B Movie Glory: Midnight In The Switchgrass

Today on what is Bruce Willis up to in the B-movie lane we have Midnight In The Switchgrass (isn’t that a cool title though?), a moody, subdued southern gothic potboiler by way of a serial killer procedural that I actually really enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still DTV, it’s low budget and rough around the edges but a genuine effort was made here by first time director Randall Emmett, a truly impressive cast is assembled, all of whom are clearly having fun and a mood is established through soundtrack, suspense and down to earth writing that cannot be written off as simply B grade trash. Somewhere along the desolate Florida interstate a nasty serial killer is kidnapping women, murdering them and dumping their bodies. Various factions of law enforcement are desperately trying to stop him including two world weary FBI agents (Willis & Megan Fox) and one undeterred state police rogue (Emile Hirsch) who has been looking for this monster for some years. The killer is played by Lukas Haas which isn’t really a spoiler since the trailers reveal that fact, he’s a real formidable, despicable force here, made all the more sickening by the fact that he has a wife and young daughter of his own who, by default, are constantly at risk of him having a full meltdown. Fox is terrific here, the more assertive of the pair, she has great chemistry with Willis and some sharply delivered lines that illustrate her character. She has a few scenes with musical artist Machine Gun Kelly (now her real life boyfriend), playing a violent, trash-bag motel pimp who once saw the killer briefly and is therefore an asset to the case, as hard to control as he is, he crackles with a sleazy, downtrodden volatility. Hirsch is so intense, fired up and doggedly earnest it sometimes feels like he’ll jump out of the screen, run around your living room and knock over the furniture, I miss when he was in the spotlight and he’s very good here. As for the film, it all depends on how you look at it. Yes, Willis has fallen from grace, admittedly he doesn’t get much to do here beyond an extended cameo and naturally this comes nowhere close to his iconic films we’re all used to, but as a brooding, atmospheric, slightly run of the mill yet still distinctive and ever so slightly horror tinged procedural thriller you can certainly do a *lot* worse. There are some mournful, melancholic soundtrack choices with beautifully sung lyrics and titles like “No Time Left”, “Maybe Heaven” and “Are You Washed In The Blood” that are used strategically at key moments and just add so much personality and emotion to the story. So, it ain’t high pedigree cinema, but in my eyes it is a commendable genre effort that held my attention, had some nice cinematic flourishes, a brutally suspenseful final act, a cast worth clapping for and lyrical atmospheric tension that I really connected with.

-Nate Hill

Frank LaLoggia’s Lady In White

Lady In White is one in a handful of films I like to think of as the “child oriented yet still pretty terrifying live action horror” sub-genre, it sits alongside a few ones that Disney did like Watcher In The Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes and the British produced Afraid Of The Dark. They’re geared towards younger audiences in a sense, but they still have dark, macabre, uncompromising themes and seriously spooky aspects. It’s taken me a long time to find this one but it was worth that wait as it’s pretty much the best of the bunch, a sensational ghost story/mystery/serial killer procedural with wonderful performances all across the board, some gorgeous upstate New York autumnal vibes and warmhearted Italian American family dynamics sold splendidly by all among the cast. As a grownup writer from the city (Frank LaLoggia, also the immensely talented writer/director) revisits his childhood home in the country, he recounts, in blessedly hushed campfire tones, a few years in his life as a boy (played by Lukas Haas) where he encountered several ghosts in a hair raising series of events. As an elusive child murderer plagued their township and the surrounding area eluding police for years, the boy is visited by the wandering spirit of one of his victims (Joelle Jacobi, unsettling and sympathetic in the same beat) who can’t find her way to the other side until her killer is caught. So begins a rousing tale of fright and menace as the murderer, lurking in plain sight, is slowly sought by the living and the dead alike in spectral collaboration. A lot of time is spent with the boy and his family, and one gets the sense of a realistic, loving, hectic atmosphere of growing up in that era. Alex Rocco from The Godfather is sensational as the boy’s father, who has a tough guy exterior but a very vulnerable heart underneath. The film exudes genuine warmth and affection between the human beings who are alive, truly authentic sadness and melancholic longing for those that are not and offers some of the most severely frightening ghost encounters I’ve seen in film, particularly a sequence where the boy observes a flashback in real time of the exact moment the girl was murdered that is soul shaking in its blunt, disturbing honesty and raw performance from the young actress. Lots of time passes in the story so not only do we get to see a chilly, bucolic Halloween pass by in this lovely little county, we also see Christmas come for some bonus holiday vibes. It’s a brilliant film, full of grand set pieces, down to earth characters, a sense of dark realism that doesn’t sugarcoat the more unpleasant realities in life, an absolutely horrifying villain, effective special effects for the ghosts, tons of shadowy, elemental, earthen atmosphere and a showstopper of a climax set atop windy bluffs overlooking stark, deadly cliffs high above the ocean below. About as close as you can come to a perfect spooky season film.

