Tag Archives: film reviews

The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems

There’s a certain gleeful, masochist rush in watching a protagonist who is essentially an irredeemable piece of shit circle the proverbial drain of a self inflicted downward spiral for two hours and then, by his own hand, disappear down it. These stories are often relentlessly stressful and hellishly unpleasant and that goes to a certain degree here but because Uncut Gems is a film by Josh and Benny Safdie we are treated to something absolutely fucking spellbinding and told in such a breathless, unique fashion that the ugliness just becomes somehow tolerable. These are two filmmakers who understand movies, clearly have many films from back in the day in mind when they stylistically craft their work from credit font to score cues to editing, have a clear and inspired grasp of storytelling, sound design, music, cinematography and as such no matter how depressing, dire or distressing their films are in tone or subject matter, they are always gems themselves.

Adam Sandler acts up such a storm here I was periodically afraid that he’d have a stroke playing NYC jeweller Howard Ratner, a man with a mile wide gambling problem, apparent adrenaline addiction and a self destructive streak that blows a crater into both his personal and professional lives. Howard owes a shit ton of money to many people including loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian, isn’t it nice to see him in stuff again?) who has dispatched his best goon Phil (Keith William Richards in a stunning debut performance) to harass, terrorize and pursue him all over the big apple. He’s got a wife (Idina Menzel) who hates him, a girlfriend (Julia Fox, who could be Debi Mazar’s daughter) who loves him, or hates him or perhaps both, she’s at that age where even she probably can differentiate between the two. He makes the mistake of showing NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett) a raw fire opal that’s worth many monies and soon it’s off to the races in a series of chases, confrontations, verbal standoffs, close quarters violence and scenes of irresponsible gambling that most definitely don’t fall into the ‘know your limit, play within it category.’ Howard is addicted to the mad rush of the bet, so much so that he’s willing to put his life, marriage, relationship and entire career on the line nearly without hesitation and if you’ve reached that point in your addiction, well… you are past the event horizon the way I see it.

The Safdie brothers have a way of bringing their environments, namely New York City, thrillingly alive in ways that one might not always think to infuse into the art of motion picture. Their casting is a deft mix of beloved Hollywood talent and people right off the streets that have no experience acting whatsoever, a choice that could cause tonal clashes in someone else’s hands but for them seems effortless and simply the way they were meant to make films. Take Phil for example, the violent goon who chases Howard until he’s simply had enough of his bullshit and provides the films biggest WTF surprise. Apparently they just spotted non-actor Williams heading to the L train in NYC and casted him right from there, or so the IMDb trivia page claims. The guy is pure fucking charisma, with touches of Frank Gorshin, Michael Rooker but possessing his own ruthless tough guy essence that doesn’t just steal scenes, but murders them with sinewy, real world magnetism. Hollywood’s highest paid casting director wishes they found this guy. Innovation and inspiration like that is what has put these two filmmakers ahead of the pack so far in their work. Gotta mention the score by their collaborator Daniel Lopatin too, for a film grounded on the streets of NYC there’s a beautifully ethereal nature to this composition full of swoops, swirls, synths, hisses, surprise choral passages and experimental sensibilities that tie into the intro and outro of the film, both presented in abstract form and are two of the most wonderful sustained transitions I’ve ever seen used to tell a story. Great film.

-Nate Hill

TNT’s Salem’s Lot

I have not read Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot nor have I seen the 70’s film adaptions but damn I have to say this 2004 TNT miniseries version is one lazy pile of garbage. It’s one of those shows that they released onto DVD as one movie and as such it has a runtime of like three hours not separated by episodes. That length of time seemed empty and devoid of story, they could have just as easily told this in a 90 minute slot, but that’s the least of its issues, really.

Rob Lowe is a weird choice to play an introspective, lone wolf writer who returns back home to a small town under threat from a malevolent force. That’s not to say he’s incapable of more intense work that shirks his pretty boy image, it’s just that someone less flashy and obvious would have made more sense here. He also narrates the thing like he’s casually reading a teleprompter over coffee, I didn’t think anyone would be able to make Stephen King’s rich prose sound like stereo instructions but his inner delivery is flat and soulless. He plays Ben Mears, a disgraced journalist researching domestic trauma in his childhood burg, but discovers something way worse. A spooky old antiques dealer (Donald Sutherland) has some backhanded deal with ancient vampire Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer) and is flooding the area with unspeakable evil. This is in amongst a tangled cobweb of stupid subplots, atrocious acting from the no name supporting characters and just an overall murky, lazy, drab feel.

