Tag Archives: movie review

Antonio Campos’s The Devil All The Time

I can say without doubt or hesitation that The Devil All The Time is the ‘feel bad’ movie of the year, and I mean that in a good way. This isn’t a film that seeks to find the silver lining, heart of gold of light at the end of the tunnel as far as atrocious human behaviour, sickening acts of violence and degradation and overall depravity go, this is a film that displays such things without much in the way of message, theme, agenda or apology. It’s just a film about terrible people doing terrible things, plain as pasta. If you can reconcile that early on in and stomach your way through the rest, there’s a whole lot to appreciate here, namely a spectacularly star studded cast all giving superb work in a gorgeously produced piece of Southern Gothic, nihilistic, psychosexual, blood spattered, sleazed up, unpretentious hayseed pulp fiction that has no patience for the squeamish, the self righteous or those who just tuned in to see Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson and won’t know what hit them. The film is a sprawling backwater canvas that spans decades and sees a whole host of unsavoury denizens interweave devilish deeds, violent acts, religious mania and murder most foul, or in this film’s case, most celebratory. Holland is terrific as Arvin, a tough kid with a nasty past who was taught early on in life by his extremely troubled father (Bill Skarsgard, haunting) about what kind of evil is out there. He’s forced to reckon with quite a few gnarly characters including a married couple serial killer duo (Jason Clarke and Riley Keogh), the county’s most corrupt lawman (Sebastian Stan), a belligerent small town mobster (Douglas Hodge) and a piece of work preacher (Pattinson playing gleefully against type) with a penchant for sexual abuse of underage girls and not a remorseful bone in his body about such acts. Arvin anchors the whole sordid tapestry together but is by no means a hero, and as much as the violence he inflicts is justified when you consider the people he’s up against, he is still a very harsh and cruel force, made so by Skarsgard’s passing of the torch as a young boy. The narrative doesn’t always seem to flow naturally, there’s a few jerks on the pacing chain that I noticed but the film is so beautifully made in terms of production design and performance it just sweeps you up anyway. It’s based on a novel by a fellow called Donald Ray Pollock, and judging by the wistful narration provided here he approves of what the filmmakers have wrought with his work, but I also see on google that he grew up in the actual county this is set in, and god help him if any of this stuff happened in his life because I wouldn’t wish these events on anyone. This is a pessimistic film that doesn’t pretend to be some holy treatise on pain and suffering whereby showing awful things happen we attain some kind of catharsis, by distance, perspective or irony. No, this film just presents to us the absolute shittiest human behaviour it can think of, and let’s us sit with it as we will. Many will abhor it, I appreciated it for what it was, for the craftsmanship, acting, artistry and scriptwriting on display and I suppose if there’s one thing it had to say that I absorbed, it’s that violence begets violence, generationally speaking in this case, and sometimes that’s not such a terrible thing when put to good use. A tough pearl of wisdom, but then again this is the toughest sort of film to be moved by.

-Nate Hill

Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian

A lot can happen on a nearly eight thousand kilometre railway trip, and much of it does in Brad Anderson’s chilly, blunt, ruthless and exciting Transsiberian, a Hitchcockian whodunit with as many turns in the plot as there are bends in the railroad. Filmed on location in Russia and China, the Trans Siberian is indeed a real train that makes a long, snowy voyage from Beijing all the way to Moscow and here serves as evocative backdrop for six various characters involved in a dangerous game of deceit, escape, intimidation and foul play. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are the American couple, he’s a bit of a bumbling nebbish, she’s more quiet, shrewd, observant and possessive of a reckless past. Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara are another couple, outwardly shady, edgy and suspiciously rough around the edges. One of these four is smuggling a large amount of heroin somewhere in the train, and it’s up to the viewer to discern why, how, where they got it and what the consequences will be. Meanwhile, two Russian narcotics officers trawl the train trying to smoke out the mule, played by a cold, psychopathic Thomas Kretschmann and a wily, charismatic and utterly scene stealing Ben Kingsley. This is such an entertaining, suspenseful, panicky, fascinating, character based piece of melodramatic escapism, made so by brilliant work from its cast, powerful scenes of violence, pursuit and distrust and locations that are at once beautiful, desolate, eerie and breathtaking. Mortimer is excellent as the kind of woman who fiercely guards her true nature and is resourceful to the bone in a tricky situation. Mara is low key very effective as the mysterious girl in over her head, Noriega just the right mixture of charming and dangerous, Kretschmann thoroughly chilling in his full on Slav tracksuit while Harrelson gets the film’s only comic relief as the lovable schmuck who doesn’t see danger until it’s in the same train compartment staring him down. Kingsley steals the show though, he’s a cackling fiend who exudes menace, dark humour and terrifying villainy, sometimes all in the same note. Director Anderson is responsible for some of my favourite horror/thriller films out there (Session 9, The Machinist, Vanishing On 7th Street) and this is one of his best. Cold, stark, with well written, believable characters, oppressive atmosphere, tangible danger and a feeling of karmic forces giving each player exactly what they need and deserve as the serpentine narrative unfolds. Great film.

