Tag Archives: movie

Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley

Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley is a dark, grimly paced Euro-western that could have been a great one if only the script was as tight and polished as it’s musical and stylistic elements. Shot in the Italian mountains, it looks absolutely alluring in every single frame, blessed with a stoic tough-guy performance from Sam Riley as a mysterious stranger bent on revenge and a soundtrack full of odd, against-the-grain yet distinct choices. It looks, sounds and feels evocative, but the story that should go alongside and string it all together is just too loosely woven, and as such, interest is lost. Riley’s stranger is not really welcome in the alpine town, especially by the Brenners, a local crime family that rule the roost. It’s a harsh winter, and pretty soon bodies start piling up, victims of an unseen assailant the townspeople just assume is the Stranger. There’s a backstory to the whole thing, some great atrocity committed by these folk decades earlier, and while all the information was presented, in both exposition and flashback, it just didn’t have the emotional payoff or clear-cut grandiosity that a western like this should, especially one as dramatic in every other area. The dubbing over of the German actors doesn’t help one bit either, a choice which I will never, ever support. Subtitles all the way, man. Anyways, Riley is as awesome as ever, it’s really sad that he doesn’t make more films, he’s got a dark star quality that immediately classes up any film he shows up in. The cinematography is top shelf, with a stunning backdrop of mountains all round, detailed period-appropriate production design and costume work. Music is a strong point, with a neat opening credit rendition of Nina Simone’s Sinner Man, and there’s a climactic gunfight that leaps off the screen in bold strokes. It’s just a little less than it should be in areas where the stakes needed to be way higher and draw us into the story, so that when the operatic violence comes, it has heft beyond just looking cool and leaving us nothing to invest our care in. Good stuff, if incomplete.

-Nate Hill

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Ted Demme’s Life

Ted Demme’s Life is a hard one to classify or box into genres, which may have been why it didn’t do all that great at the box office and subsequently slipped through the cracks, a result that often befalls ambitious, unique films that people aren’t ready to surrender to. Part comedy, part tragedy, all drama infused with just a bit of whimsy, it’s a brilliant piece and one of the most underrated outings from both of it’s high profile stars, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It seems fitting that the two lively, cartoonish cowboys of comedy should share the screen, and it’s lucky they got such a wicked script. In the roaring twenties, Murphy is smooth talking petty thief Ray, Lawrence is hapless, hot blooded bank teller Claude, and the pair couldn’t be more suited or dysfunctional towards each other. Brought together for an ill fated moonshine run bankrolled by a nasty NYC Gangster (Rick James), things go wrong in the most auspicious of places a black man could find himself during that time: Mississippi. Framed for the murder of a local conman (Clarence Williams III) by a psychotic, corrupt Sheriff (Ned Vaughn), they’re given life in prison by the judge, and this is where their peculiar adventure really begins. Put under the supervision of a violent but oddly sympathetic corrections officer played awesomely by Nick Cassavetes, the two wrongfully convicted, hard-luck fellows spend their entire adult life and most of the twentieth century incarcerated… and that’s the film. Squabbling year by year, making a whole host of friends out of their fellow convicts and never losing their sense of humour, it’s the one of the strangest narratives I’ve seen, and somehow works wonders in keeping us glued to the screen. Supporting the two leads is a legendary ensemble including Ned Beatty as warm hearted superintendent, Anthony Anderson, Bernie Mac, Bokeem Woodbine, Barry Shabaka Henley, Heavy D, Don Harvey, Noah Emmerich, Obba Babatundé, Sanaa Latham, R. Lee Ermey and more. Murphy and Lawrence have never been better, shining through Rick Baker’s wicked old age makeup in the latter portion of the film, and letting the organic outrage and frustration towards their situation pepper the many instances of humour, accenting everything with their friendship, which is the core element really. The film’s title, simple as it, has a few meanings, at least for me. Life as in ‘life in prison’, in it’s most literal and outright sense. Life as in ‘well tough shit, that’s life and it ain’t always pretty,’ another reality shared with us by the story. But really it’s something more oblique, the closest form of explanation I can give being ‘life happens.’ There’s no real social issues explored here, no heavy handed agenda (had the film been released in this day and age, that would have almost certainly been a different story), no real message, we just see these events befall the two men. They roll with each new development, they adapt and adjust, they learn, they live. In a medium that’s always being plumbed and mined for deeper meanings, subtext and allegories, it’s nice to see a picture that serves up the human condition without all those lofty bells and whistles. Their story is random, awkward, unpredictable, never short on irony, seldom fair, often tragic, and ever forward moving. That’s Life.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: A Lonely Place To Die

