Tag Archives: Michael Caine

Hidden Gems: Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum aka Eliza Graves

Ever heard the expression ‘inmates running the asylum?’ Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum has, and quite literally spins a terrifically gothic horror yarn for the ages around it, packed with stars, ideas, twists, beautiful scenery and a wistful aesthetic reminiscent of old Hammer horror stuff. Now if the premise sounds like a final act twist let me assure you I haven’t spoiled anything that the trailers don’t cheerfully announce early on. This film is so bonkers it starts at level ten madness and only ratchets the lever up from there. But don’t get the idea that this is a raving madhouse without story or subtlety either, for all its wanton spectacle there are well drawn human beings with something to say behind these walls.

Based on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, Jim Sturgess stars as an apprentice Alienist shipped off to the austere Stonehearst Asylum in rural Britain (actually stunning Bulgarian countryside) to learn the trade. Once there he discovers that the facility’s real staff have been overthrown by the patients in a violent revolution and now a cunning madman (Ben Kingsley doing a sly riff on his Shutter Island character) is impersonating the actual superintendent (an icy Michael Caine) and calling the shots. This is apparent right off the bat since the place seems to have no security protocol in place and oddballs of all shape and size cavort freely about the manor. One patient who doesn’t seem to be a hopeless basket case though is the mysterious Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a girl with a shady past and secrets up her sleeve.

Director Anderson is an unsung horror thriller maestro with an incredibly solid track record including The Machinist, Session 9, The Call, Vanishing On 7th Street and now this which is a proper old school horror flick like you don’t really see anymore. This is a film that throws in subplots simply to have them there, amps up simple set pieces until they are unnecessarily but wonderfully cacophonous and is just overall in love with storytelling. The cast are all clearly having the time of their lives especially Kingsley who injects some genuine pathos into a role that could come across as high camp in someone else’s hands, exploring the notion of what would happen for real in this outlandish scenario. We also get familiar faces like Brendan Gleeson, Jason Flemyng, Christopher Fulford, Sinead Cusack and others. Standouts include newcomer Sophie Kennedy Clarke as a scene stealing patient with a penchant for childlike melodrama and David ‘Professor Lupin’ Thewlis as a particularly scary homicidal resident. You’ve kind of gotta employ considerable suspension of disbelief here, this is a film where spectacle, atmosphere and incident dance over the graves of logic and continuity, but there’s a rich tale to be absorbed with many fine performances, gorgeous cinematography and a creaky gothic vibe. Highly recommended, you can find this streaming on Amazon Prime.

-Nate Hill

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Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

These days we take the abundance of DC/Batman films and TV series for granted, but back in the first half of the 2000’s there was a massive drought left on the land thanks to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which we won’t go into here. Then Christopher Nolan came along and changed that forever, not with necessarily a bang, but the thoughtful, moody, introspective Batman Begins, a film that served as catalyst to one of the most celebrated motion picture trilogies of today. That’s not to say it didn’t blast into the scene with a bang, this is one seriously fired up action film that left iMax screens reeling and sound systems pumped. It’s just that Nolan gave the Batman legacy the brains and psychological depth that it deserves to go along with the fireworks, while Schumacher & Co. were simply making live action Saturday morning cartoons, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing either but after two films seemed a bit beneath the potential of what Batman could be.

Nolan bores into the roots of Bruce Wayne’s anguished past to expose themes of fear, not only facing his childhood fears but eventually becoming them to release the anger he’s harboured since that night in the alley. Christian Bale finds both the cavalier flippancy of Bruce and the obstinate, short tempered dexterity of Batman and yes, he makes an impression with a voice that has perhaps since become more well known than the films. Trained in the heartlands of the Far East by mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce returns to Gotham years later to find it rotting from the inside out with crime, corruption and poverty. Nolan shows the rocky road he sets out on and the failures he endures in his first few ventures onto the streets in costume, crossing paths with Cillian Murphy’s dangerous Dr. Jonathan ‘Scarecrow’ Crane, uneasily aligning forces with Gary Oldman’s stalwart Jim Gordon and assisted at every turn by Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Nolan assembles a cast full of roles both big and small including Richard Brake, Mark Boone Jr, Ken Watanabe, Linus Roache, Rade Serbedzija, Joffrey Lannister, Rutger Hauer and more. I have to mention Katie Holmes because she gives one of the most underrated performances in the whole trilogy. I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes when recasting her with Maggie Gyllenhaal for the next film but it did no service to the character, Katie made it her own, is full of personality and will always be the real Rachel to me. Special mention must also be made of Tom Wilkinson as mob boss Carmine Falcone, who is only in a handful of scenes but scares the pants off of everyone with his off the cuff blunt dialogue, violent tendencies and shark-like personality.