-Nate Hill

David Koepp’s You Should Have Left

This one is called You Should Have Left, and buddy let me tell you if I saw this in a theatre I just might have. It’s a fairly terrible film, just muddy, cluttered, rushed, undercooked, unfocused and painfully mediocre. It’s directed by David Koepp, who did the awesome Secret Window based on a Stephen King yarn and with this one he’s clearly trying to evoke The Shining, it’s a breadcrumb trail of inspiration that leads down a bunch of dimly lit corridors of a spooky manor that looks like a hurricane whisked up an entire Ikea and shat it out on a hill in the Welsh countryside. Kevin Bacon plays a wealthy Hollywood type married to famous actress Amanda Seyfried (I’m not being funny, she plays a famous actress) who, um, is like two decades younger than him and it’s just creepy seeing that kind of casting decision at work. He’s got a murky, tragic past, their marriage isn’t all wine n’ roses, their daughter (Avery Tiuu Essex should be commended for outshining Bacon and Seyfried combined) picks up on the friction and things are very tense before supernatural stuff even pops up. When it does, it doesn’t make much sense narratively, borrows off more than a few better films and feels out of place. Bacon plays two characters, and the story was so willy-nilly I couldn’t tell if we were supposed to know right off the bat that it was him in both roles or not (it’s obvious). The twist has zero impact because everything before wasn’t explained to us anywhere near close to clearly enough, and the level of incomprehension is almost insulting to any viewer. Why Bacon and Seyfried would do this kind of lukewarm, flaccid excuse for a horror flick is beyond me. I will say it had some cool lighting, and a half decent atmospheric score, but beyond that? Secret Window this ain’t, You Should Leave before wasting seven bucks for this on iTunes like I did.

-Nate Hill

Jon Turtletaub’s The Meg

For a movie about a giant shark, given a giant budget, Jon Turtletaub’s The Meg is just kinda underwhelming. First off it’s PG-13, which is just not gonna do your shark attack flick any favours, I mean people wanna see sharks fucking people up and rating constraints will put a damper on that. Secondly, they just don’t do much with the infamous prehistoric megalodon other than have it jump around a bit, swallow a few people whole and arrive at a densely populated beach that looks like it was conceived by Wes Anderson’s production designer. What does work? Much of the interaction between some engaging human characters is funny, genuine and likeable. Jason Statham is great as a legendary deep sea diver who would rather just crush beers in his Thailand shanty. Robert ‘Longmire’ Taylor, Olafur Darri Olafsson, stoic Cliff Curtis, unbelievably sexy Ruby Rose, Bingbing Li and a smarmy Rainn Wilson are fun. There’s a welcome tribal feel to the group dynamic and enthusiastic cheesiness that somehow reminded me of Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, a much more fun ocean set creature feature. But the shark action is lifeless and just not exciting, and if the lynchpin of your film doesn’t hold the thing together all you have is what works, in this case a fun group of folks played by varied actors running around impressive sets. The rest? Boring as hell dude. There’s one cool moment when a little girl sees The Meg slowly swim up to a giant glass window underwater and lunge for her but Netflix put that as the little teaser video on the film’s main menu so it’s spoiled before you even start the thing. I’ll still take Deep Blue Sea over this tide-pool detritus any day.

