All posts by J.D.

Jackman Unleashed Week: Baz Luhrmann’s Australia

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By J.D. Lafrance

After his debut film Strictly Ballroom (1992), writer/director Baz Luhrmann never looked back, creating lavish, ultra-stylish musicals William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), and let’s not forget that $5 million Chanel commercial starring his cinematic muse, Nicole Kidman. With, Australia (2008), he decided to take national pride to a whole new level by creating a sweeping romantic epic about his home country that takes place between the World Wars and was made by and starring Australians. With a budget in the neighborhood of $130 million, the pressure was on Luhrmann now more than ever before to deliver at the box office and, while underperforming in North America, it went on to gross $200 million worldwide despite a lukewarm critical response.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) is a headstrong English aristocrat who travels to Northern Australia in 1939 to meet her husband at their ranch Faraway Downs. Within a few minutes of arriving, she meets her guide to this strange new land, a man known as the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a hard-drinking, two-fisted Australian version of a cowboy. They take an instant dislike to each other: she thinks that he’s crude and uncultured and he thinks that she’s too prim and proper.

They arrive at Faraway Downs to find her husband dead (apparently at the hands of an Aboriginal) and the ranch in disarray and in danger of being foreclosed. Mr. Carney (Bryan Brown), the local tycoon with a monopoly on the local economy, has his right-hand man, Mr. Fletcher (David Wenham) try to sabotage Lady Ashley. In order to save Faraway Downs, she has to drive 1,500 head of cattle to Darwin and so she enlists the help of the Drover. Along the way, they befriend a young Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) whom she protects from being taken away and forced to assimilate with white folks.

As with his previous films, Luhrmann populates Australia with broad, stereotypical characters and tells a classic story. The film revels in archetypes: Ashley is a pure, upstanding woman, the Drover is the rugged western hero, Fletcher is the dastardly villain, and Nullah is the adorable child who narrates the story. As he proved with is previous films, Luhrmann has an uncanny knack for casting. Who can forget the undeniable chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet and the sparks that flew between Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!? He’s at it again with this film with the casting of Hugh Jackman and Kidman as the romantic leads.

Jackman finally fulfills those early comparisons to Clint Eastwood, playing the Drover as a tough, dependable hero who’s not afraid to show his vulnerable side. He’s never been more charismatic as he proves to be equally adept at the physical demands and the emotional range that the role requires. No one knows how to photograph Kidman quite like Luhrmann. She looks stunning, even covered in a layer of dirt and dust from a cattle drive. At first, her stuffy English aristocrat comes off as a cartoonish stereotype but as her character becomes acclimatized to the country and she develops a bond with Nullah, she becomes warmer and more empathetic.

Beginning in 1939 and climaxing with the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942, Luhrmann’s Australia mixes the larger-than-life melodrama of Gone with the Wind (1939) with the exciting cattle drive in Red River (1948) and with a dash of The Wizard of Oz (1939). His film clearly harkens back to the kind of cinema that they just don’t make any more with very little CGI used and everything built from scratch and on location. Australia is the kind of ambitious Technicolor epic that might have been made by John Ford or George Stevens. It is a marvel of absolutely stunning cinematography – only Luhrmann could make the desolate outback look vibrant and alive. He alternates between sun-drenched day scenes and night scenes that appear to be impossibly illuminated by the stars.

One should not go into Australia expecting realism. Luhrmann presents a mythologized take on his country. Love him or hate him, you have to respect Luhrmann for not being afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He’s arguably the most romantic filmmaker working today with the possible exception of Wong Kar-Wai. And with Australia, he has made an unabashed love letter to his homeland on a grand scale.

DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The 1980s action blockbuster movie was dominated by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme (among others) – muscle-bound one-man armies that killed scores of bad guys with guns, brawn and cheesy one-liners. Along came Bruce Willis in 1988 with Die Hard, tweaking the formula by playing a guy perpetually in way over his head, tired, hurt, and using his brains as much if not more than his brawn to defeat the bad guys. Audiences were drawn to his tough yet vulnerable wisecracking character John McClane. The movie was a massive success and the inevitable sequel followed. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) didn’t stray too far from the first one (why bother messing with a good thing?) except to amp up the stunts, the body count and the explosions all the way to the bank, easily outgrossing the original.

“Merry Christmas, pal!” are the words uttered early on in the movie as John McClane’s day starts off on a sour note and will only get worse as his car is ticketed and towed despite his good-humored protests to a cop that clearly doesn’t care about his problems. It’s Christmas Eve and McClane is at Washington Dulles International Airport to pick up his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). This lack of cooperation from local law enforcement is nothing new for McClane who faced plenty of it in Die Hard and it is also foreshadows the interference he’ll experience later on in this movie.

