Tag Archives: Julia Roberts

Amazon’s Homecoming

Amazon Prime hits it out of the park yet again with Homecoming, a tightly structured, noir laced conspiracy thriller that’s so contemporary yet so unbelievably retro I couldn’t fathom how well they pulled off the mixture.

Julia Roberts gives her best performance in years as Heidi Bergman, a low level mental health worker who has been left in charge of the mysterious Homecoming facility, which on the outside is an integration program to help veterans with PTSD transition into civilian life. This is a privately funded deal though, and Heidi begins to suspect that the powers that be don’t have these guys’ best interests at heart, especially after observing the shady avoidance behaviour of her slippery boss Colin (Bobby Cannavle, also the best he’s been in some time). Years later, Heidi waitresses in a marina fish joint, the events and apparent scandal of Homecoming in her rearview, until a dogged Department Of Defence investigator (Shea Wigham, pretty much incapable of hitting a false note) tracks her down and asks questions, forcing her to look at the past in a new light.

This isn’t just your average spook thriller with Manchurian Candidate undertones, but it certainly achieves that as well. At the core is Heidi’s emotional relationship with Walter (Stephen James, a revelation), one of the vets she’s treating, and how that affects her perception of what’s going on around her, their dynamic is the constant and the catalyst for things to get out of hand. To say more would be to spoil an incredibly subtle, slow burn paranoia piece that unspools one thread at a time and is an utter delight to unpack as the viewer. Roberts is sensational, usually we get a character from her on feature film terms, for two or so hours and then the arc is capped, but there are ten half hour episodes here and she’s allowed to room to breathe in her work, drawing us in and earning sympathy beat by beat. Cannavle is a pithy portrait of corporate greed and casual apathy run amok, not necessarily a bad dude but certainly an amoral, selfish schmuck who realizes the consequences of his actions too little too late, it’s fantastic work from the him. Wigham is always brilliant and plays this guy in the guise of a robotic company man, but as the story progresses we see that he cares far more than his tucked shirt demeanour lets on. Other stellar work comes from Rafi Gavron, Jeremy Allen White, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Sydney Tanmiia Poitier, Dermot Mulroney, Sissy Spacek and Hong Chau.

I was floored by the camera work here, the overhead angles, meticulous lighting, tracking shots and general symmetry in frame are so immersive and well done, this thing visually feels like noir to its roots while still being very of this era, thematically speaking. It also cleverly plays around with aspect ratio in order to put us in Heidi’s psychological state and accent the passage of time, a tactic I’ve never seen before but am now obsessed with.

It took me a bit to clue in that creator Sam Esmail literally lifted hordes of original score from classic 60’s, 70’s and 80’s horror thrillers and used them here, but by the time I heard cues from John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Fog I had an ‘aha’ moment and had to go look up just how many themes are sampled, and trust me there’s a lot. That could have been a lazy choice from a lesser production to just *entirely* recycle old music, but it’s used to such effect here and works splendidly for this story. This is brilliant stuff and I can’t think of a single criticism really. Stick around for a provocative post credits scene that pretty much begs for a second season.

-Nate Hill

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Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About

