Tag Archives: drama

Niki Caro’s North Country

Charlize Theron can pretty much play any role when she sets her mind to it, and when it comes to embodying the collective injustice and abuse inflicted towards female mine workers in late 80’s Minnesota, she is heartbreaking. Of course many other brilliant actors work hard to bring Niki Caro’s North Country to life, but it’s Theron who gives it the wounded centre and makes us care, not just about the issues at had but her character as well.

She plays a semi fictional character named Josey Aimes, who is loosely based on a real life woman that launched a milestone lawsuit against the corporate mining giant. Josey has escaped her abusive husband and come home to seek refuge with her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) while trying to provide for her two children. The highest paying wage in the region is at the mines but from the moment she joins up she’s faced with hostility, scorn and rampant sexual harassment from the vast male work force there, and the few other female employees fare the same, unless they keep their head low. Josey and her young coworker Sherry (Michelle Monaghan) have it the worst because they’re, shall we say, easiest on the eyes, while their childhood friend Glory (Frances McDormand) keeps up a tough exterior, but in truth they are all of them fed up. As their treatment gets worse, Josey does the unthinkable and launches a high profile lawsuit against Big Mining for mistreatment and neglect, causing a shit-storm of controversy for both herself and the entire town whose survival depends on that industry. Not only that, but the case dredges up painful events from her past that involve supervisor Jeremy Renner, whose special interest in tormenting her dates back to then and explains why he radiates with guilt.

This is a brave, difficult choice for a woman to make especially when it seems like everyone is against her, but Josey is determined and Theron makes her wounded, charismatic and captivating. Woody Harrelson does a fine job as the lawyer hired to represent her, an idealistic man who isn’t afraid to unleash some hell when delivering statements or interrogating a witness because he believes it will lead to change. Jenkins is always brilliant, the arc he carries out here goes from cynically intoning that his daughter must have cheated on her husband to illicit violence like that to later openly defending his her with his own violence in court when he finds out what she has gone through. The old pro handles it gracefully and I can’t remember if he was nominated for this but he should have been. McDormand is her usual salty self and is excellent, while Sean Bean, an actor who often plays gruff, alpha male badasses is laid back and sensitive as her introvert boyfriend. Watch for great work from Xander Berkeley, Rusty Schwimmer, Corey Stoll, Brad William Henke, Jillian Armenante, Amber Heard and Chris Mulkey too.

Director Caro drew huge acclaim for her film Whale Rider a few years before, another story that dealt with a girl trying to find her place in the world and defying the men in her life. Once again this is a fantastic piece that shows her talent for filmmaking, never coming across as too much of a dramatization or too slack when it needs to cut deep. Theron is a force of nature and you can see the hurt, frustration and will to not back down burning in her eyes. This is a tough film to watch in many instances, but an extremely important one to sit through and the type that Hollywood doesn’t usually jump to green-light, at least back then anyways. Something of a masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

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Oliver Stone’s JFK

I’m not so much for political films but Oliver Stone’s JFK is an engrossing, obsessive, feverish and altogether brilliant piece of clandestine intrigue and I loved every minute of its impossibly long runtime (the director’s cut runs well over three hours). It might be excessive to take such an indulgent amount of time for one story to play out but Stone is fixated on every single aspect and detail of his narrative, scrutinizing the dark corners of shadowy politics, leaving no stone unturned and the result is a film that draws you in so close that at times the effect is breathless, a surging momentum full of moving parts, characters and secrets all unfolding in a mammoth production.

