Tag Archives: Maria Bello

David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence

Every director at some point is encouraged to challenge the aesthetic they are known for, traverse terrains beyond the thematic and stylistic comfort zone they are accustomed to and bless new lands of genre and tone with their talent. Some don’t and stick with what they know, which is fine, while others break free as David Cronenberg did with his fearsome psychological horror story A History Of Violence. Cronenberg is a horror old-hand who loves his prosthetic body parts and buckets o’ blood, albeit always accompanied by strong themes and pointed subtext. Here he trades in the schlock (but not the gore, there’s still plenty of that) for a different sort of horror, the arresting mental climate of violent criminals and the roiling psychological unrest that goes hand in hand with such vicious behaviour, no matter how hard one might try to asphyxiate dark impulses with methodical conditioning. Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, small town Everyman, husband, father, greasy spoon diner magnate and pillar of a bucolic slice of Americana. Or is he? The film opens as two ruthless psychopaths (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk are so good they deserve their own spinoff film) barge into the idyllic sanctuary of his restaurant and terrorize patrons and staff alike. Tom reacts with uncharacteristically lithe force, quickly and frighteningly dispatching both to the lands beyond with a few quick moves, several gunshots and a pot of hot coffee (one brutal fucking way to die). He’s lauded as local hero and chalks up his heroic reaction to pure instincts… and that’s when the film gets really interesting. Back in the mid 2000’s before social media it would take making international news to dredge up any sort of long buried, sordid past one might have, but sure enough the press comes a’hounding and soon trouble comes a’knocking in an ominous black Chrysler containing one very pissed off Ed Harris as ‘organized crime from the east coast’ who is sure Tom is actually a fellow named Joey, who he once shared a scuffle with over some barbed wire. So who’s lying and who’s not? I mean it’s obvious Tom has a past, the fascination lies in both uncovering it and watching him try to reconcile it with the man he has become since then. The film gets positively Shakespearean when yet another Philadelphia wise-guy played by William Hurt enters the picture and pretty much steals the fucking film from everyone, the skill that dude has is amazing and what he does onscreen in about five minutes not only demonstrates his wry, diabolical control over a scene but completely justifies the Oscar gold he went home with, fucking bravo. The film starts where many other crime/noirs would end: a man with a violent past has found a way out, a proverbial light at the end of the viscera tunnel, and lives not necessarily happily ever after… but free from the din of his former incarnation anyways. Until two punks stir the long dormant reflexes, he ends up on the news and it all comes full circle. I think this film is so brilliant because of what is left unsaid, unexplained and unexplored; it’s barely over ninety minutes long but contains enough thematic implications to fill up or at least catalyze a half dozen films. But it never feels a moment longer or shorter than it needs to be. Mortensen’s performance is about dead on flawless, full of so many veiled notes that are conjured into view with multiple watches, which the film begs of any viewer. Equally spellbinding is Maria Bello as Tom’s firebrand of a wide who finds herself at odds with her own loyal nature when the shards of truth start to eviscerate their family. She’s an actress that Hollywood inexplicably doesn’t entrust with dramatically heavy roles too often but it’s their loss because when she lands a golden egg of a character like this she practically moves worlds. Harris has a ball as the bulldog on low simmer baddie who wishes he was as big of a bad as Hurt, who almost brings down the house and start his own fucking franchise before… well, I won’t spoil it that much. I would have loved to have ‘put it simply’ in my review and not drawled on in adoration like this but it’s just that kind of film. In a way it does the same as I have: it’s barely over an hour and a half and any film of that length could just ‘put it simply’, but in that brisk runtime there’s galaxies of psychological depth and treatises on human nature to unpack. Gotta throw a late hour bone to Howard Shore’s impeccable original score as well, an austerely baroque yet somehow evocatively Midwest composition that calls to mind everything from B&W classics to his work on Lord Of The Rings, which somehow suits the mood. A stone cold classic.

