalyst (David Thewlis) he starts a murky investigative procedure into this girl’s past and the collective secrets of the entire town. Many involved indeed do have repressed memories of ritual horrors conducted in secret ceremonies where unspeakable acts happened and the devil was summoned. But did they, and was he? That’s the problem with this story as a whole.

The film tries to arrive somewhere entirely different from where it started out and the result is an embarrassing mess. Exploring ideas of collective mass hysteria and paranoid delusion are one thing but when you spend so much of your narrative building things from a literal horror-centric standpoint and then abruptly turn it on its heels like they do here it’s a giant misstep and ruins the whole thing. There are numerous detailed, graphic and genuinely disturbing scenes of satanic abuse that are fairly effective until the story bares its true colours and all mood and tension they tried to build is sucked out of the room. Hawke is good at displaying unstable nature as a guy who gradually starts to lose control of his sanity and Watson, at least for the first two thirds of the film, is believable in her traumatized desperation and fear, while Thewlis is always reliable no matter what. Their hard work is ultimately swallowed up by a hollow, pointless and stupidly lazy narrative that is so half cooked you can practically hear the MacBook still whirring as the last few lines of the script are hurriedly typed out to rush the film into production. Amanábar has made some good films before (The Others, The Sea Inside) but he lets things get right out of control here and loses sight of whatever it was he started out with at the outset big time. It’s a shame because I’ve waited for a good story about all these freaky claims for years. Somewhere out there is a great script and resulting film based around the satanic worship scandals from back then, but this sure as hell ain’t it. Not even close.

-Nate Hill

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Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban

Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban is my favourite film of the series for several reasons. There’s a scene early on where Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon does his best to step in for Richard Harris, who was pretty much perfection in the role) addresses the students of Hogwarts at the start of the year, imparting to them how they must beware of darkness residing in their world, but not to forget the power of light, especially that of finding it in even the darkest of places. This is an important moment because with this film and the arrival of director Alfonso Cuarón to the franchise, there’s a distinct change in many aspects of the story, mainly a much darker tone than the first two which were helmed with orchestral gloss by Chris Columbus, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as I love those ones too. But with Cuarón there was not only a focus on the scarier, spookier aspects of the wizarding world, but an attention to detail, time spent on world building instead of breathlessly rushing from set piece to set piece, plus a deeper and more complex emotional core as Harry, Ron and Hermione become teenagers. Voldemort takes a bit of a vacation from terrorizing their world and is substituted by the shadowy, soul sucking dementors, as well as Gary Oldman’s sinister and omnipresent escaped convict Sirius Black. Oldman brings a haunted, unstable edge to Black in his initial scenes and a scrappy gravitas later when we learn the truth about his past. David Thewlis is a fantastic Professor Lupin, spiritual guide and mentor to Harry through some tough times, him and Oldman really class up the joint. There’s a playful inventiveness to this one that the first two just didn’t have, and it stems from the atypical approach often taken in adapting children’s books into films: the darkness, the unknown, the mature elements are often glossed over and the very palette of the story is somehow… simplified. That’s not to say that Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber Of Secrets weren’t dark, scary or mysterious.. they just lacked a certain maturity, genuine menace and pause to reflect on this arresting world and drink in every detail before the next action sequence. Prisoner Of Azkaban is the real deal, an entry with a standalone atmosphere that also sets the tone for some ‘dark and difficult times’ that indeed lie ahead for the rest of the story.

