Joe Wright’s Hanna started as a Vancouver Film School script, funded through grants that would make it the catalyst for the positively unique, incendiary action fairy tale that it is today. It’s crowd pleasing without any superficiality, straight to the point without being over serious, and is made with a slick, vibrant aesthetic that will have your pulse dancing a jig in time with the thumping score by The Chemical Brothers. I held off on seeing this one for years after its initial release, jaded by the prospect of another ‘killer genetically altered female assassin’ flick. One night I finally caved and took a peek on Netflix. I then kicked myself hard for not taking notice sooner, purely on the notion that I wouldn’t dig it based on its formula. I suppose I learnt a little ‘book by its cover’ lesson there, as I was completely enamoured with the film and have seen it at least ten times since then. The tired ingredients of any old formula can be whipped up into a tantalizing new recipe, providing all those involved have the commitment and passion. The filmmakers of Hanna go for broke with one of the best thrillers in years. Saoirse Ronan is an explosive, feral waif as the titular hero, raised in isolation by her badass ex CIA father Erik Heller (underrated Aussie Eric Bana nails the German accent to a T). They reside in the frozen tundras of Lapland, where Erik trains her in the ways of a warrior, instilling survivalism in both physical and intellectual measures, preparing her for their inevitable separation. An enemy from Erik’s past surfaces in the form of evil CIA witch Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett practically breathes fire with a naughty southern accent and a red hairdo that looks acidic to the touch), and both Hanna and him are forced to run, separated from each other. She escapes from a remote facility and begins her journey across Europe, befriended by a lovable squabbling family of travellers, igniting a yearning for companionship in her that Ronan expertly shows the camera. Wiegler enlists the slimy help of a euro trash club owner who moonlights as some sort of freelance über villain (Tom Hollander almost walks away with the movie as the psychopathic, bleached blonde pervo Deutsch-bag) who relentlessly pursues Hanna along with his neo nazi skinhead henchman. The thing about this film is that it’s all been done before, but they find a way to make it fresh, exciting and strike chords which simply haven’t been hit in this sub genre before, providing a film experience that really sticks. Ronan has never been more virile and effective, also proving a mastery of the German accent and embodying Hanna with intense physicality that’s achingly punctuated by a gradual awakening as a person as well. Impressive balance is shown in her character arc, through writing and stunt work alike. This is the first movie to be scored by The Chemical Brothers, and damn I hope we get more. They belt out a technicolor rhapsody of electric music that flows beautifully with the story, hitting every beat, ramping up suspense when needed, being surprisingly weird at times and kicking around your head long after the credits roll. The actors are all easy listening with the dialogue, never feeling forced or making us doubt for a minute that these aren’t real people engaged in genuine interaction. The film neither drags nor rushes, arriving at its often grisly, sometimes touching and always entertaining conclusions exactly when it needs to. It shows uncanny intuition with its pacing, an absence of the need to show off with unnecessary fights or effects which don’t serve the story, and above all a keen desire to entertain us. Terrific stuff.
