Tag Archives: John Cusack

Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest

Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest is one of my favourite Christmas films and completely overlooked for the dry, sardonic black comedy gold that it is. It’s one of those dour, gloomy Christmas films where not only do things not go the protagonist’s way, but pretty much spiral out of control for everyone else too and the festive setting serves as an ironic lacing to the wry, nihilistic and comically violent story. John Cusack is laconic boozehound mob lawyer Charlie, who has just embezzled his gangster boss for a couple million, with the help of his scheming guttersnipe of a partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton at his utmost sleaziest). That’s the jumping point for a deliciously warped, noirish descent into deranged family values, deadpan interactions, double crosses and drunken shenanigans, and really is there any other way to spend Christmas Eve? There’s a femme fatale in stripper Renata (Connie Nielsen, rawr), the specifics of whose loyalties remains gleefully ambiguous until later on, a titty bar bouncer (Ned Bellamy) with serious anger issues, a nasty thug (Mike Starr) dispatched to kill them and the vengeful big city kingpin who has been swindled, played by a blustery, cheerfully psychotic Randy Quaid. Speaking of scene stealing, Oliver Platt does an encore as Charlie’s best friend who is now married to his bitch of an ex wife, the impromptu Christmas dinner scene the entire family shares is some kind of fucking demented, mean spirited comedic genius (“Turkey Lurkey!”). It’s interesting because there is not one single redeemable character in the film, they’re all a bunch of conning, backstabbing, murdering, ill adjusted, jaded criminals and severe alcoholics, especially Cusack, who downs enough bourbon throughout the whole night that it’s a wonder he can stand up for the third act. But somehow… somehow there’s a strange likability to these poor souls, trapped in a perpetually snowy Wichita Kansas trying to outsmart, outgun and out-drink each other. Morality rears it’s head but once among the gunplay and verbal sparring, when Charlie imparts a parable to Platt regarding his two uncles, one of whom was a standup guy and died early and the other a scumbag that lived a long life. His point being that it doesn’t matter what we do in the service of morality because it could all end tomorrow, nothing even matters so why waste time trying to be good and get off the naughty list? I enjoy that cheeky justification, and what better time for it than Christmas? A classic for me.

-Nate

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Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 where Michael Madsen’s Budd lays down the sword rhetoric: “If you’re gonna compared a sword made by Hattori Hanzo, you compare it to every other sword ever made, that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.” I’d like to augment that slightly in the case of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and say, “If you’re gonna compare The Thin Red Line, you compare it to every other war movie ever made that *isn’t* The Thin Red Line.” That’s not to say its better than all the rest or on any kind of quality pedestal, it’s just simply unlike every other war film out there, and that differentiation makes it an incredibly special picture. Why, you ask? Because it takes a ponderous, meditative approach to a very hectic horrific period in history, and takes the time to explore the effects of conflict on both humanity and nature, as well as how all those forces go hand in hand. What other war film does that? Malick uses a poets eye and a lyricist’s approach to show the Guadalcanal siege, a horrific battle in which lives were lost on both sides and the countryside ravaged by the fires of war. To say that this film is an ensemble piece would be an understatement; practically all of Hollywood and their mother have parts in this, from the front and centre players right down to cameos and even a few appearances that never made it into the final cut (which I’m still bitter about). The two central performances come from Jim Caviesel and Sean Penn as Pvt. Welsh and Sgt. Witt. Welsh is a compassionate, thoughtful man who seems primally uncomfortable in a soldiers uniform, and shirks the materialistic horror and industrialist grind of war to seek something more esoteric, a reason for being amongst the horror. Witt is a hard, cold man who sees no spiritual light at the end of the tunnel and does his job with grim resolve, scarcely pausing to contemplate anything but the next plan of action. These two are archetypes, different forces that play in each of us and, variations of which, are how we deal with something as incomparable as a world war. Around them swirl an endless sea of famous faces and other characters doing the best they can in the chaos, or simply getting lost in it. Nick Nolte as a gloomy Colonel displays fire and brimstone externally, but his inner monologue (a constant with Malick) shows us a roiling torment. A captain under his command (Elias Koteas) has an emotional crisis and disobeys orders to send his men to their death when thunderously pressured by Nolte. Koteas vividly shows us the heartbreak and confusion of a man who is ready to break, and gives arguably the best performance of the film. Woody Harrelson accidentally blows a chunk of his ass off with a grenade, John Cusack climbs the military rank with his tactics, John Savage wanders around in a daze as a sadly shell shocked soldier, Ben Chaplin pines for his lost love (Miranda Otto) and the jaw dropping supporting cast includes (deep breath now) Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, Thomas Jane, Dash Mihok, Michael Mcgrady, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Mark Boone Jr, Don Harvey, Arie Verveen, Donal Logue, John Travolta and a brief George Clooney. There’s a whole bunch who were inexplicably cut from scenes too including Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke. Rourke’s scene can be found, in pieces, on YouTube and it’s worth a search to see him play a haunted sniper. Hans Zimmer doles out musical genius as usual, with a mournfully angelic score that laments the process of war, particularly in scenes where Caviesel connects with the natives in the region, as well as a soul shattering ambush on the Japanese encampment that is not a sequence that ten year old Nate has been able to forget since I saw it and the hairs on my neck stood up. This is a diversion from most war films; Malick always has a dreamy filter over every story he weaves: exposition is scant, atmosphere matters above all else and the forces of music and visual direction almost always supersede dialogue, excepting inner thoughts from the characters. If you take that very specific yet loose and ethereal aesthetic and plug it into the machinations of a war picture, the result is as disturbing as it is breathtakingly beautiful, because you are seeing these events through a lens not usually brandished in the genre, and the consequences of war seem somehow more urgent and cataclysmic. Malick knows this, and keeps that tempo up for the entire near three hour runtime, giving us nothing short of a classic.

