Tag Archives: Sean Penn

The Assassination Of Richard Nixon

The Assassination Of Richard Nixon is loosely based on a true story and does indeed have an attempt on the former president’s life woven into its narrative, but in no way is it a sensationalistic thriller and the main focus lies on Sean Penn’s journey as Samuel Bicke, the ultimate disgruntled American citizen. Sam is a hard working average joe who finds himself dealt a near constant shitty hand in life, and blames it on the one personification of the country’s entire problems: the president. He works under a two faced tyrant of a boss (Jack Thompson), is served divorce papers by his wife (Naomi Watts) who wants nothing to do with him anymore, and all attempts to get his own business underway with a partner (Don Cheadle) seems to fail when presented with the tumultuous economic and political climate of the times. The thing is, much of what makes you successful or not successful in any given time period is attitude and frame of mind. Not solely of course, some eras are just tougher to grind through and come out on top of then others, but internal perspective and outlook always play a big part, and Sam’s is one of self predicted defeat and jaded forlornness almost from the get go. He is a man who wants to do good and wishes prosperity for himself and others, but feels helpless against the obstacles in his way, begins to mentally deteriorate and lashes out. One scene in particular between him and his well spoken businessman brother Julius (Michael Wincott in a stern, savage, brutally honest and scene stealing cameo) lays it all out: Julius berates and shames him for breaking the law and stealing goods from his business for plans of his own, no matter how honourable or constructive his intentions were. Samuel responds not with an apology, but with a long winded, bitter rant about how everything and everyone in the country has it in for him, how hard it is as the little man to make your daily bread or come out a winner. His mental climate is fascinating as it ultimately leads to a reckless, dangerous act, but we can trace every moment along the way where his stability falters and see why he is the way he is. The actual attempt itself involves hijacking a plane and bombing tricky Dick himself in the White House, but once we see him try and go through with it it’s just sad, anticlimactic and almost irrelevant. The real power lies in what led him there, how he felt betrayed by his own country and how, in the end, he blamed one man who probably didn’t even have that much power over everything to begin with. Penn is raw and ragged in a performance that almost hurts to watch, in a story that isn’t cinematic, cathartic or pleasant in any way. But it is important, and makes for a great film.

-Nate Hill

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Oliver Stone’s U Turn

Ever had one of those days where literally everything seems to go wrong and there’s some kind of invisible cosmic force aligned against you? Sean Penn’s Bobby has one of those in Oliver Stone’s U Turn, a deranged, sun drunk parable by way of neo-noir and near Boschian displays of brutal human behaviour punctuated by pockets of the blackest comedy one can find. This is a deliberately, brutally unpleasant slice of nihilism that wouldn’t be easy to swallow were it not so fucking funny, so gorgeously visual, so perkily acted by the knockout ensemble cast and so beautifully scored by Ennio Morricone. Penn’s Bobby has the rotten luck of breaking down in the one horse town of Superior, Arizona, where bumpkin mechanic Billy Bob Thornton takes his sweet time patching up the rig, leaving him to drift about town and get in all sorts of trouble. There’s a rockabilly maniac named Toby ‘TNT’ Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) who wants Bobby’s head for ‘making time’ with his girl (a loopy Claire Danes). The menacing local Sheriff (Powers Boothe) seems hellbent on doing anything other than protecting and serving. Jennifer Lopez is sultry babe Grace, who snares him up in a dangerously lurid love triangle with her husband Jake (Nick Nolte at his utmost Nick Nolte-iest), who also happens to be her stepfather (!). This all boils into a mucky miasma of murder, violence, sex games, insurance fraud, gas station robberies, betrayal, severed limbs, manipulation and any other noisy calamity you could think of to befall a small town in Arizona that the rest of the world has seemingly forgot. Bobby is on the run from a scary Vegas loan shark (Valery Nikoaelev), but nothing he can do compares to the level of hurt these warped townsfolk inflict upon him, so it’s kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type scenario. The thing is, Bobby himself is something of a reprehensible scumbag anyways, so there’s a cheeky masochist edge in watching him traverse this dusty, 9th ring of Americana hell and circle an ending of inevitable doom. ‘Treat others how you wish to be treated’ is an adage that almost every single character in the film seems to have sadly forgotten or chose to ignore except one individual, a blind old native man played with disarming truth by Jon Voight. Bobby has several encounters with him, and he’s the only one who isn’t after something, doesn’t display hostility or unkindness, he speaks plainly and offers Bobby bitter pearls of wisdom that ultimately go unheeded. Stone employs the same type of jittery, whacked out visual surrealities he used in Natural Born Killers, a deeply saturated colour palette, tumble dry editing techniques and more breathe life into this vivid version of curdled small town life in the vast, lonely desert. Morricone’s score is a spring loaded jack-in-the-box in areas and a melodic, melancholic lullaby in others, an underrated composition that gives the film an eerie sadness and zany vibration all it’s own. There’s more going on than meets the eye here; at surface level it’s a dark crime comedy with a quirky edge, but both Voight’s character and a few mysterious hints at Lopez’s backstory with the tribes in the region hint at a deeper, darker sense of malice lurking out there with the coyotes, suggestive of an almost mythic aspect. Stone gets high praise for his political dramas, but I’ve always loved him best when he’s doing genre stuff, he’s such an expressive storyteller and the real fruit of his imagination comes out when he’s turned loose. For me this is his second finest work after Natural Born Killers and before Savages, the three films that seem most genuine and celebratory of the medium. In any case, U Turn is a southern fried, asphalt laden, angry, sexy, perverse road trip to sunny noir heaven or hell, and a masterpiece. Watch for neat cameos from Laurie Metcalf, Bo Hopkins, Brent Briscoe, Julie Hagerty and Liv Tyler.