Julia Roberts has many notorious pop culture hits under her belt, all of which become memorable for a reason: they’re flashy, relatable, well made crowd pleasers like Erin Brockovich or Pretty Woman. But that irresistible charm (if you’re a fan of hers) was also put to great use in some quieter, more challenging and less accessible pieces like Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About, an interpersonal dramedy that explores the relationship between her and her husband (Dennis Quaid) in the aftermath of him cheating on her. She comes from a big family, has headstrong parents (Robert Duvall and Gena Rowlands) who have an influential role in her life and a fiery, fiercely protective older sister (Kyra Sedgwick is fantastic) who literally kicks Quaid in the nuts when she finds out. Now, this is a 90’s film and doesn’t have the same perspective on life we now know today, so her frustration, anger and outrage at her husband’s infidelity isn’t taken as seriously as it could be right off the bat. Duvall is more worried how it may be bad for business than any emotional toll it will take on his daughter, while she simply wants to be heard and allowed to be pissed off at the guy. Her husband reacts with a sheepish wounded animal tactic that wears off when he realizes his wife is smarter than that, and Quaid handles the arc carefully and humbly. It’s basically about the snowball effect an affair can have in a close quarters family situation, and while I enjoyed some of the laughs provided by Roberts deliberately exposing other sneaky cheaters in their tight knit community, I connected most when the film focused on her as a woman wronged, and a woman who’s not afraid to stand up for herself, even if it means stirring shit up royally. She’s a movie star with a mile wide smile and people know her as such, but I think that the high profile roles sometimes have us forgetting what an absolute diamond of an actress she is as well, and small, character driven pieces like this serve well to remind. She rocks it here, and is supported by all around her including Muse Watson, Brett Cullen and Haley Aull as their intuitive daughter. A treasure.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve

I enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve for a number of reasons, chief among them how decidedly different it is from Eleven. It’s like they not only chose to set it in Europe, but also to stylistically change the glib, cavalier Vegas aesthetic for an oddball, impenetrable Euro vibe that’s a lot weirder and more dense this time, and as such we have fun in a new fashion than the first. There’s also not just the laser focus of one singular, do or die heist but rather a string of robberies, betrayals and loose subplots flung around like diamonds, as well as a few cameos buried like Faberge Easter eggs. Good old Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) has tracked down Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Tess (Julia Roberts), Rusty (Brad Pitt) and their merry band of thieves across the pond to Europe, and he wants his money back from their epic Bellagio/Mirage/MGM Grand heist. This sets in motion an impossibility intricate, knowingly convoluted series of mad dash heists and classy encounters with the finest arch burglars Europe has to offer, including legendary thief the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) and hilarious fence Eddie Izzard in full fussy mode. Everyone from Danny’s original team returns, from the scene stealing, cigar devouring Elliott Gould to the bickering brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan. Hell, even Topher Grace as himself is back, and that gigantic Vegas tough guy that fake brawled with Clooney the first time turns up for a spell. There’s fresh faces abound too, including sultry Catherine Zeta Jones as a cunning Interpol agent who’s on to their trail, no thanks to Pitt who happens to be dating her. Oh, and how about the surprise cameo which I won’t spoil except to say it’s tied into another pseudo cameo that’s so ingenious it can’t be explained, you just gotta see it. To be honest, the whole heist plot is one fabulously befuddled bag of nonsense, tomfoolery and monkeyshines, made no clearer with flashbacks, gimmicks, ulterior motives and cinematic trickery until we’re left wondering what in the fuck exactly happened. More so in Twelve though it’s about the journey, and not the destination, whereas Eleven made it clear that sights were set on completing that heist with dedicated tunnel vision. Here one is reminded of a bunch of Italians sitting around having coffee and chatting amongst themselves while they’re late for a meeting; they’ll get there eventually, but right now all that matters is how good the conversation and camaraderie is. Speaking of sitting around and talking, my favourite scene of the film is with Danny, Rusty, Matt Damon’s Linus and Robbie ‘Hagrid’ Coltrane, who plays an underworld contact. They’re sat in a Paris cafe talking, and they use nothing but a nonsense gibberish vernacular that seems to make sense to them all but Damon, but probably doesn’t to any of them, but the key is that they all remain cool, bluff each other out and have fun. That sums up the film in one aspect, a breezy blast of silliness that shouldn’t be examined too hard, but rather enjoyed at a hazy distance with a glass of fine wine. Good fun all round.