-Nate Hill

Cutting on the Train: A Chat with Mick and Me by Kent Hill

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Those learning the craft of film-making nowadays shall have little to no experience with cutting film the old fashioned way. True – it was timing consuming, sometimes messy and fraught with peril – depending on your mastery. It was, however, also romantic. The trims at your feet, the smell of celluloid, the tactile nature of editing a movie . . . one splice at a time.

My guest, the distinguished editor Mick Audsley, has indeed been on Podcasting Them Softly before (https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2016/11/25/pts-presents-editors-suite-with-mick-audsley/), and the lads did a bang-up job covering the breadth of Mick’s storied career. But, the doesn’t mean I can’t have a chat with him about a film that was not out at the time (Murder on the Orient Express), as well as the changing nature of the editing process, the evolution of the way people are enjoying their movies away from the confines of the cinema, plus our mutual admiration for the cinema of Kenneth Branagh . . . and much, much more.

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Mick’s a gentleman, aside from being and exceptional craftsman, and please do check out all the great work he is doing over at his family owned and operated venture Sprocket Rocket Soho. Mick is continuing to contribute, educate and bring together all those with a passion for telling stories via the moving image.

…hope you enjoy.

THE ‘HIT’ MAN: An Interview with Dominik Starck by Kent Hill

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Dominik Starck is a cool guy who loves and makes movies. That’s a man I’m down for spending some time with – so I did. His new movie, The Hitman Agency, is a complex nest of intrigue, danger, action and redemption. Throw those altogether and you have a great blend that tastes a little like something we’ve had before – yet it’s flavored by Mr. Starck’s unashamed passion for his many cinematic influences as well as the sheer joy he has being a filmmaker.

Most of us, at one time or another, who make fatal decision to go off and pursue a career as an artist, are met with the inevitable speech for our parents which carries the immortal lines like, “You’ll never make any money,” or “Why don’t you get a real job.”

Now Dominik tried that – he tried to deny the fire inside, the voice telling him he wasn’t doing what he was meant to be doing. He wasn’t, as the Bard would say, to thy own self being true.  So he started doing what he had to do, and, for my money, what he does well – he started making movies.

“Making an indie film is close to being a hitman; choose your goal, aim and go after it no matter the obstacles. And like assassinations, it’s a hit and miss with movies. I consider our movie the latter but it’s up to the target audience to decide if that’s the truth or not,” says Starck, the writer/director. While the German independent production by Starck Entertainment and R.J. Nier Films is represented by distributor Generation X Group GmbH at the film market in Cannes (May 8th to 17th) for international sales, the US audience is the first to be able to watch THE HITMAN AGENCY on Amazon.com where it’s available for rent and buy.

