Tag Archives: ted levine

Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate

If you ditch the idea that Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is a remake of the 60’s Frank Sinatra flick, you’ll have a much better time watching it without those strings attached (Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is similarly panned by the misguided hordes). Demme’s version is a new adaptation of the novel by Richard Condon, and in my eyes the far superior thriller. Given a charged military twist, deeply disturbing psychological angles and the powerhouse acting juice of leads Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and a staggeringly good Meryl Streep, this is where the buck stops with political thrillers. Demme’s narrative is a thickly laced web of secrets, mind manipulation, lies and corruption that isn’t always apparent or clear, given the unreliable, ruptured psyche of ex gulf war soldier Ben Marco (Washington). He’s shellshocked, but not in the traditional sense, and somehow feels as if something went very, very wrong with his unit following a deadly skirmish in the Middle East. His former fellow soldier and friend Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Schreiber) is up for senate election, fiercely prodded and chaperoned by his mad dog of a mother Eleanor (Streep). Everyone from their unit has either wound up dead or suffering from terrifying nightmares, psychosis and brain trauma they can’t explain. It’s up to Ben to trust his dodgy memories, leading him out of the dark and finding what really happened before a vague impending disaster that is Demme’s fulcrum upon which ample, nerve annihilating suspense is built around. Washington is his usual quietly implosive self and makes unnerving work of getting us to believe he’s in real psychological stress but somehow lucid. Streep is the ultimate mommy from hell, and despite the script getting near maniacal with her arc at times, she always sells it as a rogue extremist who only sees her side of the arena and will do literally anything for her son, no matter what the cost to country, colleagues or even herself. They’re joined by an impressive league of supporting talent including Bruno Ganz, Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine, the sinister Simon McBurney, Ann Dowd, Charles Napier, José Pablo Castillo, Bill Irwin, Al Franken, Zelijko Ivanek, Roger Corman (!), Obba Babarundé, Jude Ciccolela, Dean Stockwell, Tracey Walter, Sydney Lumet (!!) and more. There’s really terrific work from Jeffrey Wright as another troubled former soldier, Kimberly Elise as a fed tracking Ben’s movements who catches feels for him, Jon Voight as a suspicious rival candidate to Shaw and Vera Farmiga as his daughter. What. A. Cast. This was one of the first R rated films I was ever allowed to see in theatres and as such the chills haven’t quite left my spine every time I go in for a revisit. It almost reaches horror movie levels of fright and nightmarish, half remembered atrocities that taint the senate election like political voodoo and give the proceedings a dark, very uneasy atmosphere. Demme goes for a big scope here with a huge cast, large scale story and high impact set pieces, but at its heart it’s a very tense, inward focused story that shows the sickness in power and just what some people are willing to do to get ahead. Like I said, forget the Sinatra version and watch this as it’s own film, it’s an incredibly special, affecting experience onscreen and you won’t find a freakier political thriller.

