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No One Can Hear You Scream: Nate’s Top Ten Horror Films set in Space

If space really is the final frontier then there’s going to be all sorts of scary shit lurking out there we’ve never heard of, a notion that Hollywood has taken full advantage of in exploring the SciFi genre. The chief threat would of course be extraterrestrials and naturally loads of fun films have been done on that but I also like to observe how it’s branched out into things like rogue A.I., evil alternate dimensions or haunted planets for some really imaginative ventures. Here are my top ten personal favourites!

10. Christian Dugay’s Screamers

This one’s pretty cool, if a bit low budget and schlocky. So basically in a distant galaxy there’s an interplanetary war going on for decades and one side invents something called Screamers to hunt their foe and turn the tide. They’re self replicating, blade wielding, problem solving machines called Screamers but eventually they get too smart and instead of just hunting down enemy forces they pretty much go after anything that moves, not to mention start evolving themselves and it’s up to one squadron of soldiers to wipe them out. The creatures themselves are actually pretty frightening and man do they ever scream so it makes for a neat horror flick. Plus Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller plays the military commander and you can never go wrong with him.

9. Rand Ravich’s The Astronaut’s Wife

This is admittedly an odd choice because of its hour and forty minute runtime only about ten minutes is actually set in space, and only just above the earth’s atmosphere. However, the ambiguous evil force that astronaut Johnny Depp encounters there infects and follows him back down to the surface and the resulting film has an exceedingly unearthly feel to it. Charlize Theron classes up the joint as the titular wife whose keen intuition red flags his creepy behaviour early on and adds tension to the proceedings. Tom Noonan, Joe Morton, Donna Murphy, Nick Cassavetes and Clea Duvall add further pedigree as well. This is a critically shunned film for the most part but I enjoy it, there’s a slick Rosemary’s Baby vibe, Depp and Theron do very well in their roles and the otherworldly presence, although felt and never seen, is apparent in every shadowy frame.

8. Andrej Bartkowiak’s Doom

You can all fight me on this one. It’s a shit film no doubt, but I consider it hella great entertainment, even if it has little to nothing in common with the games. Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban leading a team of rowdy marines on a Martian extermination mission? Yes please. Rosamund Pike as a sexy scientist? Absolutely. Never mind that we only see actual Martian landscape for a ten second establishing shot, that can be forgiven when I consider the bitchin’ soundtrack, hardcore creature gore, wicked cool first person shooter sequence and scene stealing supporting work from cult favourite Richard Brake as the obligatory perverted loudmouth mercenary in their ranks.

7. John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars

Another Martian outing yay! And another universally reviled film that I absolutely love double yay!! In case you haven’t noticed by now I’m trying not to always aim for the obvious choices here, which can be controversial. However, I will never compromise and choose a film that I don’t like just to be contrary, these choices genuinely reflect my taste and I own them. This film is a heavy metal induced bundle of fun, a B movie western gem that doesn’t take itself too seriously, has a solid cast, gnarly SFX makeup and one headbanger of a score from Anthrax. Plus, Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube make one badass buddy team-up to take down vengeful Martian spirits possessing the corpses of slaughtered miners.

6. Jim Isaac’s Jason X

Jason Voorhees in space!! This is one of my favourite franchise entries, mostly because of Jason’s epic new gear upgrade and also the awesome cameo from David Cronenberg who, yes, gets mauled by our hero. Jason has been in cryogenic suspension for hundreds of years and awakens in the 25th century to wreck havoc aboard a spaceship full of intergalactic college students. You pretty much improve any franchise by making one that’s set in space but you also have to have a fun production to back up the concept (check out Leprechaun in space for a failed example) and this one is dope. Foxy Lexa Doig from Continuum makes a cool Final Girl, there’s a spectacularly gruesome kill involving liquid nitrogen and two slutty camper chicks get what may be the best lines of the whole series. Also, Jason just looks so fly here with his space grade machete and chromed up super-mask.

5. David Twohy’s Pitch Black

This launched the epic Riddick franchise that I will always champion and went on to traverse space opera, animation and video game territory but the catalyst is this lean, mean creature feature showcasing Vin Diesel in probably his best role. As a ragtag crew m crash lands on a distant world with three suns, all about to plunge the planet into nighttime for months, while hordes of vicious extraterrestrial predators who can’t stand light come crawling out of caverns to hunt. Perfect timing right? Riddick & Co must set aside their dysfunctions and work together to fight back, survive and repair a damaged ship so they can ditch this dangerous rock for good. It’s good old fashioned mid level budget SciFi horror fun, before the series took off and soared to new heights in the equally fun but different Chronicles Of Riddick.

