Tag Archives: mystery

HBO’s True Detective: Season 2

So just what was it about season two of HBO’s True Detective that caused such a monumental ruckus of ruthless criticism? Well, who can say. I imagine it had something to do with the dark, difficult and byzantine way that creator Nic Pizzolatto presents the material. Maybe it’s the fact that it had to follow the lightning in a bottle, southern gothic, out of left field mastery of season one. Simply just the shift in tone and setting? I’m reaching for straws here because the hate and rejection that this brilliant piece of television has amassed always flew over my head. This is deep, dark LA noir at its finest, most gorgeously dangerous and I love every challenging, impenetrable episode to bits.

The setting shifts from bayous of Louisiana, the amount of lead characters multiplies significantly and where there was once eerie folk horror and occult conspiracy we now find decadence, corruption most high and a focused, implosive inwardness in exploring each individual the narrative focuses on. Colin Farrell is unbearably intense as LA cop Ray Velcoro, a haunted addict who has fallen from the grace of both the department and his family, but isn’t down for the count quite yet. Vince Vaughn is emblematic of every career criminal trying to go straight as Frank Semyon, a stubborn small time kingpin with dreams of scoring big in California real estate. Rachel McAdams is haunted as Ani Bezzerides, a cop with a tragic past and the deep set trauma to prove it. Taylor Kitsch is Paul Woodrough, a pent up special ops veteran turned state trooper who rounds out this quartet as they’re faced with the kind of miserable, insurmountable odds one always finds in the best kind of film noirs. There’s an unsettling, decades old conspiracy afoot in the fictional yet uneasily realistic county of Vinci, CA, a brooding, festering menace that seems rooted in the now booming transportation system that has taken the economy by storm. Our heroes struggle to fight treachery, debauchery and excess run mad everywhere they turn, for their souls and California’s itself alike as the slogan for promotional material “We get the world we deserve” seems stingingly apparent throughout.

Farrell is my favourite as Velcoro, the anxiety ridden badass who displays the horrors of his past in the manic whites of his eyes and drowns them out with enough booze and blow to feed a city’s collective habit. He’s an antihero type, moonlighting as an enforcer for Vaughn but maintaining a fierce moral compass when all else is naught. Vaughn feasts on the stylized dialogue here and produces verbal poetry so good it hurts and you hit the rewind button just to hear his delivery again. His Frank is a hard, jaded piece of work with a soul hiding beneath the layers of anger and distrust for the world around him. McAdams’s Ani comes from a place of childhood trauma so unthinkable that they barely show it in hushed flashback, and it’s apparent in her caged animal body language, by far the actress’s most affecting work. Kitsch makes the slightest impression of the four and his arc didn’t seem as immediate as the others but he still did a bang up job in intense physicality. After the success of season one a host of excellent actors were drawn to this project, standouts here include David Morse as Ani’s commune leader dad, Kelly Reilly as Frank’s intuitive wife and second in command, Rick Springfield (!) as a shady plastic surgeon, Ritchie Coster as Vinci’s terminally alcoholic mayor, W. Earl Brown, James Frain, Ronny Cox, C.S. Lee, Lolita Davidovitch and the legendary Fred Ward as Ray’s bitterly prophetic ex-cop father.

Pizzolatto spins a very different kind of story here, one composed of long glances, deep shadows, arresting establishing shots of Vinci’s sprawling highway system, as dense and tough to navigate as the season’s central mystery, which isn’t one you get a sense of in just one, two or even three viewings. Impatience and frustration are easy to understand with this narrative, but one shouldn’t write off this piece so easily and I’m sure that’s what happened. A few people don’t have the time to invest in it, get hostile and throw some negative reviews out there and before you know it it becomes cool to hate and there’s folks throwing around words like ‘flawed’ before they’ve attempted a single episode, but that’s the way the internet works I suppose. Balls to them though, this is a deliciously dark, highly stylized, very emotional ride through a world whose themes, intentions and true colours aren’t readily visible until you descend several layers deep alongside these compelling characters. It’s thoughtful, pessimistic yet just hopeful enough to keep a candle lit in all that darkness and has some of the most beautiful acting, camera, dialogue and music work I’ve seen from anything. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

