Tag Archives: drama

Indie Gems: Dennis Brooks’ Goodnight Joseph Parker

Some independent films are just so amazing, heartfelt and original it pains me they’ve never found a larger audience or made a bigger splash. Dennis Brooks’ Goodnight Joseph Parker has the kind of script, acting and execution that would probably have attracted Oscar attention had it been done on a bigger budget or had more marketing, but this thing is a barebones indie despite having a fairly well known cast and remains to this day a long buried treasure. Somewhere in New Jersey is a run down, behind the times bar run by Charlie (Paul Sorvino), staffed by waitress Rita (Debi Mazar) and frequented by drunkard Frankie (Richard Edson). This is a humdrum, low income barfly existence in a part of town that never changes save to continue to its own beat, until estranged regular Joey Parker (Nick Chinlund) returns to town in a “900 dolla’ suit” with tales of making it big and going on Jay Leno soon. His return sparks many feelings and long repressed things from the past, in paternal Charlie, in Rita who has always loved him and local junkie Muriel (Kim Dickens) who he loves and foolishly plans to propose to with all his new flash and swagger to back him up. But flash and swagger is what barely masks the pain, sadness and regret in all these characters, that and the booze they constantly swill. This isn’t so much a story as it is a quick snapshot of collective lifestyles in the Jersey area, but even though it’s a ‘small’ story, the emotions and character dynamics couldn’t feel more immediate or affecting. Chinlund is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, mostly saddled with supporting villain roles in his career, but when he’s given a lead like this he really and truly shines. Joey is a man who lives in his ego and when he’s forced to shed it, to confront himself and where he stands in his old community, well Nick’s performance is something to see. Sorvino has always been one of the greats and he’s heartbreaking here as a man who constantly tried to do the right thing and is haunted by the consequences, it’s a manic, playful, compassionate and comedic bit of acting genius. Mazar is another one who constantly gets stuck the ‘snarky bitch’ character and for sure she’s great at that, but give her some breathing room, let her play a more sensitive type girl and just watch what she can do, her work is spellbinding here. As if all that talent isn’t enough we also get a recurring cameo from Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as a sleazy, hyperactive ladies man who runs in and out of the plot like a tornado. In the credits it says this film is ‘inspired by the music of Tom Waits’ and indeed he can be heard rasping away on the soundtrack faintly from time to time. The film really captures the day in, day out nature of this part of town, and the human beings whose drink, laugh, fight and live within it. It takes place over the course of one night and the following day only, but in that window of time I felt all the joys, sorrows, triumphs, downfalls, regrets, passions and hopes in this group of scrappy individuals and cared for each one deeply. Brilliant piece of filmmaking.

-Nate Hill

Paul Schrader’s Affliction

Paul Schrader’s Affliction is a terrifying, tragic and too-real examination of how one series of events, dating back to childhood abuse, can spark the kind of self destructive downward spiral that no well adjusted person could ever thing themselves capable of. At the outset Nick Nolte’s Wade Whitehouse does indeed seem, perhaps mostly in his own eyes, to be a fairly well adjusted person. He’s an auxiliary lawman in a small New Hampshire community with a daughter, ex wife and set of problems that could be chalked up as ‘everyday variety.’ But just underneath that is a simmering layer of trauma and violence that inevitably will be unleashed, given the right set of catalytic incidents. Wade has a volcanically abusive father (James Coburn) who drinks like there’s no tomorrow and terrorized his family no end for years. Wade’s brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) distanced himself from the whole implosive saga years ago but when their mother passes away and the dynamics of their family as well as that of the town begins to shift, forces align against all of them.

This is a sad, heavy, fucked up, heinously bleak and relentlessly downbeat piece of storytelling, no fooling around. Wade’s trajectory is just painful to watch, from hazy flashbacks to childhood horrors inflicted by the old man to slow, steady signs of mental illness, delusional breakdowns and unstable behaviours manifesting gradually like an incoming blizzard. His relationship with his father is a poisoned minefield, his brother stays at arm’s length while his ex wife and daughter are resentful of him, perhaps scared or both. He has one solace in the girl he’s seeing (Sissy Spacek) but once she’s drawn into the whirlwind that is his life she too frays around the edges and is tainted by the violence, bad luck and pain surrounding it all. If this sounds like anything but a pleasant experience, it totally is and you’ll leave the room feeling like you’ve been slapped in the face repeatedly. But it’s an important, well crafted, intelligent, vital film that explores in uncommon empathy and understanding how a cycle of abuse, alcoholism, dereliction of compassionate behaviour and violence can ripple throughout generations like a sentient force all its own.