-Nate Hill

Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican

Gore Verbinki’s The Mexican has always been a huge favourite of mine. It’s sort of a diamond in the rough in the sense that it didn’t meet very explosive box office or critical acclaim, but upon closer inspection is actually a uniquely structured, sexy, dangerous, eccentrically funny romantic black comedy. It’s one of those laconic yet feisty crime flicks, the kind that Elmore Leonard writes and Soderbergh directs, but this one is given the trademark oddball humour and distinct flourish that Verbinski brings to all of his films, the guy is so undervalued in Hollywood. Brad Pitt, in one of his scrappiest turns, plays perpetual fuck-up Jerry, a low level mob package boy who couldn’t deliver a pizza without dicking it up. He’s tasked by his freaky boss (a scary Bob Balaban) to deliver an ancient antique pistol across the Mexican border. Of course everything that can go wrong does, like the Murphy’s law of caper flicks. His high maintenance, wired girlfriend Samantha (Julia Roberts) tracks his course and ends up in quite a bit of danger. It’s all a breezy affair that goes from one episodic, densely written and excellently acted scene to the next, with redundant complexities of plot less important than character development and singular instances of violence and dark comedy. I won’t ruin the surprise cameo near the end but it’s someone who you’d always expect to find in smart ass films like this and shows up like he meant to be there the whole time but got caught in border traffic. J.K. Simmons is hilarious as a slightly odd colleague off Jerry’s, but the best performance of the film by far comes from the late James Gandolfini as Winston Baldry, a gay contract killer with both a soft and a dangerous side who kidnaps Samantha and holds her ransom until he finds Jerry. The brilliant script by J.H. Wyman focuses on and develops their relationship beautifully until we believe both as human beings in full colour and personality, as opposed to just characters on the page. Gandolfini could play a barstool on camera and still have enough depth and human spirit to win over an audience, the guy was just that good and this remains my favourite character he has ever created. There’s always a qualm people have with this film, and it’s that despite billed as a romance, Pitt and Roberts barely share any screen time together, instead running around the southwest and Mexico trying to find each other. Well, perhaps the poster shouldn’t have shown that image of them sharing a moment like that, but to me this story was never about them together, but the journey they take finding each other, all the crazy people they meet along the way and the strange parable of the pistol Jerry must deliver, which gets it’s own black and white aside flashback sequence that has a Robert Rodriguez feel. This one is a charmer, has enough action, wit and warmth to fill it’s leisurely two hour runtime, and languishes in each minute of it like any good, well thought out story does.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven

I’ve seen Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven so many times I couldn’t count on the hands I have, or all twenty two of those attached to the gaggle of slick, fast talking lounge rats who pull of the most laidback, easygoing casino heist in Vegas history. Most heist flicks have a breathless cadence and at least one high powered action sequence. Not this baby. It’s like the weekend R&R of robbery films, the classy brunch of crime stories. Hell, even Heat, as hypnotic and subdued as it was, had gunplay here and there. It’s in that refusal to get its hands dirty, the insistence on a relaxed, pleasant vibe that has made it the classic it is today. George Clooney and Brad Pitt are iconic now as ex jailbird Danny Ocean and fast food enthusiast Rusty, two seasoned pros who plan to take down tycoon Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, looking and sounding more constipated than a police commissioner at a 420 rally) and his three giant casinos. To do this, they round up the most eclectic bunch of scoundrels this side of the wild bunch, including fussy, flamboyant businessmen Elliot Gould, slick card shark Bernie Mac (“might as well call it white jack!”), twitchy techie Eddie Jamison, dysfunctional petty thief Matt Damon, eternally squabbling wheelmen brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan, acrobatic guru Shaobo Qin, rowdy safecracker Don Cheadle (with a piss poor attempt at a cockney accent, I might add) and grizzled grifter Carl Reiner. Oh, and a sultry Julia Roberts as Danny’s ex wife, because no caper flick would be complete without the high stakes and charm of a woman involved. What a pack. The logistics and steps of their plan have a labyrinthine feel to them, especially the sheepish twist that seems just easy enough to work and just far-fetched enough to earn friendly chuckles. Soderbergh did his own cinematography for this, which explains why the vision here is so singular and unforgettable; he shoots Vegas like a subdued nocturnal dreamscape full of fountain soaked vistas, dazzling light displays and ornate casino floors, and directs his actors with all the lithe, cordial and cucumber cool personas of the born n’ bred Vegas characters you can spot whilst on vacation there. Ebert wrote of this, “Serious pianists sometimes pound out a little honky-tonk, just for fun.. this is a standard genre picture, and Soderbergh, who usually aims higher, does it as sort of a lark.” Oh, Roger. This is my main pet peeve with film criticism and analysis: the distinct differentiation between ‘genre fare’ and ‘high art’, a snooty attitude that devalues both forms and axes a rift into a medium that at the end of the day, is all storytelling. Some of Soderbergh’s best films (this, Out Of Sight and last year’s Logan Lucky) are exercises in storytelling without the burden of subtext or lofty behind the scenes ambition, and are somewhat the better for it. Rant over. In any case, this is style, charm, wit and lovable caper shenanigans done just about as best as they could, and remains one of my favourite films of this century so far.

