Archive for the Thriller Category

Blue Ruin

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller on February 7, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Blue Ruin photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBlue Ruin had been on my “movies to see” list for the better part of a year. The American independent debuted at the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film festival in 2013. It later toured the festival circuit where it racked up accolades in the form of positive word-of-mouth.  It got an extremely limited theatrical release coupled with a simultaneous video on demand (VOD) release in April 2014. DVD release followed in July 2014.

Dwight Evans is a sad sack of a man. He starts off looking like a homeless vagrant. Perhaps a “beach bum” is a more poetic way of describing his situation. He sleeps in a “blue ruin” of a car – a broken down old Pontiac Bonneville. Actor Macon Blair is Dwight, an unknown lead chosen because of his longtime friendship with the director since childhood. That’s not to say the unassuming fellow isn’t well cast because those unpolished qualities perfectly define this character. As the chronicle develops we realize there is much more to this man than meets the eye. For long stretches of this efficient 90 minute thriller, it’s virtually dialogue free. Blair is given some horrific news and he decides to act on this information. He’s a shell of a man, and so we can’t help but care.

A straightforward account of getting even is all this is but it’s imbued with such humanity. We are emotionally wrapped up in the stakes. How will Dwight accomplish what he wants? Can he get away with it? Will he survive? Much has been written about this classic tale of revenge from movie pundits. Some going so far as to mention director Jeremy Saulnier in the same breath as the Coen Brothers. There’s certainly a similarity with the Coens’ debut Blood Simple – that is, extracting dark comedy from a criminal plot. His plan goes horribly wrong in every way that a plan can go wrong. For example, he slashes the tires of his enemy’s car then realizes he must steal that car after leaving his keys at the scene of the crime. That’s tragic, but it’s also funny. when Dwight can’t hit a target that is only 2 feet away, it can relieve some of the tension, even in the most intense situations. The production strikes a nice balance between the two.

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier understands the viewer should sympathize with the “hero” in order for us to be invested in his plight. You can appreciate Dwight’s emotionally damaged vagabond. I’m not so sure we should be rooting for him, but we do. He has suffered deeply. Now he is tormented by deep sorrow and so he has our sympathy. Yet his quest is made more captivating in the way it’s told, giving the audience pieces to make us root for the protagonist without really knowing everything. Even by the end, we never really know the complete story, just enough to understand what’s happening in the moment. Bursts of violence are used. Blue Ruin occasionally falls victim to excess. More restraint in the bloodshed department would’ve been appreciated. An extended scene where Macon digs an arrow out of his leg is gratuitous in its desire to shock. Storytelling is a craft. Blue Ruin does indeed have an artistic way of telling an uncomplicated tale. It doesn’t revolutionize the genre. It’s a simple saga, artfully told.

02-04-15

A Most Violent Year

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

A Most Violent Year photo starrating-4stars.jpgA Most Violent Year is similarly titled in the same deceptive way that There Will Be Blood was named. Yes it concerns violent acts but it’s nowhere near as bloody as the crime dramas of Martin Scorsese for example. The setting is New York City 1981.  Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) seeks to expand a struggling oil delivery company. There has been a rash of attacks on his drivers. Thieves are hijacking trucks and stealing the oil. Meanwhile he is trying to secure a loan that will help him grow the business.

There’s a familiarity woven into the production. Abel Morales is a character Al Pacino would have portrayed in the 70s. As his wife Anna Morales, Jessica Chastain is channeling early 80s Michelle Pfeiffer style if not the personality. Alright, I’ll admit I’m alluding to Scarface here, but The Godfather is a reference as well. The production kind of suggests the mob mentality of those films but they’re not a good comparison. A Most Violent Year is actually rather elegant. Oscar Isaac resists the impulse to be a hoodlum, despite the temptation. He understands the mobster lifestyle is the road to hell and opts for legally working within the system to rise above the mire of that behavior. He’s steely calm in the face of crisis. His Brooklyn born wife is another story. Jessica Chastain is more gangster than he is. She’s fantastic in this role. I mean we already know the actress can inhabit a part like few of her generation but she steals the spotlight here. Her delivery of lines like “This was very disrespectful” to David Oyelowo’s district attorney conveys so much with just a wave of her finger. In another sequence, the couple accidentally hit a deer in their car on the way home one evening. Chastain owns that scene too.

