Tag Archives: Michael Shannon

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter

Making films about mental illness is always tricky because of how sensitive, subjective and all too easily misunderstood and misrepresented the subject matter can be. Take one wrong turn and your script can be hokey, let one performance have an ill advised timbre and the whole thing feels hollow and under researched. With all that in mind I can say that Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is one of the most moving, mature, heartbreaking and realistic portraits of an ailment I’ve ever seen, not to mention an overall superb piece of filmmaking.

Michael Shannon shines bright in another deeply felt, wonderful performance as Curtis, a blue collar Ohio family man with a loving wife (the always amazing Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter (Tova Stewart). He has what his best friend (Shea Wigham, seriously is this guy even capable of a wrong note? He rocks) describes as a “good life”, until things go wrong. One day Curtis begins to have dark, threatening and very realistic nightmares. He imagines massive, menacing lightning storms on the horizon that begin to rain a thick, oily substance and his reality becomes an anxiety laced, constant source of panic. How does one deal with it? Well in a lesser film things might become rote or sensationalistic but instead we see him visit his estranged mother who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia, pick up books at the library to understand mental illness and rationally try to process his dreams. But his delusions are strong, and soon he has spent money his family doesn’t have on feverishly landscaping a tornado shelter into his property to weather the oncoming storm, a storm that seems to exist only for him and causes anger and confusion from his wife.

There’s always two sides of the coin in stories like this, the literal and what’s perceived internally by the protagonist. Certainly in many cases it’s up for debate what’s really going on but for me this was a story of him losing his grip on reality, teetering on the edge of a psychotic break and honestly what better use of metaphor for that than a giant incoming storm? There are two scenes that stand out to me as some of the best directed, acted and overall crafted sequences I’ve ever seen in cinema. The first takes place at a company lunch for Curtis’s job, where he and Wigham get into a heated argument and it escalates into him having a full blown, wide eyed meltdown, ranting like someone who’s lost it which, naturally, he almost has. It’s painful because his wife and daughter are standing right there and this is hard for them to see but what lifts the scene up is instead of her storming out, retorting or going numb she simply walks over to him, puts her hand on his face and tries to comfort him, to calm him down. Talk about using one’s intuition in a scenario like that. The other is the final scene of the film which I can’t say much about without spoilers but it’s a brilliant way of illustrating acceptance, understanding and the willingness to move forward when a family member becomes ill and needs love and support. I could go on for paragraphs about this one but I’ll close in saying that few films approach this material with the tact, careful imagination and reverence for humanity that we see here. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out

The coolest thing about Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, besides the lavish production design and the fact that the lovely M. Emmett Walsh is *still working* at his age, is it’s epic takedown of wealth, status and the deep seated delusion that goes hand in hand with being born into a rich family. That is, of course, not readily apparent until the stinging but satisfying final shot of the film and I can’t say much because this is the last thing you’d want spoiled going in, but the message is there, delicately wrapped up in a package of intricate plotting, beautiful set artistry and a whole ton of deadpan humour from a dense, scene stealing cast.

Celebrated mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has been found dead, apparently by suicide. His raucous, dysfunctional family gathers to pay respects but it’s clear after a scene or two that this is a shady pack of wolves all out for the fortune he left behind. Southern gentleman investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) “suspects foul play “ and so begins a whirligig of a search for truth, secrets and an elusive alleged killer who is naturally closer to home than anyone might suspect, except those who already know a thing or two. Thrombey’s family is played by a well rounded, eclectic bunch including Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Katherine Langford, Chris Evans and a flat out hilarious Don Johnson. Rising star Ana De Armas is terrific as Harlan’s maid and confidante, a hard worker from some South American country that none of the family seem to be able to recall properly, highlighting their bemused selfishness and aloof nature further.