4. Christian Alvert’s Pandorum

This film was overlooked and I can somewhat see why. It’s a horror to be sure but there’s a quiet, contemplative nature to the exposition and I think people weren’t expecting something so complex as opposed to a straight up deep space monster flick. Two astronauts (Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster) awaken on a mammoth derelict space station stranded somewhere among the stars. Where were they headed? Where’s the rest of the crew? What are those chilling animalistic noises emanating from the hallways? This is a fun, frightening one to figure out, it’s got truly freaky creatures, a weird psychological aspect and one kicker of an ending.

3. Tobe Hoopers’s Lifeforce

Who doesn’t love vampires from space?! This one is a real oddity, cobbled together with various elements and ideas but dementedly committed to its singular vision and as a result comes out an inspired winner and one of the absolute weirdest SciFi flicks out there. Steve Railback leads a team of astronauts who discover slumbering bloodsuckers about a gigantic alien craft, which they very foolishly bring back to earth. Cue rampant chaos, global collapse and some extremely unsettling zombified makeup effects. Oh, and Patrick Stewart too. Grab the boutique Blu Ray if you can find it, I promise you there’s noting out there quite like it.

2. Paul WS Anderson’s Event Horizon

One of the spookiest and most infamous horrors ever made sees a salvage crew attempt the rescue of a missing prototype spaceship that somehow got itself into a black hole and brought back the entire Hellraiser universe with it. This one is unapologetically gory, over the top and filled with enough grisly images to make even die hards nervous.

1. The Alien Quadrilogy

I know I know, it’s cheating to give one spot on the list to four films but they really do feel intrinsically linked as one saga. Ridley Scott’s atmospheric, suspenseful initial shocker. James Cameron’s rootin tootin mercenary safari action blowout follow up. David Fincher’s deliberately unsettling, nihilistic prison flick threequel. Jean Pierre Jeunet’s ultra gooey, deadpan entry packed with ooze, one liners, character actors and deranged alien lore. They’re four very different films set against the same template and idea of this Xenomorph but honestly they are all brilliant in their own way and I couldn’t pick a favourite. The haunted, silent corridors hiding unseen horror that Scott gave us. Cameron’s lovable, rambunctious squad of colonial marines teaming up with Ripley and scene stealing Newt. The acrid, eerie penitentiary world Ripley finds herself clawing for life on in Fincher’s nightmarish vision. That horrific Butterfly alien hybrid and the original blueprint for Joss Whedon’s Firefly Space pirates led by Michael fuckin’ Wincott and Ron friggin Perlman in Jeunet’s funhouse of gore and dark comedy. Just so, so much to love.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more!

-Nate Hill

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Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten Gary Oldman Performances

Gary Oldman is both one of my personal favourite actors and an absolute champion of the craft, an adaptable master of any role thrown at him who can take words on a page and lift them to magnificent heights in his work. Intense, implosive, focused, hard working and super dynamic in front of a camera, he’s always an actor to watch and an undisputed master of his craft. I love each and every performance this man has given us so far in a brilliantly diverse career, but here are the ten characters that stand out the most for me:

10. Charlie Strom in Sin

Bear with me on this one. Like any actor, Gary has appeared in a few duds, and overall this happens to be one of them *but* his performance in it is fantastic. Ving Rhames plays a tough ex cop whose sister (Kerry Washington) is raped and brutalized on Oldman’s orders as some kind of underworld porn king. A deadly game of cat and mouse ensues in which Rhames seeks revenge for the atrocity but discovers that Oldman targeted him for reasons of his own going back into both their pasts. It’s a decent script given the scrappy low budget treatment but Oldman’s tormented villain is worth sitting through for. He has a conversation with Rhames midway through the film that gets philosophical in nature and overall he just nails the haunted persona of this role.

9. O.W. Grant in Bob Gale’s Interstate 60

This is a playful role in one heinously overlooked hidden gem. Essentially an existential road trip movie with supernatural elements and enough cameos to launch a pilot, Gary plays a mysterious genie like deity who grants everyone he sees one wish by blowing green smoke from his monkey shaped pipe. He also has no reproductive organs, as a hitchhiking nymphomaniac chick hilariously discovers. It’s light, easygoing work from the actor who isn’t doing any heavy lifting with the performance yet still makes a terrific comedic impact and seems like he’s having a lot of fun.

8. George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

John Le Carré’s chilly Cold War thriller sees Oldman take on the role of an MI6 lieutenant embroiled in the treacherous search for a soviet spy amongst his own ranks. Restrained and opaque, one begins to see the keen scrutiny hiding behind the character’s initially withdrawn nature. When an event causes him to almost lose that composure, he expertly shows the emotions bursting forth and the efforts to keep them within, reaching a pitch perfect note of performance that gets better and more detailed every time you revisit the film.

