Tag Archives: Forest Whitaker

Stephen Hopkins’s Blown Away

As far as mad bomber movies go, Stephen Hopkins’s Blown Away has to be one of the finest, a personal favourite of mine and a scorching, atmospheric thriller that has aged like fine wine. It had the unfortunate luck of being released the same year as fellow bomber flick and mega-hit Speed which kind of eclipsed it, but for my money this is the better film. Some suspension of disbelief is naturally required to enjoy this story of a psychopathic former Irish radical (Tommy Lee Jones) on a wanton path of destruction as he employs a personal vendetta against an old alliance (Jeff Bridges), who is now a hotshot in the Boston bomb squad division. After a disagreement years ago that led to hellish destruction and Jones’s incarceration for nearly two decades, the two face off in an incendiary game of cat and mouse set against the Boston backdrop, with everyone Bridges has in his life serving as collateral damage in his ruthless adversary’s sick game. Jones clearly had a dialect coach to say certain phrases and his accent slips generously here and there, but he plays his super baddie role with gleeful menace and steals every scene. Bridges always shines in any role and his caged animal intensity fires up the dire situation he finds himself, his family and colleagues in. Lloyd Bridges is fantastic as his old Irish uncle, Suzy Amis nails crucial scenes as his wife who gradually learns about his violent past, while Forest Whitaker does a fine job as the bomb squad’s rookie officer. Hopkins always does well in thriller territory (check out The Ghost & The Darkness for another brilliant outing from him) and the direction here is big, bold but never too far over the top, despite some theatrically elaborate set pieces involving the bombs. Alan Silvestri cranks up the orchestral grandeur for a thunderous, rousing score that’s nearly half the fun of the film. All involved do excellent work in not only making this a gorgeous film to look at but to create genuine suspense for more than one sequence, which isn’t easily achieved in this desensitized viewer. There’s probably a Blu Ray floating around out there and that’s fine, but there’s a smoky ambience and atmospheric 90’s feel to this film that I feel lends itself a bit better to the loving grain of DVD, the format I own it on. I remember watching bits and pieces of it on TBS Superstation back when I was younger and loving it, it’s a great film to keep revisiting.

-Nate Hill

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Roger Donaldson’s Species

Roger Donaldson’s Species is a trash infused Sci Fi horror yarn that’s clearly inspired by stuff like Alien and Body Snatchers right down to the scaly, jagged title font, but oh man did they ever take the silly, run of the mill route here. Scientists including Alfred Molina and Ben Kingsley have successfully moulded human and extraterrestrial DNA sequences to create a hybrid creature called Sil, but as in any film like this it soon becomes apparent how ill advised such an experiment will come to be. Sil, played by an excellent Michelle Williams at preteen level and later by eye catching supermodel Natasha Henstridge, is an endlessly fascinating character with so much potential, but this being nothing more than a Schlocky B flick elevated oh so slightly by the presence of an ensemble cast with considerable pedigree, she is sadly relegated to pedestrian movie monster archetype, and the premise falls short of fruition as a result. Using the seductive powers of her human form (Henstridge is a babe) she evades recapture and seeks an earthling mate to perpetuate her species and probably cause a full scale invasion via systemic procreation, while the doctors and a team of experts including zoological guru Forest Whitaker and big game hunters Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger pursue her all over a metropolitan area while she looks for Mr. Perfect to make slimy babies with. Sex is treated in a very lurid, shallow and unpleasant way here, like with the budget and firepower behind a film this big you’d expect a modicum of maturity and respect for the female form, but they’ve thoroughly exploited the concept to sickening levels that probably looked fun on paper, but don’t translate very nicely on screen. Worth it for Sil, for both Williams’ and Henstridge’s take on the character and to think about what might have been had they written her character with more class, care and depth, but other than that this is just cheeseball slime without a brain or heartbeat. Followed by two sequels that pretty much go the same route of disappointment.