-Nate Hill

Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind: A Review By Nate Hill

  

As soon as George Clooney built up enough clout and reputation in the industry to a point where he could make his own projects, he started to send some unique and refreshing stuff down an assembly line that needed some shaking up. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind is such a curiosity, but it’s so specific and idiosyncratic that I can barely say what makes it so special. I can go over the plot, performances etc. and give the reader a general idea, but to get it you had to be there. I suppose that’s the case with all movies, this one just sort of has its own frequency that you have to be tuned into. For a square jawed leading man, Clooney sure busted the box open with this directorial effort, as well as a few others, all just as distinctive. A screenplay by Mr. Abstract himself, Charlie Kaufman, helps with making an impression as well. Sam Rockwell, who continues to prove himself as one of the best actors of his generation, plays Chuck Barris. Chuck was the brain child behind numerous gaudy television game shows in the 60’s, including the infamous ‘Dating Game’. Flippant creative output was his brand, but there was another side to him as well, a darker period in which he claimed to be recruited by the CIA to carry out cloak and dagger assassinations. Whether or not this was ever a factual part of his life is murky, but he certainly believes it to be true and has written extensively about it in the novel which Clooney based this on. The film deftly intersperses his life at the television network and the genesis of the programs with his training and eventual missions for the Company. It’s an odd contrast, but when you’re treated with Clooney’s dutiful storytelling and an extremely committed turn from Rockwell, it’s hard not to be drawn into it. Not to mention the supporting cast. Julia Roberts is cast against type as a lethal, sociopathic femme fatale who crosses paths with Barris more than a few times. Rutger Hauer mopes about as a loveable alcoholic operative who covers Barris’s back on a few assignments. Drew Barrymore spruces things up as a ditzy love interest, Michael Cera plays Chuck as a young’in, Clooney himself underplays his CIA handler, letting an epic moustache do the talking, and there’s cameos from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. At one point the film stops dead in its tracks for the funniest performance which hijacks a scene briefly, in the form of Robert John Burke as a maniacal censorship board hyena. Burke pulls the ripcord and delivers roughly 40 seconds of pure comedic genius that I could watch on loop, and is the only moment of its kind in the film. You’d think it’d offset tone, but in a film this organic and quirky, it simply serves as a garnish of hilarity. The whole thing has a Soderbergh feel to it (perhaps due to Clooney), a sharp, crystalline precision to the burnished cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel, who previously wowed us with similar work on Blood & Wine, The Usual Suspects and Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen. His lens captures the melancholy accompanying Barris’s very strange path path in life with moodily lit frames, and pauses for the brilliant moments of absurd black comedy which seem to follow him around like the spooks he was always running from. A film with dual aspects that never tries to prove or disprove Chuck’s claims, but loyally tells the story the way he told it, guided by Clooney all the while. A little stroke of genius. 