Meanwhile, General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a drug lord and dictator of Val Verde by way of Manuel Noriega, is scheduled to be extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking. However, rogue U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) and a team of mercenaries take control of the airport effectively shutting them down, which leaves several planes, including the one with Holly on it, circling and running low on fuel. Stuart plans to let Esperanza’s plane land and then demands a 747 be prepped for take-off at which point they will use it to rescue the drug lord.

Naturally, McClane receives a ton of grief from head of airport police Captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) who doesn’t like some hot dog gloryhound cop treading all over his turf. Dennis Franz is at his profane best, dropping F-bombs with gusto. Watching him and Willis trade insults inserts some much welcome levity amidst the bombastic action sequences. Here’s a memorable exchange early on:

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Lorenzo: “Yeah, I know all about you and that Nakatomi thing in L.A. But just ‘cos the T.V. thinks you’re hot shit don’t make it so. Look, you’re in my little pond, now and I am the big fish that runs it. So you cap some low-life. Fine. I’ll send your fucking captain in L.A. a fucking commendation. Now, in the meantime you get the hell out of my office before I get you thrown out of my goddamn airport.”

McClane: “Hey Carmine, let me ask you something. What sets off the metal detectors first: the lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?”

Franz is that rare breed of actor that can casually insert profanity in his dialogue and make it flow like poetry. I almost imagine him flying in his buddy David Mamet on the studio’s dime to write his dialogue. It has that vibe to it. Of course, McClane spends the rest of the movie making him looking stupid.

This being a sequel, the novelty of the original has worn off and McClane seems a little more invincible in this one, but Bruce Willis does what he can to make his character relatable and have flaws, like when he is unable to redirect a plane that the bad guys intentionally crash. We empathize with his frustration at being unable to save the plane and his dejected, defeated face says it all. The movie does its job (maybe a little too well) of making Stuart and his men so evil that you want to see McClane take them all out.

William Sadler plays yet another in a long line of villains with his rogue colonel being a peculiar badass so comfortable with his own body that he practices his martial arts in the nude, which also happens to show off his impressively sculpted physique. It certainly is a memorable introduction to his character. Sadler plays Stuart as ruthless man not above disciplining failure by pointing a loaded gun at a subordinate’s face or, in a particularly nasty move, cause a plane full of innocent people to crash and burn on a runway.

William Atherton and Bonnie Bedelia return as a smug journalist and McClane’s wife respectively, spending the entire movie trapped on an airplane together trading barbs. Among the mercenaries keep your eyes peeled for a young Robert Patrick (T2), a clean-shaven Mark Boone Jr. (Tree’s Lounge), John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope).

Much like in the first Die Hard, McClane demonstrates an uncanny knack for improvisation as evident in the first action sequence when he takes on two mercenary thugs in the baggage handling section. After he loses his gun, McClane uses a golf club and then a bicycle to take out one baddie and chase off the other. What I also like is that we see the air traffic controllers problem solve their way around Stuart and his men through good ol’ fashioned ingenuity.

Doug Richardson and Steven E. de Souza’s screenplay has just enough nods to the first movie to let us know that the filmmakers are aware that Die Hard 2 is basically a variation on the original only bigger and louder, symbolized by the iconic money shot (that is equal parts ridiculous and cool) of McClane ejecting out of a plane as it is exploding and him saying at one point, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” The movie ups the ante in many respects as he faces even greater odds and is put in even greater danger.

die-hard-2Watching Die Hard 2 again is a potent reminder of a time when Willis still cared about acting and didn’t phone it in like he’s done in the last two movies in the franchise that don’t deserve the Die Hard moniker. Most fans agree that they should have stopped with Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), which was a fitting way to end things on a high note but as long as they make money and Willis is up for it there will be another installment in this tired franchise.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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“It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Maybe you would have known Keyes the minute she mentioned accident insurance, but I didn’t. I felt like a million.” – Walter Neff

Adapted from the James M. Cain novella of the same name by Billy Wilder and acclaimed crime novelist Raymond Chandler (author of The Big Sleep), Double Indemnity (1944) is considered by many to be the quintessential film noir with its exquisite use of John F. Seitz’s atmospheric black and white cinematography – the use of shadows, silhouetted figures and darkness to convey a shadowy world of betrayal and murder (most famously, Venetian blind effects on walls or on characters’ faces so that it looks like the bars in a jail).

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a hot shot insurance salesman who falls for rich housewife, Phyllis Detrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) when she first appears to him clad only in a towel and asks, “Is there anything I can do?” which is a question loaded with suggestion. Neff is there under the pretense of renewing her husband’s automobile insurance. The dialogue between them crackles with delicious sexual tension as Phyllis draws Neff into her web, eventually convincing him to kill her husband and make it look like an accident so that she can collect the money.

