Tag Archives: Xander Berkeley

David Von Ancken’s Seraphim Falls

Liam Neeson ruthlessly pursuing Pierce Brosnan across an unforgiving post civil war US landscape, from snowy peaks to vast plains to acrid deserts and all the midlands in between. David Von Ancken’s Seraphim Falls is a stunning, folklore inspired tale of revenge, burning guilt, wayward ambitions and the joyless act of the hunt, portrayed not as thrill here but more as grim duty.

Brosnan is Gideon, an ex General now on the run from Carver (Neeson), another high ranking soldier who harbours deep hatred and rage against him for reasons the film wisely keeps to its chest until the last few minutes. This allows us to form our own picture of each man that is cultivated by each passing deed, and the labels of bad and good, hero and villain need not apply, which is how stories should be told anyways. They both appear to be good men in some instances, and both hardened killers in others. The film starts off in the snowy northern mountains, moves below to hills, valleys and ranches, continues on to the river lands and finally winds up in a scorching desert where the final revelations are laid bare and each man must make a choice. Von Ancken gives this story an almost biblical tone, from the Dante-esque journey from one specific natural setting to the next to the appearance of several key characters that seem to have supernatural undercurrents including a lone First Nations man (Wes Studi) who mysteriously guards a watering hole to a strange medicine lady (Anjelica Huston) who appears in the desert as if a phantom.

Neeson and Brosnan are phenomenal here. Liam lets the sickness of revenge spill out in his behaviour, that of a man with tunnel vision and no hesitations on letting anyone in his way become collateral damage. Pierce is haunting as a man running from both his adversary and his past, scenes where he hides out in a farmhouse and interacts with a young boy are subtly heartbreaking when you finally see the big picture later on. He’s grizzled to hell too, and there’s nothing like watching him patch up a bullet wound on his own, frontier style. Von Ancken carefully chooses his cast with wonderful character actors and familiar faces like the awesome Michael Wincott as Neeson’s roughneck hired bounty hunter, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, Kevin J. O’Connor, Angie Harmon, Jimmi Simpson, James Jordan and more. I’d like to think that this exists in the same western universe as Von Ancken’s AMC drama Hell On Wheels because Tom Noonan briefly shows up here as pretty much the same Minister character he went on to excellently portray in the show, which I thought was a nice touch. This is a mean, callous, relentlessly and graphically violent piece of filmmaking that throws nods to Eastwood films of the same ilk while subtly doing its own kind of mythic, folklore thing that thrums along under the main story arc for you to pick up on, if you’re tuned into it’s ever so slightly esoteric frequency. Great, underrated film.

-Nate Hill

Niki Caro’s North Country

Charlize Theron can pretty much play any role when she sets her mind to it, and when it comes to embodying the collective injustice and abuse inflicted towards female mine workers in late 80’s Minnesota, she is heartbreaking. Of course many other brilliant actors work hard to bring Niki Caro’s North Country to life, but it’s Theron who gives it the wounded centre and makes us care, not just about the issues at had but her character as well.

She plays a semi fictional character named Josey Aimes, who is loosely based on a real life woman that launched a milestone lawsuit against the corporate mining giant. Josey has escaped her abusive husband and come home to seek refuge with her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) while trying to provide for her two children. The highest paying wage in the region is at the mines but from the moment she joins up she’s faced with hostility, scorn and rampant sexual harassment from the vast male work force there, and the few other female employees fare the same, unless they keep their head low. Josey and her young coworker Sherry (Michelle Monaghan) have it the worst because they’re, shall we say, easiest on the eyes, while their childhood friend Glory (Frances McDormand) keeps up a tough exterior, but in truth they are all of them fed up. As their treatment gets worse, Josey does the unthinkable and launches a high profile lawsuit against Big Mining for mistreatment and neglect, causing a shit-storm of controversy for both herself and the entire town whose survival depends on that industry. Not only that, but the case dredges up painful events from her past that involve supervisor Jeremy Renner, whose special interest in tormenting her dates back to then and explains why he radiates with guilt.

