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Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks

Bruce Willis is the type of action hero who is never idealistic, chipper, optimistic or overtly upbeat. There’s always a sarcastic reluctance whenever he gets pulled into a gunfight, hostage situation or standoff and I think that’s the quality that has made him such an endearing star presence. In Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks he plays an NYC Detective named Jack Mosley, who is a burnt out, sardonic alcoholic who couldn’t give a shit about his job anymore, let alone the motor mouthed convict (Mos Def) he’s assigned to escort the titular distance to testify against some mob bigwig. Jack can almost be seen as the same Willis character we’ve been watching our whole lives but after all the others, a progression that has lead to this one portrayal where the archetype has just reached the end of his rope. It’s a wonderful performance from him and a strong, solid suspense thriller. Def’s character is an annoying, fast talking hustler who we just want to deck right in the face, but I suppose that’s kind of the point of him here so we can see Jack’s tolerance boil over and eventually warm up to the guy. There are forces aligning against them though, factions on both sides of the law that have stock in Def not making it those 16 blocks with his pulse still going, and Jack must dust off his old reflexes to take on what appears to be the entire New York City police force, along with a fellow detective and old friend who has gone rogue, played with affable menace by the always awesome David Morse. This is a terrific thriller with well drawn, relatable characters stuck in one shit show of a situation, it’s minimalist without being too low key and fired up without being overblown or silly. The photography by Glen McPherson makes great use of looming NYC architecture, narrow streets and artifices that could get shattered by a rain of bullets any second, and the exciting score by Klaus Badelt sets a nervous mood of urban menace while introducing Willis with a melancholy twang. This was Donner’s last film before going on apparently permanent hiatus and I’m not sure why, I’ve always loved his work and would love to see a comeback. Willis gets a lot of hype for guys like John McClane and Butch Coolidge who are definitely legends, but Jack Mosley is one of his best creations, a hard bitten boozer with a compassionate lining under the scruff and a brutal resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, it’s his version of Eastwood’s Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet and an underrated character in his canon. Great film.

-Nate Hill

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Snow Falling On Cedars

Snow Falling On Cedars is an interesting one, but I can’t say I mean that in much of a good way. I’ve rarely seen a film that focuses so intently on atmosphere, incident and specific isolated scenes and kind of leaves it’s own overarching story in the dust, or rather snow. That’s okay if you’re making a mood piece or deliberately impressionist film that doesn’t need the lucidity of a clear narrative, but that this is not. Its one gorgeous looking film though, shot by Robert Richardson who really earns the Oscar nom, full of looming boreal scapes, whirling blizzards and rustic homesteads. Set in the Pacific Northwest during a particularly tumultuous pair of timelines in the 40’s and 50’s, it sees the plight of a small coastal fishing village when a mariner is found dead, entangled in nets near his own boat. The local Sheriff (Richard Jenkins) discovers this, prompting a trial in which an accused fellow fisherman (Rick Yune) is prosecuted by an annoying shark (James Rebhorn) and defended by a German American (Max Von Sydow). Now, the accused is also part of the Japanese community residing nearby, and it being sometime after WWII, it’s not a very great period of history to be Japanese in the States, casting a dark glow over the trial before it’s even begun. Ethan Hawke plays the reporter with whom the accused’s wife (Yûki Kudô) has a lasting and deep romantic involvement with. Sound complicated? It is, but really shouldn’t be. The film chooses to tell the story in a meandering, out of time nature and as such it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on at any given time. What’s more, the relation between Hawke and Kudô, although deeply touching and wonderfully acted by both, has little to do with the trial and murder mystery and as a result much of the story feels like a slog through snowbanks with no reward on the other side. Other actors make appearances, like Sam Shepherd as Hawke’s publisher father, James Cromwell as the trial’s overseeing judge, Celia Weston and her deplorable Scandinavian accent, Daniel Von Bargen, Anne Suzuki, Akira Takayama and others but they’re sort of swallowed up by the scattered hollowness of a story that should mean more, and should cut deeper based on the effort put into this production. And what a good looking film, I’ll give it that. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is breathtaking, somehow vast yet contained at the same time as we see life in the northwest unfold, attention to period detail immaculately kept up. The score by James Newton Howard is a swell of orchestral emotion and a strong point too. This film would have been so much more affecting if it spent more quality time on the central relationship between Hawke and Kudô, the latter of which gives the best performance. The matter of Japanese people being carted off to internment camps is handled realistically and gives us some of the film’s strongest scenes, these actors also steal the show with their obvious heartbreak and theft of dignity. But who really cares about the murder trial when there’s so much else going on in the big picture that’s more fascinating? So much time is spent in that dark courtroom discussing details of an event I had no stock in with the film as a whole, and if your narrative has that effect on even just one person, well.. that’s a problem. Perhaps the novel is different but I’m not really sure what they were going for here in the film, from both an editing and story focus standpoint. I left with an admiration for the technique used, the photography and atmosphere achieved is something to be proud of, as is the romantic angle. Everything else left me as cold as that falling snow.