I mainly tracked this down for Hauer, who is reliably fine as the supernatural villain but isn’t given nearly enough screen time and just somehow feels like a cameo, as does Sutherland who hams it up a bit but still can’t raise a pulse for this thing. James Cromwell has enough grit to play vampire slaying preacher Callahan who I fondly remember from the Dark Tower novels. Andre Braugher and Samantha Mathis are not bad as other townsfolk swept up into the incomprehensible threat but the acting pedigree stops right there, they hired some seriously deplorable people for the rest of the roles and at times it’s hard to watch. I will give the music some props though, it’s an atmospheric composition with beautifully eerie lyrics from Lisa Gerrard (Man On Fire, Gladiator) that honestly deserves a way better outlet than this mess. One of the only good things I can say about it is that it has the mid 2000’s cozy late night cable TV feel to it, and I have some mad nostalgia for that but even then it’s kind of my bias and that compliment can’t be accredited to the success of the project itself, which is largely nonexistent. Boring, mumbly, not even remotely scary, overcast and rainy but not even in the cool ambient way, awkward, shitty bargain basement CGI, clunky, about an hour and a half too long, man the list of shit just goes on. Avoid.

-Nate Hill

William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration

William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is tough to encapsulate in a review and pretty much impossible to tether to any specific genre. Picture a gum-ball machine full of primary coloured spheres and a few speckled throughout that are multicoloured and not just that but the colours seem to shift, migrate and elbow each other around the tiny globe like a scintillating oil spill. That’s not to say that the vast majority of single colour orbs don’t represent films that defy genre or think outside the box, it’s just that the multi hued mystery flavour ones head so far out past the stratosphere of genre playgrounds that they almost create a plane all their own. This is most definitely one such film.

Somewhere in the misty mountains of the Pacific Nortwest (actually filmed in Germany and Hungary) a giant, gothic castle plays host to a group of American ex-soldiers, committed to mental health treatment for PTSD and a host of other issues but left to roam free and act out their delusions more than anything else. Among them are Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a once great astronaut who wigged out and lost his shit minutes away from a moon voyage launch, Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) who is recreating Shakespeare plays using all canine actors and a whole team of others with their own set of eccentricities. Together they are a classroom full of clowns who at first appear to be irreversible loonies, but as we know in human beings, that is ever solely the case. Stacy Keach is Colonel Vincent Kane, a distant, disturbed psychiatrist brought into treat them and he uses methods that range from complacent to empathetic to just as bizarre as their behaviour. I’ve just described general plot but that does nothing in imparting the dense, deep and often elusive philosophical ideas this wondrous film has to offer.

Blatty we all know as the author of The Exorcist, and he’s made it very clear that this is the spiritual sequel to that story. It’s a tough film to digest and unpack but infinitely rewarding for a few key reasons: He is adapting his own novel here, and as such we get an unfiltered glimpse of his creative ideas that cuts out all middle men and is the purest form of his work on the page. This was mostly financed by Pepsi of all people, who made a deal with him that if he filmed at least part of it in Hungary (where they had landlocked funds) that there’d be no interference on their part on anyone else’s. This allows a difficult, unconventional but extremely rewarding experience to unfold onscreen. Wilson is brilliant as the spooked astronaut, hiding his true nature behind a barrage of nonsensical banter and getting as down to earth as anyone could in a heartbreaking monologue that outlines exactly why he wouldn’t go to the moon and pinpoints a good portion of humanity’s collective existential dread in the process. Keach is hauntingly detached as Kane, a man obsessed with duality and the nature of good and evil in our world, it’s a tough character to nail down but the arc is secure in his hands. This is one of those ‘like nothing you’ve ever seen before’ films that can actually say it’s earned it. Part psychological thriller, part cerebral mood piece with touches of dark comedy, sympathy for the afflicted and ambition to understand the turmoil and alienation of the human spirit. Absolutely brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria

I’m not usually too lenient on remakes of my favourite films and 1977’s Suspiria would have been a deal breaker, but holy goddamn if they didn’t do it justice and then some with 2018’s fierce, austere, unrelentingly gruesome update. It shouldn’t even be called a remake anyways as besides title and general premise, it’s an entirely different beast possessing of its own unique aesthetic and themes far removed from Dario Argento’s vision. Italian director Luca Guadagnino is not a voice I’m familiar with, I haven’t seen a single other film he’s done and looking at his credits it seems this is his first venture into the horror genre, a winning first stroke for sure.

The visual atmosphere here is decidedly different and that’s part of what makes this such a piece all its own. Argento’s neon bathed, opulently saturated colour and lighting is traded in for bleak greys, browns, sickly beiges and suffocated hues that breed uncomfortably onscreen for something less attractive yet far more unsettling than the bejewelled beauty of its predecessor. It also fits the late 70’s Berlin setting which as history reminds us was pretty fucking grim. Young Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) journeys from an Ohio Mennonite community to the prestigious Markos dance academy, which as fans of this story know, is front for a nasty coven of ancient witches. Things go awry almost from the second she arrives but the film plays deftly with who and what it means to be a protagonist here and we see a dynamic shift from other girls (played solidly by Mia Goth and Chloë Grace Moretz) who get suspicious and then wish they hadn’t. The school is run by angular, mercurial shryke Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton in one of three roles, because apparently she can do anything.

So is this a better film than Argento’s original? There is of course no right answer to that and I don’t even think they should be compared alongside one another, they may as well be from different galaxies, let alone genres. There’s a sense of diseased malfeasance to these witches, who go out on the town, drink and party just like anyone else but are anything but human. I loved the decision to change Susie’s character from doe eyed heroine to an eerily intuitive avatar with a seemingly dark destiny already written in blood years before. The film wanders about in draft filled hallways, echoey dance studios and chilly, depressing Berlin streets for much of the runtime until the climax arrives, and holy fuck I was not expecting this to go the whole nine yards into outright wanton, surrealistic chaos horror mode. There’s a crazily violent collective piece of mania that happens deep within the bowels of the school building that might be one of my new favourite set pieces in any horror film ever. It tells this story through image, impression, carnage, lighting and fantastic performances from all involved including a terrifying cameo from the grim reaper itself. All set to a hauntingly unconventional score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, it’s not a sequence I’ll soon forget and propels the overall film into classic territory. What an experience.

-Nate Hill

Ari Aster’s Midsommar

I didn’t expect to be saying this but Ari Aster’s Midsommar is, for the most part, a colossal waste of time and talent. It sucks to have to bash this given my level of anticipation for a follow up to Hereditary which is one of the most effectively terrifying films I’ve ever seen, but this thing not only pales in comparison but just kind of cavorts about in broad daylight for an excessively bloated runtime, provides *no* effective scares and then just… ends.

The most successful and engaging scenes show up in the first ten minutes of the film: after a harrowing tragedy that wipes out the family of Dani (Florence Pugh), the camera swoops through an open window to observe a snowy winter landscape while the minimalist opening credits appear, accented by an eerie score. It’s a haunting prologue that sets atmosphere and tone like nobody’s business… and then the resulting film falls flat on its inbred face. This thing was marketed more aggressively than the super bowl so by now you know the drill: Dani is accompanying her neglectful boyfriend (Jack Reynor) to a remote Swedish commune where one of their friends has ancestral roots. They aim to study these amiable pagan bumpkins for an anthropological thesis but it soon turns out they’re anything but amiable and in fact they’ve wandered into a freaky occult ritual as unwilling participants.

So, what works here? The beautifully off kilter score, for one. The cinematography, fascinating production design and undeniably striking artistry in costumes are all wonderful on their own terms. Pugh’s performance is deeply felt when the script allows for it to develop properly, but see that brings me to the fucking many things that don’t work. The film is two and a half hours long which it just absolutely doesn’t need to be, and for most of that time we’re forced to watch this ridiculous group of insane loonies and their absurd customs play out for so long that any semblance of story gets lost in maypole dancing, sustained singing and all manner of ritualistic bullshit. Here’s the thing with Hereditary versus this film: in the former, real life trauma was used to gild and intertwine with the esoteric external threat for an oppressive, unbearably down to earth yet somehow also otherworldly experience, both sides of the coin proving effective as all hell. With this film the grounded trauma is shown early on and then cheerfully abandoned for a flower adorned theme park ride of empty, hollow Wicker Man shenanigans that don’t address, conjure up or call back to our protagonist’s trauma in any way whatsoever, and that is key in this film’s resounding failure. Dani has been through the kind of event (I won’t spoil it) that is so horrific and traumatic that it either drives a person mad, to suicide or in some cases births the kind of resilience so that they may rise above it, gain strength and unlock a new facet of their being. This film allows her none of that, betraying a real, tangible story for something lost up in the clouds doing its own dumb dumb thing for goddamn forever until you just want to call in an air strike on the whole commune and firebomb this dreary set of non-events from existence. What. A. Mess.

In closing I’d like to recommend a far better pagan folk horror tale that has more torque under its hood than this turd: Gareth Evans’s Apostle, a frightening tale of another outsider finding madness in a small occult community, you’ll be glad you chose that over Midsommar’s ingratiating lack of focus or vision.

-Nate Hill

Bad Boys For Life

My first thought after seeing Bad Boys For Life: Will Smith beating the living piss out of that fat fucking potato DJ Khaled is the most cathartic, pleasing thing thing I’ve seen all month. The film overall? It’s complicated, but I thought it was solid. Here’s the trajectory thus far: the first Bad Boys film was a fairly conventional, hugely enjoyable Michael Bay action romp that neither stood out nor faded from memory. The second film, however, saw Bay lose his mind in the best way possible and make the most batshit insane, balls out, edgy, fucked up screaming unhinged roller coaster flick probably… ever. Not since Crank 2 had a sequel utterly and obnoxiously left its predecessor in the dust wondering what happened, and to this day it’s one of my favourite action films ever made. So the thing is, Bad Boys 3 was just never going to reach the levels of drugged up, casually racist, cheerfully homophobic, unapologetically tasteless, hugely entertaining chaos. That being said, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are older, the world has unfortunately changed and their adventures this third time around are a tad more laid back, a bit more introspective yet still filled with enough explosions, gunshot wounds, blood, profanity and the irresistible buddy comedy chemistry that makes their pairing such a winning dynamic.

Smith’s Mike Lowry never seemed to lose his daredevil, thrill seeking edge while Lawrence’s Marcus is now a grandfather with thoughts of retiring and putting all the chases, shootouts and violence in his rear view. That works for a time until dangerous people from Mike’s past roar back into both their lives to terrorize Miami and spur them both back into action for one last ride. They’re joined by AMMO, the obligatory millennial update to the climate of any given old school franchise that finds itself resurrected, with badass characterizations from Alexander Ludwig, Paola Nuñez and a smokin Vanessa Hudgens. Joe Pantoliano also returns, stressed out as ever as their captain, he gets one of the film’s moments of surprising gravity when he basically uses parable to tell Mike he’s gotta slow his roll or he’ll kick the bucket soon. There’s a hell of an antagonist in the wings stirring trouble, an intensely attractive, hellishly angry Mexican Bruja witch (Kate Del Castillo) with designs on obliterating Mike and everyone he knows. Cue a series of chases, stakeouts, firefights and impressive action sequences, my favourite of which has to be a highway pursuit with Mike on a motorbike and Marcus in sidecar messing about with a terrific arsenal of cartel weaponry (“that is God’s gun!!!”). It’s a rock solid sequel and one can’t really complain or find anything to gripe about here other than the fact that it’s just so much more relaxed and less certifiably loony than Bad Boys 2, but I’ve reconciled that. I miss that deliberately provocative, nihilistic aesthetic but I appreciate this slightly more mellowed out, plot based one too. A good time at the movies.

-Nate Hill

David Lynch’s What Did Jack Do?

Not since Pirates Of The Caribbean has a monkey named Jack made such a hilarious, adorable and frequently unsettling impression. David Lynch is many things on top of my favourite filmmaker of all time, one being a master of the unexpected surprise, both within any given project he crafts and in the way he presents or markets them to his audience. It’s just like him to quietly sneak a seventeen minute short film onto Netflix on his 74th birthday with little fanfare, but here it is. What Did Jack Do is pure Lynch magic: a police detective (Lynch himself) interrogates a talking monkey (Jack Cruz) who is suspected of murdering farmyard birds, but keeps dodging the man’s questions with enigmatic idioms that have little to do with the overall flow of conversation, or lack thereof. That’s basically it, but the signature style and dreamlike sustained atmosphere makes it feel like so much more than just a short about a talking monkey. Lynch sits, stares, smokes cigarettes and annunciates in that clear, purposeful yet slyly elusive way that only he can. The monkey also sits but gazes around nervously as his mannerisms are animated in that unnerving way that those Annoying Orange videos are, yet somehow it seems not tacky like those were but more lifelike than if they’d used CGI, but that’s Lynch’s gift for unconventional practical effects. He shoots in the same ghostly, stark textured black and white employed in Twin Peaks: The Return and yet again crafts something haunting, mesmeric and subconsciously affecting. His wife makes a cameo playing a waitress who serves them, you guessed it, coffee. At one point Jack breaks out into the kind of otherworldly song routine that immediately reminds one of Lynch’s breakout film Eraserhead. It might sound like I’m detailing too much for a film so short but it doesn’t really matter; you can describe a Lynch film down to its buttons in every detail and the reader would still have no clue of its power until they take the plunge themselves. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in some living room where the folks have no idea who Lynch is or what he’s about and just pick this from the Netflix lineup thinking it’s a cute little monkey documentary, heh.

-Nate Hill