Sean Penn’s Flag Day

Sean Penn has always been one of the most fascinating, honest and down to earth filmmakers in terms of tone, style and theme and his latest father daughter drama Flag Day is a magnificently acted, deeply sorrowful piece of work that shows us this artist still has a lot to give and to say in his medium. It tells the autobiographical tale of Jennifer Vogel (Dylan Penn, his real life daughter), a teenage runaway with a painfully tumultuous family life whose mother (Kathryn Winnick) is married to an abusive prick and is blind to his ways and whose father (Penn) is a degenerate con artist and perennial fuck-up who tries to do right by his family but seems star crossed with his own self destruction. I’m not sure if the real Jennifer Vogel had it *this* bad (I guess I should read the book) but it’s a testament to this girl’s spirit, bravery and resilience that after abuses, years on the road, hopelessly dysfunctional family life and unspeakable hardships she came out on top as a successful college graduate and influential journalist, here chronicled in wistful, hazy, fragmented episodic memories that have a genuine disarray and scattered quality to them, the same way memory feels to us when we try to recall things in a straight line and our minds grasp at keystone moments out of space and time for a recollection that isn’t always coherent. The strongest quality and beacon of light the film has is Dylan Penn, daughter of Sean and Robin Wright in her first lead role. She is unbelievably talented, emotionally truthful and intuitive in her craft and her performance is jaw dropping, for starters. Sean Penn himself is great, playing a character that’s very hard to like and bringing heart to his scenes with her but she is positively on another level with her performance here, selling the hurt, strength, feeling of being betrayed by her own parents and her eventual arc from scared, lost teen girl to assured, battle hardened young woman with a grace, ease and flow that has to be seen to be believed, the best female performance this year easily. The film itself is your call, I loved it but the marketing makes it seem like this “father and daughter against the world” thing when in truth it’s daughter against the world, including her father, mother and most around her who are either absent, untrustworthy or not up to the task of being in her life. Only a kind, sympathetic uncle (a brief Josh Brolin) is anything close to a constructive influence on her journey. Penn has always made challenging, melancholic films about human beings going through unimaginable changes and sometimes taking pretty devastating falls, from The Indian Runner to The Crossing Guard to Into The Wild to The Pledge (my personal favourite), he always has an uncanny eye for the middle class, the people that don’t often get their voices heard in majorly produced scripts, the ones who tend to fall by the wayside unless someone is willing to tell their story. In this case Vogel took it upon herself to tell her own story and Penn has adapted it in a beautiful, moving, incredibly depressing but ultimately very human story, giving his daughter a voice and a canvas to paint her masterful portrayal of one girl who, despite everything, made it to a better life. Phenomenal film.

-Nate Hill

Hellraiser 8: Hellworld

And now we arrive at the final Hellraiser sequel, or the last one to star Doug Bradley as Pinhead anyways, so it may as well be a good a place as any to stop. Hellworld is the eighth, and silliest iteration of this story, a script that tries to properly usher the franchise into the cyber age with a sort of meta narrative that turns the Hellraiser characters and movies into an online game that college kids get hooked on. So with this one the movies exist, like this takes place outside the canon in a way, like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare took Freddy Krueger out of his own fictional narrative and placed him in the real world, except that it’s far less effective and properly utilized of a concept in this franchise. The main reason this one doesn’t fall into thorough mediocrity is Lance Henriksen, it doesn’t matter how shitty your sequel, threequel or eight-quel is in any given series, you cast him and immediately there’s a level of pedigree by default alone. He plays a mysterious rich dude who hosts a party at his remote, spooky mansion where players of the once popular online RPG game Hellworld can live out their gaming fantasies one more time. Of course, Pinhead and his buddies break the fabric of time, space and fiction to make their night a literal world of hell, facilitated by Henriksen’s treacherous collector/socialite. It’s a fun enough time, the actors who plays the teens are a silly bunch, but it was neat to see a very young Henry Cavill in their bunch. Decent kills too. One thing I did appreciate is that Henriksen’s character could have easily just been like, a nondescript cyber host type archetype or temporary avatar for Pinhead, as they sometimes do in these films. He’s a very real human character himself with his own fascinating arc and that at least gives the film some narrative fibre, as does his solid, creepy performance. Not the best, but also not the worst in this canon.