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Robert Benton’s Twilight

The title Twilight obviously brings up bad memories of a franchise we’d all like to forget, but before that abomination ever entered the fold, the moniker belonged to a laconic, brightly lit yet darkly intoned LA film noir starring Paul Newman as an aging Hollywood private investigator. He’s a guy who was was never famous himself but seemingly behind the scenes of stardom and scandal and making a career out of it until his golden years find him living on the lavish estate of a fading starlet (Susan Sarandon) and her husband (Gene Hackman), also an actor of former stature. He’s always been in love with her but is also Hackman’s good buddy and it makes for a love triangle that is never too tense or melodramatic, but just as uncomfortable as it needs to be. He sort of serves as their homefront security officer and sorta just spies on Sarandon languishing by the pool and you can tell that the three of them are just mournful ghosts of what they probably were decades ago, haunting their surroundings like echoes rather than living in them.

Things get heavy for them once again when Newman takes on a shady job that involves delivering blackmail money, a situation that quickly snowballs into deceit, old wounds torn open and, of course, murder most foul. Something nasty is going on that dates years back into the collective past of these three individuals and has come back to bite them all squarely on the ass, and although it might not be the most innovative mystery narrative and certainly aspects are predictable, it’s just so much fun watching these master actors play it out in sunny Hollywood enclaves. Speaking of old pros, James Garner has a nice supporting role as an ex cop pal of Newman’s who helps him out with intel and backup. Watch for early career work from Liev Schreiber, who now stars on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, another LA noir story that I’m almost positive drew inspiration from this film. A very young and very naked Reese Witherspoon also shows up briefly, as well as Stockard Channing, Margo Martindale, Giancarlo Esposito, Jason Clarke, John Spencer, Clint Howard and M. Emmett Walsh. Newman is terrific here in one of his older dude roles, his blue eyes lend just a hint of optimism to the downbeat noir archetype. Hackman and Sarandon say a lot with little dialogue and plenty of body language, embodying damaged souls with grace and grizzle.

I recently heard a character in Amazon’s Goliath (yet another LA noir- can you tell I’ve cultivated a fixation on the sub genre?) say that murders in LA and Hollywood are especially tricky to solve because anybody could know anybody or be connected to anything. That gives ample freedom to intertwine characters and set up strange encounters or resolutions to plot, which is always fun and evident here too. It’s a slow, sunny burn of a crime flick that isn’t designed to be particularly flashy or lurid, but unfolds at its own pace alongside Newman & Co. Good stuff.

-Nate Hill

HBO’s True Detective: Season 3

In season 1 of HBO’s True Detective, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle observed that in a battle between light and dark, it looked to him as if the light appeared to be winning. The spectacular third season has has come to a close and without any spoilers it felt to me like that sentiment has never been more apparent in the series. The first story was a brilliantly existential gothic folk horror show gilded by unsettling conspiracies that went who knows how high up and permeated by the eerie, lived-in grottos of rural Louisiana. The second story was a brilliantly deep, dark, Byzantine labyrinth of California corruption, noir laced nihilism and fatalistic angst. The third story, no less phenomenal, sees a more intimate, emotional tale unfold against the mysterious backdrop of the Arkansas Ozarks, revolving around a crime the mechanizations of which gradually, steadily unfold in ways we both expect and also don’t. There’s a directness and fortitude to the story here where in the past seasons things could be a little more ambiguous and opaque, something I was fascinated by. Every season relies heavily on setting to make the case something you both remember and care about, from the sweaty bayous along the coast to the seedy industrial hum of Vinci. The Ozarks are considerably more picturesque with craggy mountains and thickets of boreal forest, but the atmosphere is no less portentous, the musical cues no less unnerving and the the clues embedded with no less regularity or tact.

