Tag Archives: film reviews

Michael Bay’s Transformers

Because the Transformers franchise has become an unwieldy cloud of toxic waste over the years, most seem to have forgotten how enjoyable the first one was. Michael Bay gets an awful rap for these, and by all means he deserves any shade thrown his way for some of the sequels, but I’m still convinced they only got made to cash in on the massive Asian market, I’ve heard that stuff like this is huge over there. This first film is a little saner and a lot more focused though, with a sort of 90’s Amblin infused vibe crossed with big budget CGI disaster mayhem of our current era, which is par for the course in a film directed by Michael Bay, as are lens flares, a grossly backlit slow motion kissing scene, explosions, fetishistic attention to the details of military protocol, montages of various factions of Americana playing out and um…cameos from loud sassy African American actors. Based on the Hasbro toy of the same name as well as probably an animated show that came before it, Bay ramps up the scale, special effects, human characters and exposition to somewhat plausibly set the Autobots and Decepticons loose in our world, engaged in noisy warfare over the All Spark, a cube of untold power that looks not so distantly related to the Tesseract. Caught in the middle is Shia Lebeouf as Sam Witwicky, a nervous teen whose family history hides something related to the Tranformers mythology, naturally sending him and the obligatory super hot love interest (Megan Fox) on a wild goose chase of stuff blowing up. There’s also various military factions caught up in the squabble including intrepid soldiers Josh Dumahel, Amaury Nolasco and Tyrese Gibson, research scientists Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight as the grave Secretary of defense, John Turturro in pure comic relief form as a hapless federal agent and uh… Bernie Mac too, as the world’s saltiest used car salesman. The Shia Lebeouf angle has a cool 90’s sort of Joe Dante vibe, right down to the presence of consummate 90’s dad Kevin Dunn, naturally playing Sam’s father. While it goes a little off the rails in a final battle that pretty much levels an entire city to the ground and numbs any sense of realism to a dull roar, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the film, especially in the special effects used to bring these mechanical goliaths to life. Bumblebee is always a fan favourite, Optimus Prime looks fantastic and Hugo Weaving brings the vicious Megatron to life nicely. Steve Jablonsky almost outdoes his score for Bay’s The Island here, giving a magisterial composition that’s large and loud enough to accompany the Transformers on their journey and fills the film with noise, as the does the Oscar nominated sound design. Like I said, the sequels have become an impossible wall of deafening, uncalled for noise in the years since and it’s a shame because this one gets tainted in people’s memory when it’s still a good time.

-Nate Hill

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Tod Williams’s The Door In The Floor

We don’t get enough widely released films that show how blunt, frank and confusing life can be. Every day is another hilarious tragedy wrapped in unpredictable instances of comedy, enigmatic human behaviour that can’t possibly stick to script and complexities that defy explanation. Tod Williams’s The Door In The Floor is a criminally underrated masterpiece that sort of defies description in the sense that it’s about nothing other than the lives of several people over the course of one New England summer, and what that entails. Is there sadness? You could say that. Is there comedy? Briefly, yes. It’s tough cinema, a film that deals in truths, but they are hard truths, half truths and hidden truths, ambassadors of the film’s slogan on the poster: ‘The most dangerous secrets are the ones we’re afraid to tell ourselves.’ Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger give the best work of their careers as Ted and Marion Cole, a couple haunted by the worst kind of tragedy, both unable to move on in their own way. Ted is a passive aggressive, alcoholic manipulator, Marion is an emotionally shut off shell. These are two people who in another film would absolutely have not been sympathetic characters. Not here. Ted hires sixteen year old college kid Eddie (Jon Foster) as his assistant for the summer, mainly because he lost his driver’s license. Truthfully, he does this on purpose for reasons I won’t impart here, but soon the boy and Marion are having a torrid affair with sex scenes the film doesn’t gloss over, glance away or back down from. The eerie thing is watching how the passage of time has traumatized two people not only to the point where they have become their worst selves, but also are completely unable to recover or continue on with their lives properly anymore. What’s worse, they have a four year old daughter (Elle Fanning, brilliant in an early role) who is swept up in this storm of malcontent, bitterness and broken lives. It’s not easy to watch but it never gets overly sentimental or cheats you by drip feeding emotional work that it itself hasn’t worked for or earned, there’s a naturalistic way these events play out that had me full well believing this was real, and investing everything I had into these characters. Bridges is fucking devastating here in what has to be his finest and most overlooked performance. Ted is a children’s writer (“I’m an entertainer of children, and I like to draw”) who injects pain into his work, a petty egotist whose light for life is slowly dimming. Basinger too brings us her best, she’s uncomfortably opaque yet somehow sweet and soulful, Marion is a seemingly unforgivable character that we come to feel for despite her actions, like a fallen angel. Foster is a find, it’s interesting because his brother Ben, now something of a star, was originally casted but purposefully relinquished the role to his brother as he thought him better suited. Intuitive move because he nails the roiling hormones and confused pining of adolescence to a T while still somehow appearing astute beyond his years. The supporting cast is fleshed out by great work from Mimi Rogers, Bijou Phillips, Louis Arcella and an adorable cameo from Donna Murphy, but really it’s the Bridges and Basinger show. The New England setting is a beautiful misty coastline dotted with vast country estates and windy bluffs, a picturesque yet oddly mournful locale for this tale to play out, inhabited by Marcelo Zarvos’s score that captures the grief and suffering without obviously highlighting it. David Lynch once noted in his autobiography that when approaching a character in writing, directing or performance, it’s important to remember that a person is not all one thing, there’s a multitude of emotions, feelings and impulses at play simultaneously and this results in confusing, contradictory, often self degrading and destructive behaviour that we aren’t meant to understand, but is there for us to see all the same. Williams and his actors keep that squarely in mind here and work to create human beings that feel like people in the real world, imperfections and all. I would tell you to bring a box of tissues but this isn’t the type of drama that elicits tears in an obvious way, but rather slowly, steadily and without a predictable blueprint, but bring that box anyway. Can’t recommend this highly enough.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Lone Hero

