Tag Archives: Vera Farmiga

Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared

On the DVD DVD cover of Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared, Pete Hammond of Maxim raves that it “makes Kill Bill look like Sesame Street.” That’s one way to put it. I’m sure he didn’t mean to blunt the edge of Tarantino’s film, he was just trying to articulate what a balls out, terrifying, kick-in-the-nuts experience this is. It’s one of the most brilliant pieces of crime filmmaking from recent years and one of my all time favourites, a dark, bloody urban fairytale that surges through a nocturnal ballad of explicit violence, mob war-games, monstrous characters and a performance from Paul Walker that has to be seen to be believed, and I mean that in the best way possible.

He plays Joey Gazelle here, a Jersey mob soldier who loses a very important gun left in his possession following a rigorous shootout with a gang of corrupt narcs who raided their drug deal. The kid next door (Cameron Bright) has snatched the pistol from his basement, used it to plug his heinously abusive Russian stepfather (Karel Roden) and disappeared into the night with it. This presents Joey and everyone else with no end of problems; if the surviving narcs, the Russian mafia or anyone else manage to get ahold of it, he and his colleagues are done for. It’s one of those hectic, delirious, ‘run all night through the city films’ where seemingly anything can, and does happen. It’s a mad dash through a town filled with freaks, monsters, corruption and the hum of barbaric nighttime activity. Poor Oleg, after stealing the gun, is launched from the frying pan into a city on fire with danger around every corner, the cops relentlessly on his tail headed up by Chazz Palminteri’s devilish Det. Rydell, plus both Joey and his wife Theresa (Vera Farmiga) looking for him too. Among the threatening figures he meets are a nasty, cartoonish pimp (David Warshofsky), feral crackheads, a sympathetic hooker (Idalis DeLeon) and two horrific child abusing kidnapper/murderers (Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell, forever in my head now as these characters) who are so messed up that the mid film sequence devoted to them is the ultimate barometer in discerning whether you can take what this film has to offer or wish to tap out of the chokehold it locks you in. One thing that’s always apparat: this isn’t just commotion flung at a wall, despite feeling that way some of the time. This is intricate, well spun storytelling that’s shot, edited and colour timed in ways that vividly bring all of this to life. One need only look as the unsettling, surreal animated credits to see that this isn’t just your average action crime film, but very well thought out, very specific and a piece that pushes the envelope to bring us something special.

Walker gives the best work of his sadly short career here, he’s energetic, in the moment and completely fired up to the edge of mania where he quite literally has to stop and take a breath at one point. Farmiga is the same, fearsome in the maternal instinct she has for Oleg, she reaches a level of scary when encountering the aforementioned pedophiles that will leave your adrenal glands in go mode. The film is chock full of outright dastardly motherfuckers, as if Kramer plumbed the depths of Hollywood hell for the worst of the worst villain stock in the stable, removed their leashes and muzzles and turned them loose in his film. Warshofsky is Joker material as the pimp, clad in an immaculate white suit and cheerful in threatening both women and children with a shiny switchblade. Johnny Messner is pure evil as Joey’s gangster boss Tommy, Arthur Nascarella channelling his inner Goodfellas as his dad and the Don of their operations. Roden is a sinister force of nature as Anzor, the nasty Russian stepfather with a meth habit and one unhealthy obsession with John Wayne, while Lord Of The Rings’s John Noble is impossibly sadistic as Ivan, head of the Russian syndicate. The women in the film are all an angelic and comforting presence, from Farmiga to the hooker (pay attention to the colour of her dress) to Ivana Milicivec as Oleg’s tragic mother, they serve as refuge from the night’s storm as best they can. It seems like I’ve described a lot here or spoiled some things but really I’ve only scratched the surface of this piece. It’s so fresh, potent and full of life that experiencing everything I’ve just laid out for yourself will feel absolutely new and invigorating, if daunting at the sheer titanic level of unpleasant human behaviour on display like a twisted circus trundling by, showcasing the dark underside of urban Americana.