Peter Jackson’s dreamlike adaptation of The Lovely Bones gets unfairly beat down way too much. While I will concede that, having never read the book myself, I’ve heard it differs considerably in story, I view the film on a standalone level. And what a film. It’s an absolute stunner, on every level, from effects and casting to acting and production design. It contains elements of the subconscious and astral planes which are a huge draw in any film for me, and are visualized here spectacularly. Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, an adolescent girl barely coming into her own when she is cut down like a flower that has jus begun to bloom. Her killer, a skin crawling creep named George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) is a neighbor and well disguises his inner nature, making the search for her murderer lead to cold dead ends. Her father (an oddly cast Mark Wahlberg makes it work) doesn’t give up for a minute, tormented by not knowing what happened to his little girl. Her mother (Rachel Weisz) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) slowly come apart at the seams from the insidious trauma that such an incident inflicts on loved ones left behind. Only her plucky sister Rose (an excellent Rose McIver) is able to find any clues which lay the blame on Harvey. She quietly scopes him out for proof of the murder, providing a scene of hair raising suspense that will leave you needing a change of pants. Meanwhile, Susie finds herself in a place beyond space and time, a dazzling purgatory filled with the sights, sounds and memories of her short life all projected through the abstract prism of the unconscious mind, and is simply the most innovative and eye opening look into the unconscious dream world of the human mind since Tarsem Singh’s The Cell. Ronan is a beacon of hope in her performance, projecting resilience frayed with the vulnerability of a young soul achingly wounded at the tragedy of her outcome, yet determind to set things right and make peace with the life she was ripped out of so soon. Tucci is flat out genius as Harvey. Gone is his usual spitfire cameraderie, giving us an empty, psychopathic shell of a human with a reptilian gaze that causes shudders all round. He’s made Harvey a truly harrowing movie villain to rank as one of the very best, and when viewed alongside other performances of his, one can scarcely comprehend his versatility, let alone believe it’s the same guy in both roles. Peter Jackson has a yearning for every project he takes on to be the longest, flashiest, most opulent vision he can conjure up, and while that sometimes causes his own masterful technique to buckle in on itself a bit, here its employed wonderfully to make the very best version of this story that anyone probably could have. He also doesn’t shy away from showing the blunt brutality of the situation, or the undeniably ugly event, which is hard to sit through yet neccesary for the arc of the story to have full impact. In the end, elements of the story both nasty and uplifting alike combine with a set of impressive visual effects and earnest acting all across the board to create a treasure of a film.
Yesterday I went into HMV, looking for a standard Blu Ray edition of a film I’ve recently seen that has stuck with me since in a way that I can’t quite describe, Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock. The only version they had was a pricy Criterion Blu Ray/Dvd combo which also included the original novel which Weir based his film on. Now normally I’m reluctant with Criterion, as I almost always disagree with the films they pick for their releases. Also..it was expensive as shit. But then I remembered how much it affected me when I first watched it on my humble iPad, and realized that I wanted to have the snazziest output that money could buy, as this is one I’ll be revisiting probably until my years on this rock have run out. At it’s heart it’s a mystery of the deepest primordial resonance, laced with the burgeoning sexuality of its female lead characters, and ultimately leaving an aftertaste of such yearning, mournful sadness that I had no idea movies were even capable of. Weir sets his story in 1900 Australia, with amusing attempts by the British to tame the near prehistoric nature of the land. Their prim, drawn up customs seem ludicrous and surreal in the face of a wild, abstractly formed landscape that meets their need for order and custom with unimpressed chaos.
A group of girls from a nearby boarding school embark on an annual picnic to Hanging Rock, an ominous geological gnarl set in a scorched, unearthly swath of land that evokes the feeling one might get from a partially recalled dream of some far off dimensional plane. For the conservative visitors and the audience alike, the surface of the moon might feel more at home. In a gust of unsettling foreshadowing, several members of their party note that their watches have mysteriously stopped at dead noon. A group of four girls venture forth to explore the upper plateau of the rock, promising their teacher Mademoiselle (radiant, elemental Helen Morse) they’ll be back before tea. Four enter the jagged, awaiting maze; two disappear and are never heard from again. It’s an enigma that shakes the foundations of the boarding school to its core. From stoic headmistress (Rachel Roberts) to a tragically abandoned orphan girl (Margaret Nelson, staggering for a girl who’d had no previous acting experience) no one is quite the same after the incident, almost as if whatever intangible forces responsible for the girl’s disappearance have reached out and deeply disturbed every form of life in its vicinity, the very madness of the continent itself driving these civilized newcomers to the brink of soul shaking distress. In spite of the film’s beauty, there are also moments of sheer horror that rival anything in your garden variety fright flick. The key scene where the girl’s are last scene is fogged over with such a feeling unshakable dread, crafted through sound and editing alone, no actual discernible violence or threat. It’s utter genius and you begin to question why you’ve got hordes of goosebumps from so ambiguous a scene, but you’re left snatching for the same answers to a feeling akin to the sensation of a quickly dissipating nightmare I mentioned above. That’s how powerful the filmmaking is… You are shaken without ever really knowing why or what’s the matter, which is really the concept of a mystery distilled to its purest form.
