Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu has always had an affinity for telling dark, difficult, unconventional stories in his work and while there are certain more prolific films he’s made I think that 21 Grams might be his most challenging, emotionally galvanizing and unconventionally rewarding piece to date. Using his patented ‘mosaic’ storytelling motif, we see a series of increasingly distressing and unrelentingly bleak events unfold involving a woman (Naomi Watts) whose family was killed in a hit and run, the troubled ex con (Benicio Del Toro) who ran them over and the terminally ill man (Sean Penn) who is intrinsically tied to both their lives. The film asks us to cast an unblinking eye on grief, tragedy and ponderous moral morass as these three souls collide in heated encounters, violent confrontations and darkly cathartic resolution. Penn is as implosive as ever and his was the one performance of the three I didn’t fully connect with but to be fair character’s situation is nearly impossible for the viewer to put themselves in, and in any case he is terrific. Watts is a sorrowful quarry of devastation, turning to substances and nearly succumbing to despair in her grieving process while seeking retribution for her family. Del Toro gives the best performance of the film as a self loathing, hard-luck, emotionally stunted fellow who uses starch evangelism as both a weapon against his own family and a tool to convince himself of something perhaps only he sees, or hopes for in his own nature. The supporting cast are all excellent and given their own individual moments to shine including the criminally underrated Melissa Leo as Benicio’s destructively pragmatic wife, Eddie Marsan, Danny Huston, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dennis O’Hare, Stephen Bridgewater, Paul Calderon, Kevin Chapman, Lew Temple and more. The great Clea Duvall also shows up in a heartbreaking key supporting part and trust an intuitive guy like Inarritu to direct cameras slowly away from Watts as a core scene plays out and gradually move in on Clea for a distilled, gut wrenching closeup, I appreciated the focus and attention momentarily being given to a fantastic actress who has spent most of her career in Hollywood on the supporting sidelines but gets to powerfully emote big time here, if only for a few blessed frames. This is an emotionally devastating experience on all fronts and although it may not flow quite as organically as Alejandro’s debut stunner Amores Perros, there is no denying the raw, elemental potency of the drama, the stark vulnerability of the performances or the beauty of a fragmented, jigsaw puzzle narrative which serves to remind us how memory and time can shape the way we act, perceive and relate to one another in life. Masterful film.
Dark. Rainy. Uneasy. Covered in a cloak of gloom, gruesome secrets and morally questionable actions. Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is one of the premier kidnapping thrillers of recent years, and a mile marker in the still blossoming career of a man who will no doubt go on to be a legend. Many thrillers are lacking in some elements while excel in others, but here every base is covered with care and attention, from style to substance to pacing to realism to thematic material. When a couple’s daughter goes missing without a trace on a quiet suburban block, the distraught father (Hugh Jackman) tries to take matters into his own hands with disastrous and damaging results. When you factor in how long the case drags without clues, results or hope it’s kind of hard to blame him for taking action of his own volition, but when he abducts a mentally challenged man (Paul Dano) who was seen skulking around in a creepy RV the day of the incident, he crosses the line from righteous investigator to dangerous vigilante. Jake Gyllenhaal and his snazzy hairstyle are great as a rugged detective who just can’t seem to get a grasp on what happened but doesn’t quit anyway. Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Wayne Duvall, Viola Davis, Dylan Minette and more make vivid impressions, but it’s the consistently surprising and always dynamic Melissa Leo who steals the show and galvanizes the story with her chilling work. Roger Deakins is a prince among DoP’s and his rain streaked, utterly bleak visual mood-scape here is something to behold, the overcast weather seeps into the bones of these characters and brings out all the confusion and hopelessness of this grim, downbeat story. This is a detailed, difficult tale that does have an answer by the time the final act rolls around, and by that time we’re so so steeped in the quagmires of Jackman’s extreme actions that the further the trip goes into unpleasantness, the more eerily fitting it seems. It’s a dark, relentless trip but thanks to everyone involved and especially Villeneuve’s assured direction, it’s one worth taking.
