Tag Archives: Paul Dano

Mind At War: Nate’s Top Ten Films on Mental Illness

The subject of mental illness is one that’s close and important to me as I myself am one of the afflicted, and it’s impossible to ignore that the treatment of it by Hollywood, particularly in formative years, hasn’t been so apt. Don’t get me wrong, I love stuff like Me, Myself & Irene or Split as entertainment but in terms of accurately representing the conditions that beset human beings, they haven’t been so hot. There are those films and filmmakers out there that strive to educate and enlighten or even just to craft an effective thriller or comedy and still stay true to real life, doing important work for the collective awareness and making terrific art/entertainment in one shot. Here are my personal top ten favourites!

10. Geoffrey Sax’s Frankie & Alice

Multiple personality disorders are popular in Hollywood but there’s a tendency to mock, sensationalize or tell a ‘real life’ story that’s later proved as fraud. This one showcases Halle Berry in a galvanizing dual performance as a go-go dancer afflicted by two very different internal identities and finding her life in splinters as a result. When a kind, compassionate psychiatrist (Stellan Skarsgard) makes it his mission to help her get back on track it becomes apparent just how challenging and horrific it must be to endure such a thing.

9. Dito Montiel’s Man Down

I heard this one sold one single theatrical ticket in the UK and didn’t fare much better here, getting squeaked into a quiet streaming release. It’s too bad because it is one haunting drama about PTSD featuring an implosive, incredibly intense performance from Shia LaBeouf as an ex marine who can’t psychologically reconcile his experience and is lost amongst his own trauma. Terrific work from Kate Mara as his wife and Gary Oldman as an army counsellor too.

8. James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted

Likely the most accessible and mainstream story on this list, Mangold’s look at a mental care facility for girls in the 60’s gets a superficial rep in some circles but I find it to be every bit the rewarding drama, ensemble piece and explorative journey that those who champion it say. Winona Ryder plays a wayward girl whose self destructive behaviour lands her there but it’s Angelina Jolie as a fellow patient diagnosed with borderline personality disorder that both anchors the film and provides it with a wildly unpredictable streak.

7. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island

This is of course a big old elaborate mystery film with a gigantic cast, many red herrings, tons of subplots and all kinds of stylistic fanfare. But if you look past all that there’s a harrowing and very realistic portrait of minds irreparably damaged, between Leo Dicaprio’s PTSD afflicted ex soldier and Michelle Williams in a haunting turn as his deeply sick wife. The film overall is a tantalizing guessing game and broadly covers the thriller board but the final act brings it right down to earth for a grounded, grim finale showcasing the brutal honesty of these illnesses and the heart wrenching tragedy they beget.

6. Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as Parry, a once successful professor of medieval history who lost his mind following the death of his wife and now wanders the streets of NYC, homeless. Jeff Bridges is the radio DJ who befriends and tries to understand him and their relationship carries the film. So to does Gilliam’s knack for surreal visual storytelling, letting these fantastical creations run wild and giving us a glimpse into Parry’s damaged but fascinating mind.

5. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist

Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik hasn’t slept in a year. Guilt, extreme weight loss and delusions are just the start of his problems. This is billed as and feels like a thriller but I think that’s deliberate on director Anderson’s part to put us in the hot seat next to Trevor, to make us feel the same paranoia and delusions of persecution he does. The atmosphere here is almost suffocating, the score a muted tangle of busted nerves and Bale’s performance something just this side of unearthly. When it all comes together and we see why he is the way he is it’s deeply sad but makes a kind of terrible sense and gives the film a final stab of emotional weight.

4. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace

PTSD is only vaguely hinted at in this beautiful father daughter drama but it’s there in every frame, in every mannerism of Ben Fosters masterful performance. Him and newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie achingly display a family dynamic that has been set off balance by his illness, and the wedge it has driven both between them and between him and ever living a normal life again. This is a restrained yet heartbreaking film that gently unpacks its themes with kindness and compassion, letting a devastating final scene bring the whole point home heavily but somehow lightly in the same note.

3. David Cronenberg’s Spider

Ralph Fiennes give a focused, intense turn as the titular individual, a man released from a mental care facility and relegated to a London halfway house where all the scrambled and tumultuous memories of his past come tumbling down through the scattered web of his broken mind and into the present. Recollections of his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson) are somehow shrouded from himself, by himself and as he tirelessly works to regain his sanity, he slips further away from it. Cronenberg uses shadows, dimly lit alleys and creaky, barren rooms to show how this character has been cast away from his own perception and wanders about like a lost soul.

2. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

The life and times of Beach Boys pioneer Brian Wilson are explored here, namely at two important junctures in his life. Paul Dano plays him younger, at the height of fame and success but poised on the cusp of a psychotic breakdown after stress and an unhealthy relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) reach a fever pitch. Decades later John Cusack embodies a much older Wilson, stuck under the tyrannical yoke of an evil, manipulative psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) until he meets the love of his life (Elizabeth Banks) and a chance at a fresh start along with her. The scene of Dano putting recording headphones over his ears and closing his eyes in horror as he hears voices is one of the most brutally honest and realistic depictions of auditory hallucinations you can find in film. Wilson had a rough life and the film makes that very clear but it’s never ever sensationalist or exploitive and overall has a message about love, light and working endlessly to overcome any demons or struggles thrown into your path.

1. Kasi Lemmons’ The Caveman’s Valentine

Samuel L. Jackson gives a career best as schizophrenic former musician Romulus, a man afflicted by terrible hallucinations and delusions to the point that when he discovers a genuine murder conspiracy no one, including his police officer daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) believes him. This film is driven by a fascinating mystery narrative that takes Romulus from his cave in Central Park into the pretentious New York art world and beyond to find a killer. At heart though director Lemmons let’s it m be a serious minded exploration of what it must be like to live like that, to be constantly sabotaged by your own mind. Jackson’s brilliant performance and Lemmons effective use of surreal, mesmerizing imagery give us a compassionate, dynamic window into this man’s mind and in turn a unique, thought provoking piece of cinema.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more content!

-Nate Hill

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PRISONERS (2013)

“If goodness is order, evil must be disorder, the straight path or the maze…” – Eugene Ionesco

In 2013, when the oh so talented French-Canadian film director, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival, etc) paired with the triple BAFTA and long awaited Oscar winning cinematographer, Roger Deakins (EVERYTHING) for Prisoners, a cinematic masterpiece was born. I can only imagine how Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband, Papillon) must’ve felt knowing his script had fallen into the hands of greatness. And can we talk about that hypnotic score by none other than the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, Mandy) that’s been playing on a loop as I write this??

I, for one, am a BIG fan of movie violence and Prisoners doesn’t shy away from delivering a heavy dose of it. However, with its consistent tone, it is only violent when it needs to be and delivers it with realism. The outbursts of rage burgeon from Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) as he finds himself lost within his own mental labyrinth between morality and retribution. A man who will stop at nothing to find answers about his missing daughter, even if it means ruthlessly torturing Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a suspect released due to the fact that he has the IQ of a 10 year old boy and yet seemingly still knows pertinent information about the case.

They didn’t cry until I left them” – Alex Jones

Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) personifies what’s at stake for Keller in relation to his deeper conscience. As Franklin remains true to his wife and stands by his family, we see Keller start to lose grip with reality, drifting further away from his family through drinking and becoming more focused on his new….um….extracurricular activity.

No light gets in, barely enough
room to sit down inside.
The shower still works, but we
control it from out here. I
rigged the water heater, so it
either comes out scalding or
freezing.
– Keller Dover

And then let’s talk about Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). One of Gyllenhaal’s best performances, in my opinion...but what’s with that blue shirt buttoned all the way up throughout the whole movie??

His daunting angst is made visually apparent by a nervous tick and cold exterior especially when given the case of the two missing girls. His steadfast level of professionalism is tested when dealing with the grief-stricken, emotionally deranged Keller. Loki seems to internalize everything, which makes his few emotional outbursts all the more unsettling. His obsession with this particular case makes him briefly question his own sanity but he eventually succeeds at piecing together this tumultuous puzzle.

In closing, I give this film a ten out of ten and if you haven’t seen it yet then I highly recommend you set aside two and half hours of your life to do so. I absolutely adore these types of hard boiled movies and greatly appreciate this type of material. Why not create more films at this caliber instead of the onslaught of sequels, trilogies, and remakes upon remakes?? If I see another Disney cartoon made into a live action movie my nightly bloodlust will overflow into my days. I’ll feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip….

From the incredible cinematography, to the masterful direction and captivating performances, Prisoners will forever be one of my top film picks.