OCEAN’S ELEVEN – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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“Ocean’s Eleven was my opportunity to make a movie that has no desire except to give you pleasure, where you surrender without embarrassment or regret.” – Steven Soderbergh

Fresh from the one-two success of Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000), Steven Soderbergh made a conscious decision to shift gears and make a purely entertaining film for a major studio. He managed to convince movie stars George Clooney (whom he had already worked with on Out of Sight) and Brad Pitt to take major cuts in their multi-million dollar salaries and headline a remake of the Rat Pack heist film Ocean’s Eleven (1960). With Clooney and Pitt on board, Soderbergh was then able to get an impressive cast including the likes of Matt Damon and Julia Roberts (both of whom also agreed to take pay cuts) and avoid having his film come across as nothing more than a vanity project for a bunch of smug movie stars. On the contrary, Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is a slick heist film in the tradition of The Sting (1973) in the sense that you know the outcome (the good guys win) but the fun is in how they get there as Soderbergh utilizes every stylish technique that he has available at his disposal.

Daniel Ocean (Clooney) has just been released from prison and is eager to return to his high-end criminal enterprises. He sets his sights on Las Vegas with plans to rob three prestigious casinos: the MGM Grand, the Mirage, and the Bellagio, all of which keep their considerable sums of money in an ultra-secure hi-tech vault controlled by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who, incidentally, is currently dating Danny’s ex-wife Tess (Roberts). It’s not going to be easy and so, with the help of his good friend and ace fixer Rusty Ryan (Pitt), they recruit nine experts to help them pull off a near-impossible heist. In addition to the heist, which serves as the main plot, Ted Griffin’s screenplay expertly weaves in a subplot involving Danny attempt to reconnect with Tess.

This film oozes cool right from the opening credits that play over a fantastic shot of the Atlantic City skyline at night accompanied by funky trip-hop type music by Northern Irish disc jockey David Holmes. We meet Rusty wasting his time teaching young movie stars (Holly Marie Combs and Topher Grace among others making fun of themselves) to play cards. We meet him in Hollywood with a cool groove playing over his establishing shot. This sequence is a bit of meta fun as we see Pitt, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, teaching other movie stars playing a parody of themselves being totally clueless at playing poker only to eventually be hustled by a bemused Danny. Soderbergh even slides in a few sly inside jokes, like Danny asking Topher Grace if it’s hard to make the transition from television to film, which, of course, is exactly what Clooney did. Or, how Grace gets mobbed by autograph hounds while Clooney and Pitt are completely ignored.

One of the best sequences in the film is when Danny and Rusty recruit their crew. The scene where they convince Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) to bankroll their operation is a wonderful example of how expositional dialogue being delivered in the right way by the right actor can be entertaining and informative as Elliott Gould does a fantastic job of warning Danny and Rusty of just how dangerous Benedict is. From there, each character that Danny and Rusty approach is given their own introduction that briefly and succinctly highlights their unique skill and distinctive personality traits. Linus Caldwell (Damon) is an up-and-coming pickpocket with uncanny dexterity. There’s the Malloy brothers, Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan), two drivers by trade with one of them having an affinity for remote controlled devices and a perchance for bickering and irritating each other, which provides a good source of humor. Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison) is an electronics expert in the area of surveillance. Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle) is a demolitions expert with Don Cheadle sporting an obviously exaggerated Cockney accent. Yen (Shaobo Qin) is a diminutive top-of-the-line acrobat that can get in and out of any tight space. Finally, there is Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), a retired flimflam man coaxed back into action by Rusty. Each actor is given at least one scene, often more, to come front and center and do their thing and this is done in a way that doesn’t distract you from the story at hand, which is quite an accomplishment with such a large cast.

David Holmes expertly mixes jazz, funk, soul and hip hop in a way that evokes groovy trip hop or acid jazz but in a retro way that evokes Quincy Jones circa the 1970s. The often-fat bass lines give certain musical cues a confident swagger. There is also plenty of Hammond organ and vibraphone looped to give a lounge-y kind of vibe at times. Later on in the film, Holmes brings in strings and brass to accentuate the romantic subplot between Danny and Tess. Holmes also incorporates songs, like Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” to fantastic effect. This came out of watching the original Ocean’s Eleven as Holmes explained in an interview, “Then I tried to think of ways to identify with what was going on – with it being a contemporary film, how to be original, but set within the heart of Las Vegas. Which is where the Elvis song ‘A Little Less Conversation’ came about, because obviously Elvis had a really strong affiliation with Las Vegas, and that track has a very contemporary feel.”

