Tag Archives: Julia Roberts

Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten James Gandolfini Performances

James Gandolfini meant a lot to Hollywood, cinema and myself as both an actor and lover of film. Yes he was the Italian gangster archetype incarnate, and a lovable teddy bear in comedic turns too. But his talent and wish to explore his craft went deeper than that, and even in roles that seemed outwardly to be one thing you could sense opposites, contradiction and a deliberate desire to subvert the obvious choices in his work. A tough guy he played could display disarming notes of vulnerability that takes one off guard, or a loving family man might show glimpses of volcanic darkness. It’s that understanding of complexity and juxtaposition within character that made him such striking, relatable and deeply loved presence in film and television for decades. Here are my personal top ten favourite performances!

10. Eddie Poole in Joel Schumacher’s 8MM

This is one intense film to sit through, one that even for its time and even now pushes the boundaries of extreme. Private investigator Nicolas Cage is looking for the dark origins of a possible snuff film, and the trail leads to shady small time pornography Eddie, who is an unrepentant, obnoxious, amoral scumbag. James finds the animalistic notes in him and the eventual pathetic fear he devolves into when secrets are threatened.

9. Lou in Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen

Denzel Washington, John Goodman and Gandolfini play three homicide detectives hunting an elusive supernatural serial killer in this fantastic, underrated horror/noir. Lou is the mouthy one of the bunch, the cop in the precinct who is always chatting, shooting the shit and firing off jokes. James could fill a room with his presence in terms of gregarious humour but he’s also terrifying when the evil entity possesses him and intimidates Denzel in a chilling scene.

8. Tony Soprano in HBO’s The Sopranos

The big daddy of Italian monsters in film and television, Tony is a complex, scary, insecure, cunning and well rounded human being given the consistently brilliant talents of Gandolfini, who makes this guy someone you root for even when he’s being a piece of shit.

7. Colonel Winter in Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle

The ultimate battle unfolds between a decorated General (Robert Redford) and military prison warden Winter, who perceived insulting behaviour from him and makes it his mission to wage psychological warfare against him and any inmates standing with him. Gandolfini makes this guy simultaneously terrifying and pathetic, a failed officer who twists his resentment in not succeeding into a bitter, self destructive streak of self pity and anger.

6. Detective Joey Allegretto in Sydney Lumet’s Night Falls On Manhattan

I like it when films show police corruption as not necessarily an established routine or inherent trait but something that sneaks up on the characters through circumstance and makes them do things out of desperation that they never meant to do. Joey and his partner (Ian Holm) are two NYC cops forced to make some crazy split second decisions that lead to bad blood and dire consequences. James handles the arc fantastically in an early career turn displaying haunting moral complexity and much of the talent that would carry him on to fame later.

5. Al Love in Steven Zaillian’s A Civil Action

As a David vs. Goliath environmental lawsuit unfolds in a small rural community, many blue collar lives are caught up in the struggle. Gandolfini’s Al is a husband and father who much make the tough choice whether to risk his job by testifying against a company that is dumping toxic waste. There’s a quiet, understated moment at the dinner table where he looks around at his family with love as they eat, and he realizes he has no other choice but to protect other families like his own in the region. It’s a stirring, low key performance anchored by that important moment.

4. Mickey in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly

The ultimate antithesis of his classic Italian tough guy archetype, Mickey is a a sad sack ‘hitman’ brought in from out of town to kill a disloyal wise-guy (Ray Liotta). What he does instead is spend time drinking a bunch of booze, fucking multiple hookers and bitching about the way things used to be. It’s an interesting portrait of a guy long passed his prime who may or may not have one more killing in him, but certainly has a bad attitude, hedonistic habits and a bleak worldview to spare.

3. Bear in Barry Sonnenfield’s Get Shorty

The strong, silent stuntman type, Bear never goes anywhere without his adorable toddler daughter, which proves to be dangerous when he gets embroiled in a tricky hollywood crime standoff. I like James as Bear because he’s laidback, not incredibly smart but sharp enough to know where to invest his considerable talent and resourcefulness when shit gets real.

2. Virgil in Tony Scott’s True Romance

Another early career turn and probably the most ruthless character he’s ever taken on, Virgil is a Detroit mobster with a sadistic streak out to retrieve a suitcase full of coke for his kingpin boss (Christopher Walken). His explosive, ultra violent confrontation with Patricia Arquette’s Alabama has since become a legendary sequence of over the hill madness. He gives Virgil a gleeful menace and predatory relish in his actions that amp up a traditionally constructed villain character into something beastly and horrific.

1. Winston Baldry in Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican

Another mob hitman, but of a completely different sort than ever before. Winston is tasked with babysitting Julia Roberts all over the states and winds up becoming besties with her, in a completely charming yet ultimately believable arc. Winston may be a seasoned professional killer but he’s entirely in touch with his feelings, haa romantic yearnings of his own and isn’t without a good dose of compassion. It’s a brilliant, well rounded performance in an underrated film and the one performance that is the most beloved and memorable for me.

Runners up: Surviving Christmas, Zero Dark Thirty, The Drop, Where The Wild Things Are.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!

-Nate Hill

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

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.