Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty

Single location thrillers seem to be the rage these days, intermittently anyways. Ryan Reynolds buried alive, Stephen Dorff locked in the trunk of a car, Tom Hardy in a vehicle winding its way through the UK to London, and now we have a severely stressed out Jake Gyllenhaal as a 911 operator in Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty, an absolutely stunning film and the best of the bunch so far in this sub-genre. Jake is a decorated LAPD detective, now disgraced after a vague incident we gradually learn more about, stuck in an emergency call centre, apparently the proverbial doghouse for demoted cops. A routine evening turns disastrous when he receives a frantic call from a young woman (Riley Keogh) who has been kidnapped by her unstable ex boyfriend (Peter Sarsgard) and is somewhere out there. Using the resources he has he tries to track them down before inevitable violence ensues while processing the emotional turmoil of his own recent past, and how this terrifying new situation affects it, all set against the chaos of a hellish wildfire setting the LA hills ablaze and turning first responder services upside down. For a film where most of the actors are offscreen we sure get some big talent in here including Ethan Hawke, Christina Vidal, Paul Dano and even a brief Bill Burr. The film relies on Gyllenhaal’s performance to get the story and themes across and the man is just fucking sensational here in what may be his best performance to date. There’s an unearthly anguish, frantic mania and deep unrest to his portrayal (the title makes tragic sense as the film progresses) and he hits every note with intimidating precision and organic emotional truth. Keogh and Saarsgard have difficult tasks in creating two secondary characters who we never see but must feel, sound and affect us as real human beings and not just voices from a telephone, they both do unbelievably well, mining psychological depths and putting forth heartbreaking, haunting vocal performances. Antoine Fuqua is responsible for some of my favourite films of all time (Training Day, King Arthur, The Replacement Killers) and I’m glad he broke free of his tired Equalizer routine to bring us this. Working with an intense, visceral script from True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto, he turns what could have been a gimmicky procedural into a showstopper of a thriller full of kinetic, anxiety fuelling energy, challenging moral themes and career best performances from Gyllenhaal, Sarsgard and Keogh. One of the best films of the year.

-Nate Hill

Sydney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

I’ve seen some ill advised plans in my day and even orchestrated a few of them myself but I’ve never seen quite an ethically fucked, totally stupid, domed to fail miserably scheme as the one dreamed up by two dysfunctional middle aged NYC blue collar brothers in Sydney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, a bleak, depressing, pitch dark, anxiety inducing morality play that although admittedly is an excellent film on all fronts, is *NOT* a pleasant viewing experience and I shan’t be revisiting any time soon. Ethan Hawke is the lower middle class, very aloof, perpetual screw-up brother whose marriage is a disaster, relationship with his daughter depressing and he needs cash for alimony quick. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the older, wiser (HA!) and more successful sibling with a sleek corporate career but has his own issues including backdoor corruption, a failing marriage of his own to Marisa Tomei (really? Those two?) and a crippling heroin habit. They’re both financially fucked, so big bro hatches a plan to rob a mall jewelry store on a low-key Saturday when the cash drop is in house. That’s already a bad enough idea, but get this: the store in question is owned by their own parents, who are elderly no less. Now, Hoffman has his own complicated reasons for justifying such a terrible act that stem back into their childhoods, as these kinds of inexplicably dour familial tragedies usually do, while Hawke sort of tags along in befuddled, brainless complicity. Naturally the heist itself goes just about as wrong as it can go and results in (this isn’t a spoiler it’s in the trailer) the gunshot wounding of their mother (Rosemary Harris) thanks to the incompetence of a hapless small time hoodlum (Brian F. O’Byrne) that Hawke hires to do his dirty work in an act of despicable cowardice. Their father (Albert Finney in a towering performance and the finest work of the film) is very clearly still in love with her and starts to unravel, and it becomes clear he always loved her over his own children, a gnawing thorn in the side of their overall dynamic that was just waiting for a traumatic event to rear its head in. The film skips around in time as we see the events leading up to the heist itself, each character’s desperate situation reaching a breaking point that leads to such an extreme decision, spearheaded by Hoffman’s impossibly bitter character, a fellow who is so uncomfortable in his own skin he even makes a seemingly lighthearted sex scene with Tomei come across as uncomfortable. The actors are all terrific with Finney being the standout as the furious, heartbroken and vengeful father who seems like he never wanted to be a father to begin with, just a husband. The supporting cast has some excellent cameos including Leonardo Cimino, Amy Ryan and Michael Shannon as a violent ex-con who muscles in on their lives. This is a great film with terrifically developed character dynamics, a crisp, well oiled storytelling vernacular and a refreshingly earthen portrait of lower middle class shenanigans that few films capture with authenticity, and naturally Lumet’s by now second nature knack for expressing the spirit of NYC, this time in deglamorized boroughs not usually focused on in cinema. It’s a great film, it’s just not a nice one and you’ll feel like shit after, there’s no other way to slice it.

