Matthieu Kassovitz’s underrated chiller Gothika is thick with a horror atmosphere that goes straight for the jugular in terms of scares, a psychological ghost story that actually raises hairs a frightens, or at least did for me. It sometimes sacrifices logic for style, but what style it’s got! Any horror flick set in an asylum just has to to be cloaked in workable atmosphere to be effective, and this one is positively dripping with it, hence the evocative title. Halle Berry plays a laid back psychiatrist who wakes up one day in the asylum she works at, only now a patient. She’s told she brutally murdered her husband (Charles S. Dutton) yet has no memory of the act. As if that weren’t a terrifying enough situation for her to be in, she starts having waking nightmares, haunted by a gnarly ghost of a girl (Kathleen Mackey) with mysterious ties to the facility’s past. Her colleague and friend (Robert Downey Jr. gives the dour proceedings his usual chipper pep) seems unable to help her. A guard (John Carroll Lynch) is hostile towards her, angry at the loss of her husband who was his friend. An erratic fellow patient (a de-glammed Penelope Cruz) seems to know more than her vacuous babbling would suggest. The asylum Director (Bernard Hill, excellent) is perplexed by the whole situation. It’s a twisty funhouse of a plot that probably piles on one stark plot turn too many, they’re nevertheless fun to be left aghast by as the rattle by with little regard for plausibility. Berry is convincing in her tormenting position, radiating desperation and resilience that claws at the cobwebs of insanity. Kassovitz piles on the gothic atmosphere relentlessly, and it really works, until we have a visual palette that looks like the dark underside of Tim Burton’s unconscious mind. The ghostly scenes have a threatening, intense edge to them and feel unnervingly realistic, putting us right in the hot seat with wide eyed Berry. Style over substance? Maybe. Okay, probably. But I care not. If the style, composition and palette are enough to draw me into a story, I can roll with it. This one imprints troubling negatives on the celluloid which latch themselves onto your psyche. Maybe it works well because it’s got a European director, and they’re more in tune with the supernatural in general. Maybe it just does a nice job at being effective horror. Either way, I enjoyed.
Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout is pure stylistic grime, an exercise in early 90’s action with the blackest of humour. The tone is set with a square jaw early on: a star quarterback for a hotshot NFL team is under a lot of underground pressure to make that perfect play and in turn please the loan sharks. He buckles under the heat, ends up pulling a gun on the field and murdering a score of opponents before turning the gun on himself. Now horrifying as that is, if you have a sick sense of humor like me it conjures a dark chuckle of the most guilty variety, because.. well, it’s funny! Albeit in the darkest way possible, which is the arena this one skates in, love it or leave it. Upon closer examination of the script we discover it’s penned by that wonderful man Shane Black, who gave us Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the upcoming The Nice Guys. No one can produce such heinous mayhem with a cavalier attitude and actually get away with it as well as Black does. The guy is a prodigy of dark humour, and who better to embody his protagonist here than a sheepish Bruce Willis as Joe Hallenbeck, a jaded ex detective who is so sullen and cynical he’s almost comatose. He’s paired with equally slummy former quarterback Jimmy Six (Damon Wayons), lazily trying g to solve a case involving the murderous quarterback and some shady politicians. Along the way that’s paved with many a sarcastic, beleaguered exchange they cross seedy paths with shady villains (Taylor Negron, RIP, and a youthful Kim Coates), a beautiful working girl with ties to the case (Halle Berry) and Willis’s spitfire of a dysfunctional daughter (Danielle Harris). There’s a wonderfully bloated supporting cast including Noble Willingham, Chelsea Field, Joe Santos, Bruce McGill and more. It’s got a bite that stings, mainly thanks to Black’s frighteningly stinging screenplay which give the film it’s sardonic, put – upon aesthetic. This meshes together nicely with Scott’s trademark sun soaked, pulpy, picturesque tone and provides one hell of an action movie rode. Nasty in all the right places, funny when the story begs for it, and build to last.
Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Wow. Where to even start. What a symphony of scorched earth heroics, a two and a half hour maelstrom of thundering action, introspective gloom and very current vibes of apocalyptic dread. I’m not sure if I was watching an entirely different film from some of these bitter bottomed critics who are maiming it with inaccurately nasty reviews. Balls to them. Zach Snyder should be proud of this achievment, for in the face of both ruthless odds and rabid fans who would make any one of us piss down our legs at the thought of ‘getting it right’, he has mounted a titanic epic of a superhero flick, hitting all the right notes and fuelling both casual moviegoers and salivating super fans with a rekindled love for comic book films. A much welcomed grit and violent edge creeps into the proceedings here, a tone which Snyder has a passion for and is incredibly deft with. We begin with a visually arresting opening credit sequence, which Snyder previously perfected to hair raising brilliance in Watchmen, a ten minute opus set to Bob Dylan. Here he inter cuts shots of young Bruce Wayne, both discovering the prophetic swarm of bats and on the fateful night of his parents murder, a sequence done over a thousand times in film, but never quite with the inventive flair used here. We then arrive with adult Bruce (Ben Affleck) in Metropolis right as it’s being ripped to shreds by the Def Jam smackdown match of Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon). There’s eerie shades of 9/11 as Bruce darts through the ashen rubble, attempting to save the employees in one of his towers. One senses the fear and rage in Wayne right off the bat (pun intended). He glowers in seething fury at the man of steel, primally threatened and haunted all over again by loved ones he couldn’t save a second time around. This film addresses the ludicrous amount of destruction that Superman wrought upon Metropolis in several ways. Political nerve endings are fried as Senate and State alike get hostile towards the god in the red cape. No one is more aggressive than Batman, though. This brings me to Affleck as Batman. Without a doubt my favourite cinematic incarnation of the caped crusader, and his debonair counterpart to date. Yes, even more so than Bale. Nolan’s The Dark Knight is still tops for me, but the portrayal of Batman by Bale didn’t strike as harmonious a chord with me as Affleck. It just didn’t feel like pure Batman, it was real world Batman. Affleck feels much more rooted in the comics, and God damn it all if he isn’t the most savage, violent Bats to come our way, well… ever. I’ve always been bothered by the nagging fact that Batman refuses to kill. Even in in a beatdown he could easily inadvertently cause death, so why bother trying? Here, he doesn’t go out of his way to deliberatly kill, but he sure has no problem brutally breaking bones and stabbing his adversaries without an iota of faux-noble hesitation. That’s the kind of Batman I want to see. Fuming, fired up and full of rage demons that erupt into fantastic action scenes. One sequence involving a room full of thugs is just jaw dropping and probably my favourite sequence of the film, even over the titular smackdown with Superman. There’s an earthy, simplistic take to him as well, with a modest suit that gives nods to Frank Miller and even Batman: The Animated Series. He is by far the elemental force that the character should be, and the part of the film that I connected with most. I hope he gets his standalone film real soon. Henry Cavill has grace and intuition as Superman, and a surprisingly earthly aura as Clark Kent, in a fit about Batman’s vigilante tactics. He’s the outsider here, an orphaned deity truly trying to do his best in a world that often shuns him in fear. He was never my favourite superhero, or even on the list, but Cavill combined with Snyder make him a force to be reckoned with, and a hero I can get behind. The two eventually meet in a remarkably choreographed clash of the titans, a duel that really only lasts a few minutes and isn’t central theme, which raises questions in my head about the first part of that title. Their fight is composed of Batman’s hard hitting, blunt force physicality pitted against Superman’s fluid, elegent invincibility which is satisfyingly put to the test by the appearance of a certain green mineral we all know about. The James Cameron-esque suit Batman wears for the fight is a grinding wonder that looks like it weighs a metric ton and could level buildings alongside the man of steel. The combat feels urgent, from the gut and roars into action perfectly. Of course, that isn’t where the fireworks stop, but I ain’t sayin any more than that. Gal Gadot is truly wonderful as Wonder Woman, I also can’t wait for her solo outing, and wish she’d been in the film more. Her much talked about entrance is the definition of crowd pleasing, and will make you cheer in approval, which I did out loud. She’s endlessly gorgeous, and has the toughness to go along with it, a great casting decision by anyone’s tally. Jesse Eisenberg wowed me as a young, jittery Lex Luthor, in what is probably the most clinically insane portrayal thus far. Forget bumbling Gene Hackman and hammy Kevin Spacey, this guy seals it for me. There’s a true madness to his Lex, which when given enough money and resources can have cataclysmic results. It’s a villain to remember, and Eisenberg exudes