David Twohy’s Below cleverly combines two genres which seem to be made for each other, yet had never met up until this film. The atmospheric ghost thriller goes on an underwater ride with the submarine film for quite the unique and eerie experience. Strange occurances happen aboard a US army submarine during a routine WWII patrol mission, starting with the rescue of several stranded British castaways from a decimated ship, including Olivia Williams and Dexter Fletcher. The Captain (Bruce Greenwood) attempts to keep his crew calm, but apparantly it’s bad luck to have a woman onboard and soon uneasiness creeps in amongst them. There’s a mystery about their quarters as well, involving the supernatural, and pretty soon crewmembers are seeing, hearing and reporting eerie stuff, which adds to the tension. The crew is rounded out by an eclectic bunch of actors including Nick Chinlund, Holt McCallany, Matthew Davis, Christopher Fairbank, and Zach Galifianakis as a guy named Weird Wally who really lives up to the name. There’s some spooky moments, high drama between the cast which they pull off well, and a twist ending that explains the ghostly elements. Underrated stuff.
I have never read the Hunger Games books, and didn’t rush out to see this first installment when it was released. I have this thing where I sometimes resist a largely popular project simply because it’s buxzingwith so much hype. There’s a word for that that I resist even more, which starts with H, but good luck getting me to admit to that. Anywho, I did watch it one day on netflix, loved the hell out of it, and have seen every subsequent entry, up til last year’s final one. It’s damn great storytelling that soars on a brilliant extended performance by Jennifer Lawrence, who is the actress of her generation and a genius of the craft no matter what anyone says. People called this a slick version of Battle Royale, and while that may be true, it’s certainly not a bad thing, and not the sole extent of what the franchise achieves. There’s stinging social commentary which both condemns and makes satirical light of modern North American culture. It examines the power of propoganda for both good and bad ends. It looks at the abuse of power, and the potent rise of fascism and fear tactics, and how quickly they can become commonplace. And this is all in a young adult orientated film that stars a strong, unhindered female protagonist. Gives you hope for the world. Lawrence is powerful as Katniss Everdeen, a young woman chosen from her district to compete in the much celebrated and very violent Hunger Games, a death tournament which serves as a purge and reminder to the citizens what it cost them to rebel against their oppressors years before. This is all at the behest of mega villain President Snow (Donald Sutherland oozes quiet malice with every articulate and icy syllable), who lives in the wealthy and decadent capitol city of Panem, a dystopian version of North America. Along with Katniss there’s also Peeta (but no hummus) a local baker’s boy played by Josh Hutcherson, who really struggles to match the skill level of almost everyone around him, especially Lawrence. They are thrust into the posh and stylized razzle dazzle of Capitol life as they train for the ruthless games, watched over by previous Victor and proud alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), as well as preening diva Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks channellig Marie Antoinette crossed with a poodle). The film takes some time to ramp up to the games, but as soon as it does the events unfold in breathless fashion set against a lush wilderness background, each and every member fighting tooth and nail to stay alive against both each other and the obstacles which gamesmasters have placed in their way. Anyone with an intense fear of wasps will want to be warned. A clever riff on the talk shows of our climate is shown, as the competitors are quizzed by Ceasar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) a manically hopped up pop personality with a hairstyle that would make a samurai jealous and teeth so white they get accused of stealing oscar nominations. Tucci is truly a well of energy and the proceedings go electric whenever he’s around. Watch for Paula Malcolmson, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, a kindly fashion guru who takes a shine to Katniss and designs her a dress to end all dresses. Lawrence carries the entire thing on her mockingjay wings, making Katniss a spirit of unrest, a true symbol of hope and above all, a scared girl tossed into events she can’t possibly imagine navigating. Her performance is most of what makes these films so solid, and they couldn’t have made a better casting choice. Be sure to stay fpr the credits to hear ‘Abraham’s Daughter’, a fittingly grandiose original song by Arcade Fire.