-Nate Hill

Peter Weir’s Witness

Witness is one of those films that in the hands of a less inspired director could have turned out to be pretty run of the mill thriller stuff, but they gave the script to Peter Weir, and he’s made a career out of films that could be called just about anything but run of the mill. This is essentially a fairly grounded tale of big city detective Harrison Ford undercover in Amish country to protect a young boy (Lukas Haas) who accidentally saw a cabal of corrupt cops murder someone in cold blood. It’s a fish out of water tale, it’s got budding romance, hot blooded action and even some comedy here and there. But there’s also this lyrical, esoteric atmosphere Weir brings to every project that really makes it something special. There’s a danger present in the Amish community, or rather the threat of such as seen in the long grass of the fields or sensed on the fringes of their village where the tree line looms. There’s a blessed calm as Ford learns the ways and customs of these folk and gets close with the daughter (Kelly McGillis) of one of their elders (Jan Rubes, a scene stealer) but alongside that there’s this restless, inexorable foreboding that these evil officers of the law could turn up at anytime and turn the calmness into a storm to follow. They eventually do, of course, and are played by the fearsome likes of Josef Sommer and Danny Glover, arriving like phantoms to herald a showdown of stealth and gun violence that is Western to its core but still stings with the grit of an urban cop flick. I love this film not so much for the story or script (both of which are just fine) but for the *feeling* it evokes, the ambience spun onscreen by Weir and composer Maurice Jarre, whose work here is ecstatically beautiful. There’s an extended sequence where we see the Amish folk building a barn and it’s a simple enough task, but something about the dutiful way Weir films it coupled with an almost grandiose passage of Jarre’s music makes it come alive in a way that not many scenes of its nature do in film. And always, lurking in the background, is the fear that danger is on its way, a sustained distillation of unease that helps to make this a gorgeous, effective thriller and all round great film.

-Nate Hill

Steve McQueen’s Widows

Ever heard the expression ‘trip over your own ambitions’ ? That applies in full force to Steve McQueen’s Widows, a film that doesn’t have half the time needed to nurture, juggle or resolve the nebula of plots, twists, sub plots and sub-twists it tries to throw out there. That’s not to say that it isn’t a valiant effort; this is a film that tries a lot of things, is very innovative and engages often, but ultimately it’s just not enough and feels more like a running start without the follow through of flight. In the opener we see a heist that goes about as incredibly wrong as it could: cops hunt down a crew of high stakes robbers led by career criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), gunning them all down. Viola Davis is his wife Veronica, left to pick up the pieces when thuggish wannabe politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree James) and his sociopathic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya is a beast) come looking for money he owed them before he died. That’s when she gets the idea to carry out the plans for his would-be next heist, joined by the other widowed women of his crew. There’s also an overarching subplot involving corrupt electoral candidate Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell), his racist, old-money prick of a father (Robert Duvall with fire n’ brimstone mode activated) and others in both low income and Ivy League Chicago, which aren’t as far apart as you think, as McQueen shows us in an all too obvious extended shot of a car ride. There are aspects I loved; the opening heist, shot mostly POV from the back of the van, is a whiz banger, taut and packed with adrenaline. The performances are excellent all round, from Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki as other wives of the fallen robbers to memorable supporting turns from Jacki Weaver, Garrett Dillahunt, Jon Bernthal, Carrie Coon, Kevin J. O’Connor, a quietly scene stealing Lukas Haas, the most excellent Cynthia Erivo and many more. The narrative encapsulates the heists themselves with ongoing conflict including racism, urban politics, interracial romance, low income versus filthy rich, nepotism and everything in between, and this ambition to explore many avenues in one go is where the film fatally falters. The widow’s heist, when we finally come around to it, is brazen and impactful but blares by too quick for the payoff leading up to it. Hans Zimmer’s score echoes stuff like Heat but seems to only really show up now and again instead of being a prominent presence. At two hours and nine minutes, McQueen just didn’t leave himself enough time to properly cultivate relationships, build enough tension, explain his narrative fluidly or develop the characters that he clearly loves. It’s unfortunate because the guy is one hell of a director, both with his actors and his camera, he knows how to tell a story and make it feel fresh, unpredictable and just spontaneously offbeat enough to seem like real life as opposed to a story that obviously works within the parameters of script. He’s a thoroughbred, but he didn’t leave enough track to run on with this one, and I almost feel like he would have been better off going the episodic route here, as it would have had way more space to breathe and audiences far more time to ruminate on the events. Worth watching to see everything cascade by like a parade in fast forward, but don’t expect to be satisfied with wrap ups or conclusions.