-Nate Hill

Brian Helgeland’s Payback

Isn’t it always kind of more fun when the protagonist of a film is an utter scumbag? I think so, and Brian Helgeland did too when writing Payback, my favourite Mel Gibson film (outside Mad Max of course, but that’s a high pedestal to breach). There’s something so engaging about Mel’s Porter, a street rat career criminal who’s betrayed by his treacherous partner (Gregg Henry) and junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger), left for dead in an alley. After a rocky recovery he comes back with vengeance on the mind, hunting down those who fucked him over and anyone who profited from it. The first thing he does to set tone for his character is steal cash from a panhandling hobo, which is just about the starkest way to inform your audience of what’s to come. What does Porter want? He wants his 24k from the job he got shafted on, not a penny less and, hysterically, not a penny more either, which becomes the beloved running joke of the film as he prowls streets, poker rooms, titty bars and all kinds of lowlife establishments to get what’s his. Henry is off the rails as his former partner in crime, taking his usual brand of scenery chewing to new heights and picking fights with anyone who makes eye contact with him. He isn’t even the main villain either, that honour goes to a stone-faced Kris Kristofferson as the sadistic head of a shadowy mega crime syndicate who are soon alerted of Porter’s ongoing rampage. There’s uber corrupt cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley), a weaselly bookie (David Paymer), a bureaucrat desk jockey villain (William Devane), a high class escort with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) who brings out the faintest of softer sides in Porter, a sneering assassin (the great John Glover) and others who all get caught up in the commotion this guy causes just to get his modest 24 grand. A young Lucy Liu also shows up as a sexy S&M hooker with ties to the Triads and enough scary attitude to either turn me on or freak me out, I’m still not sure. My favourite has to be James Coburn as another organized crime hotshot who seems more interested in his elaborate accessories than putting a step to Porter’s nonsense. “That’s just mean, man” he bawls after Mel puts a bullet in one of his designer alligator skin suitcases. So damn funny. This is the epitome of jet black humour, one of the meanest, gnarliest, bloodiest and most entertaining neo-noirs that Hollywood has ever produced. Mel has played so many heroes and upstanding family men that it’s refreshing to see him go for the contemptible asshole shtick, and I’ll be honest I’ve never rooted for one of his characters harder than I do for Porter and his deranged urban crusade every time I rewatch this, which is a lot. Fucking brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Amazon Prime’s Goliath: Season One

Amazon Prime has sneakily started to put out some incredible original shows in the last few years, it’s really worth signing up (way cheaper than cluttered ass Netflix) to see the exciting directions they’re headed in. One such show is Goliath, which on the surface appears to be a slick, spotlight showcase for Billy Bob Thornton in another one of his now platinum alpha male loudmouth roles. It is that, to an extent, but it’s also a detailed, densely written mosaic of Los Angeles life viewed through a prism of classism, corruption, dishevelled family values and high powered corporate war games.

Thornton is Billy McBride, a disgraced lawyer who helped found the largest and most powerful mega-firm in LA only to be barred from it years later and left in exile. He mopes around in a cheap Santa Monica hotel, wanders the beach at night with bottle in hand and gives a local stray dog some love. This is until maybe the biggest lawsuit of his career yanks him out of bleary eyed entropy and pits him against not only his old firm but the largest high tech weapons manufacturing giant in the country. The show is aptly titled and works beautifully as an underdog story. Billy is low rent, works out of motel rooms and storage units, hires whoever will tolerate him and often prepares speeches and depositions over a high ball at the local dive. The firm is clean cut, ruthless, well researched and not afraid to get extremely dirty in protecting their powerful, scary client. Atop the skyscraper’s penthouse sits co founder Donald Cooperman, a bitter old Machiavellian lunatic played by William Hurt. Hurt embodies him like Harvey Dent crossed with a Bond villain, an eccentric asshole who coldly shunts his lawyers and clerks around the firm’s checker board and communicates with a paratrooper clicky thing, making every move he can to stonewall Billy’s case.

This is Thornton’s best role in years and he does get to do that patented snarky thing that every Bad Santa fan always cheers for, but McBride is also a well rounded, very human character rooted in backstory, fuelled by emotion and dynamic in his interaction and well guarded compassion for the people in his life. His law clerk is an escort girl (Tanya Raymonde), his ex wife (Maria Bello) works for Cooperman’s firm and his daughter (Diana Hopper) resents his wayward lifestyle but loves him unconditionally. There’s an eventual loyalty and tribal feel to his ragtag entourage that I picked up on and enjoyed a lot. They have casted this thing to the nines and picked unique actors for parts you wouldn’t have pictured them in too. Molly Parker is a right cunt as the firm’s lead shark, scene stealing like a pro and positively dripping acid in court. Olivia Thirlby nails the rookie just coming out of her shell, Nina Arianada is a sharp, foul mouthed go getter as a lawyer representing the family suing this firm, and watch for appearances from Jason Ritter, Brent Briscoe, Sarah Wynter, Dwight Yoakam, Damon Gupton and Harold Perrineau as a shrewd, no nonsense judge.