7. Jackie Flannery in Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace

One of the great crime dramas he has taken on, this one sees him play a volatile, unstable Irish gangster in NYC’s brutal Hell’s Kitchen, stick between his mob boss older brother (Ed Harris) and childhood friend (Sean Penn) who is now an undercover cop infiltrating their ranks. With a mop of greasy hair and the mannerisms of an untrained dog let off the leash, this is a ballistic tornado of a characterization with childlike notes, a good dose of rambunctious restlessness and primal violent nature uncaged.

6. Sirius Black in Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban

From the moment we see gaunt, haunted eyed convict Black onscreen Gary makes him a magnetic, spooky presence to be reckoned with. Even before that we see him howling out of moving wanted posters in Diagon Alley and off the front page of the Daily Prophet. Oldman makes juxtaposed genius out of his work here and the shift from scary fugitive to compassionate friend and mentor to Harry is handled beautifully. It’s also nice to see him and fellow British thespian David Thewlis collectively chewing scenery, they have palpable chemistry and I’d love to see a buddy cop thing with them one day, or something like that.

5. Jack Grimaldi in Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding

The ultimate corrupt cop, Oldman’s Jack is a loose cannon dirtbag who discovers that his ways have consequences when his life is made into a living hell by terrifying femme fatale Mona Demarkhov (Lena Olin) and ruthless mafia don Falcone (Roy Schneider). He inhabits the sweaty, desperate neo-noir palette of this great film very well, especially in sly, mournful voiceover as he literally narrates his own story as if it didn’t happen to him.

4. Dracula In Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola outdoes himself with this lavish, baroque piece of eye candy that for me is the best film version of Dracula ever made, likewise for Gary’s knockout performance as the titular vampire king. He has several incarnations here from armoured Transylvanian knight to skeletal senior citizen to dashing foreign prince to full on nine foot gorilla werewolf hell-beast thing and he rocks each one with full blooded embodiment and spectacular verve. Surrounded by solid players like Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Sadie Frost, Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes, Richard E. Grant and Tom Waits in an encore as the lunatic Renfield, this is a magnificent dark jewel of a film and a horror masterpiece.

3. James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises

The actor goes inward here for a fierce, gritty turn as the legendary police commissioner, giving the character all the salt of the earth integrity and brooding charisma we could hope to get. In a career full of extravagant portrayals and amidst a trilogy riddled with flamboyant villains and people who dress up in costumes, ironically he gets to play the most down to earth and level headed guy, comparatively. His Gordon is a straight arrow cop who is fallible, tactical and compassionate.

2. Drexl Spivey in Tony Scott’s True Romance

A white pimp who thinks he’s black, this has to be the single most impactful performance ever filmed that only takes up one five minute scene and another brief thirty second one. Dreadlocks, gnarly scars, a dead eye, leopard print housecoat, this guy couldn’t be more visually ridiculous but for all the flourish and swagger, it’s Gary’s mannerisms that shine through and win the day. The goal of his scene is essentially to circle and intimidate Christian Slater before pouncing on him like a pissed off coyote, and he succeeds in freaking him out plus the rest of the world watching on their screens. This film is filled with memorable moments scene after scene but his mad dog portrayal of this reprehensibly hilarious Detroit gutter-rat piece of shit stands out.

1. Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Leon The Professional

I’m not sure what Besson’s direction to Oldman was in playing this spectacularly corrupt DEA agent but he kind of just runs off and does his own thing to the point where other actors in the scene look scared of him for real. Casually homicidal, easily distracted, highly unstable and so intense he frequently goes red in the face, this is a villain that would frighten most others into submission. Contrasted with Jean Reno’s and Natalie Portman’s more contemplative performances he’s the wild card of this tale and fills it to the brim with madness, firepower, dark humour and that trademark white suit that you better not get blood on or he’ll shoot you after he’s already killed you in a crazed tantrum of scenery chewing that only Gary Oldman is capable of.

Thanks for reading ! Please share you favourite Gary Oldman performances as well!