This is for sure a murder mystery and there is a serpentine narrative that does eventually arrive at a satisfactory conclusion but the whodunit aspect wasn’t as elaborate or lengthy as I was expecting. For me the enjoyment here came from these movie stars mugging for genuine laughs in a spoof of bickering families that is so dead on I felt like I was at Christmas dinner with my clan. These folks just can’t get it together or coexist and it provides come priceless exchanges of dialogue. There’s also a compassionate undercurrent between Armas and Plummer too, who between them give the two finest performances of the film, full of adorable camaraderie and flippant gallows humour. I can’t say much but the film serves to iterate and literally illustrate through circumstances that it doesn’t matter how many silver spoons you’re born with shoved up your ass or what kind of background you come from, you really only have claim to what you earn through hard work, be it laborious, interpersonal or other. I like that compassion and understanding woven into a film like this, it gives the Clue board a soul. Oh and I’ll also add that Daniel Craig has an absolute fucking one man party as Blanc who is an endlessly watchable, quaintly verbose delight and I love seeing him in eccentric roles that breach the surface of his cold, detached 007 persona. Good times.

-Nate Hill

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

What’s the most malicious and deliriously satiating way you can think of getting revenge on an ex who betrayed you horribly? In Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, novelist Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets pretty creative in his attempts to strike back at the girl (Amy Adams) who wronged him decades before. This is a film about darkness, secrets, hate, cruelty, long harboured hurt and how such things erupt into violence, both physical and that of the mind.

Adams is Susan, a wealthy gallery owner married to a hunky yet vacuous playboy (Armie Hammer), terminally unhappy yet cemented in an inability, or perhaps unwillingness to do anything about it. One day she receives a yet to be published book from her ex husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) dedicated to her in an eerily specific way. As she settles in to read it in her drafty, lonesome yuppie mansion while hubby flies around the country cheating on her, Ford treats us to a story within a story as we see the novel unfold. In the book, Gyllenhaal plays a family man driving his wife (Isla Fisher, who uncannily and perhaps deliberately resembles Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) across a creepy, desolate stretch of rural Texas. When night falls, a pack of roving, predatory bumpkins led by Aaron Taylor Johnson howl out of the night like angry ghosts, terrorize the three of them relentlessly, then kidnap Fisher and their daughter without remorse. This leaves Gyllenhaal alone and desperate, his only friend being crusty lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a gaunt force of righteous fury who serves as avatar to carry out some actions that the protagonist is perhaps too meek for. Together they trawl the southern night looking for clues and a sense of resolution, but one gets the sense that this is a hollow venture, already plagued by the acrid tendrils of tragedy from right off the bat. So, what do the contents of this novel have to do with what is going on up in the real world? Well… that’s the mystery, isn’t it. Pay close attention to every narrative beat and filter the distilled emotions of each plot point through an abstract lens, and then the author’s gist is painfully understood.

The interesting thing about this film is that we don’t even really have any contact with Gyllenhaal in the real world and present time outside of this story he’s written. Everything he has to say, every corner of anguish is laid bare and bounced off of Adams’s traumatized, depressed housewife with startling clarity and horror. She gives a fantastic performance, as does Jake as the lead character of the novel. Shannon makes brilliant work of a character who is essentially just an archetypal plot device, but the magnetic actor finds brittle humour, deadly resolve and animalistic menace in the role. Other solid work is provided by Andrea Riseborough, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone and Laura Linney in a stinging cameo as Adams’s manipulative dragon of a mother. Ford shows incredible skill in not just telling a crisp, immersive and aesthetically pleasing visual story, but making those visuals count for something in terms of metaphor, foreshadowing, hidden clues and gorgeous colour palettes that mirror the stormy mental climates of these broken, flawed human beings. He also displays a mastery over directing performances out of the actors as well as editing and atmosphere that draws you right in from the unconventional opening credits (those fat chicks) to the striking, devastating final few frames that cap off the film with a darkly cathartic kick to the ribs. Add to that a wonderfully old school original score by Abel Korzeniowski and layered, concise cinematography from Seamus McGarvey and you have one hell of a package. A downbeat, mature drama that comes from the deep and complex well of human emotions and a film that uses the medium to reiterate the kind of raw, disarming power that art can have over our souls, both as a theme of its story and as a piece of work itself. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road is a film set in the 1950’s and decidedly so, but that is just happenstance because the story it tells could happen anywhere, in any time period. The setting, though elaborately, meticulously and unobtrusively staged, is just the gilding on this suburban tragedy of restlessness, shaky ideals and marriage at levels of disintegration that prove combustible.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet join forces again as Frank and April Wheeler, a seemingly harmonious white picket fence family who have achieved the American Dream. Cute little house in a sunny neighbourhood, two adorable children, he has a rat race office job while she plays homemaker. Idyllic, right? Anything but. These two are monumentally unhappy in ways that prove complex enough to haunt the viewer later on. She’s unwilling to hammer down that last corner of settled life and give up on further dreams, he simultaneously hates and depends on his worker bee employment like a security blanket. They make plans. Life, and the both of them get in the way. It’s kind of a vague premise to just read about in a review or synopsis and you have to watch the thing to get its rhythm and timbre, but what it has to say is important, heartbreaking and timeless.