This is of course only a review of the first season, but on its own I can’t really think of anything wrong with it. It’s smartly written, emotionally relatable, super exciting and looks beautiful visually. It’s a story of redemption, one of the little guy standing up to essentially the biggest bully you can dream up and even has elements of family drama as well as thoughtful romance. Thornton and Hurt lead the herd like the pros they are, but everyone in their wake gives equally as powerful work. The locations feel authentic, lived in and detailed, considering they shot in the actual Santa Monica motel and bar that we see onscreen. This tale reaches seemingly mythic heights at times but never falters in catching the little moments, the gaps in between important plot establishing scenes that show characters simply interacting casually or chatting about their favourite movies. You don’t see that kind of care put in much, but damn it goes a long way. I’m somewhat apprehensive about season two after a reported writer switch up that garnered some nasty reviews across the board, but we’ll see. As it stands, season one is its own enclosed story, works spectacularly and I’m happy we got it. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners

Dark. Rainy. Uneasy. Covered in a cloak of gloom, gruesome secrets and morally questionable actions. Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is one of the premier kidnapping thrillers of recent years, and a mile marker in the still blossoming career of a man who will no doubt go on to be a legend. Many thrillers are lacking in some elements while excel in others, but here every base is covered with care and attention, from style to substance to pacing to realism to thematic material. When a couple’s daughter goes missing without a trace on a quiet suburban block, the distraught father (Hugh Jackman) tries to take matters into his own hands with disastrous and damaging results. When you factor in how long the case drags without clues, results or hope it’s kind of hard to blame him for taking action of his own volition, but when he abducts a mentally challenged man (Paul Dano) who was seen skulking around in a creepy RV the day of the incident, he crosses the line from righteous investigator to dangerous vigilante. Jake Gyllenhaal and his snazzy hairstyle are great as a rugged detective who just can’t seem to get a grasp on what happened but doesn’t quit anyway. Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Wayne Duvall, Viola Davis, Dylan Minette and more make vivid impressions, but it’s the consistently surprising and always dynamic Melissa Leo who steals the show and galvanizes the story with her chilling work. Roger Deakins is a prince among DoP’s and his rain streaked, utterly bleak visual mood-scape here is something to behold, the overcast weather seeps into the bones of these characters and brings out all the confusion and hopelessness of this grim, downbeat story. This is a detailed, difficult tale that does have an answer by the time the final act rolls around, and by that time we’re so so steeped in the quagmires of Jackman’s extreme actions that the further the trip goes into unpleasantness, the more eerily fitting it seems. It’s a dark, relentless trip but thanks to everyone involved and especially Villeneuve’s assured direction, it’s one worth taking.

-Nate Hill

David Koepp’s Secret Window

David Koepp’s Secret Window is a terrific little psychological chiller, with just the right doses of fright and camp. Based on a Stephen King short, it’s got everything you’d want in a little vignette from the master: secluded wilderness setting, paranoia, whacked out protagonist, cerebral mind games wrapped in a classically meta package, the story being about a writer itself. The problem with the film is that it has a twist, and in this day and age after the loss of cinema’s innocence, everyone and their mother has seen a film with some variation of the revelation that Window has to offer. But this is not the film’s problem, really, because it hails from a simpler time back in the late 90’s, early 00’s, when twists like that were still somewhat new. The Sixth Sense hype had barely died down, the new age of psychological horror hadn’t yet dawned and stuff like this seemed really fresh. This one is terrific on its terms though, and has a certifiably loony central performance from Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey, a depressed nut-job novelist who’s holed himself up in a cabin on a lake to cook up his newest book, but really he’s just there to mope about his wife (Maria Bello) leaving him for the considerably less dreamy Timothy Hutton. His bout of self loathing is interrupted when freaky stranger Shooter (John Turturro) shows up at his door and aggressively accuses him of plagiarism. Turturro plays the guy in a weird Amish getup and with enough menace in his southern drawl to rival his perverse lunatic Jesus from The Big Lebowski. Anywho, after that Depp descends into sketchy paranoia, unsure of what’s real, who’s real, who double-crossed who and who’s trying to get the better of him. Set in rural Maine as per usual, this is classic King and benefits a lot from Depp, who wisely chooses to make his performance fun, engaging and just cartoonish enough where other actors might try to be too realistic or serious. If you watch it these days in the wake of countless other thrillers that have filled the gulf of time between 2004 and now, you might not be all that impressed. Try and retain your sense of wonder in terms of the genre, you may have a blast. I always enjoy this one.

-Nate Hill

Amazon Studio’s GOLIATH

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Amazon Studios quietly released a new series in October called GOLIATH from creators David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro.  It stars Billy Bob Thornton in his Golden Globe winning turn as Billy McBride.  Thronton is his seminal drunk, lovable loser role but with a twist; he’s a brilliant (defrocked) lawyer.  Thornton reluctantly gets lured into a case against a weapons contractor that is represented by a gigantic law firm that he helped created and no longer is a part of.

