Before Nicholas Winding Refn blew up into the big time with intense, stylish stuff like Bronson, Drive and Valhalla Rising, and after he made his bloody emergence into cinema with Pusher, he made another film that no one seems to remember or even even like all that much. It’s easy to see why Fear X wasn’t that well received or remembered: it’s choppy and confusing, even by Refn’s terms, and doesn’t pull it’s third act into a cohesive resolution, instead favoring a disconcertingly surreal descent into subconscious, abstract imagery, which we all know (the careers of Lynch and others are examples) is an aesthetic not always absorbed by the most open of minds when it comes to the masses. Now that we got that out of the way, here’s my take. I adore the film. It’s a skitchy Midwestern nightmare that starts of gently gnawing at the fringes of your perception with a sense of dread that’s intangible in its possibility, an outcome as vast and unknowable as the desolate prairie setting that calls to mind the fear and degradation of Fargo without an ounce of its good humour, black or otherwise. John Turturro inhabits this setting with a twitchy, anxious aura, suggesting a haunted mindscape beneath those famous curls. And well he should be haunted, considering his wife recently disappeared without a trace. For him, not knowing what happened is worse than any kind of grisly answer, for its a sick hollowness that chokes out any room for him to grieve. He works by day as a mall security guard, busting shoplifters and scanning snowy surveillance screens to distract himself. Then, his co-worker (Stephen Eric Mcintyre) hands him a videotape that may contain answers and be the first breadcrumb in a trail leading to his wife’s killer, and possibly his solace. In a lot of films and shows like these, the protagonist ventures to a small town with sordid secrets simmering just beneath the crust of the cheerful looking pie held by the pretty waitress at the local diner. Some artists find their own groove without riffing on other’s work too much, and some fall flat-footed into derivitive motions. Refn is bold yet subtle in his direction once Turturro arrives in the town, and casts a deceptively innocuous yet insidiously creepy spell over the proceedings. It’s essentially where the film really exits utero and manifests, the danger before that was only glimpsed on the horizon now a very real possibility, like waking up from a bad dream into a worse reality. Turturro is met with cold stares and grim greetings, especially by a deputy who becomes predatory upon seeing part of the clues he has brought with him, vaguely tied to a local resident. From there he is led to a suspicious Sheriff (James Remar), and the sheriff’s wife (Deborah Kara Unger). Remar may have been involved in his wife’s death, and he plays with the curtain of his performance wonderfully, pulling it back ever so slightly in scenes with Unger (some of his best work) and stirring up confusion while menacing Turturro. It’s an unheralded best from him and a rare occasion where he gets to be subtle and eerie, as opposed to his usual brash, cocky characters. Unger is similar to Remar in the sense that she has made a point over the course of her career in picking obscure, challenging and unique roles to play. In playing a couple here they feel kind of star-crossed just by the nature of their careers, fed by their smoldering chemistry. The film proceeds like any thriller would, with only intangible hints at the weirdness to come, until the last half of the third act, where it abandons logic completely and dives headlong into a dreamlike abyss of surreality, without a readily discernable warning or narrative signpost. Is Turturro unstable? Or is it Remar? Or are events just taking a turn fpr the supernatural as a result of the town messing with people’s psyches, a la The Shining? We will never know, and honestly I doubt Refn did, or ever will either. It’s him in the sandbox, free from logic or consequence, and hate it with all your might if you wish, but you can’t deny it’s a psychologically galvanizing experience that toys with your perception and spooks to the core. The film deals with themes of not knowing, and open ended tragedy masked by confusion and spiraling ‘what ifs’. Perhaps Refn implemented all the metaphysical hoo-hah as an extreme metaphor for Turturro’s consciousness, fractured and torn by the absence of resolution to the point of madness. Or maybe Refn just likes making weird shit. That’s the eternal debate with artists like him and Lynch: do they have some plan, a secret marauders map to the strangeness that they present to us on screen which only they are privy too, or are they simply making it up as they go along, hurling paint at the canvas until they are satisfied with the result, regardless of comprehending it? We’ll never know, and that for me is the beauty of it. With Fear X Refn crafts a polarizing thriller that is the very proto – example of ‘love it or hate it’. It’s definitely not for everyone. But love it or hate it, there’s no escaping it’s power.