-Nate Hill

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TNT’s The Alienist

Looking for a binge-worthy show to keep you going? Check out The Alienist, a terrifying tale that in the realm of dark murder mysteries, goes just about as dark as you can go. A period piece produced by TNT and conveniently dropped onto Netflix in it’s entirety the other day, it’s one part Jack The Ripper with a twinge of True Detective, but the truth is it’s way more psychological and well constructed than any log-line description could give, and it should be seen, savoured and absorbed as one long film rather than episodic tv. Darker and more fucked up than anything really has been since season 1 of True Detective, it sticks to its guns and pulls forth a doozy of a crime story to put anyone’s hairs on edge. Set in the late 1800’s before the turn of the century, New York is slowly becoming the economic and cultural hub it is today, but there’s still long shadows cast by the primitive customs of the past, and in one of those shadows hides a serial killer, a phantom who preys on young boys and leaves viciously mutilated corpses behind. As each episode will remind you in writing, people who studied mental illness back then were called ‘Alienists’, because those afflicted were seen to be alienated from their true natures. One such alienist is Dr. Lazlo Kreisler (Daniel Brühl), an eccentric, difficult but altogether brilliant man who takes an immediate and laser focused interest in these crimes, with the help of his friend, crime scene illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans). Joining their crusade is Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning) the first woman to work for the NYC police department and a plucky investigator herself. Orbiting them is a galaxy of characters, red herrings, dead ends, violent encounters, murders, and love triangles that stretch all the way from the slums and boy-whore brothels right up through the political ranks to New York’s richest and most powerful. It’s not an easy mystery to solve, for the three unconventional detectives, the bumbling, often corrupt police force or we as an audience, it’s a dense, compelling and very complex story with a lot of moving parts, well hidden clues and challenging story beats that demand attentiveness and force you to not look away, which is often an impulse in a horror story with so many atrocities marching across the screen (life, it seems, was incredibly rough for a good many people back then, especially in the Big Apple). The story pays a lot of attention to Kreisler’s deep fascination with the human condition, what makes a brain malfunction and cause the kind of behaviour we see here, and although one might get a little agitated at certain parts of the climax in the final episode, I believe that it wasn’t lazy storytelling but a very deliberate, unusual way to wrap up a story like this and says something important in the story arcs revolving around the human mind. The supporting cast is a rich, deep and rewarding patchwork quilt of young upcoming talent, familiar faces, brilliant cameos and veteran character actors. Brian Gerarty is perfectly cast as Teddy Roosevelt, commissioner of police and yes the same Roosevelt that would later go on to be President. Ted Levine earns sleaze points as Thomas Byrnes, the semi-retired chief of police who’s a slippery, untrustworthy devil with great influence over the worm of a new Captain Connor (David Wilmot, despicably good). Michael Ironside blusters in as a wealthy, powerful finance kingpin who is more disturbed by the ripple effect the killings have throughout the city than the actual murders themselves, as he sheepishly admits. Robert Wisdom and gorgeous Q’orianka Kilcher play loyal friends and pillars of Kreisler’s household, and the cast goes on with impressions from Sean Young, David Warner, Jackson Gann, Antonio Magro, Peter McRobbie, Bill Heck, Grace ‘Sarah Palmer’ Zabriskie and more. The heart of it lies with Brühl, Fanning and Evans though, who all three represent different factions of the human condition in various measure, from courage, compassion and intuition to persistence and empathy, their collective performances are spectacular and made me look at each artist in ways I never have, a hallmark of excellent, transformative work. I know there’s already clamour for a second season, and I want to see their further adventures as much as the next viewer, but I’m just as content with this season as it’s a standalone, beautifully bookended piece of work that thrives as a singular story, and is one of the best times I’ve had following a long-form series in a while.

-Nate Hill

Jeb Stuart’s Switchback

I’ve always really liked Jeb Stuart’s Switchback, despite it not being as taut a thriller or as well oiled a machine as it thinks it is, it’s one of those slightly Hitchcockian, well photographed and terrifically casted shockers that still services and sort of grows on you. I also remember, before ever being allowed to see stuff like this when I was really young, seeing a few short scenes of it on cable at my dad’s work and being riveted to the seat in fear and fascination as Danny Glover and Jared Leto drove through the night in the Rocky Mountains, each trying to out-creep the other. I had no idea what the film was, but years later I found the DVD and was reminded of those few short scenes I saw that had immense power on my still impressionable perception. The hook is that either Leto or Glover is the killer, and we’re saddled with an extended guessing game as they plough through snow covered highways and the tension mounts between them. Elsewhere, Dennis Quaid plays a stoic, relentless rogue FBI Agent whose infant son was kidnaped by the same killer a year or so before. His search leads him through a string of remote mountain towns where he clashes with local law enforcement and gradually gets closer to the murderer’s trail, which went cold a while back. It’s an odd, obtusely paced concept for a thriller that almost seems a bit muddled and reworked from something more succinct in the scriptwriting phase, but it’s one of those that you buy anyways simply because the cast and cinematography are so first rate. Quaid is cold and desolate as the Agent, hoarsely intoning his lines with enough intensity to implode a diamond, deliberately reigning in his usually charming persona and famous mile wide grin. Glover is boisterous, and just friendly enough that the creep factor sets in, while Leto plays naive and sensitive til we see through the facade (see how long it takes you to guess which is the killer). The late great R. Lee Ermey is excellent here in a rare soft spoken performance as a kindly local Sheriff who assists and befriends Quaid, even when it puts his badge at risk. Ted Levine shows up as his head deputy, and watch for Walton Goggins and underrated William Fichtner as an opposing candidate for Sheriff’s office. Like I said, this isn’t the crackling thriller it should be with all this talent onboard, it has its issues with a weirdly drawn plot and some clunky story beats. But when it works, it’s memorable, and you can’t beat intrigue set in the gorgeous Rockies, especially when there’s a tense freight train set piece involved. Fun, engaging, slight overall but definitely worth a watch.