This is a brave, difficult choice for a woman to make especially when it seems like everyone is against her, but Josey is determined and Theron makes her wounded, charismatic and captivating. Woody Harrelson does a fine job as the lawyer hired to represent her, an idealistic man who isn’t afraid to unleash some hell when delivering statements or interrogating a witness because he believes it will lead to change. Jenkins is always brilliant, the arc he carries out here goes from cynically intoning that his daughter must have cheated on her husband to illicit violence like that to later openly defending his her with his own violence in court when he finds out what she has gone through. The old pro handles it gracefully and I can’t remember if he was nominated for this but he should have been. McDormand is her usual salty self and is excellent, while Sean Bean, an actor who often plays gruff, alpha male badasses is laid back and sensitive as her introvert boyfriend. Watch for great work from Xander Berkeley, Rusty Schwimmer, Corey Stoll, Brad William Henke, Jillian Armenante, Amber Heard and Chris Mulkey too.

Director Caro drew huge acclaim for her film Whale Rider a few years before, another story that dealt with a girl trying to find her place in the world and defying the men in her life. Once again this is a fantastic piece that shows her talent for filmmaking, never coming across as too much of a dramatization or too slack when it needs to cut deep. Theron is a force of nature and you can see the hurt, frustration and will to not back down burning in her eyes. This is a tough film to watch in many instances, but an extremely important one to sit through and the type that Hollywood doesn’t usually jump to green-light, at least back then anyways. Something of a masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Gregory Hoblit’s Fracture

The judicial system has never been played so hard as it has by Anthony Hopkins in Gregory Hoblit’s Fracture, a thriller that’s written, acted and directed to high heavens but scored into oblivion. I’m not kidding, a hotshot courtroom gig of this caliber should sound great but the musical composition here by the Brothers Danna makes it sound like a TV movie and really doesn’t do it any favours. Odd, when you consider the fact that they are Oscar winners for previous scoring work. Hopkins is the murderous rich prick who shoots his wife (an underused Embeth Davidz) in the face when he finds out she’s having an affair with a cop (Billy Burke). Then in a spectacularly nasty move, he sets it up so the detective is first on scene to find her just so the old bastard can see the look on his face. After that, no one seems to be able to make the case stick to him, and it’s passed off to young hotshot prosecutor Ryan Gosling, who underestimates the sheer diabolical resolve of Hopkins and sails straight into his net. It’s pretty preposterous and overblown in terms of what’s allowed, not allowed and plausible in events surrounding such a high profile court case (why would they let him so close to his comatose wife right after such a suspicious acquittal?), but employ suspension of disbelief and this vicious little narrative is a lot of fun. Hopkins has a ball with this role, relishing the moment every time he royally fucks someone over and cooking up a stinging blend of laconic sociopathy and bubbling mirth. Hoblit gathers an impressive supporting cast including perennial silver-fox David Strathairn, Bob Gunton, Fiona Shaw, Cliff Curtis, Xander Berkeley, Zoe Kazan and slinky Rosamund Pike as a love interest from a rival firm. It’s a bit of a shame because the script, performances and story are all very well orchestrated, but the score and certain details just seem glossed over when there could have been more grit and depth. Those lacking elements give it an airy feeling of incompleteness where it should have been deeper and tighter drawn.

-Nate Hill

Clive Barker’s Candyman

Clive Barker’s Candyman is bar none one of the best horror films ever made. Many factors can take credit for that, but the two chief among them are Tony Todd’s performance as Daniel Robitaille, the hook handed, honey voiced spectre that haunts even the frames he doesn’t appear in, and Philip Glass’s beautiful yet terrifying electronic score that rips through the story like a rogue orchestral piece with a life of its own. Production design and locations are also key here, as they filmed in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green Project for real, and it makes all the difference. Candyman is one of those urban legends, the angry ghost of an ex slave who was murdered, and now gets resurrected to raise hell whenever someone says his name in a mirror five times. That someone here happens to be college professor Virginia Madsen, who has heard whispered rumours among the locals and decides to research it a little too closely. Before she knows it she’s seeing Robitaille everywhere, dead bodies are starting to pile up and she begins to look an awful lot like the culprit. With the help of her boyfriend (Xander Berkeley) and colleague (Kasi Lemmons, always fantastic) she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery but Candyman is a tough curse to shake, and the killing doesn’t stop. Many of the actors here are genuine residents of the Green, providing both authenticity and a very human quality to the film. Todd is now something of a household name and has achieved cult status for this role, it pretty much set him up for good in the horror genre and it’s no wonder, he’s a hypnotic dark angel as Robitaille, with both seething menace and a crazy calm lurking behind those eyes. There’s moments of real fright that hold up to this day as truly chilling shockers, such as a kid getting ambushed off camera by Candyman in a park restroom and the horrific aftermath of a dog’s murder coupled with a missing baby, brought to life by Vanessa Williams’s vivid, heartbreaking performance as the mother. This is how you create an effective horror film, by balancing gore with story and character, creating an atmosphere in which we feel both lulled by the sights and sounds but always unsafe as to what could be lurking through that bathroom medicine cabinet or dark, graffiti scrawled hallway. A classic. There’s two sequels that aren’t too awful thanks solely to Todd’s presence, but they come nowhere close to this one.