Lou Diamond Phillips is an actor who’s never really impressed me much, except for this one. Lone Hero sees him headline a low key action B flick and steal the show as Bart, a nasty biker gang chief who rolls into a tiny Montana town with his boys, looking for nothing but violence and trouble. Here’s the cool thing about his performance: while many actors who have played evil bikers tried out the straight up savage, hotheaded route (which admittedly works if done right), Lou switches it up and plays the guy as a calm, free spirited scoundrel who although is an indefensibly scummy fellow, does it with a gleam in his eye and smile on his face. That’s a courageous choice for a villain role of this ilk, but it’s a great fit for him and his best work I’ve seen. Because this town oddly doesn’t seem to have any cops let alone a local Sheriff, it’s up to a few plucky locals to fight off the biker menace and take back their town. Sean Patrick Flanery plays a guy who isn’t necessarily a western cowboy hero, but plays one in a local tourist attraction and therefore must step up to the plate, and in a place as bereft of law enforcement as this burg, that’s what they’ll have to settle for. He’s joined by the great Robert Forster as an ageing frontier man who grabs his trusty rifle and starts blasting bikers all to hell alongside Flanery when things get rough. This is TV movie territory and nothing of consequence really jumps out at you, but the three actors make it a damn good little show, the banter between the them is genuinely fun stuff and acted well by all. Oh and like I said, Phillips makes it a Diamond of a performance, a true scene stealing villain in the spiritual energy of someone like Robert Downey Jr, I’d love to hear if anyone can think of a role he’s been better in. Good stuff.

-Nate Hill

Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks

Bruce Willis is the type of action hero who is never idealistic, chipper, optimistic or overtly upbeat. There’s always a sarcastic reluctance whenever he gets pulled into a gunfight, hostage situation or standoff and I think that’s the quality that has made him such an endearing star presence. In Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks he plays an NYC Detective named Jack Mosley, who is a burnt out, sardonic alcoholic who couldn’t give a shit about his job anymore, let alone the motor mouthed convict (Mos Def) he’s assigned to escort the titular distance to testify against some mob bigwig. Jack can almost be seen as the same Willis character we’ve been watching our whole lives but after all the others, a progression that has lead to this one portrayal where the archetype has just reached the end of his rope. It’s a wonderful performance from him and a strong, solid suspense thriller. Def’s character is an annoying, fast talking hustler who we just want to deck right in the face, but I suppose that’s kind of the point of him here so we can see Jack’s tolerance boil over and eventually warm up to the guy. There are forces aligning against them though, factions on both sides of the law that have stock in Def not making it those 16 blocks with his pulse still going, and Jack must dust off his old reflexes to take on what appears to be the entire New York City police force, along with a fellow detective and old friend who has gone rogue, played with affable menace by the always awesome David Morse. This is a terrific thriller with well drawn, relatable characters stuck in one shit show of a situation, it’s minimalist without being too low key and fired up without being overblown or silly. The photography by Glen McPherson makes great use of looming NYC architecture, narrow streets and artifices that could get shattered by a rain of bullets any second, and the exciting score by Klaus Badelt sets a nervous mood of urban menace while introducing Willis with a melancholy twang. This was Donner’s last film before going on apparently permanent hiatus and I’m not sure why, I’ve always loved his work and would love to see a comeback. Willis gets a lot of hype for guys like John McClane and Butch Coolidge who are definitely legends, but Jack Mosley is one of his best creations, a hard bitten boozer with a compassionate lining under the scruff and a brutal resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, it’s his version of Eastwood’s Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet and an underrated character in his canon. Great 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

