Tag Archives: drama

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

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Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle

It was news to me that they have special military prisons in the States for court martials, dissidence and other forms of unruly behaviour in the ranks, but Rod Laurie’s The Last Castle gives insight aplenty into it. It’s basically prison but more intense, a penitentiary inhabited by only ex-soldiers and ruled over by one stubborn brat of a Warden in the form of James Gandolfini. Robert Redford plays a highly decorated, legendary general who is sent up for insubordination in circumstances that any rational personal should find understandable, but the US Government didn’t see it that way, so here he is. He’s a proud man who doesn’t back down in the face of bullies or tyrants, which immediately puts him at odds with Gandolfini. The warden initially shows admiration for him that turns sour after he can’t tame him to his way of thinking, after a which a sadistic streak emerges and nearly turns into all out warfare behind bars as the two let their personal natures run over into chaos. Redford, being a natural leader, forms ranks of his own from anyone who has the balls to deny authority and leads a minor rebellion, and although it all kind of gets overblown by the end, it’s nonetheless a fascinating and mostly character driven story. Support is given by a fine roster including Mark Ruffalo, Frank Military, Delroy Lindo, Steve Burton, Paul Calderon and the excellent Clifton Collins Jr. as an unfortunate rookie who becomes collateral damage in this very personal war. Gandolfini never ever half assed or phoned in a role, he was always focused, intense and specific and his character here fascinated me. This is a guy who is massively insecure and it’s evident from his behaviour that he didn’t have what it takes to engage in real life war games like the rest of them, therefore relegated to playing toy soldiers in military jail. There’s a bitter resentment in his body language and you get the sense that this guy was ready to snap for a while and the arrival of someone as prolific and headstrong as Redford’s character finally pushed him over the edge. It’s a brilliant performance in a good film that could have done without so much big budget Hollywood fireworks, but is still strong enough in the dramatic aspects to be affecting.

-Nate Hill

Robert Benton’s Twilight

The title Twilight obviously brings up bad memories of a franchise we’d all like to forget, but before that abomination ever entered the fold, the moniker belonged to a laconic, brightly lit yet darkly intoned LA film noir starring Paul Newman as an aging Hollywood private investigator. He’s a guy who was was never famous himself but seemingly behind the scenes of stardom and scandal and making a career out of it until his golden years find him living on the lavish estate of a fading starlet (Susan Sarandon) and her husband (Gene Hackman), also an actor of former stature. He’s always been in love with her but is also Hackman’s good buddy and it makes for a love triangle that is never too tense or melodramatic, but just as uncomfortable as it needs to be. He sort of serves as their homefront security officer and sorta just spies on Sarandon languishing by the pool and you can tell that the three of them are just mournful ghosts of what they probably were decades ago, haunting their surroundings like echoes rather than living in them.

Things get heavy for them once again when Newman takes on a shady job that involves delivering blackmail money, a situation that quickly snowballs into deceit, old wounds torn open and, of course, murder most foul. Something nasty is going on that dates years back into the collective past of these three individuals and has come back to bite them all squarely on the ass, and although it might not be the most innovative mystery narrative and certainly aspects are predictable, it’s just so much fun watching these master actors play it out in sunny Hollywood enclaves. Speaking of old pros, James Garner has a nice supporting role as an ex cop pal of Newman’s who helps him out with intel and backup. Watch for early career work from Liev Schreiber, who now stars on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, another LA noir story that I’m almost positive drew inspiration from this film. A very young and very naked Reese Witherspoon also shows up briefly, as well as Stockard Channing, Margo Martindale, Giancarlo Esposito, Jason Clarke, John Spencer, Clint Howard and M. Emmett Walsh. Newman is terrific here in one of his older dude roles, his blue eyes lend just a hint of optimism to the downbeat noir archetype. Hackman and Sarandon say a lot with little dialogue and plenty of body language, embodying damaged souls with grace and grizzle.

I recently heard a character in Amazon’s Goliath (yet another LA noir- can you tell I’ve cultivated a fixation on the sub genre?) say that murders in LA and Hollywood are especially tricky to solve because anybody could know anybody or be connected to anything. That gives ample freedom to intertwine characters and set up strange encounters or resolutions to plot, which is always fun and evident here too. It’s a slow, sunny burn of a crime flick that isn’t designed to be particularly flashy or lurid, but unfolds at its own pace alongside Newman & Co. Good stuff.

