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Are we saving the Galaxy again!!!???
There's no mistaking that the Guardians of the Galaxy films have focused on the family, not necessarily blood relations -- even if one particular character's blood relations have drawn the most curiosity from fans since the first released -- but rather the bond between friends, that familial, tightly knit tie that's stronger than the weapons each guardian wields in their various misadventures in saving the galaxy, all set to a killer soundtrack. Vol. 2 only expands on that sense of connection as it reveals the series' biggest secret to date -- the identity of Peter Quill's father -- that in turn only prompts more questions and, unsurprisingly, a whole lot of wickedly fun action and more great tunes. Though this film isn't quite as narratively fantastic as the original, it's still a joyride of epic proportions, a smart, snazzy, and downright funny film that maintains that perfect elemental balance and delivers what is arguably the most purely enjoyable spectacle film 2017.
The Guardians -- Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) -- have been hired by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), leader of the Sovereign People, to protect their immensely powerful and infinitely valuable batteries. The Guardians' prize is not wealth but rather Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora's sister and a rogue who was captured attempting to steal the batteries. The Guardians are successful in their mission, but sly Rocket pockets some of the batteries for himself. That results in the Sovereign fleet chasing them down and, despite the Guardians' best efforts (and too much testosterone-fueled piloting one-upmanship between Peter and Rocket), forcing them down on Planet Berhert. As Yondu (Michael Rooker) tracks the Guardians under Ayesha's orders, the Guardians meet Ego (Kurt Russell), a man who holds the answer to one of the great secrets of the universe.
Guardians Vol. 2 not only continues the story as it began in the first, it maintains the same boisterous spirit, arguably more critical to the film's success than even any narrative connections or dramatic developments. Few films are so dependent on identity as these, and Director James Gunn, who also helmed the original, never allows the movie to miss a beat, whether in its most insanely over-the-top action scenes, its comical overtones, or its most intimate character moments, all of which often intertwine into the same sequences. Though it may be overlong by a few minutes, it captures that same beat that's partly its heartbeat soundtrack and partly its lifeblood rhythm which comes from the uncannily strong connection shared amongst the cast and the characters they portray that plays right into the franchise's core strength of family. Even as secrets are revealed, new characters are introduced, as humor abounds, as explosions dot the movie's landscape, as character quirks and quips flow like running water, Gunn and company maintain a harmonious, connective balance that through all the bickering, mayhem, reveals, tunes, and trials keeps the movie feeling fresh, invigorating, and always in-tune with its strengths, what its fans want, what its characters and universe need. Few films and franchises come as harmoniously precise as this.
The movie's character-driven heart and its perfectly tuned complimentary soundtrack -- so finely integrated into the movie it's almost a surprise that Cameron Crowe's name isn't in the credits somewhere -- are matched by a barrage of awe-inspiring visuals effects, a seamless blast of intergalactic goodness where every zippy spaceship, weird alien landscape, and fantastic creature isn't just plopped in digitally, they all appear organically integrated one with the other. The film outdoes even its predecessor in terms of scope and digital perfection. There are moments when the artificiality of it all is perceptible, but not particularly bothersome. Given the diversity of the cast and all of the abundant colors and the many supporting practical elements, the viewer never feels overwhelmed even as the movie throws so much stuff onto the screen, even through the most fearsome, chaotic action scenes. Gunn makes sure every shot has a focus, serves a purpose, and that even when visual effects are centre screen, they're not centre emotionally. Truly, all of the complimentary digital bits -- even fully digital characters -- melt into the greater whole as the humour takes hold, the soundtrack takes shape, and the story comes into focus. As with everything else, even when it would seem there's some element that would overwhelm a lesser film, Guardians Vol. 2 manages to maintain harmony from start to finish. It's an incredible technical achievement but even more an incredible thematic achievement, too. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be a smidgen less of a film than its predecessor, but it's still a blast of a movie, telling a quality story supported by seamless visuals, a stellar soundtrack, perfect humour, and more goodness from its terrific ensemble cast. It's the quintessential spectacle film, a near flawless sequel, and promises more epic goodness whenever the Guardians again return to the screen.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Kong...with a personality!!!
With the release of 2014's "Godzilla, instead of costumed superheroes, there was a building-sized creatures unsure if it wanted to tolerate or decimate humankind. From a moneymaking standpoint, it's a tired idea, with seemingly everything open for franchise material these days, and with enthusiasm for monsters, the director has built on best parts of "Godzilla" to inspire "Kong: Skull Island," which turns the tragic super-ape into a ferocious defender of his jungle territory. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts keeps up the pace, but also spends time on his "Apocalypse Now" and "Jurassic Park" fandom, pouring his energy into a lively picture that brings out a fresh side of the titular menace, making the effort less about broken hearts and stunning beauty, and more about pummelling puny invaders.
With the Vietnam War coming to a close, Monarch employee Randa (John Goodman) is itching to check out Skull Island, an uncharted land mass in the South Pacific. Accompanied by scientist Brooks (Corey Hawkins), Randa picks up tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Weaver (Brie Larson) to complete their team, soon joining Army commander Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his soldiers, including Chapman (Tony Kebble), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Slivko (Thomas Mann), and Cole (Shea Whigham), who take to the sky to penetrate Skull Island's storm defense. Entering the wondrous area, the outsiders are immediately confronted by Kong, a monster ape who doesn't take kindly to strangers bombing his area, making a mess out of Packard's men, separating them in the process. As teams of survivors assess their situation, they encounter the strange inhabitants of Skull Island, including Marlow (John C. Reilly), a stranded WWII soldier thrilled to see Americans again, and vicious subterranean beasts waiting for their chance to kill Kong and claim the island.
Nothing tops the first act of "Kong: Skull Island." Vogt-Roberts has a defined vision for his take on monster madness, dialing back the clock to 1973, entering into an era stained by the Vietnam War, with the military machine just beginning the process of winding down. Most of the soldiers are anticipating a return home, eager to get out of combat and restart their lives in America, but there's a final, last-minute mission that needs attention. It's Randa who inspires the trip to Skull Island, manufacturing a geological survey to help secure funding and manpower, finally receiving a chance to step foot on the seemingly forbidden land. Vogt-Roberts energetically builds a team atmosphere in the early going, economically handling characterization and maintaining style (rich, colorful cinematography is provided by the mighty Larry Fong), generating a men-on-a-mission vibe that's goosed by classic rock cuts on the soundtrack and an almost nostalgic view of military procedure, detailing the assembly of helicopters, cynical men, and heavy weaponry.