Of course, it isn’t that easy and Neff’s friend and co-worker Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a persistent claims manager, investigates the case. Edward G. Robinson plays Keyes with grumpy charm, someone who isn’t happy unless he’s griping about phony claims and the foolhardiness of the company he works for. The exchanges between him and Fred MacMurray are priceless as their friendship permeates the snappy, sarcastic dialogue.

Phyllis is very unhappy and is drawn to her tryst with Neff because it is forbidden and their illegal plan excites her. Stanwyck’s character is an archetypal femme fatale: a scheming black widow that uses her sexual appeal to manipulate Neff into getting what she wants. Phyllis uses him and then gets rid of him once he outlives his usefulness. Stanwyck does a great job luring Neff with her faux vulnerability and slightly tawdry look (complete with trashy blond wig) and then coldly turns the screws on him at the crucial moment.

Up to that point, MacMurray had been known for starring in light comedies but was perfectly cast as the flawed salesman who falls for the wrong woman and finds that he’s capable of murder. It’s pretty easy to see why Neff falls for Phyllis – she’s beautiful and has access to a lot of money. The chemistry between him and Stanwyck is filled with all kinds of sexual tension – as much as they could sneak by the censors of the day and that’s part of the allure of the film: everything is suggested and nothing is explicit. For example, the husband’s murder is never shown just the sounds of him dying and shot of Phyllis’ face reacting (or rather not reacting) to what is happening that is very effective.

Looking at Double Indemnity now, it comes across as a fascinating snapshot of Los Angeles in the 1940s with its houses with classic Spanish architecture, when cars were all wonderfully big and stylish and men all wore hats. There are just enough location shots of the actual city mixed with studio interiors to convey a sense of place that doesn’t exist anymore.

TRON: LEGACY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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It has been over 30 years since Tron (1982) was released in theaters. Made on the cusp of the home computer revolution, the film was a simple good vs. evil parable that saw a disgraced computer programmer hack into the network of the corporation that fired him only to be zapped into cyberspace where he got to see how the other half lived. Tron was a modest success at the box office and resoundly trashed by critics. It seemed destined to become merely a footnote in cinematic history as one of the earliest examples of computer graphics in a Hollywood film. Over the years, it developed a decent cult following who dreamed of a sequel some day. That time finally came.

Hoping for a lucrative franchise that doesn’t involve pirates, Disney ponied up a considerable amount of money so that the filmmakers of Tron: Legacy (2010) were able to utilize the same kind of 3D digital cameras that were used to make Avatar (2009) and the CGI technology used to age Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). And, in keeping with the original filmmakers hiring cutting edge composer Wendy Carlos, Tron: Legacy features an atmospheric score by hip electronica music duo Daft Punk. The end result is a stunning assault on the senses.

In 1989, hotshot programmer and CEO of Encom Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared, leaving his young son Sam with his grandparents and no indication as to why he left. Since the death of his wife four years before, Flynn’s behavior had become increasingly erratic and he had become obsessed about a brave new world, a digital frontier that he had experienced in Tron. Sam (Garrett Hedlund) grows up to become a rebellious chip off the old block as he breaks into Encom just so he can publicly embarrass the company’s current CEO. Since Flynn’s absence, Encom has returned to its old, soulless ways much to the chagrin of his long-time friend and current board member Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). He informs Sam that he got a page from his father at the office in his old arcade.

Long shuttered and collecting dust, it is a cemetery for classic arcade games. Sam uncovers his father’s personal computer and before he knows it, he’s zapped into the computer world. Flynn’s prized program Clu (also Bridges) has taken over and rules the computer world with a fascist, iron fist. Flynn has become a fugitive and it’s up to Sam, with the help of a program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde), to make things right again.

Rather fittingly, the real world footage is shot in 2D but once we enter cyberspace, the film comes vividly to life with cutting edge 3D technology. Much of the iconography from the first film is present – the disc battle, light cycles, etc. – but amped up with The Matrix-like action sequences and three-dimensionalized. If there was ever a film would that begged to be given the 3D treatment it is this one. However, these effects aren’t that apparent or as frequent as one would hope which begs the question why even do it in the first place? Short answer: money. The filmmakers have basically taken the imagery of Tron and cranked it up to 11 – pure, unadulterated eye candy with things like dialogue and characterization taking a backseat. The attention paid to production and art design is phenomenal with all kinds of neon-drenched landscapes full of ambient sounds that will keep architecture buffs busy for years. That being said, the CG to recreate a younger version of Jeff Bridges, circa 1982, is distracting with its waxy, stiff look and dead, lifeless eyes, which, I guess, is appropriate for what is basically an evil clone of the real deal within the film.

