Tag Archives: drama

Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives

Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives is a fascinating one, if a bit too cluttered with spare vignettes for a feature film. It’s one of those mosaic pieces where we see a string of unrelated episodes about various people here and there in the midst of some life changing moments, and as is usually the case with these, it is absolutely star studded. There’s two formats for these, the one where everyone’s story is interwoven and the vignettes collide and weave (ie Paul Haggis’s Crash) and the linear template where each story is a standalone piece, with no blurred lines or cross crossing. This film falls into the latter category, and themes itself on nine different women in various instances of their lives, be it tragic, joyful, passionate, penultimate or simply everyday life. The issue is, nine of these stories is just too much for a film that runs under two hours. Or perhaps it’s not and what I meant to say was that nine stories that are this thoughtful, complex and important shouldn’t have shared the same compacted narrative, for its too much to keep up with from scene to scene. Anyways there’s quality to be found, some actors cast brilliantly against type and any flick that rounds up a cast of this pedigree deserves a high five. My favourite by far of the bunch is a two person scene between Jason Isaacs and Robin Wright Penn as two former lovers who meet in a supermarket after being apart for many years and try to reconcile their feelings. Both actors are tender, attentive to one another and it’s some of the most affecting work I’ve seen from either. A more lurid one involving Amy Brenneman and William Fichtner lands more with a questionable thud, both are great as well but their scene needed some backstory. My second favourite stars a young Amanda Seyfried as a girl who alternates speaking with her father (the excellent Ian McShane) and mother (Sissy Spacek) who are in different rooms of the house. It’s intimate family drama through a prism of casualty and works quite well. Other sequences, including one that sees Glenn Close on a picnic with her granddaughter (Dakota Fanning), aren’t as memorable or striking. But the cast alone is enough to stick along for the ride, and includes Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mary Kay Place, Holly Hunter, Kathy Baker, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Stephen Dillane, Molly Parker, Aiden Quinn, Joe Montegna and more. A worthwhile watch for the handful of stories that have some weight, but falters here and there and could have axed some of the commotion of too many solo narratives buzzing about.

-Nate Hill

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Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Megan Leavey


Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Megan Leavey shows us that with a little discipline, a lot of love and no shortage of persistence, wayward souls can be shaped into something with purpose and make something of themselves, as well as find kindred spirits via intense struggle. Based on one hell of a true story, Kate Mara lives, breathes and emotes Leavey wonderfully, a small town girl with a warrior’s heart who fights tooth and nail to adopt Rex, the canine bomb sniffing champion she has served with through thick and thin during a tour in the Iraqi war. Fresh off the heels of personal tragedy and burdened with an uncaring mother (Edie Falco) and a goof of a stepdad (Will Patton), Megan undergoes the notoriously gruelling marine corps training, and eventually makes her way to combat with her furry friend, an antisocial, violent mutt who she tames through compassion and patience. Coached by a stern, kindly drill sergeant (Common, who is actually a terrific actor), Megan finds romance with a fellow canine unit (Ramon Rodriguez) and mentorship from a veteran of the program (Draco Malfoy), but the strongest bond she makes is with Rex, the intuition of explosive hunting forming a link between them that goes deeper than anything you can see with your eyes alone. Megan seems to be a girl who hasn’t had all that much success in connecting with anyone in her life, but it’s Rex who ultimately reaches out to her, and when the time comes for her to desperately fight a callous bureaucracy for adoption, the film has honestly earned our emotions and not manipulated is a bit, which is a great quality for dramas like this to aspire to. Bradley Whitford has a brief but memorable bit as her birth father as well, giving her advice that cuts deep and goes a long way. Mara is an interesting actress, particularly in her choices of work. She often chooses scrappy misfires that don’t quite deserve her talent, but she never goes the conventional route, always trying new things and, at least in my opinion, outshining her sister every step of the way. The only issues I have with this is the title, which could have been given a bit more thought than just slapping her name above the poster, as well as a certain limitation on raw, organic emoting due to the classic pg-13 gloss one often finds in true story drama. Other than that, she’s a winner.