Flashpoint

What do corrupt Texas border guards, missing cash, a Kennedy assassination conspiracy, buried bones and a long derelict crashed Jeep in the desert have in common? Check out Flashpoint to find out, a dusty, forgotten old 80’s thriller with a dope cast, diabolical story and one kicker of a score by Tangerine Dream that only makes the vast desert of the Southwest seem more eerie, and the dirty deeds done under its sun seem dirtier. Treat Williams is the cocky young hotshot patrolman, Kris Kristofferson his salty superior, and after the discovery of the Jeep and it’s dangerous cargo, they’re embroiled in a scary attempted coverup that includes murder, lies and a careful political smokescreen. It doesn’t help that a greedy fellow colleague (Miguel Ferrer) sets his sights on the cash too, heralding the arrival of Kurtwood Smith’s Carson, a pragmatically evil Fed with big plans for anyone who knows about the discovery. Throw Kevin Conway, Jean Smart, Guy Boyd, Tess Harper, plus Rip Torn as a local sheriff and you’ve got a diamond of a cast. Kristofferson is great as the wily veteran who knows a cautionary tale in the making when he sees it, but Smith steals the show and is downright scary as the worst type of guy to be in that position of power, who isn’t even above arguing the twisted morality of his job. This film is as lost to the sands of time as that Jeep sitting out there in the middle of nowhere, but like the Jeep its waiting to be rediscovered. A powerful morality play, a taut thriller with a killer good script and one certified forgotten gem.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

After a sort of slow opening act, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky becomes a sweet, funny, raucous, touching and unexpected film, the most enjoyable thing he’s made after a series of dead serious dramas. Kind of like Ocean’s Eleven for the Monster Truck crowd, this is popcorn fare with brains, but it’s not afraid to get loopy and mess around in the sandbox either in terms of comedy and characterization, especially that of Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang, the world’s most aloof safecracker. Joe’s help is needed when brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver) Logan take it upon themselves to stage a heist during NASCAR mania when times of financial woe befall them. Jimmy is laid back and affable, Clyde is old school idiosyncratic to the point of hysterics and their dynamic is something hilarious. Throw in Joe with a Bang and the thing takes off, once the gears of the plot start grinding, mind you. Like I said, the opening dilly dallys a tad. Despite being a screwball comedy of sorts, this never goes too far off the rails into, say, Cannonball Run territory and never feels *too* light or inconsequential. Soderbergh is an alchemist in complete control of every element and this thing unfolds deliberately, intricately and always playfully. Surrounding them is a delightfully eclectic supporting cast including Seth McFarlane, Riley Keogh, Katie Holmes, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Katherine Waterson, Macon Blair, Sebastian Stan and Dwight Yoakam as a breezy Prison Warden. The heist is a blast, full of screw ups, diversions and delirious suspense as these ill prepared, lovably hapless goofs try to do right by their families and each other. Craig must be broken out of jail where he’s “in-car-cer-ated” for the duration of the job and then stealthily returned once the mission is accomplished, and Jimmy has to be done with it all in time for a beauty pageant that his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie, wonderful) is appearing in. It’s fairly random but it just somehow works, from left field character choices to specifically nutty set pieces to third act twists that come out of nowhere. Just when you think you can relax, a federal agent (Hilary Swank in full shark mode) shows up to stir the pot again. The film ends on a narrative cliffhanger and with perhaps one of the best and most enticing zoom-out shots I’ve ever seen that had me both wishing for a sequel and wanting the magic to remain bottled just there at that perfect penultimate moment. Great film.

-Nate Hill