-Nate Hill

Danny Cannon’s Phoenix

Phoenix is a half forgotten, neat little Arizona neo-noir noir that isn’t about much altogether, but contains a hell of a lot of heated drama, character study and hard boiled charisma anyways, which in the land of the crime genre, often is an acceptable substitute for a strong plot. Plus, a cast like this could hang around the water cooler for two hours and the results would still be engaging. Ray Liotta is terrific here in a mid-career lead role as an a police detective with a nasty temper, huge gambling problem and just an all round penchant for trouble. He’s joined by his three partners in both crime and crime fighting, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven and Anthony Lapaglia. There’s no central conflict, no over arching murder subplot and no orchestrated twist or payoff, it’s simply these four sleazy cops just existing out their in the desert on their best, and it’s a lot of sunbaked, emotionally turbulent fun. Liotta vies for the attentions of a weary older woman (Anjelica Huston, excellent) while he’s pursued by her slutty wayward teen daughter (Brittany Murphy) at the same time. He’s also hounded by eccentric loan shark Chicago (Tom Noonan with a ray ally funny lisp) and trying to close countless open cases in his book. Piven and hothead Lapaglia fight over Piven’s foxy wife (Kari Wuhrur) too, and so the subplots go. The supporting cast is a petting zoo of distinctive character acting talent including Glenn Moreshower, Royce D. Applegate, Giovanni Ribisi, Xander Berkeley, Al Sapienza, Giancarlo Esposito and more. I like this constant and obnoxious energy the film has though, like there’s something in that Arizona sun that just drives peoples tempers off the map and causes wanton hostility, a great setting for any flick to belt out its story. Good fun.

-Nate Hill

Barb Wire


Bear with me here for a sec while I say this, but Barb Wire is actually a genuinely great flick. Based on a kinky Tank Girl-esque comic book and boasting a busty starring turn from Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson, it’s got a lot more going for it than the porn vibes the poster probably gives off at first glance. Picture this: Pam is Barb, night club owning bounty hunter in a Neo-fascist futuristic American industrial town called Steel Harbour, ducking gestapo style soldiers and playing the double agent against a government gone rogue. She’s propelled back into action when her former boyfriend Axel (Temuerra ‘Jango Fett’ Morrison) blows back into town with fellow freedom fighter Cora D (Victoria Rowell). Barb is now faced with protecting her club, extricating all of her friends to a safe haven in Canada (come on up) and battling the forces of supremely evil Colonel Pryzer (Steve Railsback, chewing the scenery and then some). It’s a total blast of perverse steampunk mayhem, Pam solidly playing a badass heroine who’s fun to hang around with. Udo Kier shows up as her friend and club manager Curly, eccentric as ever, and watch for Clint Howard, Nils Allen Stewart, Jack Noseworthy, Xander Berkeley and Tiny Lister as well. Not half as much of a novelty or gimmicky film as some would have you believe, this one actually takes itself seriously for the most part and proves to be a solid genre effort. Good times. 