Spotlight focuses on a devastating turn of events which were ripe for melodrama, and instead turns out to be a spare, minimalistic entry that knows how to keep things close to the chest and still be deeply affecting. Director Tom McCarthy takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to his technique, showing us an intimate glimpse at what it no doubt must have been like for these Boston reporters as they brought to light one of the most sickening and heinous atrocities of our time, the sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic Church, which rotted through many a priest, parish and law firm who insidiously kept their mouths shut about the whole deal. For the reporters, ignorance was just not on the table, no matter what the consequences. Rachel McAdams is tender and fearless as Sacha Pfeiffer, a keen operative who is first to smoke out a lead, bringing it to her boss, the legendary Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, (Michael Keaton), and the executive in charge of the paper, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). The matter is brought to further attention by Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who arrives from out of state. It’s Mike Rezendes though, played by a stunning Mark Ruffalo, who drives the point home, refusing to give up and shoving loads of empathy down the throats of those who would look the other way. Ruffalo is note perfect, his determind sentiment delivered with compassion and impact that lingers. He hounds diamond in the rough lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci hides the sympathy behind the sass) to allow him access to the victims, giving him something concrete to go on. The bitter side of the lawyer coin comes in the form of Eric McLeish (underrated Billy Crudup), a passively belligerent guy who is anything but cooperative until the hammer comes down. Richard Jenkins proves that he can turn in excellent work with nothing but his voice, playing a source who is heard only via phone calls. Keaton is brilliant, bringing the laid back nature and giving the character an easy listening style Boston accent. McAdams mirrors the hurt in those she interviews with eyes that echo years of suffering. Tucci comes the closest the film gets to comic relief, and then veers into dead serious mode as he realizes his character is in control of lives with the info he has, snapping to rigid attention. Watch for work from Jamey Sheridan, Len Cariou, Brian D’Arcy James and Paul Guilfoyle as well. The film arrives at its destination free from obvious emotional fireworks, on screen text or sensationalism, elements which often permeate true life stories. It’s simple, to the point, grounded and diligent to story, character and truth. That approach makes it all the more shattering.
Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep is a powerful, smart, grounded drama revolving around the seriousness of one’s actions, the consequences they may make even decades down the road, and the lengths that some people will go to put things right. Redford has shown only improvement throughout his career, and has been really awesome as of late (All Is Lost was a favourite for me) and he directs here with as much confidence and empathy as he puts into his performance. He plays Nick Sloan, a former underground activist who was involved in a tragic accident as a result of his protesting, and branded a domestic terrorist. He went into hiding for nearly 30 years, until an intrepid journalist (Shia Lebeouf) uncovers traces of his tracks, and he’s forced to go on the run, leaving his young daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper). Lebeouf suspects his agenda is to do more than just hide, and indefinitely stay on the run. A federal agent (Terrence Howard) makes it his tunnel vision mission to find him. Sloan’s agenda only gradually becomes clear to us, as he navigates a tricky, treacherous web of former acquaintances, trying to locate his former lover and fellow activist (Julie Christie, phenomenal in a comeback of sorts). Old wounds are slashed open, the law closes in, and Nick wrestles with the notion that despite the good he tried to do in his idealistic youth, he is indirectly responsible for bloodshed. It’s enthralling to watch Redford play this man in his twilight years trying to put things right, waist deep in decades of acting experience, supported by an amazing script and a supporting cast that you couldn’t dream up . There’s memorable appearances from Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Stephen Root, Susan Sarandon, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Susan Hogan and Nick Nolte, all in top form. For a thriller that takes itself seriously, takes its time building character and suspense, and sets itself in a realistic, believable tale that completely engrosses you, look no furthe
The best way to describe Easy A is calling it a wiseass high school retelling of The Scarlet Letter. That can also be a temperature gauge for someone to tell ahead of time if it’ll be there thing, or not. I enjoyed it a lot, thanks to a funny as hell Emma Stone who doesn’t leave out the vulnerability peeking through her guise as strong young woman. It’s a little more relaxed in the content department than some of the bawdier stuff that she got her start in, but still contains sufficient amounts of raunch to please the comedy hounds. Stone also has a veritable army of seasoned pros backing her up, an element which helps her, however she’s quite capable of carrying a film and does so as well. She plays Olive, a spitfire high school girl who finds herself in a funny yet unfortunate situation after her dunce of a friend starts a wildfire sexual rumor about her. Soon the whole school is talking about it, and she takes action in a bizarre move to fight fire with fire…of a certain kind. She boldly takes up the mantle of the school harlot, forever changing things in her quiet serengetti of suburban youth. It all spins wildly out of control, a common characteristic of adolescence, with poor Olive stuck right in the middle of the debacle, which sucks for her but is too funny not to enjoy. Stanley Tucci (“The Bucket List”) and Patricia Clarkson are darlings as her parents, Thomas Haden Church scores points as a deliberately hip and sympathetic literature teacher, and Lisa Kudrow that old flamingo, has fun as a dour guidance counselor. There’s also work from Amanda Bynes as an unhinged religious nut, the perpetually wooden Cam Gigandet, Penn Badgley and a brief cameo from Malcolm McDowell as the world’s most cynical high school principal. As a riff on The Scarlett letter it keeps theme alive, and as a teen comedy with a gaggle of adults trying to keep up with the youngsters, it’s a charmer. Stone holds the proceedings together very well.