"Kong: Skull Island" doesn't waste time meeting the titular threat (he shows up in brief prologue that establishes Marlow's residency on the island), but the great ape really jumps into the fray 30 minutes into the movie, welcoming the invading choppers in battle mode, crunching metal and feasting on Army men. Chaos erupts, but Vogt-Roberts keeps everything clear and intense, allowing the audience to study Kong's defensive measures while the screenplay separates the characters into different groups spread out over the island, giving the effort a little more variation when it comes time to tour the alien land. While "Kong: Skull Island" has several subplots to juggle, the most defined is Packard's lust for revenge, taking the loss of life personally, transforming the depressed leader into an Ahab-like hunter who takes on greater danger just for the opportunity to kill Kong.
Marlow eventually re-enters the story, introducing a native civilization the picture does surprisingly little with, and "Kong: Skull Island" settles down, becoming more of an episodic event movie, with the intruders getting a full taste of life on the strange land, which is populated with giant everything, including spiders, water buffalo, and an octopus. Threats are external and internal, but the film slackens some as it rolls to a third act battle, requiring a slightly tighter edit as character bits become superfluous and suspense weakens due to action overkill. It's understandable that Vogt-Roberts doesn't want to leave "Kong: Skull Island" without a full sense of accomplishment, but as the feature works through a two hour run time, storytelling efficiency becomes more prized than another extreme close- up of Kong roaring and beating his chest.
It remains to be seen where the MonsterVerse will end up, but "Kong: Skull Island" is a fine addition to the newfound franchise as a big screen force of nature. It's entertaining escapism with a giddy appreciation for creature violence and thickly sliced human motivation, delivering an idiosyncratic King Kong extravaganza that's different in many ways, while still exploiting traditional monster mayhem.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Best from MCU!!!!
After the rousing success of 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which strived to redefine a problematic superhero in a post-"Avengers" landscape, Marvel Studios sustains the introspective atmosphere for "Captain America: Civil War," expanding on ideas of heroism and responsibility as the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands and costumed crime-fighting becomes ubiquitous in fictional realms and at the local multiplex. Returning directors Anthony and Joe Russo know exactly how to play these characters, building on the "Winter Soldier" success through community inspection while still making time for bulldozing action sequences. Captain America remains the focal point of the movie, but his place as a symbol for freedom feeds into a larger appreciation of heightened abilities and tech, and all the confusion it creates in a paranoid world. "Civil War" teases the Big Ideas while still wholly triumphant as superhero cinema.
Trying to maintain his position as a protector of the innocent, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) leads the Avengers into battle against terrorism, partnering with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Realizing that old friend Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is a HYDRA puppet behind recent unrest around the globe, overseen by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), Rogers hopes to rescue his war buddy, salvaging the humanity that remains within. However, U.S. Secretary of State Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) wants to contain the superhero infestation, introducing a policing agreement known as the Sokovia Accords. While Rogers isn't convinced of the law's purpose, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is, splitting Avenger interests as the heroes figure out their next move, remaining in a holding pattern as Zemo works to divide and conquer.
There's a formula to Marvel movies, and when it works, it's wonderful. "The Winter Soldier" found life in the familiar, delivering a newly empowered Captain America to audiences ready for Rogers to tear off on his own adventure, developing the hero into a battering ram with a conscience, growing aware that the country he represents has been poisoned by corruption. With eyes wide open, Rogers returns to duty in "Civil War," only now he's in a leadership position, tasked with preserving the nobility and power of the Avengers 2.0, guiding a motley crew into battle against evil. The Russo Brothers understand the visual power of Captain America, and they handle action sequences remarkably, this time transforming the titular combat vet into a wrecking ball, ordering up encounters where the character smashes through walls and bowls over baddies, often propelled by Scarlet Witch's magic. The introductory clash between the Avengers and armed goons is a great example of the Russo Brothers and their imagination for Marvel-branded mayhem, adding a variety of superpowers to the mix, amplifying the fury of the team and their uniquely flexible gifts, while Falcon is aided by a loyal drone.
"Civil War" is incredibly exciting and swiftly paced, sustaining the MCU flow despite a roster change, with Thor and Hulk taking a break for their own adventure (due in 2017). Granted, much of the picture plays like an "Avengers" sequel, but the screenplay is careful to maintain concentration on Rogers, who's faced with a challenge to American liberties with the Sokovia Accords and remains troubled by his missing years as a frozen man, experiencing the loss of a loved one that reminds him of his splintered identity. "Civil War" also takes its time with Stark and his concerns, catching up with Iron Man as he's trying to move on with his life, pushing Pepper Potts away and concerning himself with the development of science and tech, funding young geniuses, while taking a special interest in the afterschool activities of Peter Parker (Tom Holland), a particularly clever teen from Queens. Stark is dealing with unresolved grief stemming from the 1991 death of his parents (one of the key mysteries of the film) and his concern that superheroism is out of control, with new combatant Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) joining the battle, finding the vibranium-clad African prince also interested in taking down the Winter Soldier. "Civil War" welcomes an entire justice league, which also includes a few old faces from the MCU, a burgeoning relationship between Vision and Wanda, and maintains a human touch with the return of Sharon (Emily VanCamp), who joins Rogers in his moral quandary, while also adding some warmth in Captain America's newly empty life.
There's a lot for the Russo Brothers to juggle, but "Civil War" never feels heavy or strained, always maintaining momentum, keeping introductions snappy and chases destructive, exploring individual powers and agendas. The story marches all over the globe to provide expanse, but it remains intimate as well, carefully noting the superhero debate and its lasting impact on the future, building tensions to a second act payoff that offers a battle royal between the costumed vigilantes at an airport, feeding into comic book extravagance through competition, watching these ornate characters unload on one another. Surprises are plentiful, humor is maintained, and such amplified combat successfully complicates allegiances, setting up a third act where Rogers and Stark are forced to confront their fierce differences and establish their newfound direction as world leaders seek to control them.
"Civil War" doesn't bring anything significantly different to the MCU, but it doesn't have to. Instead of radically altering narrative directions, it maintains the ongoing evolution of these characters, adding to the engaging soap opera atmosphere with new challenges, darker reflections, stranger characters, and enough dramatic lubrication to feed additional sequels and spin-offs, adding more width to this already gloriously widescreen world.