-Nate Hill

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island 


Shutter Island is my favourite film by Martin Scorsese. Now, keep in mind that I still have yet to see heralded classics like Goodfellas and Raging Bull, but that being said I still feel like this clammy psychological opus would remain at the top of the charts. I’m a genre guy at heart, and as such gravitate towards that when watching any director’s work, I just feel more at home wading into fictitious, stylized thrillers than I do with earnest biopics or urban crime dramas, which aren’t always my thing to begin with. Shutter is a brilliant piece, a deliberately dense and serpentine mystery that unfolds step by delicious step, a gift to anyone who loves a good twist and plenty of clues to keep them engaged along the way. Not to mention it’s wonderfully acted, cleverly written and primed with emotional trauma to keep us invested in the puzzle beyond base curiosity. Leonardo DiCaprio is best when portraying intense, tormented people, and his US Marshal Teddy Daniels here is no exception, a haunted man who feels like a caged animal as he investigates the disappearance of a mental patient from a secluded island sanitarium, a place that just doesn’t seem right, with a mood in the air so oppressive you can almost feel the fog, both mental and meteorological, weighing you down. The patient, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer will send shivers up and down your spine) seems to have vaporized into thin air, and Teddy’s investigation leads to closed doors, uncooperative staff and a heightened level of dread that lurks beneath every hushed exchange of dialogue and fleeting glimpse at things he, and we, aren’t even sure he really saw. The head doctor (Ben Kingsley, excellent) is clearly hiding something, as is the austere asylum director (Max Von Sydow). The freaky Warden (terrific cameo from Ted Levine, who gets to deliver the film’s best written and most perplexing dialogue) babbles to Teddy in biblical platitudes, and the patients have run amok following a storm that compromised security. Needless to say the plot is deviantly constructed to constantly mess with the audience until the third act revelations, which come as less of a melodramatic thunderclap and more like a quiet, burning sorrow of realization, a tonal choice from Scorsese that hits you way harder. Scorsese has assembled a cast for the ages here, and besides who I’ve mentioned so far we also have Michelle Williams in disconcerting flashbacks as Teddy’s wife, so perfectly played I wish she got a nomination, creepy Elias Koteas as another phantasm from his past, John Carrol Lynch, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Earle Haley, Robin Bartlett and Patricia Clarkson. The score is a doom soaked death rattle courtesy of Robbie Robertson, not without it’s emotional interludes but thoroughly grievous. There’s also a beautifully slowed down version of ‘Cry’ by Johnnie Ray that accompanies the horrifying dream sequences within the film, adding to the already thick atmosphere nicely. This is a film built to last, both for dutiful rewatches from adoring veterans and discovery by lucky newcomers who get to experience it’s affecting story for the first time. All these boxer biopics, big city mafia ballads and heady stuff seems to have rolled off of me as far as Scorsese goes, I enjoy them, don’t get me wrong, but they’re a one-off as far as how many times I’ll watch them. Give me a well spun, emotionally rich psychological murder mystery with no shortage of style, character and tantalizing thriller elements, however, and I’ll pop that sucker back into the DVD player time and time again. Scorsese’s best effort by far. 

-Nate Hill

Disney’s Flubber: A Review by Nate Hill 

A remake of an old black and white Disney flick called The Absent Minded Professor that has long since gotten a bit stale, Flubber took all the best elements of that and breathed new 90’s life into the premise, most of the pep in its step coming from star Robin Williams. Keep in mind it was a critical bomb though, which just doesn’t make a shred of sense to me. It’s fun, lighthearted, hilarious and just a bit raunchy in places where it can pull it off. For whatever reason, it didn’t sit well with anyone other than fans like me who will furiously shove a copy in your face if we hear that you haven’t seen it. Williams is college professor Philip Brainard, who is so absent minded it borders on dementia.  He leaves his lovely fiance (Marcia Gay Harden) at the alter TWICE, prompting the advances of irksome college dean Shooter Mcgavi- I mean Christopher Mcdonald. He’s on a quest, you see, an obsessive quest to find the formula for… something. That something turns up after a destructive whirlwind of disasters in his basement lab, and in the form of Flubber, a lovable ball of green goo, infected with incurable ADHD and an inexhaustible sense of humour. While the utter the life of the party, Flubber does have its practical uses, such as making cars fly and turning the hopeless varsity basketball team into a bunch of flying Tasmanian devils who nail every dunk. This all gets the attention of insidious local philanthropist and lowlife Chester Hoenicker (Raymond J. Barry) who greedily wants the discovery for his own. He sends his two goons Smith (Ted Levine) and Wesson (Clancy Brown) to rob Brainard of his precious sentient mucous, which turns into one of the most hilarious displays of slapstick comedy since the Three Stooges. Oh, did I mention Williams has a little flying UFO sidekick named Weebo, who has a perfect GIF reaction to everything, before GIF’s were even a thing? So much to love about this little classic. Williams is his usual buoyant self, with some of his trademark razor focus diminished in favor of doe eyed, vacuous forgetfulness that would make Jason Bourne guilty for ever whining about his predicament. Special effects are top drawer too, Flubber would look dapper in Blu Ray if they ever felt so inclined as to release one, not to mention aforementioned airborne automobiles and dear little Weebo. Can’t give enough glowing praise to this little treasure, and hiss enough venom towards those sourpuss critics who assaulted it. Flubber for the win.   