-Nate Hill

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight Of Water

I love Kathryn Bigelow’s early films from the 80’s and 90’s, she’s such a fantastic storyteller when she sticks to genre stuff, but I’m not quite sure what went down with The Weight Of Water, a muddy, confusing doldrum of a thriller that drifts by heading nowhere, with no real rush to get there either. I’m assuming there’s a level of clarity and coherence in the source novel by Anita Shreve that just didn’t translate onto the screen too well, but what the film lacks in discernible themes and substance it at least makes up for a bit in the production design and visual department. Two stories unfold simultaneously here: sometime in the 1800’s, restless housewife (Sarah Polley is all kinds of creepy) lusts for her brother in a rural township on the blustery New Hampshire Coast. A mysterious stranger (Ciaran Hinds) enters their lives and bears witness to a violent, romantically motivated double ax murder that culminates in a freakish storm and ends their story, becoming infamous throughout the centuries to follow. Meanwhile in present day, a keen photojournalist (Catherine McCormack) peruses that very same coast on a yacht, researching the long past events that led to the horrible crime. She’s joined by her listless husband (Sean Penn), his brother (Josh Lucas) and foxy girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley). They start to forge an equally tense romantic triangle that is somehow supposed to mirror the past in profound or symbolic ways but doesn’t feel like anything deeper than narrative coincidence. The two stories have little to do with each other beyond happenstance and are constantly at odds in tone and intent. The Sarah Polley one works better but only just, having a more specific atmospheric mood, also because she’s just a terrific actress who puts on a dangerous, unnervingly introverted show. I’d like to read the novel one day and see if there’s more to be found there or some lynchpin of content that missed the boat from paper to celluloid, but as it stands this film is a hollow blast of nothing, and the only weight to be found is in the title.

-Nate Hill

Brian De Palma’s CARLITO’S WAY

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Join Frank and special guest host, Paul Sparrow-Clarke, as they talk in depth about one of Brian De Palma’s most underappreciated films, Carlito’s Way. Paul returned to PTS to discuss Carlito’s Way after joining Frank and Tom during their From Russia with Love podcast in their For Your Ears Only James Bond podcast series. We hope you enjoy the show!

Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life

No other film simultaneously reaches as far as it can to the heavens and remains as grounded in inwardness as Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, an experience that isn’t so much a film as it is a meditative, open ended question, a quiet and gentle nudge that reminds to remember and revere how miraculous life is in the simple fact that it even exists. It also tries to discern what makes a life, from the individual to the human race to the very cosmos around us all, and isn’t something to be even approached in traditional critical analysis. Malick directs Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan through a series of fly-on-the-wall vignettes in hazy, comforting 1950’s Americana. They are every white picket fence Midwest family. Pitt is firm, strict and fearless in raising his sons with the lessons given to him as a boy, Chastain is warm, compassionate and intuitive, two energies that visibly shape the boys into young men. Decades later, Sean Penn plays the older version of one of them, and ponders on his youthful years as he goes about adult life in an introspective trance. And.. that’s the film. In writing, anyways. What’s special about it can’t really be described, you just have to see and hear it, which is the same for all films, I suppose, but this one really immerses you in something deeply felt. Using emotionally affecting classical music and employing unbelievable visual camera work, Malick sets up time and place like no other filmmaker, making the streets, sun dappled backyards, tree lined laneways and beckoning house interiors come alive in a way that stirs up memories long buried for many who had childhoods just like this. On a grander scale, he also explores the universe in a mid-film sequence that had some walking out of theatres but is really an inspired bit, a time rift to rival the bone toss in Kubrick’s 2001. Malick’s aesthetic isn’t for everyone, you kind of either tune into it wholly or you’re left cold and adrift, but here he spins up something to be marvelled at, his own treatise on human life and the realms around it, both distant and close. A masterpiece, no review I write could properly impart my love for this one, it’s an important, vital film to be absorbed with focus and vulnerability, and thought upon deeply after.