I can’t say this is my favourite film in the franchise or even the one I’d call the best (Dark Knight holds both those honours), but it is definitely the one that stands out to me the most when I think of the trilogy as a whole. Why? Visual aesthetic and production design. With the next two films Nolan cemented a very naturally lit, real world vibe that became his signature touch on the legacy, but Begins is different. There’s a burnt umber, earthy, elemental, very gothic tone he used here that just isn’t there in the next two, and whether intentional or not, it sets this one in a Gotham slightly removed from Knight and Rises. The mood and story are also rooted far more in mysticism and the fantastical as opposed to the earthbound, economically minded, concrete edged sensibility of what’s to come. Just a few observations.

In any case Nolan pioneered an arresting new Gotham for Batman, his friends and foes to do battle in, he injected the smarts, philosophy and character development that the franchise had been thirsting for a long time before. Wally Pfister’s swooping cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s cannonball original score, Nathan Crowley’s spooky, cobwebbed production design and every performance in the film work to make this not just one hell of a Batman film, but an overall excellent fantasy adventure that truly transports you to its world, the mythology, development and destruction of which leaves a lasting imprint on the subconscious. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

SBIFF: An Evening with Alfonso Cuaron

At the emotional core of Alfonso Cuaron’s seminal works is sacrifice. Take his latest film ROMA, where he not only secured his second Academy Award as a director but also legitimized Netflix as a game-changing powerhouse. Within the fertile layers of the background, middleground, and foreground is a woman who is bound by servitude, putting the wellbeing and lives of the children she cares for above her own, as well as her unborn child. Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine all selflessly end their lives for the greater good in CHILDREN OF MEN, and same could be said for George Clooney in GRAVITY.

Alfonso Cuaron SBIFF

Speaking at a Q&A with Yalitza Aparicio after a free screening on ROMA at the 34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Cuaron spoke to memory and how for one to truly understand a memory, in particular, one of a deep personal meaning, they have to understand the present and where they currently are in their life. He then went on to caution how “memory is the biggest liar” and indirectly stated how memory creates a false sense of the past, allowing us to not just romanticize it, but also how we condition ourselves to be selective and allowing nostalgia to trump the continuity of our past. To quote Cormac McCarthy’s THE COUNSELOR, “reflective men often find themselves at a place removed from the realities of life.”

CHILDREN OF MEN is Cuaron’s most important work. It is not just some dystopian future shot by the remarkable Emmanuel Lubezki with tracking shots stacked atop one another; it is a premonition and it is a film that becomes all too real as we embark into the unknown future of humanity. Not only does is champion the current plight of migrants fleeing their warzone homeland and being put into cages, but also government propaganda strategically laced with a populous message of population control; all of this orchestrated by an overbearing and overreaching government to sew seeds of discontent in a power-grab that is designed to numb the minds of the people with the ultimate goal of total and complete control.

Upon a fresh viewing of the film, presented on the big screen by SBIFF as apart of the director’s showcase, what was striking was Michael Caine’s character Jasper, the once renown zany political cartoonist who has since become the voice of reason in a world that hasn’t just been forgotten and abandoned, but been erased. His glasses were circular shaped, he listened to music that came from a time and place of deep meaning and philosophical importance. His hair was long but parted perfectly, and his lexicon and accent were remarkably striking.

Michael Caine, Children of Men

“I don’t know if this is off base, but I could not help but think that Michael Caine’s character was John Lennon if he had not died.”

Cuaron’s eyes got big and smiled as he threw his head back.

“Yes! That was all Michael. He said, “I want to play it like John.” I said, “John who?” And then he said, “Lennon!” and then I thought to myself, oh but of course that is who Jasper is! It was all Michael’s idea. From the glasses to the wig with that was parted just like Lennon’s hair.”

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Cuaron is enigmatic, he is a stone cold auteur; a maverick filmmaker who constantly changes the formula of cinema, producing a pristine mosque with each new picture. His eye for detail is painstaking, birthing films that are so atmospheric that one can smell the cigarette smoke, feel the sweat, and obsess with the phantom ring in their ear. His films are unique, they tend not to string together aesthetically or thematically, yet with each one of his seminal works lies and unapologetic and selfless acts of sacrifice.

The Man behind The Dark Knight rises by Kent Hill

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How did this wonderful film slip through the cracks? There was little to no word about this utterly enthralling and compelling story about the ‘other’ man behind the bat.

I admit to you now – I was in the dark. While comics were a staple of my formative years, as that time receded, my interest had diminished to ‘casual’  by the early 2000’s. Even then I was far from what you would refer to an an aficionado. Comics were flame bursts in the dark. Most of mine were not pristine, and I collected them by the bundle when my Grandmother would take me along with her to the Book Exchange and allow me to parlay a stack of her used paperbacks for a pile of superhero awesomeness.

