Tag Archives: Joaquin Phoenix

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here

It’s amazing to think of the impact felt by a film that runs just under ninety minutes, but Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here lands with force like that of the hammer that Joaquin Phoenix wields here, the violence mostly implied and hardly seen. Right off the bat though: this is not your average vigilante revenge thriller. It isn’t even your average artsy psychological character study. Ramsay is a careful, precise and challenging filmmaker who doesn’t often take on projects (this is only her fourth feature in two decades) and the story she brings here is full of shadows, provocations, shades of grey, unreliable memories, contains a cubist narrative sensibility and is altogether something of a masterpiece. Phoenix gives a coiled, implosive, miraculous performance as Joe, a veteran and abuse victim suffering intensely from PTSD who works as an off the books contract killer to locate missing girls. Hired by his handler (John Doman) to find the daughter of a senator who has been taken, Joe’s mind-scape and internal climate start to clash with what’s going on around him until memory, reality and action start to blur. This is a complex, difficult film and I’ve read many wild interpretations on what’s actually going on, but Ramsay keeps it refreshingly opaque, leaving our intuitions to decide what happened. Ghosts from the past, violent encounters with disturbing individuals, the eventual rescue and protection of the senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), caring for his elderly, unstable mother (Judith Roberts) and uncovering an unsettling conspiracy. It’s all there, but none of it is in plain daylight and the pieces are carefully scrambled to mirror Joe’s disintegrating psyche. We’ll probably never really know what was real and what wasn’t, but that’s not the point anyways, the point is that we feel Joe’s journey deeply, personally, viscerally and that is the genius of both Ramsay’s vision and Phoenix’s performance. The atmosphere is further thickened with a resplendent, layered original score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who uses a varied kaleidoscope of auditory work to let us see through Joe’s eyes. Not a film to be missed.

-Nate Hill

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Oliver Stone’s U Turn

Ever had one of those days where literally everything seems to go wrong and there’s some kind of invisible cosmic force aligned against you? Sean Penn’s Bobby has one of those in Oliver Stone’s U Turn, a deranged, sun drunk parable by way of neo-noir and near Boschian displays of brutal human behaviour punctuated by pockets of the blackest comedy one can find. This is a deliberately, brutally unpleasant slice of nihilism that wouldn’t be easy to swallow were it not so fucking funny, so gorgeously visual, so perkily acted by the knockout ensemble cast and so beautifully scored by Ennio Morricone. Penn’s Bobby has the rotten luck of breaking down in the one horse town of Superior, Arizona, where bumpkin mechanic Billy Bob Thornton takes his sweet time patching up the rig, leaving him to drift about town and get in all sorts of trouble. There’s a rockabilly maniac named Toby ‘TNT’ Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) who wants Bobby’s head for ‘making time’ with his girl (a loopy Claire Danes). The menacing local Sheriff (Powers Boothe) seems hellbent on doing anything other than protecting and serving. Jennifer Lopez is sultry babe Grace, who snares him up in a dangerously lurid love triangle with her husband Jake (Nick Nolte at his utmost Nick Nolte-iest), who also happens to be her stepfather (!). This all boils into a mucky miasma of murder, violence, sex games, insurance fraud, gas station robberies, betrayal, severed limbs, manipulation and any other noisy calamity you could think of to befall a small town in Arizona that the rest of the world has seemingly forgot. Bobby is on the run from a scary Vegas loan shark (Valery Nikoaelev), but nothing he can do compares to the level of hurt these warped townsfolk inflict upon him, so it’s kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type scenario. The thing is, Bobby himself is something of a reprehensible scumbag anyways, so there’s a cheeky masochist edge in watching him traverse this dusty, 9th ring of Americana hell and circle an ending of inevitable doom. ‘Treat others how you wish to be treated’ is an adage that almost every single character in the film seems to have sadly forgotten or chose to ignore except one individual, a blind old native man played with disarming truth by Jon Voight. Bobby has several encounters with him, and he’s the only one who isn’t after something, doesn’t display hostility or unkindness, he speaks plainly and offers Bobby bitter pearls of wisdom that ultimately go unheeded. Stone employs the same type of jittery, whacked out visual surrealities he used in Natural Born Killers, a deeply saturated colour palette, tumble dry editing techniques and more breathe life into this vivid version of curdled small town life in the vast, lonely desert. Morricone’s score is a spring loaded jack-in-the-box in areas and a melodic, melancholic lullaby in others, an underrated composition that gives the film an eerie sadness and zany vibration all it’s own. There’s more going on than meets the eye here; at surface level it’s a dark crime comedy with a quirky edge, but both Voight’s character and a few mysterious hints at Lopez’s backstory with the tribes in the region hint at a deeper, darker sense of malice lurking out there with the coyotes, suggestive of an almost mythic aspect. Stone gets high praise for his political dramas, but I’ve always loved him best when he’s doing genre stuff, he’s such an expressive storyteller and the real fruit of his imagination comes out when he’s turned loose. For me this is his second finest work after Natural Born Killers and before Savages, the three films that seem most genuine and celebratory of the medium. In any case, U Turn is a southern fried, asphalt laden, angry, sexy, perverse road trip to sunny noir heaven or hell, and a masterpiece. Watch for neat cameos from Laurie Metcalf, Bo Hopkins, Brent Briscoe, Julie Hagerty and Liv Tyler.