-Nate Hill

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe

Don’t rob an old blind dude in Detroit, especially if the dude is Stephen Lang with an angry Rottweiler backing him up. Seriously don’t though, you don’t wanna know the consequences involving a turkey baster, a pair of scissors and a jam jar full of… I won’t spoil it but it’s fucking grim. Don’t Breathe is a pretty damn effective shocker from director Fede Alvarez, who did that Evil Dead remake that had the nerve to be way better than it should have been. In an especially derelict Detroit neighbourhood, three hapless street kids (Jane Levy, Dylan Minette and Daniel Zovatto) unwisely decide to burglarize the home of gulf war veterans Lang, who reportedly has a nice wad of cash stashed in his basement. Well.. he’s got more than that down there, let me tell you. Once he gets wind of their presence, his lithe warrior reflexes, keen hunter instincts and heightened sense of hearing make their experience between his walls a living nightmare, not to mention… other things he gets up to. Lang is the perfect actor for this because before he got super jacked for Avatar he was a pretty lanky guy, so you have this sinewy frame with sizeable muscle mass packed on, not the body type you want to be trapped in a narrow hallway with. Plus he’s just a terrific actor and plays this guy like a feral beast with touches of sorrow curdled into madness. Alvarez makes great use of his cameras here, doing long sweeping takes that utilize hallways, door frames and wide rooms, evoking David Fincher’s Panic Room just enough to garnish his own style. The acting aside from Lang is just ok; Levy does the wide eyed, tomboy Final Girl thing well, Minette is just not a naturally gifted actor and it shows, while Zovatto is saddled with horribly written lines from the Hollywood ‘this is what street punks act like’ typewriter bot and is just cartoonish. Still though, it’s a highly suspenseful effort that benefits greatly from Lang’s presence. As for the turkey baster, I’m not sure the film needed such a stark, sickening set piece (Fincher himself would squirm) but I won’t soon forget it, which I suppose is half the point. Tense stuff.

-Nate Hill

Stephen Hopkins’ Judgment Night

Who remembers Judgment Night? I do, and I’m only randomly bringing it up because I had a dream about it last night where I was a character in the movie, and if you’ve seen this thing you’ll know just how nerve wracking any dream about it would be. It’s one of those greasy 90’s ‘all in one urban night from hell’ thrillers that’s pulpy, over the top, formulaic yet absolutely captivating, in this case because of the villains. So basically there’s four dysfunctional yuppie bros headed from the burbs into darkest downtown Chicago for the basketball game. They’re played by Cuba Gooding Jr, Emilio Estevez, Jeremy Piven and Stephen Dorff, four varied and interesting personalities who clash even before conflict finds them. On their way home through an especially gross part of town they accidentally witness a gang of criminals full on execute a disloyal homie, and from there the thugs make like jackals and hunt our boys through the nightmarish urban jungle with plans on slaughtering them one by one. Now, the top dog thug is played by Denis Leary, who is a solid choice because even when he’s playing good guys you still get the sense you can’t really trust him. He’s a verbose, sociopathic animal here and he’s backed up by perennial badass Peter Greene as his second in command, the two of them making genuinely memorable villains. Director Stephen Hopkins (The Ghost & The Darkness, Predator 2, A Nightmare On Elm Street 3) has real talent in evoking thick, tangible atmosphere be it jungle, urban sprawl or dreamscape and he makes the slums of Chicago look like a fiery vision of hellish alienation and hidden danger around any cluttered, garbage strewn alley or rooftop. The script mostly follows the breathless, brutal pursuit motif but there’s also some clever bits of social satire thrown in, particularly in Leary’s scenery chewing dialogue and rants. The fun lies in watching him and Greene stalk, terrorize and try to kill the four bros though, and it’s all executed very well. Good times.