-Nate Hill

Henry Selick’s James & The Giant Peach

Henry Selick’s James & The Giant Peach is one of those films I watched so many times and at such an impressionable age that it’s been sort of seared into my consciousness like an especially vivid dream. It’s also one of the few adaptations of a book by beloved author Roald Dahl that really captures the magic of the source material. I can think of this and maybe one other film version of his stories that have anything close to that demented whimsical aura his writing had, he’s a bit like Dr. Seuss in the sense that what he did was so specific and special that it’s almost futile to even try to faithfully adapt it. The story is unmistakable: young orphan James (Paul Terry) is out in the care of abusive relatives Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margoyles), horrible, ugly old cows who mistreat him day and night. One day a mysterious Old Man (Pete Postlethwaite, charismatic and well casted) gives him a little bag of magic radioactive rice kernels, which turn a nearby peach into a gargantuan hideout in which he finds some unlikely friends. Earthworm (David Thewlis), Centipede (a feisty Richard Dreyfus), Spider (Susan Sarandon), Gloworm (Margoyles in a dual role), Grasshopper (Simon Callow) and Ladybug (Jane Leeves) form up the boy’s entomological posse as they roll the giant peach down into the sea and embark on a musically surreal adventure that includes seagulls, undead arctic pirates, a massive storm, musical numbers and one pissed off steam punk mecha-Shark. Selick uses the the same jaw dropping, gorgeous stop motion animation he employed in A Nightmare Before Christmas, and the result is tactile, textured visuals that give all the animated scenes bizarro world realism, I’m not sure if there’s a Blu Ray out there but there really ought to be. This is one visually spectacular piece with a real sense of wonder and playfulness, and although it deviates from the book a fair bit, it still somehow does Dahl proud in terms of style and tone. A treasure .

-Nate Hill

The Light, The Dark & the souls in between: A review of FX’s Fargo by Nate Hill

Series creator Noah Hawley had the daunting task of taking Fargo, one of the most iconic Coen Brothers films, and turning it into a long form piece of television storytelling for FX. That’s the nutshell version anyways, what he was really up against was a gaggle of rabid Coen acolytes who wanted networks nowhere near the shining legacy of the film, which has gone platinum as a highlight in the Brother’s career. How did he and his team do? Well, better than the Coens themselves did, which may stand as a controversial opinion, but if you’re as big a fan of the show’s brilliant three season run as I am then you’ll agree.

The Coen’s designed the blueprint, if you will, while Hawley & Co. take that template and positively run wild with it. It’s an anthology piece where each season focuses on another bunch of ne’er do well characters who are connected sometimes loosely and sometimes in ways that floor you later on. Yes, all the tropes we love are there: thick blizzards of blinding snow, murder most foul, dark comedy and those hysterically quaint Minnesota accents that seem to be pulled right out of Tolkien’s The Shire in some odd way. But Hawley digs deeper, and for all it’s grounded noir, homicidal schemes and materialistic flash, his Fargo mines for esoteric gold and to me ultimately is about beings of light and dark waging war over human souls on our plane. This is of course my own intuitive theory and is evident sometimes more often than others within the show, but it’s hard not to see when you look at both how cheerfully angelic some of the good, kind folks are here and how fitfully, deliciously self aware the evil ones are, like it’s less their nature to be despicably destructive as much as it is simply their job.