Say what you will about the original Tron and its flaws but at least it was anchored by a playful and charismatic performance by Jeff Bridges who acted as the audience surrogate into a strange, new world. This time around, Garrett Hedlund takes on that role with limited success. The uninspired screenplay doesn’t do him any favors and so he does the best with what he was to work with, which admittedly isn’t all that much. Bridges plays a grizzled, burnt out version of his original character and with his beard and long hair it almost seems like the Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) was zapped into the computer world. As if sensing this, Bridges even lets out a few Dudeisms at certain key moments in the film, which at least livens up the forgettable script.

Noted British actor Michael Sheen even shows up channeling David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona as Castor, a preening, flamboyant host of a nightclub where Daft Punk have a cameo as DJs. Using these musicians to do the score for Tron: Legacy was a masterstroke and they seem like the logical evolutionary step from Wendy Carlos. However, those fans expecting them to recreate their trademark dance music might be disappointed as they opt for a more orchestral score that at times is reminiscent of early 1980s John Carpenter, in particular Escape from New York (1981), while also referencing Vangelis, Maurice Jarre and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight (2008). Their finest moment comes during a battle at Castor’s club where Daft Punk gets to really show off their musical chops as they segue from ambient music to pulsating dance music to bombastic beats that accompany with the action. Along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network (2010), theirs was one of the best soundtracks of that year.

maxresdefaultTron: Legacy replaces the “information just wants to be free” message of its predecessor with a “sins of the father” theme as Flynn attempts to stop Clu, his Frankensteinian creation, and repair the damage done between him and Sam. Tron: Legacy manages to make this world and its characters accessible to those not familiar with the first film by basically rehashing its plot, blow-by-blow, which may disappoint fans. However, it does feel like a continuation of the first film with all kinds of references to things that happened in it. There is also a rather nifty cameo by a notable character actor that hints at a possible villain for the next film, if this one makes enough money. Of course, there is the usual criticism that the dialogue is weak, the story is formulaic and there is a real lack of characterization – all issues critics had with the original film. Tron: Legacy certainly lacks in these areas also, but like the first film, the visuals are so impressive, so captivating in the way they immerse you in the computer world, that you tend to ignore the flaws, relax and enjoy the ride.

TOMORROWLAND – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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In this cynical and jaded world in which we live in idealism and optimism are often mistakenly equated with naiveté or stupidity. This may explain why Tomorrowland (2015) tanked so spectacularly at the box office and was roasted over the coals by critics. Based on the Walt Disney theme land of the same name, the film champions dreamers and creativity. Hoping for a repeat of the successful adaptation of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a wildly popular movie franchise, the studio brought in director Brad Bird, fresh from the box office hit Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus), and cast George Clooney to anchor the film in a supporting role opposite Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride) as the young lead. The studio certainly had all the right elements in place but dropped the ball when it came to marketing Tomorrowland, which is staggering when one realizes how many millions of dollars were spent promoting it in a cryptic way that was completely unnecessary. After all the dust has settled and the post-mortems have been made, the question remains, is the film any good? Obviously, the answer is very subjective. I, for one, loved it.

The film starts in the past – the 1964 New York World’s Fair to be exact as young John Francis Walker (Thomas Robinson) gets off a bus lugging a track bag containing a jetpack he invented. Frank shows it to a man named David Nix (Hugh Laurie) with the hopes of winning $50 in a contest. Alas, Frank admits that his invention doesn’t exactly work. Nix asks him what its purpose is and how would it make the world a better place to which the young boy responds, “Can’t it just be fun? … Anything’s possible.” Nix doesn’t understand what that means and Frank tells him, “If I was walking down the street and I saw some kid with a jetpack flying over me I’d believe anything’s possible, I’d be inspired. Doesn’t that make the world a better place?”

Therein lies the film’s central theme and overriding message: anything is possible if you have the imagination to think of something and the perseverance to make it happen regardless of those that tell you no. Armed with this determination and a small pin with the Tomorrowland logo on it, given to him a by little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), Frank sneaks aboard the “It’s A Small World” ride and finds himself transported to a futuristic cityscape known as Tomorrowland. It’s a wondrous utopia that Bird takes us briefly through when Frank, with the help of a robot and a moment of well-timed clumsiness, gets his jetpack to work and flies around so that we (and he) can admire this shiny chrome and glass paradise.

After this brief teasing taste of this world, we are taken back to the present and meet Casey Newton (Robertson), a young woman that uses gadgets she assembled to delay the demolition of a NASA Launchpad thereby prolonging the inevitable loss of employment that will befall her father (Tim McGraw), an engineer. Casey is a dreamer that believes “the tiniest of actions could change the future,” as she tells her little brother Nate (Pierce Gagnon). She explains to him that it is hard to have ideas and it is easy to give up.