-Nate Hill

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

The finest films tend to engage fervently with their specific time and place; entertaining the bigger picture as well as those more effectively intimate spaces. For Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the solitary sad sack at the heart of Kenneth Lonergan’s devastatingly beautiful MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, the coastal Massachusetts town of the film’s namesake – which he is summoned to upon the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) – represents the abode of old bones, a wretched abyss from which he never truly escaped.

This painfully resonant examination of grief has the tendency to feel almost operatic – due in no small part to Lesley Barber’s unforgettably somber score – but it is perhaps even more indebted to the director’s history as a successful playwright. With this being his third feature at the helm, it would appear Lonergan has established a comfortable middle ground between naturalism and artifice; conversations and evocatively-lit interiors evoking the essence of a hang-out flick at times, but without the same redemptive tranquility, and the most ample truths are recouped from awkward silence.

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Lee seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders from the moment he’s introduced, serving the unappreciative tenants of the apartment complex where he works as a janitor. On top of that, his relationship with the bottle proves somewhat detrimental, and agonizing flashbacks bleed into everyday reality so seamlessly, and constantly, that the transitions tend to appear rather subtle at first. It’s only when Lee returns to his home town and discovers that he is to become the legal guardian of his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) that the most painful memories of all permeate his psyche once again.

This extended flashback is as close to a revelatory moment as the viewer is going to get, but granted a better understanding of Lee’s history, it’s much easier to empathize with his plight. He’s simply a man attempting to subvert his sins, stuck in his own moderately self-imposed limbo. For him, Manchester signifies suspicious stares, possibly seeing Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife who shares in his suffering, on the streets, and having to confront several decades worth of honest failures; it’s no longer just a picturesque setting.

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One look into Affleck’s cold, inconsolable eyes inspires immediate compassion; everyone here is marvelous, but he’s never been better, and in less capable hands the character could have been a one trick pony. His world is a deeply disturbed one, and though there’s plenty of comic relief on the road to redemption, it remains a carefully crafted crescendo of melancholy. If it’s even there to begin with, the happy ending is well out of reach, but what Lonergan provides in its place is even more enduring. As a celebration of the little moments that can either make or break who we are – like, for instance, a panic attack brought on by frozen meat – and who we’re meant to be, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is an invaluable testament to inordinate darkness giving way to understated wisdom as well as progress in its many, obscured forms.

THE HEROES OF ARVINE PLACE (2014) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

There’s solace to be found in an engaging, down-to-earth drama rich with the sort of essential humanism that seems all but lost in the current cinematic climate, and that’s precisely how one might describe Damian Lahey’s frequently endearing THE HEROES OF ARVINE PLACE. At just 74 minutes, it’s akin to a warm hug from a close friend or relative following a considerable absence and is equally as delightful.

Cullen Moss is marvelous as Kevin, a single father of two young girls who’s just trying to make it through the holidays after losing both his job and his car on the same day. He adopts an attitude of impressive tenacity, and over the course of the next few days, the immensely likable widower does everything in his power to make something – anything – work. Between a Christmas party at his place, a sister in the psych ward, a meeting with one of his literary idols which could determine the future of his hopeful future as a successful children’s book author, and the promise of presents for his daughters; Kevin’s got a lot on his plate, and there’s more to come.

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Sure, there’s little here that will challenged a seasoned viewer but this doesn’t appear to be Lahey’s priority, instead honing his energies towards painting an effective portrait of a down-on-his-luck guy during one of the most stressful seasons. There are hints of a deeper underlying sadness here, but it’s kind of admirable how Lahey avoids discussing these things in thorough detail at any point; much like the charming character at its core, the film is just trying not to dwell.

Considering its restricted budget, THE HEROES OF ARVINE PLACE could be seen as a testament to the individual and collective talents on both sides of the camera, and how sometimes a decent feel-good yarn is just fine when crafted with such obvious care. Lahey’s direction and script are assured, and he’s able to get some excellent performances from his cast; Tarina Reed’s photography is simple but not lacking formal depth; and Craig Moorhead’s editing is consistently efficient.

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The score, from Brian Jenkins and Naarah Strokosch, is decidedly of a whimsical variety and sometimes threatens to sour the experience ever so slightly; it can feel, at times, almost as if the film is unsure of just how much it wants to indulge in fantasy and/or reality. It’s a middle ground that can feel too close for comfort, but given the material, it feels appropriate. There’s an intuitive empathy and sense of humor here that drowns out these little blemishes, and though the film may wear its heart on its sleeve to a fault, the pull of warmth reigns supreme in the end. It’s fairly easy to surrender to the film’s undeniably uplifting energies when one is in such positively personable company as this.