Steven Soderbergh read Ted Griffin’s screenplay in an afternoon in January 2000. The next day he called producer Jerry Weintraub and told him he wanted to direct the film. What he liked about the script was that it didn’t evoke the original 1960 version but “had this one foot back in the heyday of the studio star-driven movie, like Howard Hawks or George Cukor.” Soderbergh had always been drawn to heist films because, “the conflicts are so clear and dramatic. This seemed to be everything that you want a big Hollywood film to be, on the script level.” He had just made two dramas – Erin Brockovich and Traffic – and wanted to make a fun movie. To prepare for shooting Ocean’s Eleven, he watched Ghostbusters (1984) because he was impressed at “that sort of physical scale [that] feels so tossed-off, with such understated performances and obvious generosity among all the performers.” He also studied films by David Fincher, Steven Spielberg and John McTiernan because they knew how to “orchestrate physical action the way I like to see it.” He looked at how these filmmakers used lens length and height, camera movement and editing, as well as, “how they used their extras, how they structured movements within shots that carried you to the next movement and the next.”

Soderbergh got George Clooney involved and half-jokingly told him, “let’s make it an Irwin Allen movie, where they used to have 10 stars.” Originally, the director considered casting Luke and Owen Wilson, Bruce Willis, and Ralph Fiennes as the villain. Once Clooney was on board, they got the rest of the cast to commit at radically reduced rates, starting with Brad Pitt. However, during filming, the cast stayed in their own 7,000-square-foot villas at the Bellagio. Before shooting, Soderbergh told his cast, “Show up ready to work. If you think you’re just going to walk through this, you’re mistaken. If anybody gets smug, we’re dead.” Soderbergh wanted to shoot in the Bellagio, the MGM Grand and the Mirage – an impossible feat for more mere mortals; however, Weintraub had the connections and the clout to make it happen. The production was allowed to shoot on the floor of the casinos during the day, which nobody is given access to and the casino bosses even shut down entire pits for Soderbergh to shoot in. This allowed the director to design shots that were complicated and large in scale.

Soderbergh wanted the lighting for Ocean’s Eleven to be based in reality and to look like it wasn’t lit at all – not a problem in Las Vegas, a place overloaded with every kind of light imaginable. At times, Soderbergh would add some color to enhance the mood for dramatic purposes in order to put the audience inside the world of the film. He also realized that the locations played a large part in the plot and was interested in showing as much of the environment as possible. One challenge Soderbergh faced was the logistics of filming big dialogue scenes with Danny and his crew in a visually interested way. He had a lot of people in confined spaces and didn’t want these scenes to be boring. So, he attempted to frame shots that clearly established where everyone was while also giving them enough depth and geometry to make the characters interesting to look at.

In a nice touch, Ocean’s Eleven never waxes nostalgic about the original film but instead is wistful about Las Vegas as it was in the 1960s when the casinos were still run by the Mob and had yet to be corporatized and Disney-fied. This is reinforced in one of the motivations Danny has of robbing Benedict. It’s not just that he’s dating his ex-wife but Benedict also recently demolished one of the last old school casinos left in Vegas. Unlike Benedict, Danny respects the past and recruits Reuben and Saul, veteran con artists whose heyday was the ‘60s. It’s great to see Soderbergh giving actors like Gould and Reiner screen-time in a major studio film. These guys don’t work nearly enough and their performances in Ocean’s Eleven are a potent reminder of how good they can be if given the right material and the opportunity. Entrusted with only his second major studio film with an A-list budget, Soderbergh effortlessly orchestrates a fun, engaging popcorn movie like an old pro that has been doing this for their entire career.