During the day, Casey endures classes taught by doom and gloom teachers and is surrounded by apathetic classmates. At night, she continues her one-person crusade to save her dad’s job until she’s finally caught in the act and arrested. Her father bails her out and among her possessions she finds a Tomorrowland pin. Touching it instantly transports her to the futuristic place; however, it only lasts for a few minutes and then no longer works. Naturally, she wants to experience more of this world and finds a store in Houston, Texas that claims to have a pin for sale. The store turns out to be a trap and Casey is rescued by Athena who looks like she hasn’t aged a day since 1964. She promises to take Casey back to Tomorrowland and save it, adding cryptically, “They built something they shouldn’t have.” In order to do so, they have to travel to Pittsfield, New York where Frank (Clooney), now all grown-up, lives like some crazed recluse, and has the ability to transport them to Tomorrowland. It won’t be that easy because Frank is no longer the optimist he once was; he’s now a bitter man existing on the fringes of society.

Britt Robertson plays the film’s protagonist and has the difficult challenge of portraying an irrepressible optimist surrounded by cynics without coming off as a caricature. She does this by instilling Casey with a passion for adventure fueled by curiosity and imagination. There is a sincerity to her performance that feels genuine while also having a knack for physical comedy, like when she figures out what the pin does through trial and error, and verbal comedy, like when Casey first meets Frank and they trade insults.

Not usually cast in summer blockbusters, George Clooney is excellent as a man who has given up hope and lost his idealism. His world-weary crabbiness acts in sharp contrast to Casey’s youthful optimism and their initial scenes together have an amusing tension as she isn’t sure if he can be trusted and vice versa. As the film progresses and they spend more time together, Casey begins to chip away at Frank’s cynicism.

Hugh Laurie plays the film’s antagonist, but wisely doesn’t portray him as such. Nix believes in what he’s doing is right and that’s what makes him dangerous. Laurie brings just the right amount of condescension to the role so that you want to see Casey and Frank defeat him. Raffey Cassidy plays quite the scene-stealer as Athena, with her posh British accent and direct way of talking. Her diminutive stature also makes her an unlikely action hero and yet she gets to jump around, beating up evil robots. Athena, Frank and Casey make for odd traveling companions as they go from Florida to New York to France.

Thanks to Claudio Miranda’s atmospheric cinematography and the best visual effects money can buy, Tomorrowland is a visually stunning film. Naturally, the Tomorrowland scenes, populated by people flying around in jetpacks, hovering trains and rockets, is the most impressive-looking, but a close second is Paris where Miranda bathes the Eiffel Tower in warm light as it is transformed into a massive Steampunk vehicle fueled by Nikola Tesla’s technology. When post-mortems were conducted on why Tomorrowland failed commercially and critically, one reason cited was that not enough time was spent in the titular place. This seems rather odd when we are given substantial teases early on and then the last 40 minutes takes place entirely in the futuristic city. There is something to be said for the less is more approach and the screen-time devoted to Tomorrowland is just right.

While most films are largely immune from film criticism these days, especially with the passing of Roger Ebert, writers just don’t have the influence they had many years ago, some reviewers foolishly attempted to argue that Brad Bird’s film, along with his others, espoused the beliefs of notorious conservative thinker and writer Ayn Rand. Other critics rose to the film’s defense and rightly pointed out that Bird wasn’t inspired by Rand but actually Walt Disney, which make much more sense.

If anything, Tomorrowland’s high profile commercial demise only confirms in the minds of Hollywood studio executives’ minds that to bankroll original films is folly and that they should go on cranking out reboots, remakes and sequels. One can already see this in Bird’s next gig – a return to the safe confines of Pixar to make a sequel to his beloved animated film The Incredibles (2004). It is also disheartening to see a film featuring a smart, resourceful female protagonist fail, especially in the current climate where Hollywood insiders scrutinize the success of every aspect of a film (or lack thereof) and analyze what it means.

XXX TOMORROWLAND MOV JY 0179 .JPG A ENTThat being said, Bird and his collaborators should be commended for getting this passion project made. Tomorrowland exists and will have the chance to outlive its detractors, where its box office failure will eventually mean little, and go on to inspired like-minded dreamers that find themselves identifying with Casey as opposed to the Nixs of the world. Bird’s film is a rare wakeup call against the negativity that permeates our culture, from the doom and gloom headlines that dominate any given news cycle to fashionable pessimism that permeates our culture.

