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Gela Babluani’s 13

Many directors remake their own films, with varying results. But some foreign made stuff just doesn’t translate well into Hollywood from its more abstract, Euro-centric sensibilities and unfortunately Gela Babluani’s 13 falls victim to that, and hard. You can gloss it up all you want with studio dollars or cast as many heavy hitter actors to pad the lining, but if you do the shot-for-shot thing and ape what you did the first time around, it can just feel weird, awkward and unbecoming. I’ve never seen the original film (also called 13) but I could just simply tell by the structure and tone here that Babluani tried to literally translate his initial piece and the results are just plain bizarre.

This story tells of a super scary underground Russian roulette competition in which handlers enter mentally unstable rejects into an intense round robin of revolvers to the head, with maniacal sports commentator Michael Shannon playing ringmaster and chewing more scenery than he did in The Shape Of Water, which is really saying a lot. Sam Riley, an actor I’ve always greatly admired and seen as underrated, plays a young dude who’s down on his luck and enters this ordeal not fully knowing what he’s up against. The thing here is that several standalone aspects really do work and are interesting, but they’re too episodic and disjointed to pulley the film together into something that makes sense and doesn’t feel cobbled together from used parts. Mickey Rourke is terrific as a jaded ex-con competitor who’s just looking for a way out, but he classes up anything he’s in as a given. Jason Statham plays a posh handler whose fighter (Ray Winstone, also great) is an unhinged lunatic. 50 Cent is also there because I’m pretty sure there’s some clause in low budget genre films where he has to appear in every third one or something (seriously, look at his IMDb). The great Ben Gazzara turns up, obviously wracked with the illness that would end him a few years later, but you’ve gotta hand it to the guy for showing up at all given his condition. Others are around including Alexander Skarsgard, David Zayas, Wayne Duvall and Emmanuelle Chriqui but they’re mostly lost in the shuffle.

The scenes of Russian roulette are intense enough but not too affecting because we don’t give a shart about the characters, apart from perhaps Rourke. This ain’t no Deer Hunter in terms of scenes like that. Your best bet is to check out the original I suppose, which I still have to do. This one has a fantastic cast who are all just tossed to the wind in a flurry of shoddy editing and suspiciously slapdash storytelling. Shame.

-Nate Hill

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Darren Aronofsky’s Noah

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is an odd one, a film that I enjoyed for the fact that it somewhat cuts ties to the biblical tale it bases itself on and does it’s own thing. The style and tone are so out of place and out of time that one could almost imagine this being set sometime far, far in the future instead of the distant past. Aronofsky introduced a very earthy, tactile and nature based aesthetic with his film The Fountain (which is my favourite film ever made), and he explores it further here, with time-lapse photography of plants growing, barren landscapes that suggest either a very young planet earth or a very old one and simple, elemental costumes that could be of both ancient ilk or post apocalyptic fashion. The story is quite literally as old as time, and given new life by a fantastic cast of actors starting with Russell Crowe as Noah, a man jaded by humanity and conflicted by forces beyond his own understanding. Jennifer Connelly, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and others play his family, one of whom knocks up Emma Watson, causing quite the controversy when the almighty creator commands Noah to build that ark before the monsoons come. Anthony Hopkins is the prophet Methuselah, and Ray Winstone’s Tubal Cain a rough hewn archetype of all of our worst qualities as a race. Coolest of all might are Frank Langhella, Mark Margolis, Frank Oz and Nick Nolte as some ancient looking stone golems who are actually angels sent down by the creator to shepherd humans when needed. It’s funny because Nolte is so grizzled and rugged in his old age these days he probably could have just played the role in person instead of voiceover, but as it stands the special effects used to bring them to life are spectacular, a standard that holds throughout the film from landscapes, props, wildlife and general visual mood. Now, I can never get behind Christian films or take them seriously, so it’s a good thing that Aronofsky remains at arm’s length from the religious stuff and takes a more mythological approach to the story in the sense that this could be happening in any world or universe, and isn’t tied down to one theology. Not a perfect film, but the arresting visuals, fantastic cast and overarching message of love and reverence for life in all forms make it something special.