You know when you’re on some wilderness trip, out of your element, and all these crazy, far flung ‘what if’ scenarios enter your head, but they never happen? In A Lonely Place To Die, one of them does, to hapless hiker Melissa George and her friends. Traversing the Scottish highlands, the group hears an eerie crying coming from a random ventilation pipe in a remote area, and unwisely digs below ground to investigate. Imprisoned in a seriously creepy bunker is a young Eastern European girl, alone and afraid. So begins their waking nightmare trying to find out where she came from, pursued by all kinds of nasties and forced to kill or be killed to protect her. There’s a horde of British thugs including resident creeper Sean Harris, a faction of powerful Russian spooks led by intense Karel Roden, and all manner of psychos adding to the hubbub. As a breathless chase thriller it works wonders, with more than a few impeccably stages set pieces that orchestrate suspense well. There’s violence too, as Melissa is forced to dispatch the heinous baddies in terrifically gory ways, and fighting tooth and nail to protect the girl. The plot moves in a familiar direction as far as her backstory goes and loses momentum in resolution, but they had to wrap it up logically I suppose. The film is best when it goes full on crazy, and gets into borderline horror mode, it’s got a loopy sense of violence about it that is the strongest quality.

-Nate Hill

Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm

Fear of isolation has been a staple element in film since the beginning. A quiet, shrouded forest. A damp, derelict back alley. The endless waters of earth’s oceans, which is where Philip Noyce’s nightmarish psychosexual shocker Dead Calm takes place. The key is not in projecting fear of being isolated, which is bad enough, but instilling the unnerving notion that you’re not actually alone after all, and be it human, supernatural or the forces of nature, something is out there with you. This is what vacationing couple Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman discover, only in this case it’s no creature or ghost, but Billy Zane instead. I know what you’re thinking, that perennial goofball Zane is the farthest thing from fearsome you could find, but he’s actually one of the most memorable and shit-scary movie villains out there. Neill and Kidman are a couple with enough issues to begin with, sailing their schooner somewhere way out there trying to forget past tragedy, until Zane brings new trouble onto their horizon. After they rescue him half dead floating on the waves, he tells them of a capsized ocean liner, and claims to be it’s only survivor. Neill isn’t quite bought and sold on his story and ventured off to see for himself, unwisely leaving his wife behind with this strange dude, which is loose thriller plotting 101, but oh well, inciting incidents have to come from somewhere, don’t they. Zane turns out to be an unstable maniac of the highest order, and steers the schooner off on his own course with Kidman in tow, and Neill left in the wake, trying to find them out there and save her. The scary thing about this villain is that he has no plan, no goals, no endgame or reason for doin this, he’s simply certifiably out of his fucking head, and there’s an unpredictability to that which I found immensely freaky. The scenes aboard the boat with him and Nicole on their own are charged with a tangible danger and crazed frenzy, a canary in a cage circled by a thoroughly crazy cat. The acting sells it there, with Kidman’s raw terror and Zane’s oddball sociopathy walking a narrow, rigid tightrope that could snap any second, and does. When the action comes it’s fierce, R rated mayhem as Neill vengefully charges back into the picture, and although not as intimately scary as the horror bits, still holds our gaze. Zane also gets one of the coolest villain deaths ever seen, shot in full gory detail as well. A chamber piece at sea, a glowing example of effective filmmaking in the thriller genre, and scary in spades.

-Nate Hill

Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow

Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow is one of those textbook disaster flicks where every recognizable element is in full swing: determined scientist, sure of his curveball theories that no one else buys, saddled with a dysfunctional family and a clock that’s quickly ticking down towards some looming cataclysm, in this case severely bat tempered weather. It’s cliche after cliche, but this is one of the ones that works, and I have a theory why. These days it seems like the formula for the disaster film is pretty dead, or at least doesn’t carry the same magic it did throughout the 90’s and early 00’s.