SCANNERS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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For a good part of his career, David Cronenberg has been fascinated by secret societies, be it the New Age-y psychotherapist and his patients in The Brood (1979) or the people addicted to an immersive video game in eXistenZ (1999). With Scanners (1981), he explored a small, but growing number of people endowed with mental abilities that allowed them to read other people’s thoughts or literally blow their minds. This is evident in the film’s most iconic scene where a character blows up another’s head. This premise eerily mirrors Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978), but where it was more of a conventional thriller, Scanners incorporated more cerebral ideas as some of Cronenberg’s characters see themselves as the next rung in the evolutionary ladder.

Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) leads a vagabond lifestyle and is kidnapped and brought to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who works for a mysterious corporation called ConSec. He tells Vale that he is a “scanner”, someone with telepathic abilities and proceeds to teach him how to use his powers. Ruth soon finds himself at odds with Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), head of security at ConSec and who is secretly in cahoots with Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), the leader of an underground group of scanners. Ruth sends Vale to infiltrate Revok’s group and the film builds to an inevitable confrontation between the two powerful scanners.

Stephen Lack, who came from a performance artist background, delivers a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance as Vale, a man who is initially uncomfortable in his own skin, but gradually becomes more confident as he learns how to control his abilities. In one of his career-defining roles, Michael Ironside is excellent as the malevolent Revok who sees himself as a Che Guevara-type figure. Lack and Ironside’s contrasting acting styles compliment their adversarial characters nicely.

Scanners was part of a fantastic run of early films that Cronenberg wrote and directed himself as he explored the dark intersection where the science fiction and horror genres converged. The success of this film spawned two lackluster sequels that Cronenberg wisely had no involvement in. Unlike The Fury, Scanners goes into much more detail about how these mental abilities work and how they can be harnessed as evident in a scene where Ruth teaches Vale how to accelerate a man’s heartbeat, almost killing him. Cronenberg goes further than simply pitting good scanners vs. bad, but also touching upon the notion that they may be the next step in human evolution.

THAT THING YOU DO! – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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That Thing You Do! (1996) is Tom Hanks’ tribute to the slew of rock ‘n’ roll bands that followed in the wake of the Beatles’ phenomenal worldwide success. Record companies in the 1960s were desperate to find the American equivalent in the hopes of making the same kind of profit. The result was a lot of one hit wonder wannabes. Hanks’ film (his directorial debut) is a fictionalized account about one of these bands.

After their regular drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) breaks his arm, a band approaches one of their friends to fill in. They rehearse for a talent show, playing the one original song, “That Thing You Do,” a slow ballad-type deal. However, at the show, the overly enthusiastic drummer speeds up the tempo and the crowd eats it up, breaking spontaneously into dance. They easily win the show and realize that they are onto something. Guy (Tom Everett Scott), the drummer, becomes a permanent member of the band and they call themselves the Oneders (bad idea) and start playing gigs in their home town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech) is the good-looking singer and primary songwriter. Lenny (Steve Zahn) is the wisecracking guitarist who is interested in picking up girls. The bass player (Ethan Embry) doesn’t say much and is content to go along with what everybody else wants to do.

Guy uses his family connections to allow the band to make a record, a single of “That Thing You Do” and it transforms them into a minor local sensation. The Oneders soon get their song played on the radio and their popularity only increases. They meet Mr. White (Tom Hanks), a slick executive from Play-Tone Records, who signs them to his label. He changes their name to the Wonders, changes their look to smart-looking suits and takes them on a whirlwind promotional tour across the country. Along for the ride is Jimmy’s fun-loving girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) and, to a lesser degree, Guy’s uptight girl, Tina (Charlize Theron).

Hanks does a nice job of recreating the time period, complete with vintage cars, outfits and hairstyles but doesn’t dwell on them too much or draw unnecessary attention to them. Best of all, is the music. The band’s hit song is indicative of the era’s pop music (think of it as the whitebread flipside to the Dreamgirls’ music), a catchy three-minute ditty that sticks in your head. Hanks also captures the youthful energy of these young guys – the rush of playing in front of an appreciative audience that loves their music and the excitement of hearing their song on the radio for the first time. He is also successful in conveying the dynamic between the band members and how it changes over time, especially after they enjoy national exposure and success. Predictably, it affects them in all kinds of different ways. Hanks shows how success can spoil a band. Egos get inflated and this often leads to conflicts within the group. There is also the pressure to follow up a hit with another and another so that the record label continues to make money.

For his directorial debut, Hanks wisely doesn’t try to bite off more than he can chew. He keeps his ambitions modest and isn’t too flashy with the camerawork. He understands that nothing should get in the way of the story or the characters. However, his script does show a lack of experience as little things, like a repeating gag of Guy proclaiming, “I am Spartacus,” wears thin very quickly.

That Thing You Do! is an affectionate, nostalgic look back at simpler, more innocent times, just before the country became mired in the Vietnam War and the social and political climate changed radically and with it the music. Hanks recaptures a time when hundreds of screaming teenage girls would mob the bands that they worshipped, a time before the Internet so that music was promoted via the radio which had the power to make or break a band.