-Nate Hill

Andrew Niccol’s S1mone 


Andrew Niccol’s S1mone is social satire at its cheeriest, a pleasant, endearing dissection of Hollywood mania and celebrity obsession that only hints at the level of menace one might achieve with the concept. It’s less of a cautionary tale and more of a comedic fable, and better for it too. In a glamorous yet used up Hollywood, mega producer Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino with some serious pep in his step) needs to give his enterprise a makeover. His go-to star (Winona Ryder) is a preening diva who drives him up the wall, and there seems to be a glaring absence of creative juice in his side of the court. Something cutting edge, something brand new and organic, something no one else has. But what? Simone, that’s what. After finding clandestine software left behind by a deceased Geppeto-esque computer genius (Elias Koteas, excellent), he downloads what lies within, and all manner of mayhem breaks loose. The program was designed to create the perfect virtual reality woman, flawless and capable in every way, including that of the cinematic thespian. Viktor sees this as gold and treats it as such, carefully introducing Simone (played by silky voiced model Rachel Roberts) to an unsuspecting film industry who are taken by storm and smitten. Simone can tirelessly churn out five oscar worthy performances in a month, never creates on set drama, whips up scandals or demands pay raises. She’s the answer to everyone’s problem, except for the one issue surrounding her very presence on the screen: she isn’t actually real. This creates a wildly hysterical dilemma for Pacino, a fiery Catherine Keener as a fellow executive, and everyone out there who’s had the wool pulled over their starry eyes. It’s the kind of tale we’d expect from Barry Levinson or the like, a raucously funny, warmhearted, pithily clever send up of the madness that thrives in the movie industry every day. There’s all manner of cameos and supporting turns including Evan Rachel Wood, Jay Mohr, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Schwartzman, Rebecca Romjin and the late Daniel Von Bargen as a detective who cheekily grills Pacino when things get real and the masses want answers. This is fairy tale land in terms of plausibility, but it’s so darn pleasant and entertaining that it just comes off in a relatable, believable manner. Pacino is having fun too, a frenzied goofball who tries his damnedest to safeguard his secret while harried on all sides by colleagues and fans alike. Roberts is sensual and symmetrical as the computer vixen, carefully walking a tightrope between robotic vocation and emoting, essentially playing an actress pretending to be an actress who isn’t even human, no easy task. It’s a breezy package that’s never too dark or sobering, yet still manages to show the twisted side of a famously strange industry. Great stuff. 

 -Nate Hill

J.J. Abram’s Star Trek: A Review by Nate Hill 

I’ve never really been a trekkie my whole life. Didn’t grow up with the television series and haven’t actively explored it later in life. When the announcement came that wonder-kid JJ Abrams would be taking on the lofty overhaul of a remake, I didn’t freak out or anything. In fact I waited quite a while before seeing it in theatres, dragged along by a buddy who talked it up quite a bit. Well, it was amazing, and still is. Nothing gets you pumped and makes your heart ache quite as much as that epic ten prologue, starring an intrepid Chris Hemsworth who selflessly saves the lives of everyone onboard his ship, including his newborn son, James T. Kirk. When your eyes flood with tears in the first few minutes of a film, it’s always a good sign. Abrams ushered in Star Trek for the new generation, and I imagine strived to keep core elements like friendship, cameraderie and wonder alive as well. Chris Pine makes one hell of a Kirk, but then he’s one of the best in his age group these days. Cocky, belligerent, dysfunctional, impulsive and recklessly brave, he’s the perfect opposing force to Zachary Quinto’s calculated, logical, no nonsense Spock, who goes through quite a wringer when his entire world is decimated by rogue Romulan extremist Nero, played by a sensational Eric Bana. Both Kirk and Spock are no stranger to loss, being affected and reacting to it in different ways. Their initial rivalry tangles into the beginning of a friendship, hinted at by Leonard Nimoy’s Spock Prime, visiting Quinto from far in the future (time travel, baby). The plot and character motivations are in fact mostly about loss and anger; Nero himself is driven by grief which has morphed into poisonous hatred, willing to inflict hurt a thousand fold in return for what happened to his people. Bana finds the wounded areas of Nero, and uses the trademark Romulun leer to cover them up in violent fury. There must always be comic relief too, and when the banter between the two heroes gets too dark, the spotlight shifts to chipper Scotty (Simon Pegg) and a brilliant Karl Urban as Leonard ‘Bones’ Mccoy, the ship’s neurotic doctor. Urban is cast heavily against type in the liveliest role he’s ever been thrown, and clearly loves every antsy second of it. John Cho makes a formidable Sulu, and the sadly departed Anton Yelchin charms the pants off of everyone with his priceless russian accent. Clifton Collins Jr. and Jennifer Morrison are great as well. Abrams loves to cast beloved actors from bygone eras in these things (I peed a little when Peter Weller showed up in the sequel), so keep a look out for terrific work from Ben Cross and Winona Ryder as Spock’s parents. Bruce Greenwood is nobility incarnate as Commander Pike, the kindly captain who sees the potential in Kirk and paternally attempts to clear the wreckage of his personality, dust it off and make something out of him. The special effects and set pieces are a dizzying dream of nonstop adrenaline. The opener I mentioned before, a show stopping fight scene atop a giant chain miles above the surface of a planet, the hair raising arrival of Nero’s ship (it looks like some horrific giant space beetle) and a chase across a snowy tundra pursued by an evil Yeti Muppet thing are highlights that demonstrate how effective and useful CGI can be when implemented properly. For all its razzle dazzle though, Star Trek is ultimately about relationships between different beings (human or other), the ways in which they deal with tragedy, love one another, learn to coexist, help those in need and most importantly, explore the wonders of the universe around them. I admire the fact that in a huge Sci Fi blockbuster such as this, those kind of themes and qualities come first. We are all made of stars, and inward exploration of the ones that reside in us and how they make us what we are is just as essential as the world’s that lie millions of light years away, awaiting our arrival. JJ understands this, and I offer him a well earned Starfleet salute for it.  