PASSENGERS by Ben Cahlamer

Homesteading.  Many years ago, when land was plenty, the government offered it to people who were willing to till the soil, grow some crops.  Perhaps raise a family.  It was not an easy life.  In fact, you could probably retire today and still be tilling soil.

What in the world does this have anything to do with Morten Tyldum’s (“The Imitation Game”) new sci-fi film, “Passengers”?

Very little or quite a bit; it really depends on your point of view.  The intent of the government was to get people to become productive because they had no other choice:  they were cornered into a unique way of life that not everyone is cut out for.

In Jon Spahits’ (“Doctor Strange”, “Prometheus”) script, the meaning of homesteading, “a lifestyle of agrarian self-sufficiency as practiced by a modern homesteader or urban homesteader,” equally applies to the 5000 corporately-sponsored passengers aboard the Starship Avalon, destined for the colony planet Homestead II.

The trick is that the journey is so long, everyone on board is in hibernation and the state-of-the-art starship is on auto-pilot.  An engineer, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is woken up alone with no explanation and no one to communicate with.  He is eventually joined by author Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). As the only two souls awake on board the ship, they fall in love but not before disaster strikes.  Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia co-star.

Spahits’ script should have checked all the right boxes:  characters are well-fleshed out; the set-up was strong; social issues are at the forefront. The focus strayed from sci-fi-adventure to kitschy sci-fi-adventure-romance, where the romance just didn’t cut it. Preston’s reason for being woken up is clear; the emotional side of isolation became a focus instead of allowing his skills to move the character and the narrative forward, leading to the intended romantic angle; a wasted effort considering Jennifer Lawrence’s Lane tried too hard to remain in control, though her reasons for that become clear after a meltdown.  Had Fishburne phoned his performance from Earth, it would have been more convincing then what unfolded on the screen.  In homage to a Kubrick classic, Michael Sheen stole the show; but his role in a pivotal moment just fell flat.  Tight editing by Oscar-nominated editor Maryann Brandon (“Star Wars:  The Force Awakens”) keeps the pacing on track.

The script notwithstanding, there is one redeeming reason why this should be viewed on as big a screen as possible: the special effects.  In the tradition of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Scott’s “Alien”, Tyldum executes a strong, detailed technical look.

From the symmetry of the Avalon to the look and feel of the interior corridors, the hibernation pods, the stars and space around the ship, everything has a very real or visceral feel about it and visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby rose to the challenge brilliantly.  The effects are supported by strong cinematography from the Oscar-nominated Rodrigo Prieto (“Brokeback Mountain”).  His attention to every detail, from lighting of cavernous interior spaces, to changing reflective lighting and exterior shots in space, Prieto’s work only enhances the visual impact.

Oscar-nominated film composer Thomas Newman (“Bridge of Spies”, “Skyfall”) resonates with the luxuriousness of the Aurora and the allure of space exploration.  Some of his dramatic riffs didn’t exactly jive with the onscreen action, but his music served the film well.

“Passengers” had all the right ingredients for a stellar show, its ambition steeped in “Titanic”.  Instead, its ‘Lost in Space’ meets ‘The Love Boat’ with all the drama that that entails.

For the intricately detailed technical effects work, “Passengers” is Recommended.  Aaron Spelling is probably rolling over in his grave.