-Nate Hill

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

Every few years, if we’re lucky, we get a science fiction movie as good as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a cosmic miracle of a film. Built around the ages old trope of aliens invading earth, and even throwing shout outs to sci fi flicks of yore (Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day to name a few), it ultimately is completely it’s own thing and there has never been anything quite like it ever before in the genre, or in Big Hollywood. Villeneuve, whether working in crime, thriller or mind-fuck territory, has always proudly broke the mold and blasted new crevices into seemingly charted out tonal territory. It’s only fitting that a SciFi outing from him is something remarkable, and he terraforms the genre to incredible thematic plateaus here. Amy Adams is reliably terrific as a linguistics guru brought in by the government to try and communicate with a mysterious race of extraterrestrials, shadowy beings who have illegally parked their mammoth, monolithic ships systematically all over the globe. What do they want? Why are they her? Tensions rise when the military (Forest Whitaker gives the obligatory general role his trademark brand of implosive compassion) and the CIA (Michael Stuhlburg does paranoia to a turn) butt heads over what to do, while a snarky mathematician (Jeremy Renner, excellent) has his own ideas. Adams develops an inspired way of both understanding these beings via their unique brand of written language and imparting to them our English words, or at least a variation. The scenes inside their ship are so haunting and atmospheric we get the sense this is real footage we’re sneaking a peek at, and the government may bust in and raid our TV room any moment. The beings themselves are a visually intriguing bunch, like dreamy space elephant/whale/spiders who evoke a strange, genuinely alien aura. But time is running out, and if Adams can’t make both their language and intentions clear, the big guns of fear and ignorance threaten to come out and play. The film has an important, uplifting message that communication should always supersede violence, a hard truth but a necessary one. My favourite aspect of this film is its elliptical final act, and anyone who has already seen it knows what I’m talking about. Much of the film, although artistic, is straightforward, but Villeneuve really plumbs the fathoms of human consciousness and pulls forth ideas that not only are rarely explored this maturely onscreen, are also very difficult to understand in linear, analytical fashion. It’s this drive to push his audience, to dole out just as much brain and soul candy as eye candy into our cinematic trick or treat bags that’s the reason he’s such an important, landmark filmmaker, and it’s a joy to see such films take centre stage at the multiplex. With key supporting work from the great Tzi Ma and a ghostly original score by the late maestro Johan Johansson that eerily inhabits the film like an alien force all its own, every individual and element involved combine to give this film something special and rare: a genuine sense of wonder.

-Nate Hill

David Fincher’s Panic Room

You know a thriller is gonna pack some torque when the opening credits are emblazoned boldly against the skyline of a huge metropolitan city. Well, not necessarily, but it’s a nice urban atmospheric touch, and David Fincher’s Panic Room employs the tactic before it unleashes an unholy, seriously suspenseful bag of tricks on Jodie Foster and her young daughter (an androgynous looking Kristen Stewart). Recently divorced and poised to move into an airy, gorgeous NYC brownstone, she quite literally walks into the perfect setup for a thriller that Fincher milks for all it’s worth and then some. As the real estate agent (Ian ‘Dick Tremayne’ Buchanan) theatrically informs her, this townhome comes with a fortified Panic Room, a steel box installation in which one may safely hide from any and all intruders. That safely part gets shot to shit when three burglars bust in on their first night staying there, and turn it into one of those real time ‘one long night from hell’ motifs. Aloof, slightly compassionate Forest Whitaker, sketchy, strung out Jared Leto and vicious psychopath Dwight Yoakam are a hectic mix, but the chemistry is there and they’re all freaky in their own way, like wayward trick or treaters who grew up and graduated into petty thievery. They’re after something that’s only accessible through the panic room, but Jodie and Kristen won’t let them inside, which prompts the ultimate siege game of cat, mouse and upper class NYC mom that goes into the wee hours of a typically rainy night. Fincher could be considered the crown prince of the big budget, R rated Hollywood thriller, and he absolutely goes for broke in every department here. He’s got two mad dog cinematographers in Darius Kondji and Conrad W. Hall, who prowl the apartment like panthers and achieve some truly great WTF shots, turning the home into an elongated nightmare of barren hallways, rain streaked bay windows flickering surveillance cameras. Musical deity Howard Shore composes a baroque, threatening piece that practically booms across Central Park and echoes through the adjacent skyscrapers before it whistles through the steel rivets of the panic room like the dangerous propane that Whitaker maniacally tries to smoke them out with. Originally written with Nicole Kidman in mind (she has a super quick cameo), I think Foster is a better suit for the role with her narrow eyed, breathless intensity and lithe, lynx like physicality. Things get satisfyingly brutal later on, with some shocking violence when mommy grabs a sledgehammer and starts bashing heads in. The suspense here is real, it’s tactile, tangible, earned tension, the kind you can’t just fake or stage every other scene without detailed setups to catalyze the payoff. This isn’t Fincher’s first rodeo, and he rides this thing in the captain’s chair all the way to suspense nirvana. One of the best thrillers out there.

-Nate Hill

Space Operatic: An Interview with Stephen van Vuuren by Kent Hill

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I applaud anyone who makes their way on this crusade, some might say foolish crusade, to make a film. It can be a long, arduous, laborious. And thinking on that word laborious, now consider making a film that has to be stitched together using over 7 million photographs with animation techniques pioneered by Walt Disney on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. No CGI. And I know that sounds sacrilegious in this day and age where a film without CGI is like a day without sunshine.

However, the film that Stephen van Vuuren has, albeit laboriously, constructed In Saturn’s Rings, is a unique master-work that is as beautiful and immersive on the small screen I watched it on as I can imagine it being played in its large format form.

Sparked by Cassini‘s arrival at Saturn in 2004 and the media’s lack of coverage, van Vuuren produced two films. Photos from space missions — including images of Saturn taken by Cassini — were included. But van Vuuren was not satisfied with the results so he did not release them.

