Tag Archives: drama

Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation

Ever been alone in a foreign hotel, city or entire country? There’s a mournful feeling of simultaneously being saturated in another culture and also being terminally disconnected from your surroundings, it’s a curious sensation. In Sofia Coppola’s brilliant Lost In Translation the two main characters find themselves awash in nocturnal Tokyo and marooned in a sea of aching unfamiliarity. Add to that the fact that both of them are at a place where they feel sort of stalled on the freeway of their lives and you have a sadly hued romantic drama that feels like no other.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a washed up movie star who’s in town to endorse a Japanese whiskey label, constantly harried by superfluous phone calls from his wife (Nancy Steiner) who he’s clearly growing apart from. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a newly married girl whose husband (Giovanni Ribisi) neglects and almost seems to resent her, tied up in his own work while she wanders aimlessly from her hotel room to the bar and back each night. It’s there that these two find each other, find companionship, conversation and yes, romantic chemistry but that is something that Coppola handles in an infinitely more realistic and mature fashion that one usually gets with Hollywood scripts.

Last night was my first ever viewing of this film so I’m a bit late to the party and still basking in the warm glow of the initial first impression but I can already tell I’m in love with and will revisit many more times. Translation is definitely the key word here; Bob and Charlotte speak very little Japanese and as such must find other ways to converse with those around them, be it body language, a laugh or other. But they also kind of need to get used to their own personal vernacular and how it relates to the other. There’s a fairly sizeable age gap between them and they come from different backgrounds so they must adapt to each other, and watching these two actors do so is a joy. Murray is quiet, soft spoken and his comedic edge is almost reined in of his own volition, like he wants to be funny but he’s just too sad to pull it off other than the occasional ironic flourish. Johansson is quiet, contemplative but blessed with a keen intellect and intuition, it’s the perfect role for the actress who, lets face it, sometimes gets cast on her looks and we forget what beautiful charisma she has as well. Coppola lets the friendship between them happen as it probably would in real life: awkwardly at first until they’re comfortable with each other, then with easy and enthusiastic abandon. My favourite scene of the film is where they attend a karaoke party and we get to see them at their happiest and lowest of inhibitions. They sing their hearts out, laugh, steal glances at each other and live in the moment. It’s the most romantic scene of the film and they don’t even touch each other, but the energy is there, carefully guided by their performances and Coppola’s direction. Few mainstream films get the complexities and ethereal realism of this type of situation right, but this one nails it for a dreamy, hypnotic, bittersweet story that you don’t want to end, until it does on a questioning note that we as the audience were never meant to know the answer to. Amazing film.

-Nate Hill

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Atom Egoyan’s The Captive

There’s a pattern I’ve noticed in films that were booed off the stage at Cannes. Often they are just movies that can’t quite be processed yet and haven’t found their audience due to challenges, dense themes or unconventional execution that simply isn’t received well off the bat. They’re usually rich, deep pieces that just need a little time to settle into the landscape before reaching deserved status, whether cult or beaten path. Atom Agoyan’s The Captive is one such film, a masterful meditation on loss and unrest following the kidnapping of a young girl whose parents simply cannot put her memory to rest.

On a remote, snowy stretch of Ontario highway, landscaper Ryan Reynolds stops at a diner for a quick second and in that second, his ten year old daughter vanishes without a trace. The film shows several sides of the whole scenario but chooses to display them non-sequentially so we end up as confused and disoriented as the characters must feel in such a situation. Reynolds and his wife (Mireille Enos) do their best to grieve but the event drives a wedge in between them. The two cops assigned to the case are an impatient hotshot (Scott Speedman) and an intuitive specialist (Rosario Dawson) but even they grasp desperately at straws in their ongoing investigation into child abuse. What’s interesting is that the film shows you pretty much in the opening scene what happened to their daughter and who took her. In the present time she’s eighteen and has been held captive by an unnervingly calm weirdo (Kevin Durand) and used as an online lure to catch other children for the pedophile ring he runs. So the suspense here isn’t really about ‘what happened to her’ and more like ‘how does it affect the people in her life and what comes next?’