Stuff like San Andreas, 2012, Geostorm (shudder) just feel dead on arrival, and instead we go back and revisit things like Armageddon, Independence Day, and for me, ones like this. There’s a quality, a feel for time and place that got lost somewhere along the way as time passed in Hollywood, and this is one of the last few that serve as a milestone as to where that happened. The first half or so is cracking stuff, followed by a slightly underwhelming final act. Dennis Quaid is the scientist who gets all in a huff about an extreme weather front that’s apparently barrelling towards the east coast, threatening to give the whole region one wet day in the park. There’s an exaggerated halfwit Vice President (Kenneth Welsh) who scoffs at him, an excitable veteran professor (Bilbo Baggins) who eagerly supports him, and an estranged family right in the storm’s crosshairs who he must rescue. The special effects are neat when the maelstrom slams into New York like a battering ram, pushing over buildings with walls of water and chucking hurricanes all about the place. Quaid’s wife (Sela Ward) and wayward son (Jake Gyllenhaal) are of course stuck in this mess, as he races to find out what’s causing it, and how to escape. The initial scenes where it arrives are big screen magic, especially when Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend (Emmy Rossum) is chased down main street by a raging typhoon and barely scapes into a building, a breathless showcase moment for the film. The second half where the storm levels off isn’t as engaging, despite attempts to throw in extra excitement, such as wolves, which I still can’t quite figure out the origin of, despite watching the film a few times now. Holed up inside a library, it’s a long waiting game in the cold dark where the writing and character development is spread a bit thin for the time they have to kill, but what can you expect here. Should have thrown in a T Tex or some ice dragons to distract us from sparse scripting. Still, the film gets that initial buildup deliciously right, the nervous windup to all out chaos, the editing between different characters and where they are when the monsoon shows up, and enough panicky surviving to make us thankful for that cozy couch and home theatre system all the more. One of the last of the finest, in terms the genre.

-Nate Hill

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

Charlton Heston’s Mother Lode

Charlton Heston’s Mother Lode is one of those neat flicks that not only is filmed in my hometown of Vancouver (like every movie ever) and the surrounding British Columbia region, but is also set there as well. It’s an entertaining, if slight little adventure story that’s perfect to put on for a rainy afternoon on the iPad. Heston, in addition to both writing and directing, plays two roles here, but it’s a bit of a sly trick saying that because he mostly appears as one, and only briefly as the other, but no matter, the old pro works his butt off to steal every scene. He plays loner mountain man Silas McGee, an eccentric prospector whose stairs don’t quite reach the attic, living alone in the wilderness looking for that perfect gold strike. The excellent Nick Mancuso, in a role originally meant for James Brolin, is Jean Dupre, a cocky bush pilot who heads McGee’s way with his high strung girlfriend (Kim Basinger), looking for a fellow pilot who got lost and a little of the gold stuff for himself while he’s at it. As soon as they run into McGee it’s clear the old dog is crazy as shit and not to be trusted, creating a nice atmosphere of isolated paranoia and mystery as the man’s true intentions come to dark light. Mancuso is always terrifically intense and so great at subtle comic moments, this is one of his great early roles and not to be missed for any fan. Poor Basinger suffered a miscarriage while production was underway and as such seems understandably distracted, but she’s a trooper and carries her end well. Heston either does a brilliant Scottish accent, a slipshod one or a bit of both, it’s hard to tell with his rapid fire banter and eloquent, robust verbosity. He’s electric though, and freaky as all hell as the type of dodgy fellow you better pray you don’t run into out there. The action is pretty run of the mill and the film loses the tautness a thriller like this should have in parts, but it’s solid enough to not change the channel. For B.C. residents it’s an absolute treat though, especially as Mancuso’s rickety float plane arcs up over the Vancouver harbour towards the Cassiar mountains and we get to see what our city looked like back in the 80’s. Cool stuff.

-Nate Hill