-Nate Hill

The Puppet Master: An Interview with Kevin McTurk by Kent Hill

They say in the film business, never work with children or animals. Of course you may find yourself working with dinosaurs, aliens, lions, beast-people, scrunts, kothogas, ghosts, morlocks, Batman, Spiderman, Hellboy, kaijus, wolfmen, clones, cliffhangers, vampires, giant crocodiles, homicidal maniacs, killer sheep, Predators, cowboys and mysterious brides out to Kill Bill.

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? But that’s just some of the astounding creations and magnificent beasts that Kevin McTurk has encountered in his eclectic career in the realms of special effects.

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Working under the banners of legends like Stan Winston, Jim Henson and the new titans like Weta Workshop, Kevin has had his hand in erecting and simulating everything from the real world as he has from empires extraordinary. And, while I could have spent the entirety of our chat talking about his adventures working on the countless films, which are favourites of mine, he has in his CV, his impressive effects background is only part of the story.

For Kevin McTurk is a bold and visionary filmmaker in his own right. His puppet films, The Narrative of Victor Karloch, The Mill at Calder’s End and now The (forthcoming) Haunted Swordsman are exercises in capturing a style from a bygone era with modern filmmaking techniques. The results are beautiful, not only in their aesthetic quality, but in the level of excellence from the many different disciplines on display.

There is still time for you to join Kevin in his latest cinematic offering (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/935772123/the-haunted-swordsman-a-ghost-story-puppet-film), and to listen in now to the man himself talk about his movies, influences and career.

I give you the talented Mr. McTurk.

Visit Kevin’s website for more: http://www.thespiritcabinet.com/

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M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs 


As much as M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs is a brilliantly structured ScFi suspense yarn that’ll give your ticker a run for it’s money, it’s just as effective as a touching exploration of faith and hopelessness, the warring notions that there is either someone or something out there looking out for us, or more distressingly, there is not. One need only watch Mel Gibson’s staggeringly well pitched performance as a man bereft of belief in anything beyond the tangible to feel as alienated as he and his beloved relatives do when a sneaky, marauding band of extraterrestrials take up residence on their remote farm, leaving vast crop circles all about the place. As a dimly paced, impossibly eerie invasion narrative grips us from the forefront, we’re also somewhat primally aware of the story of a once steadfast man, already ruined by personal tragedy, come apart at the seams and start to lose his last vestige of belief in anything beyond our world. Gibson’s wide eyed desperation is almost scarier than the otherworldly beings themselves, which is saying a lot considering these are some of the most unnerving alien critters ever seen on film. A farm is the perfect oasis of desolation to set these events in, and the nocturnal romps through the corn in search of these beasties will make your heart skip a few hundred beats in apprehension. Gibson abides there with his ex baseball pro bro (Joaquin Phoenix) and two adorably deadpan children (Rory Culkin and a very young Abigail Breslin). There’s a deep sense of coziness that is violently uprooted when these unwanted guests show up, an idyllic tranquility tainted by an unknown element most foul, raising the stakes nicely, leading up to the claustrophobic finale. The proceedings almost have a dream logic to them, as if this whole deal is happening on a plane removed several degrees from ours. Characters interact in peculiar, staccato fashion, certain elements here and there don’t sound or feel like they’re… “real”, for lack of a term that doesn’t exist. Whether by choice or happy accident, Shyamalan unsettles us far beyond being spooked solely by the aliens, who aren’t seen in full till way later in the film anyhow. There’s just a hollowness to Gibson’s plight, a restless gnawing anxiety fighting at the whites of his eyes as he struggles to find the light that has left his path. The ending is a perfectly etched out cap to his arc that sideswipes you with emotional heft you never knew the film had in it, and a thoughtful, planned out story beat that takes some contemplation to fully absorb. On the surface, Shyamalan’s work here is a restless sea, but there be dragons roiling underneath, internal demons that extend farther than the excellent science fiction storyline and touch upon ideas much more disturbing: the endless fear of what comes after death, and who is really out there watching us, besides cornfield dwelling lizard-men. Great stuff. 