So then, why was this received so badly? Well, I’d imagine it’s the structure and overall information passed to the audience, or lack thereof in cases. The events of the film are shown completely out of order, some sequences even split up so you don’t get the impact of the latter half of a scene until later on in the narrative. Additionally, when the end rolls around there are still many questions left unanswered and we get the sense that a great deal of the story is left out of our sight and minds, buried under the proverbial snowbanks that blanket the breathtakingly gorgeous visual palette of the film. It’s often tough for audiences to make do when left with a difficult, opaque and incomplete story, and the natural reaction can often be frustration or open hostility (just ask David Lynch, who has a film of his own that was verbally bashed at Cannes and is now considered his masterwork). Narratives like that are like protein for my senses though, and the gut reaction I have is always good, which often results in me being on a hill somewhat alone in enjoying divisive films. This is one of my favourite thrillers in recent years because of how unique it is. Reynolds has never been better displaying the raw anguish of a father who both blames himself and rages at the forces of darkness around him, while Enos embodies desperate grief in heartbreaking fashion when tormented by her daughter’s captors. Dawson grounds her cop role in empathy and dignity, while Durand looks like a vampire slinking from room to room observing unspeakable things on video monitors and somehow seeming like both a moustache twirling villain and a restrained one. Alexia Fast is haunting as the eighteen year old incarnation of their daughter, she plays it strangely lucid and does a beautifully eerie cover of Jennifer Castle’s ‘Remembering’ that echoes across the snowy landscape and bookends the film in grave but gorgeous ambiguity. As for Egoyan, he isn’t interested in pleasing the crowd or eliciting pleasant reactions, he wishes to tell a difficult, tragic story in an appropriate fashion. He could have made it straightforward, satisfactory and easy to digest, but where’s the fun in that? A masterpiece in my eyes.

-Nate Hill

David Lynch’s The Straight Story

Nothing says determination like driving a John Deere ride-on lawnmower nearly three hundred miles across two states to visit a loved one who is sick. David Lynch’s The Straight Story tells the tale of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a man in his 80’s with failing eyesight and bad hips who can’t drive and therefore takes it upon himself to trawl his trusty mower, trailer in tow, across Iowa into Wisconsin to see his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) who has had a massive stroke. It’s an unbelievable story but it really happened, and what’s more amazing and gives it authenticity you can’t fake is that Farnsworth, ever a trooper, was suffering from bone cancer throughout the shoot and champed it out anyways.

Straight, a WWII veteran with a tragic past, lives the quiet life with his daughter (Sissy Spacek) in a sleepy farming town until news of his brother Lyle’s condition reaches him. After buying a new mower from the local Deere dealer (a welcome cameo from Lynch regular Everett ‘Big Ed’ McGill) he sets out on a deeply personal solo voyage across hills, valleys, mountains, wheat fields, tree lined country roads and backwood fields. He meets and has poignant, clear eyed interaction with many folk along the way including a fellow vet, a pregnant teenage girl and a woman who can’t stop ploughing through deer on the interstate, which provides Lynch with the one sneaky opportunity to inject some of his trademark lunacy into the only Disney film he ever made.

There’s something so simple and so essential about both Alvin’s story and Lynch and Farnsworth’s methods of telling it to us. Even as the film opens we get a hazy aerial shot of golden fields in the evening sun and hear Angelo Badalamenti’s achingly beautiful, quietly reverent original score and a mood is set like no other. Everyone is decent and kind in this film, yet Lynch makes it very apparent that mistakes have been made and no one is perfect in their lives. Straight is just like his name, an open hearted fellow who has nothing left to withhold. He admits to losing years to alcohol, making mistakes in the war and falling out heavily with his brother years before. It’s a personal quest for him, and we get the sense that he won’t let anyone else drive him there out of sheer dedication to this final odyssey that will take him to his twilight years. It’s Lynch’s most benign film, but in no way is it dumbed down, sugar coated or blunted of an edge. The filmmaker has always been about truth wrapped in beauty, and all the desire to explore human nature is still on display here, only given a gentler, more elegiac touch. A masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

What’s the most malicious and deliriously satiating way you can think of getting revenge on an ex who betrayed you horribly? In Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, novelist Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets pretty creative in his attempts to strike back at the girl (Amy Adams) who wronged him decades before. This is a film about darkness, secrets, hate, cruelty, long harboured hurt and how such things erupt into violence, both physical and that of the mind.