The Last Outlaw: A review by Nate Hill

  

The Last Outlaw is a revenge themed western written by Eric Red, and if you’re at all familiar with his other works (he also penned The Hitcher and Near Dark), you’ll have some idea of how bloody and intense it is. It’s a smile story populated by hard bitten, gruff sons of bitches, and the violence comes fast and hard from all directions as soon as a few backs are stabbed, and several ravenous tempers ignited. Often in westerns the violence is clipped and minimal, the damage which a six gun does to flesh oddly shirked in favour of theatricality. This one has no use for that, and messily displays exactly what such a weapon does to people, repeatedly and with no discretion. It’s rough, gritty, Walter Hill style stuff, with not a trace of levity, smash or buckle, and every character kicking up dirt and anger the whole time. The film opens with a daring bank robbery, executed by former civil war Colonel Graff (Mickey Rourke), and his brutal gang. Their victory turns sour when mutiny looms among them in the form of Graff’s second in command, Eustos (Dermot Mulroney). He can’t abide by Graff’s sadistic methods, and bitterly betrays him. The rest is a bullet ridden cat and mouse game in the dusty deserts and shanty towns of the southwest, as the bodies pile up and the blood spatters in the dirt time and time again. Rourke is an implosive, grade A dickhead as Graff, a man less concerned with the fruits of his labor and more driven by the desire to exact violent retribution. One wonders if that’s what he’s in the game for anyway, to bide his time until something goes amiss, and the revel in the carnage. The supporting cast is just epic, with work from Steve Buscemi, Ted Levine, Paul Ben Victor, Richard Fancy, John C. McGinley and Keith David. It’s essentially one big stylish bloodbath, a pulpy ride through the gutter of arrogant machismo. Terrific fun, if that’s your thing. 

Bullet: A Review by Nate Hill 

Bullet is a violent cautionary tale about what it means to live a life of crime in New York City’s brutal Hell’s Kitchen, to live (and die) with all the baggage and tragedy that comes along with it. Mickey Rourke is excellent as Butch Stein, a pathetic yet somehow endearing Jewish American hoodlum locked in a personal war with local drug dealer and gangster Tank (Tupac Shakur). Butch still lives with his family, and spends his nights slumming about with slick wannabe wiseguy Lester (John Enos III) and his gangly brother Ruby (Adrien Brody). One gets the feeling that all of them are essentially still little kids who never learned to grow up or use their words, but the sandbox they’re squabbling in now is a dangerous area of town, and their toys are heavy artillery. Butch has another brother, a reclusive weirdo played phenomenally by Ted Levine. He’s distant and strange, but there’s breaks of clarity that shine through, and in those moments he’s pretty much the voice of reason amongst all the tomfoolery that adds to the mortality rate in their district. Levine is unique and shelters the gold in his work until right at the end, letting off an emotional stinger of a cap to his performance that is yet another testament to his skill. Rourke broods through his work with sombre self loathing and a grim resolve, dead set in his ways, perhaps unable to live his life differently, and feeling helpless at the road he’s taken, a dark one that has strayed far from what might have been. Tupac’s role is somewhat underwritten, which isn’t quite fair to the guy, because he has more acting talent than pretty much any other rapper I’ve seen in film. Reduced to a mostly a jive talk sterotype gangsta antagonist, I would have liked to see them allow him to level with Rourke in a way that made their locking horns seem a little bit more than just a petty turf war. Director Julien Temple comes from a music video background, and transitions nicely into the world of the urban crime drama, shooting the seedy NYC locales with glittery precision that suggests festering rot below. It’s an anti-crime film, and I’m always curious to see if such a sentiment is undone by the glorification of such a lifestyle, intentional or otherwise (it’s easy to get caught up in sensation and cinematics, losing sight of what you set out to say in the first place). This one stays true to its word, showing us characters who have irreparably lost their way, and assuring bullet by bullet, death by death, that this isn’t any kind of life for anyone. Searing stuff.