It always amazes me when a first time writer/director scores an all out, diamond encrusted A-list cast that would make the top dog filmmakers in Hollywood jealous, but it often results in a scantly marketed film that no one really ends up seeing but just happens to have a huge star studded ensemble in a quiet, curious independent piece that few are aware of. Such is the case in Joshua Michael Stern’s NeverWas, a beautiful modern fairytale that slipped under the radar back in the mid 2000’s but is ripe for rediscovery. Aaron Eckhart plays a rookie psychiatrist who expresses interest in working at a troubled mental health facility in rural BC, Canada, an institution where his mentally ill father (Nick Nolte) lived at years before. He was once a great children’s author who wrote about a magical kingdom called NeverWas and built a considerable legacy around his books, before becoming sadly unstable and being committed. Eckhart’s character wishes to find out wheat happened years before and treat some of these people now attending the facility, while the somewhat skeptical director (a sly William Hurt) doesn’t have high hopes for the program overall. Things get interesting when delusional patient Gabriel (Ian McKellen) starts mentioning NeverWas in his group sessions and believes it to be real, and Eckhart to be somehow connected to the legacy. What is he on about, why does he express a desire to break out and return to a place he calls his ‘kingdom’, and what’s his connection to the long gone father? McKellen is wonderful in the role, fiercely passionate and charismatic while showing heartbreaking undertones of some past trauma he can’t articulate yet needs to work through with this fantastical delusions. Nolte gives a mini powerhouse performance in just flashbacks alone and is incredibly affecting, while the late great Brittany Murphy is cast refreshingly against type as a local naturalist who expresses interest in this unusual situation. The cast is so blinged out that even the smallest roles have been given to someone super recognizable and so we get to see people like Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Michael Moriarty, Bill Bellamy and Vera Farmiga show up and not necessarily have much to do character wise other than simply bless the production with their attendance. The lush Canadian setting provides a gorgeous atmosphere for this strange, quaint and very personal story to unfold, anchored by McKellen in a superb, emotionally rich portrayal that he sticks with and lands with a final beat to the arc that cuts right to the essential. The film also managed to score Philip Glass for its original score (Candyman, Tales From The Loop, The Hours) a man whose unmistakable compositions always provide an auditory heart and propellant momentum, his work adding a lot to the overall experience here. The very definition of a hidden gem and well worth seeking out for the unbelievable cast and unique, touching story.
There are so many ideas, myths, motifs, vignettes, episodes, characters and ideas swirling around in Tim Burton’s Big Fish it almost feels like several movies collided together to make their own sweet, sunny mixture and I love that feeling. It’s like a postcard perfect funhouse where you never know what you might get and some people saw a pacing problem or lack of focus in that regard but for me it’s this wonderful wellspring of creativity, visual audacity and fairytale lyricism. It’s also told from the perspective of a rascal who is notorious for making up wild stories so the narratively kaleidoscopic nature of the film seems very appropriate. Edward Bloom is one of the strangest Tim Burton characters to ever grace the screen, a magnetic individual played as a young man by beaming, idealistic Ewan McGregor and as an old fellow by wisecracking, lovable Albert Finney. Edward loves to tell stories, larger than life anecdotal adventures that he regaled his young son with throughout childhood, stories that couldn’t possibly be true.. right? As Edward grows up he leaves a town that just wasn’t big enough for him and meets many wonderful and strange characters along the way including a giant (Matthew McGrory), a poet turned bank robber (Steve Buscemi), a mermaid (Bevin Kaye), a reclusive witch (Helena Bonham Carter) a circus ringmaster (Danny Devito, scene stealing like nobody’s business) with a supernatural secret and eventually the love of his life Sandra, played as a young woman by the excellent Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and later by Jessica Lange. The story finds an emotional core in the relationship between Edward and his son Will (Billy Crudup), a realist who resents being brought up amidst a bunch of tall tales and just wants, along with his wife (Marion Cotillard, lovely), to finally get to know his father as he is passing of terminal illness. The stories are besides the point here and as one character notes, at some point a man becomes the legends he tells simply by embodying them, and when it comes time for the narrative to tell us whether or not these tales are even true it hardly matters because the film has been so honest with us in the human connections we see unfolding. This film sits apart in Burton’s career because of how emotionally affecting it is, not largely focused on effects and makeup like he often chooses but crafted with its heart firmly planted on a bedrock of believable humanity. There’s whimsy, style and special effects galore mind you, all excellently, wonderfully done.. but the core of what makes this film so special lies in the final twenty minutes or so where we see a rich, cathartic final act that always brings me to tears. Edward Bloom may have told wild tales his whole life and Will must reconcile that they were just a part of who his father was, and that the greatest story in his life was the family he raised. It’s a beautiful, oddball, postcard pretty, occasionally surreal yet ultimately down to earth and deeply felt piece of storytelling.
Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is a harrowing film, one with enough perverse psychosexual energy, dripping southern atmosphere, stalker suspense and domestic trauma to raise the dead from the swamps of North Carolina where it takes place. Technically a remake of an old 60’s black & whiter with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, I have to give Scorsese’s version the edge no matter how controversial that opinion may be, he just had the freedom to take it further and not have to be so tame as films were back then. He also benefits from having star Robert Deniro in the hot seat as Max Cady, a monstrous, homicidal lunatic out to get Nick Nolte’s Sam Bowden, the slick heeled lawyer who put him away for years. Disclaimer: this is a thoroughly fucked up, highly disturbing film that goes to places you don’t even want showing up on the fringes of your nightmares, and doesn’t shy away from showing these atrocities in wild screaming life. Cady is an extremely clever, resourceful southern gentleman when he wants to be, and when the facade comes off he’s an unabashed, mass murdering psychopathic beast who will get at Sam any way he can, including the harassment and abuse of his wife (Jessica Lange) and teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis). It’s a setup for a wild ride of a thriller that seldom lets up once the wheels are rolling, and flies towards a conclusion set on the bayou that will raise hairs. Lewis, in one of her earliest roles, was rightly nominated for an Oscar, her simultaneous terror and mesmerization when Cady eerily seduces her is magnetic. The Mitchum and The Peck have two fun cameos too, the former as a sceptical cop and the latter as a hilarious, bible spouting asshole lawyer who shamelessly defends Cady. Nolte and Lange are charismatic in their scenes, but this is Deniro’s show all the way, and he creates a villain for the ages. Whether he’s beating up the guys Sam hires to beat him up, cackling maniacally in a movie theatre to piss everyone off, giving off violent rapey vibes to both Lewis and Lange or using freaky disguises to follow them all around, he’s a charming, ruthless boogeyman that has since become iconic. This is one of the premier psycho thriller of the 90’s, an intense, evocatively shot southern gothic freak show that has only gotten better with age.