That’s not to say that Isaac isn’t her equal. As Abel Morales, he’s a charismatic guy that embodies the idea that “success and prosperity are attainable through hard work, determination, and initiative.” There’s an occasion early in A Most Violent Year when businessman Abel is conferring with one of his drivers Julian (Elyes Gabel). The Spanish speaking man starts to talk in his native tongue and Abel corrects him. “In English” he insists. Later he’s trying to get information from Julian’s wife and the exchange is completely in Spanish. It’s a telling moment. Abel has the ability to speak Spanish but he chooses not to unless it’s absolutely necessary. He has fully bought into the American way of life and assimilated into its culture.

A Most Violent Year is an interesting take on the American Dream. Columbian born Abel Morales is not the stereotypical all American boy next door. With his wavy black hair and dark eyes he rocks a camel-hair topcoat with a suave personality to match. Plus he’s got the work ethic that says he’s going places.  The wardrobe is key – so well dressed. The only thing that rivals Abel’s succession of double breasted suits, is Chastain’s seemingly endless wardrobe of outfits. Just try and watch the couple engage a potential investor at dinner and NOT stare at Anna’s plunging neckline. It complements her personality. What I’m really saying is I love the mood of A Most Violent Year. Along with a haunting score by Alex Ebert, Director J.C. Chandor weaves a deep tale of the American Dream that authentically portrays the time period as if it was genuinely filmed in 1981. Chandor has directed 3 critically acclaimed movies to date, and for my money, this is his most entertaining. If he’s reading, “Keep up the great work!  I can’t wait to see what you do next.”

01-22-15

The Imitation Game

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on December 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Imitation Game photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDear reader, please forgive my opening tangent. On November 9, 2014, Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay ran the field for a 78-yard touchdown pass, then celebrated his win. Only to find he had prematurely dropped the ball on the 1 yard line. Realizing this, Oregon’s Joe Walker of the opposing team, recovered the ball and ran it back in the other direction for a 99-yard touchdown for Oregon. Joy turned to heartbreak is kind of how I felt watching The Imitation Game. The drama is largely a captivating tale that culminates in such an odd way. The denouement rendered a seemingly easy victory into a crushing disappointment.

Recounting Alan Turing’s life is a daunting task. It has been attempted before: a 1996 BBC production starring Derek Jacobi entitled Breaking the Code and 2011’s Codebreaker, a made for TV movie in the UK. Logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist – Alan Turing was a pioneer. His Turing machine was highly influential in the development of the algorithm and modern day computers. The time period is World War II when the allies are desperately trying to intercept and decode German communications. They utilize something called an Enigma machine that scrambles their communications making them undecipherable. Alan is essentially hired to crack to the code so they can better understand what the Axis powers are going to do next. Watching Alan and his team of scholars study messages in a room isn’t exactly the stuff of compelling viewing but director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) makes the code cracking exciting.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing is the portrait of a fascinating individual. However Turing is a bit of an enigma himself. In flashback we get brief glimpses of his schoolboy days where his socially awkward personality doesn’t quite meld with his peers. Yet he is befriended by fellow student Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) and the relationship sheds some light on Turing’s identity. His antisocial nature carries over into adulthood when dealing with his fellow mathematicians. They’re tasked with breaking the Enigma code. Turing contacts Winston Churchill who places him in charge of the group and then Turning promptly fires two members.  His stumbling association with his remaining peers (Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech) provide a lot of interesting interactions that help us understand Alan Turing, the man. It’s this time at Bletchley Park, the British World War II code breaking station, that the production really takes off. Many of their advances were accomplished under such secrecy that it would be years before the world was made aware of their contributions to the war effort. Alan Turing is a conflicted man and Cumberbatch portrays the nuances of a complicated individual. Keira Knightly is a delight as the only girl on the team. Her considerable warmth is a nice counterpoint to Turing’s troubled disposition. His relationship to his superior, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), is decidedly more tense but the back and forth between him and the prickly Commander provides some of the most delightfully satisfying moments.