Nolte is sublime in this role, he’s an actor who always seems on the edge of an explosive outburst, always restless or shifting around, possessive of a deeply uneasy tone of voice and a guarded gaze. He rocks this role scarily well and it could be the performance of his career. Coburn is a tower of terror as the domineering patriarch, an imposing force in flashbacks now reduced to a frail, brittle and sour parody of himself in old age, constantly swilling booze, pissing archaic rhetoric like a toxic fountain and continuously displaying what the very worst traits of the male image look like. Dafoe is quietly powerful, present briefly in person and then in spirit with haunting narration, the black sheep of this clan in the best way possible. Spacek is so sad as the poor girl dragged into all this as it’s achingly clear she has deep feelings for Wade which she must abandon as soon as it becomes clear the kind of black hole he’s headed for. The cast is rounded out nicely with folks like Chris Heyerdahl, Brigid Tierney, Jim True-Frost, Mary Beth Hurt, Wayne Robson, Joanna Noyes and the excellent Holmes Osborne who we recall as Donnie Darko’s dad. This is a grim tale, as rough and cold as the inland terrain these people make their home, and for the family here there’s no way out of the cold, save for perhaps Dafoe’s character. It’s essential work though, a film that doesn’t doesn’t shy away from taboos that we ignore and banish out there with the howling wind, but rises up to meet and bear witness to such atrocities so that we may better recognize them in our own realm, and whittle away at the block of empathy and compassion in the face of such horror. A stone cold masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Michael Petroni’s Till Human Voices Wake Us

Why do people repress memories and bury trauma only to have it resurface in a big way later in life? Often life events can be so painful that in the moment that is the only way to carry on until we are older and perhaps ready to process them better. Michael Petroni’s Till Human Voices Wake Us explores these feelings in deeply poetic, dreamlike and underrated yet very affecting fashion.

Guy Pearce is Sam, a Melbourne psychologist who travels back to his roots in rural Australia to bury his father, and a few other things from his past. We see flashbacks to his childhood (his teenage self played by the very talented Lindley Joiner) and his days spent with childhood sweetheart Sylvie (Brooke Harman) who tragically passed away when they were both very young. This key event has shaped who Sam is as an adult now and he is disarmed and unprepared for the flood of memory, emotion and unresolved pain that accompanies his return home. On top of that he meets a mysterious amnesiac woman named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) who can’t remember who she is and needs his help.

The title of the film as well as many plot and thematic elements are based upon a poem by T.S. Eliot, particularly this passage:

“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

This excerpt and the overall poem are like a compass to the heart of what this story is about, it’s poetic in itself and speckled with clues here and there although to a seasoned filmgoer the story and twist ending won’t be especially difficult to discern, but like they say it’s about the journey. Pearce is an endlessly mesmerizing actor who only lends himself to challenging, distinct projects and he turns in a heartbreaking, implosive and eventually very cathartic turn here as a man who has done his best to avoid emotion for years until he can ignore the past no longer. Carter is sensational too, her dreamy meanderings slowly giving way to realization, she has the deep set eyes and features to pull of the most ethereal, mysterious characters. They have wonderful chemistry together too, as do Joiner and Harman. This is a quiet, slowly unfolding piece that requires your patience, understanding and diligent attention as it has no intent to crowd please, cloy or beg for cheaply elicited tears. Intensely moving romance, gorgeous Australian scenery and four rich, deep central performances from Pearce, Carter and the two kids. Highly recommended and available on Amazon Prime in HD.

-Nate Hill

Barbra Streisand’s The Prince Of Tides

As Nick Nolte’s hazy, forlorn narration fades in over a dreamlike aerial view of the South Carolina lowlands, you aren’t quite sure exactly what The Prince Of Tides has in store for its audience, which I think was intentional on director Barbra Streisand’s part. This is a film of immense power, tough interpersonal relationships, courage, hope, love, hardships and trauma buried like a secret so deep it takes many story beats to unpack it, like a flower tossing petals to the wind until bit by bit we see the core of truth within.

