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Todd Phillips’ Joker

Gotham City, 1981. Sanitation services are on strike, leaving piles of garbage curb side. Mounting inequality and rampant poverty poison the collective climate and spur on bubbling unrest. Billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) makes the kind of callous comments on live tv that don’t help anyone’s situation much. “Is it just me or are things getting crazier out there?” laments Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck. He’s more right than he knows, both in terms of ‘out there’ and closer to home. Todd Phillips’ Joker is a brilliant, flammable, uncomfortable, thought provoking, beautifully crafted piece not only on its own terms as a standalone character study but also as part of the Batman universe as well.

Arthur lives with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) in a shit box apartment, works as a street clown for an agency that resents him, sees a dour social worker until funding is cut along with access to his medication. He idolizes a funny-man TV talk show host (Robert Deniro in scenery chewing mode) until the guy cruelly mocks him for laughs. Arthur is as close to snapping as the entire city around him and one can almost use his gradually disintegrating grasp on reality and coherence as a barometer for that of Gotham itself and the world outside the cinema that we know too. Phoenix is indescribably good in the role, shedding pounds and growing a shaggy mane to portray this beyond iconic antagonist and giving us a portrayal that is so well built up, so scarily developed that by the time he has incarnated into the full fledged clown prince of crime we feel like running for the door in terror. But he’s also madly human too, a man repeatedly stomped down by the forces around him until a combination of stress, untreated mental illness, hurt and humiliation push him over that edge in a startling act of violence. Joaquin is the star here but Phillips also populates his Gotham with a variety of faces both new and familiar including Douglas Hodge, Zazie Beets, Brian Tyree Henry, Josh Pais, Bill Camp, Shea Wigham, Glenn ‘The Yellow King’ Fleshler and more.

So, about that elephant in the room. I don’t usually like to address this kind of thing in my reviews but this film has inexplicably whipped up a hilariously misguided fever of opinions, so read loud and clear folks: The Joker is a comic book character. This is a film. The way he’s written here is as a mentally ill victim of an would be standup comedian who is pushed to the brink, left to stew in his own mind as well as a horrifying cycle of abuse and finally loses it. This film in no way glorifies, condones or puts lone wolf violence onto a pedestal and if you think otherwise than you either haven’t seen the film or gravely misunderstood it’s themes. This maniacal, dogmatic, woke-a-cola nonsense has no business here and those peddling it should be embarrassed of themselves, shut both their mouths and their laptops, go into the corner and count to ten. Got it? Good.

Philips has created quite the vision of Gotham and The Joker here, drawing inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s work, lovingly observing key touchstones of the Batman universe and adding his own stylistic flairs that help this thing do a dance all its own. This is not a crowd pleaser or a pleasant experience though. Gotham has none of the Hammer aura of Burton or Broadway kitsch of Schumacher, but is simply a weary, dirty, worn out avatar for late seventies New York with just a tad of 30’s/40’s atmosphere present in the soundtrack choices and a terrific cameo from Charlie Chaplin. Phoenix owns the film and can’t really be compared. I love every Joker portrayal so far in cinema (yes even Jared Leto) for a host of different reasons and Phoenix adds another incendiary notch to the belt here with his psychologically shredded howl of a performance. Add to that gorgeous, gritty urban cinematography by Lawrence Sher, stunningly grimy and beautifully lit production design by Mark Friedberg and a surprisingly ethereal, skin crawling score from Hildur Guanodóttir and you’ve got quite the package. One of the best films of the year so far.

-Nate Hill

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Amazon’s Homecoming

Amazon Prime hits it out of the park yet again with Homecoming, a tightly structured, noir laced conspiracy thriller that’s so contemporary yet so unbelievably retro I couldn’t fathom how well they pulled off the mixture.

Julia Roberts gives her best performance in years as Heidi Bergman, a low level mental health worker who has been left in charge of the mysterious Homecoming facility, which on the outside is an integration program to help veterans with PTSD transition into civilian life. This is a privately funded deal though, and Heidi begins to suspect that the powers that be don’t have these guys’ best interests at heart, especially after observing the shady avoidance behaviour of her slippery boss Colin (Bobby Cannavle, also the best he’s been in some time). Years later, Heidi waitresses in a marina fish joint, the events and apparent scandal of Homecoming in her rearview, until a dogged Department Of Defence investigator (Shea Wigham, pretty much incapable of hitting a false note) tracks her down and asks questions, forcing her to look at the past in a new light.