One Arkansas evening, young Will and Julie Purcell (Lena McCarthy and Phoenix Elkin) disappear from their neighbourhood while riding bikes, prompting a statewide, decades long search that will go on to greatly affect the lives of everyone involved, especially those of the two lead detectives. Mahershala Ali is a pure sensation as Detective Wayne ‘Purple’ Hays, a haunted yet stalwart Viet Nam vet who can’t let the case go, Ali is a wonder whose eyes, physical mannerisms and tone of voice gravely and soulfully reflect a mystery that has entwined itself into his very essence. Stephen Dorff has been taking it easy for some years now, but casting him as gruff, take-no-shit Detective Roland West has proved a stroke of genius. Dorff has dimension and depth in the role, obstinately turning a somewhat second fiddle character into a complete scene stealer and fleshed out human being who is utterly compelling to watch and listen to. They are surrounded by a pitch perfect supporting cast that all turn in fantastic work. Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer are both knockouts as the parents of the missing children, underrated Carmen Ejogo gives a career best as Wayne’s wife and true crime author Amelia Hays, while captivating turns are observed from Brett Cullen, Michael Greyeyes, John Tenney, Ray Fisher, Steven Williams, Lauren Sweetser, Sarah Gadon and a welcome appearance from the legendary Michael Rooker.

‘Time takes everything but the truth’, we see emblazoned on the posters, something that goes from promotional slogan to sediment truth once we see how the show plays out in the unique fashion of three separate timelines unfolding simultaneously in a rhythmic dance that takes time getting used to but is such a fascinating way to tell this tale. We join our detectives in 1980 as the initial disappearance happens, in 1990 as the seemingly wrapped up case is reopened and again in 2015 when new facts come to light and the mystery approaches a conclusion that’s always just around the corner. Hays suffers from dementia in the third timeline and we see how this has affected his memory of the case, relationship to his family and his own familiarity with a psyche that is slowly fragmenting. Such a scattered trio of narratives could have proved too tough to fluidly impart, but there’s a remarkably steady hand in editing, direction and performance that makes the story as a whole, and each circling chapter really shine and come across clearly. Both time and memory are essential in not just understanding this story, but feeling your way through intuitively, because as Wayne’s mind starts to go, that in a sense is all he can do anymore in some instances. This is in many ways a departure from the two other seasons even though on the surface it appears to be very similar to the first. This i believe is a smokescreen of sorts and by every episode we see a unique story unfold that’s filled with secrets and explores obsession, heartbreak, violence, mental illness, the sad plight of Viet Nam vets, corruption, love, family, friendship and the darkness that ever dwells on the fringes of human society, always just a step outside our brightly lit towns, be it in a ghostly fog filled cave or mysterious grove of trees. A story worth telling, and a story worth hearing. Bring on season four please, I don’t see this hot streak stopping anytime soon.

