Dark Places (2015)

Any fans of deep southern gothic potboilers with shamelessly lurid trappings, hectic, labyrinthine mysteries spanning decades acted wonderfully by a massive cast of character versions both old and young should greatly appreciate Dark Places as much as I did. It’s based on a book by Gillian Flynn who also penned the source material for David Fincher’s Gone Girl but for me this was a much, much stronger and more rewarding film. Fincher approached the material with his custom clinical, cynical tunnel vision detachment and meticulously calibrated style while director Gilles Paquet-Brenn adopts a much more sprawling, scattered, rough around the edges vernacular that is more narratively oblong and hazy yet no less compelling and even throws in the faintest glimmer of humanity. Charlize Theron is excellent as ever as Libby, the lone survivor of a farmhouse massacre that left her entire family dead when she was a kid, the killer never found and her left wandering as a broken adult trying to cope. The film intersperses dense, overlapping flashbacks to her difficult childhood life, a troubled brother (Tye Sheridan and Corey Stoll in present day scenes) who was ultimately blamed for the crimes, a desperate mother (Christina Hendricks) and aggressive deadbeat father (Sean Bridgers) who all may have had some hand in the events, although nothing is made clear until you are well beyond neck deep in this tragic, increasingly bizarre small town family saga. Chloe Grace Moretz gives a terrifically creepy performance as her brother’s unstable, untrustworthy teen girlfriend and there’s lots of solid supporting work from great folks like Glenn Moreshower, Andrea Roth, Jeff Chase, Laura Cayouette and Drea de Matteo as a shady stripper with ties to Libby’s past. You know this is a film for true crime fans (even if the story itself is fictitious) when a subplot literally features a club of true crime aficionados led by a twitchy Nicholas Hoult who reach out to Libby in attempts to help her bring the case to a close. There is a *lot* going on in this film, and while not all of it gels into an ultimately cohesive tapestry, the resulting patchwork quilt is beautifully scrappy, full of jagged loose threads and is just an awesome, inky black, deliberately overcooked, chokingly sleazy pit of depravity, hidden half truths, deplorable human beings and even some very well buried pathos that sneaks up out of the slime to surprise you in the back end of the final act. Theron anchors it with her haunted, pensive aura as a fiercely guarded woman who is likely a lot more vulnerable and damaged than she’d care to admit, and the messy, bloody trajectory she must descend down to solve an infamous murder she was unwittingly at the centre of. Absolutely great film.

-Nate Hill

Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead

I miss the days in the 90’s or so when big budget, star studded thrillers dominated the summer and they’d often have slightly outrageous yet totally exciting high concepts that melded different elements into one palette. Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead is a terrific example of this and a banger of a film, the exact type of summer popcorn escapism I miss having around a lot. Angelina Jolie plays an ex wildfire fighter/smoke jumper with PTSD after a mission gone horribly wrong, now relegated to fire-watch atop a lonely tower and occasionally getting arrested by the local sheriff (Jon Bernthal) for doing insane daredevil stunts just to keep the pain at bay. One day a kid runs into her region of Montana forest trying to escape two psychotic contract killers (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) who have chased him and his dad (Jake Weber) in there from the city, for dark reasons that are, wisely, only hinted at. It’s up to a haunted Jolie to protect this kid at all costs with the help of Bernthal’s badass lawman, his equally badass and very pregnant wife (Medina Senghore) and some of her former smoke jumping crew, but will it be enough to stop these incredibly heinous assassins? I’m not even kidding either, these two are literal cold blooded monsters who aren’t above blowing up houses with families in them, killing pregnant women and kids and even deliberately starting a wildfire that torches half a valley just to smoke out their prey. “I hate this place” growls an unreasonably sinister Gillen (if you thought he was slimy in Game Of Thrones, well…), to which another character replies “it hates you back” in trademark pulpy yet elemental Taylor Sheridan writing fashion. Jolie is stunning here and I wish she’d headline more films these days, she captures the flint-spark resilience and crushing vulnerability of her character beautifully in a top shelf performance. The sweeping Montana cinematography is gorgeous and threatening in equal parts, the violence and action vicious and unrelenting, as is the very effective suspense. I see that this has gotten lukewarm reactions almost all across the board and I’m really not sure what film most people were watching; this is the kind of blockbuster stuff I live for and miss greatly these days. It’s bombastic, grandly drawn, hearty genre meal material that’s exciting, tightly written, unforgivingly brutal and solidly directed. One of the best so far this year, I’m my books.

-Nate Hill

Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man

It’s always nice when a film as bizarre, unconventional and downbeat as Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man gets approved by the big studio system, but the flip side of that is that when it inevitably gets a wide release and considerable marketing, score of reviewers and audiences are going to talk shit about it because it’s ‘different’ and ‘depressing.’ It is definitely those two things, but it’s also a painfully funny, insightful piece with fantastic work from Nicolas Cage, brilliantly placed dark humour, the briefest glimpses of pathos and an offbeat indie pulse. Cage is Chicago TV weatherman Dave Spritz, a guy whose swanky six figure salary and cakewalk career hide a disturbed, dysfunctional family life and a deep, cultivated self loathing that Cage pours out from every anguished glance and hangdog piece of inner monologue. His ex wife (Hope Davis) can’t stand him, his kids (Nicholas Hoult in an early career turn and Gemmenne De Le Pena, a great find) have a laundry list of their own issues and their interaction with him is strained for starters, while his Pulitzer Prize winning author dad (Michael Caine trying an American accent on for size and kind of struggling with it) frequently points out his shortcomings with measured acidity (“You don’t even have a degree in meteorology”). In short, his life has become one big absurdist joke punctuated by awkward altercations, passive aggressive jabs, misdirected anger, frequent instances of fast food being thrown at him by angry passersby and an overall blanket of deadly hilarious, glumly enlightening moodiness that you can’t decide whether to laugh or cry about. So who would want to watch a major movie filled with such rampant, cheekily deliberate unpleasantness? I would, and I for one totally loved this film for what it is. You could say it’s an acquired taste or you have to ‘get it’ or whatever smug, flavour of the month platitude that well travelled cinephiles like myself are peddling this week, but the plain truth of it is that not every Hollywood film can be a traditional ‘Hollywood’ film and there has to be room for off killer, weirdly staged stuff like this or the recipe is just too boring. Roger Ebert understood that, he gave this a glowing review and made particular mention of how slightly inaccessible stuff like this needs to be given a chance more often. In any case it’s an excellent film thanks to Cage’s reliably hilarious work, he almost seems to have been tailored for this role and you can tell he’s having a blast with every tortured mannerism and inappropriate outburst. I love and appreciate every single film that director Verbinski has made in his eclectic, unpredictable dervish of a career, the guy has done everything from Pirates Of The Caribbean to slapstick period piece to Hammer horror throwback to south of the border romance end even an animated film for adults which you don’t see too often. He always approaches us with something different to offer, and with The Weather Man he’s come up a winner again, I love this sad, self aware, pathetic yet touching portrait of a man adrift in his own inadequacy, his frequent attempts to swim serving as our entertainment, however much we pity or feel for the guy and his oddball family. Great film.

-Nate Hill