The first and strongest season sees Billy Bob Thornton’s sagely psychopath Lorne Malvo blow into town on a whim and stir up a brew of horrors almost by accident or out of sheer boredom, pushing the already unstable nebbish Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) to ongoing acts of unspeakable destruction. A smart cop (Allison Tolman), another slightly less smart cop (Colin Hanks) and others fight the good fight to root out evil and stop Malvo’s unholy snowball effect of mayhem and restore order. This one works the best as a stand-alone, wraps up the loose ends most satisfyingly and holds as the showcase chunk the show has to offer. The second season is brilliant but less focused, flashing back to the snowy 70’s to chronicle Sheriff Lou Solverson’s (Patrick Wilson, also played by a stoic Keith Carradine in S1) battle against the brutal Gerhardt crime family when they’re turf skirmish with a big city syndicate erupts into all out warfare and the bodies begin piling up. What this season lacks in pacing and a clearly painted main villain it makes up for in spectacle, there’s a vast ensemble cast and lush period production design for a visual element that won’t quit. Zahn Mclarnon excels as Hanzee Dent, a troubled First Nations assassin who struggles with being a lone outsider and feels a moral crisis at the penultimate moment, Jeffrey Donovan is enthusiastically nasty as Dodd, the misogynistic elder brother of the Gerhardt clan, while Bokeem Woodbine is the slick city slicker encroaching on his territory. Season 3 unfolds on a smaller scale, back to the grassroots procedural drama that leads to heinous unlawful doings. Ewan McGregor does double duties as two twin brothers in a hateful feud, one of which finds himself in the ravenous maw of terrifying V.M. Varga (David Thewlis in a career best), a demonic opportunist out to cause bureaucratic anarchy within the ranks with his army of underworld goons. Local cop Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) tries to fit the pieces together and a mysterious messianic nomad (Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise) presides over the whole debacle with laconic benevolence. That’s the tip of the iceberg really, and vivid impressions are made by a beautifully chosen, star studded cast that includes Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Stephen Root, Bob Odenkirk, Shawn Doyle, Ted Danson, Nick Offerman, Jean Smart, Kieran Culkin, Michael Hogan, Jennifer Copping, Brad Garrett, Russell Harvard, Scott Hylands, Frances Fisher, Francesca Eastwood, Fred Melamed, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cristin Milioti, Angus Sampson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Goran Bogdan, Shea Wigham, Mary McDonnell, Key & Peele, DJ Qualls, Scoot Mcnairy, Mackenzie Grey, Wayne Duvall and Bruce Campbell in a cameo as Ronald Reagan.

Each of the three seasons is a dense, meticulously woven patchwork quilt of violence, mistaken identity, literary references, surreal allegorical imagery, unpredictable plot turns, monsters, and mayhem, each with its own unmistakable style and atmosphere. Much of the storytelling is filled with things that seem like planted arbitration, like UFO sightings or cutaways to other vignettes, but they’re there to gild the tales with further eccentricity and for you to make of them what you will, as much of it is never explained or totally elaborated on, which I appreciate. With each episode there’s a lot more going on than what’s in the main arc, these are stories to be savoured and scrutinized for clues and references, of which there are many subtle callbacks to the Coen’s other work, it’s fun to notice and tally them up. The themes of light and dark are ever present through the entire run though, as if we’re privy to a never ending battle of forces wrapped in a cluster of crime stories centred around snowy Minnesota and surrounding areas. I’m not sure whether they plan to go ahead with a fourth season and I’d welcome it, but as it stands this is a beautifully made trilogy, with fantastic writing that practically feeds the brain like prosaic protein, a cast that’s to die for and narratives that truly take you on harrowing, hilarious adventures. You betcha.

