Tag Archives: film

Sun, Sand & Savages: Oliver Stone’s underrated return to form 


Oliver Stone’s Savages is the best film the man has made since the early 90’s, and reminds us of what colourful, bloody, hectic, Mardi Gras shock & awe blistering good times the man is capable of bringing us. His political/war films are all well and good, but for me the lifeblood of this filmmaker lies in his sun-soaked pulp n’ noir toolbox, the ability to spin grisly, darkly romanticized genre campfire yarns that exist eons away from the geopolitics of our plane. Savages is so whimsical it could float right out of our grasp on a cloud, if it weren’t so heavy and heinous at the very same time, and it’s in that careful balance of heart, horror and humour that the film comes out on top, despite a relative cop-out of an ending that can be forgiven when the package as a whole is considered. Based on a novel by Don Winslow, this is an odyssey of cartels, violence, love most pure, drugs, guns, California dreaming and a cast having more fun than they have so far in their collective careers, and I do mean that. The film opens with grainy, harrowing camcorder footage of sinister cartels beheading innocents to set an example, and that’s just the start of it. Pan over to Cali paradise where angelic Ophelia (Blake Lively in a beautiful, vulnerable performance) lives with the two loves of her life, gentle hippie Ben (Aaron Tyler Johnson) and hardened Afghan vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two brotherly marijuana barons who provide the west coast with the finest bud the region has to offer. They live in harmony, both in love with Ophelia, existing as a functional little romantic trifecta tucked away on the sun-dappled coastline, until darkness finds them in the form of the power hungry Baja Cartel, who want a piece of their impossibly lucrative action. Although spearheaded by a fiery Salma Hayek, it’s Benicio Del Toro’s Lado who strikes fear into hearts, a ruthless, casually sadistic enforcer who’s not above the lowest brands of violence and degradation. Del Toro plays him with a knowing sneer and a grease-dripping mullet, a positive scourge of everything pure and good in his path. Ben and Chon are thrown into a world of hurt when he kidnaps Ophelia, held as a ransom so the boys play ball with Hayek’s plans for aggressive expansion, promoting all out guerrilla war-games between both factions. John Travolta does his wired up thing as a cheerfully crooked DEA underboss who is their conduit to all things intel related, and Emile Hirsch their surveillance expert. This is a film of both bright light and terrible darkness, and it’s easy to get swept up in the hypnotically wistful current before the film turns evil loose and gut punches it’s audience. The visual tone is crisp and endlessly colourful, and Dan Mindel’s cinematography doesn’t shy away from the overt nature of the brutality, especially when Hayek’s right hand accountant (Damien Bechir) is gruesomely tortured by Lado, and during a daring highway ambush that showcases both Chon’s merciless tactical resolve and Ben’s fragility, both driven to staggering extremes by their love for Ophelia. Stone has always had a flair for eye boggling excess, dastardly deeds done under a baking hot sun and garish, over the top characters that would be right at home in a cartoon if they weren’t so tangibly present, especially in Del Toro’s and Travolta’s cases, it’s a beauty of a thing to see them both chow down on the scenery here and riff off of each other in a quick scene where they share frames. Many folks were underwhelmed by the work of the three young leads, but they couldn’t have been better, really, especially Lively, who’s wounded soul brandishes a sword and shield of sunny disposition even when faced with utter hopelessness, a lilting poetry to her hazy narration that threads the tale together in fable form. Commerce is chaos here too, as we see how the south of the border drug trade encroaches on many individuals who don’t yet understand the evil emanating from that region, and are rudely awakened. There’s so much going on in this film, it’s so vibrantly alive in every facet, a showcase example of the bruising, beautiful power that movies have over us. 

-Nate Hill

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“Are you watching closely?” The Hains Report Presents: A review of The Prestige – by Josh Hains 

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.”

