John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things

It’s fascinating how human beings crave resolution, airtight narratives, explanation and a clear roadmap of where they’re going at all times, characteristics that that are evident in our creation and consumption of art. Every time a narrative comes along that eerily ducks the expectations of a clean, neatly wrapped and satisfying ending the resulting reaction can be hostile and downright explosive, and some of the reactions to John Lee Hancock’s unconventional cops vs killer thriller The Little Things have been just that. This is a script that was written in the 90’s I’m told, and shelved until it was dusted off for production this year, so naturally we have a measured, paced, atmospheric and story based film that feels not necessarily dated but just a little bit.. “untethered from time’ in a sense, and the effect is mesmerizing. Denzel plays Joe Deacon, a once hotshot homicide detective who lost it all over an obsessive hunt for a serial killer that resulted in divorce, a heart attack and being relegated to county sheriff somewhere far outside LA. When he returns for a simple day trip to evidence swap with colleagues, he swiftly gets pulled into the mystery of another killer operating near the city and teams up with the eager rookie detective (Rami Malek) assigned to the case, much to the concern and unimpressed huff of his former lieutenant (Terry Kinney). Is this the same killer who once drove him to the absolute edge? Is this case related in any way to the tangled web of mysteries from Joe’s past? Who is the impossibly creepy loner (Jared Leto) who taunts them both with very real details from the murders yet always seems to be one step beyond any suspicion or proof of involvement? This is a tantalizing, deliberately opaque jigsaw puzzle with quite a few pieces missing, hidden or otherwise unaccounted for, and the result can be maddening for some, mildly frustrating for others or an outright dealbreaker for those who simply can’t reconcile a story left unfinished. One has to invest laser focused attentiveness and studious detection skills to arrive at the same conclusions alongside our leads and have any idea what just happened, and this is even before the big reveals, or lack thereof. It evokes a genuine sense of mystery and I honestly wish more big Hollywood films had the nerve to pull narrative stunts like this, because it would effectively ween viewers off of the oversimplification, excessive exposition and ravenous need to make sense of everything that permeates North American filmgoing culture. Denzel is terrific here, letting the intensity and introspective obsessiveness his detective no doubt once had simmer on a dim low burn that comes with years of searching for answers to no avail. Malek does his wife eyed nosferatu shtick again, I’ve never been able to really connect with him as an actor but there’s no denying that he has presence, the exact essence and intention of which still eludes me. Leto is undoubtedly spooky as all hell but perhaps falls victim a tad to mannerism and histrionic flexing, yet still does a fine job in a difficult role to pull off. Director Hancock uses some absolutely sensational camera movements to create tension and atmosphere, as we see a lone girl jogging down an unlit side street, an ominous black car slinking in after her and then a slow time-lapse panning shot up over the LA horizon as the sun rises, just purely inspired creativity there. Thomas Newman does excellent music work as always, his score here is a melodic, fretful jangle of electronic rhythms and nocturnal passages that feels like the highway, the sky just before dawn, unanswered questions and decades of dark rumination wrapped up in one transfixing musical chorus. This film won’t be for everyone but I hope it at least imparts the harsh reality that not all stories are neatly wrapped packages of comforting resolution and beat-by-beat bullet points of what you can always expect to find in a serial killer thriller, because how boring would that be, to always and forever be able to predict narrative patterns and never once be surprised, scared or left in the dark? This story isn’t afraid to go to those dark intangible places, and more importantly, isn’t afraid to not return from them. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart

Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart is one of the best, most striking and unique films I have seen in some time for exactly the reasons it might be one of the most frustrating, maddening experience for other viewers. This film is like a Rubik’s Cube except it’s not square, all the pieces are the same colour and they’re all in different time zones. It’s a complex, dreamy, intangible, non-traditional narrative full of idiosyncratic asides, shifting plane storytelling, non linear abstraction and all sorts of brilliant filmmaking wizardry and it cast a spell on me I can’t quite describe in writing. Rami Malek and his perpetually glazed faraway gaze play Buster, a deeply troubled family man who works night shift at a desolate highway motel, the perfect breeding ground for psychological unrest to creep in and do some real damage. What *does* creep in is a mysterious stranger who calls himself The Last Free Man, played by eternally boyish, gnome looking curio DJ Qualls. This guy pays in cash to stay off the grid, raves about impending Y2K and foretells an event called the Inversion, which will forever alter time and space as we know it. Fast forward some years and Buster is a maniacal bearded homeless waif who breaks into empty vacation homes in the Montana mountains and tries to piece together his identity, his past and future to no avail as authorities close in. You can’t really describe this film in terms of plot because it’s not about that, it’s about mood, feeling, disorientation and atmosphere, all of which are my cup of tea over logic and plot structure. Director Sarah Adina Smith is a brilliant artist who uses strange, otherworldly editing techniques, coaxes bizarre, darkly humorous performances from her actors and whips up a world from which there is no cognitive escape for the duration of your stay. The positively extraterrestrial original score by Mister Squinter is amazing too. This isn’t a film to be understood though, it is one to be felt and later deciphered. You know when you wake up from a particularly elaborate and thoroughly profound dream, then you sit there trying to collect pieces of it using conscious thought processes and you simply cannot get them in line because they are not of this world? That’s how I felt immediately after this film, as the experience washed over me and although I knew deep down where it’s essential what this film means, I couldn’t explain it in waking terms or paint that meaning in anything outside subconscious awareness. If you enjoy challenging stuff like the work of David Lynch, Guy Maddin or other artists who successfully employ dream logic in cinema (not an easy thing to do) then you’ll love this enigmatic, indistinct yet achingly specific gem.

-Nate Hill

Gaming with Nate: Larry Fessenden’s Until Dawn for PlayStation 4

Any fans of the classic 80’s slasher aesthetic will appreciate Until Dawn, a complex yet simplistic mystery horror game with some very unique twists on the medium. A group of young friends are in for quite the weekend when they decide to reunite one year after two of their friends disappeared mysteriously on remote, snowy Mount Washington. Ringleader Joshua (Rami Malek before he blew up big time) has a family chalet lodge up there, which is in rough shape with no power, and as they settle in for the night, bicker, hook up and deal with the kind of petty drama you only get at that age, someone else on the mountain starts to stalk and murder them, someone connected to their friends disappearing a year ago. The cool thing here is you don’t play as just one single character, but all of them and there’s at least like six from what I recall. As you rotate through their ranks you make many psychological choices as each character that affect not only your relationship to others, but your shelf life as a member of the team and even how your immediate environment changes over the course of the night. There’s curious talismans to pick up, each associated with a quick audio visual ‘clue clip’ that can be accessed in the menu anytime to decipher the mystery and find out what’s going on. Elsewhere in dreamy vignettes you’re sitting POV style as a mystery character while a very odd psychiatrist (Peter Stormare in full on kooky Peter Stormare mode) probes you for answers, his methods becoming increasingly bizarre with each new cutscene until it becomes apparent he’s probably not anything close to a licensed professional. The game is written and created by horror veteran Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, The Last Winter) so the wintry atmosphere is excellently, eerily done, plus he also plays a character called Flamethrower Guy who factors into the story in ways you might not expect. The visuals are breathtakingly gorgeous, from a stunning, dead quiet gondola ride up the mountain that sets a mood of desolation nicely to almost photorealistic motion capture work on the actors that is impressively lifelike. The technique allows each character to look identical to their respective actors so aside from spitting image versions of Malek and Stormare we get scene stealer Hayden Panetierre too as the tomboy of the group. Evocative setting, strong horror elements in terms of both gore and suspense, intricate innovation in design and gameplay that allows you to play through the game nearly a hundred different ways based on choice and consequence, a haunting rendition of Ralph Stanley’s O Death by Amy Van Roekel over the opening credits, this has a lot going for it and is one of the coolest horror games you can find out there.

-Nate Hill

34th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival Wrap-Up Podcast


Welcome back to our annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival podcast! Tim and Frank recount their experience at this year’s festival. Included in the red carpet interview portion of the podcast is Roger Durling, Rami Malek, Adam McKay, Spike Lee, Viggo Mortensen, Richard E. Grant, Glenn Close, Josh Lucas, John David Washington, and Sam fucking Elliot.

