Finally a solid Nic Cage B flick!! I needed one and The Trust provides a great time as Nic and Elijah Wood play two sad-sack Vegas cops who decide to rob a mob safe house that’s several zeros above their pay grade. This is such a quirky little recipe, super casually paced yet efficient when it needs to speed things along, darkly comic, dangerous, loopy and easy breezy where it counts despite fizzling out a teensy bit in the last act when it should have turned the dial up to full spicy but we can’t have it all. Cage is the cavalier veteran cop who somehow doesn’t see the impending danger in their plan and does a fairly effective job of luring super nervous Wood into it, and yes it all goes violently wrong at one point but probably not as spectacularly as you’re hoping. They bust into an adjacent apartment, hold a girl (Sky Ferreira, almost unrecognizable and doing a great job with little dialogue) hostage and begin to drill below into the mysterious safe, all the while cracking weird jokes, chomping fast food and bickering like sixth grade buddies. That’s basically it, and while the thing is a brisk ninety minutes it still manages to feel laidback and laconic, probably thanks to a hilarious Cage who seems not to have a care in the world in one of his freewheeling, casually weird turns. Wood is a good choice for a nervous guy but he always freaks me out a bit, he’s 39 now and still somehow just comes across as a teenager in physical appearance and essence but he does a fine job that aside. Ethan Suplee shows up as a bored, shady detective with a penchant for Russian roulette and, curiously, the late great comedian Jerry Lewis randomly makes his final film appearance in a quick cameo as Cage’s father. This isn’t anything explosive or super unique and like I said, much of the film is eccentric buildup to a less than earth shattering resolution but there’s tons of welcome sarcastic humour, a nice jazzy original score and Cage subtly hams it to effect playing Vegas’s laziest and craftiest beat cop. Good times.
What if there was an alien organism out there whose evolutionary process unfolded at about a thousand times faster rate then ours? What if it crash landed on earth and began said process amidst our carefully balanced infrastructure and caused a modicum of pandemonium? Couple that juicy premise with the gooey Ghostbusters sensibility of Ivan Reitman and the X Files vibe that David Duchovny carries and you’ve got Evolution, one hell of a fun film. This raucous SciFi comedy didn’t make much of a critical splash and sort off faded into obscurity but it’s tough for me to see why as I had a fucking blast with it, starting with the oddly balanced comedic quartet of Duchovny and Orlando Jones (in a role that sounds like it was written for Will Smith, how cool would that have been) as college scientists, Julianne Moore as a CDC guru and Seann William ‘Stifler’ Scott as a hapless wannabe fireman. This alien species grows at a scary rate and contains the kind of arbitrarily morphing biodiversity you might find in a Super Mario game. While they kind of seem benign and don’t really have an aggressive or conquering mentality beyond their base evolutionary nature, it still seems like they need to be eradicated on the simple ‘us vs. them’ clause. An asshole military general (Ted Levine) and the blustery, stressed out governor (Dan Akroyd dressed to the nines and stealing the show) have their own ideas but they’re in over their overqualified heads and it’s up to our four heroes to figure something out. This is an escapist comedy that doesn’t take its premise too seriously but rather wants to showcase some lovingly crafted 80’s era practical effects and a few scrappy early 2000’s CGI ones too. It’s got a playful Men In Black mentality that I felt right at home in, and knows how to have a great time. My favourite scene is when four scared housewives open the pantry to find a slug/dog/platypus/seal looking thing and one of them responds dead seriously with: “When did you get a dog??” It’s that kind of lunacy that spurs this into a truly inspired piece. That and all the ooey gooey aliens running around being chased by a shotgun wielding Agent Mulder & Co. Good times.
It’s always cool for two of my top ten films of the year to find their way to me inside a week. A few days ago it was The Lighthouse and yesterday it was Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a brilliant, sprawling noir epic that sees this accomplished artist behind the camera for only the second time in his career and in front of it for the first time since I can remember… I think the last thing I saw him in was that fourth Bourne film that didn’t even have Jason Bourne in it. He roars back into action commendably here as both writer and director in a passioned period piece that has a lot to say and one of those old school two plus hour runtimes to say it in as well as the kind of jaw dropping, star studded ensemble casts they just don’t bother to assemble much anymore.
In adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Norton rewinds a 90’s setting back into the 50’s and comes up a winner playing Lionel Essrog, a private detective whose friend, mentor and father figure Frank (Bruce Willis lingers in a cameo you wish was more) is murdered by shady thugs whilst investigating the kind of lead that can only end in bloodshed. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome in an era where medication, compassions and science are sorely lacking and has thus sadly earned the moniker ‘freak show’ by his peers. That doesn’t stop him from using gut intuition to continue Frank’s work, leading him down the obligatory NYC noir rabbit hole of Harlem jazz clubs, red herrings, betrayals, corrupt government officials and bursts of sudden violence meant as warning but there to juice up the intrigue. It’s a fairly serpentine web of lies and decades old secrets involving many characters brought to life by one hell of a cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw scores soulful points as an activist whose involvement runs far deeper than even she knows. Alec Baldwin gives a terrifying turn as an impossibly evil, truly bigoted mega city planner whose agenda to bulldoze poorer communities shows little remorse in character and allows the seasoned actor to provide what might be the best villain portrayal of the year. I didn’t think I’d be raving about Willem Dafoe two times in one week (he crushed his role in The Lighthouse) but the guy is on fuckin fire, bringing cantankerous warmth to a vaguer role I won’t spoil. Also in the mix are Michael Kenneth Williams as a mercurial trumpet player, Bobby Cannavle, Dallas Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, Robert Wisdom, Josh Pais, Peter Gray Lewis and Leslie Mann.