-Nate Hill

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is a dazzling, indisputable success, as both a standalone film and when viewed next to its literary counterpart. It stands as a milestone for me, in the sense that it’s pretty much the only film adaptation of a book that was very special to me growing up to not only do the story justice, but to come out a winner as the best cinematic vision of it possible. It’s a feast for the eyes, ears and spirit, and remarkably, a lot of it plays out exactly how my memories of the book do. Having said that, I would advise avoidance of the sequels, one of which I’ve seen and it put me off going any further. Prince Caspian felt lazy, rushed and cheap, all the mystery and wonder found here was gone, not to mention they fudged up the progression of the series and completely skipped The Horse And His Boy, one of my favourites. This one is the real deal and hits the right notes, and from the opening frame when a rattling POV shot of bombs descending on a WWII ravaged London, the film assures us that it means business, and isn’t going to slip into the pandering, glossy, watered down Young Adult world of adaptations. The Pevensie children, four precocious English youngsters, are sent away from the conflict to live with a distant relative in the country. There, they find a desolate old mansion, populated only by a starchy old goat of a housekeeper and the eccentric Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent, brief but memorable). They also stumble upon a magical wardrobe leading to a vast kingdom called Narnia, filled with talking beasts, castles, forests and more legendary creatures than you can shake a stick at. Lucy (Georgie Henley is the perfect, darling Lucy I imagined), the youngest and most intuitive of the four, is first to venture through, meeting kindly fawn Mr. Tumnus (James Macavoy) who tells her that Narnia has fallen on hard, wintry times. Her siblings back in our world don’t believe her, until they too are whisked through into the land, unknowingly thrust into an adventure to save Narnia, which will well likely put them in more danger than anything WWII has to offer. The four are uncannily well cast: William Moseley brings the humbled nobility and budding leader in Peter magnificently, Anna Popplewell shows the compassionate warrior’s heart in Susan, and Skandar Keyes expertly handles the arc of Edmund, the black sheep of the group with lessons to learn, both bitter and sweet. They are pit against Narnia’s resident villain and warlord, the malicious White Witch Jadis (Tilda Swinton will freeze your heart), with the help of many a talking animal, including friendly Mr. Beaver (Ray Winstone), and the messianic lion and all around badass Aslan (Liam Neeson, because who else would you cast?). Michael Madsen provides his raspy growl to the voice of Maugrim, the Witch’s top wolf lieutenant in her lupine secret police force, and other hidden Easter eggs of voiceover work can be heard from Dawn French as Mrs. Beaver and Rupert Everett as a Fox. Scope and spectacle are paramount in bringing the world of Narnia to life, and the filmmakers spared no expanse here: The children delve into chases, battles, betrayals, icy encounters with the witch, sword fights and all sorts of wonder, including a surprise visit from Father Christmas himself, warmly intoned by James Cosmo. Equally important as the razzle dazzle are the quiet, contemplative conversations that flourish into important character beats and lessons for all involved. The four are at a crux of human development, and vulnerable to stimuli both internal and external. Even though the story takes place in a magical, heightened world of fantasy, the interactions and human behaviour couldn’t feel more real. It’s beautifully carried over from the book, violent darkness and uplifting light included and born on the gilded wings of a stirring musical score from Harry Gregson Williams that swells to near transcendent heights when we reach that climactic battle. Swinton switches up the traditional theatrics that Barbara Kellerman brought to the BBC production (that version is a whole other story) in favour of a vicious, unrelenting and at times almost extraterrestrial portrayal of the witch, she’s cunning, manipulative and oh so evil. Director Andrew Adamson brings magisterial beauty to it visually and stages the battles with kinetic but focused energy. I love this film, not a note felt false to me when keeping the book in mind as I sat in the theatre, and that is incredibly rare if the source material means something to me.

-Nate Hill

Gore Verbinski’s Rango

Gore Verbinski’s Rango is a wonder among animated films. Naturally the colourful, larger than life medium lends itself to the eyes, ears and hearts of children, which is the direction most of them take. But Rango presents a mature, raunchy, surreal, absurd spectacle rife with a mischievous buzz and peppered with laughs just bordering on the inappropriate, even though they’d go right over their heads anyway. This film broke the record for how many times my jaw hit the floor seeing what they could do with the visuals. It’s detailed, meticulous, gorgeously rendered and beautifully crafted, not to mention speckled with subtle references to other films, literary works and themes that Verbinski no doubt holds dear and uses to amplify the story nicely. Johnny Depp gives wit, endearing naivety and a sense of childlike wonder to his creation of Rango, a little lizard in the big desert, violently thrown from a car wreck into the greatest adventure of his life, and the archetypal heroes journey. He wanders through the baking Mojave desert into the town of Dirt, inhabited by sassy, loveable creatures modelled after all our favourite western characters and carefully constructed from the biological blueprint of wildlife in that area. He blunders his way into becoming the sheriff, and leads the whole town on a quest to locate their most sought after resource: Aqua. Verbinski directs with a snappy, take no prisoners sense of humour, throwing joke after joke after one liner after tongue in cheek nod at us, until we feel so bombarded with fantastic imagery, brilliant voice acting and just plain fun, that we more than feel like we’re getting our money’s worth. Each animal is beautifully designed, from the evil Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy having a ball with a mini gun tail and evil amber eyes), to Beans (a fellow lizard and love interest for our scaly hero), to the sleazy mayor (Ned Beatty, that old turtle), to a rampaging band of bank robbing moles led by a blind Harry Dean Stanton. The cast includes everyone from Timothy Olyphant to Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Lew Temple, Ian Abercrombie, Gil Birmingham and Verbinski himself in multiple roles. There’s just so much going on here visually, from a dusty cameo by The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’s Man With No Name to eerie trees that wander the desert searching for water, a cameo from Hunter S. Thompson’s Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo themselves and don’t even get me started on the batshit crazy aerial chase scene set to a mariachi version of Ride Of The Valkyries. The film is so full of detail, beauty and ambitious artistry that it has taken me at least three viewings to feel like I’ve noticed every character, one liner and cheekily brilliant little touch. It’s that good. Among the whacky antics there’s a theme of owning up to ones identity, becoming responsible for people you save, and finishing the work or task you set out to do, lest you leave your legacy unwritten. A classic.

