Tag Archives: drama

Michael Apted’s Class Action

A father/daughter courtroom drama starring Gene Hackman sounds like a recipe for something glossy, showboating and melodramatic, but Michael Apted’s Class Action gives us a mature, emotionally potent and very character driven film that one wouldn’t expect from the slightly sensationalistic trailers. Hackman is a San Francisco attorney who takes on the prosecution of an auto manufacturing giant with a line of suspicious exploding cars. Opposite him as defence for the corporation? His own daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), with whom he has a rocky history with. He’s a philandering hard ass who was never pleased with her and she blames him for the dissent in her family from his womanizing ways years before. The case itself serves as framework for for the very real, raw interpersonal drama that unfolds between them, and their relationship feels grounded and truthful. The key scene is them together in the kitchen cooking; idle small talk leads to harshly flung accusations, emotions are laid bare and by the time the argument reaches a screaming fever pitch, both are quaking with rage, self reflection and sad regret. It’s a powerful scene of performance from both actors, and you’ll scarce breathe for the duration. Hackman is fire and brimstone as per usual, but there’s also a wounded aspect I’ve never seen in him before, something brought out by Mastrantonio who is spectacular in her calmly devastating turn. The late Donald Moffat is great as her steely firm boss, a man governed by fierce logic who has no qualms in casually covering up key evidence. Fred Dalton Thompson is nicely slimy as the reprehensible auto CEO whose soulless disregard for human life is unsettling, Jan Rubes steals his scenes as a loopy ex engineer with ties to the auto giant and Laurence Fishburne (during his ‘Larry’ days) quietly plays Hackman’s firm partner and family friend. I wouldn’t have probably ever known about this film if I hadn’t have come across it in a thrift store, and I’m glad I did. Forgotten these days it seems, it’s now one of my favourite courtroom pieces out there, for letting the characters tell this story, for making it personal and for flowing through the beats organically. The stately San Francisco architecture and melodic score by James Horner give it a personality as well, but Hackman and Mastrantonio rule the roost and probably give their career bests. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

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The Man In The Moon

The Man In The Moon is a hauntingly opaque title for a film; it could be a literal sci fi, decidedly cartoonish or something more vague. In this case it’s a sad, enlightening and unusually mature coming of age story starring Reese Witherspoon as a girl teetering on the cusp of childlike whimsy and the tough life lessons that follow, introduced to romance, tragedy and the complexities of life as one gets older. The poster and description sounds something along the lines of My Girl, which is an astute enough film about the nasty curveballs that life throws us, but this one deliberately dodges any cliches we may see coming and mines life for the odd, unpredictable turns it takes that you don’t often find woven into narratives. Witherspoon has never been better than she was in her first few key roles as a young actress, this being a lynchpin. She plays Dani, a fourteen year old girl growing up in the south with her loving parents (Sam Waterson and Tess Harper) and beautiful older sister (Emily Warfield). She’s a forthright tomboy who loves playing in hidden glens and watering holes out in the backwater, and finds a kindred spirit in Court (Jason London), a teenage boy new to the region living with his mom and brothers. Sparks fly between the two and burgeoning emotions rose up in Dani with the fires of adolescence, until confusion and tragedy force her to reconcile them in ways that are difficult for a girl her age. The plot takes you by surprise and doesn’t him along idyllically like similar films, rather finding the bends in the road of life and emphasizing that things don’t go our way more often than they do. Witherspoon is magic in the role, balancing anger, first time heartbreak and grief incredibly carefully. She never over or underplays emotion either, and that goes for the rest of the cast too, who all coexist realistically, make the rural setting feel lived in and sculpt the relationships between one another in genuine, warm fashion. A gem that’s been sort of lost in the tides of time, but holds up wonderfully.