-Nate Hill

Alejandro Amenábar’s Regression

If you’re going to make a horror film about misdirection and surprises, at least make the revelations later on in your narrative count for something and give the initial setup some weight and relevance. Alejandro’s Amanábar’s Regression is a piss poor attempt at what I just vaguely outlined as well as in telling a coherent, believable story that arrives somewhere satisfactory.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was spooky mass hysteria revolving around continued reports of satanic ritual abuse and here those who suffered it, those who perpetrated and covered it up and those who investigated it are explored, starting with Ethan Hawke as an intense local detective in a small town who takes special interest in the case of a teenage girl (Emma Watson) who claims to have been tortured and abused as a young girl, by several cultists including her father. Together with a wry psychoanalyst (David Thewlis) he starts a murky investigative procedure into this girl’s past and the collective secrets of the entire town. Many involved indeed do have repressed memories of ritual horrors conducted in secret ceremonies where unspeakable acts happened and the devil was summoned. But did they, and was he? That’s the problem with this story as a whole.

The film tries to arrive somewhere entirely different from where it started out and the result is an embarrassing mess. Exploring ideas of collective mass hysteria and paranoid delusion are one thing but when you spend so much of your narrative building things from a literal horror-centric standpoint and then abruptly turn it on its heels like they do here it’s a giant misstep and ruins the whole thing. There are numerous detailed, graphic and genuinely disturbing scenes of satanic abuse that are fairly effective until the story bares its true colours and all mood and tension they tried to build is sucked out of the room. Hawke is good at displaying unstable nature as a guy who gradually starts to lose control of his sanity and Watson, at least for the first two thirds of the film, is believable in her traumatized desperation and fear, while Thewlis is always reliable no matter what. Their hard work is ultimately swallowed up by a hollow, pointless and stupidly lazy narrative that is so half cooked you can practically hear the MacBook still whirring as the last few lines of the script are hurriedly typed out to rush the film into production. Amanábar has made some good films before (The Others, The Sea Inside) but he lets things get right out of control here and loses sight of whatever it was he started out with at the outset big time. It’s a shame because I’ve waited for a good story about all these freaky claims for years. Somewhere out there is a great script and resulting film based around the satanic worship scandals from back then, but this sure as hell ain’t it. Not even close.

-Nate Hill

DJ Caruso’s Taking Lives

Angelina Jolie as a cop hunting down a ruthless serial killer who uses especially grisly methods is a great premise for a film, but you may as well skip DJ Caruso’s Taking Lives and just go revisit Phillip Noyce’s The Bone Collector, a great film that did the concept way better. Lives is a poor excuse for thriller material, a drab, dank and musty slog through a narrative that doesn’t seem to give two shits about its characters and frequently makes little to no sense, not to mention fails heavily at holding interest. Jolie plays a hotshot FBI profiler who is consulted by French Canadian police when their efforts to nab an elusive murderer fail. This is a guy you never really see because every time he kills, he takes on the identity of the victim, blending in and leaving few clues. Jolie searches back through records from decades ago and tried to piece together this guy’s past to find him, but he himself has noticed her and taken an interest. This all sounds terrific on paper but the film they’ve made is a messy, overwrought lump, like a particularly bloody episode of criminal minds without the ‘mind’ part to give the criminal activity any weight. Jolie is joined by Ethan Hawke as a colleague as well as Olivier Martinez, Gena Rowlands, Tcheky Karyo, Paul Dano, Justin Chatwin and more, but none make a huge impression. Kiefer Sutherland shows up as a nasty piece of work who is so obviously a red herring it hurts to see his painfully limited arc come and go like a breeze. Don’t even get me started on the final twist either because it’s too ridiculous. This has the grungy, incisive visual aesthetic of David Fincher’s Sev7n but with none of the pace, doom laden atmosphere or brains to back it up. The only cool thing is the title, which of course refers to the killer’s penchant for both murdering and assuming the lives of those he targets. Neat premise, wicked title, dope cast… shit awful film.