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This movie is the directorial debut of writer/producer Dominik Starck who previously worked on the award winning mercenary action film ATOMIC EDEN, starring Blaxploitation legend Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson and Lorenzo Lamas (RENEGADE). While being a deliberately different type of movie, THE HITMAN AGENCY features a special appearance by 11 time kickboxing champion Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson from BLOODFIST-fame. Starring American-born Erik Hansen (THE COUNTESS) and LA-based Everett Ray Aponte (ATOMIC EDEN) as competing hitmen from different ends of their assassin-careers, THE HITMAN AGENCY is a character-driven conspiracy-thriller with twists and turns, spiced with some martial arts outbreaks and assassinations. Shot on locations in Germany in English with more blood, sweat, and tears than a real budget, this underdog movie is proof to the phrase that nothing can stop you from making a movie when you really want it. Not even in Germany where there’s no platform for genre films at all.

Like I said at the top, Dominik is a cool guy and a cool filmmaker. He was worried about his English before we spoke but I tell you now as I told him then – “his English is as beautiful as his film-making.” Seek out THE HITMAN AGENCY… (follow the link below)

https://www.amazon.com/Hitman-Agency-Everett-Ray-Aponte/dp/B07BY5Y1XL

Con Air

Con Air, man. Is there a better movie about inmates who take over an airplane and hold the guards hostage? It’s actually the only movie about that, but in all seriousness it’s one hell of a blast of summer action movie fireworks, and it holds up like a fucking diamond to this day. It’s ridiculous and it full well knows it, but producers Jerry Bruckheimer and notorious pyrotechnics enthusiast Don Simpson start at outlandish and only ascend from there, until there’s so many explosions, crashes, bangs, tough guy banter, graphic violence and commotion that it reaches a fever pitch and you kind of just surrender to the onslaught and get lost in hyperkinetic bliss for two glorious hours. One of the biggest assets the film has is the script by cunning linguist Scott Rosenberg (Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead), who gives every character at least a handful of one liners and keeps the dialogue fresh, cynical and never short on laughs. Nicolas Cage and his tangled, flowing mane of hair play Cameron Poe, a good ol’ Alabama boy just off of a jail stint for accidentally killing a redneck asshole (Kevin ‘Waingro’ Gage) who verbally assaulted his beautiful wife (Monica Potter). Here’s the setup: he’s paroled and stuck on a giant aircraft thats sole purpose is to transport convicts around the country. Now the department of corrections being the geniuses that they are (John Cusack is the head genius in this case), they decide to populate this particular flight with literally the worst group of psychotic, ill adjusted, murdering dissidents that ‘Murcia has to offer, because staggering them over a few flights or peppering just a few monsters in with the regular convicts every third or fourth flight just makes too much sense, or, as we the audience must remember and revere, there would be no bombastically entertaining hook for a story like this. Of course the plane gets taken over, the inmates run a very big flying asylum and many people die in many different ways, while Cage sticks around to play hero, protect his cell mate friend (Mykelti Williamson) and take out as many of these bastards as he can, often with his bare hands. Talk about eclectic, layered casts; everyone is in this flick, starting with scary John Malkovich as Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom, a career criminal who claims he’s killed more people than cancer. Yeah. Ving Rhames is a hulking lunatic called Diamond Dog, vicious Nick Chinlund scores points as mass murderer Billy Bedlam, Danny Trejo is a heinous piece of work called Johnny 23 on account of his numerous rape charges, and there’s all manner of creeps, scoundrels and scumbags including Dave Chappelle, M.C. Gainey, Juan Fernandez, Emilio Riviera, Doug Hutchison and more. Colm Meaney, Don S. Davis, Rachel Ticotin and Powers Boothe make impressions as well, but it’s Steve Buscemi who takes the cake as a Hannibal Lecter-esque nutjob named Garland Greene, who’s so dangerous that corrections officers will literally only touch him with ten foot poles. It’s an action movie that dares to get really down n’ dirty, and probably wouldn’t get made today, or at least not without a few tweaks to its very profane, deliberately messed up script. I wouldn’t have the thing any other way though, not only is it mean and nasty, it’s got all the bells and whistles of a summer blockbuster, plus the Lerner Airfield sequence and the Vegas strip landing set piece are two of the most monumentally raucous action undertakings I’ve ever seen, not to mention the subsequent fire truck chase that destroys half the city and makes gruesome use of a pile driver. This film is as far over the top as the altitude that the plane flies at, and then some.