palpable danger from every pore, his psychopathic sheen of logic barely shrouding the mania beneath. Jeremy Irons is a more restrained, jaded Alfred who is still unconditionally supportive of Wayne, but is reaching the end of his rope which is tethered to pure world weariness. He gets some of the only humerous bits of the film, albeit of dry, brittle variety. Amy Adams is reliably terrific, her eyes pools of perception that mirror the horror and spectacle of the events through the mind of a human, with every ounce of nerve and courage as those around her that have superpowers, or expensive toys. Diane Lane is weathered wisdom and maternal compassion as Martha Kent, nailing her scenes with the small town, kindhearted patience that a film this noisy deserves, tipping the scales to provide occasional serenity in the eye of the hurricane. Kevin Costner makes a brief appearance in one of the films numerous and often confusing dream sequences. He was a highlight in Man Of Steel, and brings the same baleful, gruff adoration here, in a wonderful but brief scene with Clark. Laurence Fishburne is another source of rare humour as the perpetually exasperated Perry, CEO of the Daily Planet. Aggravated and cheeky, he commands every frame he’s in and had me chuckling no end. Holly Hunter has forged a career of playing no nonsense hard asses, here a ballbreaking US Senator here who shares a moment of distilled intensity with Luthor proving that Superhero films can have some of the best written dialogue. Harry Lennix makes great use of said writing too as the steely Secretary Of Defense. Callan Mulvey and Scoot McNairy are memorable in supporting turns. Listen hard for Patrick Wilson and Carla Gugino, and look for a certain ocean dwelling dude in the briefest of moments. Jeffrey Dean Morgan also has a cameo that’s almost too good to be true. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, who was so top notch with Mad Max: Fury Road, combine efforts for a score that knocks it out of the park and several miles further. Batman has a soul rousing battle cry of an overture, with subtle shades of Zimmer’s work on the Nolan films, built upon to give us something truly unique and fitting for the character. Lex Luthor is accompanied by a fitful cacophony of strings that sound like the Arkham Asylum charity orchestra having a collectively unnerving seizure. My favourite riff though I think is for Wonder Woman, a deviously disarming jaunt that strays from the grandiose, baroque theme and feels wickedly subversive, getting you just so pumped for her character. Zimmer’s work on Interstellar made it my top score of 2014, because he leapt out of the box of his usual tricks and gave us something we’d never heard from him before. Here he shreds that box with ingenuity and creative output, a varied, explosive piece that assaults your ears splendidly. My one concern with the film was a dream sequence midway through concerning Batman, and anyone who’s seen the film knows what I’m talking about. I’m sure comic book fans have some point of reference or context regarding it, but the casual viewer doesn’t, and a little more explaining would have been nice. I will say though it showcases Batman in an entirely new light which took me off guard nicely. This is what a superhero movie should be, plain and simple. Big, bold, audacious, stirring and full of high flying action, dastardly villains, conflicted heroes clashing like the ocean tides and a sense of pure adventure. Forget what the critics are saying, this one comes up aces in all categories and is a perfectly wonderful start to the stories of a group of characters that I look forward to seeing in many a film to come. Especially Affleck’s Batman.
Ever briefly get stuck in an elevator thats messing with you, malfunctioning and seems to almost have a mischievous mind of its own? That’s the premise of Down, also known as The Shaft. It concerns an elevator in a huge residential/office building that has gone homicidally haywire. It traps, drops and tricks people no end, raising and lowering the interior temperature to dangerous effect and generally just being a great big meanie. No one seems so know what’s going on with it though, especially the mechanic who installed it (Twin Peak’s James Marshall). The incidents accumulate, attracting a perky tabloid reporter (Naomi Watts having a ball) who makes up all kinds of tall tales to explain the situation in sensationalistic terms. This infuriates the CEO of the elevator company (now there’s a job title) played by a snarky Ron Perlman who gets a rant towards Marshall that walked in from a way better script (which leads me to believe it was the spawn of Perlman’s legendary improv skills). There’s also a cop played by Dan Hedeya who can’t seem to figure it out wither. The truth is a lot more interesting than you might expect and has nothing to do with ghosts or spirits at all, but centers around a deranged research scientist (Michael Ironside, whacked out to kingdom come). It’s not the least bit scary, but it’s worth a watch simply for the fact that it’s a movie about a fucking elevator that kills people lol. Cujo and Christine ain’t got nothing on this bitch. The scene where a gaggle of pregnant ladies enter the thing is just priceless in its blatantly gross out manner. Fun, fun stuff and great research to embarrass Watts with sometime down the road if you ever find yourself interviewing her on the red carpet hehe.