As the legend goes...
As the big guys and gals of superhero legend slowly wind down their cinematic reign, more obscure characters are now being tested for multiplex domination. "Deadpool," which, according to the film, takes place in the "X-Men" universe, is perhaps the most daring comic book adaptation yet, with the red-suited antihero a troubling figure of cynicism, sarcasm, and murder, with his journey very different from the troubled but noble titans audiences are used to. Instead of soberly working through yet another origin story, "Deadpool" looks to spice up the norm with a freewheeling sense of humour and loads of R-rated mischief, separating itself from the pack. And it's a successful experiment, jazzing up the genre with a blast of unexpected energy from an unlikely source.
A mercenary with a military background, Wade (Ryan Reynolds) makes his living doing odd jobs for people in need, reporting back to his only friend, and Sister Margaret's Bar employee, Weasel (T.J. Miller). Falling in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Wade finds a true connection in his lonely world, making big plans for the future. However, a late-stage cancer diagnosis cuts the party short, putting him in a difficult position of commitment. Leaving Vanessa, Wade signs up with a shadow group dedicated to human experimentation, with Ajax (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano) put in charge of the new recruit's mutant evolution. When Wade is betrayed and fried by Ajax, he begins to plan his ultimate revenge, testing out new self-healing abilities as he works his way up the criminal ladder, followed closely by X-Men members Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who want the new crime-fighter, rechristened Deadpool, to consider a life of heroism.
Deadpool isn't an honourable guy, joining the ranks of comic book characters with less than savoury attributes, graduating to a visual medium that always has trouble with shades of gray when it comes to costumed heroes. However, instead of another sullen war machine in the vein of The Punisher, Deadpool is largely known for his irreverent sense of humor -- as quick with a one-liner as he is with a weapon. This shift in tone benefits "Deadpool" tremendously, especially after Wade's last screen appearance, in 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," treated the goofy brute as a mad science project, scraping off his personality and gluing his lips shut. "Deadpool" rights the big wrong, returning the mercenary to his roots of ultraviolence and pop culture references, giving Reynolds another shot to portray the specialized hunter as he was meant to be played, giving fans of the comic series (which debuted in 1991) an adaptation they deserve.
Despite a substantial amount of CGI utilized to bring Deadpool and his balletic moves to life, Reynolds is the true visual effect of the movie, gamely going wherever director Tim Miller leads. The character is an improvisational machine, with a stream-of- consciousness delivery that's second-nature to the star, who gives Deadpool an impish wit to go along with devastating finishing moves (the picture earns its restricted rating -- it's no family film). He's also a sight in red leather and as Wade, who's covered head-to- toe in horrible scarring, keeping him away from Vanessa. It's an exceptional performance, and while "Deadpool" isn't nearly as funny as it thinks it is, select moments are executed perfectly, with Wade/Deadpool breaking the fourth wall (even messing with the camera), referencing his own tattered screen history (and Reynolds's People Magazine covers), and habitually messing with everyone, including roommate Blind Al (Leslie Uggam), an elderly women who shares a fetish for IKEA products. While there's an agreeable supporting cast, the effort belongs to Reynolds, who's a perfect fit for the material, making Deadpool not only palatable (no small feat), but a real candidate for an ongoing franchise that may one day collide with the "X-Men" all-stars.
Miller (making his directorial debut), does a fine job with expansiveness and storytelling, making "Deadpool" feel big as it jumps around in time, interrupting an opening freeway showdown with flashbacks to Wade's once semi-peaceful life with Vanessa. It's an anarchic movie, but there's something resembling an emotional core with Wade's state of shock over his death sentence, giving the film a touch of sensitivity to go along with all the sliced limbs, self- referential jokes (one punchline features Deadpool questioning which Professor X he'd possibly meet: Patrick Stewart or James McAvoy), and sexual humor. There's a precise atmosphere of rascally behavior presented here, and Miller gets it mostly right, pulling off an impressive helming job that keeps "Deadpool" lively and fierce.
"Deadpool" goes for the big-bang-boom finale, ordering up a showdown of mutant powers, an accidentally exposed breast, and some medium- scale heroics. It carries on for longer than it needs to, but bloat doesn't keep the picture from becoming pure entertainment, always pushing Reynolds in verbal diarrhea mode, with Deadpool's "maximum effort" often devoted to making fun of Ajax's real name. The movie remains down and dirty to the end, but it's never mean-spirited, riding a fine line between parody and purpose. "Deadpool" made not be known to a wider audience, and he's certainly not a courageous figure, but his debut is one of the better ones in the Marvel universe, adding some needed filth to the superhero routine.
The Force Has Awakened!!!
It's been a decade since the release of the last "Star Wars" film, but the "The Force Awakens" isn't very interested in the George Lucas prequels. Instead, the new picture is a continuation of the Original Trilogy, attempting to pick up where 1983's "Return of the Jedi" left off, hoping to rekindle a bit of the old big screen magic with familiar characters and dramatic situations. Co-writer/director J.J. Abrams embarks on a daunting challenge of nostalgia and world- building with the feature, and he's wildly successful with his revival efforts,triumphantly jump-starting the franchise for a fresh round of sequels and spin-offs that hope to play to all ages and degrees of fandom. As a series starter pistol, "The Force Awakens" packs substantial firepower.
Luke Skywalker is missing, creating a disruption in the Force that's allowed the First Order to revive galaxy-controlling ambition left behind by the Empire. Finn is a disillusioned Stormtrooper who's searching for a way out of his murderous duty, eventually meeting with imprisoned Resistance pilot Poe to hatch an escape. Crash- landing on the desert planet Jakku, Finn meets Rey, a scavenger in possession of Poe's droid, BB-8. Teaming up with the isolated but aware young woman,Finn looks to fly far away from the troubles of the universe, only to find himself pulled into the thick of things when the pair encounters Han Solo and Chewbacca, discovering that BB-8 possesses a special map that leads to the whereabouts of Skywalker. Attempting to live up to his duties as a knight of the dark side, Kylo Ren leads a frantic search for the map, joined by First Order commander General Hux, with their evil ways guided by the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Apparently, the grand, Empire-burning celebration encountered at the finale of "Jedi" was short-lived. In the 30 years since the demise of the Emperor, peace was restored and lost by Skywalker, with the First Order and their Nazi-esque ways taking possession of the galaxy, with Hux keeping command of an army of Stormtroopers while Ren makes the mission more personal, attempting to live up to the legacy of his deity, Darth Vader, fighting elements of the light and dark within, making him the most temperamental of the new characters, prone to lightsaber-slashing tantrums (Driver is exceptional here). Ren is the most dynamic character of "The Force Awakens," introduced as a determined foe gradually shaping his evil powers, trying to mimic Vader's presence by donning a cape and menacing mask, while his control of the Force is something to be feared. However, Ren isn't the mystery that drives the screenplay by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, it's the question mark of Luke Skywalker, whose self-imposed exile is the key that unlocks a new wave of players in the "Star Wars" saga.