-Nate Hill

April Mullen’s Wander

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with April Mullen’s Wander and my hopes may have not been that high just based on reviews but I honestly loved this wild, scrappy, unconventional, ‘pulp arthouse’, sociopolitically conscious bauble of a film so much. Many won’t vibe with it and that’s okay because it’s supremely weird, visually stylish and kinetic in the fashion that filmmakers like Tony Scott and Oliver Stone traffic in and, quite frankly, all over the place in terms of tone, editing and plot to the point that many viewers will feel assaulted by commotion. I love it for all the reasons mentioned because my tastes always gravitate towards the wild, wooly, artsy and just plain strange. Aaron Eckart and Tommy Lee Jones give perhaps the two performances of their career that are most… ‘unlike their essence’, playing a couple of crusty, paranoid conspiracy theorists who run a tinfoil hat podcast from their dusty trailer. One night a distraught mother calls into their show claiming her daughter was kidnapped by shadowy government factions and corrupt law enforcement and enlists their help, so they pack up and venture out to Wander, NM, a literal one horse town with a nervous sheriff (Raymond Cruz) who knows more than he lets on and a mysterious cowgirl (Kathryn Winnick) who lurks about the place. Eckhart’s character has a lot to contend with beyond the task at hand, he’s ridden with PTSD from a former accident that killed his daughter and left his wife in brain damaged catatonia. Their investigation leads them to some pretty disturbing revelations that I won’t spoil here but there’s an interesting psychological juxtaposition between what’s really going on and what’s a facet of their already fractured collective mental states. Eckhart is wonderfully intense, barking and growling out his lines with the ferocity set on low burn and looking frantic as a wild animal, while Jones is the cunning old dog who is marginally more put together and tries to steady his pal but is still completely out of it himself. Heather Graham gives a wonderfully soulful supporting performance as a good friend of Eckhart’s who does her best to help him through what’s going on. What I really loved about this film is how many tones and styles tributary together for an often raucous but incredibly singular experience. The film opens with a preface paying respect to indigenous and all peoples of colour who have been displaced and mistreated along many borders and immediately begins with a jarring prologue as a Native woman flees unseen forces in a speeding car. Director April Mullens uses elaborate, tricky, swooping, unbelievably dynamic camera movements and chopper/drone shots to bring the story to life in an immersive and breathtaking way, and the musical talent of Canadian indigenous artist Jeremy Dutcher adds haunting atmospherics to the soundscape. This film is a lot of things, and it will no doubt be too much, or too ‘out there’ for many but it’s right up my dusty backcountry alley. Bizarre, confounding, melodic, emotional, frightening, it’s altogether like nothing I’ve seen and truly one for the books.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: The Art Of The Steal

I’ve reviewed The Art Of The Steal before, but it constantly kills me how underrated this banging heist comedy is, so here goes again. Imagine a wickedly funny, smartly written all star art thievery caper starring Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon and a host of others at the top of their game and you’ll have some idea. It’s strange that it’s so unheard of with this pedigree of actors involved, but it’s a joint Canadian production so that may have had an effect on marketing, or lack thereof. In any case, it’s the funniest, smartest heist flick since Ocean’s Eleven, and maybe tops it too. Russell is Crunch Calhoun, an Evel Kneval type ruffian who moonlights as a driver for a crew of fine art pilferers he leads. He’s hard up for cash and fresh out of a stretch in polish jail after his brother and second command Nicky (Matt Dillon, sleazy as ever) rats him out as a fall guy. Now back in Canada, he reluctantly agrees to work with brother dearest, as well as his old crew, for one last job, the theft of an obscure gospel manuscript. Their plan involves swerves, dekes, double-crosses, cons, conniving, hysterical fuck ups, roper dopes and double entendres, so much so that one marvels all that’s in this goody bag of a narrative can fit into a ninety minute film, a testament to both editing and direction. Crunch’s crew is is a roll call of varied talent, including twitchy rookie Jay Baruchel, wily old dog Paddy (Kenneth Welsh), Crunch’s sexy wife (Kathryn Winnick) and their flamboyant French forger (Chris Diamantopoulos). The real treat is Terence Stamp as a weary ex thief working with an Interpol snot-rag (Jason Jones) to lift time off his sentence. Stamp doesn’t show up too often in films these days but he’s comic gold here and has a surprisingly touching bit that brings a bit of reverence and gravity to the world of grand-theft-art amidst the mostly madcap tone. It’s sad that films like this don’t get a theatrical run anymore these days, because they end up on Netflix or wherever and the only way they get mass exposure is through word of mouth, chance or crazed cinephiliac zealots like me shamelessly plugging them on blogs. So go fucking watch it..now.

-Nate Hill