DJ Caruso’s Taking Lives

Angelina Jolie as a cop hunting down a ruthless serial killer who uses especially grisly methods is a great premise for a film, but you may as well skip DJ Caruso’s Taking Lives and just go revisit Phillip Noyce’s The Bone Collector, a great film that did the concept way better. Lives is a poor excuse for thriller material, a drab, dank and musty slog through a narrative that doesn’t seem to give two shits about its characters and frequently makes little to no sense, not to mention fails heavily at holding interest. Jolie plays a hotshot FBI profiler who is consulted by French Canadian police when their efforts to nab an elusive murderer fail. This is a guy you never really see because every time he kills, he takes on the identity of the victim, blending in and leaving few clues. Jolie searches back through records from decades ago and tried to piece together this guy’s past to find him, but he himself has noticed her and taken an interest. This all sounds terrific on paper but the film they’ve made is a messy, overwrought lump, like a particularly bloody episode of criminal minds without the ‘mind’ part to give the criminal activity any weight. Jolie is joined by Ethan Hawke as a colleague as well as Olivier Martinez, Gena Rowlands, Tcheky Karyo, Paul Dano, Justin Chatwin and more, but none make a huge impression. Kiefer Sutherland shows up as a nasty piece of work who is so obviously a red herring it hurts to see his painfully limited arc come and go like a breeze. Don’t even get me started on the final twist either because it’s too ridiculous. This has the grungy, incisive visual aesthetic of David Fincher’s Sev7n but with none of the pace, doom laden atmosphere or brains to back it up. The only cool thing is the title, which of course refers to the killer’s penchant for both murdering and assuming the lives of those he targets. Neat premise, wicked title, dope cast… shit awful film.

-Nate Hill

James Mangold’s Knight & Day

Both Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz can carry a film nicely on their own, but both of them front and centre in the same project makes for a great time, even if it is a piece of inconsequential fluff like James Mangold’s Knight & Day, a riff on the romantic action spy comedy that sees the two of them shooting their way across the globe before inevitably ending up in each other’s arms. This film looks, feels and sounds like a million others out there, it’s brightly lit, generically shot and doesn’t have much in the way of its own brand of style or atmosphere. What sets it apart are Tom and Cameron, who breathe life into the two roles and provide their own lighting with those famous smiles. He’s Roy Miller, a slightly aloof super spy on the run from both his former bosses (Viola Davis and Peter Sarsgaard, both meaning business) and a nasty Latin arms dealer (Jordi Molla). She’s June Havens, a bubbly rare auto restorer who bumps into him in the airport and gets swept up in a frenzied world of intrigue, murder, car chases, dodgy feds, international escapism and all the Miller Lite PG-13 gunplay the MPAA can shake a stick at. There’s a freeway pileup in Boston, a rowdy hand to hand beatdown aboard a plane that Cruise is forced to land in a cornfield, a motorbike chase in Madrid, and (my favourite) a close quarters knife fight on a train through the Austrian Alps. It’s all fun and games without much of a brain in its head, but the idea is to have a good time anyways. Cruise plays it slightly loopy here, as if decades of stressful spy work has left him… not quite all there. Best line of the film? “Nobody move or I’ll kill myself and then her!” He barks to a diner full of people as he drags her off to another action sequence. Diaz is game for it and keeps up with him, especially once she starts to get a feel for the fast and loose lifestyle. The film doesn’t make too much of an impression and I wish it had more of an organic vibe all its own to match what the two stars bring to the table, because as is the overall visual aesthetic is a bit bland, and over-lit. Cruise and Diaz make it worthwhile though, and are clearly having a blast. It just occurred to me, but where did that title even come from?

-Nate Hill

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners

Dark. Rainy. Uneasy. Covered in a cloak of gloom, gruesome secrets and morally questionable actions. Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is one of the premier kidnapping thrillers of recent years, and a mile marker in the still blossoming career of a man who will no doubt go on to be a legend. Many thrillers are lacking in some elements while excel in others, but here every base is covered with care and attention, from style to substance to pacing to realism to thematic material. When a couple’s daughter goes missing without a trace on a quiet suburban block, the distraught father (Hugh Jackman) tries to take matters into his own hands with disastrous and damaging results. When you factor in how long the case drags without clues, results or hope it’s kind of hard to blame him for taking action of his own volition, but when he abducts a mentally challenged man (Paul Dano) who was seen skulking around in a creepy RV the day of the incident, he crosses the line from righteous investigator to dangerous vigilante. Jake Gyllenhaal and his snazzy hairstyle are great as a rugged detective who just can’t seem to get a grasp on what happened but doesn’t quit anyway. Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Wayne Duvall, Viola Davis, Dylan Minette and more make vivid impressions, but it’s the consistently surprising and always dynamic Melissa Leo who steals the show and galvanizes the story with her chilling work. Roger Deakins is a prince among DoP’s and his rain streaked, utterly bleak visual mood-scape here is something to behold, the overcast weather seeps into the bones of these characters and brings out all the confusion and hopelessness of this grim, downbeat story. This is a detailed, difficult tale that does have an answer by the time the final act rolls around, and by that time we’re so so steeped in the quagmires of Jackman’s extreme actions that the further the trip goes into unpleasantness, the more eerily fitting it seems. It’s a dark, relentless trip but thanks to everyone involved and especially Villeneuve’s assured direction, it’s one worth taking.

