Terence Malick has gone through a fascinating evolutionary path, from the hazy, formative Days Of Heaven and Badlands spanning out to the free flowing, elemental and incredibly lyrical aesthetic he owns these days. Most of his films I’ve tried since Tree Of Life have kind of been lost on me; they’ve struck me as Malick playing in the artistic sandbox with literal handfuls of A list cameos but in experimenting loosely he lost a sense of narrative that was necessary as well. I was pleased to find that his newest film A Hidden Life progresses away from that and shows the most considerable growth in him as an artist I’ve seen since the leap from The New World to Tree Of Life. A Hidden Life contains a carefully distilled symbiotic dance between Malick’s newfound, esoteric style of filmmaking and telling of a linear, structured story with dialogue and beats, the result is something wholly fulfilling and transcendent. This is a simple story one one Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstetter (August Diehl, so evil and malicious in Inglorious Basterds it’s hard to believe it’s the same actor playing this gentle, compassionate soul) who refuses against all coercion, peer pressure and principle to go along with Hitler’s reich or anything it stands for. This naturally causes him and his family no end of trouble until he reaches a nexus of his own making and his choices lead him down a path from which there is no return. Now we all know that gorgeous, pristine widescreen cinematography is a given in any Malick film but I can say most assuredly that this one has the absolute best and most drop dead gorgeous photography of anything he’s ever done. His images sweep over the Austrian hills, craggy mountains and misty glens with a movement and life force independent of simple camera work, and the sense of place, time and feeling instilled deep within the viewer is unparalleled. Later scenes in Berlin have a sort of regal, magisterial reverence to them, with ornate chapels midway through being painted and an over elaborate courthouse where Franz meets his ultimate fate. Austrian actress Valerie Pachner is unbelievably striking as Franz’s wife Fani, a fiercely protective, strong spirited woman who doesn’t always understand her husband’s defiance (same goes for me) but stands with him nonetheless. The strongest aspects of the film are carefully shot, almost holy sequences of day to day farm life in the Austrian countryside, filled with the same impossible beauty and studious observance we remember from Tree Of Life. We never even see the atrocities of war that Franz defies, and there’s scarcely a violent moment in the film save for his mistreatments in military prison. But through the simple act of watching this small village, it’s children, elders, tradesman, see these souls live through routine and love one another we get the sense of exactly what is at stake and what Franz is fighting for, despite never observing actual conflict. With Tree Of Life Malick searched the heavens for the same patterns of life and kinship he saw within one 1950’s American family, and drew forth wonders of filmmaking. And now with A Hidden Life he shows us one tiny Austrian village observed with all the detail and resonance one might see in the cosmos and asks us decide for ourselves as just how valuable such a place is, and what an act like Franz’s does in the long run to preserve it. Phenomenal film.
Peter Jackson has made a name for himself as one of the most ambitious, resourceful filmmakers out there, and his version of King Kong isn’t so much a film as it is literally a three hour trip to another world. The 1930’s Kong was a marvel of its time, admittedly now very dated, but this film is really something else, and for me is the minted definitive version of the story, brought to howling, lush, terrifying and affecting life by Jackson and his army of F/X wizards. The main beef people take up is its way too long, and I’m not even going to try and argue. Of course it’s too long. Of course. But I love it anyways, and part of what makes it so immersive and captivating is the length. We spend almost two hours in a New York prologue leading to oceanic escapades before the ship even finds the island! You almost get so tied up in smoke n’ soot vaudeville and scenic intrigue that you forget that there’s a giant gorilla on the way, among many, many other things. Jackson reaches for the stars here, sails off the edge of the map past the borders of the known world and awakens something dark, primal and enthralling in the viewer: a genuine sense of wonder, like films were always meant to since the beginning, and these days don’t often achieve. He also films in a way that you really feel scope, size and the tactile, spacial dynamics of his world, from the gorgeously foreboding mega forests of skull island to the vast expanse of an open ocean to the titanic skyscrapers of old world NYC. Naomi Watts makes a perfect Ann Darrow, her striking femininity harbouring a deeply intuitive courage that ultimately spells her survival and acts as a magnet to Kong, who is a wonder in himself and played right out of the park by Andy Serkis. Jack Black and Adrien Brody embody the hustling filmmaker Carl Denham and the wiry playwright turned adventurer Jack Driscoll neatly. Jackson takes time in getting to know the supporting characters as well, and in a film with this much breathing room, who wouldn’t? Thomas Kretschmann steals every scene as the intense, heroic Captain Englehorn, Evan Parke is implosive as the first mate and Jamie Bell does terror to a turn as a crew member. Skull island itself is the real star of the show here; along with the living, breathing and feeling vision of Kong, the primordial rock is home to all manner of threatening, awe inspiring ecological splendour including vicious T-Rex’s, graceful herbivores, cunning raptors and more. Two sequences in particular test the boundaries of comfort in the viewer and push into almost outright horror as the crew falls victim to an insect pit home to the kinds of spiders, worms and other creepers you wouldn’t want to find in your worst nightmares, as well as the scariest bunch of indigenous tribes-people I’ve ever seen in a film. Nothing quite compares to the otherworldly atmosphere Jackson infuses in the island, we really feel like we’re in a place that time forgot and the attention to detail is remarkable. In a film full of human characters, Kong wins us over as the most emotionally relatable, a rampaging beast whose softer side is brought out by Ann, until the harsh realities of the human world catch up with them in a flat out spectacular aerial smack down set atop the Empire State Building where we see how savage behaviour begets the same back tenfold when you mess with a creature of his size, it’s a heartbreaking sequence. This is a testament to what can be done in film, from effects to world building to period authentic detail to music (the score by James Newton Howard is brilliant) and more, all combined in a piece of adventure cinema for the ages, and one that reminds us why movies are so fun in the first place.