Swordfish tries so hard to be cool, and save for a few moments of smirking silliness, it is pretty goddamned cool. The early 2000’s still carried lingering, reminiscent elements of the 90’s, the super cyber hacker archetype included. The cyber hacker is played by two types of people: basement dwelling, Mountain Dew drinking chatter boxes and virile, sexy supermodels. The latter is employed here, personified by Hugh Jackman as Stanley, a sly devil who can hack into almost anything effortlessly, but has been caught and never allowed to touch a computer again. Enter Gabriel (John Travolta), a silver tongued arch villain out to steal all the money and priceless artifacts he can hope to ever own. Although Travolta isn’t as truly off the rails as in some of his villain roles, the amiable charm he puts forth here is but a ruse to cloud the monster beneath. He’s a very bad man, putting Stanley’s loved ones in jeopardy and forcing him to work computer wizardry for ill gotten riches. Gabriel has a girlfriend named Ginger (Halle Berry, never sexier) who walks a moral tightrope between the two alpha males, torn between roguish indifference and and her conscience. Stanley is also hounded by an FBI Agent (Don Cheadle), with whom he has a tumultuous past. The film resists goin completely by the motions, lulling you just to the border of entropy and then throwing something surprising from a direction you didn’t look in. My favourite scene of the film shows Travolta giving a monologue on bank robbery etiquette, complete with a reference to Sydney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, confirming the fact that this flick has a strong script to go with its pyrotechnics. He flexes his sonic directorial muscles in an especially extraordinary action sequence involving a bus and a helicopter that will seriously make your finger hover over the replay button. Vinnie Jones is an ambassador of cool, in a lively turn as Gabriel’s head thug. Sam Shepherd has fun as a corrupt Senator. There’s also fine work from Zachary Grenier, Tim Dekay, William Mapother, Rudolph Martin and Drea De Matteo. Director Dominic Sena comes from music video land, having also helmed the priceless Nic Cage Bruckheimer-fest Gone in 60 Seconds, as well as the fallout brilliant psycho road thriller Kalifornia. Here he doses the flash and sizzle of 60 seconds with the hard hitting violence of Kalifornia, presented in a story guaranteed to raise a pulse. It’s also got pretty much the coolest poster of 2001. I dare you to find a cooler one, go ahead. Oh, and Travolta’s manscaping here deserves its own spinoff film.
The Red Riding Trilogy is one of the most dense, absolutely impenetrable pieces of work I’ve ever seen, let alone attempted to dissect with my clunky writing skills. It’s also fairly horrifying, as it chronicles the tale of the Yorkshire Ripper, an elusive and mysterious serial child killer who terrorized this area of Britain through the late 70’s and early 80’s. Viler still are the strong implications that very powerful people, including the brass of the West Yorkshire police, made every disgusting attempt to cover up the crimes and protect the killer, who’s murders included that of children. It’s a brave move by UK’s Channel 4 to openly make such notions obvious within their story, and commendable the level of patience, skill and strong ambition in the undertaking is quite the payoff, whilst simultaneously taking a toll on you for sitting through it. The sheer scope of it must be noted; it’s separated into three feature length films, each vastly different in setting, character and tone, and each blessed with a different director. The filmmakers even went as far as to film the first, which is set in 1974, in 16mm, the second in 35mm being set in 1980 and the third makes a leap to high definition video and takes place in 1983. Such a progression of time is a dismal reflection of the sticky corruption which clings to societies, decaying them stealthily over years, and the few keen individuals who will not let the truth die as long as there is a glimmer of uncertainty. Now, if you asked me exactly what happens over the course of this trilogy, who is who, what has happened to which characters and who is guilty, I simply wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s a deliberatly fractured narrative told through the prism of dishonest, corrupt psyches and has no use for chronology either. Characters who you saw die in the first film show up in the subsequent ones, actors replace each other in certain roles, and there’s just such a thick atmosphere of confusion and despair that in the 302 minute running time I was not able to make complete sense. I think this is a great tactic to help you realize that the film means to show the futile, cyclical nature of reality, as opposed to a traditionally structured story with a clear cut conclusion. Events spiral into each other with little rhyme or reason, until we feel somewhat lost, knowing full well that terrible events are unfolding in front of our eyes, events that are clouded and just out of our comprehensive grasp in a way that unsettles you and makes you feel as helpless as the few decent people trying to solve the case. One such person is an investigative reporter searching for the truth in the first film, played by Andrew