John Hillcoat’s Triple 9. Bloody. Nasty. Blistering. Nihilistic. And surprisingly deft in its presentation of character. The only clear cut, out and out protagonist is Casey Affleck’s Marcus Allen, a young detective with a wife and kid, brutally unaware that he’s been targeted by a group of stunningly dirty cops and a few ex special forces hardcases to bite the dust in a planned homicide, sparking an ‘officer down’ over the airwaves to distract the force from what’s really going down. With the exception of his straight arrow heroics, the entire rest of the cast is a snake pit of depraved, slimy, reprehensible degenerates, populating a decayed, gang infested Atlanta where the cops are just as likely to empty a clip into your skull as the cholos. Chiwetel Efjor plays Atwood, leader of a most unfortunate crew of misfits who are forced to perform near suicidal heists for tyrannical Israeli-Russian mafia bitch Irena (a bleach blond, terrifying Kate Winslet). Their newest venture is so impossible that they’re attempting to use a slain officer as a ditch effort to get their stake. Of course it all goes to high hell, as we’ve come to expect and love in these type of films, with bullets, profanity, self destructive behaviour and wanton violence languishing all over the screen in glorious excess. Efjor is crackling good, showing brief glimpses of humanity in a dude who has lost his soul down a deep dark well, a caged animal fighting tooth and nail to no avail. The rest of his crew spend the film savagely trying to out – sleaze each other, and I mean that in the best way possible. They are really a bunch of snot rags, and this is a group of outstanding actors having bushels of fun being irredeemable bad boys. Anthony Mackie is walking C-4 as Efjor’s right hand, a guy rotten to the marrow with moral conflict. Norman Reedus leaks grease as an ex special ops prick and their getaway driver. I didn’t think Aaron Paul could be anymore despicable than in breaking bad, but somehow manages it here, playing a dude so grungy you’ll squirm. It’s Clifton Collins Jr. who scores the points though. He hasn’t had a great role in years and he comes out blazing as the icy sociopath of the group. Then there’s Woody Harrelson. Oh, Woody. He’s clearly having a ball as Affleck’s stoner uncle and high ranking cop. He spends the entire film ripped off his gourd on joint after joint, and take it from me, he knows how to play stoned impeccably. Despite the laconic bumbling, he shows that fire and ferocity we’ve come to know from him in brief unmistakable flashes, especially where it matters. Throw in Teresa Palmer as Affleck’s loving wife and Gal Gadot in full slut mode and you’ve got a cast for the time capsule. Hillcoat wastes not a second in propelling his narrative forward with the force of a bulldozer, giving us minute moments of respite amongst the surging monsoon of bloodshed and dirty deeds. Composer Atticus Ross whips up a foreboding, hair raising war cry of a score that kicks in from the first frame and doesn’t quit till the last shell casing has hit the ground. The only misstep the film makes is killing off its best actor way too early on, vut its not enough to be an actual concern or hurt it overall. If sickeningly satisfying ballets of blood, broken limbs and morally bankrupt people engaging in all kinds of giddily fun criminal activities are your thing, this is a great way to kick off the year, cinematically speaking. Hell even if it’s not your thing go check it out. It’ll shake your shit up and then some.
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.
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.
Oren Moverman’s Time Out Of Mind is a film that’s set so decidedly against the grain when it comes to how a story is presented to audience, it’s no wonder that it has been such a divisive experience. It’s almost like the anti-film. I understand it may be quite shocking the way it’s made, or lack thereof. But to hear that people walked out of screenings in droves at TIFF really saddens me. For someone to just not jive with the loose, dreamy aesthetic that serves the subject matter achingly well makes me wonder. But I suppose this is the type of film that really separates those with the power of abstract thought and the will to immerse themselves from those… without. The story in question concerns a homeless man in New York City played to absolute perfection by a haggard, boozed up and ultimately lost Richard Gere. This is the performance of his career, an outing of pure bravery and dedication that glues your eyes to the screen even in the most mundane of moments. You see, Gere himself had no idea when the cameras were periodically filming him, and was actually left stranded in the jungle of NYC, deep in the mindset of a lost soul, creating a minimilist performance that burns through the haze of a life scattered by tragedy. Little is given by the script in terms of back story for Gere, subtle hints given towards a broken life, death in the family and a mysterious injury which has left both body and soul scarred, as well as leaving him with obvious brain damage. If their was an award given out for best film title of the year, this one has earned it. ‘Time Out Of Mind’. Isn’t that the perfect description for a shattered psyche that has been set adrift by life’s cruel tides and left to wander the years, alone.. distraught.. damaged. Gere is a portrait of hurt, confusion and lonliness, wandering the overbearing maze of the city, desperately clinging to any semblance of dignity, as well as the scattered shards of his past that he yearns for. He’s got a daughter (Jena Malone in a conflicted career best) who wants nothing to do with him, making us wonder more about the past. He encounters several people over the course of the film. An energetic fellow vagrant (Ben Vereen) helps bring out a bit of Gere’s dormant coherence via