The Imitation Game is 3/4 of an extremely entertaining biography. The last half hour gives us a hurried peek into the concluding events of his life. The movie I saw was 1 hour 54 minutes but the final quarter was so rushed it had me thinking the projectionist forgot to load a reel of film. One minute Turing is being lionized for having made “the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.” The next minute he’s being arrested on charges of “gross indecency” due to his homosexuality. From hero to outcast in ostensibly minutes. A title card during the epilogue hastily informs us of the circumstances surrounding his death. Talk about abrupt endings. We’re left wondering why the complete 180 from the government with regards to all his tireless work. Unfortunately the script doesn’t delve into these latter day developments. For most of the run time, The Imitation Game remains a highly polished, beautifully acted picture. That mystifying resolution though. It’s such a supremely frustrating experience. Unfortunately we walk away with more questions than answers.

12-16-14

The Babadook

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on December 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Babadook photo starrating-5stars.jpg“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” That odd sentence launches the scariest children’s picture book I have ever seen. The edition appears rather mysteriously on a shelf in little Sam’s bedroom. He brings the dark red volume to his mom to read one night after she encourages him to pick a bedtime story. It’s about a mysterious man in a top hat that will terrorize you the more you deny his presence. As she turns the pages the images literarily leap from the text. No paranormal trickery here. It’s merely a pop-up, but the black, white and gray illustrations are tactile and thick. Given their rudimentary shapes, the pictures are as if rendered by a youngster. This only heightens their ability to convey dread. They haunted me in a way I’ve never experienced. A book lying on your doorstep isn’t scary in and of itself, but in this film it’s alarming.

The chronicle appropriates standard horror tropes (i.e. the boogeyman, child in peril, dark spaces, flickering lights) but utilizes them to suit a tale that feels fresh. Amelia’s husband died tragically in car accident many years ago. However his death continues to linger on. Amelia is a single mother raising their now 6 year old son Samuel. He seems to have an overactive imagination. He’s constantly plagued by visions of an imaginary monster. His teachers are exasperated by his conduct. He has been a disruptive presence at school but this has also been a problem at home – particularly at night when he has difficulty sleeping. He has even gone so far as to build homemade weapons to protect himself and his mother.

The Babadook doesn’t rely on lazy scares by ratcheting up the soundtrack with loud sounds. Nor does it capitalize on disgusting sights. It intelligently exploits our anxieties and the unknown. I felt physically uneasy by the time we reached the climax. In that style, one influence on the movie might be Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. A lot of themes are addressed. There’s the obvious ghostly terror of the Babadook – this shadowy figure that is terrifying in the manner he‘s depicted. But there’s this mother child relationship as well. They form a strong bond throughout the picture. She is raising a son (Noah Wiseman) that exhibits some behavioral problems. Meanwhile the boy is trying to guard his mother from supernatural forces that threaten her. Their relationship forms an underlying subtext that elevates this drama to something deep and poignant. Both of the principals are exceptional but Australian stage actress Essie Davis is a revelation. Her emotionally powerful portrayal as Amelia, his mother, compares favorably with great horror performances from Mia Farrow and Ellen Burstyn. I didn’t expect to actually be moved by the events of the plot, but that’s exactly what happened. The Babadook is a film that ranks high with the very best of the genre.

12-01-14

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Posted in Horror, Romance, Thriller with tags on November 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is unlike any Iranian film you‘ve ever seen. At first, you wonder what bizarre cosmic alignment has allowed this artfully constructed, but distinctly subversive picture to be made. I mean it’s not exactly something you’d expect to pass the censors in that country. As a matter of fact, the production did NOT originate in Iran but rather the U.S., specifically California. Yet the dialogue is in Farsi and features a cast and crew made up of the extensive Iranian expatriate community in the Los Angeles area.

The setting is Iran in the fictional town of Bad City. With a name like that, I suppose one can debate the allegorical overtones. With its arid landscape broken up by oil fields, it a desolate place. It is a world populated by pimps and addicts. Ah but it is the romantics that are the heroes.  Arash (Arash Marandi) drives a’57 Thunderbird and lives with his father. With his white t-shirt, jeans, tousled hair and brooding intensity, the guy suggests James Dean. Also living in the town is a woman known simply as The Girl (Sheila Vand). She is a mysterious young lady and only goes out when it gets dark – sort of a vigilante out for justice. At home she listens to new wave music and decorates her bedroom with a mirrored ball suspended from the ceiling. Look closely and you’ll notice posters of Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Bee Gees on the walls. In this environment The Girl looks like any other of her age, but when she slips on her chador and goes out at night, she has a much more eerie presence.