Stone has taken the real life investigation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, used it as a launching pad and blasted off into his own theories, queries and plot turns. Kevin Costner is excellent and uncharacteristically vulnerable as Garrison, an idealistic family man determined to shine a light on the truth until he realizes he and his firm are in over their heads. This thing has one of the most jaw dropping ensemble casts I’ve ever seen assembled, right down to supporting turns, cameos and walk-ons populated by recognizable faces. Costner and his team are the constant, a dogged troupe that includes varied folks like Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight, Jay O. Sanders, Gary Grubbs and the always awesome Michael Rooker. We spend the most time with them as they discuss theories at length, argue in roundtable fashion, interview witnesses and it all feels eerily as if every discovery they make leads to ten more even more unnerving ones. Others show up throughout the film and when I say this is a cast for the ages I’m not even kidding. Jack Lemmon does paranoia flawlessly as a nervous informant they visit, Gary Oldman is a super creepy Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe Pesci impossibly rambunctious as oddball David Ferrie, Tommy Lee Jones and his poodle wig are icky as a corrupt US Senator and that’s just the start, there’s great work from everyone under the sun including John Candy, Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek, Vincent D’onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Martin Sheen, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Edward Asner, Frank Whaley, Brian Doyle Murray, Bob Gunton, Lolita Davidovich, John Larroquette and more. Donald Sutherland is pure showstopper as a mystery man who has an epic, sixteen minute long tinfoil hat monologue that is so well delivered and perfectly pitched that we don’t even really notice what a massive enema of exposition it is simply because he and Stone keep up the energy levels and, in turn, us riveted.

That’s the thing here, I went in expecting perhaps something intriguing but maybe a little dry in places or bits that might lag because it is, after all, a three plus hour film revolving around politics. This is Stone though, and the way he films it is taut and immersive the *entire* way through, which is just so fucking impressive. He plays rogue agent with the facts, using established suspicions to draw one wild conclusion after another until we aren’t sure if everyone we see onscreen perhaps had something to do with JFK’s death. That’s his goal here though, he seeks not to provide concrete answers (how could he) but instil the kind of creeping dread, mounting uncertainty and fear that I imagine gripped the nation for years following this event. Conflicting conspiracy theories, clues that lead to nothing, unexplained and admittedly suspicious witness deaths, it’s all here and it all makes for one damn good mystery film.

-Nate Hill

Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton

Usually when George Clooney shows up in a film, you get to see that smile. That mile wide, slightly mischievous grin is one of the chief reasons he’s such a charismatic onscreen presence, but in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton it’s nowhere to be found. This allows other aspects of his personality to come forward in playing the stressed out, introspective titular law firm fixer in what might be his best performance so far in a brilliant drama. His face is drawn and worried, his wide eyes taking in the ruthless corporate environment around him with taciturn angst and survival instinct of a cornered jungle cat. Michael has every reason to be worried not only in a general profession like this but also because of recent events. One of the firm’s top lawyers (Tom Wilkinson) is having a royal mental breakdown whilst in the thick of a high profile class action lawsuit putting billions against a chemical giant who are almost certainly guilty of what they’re being accused of. This is not good, not good at all and the the firm’s most senior partner (Sydney Pollack, so serious he’s scary) throws everything he’s got at the wall to remedy the situation, including Michael. Clooney plays the man almost as a guy who has chosen the wrong profession; to be a fixer like that I feel like you’d need a certain sort of cold detachment and near sociopathic level of apathy when dealing with such moral quagmires, but Michael is a man who, despite obvious efforts to stay one step removed, let’s his humanity seep through with every sympathetic glance and wounded exchange. Perhaps it’s Clooney’s inherent affability or a deliberate character choice, but in any case the contradictory portrayal works wonders and makes for such a fascinating protagonist. Wilkinson isn’t capable of giving a bad performance even in the worst films, his darkly comic unravel from learned man of law to unhinged mad scholar is a beautifully tragic arc and one of the tethers holding Michael in the swirling gale of tricky decisions and do-or-die chess moves he must navigate. Another is icy, robotic Tilda Swinton as a shady lawyer hired by Big Chemical to try and patch up things on their end. She unravels too, albeit in a less theatrical way than Wilkinson, but the noiseless, implosive confrontation she has with Michael in the third act is enough to knock anyone flat and stands as my favourite scene of the film. Michael is a family man with a young son who dreams of escaping this cutthroat netherworld and starting up a restaurant, a goal that the audience sees glowing on the horizon as clearly as he does thanks to the empathy inspiring performance. After all is said and done we witness some of the most simply unique end credits out there on a hypnotic car ride where both Michael and the viewers decompress and meditate on everything before, it’s a brilliant bit of the pacing puzzle here. This isn’t really a political thriller and can’t very well be called courtroom drama either, really it’s own thing. I suppose the closest is character study, but even that doesn’t provide a legible menu option for the meal to follow. Unique in atmosphere and character interaction, crisply written and directed by Gilroy, and acted to the absolute nines by Clooney without ever showboating or chewing scenery. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Peter Weir’s Fearless