What claws at your mind and lingers in the fringes of your awareness long after watching the film is its atmosphere of mounting dread, like knowing for certain the the worst possible type of end is coming for you, yet being utterly unable to articulate exactly what it is. The soundscape is thick with melancholic unease as well, evident in a knockout pan flute solo from Georghe Zamfir, providing a hazy chorus that will stand up the hairs on your arm in its beauty and terror. The scenes at Hanging Rock are lifted straight out of a subconscious place and laid down on the canvas of film with the same exquisite care of pressing flowers, which we see the girls doing early on. Film essentially does this: the painstaking preservation of beauty for countless generations to be pleased, terrified and puzzled by. There’s no better version of this film I’d rather have that with than this one.
Usually, I’m not super hot on adaptations of John Le Carré novels. His style tends to veer towards dense, impenetrable narratives that confuse and confound me, and are further frustrating because they have such wonderful casts and production value (I’m lookin at you, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The Constant Gardener, however, is a breathtaking story that I’ve enjoyed very much since I saw it in theatres at probably too young an age. It fashions a story that although is complex and refuses to be straightforward about what it’s trying to say, contains essential beats and stunning performances from its actors. It’s also set apart from other Le Carré yarns for having the most humanistic, compasionate core to its story, centering it’s focus on the atrocities that humans can commit upon each other in mass, faceless fashion and showing us the sparse, golden good deeds that a few kind people can put forth to counter such madness. An organic, emotional theme is nice compared to the clinical, detached style we usually see from this writer. The film is lucky in the sense that it has deeply gifted leads: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two actors who always resonate with a relatable human kinship in their work, and are both superb here. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British ambassador in a god forsaken African region whose luminous wife Tessa (Weisz) is found dead in a remote area under suspicious circumstances. She was investigating several high profile pharmaceutical companies, under scrutiny for their sociopathic, amoral drug testing trials on the poverty stricken Africans. Intrigue strikes in after this, as shellshocked Justin pieces together what lead to her death, and how he can cripple those responsible using espionage and a level of keenness that’s well above both his pay grade and mental constitution. Flashbacks abound as we see Justin and Tessa’s early years unfold, adding all the more to the lumps in our throats as we know the ultimate outcome which the film frankly showed us in the opening frames. Welcome supporting turns come from other UK geniuses like Bill Nighy as an icy CEO, Richard McCabe as Fiennes’s courageous brother in law, Danny Huston as a shady friend of Tessa’s and Pete Postlethwaite as a mysterious doctor who figures later in the plot. Cinematographer César Charlone makes sweeping work of bringing the chaotic nature of Africa to life, it’s people, landcsape and aura beautifully rendered in shots that evoke the best of Monét and similar artists. Such beauty brought forth from a story filled with unpleasantness is interesting, almost a refusal to present the depressing story in any other fashion than to show us the virtue in tragedy, the cost of lost lives and unchecked corruption present for all to see and wince at, yet somewhat quelled by the undeniable forces of light also in play. Rachel and Ralph’s work is an example of this; They are compassion incarnate, pools of hurt, determination and love for one another in the face of evil, unfair odds. They should both be very proud of their work here. Direct Fernando Meirelles has helmed Blindness and the classic City Of God, and as such is no stranger to infusing pain and sorrow with esoteric, positive qualities. He takes full advantage of the African setting, where suffering is commonplace and along with his entire troupe, throws all the lush, alluring kindness straight into the face of horror in an audacious stylistic set of choices which make The Constant Gardener one of the most achingly well constructed romantic annd political thrillers of the decade.