The eclectic indie rock soundtrack is an important part of the mood. It plays throughout the entire story. An Ennio Morricone-like score is courtesy of the Portland band Federale. The group provides selections that wouldn‘t sound out of place in a Sergio Leone movie. Underground Iranian bands like Kiosk and Radio Tehran are included as well alongside White Lies, a UK band.  Their 2008 synthpop song “Death” is used to underscore a tender kiss in one hypnotic scene.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a cinematic blending of influences as disparate as spaghetti westerns, vampire flicks, graphic novels and feminist ideology. At times the production reminded me of an earlier release this year, Only Lovers Left Alive. Indeed Jim Jarmusch is clearly an idol of director Ana Lily Amirpour, but so is David Lynch with his nonsensical narratives. The bare bones plot and black and white cinematography support the comparison. Occasionally the creation comes across as a bit of an appropriation. However Amirpour melds the inspirations in a way that cherishes them while creating something new. The first-generation Iranian grew up in Bakersfield, California where most of this was shot. The formula is equally shaped by her ancestral background as it is by her studies at UCLA film school. Her unique point of view signals the arrival of an exciting new talent to watch. Granted the plot can just seem weird without a clear purpose. It doesn’t always makes sense, but then what feminist Iranian vampire western does anyway?

11-23-14

Nightcrawler

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on November 3, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Nightcrawler photo starrating-5stars.jpgWhen film historians look back on the career of Jake Gyllenhaal, his portrayal of Lou Bloom will always be a role that is mentioned. He is nothing less than extraordinary in Nightcrawler. Like on the level of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver kind of incredible. Now this is a bold pronouncement because as I write this, the movie has only been out three days, but I am confident in making this declaration. He’s that good.

Director Dan Gilroy’s drama is surprisingly complex for a first time director. Heretofore he has been a writer (The Fall, Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy) but none of the aforementioned work could’ve prepared me for the flawless execution of his directorial debut. Based on the title and the release date, Nightcrawler sounds like a horror film about killer earthworms that come out at night to feed on human flesh. It’s funny because I didn’t realize how eerily close in spirit that description really was. Lou Bloom is a petty thief and a loser at the moment. But he’s a driven young man who knows how to take advantage of a situation. While out driving at night looking for opportunities to make money, he comes across some cops assisting people trapped in a flaming car on the side of the road. Also at the scene is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) a man who videos violent incidents at night for profit – sort of an independent agent for local news programs that need footage. Lou gets an idea. With the money he receives from a stolen bike, he buys a camcorder and a police scanner. His latest scheme is born.

The drama achieves so much in the span of 117 minutes. It’s a brilliant meditation on an individual who has always lived on the fringes of society. Jake Gyllenhaal is Oscar worthy as the small-time criminal desperate to make a quick buck with his videos of accidents, fires and other violence. But he is not the only fascinating individual. Riz Ahmed is Rick, a destitute man with no job experience who is hired as his assistant, although exploited is a more apt description. Rick’s story is exceptionally emotional for a mere side character. Things change when Lou meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo, the director’s wife) a TV news director. Russo is memorable in a welcome return to her juiciest part since The Thomas Crown Affair. Her career lives and dies by ratings. Violent crime in wealthy suburban areas is her preference and she makes no bones about it. She is a piece of work. In that capacity the script also serves as a scathing attack on sensationalized tabloid news journalism.

First and foremost, Nightcrawler is a compelling character study. Jake Gyllenhaal manages to embody a thoroughly loathsome but intriguing character that you cannot look away from. He’s got nerve. He talks with a calm reserve even when he’s saying something rather disturbing. He’s creepy to make people uneasy and yet he’s driven by a plucky resourcefulness that‘s somewhat admirable. Although let‘s be clear, he’s insane. They should lock him up and throw away the key. The usually robust actor lost 30 lbs to appear more gaunt in the role. He also grew his hair out into an oily mane. Certainly the execution in his performance is his greatest achievement, but his appearance has the effect of physically transforming him into a completely different person. Perhaps Nightcrawler’s greatest accomplishment is to educate us in the ways of a sociopath. He makes us understand how that quiet, nice boy who was so polite, is capable of such evil.