-Nate Hill

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

I never thought I’d say I was even slightly underwhelmed by a latter day Christopher Nolan film, but such is the case with Tenet, a new pseudoscience mind bending espionage barnstormer from the filmmaker that didn’t so much blow my mind as tie it’s proverbial shoelaces in a knot. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, there’s plenty to get excited by here, but swaths of the narrative feel dry and uninvolved, the central premise that should be rich and tantalizing is painfully underdeveloped and the main character is less a character than a blank game piece scooting around a chessboard of intrigue and action. He’s ‘The Protagonist’, given the ironically opaque title and played by John David Washington in a performance that is sadly devoid of much life or expression. Tasked with playing a vital part in an incoming Cold War whose implications reach beyond science and physics, he’s teamed up with 007-esque operative Neil, played by Robert Pattinson in a turn that’s blessedly engaging, subtle and picks up Washington’s slack. I don’t want to give too much away because the film’s secrets are pretty fun, as they race all over Europe smoking out vague intel, having fierce gun battles and car chases and trying to prevent… what, exactly? There’s a spectacularly nasty Bond villain played by Kenneth Branagh who is a genuinely scary, fascinating piece of work, and I greatly enjoyed his arc and that of his long suffering wife (Elizabeth Debicki, solid) as well as some well mounted, intricate action set pieces. There’s a quick Michael Caine cameo that exists purely so Nolan can seat him at a table for all of two minutes to deliver clipped exposition, and appearances from Martin Donovan, Fiona Dourif, Aaron Tyler Johnson and Clemence Poesy. Nolan makes his paradoxical concept so dense and intricate that by the time the scintillating finale rolls around, parts of it are so much in the clouds that you just raise your arms in defeat and go “ok bro” and trust that he knows what he’s doing, because I sure didn’t, yet perhaps will with some more viewings a lá Inception. That isn’t the bone to pick here though, it’s mainly the fact that the narrative feels rushed, staccato, unnatural in places and doesn’t possess the fluidity, grace, cohesion or focus of his earlier works. Half the time the dialogue and editing during interaction scenes is so brisk, so chopped up and so hurried that its tough to really be drawn in, before you’re off to the races in a flurry without a proper roadmap to prep you for the fun. There are some very exciting sequences involving the premise which I won’t spoil, some terrific character work courtesy of Branagh, Debicki and Pattinson. But man, Washington is just not a dynamic actor and can’t carry the weight expected of him, while much of the film’s setup isn’t strong enough for payoff later on that isn’t strong enough either. I loved the super sonic, unconventional score by Ludwig Göransson, the action is neatly photographed and intensely realized when its good, and somewhat incomprehensible when it falters, especially in a hectic third act paramilitary incursion that I’m sure made sense to Nolan on the drawing board, but comes across as pandemonium on film. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but I have to be real and say this could have been so much more, especially for an artist as accomplished as Nolan.

-Nate Hill

Simon Wincer’s The Phantom

I love big, bold, colourful feature film updates of vintage 1930’s pulp comic books or radio plays and Simon Wincer’s The Phantom is just an absolute blast of escapism that’ll put a smile on your face no matter what. These days Billy Zane has become kind of a forgotten comedic totem but people forget what genuine charisma and star power he once had, and he rocks it here as Kit Walker aka The Phantom, a jungle born superhero descended from a long line of Phantoms before him, thus creating the reputation of being immortal, at least in his enemy’s eyes. Clad in a swanky purple suit with dual colt pistols and joined by a horse and a trusty wolf named ‘Devil’ at his side, he’s probably one of the most aesthetic superheroes I’ve ever seen in a film and I wish this led to sequels. Here he must protect three sacred skulls with supernatural power from power mad, psychopathic NYC tycoon Xander Drax (Treat Williams), fighting side by side with intrepid reporter Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) through a series of exciting adventure set pieces in incredibly exotic, gorgeous locations around the world. Zane is terrific and gives The Phantom just the right mixture of cavalier attitude, genuine empathy and swashbuckling magnetism, plus he rocks that suit solidly, which given this suit, not all actors could do and be taken seriously at it. Williams is a hammy hoot as Drax but his thunder is ever so slightly stolen by two terrific secondary villains: James Remar as Quill, a sort of evil doppelgänger version of Indiana Jones and Catherine Zeta Jones as Sala, an impossibly bad tempered femme fatale who has the hots for the Phantom and goes through a hilariously conflicted meltdown mid-film. The supporting roster is excellent and includes Bill Smitrovitch, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, Leon Russom, Jon Tenney, David Proval, John Capodice and the great Patrick McGoohan as the ghost of Phantom’s father who appears to him as voice of counsel and occasionally wingman. I thought this was just a brilliant good time, a solid, beautifully retro old school adventure flick and I was disappointed to read that it was a box office flop. It’s like the Lone Rangers, the Indiana Joenses, The Rocketeers, the Sky Captains, just this rollicking old world American pulp hero aesthetic that translates so well into action adventure in cinema. Oh and watch for a sly reference to William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Bo Welch’s The Cat In The Hat

