Tag Archives: film review

David Lynch’s The Straight Story

Nothing says determination like driving a John Deere ride-on lawnmower nearly three hundred miles across two states to visit a loved one who is sick. David Lynch’s The Straight Story tells the tale of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a man in his 80’s with failing eyesight and bad hips who can’t drive and therefore takes it upon himself to trawl his trusty mower, trailer in tow, across Iowa into Wisconsin to see his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) who has had a massive stroke. It’s an unbelievable story but it really happened, and what’s more amazing and gives it authenticity you can’t fake is that Farnsworth, ever a trooper, was suffering from bone cancer throughout the shoot and champed it out anyways.

Straight, a WWII veteran with a tragic past, lives the quiet life with his daughter (Sissy Spacek) in a sleepy farming town until news of his brother Lyle’s condition reaches him. After buying a new mower from the local Deere dealer (a welcome cameo from Lynch regular Everett ‘Big Ed’ McGill) he sets out on a deeply personal solo voyage across hills, valleys, mountains, wheat fields, tree lined country roads and backwood fields. He meets and has poignant, clear eyed interaction with many folk along the way including a fellow vet, a pregnant teenage girl and a woman who can’t stop ploughing through deer on the interstate, which provides Lynch with the one sneaky opportunity to inject some of his trademark lunacy into the only Disney film he ever made.

There’s something so simple and so essential about both Alvin’s story and Lynch and Farnsworth’s methods of telling it to us. Even as the film opens we get a hazy aerial shot of golden fields in the evening sun and hear Angelo Badalamenti’s achingly beautiful, quietly reverent original score and a mood is set like no other. Everyone is decent and kind in this film, yet Lynch makes it very apparent that mistakes have been made and no one is perfect in their lives. Straight is just like his name, an open hearted fellow who has nothing left to withhold. He admits to losing years to alcohol, making mistakes in the war and falling out heavily with his brother years before. It’s a personal quest for him, and we get the sense that he won’t let anyone else drive him there out of sheer dedication to this final odyssey that will take him to his twilight years. It’s Lynch’s most benign film, but in no way is it dumbed down, sugar coated or blunted of an edge. The filmmaker has always been about truth wrapped in beauty, and all the desire to explore human nature is still on display here, only given a gentler, more elegiac touch. A masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

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Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown

Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown runs right around two and a half hours, and if you were to go through the film and separate all the scenes that are directly about the central plot specifics from the ones that are simply characters hanging out, shooting the shit and socializing, you’d probably cut the film in half. There’s a lesson I was taught in film school and it goes something like “every scene in the script must serve/move the plot and anything that doesn’t must go.” Well, I get the creative sentiment there but it’s often much more complicated than that, and often very subjective what one person will distill personally from a scene and use for their appreciation of the story overall versus another person being bored by it. In the case of Jackie Brown, I absolutely loved each and every laidback scene of breezy character development. These people start talking about movies, weed, cars, guns, the city or anything offhand and slowly, gradually they shift into what the story is about, which is the genius of Tarantino’s screenplay, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch.

As the titular Jackie Brown, Pam Grier gives the performance of her career as a desperate middle aged career woman trying to score a little extra loot for herself, and getting trapped between a rock and a hard place in the process. She smuggles cash in from Mexico for low rent arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a fast talking psychopath who enlists his newly released ex con pal Louis (Robert De Niro) into helping him out with the latest gig. Also involved is Ordell’s beach bunny stoner girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda), a low level thug on his payroll (Chris Tucker) and stoic, sad eyed bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). All these players shuffle around the LA chessboard, often lazily and in no rush and it’s these scenes that give the film its lifeblood. Jackie and Max find compassion, solace and bittersweet romance together, Tarantino let’s them circle each other in no great hurry and later in the film when they do share a kiss it’s just the most beautiful, well built up moment. Grier comes from a blaxploitation background and it’s apparent in her performance, but we also get the sense that this operates on a real plane, much more so than many other Tarantino films. Forster is always noble, observant and calm in most of his career, there’s a few obscure manic performances from him out there but for the most part he underplays his work. Max has to be his best creation, a steely journeyman dude who’s seen enough and wants something new in his life, something he finds in Jackie as he falls in love with her literally at first sight.