10-31-14

Gone Girl

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on October 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gone Girl photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgFor those unfamiliar with my reviews. I do NOT reveal spoilers. Never have and I never will. And let me tell you, if ever there was a production that could be ruined by the reveal of pivotal developments, it’s this picture. Rest assured the review that follows will only affirm that there are plot twists that make Gone Girl exceptionally engrossing. What those developments are will remain a mystery. The discovery of those surprises constitute the joy of an exciting thriller.

At its core, Gone Girl is about the union of two people. It concerns Nick and Amy Dunne, a pair who met, courted each other and fell in love. Theirs was a storybook romance. But as any married couple will attest, marriage isn‘t all smooth sailing. Life gets difficult when both Nick and Amy lose their jobs. Then Nick’s mother is diagnosed with cancer. In order to care for his mom, they move from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the sedate existence of Nick’s hometown in North Carthage, Missouri. Relying on Amy’s trust fund, they buy a bar which eats up more of their money than it earns. Nick seeks solace in an affair. He’s the classic example of the philandering husband. Nick is growing increasingly miserable and Amy subsequently fears for her safety. When the tragedy begins, Amy is already gone. We learn this in flashback. For you see, on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne returns home to find a smashed coffee table and a missing wife. The police are called in only to discover a perplexing crime scene that solicits more questions than it answers.

Anyone who was living in the U.S. and old enough to remember 2003 will make the connection. One can easily point to the Scott Petersen case as a possible real life inspiration for this chronicle. Scott and Laci were an attractive couple in their late 20s that appeared to be in love. Laci disappeared on December 24, 2002. At first, he was a sympathetic individual. Then he grew seemingly more insensitive. His reluctance to talk to the press fueled a disinterred persona that turned him into a public pariah. His numerous extramarital affairs would later surface. She was eight months pregnant with their unborn child. Scott was charged and ultimately convicted of murdering his wife and their unborn son.

The Gone Girl ensemble mesh like the movement of a precision timepiece. There’s no denying that Ben Affleck is perfectly cast as the lunkheaded doofus of a husband. He’s a douchebag that is more concerned with preserving his own skin than the welfare of his wife. His glib behavior reads as insincere. He maintains he didn’t kill his wife.  The evidence starts to prove otherwise.  The very first line of the film is a voiceover that states he’d like to bash her head in and pick her brain apart to see what secrets come spilling out. As remarkable as he and the rest of the male company are, it’s the women who truly shine in Gone Girl.

Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy signals the arrival of a star. Until now, she was probably best known as Bond girl Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002). Using the pages of her diary, we flash back to a time before her disappearance. She is the central focus of the production. She’s beautiful and so we’re initially drawn to her for superficial reasons. Then we question our own perceptions. She exhibits a bit of the ice queen mentality. She is a complex person that becomes more fascinating the deeper we get into the details. Rosamund embodies Amy as a woman losing her handle on a situation and then regaining it. We feel sorry for her, then we hate her, we sympathize again, then we are disgusted. Back and forth over and over. It’s a dizzying balancing act that makes her an endlessly compelling personality.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with so many formidable women in key roles. Actress Kim Dickens is Detective Rhonda Boney, the person entrusted with investigating the disappearance of Amy. A suspicious cop, her scenes where she interacts with Ben Affleck accentuates an intelligent mastery of control of the situation.  She’s joined by Detective Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) but she’s clearly in charge. Then there’s Margo. Nick’s wise-alecky twin sister whom he affectionately calls Go. A rather sarcastic type, she is brilliantly played by Carrie Coon. As his twin, Margo is 100% devoted to her brother. Perhaps blinded by their familial bond, she believes him implicitly. They are extremely close. So close in fact that their relationship is misrepresented as “twincest” by a flippant news media. Then his infidelity surfaces and her doubt multiplies ten-fold.