-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

The Spierig Brother’s Predestination

It’s tough to say much about Predestination without giving away the tantalizing, thinking man’s dream of a story, but I will say that I’m sorry it flew under my radar until now, because it’s one of the most thought provoking, intelligent and wicked sharp films to come along in decades. There’s a special place in my collection for each and every movie in the time travel sub-genre, I love those thematics to death and imagine my surprise when I finally caught up to this one two years after it’s release and discovered it’s my favourite in the genre by a mile. Innovative. Beautifully made. A guessing game for the ages. Plot revelations that glue your jaw to the floor. Two staggering central performances from Ethan Hawke and mesmerizing newcomer Sarah Snook. Hawke plays a temporal agent working for a mysterious handler (Noah Taylor doing an even slier rift on his Vanilla Sky character), his job being to jaunt through time and stop murders before they happen. If that sounds generic, familiar or a path well trodden, therein lies the irony because it is anything but. Any preconceived notions of a flashy, slick thriller will be decidedly dismantled once you chow down on this beauty of a story, unwrapping each twist and turn of the narrative like a present. Hawke is an actor I never used to take seriously, I always just thought of him as the kid cop from Training Day. He’s surprised me in recent years though, deliberately picking fascinating scripts and knocking it well out of the park with his performances. Sarah Snook is an Aussie up and comer who does an absolute encore here in a heartbreaking, multifaceted performance that should have gotten her awards recognition. This is the first film on record to tackle some previously taboo subjects regarding the concept of time travel, ideas that everyone has no doubt thought about but Hollywood has been too chicken to explore thus far, so props to these storytellers. Also, if you thought time travel flicks were elliptical and paradoxical until this point, you ain’t seen nothin’ til you’ve seen this one. It’s also just a brilliant, emotional, daring story told in a soaring cinematic fashion that stirs thoughts and pulses throughout.

Luc Besson’s Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

Luc Besson’s Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is a lot of fun here and there, but I couldn’t help being a smidge underwhelmed by the whole deal, having waited years for news of a new Besson space opera following his insta-classic The Fifth Element. There’s just… something missing in the magic here, an undercurrent that should be cohesively flowing through it that’s sort of absent, leaving it feeling very episodic and loose. It’s not the heavy CGI that bothered me either, as the effects here are some of the most flat out amazing and well done graphics I’ve ever seen, particularly in a prologue set on a shell beach style planet with avatar natives running about, a stunning way to open the picture. No, it’s something illusory that didn’t ring true, something that was there in Fifth Element and just didn’t make it to the meeting this time around. The story centres on space feds Valerian (Dane DeHaan, who I just can’t help but be annoyed by in anything I see him in) and Lauraline (Cara Delevigne), hunting through the universe for a treasured artifact from aforementioned shell beach planet, mainly focusing on a manufactured megastructure housing over eight hundred million different species, all clambering over each other in the craziest, most colourful celebration of special effects to come along in a while. Seriously, the wildly varied aliens, gorgeous vistas and chase sequences set in the City are really something to be proud of, and when the film is in action mode, it’s a delight. Story suffers a lot though, with Clive Owen awkwardly hamming his way through a military captain role, John Goodman playing Jabba The Hut, a vague genocide subplot involving the avatar dudes, it all happens dimly and is hard to get a grasp on from scene to scene. Also, the writing for Lauraline and Valerian’s suuuuccckkkks. It’s meant to be adorable, glib romantic back and forth, yet just feels clipped, unnatural and stale. DeHaan drones on with it, and doesn’t ever feel at home in the role unless he’s doing stunts that don’t involve dialogue. Delevigne fares better and seems to really be having fun with her role, stealing the show from under Valerian’s nose. The best acting work of the film, shockingly, comes briefly from Rihanna as a shapeshifter thing called Bubble with an affinity for dancing and a hopeless romantic’s heart. Ethan Hawke is also there as some kind of zany cowboy pimp, an energy that’s a far cry away from his usual stone-faced intensity. Watch for the quickest ever cameo from an under-utilized Rutger Hauer, so fleeting that if you’re even a minute late to the theatre you won’t have a clue he’s in it. I did enjoy lots with this one, including a romp through the dining hall of a gluttonous alien race that resemble Harry Potter trolls, a fantastic extended action set piece in a sprawling bazaar market that overlaps into multiple dimensions, providing clever shortcuts, escapes and pratfalls for all involved, and the rich detail in costume design as Valerian travels through Rihanna’s section of the City, not to mention top drawer special effects all about the film. It just didn’t have the heart or connective tissue to make all these elements stick or resonate though, like a shattered mirror whose pieces are off lost somewhere. I found myself wanting to pop in my Fifth Element DVD multiple times, for there the story provoked emotion and made you deeply care for it’s two intrepid protagonists and their romance, whereas here it just feels a bit lifeless and forced, with an overarching narrative that needed way, way more fleshing out to really work or go somewhere. Next time, Luc.