-Nate Hill

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 where Michael Madsen’s Budd lays down the sword rhetoric: “If you’re gonna compared a sword made by Hattori Hanzo, you compare it to every other sword ever made, that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.” I’d like to augment that slightly in the case of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and say, “If you’re gonna compare The Thin Red Line, you compare it to every other war movie ever made that *isn’t* The Thin Red Line.” That’s not to say its better than all the rest or on any kind of quality pedestal, it’s just simply unlike every other war film out there, and that differentiation makes it an incredibly special picture. Why, you ask? Because it takes a ponderous, meditative approach to a very hectic horrific period in history, and takes the time to explore the effects of conflict on both humanity and nature, as well as how all those forces go hand in hand. What other war film does that? Malick uses a poets eye and a lyricist’s approach to show the Guadalcanal siege, a horrific battle in which lives were lost on both sides and the countryside ravaged by the fires of war. To say that this film is an ensemble piece would be an understatement; practically all of Hollywood and their mother have parts in this, from the front and centre players right down to cameos and even a few appearances that never made it into the final cut (which I’m still bitter about). The two central performances come from Jim Caviesel and Sean Penn as Pvt. Welsh and Sgt. Witt. Welsh is a compassionate, thoughtful man who seems primally uncomfortable in a soldiers uniform, and shirks the materialistic horror and industrialist grind of war to seek something more esoteric, a reason for being amongst the horror. Witt is a hard, cold man who sees no spiritual light at the end of the tunnel and does his job with grim resolve, scarcely pausing to contemplate anything but the next plan of action. These two are archetypes, different forces that play in each of us and, variations of which, are how we deal with something as incomparable as a world war. Around them swirl an endless sea of famous faces and other characters doing the best they can in the chaos, or simply getting lost in it. Nick Nolte as a gloomy Colonel displays fire and brimstone externally, but his inner monologue (a constant with Malick) shows us a roiling torment. A captain under his command (Elias Koteas) has an emotional crisis and disobeys orders to send his men to their death when thunderously pressured by Nolte. Koteas vividly shows us the heartbreak and confusion of a man who is ready to break, and gives arguably the best performance of the film. Woody Harrelson accidentally blows a chunk of his ass off with a grenade, John Cusack climbs the military rank with his tactics, John Savage wanders around in a daze as a sadly shell shocked soldier, Ben Chaplin pines for his lost love (Miranda Otto) and the jaw dropping supporting cast includes (deep breath now) Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, Thomas Jane, Dash Mihok, Michael Mcgrady, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Mark Boone Jr, Don Harvey, Arie Verveen, Donal Logue, John Travolta and a brief George Clooney. There’s a whole bunch who were inexplicably cut from scenes too including Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke. Rourke’s scene can be found, in pieces, on YouTube and it’s worth a search to see him play a haunted sniper. Hans Zimmer doles out musical genius as usual, with a mournfully angelic score that laments the process of war, particularly in scenes where Caviesel connects with the natives in the region, as well as a soul shattering ambush on the Japanese encampment that is not a sequence that ten year old Nate has been able to forget since I saw it and the hairs on my neck stood up. This is a diversion from most war films; Malick always has a dreamy filter over every story he weaves: exposition is scant, atmosphere matters above all else and the forces of music and visual direction almost always supersede dialogue, excepting inner thoughts from the characters. If you take that very specific yet loose and ethereal aesthetic and plug it into the machinations of a war picture, the result is as disturbing as it is breathtakingly beautiful, because you are seeing these events through a lens not usually brandished in the genre, and the consequences of war seem somehow more urgent and cataclysmic. Malick knows this, and keeps that tempo up for the entire near three hour runtime, giving us nothing short of a classic.

-Nate Hill

“Roadblocks won’t stop somethin’ that can’t be stopped.” : Remembering The Wraith with Mike Marvin by Kent Hill

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The Wraith was like many a glorious find back in the day at my local video store. The cover had a holographic shimmer to it – a strange robot-like character standing in front of some bad-ass, customized car that looked as though it would be more comfortable zipping through the galaxy rather than flying at break-neck speeds along the long stretches and cactus-lined roads of Arizona.

Yes sir, that cover held the promise of sci-fi mysticism combined with heat-thumping vehicular action to rival the Road Warrior.

Oddly enough, Dr. George’s post-apocalyptic action-adventure was the template for Mike Marvin’s Cult Classic. When the man who started out making skiing films came to Hollywood and saw an opportunity to fuse High Plains Drifter with Mad Max 2, one would assume it was a concept any studio would be happy to throw their weight behind.

But, then as now, the movie business can be treacherous, and Marvin’s experiences making The Wraith were far from pleasant. As a matter a fact, they were a nightmare. Plagued by unscrupulous producers, a tragic death while filming – along with all the other perils of production – it is a wonder that this certified 80’s classic ever made to to the screen.

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Lucky for us, however, thanks must go, in no small part, to a string of wonderful performers, a dedicated crew and a talented director at the helm, The Wraith survives as a one of a kind mash-up of genres that has endured and is, for this film writer at least, yet to be equaled.

This interview was conducted before I was able to sample Mike’s great and candid commentary on the Region 1 DVD release of the film. And while some of what he relayed to me you will find on that release, the truly glorious thing that I experienced was to hear these insights, plus a couple that were not covered in that commentary track, first hand from this journeyman warhorse of a film-maker.

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So seek out the The Wraith, those of you who have not yet experienced it. Let this interview, hopefully tantalize your interest to learn more about this incredible film that really was both ahead of its time, a product of its time and most assuredly one of a kind…

Ladies and Gentlemen…Mike Marvin.