Kramer has stated that he wanted to make the kind of gritty film you might have seen playing in the 70’s, and if anything he has fiercely committed to the adage ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to.’ This film is unique in excess, style and atmosphere, from the assured yet riotous direction to the pitch perfect, profanity laced performances to the eerie, pulp infused score by Mark Isham. I don’t think people were quite ready for this film when it came out because it earned itself some very hostile reviews. I think that comes with the territory in a story this extreme, it’s just not going to be everyone’s thing, but many confuse personal taste with quality, and this is in no way a bad film but perhaps just ahead of its time. For me it’s already a classic, a film I’ve probably seen over thirty times since being awed and slightly scared speechless after the first round in theatres. I think I didn’t know what I was in for based on marketing, and the experience I got both humbled and terrified me at what is possible through visual storytelling. I think that’s one of the best effects a film can have on you. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

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John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes

John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes is a mean, fucked up movie and I love it’s sketched out, darkly satirical edge, its a ruthless sendup of the media that plays like Network by way of Natural Born Killers. America is the land of opportunity, especially for those with sinister intentions, as two nasty Eastern European criminals (Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov) find out when they step off the boat in New York and almost immediately begin committing heinous acts of wanton violence and murder, filming it with a cheap camcorder and selling the footage to a tabloid news station run by sleazy anchorman Kelsey Grammar. Robert DeNiro angers it up as an alcoholic, loose cannon homicide cop on the trail of these two lunatics and chasing a bit of limelight for himself. It’s a hopped up, very stylized premise that gets the down n’ dirty, highly lurid treatment and doesn’t have much to put in a positive light, but as a farcical thriller it really works. DeNiro gets reasonable facetime and kills it but isn’t in the showcase arc you’d usually see, while Ed Burns plays an arson investigator (“you’re just a fireman with a badge”) who works alongside him. The real star here is Roden though as the chief baddie, a breakout performance as the worst kind of villain, one who isn’t necessarily after anything but just wants to fuck your shit up real bad for fun and then exploit the joke of a legal system and walk scott free. “I love America, nobody is responsible for what they do” he purrs at Burns, and there’s a stinging grain of truth to that. The cast is killer here with work from Vera Farmiga, Martha Plimpton, Melinda Kanakaredes, David Alan Grier, Anton Yelchin, Avery Brooks, Kim Cattrall, Paul Herman, Ritchie Coster and a cool cameo from Charlize Theron. Don’t expect much of an uplift or positive note anywhere here, it’s a thoroughly ill spirited, maladjusted story, but like the messed up crime scenes these two antagonists drum up simply for exposure, it’s kind of hard not to look away or enjoy yourself through pure morbid fascination alone.

-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

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

Safe House: A Review by Nate Hill 

Safe House is cut from the same cloth as many a spy movie, but this horse doesn’t have quite as much piss and vinegar as other ones in the stable, notably the Bourne trilogy. It’s more of a slow burn, peppered with a few purposeful action sequences and quite a lot of time spent with Denzel Washington’s world weary spook Tobin Frost, a veteran operative who has gone severely rogue after escaping the grasp of a nasty CIA interrogator (Robert Patrick). He’s soon in the hands of rookie agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) who has been left to guard an agency safe house in Europe, now overrun with shadowy special ops dudes out to snuff Frost. The two of them are forced on the run together, and attempt to smoke out those behind the chaos, who turn out to be a little closer to home than they thought (don’t they always, in these types of movies?). Weston is young, naive and idealistic, Frost is bitter, jaded and ready to burn the agency down around him for what his career has made him do. They’re a formulaic pair made believable by the two actors, both putting in admirable work. Brendan Gleeson is great as Westons’s dodgy handler, Vera Farmiga shows moral conflict in those perfect blue eyes as another paper pusher in Langley, and Sam Shepherd smarms it up as the CIA top dog. It was nice to see Ruben Blades as well, who doesn’t work nearly enough, and watch for a sly cameo from Liam Cunningham as an ex MI6 agent. It’s not the greatest or the most memorable film, but it does the trick well enough, has a satisfying R rated edge to its violence and benefits from Washington being nice and rough around the edges. There’s a downbeat quality to it to, as Weston watches the futility inherent in the life of a spy unfold in Frost’s actions, which are leading nowhere but a self inflicted dead for a cause that’s bigger than both of them, but ultimately leaves them in the dust. Solid, if just above average stuff.