Tag Archives: Jeffrey Wright

Duncan Jones’s Source Code

Duncan Jones’s Source Code sits in the same realm of bombastic science fiction as stuff like Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency, Tony Scott’s Deja Vu and others. What I mean by that is that the central premise is just too out there to be believable, but the film possesses a sense of wonder, energy and salesmanship around the story that it somehow grabs you along for the ride and becomes a great film despite itself.

Sort of an archetypal reworking of Groundhog Day, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US military pilot who finds himself out of space and time, waking up on a speeding Chicago train that’s destined for a fiery explosion once it reaches the city limits. The train explodes, everyone on it dies including him and then… he wakes up on it again minutes later, rinse and repeat. This mysterious time loop continues until he can find a way to locate the mad bomber and stop them before catastrophe, with the help of another intrepid passenger (Michelle Monaghan, always superb). Elsewhere and when, a military correspondent (Vera Farmiga) and her oddball scientist boss (Jeffrey Wright in yet another brazenly eccentric but fun performance) oversee his actions from some unseen echelons, literally keeping him in the dark about what’s really happening.

This is the kind of boundlessly imaginative SciFi stuff you’d find Dennis Quaid or Jeff Bridges starring in back in the 80s/90s heyday of the genre, and I love the retro feel. Gyllenhaal makes his performance a nervous, jumpy and engaging creation, inhabiting a trippy world of sliding planes, otherworldly revelations and fast paced problem solving nicely. Watch for comedian Russell Peters in a key role too as well as Michael Arden and Scott Bakula. This film has drawn criticism for several plot holes, but I don’t even think they can be called that, given the extremely ‘out there’ nature of the content. Yes, there are some issues with how things are wrapped up but by the time we get there the fabric of time, space and reality are so thrown to the wind that one can think a way around the troubling implications using imagination. It’s such a far flung concept but the actors all sell it straight-faced for the most part (Wright gets a bit knowingly campy) and the whole thing comes across very well, especially elements of sunny optimism and pathos that are welcome and make the story stick. There’s no denying the originality here either, or the ambition. Director Jones debuted with the excellent Moon, followed it up as strongly as this and then sort of took a plummet with that lame Warcraft thing, but here’s hoping he gets back on top of the SciFi game soon, because he’s got talent and genuine affection for the genre.

-Nate Hill

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Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale

So what did Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale do for the Bond franchise? Well, I’m not a huge aficionado or scholar of these films like some so I tend to look at each one on its own as an action adventure piece rather than observe how it fits into the jigsaw legacy of this mammoth series, but there’s no denying that this one kind of broke several moulds before it. After the garish 90’s heyday of Pierce Brosnan (I *love* all four of those films to bits) I feel like they just wanted to bring Bond down to earth a bit, distill the aesthetic into something that cleanses too many gadgets and what have you, cast someone darker and more dangerous and blast out a new trajectory for the character. Good plan.

Casino Royale is not only a splendidly exciting film on its own but the best, most impactful and unique 007 film since 1989’s ruthless and underrated License To Kill. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is an angry warrior who fucks up just like the rest of us and is fallible, not some invincible deity in a tux that can’t get hurt, deceived, betrayed or killed without tangible consequences. An early mission sees him tasked by Judi Dench’s then immortal M to infiltrate a high stakes poker game in some swanky French locale and gain information on dangerous arms dealer and terrorist Le Chiffre, played by vicious, predatory Mads Mikkelsen in one of my favourite Bond baddie portrayals. As if he isn’t in enough over his head, he meets the beautiful but equally dangerous Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the most unique Bond girl since… who knows when. I love that she’s a self aware human being who has her reasons for falling into bed with him instead of just being a pair of tits with a voice as seen in countless entries before. Green has sex appeal for days but what makes her special is that way her eyes smoulder with a fierce independence and unpredictability, making her one of the most fascinating characters the whole franchise has to offer. Also supporting them is the great Giancarlo Giannini as a mentor of sorts for Bond, Jeffrey Wright as CIA operative Felix, Catarina Murino, Isaach De Bankolé, Jesper Christensen, Sebastian Foucan, Tobias Menzies, Richard Sammel, Tyrone the silly fat bastard from Snatch, Russian character actress Ivana Milicevic and Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson of all people, if you look real close.

