Tag Archives: film review

John McTiernan’s The Hunt For Red October

John McTiernan’s The Hunt For Red October is considered the big daddy of submarine films and up until today I’d never seen the whole thing front to back. I now get the hype. This would always be on AMC or TBS Superstation when I was a kid, and my dad would always tune in no matter what. What a fantastic, thrilling, well acted film and one that carries a life affirming antiwar message while still containing some hair raising scenes of aquatic combat.

Marko Raimius (Sean Connery) is a legendary Soviet sub commander who has disappeared with the covert nuclear boat the Red October, plotting a course for the US eastern sea board and ditching any orders from Russian command. Is he going to nuke the east coast? CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) believes he means to defect and disarm but that’s a tricky thing to prove based on a series of hunches during a time of such uncertainty as this. Jack has an uncanny intuition about this guy, who remains somewhat of a mystery, even to his own crew and country. A harrowing series of chases, near misses, standoffs, moral wrestling, betrayals and political posturing ensue but at its heart this is a film about one dude who has had enough of war and just wants out, a theme I greatly appreciated and enjoyed.

Connery is superb here and this might be my favourite of his performances. He’s both enigma and beacon of personal integrity whilst fiercely not letting anyone get in his way, including a pesky, short lived political officer (Peter Firth). He carries the film with a grizzled nobility and despite being an antagonist of sorts, is the most likeable and relatable character. Baldwin fares very well as Ryan too and although Harrison Ford is still my tops, he plays this guy to the hilt with spirit and determination. Other standouts include Scott Glenn as a badass American sub captain, Richard Jones as a wry US negotiator and Courtney B. Vance as a keen radio communicator. The cast is amazing with killer work from Stellan Skarsgård, Joss Ackland, Andrew Divoff, Tomas Arana, Sam Neill, Tim Curry, Jeffrey Jones, Timothy Cathhart, Ned Vaughn, Fred Dalton Thompson, Gates McFadden, Shane Black, Peter Jason and James Earl Jones. This is the very definition of a solid film in all arenas and in that of thematic material and character, it excels wonderfully. My two favourite scenes: Connery and first mate Sam Neill discussing how they’d live their lives in America when all is said and done, where they’d live and what vehicles they will drive. Later on Ryan and Raimius share a moment alone on the sub’s deck as River banks pass by, each remembering their grandfathers teaching them to fish in their respective countries. Amidst all the angst, political unease, torpedos and destruction it’s nice to find little oasis moments of character, serving to remind us that whatever side we’re on and no matter how bad the conflict is, we are all just people. We all need reminding of that once in a while, and both Connery and Baldwin do that exceptionally with their work here. Great film.

-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

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

As a huge Terry Gilliam fan I’m embarrassed to say that I only saw his most celebrated film, Brazil, for the first time a few nights ago. I guess with some filmmakers we just unconsciously save the best for last in their canon? Anyways, thoughts: There are two visual aesthetics here that struck me, existing in a cacophonous plane of many sights, sounds, colours and spectacle. On the one hand you have the angular, grey, needlessly cluttered and perpetually chaotic business style world of the future, packed with asinine bureaucratic incident, excessive consumerism and, uh, a whole fucking shit load of ducts, snaking hither and thither to seemingly represent the kind of mental fog and psychological stress that living in a city choking on its own infrastructure might afflict one with. That is is the world for Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a put-upon peon of big business stuck in en endless, mad-dash hamster wheel of empty procedural diarrhea.

But there is another world for Sam, and another aesthetic for the film too. It shows up in periodic dream sequences and couldn’t be more different than his waking existence. Here he is free amongst an endless sea of clouds that promise freedom, gifted with Da Vinci esque winged contraptions and left to soar around the blessed blue. Here a beautiful goddess (Kim Griest) beams out at him from a veil of heavenly gauze like the Venus De Milo or any number of girls from a Renaissance painting. Unfortunately this dream world is just that: a phantasmic apparition not of his waking life, until he begins to see the girl from that realm in the real world, driving a hilariously oversized big rig truck no less.