This isn’t just your average spook thriller with Manchurian Candidate undertones, but it certainly achieves that as well. At the core is Heidi’s emotional relationship with Walter (Stephen James, a revelation), one of the vets she’s treating, and how that affects her perception of what’s going on around her, their dynamic is the constant and the catalyst for things to get out of hand. To say more would be to spoil an incredibly subtle, slow burn paranoia piece that unspools one thread at a time and is an utter delight to unpack as the viewer. Roberts is sensational, usually we get a character from her on feature film terms, for two or so hours and then the arc is capped, but there are ten half hour episodes here and she’s allowed to room to breathe in her work, drawing us in and earning sympathy beat by beat. Cannavle is a pithy portrait of corporate greed and casual apathy run amok, not necessarily a bad dude but certainly an amoral, selfish schmuck who realizes the consequences of his actions too little too late, it’s fantastic work from the him. Wigham is always brilliant and plays this guy in the guise of a robotic company man, but as the story progresses we see that he cares far more than his tucked shirt demeanour lets on. Other stellar work comes from Rafi Gavron, Jeremy Allen White, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Sydney Tanmiia Poitier, Dermot Mulroney, Sissy Spacek and Hong Chau.

I was floored by the camera work here, the overhead angles, meticulous lighting, tracking shots and general symmetry in frame are so immersive and well done, this thing visually feels like noir to its roots while still being very of this era, thematically speaking. It also cleverly plays around with aspect ratio in order to put us in Heidi’s psychological state and accent the passage of time, a tactic I’ve never seen before but am now obsessed with.

It took me a bit to clue in that creator Sam Esmail literally lifted hordes of original score from classic 60’s, 70’s and 80’s horror thrillers and used them here, but by the time I heard cues from John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Fog I had an ‘aha’ moment and had to go look up just how many themes are sampled, and trust me there’s a lot. That could have been a lazy choice from a lesser production to just *entirely* recycle old music, but it’s used to such effect here and works splendidly for this story. This is brilliant stuff and I can’t think of a single criticism really. Stick around for a provocative post credits scene that pretty much begs for a second season.

-Nate Hill

Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale

Although not quite the dense, delicious narrative feast I envisioned based on marketing, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale is an impressively mounted period thriller with gorgeous late 60’s production design, fantastic performances from a variety of players and a hard boiled, ultra violent storyline loaded with equal helpings of melodrama and pulp. Somewhere along the Nevada/California state-line lies the ornate El Royale, a retro pop funhouse with a giant chandelier, soda jerk sensibilities and and a jukebox that doesn’t quit. The rooms in California cost an extra dollar a night than those in Nevada because of course they do. A handful of strangers show up one fateful day in 1969, the motives, pasts and true temperaments of which are slowly revealed throughout the rainy night via an elliptical tale that weaves forward, backwards and flows past many perspectives and angles to show what is actually happening. Jeff Bridges is the salty preacher with memory issues, Jon Hamm the chatterbox salesman who moonlights as a clandestine federal agent, Lewis Pullman the dodgy hotel clerk, Dakota Johnson and a scary Cailee Spaeny two hippie sisters on the run and Cynthia Erivo in the film’s best and most human performance as a fledgeling singer just trying to survive the crazy night. Alliances shift, flashbacks sometime prove reliable and sometimes not, people are killed graphically, the rain pours down, intentions are laid bare and that jukebox keeps on keeping on. The soundtrack they’ve amassed is something else here, an old time collection of Mo town, sun n’ surf and heartfelt solos by Erivo that give the film a vibrant personality. And yes, Chris Hemsworth is in it too, playing a volatile, Manson-esque cult leader with a short temper, long hair and a button down shirt that conveniently never gets buttoned down (anything to fill those seats). The character is a bit much and sort of takes over the wheel in the third act, but Chris is too young to pull something that magnetic off as well as others could and I couldn’t help feeling like he was miscast. The film sort of suffers from what I call Hateful Eight syndrome a bit; when you have an Agatha Christie sort of tale to tell, the setup is always a tantalizing mystery that, once unravelled, has to feel worth the build and earn its revelations along the way. The payoff here is better than Hateful Eight and the film overall is stronger too, but I felt just a smidge underwhelmed once everything was laid bare and the wrap up rolled around. Nevertheless, this is a surefire piece of thriller entertainment with many elements that work terrifically, namely acting, dialogue and production design. Erivo seems to have come out of nowhere and also impressed me in Widows earlier this year, she grounds the film in reality and serves as the moral compass of sorts in this miasma of reprehensible human behaviour, I hope to see more of her and hear more of that singing voice in the future. Spaeny too was excellent, playing a pitch perfect acolyte with an unbalanced edge and a dead eyed stare that was truly chilling and definitely reminiscent of what I’d imagine a freaky ass flower power cult chick would have come across as back then. A fine piece of entertainment that wasn’t as deeply plotted as it could have been, but blasts by with admirable energy and streamlined ambition.