Leo and Kate follow up their sweet, innocent tragedy of Titanic with a love story eons removed, a bitter tale of two people who’d love each other if they didn’t hate each other so much, and hate each other if they didn’t love each other so much. It’s a tricky, multilayered pair of performances to nail in tandem but they’re there in synergistic equilibrium and both give what might be their finest work. Suburbia is populated by supporting characters who revolve around them cautiously but never get fully sucked in to their destructive orbit. They’re played by the sterling likes of Kathy Bates, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn, Dylan Baker, Jay O. Sanders, Max Baker and Michael Shannon in a fierce cameo as a sort of Greek Chorus type individual who comments on this couple’s plight with acidic abandon. Mendes chooses locations over a soundstage which is always tricky, but the level of authenticity you get once that is pulled off can’t be compared. 1050’s suburbia seems to come alive as we feel each breeze come in through an open window, see the tree lined street just beyond the borders of a real house they’re shooting in and watch the automobiles actually wind their way down a street. Thomas Newman provides a score that doesn’t cloy or manipulate but follows along dutifully while humming away in the wings to let Leo and Kate sing for themselves.

Not an easy film to watch, it’s essentially two people in a collective downward spiral observed in an intimate fly-on-the-wall fashion and that can become downright uncomfortable at its lowest points. But this is important stuff, a microcosm of two individuals that asks you to step outside what’s considered norm in society and examine exactly what exactly is expected of each man and woman and how that affects their actions throughout life. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Gela Babluani’s 13

Many directors remake their own films, with varying results. But some foreign made stuff just doesn’t translate well into Hollywood from its more abstract, Euro-centric sensibilities and unfortunately Gela Babluani’s 13 falls victim to that, and hard. You can gloss it up all you want with studio dollars or cast as many heavy hitter actors to pad the lining, but if you do the shot-for-shot thing and ape what you did the first time around, it can just feel weird, awkward and unbecoming. I’ve never seen the original film (also called 13) but I could just simply tell by the structure and tone here that Babluani tried to literally translate his initial piece and the results are just plain bizarre.

This story tells of a super scary underground Russian roulette competition in which handlers enter mentally unstable rejects into an intense round robin of revolvers to the head, with maniacal sports commentator Michael Shannon playing ringmaster and chewing more scenery than he did in The Shape Of Water, which is really saying a lot. Sam Riley, an actor I’ve always greatly admired and seen as underrated, plays a young dude who’s down on his luck and enters this ordeal not fully knowing what he’s up against. The thing here is that several standalone aspects really do work and are interesting, but they’re too episodic and disjointed to pulley the film together into something that makes sense and doesn’t feel cobbled together from used parts. Mickey Rourke is terrific as a jaded ex-con competitor who’s just looking for a way out, but he classes up anything he’s in as a given. Jason Statham plays a posh handler whose fighter (Ray Winstone, also great) is an unhinged lunatic. 50 Cent is also there because I’m pretty sure there’s some clause in low budget genre films where he has to appear in every third one or something (seriously, look at his IMDb). The great Ben Gazzara turns up, obviously wracked with the illness that would end him a few years later, but you’ve gotta hand it to the guy for showing up at all given his condition. Others are around including Alexander Skarsgard, David Zayas, Wayne Duvall and Emmanuelle Chriqui but they’re mostly lost in the shuffle.