The Cat In The Hat is one of those movies that probably shouldn’t have been made, but it did get made and, well, it just kind of sits there nursing incisively negative reviews, nonexistent box office attention and quietly fading into obscurity. The problem is simply that Dr. Seuss’s material is so singularly, specifically eccentric that any attempts to adapt it into a faithful and successful film fail by default, like trying to accurately describe a dream in non-abstract terms hours after you’ve woken from it. The vernacular, the drawings, the poetry, it’s just not made for cinema other than the incredibly literal animated shorts they did narrated by Boris Karloff (The Grinch has one that imparted eons more in like ten minutes than the feature length Jim Carrey version could). It’s like your Roald Dahls, your Maurice Sendaks, your E.B. Whites etc.. Big Hollywood can just never seem to nail the transition. Mike Meyers hasn’t had the best luck in character work outside Austin Powers and Wayne’s World and unfortunately he strikes out here, mugging, contorting, quipping, creeping, crawling as the famed feline home invader, to little effect. The fleeting, surreal whimsy of Seuss’s book is lost on a Fisher Price phantasmagoria of admittedly elaborate and impressive yet ultimately hollow and cornea splitting production design. Dakota Fanning and Spencer Breslin try their best as the two kids but just kind of come across as awkward in a story that’s reduced from a quick, lighthearted parable into a cacophonous jumble of hijinks that posses neither rhyme nor reason, dual qualities that were abundant in Seuss’s volumes. Alec Baldwin is there for some reason, debasing himself as an oafish slob. I’m only really reviewing this for Kelly Preston and she’s lovely as the kid’s mom, but not in it nearly enough and forced to share most of her scenes with the tone deaf, excruciating Sean Hayes. I don’t want to shred Dr. Seuss Hollywood adaptations too viciously because they don’t all miss the mark completely (check out The Lorax for one that’s actually half decent) but the magic from his books will never be recreated onscreen, it’s just not a tangible, realistic alchemy. And I gotta say, this one has to be bottom of the barrel in terms of them all, it’s an embarrassment to the book.

-Nate Hill

Kevin McDonald’s How I Live Now

It still amazes me that Kevin McDonald’s How I Live Now didn’t endure to become a more widely known or appreciated film, because it’s one of my favourites and in my mind one of the strongest, most affecting pieces of work in recent decades. I guess it kind of comes across as this Young Adult Book adaptation if you check out the cover and trailer but the film therein is extremely honest, disarmingly disturbing and very, very brutally frank about how widespread disaster may hit any region and those who live within it. It’s not without poetry, authentic romance, beauty or hope though and there’s this beautiful, life affirming balance between light and dark that makes for the perfect mixture.

The always exceptional Saoirse Ronan stars as Daisy, an American girl who suffers from severe anxiety and feelings of alienation, sent overseas to rural UK to live with an aunt and a whole pile of cousins she’s never even met. Slowly, bit by bit she comes out of her shell and warms up to this family, especially local boy Eddie (George MacKay) who she begins to fall in love with. Gradually the place she’s in and the people she’s with start to feel like home… until something unspeakable happens. Hundreds of miles away in London, a nuclear bomb goes off, cataclysm sets in and oppressive foreign forces slowly invade across the land. Her Aunt is gone doing humanitarian crisis work and so herself and Eddie, the closest thing the family has to leaders, must embark on a cross country odyssey fraught with dread, misery, peril and bleakness everywhere they turn.

This film hits me hard because of how real the danger and horrific aspects feel, how potent and believable the acting and relationships are and how brisk yet dense, heavy yet wistful and dark yet light the story ultimately feels. This is not a children’s film and it is most definitely *not* one geared solely towards teenagers either, there’s scenes of abject horror (it’s got an R rating that it more than earns), children thrown into impossibly complex and harrowing situations beyond their comprehension and is steeped in the harsh reality that in life things can go horribly wrong and if you find something anywhere near a happy ending you’re incredibly lucky rather than owed one by a pandering narrative. Ronan and MacKay are incredibly heartfelt and genuine, their romance and resilience anchoring the whole family as well as the film. Few films with children and young adults in the forefront have the bravery and honesty to show that the world can be just as harsh to them as to any adult protagonist, and show in the same token how said youngsters can have a tremendous amount of survivalism, intuition, spirit and courage to overcome adversity and do the best in an unforgiving world. This film is light and dark to me; the womb-like, sun dappled meadows and rivers of the English countryside where these children play and begin to grow up and then the blackened, nuclear poisoned land they venture out into and must find their way back to the light from. Light and dark. The blossoming romance between Daisy and Eddie, a force of great light in the face of encroaching evil and callous destruction approaching them, and the decision to use that love as a weapon in order to get them through, no matter how it might change either of them. In this film, the light wins and I watch it whenever I need a reminder of that. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill