Benson & Moorhead’s Synchronic

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead have consistently been putting out wild, innovative and boundlessly creative ideas into cinema including Lovecraftian romance, esoteric doomsday cults, otherworldly time loops and more. What’s so great about their work is that along with these very grand, high concept SciFi ideas they always have the right application of atmosphere and tone as well as extremely believable, well written characters to back it up and with their newest film Synchronic they just may have outdone themselves. Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play two New Orleans EMT’s who are also steadfast besties, their bromance banter a huge asset to this story. They seem to be getting a lot of disturbing calls lately, of people injured or hurt very badly after taking a mysterious experimental street drug called Synchronic, which is available in Vape form at various stores. It’s basically a synthetic DMT compound that acts on the pineal gland to provide unnervingly vivid hallucinations, but what really happens is that for the duration of the high, you quite literally go backwards in time to a random period of history, could be five years ago, could be five thousand years ago. This powerful but dangerous ability is the lynchpin of a story that involves these two characters as Dornan struggles with family issues, Mackie wrestles with a terminal illness diagnosis and the drug itself comes into play in ways you might not expect. Both actors are terrific especially when onscreen together, with Mackie being the standout and taking full blooded advantage of the deep, ponderous and soulful writing. What really makes the film sing is the synergistic flow of atmosphere, music and special effects for the trips back in time and there are several breathtaking set pieces including a Spanish conquistador in a damp bayou, a hellish picture of the New Orleans harbour on fire sometime around the civil war and an absolutely stunning trip back to the ice age. These sequences feel fully realized, immersive and tactile and where other films would take a high tech gadgetry approach to time travel, this one uses the onset of the drug’s effect in an eerie, elemental biochemistry fashion to transport us into the film’s realm. Moorehead and Benson floored me with their 2015 film Spring (couldn’t recommend it enough) and then their follow up The Endless left me a bit underwhelmed but for me this is them roaring back into cinematic innovation on all levels with a wondrously moody, unbelievably creative SciFi that’s sure to become a classic. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Joe Wright’s The Woman In The Window

Joe Wright’s The Woman In The Window is one of those big, expensive, star studded thrillers you used to see in the 90’s a lot, ones that would have folks like Harrison Ford or Julia Roberts headlining, always backed up by a galaxy of impressive supportive talent. Here it’s Amy Adams, an actress I’m almost convinced can do pretty much anything she’s so good, playing an agoraphobic ex-psychologist who has been hiding away in her Manhattan brownstone for several months following some vague traumatic incident. She has regular sessions with an unhelpful shrink (an uncredited Tracey Letts, also adapting a screenplay from AJ Finn’s novel) and speaks forlornly with her estranged husband (Anthony Mackie, heard and not seen) over the phone, until her new neighbours across the way give her a real fright when she believes she witnesses a violent murder one night while spying from her window. The frantic husband (an explosively intense Gary Oldman with an accent I’ve never heard him do that I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist in the real world) insists nothing happened, his odd wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) looks on, a shady mystery woman (Julianne Moore) lurks about the place, and the cop (Brian Tyree Henry) in charge of helping out doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything. This film is an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and this is apparent in not only the central premise but many of the shots, colour schemes, musical cues and even old school movies that Amy has crooning in the background as she gets absolutely torqued on booze/medication cocktails to drive out the memory of some horrific past. I was more engaged with the narrative when it was about her and this past that has caused her to become such a ragged recluse. There’s a genuine mystery there and it’s shot and presented in a surprisingly artistic, unconventional and kaleidoscopic fashion that shirks the standards of dry Hollywood glossy cinematography these films usually employ and had me thoroughly immersed. The mystery as to what’s going on next door regarding this troubled family is also engaging in a lurid, potboiler kind of way, a bit overblown and melodramatic for its own sake but every plot turn and explanation does eventually check out, even if the road getting there is a bit of a loopy one. The acting is all solid, with Adams going all out for a truly impressive performance, Oldman being the most fired up and scary I’ve seen him since maybe Book Of Eli, which is a nice change of pace from his usual restraint of late. It’s far from the most original thriller out there and feels a bit scattered at times, but there’s a lot to enjoy with standout work from Adams and the trippy, borderline surreal internal world of her mind, with intense visual cues probing at a haunting mystery the film deftly withholds from us for some time juxtaposed against the stark, steep geography of her apartment full of curling staircases, gaunt angles and one hell of a rooftop patio, all brought to life by a creepy score from Danny Elfman, of all people. Fun times, if a bit… overstuffed for a 100 minute film.

-Nate Hill

Joe Roth’s Freedomland j

Freedomland is a dark, strange drama about events spiraling out of control following the disappearance of a young boy, the distraught nature of his mother (Julianne Moore) and the subsequent search that takes two detectives (Samuel L. Jackson and William Forsythe) into a heated black community and the surrounding wilderness nearby. Moore’s character is a notoriously unstable woman and not the most reliable mother, her story just doesn’t seem to add up, especially when she claims she saw a black man take off with her car with her kid in it. Jackson’s charismatic cop knows the community well and does his best to ease mounting racial tension, while Moore is a basket case who can barely function, and the whole thing feels sort of meandering and purgatorial until a third act revelation that puts an entirely new spin on the film but also kind of thematically negates everything that came before. Is is a slightly political interpersonal drama? Somewhat. Is it a twisty abduction thriller? Not really me, but I feel like it wants to be. Is it a character study of a broken woman? Could have been with more development. It’s an odd mix that doesn’t really gel with much that it tries except when it focuses on Moore, who is fascinating damaged goods, but again more time should have been spent cultivating that angle. Jackson is fine in his authoritarian mediator role, normally boisterous Forsythe is pretty laid back as the trusty sidekick, Edie Falco plays a concerned activist looking to help out and Ron Eldard is terrific as Moore’s brother, an emotional firebrand who calls her right out on her ongoing bullshit. This film tries to be more than it ultimately ends up being, if that at all makes sense. Elements are in place for it to be great and some of them do in fact work, but the script needed some tweaks, especially in how the bulk of the film and the conflict there relate to and clash with that twist ending, which needed to be revealed way sooner to set up a moving, provocative final act. Not terrible for the effort that was made.