At heart Gone Girl is a marriage fable. But this isn’t the fantasy of an idealized romance. It’s the tale of the institution as a prison. A jail that locks two people in a dungeon of souls desiring to break free. The dialogue attempts to present both sides of their failed union. It’s a he said/she said account. If the saga has a failing, it’s that the portrait of their artificial wedded bliss seems to favor Nick’s side to the detriment of Amy. The script raises some red flags. The narrative elucidates his motivations more clearly than hers.  It doesn’t make the drama any less imperative. It’s still a crackerjack thriller.  It also has some salient points to make about the role the scandal obsessed television plays in the presentation of a prefabricated tale of consumption for the masses. Talking head tabloid reporters are epitomized by Sela Ward and Missi Pyle. The latter’s character is amusingly pattered after Nancy Grace. The two actresses are extraordinarily good in minor parts. The lie and the truth are simply ideas that the news manipulates to create a shared perception for the masses. This theme infuses the storyline throughout her entire picture. What initially appears to be important is made irrelevant. What seems insignificant is made crucial. The reality is always deeper than what is readily apparent. Gone Girl highlights this fact. And by doing so, not only entertains, but also educates us in how truth is merely a moldable concept of the modern media age.

10-02-14

The Equalizer

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on October 1, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Equalizer photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe film adaptation of The Equalizer is a outdated remnant from a bygone era. For starters, the movie is based on an American TV show which debuted way back in the Fall 1985. It ran for four seasons and starred British actor Edward Woodward. However the trappings have more in common with cinematic action hero tropes of the 80s than it does with the less graphic CBS series. The protagonist is a one man army against insurmountable odds. This man possesses a godlike dexterity for fighting. He dismantles the entire East Coast Russian underworld with surprising ease. Stepping into Woodward’s badass shoes is Denzel Washington. Denzel is basically Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II or Arnold in Commando. Apparently 1985 was the high point for this sort of thing. Those flicks, like the TV drama, all came out that year.

After a very slow beginning, The Equalizer takes off when a young prostitute named Terri is assaulted by the Russian mobsters who run a human trafficking ring. This gives our lead a reason to, you know like, actually do something. But the way the scenario plays out is by the numbers as well. The plot is so been there, done that. Denzel Washington is Robert McCall, a middle aged retired intelligence officer who helps people in trouble, in particular an underage girl played by Chloë Grace Moretz. Their relationship and McCall’s personality bring to mind Taxi Driver (1976), Léon: The Professional (1994) and even Denzel’s own Man on Fire (2004) at various points in the narrative. It’s hard not to feel director Antoine Fuqua’s effort is cobbled together from the generic story threads of half a dozen other films.

Denzel Washington plays a man of few words. His roles often have a self righteous quality that invests his individuals with an air of moral superiority. He is supposed to register steely resolve but he’s so unexcitable he’s practically catatonic.  After various captives witness his superhuman abilities, they inevitably ask, “Who are you?”  If this was Arnold circa 1985, he’d quip “I’m the Equalizer!” in a thick Austrian accent. But Denzel seems to just quietly ignore the question time and again.  The third time the question is asked, it’s almost comical.  McCall has always meted out harsh justice as a last resort, but by the end, he is simply out for vengeance. The climatic showdown takes place in a Home Depot-like warehouse. He exhibits a cruelly sadistic streak that takes down his enemies in a vigilante revenge fantasy. There’s a way to put someone out of commission efficiently without resorting to sadism but his creative uses for hardware equipment are barbaric. As he preyed upon the villians in the dark, I felt I was watching a slasher film. You know things have gone horribly wrong when you start to feel sorry for the bad guys.

09-28-14

The Maze Runner

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on September 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Maze Runner photo starrating-2stars.jpgThomas (Dylan O’Brien ) wakes up in a mysterious community of teenaged boys with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. He soon learns he is in The Glade, a habitat surrounded by a massive maze. Every teen (known as a Glader) has been entrusted with an important purpose within the colony, not the least of which is the Runner. These are the people who explore the Maze in an effort to map a way out of the tiny territory in which they are trapped. Complicating matters are large mechanical spider-like creatures they call Grievers which patrol the maze making escape even harder.