-Nate Hill

Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks


Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks is a spectacular howling good time, a 50’s inspired gumball machine packed with schlock, satire and more star studded send ups than you can shake a stick at. It’s so silly and overstuffed that one just has to give in to it’s fisher price brand of mayhem and just watch the wanton hilarity unfold. Martians are indeed attacking, and they’re evil little rapscallions with giant brains, buggy eyes and lethal ray guns. Humanity’s best are left to fight them, and let’s just say that’s not saying much with this bunch of morons. Jack Nicholson does a double shift as both the hysterically poised, rhetoric spewing US President and a sleazeball casino tycoon. Annette Bening is his hippy dippy wife, while Rod Steiger huffs and puffs as a war mongering potato head of a general. Over in Vegas, prizefighter Jim Brown and his estranged wife (Pam Grier) fight against hordes with little help from obnoxious gambler Danny Devito. Pierce Brosnan is a bumbling tv expert who sucks on a pipe that he apparently forgot to fill or light, a subtle yet precious running joke. The only people with sense are trailer dwelling youngster Lukas Haas and Natalie Portman as the President’s daughter, and the method they finally find to destroy these nasties has to be seen to be believed. The cast seems padded simply so we can watch famous people getting dispatched by slimy aliens, and also contains Tom Jones as himself, Lisa Marie, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Michael J. Fox, Christina Applegate, Glenn Close, Joe Don Baker, Barber Schroeder, Sylvia Sydney, Martin Short and Sarah Jessica Parker’s head on the body of a chihuahua (don’t ask). There’s little story other than Martians attack and kill shitloads of obnoxious people, but therein lies the big joke, and it’s hilarious. Aaack !

-Nate Hill

The Revenant: A review by Nate Hill

If the rumblings from director Alexander Gonzalez Inarritu and his intrepid cast and crew about The Revenant being the most tumultuous, challenging shoot of their lives, it’s all in service of the loftiest of causes one could achieve: to produce great art. I say that without pretension or monocle wagging patronization, and mark my words: The Revenant is by and far the greatest film this year, and possibly of the last decade. It is monumental in scale, meticulous in pacing and erects the fundamental pillars of the human condition so flawlessly that we feel we are watching actual history materialize before our eyes, untethered from the notion that it’s just a movie.
Let’s start with the ocular deity that is Emmanuel Lubezki: This film contains the best cinematography I have ever seen in my life. The bold location scouting is a catalyst for the prodigy of a DOP to work his ethereal magic. Time and time again throughout the film I found myself marvelling at the stunning patience and skill displayed by the man in attaining his precious shots, constantly chafed by what I imagine was an impossibly stressful environment, bogged down by time constraints and the pure, uncaring call of nature itself. He shot with natural light for all but one scene, an unimaginable achievement that plays out in endless beauty that rocks your soul to its foundation for the entire two and a half hour running time. The locations, lovingly culled from deep within northern Canada and briefly Argentina, are an unforgiving cacophony of serene snowfalls, cascading rivers and jagged, untamed mountain ranges. This is the landscape I have grown up in and call home and to such holy places captured with such reverence on film, gilding a story of such primordial importance had me next to tears.
Leonardo DiCaprio pulls out all the stops in his ferocious portrayal of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who lives by his feral gut instinct alone, attempting to guide his fur trapping expedition through the terrain while looking out for his half Pawnee Native son who he already rescued from aching tragedy years before. After a harrowing raid in the dawning minutes of the film that makes it abundantly clear how serious the film intends to be, he and a small band of men are stranded and forced to contend with the land, and the threat of the natives finding them. Glass then gets attacked by a bear in a nerve shattering sequence that had my adrenal glands running a marathon. The frank, unapologetic nature in which the scene plays out reminds us all that nature isn’t our playground of opportunity and commerce, but a living organism that can bite the hand that it refuses to feed with alarming abandon. The sheer level of carnage inflicted upon Glass by both beast and man will shake you to your core, as will the excellent makeup and CGI effects that drive the point deep into your retinas. Tom Hardy disappears into his role better than Glass’s expedition blends into the treacherous blizzards, playing John Fitzgerald, a cowardly motherfucker who is content to leave Glass to the elements and seek fortune elsewhere, dragging sympathetic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter, excellent) along with him. The military component of their expedition (Domhall Gleeson, superb) suspects Fitzgerald and is wary. Hardy is the very definition of an acting chameleon, and disappears headlong into the role that had me riveted, and rooting for a best supporting actor win. The entire cast was subjected to a brutal nine weeks exposed to the elements, each other, and the raw, archetypal narrative of the piece that was being made, and each of them shows it in spades.
At its core it’s a revenge piece, spurred by aching character interaction involving Leo and his family in affecting flashbacks. Leo goes through somewhat of a transformation here.. He loses all he has left to an uncaring, cold faced world that would sooner see him tossed around a moss stained forest in pieces than avenged. But his Hugh Glass rages against the dying of the light right alongside Lubezki’s lens, creating in tandem the perfect voyage of a man who has become so consumed with the forces of nature in his quest to attain some semblance of his former self, that he has become somewhat of an element himself. Leo truly deserves gold this time around.

Adventure/survival epics are my favourite. This one stands out, and yet.. does more than that, if possible. It delves deep into the lush, echoing vastness of the past and pulls forth a story so human, so recognizable, in such a force of construction where the fruits of everyone’s labour are so obvious, it can’t help but be worshipped as a classic in the art form of cinema and a treatise on how to excel in every single area of the medium.