In terms of scope and staging, this is a kind of unique 007 film because it shirks the standards and ducks expectations. It opens with a spectacular chase like any other in the franchise, which is a monumental sequence in terms of stunt work. But much of the film is spent in the ornate casinos of France and a lot of the action is the casual intimidation and cerebral mind games that go alongside the poker match. There’s nothing quite like Craig and Mikkelsen sat opposite one another in tuxes, Mads bleeding out of his sinister looking dead eye and Daniel smirking at him like he wants to rip his head off, while Green looks on and let’s her ulterior motives simmer on the back burner for later. Cinematographer Phil Meheux takes full advantage of these rich, lushly production designed interior shots as well as the gorgeous outdoor rim of the Mediterranean that we get to see quite a bit of. My only real complaint is a third act that feels like it barrels in from another film; that’s not to say it’s bad or doesn’t work, it’s just a tad unwieldy with the landing and threw me off in terms of tone or climax but I suppose that could have been the intention. I’ll just say that this thing ends in the last possible way you’d expect from a 007, feeling fresh, raw and off the rails in a beautiful fashion that doesn’t tread the beaten path of so many before, but blazes out its own tragic, violent conclusion that will claim a piece of Bond’s soul but add much needed spirit to this series as a whole. Great film, and my second favourite Bond of all time after Skyfall.

-Nate Hill

Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold The Dark

It’s easy to see why audiences are having sort of an icy reaction to Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold The Dark, an oblique, austere Alaska set thriller with esoteric undertones. On a platform as diverse yet decidedly commercial as Netflix, it will take some time for the riskier, more artistic and less accessible projects to gain traction, and for the casual viewers to warm up to varied aesthetics that they often lazily dismiss in a lump sum as ‘weird.’ They’ll come around. For us who are tuned in, however, we can appreciate that these risks are being taken and that money is being spent on challenging, anti Hollywood stuff. Although not as tightly wound or succinct as Saulnier’s first two efforts (Blue Ruin and Green Room), Hold The Dark is definitely my favourite as I have an affinity for snowy settings and dark, ambiguous mysteries. Jeffrey Wright is great here as as an outdoorsman and wolf expert hired by the mother (Riley Keogh) of a child supposedly snatched by wolves to find the beasts and kill them. I won’t say much more except that things are so far from what they seem at first that you’ll truly have no inkling of where the plot is going to take you next, which is a sign of great, inspired scriptwriting. There’s an eerie edge to the whole thing, but the film’s secrets aren’t divulged willingly or at all half the time. Alexander Skarsgard is implosive and lupine himself as the boy’s haunted father, on his own freaky quest for a goal shrouded in enigma like fog swells throughout the Alaskan mountains, actually Alberta here. James Badge Dale is great as the intense local sheriff, Julian Black Antelope is a standout talent as a shady local villager involved in the central mystery, and the cast includes fine work from Savonna Spracklin, Peter McRobbie, Macon Blair, Jonathan Whitesell and Tantoo Cardinal. Playing around with genre and tone, Saulnier and cinematographer Magnus Nordendorf Jønck deserve huge props for staging a fucking volcanic firefight scene that has to be up there with the best shootout scenes of all time, it goes on for something like ten minutes, more bullets are fired than in a Rambo movie and there’s some gnarly violence. There are some spooky, intangible ideas at play here and almost none of it is made obvious.. it may leave some in WTF mode, but clearly a stylistic language is being spoken here, with some deep, disturbing things to say about nature, humanity and the dark symbiosis held over them, particularly in lonely, desolate places such as this. This won’t be everyone’s thing, but it’s stayed with me all day since I saw it last night, I’m on board with it.