With one exception, all the adolescents look like they are on special diets, work out constantly to maintain a lean frame and have less than 15% body fat. I happen to know The Maze Runner was shot in Baton Rouge, LA, but it feels more like that other LA in California. There’s one departure from the standard selections from Central Casting – a chubby boy named Chuck (Blake Cooper) who, with his more unique appearance, becomes the most interesting personality by default. Oh but brace yourself because his story arc is extremely frustrating. The guys appear to represent ethnicities from every corner of the globe, yet all speak with an American accent. Again there’s one deviation, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who’s like the second in command. Everyone sports nicely coifed hair and clean casual wear that is tailored to fit perfectly. I wouldn’t have noticed any of this had the drama been more compelling. Sadly when the only narrative is simply “boys vs. mechanical monsters”, your mind tends to deliberate over the peculiarities of the film.

The Maze Runner starts out mildly intriguing. The set up is curious enough that we want to see how things will develop. These youths in the wild get along pretty well for the most part. Everybody seems cool with the distribution of tasks, with sole objections coming from Gally (Will Poulter). It’s a variation of Lord of the Flies minus the commentary that made that novel interesting, the idea that man is inherently barbaric. Unfortunately more substance is sorely needed. As the saga progresses, it doesn’t really develop into anything at all. By the end we’re left with a supremely unsatisfying ending that basically says, this is only the beginning. Stay tuned for the sequel: The Scorch Trials. This adaptation is based on the teen lit bestseller by James Dashner. To the uninitiated, it’s hard to understand how this flimsy plot could sustain an entire book.  In fact, it was so popular he wrote 3 sequels.  Readers that can fill in the many unexplained details, will surely enjoy this more. Not having read the text, the movie could barely hold my attention for part 1, so part 2? Uh no thanks. The thought is anything but a-MAZE-zing.

09-21-14

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Posted in Crime, Film Noir, Thriller with tags on August 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For photo starrating-1star.jpgIn 1917 artist Marcel Duchamp took a readymade porcelain urinal signed it “R.Mutt” and submitted it for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists. It was a controversial idea whose influence is still discussed today. Now I’m not here to take Duchamp to task for his questionable objet d’art. Nevertheless it would seem to me that beneath this move there had to exist at least a modicum of contempt either for art or the audience or both. As I sat watching Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, this idea filtered through my mind. Duchamp appropriated a urinal as art much in the same manner that Frank Miller appropriates film noir as a movie.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the disastrous sequel to 2005’s Sin City, a successful neo noir thriller. It beautifully captured the look of a comic book. A Dame to Kill For is stylistically impressive as well. But it’s so utterly bereft of substance, as to offend the basic requirements of storytelling. This perverts the very idea of entertainment.  The narrative’s fetishizing of violence and sex would be downright pernicious if it wasn‘t so ineffectual and awkward.  Miller conveys style and visual aesthetic, but not heart.  Granted, the measure of good taste is subjective. Let’s set aside the extreme level of violence for a moment. There is no story. Just a compilation of shooting, stabbing, slicing and dicing. The misdeeds strung together as a pseudo fable that goes absolutely nowhere. It’s disgusting, reprehensible, vulgar, misogynistic and every other negative word you can use in this day and age to describe something without value.

The characters are shockingly devoid of merit, especially for a drama in these “enlightened“ times. Film noir has always highlighted the femme fatale. However these women have little to do other than display their physical attributes. The narrative unrepentantly parades Jessica Alba, Eva Green Jaime King, and Juno Temple through the production like skewered selections by waiters at a Brazilian BBQ. Women are either prostitutes, strippers, or evil temptresses.  At least one gets to be a good luck charm. Rosario Dawson literally wears what looks like metal saucepan lids over her breasts in one scene. Jamie Chung doesn’t even get to speak. Oh but she displays her knife wielding skills. Can I re-emphasize the violence? The unending obliteration of human beings is gruesome. It’s like watching a chef at Benihana chop up various meats and vegetables for 102 minutes and then calling it a drama. The men aren’t any more carefully drawn either. Their lack of humanity is disheartening. These guys are rotten to the core. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is just a body to destroy. He serves no purpose. For the first 10 minutes, I marveled at the visual style. It’s remarkable, but soon after the ugliness beneath the production seeps through and overstays its welcome fast.

08-27-14

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