Felon: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Felon is a bitter,and tragic prison drama that’s packed with wrenching injustice, simmering anger and caged animal violence. Loaded with the kind of tough guy elements which make prison films exciting (check out Lock Up with Stallone), it’s also has a tender side brought forth by its extremely thoughtful and well written script, which explores ideas that are both hard to swallow and very sad. Stephen Dorff, a guy who already has the gritty look as soon as he walks into a frame, plays Wade Porter, a simple family man who is just starting out at life along with his wife (Marisol Nichols). Their hopes and dreams turn into a nightmare, however, when a violent intruder breaks into their home one night. Wade strikes out in defence of himself and his wife, accidentally killing the criminal. Because of the backwards ass way the States run things, he is accused of manslaughter and sentenced to serve out jail time. He is then thrown into the dog pit, literally and figuratively. The penitentiary he is sent to is run by sadistic and corrupt Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau) along with his brutal enforcer Sgt. Roberts (Nick Chinlund). Jackson organizes vicious fight club style matches between the inmates, totally off the books and beyond any correctional legislations. Wade is forced to adapt, adjust and bring out monstrous aspects within himself to survive, and make it through his sentence with both his life and humanity intact. It’s not an easy turn of events to watch unfold onscreen, but necessary in the sense that this probably happens quite frequently to people in real life, and should be seen. The only solace Wade finds is with his gruff, veteran cell mate John Smith (Val Kilmer) a lifer who once went on a massacre of revenge against individuals who murdered his family. Smith is his guiding light, steering him through the hellish carnage of what he’s forced to do and helping him to keep the candle of compassion alive within him, never losing sight of what is essential in his fight to claim his life once more. Kilmer is a force that will knock you flat in this role, an old bull with dimming fury in his eyes, a man with a bloody history that has forged the weary dog we see in the film. Late in the film he has an extended monologue to Wade, giving him both blessing and advice with some of the most truthful and affecting gravity Kilmer has showed in his career. The writer/director, who appears to be primarily a stuntman, should be commended for such a script, that could have easily been a straight up prison flick without the pathos that drips off its heartstrings. We as an audience view this painfully and prey nothing like this ever happens to us or anyone we know, hoping to see a light of hope at the end of the dark tunnel for Wade. I won’t spoil it, but it’s worth the hit that your emotions will take while watching, and there is hard earned catharsis to be had, and penance for the characters you want to shoot in the face along the way. The extends to brilliant work from Chris Browning, Anne Archer, Nate Parker, Johnny Lewis and a fantastic Sam Shepherd as another seasoned convict. This was correct to video as I recall, which is a crime. It’s up there as my favourite prison set film that I’ve ever seen, a soul bearing piece. 

House Of Sand And Fog: A Review by Nate Hill

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House Of Sand And Fog is an emotional thunderclap in ways you won’t see coming, leaving the viewer gutted after a finale that feels spare and detached yet wracked with emotion in the same moment. You feel haunted after witnessing the story unfold, and I was particularly affected by Ben Kingsley’s determind, tender performance for days after my viewing of the film. He plays an Iranian man, a proud man who was a Colonel in the air force in his home country, and has been forced to work construction labor jobs in America to support his family, and to keep up the appearances of their lifestyle. When neglected taxes force a troubled woman (Jennifer Connelly) out of the house she grew up in, Kingsley sees an opportunity to buy the the property for a fraction of what it’s worth, essentially leaving Connelly homeless. She has a history of alcoholism and instability, and this unfortunate situation really worsens her condition, leading to angry and confrontational behaviour towards Kingsley. He has no ill will towards her, he’s simply trying to make a better life for his family whom he loves very much. His wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is still very much rooted in Iranian culture, and much of what’s going on goes over her head. There’s also a cop (Ron Eldard) who strikes up a reckless romance with Connelly and tries to strong arm Kingsley into selling the house back to her, pretty much reasoning with his dick instead of his brain. This is a film that refuses to take a side, showing us unblinking and compassionate views of both people within the conflict, and never lifting a judging eyebrow. It’s a sad, sad turn of events and the film wants to show us the tragedy, but it does so with the utmost care, and always has a loving hand in presenting it’s two lead characters. Connelly is heartbreaking, showing us the burning humiliation that frays her spirit to the last sinew. Kingsley is flat out brilliant in the kind of performance that holds up for decades to come. He rightly won an Oscar for his galvanizing turn that breaks hearts and opens tear ducts. Ron Eldard is the only piece that doesn’t fit, because he’s usually not fund in this type of stuff. He’s really talented as an offbeat character actor, but just seems out of place here playing it straight, and it also doesn’t help that his character is just damn unlikable. Aghdashloo is the third leg of the acting table, and her work earned her an Oscar as well, she is plain superb. Be careful of what mood you’re in when you give this one a go, it’s pretty devastating. It’s also powerful cinema, and a story that could happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, giving us something real to latch onto and connect with.