-Nate Hill

Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate

If you ditch the idea that Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is a remake of the 60’s Frank Sinatra flick, you’ll have a much better time watching it without those strings attached (Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is similarly panned by the misguided hordes). Demme’s version is a new adaptation of the novel by Richard Condon, and in my eyes the far superior thriller. Given a charged military twist, deeply disturbing psychological angles and the powerhouse acting juice of leads Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and a staggeringly good Meryl Streep, this is where the buck stops with political thrillers. Demme’s narrative is a thickly laced web of secrets, mind manipulation, lies and corruption that isn’t always apparent or clear, given the unreliable, ruptured psyche of ex gulf war soldier Ben Marco (Washington). He’s shellshocked, but not in the traditional sense, and somehow feels as if something went very, very wrong with his unit following a deadly skirmish in the Middle East. His former fellow soldier and friend Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Schreiber) is up for senate election, fiercely prodded and chaperoned by his mad dog of a mother Eleanor (Streep). Everyone from their unit has either wound up dead or suffering from terrifying nightmares, psychosis and brain trauma they can’t explain. It’s up to Ben to trust his dodgy memories, leading him out of the dark and finding what really happened before a vague impending disaster that is Demme’s fulcrum upon which ample, nerve annihilating suspense is built around. Washington is his usual quietly implosive self and makes unnerving work of getting us to believe he’s in real psychological stress but somehow lucid. Streep is the ultimate mommy from hell, and despite the script getting near maniacal with her arc at times, she always sells it as a rogue extremist who only sees her side of the arena and will do literally anything for her son, no matter what the cost to country, colleagues or even herself. They’re joined by an impressive league of supporting talent including Bruno Ganz, Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine, the sinister Simon McBurney, Ann Dowd, Charles Napier, José Pablo Castillo, Bill Irwin, Al Franken, Zelijko Ivanek, Roger Corman (!), Obba Babarundé, Jude Ciccolela, Dean Stockwell, Tracey Walter, Sydney Lumet (!!) and more. There’s really terrific work from Jeffrey Wright as another troubled former soldier, Kimberly Elise as a fed tracking Ben’s movements who catches feels for him, Jon Voight as a suspicious rival candidate to Shaw and Vera Farmiga as his daughter. What. A. Cast. This was one of the first R rated films I was ever allowed to see in theatres and as such the chills haven’t quite left my spine every time I go in for a revisit. It almost reaches horror movie levels of fright and nightmarish, half remembered atrocities that taint the senate election like political voodoo and give the proceedings a dark, very uneasy atmosphere. Demme goes for a big scope here with a huge cast, large scale story and high impact set pieces, but at its heart it’s a very tense, inward focused story that shows the sickness in power and just what some people are willing to do to get ahead. Like I said, forget the Sinatra version and watch this as it’s own film, it’s an incredibly special, affecting experience onscreen and you won’t find a freakier political thriller.

-Nate Hill

Eye See You 


You know those films that you just seem to get fixated on and love for no particular reason, like they’re not even that good, you just… really like them? That’s Eye See You for me (known as D-Tox to all you folks across the pond), a heavy handed snowbound horror vehicle for a sedated Sylvester Stallone. It’s silly to the max, thoroughly implausible and perforated with cliches, but for whatever reason I just can’t get over the damn thing. Now, I admittedly have an affinity for the Agatha Christie style murder mysteries, especially ones set in the snow (cue fond memories of Hateful 8 and The Thing), and this one piles on a blizzard of red herrings, multiple shady characters, extremely graphic violence and paranoid unease. Maybe it’s that cast, a platoon of tough guy characters actors backing Sly up in one serious roster of a supporting cast. Old Rocky plays a big city FBI agent who is trying to find a jarringly vicious serial killer that targets law enforcement and has that classic obsession with his pursuer. After his girlfriend (Dina Meyer) falls victim to this beast, Sly unravels and following a suicide attempt, is sent up north by his mentor (Charles S. Dutton) for a little R&R,

and both R’s in that stand for rehab in a special remote facility designed just for cops with issues to work out. The place is run by Krusty Kris Kristofferson, and home to so many recognizable faces one has to give the casting director a tip of the fedora. A disgraced Mountie (Robert Prosky), emotionally fragile ex SWAT commander (Sean Patrick Flanery),

former Scotland Yard (Christopher Fulford), hostile ex narc (Jeffrey Wright with some pretty Harvey Dent facial scars), an insufferable macho asshole (Robert Patrick), ex military (Tom Berenger) who serves as caretaker, sympathetic therapist (Polly Walker) and a seriously creepy Stephen Lang. That’s a whole lot of suspicious characters to pick a killer from, because (you guessed it) the meanie has followed Sly out to the mountains and is posing as a member of their group. It’s a guessing game right up until one severely bloody climax, with ex cops dropping dead all over the place along the way, and Stallone looking more hollow and dishevelled as each body turns up. He’s not in action mode here at all, hell, he’s not even in sorta kinda Cop Land action mode, he’s a broken man trying to heal who’s forced back into shit kicking, and it puts a visible strain on him that the actor handles surprisingly adeptly. The rest do their job terrifically, with Flanery standing out in the scant but affecting screen time he’s given, and Patrick blustering through every scene until you’re just praying for the killer to target him next. There’s downsides galore, mind you, this isn’t well thought out territory, it’s gory genre nirvana and not much else. There’s a level of predictability that could have been avoided by making the identity of the killer a bit less… obvious, for lack of a non spoiling term, but oh well. It’s also just overblown lurid potboiler madness, but what else do you expect from this type of thing? I get exactly what I want out of it: a nice helping of ultra-violent intrigue to tune into on a cozy night, and not much more. In fact, I think I feel a revisit happening this week.