Oren Moverman’s Time Out Of Mind is a film that’s set so decidedly against the grain when it comes to how a story is presented to audience, it’s no wonder that it has been such a divisive experience. It’s almost like the anti-film. I understand it may be quite shocking the way it’s made, or lack thereof. But to hear that people walked out of screenings in droves at TIFF really saddens me. For someone to just not jive with the loose, dreamy aesthetic that serves the subject matter achingly well makes me wonder. But I suppose this is the type of film that really separates those with the power of abstract thought and the will to immerse themselves from those… without. The story in question concerns a homeless man in New York City played to absolute perfection by a haggard, boozed up and ultimately lost Richard Gere. This is the performance of his career, an outing of pure bravery and dedication that glues your eyes to the screen even in the most mundane of moments. You see, Gere himself had no idea when the cameras were periodically filming him, and was actually left stranded in the jungle of NYC, deep in the mindset of a lost soul, creating a minimilist performance that burns through the haze of a life scattered by tragedy. Little is given by the script in terms of back story for Gere, subtle hints given towards a broken life, death in the family and a mysterious injury which has left both body and soul scarred, as well as leaving him with obvious brain damage. If their was an award given out for best film title of the year, this one has earned it. ‘Time Out Of Mind’. Isn’t that the perfect description for a shattered psyche that has been set adrift by life’s cruel tides and left to wander the years, alone.. distraught.. damaged. Gere is a portrait of hurt, confusion and lonliness, wandering the overbearing maze of the city, desperately clinging to any semblance of dignity, as well as the scattered shards of his past that he yearns for. He’s got a daughter (Jena Malone in a conflicted career best) who wants nothing to do with him, making us wonder more about the past. He encounters several people over the course of the film. An energetic fellow vagrant (Ben Vereen) helps bring out a bit of Gere’s dormant coherence via his own nonsensical mania. A shrewd building inspector (Steve Buscemi) gives him the boot from a condemned building. He has a chance romantic encounter with a fellow homeless woman (an unrecognizable Kyra Sedgwick). The film is shot, edited and presented to the audience in a form completely void of structure or narrative beats. Gere wanders aimlessly, his foggy mental state reflected in the way his perceives his world, and in turn the way we perceive his story. It’s both ironic and fitting that we find ourselves so drawn in to a story that is presented as a set of events that are each and every one astray from any sort of cohesion. That’s where the title is so brilliant and touching.. Gere is one step removed from reality via time and injury. He himself mentions at one point that he has forgotten how long it’s been, and that he’s lost the thread of his life via many instances of ‘lost time’. Gere sells it and then some, inhabiting the streets with a worn out, ghostly presence that begs you to place yourself in the shoes and mind of someone who truly has lost their way in life, and to see that for them, such a fork in the road can truly change the concept of time. Seeing this successfully done with film in every aspect was truly an experience for me. Gere is the heart of it, as the camera peers out on him from trash strewn alleys, broken window frames and desolate, uncaring streets that leave him all but invisible, an individual manifestation of a sad fact of life which sometimes sits on the fringes of our awareness. Not with this film.
I’m incredibly excited to bring you my latest interview, with veteran director John Dahl. John has a staggering resume, having helmed episodes of television shows including Hannibal, Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, Justified, Kingdom, House Of Cards, Jessica Jones, The Affair, Californication, Outlander, The Bridge, The Strain, Dexter, Arrow, Homeland, Shameless, Caprica, True Blood, Battlestar Galactica and more. He has also directed some amazing films, including Joy Ride, Rounders, The Last Seduction, Kill Me Again and Red Rock West. It was an honour to speak with him and I hope you enjoy reading it!
Nate: Growing up, what was it about film that attracted you, and how did you discover that you wanted to pursue it? Were there any filmmakers you admired or have inspired your work?
John: I always love going to see movies but then I remember seeing a “behind the scenes” preview of Jeremiah Johnson. They were pushing the camera on dolly track, it was the first time I’d seen anything like that. It started me think about how films were made. Then there was A Clockwork Orange. I was an art student and I loved the production design of the film and the use of Beethoven. Again it occurred to the that someone had to make everything that was in front of the camera. This film has really stuck with me as one of my favorites. As for influences; Kubrick, Coppola, Hitchcock, Spielberg, David Lynch & the Coen Brothers.
Nate: You have spent one portion of you career making feature films, and a more recent section has been centered on episodic TV. How do you find that the two differ? In film school we were told that they get directors for shows who are kind of like ‘guns for hire’, who will be efficient and carry the overall tone of the show without changing it too much. Did you find with any of the shows that you worked on (Ray Donovan, Hannibal, Justified etc) that you were rigidly set within the parameters of the show, or were you able to give them your own style, even a little, at all?