-Nate Hill

Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had

Alzheimer’s disease is a tricky subject in film; it can often sink into distracting melodrama or be used as a plot device instead of an actual ailment to the character, as they conveniently collect themselves when the narrative requires it and then get all confused again when needed. First time director Elizabeth Chomko handles it wonderfully in her debut What They Had, letting the sad realities of this affliction play out realistically for one Chicago family whose matriarch approaches stage 6. Blythe Danner playfully, sadly and intuitively embodies this woman, fleetingly letting us see glimpses of the woman that once was, now lost to inexorable mental fog as she approaches the end. Her husband of four odd decades (Robert Forster) refuses to put her into a home, out of both stubbornness and just plain love. Their two children (Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon) return home to deliberate the situation, and a superbly acted, quietly honest family drama ensues. Chomko also wrote the script and her dialogue has the stinging bite and dynamic depth of someone who is drawing from somewhere personal, and indeed I read that this film is based on her own experience. She shows surefire talent in writing as well as behind the camera and I wish her all the best in a career that will hopefully be something really special. Shannon is perfect as the scrappy, diamond-in-the-rough bar owner who uses gruff bluster to mask his heartbreak. Swank is emotionally resonant as the more distant and reserved of the two siblings, trying to deal with both her mom and daughter (Taissa Farmiga, excellent). Forster has seldom been better as the obstinate family man who just won’t let his girl go, he handles the guy with a stern resolve that begins to crack as he realizes that one day she will forget him entirely. Danner has the most difficult role, but nails it. There’s a befuddled remoteness to people with this disease, a near constant confusion that I’ve seen in real life but that doesn’t dim the warmth of their personality, at least for a while anyways, and the actress never over or underplays it. This is a terrific debut for Chomko and demo reel worthy material for all the major players, a small scale drama that wins big and elicits well earned empathy from us. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man

It’s always nice when a film as bizarre, unconventional and downbeat as Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man gets approved by the big studio system, but the flip side of that is that when it inevitably gets a wide release and considerable marketing, score of reviewers and audiences are going to talk shit about it because it’s ‘different’ and ‘depressing.’ It is definitely those two things, but it’s also a painfully funny, insightful piece with fantastic work from Nicolas Cage, brilliantly placed dark humour, the briefest glimpses of pathos and an offbeat indie pulse. Cage is Chicago TV weatherman Dave Spritz, a guy whose swanky six figure salary and cakewalk career hide a disturbed, dysfunctional family life and a deep, cultivated self loathing that Cage pours out from every anguished glance and hangdog piece of inner monologue. His ex wife (Hope Davis) can’t stand him, his kids (Nicholas Hoult in an early career turn and Gemmenne De Le Pena, a great find) have a laundry list of their own issues and their interaction with him is strained for starters, while his Pulitzer Prize winning author dad (Michael Caine trying an American accent on for size and kind of struggling with it) frequently points out his shortcomings with measured acidity (“You don’t even have a degree in meteorology”). In short, his life has become one big absurdist joke punctuated by awkward altercations, passive aggressive jabs, misdirected anger, frequent instances of fast food being thrown at him by angry passersby and an overall blanket of deadly hilarious, glumly enlightening moodiness that you can’t decide whether to laugh or cry about. So who would want to watch a major movie filled with such rampant, cheekily deliberate unpleasantness? I would, and I for one totally loved this film for what it is. You could say it’s an acquired taste or you have to ‘get it’ or whatever smug, flavour of the month platitude that well travelled cinephiles like myself are peddling this week, but the plain truth of it is that not every Hollywood film can be a traditional ‘Hollywood’ film and there has to be room for off killer, weirdly staged stuff like this or the recipe is just too boring. Roger Ebert understood that, he gave this a glowing review and made particular mention of how slightly inaccessible stuff like this needs to be given a chance more often. In any case it’s an excellent film thanks to Cage’s reliably hilarious work, he almost seems to have been tailored for this role and you can tell he’s having a blast with every tortured mannerism and inappropriate outburst. I love and appreciate every single film that director Verbinski has made in his eclectic, unpredictable dervish of a career, the guy has done everything from Pirates Of The Caribbean to slapstick period piece to Hammer horror throwback to south of the border romance end even an animated film for adults which you don’t see too often. He always approaches us with something different to offer, and with The Weather Man he’s come up a winner again, I love this sad, self aware, pathetic yet touching portrait of a man adrift in his own inadequacy, his frequent attempts to swim serving as our entertainment, however much we pity or feel for the guy and his oddball family. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Jim Kouf’s Gang Related