-Nate Hill

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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When we last saw Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), he had just helped save New York City from an alien invasion and was still acclimatizing himself to modern life having been frozen in ice since World War II as chronicled in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The sequel, The Winter Soldier (2014), takes place two years after the events depicted in The Avengers (2012) and sees Cap working as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., a top-secret spy organization that, among other things, deals with the fallout from the adventures of superheroes like Iron Man and Thor. However, as hinted at in The Avengers and the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there is something rotten at the core of the spy organization and Cap soon finds himself not only embroiled in a vast conspiracy, but also confronting someone from his past he thought had died in the war. The result is a fantastic fusion of the super hero movie with the conspiracy thriller.

Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are now a team and as the film begins they intercept a covert S.H.I.E.L.D. ship in the Indian Ocean that has been hijacked by Algerian terrorists led by French mercenary Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre). In a nice touch, the filmmakers manage to transform Batroc, who was a pretty ridiculous villain in the comic books, into a bit of a badass. Afterwards, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lets Cap in behind the scenes, showing him three Helicarriers armed with state-of-the-art jet fighters that are linked to spy satellites created to anticipate global threats in a program known as Project Insight.

Cap is not at all comfortable with Fury’s secret project and the notion of creating a climate of fear that potentially robs people of their basic freedoms. However, when Fury suspects something is wrong with Project Insight he voices concern to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Immediately afterwards, Fury is attacked on the streets of Washington, D.C. by S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives and an enigmatic figure known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Fury barely escapes and finds Cap before being gravely injured. It’s up to Cap and Black Widow, along with the help of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a war veteran and post-traumatic stress disorder counselor that Cap befriends early on, to uncover the corruption rampant in S.H.I.E.L.D. and stop it.

Chris Evans does an excellent job of reprising his role of Captain America and providing layers to a character that is essentially a super strong boy scout who comes from a simpler time. He is now immersed in a convoluted conspiracy where he doesn’t know who to trust. As a result, he has to do a bit of soul-searching, which Evans handles well. He also has nice chemistry with Scarlett Johansson, especially when Cap and Black Widow go off the grid together and try to find the Winter Soldier. There’s a hint of sexual tension going on as two people with wildly different backgrounds and approaches to life are forced to look out for each other. Johansson finally gets some seriously significant screen-time than she did in Iron Man 2 (2010) and The Avengers and it’s nice to see her character fleshed out a bit more as well as giving her plenty of action sequences to kick ass in.

A film like this, which intentionally raises the stakes in comparison to the first one needs a credible threat that makes us feel like Cap and his allies are in real danger and the Winter Soldier does that. He rarely speaks, but looks cool and is extremely dangerous so that we anticipate the inevitable showdown between him and Cap. He isn’t some anonymous bad guy, but something of a tortured soul and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the first film) offers some tantalizing details of his backstory and how it ties in with Cap’s past.

Markus and McFeely have crafted a solid script that is well-executed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They establish just the right rhythm and tone with well-timed lulls between action sequences that are used wisely to move the plot along and offer little moments of character development that keep us invested in the characters and their story. For example, there is a nice scene where Cap goes to an exhibit dedicated to his World War II exploits at the Smithsonian, which succinctly recaps his origin story in a rather poignant way that reminds us of his internal conflict of being stuck in the past while living in the present. One way he deals with this is befriending Sam and they both bond over being war veterans – albeit from very different eras. In addition, the script features several well-timed one-liners and recurring jokes that add moment of much-welcomed levity to an otherwise serious film.

The action sequences are exciting and expertly choreographed with the exception of the opening boat siege, which takes place at night and involves way too much Paul Greengrass/Jason Bourne shaky, hand-held camerawork. Once the filmmakers get that out of their system and Cap takes on Batroc, the camera settles down and is a decent distance from the combatants so that we can see what’s going on. There is also an intense car chase involving an injured Fury in an increasingly bullet-ridden SUV that has the feel of the exciting car chase in William Friedkin’s To Love and Die in L.A. (1985) and a little later Cap takes out an elevator full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents intent on neutralizing him that evokes an elevator scene in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). The fights between Cap and the Winter Soldier are fast and frenetic, but never confusing as they convey the frighteningly deadly speed of the latter’s moves, so much so that I really felt like Cap was in some serious danger.

Drawing elements from writer Ed Brubaker and illustrator Steven Epting’s 2005 “Winter Soldier” storyline in the comic book, this film has a decidedly darker tone than The First Avenger as our hero is nearly killed on several occasions and his world is shaken to the very core as he uncovers all sorts of ugly secrets. In this respect, The Winter Soldier is reminiscent of paranoid conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s and this is acknowledged with the casting of Robert Redford who starred in two of the best films from that era – Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976).

It is refreshing to see a sequel that isn’t merely content to rehash the first film. Where The First Avenger was essentially a mash-up of a super hero movie and war movie, The Winter Soldier is super hero movie and a political thriller with events that are a major game changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the past, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been the connective tissue that linked several of the films together that led up to The Avengers. It should be interesting to see how the events depicted in this film set the stage for Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015). That being said, The Winter Soldier has its own self-contained story that is engrossing with a lot at stake for our hero and this in turn gets you invested in what is happening to produce a rare super hero movie with heart.