The Devil Wears Prada is an interesting one. It’s one part sincerity, two parts cynicism and possesses a certain love for each and every character within its narrative that it’s reluctant to admit to at times, perhaps jut to keep a low profile with its realism. I’ve never read the book, but the film starts off going one way and seems like it will tidy itself up in a nice little resolution, and abandons it’s comfort zone two thirds of the way through for something that cuts cuts a bit deeper. Anna Hathaway starts her arc in the adorable zone and progresses through confidence and finally arrives at in a jaded daze at a tough life lesson. She plays Andrea Sachs, a would be journalist who decides to take a detour and work as second personal assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) the editor and slave driver at Runway magazine, in hopes that doors will eventually open for her in her field. Not quite the breezy excursion she hoped for, as Priestly turns out to be a full on nightmare. Streep blusters into the film like an acy tornado, steady at the reigns of her character and completely owning every syllable of her delicious dialogue. Streep plays her as the ultimate boss from hell, and then cleverly shows us the woman beneath in one key scene that resonates nicely. Most of the time her personality resembles that of my fifth grade schoolteacher on a bad day, and it’s utterly hilarious to see Streep, a god amongst progessionals, go for it like a praying mantis. Andrea also comes under the scrutiny of prim Emily (Emily Blunt, excellent), Miranda’s first assistant who is aghast at her decision to hire this walking fashion disaster. Andrea quickly catches on though, holding her own with this difficult job at the expense of her relationship with her boyfriend (Adrian Grenier of Entourage). Stanley Tucci is equal parts snazzy and snooty as Nigel, Miranda’s associate and eventual mentor figure for Andrea, superb as always. Simon Baker also shows up as a hotshot who tries just a little too hard to sweep Andi off her feet. Like I said before, the film tricks you with fluff and banter and eventually ends up somewhere more serious, with a painful look at what it takes to cut it in the business world, and the allegiences which sometimes get slashed and burned in favour of covering your own ass. Ugly stuff, for sure, but necessary and honest, a decision that helps the film greatly. Plus, it’s pretty damn funny most of the time. Great stuff.
Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger is to this day one the best and most exhilarating action films of the 1990’s. It’s big, bold and full of protein for lovers oft the genre. From the lively villain to the unbelievable stunts to the set pieces, it’s a tough package to beat. A stunning, vertigo inducing opener set high atop a snowy peak that ends in tragedy. A breathtaking airial heist carried out between two planes via cable wire. A whopper of a helicopter crash. Countless bone snapping, visceral hand to hand combat scenes. The list goes on. Sylvester Stallone puts his physique to great use as Gabe Walker, a rock climbing mountaineer guide who is accidentally responsible for the falling death of his best friend’s girlfriend. His buddy Hal (Michael Rooker) blames him no end, and he leaves in personal disgrace. Elsewhere, ruthless backstabbing psychopath Eric Qualen, (John Lithgow) leads a team of dangerous mercenaries through aforementioned heist, plundering millions from a US treasury department plane and disappearing into the snowy desolation. Soon they come across Hal and a group of people touring the region, who are soon hostages. Word somehow gets out to Stallone and he’s back in business, out for redemption and then chance to brutally dispatch this gang of snow pirates. The action, refreshingly absent of digital gimmicks, packs one hell of a punch. Every fight scene feels breathless, dangerous and desperate. Every blow is thunderously felt, courtesy of director Harlin’s commitment to his work and the efforts of a stellar stunt team. Stallone isna beast and I forget that every time I haven’t seen him in a while. He’s almost as big as the mountains he scales here and each and every bad guy damn well finds this out. Rooker is as intense as he always is, love the guy. Lithgow is a freaking villain for the ages, in a role intended first for David Bowie, then Christopher Walken. I’m glad the ball ended up in his court, because he subsequently knocks it back out of the park with his cold blooded, deliciously evil performance. He makes Qualen so scary and merciless that even his own people get the jitters around him. There’s also work from Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Craig Fairbrass, Max Perlich, Paul Winfield, Ralph Waite, Don S. Davis, Bruce McGill and Janine Turner. This is just one of the finest action movies to ever swing into theatres or onto dvd. Brutal, scenic, adventurous, exciting, violent, snowy, just plain kick ass. If you don’t like this movie, you don’t like ice cream.