– Cutter (Sir Michael Caine); The Prestige, 2006

I’ve always been enamored by magic since I was a young boy. I don’t know how to perform any tricks and haven’t read dozens of magic books, but I’ve seen enough magic performed to validate my love for it. I’ve always enjoyed trying to decipher how a trick is pulled off. Sometimes I’m right, sometime I’m wrong. That’s the name of the game. In the case of The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 masterpiece, I’ve spent the last couple years on and off deciphering the movie as best I can. A part of me doesn’t mind the ambiguity, and doesn’t need to solve the puzzle. The other half just had to solve it. I believe I have the movie figured out better than most, but whether or not I finished the puzzle isn’t the point of the movie. The point is entertainment, and I think The Prestige is amongst the finest entertainment you’ll find in cinema.

Apprentice magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) work under Milton The Magician (Ricky Jay), frequently acting as fake volunteers for Milton in 1890’s Victorian London. Julia (Piper Perabo), Robert’s wife and an escape artist, drowns while trying to escape from a water tank with her hands bound when Alfred ties the necessary slipknot too tightly. She’s gone before stage engineer (or “ingenieur”) John Cutter (Sir Michael Caine) can break the glass with an ax. This tragic event sets into motion a bitter and violent years long rivalry, each man trying to one-up or sabotage the other.

During this time, Borden marries Sarah (Rebecca Hall), and together they have a child, their daughter Jess, while Angier launches his own magic career with Cutter and new assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlet Johansson), and Borden perfects a new trick dubbed The Transported Man. The trick bewilders Angier, but Cutter is unimpressed, suggesting Borden uses a double to complete the trick. Angier finds that solution too obvious, and becomes obsessed with finding the answer at seemingly any cost. Through a series of unfortunate events, both Borden and Angier find themselves in possession of the other’s personal journals that hold the ins and outs of how each trick is performed. Borden’s journal leads Angier to Nikola Tesla and his assistant Mr. Alley (the late David Bowie, and Andy Serkis, respectively), in the hopes they hold the key to replicating Borden’s trick.

The Prestige reminds me of a Jenga tower. Remove the wrong piece and the entire thing comes crashing down, remove the right piece and it stands tall for a while longer. At any moment the film could derail if all the plot threads weren’t tied up nearly with a bow, and yet for me it never does derail. Remove the script from your mind for a moment. Are the performances great? At least 3 are Oscar worthy. And the cinematography, score, set design, and costuming, how are they? Immaculate as one might expect from Nolan and his trusted team. And the script, what do you think of it? Delightfully complex, thought provoking, and fresh. For me, there aren’t any cracks in the glass.

About that ending. The film gives you clues as to how the lives of both men will turn out. One is willing to kill a bird and present a new one to the audience in its place, the other willing to save the bird and re-present it to the audience. Bearing that in mind, the possibility exists that one of the two men acquired a machine capable of successfully duplicating a person, much like a pile of hats and black cats (“They’re all your hat.”). The first duplicate is killed, then every night for 100 nights straight, the man performs the “Real Transported Man”, constantly duplicating himself and either he or one of his duplicates winding up in a tank of water below the stage they perform upon. Perhaps the true prestige is that the other man pulled his trick off using a twin brother, while the other sacrificed his life and the lives of duplicates for the look on people’s faces when they witness his great trick.

Perhaps the solution is simpler, and the machine never worked to begin with, and Tesla was just a distraction from the real trick, the use of a double. And perhaps when that man found out he’d been tricked, he chose to use a double from prior engagements, a drunkard stage actor, to help pull off his great illusion, and no one ever drowned until the night his rival came up on his stage. Maybe a trick lock was always used beforehand and replaced with a real one to setup the rival. Maybe the duplicates seen in a morgue or standing erecting in water tanks at films end are nothing more than wax figures. And maybe the revelation that his rival used a double all along makes his efforts seem fruitless in his final moments. Maybe the prestige of the film is that simple yet no one wants to accept it because of the simplicity, and certain science fiction infused elements like a machine capable of duplication are far too compelling and obvious a solution to be ignored.