-Nate Hill

Crime & Punishment In Suburbia: A Review by Nate Hill

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Crime & Punishment In Suburbia follows the theme and story just as loosely as you’d imagine by glancing at both title and poster. It’s It’s own little nasty deviation on the classic tale, set in a decadent white neighborhood, and full of characters who are barely hiding the decaying darkness behind their fake personalities. Having never read Dostoyefsky’s book myself, I can’t in fact tell you how much is different, but I could damn well know that it’s probably very much so. It concerns a hot young teen named Roseanne (Monica Keena, with a dash of Brittany Murphy in those eyes) who is outwardly a normal girl, but has elements in her life which start to taint that image and prompt violent behaviour. Her stepdad Fred (Michael Ironside, dialing up the drunken sleaze to a slow boil) is abusive towards her, and a alcoholic train wreck to boot. Her mother Maggie (Ellen Barkin in screeching cougar mode) is an unstable, clueless mess. Situations like that almost always end badly, which is an understatement here. One night when Fred gets too friendly with Roseanne, she snaps, something comes over her and Maggie and they both brutally murder him in an extended, grisly sequence that would give Oliver Stone bad dreams. From there on in its a dark and trashy morality play involving deception, false incarceration and manipulation on all the everyone’s part. The film seems to revel in the excessive bad behaviour of it’s characters, a decision which can be polarizing for audiences. It’s ugly, sleazy stuff, but it does that very well, with all the actors taking full advantage of the mean spirited script, especially Ironside and Barkin. Just don’t expect any pathos or straight arrow characters, this is a sociopath’s game, through and through.

SYRIANA – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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If there’s one good thing that came out of George W. Bush’s presidency it was a wealth of politically and socially-minded art in response to his unpopular regime. Leading the charge, in Hollywood at least, was George Clooney who positioned himself as a vocal liberal celebrity with two high profile movies in 2005: Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana. The latter film was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), and was loosely based on See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, Robert Baer’s memoir of his days as a CIA operative in the Middle East.

Structurally, Syriana follows the same template as Traffic with four distinctive yet also interlocking storylines presented in a non-linear fashion but containing all kinds of layers and complexities. The first one focuses on Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an attorney working for a Washington, D.C. law firm whose job it is to make sure that the United States government approves a merger between two large oil companies, Connex and Killen, both of whom have lucrative oil drilling refineries in the Middle East. Connex is losing control of crucial oil fields in a kingdom ruled by the al-Subaai family. The emirate’s foreign minister, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) has granted drilling rights to a Chinese company, which has pissed off the American oil industry and the energy interests of the U.S. government. In retaliation, Connex starts a not-entirely legal merger with Killen, an oil company that has recently won the drilling rights to key oil fields in Kazakhstan.

Robert Barnes (Clooney) is a veteran CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer who works in the Middle East collecting information on and preventing the trafficking of weapons by arms dealers. After one particular job in Tehran to assassinate two Iranian arms dealers, he suspects something is wrong after an anti-tank missile that was intended to take out his targets was diverted to an Arab. After writing a memo to his superiors that upsets them, he is given a desk job. He gets increasingly frustrated with his superiors because they have no idea what is really going on in the Middle East. So, they send him back into the field to kill Prince Nasir.

Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an idealistic energy analyst based in Geneva, Switzerland. His superiors assign him to work as an economic advisor to Prince Nasir in the Persian Gulf out of sympathy for a tragedy in his personal life that was indirectly the fault of Nasir. Woodman soon finds himself caught up in a power struggle between Nasir and his brother for control of their ailing father’s vast empire. His younger brother is chosen as the King’s successor instead of Nasir who plans a military coup so that he can introduce democratic reforms to counter his father’s conservative government.

The last storyline shows how terrorists are cultivated. Saleem Ahmed Khan (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) are fired from their jobs at Connex oil refinery in the Middle East because of a Chinese company outbidding Connex. This fosters a deep resentment towards these wealthy companies. It also makes Wasim and his friend easy recruits for a terrorist organization that appeals to their religious beliefs and provides them a structure and a purpose to their lives.

Since 9/11, the typical Tom Clancy spy movie blockbuster that was popular in the 1990s has been replaced with a more realistic and more immediately relevant type of film. With Syriana, Gaghan was interested in portraying “the world right now.” The inspiration for the film came from 9/11 and his lack of knowledge on the Middle East. “When 9/11 happened, it suddenly was a war on terror, which I think of as a war on emotions. It all started to click for me,” the screenwriter remembers. While working on Traffic, he began to see the parallels between drug addiction and America’s dependency on foreign oil. A few weeks after 9/11, Steven Soderbergh sent Gaghan a copy of Baer’s See No Evil. Soderbergh had bought the rights to the book and negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. Gaghan read the book and wanted to turn it into a film. It added yet another layer to the story he wanted to tell. He managed to convince the studio to give him an unlimited research budget and no deadline.