-Nate Hill

Clay Pigeons: A Review by Nate Hill

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Clay Pigeons is one of the odder films floating around out there, but it’s a damn good time at the movies. It fits into a subgenre that I have lovingly dub as ‘desert noir’, other prime examples being Oliver Stone’s U Turn and John Dahl’s Red Rock West. Intrigue and murder abound under a sun soaked, parchment dry landscape in these types of films, always with a healthy helping of dark humour and unsettling, psychopathic characters running around, perpetually up to no good. Joaquin Phoenix (adding to the U Turn vibe) plays Clay, a good guy who seems to have a real problem with bad luck. He finds out his friend has killed himself, which seems to be the first swirl in a spooky spiral of trouble that veers towards him like a dust devil. Soon nosy FBI agent Dale Shelby (reliably perky Janeane Garofalo) comes to town, turning her attention towards him. Dan Mooney (ever great Scott Wilson stealing scenes with perched stealth) is Clay’s friend and the town Sheriff, also on the lookout for clues. These two are the least of his worries though, as the worst is yet to come with the arrival of charming serial killer Lester Long (Vince Vaughn). This is my favourite Vince Vaughn performance because he shows his versatility with the brittle, lightning quick turns of personality injected into Lester. One minute he’s your best buddy and a lovable loudmouth, the next a coiled viper with untold violence beneath the jovial exterior. They always say serial killers are charmers, and Vince Vaughn takes that sentiment, dances around you in circles with it and then proceeds to strangle you with it when you least expect it. So yeah. The bodies pile up and no one seems to be able to tie them to anyone. Lester treats everyone like his best friend until they’re too comfortable to see the blind side coming, and poor Phoenix wanders around looking disshvelled and stressed out. It’s good fun all the way through, doing a nice see-saw rhythm between quaint, cartoonish antics and a grim, scary turn of events. Underrated and more than worth your time.

INHERENT VICE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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There are unfilmable novels and then there is Thomas Pynchon, the premiere post-modern novelist responsible for legendary tomes like Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. He is known for producing dense, complex novels that explore themes such as racism, philosophy, science and technology while fusing theological and literary ideas with popular culture references to comic books, films, urban myths and conspiracy theories. Satire and paranoia are common currencies that he uses in his novels. And that’s only scratching the surface.

The 1960s were an important decade for Pynchon. It was at this time that his novels V. and The Crying of Lot 49 were published and the bulk of Gravity’s Rainbow was written. He would revisit the ‘60s again from the perspective of the 1980s with Vineland and, most recently, with Inherent Vice, which was published in 2009. The latter novel has been considered his most accessible work since Lot 49 and has been adapted into a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the American auteur responsible for such memorable efforts as Boogie Nights (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) among others.

Possibly informed by Pynchon’s stint in Manhattan Beach, California during the mid-‘60s, Inherent Vice is part stoner comedy/mystery and part lament for an era that was all but gone by 1970 when the story takes place. If the ‘60s was about having your head in the clouds then the ‘70s was about having your feet on the ground. Like its source material, the film plays fast and loose with notions of plot and story, riffing on elements of a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery through a counterculture filter.