Netflix’s Stranger Things: A Review by Nate Hill 

Netflix’s Stranger Things snuck up and floored me. You’d think that a long form mystery series concocted from the DNA of Amblin/ET/Goonies and retro, gooey Stephen King horror would have made a significant blip on my radar months in advance, but nope. That almost made watching it even more special; this wasnt something I’d spent oodles of time hyping up and thinking about (which often leads to expectations being dashed). It came out of the blue and knocked me sideways six ways to Sunday. I came home one night with the notion to check out the pilot before I went to bed. I fell deeply in love within the first ten minutes, and slashed my curfew to bits as I devoured about half the season in one go, hitting stop only because I would have been depressed to wake up the following morning and have no more to watch. I took the next day off work to finish up the remaining episodes, after which I sat there in a gaping stupor. I’ve since rewatced it all again. Yes, it’s that good. It’s not just the nostalgia bursting at the seams that suckered me in. This is is a show with a meticulous pace where you feel every beat naturally, some of the most fleshed out characters of recent times that you actually really CARE about, and a wondrous story relating to fear of the unknown, the bonds of friendships both new and old, redemption in the face of ages old trauma and grief, a reverence to all things creepy & crawly, an understanding of the importance fear holds in both our entertainment and collective psyches and above all, a sense of adventure. As soon as the retro opening credits flared up, I knew I was in for something special. They’re a flurry of neon letters that assemble in fashion and font achingly similar to King’s books, set to an ominous synth rhapsody that echoes everything from Refn to Sinoia Cave’s Beyond The Black Rainbow. Immediately we are transported to a setting drawn forth from the past and the nightmares of many other artists before it’s time, which is not to say it’s at all derivitive or lazy. That’s the issue with deliberatly nostalgic stuff: it can come across as forced or cheap novelty trying to play to our sentimental sides. This one uses it naturally and never feels like a gimmick for one second. What’s amazing is that despite the fact that nearly every element of story it uses has been done before multiple times throughout the years, it all somehow feels completely new, and never once leans on the crutch of inspiration any harder than it has to, which in this day and age deserves a goddamn medal. The story opens up in small town Hawkins, Indiana, sometime in the mid 80’s. Just outside of town, trouble brews deep within a mysterious CIA sanctioned research laboratory. A dangerous portal is opened, something from another dimension gets out, a girl with telepathic abilities named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) escapes into the town, and young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears without a trace from his home. All this happens in the first half hour, kicking off a well timed wind chime of inciting incidents to get the tale underway. The town is thrown into a panic as Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) frantically searches for him. The forlorn, sad sack police chief Hopper (David Harbour, beyond excellent in so many ways) tries to reign in the growing mania, but the situation only gets worse. Will’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) witnesses another disappearance, and Eleven finds herself hiding out with Will’s endearing gang of buddies (Finn Wolfhard, Caleb Mclaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo), who valiantly launch a quest to ensure his safe return from the netherworld. Meanwhile, the laboratory’s sinister, silver haired head Doctor Brenner (a chilling Matthew Modine) is an amoral prick who will stop at nothing to get Eleven back and continue his godawful experiments. It’s a hell of a lot crammed into eight hours, but not a second is wasted, not a scene or a line of dialogue misplaced. Everything glides smoothly and the whole thing is so joyously watchable that I had trouble even thinking about picking up my phone or reaching for the iPad (I’m easily distracted). There’s teen drama, heartbreaking tragedy, first love, palpable danger without being too gory or messed up, and damn if the Spielberg/King flavour isn’t just delactable. The monster is a gooey, walking Venus fly trap that instills real fear in the opening moments of the pilot. The ideas explored are presented in ways that would make both the X Files and Twilight Zone jealous. My favourite performance has to be Brown as Eleven. Of all the child roles hers is the most difficult to land and she’s a revelation. Seeing the world outside the facility with new eyes, falling for Wolfhard, protecting her newfound friends, it’s all handled impeccably and I think we can expect great things from this young actress. David Harbour has consistently shown versatility in anything he does, and when one looks at his role here contrasted against work in, say, A Walk Among The Tombstones, it’s uncanny. His arc goes from sheepish to badass to tragic and he positively soars. Modine channels the very essence of King style villains, over pronouncing every syllable with poised venom on the tongue and cloaked malice oozing from every pore. Ryder works herself up into a frenzy that any mother must feel in the situation, and it’s just great to see her in a central role in anything these days. The kids provide heart and levity, proving wise beyond their years to the point of Calvin & Hobbes esque insight, yet still maintaining their innocence in the face of peril. Not only does the soundtrack showcase a whole whack of 80’s treasures (that Joy Division tho♡), the score itself by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is a love letter to everything from Tangerine Dream to Cliff Martinez, evoking the setting beautifully and bringing forth atmosphere in scene after scene after scene. Stranger Things lovingly blows a trumpet of times past, wears it’s influences proudly and unobtrusively on its sleeve and brilliantly blazes it’s own trail. There are monsters out there, both human and otherwise. Never give up hope, not matter how bleak the prognosis. There’s still some wonder and unknown to be discovered in this world of ours (and beyond). Redemption is only a few daring acts around the bend. Kindness goes a long way, as does trust. Friends don’t lie. These are but a few things you’ll discover if you give this one a shot, which I hope you will. Bring on Season 2, man.