-Nate Hill

Solace


Serial killer films are a dime a dozen. Literally, you can’t browse ten titles in a thriller subcategory without running into at least, like, three. Within this ever popular area, there’s also the ‘psychic assisting law enforcement to catch a killer’ motif that pops up now and again, more so on television than film, but it’s there. Solace takes a crack at that, and speaking of that particular idea, the first thing I was reminded of was NBC’s Hannibal. This is one stylish flick, in the same way the series is abstract, using sharp, slow motion close ups paired with crisp audio to create a surreal image of something mundane, clues in a seemingly innocuous environment. Anthony Hopkins plays the clairvoyant here, a guy with demons in his past who sometimes consults on cases with his longtime FBI friend (a haggard looking Jeffrey Dean Morgan). There’s a new killer in town, town being Atlanta, one that causes Morgan to drag him out of consultation retirement and have a go at the case, along with his rookie partner (Abbie Cornish, turning in one damn fine performance). Not all is as it seems here, and when the murderer does finally show up it’s clear that he isn’t your garden variety serial slasher, and has an agenda that goes deep into some moral issues, the one place where the script strives for depth beyond the procedural template. He’s played by Colin Farrell of all people, which is a perfect example casting against type that works. Usually it’d be some sinister looking character actor or genre snake playing the role, but by giving it to a leading man of Farrell’s caliber, they’ve achieved some gravity, and he’s brilliant. Now, this isn’t what I’d call a great film, it has it’s inconsistencies, multiple snags in pacing and one convoluted plot for the first two acts. But it’s quite the fascinating effort, one with a dense, thought provoking story to tell, every performer pulling their weight impressively. And like I said, there’s style to go around.  

-Nate Hill

Shanghai Noon: A Review by Nate Hill 

I forgot how much goddamn fun Shanghai Noon is. It’s pretty much the quintessential east meets west buddy flick (sorry Rush Hour, love you too bbz), and upon rewatching it I realized that it’s every bit as awesome, and more so, than I remember as a kid. You take Jackie Chan, a stoic, robotic Chinese fighting machine with the sense of humour god gave a sock, and pair him with Owen Wilson, a wishy washy surfer dude of a cowboy who can’t take one second out of the day to stop talking or cracking jokes, and you’ve got gold. Of course, they need a film to run about in that’s just as solid as they’re team up, and that’s just what we get. This is a bawdy, unapologetic roll in the hay, a genre bender that tosses the American western, the buddy cop flick and the Kung Fu picture into a big cauldron, fires a few bullets in and gives it a big old stir. It’s ridiculously fun for its entire duration, an achievement which the sequel just couldn’t keep up with. Chan is Chon Wang (say it fast), a Chinese imperial guard on the trail of runaway Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu), who has runoff to America.  No sooner does he set foot on Yankee soil, he’s bumped into peace pipe smoking Natives, and clashed with a band of train robbers led by Roy O Bannon (Owen Wilson), a fast talking soldier of fortune who doesn’t seem to have much skill besides yapping his way out of a situation. The two are thrown into a mad dash across then west, Chon looking for the princess, and Roy after the missing gold from the train. It’s what movies were made to be, a pure rush of gunfighting and chop socky, kick ass action sequences, all given the boost of Chan’s insane talents. He’s like a rabid squirrel monkey, and Wilson a drunk sloth, constantly mismatched yet always coming out on top, like the best comic duos always do. They’re faced with taking dpwn a few baddies, including Walton Goggins as the dumbest outlaw this side of the Rockies, and a terrifying Xander Berkeley as a corrupt, homicidal marshal.  The core of it rests on Chan and Wilson to entertain us though, and even in the down time between action, their energy is infectious, especially in a manic drinking game that just can’t be described in writing. Like I said, the sequel, Shanghai Knights, just doesn’t capture he magic quite like this one does, and seems to fall flat. You can’t go wrong with this original outing though, and it just gets better with age. 