This is a character piece, and in addition to Grier and Forster we get incredibly vivid, funny and idiosyncratic work from all involved. Jackson is hysterical as the most verbose cat of the bunch, he’s also scarier than Jules in Pulp Fiction too. DeNiro plays Louis as a dim-headed fuck-up who seems to be playing dumb to stealth people, then seems to actually be thick again until we’re just not sure right up until the hilarious last few beats of his arc that result in some of the funniest black comedy I’ve ever seen. Fonda let’s a stoned veneer hide a deep resentment and hatred for pretty much everyone around her until she takes it one step too far and pays for it hilariously. Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen show up doing a flawless good cop bad cop routine as a local Detective and an ATF agent on both Jackie’s and Ordell’s trail. Watch for Lisa Gay Hamilton, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister and genre veteran Sid Haig as well.

I get conflicted when ranking this amongst other Tarantino films because he’s adapting someone else’s work and therefore it’s not purely his creation, which is always when his most energetic and inspired stuff happens. Jackie Brown is a masterpiece and one of my favourite films, no doubt. But it’s Tarantino doing something else, chilling out in the pool and letting this cast of characters hang out too, in bars, beach apartments, cars, cluttered offices, malls and airports. There’s no great momentum or surge behind this story, it’s all very laconic and easy breezy, which is the strongest quality. But it just as much feels like a Leonard story as it does Tarantino, which works too. His crazy, wild style and pop culture obsessions are given a modest track to race around because of Leonard’s low key, slow burn dialogue aesthetic and the resulting flavour is so good it’s almost perfect. But it’s not just Quentin at the helm. Whatever your thoughts on that and comparisons with this film next to the ones he’s both written and directed, there’s no arguing that this is a beautiful, hilarious, touching, suspenseful, romantic classic of the crime genre.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: John Mackenzie’s Voyage

Remember that movie Dead Calm where creepy Billy Zane terrorized Nicole Kidman and hubby Sam Neill on the high seas? Well, picture that with a wayyy cheaper budget and starring Rutger Hauer, Eric Roberts and Karen Allen instead and you’ll have some idea of John Mackenzie’s Voyage, a cheap little B grade thriller that benefits from a cast who deserved a better script and some gorgeous, atmospheric Mediterranean locations. Hauer and Allen are a wealthy couple fighting their way through a crumbling marriage who sail towards a dilapidated Monte Carlo mansion they wish to restore over the summer. Soon they run into a young hotshot (Roberts) and his sexy wife (Connie Nielsen), invite them aboard and continue through the sun and surf as a quartet. It’s always a bad move to trust strangers though, especially if one of them is Eric Roberts and that mile wide, winning yet somehow sinister smile of his. Soon it becomes apparent that these two kids aren’t who they say they are and clearly have intentions beyond hanging out on the boat and having drinks. Mackenzie is an accomplished director, having made notable impacts with The Long Good Friday and The Fourth Protocol, among others. Roberts and Hauer are legendary badasses of cinema but also notorious for appearing in shit films. They hold their own and give awesome turns here though, as do the two ladies, but it’s in script and execution that this thing falters. It should be full of tension and uncomfortable suspense, and unfortunately the tank is only partly full, and it ultimately fails to deliver as an effective thriller. Still, worth it for the four leading actors who are all consistently reliable performers, as well as the beautiful Mediterranean ambience to soak up. Just don’t expect to be excited or kept on edge all that much.

-Nate Hill

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

What’s the most malicious and deliriously satiating way you can think of getting revenge on an ex who betrayed you horribly? In Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, novelist Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets pretty creative in his attempts to strike back at the girl (Amy Adams) who wronged him decades before. This is a film about darkness, secrets, hate, cruelty, long harboured hurt and how such things erupt into violence, both physical and that of the mind.

Adams is Susan, a wealthy gallery owner married to a hunky yet vacuous playboy (Armie Hammer), terminally unhappy yet cemented in an inability, or perhaps unwillingness to do anything about it. One day she receives a yet to be published book from her ex husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) dedicated to her in an eerily specific way. As she settles in to read it in her drafty, lonesome yuppie mansion while hubby flies around the country cheating on her, Ford treats us to a story within a story as we see the novel unfold. In the book, Gyllenhaal plays a family man driving his wife (Isla Fisher, who uncannily and perhaps deliberately resembles Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) across a creepy, desolate stretch of rural Texas. When night falls, a pack of roving, predatory bumpkins led by Aaron Taylor Johnson howl out of the night like angry ghosts, terrorize the three of them relentlessly, then kidnap Fisher and their daughter without remorse. This leaves Gyllenhaal alone and desperate, his only friend being crusty lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a gaunt force of righteous fury who serves as avatar to carry out some actions that the protagonist is perhaps too meek for. Together they trawl the southern night looking for clues and a sense of resolution, but one gets the sense that this is a hollow venture, already plagued by the acrid tendrils of tragedy from right off the bat. So, what do the contents of this novel have to do with what is going on up in the real world? Well… that’s the mystery, isn’t it. Pay close attention to every narrative beat and filter the distilled emotions of each plot point through an abstract lens, and then the author’s gist is painfully understood.