Adams is Susan, a wealthy gallery owner married to a hunky yet vacuous playboy (Armie Hammer), terminally unhappy yet cemented in an inability, or perhaps unwillingness to do anything about it. One day she receives a yet to be published book from her ex husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) dedicated to her in an eerily specific way. As she settles in to read it in her drafty, lonesome yuppie mansion while hubby flies around the country cheating on her, Ford treats us to a story within a story as we see the novel unfold. In the book, Gyllenhaal plays a family man driving his wife (Isla Fisher, who uncannily and perhaps deliberately resembles Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) across a creepy, desolate stretch of rural Texas. When night falls, a pack of roving, predatory bumpkins led by Aaron Taylor Johnson howl out of the night like angry ghosts, terrorize the three of them relentlessly, then kidnap Fisher and their daughter without remorse. This leaves Gyllenhaal alone and desperate, his only friend being crusty lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a gaunt force of righteous fury who serves as avatar to carry out some actions that the protagonist is perhaps too meek for. Together they trawl the southern night looking for clues and a sense of resolution, but one gets the sense that this is a hollow venture, already plagued by the acrid tendrils of tragedy from right off the bat. So, what do the contents of this novel have to do with what is going on up in the real world? Well… that’s the mystery, isn’t it. Pay close attention to every narrative beat and filter the distilled emotions of each plot point through an abstract lens, and then the author’s gist is painfully understood.

The interesting thing about this film is that we don’t even really have any contact with Gyllenhaal in the real world and present time outside of this story he’s written. Everything he has to say, every corner of anguish is laid bare and bounced off of Adams’s traumatized, depressed housewife with startling clarity and horror. She gives a fantastic performance, as does Jake as the lead character of the novel. Shannon makes brilliant work of a character who is essentially just an archetypal plot device, but the magnetic actor finds brittle humour, deadly resolve and animalistic menace in the role. Other solid work is provided by Andrea Riseborough, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone and Laura Linney in a stinging cameo as Adams’s manipulative dragon of a mother. Ford shows incredible skill in not just telling a crisp, immersive and aesthetically pleasing visual story, but making those visuals count for something in terms of metaphor, foreshadowing, hidden clues and gorgeous colour palettes that mirror the stormy mental climates of these broken, flawed human beings. He also displays a mastery over directing performances out of the actors as well as editing and atmosphere that draws you right in from the unconventional opening credits (those fat chicks) to the striking, devastating final few frames that cap off the film with a darkly cathartic kick to the ribs. Add to that a wonderfully old school original score by Abel Korzeniowski and layered, concise cinematography from Seamus McGarvey and you have one hell of a package. A downbeat, mature drama that comes from the deep and complex well of human emotions and a film that uses the medium to reiterate the kind of raw, disarming power that art can have over our souls, both as a theme of its story and as a piece of work itself. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Barry Levinson’s Rain Man

What I enjoyed most in Barry Levinson’s excellent Rain Man is that it didn’t cheap out with a faux sweet final cherry on top with the ending. What I mean by that is that in some stories about mentally challenged people, they will spend much of the film dealing with their conditions, the relatives, friends and doctors around them will help and periodically become frustrated by them and right near the end there will be this miraculous, parting of the clouds moment where a coherence comes through and the filmmakers attempt to manipulate the events by showing something unrealistic in order to make the story more palatable. Not this one. Dustin Hoffman is a method actor’s method actor and while I don’t always see the value in such focused, orchestrated and inorganic prep work, for this type of role it’s not only necessary, it’s crucial.