The 6th Day is a brash, in your face sci fi actioner with some deft scientific notions that it plays around with in near satirical fashion. It chooses to shoot most of its scenes in my hometown of Vancouver, including a set piece atop the spiral shaped Vancouver Public Library tat sends sparks raining down into the streets and choppers spinning wildly to their demise. I love when films shoot here, because it gives my city an exciting chance to be a part of escapism, and it’s amusing to watch them digitally maim all sorts of landmarks and then chuckle as I see them intact on my way to work the next day. Schwarzenegger, in one of his last great flicks before his deliberate hiatus (we shall not speak of the abomination that is Collateral Damage), plays Adam Gibson, a helicopter tour guide who has a strange blackout in mid flight while transporting the CEO of a swanky scientific corporation (slick Tony Goldwyn). He arrives back home to find a clone of himself living with his family, and things only get weirder from there. He has stumbled into the inner workings of extremely illegal experiments involving human replication, and Goldwyn & Co. are none too pleased about it. Goldwyn has secretly made human cloning an everyday thing for the company, hidden from the aging eyes of the moral upright doctor who founded the company (Robert Duvall). This is all enforced by a ruthless corporate thug for hire (Michael Rooker) and his foxy assistant (Sarah Wynter). Schwarzenegger is faced with the daunting task of taking down this un-sanctioned empire, reclaiming his family and blowing up some stuff along the way. It’s a terrific flick, and Arnie gets to say the best line he’s ever spoken, directed at Goldwyn, which I won’t spoil here but it’s pure gold. Goldwyn is hateable and malicious, the horrific third act prosthetics fitting him like a slimy glove. Duvall strikes a noble chord and almost seems to have wandered in from a more serious film. Rooker is intense, evil and scene stealing as always. Watch for Wendy Crewson, Michael Rapaport and Terry Crews as well. In a movie so committed to the trademark Ahnuld fireworks, it’s cool to get a whiff of actual thought provoking, Asimov-esque intrigue with the cloning, a concept which is fully utilized and really a lot of fun here.
Brown’s Requiem is a neat little slice of Los Angeles film noir in the tradition of L.A. Confidential and Mulholland Falls. It’s based on a book of the same name that’s written by James Ellroy, who actually wrote L.A. Confidential as well, so the crime vibe here is thick, rich and geniune. Michael Rooker is flat out fantastic as Fritz Brown, a world weary, hard bitten private investigator who is hired by a rotund caddie named Fat Dog (Will Sasso) to find his kid sister (Selma Blair) a wayward girl who has apparantly run off with a her sugar daddy, and may be in danger. Brown noses around and before he knows it he’s neck deep in police corruption, violence and murder. It’s convoluted, but film noir always is, and when the plot is left to bake in the California sun, it’s going to be nicely sinewy and labyrinthine to please all the filmgoers put there who fancy themselves gumshoes and like to decipher the happenings along with the protagonist. The trail leads Brown to sinister police captain Cathcart (the late Brion James), brutal thug Richard Ralston (Jack Conley) and many other bottom dwelling nasties. This is a rare lead role for Rooker and he’s riveting, fitting this genre protagonist like a glove. His innate menace and gruff whisper of a voice are put to good use as the hangdog tough guy takes care of business in style. Watch out for Kevin Corrigan, Tobin Bell, Christopher Meloni and a brief but darkly funny cameo from Brad Dourif. Where L.A. Confidential hid it’s grit beneath a sheen of glamour, Brown’s Requiem wears it proudly on its seedy sleeve, a scrappy little cousin to Confidential, and a sturdy little noir mystery boosted by Rooker’s work.