The interesting thing about this film is that we don’t even really have any contact with Gyllenhaal in the real world and present time outside of this story he’s written. Everything he has to say, every corner of anguish is laid bare and bounced off of Adams’s traumatized, depressed housewife with startling clarity and horror. She gives a fantastic performance, as does Jake as the lead character of the novel. Shannon makes brilliant work of a character who is essentially just an archetypal plot device, but the magnetic actor finds brittle humour, deadly resolve and animalistic menace in the role. Other solid work is provided by Andrea Riseborough, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone and Laura Linney in a stinging cameo as Adams’s manipulative dragon of a mother. Ford shows incredible skill in not just telling a crisp, immersive and aesthetically pleasing visual story, but making those visuals count for something in terms of metaphor, foreshadowing, hidden clues and gorgeous colour palettes that mirror the stormy mental climates of these broken, flawed human beings. He also displays a mastery over directing performances out of the actors as well as editing and atmosphere that draws you right in from the unconventional opening credits (those fat chicks) to the striking, devastating final few frames that cap off the film with a darkly cathartic kick to the ribs. Add to that a wonderfully old school original score by Abel Korzeniowski and layered, concise cinematography from Seamus McGarvey and you have one hell of a package. A downbeat, mature drama that comes from the deep and complex well of human emotions and a film that uses the medium to reiterate the kind of raw, disarming power that art can have over our souls, both as a theme of its story and as a piece of work itself. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Phillip Noyce’s Blind Fury

What do you get when you mix up Rutger Hauer, a sword disguised as a cane, John Locke from Lost, that huge biker dude from Raising Arizona, a whole armoury of high artillery, several car chases and enough 80’s looney toons action aesthetics to fuel a bus? You get Phillip Noyce’s Blind Fury of course, one of the best and most entertaining action films of the era. Hauer is Nick Parker, a blind Viet Nam vet who was trained in a small village and knows the ways of the sword, better than some people who still have their eyesight in fact. He’s back stateside looking for his old army buddy (Terry O’Quinn), who has been captured by a nasty Reno crime kingpin played by Noble WillingHAM who never passed by an opportunity to ham up a performance royally because look it’s right there in his name. After O’Quinn’s poor wife (a short lived Meg Foster) is murdered by his thugs, Nick takes unofficial custody of their young son (Brandon Call) and sets out for bloody revenge against the Ham and his weirdo cohorts, which include two rambunctious cowboys (Nick Cassavetes and Rick Overton) and one giant ugly son of a bitch called Slag, played by perennial Brick-house henchman Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb. Hauer brings a lighthearted charm to the carnage, a vibe that sneaks into the film as a whole and makes it something more fun and cartoonish despite it being violent as all fuck. It’s funny when you consider that director Noyce (Dead Calm, The Saint, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector) usually accents his thrillers with a somber tone. Here it’s all fun and games, Rutger gets one of his most playful and humorous roles, portraying a blind guy convincingly, doing a great job with the stunts and showing what a dope leading man he was. One particular sequence I love best is an epic highway chase with Overton and Cassavetes who are just two bickering, brawling morons. It’s a jacked up, GTA style slice of explosive escapism as jeeps, vans and cars careen all about the overpass and you can really see the budget blowing up onscreen, it’s a showcase 80’s vehicular smackdown. Great film.