What motifs, when implemented well, make for an effective thriller? The wrongly accused man whom no one believes, the dogged pursuer who engages in ruthless indifference, the chaotic statewide manhunt, the methodical quest to clear one’s name, the righteous anger when the time for confrontation arrives. The Fugitive employs all of these and more almost effortlessly, and is as close to a perfect thriller as I can think of. It’s not just that the film is so exciting every step of the way, not just that the stunts are pulled off flawlessly or that every cog in the story’s mechanism turns believably, its simply that Harrison Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble as so relatable, so likeable and engaging that all the stuff I mentioned before, whether or not executed well, actually matters. The lynchpin scene that hooks us in occurs early on when a dipshit Chicago police detective (Ron Dean, who would go on to get shot in the face by Harvey Dent later in his career) bluntly interrogates Kimble after his wife is found murdered. Ford plays it it straight up, his raw reaction at being accused of something so unthinkable sears the screen, and as he pounds the table and pleads with them to “find this man”, we are immediately and unconditionally on his side, a lot to pull off in one scene but Ford is up to it and this may be his best performance ever. After that it’s a careening adrenaline rush of a chase film as the prison bus Kimble is on is hit by a speeding train, one of the finest pieces of blow-shit-up staging I’ve ever seen, propelling the man on a relentless ditch effort to find the mysterious one armed man who actually killed his wife (a far too short lived Sela Ward) and exact retribution. Tommy Lee Jones is a walking stick of C4 as US Marshal Sam Gerard, it isn’t so much his job to track down Kimble as it is his compulsion, the man is a calculating force of nature. Although put in Kimble’s path as the obstacle, the script treats him and his team with respect and intelligence, they’re not just mindless drones to keep plot and action sailing but fully formed human beings who start to unravel the mystery right alongside the good doctor. The film hurtles along from stunt to crash to chase to brutal fistfight and these sequences have since become iconic, especially that fiery sonic boom of a crash and the legendary standoff between Ford and Jones set in a storm drain leading off of a raging river dam hundreds of feet below. Everything just works in this film; Ford supplies charisma, subtle humour and inspires empathy all while kicking serious ass and evading capture in ways that would make Jason Bourne jealous, Jones chews scenery in the best way possible and is every bit the worthy adversary and eventual sympathizer, while Jeroen Krabbe, L. Scott Caldwell, Daniel Roebuck, Joe Pantoliano, Andreas Katsulas, Tom Wood, Richard Rhiele, Nick Searcy and Jane Lynch all provide excellent work. Julianne Moore shows up in what appears at first to be a cameo as a suspicious nurse, but she was originally written in for a larger role as a new love interest for Kimble. The film cut her scenes and abandoned this subplot, a very wise move as it would have cheapened his arc and gone the cliche route. Simply put, this is a classic and a textbook example of the magic possible in the action/adventure/thriller genres. Brilliant.