SUNSHINE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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In some respects, Danny Boyle is Britain’s answer to Steven Soderbergh – a filmmaker who moves effortlessly from independent to studio films and works in a variety of genres: gritty drug drama (Trainspotting), kids film (Millions) and edgy horror (28 Days Later). Like Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), Boyle has tried his hand at science fiction with Sunshine (2007). It was critically lauded in England as a thinking person’s genre film but was met with mixed critical reaction in North America and lackluster box office.

Sometime in the far future, our Sun is dying. The Earth is in the grips of a solar winter and the only chance we have for survival is to reignite the star. A spacecraft called the Icarus II, with a crew of eight and carrying a nuclear bomb roughly the size of Manhattan, will hopefully kick-start the Sun and save humanity. On the way there, they pick up a distress beacon from Icarus I, an earlier expedition with the same mission but that had mysteriously disappeared en route. Do they alter their course and check out the ship in the hopes that they can use its bomb and thereby doubling their chances? The decision lies with the ship’s physicist, Dr. Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) and it is one that will affect the entire crew in ways they can’t yet imagine. Through a series of intense situations brought on by unforeseen complications, there’s a real possibility that the Icarus II may not make it back alive and the characters have to realistically deal with this chilling realization.

Sunshine starts of as an intellectual science fiction film a la 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and then shifts focus to an engrossing mystery involving the Icarus I and shifts again to a slasher film reminiscent of Event Horizon (1997) for the last third. This last shift has drawn the most criticism from reviewers and does test the film’s credibility. Do the filmmakers really need to add even more danger for the protagonists to face? Isn’t the fact that they are heading straight towards the Sun with limited resources and crew challenging enough?

Sunshine does an excellent job showing the dynamic between the crew members and how it gradually breaks down when things go horribly wrong. Crew member turns on crew member and an oversight or miscalculation has catastrophic effects. The cast is uniformly excellent and refreshingly absent of big name movie stars. Instead, we get solid character actors like Cillian Murphy (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Cliff Curtis (Bringing out the Dead). Some of them are cast wonderfully against type and others, like Chris Evans, show previously unseen depth.

It is also nice to see the characters solving problems with reason and intellect that actually makes sense. That’s not to say that Sunshine is all brainy posturing. There is plenty of intense, visceral action that is emotionally draining much like Boyle did with 28 Days Later (2002). As he showed with that film and his debut, Shallow Grave (1994), he certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension.

This is also a visually impressive film as Boyle not only shows off the usual iconography of the genre – spacecraft, spacesuits, etc. – but doesn’t fall into some of the more tired clichés, like aerodynamically-designed spacecraft and evil computers. He also doesn’t telegraph who lives and who dies which gives the film an edgy unpredictability. At times, it feels like Sunshine wants to be the 2001 for the new Millennium but then the slasher film elements creep in and it resembles a more traditional thriller. It’s too bad because up to that point, Boyle’s film is a very smart, thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction.

CONSTANTINE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Constantine (2005) marked the feature film debut of music video director Francis Lawrence who, judging by the look of this movie, would like to follow in the footsteps of David Fincher. For his first time out, Lawrence takes on the daunting task of adapting the excellent comic book, Hellblazer. Its main character, John Constantine first appeared in the pages of Swamp Thing, during an illustrious run by Alan Moore. Eventually, Constantine got his own series with the launch of DC Comics’ Vertigo line. Jamie Delano was the primary writer and fleshed out the character’s backstory, his friends (like Chas the cabbie) and family. These stories typified late 1980s comic book horror and provided a bridge between Moore and the next creative heavyweight to tackle the character, Garth Ennis. His run on Hellblazer is where the movie gets most of its material from. Constantine is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking guy suffering from terminal lung cancer. He becomes embroiled in a complex war between Heaven and Hell with humanity caught in the middle.

The movie moves the comic’s setting from London to Los Angeles with John Constantine no longer being a blond-haired Englishman who looks like Sting to a very un-British-looking Keanu Reeves. The opening sequence introduces Constantine as an expert demon hunter trying to get back in with the good graces of God and the way he figures it, buy his way back into Heaven, but it isn’t that easy. We meet him as he exorcises a nasty demon from a young girl (a snazzy CGI updated riff on The Exorcist) while his twentysomething sidekick, Chas (Shia LeBeouf) waits in the car and perfects his Travis Bickle routine. Despite these cliches, this introduction is quite impressively shot and Lawrence successfully establishes this supernatural world and wisely limits Reeves’ dialogue, conveying most of what we need to know through the visuals.