Nolte is Tom Wingo, a southern family man who endured a tumultuous and horrific childhood, weathering out hardships in stronger fashion than his two siblings, one of whom is dead and the other in psychiatric care in New York City after repeated suicide attempts. Tom leaves his wife (Blythe Danner) and daughters for awhile to look after her and to speak with her doctor, Susan (Streisand), who is trying desperately to understand and help them. It’s then that his real journey inward begins, and he learns to unearth, process and begin to heal from an unspeakably heinous tragedy from his childhood. He also finds love with her, despite them both having spouses, children and being two people who are worlds apart in every aspect of their lives despite their deep attraction and bond to one another.

The film is structured in such a way that harbours secrets deep and dark, events that are key in Tom’s understanding of himself and willingness to move forward, but they only come to light when he’s ready to both tell her and remind himself what he’s tried so hard to forget. He’s a headstrong man, loving father and rowdy southern football coach who outwardly appears to have it all figured out and has an alpha, assured response to anything flung his way… except Susan’s desire to know his pain, and help him through it. Nolte is a blustery, stormy performer who can scarcely sit still for two minutes or light a smoke without tossing it away after one drag to belt out some retort at another character, and indeed this is the impression we get of Tom off the bat. But there’s an introspective stillness that creeps into his performance here, slowly turning him from a closed off, emotionally unavailable man into a deeply hurt one who has to slow down a bit in order to heal. There’s a key scene in his performance where Susan frankly and bluntly (perhaps as a last resort tactic) coaxes the truth out of him; he does the nervous leg bob, stares out the window, gruffs, grunts and does anything to avoid letting himself remember it, feel it, but when he does… well, let’s just say that it’s the most honest work I’ve ever seen from him and he owns it with absolute dignity, truth and clarity. It isn’t easy getting such can honest performance out of someone as a director, but Streisand shows a sure hand and clear eye as a creative force and ditches the bubbly, frazzled aesthetic in her acting work for something beautifully direct and down to earth. The film shows how time can both heal wounds and cover them up without the proper reconciliation and processing, leading to the kind of intense, life changing surge of midlife dramatic events we see here. Tom bookends the film with meditative, personal rumination imparted to us in voiceover as the deep orange sun saturates the Carolinas and keeps us afloat in his world, his story for a captivating, heartbreaking, unforgettable two hours. The film may not be from 2019, but it’s my favourite one I saw for the first time this year and it will remain in my memory for a long time to come.

-Nate Hill

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is the kind of film I only watch occasionally as they take a lot out of me, but it’s an important, focused and purely distilled treatise on a relationship that is coming to an end that I greatly enjoyed. That’s not to say it’s a hopelessly bleak and hostile experience, there are many touching moments, humour breaks and passages of whimsy, but when it becomes all business we are flung headlong into both the emotionally oppressive and practically draining wheels of a divorce in motion and that is never a nice thing to witness. This is honest, dutiful work with a naturalistic feel for the way time passes, beautiful and affecting performances from the entire cast and deeply thought out direction from Baumbach, who I was impressed with considering this is his first film that I’ve seen.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsson are Charlie and Nicole, a husband and wife who begin to sense the spark dimming. First they opt for a separation and we imagine them as two civil parents who can work this out easily, until we take a magnified look at their life and see that it’s more complicated than that, and then then the big guns come out. By big guns I mean two voracious divorce lawyers played by the always amazing Laura Dern and the ever intense Ray Liotta, chewing scenes like there’s no tomorrow but always giving the impression that these proceedings are believable, and sadly so. Also quite effective is Alan Alda as another attorney who comes across as more of a teddy bear when seated next to Dern and Liotta’s sharks. Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver, Wallace “inconceivable” and others all make vivid, hilarious impressions as well.

What I enjoyed most about this film is that it not only chooses to focus on the mammoth narrative beats and crucial cruxes of the story that are meant to and do make an impression. It also shines a light on the small talk, the spaces in between words, the benign and seemingly non important mundanities of human interaction that often end up speaking the loudest. There is one conversation between Charlie and Nicole (you’ll know as soon as it comes) that begins affably enough and in a few moments time has escalated into the kind of volcanic venom spewing that can only punch holes in the air and leave the room as silent as before they entered it. It’s an extraordinarily acted sequence but equally impressive are the small moments between the two and those around them, realistic depictions of awkward dialogue and behaviour that has you investing in this world for real. The big moments matter, but the small ones do too, I love and appreciate when a filmmaker realizes and implements this. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Mike Nichols’ Regarding Henry

I really love it when actors step outside their comfort zone and try something that they’re not traditionally known for, it’s a difficult and courageous thing to do. Harrison Ford is a square jawed, attractive, alpha type dude, from Han Solo to Rick Deckerd to Indiana Jones. Seeing him become utterly vulnerable for a film like Mike Nichols’ Regarding Henry is something wonderful and let’s you observe a quieter, gentler side of this iconic actor.