Penthouse North is a vicious little 90’s inspired slice of thriller fun, which sadly seems to have gained zero marketing and promotion, so unless it catches your eye on US Netflix or Shaw On Demand (which is where I watched it), you’ll prolly never even know you missed it. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and sometimes is very predictable, but as I found myself calling plot twists on the dime, and figuring out story beats before they happened, I didn’t find myself frustrated or feeling cheated out. I got a burst of nostalgia for the 80’s/90’s time period when these type of thrillers were in full bloom. Michelle Monaghan throws herself into the role of Sara, an ex-war photojournalist who was blinded in an incident. She lives in an ornate NYC penthouse with her boyfriend now, only just beginning to adjust to her new condition and emerge from reclusiveness. On New Year’s Eve, that auspicious time of year that buzzes with possibility, trouble comes knocking in the form of homicidal criminals in search of something hidden within the apartment. We are then treated to the archetypal game of cat and mouse as she fights tooth and nail for her survival. The film benefits greatly from a frenzied performance from Michael Keaton as Hollander, the lead criminal and a real piece of work. Keaton rarely plays in the bad guy arena (check out Pacific Heights for a more restrained yet equally dastardly turn), but he’s got a reptilian ferocity that’s equally scary and amusing, sometimes both at once. His Hollander is a royal prick, and oodles of fun to watch. Mark Mancini composes a solid score of jangly apprehension, and the film makes great use of its setting, with several clammy moments that didn’t sit well with my fear of heights. Good stuff.
Joe Wright’s Hanna started as a Vancouver Film School script, funded through grants that would make it the catalyst for the positively unique, incendiary action fairy tale that it is today. It’s crowd pleasing without any superficiality, straight to the point without being over serious, and is made with a slick, vibrant aesthetic that will have your pulse dancing a jig in time with the thumping score by The Chemical Brothers. I held off on seeing this one for years after its initial release, jaded by the prospect of another ‘killer genetically altered female assassin’ flick. One night I finally caved and took a peek on Netflix. I then kicked myself hard for not taking notice sooner, purely on the notion that I wouldn’t dig it based on its formula. I suppose I learnt a little ‘book by its cover’ lesson there, as I was completely enamoured with the film and have seen it at least ten times since then. The tired ingredients of any old formula can be whipped up into a tantalizing new recipe, providing all those involved have the commitment and passion. The filmmakers of Hanna go for broke with one of the best thrillers in years. Saoirse Ronan is an explosive, feral waif as the titular hero, raised in isolation by her badass ex CIA father Erik Heller (underrated Aussie Eric Bana nails the German accent to a T). They reside in the frozen tundras of Lapland, where Erik trains her in the ways of a warrior, instilling survivalism in both physical and intellectual measures, preparing her for their inevitable separation. An enemy from Erik’s past surfaces in the form of evil CIA witch Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett practically breathes fire with a naughty southern accent and a red hairdo that looks acidic to the touch), and both Hanna and him are forced to run, separated from each other. She escapes from a remote facility and begins her journey across Europe, befriended by a lovable squabbling family of travellers, igniting a yearning for companionship in her that Ronan expertly shows the camera. Wiegler enlists the slimy help of a euro trash club owner who moonlights as some sort of freelance über villain (Tom Hollander almost walks away with the movie as the psychopathic, bleached blonde pervo Deutsch-bag) who relentlessly pursues Hanna along with his neo nazi skinhead henchman. The thing about this film is that it’s all been done before, but they find a way to make it fresh, exciting and strike chords which simply haven’t been hit in this sub genre before, providing a film experience that really sticks. Ronan has never been more virile and effective, also proving a mastery of the German accent and embodying Hanna with intense physicality that’s achingly punctuated by a gradual awakening as a person as well. Impressive balance is shown in her character arc, through writing and stunt work alike. This is the first movie to be scored by The Chemical Brothers, and damn I hope we get more. They belt out a technicolor rhapsody of electric music that flows beautifully with the story, hitting every beat, ramping up suspense when needed, being surprisingly weird at times and kicking around your head long after the credits roll. The actors are all easy listening with the dialogue, never feeling forced or making us doubt for a minute that these aren’t real people engaged in genuine interaction. The film neither drags nor rushes, arriving at its often grisly, sometimes touching and always entertaining conclusions exactly when it needs to. It shows uncanny intuition with its pacing, an absence of the need to show off with unnecessary fights or effects which don’t serve the story, and above all a keen desire to entertain us. Terrific stuff.
Usually, I’m not super hot on adaptations of John Le Carré novels. His style tends to veer towards dense, impenetrable narratives that confuse and confound me, and are further frustrating because they have such wonderful casts and production value (I’m lookin at you, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The Constant Gardener, however, is a breathtaking story that I’ve enjoyed very much since I saw it in theatres at probably too young an age. It fashions a story that although is complex and refuses to be straightforward about what it’s trying to say, contains essential beats and stunning performances from its actors. It’s also set apart from other Le Carré yarns for having the most humanistic, compasionate core to its story, centering it’s focus on the atrocities that humans can commit upon each other in mass, faceless fashion and showing us the sparse, golden good deeds that a few kind people can put forth to counter such madness. An organic, emotional theme is nice compared to the clinical, detached style we usually see from this writer. The film is lucky in the sense that it has deeply gifted leads: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two actors who always resonate with a relatable human kinship in their work, and are both superb here. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British ambassador in a god forsaken African region whose luminous wife Tessa (Weisz) is found dead in a remote area under suspicious circumstances. She was investigating several high profile pharmaceutical companies, under scrutiny for their sociopathic, amoral drug testing trials on the poverty stricken Africans. Intrigue strikes in after this, as shellshocked Justin pieces together what lead to her death, and how he can cripple those responsible using espionage and a level of keenness that’s well above both his pay grade and mental constitution. Flashbacks abound as we see Justin and Tessa’s early years unfold, adding all the more to the lumps in our throats as we know the ultimate outcome which the film frankly showed us in the opening frames. Welcome supporting turns come from other UK geniuses like Bill Nighy as an icy CEO, Richard McCabe as Fiennes’s courageous brother in law, Danny Huston as a shady friend of Tessa’s and Pete Postlethwaite as a mysterious doctor who figures later in the plot. Cinematographer César Charlone makes sweeping work of bringing the chaotic nature of Africa to life, it’s people, landcsape and aura beautifully rendered in shots that evoke the best of Monét and similar artists. Such beauty brought forth from a story filled with unpleasantness is interesting, almost a refusal to present the depressing story in any other fashion than to show us the virtue in tragedy, the cost of lost lives and unchecked corruption present for all to see and wince at, yet somewhat quelled by the undeniable forces of light also in play. Rachel and Ralph’s work is an example of this; They are compassion incarnate, pools of hurt, determination and love for one another in the face of evil, unfair odds. They should both be very proud of their work here. Direct Fernando Meirelles has helmed Blindness and the classic City Of God, and as such is no stranger to infusing pain and sorrow with esoteric, positive qualities. He takes full advantage of the African setting, where suffering is commonplace and along with his entire troupe, throws all the lush, alluring kindness straight into the face of horror in an audacious stylistic set of choices which make The Constant Gardener one of the most achingly well constructed romantic annd political thrillers of the decade.
David Lynch’s Lost Highway is a fuzzy, feverish portrait of a fractured mind attempting to make sense of extremely distressing circumstances that are both alienating and possibly self inflicted. Lynch is always keen on probing the cerebrally murky waters which border on the potentially paranormal occurrences, and the often frustrating line, or lack thereof, which is drawn in, around and between these two aspects. Psychological terror, ambiguous scenes that leave you scratching your head once you’ve caught your breath, identity crisis, elliptical narratives that leave us haunted and wanting more are all tools in his bag, ones he’s employed countless times throughout his monolithic career. Usually he implements that in an esoteric, earthy way, but there’s something cold, clinical and unsettlingly voyeuristic about this that somewhat separates it from a lot of other stuff he’s done. The term ‘Lynchian’ in itself has become its own genre, there’s no debating that anymore. It’s usually within this self made genre that he explores, but it’s almost like with this one he went in with a mindset to play around with a sordid, almost De Palma-esque style of genre, and then inject it with his trademark eerie weirdness, in this case to great effect. Bill Pullman stars as jazz trumpet player Fred, spending his nights belting out unnerving solos in smoky clubs. Pullman is an all American prototype, seen in a lot of generic, regular Joe roles. Seeing him venture into sketchy material is jarring and super effective (see his career best work in David’s daughter Jen Lynch’s Surveillance for an even better example of this). He and his gorgeous wife (Patricia Arquette) wake up one ominous morning to discover a packaged video tape on their doorstep, the contents of which show someone breaking into their house and filming them while they sleep. They feel both horrified and violated, and call the police who prove to be just south of useful. From there things get terrifically weird. Fred attends a party where he meets the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who plays a mean spirited magic trick on him that will have your skin crawling out the door. This was one of Blake’s last two roles before the unfortunate incident that cut his career painfully short, but he’s perfect for Lynch’s stable and eats up the frames he inhabits, a pasty faced ghoul with beady black jewels for eyes and a piercing laugh that will stain your psyche for years. Before he knows it, Fred wakes up and is accused for his own wife’s murder, whisked away to a dank death row cell, plummeting the film into a new segment, Lynch’s way of letting us know this isn’t going to be an easy watch. Fred wakes up sometime later… And isn’t Fred anymore. He’s a young lad with amnesia whose been missing for a while, played by edgy Balthazar Getty. It’s a stark left turn for the plot to take, a stinging reminder that from there on out, we’re in for some nasty antics with no light at the end of the tunnel. Getty is released from prison, since he’s not Pullman who they arrested to begin with. From there he gets entangled in a hot mess of a subplot involving a volatile gangster (Robert Loggia), his seductive wife (also Patricia Arquette) and the ever present Mystery Man who lurks over both planes of the film’s narrative. I’m trying to be deliberately vague about the plot (lord knows Lynch did as well), both to not spoil any surprises for you, and partly because after many viewings, I’m still not sure exactly what it means for myself. It’s a great big clusterfuck of extremely disturbing sequences, surreal passages of auditory and visual madness and a frothing undercurrent of atmosphere that constantly pulls on your sleeve to remind you that something is terribly wrong, but never gives you the solace of telling you what that something is. Traumatic viewing to say the least. Lynch assembles an extraterrestrial supporting cast including Michael Massee, Jack Nance, Natasha Gregson Warner, Marilyn Manson, Henry Rollins, Mink Stole, Jack Kehler, Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Pryor and the one and only Gary Busey (when Gary is one of the calmest, sanest people in your movie you know you’ve driven off the cliff). Some highlights for me are anything to do with Blake’s paralyzing spectre of a character who is one of the best Lynch creations ever, Loggia intimidating an obnoxious driver is priceless and the closest the film gets to comedy, and the final twenty minutes where the lines of reality, fantasy and the jagged planes of perception within the characters minds collide, providing us with a creepy non-resolution, part of what makes the entire show so memorable and affecting. A classic that begs countless re-watches before it can fully cast all aspects of its spell on you, and one of Lynch’s unsung best.
Unnerving. Unforeseeable. Unforgettable. Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s thrillingly caustic media satire Nightcrawler shows some seriously vicious teeth, taking you on a dark and twisted trip through nocturnal Los Angeles, all shot in 2.35:1 Mann/Refn-vision by the obscenely talented Robert Elswit, with James Newton Howard’s moody synth-dominated score pounding away in the background. Jake Gyllenhaal is utterly brilliant as Lou Bloom, a diseased creature of the night, appearing in virtually every scene, totally live-wire, spewing rapid fire dialogue with sociopathic glee. Shades of Travis Bickle abound in his portrayal of a freelance videographer hustling from crime scene to crime scene trying to sell his gruesome and exploitive footage to the highest buyer. This is the best performance of Gyllenhaal’s career so far, and over the past few years, he seems incapable of not being thoroughly excellent in whatever he appears in (Brothers, Source Code, End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, Everest; still need to see Southpaw). It’s great to see Renee Russo in a substantial role again, as she brings sass and class to her role as a beleaguered news producer. She gets to cut a nasty portrait of what it might be like to run a struggling local news station in the big-city that’s fighting for a piece of the ever-competitive ratings pie. Original movies from a single voice seem less and less common these days, and as Nightcrawler races through its propulsive and lurid narrative, you begin to realize that you’re watching something that’s playing by its own sick and cynical set of rules, unafraid to peek at the nastiness that’s running through our cities, news outlets, and members of society. This is an instant classic that defies expectations, and a film that’s gotten richer and richer on repeated viewings. Hopefully Gilroy has a new project on the horizon sooner than later…
Spare. Menacing. Near constant tension. Vice-grip direction. Air-tight plotting that MAKES SENSE when you stop to think about the fine details. Graphically violent yet never exploitive. Virtually faultless. Blue Ruin was writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s big coming out as a top-notch genre-buster, and I absolutely can’t wait to see Green Room, which has been kicking ass at the various festivals of late. Reminiscent of the Coen brothers with its dark thrills an…d exacting formal precision, this is a true screw-turning thriller that takes no prisoners. It’s like no revenge movie I’ve ever seen, and I admired how Saulnier used the blackest of comedy to somewhat lighten the heavy, nihilistic load of neo-noir mayhem. Macon Blair’s uncommonly focused, award-worthy, multi-layered lead performance is one for the ages and totally mesmerizing to behold – I don’t care how stiff the competition was, this guy was ROBBED of an Oscar nomination. I don’t want to spoil the plot to Blue Ruin, but I’ll allow that it’s a “man on a mission” narrative that gets turned upside down due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, each escalating in violence, and culminating in an extra fierce finale. This is a dangerous, all-consuming work, strangely beautiful, and horrifyingly bloody. I loved all 90, ultra-precise moments, and along with Ben Wheatley, Saulnier is one of the most exciting new voices on the hardcore indie scene.