-Nate Hill

It’s good to be the King: An interview with Larry Cohen by Kent Hill

There is a quote attributed to Robert Rodriguez (another independent maverick filmmaker) that states:

“If you are doing it because you love it you can succeed because you will work harder than anyone else around you, take on challenges no one else would dare take, and come up with methods no one else would discover, especially when their prime drive is fame and fortune. All that will follow later if you really love what you do. Because the work will speak for itself.”

It is the always interesting, ever-changing, always inventive, ever professional life and work of Larry Cohen that really personifies the above quotation. King Cohen has been out there in one form or another in an impressive career spanning multiple decades. He has been the director of cult classics; he has been the writer of hot scripts that have incited Hollywood bidding wars. His work has been remade, imitated, venerated.

These are the hallmarks of a man and his movies whose personal voice rings out loud and clear, high above the commercial ocean of mainstream cinema that carries, beneath its shiny surface, schools of biodegradable blockbusters that are usually forgotten about only moments after having left the cinema.

This is not true of the films of Larry Cohen. For his work is the stuff (pardon the pun) that came before, the stuff the imitators latch on to, the stuff from which remakes and re-imaginations are conceived. This is the fate of the masters. The innovators come and bring forth art through trial and error. They are followed by the masters who take the lessons learned from the innovators and make them, shape them by sheer force of will. But, then there comes the imitators who stand on the shoulders of these giants and take home the glory.

Still, when there is an artist that is in equal parts innovator and master; this causes the imitators to stand baffled.

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Rather than accepting my humble oration, I urge you to seek out Steve Mitchell’s most excellent documentary KING COHEN. Watch it, marvel, rejoice, and remember that there are great filmmakers out there. They may not be coming soon to a theatre near you, but they did once, and their work still stands, silently, waiting to be discovered.

Until you get to see KING COHEN please, feel free to bask in my little chat with the king himself, Larry Cohen, a gentleman of many parts, many stories and of course . . . many movies.

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Larry Cohen.

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Assault On Precinct 13: A Review by Nate Hill 

