Tag Archives: Maura Tierney

Roger Donaldson’s White Sands

Somewhere out there in the gypsum dunes of New Mexico there’s White Sands, a long lost, slightly unfinished yet captivating neo-noir about small town law enforcement, big time gun runners and everyone else who gets caught up in between. Willem Dafoe is Ray, a bored rural sheriff who sees a way out of the dusty hum drum when an apparent smuggler turns up dead on his watch out there in the national park, prompting him to steal the guy’s identity and dive headlong into the illicit arms business with no real crash course or idea of what he’s doing. A risky move that propels the film down an exciting, sexy, ambient journey of untrustworthy alliances, atmospheric shootouts and a dangerously charming Mickey Rourke as Lennox, the kind of reptilian criminal who’s so good at seducing you into the lifestyle that you don’t realize you’re in the snake pit until it’s almost too late. Dafoe and Rourke have shared the screen aplenty before and while my favourite team up has to be their cartel duo in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, this film certainly takes second place honours. They just work so well on camera together, a shaky bromance built on Ray’s deception and Lennox’s unpredictable penchant for violence that proves electric as the narrative weaves around them. The always phenomenal Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays an underworld connection who Ray unwisely gets steamy with in probably one of the hottest sex scenes of the 90’s and a complete false advertisement for the success rate of getting it on in the shower. Samuel L. Jackson has a fantastic early career villain role as the kind of corrupt FBI agent in whom it’s very unwise to place trust, and watch for others including the great Maura Tierney, M. Emmett Walsh, James Rebhorn, Beth Grant, Miguel Sandoval, Jack Kehler, Mimi Rogers and a sneaky unbilled double cameo from Fred Dalton Thompson and the inimitable John P. Ryan as slick arms dealers. The setting of White Sands park plays such a role in atmosphere here; the ghostly sight of white sand dunes brings about the thought that something is out of place, rare in nature and the same can be said for Dafoe’s affable sheriff thrown into a mixing pot of big city psychos and genuine menace, a fish out of water shtick that pulls you in the more accustomed to this netherworld the man gets. How about that knockout original score from Patrick O’Hearn too, who only composed for a handful of things since, it’s a hazy, melodic set that suggests both the beauty and danger lurking out there in the Sands, especially in the simmering climax where several characters meet poetically grisly fates. I do have a few minor issues with this film, it could have been at least fifteen minutes longer and rounded out the epilogue with Dafoe’s arc clearer, it almost feels like there’s a missing reel or some editing glitch that marred the final product just a tad, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much overall. This is a lost classic for me, a gorgeously specific film noir with some of my favourite actors giving some of their most fun, playful work, the aforementioned score and some cinematography that won’t quit. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Advertisements

Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear

Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear does a fine job of using opaque marketing to conceal it’s delicious, devilish secrets, a tactic that many films recklessly abandon and ruin far too much in trailers or posters. This is a careful exercise in serpentine plotting. Is it courtroom drama? Supernatural shocker? Psychological thriller? Pot-boiling procedural intrigue? Check it out and be as floored as audiences were for the first time back then. Richard Gere holds his end well as a legendary hotshot defence attorney in Chicago, one with a tarnished reputation and a penchant for defending unscrupulous clients. A weird case comes his way in the form of mentally challenged alter boy Edward Norton, accused of murdering someone high up in the clergy and causing a political hailstorm throughout the city. This is one of those thrillers that does genuinely keep you guessing, until literally the final frame, using human interaction and intimate performances to instigate reactions, rather than a barrage of special effects or manufactured narrative gimmicks. I’m being deliberately vague because this is the one film you don’t want spoiled for you ahead of time, it’s that cool. This was, I believe, the role that put Norton on the map, and he’s a gale force of electric energy, giving everyone else onscreen a huge run for their money. It’s fun watching Gere, an assured and confident pillar of law and order, slowly unravel and find himself at the mercy of malicious curveballs he doesn’t even see coming until they’ve hit. The cast is dynamite, with rockin’ turns from fiery John Mahoney as the worst mayor in Chicago’s history, Laura Linney as Gere’s hot tempered rival, Terry O’ Quinn, Alfre Woodward, Andre Braugher, Jon Seda, Frances McDormand, Maura Tierney, Joe Spano, Tony Plana and a slick Steven Bauer as a mob don with ties to Gere. This has all the trappings of a big, overblown thriller drawn from broad strokes, but Hoblit wisely brings it in in places, giving us a nuthouse claustrophobic shivers to go along with the big league intrigue. One of the best thrillers of the 90’s, and one that should get mentioned more often. I’ll also say it has to have one of the coolest DVD special edition covers ever, it’s always nice to see extra effort put into that arena.