-Nate Hill

Keith Gordon’s Waking The Dead

Year after year I keep coming back to Keith Gordon’s Waking The Dead, a spellbinding, haunting political romance with supernatural undertones and a dreamlike atmosphere that sustains attentions for the duration of a love story unlike any other. The film is virtually unheard of and fairly hard to find, I feel like it was intended as a much bigger release and meant to gain notoriety for years to come, but one of the studios involved either shut down or went bankrupt and as a result the film has been snowed over and left in obscurity. While somewhat a shame, I kind of like it’s hidden gem status, a buried treasure of a story waiting to be discovered and recommended to new viewers. Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly have never been better as Fielding Pierce and Sarah Williams, two star crossed lovers who couldn’t be cut from more different cloth. He’s an upstanding potential congressman who leans towards conservatism, she’s a fiery activist who champions the downtrodden and wants nothing to do with the system that’s grooming him for power. The film opens with a stab to the heart as he observes news footage of her death in South America, and right away it’s made clear that this will be a fractured, bittersweet romance told out of space and time. There’s always that one girl you can’t let go or shake the memory of, and as he goes about his political campaign sometime in the 80’s, he’s haunted by her memory to the point where he believes he sees her everywhere, like a ghost refusing to rest. Is he projecting his unresolved heartbreak into waking dreams of her? Did she somehow survive after all and has now resurfaced? The film approaches this dilemma in a solemn, slightly ambiguous way, never giving the viewer what they want but somehow feeling satisfactory in the resolution, albeit devastating to the emotions once we become invested. Speaking of that, we get to know them through interspersed flashbacks to the late 60’s as they meet, fall in love and experience their radically different views as obstacles in the relationship. The film posits that no matter how different or from opposite sides of the tracks two people are, if the love is there then it’s simply there, and sometimes not even death can have anything to say about it. Crudup and Connelly are knockouts here in two of the most overlooked performances of the century, playing these two as intelligent, fiercely independent beings who know that finding each other has changed the both of them forever in ways they’ve still yet to experience. They circle each other like two stars and are surrounded by a galaxy of perfectly pitched supporting talent including Janet McTeer as his worried sister, Stanley Anderson as his compassionate father, Paul Hipp as his wayward brother who hopes to gain a green card for his Korean girlfriend (Sandra Oh), Hal Holbrook, John Carroll Lynch, Molly Parker and uh… Ed Harris too, who Skypes in a bafflingly brief cameo. The film opens with Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, closes with Peter Gabriel’s Mercy Streets and is filled to the brim with an elemental original score by TomAndAndy that is at once spooky, unconventional and ethereal. This is one of the ultimate love stories, a tragedy gilded by ghostly implications, anchored by the two brilliant lead performances that inhabit a slightly monochrome, gorgeously black and white-esque visual realm and tell a story for the ages of love found, lost and remembered again. One of the all time ‘best films you’ve never seen’ films and I really hope it gets more traction and love as the years continue.

-Nate Hill

“I am very sure that’s the man who shot me.”: Zodiac 10 years later – by Josh Hains

The idea of offering up a defence for David Fincher’s Zodiac seems rather silly given that ten years later it’s widely regarded as perhaps Fincher’s greatest film, often revered as one of the finer films released over the past decade. We all know it’s great, though admittedly, I didn’t know that for several years.

I avoided Zodiac like it was coated in radioactive slime until 2014. I had heard a great deal of positive things about the movie, and had been greatly intrigued by the marketing behind it, but the knowledge that not only was it was a long, slow paced movie, but also a rather unsettling one too kept me away for so long. When I did finally give it a chance late September 2014, my mind immediately gravitated toward Google, scouring through page after page of information about the investigation in an attempt to better understand the finer details of the case, and come to my own conclusions about who the Zodiac killer may have been. My gut however, felt like I’d eaten a bad take out meal, disturbed, shaken, and stupidly hungry for more. I felt like how I imagined Robert Graysmith felt all those years ago, minus the fear, paranoia, and impending danger of course.

That David Fincher populated Zodiac with such a great cast is a marking of a great director who knows how to compile actors who will treat the characters as individuals and not just caricatures. I find it intriguing and perhaps even ironic, or merely coincidental, that Jake Gyllenhaal starred in last year’s underrated thriller Nocturnal Animals, given that in Zodiac he is essentially one. His Robert Graysmith is a nocturnal animal, an increasingly gaunt, wide eyed mouse sniffing around for a piece of cheese, in this case the next tangible clue or lead worth obsessively investigating. And it’s all thanks to his unshakeable love for puzzles, a factor that helps decode the first Zodiac letter. As he digs deeper into the case, we come to fear for his safety, in particular during a genuinely white knuckling scene in which the unarmed and unimposing Graysmith ventures into the basement of someone we begin to assume might put an abrupt end to Graysmith’s life.