John: In any endeavor I’ve know there was always a practical side to me. From playing in bands, making artwork and certainly in writing and directing. While studying cinema in college I was curious as to how directors got their starts. This is when I came upon Roger Corman and his low budget approach. I noticed that both Jonathon Demme and Martin Scorsese got started with him. At this writing Corman has 409 producing credits and 56 directing credits. Are they all great? No, however If every movie I watched was as good as The Godfather or Rocky I probably never would have left Montana. Corman was a window into how films could be made and how one could grow through time and experience. Supposedly he shot Little Shop Of Horrors in 48 hours. My first professional directing experiences were doing music videos in the 80’s. This was a great playground to learn about lens, lighting, editing and how to work with a budget and a professional crew. I directed about 30 music videos when I got the opportunity to direct my first film. I’ve never worked on a project where money and time were not a factor, in the 8 movies that I’ve done and almost 90 episodes of television. The process is pretty much the same as I can tell – yes when you direct a film you are more in control of the process until you show it to the studio and start testing it. Then you have to respond to the audiences, producers and studio desires to hopefully recoup their investment. When you make television the studio and producers are involved every step of the way. It’s a group effort rather than an individual one. I can’t help but bring my sensibilities to the work I do – so far it hasn’t been a problem because when I’m doing someones tv show I’m trying to figure out how I can make it as great as possible with the time, money and talent available. I see filmmaking as the art of what is possible.
Nate: Rounders: for some reason, feels like the most personal film of you career. Silly for me to say, I know, since I’ve never met you, but it’s such a focused, distilled style and seems like all efforts involved were purely concentrated upon making this something really cool. How was you experience on this film?
John: Rounders what a terrific experience for me. I never really saw myself as much of a writer. I wrote so that I could create opportunities to direct. After four movies I was finally handed a movie and it was Rounders – pretty much the way you see it on screen. I saw it as a sports movie, the sport was gambling, not baseball or golf but a game of chance in which if you study, work hard you would succeed. Miramax supported the project, they liked the script, the cast – everything went fairly smooth. Interesting that you would say it my most personal film. I would probably say Red Rock West would be my most personal film – but to each their own.
Nate: Joy Ride: a colossally fun film. How was your experience making this one? I’m very curious about Ted Levine. On the dvd there test clips for Rusty Nail auditions with both Levine, Eric Roberts and a guy called Stephen Shellan. Were you in control of who nailed the role? Did you get to work a lot with Ted in the recording process?
John: Ted did a great job on the film although he was not my first choice. I pitched the ending of the film to the studio, building on the idea that the movie had to have a suspenseful ending – not more surprise which JJ Abrams was big on. I set up the idea that if Rusty Nail had Venna and the cops were coming to the rescue, if Venna was in jeopardy by say a “shotgun to the head” it would be more exciting – kind of the way Silence Of The Lambs ended. That may have been the take away for JJ – Buffalo Bill thus Ted Levine.
Nate: Red Rock West: Classic desert noir. How was the experience? One thing with your films that always is consistent and incredibly memorable performances from your actors. Particularly Dennis Hopper (Lyle From Dallas haha) and JT Walsh, who was a family friend of my parents. What was it like working with them? This is a Segway into my next question:
John: They say 90% of directing is casting the right actor. I agree. I’ve been blessed to work with remarkable actors. My approach is simple, I try to get great actors, set up the scene and get out of their way.
Nate: Working with actors: how do you approach the working relationship between actor and director? How has that process evolved for you over time and what have you learned from it?
John: I try to say as little as possible. I trust that they’ve done their homework and want to be great in any role they play. I’m there to guide them. Help them do their best work. As long as they end up going where I’m trying to take them — I give them full license to find the role.
Nate: The Last Seduction: I’m very curious about what it was like working with Linda Fiorentino, who is a favorite of mine.
John: Linda was fantastic. It was clear from the moment she entered the room that she was perfect to play that part. She pretty much cast herself, all we had to do is get out of her way and let her be Bridget Gregory.
Nate: You have written both Red Rock West and Kill Me Again. How do you find working with a director with your own material as opposed to other projects where you are dealing with a script crafted by someone else?
John: I like working with a writer – gives me someone to bounce ideas off of – it allows you to challenge the material – make sure you have the best version possible when you start shooting and even while you are shooting. I’ve often thought that the people with the most skin in the game are the director, writer and actors – those 3 jobs live or die each time they make something.