J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call sustains a laser focused, wilfully meticulous look at the days leading up to the 2008 financial crash, showing us life within one wall street office building during a nervy period which now no doubt is remembered as the calm before the storm. Various characters in different positions of the hierarchy anxiously brace themselves as the jobs begin to get cut and the dread looms towards them like the inevitable rising sun at dawn. It’s set all in one afternoon and night, compacting a far reaching event which spanned years into the microcosm of a single 24 hour window, a tactic which sits through the larger world implications and brings it in for something a little more intimate. Zachary Quinto plays a young trader who discovers a rip in the lining of the economic infrastructure, a precursor to the eventual disaste. I’m not being purposefully vague and cryptic with that, I just don’t personally understand all the exact ins and outs of what went wrong back then, and having not the slightest knowledge of wall street jargon, that’s the best I can do. He brings this knowledge to his superiors who react in varying ways. Kevin Spacey is a disillusioned big shot who sees his life going off the rails alongside the country’s market, and mopes in his swanky office. Paul Bettany is a cocky young upstart who uses casual indifference to shade the bruises he’s got from knowing what will happen. Demi Moore is a company head who looks out for herself while others in the company. Jeremy Irons provides scant moments of humour as a bigwig fixer who arrives on a chopper to set things straight, or at least assess the damage. The best work of the film comes from Stanley Tucci (surprise, surprise) as a jilted employee who has been laid off in the confusion, and is seething about it. His melancholic monologue about what it takes to propel America’s industry and economy forward resonates with a humanity that cuts deep. The film ticks along with a pace that’s both measured and swift, with little time for introspect, yet showing it to us anyway amid the chaos. Watch for appearances from Penn Badgley, Al Sapienza, Simon Baker and Mary McDonnell as well. Chandor let’s the proceedings thrum with an inevitability that hangs in the air as the promise of the impending crisis, a feeling that serves to impart not why it happened, not how it happened, but the fact that it did happen, to each and every individual person who was affected, as opposed to the country as a whole.
The Box is a moody little crime drama thriller starring James Russo, whose appropriately brooding persona lends itself to grim neo noir films such as these. He’s an actor who has almost entirely worked in B movies for a long time, and while you have to watch out for most as they are usually geniune piles of dog shit, this one is a jewel amongst the rubbish. Russo plays Frank Miles here, an ex con trying to go straight, sticking with the dead end job his P.O. has given him to stay out of trouble. Soon he meets beautiful waitress Dora (Theresa Russell) who falls in love with. The two of them try to start a new life together, but as we all know sometimes it’s very hard to run from your past, and soon enough trouble comes looking for them. Frank tries to get some money owing to him from his sleazebag of an ex-associate Michael Dickerson (a detestable Jon Polito) and things go wrong. Violence ensues, and Frank finds himself in the possession of a mysterious box which he can’t open and hasn’t a clue about. Dora has a scumbag boyfriend in club owner Jake Ragna (a terrifying Steve Railsbac) who I’d dangerous, volatile and obsessive about her. Soon, an evil corrupt Police Detective named Stafford (Michael Rooker) makes their lives hell as he searches for the box. Frank and Dora take refuge at the home of Stan (Brad Dourif, excellent), Frank’s former cell mate, friend who is now a weed dealer. Even this may not be enough to keep them safe, as the long arm of the crooked law probes, and Stafford gets closer and closer. It’s a depressing situation forged by bad decision and the perhaps inescapable knack for trouble that some people tend to have, whether it’s coincidence or a measurable character flaw is eternally up for debate. The pair try so hard to fix their lives and still seem to be headed for a tragic dead end. Russo has sadness in his eyes in every role, as well as a boiling anger to match it, he fills out his protagonist very well. Rooker and Railsback make scary work of the two villains, especially Rooker who uses the kind of blatant brutality and abuse of power that are essential ingrediants in very dangerous men. Dourif is Dourif, which is never not mesmerizing, and Russell does the wounded angel thing down to the bone. A sad story, with a dream cast (for me, at least), a downbeat reflection on lives gone down the wrong path, a diamond in the rough noir thriller of the best kind.
It has been said that 2016 marks the deconstruction phase of the comic book superhero genre what with Deadpool turning it on its ear with a healthy dose of postmodern irreverence. It also saw two movies that addressed the very heroic nature of these larger than life characters, first with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and then Captain America: Civil War. Both movies featured iconic superheroes in conflict with each other while also addressing the effect they have on the world. How does the general populace react to them and, more importantly, how do those in positions of authority react to them? The latter in both movies – not so well. Should superheroes be governed and if so by whom? Should they be held accountable for the massive destruction incurred from their world-saving battles? These two movies address these questions in very different yet intriguing ways.
Civil War takes the basic story from the 2006-2007 Marvel Comics limited series of the same name, written by Mark Millar and penciled by Steve McNiven, and uses it as a springboard to address narrative threads introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Civil War intertwines two primary storylines: Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) track down elusive assassin the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and the continuing animosity between Cap and Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), which finally reaches a critical mass when they disagree over the creation of an international governing body to watch over and control the Avengers, splintering the team into two camps – those on Cap’s side and those on Iron Man’s. This culminates in an epic battle between both sides.