A plane falls out of the sky and crashes in a cornfield. Some of the passengers survive. Others do not. No one involved is ever the same after. Such is the premise of Peter Weir’s Fearless, a complicated, challenging, unconventional and altogether brilliant piece that goes a lot deeper than most Hollywood produced films are allowed to. Jeff Bridges is Max Klein, a man who emerges serenely from the wreck having saved multiple lives and undergone a personal change that can’t be made clear in a scene or two, but rather takes the film it’s whole runtime to explore. While the entire plane is in full panic, Max reaches a sort of tranquility in the face of death, and instead of freaking out he very lucidly gets up and joins a young boy who’s alone on the flight and comforts him. When they land and he survives, his relationship to those around him is affected including his wife (Isabella Rossellini), young son, a trauma counsellor (John Turturro hired by the airline) and others. Most fascinating is the time spent with Carla (Rosie Perez) a fellow crash survivor whose newborn baby wasn’t so lucky, leaving her in a pit of grief. They share something together that no one, audience included, can fully understand because they weren’t there. The beauty of it is that Bridges and Perez can’t really know either, but the magic of both their performances is that they make you believe they’re in this extraordinary situation for real. Bridges never plays it with a messianic or mystical aura like some would, he’s always straight up and kindly which works wonders for this character. Perez is a revelation, soulful and heartbroken but never cloying or panhandling for our tears, she earns them fair and square. I’m not one too get too heated about Oscar snubs but it’s a crime she got beat out by Marisa Tomei that year for fluff like My Cousin Vinny. Peter Weir is a thoughtful director whose films are always high concept stories, but are also always character driven to provide that balance. He’s interested not in spectacle or sensationalism here but the difficult questions that others might gloss over or be too afraid to think about. There’s two scenes revolving around the crash, one of the aftermath and an extended one of the incident itself playing out that reach a level that sticks with you long after the credits roll. Not an easy film to classify or describe in a review, but the rare Hollywood picture that tackles concepts well above what we’re used to seeing. Great film.

