Before Nicholas Winding Refn blew up into the big time with intense, stylish stuff like Bronson, Drive and Valhalla Rising, and after he made his bloody emergence into cinema with Pusher, he made another film that no one seems to remember or even even like all that much. It’s easy to see why Fear X wasn’t that well received or remembered: it’s choppy and confusing, even by Refn’s terms, and doesn’t pull it’s third act into a cohesive resolution, instead favoring a disconcertingly surreal descent into subconscious, abstract imagery, which we all know (the careers of Lynch and others are examples) is an aesthetic not always absorbed by the most open of minds when it comes to the masses. Now that we got that out of the way, here’s my take. I adore the film. It’s a skitchy Midwestern nightmare that starts of gently gnawing at the fringes of your perception with a sense of dread that’s intangible in its possibility, an outcome as vast and unknowable as the desolate prairie setting that calls to mind the fear and degradation of Fargo without an ounce of its good humour, black or otherwise. John Turturro inhabits this setting with a twitchy, anxious aura, suggesting a haunted mindscape beneath those famous curls. And well he should be haunted, considering his wife recently disappeared without a trace. For him, not knowing what happened is worse than any kind of grisly answer, for its a sick hollowness that chokes out any room for him to grieve. He works by day as a mall security guard, busting shoplifters and scanning snowy surveillance screens to distract himself. Then, his co-worker (Stephen Eric Mcintyre) hands him a videotape that may contain answers and be the first breadcrumb in a trail leading to his wife’s killer, and possibly his solace. In a lot of films and shows like these, the protagonist ventures to a small town with sordid secrets simmering just beneath the crust of the cheerful looking pie held by the pretty waitress at the local diner. Some artists find their own groove without riffing on other’s work too much, and some fall flat-footed into derivitive motions. Refn is bold yet subtle in his direction once Turturro arrives in the town, and casts a deceptively innocuous yet insidiously creepy spell over the proceedings. It’s essentially where the film really exits utero and manifests, the danger before that was only glimpsed on the horizon now a very real possibility, like waking up from a bad dream into a worse reality. Turturro is met with cold stares and grim greetings, especially by a deputy who becomes predatory upon seeing part of the clues he has brought with him, vaguely tied to a local resident. From there he is led to a suspicious Sheriff (James Remar), and the sheriff’s wife (Deborah Kara Unger). Remar may have been involved in his wife’s death, and he plays with the curtain of his performance wonderfully, pulling it back ever so slightly in scenes with Unger (some of his best work) and stirring up confusion while menacing Turturro. It’s an unheralded best from him and a rare occasion where he gets to be subtle and eerie, as opposed to his usual brash, cocky characters. Unger is similar to Remar in the sense that she has made a point over the course of her career in picking obscure, challenging and unique roles to play. In playing a couple here they feel kind of star-crossed just by the nature of their careers, fed by their smoldering chemistry. The film proceeds like any thriller would, with only intangible hints at the weirdness to come, until the last half of the third act, where it abandons logic completely and dives headlong into a dreamlike abyss of surreality, without a readily discernable warning or narrative signpost. Is Turturro unstable? Or is it Remar? Or are events just taking a turn fpr the supernatural as a result of the town messing with people’s psyches, a la The Shining? We will never know, and honestly I doubt Refn did, or ever will either. It’s him in the sandbox, free from logic or consequence, and hate it with all your might if you wish, but you can’t deny it’s a psychologically galvanizing experience that toys with your perception and spooks to the core. The film deals with themes of not knowing, and open ended tragedy masked by confusion and spiraling ‘what ifs’. Perhaps Refn implemented all the metaphysical hoo-hah as an extreme metaphor for Turturro’s consciousness, fractured and torn by the absence of resolution to the point of madness. Or maybe Refn just likes making weird shit. That’s the eternal debate with artists like him and Lynch: do they have some plan, a secret marauders map to the strangeness that they present to us on screen which only they are privy too, or are they simply making it up as they go along, hurling paint at the canvas until they are satisfied with the result, regardless of comprehending it? We’ll never know, and that for me is the beauty of it. With Fear X Refn crafts a polarizing thriller that is the very proto – example of ‘love it or hate it’. It’s definitely not for everyone. But love it or hate it, there’s no escaping it’s power.