It’s at that point that Sam’s world begins to get dangerous for him, the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality as well as this good natured desire to rectify the world’s most cataclysmic clerical error (that damn fly), seeing him go from mild mannered cog in the machine proverbial fly in the ointment, the stick which unknowingly lodges itself in the gears of the system and causes a hysterical meltdown. Along the way he meets many others including an opportunist colleague (Gilliam regular Michael Palin), his plastic surgery addicted mommy (Katherine Helmond), a shady corporate maintenance man (Bob Hoskins, looking more like Super Mario here than he did in the *actual* Super Mario film), his hyper anxious supervisor (Ian Holm) and a renegade duct repairman played by Robert DeNiro in a sly turn of antiestablishment derring do. So, overall? Folks are right for dubbing this Gilliam’s masterpiece, and while my heart will always call his 12 Monkeys my personal favourite, I just can’t argue that this isn’t his best film overall. It’s a sprawling canvas of ideas, nightmarish imagery, hope for escape that keeps getting quashed and reignited with each narrative beat, rib jabbing dark humour that calls Python to mind, jaw dropping production design and the kind of story that draws you right into this topsy-turvy realm. Sam exists in two worlds, as does the film, and the haunting fun is in seeing them crash, collide and each vie for presidency over one soul. Absolutely brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast

How far can one person take an ideology before it becomes extremism and they begin to put their life and those of their loved ones in danger? Peter Weir is a painstakingly meticulous filmmaker yet somehow lets his intensely focused visions breathe so organic and free, and he explores this notion in The Mosquito Coast, a curious and brilliant film that looks at the journey of one family from rural Massachusetts to the wilds of coastal Honduras.

Harrison Ford is Allie Fox, an inventor who loathes bloated American consumerism and wishes to leave for something more practical, more elemental. He packs up and along with his wife (Helen Mirren) and four children (River Phoenix, Jadrian Steele, Rebecca and Hilary Gordon), leaves the US behind for good in favour of the Central American jungle. Buying a solid few acres, he bands together with locals to create agricultural structure and engineering innovation in this nearly untouched frontier. For a while he’s successful, and life is good, if a little chaotic and unorthodox. But is it all enough? Obstacles arise as they naturally would in such a wild card of a region, but ultimately he finds that the biggest hurdle to face is his own stubborn, obstinate and eventually dangerous nature.

Allie is an undeniably gifted man whose work bears actual merit unlike many bumpkin blowhard inventors in cinema and he succeeds in some of his ventures. The thing is, and this is how the character struck me anyways, this guy has always probably had the seeds of an unstable trajectory in his personality for a while and such an upheaval of life probably accelerated it. He becomes borderline psychotic as the film wears on and I found myself feeling sympathetic, sad and finally downright scared for his family. But what to make of the man himself? Ford is absolutely brilliant and so unlike his usual heroic, steady eyed self. There’s a sinewy mettle that gets him a good distance of the way, but as soon as things start to not go *his* way for long enough, he unravels and it’s quite a disarming thing to see. Weir observes with tact and patience as Maurice Jarre’s ambient score bears witness and John Seale’s lush cinematography intoxicates the screen. This is a very compelling achievement but it’s somehow hard for me to describe exactly how it affected me so; it’s a difficult, often sad, touching and very unique experience that explores one man’s place in the world or at least how hard he tries to find it and flounders in the process. In doing so it makes one think of humanity across all the continents, our place in both nature and infrastructure and how both, one or even none of those may satisfy or make restless any given individual. I would say this is one of Peter Weir’s best films but considering the guy has uniformly made only excellent work throughout his career, the fact that it’s made by this wonderful artist should just speak for itself. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Disney’s Togo

Man, Willem Dafoe is really on a roll this year, not to mention the last two decades in general. No other actor out there I can think of has balanced a career between appearing in edgy, fucked up arthouse and experimental stuff and then more accessible, Hollywood and conventional fare too with as much energy, enthusiasm and variety. The only thing he hasn’t done is made the jump to television, but everyone has their reasons. With Disney’s Togo he proves for the third time this year (see Motherless Brooklyn and The Lighthouse) what a commanding, distinct presence he has in either lead or supporting roles. Here he plays Leonhard Seppela, a real life Norwegian sled dog breeder whose unshakeable bond with his lead dog Togo is the stuff of legend and countless grabs for the Kleenex box throughout the film.