But, back to the topic at hand. I read comics without much regard for who created them (that attention to detail I reserved for my first obsession, the movies). I was there to indulge, pure and simple. Still, as our awareness grows, so do we seek out ever greater detail – the mechanics that make our preferred mode of escapism tick and thus our experience is enriched and the depths of our interest continue to descend into the pop culture sea that abounds, seemingly fathomless.

Such is the story brought to life by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce. Like the equally incredible Searching for Sugar Man before it, Batman & Bill traces the steps of the elusive Bill Finger – the man who, in case you didn’t know, co-created Batman with Bob Kane. And, like Sugar Man, the plot, which on the surface might seem to have a logical conclusion, just keeps unraveling as the real life seeker of justice, Marc Nobleman, tracks down and lets the sun shine brightly on the life, labors and legacy of Finger.

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Now I’m not going to spoil this at all. You must, must, must seek out this glorious unfolding of a sad, arduous, but ultimately triumphant saga which is predominantly about rewriting history, but at its heart there is a drum that beats and reminds us to stand tall in the face of adversity, and the film depicts this, in the form of the mammoth uphill battle to place Finger’s name next to Kane’s as a creative force behind one of the truly monolithic heroes from the realms of illustrated storytelling.

All I will say is that the end broke me up like Field of Dreams always manages to. Yes, strong men also cry, to quote The Big Lebowski, but you’ll walk away from this film ever changed and with a sense of pride having seen honor restored, a name reclaimed and a final note so satisfying it’ll touch your heart.

Read the book, see the film, and as for right now enjoy my chat with the extraordinary team who have captured beautifully this tale of a watchful protector who fought with a pen mightier than any sword to see the ‘other’ man behind the Dark Knight, rise…

 

https://www.hulu.com/press/show/batman-and-bill/

https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/1360261187749/batman-and-bill (for Aussie viewers only)

https://www.amazon.com/Bill-Boy-Wonder-Secret-Co-Creator/dp/1580892892

 

John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING is a cinematic feat. It’s a remarkable fable, tracking two adventures who trek deep into a dangerous land with the design of ruling a region where white men have not set foot since Alexander the Great. The film encompasses engrossing performances, a tremendous score, a taut script, and awe inspiring photography all engineered and guided by Huston, one of cinemas filmmaking titans.

Sean Connery and Michael Caine headline the film as a pair of former British soldiers whose exploratory ambitions are offset by their primal brutality yet softened by their chemistry and wry offbeat humor. Christopher Plummer is the narrative anchor of the film, he acts as the narrator as well as the audience to Caine retelling his adventure with Connery. The two of them are a remarkable pair in the film, they bring their pre-existing screen personas and mesh them together and fuse a relationship that grows and blossoms throughout the film, until they reach their breaking point and bid one another an emotional farewell.

The picture is more than just an exhilarating adventure, it morphs into a cautionary tale of demigods and false prophets; the dark desire of man to transcend into a God. Caine and Connery propel the film forward, their performances are as raw as they are touching. Yet what truly makes this film remarkable is that it exists in a period of film where epics were truly epic. It’s shot on tangible locations, it is populated with indigenous people playing indigenous people; an air of authenticity is created and immediately accepted by the audience.

The craftsmanship of the film cannot be understated. The practicality is wonderful, from the sets to the costumes and beyond. The locations are as exotic as they are ominous; spanning sandy dunes and tribal villages to the vast snowy mountains, to their endgame – a civilization untouched by the outside world for centuries, a beautifully dilapidated holy site filled with treasure and dangerous mystique.

While the story is fun and entertaining, it cascades into a heartbreaking and bittersweet ending as the rise and fall of the pair’s conquest quickly erodes into a breathtaking climax where ramifications of greed and lust for power comes full circle and the characters are dealt with not just appropriately but poetically as well. THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING is that underappreciated Hollywood epic that somehow found a way during the counterculture and rage against the machine films of the 70s.

Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man

It’s always nice when a film as bizarre, unconventional and downbeat as Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man gets approved by the big studio system, but the flip side of that is that when it inevitably gets a wide release and considerable marketing, score of reviewers and audiences are going to talk shit about it because it’s ‘different’ and ‘depressing.’ It is definitely those two things, but it’s also a painfully funny, insightful piece with fantastic work from Nicolas Cage, brilliantly placed dark humour, the briefest glimpses of pathos and an offbeat indie pulse. Cage is Chicago TV weatherman Dave Spritz, a guy whose swanky six figure salary and cakewalk career hide a disturbed, dysfunctional family life and a deep, cultivated self loathing that Cage pours out from every anguished glance and hangdog piece of inner monologue. His ex wife (Hope Davis) can’t stand him, his kids (Nicholas Hoult in an early career turn and Gemmenne De Le Pena, a great find) have a laundry list of their own issues and their interaction with him is strained for starters, while his Pulitzer Prize winning author dad (Michael Caine trying an American accent on for size and kind of struggling with it) frequently points out his shortcomings with measured acidity (“You don’t even have a degree in meteorology”). In short, his life has become one big absurdist joke punctuated by awkward altercations, passive aggressive jabs, misdirected anger, frequent instances of fast food being thrown at him by angry passersby and an overall blanket of deadly hilarious, glumly enlightening moodiness that you can’t decide whether to laugh or cry about. So who would want to watch a major movie filled with such rampant, cheekily deliberate unpleasantness? I would, and I for one totally loved this film for what it is. You could say it’s an acquired taste or you have to ‘get it’ or whatever smug, flavour of the month platitude that well travelled cinephiles like myself are peddling this week, but the plain truth of it is that not every Hollywood film can be a traditional ‘Hollywood’ film and there has to be room for off killer, weirdly staged stuff like this or the recipe is just too boring. Roger Ebert understood that, he gave this a glowing review and made particular mention of how slightly inaccessible stuff like this needs to be given a chance more often. In any case it’s an excellent film thanks to Cage’s reliably hilarious work, he almost seems to have been tailored for this role and you can tell he’s having a blast with every tortured mannerism and inappropriate outburst. I love and appreciate every single film that director Verbinski has made in his eclectic, unpredictable dervish of a career, the guy has done everything from Pirates Of The Caribbean to slapstick period piece to Hammer horror throwback to south of the border romance end even an animated film for adults which you don’t see too often. He always approaches us with something different to offer, and with The Weather Man he’s come up a winner again, I love this sad, self aware, pathetic yet touching portrait of a man adrift in his own inadequacy, his frequent attempts to swim serving as our entertainment, however much we pity or feel for the guy and his oddball family. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Many films are ambitious enough to reach for the stars, but Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar reaches for them and then plunges headlong past them into the universe’s vast infinitude to grasp ideas and tell a story that challenges intellect, stirs emotion and dazzles in the way a thinking person’s SciFi film should. I suppose it’s impossible for me to pick a favourite Nolan film as they are all pretty much solidified classics for me, but if you asked me which one stood out without necessarily labelling it as my top pick, I’d point towards this one. There’s a few key areas in which the filmmaker tries to make a deliberate departure from the style he has become known for, chief among them being just how based in emotion this story is. From Rachel and Bruce in The Dark Knight to Cobb and Mal in Inception there’s always been something of a heartfelt element to his work, but here the relationship between intrepid astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murphy, played throughout the years by Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn and the fantastic Mackenzie Foy who is the youngest actor in the film but gives the most soulful work, is really something that anchors the film every step of the way. The relationship between father and daughter here is a connection that transcends time, space, the stars and laws of the universe itself or at least in the way we comprehend them, and while many scoffed at these themes from Nolan and rolled their eyes, I found it to be one of the most powerful things in any film he’s done. Interstellar is bursting with ideas, glimmering special effects and dedicated performances, starting with Matt and Mackenzie and going on down through the ranks with supporting star power from Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Matt Damon, Topher Grace, David Oweleyo with standout work from Bill Irwin as the witty, loyal robot TARS and John Lithgow as Cooper’s salty earthbound stepfather. Nolan plumbs the inky vacuum of space for visual grandeur and vast, stunning set pieces including a planet with roaming tidal waves, a breathtaking ice world and a hair raising docking scene as their ship rotated furiously through space, his sense of scope is incredible and the blend of practical effects vs CGI is a seamless ballet amongst the stars, few films feel as tactile and spacious. As much as he is about the fireworks here, ultimately his focus lies on the intimate as well, with love being explored as more than just a biological function and more like a cosmic field of energy that has laws, boundaries and the same strengths as any other element. Cooper travels through a wormhole and to galaxies so far beyond our own that time seems to have no meaning, but that does nothing to shake the bond he has with his daughter, and this is where the film is so effective. He’s out there trying to find new worlds and sustain the human race, no doubt, but to him it’s Murphy, their connection and the forces which hold it together that ultimately keep him going and win the day. All the elements work to reinforce this throughout the film, with Hathaway’s yearning for the lost astronaut she loves and even Damon’s nefarious self love that leads him to acts that although are horrible, come from an emotional place. Hans Zimmer’s totally unique original score also has a heartfelt undercurrent, usually his work, and especially in Nolan’s films, has a heavily punctuated, thunderously orchestral style but here he’s traded that in for a softer, much more melodic piece that legitimately sounds like galaxies unfolding all around the viewer and has a deep longing behind every twinkling electronic tone. A blockbuster with brains, big ideas and plenty of action, but also with heart and feeling to back it up and fuel this voyage to the stars. One of Nolan’s absolute best, and one of the most brilliant science fiction films we will likely ever see on the big screen.

-Nate Hill