Angela (Rachel Weisz) is a police detective whose twin sister has just died, committing suicide in a psychiatric hospital. Angela suspects foul play and this leads her to Constantine. They learn that demons are finding a way to crossover into our world and it has something to do with the Spear of Destiny (the weapon used to kill Jesus) being instrumental in summoning the son of Satan. To make matters worse, Constantine is rapidly dying from lung cancer and this gives his mission a certain sense of urgency.

Fans of the comic book are probably not going to like this movie. Constantine is supposed to be world-weary, a sarcastic drunk and womanizer but Reeves doesn’t quite pull it off. He presents a more sanitized version of the comic book character and even that feels forced. Another major betrayal of the character is having him wield a gun (a cool-looking crucifix shotgun), something that the Constantine of the comic would never do. Guy Pearce or Clive Owen would have been a much better choice to play Constantine.

Rachel Weisz is also miscast as Constantine’s potential love interest. Her line delivery throughout the movie is flat and lacks passion. She has zero chemistry with Reeves (didn’t they learn anything from Chain Reaction?) and someone like Fairuza Balk or even Drea DeMatteo would have been much better in this pivotal role. On the plus side, alternative rocker Gavin Rossdale plays a very dapper Balthazar who looks like he stepped right out of a GQ photo shoot. He has a lot fun chewing up the scenery and his confrontation with Reeves is one of the highpoints of the movie.

Lawrence certainly knows how to establish atmosphere and does an excellent job of presenting a seedy, Los Angeles underworld populated by bars filled with demons, dilapidated apartments and grungy city streets slicked with rain. Thankfully, he doesn’t fall into the trap of shamelessly ripping off Blade Runner’s (1982) dystopic cityscape. If anything, his vision of Constantine’s world is like an episode of the television show Angel on big-budget CGI steroids. He also is able create an effectively creepy mood throughout. For example, there’s a nice, throwaway scene where Constantine and Angela are on a city street when all the lights systematically go out as a slew of nasty, winged demons swarm all over them.

constant2Despite the miscasting of Reeves and Weisz in the two main roles, Lawrence’s take on Constantine is actually quite entertaining, even more so if you haven’t read the comic book. However, fans of the series will have problems with the major liberties the filmmakers have taken with the characters – especially Constantine and Chas. Like most comic book adaptations, this film only sprinkles certain elements from the source material, just enough to vaguely resemble it while watering it down for mainstream consumption. It’s a shame because in the right hands, Constantine could have been more like Hellboy (2004) instead it’s closer to the flawed, missed opportunity of The Punisher (2004).

THE WALKER – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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After dabbling briefly with a major studio with Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), writer/director Paul Schrader returned to the relatively safe confines of the independent film scene with The Walker (2007). This film continued his fascination with loner protagonists ostracized by their profession as examined in American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (1992), or by their worldview as in Taxi Driver (1976).

Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) is a popular socialite who works as a confidant, companion, and card player to the wives of politicians in Washington, D.C. – a professional “walker,” a term coined for Nancy Reagan’s companion when she was First Lady. Carter is the epitome of the Southern gentleman. He plays a weekly card game with three women as they gossip and tell stories complete with salacious details about the denizens of Capitol Hill. Carter is finely groomed and impeccably dressed with only the finest suits, living in a beautifully furnished place.

With the stories Carter tells his dates, he hints at a rich backstory but he is careful not to reveal too much about himself. While waiting for Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), one of his dates, to meet up with her lover, she comes back in shock. Her lover is dead and she asks Carter to keep the incident quiet. Of course, he decides to get involved (he knew the victim). Carter used to trade in juicy gossip and now he has become the subject of it. It doesn’t help that he lost considerable money on an investment that the victim advised and this gives the socialite a motive. As a result, he decides to investigate the murder using his own insider contacts and uncover a few dirty secrets that people in positions of power don’t want revealed. His efforts to clear his name become more urgent once the Feds apply pressure thanks to a particular nasty agent (William Hope). Pretty soon, events conspire against him and Carter becomes the prime suspect.

Woody Harrelson disappears into the role affecting a flawless accent and does an excellent job with Schrader’s witty dialogue and distinctive cadence. Every few years between amiable comedies Harrelson gets a juicy dramatic role to sink his teeth into and showcase his acting chops: Natural Born Killers (1994), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and now this film. Schrader’s screenplay, as you would expect, snaps and pops, especially the scenes where Carter and his companions banter and gossip. It doesn’t hurt that he has the likes of Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, and Kristin Scott Thomas delivering it. The Walker is a fascinating inside look at a subculture that exists in Washington, D.C. under the auspices of a murder mystery. It shows to what lengths politicians will go in order to protect themselves and their dirty secrets. Schrader has crafted a smart thriller with interesting characters that is driven by a well-plotted story and not a bunch of noisy, hastily edited action sequences.