-Nate Hill

Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia: A Review by Nate Hill 

Christopher Nolan has a monumental filmography full of lofty cerebral ideas, superheroes mythic in nature, and incredibly complex morality plays. The one time he hit the road in a straight line is Insomnia, a fairly standard cat and mouse thriller given the obvious boost of having Chris at the helm, as well as two actors who get dangerously out of control, in the best possible way. Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, an L.A. cop who treks out to small town Alaska to solve the mystery of a murdered local girl. The twist: they’re in the region where it’s daylight for a month straight, and if that’s something you’re not accustomed to, it’ll throw you way off. It’s fascinating to watch Pacino roll in sharp as a razor and completely in control, then observe his lack of sleep eat away at the frills of his perception and start to play tricks on his weary mind. The film has one of those narratives that gives us a heads up as to who the killer is nearly right off the bat, in this case personified by Stephen King esque novelist Walter Finch, played by a vastly creepy Robin Williams. He and Pacino do an eerie dance through the foggy local geography and small, gaunt townscape, Pacino looking for clues and proof while trying to hold onto his sanity, and Williams unnervingly playing a macabre mind game, perhaps only for his own amusement. There are shades of Vincent Hanna in Pacino’s work here, the extremely stressed out LA detective from Michael Mann’s Heat. One gets a sense of the same world weariness and feral ferocity of that character, especially in a heartbreaking monologue to the local innkeeper, played by underrated Maura Tierney, who is brilliant in the scene that requires her mostly to listen, a much harder task than delivering any page of dialogue. As for Williams, he’s never really done anything this specific before. I mean, he’s played freaks and villains all across the board, but none quite like Walter Finch. He’s detached in a way that still clings to a humanity he may have lost through so many years writing stories that only happened in his head. He’s both dangerous and rational, and when those two are fuelled by emotional trauma… watch out, because there’s damage to be done. There’s further work from Hilary Swank as Will’s partner, Nicky Katt, Emily Perkins, Martin Donovan and edgy Vancouverite Katherine Isabelle, who just excels in anything, here playing the murder victim’s troubled best friend. 

 Now, this film is based on a chilly Swedish thriller of the same title, starring Stellen Skarsgard in Pacino’s role, and Williams nowhere to be found, naturally. I connected with Nolan’s version far more, the original seeming rather bland and lacking personality, but it’s got a huge following and a Criterion release, so what the hell do I know, go see for yourself. I do know that nothing stands up the hairs on my neck quite like the portentous back and forth between Pacino and Williams here, the icy inaccessibility of the central mystery and the feeling that there’s always something bubbling just below the surface of a seemingly civilized interaction. Barring Memento, which even rose to flights of fancy, this is the most down to earth Nolan has ever been in his exploration of the psychological landscape. Dreams, outer space, damaged memory and morality are for another day here. It strips away any of that, leaves it’s characters stranded in a misty, threatening environment that mirrors their own starkly layered perception, and sits back to observe. Rats in a maze of the human mind, if you will. It’s an important film in Nolan’s career for this very reason; a departure from ambitions grandiose in nature, a vacation from fantasy, and a forceful glimpse at two men with minds holding on by just a thread, like a spider’s web, beaded with dew in perpetual sunlight that refuses to set and give them solace. A masterwork of tension, with few instances of release.