-Nate Hill

The Island Of Dr. Moreau


I don’t think there’s a film out there with a more volcanically troubled production history than John Frankenheimer’s The Island Of Dr. Moreau. It wasn’t even supposed to be helmed by him, rather an upstart named Richard Stanley, who’s control on the creative reigns was violently yanked away by the studio and given to notoriously fiery Frankenheimer, who, lets face it, could never really get his genetically altered ducks in a line when he took over. Between Val Kilmer acting like a lunatic and very nearly being replaced, Marlon Brando being an even bigger lunatic because he knew no one would ever replace him (the big guy had an ego to match his girth) and raging budget problems as a result of the antics, the making of this film was, in short, a fucking disaster. So now I’ve said my piece on the most talked about aspect of this film, I want to shift gears into an area that just doesn’t get covered a lot in discussion: the final film itself. Because of the maelstrom of bad PR circling the film like the storm that maroons our heroes on Moreau’s isle, many people just assume it’s a shit movie, which is not the case. I happen to love it, and if anything the level of obvious behind the scene chaos seeping through just gives it an organic unpredictability free from shackles of a script that I imagine was fairly generic in the conception phase. This is a bonkers film, no denial from me there, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t love every certifiable, furry prosthetic adorned, opulent, disorganized minute of it. David Thewlis took over from Kilmer as the lead, when Val had behavioural issues, but they’re both present and accounted for as the wreckage of a ship meets Moreau’s isle, a twisted Eden where human animal hybrids live under the delirious monarchy of the good Doctor, played with reliably laconic mania by Brando. He’s been playing god, the old codger, and his island is now home to a host of varied zoological wonders, and no narrative would be complete without it all going tits up in a giant mutiny later on. The practical effects are delightfully excessive and elaborate, packed onto specifically chosen actors who already have an ethereal, animalistic aura on their own. Ron Perlman is the sagely Sayer Of The Law, Marc Dacoscas the leopardly Lo Mai, Temuerra Morrison the lion like Azazello and wild eyed Fairuza Balk is feline goddess Aissa, who happens to be Moreau’s daughter. ‘She’s a pussy’ Kilmer quips in one of many candid slips of the tongue on his part. The inmates eventually run the asylum, or whichever clever parable you want to apply, and it hurtles towards a third act full of flying fur and fangs that releases the floodgates on Frankenheimer’s lack of cohesion, the mad scientist workshop of Stan Winston’s special effects, Brando’s bug eyed dementia and Kilmer’s ADHD riddled performance, in one scene going so off far off the rails that Thewlis has to literally break character and tell him to ‘quit fuckin around’, an unintentional laugh riot. Brando has a midget Mini Me, too, which is never fully explained but always good for a nervous laugh, as the thing looks like a fetus that vaulted out of the womb a few month too early, although I suppose that’s the point. Look, it’s a mess, but it’s a beautiful one, a kaleidoscopic parade of grotesque costumes and cartoonish performances wrapped up in a story so overblown and off the map it almost takes on a pulse of it’s own. For insight on what went down behind the scenes you can read Ron Perlman’s autobiography, watch the recent documentary on the film or simply check out IMDb trivia, but whatever went down for real, it ended up branding one of the most bizarre and wonderful creature features of the 90’s, and I love every feral, freaky minute of it. 

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: American Perfekt


American Perfekt is a disjointed yet darkly compelling little nightmare of a road movie, a dusty ode to bowers of the American southwest left unchecked and decayed, populated by wayward souls with perpetual heat delirium, vixens, psychopaths and hustlers alike, who saunter through lurid storylines that often end in bloodshed and madness. In the vein of stuff like Oliver Stone’s U-Turn and Kalifornia, we once again pair up with some extremely off colour characters as they navigate both the tangled web of highways that lace the States as well as the human capacity for greed, lust and heinous physical violence. The characters, and actors for that matter, who populate this stretch of highway are an especially bizarre bunch, starting with Robert Forster’s vacationing criminal psychologist Jake Nyman. Forster is quite the unpredictable guy, usually found in calmly benign protagonist roles, yet just as capable of stirring the pot with evil antics. Here’s he’s opaqueness incarnate, driving from one place to another until he runs into two sisters played by another couple of acting hellcats, Amanda Plummer and Fairuza Balk. Jake is basing each decision of his trip upon the flip of a coin a-lá Harvey Dent, a tactic which simultaneously causes trouble and indicates how unhinged he might really be.

Plummer is weird and Balk is weirder, but neither as weird as David ‘Professor Lupin’ Thewlis as an awkwardly placed character who seems to exist just to jump into a scene and throw the mood off kilter. There’s others running amok too, including Geoffrey Lewis, as well as Paul Sorvino and Chris Sarandon as a pair of state troopers who serve as comic relief. Forster is scary here, playing a guy who is psychologically hard to pin down or get a read on, and he’s got some dynamite scenes with Balk in the third act, the two talents lighting up the frame. It’s pretty far south of coherent though, mostly just these freaks terrorizing each other and engaging in puzzling romantic flings that only make sense to them, I suppose. If feverish, borderline abstract, sun-stroked neo noir is your thing, go for it. You can certainly do worse than spend a certifiably bonkers ninety minutes with this terrific bunch of actors. 

-Nate Hill