-Nate Hill

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain..”. Saying goodbye to Rutger Hauer

A dark angel android desperately seeking longer life. A spectral hitchhiker hell bent on homicide. Both Dracula and Van Helsing at different points in his career. A rogue cop stalking an alien beast through futuristic London. The CEO of Wayne Enterprises. A psychotic drifter who drives a wedge between a married couple. A blind Nam vet with a deadly samurai sword. A rogue medieval warrior put under a magic spell. A ruthless European terrorist waging war against an entire city. A hobo with a shotgun. Rutger Hauer has passed away, and leaves behind him a legacy of incredible work over a decades long career that has firm and lasting roots in the horror, action and science fiction genres. With a rough hewn, elemental figure, a honey soaked purr of a voice and electric eyes, the guy practically radiated originality, never one to rush a line, hurry a glance or let his gaze move too quickly.

A native of The Netherlands, Hauer got his start in Dutch television during the 70’s, until a lasting friendship with director Paul Verhoeven led to his casting in the director’s Middle Ages romp Flesh + Blood alongside Jennifer Jason Leigh. From there the rest of the world saw this man’s immense talent and he found himself taking part in Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke, Sylvester Stallone’s Nighthawks, Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka, Sam Pekinpah’s The Osterman Weekend, Albert Pyun’s Omega Doom, Phillip Noyce’s Blind Fury, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, George Clooney’s Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City and so many more. He also had a multitude of memorable television appearances including Smallville, Alias, True Blood, The Last Kingdom to name a few.

For me the two roles that stand out from the rest are Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Ryder in Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher. Within those two performances Rutger packed more magnetism, charisma and character than some can hope to exude their whole careers. It’s no secret that a great portion of his career was spent in some lower budget B movie fare, a fact that some people lament given his great talents. Here’s the thing though: He never phoned it in, gave a bad performance or threw away a line. No matter what the project was, he was always there and always stepped up to command the scene even if it was just a cameo. I remember in one horror flick about killer wasps he played a mercenary who, when warned about the creatures, stated with a straight face “actually, wasps are allergic to me.” The same conviction was put into that ridiculous line as any of his serious roles in iconic stuff, but that was his power. Character actor, leading man, comic relief, heinous villain, the President or a street thug, this guy could do it all and everything in between. As Roy says in Blade Runner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” He improvised part of that line too, highlighting the organic nature of his talent beautifully. Time to say goodbye. Peace out, Rutger ❤️

-Nate Hill

Duncan Jones’s Source Code

Duncan Jones’s Source Code sits in the same realm of bombastic science fiction as stuff like Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency, Tony Scott’s Deja Vu and others. What I mean by that is that the central premise is just too out there to be believable, but the film possesses a sense of wonder, energy and salesmanship around the story that it somehow grabs you along for the ride and becomes a great film despite itself.

Sort of an archetypal reworking of Groundhog Day, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US military pilot who finds himself out of space and time, waking up on a speeding Chicago train that’s destined for a fiery explosion once it reaches the city limits. The train explodes, everyone on it dies including him and then… he wakes up on it again minutes later, rinse and repeat. This mysterious time loop continues until he can find a way to locate the mad bomber and stop them before catastrophe, with the help of another intrepid passenger (Michelle Monaghan, always superb). Elsewhere and when, a military correspondent (Vera Farmiga) and her oddball scientist boss (Jeffrey Wright in yet another brazenly eccentric but fun performance) oversee his actions from some unseen echelons, literally keeping him in the dark about what’s really happening.

This is the kind of boundlessly imaginative SciFi stuff you’d find Dennis Quaid or Jeff Bridges starring in back in the 80s/90s heyday of the genre, and I love the retro feel. Gyllenhaal makes his performance a nervous, jumpy and engaging creation, inhabiting a trippy world of sliding planes, otherworldly revelations and fast paced problem solving nicely. Watch for comedian Russell Peters in a key role too as well as Michael Arden and Scott Bakula. This film has drawn criticism for several plot holes, but I don’t even think they can be called that, given the extremely ‘out there’ nature of the content. Yes, there are some issues with how things are wrapped up but by the time we get there the fabric of time, space and reality are so thrown to the wind that one can think a way around the troubling implications using imagination. It’s such a far flung concept but the actors all sell it straight-faced for the most part (Wright gets a bit knowingly campy) and the whole thing comes across very well, especially elements of sunny optimism and pathos that are welcome and make the story stick. There’s no denying the originality here either, or the ambition. Director Jones debuted with the excellent Moon, followed it up as strongly as this and then sort of took a plummet with that lame Warcraft thing, but here’s hoping he gets back on top of the SciFi game soon, because he’s got talent and genuine affection for the genre.

-Nate Hill