Assault On Precinct 13 is less of a remake of John Carpenter’s balls out, guerilla action treatise and more of a branch off into timeless, near western archetypes, as well as the good old siege thriller format. It’s also one of the meanest, grittiest cop films of the last few decades, deserving a higher rung on the ladder of adoration than it has so far ascended to. Dark, merciless and full of yuletide gallows humour, it’s a searing blast of gunfire and snowbound pulp starring a roster of fired up talent, starting with an intense Ethan Hawke and an unpredictable, predatory Laurence Fishburne. Fishburne is Marion Bishop, a legendary criminal kingpin wrapped tight in police custody and shipped off to a remote precinct on New Years eve with a busload of fellow prisoner transports. The station is run by a few relaxed cops, all preparing to punch that clock and get the New Year’s festivities underway. Unfortunately, a gang of corrupt detectives have other ideas, descending upon the ill guarded outpost with the fury and firepower of animals set loose, determined to murder everyone inside and level the place to the ground in order to cover up their actions. Hawke is the veteran cop with a dodgy undercover past, blessed with the grit and gristle necessary to rally the troupes and self preserve til the morning light. Drea De Matteo, who’s awesome and welcome in anything, is a tough female sergeant, Maria Bello the sharp police psychiatrist caught in the middle, Brian Dennehy the salty old dog, and a laundrey list of rabid felons who pitch in to save their own asses, including Ja Rule, Aisha Hinds, Currie Graham and a wired up John Leguizamo. Together they all make a veritable wild bunch to hold down the fort, but the forces they’re up against are tactical and terrifying. The opposition is headed up by a dangerously quiet Gabriel Byrne as deeply a corrupt Police Captain, doing a coiled viper rendition of a Christopher Walken villain, his work one of the strongest aspects of the film. Watch for Matt Craven and Kim Coates in brief cameos as well. The action is a ballistic blitzkrieg of firefights, standoffs and ditch efforts, scarcely giving the audience time to breathe, let alone tally up the casualties, of which there are many. This ain’t no cakewalk, in terms of action films. It’s down, dirty and has no time for quips, smart mouths or villains that monologue. Everyone involved in a caged animal prepared to go to extremes at the drop of a hat in order to achieve their goals, with kneejerk reactions and off the cuff violence that feels real, and cuts deep. If you are serious about your action films, and enjoy ruthless, non patronizing narratives that get as cold as the snow drifts surrounding the precinct and as casually indifferent as the bullets that ventilate it, this is your ticket. 

Daybreakers: A Review by Nate Hill

  

As each genre evolves, it has to find new and creative ways to stay alive and entertain it’s audience. The vampire genre has come a long way, from the grainy film stock showcasing a theatrical Bela Lugosi, to the slick, throat ripping Baltic nocturnal terrors of 30 Days Of Night. No other corner of horror (except perhaps the zombie arena) has worked so hard to reinvent, rework and revamp (hehe) it’s aesthetic than the bloodsuckers realm, and it’s in that area that Daybreakers is a huge success. Not necessarily the most groundbreaking or incredible outing as a film alone, it breaks impressive new ground in the vampire genre and had me wondering why no one had come up with such ideas sooner than 2009! In the year 2019, ninety five percent of the world’s population are now vampires, following an outbreak decades earlier. The remaining five percent of humans keep an understandably low profile and continue to dwindle in this harsh new world. There’s just one problem: vampires need blood to thrive, and once the last human is drained, they face a serious problem. In this lore, a vampire deprived of sustenance turns into a savage berserker that will attack anyone and everyone in pure feral mania. Vampire scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) searches endlessly for an artificial blood substitute, partly out of an instinct to preserve a race that was never his own, and partly out of compassion for the humans he once called kin. Corporation executive Charles Bromley (a downright creepy Sam Neill) hordes the scarce resources, and chaos threatens on the horizon if a solution is not found. A bombshell drops, however, when Dalton stumbles across a rebel band of humans who claim that they were once vamps, until some variable turned them back into fleshy human critters. Led by hotshot renegade McCormac (Willem Dafoe dialling up the grit) they see a glimmer of hope in Dalton, not to mention his scientific prowess. Bromley sees the end of days and gets dangerous with his power, Dalton and newfound friends work to overturn the Vampire order, and gore splatters all over the screen in a sleek, entertaining and supremely gory film that should have a little more infamy. The R rating is gloriously wrung out as gallons of blood are thrown, flung and dripped all about the place and a real sense of supernatural, apocalyptic danger is attained with the story. Neill is an inspired choice to play a vamp too; Even when he’s playing a gold hearted protagonist (remember how ominous he got with the raptor claw in Jurassic Park?), there’s a semi dormant aura of menace that always dances in those Aussie eyes. Dafoe is at his best when his playing around in the genre theme park, and he’s having a barroom blast here, getting to play the ultimate badass. There’s a reverence for humanity here too, attention paid to a last ditch effort to save our race from a predatory one that is just trying to survive as well. Terrific stuff.