-Nate Hill

Robert Rodriguez’s Machete

Danny Trejo has been acting for so many years that he’s now a totem of the collective action crime genre, and it was only a matter of time before he got a lead role. Thanks to pulp wizard Robert Rodriguez, that lead role came along in the form of Machete, a fake trailer preceding Rodriguez’s contribution to his Grindhouse mashup with pal Quentin Tarantino that was so popular it was only a matter of time before the feature length outing arrived. Well it arrived, and despite being a bit over saturated and too homogenized for its genre inspiration (where was the nudity??), it’s actually a barrel of fun. Rodriguez seems to have attracted Hollywood stars like a magnet since day one, and this one is positively peppered with high profile talent in the kind of roles you’d think they’d never be caught dead in. Trejo is all scowls and moody machismo as Machete, an ex Federalè turned brutal mercenary who seeks vengeance against the ruthless cartel boss responsible for the murder of his family, played of all people by Steven Seagal in the funniest work he’s ever done. There’s also a rigged election subplot stateside in which corrupt, evil senator Robert Deniro schemes all kinds of nasty shit. His lieutenant is played by Jeff Fahey, who was the villain in the fake trailer and expands his sinister presence here. He’s a natural born scene stealer and his businessman/hitman Booth is an especially violent creation, but I suppose if I had Lindsay Lohan for a daughter (she makes a cameo, parodying her own hard partying image) I’d be a tad grumpy too. There’s also Jessica Alba’s Sartana, a sexy female agent who plays both sides and lets the romantic sparks simmer between her and Trejo, until the film pussies out before we get a deserved sex scene. Michelle Rodriguez is a lot of fun as Luz, a revolutionary badass who disguises her operation in a taco truck. The cast is unreal and includes Shea Wigham as Fahey’s exasperated lead assassin, Tom Savini as the world’s most elaborate contract killer, Don Johnson as a racist scumbag southern fried Sheriff and Cheech Marin as Machete’s brother, a catholic priest who isn’t afraid to use a couple holy shotguns to do do the lord’s dirty work. Robert Rodriguez really jumped onboard the grindhouse train after his joint venture with Tarantino, while QT abandoned ship. This flicks is a lot of fun and allows esteemed actors to play in the sandbox with reckless abandon, and most importantly, Danny Trejo to bask in the spotlight after toiling so hard in the supporting ranks for decades. My only complaint is that it’s a bit too tame in the sex department to count as grindhouse fare (all these hot actresses and not a single nipple flourish or bush brandish), but I suppose when Big Hollywood green-lights a gritty fake trailer, you have to somewhat tow the line, even if you are one of Hollywood’s greatest genre magicians. The sight of Trejo ripping out a dude’s intestines and using them to repel down the face of a building is definitely in the spirit of the sort of films that inspired this though. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill

The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer was the first film in the revival of Matthew McConaughey’s career after a lengthy slump stretching back to the early 2000’s, and what a banger of a pseudo courtroom drama it turned out to be. Based on the series of novels by Michael Connelly which focus on slick, morally untethered defence attorney Mick Haller (played to perfection by Matt), director Brad Furman whips up an enjoyable, razor sharp yet laid back LA crime saga that’s smart, re-watchable and competently staged, not to mention stuffed to the roof with great actors. Haller is something of a renegade lawyer who operates smoothly from the leather interior of his Lincoln town car, driven by trusty chauffeur Earl (the always awesome Lawrence Mason). Mick is ice cool and seldom bothered by the legal atrocities he commits, until one case follows him home and digs up a tormented conscience he never knew he had. Hired to defend a rich brat (Ryan Phillipe) accused of murdering a call girl, events take a turn for the unpredictable as older crimes are dug up, double crosses are laid bare and everyone’s life starts to unravel. It’s a deliciously constructed story with twists and payoffs galore, as well as one hell of an arc for McConaughey to flesh out in the kind of desperate, lone wolf role that mirrors the dark side of his idealistic lawyer in Joel Schumacher’s A Time To Kill. Let’s talk supporting cast: Marisa Tomei is sexy and easygoing as Mick’s ex wife and rival, Bryan Cranston simmers on low burn as a nasty detective, William H. Macy does a lively turn as his PI buddy, plus excellent work from Frances Fisher, Shea Wigham, John Leguizamo, Bob Gunton, Bob Gunton, Pell James, Katherine Moennig and the great Michael Paré as a resentful cop who proves to be quite useful later on. There’s a dark side to the story too that I appreciated, in the fact that not every wrong is righted, or at least fully, a sad fact that can be seen in an unfortunate character played by Michael Pena, but indicative of life’s brutal realities, something Hollywood sometimes tries to smother. One of the great courtroom films out there, a gem in McConaughey’s career and just a damn fine time at the movies.