-Nate Hill

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is like being at a frat party where you slowly begin to realize that every other person there is an irredeemable asshole, but they’ve somehow strung you along with charm and charisma thus far. Like a nihilistic den of wolves where everyone involved is out to get each other, its quite simply one of the most hellbent, devil may care, narratively self destructive crime flicks out there. I admire that kind of reckless abandon in a huge budget Hollywood picture with a cast so full of pedigree it’s almost like The A list agencies just packed up all their talent in a clown car, drove it to South Boston and turned them loose on the neighbourhood. By now you know the fable: Two roughnecks, one a mobster (Matt Damon) who has infiltrated the state police, the other a deep cover operative (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is posing as a crime figure. Both are are intrinsically connected to Boston’s most fearsome gangster Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson in a performance so balls to the wall one almost feels like his 89’ Joker ditched the makeup and left Gotham for Southie. He’s a calculating maniac who openly mocks the veteran sergeant (Martin Sheen) putting in every effort to take him down, and rules over his vicious soldiers (Ray Winstone is a homicidal bulldog and David O’ Hara gets all the best comic relief) like a medieval despot gone mad. At well over two hours, not a single scene feels rushed, drawn out or remotely dawdled, there’s a breathless tank of violent machismo and wicked deception that never runs out, as the artery slashing editing reminds you every time it cuts to a new scene before the soundtrack choice has made it past the intro. The supporting cast has work from the gorgeous Vera Farmiga as a sneaky cop shrink, Anthony Anderson, James Badge Dale, Kevin Corrigan and more. Mark Whalberg also shows up to do the bad cop routine in a role originally meant for Denis Leary, and as solid as he is I kind of wish old Denis took a crack at it because you can obviously see how perfect he would have been, and is the better actor. As much as Jack Nicholson eats up the spotlight and chews more scenery than the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, my favourite performance of the film comes from Alec Baldwin as the head of the police tactical team. Spouting profanity like a fountain, slamming Budweiser as he swings his 9 iron and kicking the shit out of his employees, he’s a mean spirited, violently comical force of nature and I fucking love the guy. Scorsese has clearly set out to not deliver a heady message or lofty themes here as some do with crime epics; the characters all operate from the gut, use animal instinct and never pause to ponder or pontificate. The only message, if any, is the oft spouted ‘snitches get stitches’ as you can clearly see by the film’s final shot, also the only frame containing anything close to a metaphor. I admire a film like that, and certainly enjoyed the hell out of this one.