Nate: Are you hooked on tv now, or will we see some more films from you at some point in the future?
John: I like television. I’ve been able to work on great shows with fantastic writing. I don’t see a big difference between the two – if the material is good, I’ll do it. Do I still want to do features? Yes, I just need a great script.
Nate: Thank you so much for your time John, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and keep up the great work!
If the rumblings from director Alexander Gonzalez Inarritu and his intrepid cast and crew about The Revenant being the most tumultuous, challenging shoot of their lives, it’s all in service of the loftiest of causes one could achieve: to produce great art. I say that without pretension or monocle wagging patronization, and mark my words: The Revenant is by and far the greatest film this year, and possibly of the last decade. It is monumental in scale, meticulous in pacing and erects the fundamental pillars of the human condition so flawlessly that we feel we are watching actual history materialize before our eyes, untethered from the notion that it’s just a movie.
Let’s start with the ocular deity that is Emmanuel Lubezki: This film contains the best cinematography I have ever seen in my life. The bold location scouting is a catalyst for the prodigy of a DOP to work his ethereal magic. Time and time again throughout the film I found myself marvelling at the stunning patience and skill displayed by the man in attaining his precious shots, constantly chafed by what I imagine was an impossibly stressful environment, bogged down by time constraints and the pure, uncaring call of nature itself. He shot with natural light for all but one scene, an unimaginable achievement that plays out in endless beauty that rocks your soul to its foundation for the entire two and a half hour running time. The locations, lovingly culled from deep within northern Canada and briefly Argentina, are an unforgiving cacophony of serene snowfalls, cascading rivers and jagged, untamed mountain ranges. This is the landscape I have grown up in and call home and to such holy places captured with such reverence on film, gilding a story of such primordial importance had me next to tears.
Leonardo DiCaprio pulls out all the stops in his ferocious portrayal of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who lives by his feral gut instinct alone, attempting to guide his fur trapping expedition through the terrain while looking out for his half Pawnee Native son who he already rescued from aching tragedy years before. After a harrowing raid in the dawning minutes of the film that makes it abundantly clear how serious the film intends to be, he and a small band of men are stranded and forced to contend with the land, and the threat of the natives finding them. Glass then gets attacked by a bear in a nerve shattering sequence that had my adrenal glands running a marathon. The frank, unapologetic nature in which the scene plays out reminds us all that nature isn’t our playground of opportunity and commerce, but a living organism that can bite the hand that it refuses to feed with alarming abandon. The sheer level of carnage inflicted upon Glass by both beast and man will shake you to your core, as will the excellent makeup and CGI effects that drive the point deep into your retinas. Tom Hardy disappears into his role better than Glass’s expedition blends into the treacherous blizzards, playing John Fitzgerald, a cowardly motherfucker who is content to leave Glass to the elements and seek fortune elsewhere, dragging sympathetic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter, excellent) along with him. The military component of their expedition (Domhall Gleeson, superb) suspects Fitzgerald and is wary. Hardy is the very definition of an acting chameleon, and disappears headlong into the role that had me riveted, and rooting for a best supporting actor win. The entire cast was subjected to a brutal nine weeks exposed to the elements, each other, and the raw, archetypal narrative of the piece that was being made, and each of them shows it in spades.
At its core it’s a revenge piece, spurred by aching character interaction involving Leo and his family in affecting flashbacks. Leo goes through somewhat of a transformation here.. He loses all he has left to an uncaring, cold faced world that would sooner see him tossed around a moss stained forest in pieces than avenged. But his Hugh Glass rages against the dying of the light right alongside Lubezki’s lens, creating in tandem the perfect voyage of a man who has become so consumed with the forces of nature in his quest to attain some semblance of his former self, that he has become somewhat of an element himself. Leo truly deserves gold this time around.
Adventure/survival epics are my favourite. This one stands out, and yet.. does more than that, if possible. It delves deep into the lush, echoing vastness of the past and pulls forth a story so human, so recognizable, in such a force of construction where the fruits of everyone’s labour are so obvious, it can’t help but be worshipped as a classic in the art form of cinema and a treatise on how to excel in every single area of the medium.