-Nate Hill

Pride & Glory

Pride & Glory is a gritty police melodrama that grabs the audience, shakes them till the point of concussion and wrings the life out of them with it’s nonstop intensity and performances that could raise buildings to the ground. Think I’m exaggerating or overselling? Give it a go, it’s fucking nuts. NYC cop dramas are a common occurrence out there, and have been for a long while, but something about this one just rings eerily true, rattles your cage and lets both the violence and corruption seep into the marrow of one’s viewing experience. After a drug deal erupts into multiple murder, a family of cops is thrown in an uproar. Haggard straight arrow Edward Norton is on point of investigation by boozy patriarch Jon Voight, and ends up finding out way more than he bargained for not only in regards to the NYPD, but about his fellow cop brother (Colin Farrell) too. Their third brother (underrated Noah Emmerich) is too busy taking care of his sick wife (Jennifer Ehle) to notice the corruption, or maybe does and looks the other way. Every faction adds to the pressure cooker of an atmosphere, rooted in the familial relationships that can’t withstand dangerous secrets. They should call the guy Colin Feral, because he’s a right beast as a guy whose moral compass is so out of whack he doesn’t know who he is anymore. The actor is fervently complex in his work, and makes the guy way more human than other performers would, but he’s still terrifying, whether threatening a newborn baby with a hot iron or full on brawling with Norton in a fracas of a man to man bar-fight. Voight is one of those characters who is so corrupt he doesn’t even notice it anymore, which is a dangerous avenue to arrive at when you’re in such a position of power. The supporting cast is pockmarked with fiery work from terrific actors including super underrated Carmen Ejogo, Wayne Duvall, John Ortiz, Lake Bell and two arresting turns from reliable firebrands Frank Grillo and Shea Wigham. Built around a script by Joe Carnahan, who feeds off of authentic dialogue and realistic shaping of events, this is one that pulls you right into it’s suffocating world of beleaguered sentinels of law enforcement whose eyes have become dim to that thin blue line separating order and madness. Brilliant, heavy stuff.

-Nate Hill

Joel Schumacher’s Blood Creek


A Joel Schumacher helmed horror flick starring Michael Fassbender as a deranged, occult obsessed Nazi zombie vampire, hunted by Lincoln Burrows from Prison Break. Sounds like a flick from an alternate dimension that doesn’t exist, right? Well it’s out there, tough to find as it was somehow buried around it’s 2009 release, and relegated to a relic before it was even a decade old. Shame, because it’s a ton of warped, bloody fun. Officially titled ‘Blood Creek’ on iTunes, it can also be found as ‘Town Creek’ or simply ‘Runes’ elsewhere, but like they say, a rose by any other name. Fassbender is all kinds of scary in a black and white prologue as a Nazi occult agent who shows up at a rural American farm to study ancient Nordic runes which may hold the key to resurrection of the dead. His chilling work initially is nothing compared to the balls-out, gory makeup covered incarnation he gets to prance around in later though. In present day, two brothers race into the foggy backwaters to stamp out this evil, and they’re played by an intense Dominic Purcell, as well as Superman himself, Henry Cavill. Not a whole lot of time is spent on character development for all involved, the film choosing instead to jump headlong into a notably gory free for all, banding together with the poor German family who has had to deal with this psycho for almost a generation on their farm. At a crisp ninety minutes, there ain’t much time for anything but action and gore, with a few scarcely scattered, breathless moments of exposition that were already made clear in that prologue, the one interlude of the film that isn’t soaked in adrenaline. Hats off to Fassbender under all that chatty, gooey makeup, his physicality is really menacing, and who else gets to play a Nazi vampire zombie who pounds a metal stake into his own forehead to make room for an emerging third eye? Truly a villain for the ages, had the film been allowed to gain any notoriety. And what other film can boast a sequence in which Purcell eagerly blasts zombified, rabid horses with a shotgun, chunks flying all over the barn? Such are the levels of disturbed imagination on parade. Poor Schumacher though, really. This would’ve been his first good film in awhile back then, and the studio goes in for the kill on every single marketing front, not even giving it decent room to breathe on DVD. At least it’s still floating about on iTunes, where any horror fan would be rewarded with a rental.

-Nate Hill