REALITY BITES – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The early to mid-1990s was a period of time when popular culture was dominated by Generation X, from films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990) to Douglas Copeland’s book, Generation X to the massive popularity of Seattle music spearheaded by Nirvana. During this decade three films were made that provided a fascinating spectrum of how this generation was depicted. On one end, there was Linklater’s low-budget independent film. On the opposite end there was the glossy, studio picture Reality Bites (1993). Somewhere in between was Singles (1992), which shared the big studio backing of Reality Bites but with the authenticity of Slacker.

I can remember when I first saw Reality Bites, I hated it. I had recently seen and was blown away by Slacker, which felt so authentic. In comparison, Reality Bites tried in vain to capture the essence of Gen-X, but came across more like an episode of Friends. Slacker presented everyday settings with realistic, albeit eccentric people, warts and all, while Reality Bites introduced perfect looking people with perfect problems. Now that some time has passed and the whole Gen-X thing has died down, I see Reality Bites in a different light now. When I think of the film, I think of the videos for “Stay” by Lisa Loeb and “Spin the Bottle” by Juliana Hatfield – the two big singles to come off the soundtrack album. Back in the day, it seemed like those two songs were everywhere. The film is still lightweight material but it has a more nostalgic vibe now as a dated piece of mainstream ‘90s culture. It’s a pretty decent snapshot of that time and reminds me a lot of what I liked about the decade.

Reality Bites
also features one of my favorite performances of Winona Ryder’s entire career. She had just come off making several period piece films and was clearly looking to do something contemporary, something that spoke to her generation. She used her star power to pluck an unknown screenwriter out of obscurity and, with the help of Ethan Hawke, got the film made where it would normally have languished in development hell for years. However, Reality Bites was seen as and marketed as a Gen-X film and its supposed target audience wasn’t interested in seeing their lives and interests writ large in a mainstream commercial film. It underperformed at the box office but has since gone on to develop a sizable following. I don’t want to say cult following because it isn’t that kind of film but it does have its fans.

Reality Bites
is about four college graduates dealing with life after school as they try to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) works as store manager at a local Gap. Sammy (Steve Zahn) is trying to figure out a way to tell his conservative mother that he’s gay. Troy (Ethan Hawke) is a struggling musician. Lelaina (Ryder) aspires to be a filmmaker and chronicles the ups and downs of her three friends for a documentary about her generation.

Lelaina, like her friends, is a child of divorce and her parents (Swoosie Kurtz and Joe Don Baker) want her to get a regular 9-to-5 job so that she can become a productive member of society. To pay the bills, she works as an assistant/gofer for a morning television talk show called Good Morning Grant! where she caters to the whims of its obnoxious host (played with two-faced gusto by John Mahoney). She’s roommates with Vickie and their friendship is summed up rather nicely in a scene where we see them singing along to Squeeze’s “Tempted” in Lelaina’s car. Who hasn’t done that with their friend(s) at some point in their lives? I don’t mean necessarily to that song but to music in general.

One day, she literally runs into Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), an executive at MTV wannabe, In Your Face TV, when they get into a minor car accident. She finds herself attracted to his inability to articulate a sentence much less a thought and he’s drawn to her nervous, awkward energy. It’s baffling what they see in each other but they’re both young and attractive and start dating. However, when Troy is fired from his day job, Vickie invites him to stay at their place (“Welcome to the maxi-pad.”) until he can find work, much to Lelaina’s chagrin (“That’s the American Dream of the ‘90s. That could take years!”). Me think she doth protest too much (“He will turn this place into a den of slack!”). See, Lelaina has a thing for Troy and he for her but they’re too busy getting on each other’s nerves in a meet-cute kinda way to do anything about it.

Lelaina’s first date with Michael has to be one of the most inarticulate ones ever put on film as they stammer their way through dinner. They each come up with some real gems to woo each other, like he tells her about how Frampton Comes Alive! changed his life while she explains why the Big Gulp is the most profound invention in her lifetime (?!). Maybe these two are really made for each other. As superficial as Lelaina comes across a lot of the time, Winona Ryder, with her adorable presence, keeps me interested and engaged. Away from Michael’s I.Q.-sucking black hole presence, Lelaina seems smarter.