Penthouse North is a vicious little 90’s inspired slice of thriller fun, which sadly seems to have gained zero marketing and promotion, so unless it catches your eye on US Netflix or Shaw On Demand (which is where I watched it), you’ll prolly never even know you missed it. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and sometimes is very predictable, but as I found myself calling plot twists on the dime, and figuring out story beats before they happened, I didn’t find myself frustrated or feeling cheated out. I got a burst of nostalgia for the 80’s/90’s time period when these type of thrillers were in full bloom. Michelle Monaghan throws herself into the role of Sara, an ex-war photojournalist who was blinded in an incident. She lives in an ornate NYC penthouse with her boyfriend now, only just beginning to adjust to her new condition and emerge from reclusiveness. On New Year’s Eve, that auspicious time of year that buzzes with possibility, trouble comes knocking in the form of homicidal criminals in search of something hidden within the apartment. We are then treated to the archetypal game of cat and mouse as she fights tooth and nail for her survival. The film benefits greatly from a frenzied performance from Michael Keaton as Hollander, the lead criminal and a real piece of work. Keaton rarely plays in the bad guy arena (check out Pacific Heights for a more restrained yet equally dastardly turn), but he’s got a reptilian ferocity that’s equally scary and amusing, sometimes both at once. His Hollander is a royal prick, and oodles of fun to watch. Mark Mancini composes a solid score of jangly apprehension, and the film makes great use of its setting, with several clammy moments that didn’t sit well with my fear of heights. Good stuff.
For a film about violence, crime and police corruption, The Big Easy sure is easy going and colorful. The characters are the liveliest bunch of rascals and it’s a pleasure to spend every minute with them. Dennis Quaid plays cocky New Orleans detective Remy McSwain, a swaggering smooth talker who’s gotten wealthy taking payoffs, a dude whose silky charm matches his swanky suits. He’s gotten used to the easy life in the police department, with a captain who looks the other way (Ned Beatty brings a jovial, rotund presence), and colleagues (John Goodman is perfectly cast as the witty loudmouth of the bunch) who are just as happily willing to bend the rules as him. Trouble arrives in the sultry form of D.A. corruption task force specialist Anne Osborne (a swelteringly hot Ellen Barkin) who leans on Quaid as heavily as he hits on her. There’s immediate and electric chemistry between them, which she adamantly fights, and he chases like a horn dog pursuing the bumper of a speeding Buick. Quaid and Barkin have the same spitfire sheen to their work, their careers dotted with performances that are flashy yet brave, pulpy yet laced with depth. Here they’re having oodles of fun and carry the entire film on their crackling star power and romantic spark alone. There’s also a subplot involving a rash of gang killings, as well as family matters involving Quaid’s vivacious Cajun clan, including his Momma (monumentally talented Grace Zabriskie). It’s a lively hodge-podge of plot elements we’ve seen a zillion times, but given such flippant style and good natured southern hospitality that we can’t help but be won over. There’s some lovely live performed Cajun music as well to add extra spice.
Joe Wright’s Hanna started as a Vancouver Film School script, funded through grants that would make it the catalyst for the positively unique, incendiary action fairy tale that it is today. It’s crowd pleasing without any superficiality, straight to the point without being over serious, and is made with a slick, vibrant aesthetic that will have your pulse dancing a jig in time with the thumping score by The Chemical Brothers. I held off on seeing this one for years after its initial release, jaded by the prospect of another ‘killer genetically altered female assassin’ flick. One night I finally caved and took a peek on Netflix. I then kicked myself hard for not taking notice sooner, purely on the notion that I wouldn’t dig it based on its formula. I suppose I learnt a little ‘book by its cover’ lesson there, as I was completely enamoured with the film and have seen it at least ten times since then. The tired ingredients of any old formula can be whipped up into a tantalizing new recipe, providing all those involved have the commitment and passion. The filmmakers of Hanna go for broke with one of the best thrillers in years. Saoirse Ronan is an explosive, feral waif as the titular hero, raised in isolation by her badass ex CIA father Erik Heller (underrated Aussie Eric Bana nails the German accent to a T). They reside in the frozen tundras of Lapland, where Erik trains her in the ways of a warrior, instilling survivalism in both physical and intellectual measures, preparing her for their inevitable separation. An enemy from Erik’s past surfaces in the form of evil CIA witch Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett practically breathes fire with a naughty southern accent and a red hairdo that looks acidic to the touch), and both Hanna and him are forced to run, separated from each other. She escapes from a remote facility and begins her journey across Europe, befriended by a lovable squabbling family of travellers, igniting a yearning for companionship in her that Ronan expertly shows the camera. Wiegler enlists the slimy help of a euro trash club owner who moonlights as some sort of freelance über villain (Tom Hollander almost walks away with the movie as the psychopathic, bleached blonde pervo Deutsch-bag) who relentlessly pursues Hanna along with his neo nazi skinhead henchman. The thing about this film is that it’s all been done before, but they find a way to make it fresh, exciting and strike chords which simply haven’t been hit in this sub genre before, providing a film experience that really sticks. Ronan has never been more virile and effective, also proving a mastery of the German accent and embodying Hanna with intense physicality that’s achingly punctuated by a gradual awakening as a person as well. Impressive balance is shown in her character arc, through writing and stunt work alike. This is the first movie to be scored by The Chemical Brothers, and damn I hope we get more. They belt out a technicolor rhapsody of electric music that flows beautifully with the story, hitting every beat, ramping up suspense when needed, being surprisingly weird at times and kicking around your head long after the credits roll. The actors are all easy listening with the dialogue, never feeling forced or making us doubt for a minute that these aren’t real people engaged in genuine interaction. The film neither drags nor rushes, arriving at its often grisly, sometimes touching and always entertaining conclusions exactly when it needs to. It shows uncanny intuition with its pacing, an absence of the need to show off with unnecessary fights or effects which don’t serve the story, and above all a keen desire to entertain us. Terrific stuff.