Finn and Rey represent the next generation of "Star Wars" heroes, with the turncoat Stormtrooper initially trying to save his own skin by escaping from the First Order, while the scavenger is the horizon-gazing dreamer of the movie, left behind on Jakku for reasons that aren't immediately understood, making a life for herself in the middle of nowhere. Their eventual union is the lightning strike Abrams summons to put the story in motion, with the pair exploring strange new worlds as they experience life beyond daily duty, including a high-speed chase through the ruins of Jakku once they come across the Millennium Falcon (which is gifted the best introduction in the picture), taking command of a vessel that's been traded and junked for decades. The characters are wide-eyed and possess surprising skills of survival, with Rey clever and knowledgeable about ships, while Finn is slightly dim and easily overwhelmed, unable to launch himself as the gallant knight he imagines himself to be. The performances are sky- high with earnestness but showcase outstanding charisma, with Ridley emerging as a thrilling screen presence, taking command of the effort with defined spirit and welcome emotion.
The relationship between Rey and Finn forms the foundation of "The Force Awakens," with the twosome experiencing personal tests of bravery and power as they experience several clashes with the First Order. The pair is eventually joined by Solo and Chewbacca, permitting Abrams to indulge long time fans of the series by reuniting with old friends. Thankfully, the scoundrel and the walking carpet are given a few things to do instead of milking the appearance, the screenplay makes Solo an important participant, with his knowledge of what's come before and what lies ahead instructional to Finn and Rey.
"The Force Awakens" is filled with surprises and reunions, with General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) arriving in the film's second half,creating specific tension with Solo as the pair confronts their fractured relationship. Familiar monsters and droids join the festivities, but the picture is careful to introduce a few new characters as well, including Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), a diminutive, 1,000-year-old sage who runs a cantina out of her castle,in possession of Skywalker's old lightsaber, which inspires a mid-movie disturbance in the Force, with some more aware of the powerful energy than others.
However, there is a formula to "The Force Awakens" that might rub some fans the wrong way, with Abrams and Kasdan essentially recycling events from "A New Hope" to inspire the new film. Cynics will likely scoff, but it seems to be a calculated move, trying to realign the franchise with recognizable formula to help launch a modern saga with different participants. The movie certainly ends with a humdinger of a cliffhanger that makes the wait for "Episode VIII" all the more painful. Deja vu is persistent, but Abrams taps into the soul of "Star Wars" with real vigour and an understanding of what made the George Lucas years so special, providing a rollicking adventure that brings back pure escapism, epic visuals, and boldly designed heroes and villains, making the return to a long time ago in a galaxy far, faraway all the more satisfying.
Jack Reacher (2012)
Who the hell is Jack Reacher?
Jack Reacher may a simply-titled tale of a quasi-mysterious lead procedurally solving a crime and getting his hands a bit dirty along the way, but behind the simple premise, and the even simpler title, is a layered and exceptionally well-constructed movie of the sort that really isn't made all that often, one that's as smart as it is slick, one that's as mentally engaging as it is outwardly entertaining. It's a picture that refuses to give in to too much convention, eschewing a typical blockbuster-fiendly approach for a style that's more substance-based than it is concerned with the raw entertainment value of the material, which only enhances the entertainment value at the end of the day. It's a smart thinking man's sort of film, one with robust and beautifully realized action supporting, not supplanting, a layered plot that unravels in a pure, well-conceived "whodunit and why" premise that's fresh rather than flawed, riveting rather than recycled. Based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child, the ninth in the "Reacher" series, the film adaptation surpasses all expectations and should, hopefully and given this film's success, clear the path for future Reacher installments in the near future.
Five people are gunned down on Pittsburgh's North Shore by distant sniper fire. They are long-distance professional hits carried out by a skilled marksman using an M1A rifle and precision self-loaded ammunition. When Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) pulls a quarter from a parking meter near the site of the shootings with a clear fingerprint on it, he believes he's found the killer. Pittsburgh police arrest an Iraq war veteran named James Barr (Joseph Sikora). It seems like an open-and-shut case when he all but confesses to Emerson and District Attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins), but rather than sign the confessional, he asks to see a man named Jack Reacher, a man Emerson and Rodin quickly learn is something of a ghost, a man living largely off the grid and who was once a decorated military veteran and a renowned investigator. The law doesn't even need to seek him out. Reacher presents himself to Emerson and Rodin and meets Barr's attorney and Rodin's daughter, Helen (Rosamund Pike). Reacher and Helen Rodin agree to team up, he looking into the murderer and she into the seemingly random victims. As their investigation furthers, they stumble upon a web of corruption and lies that extend well beyond the suspect.
Jack Reacher's command of the cinema medium and deep understanding of the subtly dramatic is showcased from the film's opening minutes and carries through right on to the end. The dialogue-free open, paired with deliberate, enticing, and anticipatory opening shots command the audience's attention and create more dramatic upheaval and emotional turmoil than often does a lesser-crafted segment that relies more on manufactured energy and faux drama over precision craftsmanship meshed with simple storytelling techniques. The opening sets the scene for an absorbing picture in which truths are revealed in a deliberate yet very well-paced cadence. One truth yields another, another produces more questions, a question might create an action scenario, and so on until the end. It's a story shaped by a keen dramatic style that keeps viewers guessing and never either ahead of or behind the characters. It's not so much that Screenwriter/Director Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun) makes the audience a participant in the film, but he rather unfolds the story in such a way that it remains even on both sides of the screen, one never in a different place along the story line from the other.