his own nonsensical mania. A shrewd building inspector (Steve Buscemi) gives him the boot from a condemned building. He has a chance romantic encounter with a fellow homeless woman (an unrecognizable Kyra Sedgwick). The film is shot, edited and presented to the audience in a form completely void of structure or narrative beats. Gere wanders aimlessly, his foggy mental state reflected in the way his perceives his world, and in turn the way we perceive his story. It’s both ironic and fitting that we find ourselves so drawn in to a story that is presented as a set of events that are each and every one astray from any sort of cohesion. That’s where the title is so brilliant and touching.. Gere is one step removed from reality via time and injury. He himself mentions at one point that he has forgotten how long it’s been, and that he’s lost the thread of his life via many instances of ‘lost time’. Gere sells it and then some, inhabiting the streets with a worn out, ghostly presence that begs you to place yourself in the shoes and mind of someone who truly has lost their way in life, and to see that for them, such a fork in the road can truly change the concept of time. Seeing this successfully done with film in every aspect was truly an experience for me. Gere is the heart of it, as the camera peers out on him from trash strewn alleys, broken window frames and desolate, uncaring streets that leave him all but invisible, an individual manifestation of a sad fact of life which sometimes sits on the fringes of our awareness. Not with this film.
If the rumblings from director Alexander Gonzalez Inarritu and his intrepid cast and crew about The Revenant being the most tumultuous, challenging shoot of their lives, it’s all in service of the loftiest of causes one could achieve: to produce great art. I say that without pretension or monocle wagging patronization, and mark my words: The Revenant is by and far the greatest film this year, and possibly of the last decade. It is monumental in scale, meticulous in pacing and erects the fundamental pillars of the human condition so flawlessly that we feel we are watching actual history materialize before our eyes, untethered from the notion that it’s just a movie.
Let’s start with the ocular deity that is Emmanuel Lubezki: This film contains the best cinematography I have ever seen in my life. The bold location scouting is a catalyst for the prodigy of a DOP to work his ethereal magic. Time and time again throughout the film I found myself marvelling at the stunning patience and skill displayed by the man in attaining his precious shots, constantly chafed by what I imagine was an impossibly stressful environment, bogged down by time constraints and the pure, uncaring call of nature itself. He shot with natural light for all but one scene, an unimaginable achievement that plays out in endless beauty that rocks your soul to its foundation for the entire two and a half hour running time. The locations, lovingly culled from deep within northern Canada and briefly Argentina, are an unforgiving cacophony of serene snowfalls, cascading rivers and jagged, untamed mountain ranges. This is the landscape I have grown up in and call home and to such holy places captured with such reverence on film, gilding a story of such primordial importance had me next to tears.
Leonardo DiCaprio pulls out all the stops in his ferocious portrayal of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who lives by his feral gut instinct alone, attempting to guide his fur trapping expedition through the terrain while looking out for his half Pawnee Native son who he already rescued from aching tragedy years before. After a harrowing raid in the dawning minutes of the film that makes it abundantly clear how serious the film intends to be, he and a small band of men are stranded and forced to contend with the land, and the threat of the natives finding them. Glass then gets attacked by a bear in a nerve shattering sequence that had my adrenal glands running a marathon. The frank, unapologetic nature in which the scene plays out reminds us all that nature isn’t our playground of opportunity and commerce, but a living organism that can bite the hand that it refuses to feed with alarming abandon. The sheer level of carnage inflicted upon Glass by both beast and man will shake you to your core, as will the excellent makeup and CGI effects that drive the point deep into your retinas. Tom Hardy disappears into his role better than Glass’s expedition blends into the treacherous blizzards, playing John Fitzgerald, a cowardly motherfucker who is content to leave Glass to the elements and seek fortune elsewhere, dragging sympathetic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter, excellent) along with him. The military component of their expedition (Domhall Gleeson, superb) suspects Fitzgerald and is wary. Hardy is the very definition of an acting chameleon, and disappears headlong into the role that had me riveted, and rooting for a best supporting actor win. The entire cast was subjected to a brutal nine weeks exposed to the elements, each other, and the raw, archetypal narrative of the piece that was being made, and each of them shows it in spades.
At its core it’s a revenge piece, spurred by aching character interaction involving Leo and his family in affecting flashbacks. Leo goes through somewhat of a transformation here.. He loses all he has left to an uncaring, cold faced world that would sooner see him tossed around a moss stained forest in pieces than avenged. But his Hugh Glass rages against the dying of the light right alongside Lubezki’s lens, creating in tandem the perfect voyage of a man who has become so consumed with the forces of nature in his quest to attain some semblance of his former self, that he has become somewhat of an element himself. Leo truly deserves gold this time around.