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While listening to the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber one day in 2006, van Vuuren conceived the idea of creating moving images of Saturn based on a pan-and-scan 2.5-D effect. The technique involves creating a 3-D perspective using still photographs.

After discussion with audiences at IMAX conferences, van Vuuren decided the film title Outside In (the title of the short version) was not a good match for the film’s sensibility. The Giant Film Cinema Association had been publicising the film and surveys it conducted supported this. It was during a discussion in 2012 about the film’s climax where he was describing Earth “in Saturn’s rings” that van Vuuren realized he had found his new title.

Although narration had originally been removed in 2009, by 2014 van Vuuren realized that a sparse narration was necessary for the film. This amounted to 5 pages and about 1200 words in total. After listening to many voice actors one stood out and he asked LeVar Burton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) to be the narrator for the film.

The culmination of these elements, plus a lot of hard work, has resulted in something that is essentially more than a film. Like Kubrick’s 2001 which inspired him, van Vuuren has crafted an experience of what it may by like to drift through the far reaches of space to the planet that has always been the physical embodiment of his childhood fantasies. And I for one am grateful he stuck to his guns and made a movie that, even though it’s not a tale from a galaxy far, far away, it is the universe at its most wondrous…

Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth 


“Isn’t it funny? You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?”

So snarls Kiefer Sutherland’s mysterious telephone terrorist to a petrified Colin Farrell in Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth,

a taut, entertaining and oh so slightly heavy handed single location thriller that brings home the bacon, albeit messily spilling some grease along the way. Farrell is a hotshot businessman who steps into a phone booth (remember those?) one day, which serendipitously happens to also be the favourite haunt for sniper slinging whackjob Sutherland, who plays sadistic mind games, extorts the poor guy and digs up his darkest secrets, all while keeping him firmly in the crosshairs of his high powered rifle. The cops, led by a stoic Forest Whitaker, are perplexed at first and eventually drawn into this monster’s web too, as Farrell’s life begins to unravel at the whims of this unseen harasser, and the audience gets to see just how far either will go to resolve or escalate the situation. In this day and age there’d never be a scenario like this, the obvious reason being the extinction of phone-booths, but in the era of social media tech giants there’s just too much information and reaction time available for a situation this intimate to play out to the end. These days this nightmare would take the form of account hacking, an equally terrifying prospect, but a far less lucrative idea for a film. Now, we never really see Sutherland but for a few bleary frames, and he probably just recorded his dialogue from a cushy studio in jammies plastered with the 24 logo, but none of that takes away any of the lupine, icy calm malevolence from his vocal work here, and we believe in the ability of this man to freeze someone in their tracks, not only with a gun but with the power of verbal intonation as well. Farrell uses atypical caged animal intensity to ramp up the tension, and the other players, including Rhada Mitchell as his wife, Jared Leto and a very young looking Katie Holmes do fine by their roles. It’s a little glossy, a little too Hollywood if you know what I mean, but it’s a well oiled thriller nonetheless, with Sutherland’s shrouded, edgy persona being the highlight. 

-Nate Hill

HBO’s Witness Protection 


The sad thing about HBO original films is that they air pretty quick and without notice, then are scarcely heard from again, despite having really good stories and production design to boast, with no theatrical crowd to ever share them with. Witness Protection is one among many of these, a brilliant, surprisingly thoughtful mobster melodrama starring Tom Sizemore in a rare and commanding lead role. He plays Boston area gangster Bobby ‘Bats’ Batton here, a wiseguy who gets a rude awakening one night when a violent attempt is made on his life by rival crime factions, striking at home while his family are there. His lifestyle has inadvertently put those he loves in danger and now there are consequences, as grimly outlined by Forest Whitaker’s sympathetic FBI agent. Bobby, his wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is so great, why isn’t she in stuff anymore?), son (Shawn Hatosy) and young daughter (Sky McCole Bartusiak, who famously died young a few years ago) are relocated into the witness protection program run by the Feds, given new identities, their lives uprooted and their future uncertain. Now, I searched for this film for years (it’s near impossible to find) thinking there’d be some kind of actuon intrigue angle, a few gunfights as his enemies tracked him down, but such is not the case. This is a mature film, a meditation on what it takes to change who we are when our choices endanger the lives of those we are supposed to protect. Bobby is a man of violence who grew up in a certain way, and he has transformed that into his livelihood. But it’s also a risky creed to cling to, and eventually a line is crossed, the line between balancing a chaotic life, or letting it run away from you. He’s forced to change, to show honesty and the will power to go straight, and this causes intense strain on the relationships with each of his family members, both individually and as a group. It’s equal parts fascinating, heartbreaking and hopeful to see a family go from one extreme to the other, and every facet of the situation is explored in a script that feels authentic and unforced. Sizemore and Mastrantonio deliver powerhouse work that stuns and stings, inhabiting uncomfortable moments of personal anguish with gravity to spare. This one isn’t your typical crime drama, and is all the better for it. 

-Nate Hill