Togo was the runt of the litter, as we learn through decade ago flashbacks between the beginning of their friendship and a furious race through the Alaskan wilderness to bring medicine back for children dying of an illness outbreak. If this story sounds familiar it’s because it is: Another dog named Balto was slapped with most of the credit through happenstance it seems, but this film definitely makes it apparent that Togo was the uncanny and determined hero who turned the tide amongst one of the fiercest storms in Alaskan history.

Dafoe is so versatile he can play the freakiest, most otherworldly villains or the most affable and down to earth regular dudes. He’s an initial pragmatist here whose borderline callous way of training dogs is upended by Togo’s resilience and spirit that burns like a star’s reflection in the Alaskan ice. These two beings were made for each other and in the last haul of their respective lives (Leonhard looks to be in his late sixties and Togo is over twelve) they pull off a miraculous journey of courage, defiance and heartwarming friendship. It isn’t without its dangers or peril though, there’s a sequence where they have to navigate an inlet Sound coated in ice violently shattering all around them that is so harrowing to watch you won’t breathe until the outcome. That’s the power of these animal stories though and I suppose you have to be someone who loves all these creatures or a ‘dog person’ to be affected by it, but really at its core it’s about friendship no matter the species, not giving up on one another at any stage of either party’s life and how that can carry you onward. Both Dafoe and every dog in his team sell that and make this one of the best films of the year. A special mention to Mark Isham’s beautiful score and the use of emotionally galvanizing song ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’ by Max Richter in the third act, last heard in Scorsese’s Shutter Island at an equally penultimate point in the narrative. This one alone is worth the price of Disney+.

-Nate Hill

Ivan Reitman’s Six Days Seven Nights

Harrison Ford and Anne Heche are the last two people I would have expected to have romantic chemistry, but lord they do and it’s part of what makes Ivan Reitman’s Six Days Seven Nights such a charmer. It’s also interesting to note that Ford handpicked her for the role over more popular people like Meg Ryan. There’s something to be said for his intuition because the two of them take an averagely written, Romancing The Stone type shtick and turn it into something very watchable and believably endearing, mostly when they get to share the screen.

Heche is Robin, a mile-a-minute NYC publisher whose boyfriend (Ross from Friends) takes her on a south seas tropical vacation and proposes, which is kinda met with the most somehow enthusiastic yet lukewarm reaction I’ve seen. Ford is Quinn, the drunken bush pilot hired to fly them from island to island to their resort. When she has to dash mid vacation for work they wind up in a storm together, crashing in a remote area and you can imagine where it goes from there. Ross From Friends helplessly flounders around in a half assed rescue mission while they traverse the stunning tropical landscape (actually filmed in Hawaii), squabble a lot, eventually warm up to each other and are harassed by three South Seas pirates played by Temuerra Morrison, Cliff Curtis and Danny Trejo who, in typically obnoxious Hollywood casting fashion, are not remotely ethnically from that region.

This is fluff, there’s no way around it, but Ford and Heche elevate it far past what it can do on its own and are a delight. There’s something hilarious about him playing a short tempered, heavy drinking scoundrel who just chills out in the tropics and bangs the local exotic dancer when he isn’t flying his rust bucket plane around, his casual charm and cantankerous nature fits the role nicely. It’s really too bad Heche never became a bigger star (there’s a highly political reason for that which I won’t get into here) as she’s unconventionally attractive, full of charisma and never drops a beat when the camera is on her. These two actors are brilliant when onscreen together and make this worth watching, even if it is just a breezy time killer overall.

-Nate Hill