-Nate Hill

River’s Edge

The events depicted in River’s Edge are strange, disturbing, morbid, compelling, darkly humorous and may at first seem farcical or something removed from reality. However, the film is set in any one of the thousands of small, poorer towns this continent has to offer, and the youth portrayed here are probably not that far from truths existing out there, especially when you consider the unsettling fact that this is based on a true story, and not even that loosely either. One day a maladjusted high school teen named Samson (Daniel Roebuck) strangles his girlfriend for no particular reason than she was ‘talking shit.’ He leaves her body on the banks of the river and proceeds to brag to classmates back in town of the deed, seemingly in no hurry to keep it a secret. When he brings his friends back to show them the body, reactions range from stoned amusement to vague unrest, but none of the appropriate horror or shock. Deranged speed freak Layne (Crispin Glover) simply pokes the corpse with a stick and decides that all of them should inexplicably keep it a secret and protect Samson. Only Keanu Reeves’s Matt seems to show a flicker of conscience, providing dissent in the ranks while dealing with a psychotic younger brother (Near Dark’s Joshua Miller). To make matters more complicated and a lot weirder, local oddball drug dealer Feck (Dennis Hopper, right off of Blue Velvet and still half crazy) gets involved too, a piece of work who carries around a sex doll he calls Ellie and apparently once killed a girl himself. Ione Skye and Roxana Zal are great as others in their group who make a half hearted attempt to be the voice of reason but can’t quite bring themselves to defy Layne’s logic. “He had his reasons,” Glover snarls in a performance so over the top and cartoonish that it almost defies description. He’s a terminally weird dude who has a habit of elongating his vowels and twitching like a marmot in heat until he almost becomes something inhuman and reaches a plane of acting all he is own. Roebuck’s Samson is a fat, unpleasant and scary individual whose aloof nature spirals into a very dark place that mirrors events for their whole group, his arc is not a pretty thing to see. Hopper goes certifiably nuts here, a Nam vet and ex biker who has clearly lost his mind but the actor lets the perfect amount of emotional truth into his performance right where it counts, it’s another great work in his canon. This is a difficult and distressing film, but it finds the pitch black humour in its premise too. All of the teens we see here are hooked on booze and drugs right out of the gate, including the twelve year old kid. “Where do my children go at night?” laments Reeves’s mother. The answer might come from looking in the mirror, or that’s too harsh a prognosis, then simply around them at the quality of life in such a forgotten place. Samson may indeed be a budding psychopath, but at the time his reasons for killing his girl seemed as if there was no better, or rather more interesting thing to do, and in fact after he did it his first order of business was to stroll into the local convenience for a beer as if he just got off work. Idle hands are indeed the devil’s work, spurred on by circumstance and setting. These kids might not have turned out so bad in another life, but the one they were dealt has made quick work of them, and it’s most discomforting and somehow mesmerizing to see it play out. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Tod Williams’s The Door In The Floor

We don’t get enough widely released films that show how blunt, frank and confusing life can be. Every day is another hilarious tragedy wrapped in unpredictable instances of comedy, enigmatic human behaviour that can’t possibly stick to script and complexities that defy explanation. Tod Williams’s The Door In The Floor is a criminally underrated masterpiece that sort of defies description in the sense that it’s about nothing other than the lives of several people over the course of one New England summer, and what that entails. Is there sadness? You could say that. Is there comedy? Briefly, yes. It’s tough cinema, a film that deals in truths, but they are hard truths, half truths and hidden truths, ambassadors of the film’s slogan on the poster: ‘The most dangerous secrets are the ones we’re afraid to tell ourselves.’ Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger give the best work of their careers as Ted and Marion Cole, a couple haunted by the worst kind of tragedy, both unable to move on in their own way. Ted is a passive aggressive, alcoholic manipulator, Marion is an emotionally shut off shell. These are two people who in another film would absolutely have not been sympathetic characters. Not here. Ted hires sixteen year old college kid Eddie (Jon Foster) as his assistant for the summer, mainly because he lost his driver’s license. Truthfully, he does this on purpose for reasons I won’t impart here, but soon the boy and Marion are having a torrid affair with sex scenes the film doesn’t gloss over, glance away or back down from. The eerie thing is watching how the passage of time has traumatized two people not only to the point where they have become their worst selves, but also are completely unable to recover or continue on with their lives properly anymore. What’s worse, they have a four year old daughter (Elle Fanning, brilliant in an early role) who is swept up in this storm of malcontent, bitterness and broken lives. It’s not easy to watch but it never gets overly sentimental or cheats you by drip feeding emotional work that it itself hasn’t worked for or earned, there’s a naturalistic way these events play out that had me full well believing this was real, and investing everything I had into these characters. Bridges is fucking devastating here in what has to be his finest and most overlooked performance. Ted is a children’s writer (“I’m an entertainer of children, and I like to draw”) who injects pain into his work, a petty egotist whose light for life is slowly dimming. Basinger too brings us her best, she’s uncomfortably opaque yet somehow sweet and soulful, Marion is a seemingly unforgivable character that we come to feel for despite her actions, like a fallen angel. Foster is a find, it’s interesting because his brother Ben, now something of a star, was originally casted but purposefully relinquished the role to his brother as he thought him better suited. Intuitive move because he nails the roiling hormones and confused pining of adolescence to a T while still somehow appearing astute beyond his years. The supporting cast is fleshed out by great work from Mimi Rogers, Bijou Phillips, Louis Arcella and an adorable cameo from Donna Murphy, but really it’s the Bridges and Basinger show. The New England setting is a beautiful misty coastline dotted with vast country estates and windy bluffs, a picturesque yet oddly mournful locale for this tale to play out, inhabited by Marcelo Zarvos’s score that captures the grief and suffering without obviously highlighting it. David Lynch once noted in his autobiography that when approaching a character in writing, directing or performance, it’s important to remember that a person is not all one thing, there’s a multitude of emotions, feelings and impulses at play simultaneously and this results in confusing, contradictory, often self degrading and destructive behaviour that we aren’t meant to understand, but is there for us to see all the same. Williams and his actors keep that squarely in mind here and work to create human beings that feel like people in the real world, imperfections and all. I would tell you to bring a box of tissues but this isn’t the type of drama that elicits tears in an obvious way, but rather slowly, steadily and without a predictable blueprint, but bring that box anyway. Can’t recommend this highly enough.