-Nate Hill

Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur

I’ve been singing the praises for Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur for years, but here’s the thing: you simply have to watch the extended director’s cut, it’s a different film entirely than the theatrical. Expanding both on complex moral quandary and lethal, bloody carnage, it allows ideas, expression and extreme violence to play out in a cut free of time and rating constraints, and as such is one of the best sword/battle flicks I’ve ever seen. The main buzz surrounding this one was how much of a departure it is from the usual Arthur lore we’re used to.. darker, grittier, more tied in with Ancient Rome and bereft of any lighthearted fantasy, it may as well be its own thing untethered of any Arthurian scope, because who can really say how it all went down back then anyways. Here Arthur is a restless, stormy Sarmatian knight played by a hot blooded Clive Owen, a fearless, jaded warrior who is steward to a rowdy troop of loyal swordsman forced by the empire to serve out fifteen years of service in exchange for freedom at the end of it all. Each of his troupe is played by a stellar actor, and each blessed with their own distinct, fully formed personality. Headstrong Bors (The always awesome Ray Winstone), dysfunctional Lancelot (Ioan Gryffud), lethal Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen, probably the coolest of the bunch), stalwart Galahad (Hugh Dancy), mischievous Gawain (Joel Edgerton) and strong, silent Dagonet (Ray Stevenson). They’re a wickedly diverse bunch of warriors, lovers, brothers and each has their own carefully carved out view on freedom, the Romans, life on the battlefield and ancestry, just a few of the themes explored deeply by the consistently surprising script. This film is notorious for its portrayal of Keira Knightley’s Guinevere, a bikini clad warrior whose appearance in the third act eclipses what is actually a really well written character, is unfairly panned based on a few brazen costume choices. Arthur and gang are up against a fearsome Saxon army led by Cerdic (stellar Stellan Skarsgard), a bloodthirsty maniac restlessly looking for his equal on the battlefield, which he finds in Arthur once they duke it out. Merlin is a tree dwelling mystic played by an unrecognizable Stephen Dillane, the round table in a dilapidated version of the glory found in books, and the knights resemble rough n’ tumble mercenaries more than the glowing reputation they’re given in classic lore. Sure, it’s a different take, but I for one really like the gritty, hellish aura surrounding the whole thing, it’s a brutal and risky departure from anything close to Disney and I applaud them for it. Better still is the way morality and philosophy are explored through the character’s actions, until we have a clear picture of Arthur as a realistic, hands on hero who isn’t afraid to get violent to prove points. The set pieces and swordplay are breathtaking, from a tense stand-off set on a deadly frozen lake to the final spectacular battle, each knight getting their chance to nail some superb fight choreography and draw gallons of blood. Hans Zimmer provides one of his most surging, palpitating thunderclap original scores, it’s up there with his best work and rides right next to the knights into battle with symphonic glory that just begs for a surround sound system to play on. I think this got so shit on because critics are usually only privy to the theatrical version right out of the gate, and first impressions cement reputation for years to come. Once again, the director’s cut is really the only way to go. It’s bolder, longer, more violent and sensual, and just tells the best version of the film’s story that it can.

-Nate Hill

Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast


Whenever someone asks me to provide the showcase example of the actor’s process done as close to perfection as one can get, I direct them towards one earthquake of a performance: Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. It takes a considerable amount of work to fully realize a character, bring them to life, make them seem genuine, lifelike and idiosyncratic so as to win over the viewer and elicit the modernized ‘putting down the iPhone to engage with full attention’ reaction’, but Kingsley’s rabid London hoodlum Don Logan is just that creation, and then some. He’s not even the lead character either, yet royally steals the film, which earned him an oscar nomination. The film itself couldn’t be more brilliant either, cooked up via a stinging, gorgeously verbose script by Louis Mellos and David Scinto, glossy wit from director Jonathan Glazer and actors who go the extra mile to give a fairly arch story some tangible depth. Ray Winstone, reliably superb, is Gal Dove, a boisterous ex criminal who has retired to sunniest Spain with his sexy wife (Amanda Redman) and best friend (Cavan Kendall). Retirement is tricky for someone with Gal’s past though, and soon his past barges through the front door in the form of Kingsley’s Logan, a terrifying bald beast of a man that would give any sensible person cause to immediately run and hide in the nearest cupboard. From the moment he shows up, heralded by bad dreams that plague Gal and a literal boulder that cascades down the hill into his villa pool uninvited (hello metaphor), things go from worse to hellish. Logan isn’t the type of man to take no for an answer, and is a complete and total nightmare to deal with even before Gal tries to shut him down. Logan wants him for a job in London, organized by shark of a mob boss Teddy Bass (Ian McShane, creepy as all hell), but Gal has no interest leaving the sunny shores and just wants the nutter out of his house. Any time Kingsley is on screen you can feel the tension crackle in the air. He’s the unvarnished hyena to Winstone’s aloof, relaxed teddy bear, a force to be reckoned with and feared. His use of profanity lands like a backhander from Dwayne Johnson, his body language is erratic enough to induce seizures and that cobra gaze could melt adamantium. He’s the penultimate antagonist and raises the stakes to the stratosphere, berating every person in sight and maintaining a cold, detached veneer that’s more than slightly disconcerting. Not to mention the fucker talks to himself in the mirror, which alone is cause for worry. While the story takes place in our world, there’s an off kilter, demonically surreal undertone that derails genre conventions. The artfully dirty, near poetic screenplay, stark visions of some sort of evil Chernobyl rabbit thing, lurid editing transitions, whatever it is it’s hard to pin down or describe, but you feel miles from your comfort zone and ever so slightly removed from our solar system while watching this odd, scary, compelling and uniquely peculiar piece of work. 

-Nate Hill