The film's opening act sets the dramatic dynamics for what's to come, dynamics that in lesser films would be considered adequate for the climactic resolution and revelation but that here are both only the beginnings of the story rather than its end. As the story furthers, the intrigue intensifies and the action slowly builds towards several remarkably staged action scenes that, like that effective opening sequence, take on a more cinematically reserved approach -- here without music rather than dialogue -- that actually heightens the anticipation and pure effect rather than diminish them. Whether a fistfight midway through between Reacher and two bumbling thugs in a confined space, an almost surreal car chase that rivals anything in Drive from a structural effectiveness perspective, or the climactic shootout that chillingly pulls the audience into the middle of a deadly firefight that shows the effectiveness of focused, hard-hitting realism in Action cinema, Jack Reacher often entrances its audience with its sublimely executed action, the perfect compliment to the film's nail-biting story and deliberate unraveling thereof.
Jack Reacher's blend of quality story and precise technical construction are accentuated by a fantastic lead performance from Tom Cruise. Although not the ideal physical manifestation of Jack Reacher based on the character's written description, Cruise does find the inner Reacher wonderfully, playing the part coolly and effectively with a strikingly efficient outward capability and inward mental prowess. Cruise's verbal quips and quick, on-his-feet thinking manifest naturally, defining the character perhaps even more thoroughly than the fisticuffs and gunplay. Reacher is a different animal than Cruise's Ethan Hunt, not quite so physically gifted as the actor's hallmark multi-film character but certainly someone capable of holding his own in a fight. Reacher is less a superman and more a well-rounded individual, gifted with powers of deduction, insight, quick-thinking, and capable physical stamina. It makes the character more approachable, and Christopher McQuarrie has built the film around the character's strengths rather than make him into some larger-than-life figure that would only yield cheap thrills and a subpar story. The character meshes perfectly with the film's adherence to realism and subtlety. Where the Mission: Impossible films may be more purely Hollywood, Jack Reacher works towards building a more realistic, this- could-happen sort of feel that's very much welcome in this age of cinema-in-overdrive.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
After a three year break to tend to the specifics of these costumed men and women, the A-Team has reunited for "Avengers: Age of Ultron," a darker, more internalized follow-up that still retains all the expected bang and boom. Writer/director Joss Whedon has pulled off an impressive feat here, sustaining the intensity of a ripping adventure yarn while digging into a few of the characters a little more deeply, finding fresh ground to cover in a more satisfying epic.
After taking care of Loki and the Chitauri invasion, the Avengers, including Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), are off to shut down human experimentation efforts from Hydra leader Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who's found two particularly gifted subjects in Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) -- powerful twins out to punish Stark for his war profiteering. Claiming success, the Avengers enjoy a rare moment of peace, only to find their confidence shattered by Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a monstrous robot powered by Stark's unwieldy research into artificial intelligence, where he hoped to retire Iron Man by assembling a robot strike force to protect the innocent. As Ultron grows in power, he recruits Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, with plans to slaughter the Avengers and destroy humankind as a way to create the perfect world order.
In keeping with Marvel momentum, "Age Of Ultron" opens in mid-battle, returning to the individual powers and technologies of the heroes as they steamroll into the Eastern European town of Sokovia, where the last traces of Hydra remain. It's a thunderous sequence, energetically following the team into enemy territory, with fluid CGI and soaring camera-work creating a roll call for the protagonists, watching Thor beat soldiers with his fist and hammer, and Iron Man control the skies with his arsenal and quips. Whedon is terrific with introductions, reviving the feeling of teamwork and power that made the original feature irresistible at times, stepping back to watch this collection of personalities and power crush evil. The story also kicks in immediately, sharing the details of Hydra's secretive mission and renewed interest in the Infinity Gems, while introducing a unique threat in the Scarlet Witch (a master of telekinesis and hypnosis) and Quicksilver (super-speed). It takes Ultron a good 30 minutes to get up and running, yet the sequel is already stuffed with enough information to keep the narrative humming along, waiting patiently for the towering villain.
Born from an A.I. program similar to Stark's J.A.R.V.I.S. system, Ultron takes form as colossal robot, retaining his childlike observance of the world, demanding a fresh start for the mechanical age. Backed by legion of drones, Ultron is a formidable foe, with developing smarts and a curious case of impatience guiding his initial domination. However, while his strength is significant, he needs Scarlet Witch to truly take down the Avengers, with her powers of mental manipulation digging into the fear and confusion the superheroes have kept hidden. This psychological warfare is a major plot point in "Age of Ultron," pinpointing Avenger vulnerabilities in a way they're unprepared for and, for a brute like Hulk, mind manipulation results in destructive puppetry, forcing Iron Man into caretaker mode, with a mid-movie sequence detailing an uncharacteristic fight between the two, with Stark prepared for such a day, suiting up in Hulkbuster armor. Captain America is hit with visions from his past, Thor is handed a strange, apocalyptic puzzle of guilt, and Black Widow is confronted with her traumatic past, trained at a young age to become a killer. The addition of emotional wounds and the way Scarlet Witch accesses them is a welcome opening into the ongoing inspection of Avenger insecurities, adding some substance to the confection, while strengthening the team dynamic as they grow tighter as a security unit.
Warmth is also new to the franchise. In "Age of Ultron," Banner becomes a romantic fixation for Romanoff, with their beauty and the beast pairing giving the heroes something more profound to explore than the simplicity of a haunted past. Instead of indulging the Iron Man Show, Whedon spreads attention around the group, finding a few sweet, mournful beats to play as Banner retreats from his love interest, fearful of the monster he is, while his heart aches for companionship. The miracle of "Age of Ultron" is Hawkeye, watching the oft-maligned character stand upright for change, showing boldness during skirmishes, awareness of his oddity, and domesticity with his secret family. Humanizing this strange addition to the Avengers is Whedon's greatest achievement, giving the character purpose and depth that makes his subplot perhaps to most fulfilling of the bunch. In a picture filled with gargantuan action sequences and world-crushing enemies, the highlight of the sequel is the chance to see Hawkeye hug his wife and children. Whedon is a real superhero for pulling off that trick.
Humor isn't completely scrubbed from "Age of Ultron," which keeps up a rhythm of wisecracks and banter -- even the titular robot overlord is allowed some sarcasm. The scope of the movie is massive, running around the globe to thwart evil, figure out why Ultron is after a shipment of vibranium, and reunite with old friends. Seeds are planted for future chapters in Marvel Cinematic Universe, finding Rogers and Stark developing heated ideological differences as the lure of technology and the demands of safety collide. Whedon doesn't sacrifice the core unit to feed corporate demands, with enough time devoted to heroics and interplay to keep the picture satisfying, giving fans the Avengers dosage they demand. "Age of Ultron" manages to improve on its predecessor in numerous ways, smartly building on its foundation of trial and error.