When he’s not spending time pretending he can’t stand Lelaina, Troy writes awful, subpar Beck lyrics and quotes from Cool Hand Luke (1967). While he waits for her to realize that he loves her, he has sex with a succession of not-too bright groupies (one of them is a blink and you’ll miss her, Renee Zwelleger). Vickie also has a revolving door of sexual partners – so much so, that she gets an AIDS test and anxiously awaits the results – her character’s big dilemma that is resolved fairly quickly and a little too neatly.

Ben Stiller, in what was not only his first major acting gig, but also his directorial debut, does a good job of portraying a guy who means well but is so clueless when it comes to things that really matter. He isn’t afraid to come off as an idiot while also hinting that underneath it all Michael does appear to have the best intentions, he just goes about articulating them in all the wrong ways. Troy, on the other hand, is mean-spirited and channels his jealously in vindictive ways, like when he pretends to tell Lelaina that he loves her. The hurt that registers on her face, especially in her eyes, says it all, reminding one of how good a silent actress Ryder could have been if she had acted in another bygone era.

Ryder shows a capacity for comedy in a montage where Lelaina applies for a series of film and T.V.-related jobs featuring brief but amusing cameos by Andy Dick, Keith David, Anne Meara, and David Spade. Watching Ryder try to define irony under pressure always gives me a chuckle as does her interaction with Spade’s condescending burger jockey (“Ms. Pierce, there’s a reason I’ve been here six months.”). She was one of my earliest cinematic crushes and I know I shouldn’t like this film but dammit, she’s in vintage adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode – smart and gorgeous with a vulnerable quality that I find irresistible. Sorry Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and you other Pixie Dream Girls, Ryder is the original – accept no substitutes!

Coming from the world of stand-up comedy, Janeane Garofalo gets some of the film’s funniest lines (“I think I was conceived on an acid trip.”) and delivers them effortlessly like she was born to play Vickie. She also interacts well with Ryder and an even more interesting film would’ve been one where Vickie’s friendship with Lelaina was the focus. Obviously, others thought she had something special and for a brief while, Garofalo flirted with a mainstream film career with The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) and The MatchMaker (1997). Out of the four friends the one that suffers most in terms of screen time is Sammy. It often feels like his storyline was reduced so that more time could be devoted to the Michael-Lelaina-Troy love triangle. It’s a shame because Steve Zahn is such a gifted comedic actor with excellent timing and he’s given little to do in Reality Bites.

If I sound a little too harsh on Reality Bites, I don’t mean to be. The film does nail what it’s like to sit around with your friends, get high and comment ironically on old 1970s sitcoms. There is a fun bit where our four friends go out to get junk food and dance spontaneously to “My Sharona” by the Knack. It’s nice to see the normally reserved Ryder cut loose and act goofy. The film’s best scenes are the ones where all four friends are interacting with each other, bantering back and forth in a way that feels authentic and has a relaxed air that only comes from people who have known each other for some time.

In 1991, the producer of The Big Chill (1983), Michael Shamberg wanted to make a like-minded film for people in their twenties. He read Helen Childress’ Blue Bayou, a writing sample from the 23-year-old University of Southern California film school graduate. He liked it and wanted her sample to be the basis for his project. She met with him and told him about her life and friends and their struggle to find work during the recession that had hit the United States at the time. She had used her friends, their personalities and some of their experiences as the basis for her script. Shamberg, along with co-producer Stacy Sher, saw the pilot for The Ben Stiller Show and approached him to direct not act. At the time, Sher and Childress were developing the screenplay and had Lelaina and Troy figured out but couldn’t quite come up a credible character to complete the love triangle.

In February 1992, Shamberg sent Ben Stiller a copy of Childress’ script while he was editing the pilot for a show on Fox. He soon signed on to direct and worked with Childress for nine to ten months, developing her script. He suggested that he could play the third person in the love triangle. Over time, the Michael Grates character changed from a 35-year-old advertising man attempting to market Japanese candy bars in America to a twentysomething executive at a music video T.V. station. Childress and Stiller also changed the structure of the film, with the focus changing to the relationship between Lelaina and Troy while the stories about Vickie and Sammy, which were originally more fleshed out, were scaled back.

Childress and Stiller had a script that could be filmed by December 1992 and began shopping it around to various Hollywood studios all of whom turned it down because it tried to capture the Generation X market much like Singles had attempted to and failed. They finally got TriStar interested and began developing it there. The studio soon put it in turnaround. Childress, Sher and Stiller managed to convince the Film Commission of Texas to fund a location scouting trip to Houston despite no studio backing, no budget and no cast. As they arrived in the city, they got a call and learned that Winona Ryder had read Childress’ script. She wanted to do it and Universal Pictures agreed to finance the film. Coincidentally, Childress had Ryder in mind when she wrote the character of Lelaina.