He plays Raymond here, a high functioning autistic man living in a care facility who is scooped up by his estranged younger brother Charlie (Tom Cruise). Charlie didn’t know he existed so it’s a bit of a shock and adjustment period for both, but really all he’s after is the three million inheritance money that’s gone into a trust in Raymond’s name, and all else he has to deal with results in frustration and lashing out. Charlie is a materialistic, caustic, self centred asshole when we meet him and one could argue who is in fact the more mentally challenged one given his immature behaviour. But that’s what character arcs are for, and Cruise’s here is something really special. At first he’s distant and short tempered with Raymon who, naturally, is tough to properly communicate with. But after spending time on the road together for weeks a bond forms and Charlie realizes that this man is the only real family he has left, and in a poignant series of interactions highlighted by one key conversation, the two become brothers again, or perhaps even for the first time, properly anyways. It’s a fantastic piece because the script treats these two with respect and let’s them be real human beings and not cloying plot devices. Cruise plays it hotheaded and then down to earth when the shift in his tone comes, I loved the scene best where he confronts Raymond’s doctor (Gerald R. Molen) about keeping his existence a secret this whole time. “It would’ve been nice to know I had a brother, and it would have been nice to be able to know him this whole time.” Cruise delivers the line offhandedly but the intention beneath cuts real deep. Hoffman is a series of mannerisms, behaviours and reactions that are clearly researched well, but he still lets the humanity and personality in Raymond shine through in every scene, he’s essentially multitasking with both sides of his brain and he fucking nails it. They’re supported by others including Valeria Golino as Charlie’s compassionate wife, Levinson himself as an irritating doctor prick, Lucinda Jenny, Beth Grant, Chris Mulkey and Bonnie Hunt who I’ve always had a huge crush on.

I like the choices made in this film. Many dramas like this get sort of way too down to earth and exist primarily in houses, hospitals, courtrooms and such. This one is essentially a buddy movie and much of it is spent on the road, which gives it a carefree, laidback feeling that lets the drama emanate through naturally of its own accord as opposed to setting up specific, intimate scenes and blocking the actors in such a way that you know it’s just meant to elicit heavy lifting in terms of performance. This film is different. They cruise down the highway, go for pancakes, gamble in Vegas and you truly get the sense that these are two real individuals living life and not existing inside the preordained vacuum of a heavily tailored script. I also loved Hans Zimmer’s light, ethereal score. There’s certain films where his composition is sort of non orchestral and counterintuitive, not what he’s used to. True Romance, Pacific Heights, Interstellar and this all feel like that, and the style suits the material here. What a great film.

-Nate Hill

Joel Schumacher’s A Time To Kill

Many adaptations of John Grisham’s work have shown up in Hollywood, some great and others not so much, but for my money it doesn’t get any better than Joel Schumacher’s A Time To Kill. There’s something fired up about this story, a heartfelt and desperate aura to the high stakes moral maelstrom that Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey find themselves in here. Jackson is Carl Lee Hailey, husband and father in America’s Deep South who opens up an AK-47 on the two redneck crackers who raped his eight year old daughter and left her for dead on the side of the road. McConaughey is Jake Brigance, the slick attorney hired to defend him who first seeks the limelight, then wishes he didn’t and finally becomes so morally invested in Carl’s case that it begins to unravel both his own life, not to mention stir up racial tensions all over the county.

Was Carl justified in these murders, given the situation? Should he be set free? Will the trial be a fair, civilized event given the fact that he’s a black man from the south in a time where they were not treated justly or as equals? The answer to that third question is definitely not because soon the Klan gets involved, the entire judiciary system itself gets put on trial and the whole state erupts in hot blooded anger over the situation. Jackson is fierce and vulnerable in the role, Never defaulting to the trademark detached, noisy brimstone that has become his thing but letting the hurt and righteous fury emanate from within organically, it’s probably his best work. McConaughey gets the sweaty desperation right and you begin to feel the uncomfortable nature of the situation creeping up on him until before he knows it there’s a burning cross on his lawn and his wife (Ashley Judd) is ready to leave him. Sandra Bullock does fine work as his legal assistants who, being an idealist, works for free because she believes in the cause rather than money or notoriety, the latter of which she receives whether she likes it or not. Kevin Spacey lays on the sleazy attitude as the loudmouth prosecuting lawyer who, naturally, hits below the belt in his tactics. An unbelievable roster of supporting talent shows up including Chris Cooper, Kiefer Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Kurtwood Smith, M. Emmett Walsh, Anthony Heald, Charles Dutton, Raéven Kelly, Patrick McGoohan, Nicky Katt, Doug Hutchison, Beth Grant, Octavia Spencer and Donald Sutherland as a charismatic old alcoholic lawyer who serves as Jake’s mentor and voice of reason.