Ford is Henry here, a brash, egotistical slick lawyer who cons innocent clients out of their settlements to line the pockets of his firm, cheats on his wife (Annette Bening) and when asked to apologize to his daughter (Kamien Allen, sad eyed and soulful) for an outburst, manipulates the conversation to further blame her. One night he pops over to the convenience store and interrupts a robbery, after which the twitchy burglar (a very young John Leguizamo) shoots him twice. The wounds leave him fighting for his life and with permanent brain damage, re-learning how to speak, walk, eat and piece together his fragmented memories with the help of a kindly physical therapist (the great Bill Nunn in possibly his greatest performance).

This is the ultimate case of ‘my dad went out for a pack of smokes and never came back’ because in a sense he doesn’t. For his daughter the cruel, unsympathetic father she watched him become is now gone forever and in his place a man she doesn’t recognize but now relates to, cares for and in return gets love she never experienced before instead. Henry has all the faculties of a child or adolescent at first, forced to forge a new moral compass and and patch over the damage that he and his amoral boss (Donald Moffat, smarmy as ever) have wrought. Ford makes low key yet deeply affecting work of Henry, his eyes have a meditative observance and his voice a shaky, emotive timbre, qualities I find to be often wasted on hero roles without a ton of depth (see The Age Of Adaline for another terrific example of him being used properly). He actually gets to play a human here, one who goes through one of the most taxing experiences anyone could live through, and the colours Ford paints this performance with are something to see. This film gets ragged on and sure it can come across as a bit gloss, a bit ‘Heartstring Hollywood.’ That may be so in instances but at the core it really cares, truly examines this man and what makes him who he is, then slaps him with a factory reset and reimagines who he is all over again, and how he must reconcile with what came before. Great film in my opinion.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: William Fichtner’s Cold Brook

Oh hey another top ten of the year film for me. I love a good passion project, especially when the two artistic forces behind it are a couple beloved character actors who have spent much of their career in Hollywood playing villains, criminals, weirdos, bikers, aliens and all kinds of heavy stuff. William Fichtner’s Cold Brook sees the consistently brilliant actor team up with equally fantastic buddy Kim Coates for a charming, wonderfully simplistic tale of two small town dudes who make an incredible discovery.

Fichtner and Coates are Ted and Hilde, two lifelong pals who work as maintenance men for the college museum in their sleepy upstate NY town of Cold Brook. They each have a loving wife (played by Robin ‘Calamity Jane’ Weigart and Mary Lynn ‘Chloe O Brien’ Rajskub), kids and pretty much as cozy a life as anyone can hope for, complete with the kind of bromance that makes it obvious these two actors are tight in real life. Then one day a mysterious and deeply confused stranger (Harold Perrineau) shows up in the museum exhibit after hours and seems to follow them around after that like he has some purpose that even he doesn’t understand, and only our two boys can see him. It’s up to them to find out why this restless spirit has chosen them, what he wants and how to put him to rest while juggling the curious eyes of their wives, bosses and one campus security guard (Brad Henke) who takes his job just a bit too seriously.

This is low key, whimsical indie fare through and through and I downright fell in love. I’ve been following William and Kim’s career since I was a kid, they are two endlessly talented scene stealers and I can’t tell you how lovely and cathartic it was to see them just play a couple bros living and loving the small town life. They both shine brightly in their work here and Fichtner shows a steady hand in writing and direction here too, telling a story that clearly means a lot to him in broad, loving strokes. Perrineau is really effective as Gil the wandering spirit, seeming somehow perpetually lost but also pointedly soulful in each appearance. If you’re at all a fan of these two artists then I’d very strongly recommend this as you get to see them do the kind of work that Big Hollywood just doesn’t usually ever hire them for, something very personal to each and something that allows them the kind of freedom in expression that we as artists always dream of. Even if you’re not a huge fan it’s a beautiful little indie to watch on a cold rainy morning to warm the heart. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill