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.
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.