This film can sort of be used as a barometer to measure moral dilemmas and see through the weak spots of the justice system, of which there are many. Were Carl’s murders justified? I think so, given the heinous nature of the crimes against his daughter. But the ensuing racial turmoil, petty battle of legal wills and outside-the-courtroom power struggle sort of clouds that until the film reaches a barbaric fever pitch of violence and terror, until Jake calmly and directly cuts through all of that and turns the mirror on a whole community with his heartbreaking final address to the jury, after which it’s so dead silent you could hear a pin drop. It’s a bold, fantastic piece of acting from McConaughey and some of his best work also, in a brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Amazon’s Homecoming

Amazon Prime hits it out of the park yet again with Homecoming, a tightly structured, noir laced conspiracy thriller that’s so contemporary yet so unbelievably retro I couldn’t fathom how well they pulled off the mixture.

Julia Roberts gives her best performance in years as Heidi Bergman, a low level mental health worker who has been left in charge of the mysterious Homecoming facility, which on the outside is an integration program to help veterans with PTSD transition into civilian life. This is a privately funded deal though, and Heidi begins to suspect that the powers that be don’t have these guys’ best interests at heart, especially after observing the shady avoidance behaviour of her slippery boss Colin (Bobby Cannavle, also the best he’s been in some time). Years later, Heidi waitresses in a marina fish joint, the events and apparent scandal of Homecoming in her rearview, until a dogged Department Of Defence investigator (Shea Wigham, pretty much incapable of hitting a false note) tracks her down and asks questions, forcing her to look at the past in a new light.

This isn’t just your average spook thriller with Manchurian Candidate undertones, but it certainly achieves that as well. At the core is Heidi’s emotional relationship with Walter (Stephen James, a revelation), one of the vets she’s treating, and how that affects her perception of what’s going on around her, their dynamic is the constant and the catalyst for things to get out of hand. To say more would be to spoil an incredibly subtle, slow burn paranoia piece that unspools one thread at a time and is an utter delight to unpack as the viewer. Roberts is sensational, usually we get a character from her on feature film terms, for two or so hours and then the arc is capped, but there are ten half hour episodes here and she’s allowed to room to breathe in her work, drawing us in and earning sympathy beat by beat. Cannavle is a pithy portrait of corporate greed and casual apathy run amok, not necessarily a bad dude but certainly an amoral, selfish schmuck who realizes the consequences of his actions too little too late, it’s fantastic work from the him. Wigham is always brilliant and plays this guy in the guise of a robotic company man, but as the story progresses we see that he cares far more than his tucked shirt demeanour lets on. Other stellar work comes from Rafi Gavron, Jeremy Allen White, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Sydney Tanmiia Poitier, Dermot Mulroney, Sissy Spacek and Hong Chau.

I was floored by the camera work here, the overhead angles, meticulous lighting, tracking shots and general symmetry in frame are so immersive and well done, this thing visually feels like noir to its roots while still being very of this era, thematically speaking. It also cleverly plays around with aspect ratio in order to put us in Heidi’s psychological state and accent the passage of time, a tactic I’ve never seen before but am now obsessed with.

It took me a bit to clue in that creator Sam Esmail literally lifted hordes of original score from classic 60’s, 70’s and 80’s horror thrillers and used them here, but by the time I heard cues from John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Fog I had an ‘aha’ moment and had to go look up just how many themes are sampled, and trust me there’s a lot. That could have been a lazy choice from a lesser production to just *entirely* recycle old music, but it’s used to such effect here and works splendidly for this story. This is brilliant stuff and I can’t think of a single criticism really. Stick around for a provocative post credits scene that pretty much begs for a second season.

-Nate Hill