Civil War starts off with a bang as Cap and his new Avengers team comprised of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as they track down and stop Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), the Hydra agent who has now become supervillain Crossbones, from stealing a biological weapon in Lagos. For Rumlow, it’s a personal vendetta as he blames Cap for almost dying in the collapse of the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in The Winter Soldier. This is a recurring theme throughout the movie: deeply personal motivations for why characters do what they do.
Meanwhile, the individual human cost of battles like the one in Sokovia at that climax of Age of Ultron weighs heavily on Tony as do the people that died during the Crossbones mission on Cap. To make matters worse, United States Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) meets with the Avengers to inform them that the United Nations is preparing legislation that will sanction their future actions. He considers them all dangerous and is concerned that they continue to operate unchecked, showing them a greatest hits montage of carnage that ensued during their battles. He gives them a choice: come on board with this legislation or retire.
Tony feels guilt over the ramifications of his actions – what with helping to create Ultron and all – and that of the Avengers and backs the sanctions along with Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Black Widow. Cap argues that signing this legislation will take away their right to choose. What if the U.N. sends them somewhere they don’t want to go or shouldn’t go? Where does it all end? Things for Cap only get more complicated when the Winter Soldier, who is actually Cap’s childhood friend Bucky now a brainwashed killer, is responsible for the death of T’Challa a.k.a. Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) father. Meanwhile, the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is quietly plotting something big and it involves the Winter Soldier.
While this movie seems plot-heavy, it moves along briskly, punctuated with kinetic action sequences, like an exciting chase through the streets of Bucharest as Cap tries to capture Bucky alive while preventing Black Panther from killing him. It starts off as a dynamic foot race and then ramps up to vehicles that rivals the chase early on in The Winter Soldier. Much like with that movie, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have a real knack for orchestrating kinetic action sequences that create an almost palpable sense of danger for our heroes because so much is at stake. It doesn’t hurt that they wisely enlisted the help of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, directors of the dynamic action revenge thriller John Wick (2014), to choreograph some of this mayhem.
This culminates in the epic airport battle teased in all the movie’s trailers and ads. It is everything they promised and more. This is easily the best action sequence in any of the Marvel movies since The Avengers (2012). It’s epic, visceral and loaded with several mini-battles as hero fights hero. We also get to see the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and he’s everything you’d want him to be – full of funny quips, nerdy and more than capable of holding his own with the likes of Cap and co. only he lacks the battle-hardened experience. This is easily the best cinematic incarnation of the webslinger since Spider-Man 2 (2004). On Cap’s side, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) pops up to lending a helping hand and offer a slew of his own funny one-liners and a cool surprise in the heat of the battle.
There are deeply personal stakes for several of the characters in Civil War, from Black Panther’s desire to get revenge for the death of his father, to Tony’s guilt over the death of a young man in Sokovia, to Cap and his friendship with Bucky. All of these things are powerful motivators for what they do in the movie and supersede accords and sanctions. Initially, there was some concern that the inclusion of all these characters would create an overly stuffed movie but on the contrary the Russo brothers found a way organically integrate newcomers like Black Panther and Spider-Man and use their appearances as a springboard for their upcoming standalone movies.
In a nice contrast to past Marvel villains, Zemo is a more cunning, understated menace whose endgame isn’t readily apparent and only reveals itself towards the end at a crucial moment just before the exciting climax where Cap and Tony have it out one last time. The filmmakers mess around with the formula on this one. Whereas Age of Ultron featured yet another super baddie bent on world domination, Civil War features a villain that wants something that isn’t on an epic scale. He wants revenge and has a very definite agenda that only gradually reveals itself over the course of the movie in a wonderfully understated way that makes quite a gut-punching impact when it is finally unveiled to our heroes.
DC – this is how you do a battle with superheroes. Once again, Civil War demonstrates how far behind DC is from Marvel in terms of superhero movies on every level. Unlike Batman v Superman and even their own Age of Ultron, the filmmakers of Civil War do a great job of juggling this large cast of characters, giving everyone their moment to say something cool/funny and do something cool or significant without forgetting that the movie is ultimately about Cap and the arc of his character so that he goes from being a patriot in The First Avenger (2011) to an insurgent in Civil War. It’s his story and it’s a personal one. It is really a marvel of narrative juggling that succeeds where even the overstuffed Age of Ultron came precariously close to collapsing under its own ambitions. It is quite an accomplishment and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely should be commended on a good job.