Gaghan met with Baer for lunch and they talked about turning the book into a film. The summer was ending and Baer was taking his daughter back to boarding school in Europe. According to him, “all the players in the Gulf spend August in the south of France,” and he invited Gaghan along to meet with some of these people. For six weeks in 2002, the two men traveled from Washington to Geneva to the French Rivera to Lebanon, Syria and Dubai, meeting with lobbyists, arms dealers, oil traders, Arab officials, and the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah. Gaghan did his own legwork, meeting with oil traders in London, England and lawyers in Washington, D.C.

1656Gaghan got an indication of the kinds of people he was meeting when in moments after arriving in Beirut in 2002; he was taken from the airport in a blindfold and hood and taken to visit Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah. Fadlallah was interested in films and decided to grant Gaghan an audience even though the screenwriter had not requested one. From there, Gaghan dined with men suspected of killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and met with Former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle.

Meeting Baer, Gaghan realized that the man had “gone out there and done and seen things that he was not allowed to talk about, and wouldn’t, but he was angry about and also trying to make amends for.” With Syriana, it was important for audiences to understand how a soldier looks at things and how someone at the top, close to presidents, also looks at things. While writing the screenplay, Gaghan claimed to be influenced by European films like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), Costa-Gavra’s Z (1969) and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966).

Gaghan and his crew shot in over 200 locations on four continents with 100 speaking parts. At one point, Syriana became so complicated in terms of structure and content that Gaghan eliminated one complete storyline in post-production. The fifth storyline involved Michelle Monaghan playing Miss USA who becomes involved with a rich Arabic oilman. He found that he could not balance more than four stories.

In the little screen time he has early on, George Clooney does an excellent job showing the rusty compass that his character lives his life by. The actor has improved and refined himself with every subsequent role he has done and relies more and more on what is going on behind his eyes than falling back on his good looks. His performance in Syriana goes beyond the obvious Method trappings – the weight gain and growing the thick beard – to his expressive eyes and how he uses them to convey Barnes’ world-weariness. This role is one of his strongest and his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor was well-deserved. However, Clooney took one for the team in the worst way. During the harrowing scene where his character was tortured, Clooney was hurled to the floor more than 20 times. During one take, he hit his head and began experiencing severe back and head pain. Doctors later discovered that the actor had ruptured his spinal fluid sac and needed multiple surgeries.

Woodman’s first scene with his family is brief but effectively sets up the close bond he has wife his wife (Amanda Peet) and his two sons. One boy is not keen the pseudo-bacon he’s told to eat and so Woodman tries a piece to show that it’s good and fails miserably. Matt Damon does a good job of selling his priceless reaction shot and offering a light moment that immediately makes us empathize and like his character and his family. Jeffrey Wright delivers an understated, minimalist performance. When Holiday meets with the superiors in his firm, he appears nervous – he’s in the big leagues, swimming with the sharks – rich, powerful men as embodied by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) and malevolent good ol’ boys politicians (played with scary conviction by Tim Blake Nelson and Chris Cooper).

One of the film’s central themes is the strained relationships between fathers and their sons. Barnes’ son resents all the moving around that they do as a result of his old man’s job and this robs him of a normal life. Woodman must cope with the tragic death of his little boy. Holiday copes with his alcoholic father who disapproves of his son’s work and the effect it has on his well-being.

Gaghan’s direction reflects the stories in the film. Everything isn’t spelled out. There are a lot of gray areas with morally and ethically ambiguous characters whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. If, at times, it is hard to follow all of the characters in this film this is done on purpose in order to illustrate just how hard it is to keep track of all the players in the Middle East oil trade and their numerous alliances, both obvious and secretive, with corporations and governments. Trying to make sense of it all can be a confusing and frustrating experience.

4845The timing of Syriana couldn’t have been more relevant as it exposed the dirty dealings between the U.S. government, American corporations and various oil-rich families in the Middle East. Reading between the lines, it also sheds light on the real reason why the U.S. is in Iraq. It isn’t to democratize its people, as the White House party line would have us all believe, but because of their abundant oil resources and the money Bush and his cronies made from it. While this is nothing new to anyone who is well-informed, this film does act as a decent primer to the uninitiated.