Jim Belushi and Tupac Shakur are an odd pairing on paper to star in a cop flick together, but they’re extremely effective in Jim Kouf’s Gang Related, a twisty neo-noir with a great cast and a few tricks up its sleeve. They play two inner city detectives who are corrupt, but the script doesn’t treat them with the same jaded judgment and moustache twirling villainy that some dirty cops get in Hollywood, there’s a surprising empathy towards them especially in Tupac’s performance. After they accidentally murder an undercover DEA agent, they try to frame a nearby homeless man (Dennis Quaid), coach a few witnesses and make it seem like they were never involved. Things get spectacularly messy when they discover that Quaid’s disheveled hobo isn’t just a nobody and there are people in high places, not to mention both the DEA and gang factions coming after their morally duplicitous asses. It’s kind of like a reap what you sow tale, these two guys aren’t especially nasty characters, but they did commit a really shady act and now the proverbial karmic dildo has come back to royally fuck them. Belushi is the tougher, more unflappable veteran who is more willing to compromise his soul with the cover up, while Tupac is the younger, more impressionable cop and fears the road he’s being led down, and well he should. They both put in fantastic performances, while Quaid does well against type and the three of them are supported by Tiny Lister, David Paymer, Lela Rochon, Wendy Crewson, Gary Cole and James Earl Jones. A solid urban crime thriller, fairly overlooked as well.

-Nate Hill

Joe Roth’s Freedomland j

Freedomland is a dark, strange drama about events spiraling out of control following the disappearance of a young boy, the distraught nature of his mother (Julianne Moore) and the subsequent search that takes two detectives (Samuel L. Jackson and William Forsythe) into a heated black community and the surrounding wilderness nearby. Moore’s character is a notoriously unstable woman and not the most reliable mother, her story just doesn’t seem to add up, especially when she claims she saw a black man take off with her car with her kid in it. Jackson’s charismatic cop knows the community well and does his best to ease mounting racial tension, while Moore is a basket case who can barely function, and the whole thing feels sort of meandering and purgatorial until a third act revelation that puts an entirely new spin on the film but also kind of thematically negates everything that came before. Is is a slightly political interpersonal drama? Somewhat. Is it a twisty abduction thriller? Not really me, but I feel like it wants to be. Is it a character study of a broken woman? Could have been with more development. It’s an odd mix that doesn’t really gel with much that it tries except when it focuses on Moore, who is fascinating damaged goods, but again more time should have been spent cultivating that angle. Jackson is fine in his authoritarian mediator role, normally boisterous Forsythe is pretty laid back as the trusty sidekick, Edie Falco plays a concerned activist looking to help out and Ron Eldard is terrific as Moore’s brother, an emotional firebrand who calls her right out on her ongoing bullshit. This film tries to be more than it ultimately ends up being, if that at all makes sense. Elements are in place for it to be great and some of them do in fact work, but the script needed some tweaks, especially in how the bulk of the film and the conflict there relate to and clash with that twist ending, which needed to be revealed way sooner to set up a moving, provocative final act. Not terrible for the effort that was made.

-Nate Hill

Joyce Chopra’s The Last Cowboy

I’m a huge fan of the Hallmark style drama films, and anyone who scoffs at the inherent melodrama or perceived schmaltz is missing the point completely and deliberately robbing themselves of the therapeutic, diversional catharsis one can find in them. When you’re feeling shitty about the world, your problems or any other negativity, they can be a life affirming escape because they almost always are just small stories about kind people, families overcoming trouble or getting together for various holidays, just pleasant, earnest entertainment for entertainment’s sake, simplicity itself. Joyce Chopra’s The Last Cowboy is a fine example, and especially a treasure for the way it casts usually edgy, frequently villainous character actors in sympathetic, against type lead roles. The great Lance Henriksen is Will Cooper, a stubborn, salt of the earth old school rancher whose land is in danger of being seized by the bank. After his estranged daughter Jake (Jennie Garth) returns home with her young son after many years absence, it becomes clear that it’s up to her and Will to reconcile their differences, put the pain of the past behind them and work together to save the ranch before it’s too late. Henriksen is always a dynamic actor and imbues Jake with grit and grace, while Garth, who I haven’t seen in a single other thing, does a great job too. The real scene stealer is character actor M.C. Gainey as Amos, Will’s lovable farmhand, friend and confidante. This is a special role for him because he’s almost always found playing roughneck bikers, evil criminals or redneck truckers, but here he’s an honest to goodness decent human being and he just nails it. Bradley Cooper shows up as well in a more subdued role as a horse owner who brings business to Will and stirs Jake’s heart. This is a small, very low budget TV movie and has barely ever seen the light of day in terms of exposure (it took me like five years to track down a DVD), but it’s heartfelt, really well acted and if you’re a fan of anyone in this cast it’s a rare gem.

-Nate Hill