Peter Jackson’s dreamlike adaptation of The Lovely Bones gets unfairly beat down way too much. While I will concede that, having never read the book myself, I’ve heard it differs considerably in story, I view the film on a standalone level. And what a film. It’s an absolute stunner, on every level, from effects and casting to acting and production design. It contains elements of the subconscious and astral planes which are a huge draw in any film for me, and are visualized here spectacularly. Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, an adolescent girl barely coming into her own when she is cut down like a flower that has jus begun to bloom. Her killer, a skin crawling creep named George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) is a neighbor and well disguises his inner nature, making the search for her murderer lead to cold dead ends. Her father (an oddly cast Mark Wahlberg makes it work) doesn’t give up for a minute, tormented by not knowing what happened to his little girl. Her mother (Rachel Weisz) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) slowly come apart at the seams from the insidious trauma that such an incident inflicts on loved ones left behind. Only her plucky sister Rose (an excellent Rose McIver) is able to find any clues which lay the blame on Harvey. She quietly scopes him out for proof of the murder, providing a scene of hair raising suspense that will leave you needing a change of pants. Meanwhile, Susie finds herself in a place beyond space and time, a dazzling purgatory filled with the sights, sounds and memories of her short life all projected through the abstract prism of the unconscious mind, and is simply the most innovative and eye opening look into the unconscious dream world of the human mind since Tarsem Singh’s The Cell. Ronan is a beacon of hope in her performance, projecting resilience frayed with the vulnerability of a young soul achingly wounded at the tragedy of her outcome, yet determind to set things right and make peace with the life she was ripped out of so soon. Tucci is flat out genius as Harvey. Gone is his usual spitfire cameraderie, giving us an empty, psychopathic shell of a human with a reptilian gaze that causes shudders all round. He’s made Harvey a truly harrowing movie villain to rank as one of the very best, and when viewed alongside other performances of his, one can scarcely comprehend his versatility, let alone believe it’s the same guy in both roles. Peter Jackson has a yearning for every project he takes on to be the longest, flashiest, most opulent vision he can conjure up, and while that sometimes causes his own masterful technique to buckle in on itself a bit, here its employed wonderfully to make the very best version of this story that anyone probably could have. He also doesn’t shy away from showing the blunt brutality of the situation, or the undeniably ugly event, which is hard to sit through yet neccesary for the arc of the story to have full impact. In the end, elements of the story both nasty and uplifting alike combine with a set of impressive visual effects and earnest acting all across the board to create a treasure of a film.
Yesterday I went into HMV, looking for a standard Blu Ray edition of a film I’ve recently seen that has stuck with me since in a way that I can’t quite describe, Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock. The only version they had was a pricy Criterion Blu Ray/Dvd combo which also included the original novel which Weir based his film on. Now normally I’m reluctant with Criterion, as I almost always disagree with the films they pick for their releases. Also..it was expensive as shit. But then I remembered how much it affected me when I first watched it on my humble iPad, and realized that I wanted to have the snazziest output that money could buy, as this is one I’ll be revisiting probably until my years on this rock have run out. At it’s heart it’s a mystery of the deepest primordial resonance, laced with the burgeoning sexuality of its female lead characters, and ultimately leaving an aftertaste of such yearning, mournful sadness that I had no idea movies were even capable of. Weir sets his story in 1900 Australia, with amusing attempts by the British to tame the near prehistoric nature of the land. Their prim, drawn up customs seem ludicrous and surreal in the face of a wild, abstractly formed landscape that meets their need for order and custom with unimpressed chaos.