-Nate Hill

Flashpoint

What do corrupt Texas border guards, missing cash, a Kennedy assassination conspiracy, buried bones and a long derelict crashed Jeep in the desert have in common? Check out Flashpoint to find out, a dusty, forgotten old 80’s thriller with a dope cast, diabolical story and one kicker of a score by Tangerine Dream that only makes the vast desert of the Southwest seem more eerie, and the dirty deeds done under its sun seem dirtier. Treat Williams is the cocky young hotshot patrolman, Kris Kristofferson his salty superior, and after the discovery of the Jeep and it’s dangerous cargo, they’re embroiled in a scary attempted coverup that includes murder, lies and a careful political smokescreen. It doesn’t help that a greedy fellow colleague (Miguel Ferrer) sets his sights on the cash too, heralding the arrival of Kurtwood Smith’s Carson, a pragmatically evil Fed with big plans for anyone who knows about the discovery. Throw Kevin Conway, Jean Smart, Guy Boyd, Tess Harper, plus Rip Torn as a local sheriff and you’ve got a diamond of a cast. Kristofferson is great as the wily veteran who knows a cautionary tale in the making when he sees it, but Smith steals the show and is downright scary as the worst type of guy to be in that position of power, who isn’t even above arguing the twisted morality of his job. This film is as lost to the sands of time as that Jeep sitting out there in the middle of nowhere, but like the Jeep its waiting to be rediscovered. A powerful morality play, a taut thriller with a killer good script and one certified forgotten gem.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

After a sort of slow opening act, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky becomes a sweet, funny, raucous, touching and unexpected film, the most enjoyable thing he’s made after a series of dead serious dramas. Kind of like Ocean’s Eleven for the Monster Truck crowd, this is popcorn fare with brains, but it’s not afraid to get loopy and mess around in the sandbox either in terms of comedy and characterization, especially that of Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang, the world’s most aloof safecracker. Joe’s help is needed when brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver) Logan take it upon themselves to stage a heist during NASCAR mania when times of financial woe befall them. Jimmy is laid back and affable, Clyde is old school idiosyncratic to the point of hysterics and their dynamic is something hilarious. Throw in Joe with a Bang and the thing takes off, once the gears of the plot start grinding, mind you. Like I said, the opening dilly dallys a tad. Despite being a screwball comedy of sorts, this never goes too far off the rails into, say, Cannonball Run territory and never feels *too* light or inconsequential. Soderbergh is an alchemist in complete control of every element and this thing unfolds deliberately, intricately and always playfully. Surrounding them is a delightfully eclectic supporting cast including Seth McFarlane, Riley Keogh, Katie Holmes, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Katherine Waterson, Macon Blair, Sebastian Stan and Dwight Yoakam as a breezy Prison Warden. The heist is a blast, full of screw ups, diversions and delirious suspense as these ill prepared, lovably hapless goofs try to do right by their families and each other. Craig must be broken out of jail where he’s “in-car-cer-ated” for the duration of the job and then stealthily returned once the mission is accomplished, and Jimmy has to be done with it all in time for a beauty pageant that his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie, wonderful) is appearing in. It’s fairly random but it just somehow works, from left field character choices to specifically nutty set pieces to third act twists that come out of nowhere. Just when you think you can relax, a federal agent (Hilary Swank in full shark mode) shows up to stir the pot again. The film ends on a narrative cliffhanger and with perhaps one of the best and most enticing zoom-out shots I’ve ever seen that had me both wishing for a sequel and wanting the magic to remain bottled just there at that perfect penultimate moment. Great film.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy

Drew Barrymore has a few interesting, edgy credits early on in her career, one of which is Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy, a lurid little slice of run down, rural life on the outskirts of the big city, as well as civilization it seems. A ‘lovers on the run’ riff in the tradition of Bonnie & Clyde, True Romance and Natural Born Killer, it’s admittedly like the Miller Lite version of large scale films like them but still manages to pack somewhat of an offbeat punch. Barrymore is Anita, a restless adolescent whose humdrum existence in a dead end California town has led to promiscuous behaviour and self destructive tendencies, especially when her convict pen pal boyfriend (James LeGros) is released and joins her for some hell raising. She has a stepfather who’s abusive to her in a way that seems unnervingly normalized to the both of them, high school classmates who are nothing but trouble and a life that most would consider squarely placed on the wrong side of the tracks. The story sees the two of them pretty much fed up with everything, engaging in a murder spree that just won’t end well. It’s not too hot blooded or hyper violent though and there is nothing sadistic in what they do, in fact there’s an innate innocence to the way they view life, their crimes and morality in general, or lack thereof. Barrymore has always had star-power since day one, but she shows a maturity here as she gets older and a complex control over a role that could have been cartoonish. LeGros is an indie poster child and is so prolific he’s probably been in ten or twenty things you’ve seen but just didn’t spit him, he’s a straight up chameleon and does a good job here too. Michael Ironside shows up as his jaded parole officer and the great Billy Drago is cast rarely against type as the town’s local preacher who doubles as both a mechanic and a snake charmer, it’s a bear bit of character work from him and I always enjoy his performances. This film got really good reviews when it came out and caused a minor stir in indie land, which is interesting because I don’t find it all that noteworthy. Usually I’m that guy to champion garbage films based on a few aspects because I love obscure stuff, but this one is kind of your run of the mill cheapie made decent by Barrymore’s charisma. Good score too.

-Nate Hill

Renny Harlin’s Prison

Before Lord Of The Rings shot him into the stardom we know today, Viggo Mortensen had one oddball of a career leading up to it. Between playing the Devil, appearing in one of the more bizarre Texas Chainsaw sequels and training Demi Moore to be the first female Navy Seal he did Renny Harlin’s Prison, a little known, low budget horror flick that’s actually quite a lot of fun. A slick, schlocky hybrid between classic grassroots prison films and effects heavy gore of the 80’s, it sees an ancient precinct becoming haunted by the ghost of a long dead inmate who got the chair, perhaps wrongfully. The Warden (Lane Smith) is an angry old prick whose demons are coming back full force and he’s taking it out on the convicts big time. Mortensen is Burke, a mysterious con with integrity and grit who helps out when he can doesn’t stand for the warden’s bullshit. Chelsea Field is a prison board member who gets swept up in the whole thing and watch for Tom Everett, Kane Hodder, Lincoln Kilpatrick and Tiny Lister too. Smith plays the Warden not as so many have done like an outright sadistic villain, more a severely stressed out career man who has turned ugly overtime and started to project his frustrations in the most damaging ways, given his position of power. This is very low budget stuff and it shows, but there are still some striking set pieces including a solitary cell that heats up like a red hot furnace and fries those inside gruesomely and a string of barbed wire that comes to live and wreaks all kinds of havoc. Harlin made his debut here and it’s a strong one, he makes exciting decisions with the actors and handles the horror excellently. I could have used a tad more backstory on Mortensen’s character as some more exposition regarding the ghost convict, but other than that this is a blast.

-Nate Hill

Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching

For a film that’s confined to the visual format of social media screens, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is one dynamic thriller with suspense, momentum and twists that blindside you. The premise is simple: David Kim’s (John Cho) daughter is missing. She hasn’t answered his calls, texts or FaceTime and communication from her end has gone dead. He now has to break into her laptop, scour through apps, feeds and chat rooms to gain clues about her whereabouts, with the help of an intrepid Detective (Debra Messing). Every frame of this film is some sort of technological facet, from chat alerts to messages to candid footage to news updates to webcasts and more, and against all odds it really, really works. When you’re restricted by format to that level you have to make every inch of your story count, and Chaganty has produced a winner. Right off the bat we are introduced to a family history via stored footage that has us caring for both David and his daughter immensely, before she even goes missing. Cho’s performance is panicked, desperate everything a father in that situation should reflect. The suspense is brilliantly placed and as the story rounds each new curve and doles out a few well earned wow moments, it remains unpredictable and aside from a few minor quibbles and one eye-roll of a red herring, believable as well. I’d love to see this continue into an anthology of sorts, with more mysteries and thrillers told from the perspective of technology/social media. It rules many aspects of our lives and is present wherever we go, whatever we do and I’m fascinated by how they have integrated it into the medium of cinema here. Great film.

-Nate Hill