Maybe we’re not meant to solve the mystery, just be driven mad by our own obsessions with it. Maybe we’re all Angiers.

B Movie Glory: The Rift


The Rift is a nifty little underwater creature feature in the tradition of stuff like The Abyss and Leviathan, a low budget affait that uses neat practical model effects to churn out some gooey thrills, and a cool cast to run around being hunted by them. When an experimental submarine dubbed the ‘Siren II’ (after the disappearance of the Siren I, naturally) descends into a deep fissure in the ocean, things begin to pop up that shouldn’t be down there. By things I mean cleverly designed miniature models that are lit just right enough to fake us out into believing they are actually giant underwater behemoths from the darkest nightmares of marine cryptozoology. Captained by R. Lee Ermey, giving the character gravitas the film almost doesn’t deserve, it’s a doomed mission from the start, especially when you factor in the shady presence of first mate Ray ‘Leland Palmer’ Wise, who has a few tricks up the old sleeve. It’s up to man of the hour Jack Scalia to swagger their way out of danger, but the rift is deep, dark and pretty soon all kinds of gooey things find their way aboard the craft. It’s not half bad, at least nowhere near the second tier hack job some critics dubbed it as. Any effort that puts that much artisan ingenuity into deep sea monsters with as little money as they were given gets a handful of gold stars from me. Plus, you can’t go wrong with that cast. 

-Nate Hill

Tab Murphy’s Last Of The Dogmen


Tab Murphy’s Last Of The Dogmen is a beautiful story, providing assurance that on a rapidly shrinking modern world there can still be some undiscovered wonder to be found, sometimes in the last place anyone would look. Tom Berenger, gruff as ever, stars as Lewis Gates, a rural bounty hunter charged with pursuing a gaggle of escaped felons who’ve hightailed it into Montana wilderness so dense that the usual branches of law can’t track them. Joined by his anthropologist friend (Barbara Hershey), he searches day and night for these convicts, and in the process finds something far more incredible. Buried far in the heart of this mostly untouched frontier is a tribe of Native Americans, thought to be wiped out by settlers generations earlier, living since then with no contact to the outside world. Gates is wary but fascinated, while Hershey recognizes this for the miracle it is and tries her best to communicate with the people, who in turn are fiercely protective of their land, especially towards the escaped prisoners who have wandered onto it as well. Hot on Berenger’s tail as well is his ex father in law (Kurtwood Smith) who is also the county Sheriff, bitter towards him for a past tragedy, volatile and unpredictable, another risky faction to flare up conflict between all sides. The action is kept to a necessary minimum, and the real meat of the piece lies in the pure spectacle of their situation, a reverence for both parties involved and a keen eye for interaction between human beings who couldn’t be more different yet have shared the same region for eons. The Native actors, including Sidel Standing Elk, Dawn Lavand, Eugene Blackbear and Steve Reevis, are all superb, as are Berenger and Smith. The real magic comes cascading through the lens of cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, who beautifully captures Banff National Park in it’s full glory, as well as other such locations not far from my Canadian home. The film hangs onto the notion that there is still undiscovered splendour out there, from rushing rivers to ancient mountains, and the mysterious tribes who once, and perhaps still do, call it home. 

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Francis Delia’s Freeway


In the vein of highway set psycho thrillers, stuff like Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher and Steven Spielberg’s Duel paved and pioneered the way, fertilizing the ground for countless other similar efforts, some terrific and others not so much. Freeway falls into the former category, an atmospheric little B movie that delivers more clammy thrills than it frankly has any right to. It’s not to be confused with the classic Reese Witherspoon trash-terpiece of the same name though, this is a different animal altogether. There’s a serial killer terrorizing the nocturnal arteries of the L.A. highway system in this, an unhinged whacko in a Lincoln of or some such automobile of equally austerity, firing off love rounds into people’s faces whilst bellowing out bible verses extremely out of context all over the overpass in the wee hours. He’s mostly heard and unseen, but he’s played by none other than Billy Drago when he does show that leering visage, and the man let’s it rip in a performance that should be legendary. He’s hunted by another cool-as-ice character actor, tough guy James Russo as a Detective of few words and tons of action, namely shooting anyone that won’t give answers or spur his leads. There’s a dark, dreamy nocturnal aura to this, love and care put into atmosphere, showing is that the filmmakers, despite working with a low budget, actually give a darn about quality in their work as opposed to a throwaway second tier genre mad dash where the lack of passion is evident. A low rent classic in the realm of homicidal vehicular themed exploitation. 

-Nate Hill

One Man’s Hero


One Man’s Hero takes place during a conflict that doesn’t get all that much coverage in Hollywood, the Mexican American war. With a sweeping Patriot-esque vibe and a world weary starring turn turn from Tom Berenger, it’s an affecting tale that whether or not is based on truth, still packs an emotional whallop. Berenger is Riley, an Irish American who leads his mostly immigrant troupes through racial prejudice beset on them by their own American superiors, just one more obstacle thrown in with the already taxing war itself. Defecting from the troops, Riley is commissioned to lead his men on the opposing force, banding together with fiery, disillusioned Mexican revels leader Cortina (Joaquim De Almeida) and fight for acceptance and survival while navigating both sides of the conflict. Although there are a few impressive battle sequences staged here and there, the film is more about the private and personal wars fought amongst the ranks themselves, the notion that one army isn’t always just focused on the task and can get caught up in internal conflict, which often, including in this case, leads to unnecessary tragedy. Berenger and Almeida go at it fiercely in a love hate companionship constantly tested by the war and their mutual affection for beautiful fellow freedom fighter Marta (Daniela Romo). Underrated Patrick Bergin shows up in a severely powdered wig, Stephen Tobolowsky plays yet another one of his loathsome, letcherous roles and the late great James Gammon is the perfect embodiment of crusty yet compassionate General Zachary Taylor. Not a title that crosses many people’s vision when discussing war films, but a really solid effort despite a lower budget, a story that needed to be told and a star turn from Tom to remember. 

-Nate Hill

Peter Hyam’s Narrow Margin 


Peter Hyams Narrow Margin is a sleek thriller that attempts to blend courtroom intrigue with a single location white-knuckler, which it does.. mostly successfully. A better way to put it would be that it sandwiches a cat and mouse game set on a speeding train between an intro and epilogue both set in the decidedly more complicated realm of legal escapades. We open as an unfortunate lawyer (J.T. Walsh in a too brief cameo) is assassinated by the mobster scumbag (Harris Yulin, creepy as ever) he had shady ties too. A terrified Anne Archer hides in the shadows, witness to the murder, and therefore a valuable asset to the dogged prosecutor (Gene Hackman) who is trying to bring the kingpin down. The two of them are ambushed on a routine transport via helicopter and escape onto said train, and here’s where the narrative cops out just a little bit. Almost the entire rest of the film is spent on the train, an extended diversion of a set piece that steps in for what I thought would be a more cerebral battle of wills between these factions, in court and out. It’s not a huge deal, I was just expecting a little more, and the bits at either end of the film stand as my favourite sequences. Hackman plays stubborn like no other, having both literal and figurative tunnel vision here, the only one thing he cares about being the life of his witness. They’re harried at every turn by corrupt officials of many kinds, and pursued by a mystery woman (Susan Hogan, my acting mentor in college no less), while the train hurtles through the gorgeous Canadian wilderness, captured pristinely by Hyam’s lens as he dutifully does his own cinematography, the dynamo. It’s a thrilling little piece that benefits from Hackman’s spirited work, the photography and editing backing it up nicely.  

-Nate Hill