A group of girls from a nearby boarding school embark on an annual picnic to Hanging Rock, an ominous geological gnarl set in a scorched, unearthly swath of land that evokes the feeling one might get from a partially recalled dream of some far off dimensional plane. For the conservative visitors and the audience alike, the surface of the moon might feel more at home. In a gust of unsettling foreshadowing, several members of their party note that their watches have mysteriously stopped at dead noon. A group of four girls venture forth to explore the upper plateau of the rock, promising their teacher Mademoiselle (radiant, elemental Helen Morse) they’ll be back before tea. Four enter the jagged, awaiting maze; two disappear and are never heard from again. It’s an enigma that shakes the foundations of the boarding school to its core. From stoic headmistress (Rachel Roberts) to a tragically abandoned orphan girl (Margaret Nelson, staggering for a girl who’d had no previous acting experience) no one is quite the same after the incident, almost as if whatever intangible forces responsible for the girl’s disappearance have reached out and deeply disturbed every form of life in its vicinity, the very madness of the continent itself driving these civilized newcomers to the brink of soul shaking distress. In spite of the film’s beauty, there are also moments of sheer horror that rival anything in your garden variety fright flick. The key scene where the girl’s are last scene is fogged over with such a feeling unshakable dread, crafted through sound and editing alone, no actual discernible violence or threat. It’s utter genius and you begin to question why you’ve got hordes of goosebumps from so ambiguous a scene, but you’re left snatching for the same answers to a feeling akin to the sensation of a quickly dissipating nightmare I mentioned above. That’s how powerful the filmmaking is… You are shaken without ever really knowing why or what’s the matter, which is really the concept of a mystery distilled to its purest form.
What claws at your mind and lingers in the fringes of your awareness long after watching the film is its atmosphere of mounting dread, like knowing for certain the the worst possible type of end is coming for you, yet being utterly unable to articulate exactly what it is. The soundscape is thick with melancholic unease as well, evident in a knockout pan flute solo from Georghe Zamfir, providing a hazy chorus that will stand up the hairs on your arm in its beauty and terror. The scenes at Hanging Rock are lifted straight out of a subconscious place and laid down on the canvas of film with the same exquisite care of pressing flowers, which we see the girls doing early on. Film essentially does this: the painstaking preservation of beauty for countless generations to be pleased, terrified and puzzled by. There’s no better version of this film I’d rather have that with than this one.
Usually, I’m not super hot on adaptations of John Le Carré novels. His style tends to veer towards dense, impenetrable narratives that confuse and confound me, and are further frustrating because they have such wonderful casts and production value (I’m lookin at you, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The Constant Gardener, however, is a breathtaking story that I’ve enjoyed very much since I saw it in theatres at probably too young an age. It fashions a story that although is complex and refuses to be straightforward about what it’s trying to say, contains essential beats and stunning performances from its actors. It’s also set apart from other Le Carré yarns for having the most humanistic, compasionate core to its story, centering it’s focus on the atrocities that humans can commit upon each other in mass, faceless fashion and showing us the sparse, golden good deeds that a few kind people can put forth to counter such madness. An organic, emotional theme is nice compared to the clinical, detached style we usually see from this writer. The film is lucky in the sense that it has deeply gifted leads: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two actors who always resonate with a relatable human kinship in their work, and are both superb here. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British ambassador in a god forsaken African region whose luminous wife Tessa (Weisz) is found dead in a remote area under suspicious circumstances. She was investigating several high profile pharmaceutical companies, under scrutiny for their sociopathic, amoral drug testing trials on the poverty stricken Africans. Intrigue strikes in after this, as shellshocked Justin pieces together what lead to her death, and how he can cripple those responsible using espionage and a level of keenness that’s well above both his pay grade and mental constitution. Flashbacks abound as we see Justin and Tessa’s early years unfold, adding all the more to the lumps in our throats as we know the ultimate outcome which the film frankly showed us in the opening frames. Welcome supporting turns come from other UK geniuses like Bill Nighy as an icy CEO, Richard McCabe as Fiennes’s courageous brother in law, Danny Huston as a shady friend of Tessa’s and Pete Postlethwaite as a mysterious doctor who figures later in the plot. Cinematographer César Charlone makes sweeping work of bringing the chaotic nature of Africa to life, it’s people, landcsape and aura beautifully rendered in shots that evoke the best of Monét and similar artists. Such beauty brought forth from a story filled with unpleasantness is interesting, almost a refusal to present the depressing story in any other fashion than to show us the virtue in tragedy, the cost of lost lives and unchecked corruption present for all to see and wince at, yet somewhat quelled by the undeniable forces of light also in play. Rachel and Ralph’s work is an example of this; They are compassion incarnate, pools of hurt, determination and love for one another in the face of evil, unfair odds. They should both be very proud of their work here. Direct Fernando Meirelles has helmed Blindness and the classic City Of God, and as such is no stranger to infusing pain and sorrow with esoteric, positive qualities. He takes full advantage of the African setting, where suffering is commonplace and along with his entire troupe, throws all the lush, alluring kindness straight into the face of horror in an audacious stylistic set of choices which make The Constant Gardener one of the most achingly well constructed romantic annd political thrillers of the decade.