Rami Malek on his life, career, and the elephant in the room


Rami Malek received the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award at the 34th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival this past Friday, and rightly so.  A pedestrian biopic of a beloved rock star is elevated to box office peaks and award season glory by his tender, passionate and commanding performance.  Following a quick red carpet walk, Malek sat down with Hollywood Reporter correspondent Scott Feinberg for a lengthy Q&A covering his life, career and current hit film that may well propel the 36-year-old actor to Oscar gold.  An hour and twenty minutes into a thoroughly charming discussion, Feinberg decided to heat up the room with a headline seeking dip into the seamy waters director Bryan Singer finds himself in.  Framed with a clumsy “I know this will be uncomfortable and I shouldn’t be asking it but we’re doing this anyway” ramble, he brought up a recent article from The Atlantic accusing the filmmaker yet again with years of abusive sexual behavior toward young men and laid the whole mess at the actor’s feet, calmly but clearly demanding clarification from a man who had nothing to do with the problem in the first place.   While Ramek’s response is well worth repeating and will be here, it shouldn’t overshadow the celebration of the many accomplishments that preceded it.

To begin, the actor discussed his unique heritage as an Egyptian American; his mother and father emigrated to the United States from Cairo not long before he and his twin brother were born, hoping their children would become doctors and lawyers as most parents do.  A less than exotic upbringing in Sherman Oaks CA led to an even less exotic sounding theatrical education in Indiana, but Rami’s work ethic carried him all the way to a typical starving actor’s scrape for roles, which led to landing an agent and first screen role on The Gilmore Girls in the same week.  He was off…to typecasting.  9/11 happened and he soon found himself playing Egyptian Pharaohs in kiddie fare alongside glowering Middle Eastern terrorists in any number of paranoid thrillers that boiled his identity down to his ethnicity, and while it made for exposure and a few paychecks he quickly decided it was time to turn down those roles and expand his horizons.  Malek’s fortunes began to change with an audition for Tom Hanks’ HBO series The Pacific.  Despite the intimidation of having Steven Spielberg himself handling camera duties during his initial meeting with the production, Rami nailed down the part of a Cajun soldier and made a lifelong friend of co-star Joseph Mazzello, who presented him with his Santa Barbara award and plays John Deacon in Bohemian Rhapsody.  This role would become a powerful calling card for Malek; he noted that many of his following roles came from the exposure.  One of the highlights of this period was landing a role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; he read for the Joaquin Phoenix role, which he didn’t expect to get, but lobbied the director hard for some part and ultimately ended up playing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son.  Then came Mr. Robot—a title Malek assumed was only temporary but now loves.  He expressed his love for writer-directors and the singular vision they bring to projects, singling out Anderson as well as Sam Esmail, a fellow Egyptian American who the actor noted seems to have clairvoyant powers when it comes to predicting dark societal trends.  Asked about their shared heritage, Rami pointed out they are both dedicated to telling human stories no matter what the backgrounds of the people involved are.

When it came to Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek discussed the importance of deep preparation, since by his own admission he is no singer or dancer.  That spurred him to take extensive lessons on both fronts, which served him well when he arrived on set to discover the first scenes to be shot were the thorough recreation of Queen’s famous Live Aid concert.  Just like with the Spielberg-filmed audition for The Pacific, the actor gathered courage from his experience and dedication to preparation and was pleased with the results.  At this point in the conversation, the moderator decided to lob a curveball and bring up “the elephant in the room,” carrying on at some length on the fall of the X-Men/Usual Suspects auteur and seeking comment.  Rami visibly stiffened at the unexpected turn, but cleared his throat and let loose with an impassioned defense of the many other people responsible for Bohemian Rhapsody’s success and offered heartfelt sympathy for anyone victimized by Singer.  “I’ve sat here and talked about how everyone deserves a voice and anyone who wants to talk about what happened with Bryan deserves to have their voice heard.  In my situation with Bryan, it was not pleasant, not at all. And that’s about what I can say about it at this point.”  The crowd cheered, and despite his claim to be done speaking on the subject, he wasn’t. “For anyone who is seeking any solace in all of this, Bryan Singer was fired. Bryan Singer was fired, I don’t think that was something anyone saw coming but I think that had to happen and it did.”  More cheers as Feinberg, realizing he’d soured the occasion, finished up with a few softballs and then handed the floor over to Mazzello, who warmly embraced his friend and presented him with his award.  Rami thanked the many people who’d helped him arrive at this night, including Feinberg, curtly saying “and what to say about Scott…thank you for your…thorough questions tonight.” Overall it was a delightful evening spent with a rising star in Hollywood, despite the sadly somewhat successful attempt to make it about someone who wasn’t even in the room and won’t be for any Bohemian Rhapsody related awards going forward.