The scenes of Russian roulette are intense enough but not too affecting because we don’t give a shart about the characters, apart from perhaps Rourke. This ain’t no Deer Hunter in terms of scenes like that. Your best bet is to check out the original I suppose, which I still have to do. This one has a fantastic cast who are all just tossed to the wind in a flurry of shoddy editing and suspiciously slapdash storytelling. Shame.

-Nate Hill

Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had

Alzheimer’s disease is a tricky subject in film; it can often sink into distracting melodrama or be used as a plot device instead of an actual ailment to the character, as they conveniently collect themselves when the narrative requires it and then get all confused again when needed. First time director Elizabeth Chomko handles it wonderfully in her debut What They Had, letting the sad realities of this affliction play out realistically for one Chicago family whose matriarch approaches stage 6. Blythe Danner playfully, sadly and intuitively embodies this woman, fleetingly letting us see glimpses of the woman that once was, now lost to inexorable mental fog as she approaches the end. Her husband of four odd decades (Robert Forster) refuses to put her into a home, out of both stubbornness and just plain love. Their two children (Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon) return home to deliberate the situation, and a superbly acted, quietly honest family drama ensues. Chomko also wrote the script and her dialogue has the stinging bite and dynamic depth of someone who is drawing from somewhere personal, and indeed I read that this film is based on her own experience. She shows surefire talent in writing as well as behind the camera and I wish her all the best in a career that will hopefully be something really special. Shannon is perfect as the scrappy, diamond-in-the-rough bar owner who uses gruff bluster to mask his heartbreak. Swank is emotionally resonant as the more distant and reserved of the two siblings, trying to deal with both her mom and daughter (Taissa Farmiga, excellent). Forster has seldom been better as the obstinate family man who just won’t let his girl go, he handles the guy with a stern resolve that begins to crack as he realizes that one day she will forget him entirely. Danner has the most difficult role, but nails it. There’s a befuddled remoteness to people with this disease, a near constant confusion that I’ve seen in real life but that doesn’t dim the warmth of their personality, at least for a while anyways, and the actress never over or underplays it. This is a terrific debut for Chomko and demo reel worthy material for all the major players, a small scale drama that wins big and elicits well earned empathy from us. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Gregory Jacob’s Criminal

Look up ‘hidden gem’ in the dictionary and you’ll find a one sheet for Gregory Jacobs’s Criminal. Alongside many others, but you catch my drift. This is a virtually unknown grifter flick that is smart, funny and really acidic and unpredictable in spots. It also has that low key ‘small movie’ feel, which is welcome in a con artist flick anyways because you can ditch the big budget gloss and focus more on story and character instead. John C. Reilly plays a middle aged con man here who, simply put, is a huge asshole, but has charmed his way through the hustling game and made some serious cash. He’s saddled with a rookie youngster (Diego Luna) who wants to learn the ropes, but the old guy basically wants nothing to do with him. It’s a sour partnership that never seems to quite gel, which provides suspense as to when the back stabbing will start. With the help of a feisty colleague (Maggie Gyllenhaal), their plan is to rob a wealthy, intimidating Scottish currency collector (the great Peter Mullan) for millions, using a carefully implemented bag of tricks and a vast contact network of fellow tricksters. As is the case with all great caper flicks, nothing is as it seems and the plot revelations are fast and heavy, in this one’s case packing a whallop of an unconventional twist ending. The terrific supporting cameo cast includes Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Brent Sexton, Michael Shannon, Malik Yoba, character actor Jack Conley and more. This is a hugely entertaining film, with an unlikeable protagonist whose arc is really a curious one to watch. Director Jacobs has only helmed two other flick, the Magic Mike sequel and the Emily Blunt horror vehicle Wind Chill, but he really shows a flair for fun exposition and labyrinthine plot turns here, as well as bringing out interesting qualities in his carefully picked actors. Steven Soderbergh also did uncredited screenplay work, which only adds to the capability and slickness. A treat.

-Nate Hill