Taken: A Review by Nate Hill

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The Taken series has been done to death, memed out to glory and mined for market value a million times over since the first film came out way back in 2008, which has somewhat dimmed the charm of that original vehicle, at least for some of us. Like, how many times can Liam Neeson or his relatives be Taken before even they as characters realize that it couldn’t be happening and that they’re in a movie? Eventually the material unwittingly spoofs it’s origin in its need to repeat itself time and again. That’s not to say the first isn’t enjoyable on it’s own, in fact it’s quite the streamlined little dose of adrenaline that essentially coasts on some great pacing, neat choreography and the endlessly watchable Liam Neeson, whose career took a shot of nitrous to the heart after gamely stepping into the well worn shoes of the grizzled action hero. This was him nimbly ducking through the genre boundaries that his career was in up til that point, and the action thing fit him like a glove. The film is at its best when it follows Bryan Mills (Neeson) in action, which thankfully is most of the time. Mills is an ex CIA spook with some tactics that will seriously put a hurtin’ on you if you cross him in any way. A gaggle of moronic Bosnian human traffickers come under the receiving end of these tactics when they kidnap his vacationing daughter (Maggie Grace, looking suspiciously like she’s a decade older than her character is supposed to be) from Paris and auctioning her off to rich raghead perverts. This propels him into like an hour of non stop energetic ass kicking that is so fun to watch, as he shoots, stabs, sprains and splatters his way through hordes of eastern European cannon fodder, with not a second to spare for even the utterance of a any cheesy one liners. He’s assisted via Bluetooth by his three ex agency barbecue buddies (Jon Gries, Leland Orser and David Warshofsky) and has a few encounters with his jaded ex wife (Famke Janssen). And that’s about it, but Neeson sells the bare minimum as far as the genre goes with his effortless cool and stony, formidable stature that springs into startlingly spry motion every time he has to dispatch a new troupe of Slavic wise guys. If only they didn’t have to desecrate this little piece of lightning in a bottle with two sequels that dampen the momentum with cheap attempts at thrills, I may still feel strongly about this one as I did when it first came out. Hopefully they quit while they’re ahead, shirk the slimy dollar signs and let their first outing age in peace.

Faster: A Review by Nate Hill

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Faster is an action film with an eerie aura and a darkly unnerving bite to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s action through and through, a genre effort right to its marrow. And yet, there’s something oddly esoteric about it, an obvious extra effort put in by the filmmakers, namely first time action director George Tillman, to give every character an off kilter, bizarre cadence to ensure we won’t forget them. There’s clichés, no doubt, but they’re eclipsed by the strange, full moon weirdness of the rogues running about the film’s story. Dwayne Johnson fires up a furious protagonist in his first action role after a long and ridiculous stint in insufferable family comedies. He plays a quiet, hulking dude known only as Driver, reluctantly released from prison by a watchful Warden (Tom Berenger). Upon exiting the gate, he runs. And runs. And runs. He arrives at a small town junkyard where he tears a tarp of a vintage Chevelle which seems to be left there for him like a care package. From there he launches a bloody crusade of revenge that knows neither mercy nor discretion, and whose reasons we are only slowly allowed to know. He’s a one man wrecking ball, the murders piling up before we really have any idea what this guy is about. He’s been greatly wronged in the past, the culprits of which should all be running scared, as he comes looking for them one by one and with the juggernaut pace of a boulder tumbling down a mountain. Pretty soon there’s two cops on his trail, intrepid Cicero (Carla Gugino) and mopey sleazeball ‘Cop’ (Billy Bob Thornton), a dilapidated piece of work who mainlines heroin and clearly has a murky past. Soon there’s one hell of a hitman (Oliver Jackson Cohen) skulking around looking for Driver, an extreme sports enthusiast who has ‘beaten yoga’ and is avidly looking for the next big thrill. Johnson jumps from one ultra violent encounter to the next with all the corrosive ferocity of the grim reaper, tallying up the corpses until we’re all but sure he’s an inhuman elimination machine. Then.. the film curveballs us and throws a glint of humanity into the mix with some late third act emotion that only goes to show the filmmakers set out with more than a one track mind. Driver has been unspeakably betrayed, and his rampage is undeniably justified, but there’s a complexity to his quest that he didn’t see coming, and neither did those of us who expected pure action without a moral conundrum in sight. I say good on it for grasping something besides the thrills. A terrific cast populates the almost Oliver Stone – esque proceedings, including Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Mike Epps, Jennifer Carpenter  (always superb), Matt Gerald, Xander Berkeley, Buzz Belmondo, Courtney Gains and more. It’s got the depth of a well written graphic novel and a level of thought out characterization that heaps of stale action entries wish they possessed.