Archive for the Thriller Category

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

A Most Wanted Man

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on July 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Most Wanted Man photo starrating-3stars.jpgA Most Wanted Man is a dense, elaborate adaptation of the 2008 John le Carré espionage novel of the same name. The particularly timely subject matter concerns The War on Terror but the film will probably be best remembered as the final starring screen role of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not surprisingly he turns in another stellar performance. He is truly missed.

As in all John le Carré novels everyone has an important part in the wide-ranging chronicle. The real focus of our tale is one Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant who seeks asylum in Germany after he is half beaten to death. As the son of a notorious Muslim terrorist he is heir to his father‘s wealth. The authorities have labeled him a militant jihadist as well. However his true allegiances are still a bit of an enigma. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann a German counterterrorist expert based in Hamburg. He heads up a secret intelligence team working within the Islamic community to stop radical organizations. He’s a hard drinking, unkempt sort, disheartened by his life experiences. Yet he remains an intelligent man guided by principle. He is still willing to pause and see the big picture first before rushing in to act. Rachel McAdams is Annabel Richter, a young German human rights attorney. She’s an altruistic type fighting in the interest of the downtrodden. Nonetheless, in Bachmann’s eyes she’s a social worker for terrorists. Also a foil to Bachman is corrupt British banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) whose bank holds the fortune of Karpov’s father. Brue forms an association with Annabel and these two comprise a coalition of sorts with Karpov.

There are no good guys in A Most Wanted Man. There are decent people, yes, but they’re caught up in a maze of moral ambiguities that can compromise their ethics. It’s a dreary but well acted critique concerning a global military campaign in a post 9/11 world. The saga is highlighted by a plethora of memorable characters beautifully rendered with studious care as layered personalities. Like a chess game you never know what one person’s next move will be. The sympathetic becomes insensitive, the heartless becomes merciful. Everything comes to head when the rival spies of Germany, England and America converge in a climax that literally involves a man initialing papers at a desk. Of course the issue being addressed is deeper than that, but like most John le Carré stories, the narrative remains emotionally cold and the milieu is bleak. It succeeds despite an overworked set up that somewhat wanes in the middle. For a movie that runs over two hours, not a whole lot happens to be quite honest. At times it’s an indictment of bureaucratic incompetence. Nevertheless this carefully modulated character study ultimately ends on a powerful note.

07-30-14

Lucy

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on July 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Lucy photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Plot: “Lucy wishes to be part of Ricky’s act at the club but he forbids it, so she disguises herself to get into the show.”

Of course I’m kidding.  That’s obviously a description of the very amusing 50s sitcom I Love Lucy.  However Lucy the movie, the latest sci-fi offering from director Luc Besson, is no less funny, but unintentionally so. Our heroine starts out as a blonde bimbo. An American woman who just wants to have fun while living and studying in Taipei, Taiwan. The gratuitous setting ostensibly for no other reason than it affords the cinematographer lots of cool shots of Taipei 101, which up until 2010, was the tallest building in the world. Her boyfriend, looking like a Bono wannabe with yellow wraparound shades and cowboy hat, is Danish actor Pilou Asbæk.  They’ve only been dating for a week. Now he’s tricked her into becoming a drug mule for his employer, a fearsome Korean gangster named Mr. Jang. Scenes of thugs congregating are awkwardly juxtaposed with nature footage of a cheetah stalking a gazelle on the African veld. Actor Choi Min-sik relishes his role. He shoots a guy for laughing. The way he strikes a paralyzing fear into the hearts of everyone around him is kind of amusing. Lucy is subsequently knocked out and a highly valuable synthetic pharmaceutical called CPH4 is placed in her stomach. The bright blue gravel looks like something with which you’d line an aquarium floor. While imprisoned, one of Lucy’s captors kicks her in the stomach causing the bag to leak which releases the mind enhancing superdrug into her system.

I suppose I can suspend disbelief and accept that this stimulant has crazy mind altering capabilities, but the drug is so potent, her aptitude qualifies as an unfair advantage. She has the powers of a god. Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) is introduced at this juncture giving a lecture on brain capacity to his students likewise bringing the audience up to speed as well. He explains that if humans could exceed beyond their mere 10% brain usage, they would either choose immortality or reproduction. A clip is shown of every species imaginable copulating at this point, just in case we’re unclear as to how animals get busy. Here’s about where the narrative really gets stupid, i.e. so ridiculous it‘s a joke. On each occasion her mental capacity expands, the screen goes black and a big white numerical percentage notifies us how much of her brain she is now using. We start at 10% then 20 on to 30 and so forth. As the movie plays out the numbers advance speedily the closer she nears 100%. She begins acquiring increasingly powerful mental talents and enhanced physical potential. She learns and retains huge amounts of data in seconds, absorbs information instantaneously, manipulates objects with her mind. Pain is essentially something she chooses not to feel. Did I mentions she has mastered time travel too?