Before the blockbuster splash that was Iron Man in 2008 thundered into the film scene, one could have argued that Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery was the best he’d ever given. An argument can be made that while he was seemingly born to play the billionaire tycoon and saviour of the planet Tony Stark, his best work still resides in the fractured Avery. The deeper the investigation gets the further Avery seems to slip from cool as a cucumber journalist to a paranoid, spineless slob.

Prior to his self induced exile on a houseboat, I got a kick out of the scene where he joins Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) for drinks at a populated watering hole, chugging back those luminous bright blue Aqua Velvas while rambling about the case and their personal lives. There’s a great sense of both humour and humanity in that scene, as Avery lets his guard down and actually engages with someone beyond a superficial relationship, while Graysmith sheds his mouse-like internalized mannerisms in favour of energetic, loud behaviour, though briefly. From this point forward however, Graysmith has a spine, albeit a rather loosely fitting one, and Avery has seemingly lost his, donning “I am not Paul Avery” buttons in the hopes of fending off potential threats. He’d have made a wonderful Doc Sportello.

And of course, there’s San Francisco detective Dave Toschi played with a real sense of respectable authority by Mark Ruffalo. Toschi, an Animal Cracker snacking family man, and the inspiration behind both Steve McQueen’s preferred method of wearing his service revolver in Bullitt, and Dirty Harry’s iconic law breaking detective Harry Callahan, can’t seem to figure out how to put the pieces together in the Zodiac case, understandable in light of the overwhelming amount of contradictory information at hand. Under Fincher’s direction, Ruffalo portrays Toschi as a driven yet logically minded detective. He remains dedicated for years to catching the Zodiac, but lacks the desperation and paranoia Graysmith possesses. Instead, Toschi approaches every aspect of the case with the kind of logical thinking and reasoning every detective should be in possession of, following procedure by the book, and generally doing everything he can to crack the case until the psychological burden becomes far to heavy to bear. You can see how heavy sits in his mind by Ruffalo’s subtle body language in later parts of the movie, and you soon feel sorry for the guy.

Near the end of the film, Graysmith declares “I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.”, desperate to prove that Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch; perfectly unnerving and subtle) is indeed the cold blooded killer. He gets his wish a short time later when he encounters Allen at an Ace Hardware store in Vallejo where Allen works as a clerk. Allen offers his assistance to Graysmith with a polite “Can I help you?”, Graysmith responds with a “No.”, the two men simply staring at one another until Graysmith leaves, Allen thrown off by Graysmith, and Graysmith appearing much more certain that Allens is the man they’re after. The movie moves forward eight years to when Mike Mageau, survivor of the Zodiac killer at the start of the film, meets with authorities to potentially identify the Zodiac killer, positively identifying Arthur Leigh Allen as the man who shot him and killed Darlene Ferrin. While many had their suspicions and some evidence pointed in his direction, Allen died in 1992 before he could be questioned. Not that he would have confessed anyway.

Admittedly, I have intentionally left out many details and characters, with no disrespect intended, and it should be said that every actor involved in this film, from the leading performances to the smallest of cameos (for exmaple, Ione Skye of Say Anything as Kathleen Johns, a woman who was threatened in her car by the Zodiac killer), give world class performances, some even the best of their careers to date. And the script by James Vanderbilt, based on books by Robert Graysmith, is an achievement of impeccable research and respect for the case. And the cinematography  by the late Harris Savides is bar none the greatest work the man had ever crafted, richly capturing everything with immaculate detail, from the lush valleys of California and its busy, inviting cities and streets, to the Aqua Vera drinks, to beams of red light emanating from police cars. He painted a gorgeous picture for us to gawk at for years to come.