Before Terrence Malick lyrically explored the relationship between settlers, natives and nature in The New World, Michael Mann crafted the emotionally gripping, beautifully feral The Last Of The Mohicans. Take Mann out of his comfort groove of big city crime epics and whatever new avenue he explores is going to be incredibly fascinating (his much forgotten, sadly panned The Keep is further evidence). Trading in looming urban skyscrapers for equally imposing trees of the frontier, high powered weaponry for one badass long-shot rifle and the onslaught of rapid fire combat for incendiary cannon fire, the colonial times suit him splendidly and he rocks this period piece for all its worth. Daniel Day Lewis is a force of nature as Nathaniel Hawkeye, the white man raised by his adoptive father (Russell Means) and brother (Eric Schweig) in the wild. Madeleine Stowe is a dark haired candle of radiance and fiercely spirited as the lovely Cora Munro, brought from the prim, lacy traditions of Olde England out to the wild, uncompromising new land, with her impressionable young sister (Jodi May is low key brilliant). Wes Studi gives the bitter hearted warrior Magua a steady grace and brutal resolve. The film is lovingly made, sweeping from thundering battles to cascading waterfalls to meticulously constructed war forts to uneasy treaties to verbose politics to romance that stirs the heart and unlocks the tear ducts. But it’s all about those last twenty minutes, man. Holyyy fuck does this movie have an ending. When the final, white knuckle climax happens atop the scenic yet unforgiving Promentory Ridge, hearts, bones and dreams are broken as all the characters collide in a tragic, inevitable confrontation that leaves fire in your heart and tears in your eyes. James Newton Howard and Trevor Jones provide a legendary, soul stirring musical score that swells for the final act and carries it to transcendent heights. Mann directs with a compassionate, objective eye, never designating anyone as the good or bad guy, but simply showing us human beings fighting for survival, love and revenge in a land only just finding its cultural identity. A real classic and one of the best of the 90’s. Oh, and avoid the director’s cut at all costs. That’s not usually advice I’d give for any film but Mann somehow thought it necessary cut an incredibly important final scene of dialogue between Lewis, Means and Stowe that gives thematic weight to the story and caps off the characters arcs gorgeously. Rookie move, Michael, that’s a key scene and bookends the film beautifully.
Collateral is a laser-precise action thriller, that as per usual for macho auteur Michael Mann, also stops to pause for the introspective moment from time to time, certainly more than your average studio shoot ‘em up. This was a theatrical five-timer for me, and it’s a movie I’ve revisited numerous times on DVD and Blu-ray; Mann knows this rough, urban terrain better than anyone else at the moment. Breathlessly written by Stuart Beattie (with uncredited rewrite work by Mann and Frank Darabont), this was one of the key films to bust down the gate for big-budget studio actioners to get the digitally-shot treatment. Cinematographers Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe collaborated with Mann on the intensely stylish visuals, with nocturnal Los Angeles giving off a totally unique vibe that’s dangerous and exotic and alive with endless possibility; I love how digital cinematography allows the viewer to see far off into the distance. Tom Cruise gave one of his most magnetic performances as Vincent, a hitman made of steely discipline and possessing seemingly air-tight internal logic. Jamie Foxx, as Max the cabbie, made for an unexpectedly great co-star, with his initial timidity turning into reluctant bravado by the final act, in an arc that felt honest considering the circumstances. The dynamite supporting cast has showy turns from a greasy Mark Ruffalo, the always commanding Bruce McGill, a priceless Javier Bardem doing some excellent storytelling, a sharp Jada Pinkett Smith, edgy Peter Berg, the soulful Barry Shabaka Henley, and the sagacious Irma P. Hall, with awesome cameos by resident ass-kicker Jason Statham and the spunky Debi Mazar.
The Statham bit at the airport, in particular, is a real hoot; Mann isn’t known for being a “fun” filmmaker, and in this one wink-wink moment, you get the sense that he was enjoying himself in a way he normally doesn’t. James Newtown Howard’s moody score pulsates with electronic-synth-sexiness, with all of the physical locations choicely selected for maximum atmospheric effect. And honestly, enough can’t be said about the downright hypnotic cinematography in this film; shot after shot is absolutely striking in ways that are hard to describe. Memorable moments include a roaming coyote shambling across a lonely Los Angeles city street, a phenomenally staged and extra-lethal Korea town night-club shootout, and that fantastic encounter between Cruise and Henley at the jazz-club, which culminates in both verbal and visual poetry which highlights the chiaroscuro quality of the dimly lit interior. The back and forth dialogue between Cruise and Foxx during the various cab rides sting with acidic bite, with both actors getting more than one moment of serious emoting amidst all of the violent showdowns and confrontations. This was an extremely disciplined effort for Mann, and however minor some people may find it amongst the rest of his sensational filmography, it’s one of those endlessly re-watchable films that paid attention to all of the aspects of the medium, resulting in a rock-solid genre entry that feels a cut above from the norm.