-Nate Hill

Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

I’m not what’d you’d call a Beach Boys fanatic other than loving their most recognizable hits since I’ve listened to music, but Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy tells a story that just needs to be told and could grip anyone with its love, suffering, perseverance and genius, genius in the form of the band’s troubled but brilliant lead singer Brian Wilson, played here in a duo of encore performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack, both giving what may be the finest work of their careers. For those who are unaware (like myself before watching this), Wilson suffered a lengthy psychotic break that ran alongside a good portion of his career, brought on by many things including stress, fame and the ongoing psychological/physical abuse from his father (Bill Camp here), who did double duties as the group’s manager. Getting fully acquainted with rock bottom and finding himself alone later on in life, he was thrown from the frying pan into the fire when he went under the care of unconventional, deranged psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti, terrifying), and found himself victim not only to his own demons, but a new external one trying to take advantage of him. By chance he met kind Cadillac salesgirl Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the two seem to have fallen in love almost instantly, and it took her kindness, patience and determination to save him from almost certain death in Landry’s nefarious hands. I’m going on the assumption that what we see here in the film is as close to the true story as possible, because the events are too specific and jarring to have been made up. Early scenes show Dano as a young, vibrant Wilson, hard at work on an experimental opus project that would eventually drive somewhat of a wedge between him and his band mates. The later segments with Cusack, interspersed via meticulous editing, are both a love story and a horror story, as we witness Melinda and him fall for each other, while lecherous Landy does everything he can to keep them apart. Giamatti plays the guy full tilt crazy, a dangerously obsessed scumbag whose actions are so damaging to Wilson that you want to cave his head in with a rock. Cusack is wonderful, putting quiet soul into the work and keeping the heartbreak and hurt of his former years on a dimmer so we don’t forget, but see a new, brave soul try to rise from the ashes. If this might be their best work, it’s certainly the case for Banks, I’ve never felt more connected to a piece of her work. She’s attentive, playful, compassionate and low key brilliant as Melinda, Brian’s rock, guardian angel and eventual love of his life. There are gaps in the story, as many of the no doubt horrific times are either left to our imagination or only suggested at, but that gives this unbelievable, all too true story all the more power. It’s inspiring, to see someone go through all that heartache and strife and come out of it still kicking. It’s also one of the most intelligent and empathetic movies to address the subject of mental illness in some time, using a compassionate, frankly implemented lens to tell Brian’s story and illustrate his complicated condition. Along with the obvious inclusion of many Beach Boys hits, some mid-composition, there’s a gorgeous original score by Atticus Ross that accents the emotional scenes between Brian and Melinda perfectly. One for the biopic books, and a story worth taking the time to listen to.

-Nate Hill

Playing Cowboys and Aliens: An Interview with Scott Mitchell Rosenberg by Kent Hill

 

The dreams we have when we are children don’t often materialize into reality. We make-believe we are the heroes of the books, comic books, films that we hold dear. They inspire us to move forward; to go on and build new worlds. We stand on the shoulders of those giants so that we might become gods – the creators of fantastic realms and legendary heroes. That flame we carry within us during those early years, often falls prey to the winds of change. It is ever whipping across the fabric of our dreams, trying to collapse that once impenetrable shield of our imaginations.

 

Now, there are many who simply let that flame flicker in the wind until it finally sputters out. They put aside childhood wonder and move on. But, then there is the few, the happy few, the small band of us that for whom such a notion is not only unacceptable, but impossible. Our dreams are that which fuels us. Our dreams are our lives. Scott Mitchell Rosenberg is one of these dreamers. His childhood games of cowboys and aliens have become so much more than fun and plastic ray-guns. He told me he ‘stumbled’ into the movie business, and the journey to bring Cowboys & Aliens to the big screen was not unlike pushing a boulder up a hill using only your nose.

 

Lucky for us his nose held up, otherwise he might not have been there for the gathering of such illustrious talent, both in front and behind the camera, that would merge to bring Scott’s graphic novel creation to life. With the likes of Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Steven Spielberg, Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof and John Favreau, it makes me think of the fabled Dream Team of ’92 that boasted Jordan, Bird and Magic. Combine those ingredients with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the new Bond (Daniel Craig) – along with an impressive supporting cast which featured Dano, Brown, Carradine, Rockwell and Wilde – the live-action treatment Cowboys & Aliens would receive is something of a marvel.

 

I told Scott that my initial viewing had been sullied by a bad day, but subsequently I was able to go back and re-watch it with fresh eyes. I admit that I prefer the extended cut to the theatrical release, but really,  when you break it down, I just really love Cowboys & Aliens and have done so since I read the comic when it first came out. It was a real thrill to finally sit down and chat with its creator, a great gentleman and I feel in some ways a kindred ‘creative’ spirit. For this movie speaks to those out there that of course (A), love a really cool movie but also (B), those creative few, those happy few, that band of dreamers still reaching for the stars. Let the journey of Scott Rosenberg be an example to you. Don’t quit, toughen up your nose and give that boulder hell!

Enjoy…