The casting of the series is wonderfully rounded out by Maria Bello who is Thornton’s ex-wife, Molly Parker as a cut throat lawyer working for Thornton’s former film, Harold Perrineau as the judge overseeing the case, Dwight Yoakam as the CEO of the weapons contractor Borns Tech, and William Hurt in a beautiful showboat of a performance as Donald Cooperman, Thornton’s former partner.

This show has a very complex structure.  It is equal parts CALIFORNICATION with Thornton in an apathetic daze, where he spends his days drinking and co-parenting his daughter with Bello – yet it is steeped heavily in dark LA noir.  Just when you forget about how transgressive and dangerous the show is while watching Thornton bumble through a scene with his trademark zeal – we get quickly reminded of the dangers of the show by a cut to William Hurt who is always seated in his dark office, face half covered in burn scars, listening as his gaggle of lawyers discuss their best course of action against Thornton, as he answers their questions with a paratrooper signalling clicker.

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The affability of Thornton is starkly contrasted by the overbearing menace of Hurt.  He’s the big bad of series, and his danger and power is very much akin to a Blofeld esque villain of importance and stature.  Hurt’s brilliant performance is a reminder that he hasn’t faded as an actor, but that he is constantly able to turn out remarkable work decade after decade, never allowing himself to disappear as time carries on.

It hasn’t been announced if there will be a second season of GOLIATH, whispers are that the show will not continue; which comes as bittersweet news.  The series wrapped itself up brilliantly, without the finale hinging upon a second season.  Much like HBO’s LUCK or AMC’s LOW WINTER SUN, the series contains and closes its taut narrative within a singular season, yet the characters are so rich and developed with complexity and care that it truly would be a shame to let them go so quickly.  Whatever the fate of GOLIATH may be, it stands tall and even superior to most of Netflix and HBO’s original programming.

GOLIATH is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Assault On Precinct 13: A Review by Nate Hill 

Assault On Precinct 13 is less of a remake of John Carpenter’s balls out, guerilla action treatise and more of a branch off into timeless, near western archetypes, as well as the good old siege thriller format. It’s also one of the meanest, grittiest cop films of the last few decades, deserving a higher rung on the ladder of adoration than it has so far ascended to. Dark, merciless and full of yuletide gallows humour, it’s a searing blast of gunfire and snowbound pulp starring a roster of fired up talent, starting with an intense Ethan Hawke and an unpredictable, predatory Laurence Fishburne. Fishburne is Marion Bishop, a legendary criminal kingpin wrapped tight in police custody and shipped off to a remote precinct on New Years eve with a busload of fellow prisoner transports. The station is run by a few relaxed cops, all preparing to punch that clock and get the New Year’s festivities underway. Unfortunately, a gang of corrupt detectives have other ideas, descending upon the ill guarded outpost with the fury and firepower of animals set loose, determined to murder everyone inside and level the place to the ground in order to cover up their actions. Hawke is the veteran cop with a dodgy undercover past, blessed with the grit and gristle necessary to rally the troupes and self preserve til the morning light. Drea De Matteo, who’s awesome and welcome in anything, is a tough female sergeant, Maria Bello the sharp police psychiatrist caught in the middle, Brian Dennehy the salty old dog, and a laundrey list of rabid felons who pitch in to save their own asses, including Ja Rule, Aisha Hinds, Currie Graham and a wired up John Leguizamo. Together they all make a veritable wild bunch to hold down the fort, but the forces they’re up against are tactical and terrifying. The opposition is headed up by a dangerously quiet Gabriel Byrne as deeply a corrupt Police Captain, doing a coiled viper rendition of a Christopher Walken villain, his work one of the strongest aspects of the film. Watch for Matt Craven and Kim Coates in brief cameos as well. The action is a ballistic blitzkrieg of firefights, standoffs and ditch efforts, scarcely giving the audience time to breathe, let alone tally up the casualties, of which there are many. This ain’t no cakewalk, in terms of action films. It’s down, dirty and has no time for quips, smart mouths or villains that monologue. Everyone involved in a caged animal prepared to go to extremes at the drop of a hat in order to achieve their goals, with kneejerk reactions and off the cuff violence that feels real, and cuts deep. If you are serious about your action films, and enjoy ruthless, non patronizing narratives that get as cold as the snow drifts surrounding the precinct and as casually indifferent as the bullets that ventilate it, this is your ticket.