Considering that Norton’s director debut was a Ben Stiller romcom, its fairly heavy lifting to pivot over towards a two and a half hour period piece adapted from a revered novel but he pulls it off and then some. He directs the actors with snap and ease so we get organic, underplayed yet lasting impressions from each performance including his own, a very tricky role that never comes across as a gimmick. His affliction is never conveniently absent when the scene requires it and he makes sure to find the frustration, humour and lived-in aspects of Lionel’s personality. Baldwin’s character serves to represent the callous nature of real estate development conglomerates these days and the tendency to gloss over less fortunate folk like invisible downtrodden, or downright see them as lesser people. Norton, as both actor and director, gently explores this world with a compassion for areas in which some have more than less and focuses on themes until we get to see a powerful morality play unfold within the already tantalizing central mystery. This film sort of came out of nowhere (I don’t remember any marketing outside like a month before release?!) and isn’t making huge waves yet but it’s a powerful, funny, touching, detailed, beautifully acted and directed piece, one of the best thus far of the year.
Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon floored me. Combining stirring heroics, meticulous procedural reconstruction, thundering big style special effects and a rock steady, salt of the earth cast who fire on all cylinders, Berg and team have successfully sent one of, if not the best films this year down the pipe (oily pun intended). The 2010 disaster aboard the mammoth Deepwater Horizon oil rig was a tragic, foolish and achingly avoidable event that was the product of carelessness, stupidity and resulted in the unnecessary death of eleven souls. Berg clearly weeps for the loss, and every frame of his film is filled with empathy and compassion, a reluctant condemnation of the Big Oil company men whose actions led to life lost, a rock jawed testamenr to the blue collar heroes who gave shot rays of hope through the darkest day with their brave deeds, and a celebration of the rip roaring set pieces possible in telling this story. Mark Whalberg has never, ever been better, playing the engineering honcho of te Deepwater, madly in love with his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter (Stella Allen) The early scenes build their relationship with near effortless interactions and a thoughtful, compassionate eye. From the minute his chopper touches down on the rig and it becomes clear that safety protocol has been grossly neglected, he is a bundle of nerves and fears for every life on board above his own. Kurt Russell is right alongside him as a dogged senior operative with a short rope and no time for the headstrong, greedy and unprofessional actions of Big Oil honcho John Malkovich, giving his best, and insipid work in years as a guy who plainly and simply doesn’t care, putting everyone in harm’s way in the process. The best and most surprising performance of the film comes from Gina Rodriguez though, an actress who has mostly swam under my radar up until this point. Playing another senior engineer, her raw terror and naked uncertainty in the face of looming calamity and possible death is rough to watch, uterly convincing and made me want to just give her a big hug. If her work here is any indication of where she’s headed, make way folks, because we’re in for great things. The cast also extends into terrific further work from Ethan Suplee, J.D. Evermore, James Dumont, Dylan O Brien, Berg himself in a quick cameo, and many more. 2010Berg wisely wraps the story up not with one final action sequence, but with a hair raising emotional gut punch that tallies the loss of life and psychological damage of such an event with the care required. There is one final action beat to then story, but it’s swift, necessary and sensible, never feeling overblown. The story is kept wisely focused on the people trapped aboard this explosion waiting to happen, their struggles and efforts in the forefront. When the fireworks do show up, they’re not to shock and awe the audience, or for cheap thrills, they serve only to illustrate such an event in a minimal fashion, which is still a deafening roar. My kind of disaster/procedural story, and one of the best so far this year.
Tony Scott’s Unstoppable was the maverick’s last directorial outing before his heartbreaking and untimely death. It’s ironic because the film’s title is a descriptive term I would have applied to the man’s career, life and approach to filmmaking. But it was not to be. This is some swan song of a film to go out on though, a pleasing juggernaut of an action drama that greases the tracks and goes full steam ahead. Any film about trains run amok will inevitably be compared to the 1984 masterpiece Runaway Train, and although this one is vastly different in both story and tone, they just seem to be sister films. The mournful, resolute nature of Jon Voight’s character in it just seems to echo the sadness surrounding this film, and the fact that it was Tony’s last. But that’s just my strange intuition talking. The film itself isn’t really melancholy or downbeat, in fact it focuses largely on human triumph in the face of gross error. There is in fact a runaway train on the loose here, but the stakes are upped when we find out that it’s packed to the brim with highly toxic and flammable chemicals, and hurtling unchecked towards a densely populated metropolitan area. Denzel Washington is the Everyman veteran railroad worker, in danger of having his job devoured by greedy corporate development and ready to have a meltdown. Chris Pine is the hothead rookie swaggering through his first month on throb, and together they have to deal with the disaster, and prevent any further outcome. Rosario Dawson is the frantic control station operator, trying to coach two other workers (Lew Temple & Ethan Suplee) and help as best she can. Kevin Dunn is the abrasive company CEO, unwilling to get his hands dirty and callously looking for the first readily available solution, even if it results in mild casualties that he doesn’t have to witness. It’s all been done before, no doubt, but not by Scott, and you can never write off a formula, trope or act n cliche as dead until the maverick has had a good crack at it. The scenes involving the train are breathless and edited with a glass shard explosiveness, never to shaky or chaotic, always in control and bursting from the frames like the speeding locomotive they encompass. Look out for Jeff Wincott as Pine’s older brother, as well as Kevin Corrigan, T.J. Miller and David Warshofsky as well. It’s not a bad little flick for a director to put the final seal on his career with, and stands as a wrecking ball of an action flick. I just wish we got to see more from the guy. RIP Tony.