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator of the rumpled variety. One night, he’s visited by an ex-girlfriend by the name of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) whose latest boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a big-time real estate developer, and his wife are involved in some kind of shady scheme. Doc soon finds himself framed for murder, Shasta disappears (as does Mickey) and he runs afoul of hardass Los Angeles police detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). During the course of his investigation, Doc finds himself immersed in the bizarro social strata of California culture, including a drug-addicted surf musician (Owen Wilson), a member of the Black Panthers (Michael K. Williams), a cokehead dentist (Martin Short), and a secret cartel known as the Golden Fang.

Inherent Vice is the second collaboration between Anderson and actor Joaquin Phoenix and the former may have found his cinematic alter ego. Working together brings out the best in both of them with the actor delivering another excellent performance. He portrays Doc as a peaceful hippie P.I. content to coast through life surrounded by a cloud of pot smoke, but is thrust into a strange world when an ex-lover comes back into his life. He acts as our guide on this journey and the key to navigating the sometimes murky narrative waters is to never lose focus of the primary mystery: the disappearance of Shasta. Doc represents the peace-loving idealism of the ‘60s and who is confronted by all kinds of outlandish people that represent the aggressive excessiveness of the ‘70s.

Anderson populates Inherent Vice with a stellar cast of supporting actors that includes Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, and Martin Short, all of whom bring this collection of oddball characters vividly to life. Some may find the cavalcade of recognizable movie stars distracting but, on the contrary, they act as important signposts along the way to help us keep track of the numerous characters Doc encounters during his investigation.

Josh Brolin gets the most screen-time of the supporting cast as Bigfoot Bjornsen, a throwback to cops of the early ‘60s, complete with crew cut and deep loathing of hippies like Doc. Initially, Bigfoot starts off as Doc’s primary nemesis, but over the course of the film he reveals a frustration with his lot in life, displaying a grudging mutual respect. Brolin certainly has the imposing frame to play Bigfoot and wisely plays the role straight, which makes several of his scenes that much funnier because the uptight character is a product of a bygone era that clashes with the more easygoing Doc as much as the excessive culture of the ‘70s.

The trailers for Inherent Vice are misleading in the sense that they sell the film as some kind of madcap comedy and while there are some out-and-out funny scenes, like Martin Short’s cocaine-addicted dentist, there is a melancholic tone that permeates most of the film expanding on “The High Water Mark” speech Raoul Duke gives late in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) as he laments the death of ‘60s idealism. Inherent Vice even ends on a surprisingly emotional moment that is quite affecting. Instead of going for quick, comedic beats, Anderson applies the aesthetic he used in There Will Be Blood and The Master by breaking the film down into lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes between Doc and one of the many people involved either directly or tangentially to Shasta’s disappearance, which may test the patience of some expecting the stylish zaniness of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. While Terry Gilliam’s film reflected Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo sensibilities, so too does Inherent Vice reflect Pynchon’s peculiar sensibilities. Like the book, Anderson takes his time and lets you sink into Pynchon’s world, which is certainly not an experience for everyone.

Several reviews have compared Inherent Vice to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), but they are only similar on a very superficial level. Anderson’s film is its own thing – a shaggy dog journey through a corner of Pynchon’s universe that the filmmaker has brought faithfully and lovingly to life. Much like Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (2012), Inherent Vice is made by and for fans of Pynchon’s novel, which will leave the uninitiated out in the cold, struggling to follow a film that may seem like an incoherent mess, but is actually quite faithful to its source material with huge chunks of the author’s prose coming out of the characters’ mouths. You shouldn’t have to see a film more than once to “get it,” but there are some that reveal themselves in more detail and whose nuances are appreciated upon repeated viewings. This is such a film. As Pynchon himself once famously said in response to the complexity of his novel V., “Why should things be easy to understand?” The fact that one of Pynchon’s novels has been adapted into a film is quite a significant accomplishment. That it successfully translates his worldview is even more noteworthy.