Beautiful to behold
Christopher Nolan is a director whose name has, quite literally, become synonymous with realism. The Nolanisation of cinema, which made the gloomy streets of Gotham a bridge between the fantastical and the commonplace, now grounds countless fancies within the mud of our reality. With Interstellar, arguably his first 'true' science-fiction project, Nolan inverts expectation once again, with a film rooted in the mundanity of maths homework but spliced with the fantastic. Opening, tellingly, on a dusty model of the shuttle Atlantis, the film's near-future setting sees humanity starving, squalid and devoid of hope. Eking out an existence in a post- millennial Dust Bowl, Matthew McConaughey's Cooper and his two children — ten year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and her older brother Tom (Timothée Chalamet) — lead a life of agrarian survivalism (while, hearteningly, still reading a great many books). But in Cooper we find a new man cut from old cloth: an all-American hero pulled straight from Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff. Played with a drawling, Texan swagger underpinned by startling emotional depth, he is Nolan's most traditional lead to date, embodying the wide- eyed wonder of the director's youth; a man for whom we are "explorers and pioneers, not caretakers", who casts his lot among the stars as the human race's last, best hope. With the ailing Blue Planet left behind, Interstellar shifts smoothly into second gear. The black abyss rolls out like Magellan's Pacific; an unknowable frontier, final in a way that Roddenberry's never was. According to co-producer Kip Thorne, the spherical wormhole (it's three-dimensional, obviously) and the spinning event horizon of the film's black hole (named Gargantua) are mathematically modelled and true to life. Sitting before a 100-foot screen, though, you won't give a toss about equations because Nolan's starscape is the most mesmerising visual of the year. Gargantua is as captivating as it is terrible: an undulating maelstrom of darkness and light. Like the Hubble telescope on an all-night bender, this is space imagined with a dizzying immensity. The planets themselves are no less spectacular. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (replacing Nolan regular Wally Pfister) captures the bleak expanse of southern Iceland as both a watery hell with thousand-foot waves and an icy expanse where even the clouds freeze solid. You'll have to park yourself in front of the biggest screen available to fully appreciate the spectacle. In contrast to the grandeur of space, the ship itself is a scrapyard mutt. Modular and boxy, the Endurance looks like an A-Level CDT workshop, with no hint of aesthetic flourish or extraneous design. Ever the practical filmmaker, Nolan has constructed a functional, utilitarian vessel. Its robotic crew-members, TARS and CASE, are '60s-inspired slabs of chrome; AI encased in LEGO bricks that twist and rearrange to perform complex tasks with minimalist efficiency. Beneath Interstellar's flawless skin, the meat is bloodier and harder to chew. The science comes hard and fast, though Nolans Christopher and Jonah shore up the quantum mechanics with generous expository hand-holding. Astrophysics is the vehicle not the destination, however, and Interstellar's gravitational centre is far more down to Earth. Interstellar scales the heights and plumbs the depths of humanity, pitting the selfish against the selfless, higher morality against survival instinct. As Cooper, scientist Brand (Anne Hathaway) and crew draw closer to their destination, complications require tough decisions; the sanctity of the mission wars with the hope of a return trip. That the undertaking isn't quite as advertised doesn't come as a shock, but the cruelty of the deception lands like a body blow. Nature isn't evil, muses Brand, the only evil in space is what we bring with us. When Interstellar began life back in 2006, Steven Spielberg, not Nolan, was the man in the cockpit; a presence still felt in the relationship between Cooper and Murph. The betrayal of a child abandoned is potent from the outset but the guilt is magnified tenfold when the Endurance's first stop, within the influence of the black hole, means that a few hours stranded planet-side result in two decades passing back on Earth. Cooper's tortured face as he watches his family unspool through 20 years of unanswered video missives is agony, raw and unadorned. Beneath everything else, this is a story about a father and his daughter, the ten-year-old giving way to Jessica Chastain's adult in the blink of a tear-filled eye. With the endless pints of physics chased by shots of moral philosophy, Interstellar can at times feel like a three-year undergraduate course crammed into a three-hour movie. Or, to put it another way, what dinner and a movie with Professor Brian Cox might feel like. The final act compounds the issue, descending into a morass of tesseracts, five-dimensional space and gravitational telephony. It's a dizzying leap from the grounded to the brain- bending that will baffle as many viewers as it inspires. Inception posed questions without clear answers. Interstellar provides all the answers — you just might not understand the question. This is Nolan at his highest-functioning but also his least accessible; a film that eschews conflict for exploration, action for meditation and reflection. This isn't the outer to Inception's inner space (his dreams-within-dreams are airy popcorn-fodder by comparison), but it does wear its smarts just as proudly. Yet for the first time, here Nolan opens his heart as well as his mind. Never a comfortably emotional filmmaker, here he demonstrates a depth of feeling not present in his earlier work. Interstellar is a missive from father to child; a wish to re-instill the wonder of the heavens in a generation for whom the only space is cyber. Anchored in the bottomless depths of paternal love, it's a story about feeling as much as thinking. And if the emotional core is clumsily articulated at times, it's no less powerful for it. Brainy, barmy and beautiful to behold, this is Stephen Hawking's Star Trek: a mind-bending opera of space and time with a soul wrapped up in all the science.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Yeah!!! We are just that...
Up to this point, Marvel Studios didn't have it easy, but they certainly had an advantage. Mining its most popular characters to create a cinematic universe filled with heroes and villains, the fantastic highlights of icons such as Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man filled the screen with familiar moves of derring-do and outrageous power. But now it's time for a change, with the creative team turning their sights on "Guardians of the Galaxy," a relatively unknown property that traditionally earthbound action into deep space. It's a gamble that pays off splendidly for Marvel, who not only strike gold with this oddball collection of adventurers, but manage to create one of the most satisfying pictures of the series.
Abducted from Earth as an emotionally wrecked child, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has transformed into an intergalactic scavenger nicknamed Star-Lord, working for the Ravagers, led by Yondu (Michael Rooker). Coming across an orb that houses a source of unimaginable power, Peter is instantly caught up in trouble when Gamora (Zoe Saldana), adopted daughter of the evil king Thanos (Josh Brolin), sets out to retrieve the discovery, while bounty hunters Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon, and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid, hope to score big by capturing Peter. Soon teamed with Drax (Dave Bautista), a brute out for revenge, the team is forced to work together when a greater threat in Ronan (Lee Pace), a rogue in league with Thanos, arises, out to steal the orb and crush his enemies with assistance from Nebula (Karen Gillan).