-Nate Hill

Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

I’m not what’d you’d call a Beach Boys fanatic other than loving their most recognizable hits since I’ve listened to music, but Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy tells a story that just needs to be told and could grip anyone with its love, suffering, perseverance and genius, genius in the form of the band’s troubled but brilliant lead singer Brian Wilson, played here in a duo of encore performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack, both giving what may be the finest work of their careers. For those who are unaware (like myself before watching this), Wilson suffered a lengthy psychotic break that ran alongside a good portion of his career, brought on by many things including stress, fame and the ongoing psychological/physical abuse from his father (Bill Camp here), who did double duties as the group’s manager. Getting fully acquainted with rock bottom and finding himself alone later on in life, he was thrown from the frying pan into the fire when he went under the care of unconventional, deranged psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti, terrifying), and found himself victim not only to his own demons, but a new external one trying to take advantage of him. By chance he met kind Cadillac salesgirl Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the two seem to have fallen in love almost instantly, and it took her kindness, patience and determination to save him from almost certain death in Landry’s nefarious hands. I’m going on the assumption that what we see here in the film is as close to the true story as possible, because the events are too specific and jarring to have been made up. Early scenes show Dano as a young, vibrant Wilson, hard at work on an experimental opus project that would eventually drive somewhat of a wedge between him and his band mates. The later segments with Cusack, interspersed via meticulous editing, are both a love story and a horror story, as we witness Melinda and him fall for each other, while lecherous Landy does everything he can to keep them apart. Giamatti plays the guy full tilt crazy, a dangerously obsessed scumbag whose actions are so damaging to Wilson that you want to cave his head in with a rock. Cusack is wonderful, putting quiet soul into the work and keeping the heartbreak and hurt of his former years on a dimmer so we don’t forget, but see a new, brave soul try to rise from the ashes. If this might be their best work, it’s certainly the case for Banks, I’ve never felt more connected to a piece of her work. She’s attentive, playful, compassionate and low key brilliant as Melinda, Brian’s rock, guardian angel and eventual love of his life. There are gaps in the story, as many of the no doubt horrific times are either left to our imagination or only suggested at, but that gives this unbelievable, all too true story all the more power. It’s inspiring, to see someone go through all that heartache and strife and come out of it still kicking. It’s also one of the most intelligent and empathetic movies to address the subject of mental illness in some time, using a compassionate, frankly implemented lens to tell Brian’s story and illustrate his complicated condition. Along with the obvious inclusion of many Beach Boys hits, some mid-composition, there’s a gorgeous original score by Atticus Ross that accents the emotional scenes between Brian and Melinda perfectly. One for the biopic books, and a story worth taking the time to listen to.

-Nate Hill

Scott Walker’s The Frozen Ground

Nicolas Cage has been on a seemingly never-ending rampage of starring roles in some… odd flicks post mid 2000’s, and it can seem like kind of a quagmire to navigate through them without landing yourself a turd (one day I’ll do a comprehensive flow chart so everyone knows which ones to avoid). There are some pretty great films scattered throughout though, and Scott Walkers’s The Frozen Ground is one I’ve always enjoyed and wish it got a little more hype. Cage ditches the crazy and seems down to earth here in a stone cold, somber tale based on the hunt and capture of Alaska serial killer Robert Hansen, here played by John Cusack in his nastiest, most skin crawling role. Cage is Robert Halcombe, a real life state trooper who bonded with a teenage sex worker (Vanessa Hudgens) who once escaped Hansen’s clutches and tries to track the guy down, as well as prove that he’s the monster killing girls out there on the tundra. What ensues is a gritty, episodic police procedural that earns the 1970’s cop thriller vibe it’s going for, showcases stunning and eerie Alaskan photography and tells a powerful, suspenseful and at times repellant story. Cage is earnest and relatable,

Cusack is despicable without getting campy or going over the top, an everyday monster whose laid back facade make the darkness just below even scarier when we’re forced to be privy to his crimes, filmed with raw frankness. Most impressive though is Vanessa Hudgens, who I didn’t pay much attention to until this, but gives a visceral portrait of fear and determination, believable every step of the way. There’s a galaxy of supporting work from Dean Norris, Brad William Henke, Michael McGrady, Kevin Dunn, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Matt Gerald, Radha Mitchell and 50 Cent as a pimp with a mullet (lol). It works as a moody thriller, a docudrama and mutual character study of Cage and Hudgen’s roles, as well as being scary in the right places.

-Nate Hill