If you compare Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer to the original tv series from back in the 80’s, it’s almost comical how little they have to do with each other, besides the vague theme of vigilantism. All good though because the film amps up the creaky old serial into a maniacally pulpy, hard R rated, ultraviolent, near B movie that’s given some real class by Denzel Washington, whose gravity makes all the wanton violence seem somehow rational. Fuqua is an intense filmmaker though and he firmly stamps his stylistic brand of kinetic mayhem onto this film so hard that by the time the bombastic warehouse set finale rolls around, it seems hella over the top. Denzel is Robert McCall, a quiet, cultured fellow who just happens to be a scary, highly skilled ex government spook with a heart of gold. When a troubled young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) gets in deep with the reliably psychotic Russian mob, he sees something in her that makes him step up to the occasion and quite literally lay waste to their entire organization with every means of his disposable. It’s kind of like what he did to get Dakota Fanning out of the crosshairs in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire, except less fire and more Bourne-esque hand to hand combat and tactical ingenuity. He’s basically invincible to the point where even a terrifying Vor lieutenant (Marton Csokas knowingly dialing up the camp dial) can’t even put a stop to his righteous rampage. There’s a bond between him and Moretz that needs to be there to soften the blow of the extremes he goes to, and the two actors have a great chemistry in their scenes. David Harbour steals scenes as a sheepishly corrupt Boston cop who get amusingly exasperated when McCall puts the hurt on him and the whole operation. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo have painfully brief cameos as government officials from his past, Justified’s Johnny Neumier is nasty as the abusive russkie pimp who is the first of many tough guys to fall under his hand, and Johnny Messner has a short lived cameo as a thug who grossly underestimates him. This is kind of a ridiculous film at its core, the earnest elements hilariously clashing with a hyper violent pulse that at times reaches Hobo With A Shotgun style heights. But Denzel is ever the actor’s actor and sells the flourish with his grim resolve. A fun ass flick for what it is, and I’m curious to check out the sequel this year. Oh, and there’s a cameo from that Insta-idiot Dan Bilzerian too that almost cements a tongue in cheek self aware vibe on the film’s part.
The Alphabet Killer is a silly one, a stone-serious account of some serial killer out there that tries to go the route of straightforward, down to earth fact tracking, and then deliberately messes up it’s own tone by tossing in cheap, ineffective ghostly gimmicks that seem so out of place one wonders if the editor accidentally spliced in frames from an episode of Supernatural or something. The film would have been something pretty decent without those jarring schoolyard level scare tactics tossed in, but I guess shit happens. This is very, very loosely based on an actual set of murders over in Rochester, NY, but what actual similarities to that case we see here is beyond my knowledge and, I suspect, pretty scant. What we get is Dollhouse veteran and cutie pie Eliza Dushku as a determined cop, hunting a killer of children all over upstate New York, while an impressive load of a character actors make slightly unnecessary yet well acted cameos, if only to pad the pre credit billing on the DVD cover and boost rentals. Tom Noonan, who has a running theme in his career of playing exactly the type of beast she’s tracking here, switches it up to play her stern Police Captain boss. Michael Ironside briefly plays a belligerent small town sheriff who withholds information gleefully, Bill Moseley as a reformed sex offender who’s tagged as a suspect, Timothy Hutton her wheelchair bound scholar and consultant buddy, as well as Cary Elwes and Melissa Leo. None of these actors do much but show up for a minute or two to make their presence known, and recede into the frays of supporting plot, until it’s time for one of them to resurface as the killer in the third act, the end of a whodunit guessing game we’ve seen countless times over. It wouldn’t be such a tiresome thing if they left out the spooky-dooky stuff, but there you have it. The film’s otherwise fascinating, earnest docudrama style is somewhat ruined by the occasional presence of moaning, white eyed spectres of murdered children that leer out at Eliza like minimum wage kids doing weekend shifts in the haunted house at the local county fair. Shame.
Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is slightly flawed Sci-Fi heaven, a film that could have easily been perfect if it weren’t for a few snags, chief among them being over-length and lack of clear plotting. There’s so much going on in the realm of visual and auditory stimuli though that one can let oneself just get wrapped up in the pure music video style rhythm of it. Speaking of music, the film only really exists to serve the absolute banger of an electronic score from M83, a gorgeous album packed with sonic synths, beautiful thundering beats and celestial interludes complete with angelic vocals from Susanne Sundfor. Kosinski pulled a similar stunt with Tron: Legacy, hiring Daft Punk to whip up a soundtrack that outshines the actual film itself, and while that’s certainly the case with Oblivion as well, there’s much fun to be had in other aspects, particularly visually. Tom Cruise is Jack, steward and caretaker of a small piece of the earth’s surface after an alien ambush forced most of the human race to run off to one of Jupiter’s moons. Collecting data and doing routine scope checks on his sleek hover bike, he’s a curious fellow who begins to see the lapses in logic and believes there’s something else at play other than survival, a notion that his partner (Andrea Riseborough) and dispatch handler Sally (a sly Melissa Leo proves that one can still be effective when skyping in one’s performance). Jack is haunted by visions of a beautifully mysterious girl he’s never met (Olga Kurylenko) and pursued by dangerous surface dwelling scavengers led by Morgan Freeman and Jamie Lannister. The film’s story is a cool one indeed and has a whopper of a twist, but the pacing and exposition just can’t seem to get itself out of a slight muddle and impart these events to us in a clear, unhindered fashion, a kink that no doubt could have been worked out with a little more time spent in the editing room. The aesthetic production design is a wonder, calling to mind everything from Half Life 2 to Portal while retaining it’s own unique, modernized look (I want that glass sky pool/deck so bad). It’s all about that score though folks, and it’s an album for the ages, bringing to life a film that otherwise just wouldn’t have been as memorable.
When I saw the marketing and trailer hype for Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, I was strongly under the impression that when I got around to seeing it I’d get a conspiracy style thriller. Some aviation intrigue, maybe a little government corruption, valiantly unveiled by Denzel Washington’s hotshot pilot protagonist. How very wrong I was. To my credit, it wasn’t my fault, but that of the severely misleading marketing. But then, how do you market a film like this? Hell, it’s a wonder it even made it past the pitching stage! The airplane related fiasco one sees in the previews is but a tiny segment that acts as at catalyst for one of the most searing and honest portraits of addiction I’ve ever seen. Washington is Whip Whittaker, senior pilot, ladies man, assured professional and severe drug and alcohol user. Whip snorts and guzzles day and night, including during the job. He’s functional and hides it well, but thats just another facet of his problem. When an onboard malfunction causes crisis on one of his flights, he takes a giant leap of faith, spectacularly landing the airplane upside down and essentially saving every passenger’s life. End of story? Not really. From there the film throws a curveball, as we dig deeper into Whip’s life, habits and history. An inquiry is launched into his mental state during the event, led by a stern and silky voiced Melissa Leo. His superiors do everything to defend him, but it becomes clear that he has been coming apart at the seams for sometime now, and the incident was one of the final rips. It’s a journey into one man’s refusal to admit his problems, and the often extreme ways in which life holds up a mirror in front of us and demands acceptance. Kelly Reilly is superb as a damaged girl he meets who tries to take his hand and lead down the way to fixing what is broken, but he’s pretty damn far off the path. John Goodman is his charismatic self as Whip’s groovy drug dealer, and Bruce Greenwood reliably steals scenes as an airline official determind to defend Whip to the bitter end. Washington is heartbreaking, especially in the scenes of alcohol abuse, which are tough to watch. He’s never had a character arc quite like this, and it’s one of the most special, vital gifts of acting he has ever given us. The look, feel and tone of the film is anything but gritty or depressing. It has a glossy, aesthetic sheen to it that barely hints at the commotion and strife which befalls it’s lead character. Perhaps this was Zemeckis’s intention: dazzle us out of the gate with crisp frames and bright cinematography and then blindside us with the darker elements, showing us in the process that such issues can befall any one of us in society, no matter how outwardly successful, confident or in control we seem. The film is as complex as it’s protagonist and begs the audience to empathize with him on his journey, despite the glaring shortcomings we observe. It’s one of the most human stories I’ve ever seen; two hours spent with a realistic person who is assured, broken, confused, scared, stubborn, strong willed, weak and deeply wounded all at the same time. Washington paints the picture for us momentously, and it’s the best work he’s ever done. You don’t get too many films like this released by the studio system, and this one is some kind of miracle.