While Marvel has become home to unusual creative participants, hiring James Gunn to co- script/direct "Guardians of the Galaxy" is one of their biggest head-scratchers. Gunn bring an unusual sensibility to the project, mixing his love for oddball, Troma-style humor and cinematic textures into a traditional arc of heroism, scored with a tastefully selected mixtape of '70s and '80s rock hits stored on Peter's beloved walkman -- his last connection to a tragic time on Earth, and a personal item he risks his life to protect. While Gunn has the potential to get a little carried away with geek-bait elements, his work here is refreshingly measured and purposed, out to generate a thrilling Marvel adaptation while preserving the idiosyncrasy that separates the Guardians from their more regal brethren. The movie is more comical, taking its lead from Peter's impish sense of humor and the barbed interplay among the characters, allowing Gunn to play to his strengths as a jester while still managing the slightly Lucasian action elevation the rest of the feature embraces wholeheartedly.
Perhaps the biggest question mark of "Guardians of the Galaxy" is its impenetrability, being the first of the films to truly pull from an obscure corner of the comic book realm, steeped in far away worlds, layers of villainy, galactic feuds, alien tech, and complex character connection. Mercifully, Gunn has anticipated such a cross-eyed reaction, and for those who spent their formative years doing something other than reading comic books, "Guardians of the Galaxy" remains blissfully accessible, with clear goals laid out for the crew, while backstories are handled with care, making sure the viewer understands what drives these personalities into battle and why the heroes develop a bond that transforms them into a powerhouse unit. Dramatic lines are distinct, threats are pure, and the emotional fragility of the crew is sincere, working to communicate the pain that drives a curiosity such as Rocket, who's sick of being dismissed as just an animal, or Drax, who's out to slaughter Ronan after the monster killed his wife and child. Gunn and co- screenwriter Nicole Perlman create a vivid realm that's never swallowed by excess, maintaining pace, awe, and excitement while introducing these rascals in a substantial way. This is exactly how a fantasy franchise should be established.
The technical achievements of "Guardians of the Galaxy" are superb, with extraordinary make-up work that provides a semi-practical wonderland of creatures, all rich with textures and detail. Nebula is a particular standout, with her robotic features triumphantly blended with Gillan's human softness. Visual effects are seamless, with Rocket and Groot truly exceptional creations, loaded with personality and fluid movement. In fact, the pair is so much fun to watch, they deserve more screen time in the inevitable sequel, finding the creatures bringing out the best in Cooper and Diesel. Performances are also top-notch, with Pratt agreeably rascally as Peter, remarkably believable in action sequences, and Pace overcoming his normal imprecision to make a mean baddie in Ronan. And Gunn deserves a parade for pulling something substantial out of Bautista, who presents the movie with blunt force and a few askew comedic beats. John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio del Toro (playing The Collector, a flamboyant keeper of intergalactic powers) also make appearances.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" keeps to Marvel traditions, including an enormous, elongated third act showdown between good and evil, helping the film achieve its quota of explosions and panicked reactions. Shockingly, Gunn doesn't lose control of the movie. He digs into the potential of the piece, delivering a rip-roaring space saga with defined punctuation, lovable characters, and a mission that carries through the entire effort. It's balanced work and enormous fun, giving all the brand name superheroes a run for their money now that Marvel has cleared a path for the little guys to shine on the big screen.
Up in the Air (2009)
To know me is to fly me
Up in the Air is a simple movie of simple pleasures but exquisitely crafted and with a moving message on the power of real life to sway even the most ardent of individuals who are married to a job, call a first-class seat a home, and collect not a retirement nest egg but instead a pile of frequent flier miles to come to understand and appreciate the grounded life and all its ups and downs. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has been racking up the frequent flier miles and spending almost 11 months out of the year on the road while working for a firm that sends him to fire employees at various enterprises and industries around the country. He's approaching the magical 10,000,000-mile milestone while living -- and loving -- life out of a suitcase and with nothing to tie him down, a philosophy he teaches at various seminars when he's not ruining people's lives as a career endeavor. During some downtime at an airport, he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a lady who shares his passion for elite status memberships, frequent flier miles, and all things first class. The two engage in a romantic relationship that's dependent on them meeting during their hectic traveling schedules, but their rendezvous are placed in jeopardy when Ryan's Chicago-based company hires young upstart Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) to transition the company from face-to-face firings to web-based terminations. With Ryan's comfortable existence suddenly thrown into chaos, can he find meaning on the ground, in a home, and in the arms of a woman rather than in first class, an airport terminal, and an impersonal hotel room?
Up in the Air is a film that's of a superficially facile feel but it subtly and, sometimes, not-so-subtly, weaves a more involved tale of a man that comes to realize that his perception of the world may not be as cut-and-dry as he believes and, just as pertinent to his life story, has led others to believe. When he's not serving as the bearer of bad news, Ryan delivers a unique brand of motivational speaking, using a backpack filled with the "baggage" of daily life -- people, places, and things -- as a metaphor for an anchor of sorts that ties a man down and keeps him from free roving and fulfilling a greater sense of purpose with an unburdened ease. Ryan practices what he preaches, but his burgeoning relationship with Alex, a sudden jolt to his routine that threatens his very existence as he knows it, and a return trip home to celebrate his sister's marriage allows him to see the world from a perspective that has long since been absent in his life, a vantage point that's no longer obscured by clouds and miles and cards and hotels but captured in a palpable heart and soul, flesh and blood, and perhaps even, ultimately, happiness and fulfillment. Of course, Ryan comes to learn that life isn't always what it seems to be from his perch high atop the world and from the comfort of an American Airlines first-class seat; those things which seem absent from his chaotically-structured existence -- namely hurt and confusion -- exist on the ground floor, but so too, he realizes, do love, honesty, devotion, meaning, morals, and integrity.