-Nate Hill

Snow Falling On Cedars

Snow Falling On Cedars is an interesting one, but I can’t say I mean that in much of a good way. I’ve rarely seen a film that focuses so intently on atmosphere, incident and specific isolated scenes and kind of leaves it’s own overarching story in the dust, or rather snow. That’s okay if you’re making a mood piece or deliberately impressionist film that doesn’t need the lucidity of a clear narrative, but that this is not. Its one gorgeous looking film though, shot by Robert Richardson who really earns the Oscar nom, full of looming boreal scapes, whirling blizzards and rustic homesteads. Set in the Pacific Northwest during a particularly tumultuous pair of timelines in the 40’s and 50’s, it sees the plight of a small coastal fishing village when a mariner is found dead, entangled in nets near his own boat. The local Sheriff (Richard Jenkins) discovers this, prompting a trial in which an accused fellow fisherman (Rick Yune) is prosecuted by an annoying shark (James Rebhorn) and defended by a German American (Max Von Sydow). Now, the accused is also part of the Japanese community residing nearby, and it being sometime after WWII, it’s not a very great period of history to be Japanese in the States, casting a dark glow over the trial before it’s even begun. Ethan Hawke plays the reporter with whom the accused’s wife (Yûki Kudô) has a lasting and deep romantic involvement with. Sound complicated? It is, but really shouldn’t be. The film chooses to tell the story in a meandering, out of time nature and as such it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on at any given time. What’s more, the relation between Hawke and Kudô, although deeply touching and wonderfully acted by both, has little to do with the trial and murder mystery and as a result much of the story feels like a slog through snowbanks with no reward on the other side. Other actors make appearances, like Sam Shepherd as Hawke’s publisher father, James Cromwell as the trial’s overseeing judge, Celia Weston and her deplorable Scandinavian accent, Daniel Von Bargen, Anne Suzuki, Akira Takayama and others but they’re sort of swallowed up by the scattered hollowness of a story that should mean more, and should cut deeper based on the effort put into this production. And what a good looking film, I’ll give it that. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is breathtaking, somehow vast yet contained at the same time as we see life in the northwest unfold, attention to period detail immaculately kept up. The score by James Newton Howard is a swell of orchestral emotion and a strong point too. This film would have been so much more affecting if it spent more quality time on the central relationship between Hawke and Kudô, the latter of which gives the best performance. The matter of Japanese people being carted off to internment camps is handled realistically and gives us some of the film’s strongest scenes, these actors also steal the show with their obvious heartbreak and theft of dignity. But who really cares about the murder trial when there’s so much else going on in the big picture that’s more fascinating? So much time is spent in that dark courtroom discussing details of an event I had no stock in with the film as a whole, and if your narrative has that effect on even just one person, well.. that’s a problem. Perhaps the novel is different but I’m not really sure what they were going for here in the film, from both an editing and story focus standpoint. I left with an admiration for the technique used, the photography and atmosphere achieved is something to be proud of, as is the romantic angle. Everything else left me as cold as that falling snow.

-Nate Hill