Now omnipotent, she has a pretty significant advantage against her human antagonists. Her power is absolute but it‘s also laughable. Lucy contacts Professor Norman by manipulating electronics and incongruously appearing on the TV in his hotel room. At the hospital she mentally dismantles and entire room full of armed men with a wave of her fingers. At least she spares the one French policeman out to help her (Amr Waked). In a superhero movie it would take another all powerful entity to stop her, but here no one can possibly confront her abilities. In one particularly emblematic scene, a small army of combatants accost her down a hallway. With a few flicks of her wrist, the attackers are levitated. The thrill of an elaborately choreographed fight scene is neutralized in seconds. Crisis averted but so is the excitement.

Lucy is so ridiculously harebrained, that it becomes a compelling watch, like a train wreck. For about the first third of the film it’s a fairly straightforward woman in peril story. Once Scarlett Johansson ingests the narcotic and she begins to understand how to manipulate its benefits, the saga becomes a superhero movie without a legitimate antagonist. Scarlett Johansson morphs from a trembling airhead into an instinctual killing machine. Her voice becomes a robotic monotone to boot. Apparently only stupid people show emotion. I kept wondering when someone else would simply take the same drug so they could oppose her on the same level playing field. Alas no one seemed to figure that out. That lack of sense ironically accords with everything else in this loopy film. The script lazily sets up a far fetched premise without even trying to explain why it would work.

As her intellect grows so does the ludicrousness of the story. There’s a moment where Lucy pages through time with her hands like she’s playing a Dance Central video game. We watch her zip from Paris to New York’s Times Square as the site transforms through various eras. While wearing Louboutins and a sexy black mini, she ultimately has an awkward meet and greet in the Jurassic era with Lucy the Australopithecus.  Yes, I’m talking about the first hominid. Then they touch fingers like when God created Adam à la Michelangelo. I laughed so hard I cried. It’s an efficient little thriller too. The whole thing clocks in at just 90 minutes. A trippy dippy delight along the enjoyable nonsense of concoctions like Congo and Anaconda. Lucy is not good in the traditional sense, but it is hilariously nonsensical in spite of itself. This is pure camp and on that level, it qualifies as an entertaining movie.

Snowpiercer

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Snowpiercer photo starrating-5stars.jpgSnowpiercer is a work of art. A genre busting, amalgamation of action, drama and science fiction, that seamlessly weaves the qualities of disparate styles into an epic tale about a speeding train. The only survivor left on earth are the passengers on a massive locomotive that holds the sum total of all humanity in a climate controlled environment. Like a speeding bullet, it stops for nothing, circumnavigating the entire globe at one complete revolution per year. It hurtles down a track at lightning speeds across a world engulfed in an icy tundra. Snowpiercer is the first English language film from Bong Joon-ho. Savvy art house crowds might remember him as the director of The Host, a Korean monster-movie hit that was released in the U.S. back in 2007. That presaged a talent to watch but nothing could have prepared audiences for this masterpiece.

Working from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Joon-ho Bong co-writes a screenplay with Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Together they fashion a post apocalyptic sci-fi dystopian drama. I know what you’re thinking. Those are a dime a dozen these days. But Snowpiercer is different. Powered by a perpetual motion engine, the locomotive holds humanity in its entirety, delineating the world according to class and rank. This caste system on the train is a visually rendered geometric plane of various cars that extends in 2 directions. In the front we get the elite of society living in luxury. In the very back, we have what you’d called steerage if this was the Titanic. Except the existence of passengers aboard the Snowpiercer is much much worse. They are the proletariat subjected to an oppressive rule that recalls the regime of a dictator. Here is where our impoverished team of protagonists reside. It’s the 2030s. They’ve been captive for 15 years and they’ve had it up to here with their lot in life. Let’s just say, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Snowpiercer is highlighted by a charismatic aggregation of talented actors. Chief among them is Chris Evans as Curtis Everett, an insurgent who leads the uprising. Edgar (Jamie Bell) is his rebellious friend. The elder statesmen of the group is called Gilliam (John Hurt) as in Terry Gilliam, director of Brazil. It’s risky to namecheck the rarefied air of that dystopian classic but Snowpiercer compares favorably. This indigent group also includes Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and Luke Pasqualinoin among others, in key roles that highlight some troubling developments. Along the way their insurrection is aided by Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) a fellow prisoner. He’s the security expert who engineered the doors separating each car. He is joined by his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung). On the opposite side we have Tilda Swinton, a strict disciplinarian tasked with enforcing the rules. She carries out the orders of Wilford, a higher power at the head of the train. A classroom indoctrinating the children in the virtues of the mighty Wilford is a chilling scene of worship and propaganda. Wilford’s control is reminiscent of the cult of a dictatorship. An all powerful person few have seen but everyone fears and respects.

Snowpiercer is a politically provocative ensemble piece of legendary proportions. A parable that manipulates the medium in impressively dynamic ways which captivate the mind while delighting the eye. It’s a production designer’s dream that makes full use of color, mood and style in representing the various rooms within the train. Amidst the futuristic sci-fi effects is a relentlessly sensational, claustrophobic indie about a revolution. Yes the fight for liberty is not an easy one. There will be blood. But it’s never in a gratuitous sense to appeal to bloodthirsty interests. Rather the struggles are a reminder that freedom is a right that many have died for lest ye ever take those blessings for granted. A nightmarish brawl shot entirely in the dark is uncomfortably scary. Snowpiercer is the greatest kind of picture. An intelligent saga of well crafted action that creatively entertains with a loopy imagination. It’s cinematically dazzling with heart pounding excitement. I’m not sure if this is the best film of 2014 yet, but it’s getting pretty close.

06-27-14

Under the Skin

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Under the Skin photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA mysterious young woman drives a van along the Scottish Highlands picking up men. She almost preys on these unassuming blokes, ostensibly for sexual encounters. The conversation always begins with a flirtatious air, an exchange whereby the seductress probes into their lives. Where are you going? Do you have a family? Are you single? A hitchhiker, a clubgoer, a surfer, each male selected is unattached and alone, lured into her van by their own choice where she takes them back to her place. What has the beginnings of an erotic thriller, a woman who adopts a passive demeanor for predatory purposes, transforms into something much different – a surprising chronicle that draws on horror, thriller and sci-fi.

This is an atmospheric mood piece. The narrative drifts at a meditative pace. The woman’s behavior is presented as a series of repetitive actions. The script meanders often without words. There is no explanation, no back-story and little dialogue. The woman rarely talks except in her introductions to the men she meets on the streets of Scotland. I’m told these conversations were unscripted with non-professional actors. An early shot shows the woman shopping, picking out clothes to wear in a store. Hidden cameras were used to film with the locals unaware until after the scene was finished. They certainly have a realistic feel. At times, the visuals are so static and the action so trance-inducing, the picture teeters on the brink of monotony. Forgive me for being vague, but the less details you know, the better. I walked into the theater knowing absolutely nothing other than that Scarlet Johansson was the star. My advice, don’t read any reviews (other than this one). Allow the surprising developments to be discovered as you watch with an unspoiled perspective.

The story isn’t challenging to follow but it does challenge the viewer. Director Jonathan Glazer initially made a name for himself in music videos, notably with Jamiroquai‘s “Virtual Insanity” which won the 1996 MTV Video of the Year award. Glazer isn’t a prolific director with only 3 full length features to his credit. These include both the widely praised Sexy Beast (2000) and the widely panned Birth (2004). The latter was disturbing but in an audacious way. I quite enjoyed its creepiness which shares stylistic similarities and themes with Under the Skin. The work of director Nicolas Roeg is an obvious influence. First-time UK composer Mica Levi’s experimental music score brilliantly adds to the growing tension. The whole production defies convention. Jonathan Glazer is a master craftsman when it comes to assembling a work of art.