-Nate Hill

Bob Rafelson’s No Good Deed

It’s kind of rare for rambunctious actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Milla Jovovich to sit still for something as dramatic and dialogue heavy as Bob Rafelson’s No Good Deed, but it’s nice to see. This is a thriller of sorts, but it’s more low key than that and ends up being a chamber piece about two characters getting to know each other that just happens to take place against a criminal backdrop. Jackson plays a police detective on a routine investigation who turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time and gets drawn into a weird bunch of felons all hiding out and planning a bank job. Stellan Skarsgard is Tyrone, their volatile, violent leader, Jovovich is his quiet but intuitive and underestimated girlfriend, left alone to watch Jackson, now their hostage. This leaves acres of script space for Milla and Samuel to play, manipulate each other, bicker, banter, become close and twist the situation to both their ends while gradually catching feels for each other. It’s interesting that Rafelson casts these two because they’re usually to be found in action heavy stuff, shooting guns, swinging swords and tasked with stylized dialogue. Here they are laid back, oddly but nicely paired and the most quiet I’ve ever seen them, and it… kind of works. Skarsgard is mean and nasty, which he’s always been great at, journeyman oddball Doug Hutchison plays another lowlife in their gang, while Joss Ackland and Grace ‘Sarah Palmer’ Zabriskie play the senior faction of the crew, a strange husband wife duo who can still wield a shotgun when the situation calls for it. This is based on a Dashiell Hammett story which probably means it was sitting in someone’s desk drawer for decades before being found and reworked for this century. Rafelson gives it the pacing of something by Elmore Leonard and eccentricities to spare. It’s not a super memorable thing or a great film by any standards but works well enough as a sleepy, romantic crime thriller. Oh yeah, this is the legendary Rafelson’s final feature film before apparent retirement, so it’s worth checking out for that reason too.

-Nate Hill

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction

You ever been to one of those house parties that turns out so well, is so full of awesome, entertaining people and so much fun that you kind of wish it wouldn’t end? Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is like that, for nearly three hours you wish would extend into three more. It’s one of those urban mosaic stories that chucks slices of life into a pan, fries them up and hurls the resulting delicious recipe right at your face. I’ve read a lot about how this revolutionized narrative structure in Hollywood or changed the way characters are written and that may be the case for the crime genre, but the mosaic motif was present in many areas before QT, namely in the films of Robert Altman, a filmmaker I’ve never seen compared to our Quentin before but the parallels are there. In any case everyone knows, loves and agrees that Pulp Fiction is a fucking badass flick, an enduring barnstormer of outlaw cinema that is every bit as potent, catchy and kinetic as it was when it blew the pants and panties off of Cannes in ‘94.

Tarantino gave us an appetizer with Reservoir Dogs, and with Pulp he produced a ten course meal that’s more polished, structured and assured than we had seen before. His mosaic concerns the lives of several LA individuals all directly or indirectly related to the criminal underworld. Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are two hitmen who dressed like Men In Black before Men In Black was a thing, out to retrieve the ever mysterious briefcase for their omnipotent gangster overlord (Ving Rhames), whose sultry wife (Uma Thurman) Travolta is to entertain while the big man is out of town. Elsewhere a disloyal prizefighter (Bruce Willis) and his bubbly girlfriend (Maria De Medeiros) hide out from Rhames’s wrath too until Willis goes from the frying pan into one terrifying fire. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are two liquor store bandits who branch off into the diner scene and royally fuck up everyone’s day in the process. Christopher Walken gives arguably his greatest and definitely his most bizarre monologue in a scene out of place and time from the rest of the film but somehow right where it needs to be in the narrative. Harvey Keitel suaves it up as LA’s resident 007. Others make vivid impressions in the mosaic including Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Paul Calderon, Frank Whaley, Angela Jones, Duane Whitaker, Stephen Hibbert, Tarantino himself, Julia Sweeney and perennial bad guy Peter Greene.

By now the story is secondary to those iconic moments we all know and love. Zed’s dead. Samuel’s terrifying bible session. A wristwatch up Walken’s ass. Pride only hurts, it never helps. That needle to the heart. The dance competition. The Gimp. The exploding head. These are all now hallmarks of one of the greatest stories ever put to film. What makes it so great? Tarantino has the time for his characters, and wants to converse with them. The dialogue isn’t just about plot or characters intimidating each other. It’s about life, music, personal taste, culture and cheeseburgers. These are people who remind us of many others we know, and the relatability is what has turned this into a platinum classic. That and other factors, including a killer soundtrack, brilliant performances round the board and editing that brings LA out of the gloss, down to earth and just as dirty. It may not be my ultimate fave Tarantino film, but it is definitely his flagship outing so far, in its epic scope. We’ll see if this year’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood perhaps dethrones it as his magnum opus, who knows. Either way it’s a masterpiece and will remain so for all time.