Adventure/survival epics are my favourite. This one stands out, and yet.. does more than that, if possible. It delves deep into the lush, echoing vastness of the past and pulls forth a story so human, so recognizable, in such a force of construction where the fruits of everyone’s labour are so obvious, it can’t help but be worshipped as a classic in the art form of cinema and a treatise on how to excel in every single area of the medium.
If Quentin Tarantino has achieved anything in his love letters to the spaghetti western genre, it’s his notable subtraction of the noodles from aforementioned dish, leaving decadent swaths of scarlet marinara sauce to be flung about the screen as blazing bullets rock various characters to their bones, sending blood all over the place in quantities that defy physics or biology. He did it with Django, and he does it again with The Hateful Eight, a somber, simmering snow opera that fell just south of winning me over entirely. Don’t get me wrong: there’s much merit to be found here, and as usual QT has a solid gold ear for dialogue that is as pleasing to the ear as Ennio Morricone’s unusually restrained, palm sweating score. He also shows his uncanny knack for chasing awesome actors out of the woodwork and casting them in his films. In his attempts to resurrect 70mm panavision he has achieved undisputed success. I’m also a sucker for both Agatha Christie style mysteries and snowbound locations (and what locations!!), both of which are in abundance here. And yet.. something just didn’t quite click for me, story wise. Perhaps it’s the fact that trailers had worked my imagination up to imposible heights of intrigue that couldn’t be brought to the table with this tale. In that regard, I suppose it’s my own fault. In any case, the eventual revelations just didn’t feel as profound and fitting after having sat through the endless, tantalizing set up. But oh, what a set up. QT deliberately marinates his characters in a stew of unease and malcontent, each player a grizzled picture of vague evil intent, firing missiles of distrust and loathing at one another until the ill will is as thick as the snow drifts they fight through. In the throes of a gathering blizzard, bounty hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell in a sly nod of the head to beloved R.J. Macready, only saltier and far meaner) leads shackled prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh in the best performance of the film) to the town of Red Rock, to be hung. Along the way, and with much chatter, he picks up two stragglers: pissy fellow hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L.Jackson) and one Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). They arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, an oasis in the sea of winter, where four other undesirables have already shacked up in refuge: Owaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth earns his keep and then some) a self proclaimed hangman with some serious pep in his step, crusty confederate Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir is restrained comic perfection) and dangerous looking cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, that gravel voiced wildcat, is always awesome). They all hunker down to ride out the storm and quickly begin to realize that one or more amongst them isn’t who they say they are, and there’s devilry afoot. Sound intriguing? It did to me too, and I can’t say much about what exactly let me down without giving stuff away, but it just felt like such a pedestrian knockoff of a second act after the absolute slow burning joy of a guessing game which preceded it. Maybe it’s a bit like a Christmas present: you spend months in a giddy daze wondering what you’ll get, you get there christmas morning and there your present is: shiny, gleaming and filled with endless possibility, but unmistakably shaped by your specific anticipation of what lays within. You open your present… and there it is, mystery evaporated, no longer a present but an actual object, or in this case a story that you must wrestle with to appease the lingering wonder of what you expected, as opposed to what you got. I know it’s too much to expect every film to be that perfect christmas present that is as satisfying wrapped as unwrapped, but with QT’s stuff I feel I always act that way a bit, having pictured my definitive version of the films before having seen them, and feelng somewhat underwhelmed. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it: It’s chock full of macabre surprises, earnest performances and expectedly nasty violence. Jennifer Jason Leigh owns as Daisy, a frothing feral beast. Leigh has no shortage of courage in taking on courageous, unflattering roles, and she dives right into this one with fists and teeth clenched, eyes narrowed and a steely will to survive. It’s truly a blessing to see her on the big screen again and I hope to see more in the future. There’s one casting decision which almost ruined the last act for me. I won’t spoil it here but the ‘actor’ in question is so unbelievably untalented and sticks out like ten sore thumbs in his ineptitude, really making me wonder about QT’s sanity. The rest of the cast makes up for it in spades though, particularly Madsen, Roth and Russell. Goggins also gets loads to do and does it with grinning flair that would make Boyd Crowder proud. The cinematography by legendary Robert Richardson is staggeringly beautiful. The wintry Vistas sweep by in splendor, eventually moving inward to the firelit cabin where everything has a burnished, lived-in texture that’s transfixing to look at. If only the story had the weight and impact I was expecting, I could have given this glowing accolades, but there’s always next time. Gorgeous Tarantino outing with a cast that chomps at the bit relentlessly, and although it ultimately falls short, it’s quite the piece of cinema all the same.