So many movie trilogies tend to end a weak third installment that tries to tie up all the loose narrative threads created in the previous incarnations while going bigger in scale while losing sight of what made them so good in the first place (i.e. Return of the Jedi, Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises). At the heart of Civil War is Cap’s friendship with Bucky. It’s a thread that has run through all of the Captain America movies, culminating with this one where it is put to the ultimate test. This relationship is also the most satisfying aspect of this excellent movie because it is also the most compelling thing about it. Civil War manages to be simultaneously epic in scale in terms of how what happens affects so many characters and intimate in the sense of Cap’s journey over these movies. The filmmakers never let us forget that at its heart, the movie is about Cap and Bucky’s lifelong friendship. That gives us something to care about amidst all the carnage.
Moscow Zero is a chilly little subterranean ghost story, and a favourite for me. It god critically shredded by the few people who did see it, and quickly forgotten. I think this may be because of odd marketing,and the cultural rifts in different areas of both the world, and cinema. It was marketed in North America as a supernatural shocker starring Val Kilmer, which was a cheap shot to fans and in fact false advertising. Kilmer is in it, for maybe ten minutes, and is very good, but the story isn’t his. It’s also supernatural, but in a far more subtle, ambiguous and inaccessible way that the ADHD-ridden audiences over here just aren’t used to. In short, it’s very European, and they just seem to have a better handle on the intuition it takes to make an atmospheric chiller than anyone else, also seeming to be more connected with ghost lore and the spirit realm. The story concerns a priest named Father Owen (hollywood’s resident alien Vincent Gallo, playing it dead straight here). He has traveled to Moscow I hopes of finding his friend Professor Sergey (Rade Serbedzija), who has descended into ancient catacombs and endless tunnels below the surface of the city in hopes of finding a lost artifact hidden during wartime. He joins up with a group of guides and Moscow natives including the beautiful Lubya (Oksana Akinshina) and a tracker named Yuri (Joaquim De Almeida) to traverse the underside of the city and find his friend. There are long, eerie scenes of Sergey wandering around the dimly lit labyrinth, pursuing his scholarly goal and talking to himself as strange shadows and far away whispers follow him around, gradually letting the viewer know that he’s not alone. Owen and his team rendezvous with Tolstoy (Joss Ackland) the elderly leader of a tribe of tunnel dwellers who won’t go below a certain level of the catacombs, who provides a map. Then they go deeper. Kilmer plays Andrey, a Russian dude who runs a gang that are in control of opening and closing a deep fissure gate that is said to lead to a hell like place. He’s relaxed, in both demeanor and the Russian accent, but he’s clearly having fun in one of his more character type roles. The catacombs have a haunted feel to them, and indeed there are ghosts, but not presented in the way you might think. The way the human characters see them is quite different from how they see themselves, and how the audience sees them, which is a nice touch. The story keeps itself mysterious, right up until it’s puzzling, creepy conclusion, buy I prefer that open ended, almost experimental style over desperate attempts to scare us. It’s atmospheric, strange, unique, thick with ideas and altogether a bit of brilliance. Definitely an aquire taste, though.
Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers is one of the most stylish and visually synergistic action flicks ever made. It’s like John Woo meets John Wick, and seriously has some cool to it. Chow Yun Fat, that effortless, laid back badass, plays lethal hitman John Lee, who suffers a crisis of conscience at the worst professional crossroads. When Detective Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker adds to the noirish feel) kills the son of powerful Chinese crime boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang), he and his family are marked for death by the syndicate. Lee is employed to take out his young son, but holds back in the last moment, making a split second decision to defy Wei, take a rogue’s path and create a huge problem for everyone involved. Now, Wei has replacement killer after not only Lee, but Zedkov again and anyone unlucky enough to get in the way. Lee teams up with sexy identity forger Meg Coburn (love me some Mira Sorvino) and the two evade bullets, bombs and multiple murderous assassins all in the highest of style. Chow is the perfect action hero, with a mournful like ability and stoic streak that’s never too serious and always punctuated by his baleful sense of humour. Plus the guy can make bloody magic with two handguns in a career of epic stunt work that is almost as big a feat as that of the characters he plays. Sorvino also has a downbeat energy, adorable self deprecation and tough chick sarcasm that she masquerades with to hide the bruised girl beneath. They are a wonderful team, and I like that the film never outright forced any romance, but rather let the performances subtly suggest it via the absence in the script. Rooker holds up his end with endearing toughness, especially when forced to work alongside Lee and Meg to save their asses, a perfect character arc that he really sells.Jurgen Prochnow is deadly and devilish as Michael Kogan, the only German mercenary I know of that works for a Chinese crime syndicate lol. Danny Trejo and Til Schweiger are hilariously over the top as two silent monster assassins, leather clad death angels hired by Wei to hunt our heroes. The action really steps it up into comic book mode when they show up. Keep any eye out for Frank Medrano, Patrick Kilpatrick and a young Clifton Collins Jr as a street vato named ‘Loco’. Epic cast, unmatched visual style, an action gold mine.