Garfield. He stumbles dangerously close to answers which are promptly yanked away by the sinister forces of the Yorkshire police, brutalized and intimidated into submission. He comes close though, finding a lead in suspiciously sleazy real estate tycoon Sean Bean, who’s clearly got ties to whatever is really going on. The level of willful corruption demonstrated by the police is sickening. “To the North, where we do what we want” bellows a chief, toasting dark secrets to a roomful of cop comrades who are no doubt just as involved as him. The kind of blunt, uncaring dedication to evil is the only way to explain such behaviour, because in the end it’s their choice and they know what they’re doing. Were these officers as vile as the film depicts in the real life incidents? Someone seems to think so. Who’s to know? Probably no one ever at this point, a dreadful feeling which perpetuates the themes of hopelessness. The second film follows a nasty Police Chief (David Morrissey) who is bothered by old facts re emerging and seems to have a crisis of conscience. Or does he? The clichéd cinematic logline “no one is what they seem” has never been more pertinent than in these three films. It’s gets to a point where you actually are anticipating every single person onscreen to have some buried evil that will get upturned. A priest (Peter Mullan is superb) shows up in the second film only to be involved in dark turns of the third. Sean Bean’s character and his legacy hover over everything like a black cloud. A mentally challenged young man is held for years under suspicion of being the Ripper. A disturbed abuse survivor (wild eyed Robert Sheehan) seeks retribution. A Scotland Yard Detective (Paddy Considine) nobly reaches for truth. Many other characters have conundrums of roles to play in a titanic cast that includes Cara Seymour, Mark Addy, Sean Harris, James Fox, Eddie Marsan, Shaun Dooley, Joseph Mawle and more. The process in which the story unfolds is almost Fincher – esque in its meticulous assembly, each character and plot turn a cog in a vast machine whose purpouse and ultimate function are indeed hard to grasp. I need to sit down and watch it at least two more times through before the cogs turn in a way that begins to make sense to me, and a measurable story unfolds. It’s dark, dark stuff though, presenting humanity at its absolute worst, and in huge quantities too, nightmarish acts that go to huge levels of effort just to produce evil for.. well, it seems just for evil’s sake, really. The cast and filmmakers craft wonderful work though, and despite the blackness there is a macabre, almost poetic allure to it, beauty in terror so to speak. It’s rough, it’s long, it’s dense and it thoroughly bucks many a cinematic trend that let’s you reside in your perceptive comfort zone, beckoning you forth with extreme narrative challenge, an unflinching gaze into the abyss no promise of catharsis at the end of the tunnel. There’s nothing quite like it, I promise you.
Along with the classic The Crow, Brandon Lee made few other films before his heartbreaking accidental death. His natural charisma and likeability he brought to action hero roles, accenting the tough guy qualities with an angelic vulnerability, was tragically cut short by the incident. However, Rapid Fire is a gift to fans of both Lee and the action genre alike. It’s a little further away from the notoriety of The Crow, but packs a fuming punch of martial arts, gunplay and tough talking character actors strutting their stuff to a tune that any fan of the genre can hum along to. Lee plays Jake, a young college student with turmoil in his past, haunted by an incident involving a loved one in the Tienemen Square disaster. During a visit to Chicago, he inadvertently witnesses a brutal gangland murder perpetrated by drug kingpin Tony Serrano (Nick Mancuso). This immediately puts him in the hot seat and pretty much on his own after the federal agent assigned to him (Raymond J. Barry) betrays him. His only hope lies with grouchy, paternal Chicago Detective Mace Ryan (Powers Boothe) who is on his own rampaging crusade to bring down the drug trade. Jake merely wants to survive and get out of the mess he’s found himself in. Together they punch, kick, shoot and strategize their way out of getting offed by the mafia, and kick some serious scumbag ass along the way. Lee is ultimate protagonist material: his strong points arise out of the soft touch, never being brash or hogging the screen, always serving up a helping of humble that make the ass kicking resonate tenfold. Boothe is pricelessly grumpy as the haggard detective, showing brief but unmistakable glimpses of the bruised warrior’s heart beneath, rekindled by his bond with Jake. Mancuso is like a rabid pit bull let off the chain as Serrano, a truly untethered piece of geniune psychopathic anarchy. But that’s him, always the under sung wild card who lights up his scenes with wild eyed tenacity. Chinese acting legend Tzi Ma also clocks in as a heroin dealer with a short temper, looking very young which is even made into a meta joke itself. It’s pure uncut action, somehow feeling like more thanks to Lee’s incredible presence, as well as Boothe and Mancuso adding their own lively brand of spice to an already simmering stew. Essential viewing for any action disciple.