Ten years later, I find it astonishing that Zodiac never truly ends like other movies do. Most movies tie up every loose thread with a ribbon to go with it, others leave room for potential sequels. You can’t end a movie when their is no resolution in reality, forcing a tacked on Hollywood ending wouldn’t sit right with anyone in possession of a brain. You can only leave the audience with the next best thing, the assurance of a living Zodiac victim that the man in the picture they’re pointing to is indeed the man who shot him. That Fincher was bold enough to choose this manner of ending his film shows us he’s a director capable of unsettling viewers long after the film ends, without needing to manipulate his audience or present alternative facts. Zodiac is a bona fide masterpiece, the crime film equivalent to All The President’s Men, and just as good too.

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Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock: An appreciation by Nate Hill

  Yesterday I went into HMV, looking for a standard Blu Ray edition of a film I’ve recently seen that has stuck with me since in a way that I can’t quite describe, Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock. The only version they had was a pricy Criterion Blu Ray/Dvd combo which also included the original novel which Weir based his film on. Now normally I’m reluctant with Criterion, as I almost always disagree with the films they pick for their releases. Also..it was expensive as shit. But then I remembered how much it affected me when I first watched it on my humble iPad, and realized that I wanted to have the snazziest output that money could buy, as this is one I’ll be revisiting probably until my years on this rock have run out.   At it’s heart it’s a mystery of the deepest primordial resonance, laced with the burgeoning sexuality of its female lead characters, and ultimately leaving an aftertaste of such yearning, mournful sadness that I had no idea movies were even capable of. Weir sets his story in 1900 Australia, with amusing attempts by the British to tame the near prehistoric nature of the land. Their prim, drawn up customs seem ludicrous and surreal in the face of a wild, abstractly formed landscape that meets their need for order and custom with unimpressed chaos. 

  A group of girls from a nearby boarding school embark on an annual picnic to Hanging Rock, an ominous geological gnarl set in a scorched, unearthly swath of land that evokes the feeling one might get from a partially recalled dream of some far off dimensional plane. For the conservative visitors and the audience alike, the surface of the moon might feel more at home. In a gust of unsettling foreshadowing, several members of their party note that their watches have mysteriously stopped at dead noon. A group of four girls venture forth to explore the upper plateau of the rock, promising their teacher Mademoiselle (radiant, elemental Helen Morse) they’ll be back before tea. Four enter the jagged, awaiting maze; two disappear and are never heard from again. It’s an enigma that shakes the foundations of the boarding school to its core. From stoic headmistress (Rachel Roberts) to a tragically abandoned orphan girl (Margaret Nelson, staggering for a girl who’d had no previous acting experience) no one is quite the same after the incident, almost as if whatever intangible forces responsible for the girl’s disappearance have reached out and deeply disturbed every form of life in its vicinity, the very madness of the continent itself driving these civilized newcomers to the brink of soul shaking distress. In spite of the film’s beauty, there are also moments of sheer horror that rival anything in your garden variety fright flick. The key scene where the girl’s are last scene is fogged over with such a feeling unshakable dread, crafted through sound and editing alone, no actual discernible violence or threat. It’s utter genius and you begin to question why you’ve got hordes of goosebumps from so ambiguous a scene, but you’re left snatching for the same answers to a feeling akin to the sensation of a quickly dissipating nightmare I mentioned above. That’s how powerful the filmmaking is… You are shaken without ever really knowing why or what’s the matter, which is really the concept of a mystery distilled to its purest form.

  What claws at your mind and lingers in the fringes of your awareness long after watching the film is its atmosphere of mounting dread, like knowing for certain the the worst possible type of end is coming for you, yet being utterly unable to articulate exactly what it is. The soundscape is thick with melancholic unease as well, evident in a knockout pan flute solo from Georghe Zamfir, providing a hazy chorus that will stand up the hairs on your arm in its beauty and terror. The scenes at Hanging Rock are lifted straight out of a subconscious place and laid down on the canvas of film with the same exquisite care of pressing flowers, which we see the girls doing early on. Film essentially does this: the painstaking preservation of beauty for countless generations to be pleased, terrified and puzzled by. There’s no better version of this film I’d rather have that with than this one.