The previous three films Ryder had made were period pieces and she needed a break. She wanted to do “something about people my age and in my generation growing up in today’s society.” She read Childress’ script while making The House of Spirits (1993) and it made her laugh: “It was very familiar to me – the way they talk, the attitude they have towards each other, the places they go. These were things I could relate to.” It was exactly the change of pace she wanted. At the time, Ethan Hawke’s career was in a rut after the buzz from Dead Poets Society (1989) had subsided. Up to that point, he had been known mostly for playing clean-cut characters and so the role of Troy would be something of a departure for him. Ryder was a fan of Hawke’s work and stipulated in her contract that he would co-star opposite her.

Stiller met Steve Zahn through Hawke as they were doing a play together at the time and was impressed by how funny he was. Zahn borrowed some money from his agent and went to Los Angeles to test for the film. He responded strongly to portraying a gay character coming out of the closet. Janeane Garofalo knew Stiller through their work together on his show and the producers felt that her style of comedy was perfect for the role of Vickie. According Garofalo, it came down to her, Parker Posey, Anne Heche and Gwyneth Paltrow. The studio loved and wanted Paltrow but Ryder liked Garofalo and had developed an instant connection with her.

tumblr_nn20i1aWFx1rkd2bio2_1280Ultimately, Reality Bites plays it too safe and veers dangerously close to being a feature-length sitcom by wrapping things up too conveniently. The characters often come across as superficial which tends to undercut the sincerity of the film’s message. Singles and the hilarious short-lived MTV sitcom, Austin Stories, were much more successful in documenting the trials and tribulations of Gen-X. And yet I’m oddly fascinated with Reality Bites, mostly because of Garofalo and Ryder. They play characters that deserve to be in a better film. I always thought that at the end of the film, Lelaina should’ve dumped both guys and stayed single. I mean, look at her options: Michael is a clueless T.V. executive that listens to generic gangsta rap and Troy is a pretentious wannabe musician that screws around with her emotions. Hell, she should’ve hooked up with Vickie, who is funny in wonderfully sarcastic way and digs ‘70s popular culture in a sincerely ironic way. Despite all of its flaws, I still enjoy watching Reality Bites when I just want to turn off my brain and let a film wash over me – junk food for the mind. Films like that have their place, too.

Girl, Interrupted: A Review by Nate Hill

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James Mangold is a director who takes nothing but top shelf scripts and spins them into gold, and Girl Interrupted is a shining example of this. It’s based on a book by Susannah Kayson in which she outlines an 18 month stay at a mental ward sometime during the 60’s. Mangold adapts her book for the screen, gathers an excellent cast of talented gals and a couple guys, and makes a film that holds up today like it was still it’s release week in 1999. Winona Ryder plays Susanna, a reckless girl who is labeled wayward and unstable by her parents, committed to a facility by her stern psychiatrist (Red Forman himself, Kurtwood Smith). She’s a little rough around the edges, but one senses the innate sensibility to her that perhaps has been buried under turbulent behaviour not by anything within her, but by the constricting nature of the time period she has been born into. In any case, she finds herself thrown into an environment she didn’t expect, with many other girls, some of which she clashes with, some of which she ends up befriending, and one that.. well, defies classification, really. The girl in question is Lisa, played by a fantastically fired up Angelina Jolie who nearly combusts upon herself in her furious performance. Lisa has been dubbed nearly unable to treat, yet simply has the kind of soul that doesn’t fit into a box, let alone lend itself to scholarly dissection. Ice cool one moment, a raging typhoon the next, and holding a dense riot shield over any trace of her true emotions every second, she’s an enigmatic, elemental wild card. It’s the best work I’ve ever seen from Jolie, getting her a well earned oscar nod. She teaches Susanna some lessons that only people on that side of the glass can comprehend, confounding the facility’s head doctor (Vanessa Redgrave) and puzzling a kind orderly (Whoopi Goldberg), two rational people who simply can’t understand the kind resolution and companionship that often comes out of irrational, unconventional interaction that almost always is seen as ‘unstable’. Ryder is pitch perfect and carries her share of the load, but despite being the protagonist, it’s Jolie’s show all the way. She’s unbelievably good and will break the heart of both first time viewers and veterans who put the dvd in every so often for a tearful revisit. The late Brittany Murphy is great as Daisy, another complicated girl, and Clea Duvall scores points as Georgina, the shy and reserved one. There’s also work from Jared Leto Elizabeth Moss, Angela Bettis, Bruce Altman, Mary Kay Place, Kadee Strickland, Misha Collins and Jeffrey Tambor. Tender, patient and non judgmental are qualities which are essential in films of this subject matter, as well as empathy from both viewer and filmmaker, to take a look at these girls and even though we may not understand what is going on with them or their beaviour, to simply bear witness, and be there for them. Mangold knows this and acts accordingly, leading to a beautiful film of the highest order. Viewers are sure to do the same, completing the artistic ring full circle.