There is a quiet beauty in telling a languid story that merely relies on the humanity of real life. Scarlett Johansson disguised in a short wig of jet black hair and pale skin sort of physically recalls silent film star Pola Negri but with a blank slate personality that makes her character oddly unsettling. For most of the muted solitude of the tale, we the audience must infer what the woman is thinking. The events are deceptively spare but in reality a lot of themes are addressed. It’s a meditation that comes to a head when our protagonist ultimately suffers an existential crisis of sorts. The drama explores human emotion in the interactions regarding an enigmatic seducer of various men. Her scenes with actor Adam Pearson are particularly memorable. As she interacts with each individual, their personalities expose aspects of the human condition. In doing so, the picture brilliantly demonstrates the qualities that make human beings so wonderful and what also makes them monsters.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Posted in Action, Adventure, Superhero, Thriller with tags on April 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Captain America: The Winter Soldier photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCaptain America: The Winter Soldier is the 9th installment in the series of superhero films, independently produced by Marvel Studios. The series has been dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its own acronym MCU. There are in fact different phases designed to apparently conquer the movie world (and your wallet). We’re currently in Phase 2 which will culminate with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I’m only mentioning all this because some people take this stuff with a very straight face. The deeper we get into these franchises, the more they demand that you’ve see the others. I’ve seen everything but even my eyes begin to glaze over when actors start tossing around names and organizations like we’re in the middle of a history lesson. I’m just here to watch a fun flick and I’m happy to say that this is indeed an enjoyable picture. The Avengers and Iron Man are better, but it ranks in the top half of the 9 entries thus far.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the events of The Avengers (2012). Following a lot of exposition that extends this movie 16 minutes past the 2 hour sweet spot, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) entrusts Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) with a hard drive containing sensitive information. When he refuses to hand it over to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce.(Robert Redford), Steve is branded an enemy of the very organization he once served. A superhuman agent codenamed the Winter Soldier does Secretary Pierce’s bidding. The Winter Soldier’s identity is a secret so no details on him. Helping Steve get to the bottom things are fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. member Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson / Falcon (Anthony Mackie). They’re both quite good. Scarlett Johansson fetchingly straddles the line between friend and flirt. Anthony Mackie has genuine camaraderie with Chris Evans as Steve’s buddy who he meets while jogging. The three of them joining forces makes this feel sort of like an Avengers movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an entertaining spy thriller. The story includes lots of rousing action sequences . The hand to hand combat scenes draw heavily from martial arts films in the best possible way. The pace is efficient with a narrative that doesn’t disappoint fans looking for excitement featuring people they already know and love. There’s enough human interaction to satisfy those who savor a little character development in their superhero flicks. Occasionally the overly complex story takes itself a bit too seriously. I welcome the humor of Thor. Fan boys will appreciate the reverence, but anyone unfamiliar with the Avengers universe might not be as captivated. Thankfully the tone shines with the occasional witty quips where everyone in the production can simply lighten up.

P.S. Given Marvel’s history, I shouldn’t have to point out that there are mid-credits and post-credits stingers that you should probably stick around for. That is unless that extra large Coke you drank is playing havoc with your bladder.

Enemy

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Enemy photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpg“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”

So begins Enemy, Denis Villeneuve’s confusingly twisty but oh-so-stylish ode to David Lynch. The brew is a head trip of a cocktail that goes down deliciously smooth but will no doubt disorient you for days afterwards. Imbiber beware! It’s a refreshingly tight 90 minutes but has enough style to populate 2 additional movies directed by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg. Its visually stark set design, champagne-hued color palette, cinematography, and score make watching every minute of this little perplexity a cineaste’s delight. By the end, however, I really didn’t know what I had actually witnessed. This will irritate some and enchant others. If you haven’t guessed by now, I happily claim to be a member of the latter group. I totally dug the film.

Enemy was adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Adam Bell, a mild mannered history professor. One day a colleague recommends a movie, which he subsequently rents from a video store soon after. Do those still exist? While watching late at night he notices an anonymous extra in the background that looks eerily like himself. Pausing the frames reveals a similarity that appears identical. Fascinated, he researches the actor and learns his pseudonym is Daniel St. Claire (real name Anthony). The curiosity becomes an obsession as Adam rents the performer’s other films. Next he finds out where Anthony lives. Then Adam uncovers his phone number and calls his home. Anthony’s wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers and mistakes Adam’s voice for her own husband’s. And that is only the beginning.

The whole production has this unrelenting feeling of dread. There’s something sinister looming you can’t quite put your finger on. Enemy plays with the conventions of doppelgangers. Adam Bell is the humdrum one, emotionally distant with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). He teaches history with languid enthusiasm to college students.  Anthony St. Claire on the other hand is more confident. He’s an actor who rides a motorcycle. His wife is expecting. For some reason his existence proves unsettling to Adam’s identity. The atmosphere instills Adam’s discovery with a sense of alarm. The narrative grows more fascinating with each new development.

Director Dennis Villeneuve worked with Jake Gyllenhaal on 2013’s Prisoners. That was a solid Hollywood studio picture, but this little independent is far better because it’s so bizarrely original and unexpected. The Canadian filmmaker knows how to exploit Gyllenhaal’s strengths. Jake gives two powerfully nuanced performances here, each one masterful in their own right. It’s a complicated balancing act because both guys must look identical in every way, yet remain two separate people. Even the physical similarities between the women in their respective lives are uncannily alike as well. An inquiring mind can be a dangerous thing. Adam’s visit to his mother (Isabella Rossellini) provides hazy details to an individuality that feels increasingly threatened. Bits and pieces of evidence of various sorts are offered up to the audience to help formulate an explanation as to what exactly is going on – that opening scene in a nightclub, for example.   You might think you’ve already guessed how it ends. Let me tell you, you aren’t even close.

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