-Nate Hill

Michael Caton-Jones’s This Boy’s Life

Michael Caton-Jones’s This Boy’s Life is based on a true story of abuse, of which there are thousands every year, many heard and many unheard. This one doesn’t end up as bad as some or as good as others but I liked that it didn’t make the abuse a centrepiece for the film and rather used it to show a fascinating character dynamic between 50’s teenager Tobias (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his nasty stepfather Dwight (Robert DeNiro). Tobias and his mother (Ellen Barkin) come from a free spirited background, abandoned by his birth father and left to roam the States looking for a new provider. She meets and marries Dwight pretty quick, and Tobias also figures out what he’s made of real quick too. Dwight is a nasty, bitter, violent, pathetic piece of human garbage whose self esteem is so low he’s just gotta take it out on others around him, often in a cartoonish way. He’s the type of guy that if you fronted on him in a bar or he got in your grille, you’d just laugh and brush him off rather than fight because you just feel sorry for the guy. Tobias is a teenager though and can’t actually stand up to him in a brawl, making him a prime target for years of physical and psychological abuse which his mom refuses to be a referee. This isn’t a sad or depressing film because we realize that this can’t go on forever, the real life man it’s based on grew up to be a successful professor of literature and the film is never downbeat, just desperate. This is Leo’s debut lead role and he kills it, finding that anger and resilience that will go on to be building blocks in his now legendary career. DeNiro is very anti DeNiro here if you catch my drift. Used to playing extroverted alpha males, he switches it up for an extroverted weasel who thinks he’s hot shit. The only thing I would have eighty-sixed is the Fargo style Minnesota accent he tries on for size as it doesn’t suit him and he’s never been an accent savvy actor. Watch for an uncomfortable appearance from Chris Cooper as well as striking early career work from Carla Gugino, Tobey McGuire and Eliza Dushku who is so young here she’s unrecognizable. This film feels loose and episodic at times but remember these are someone’s memories here and those can be tricky, illusory beasts. I love the way it feels, like several slices of life during adolescence, a point where life can be at its most tempestuous and confusing, therefore making for excellent material. Set in the lush Pacific Northwest and attuned with production design that is studious to the 50’s aesthetic, this is a great film for any actor to find their debut in.

-Nate Hill

Hidden Gems: Reto Salimbeni’s One Way

Reto Salimbeni’s One Way literally starts off one way and throws curve ball after left field turn after another until you really begin to appreciate a truly original script for once. Granted he produced his film in indie land where there’s considerably more creative freedom than the studio system but still, this is one unique film and I promise you it’s not the action thriller that the US market has tried to sell it as.

As the film opens, teenage Angelina is pursued and sexually assaulted by several boys alongside a riverbank. Suddenly a mysterious military general (the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan) appears out of nowhere and, after gaining her permission, positively ventilates them with a sub-machine gun. Jump cut to a decade or so later and we see hotshot advertising exec Eddie (Til Schweiger), married to the boss’s daughter (Stephanie Von Pfetten) but cheating on her every chance he gets with multiple women. Grown up Angelina (Lauren Lee Smith) works for the firm too, and they both get entangled up in a murder investigation involving the boss’s son (Sebastian Roberts), who is a sadistic rapist and very dangerous given his position of power.

I’ve done my best to somewhat describe the story so you have a vague idea of what this is all about but it’s tough to impart just how twisty and unexpected the thing gets, and that’s half the fun. Schweiger isn’t exactly an actor of dramatic heft, often appearing as stylized characters or posturing tough guys, but he does alright here as the sheepish philanderer who learns his lesson big time. Smith is fantastic as the most sympathetic character and the closest we come to a clear cut protagonist, dealing with the most tragic, yet ultimately heroic arc and nailing it beautifully. Duncan is the most striking character and is seen the least but always makes a huge impression, here in a small but incredibly key role. Watch for Art Hindle, Kenneth Welsh, Ned Bellamy and Eric Roberts in a brilliant extended cameo as a defense attorney who gets a few big dramatic moments of his own.

I can see why this film was tough to market as there is so much going on tonally, narratives weaving together at their own leisure and nothing really conventional about it at all. There’s corporate espionage, courtroom intrigue, emotional interpersonal drama and many more elements at play. Really though it’s about confronting your past, dealing with trauma particularly when it comes to sexual abuse and standing up to people who attack with impunity. Smith’s character takes front and center here, getting a gruesome revenge scene that rivals The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in it’s intensity. She has to face the horrors of her past full on here, whilst dealing with the legal problems Schweiger has thrown into the mix and it all makes for a unique, emotionally stirring and hypnotic hidden gem of a drama that I highly recommend.

-Nate Hill