Up in the Air posits that while life without pain and with lofty but ultimately empty goals might for a time -- and maybe even a lifetime -- fulfill the voids left by the abandonment of a typically-structured lifestyle, it's the real-world ups and downs that truly satisfy a man. Much like a plane ascends and descends, moves from one location to the next, and rewards those faithful to it, Ryan comes to see that real life offers similar benefits, but ultimately does more to satisfy the soul than does life out of a suitcase, even if, like any given flight, it can be bumpy, delayed, uncomfortable, or maybe even crash and burn. Ryan comes to learn that life isn't about a membership card, frequent flier miles, or an elite traveler status; it's about doing what satisfies a deeper need, even if the pursuit of that satisfaction leads to painful hurts and dreams unrealized.
Director Jason Reitman (Juno), working off a script based on a novel penned by Walter Kirn, delivers a complete movie with themes and drama that come full circle and that offer both light entertainment and, upon further reflection, a deeper examination of life. Clooney's character is the real winner here in that he is readily identifiable as flawed, but not to an extreme that makes the character any lesser of a man. Clooney gives the character a charm and wit that allows the audience to go with the flow and even appreciate and come to admire a man that fires people for a living and lives to love only the number of miles he's racking up. Clooney's character is neither self-centered nor arrogant; he simply is who he is, does his job because he's good at it and not because he necessarily loves doing it, and has fallen into comfort with his lot in life. This is perhaps Clooney's best effort yet, his portrayal of a man that's of many pluses and minuses but nevertheless of sound reason and demeanor, a man that cherishes what he chooses but accepts a changing structure and learns of deeper meanings to life in a plausible manner and without any sort of pandering or phoniness, a credit both to the actor and to the script. Additionally, Vera Farmiga is wonderful in a complex part as the bringer of many of the film's developments, though Anna Kendrick's is a lesser but certainly not ordinary effort as a young woman in search of her place in the real world, a foil of sorts to Clooney's seasoned character who has distanced himself from all that Natalie seeks.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
In 2009, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal hit a career peak with "The Hurt Locker," a searing exploration of wartime strain and its addictive residue. The effort collected awards and Oscar gold, while bringing Bigelow into the big time after years helming cult hits and ambitious misfires. The pair return to the stress factory of the Middle East with "Zero Dark Thirty". A direct and riveting procedural picture with a foray into military action, "Zero Dark Thirty" isolates a fascinating inner drive of revenge to fuel interactions with international terrorism, maintaining a hauntingly personal perspective that burns bright while the screenplay spins a sophisticated web of last names and motivations.
Sent to Pakistan to assist with C.I.A. black site operations dedicated to extracting information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden, Maya has arrived two years after 9/11, finding a bleak location filled with frustrated agents led by Dan, who's mastery of torture tactics has provided few leads. Tasked with bringing bin Laden to justice, Maya begins a near-decade-long journey to piece together any information she can find, while her superiors, including station chief Joseph, grow accustomed to her steely, driven personality. As the years pass, opportunities for breakthroughs in the case are decimated by terrorist violence and detainee silence, leaving Maya increasingly obsessed with capture, eventually isolating herself from those tasked to represent her interests to the White House. As the dead ends pile up, Maya finally digs up a promising lead with an Abbottabad compound home to curiously secretive inhabitants. Certain she's found bin Laden, Maya takes her case to important middlemen, commencing a lengthy process of doubt and debate, with the White House wary of any further embarrassment in the region.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a throwback to the core films of the 1970s, with its cold-blooded approach of details and intrigue. We learn very little about the characters outside of their C.I.A. mission, rarely following them into their personal lives. In fact, Maya doesn't have an existence outside the bin Laden hunt, using her spare time to eat and absorb information, spending her youth on maddening details, approaching her assignment to find the al-Qaeda leader as a religion -- a personal mission that acts as the foundation for "Zero Dark Thirty." While recreations of key terrorist attacks appear and data pertaining to the instability of the region is exhaustively discussed, the feature is not a summation of global terrorism. It merely isolates and studies a single strand of malevolence, concentrating on bin Laden's ability to elude capture and the reach of his influence as those in his command are tracked and tortured inspecting the frustration of impasses and dire developments in the case, without taking on a larger study of fanatical inspiration.
Although the film offers a level of authenticity to its research, how much of "Zero Dark Thirty" reflects the actual hunt for bin Laden remains in question. Boal's screenplay is an extremely advanced affair, saturated with confidential discussions and last names galore, leaving those without a profound understanding of al-Qaeda hierarchy and its ties to the outside world a little bewildered at times, forced to take furious mental notes as Maya sinks deeper into her Pakistan stay, chasing anyone who could provide vital information. Boal doesn't skimp on the bureaucratic particulars, which are labyrinthine at times, but he's skilled at keeping those seated in the back row in the thick of the hunt, using Maya as an audience surrogate, peeling her one layer at a time to convey the emotional and professional pressure of her life, especially in the middle of Pakistan, where her fair skin and red hair make her stand out even more. Boal aims for a sweep of time, dramatizing terrorist attacks around the world to remind Maya that she is failing in her quest, paring down her ambition from one of duty to punishment, tracing her arc from an ashen agent (Chastain's naturally soft voice comes in handy to reinforce the character's deceptive vulnerability) watching Dan work over a black site detainee to a hardened, solitary woman with a singular drive to follow through on her goal, despite every possible roadblock in her way. "Zero Dark Thirty" sustains a hypnotic flow of information and evaluation, breaking up the story into chapters for easier consumption, yet remains firmly entrenched in the minutiae of the hunt, while Bigelow maintains pace and visual combustibility with propulsive cinematography and fiery performances.
While the early going of "Zero Dark Thirty" primarily consists of research and devastating setbacks that threaten to undermine Maya's job, the final hour reaches a question of compound living, where the sullen, sleep-deprived agent discovers bin Laden's home after years of chasing his ghost, only to find her breakthrough treated with hesitation by her superiors. The movie stews in Maya's impatience, which carries for over 120 days while men in suits are unwilling to commit to a raid. The buildup of frustration is superbly realized, priming the film for its final wave of violence as SEAL Team Six is at last deployed to take down bin Laden and examine the interior of the compound. The sequence, largely captured through night vision goggles, is stunning, communicating the precision of the military team and the insanity of the target's domestic tranquility, living with wives and children in the middle of a nondescript city street. It's here where Bigelow comes alive, climaxing the feature with a thrilling display of training impulses and mission success, though the death of bin Laden is left as blunt punctuation, not celebrated as the cure-all for the world's ills.
It's first-rate work from Bigelow and Boal, who treat the tale with conviction and knowledge, yet never lose sight of its inherent alarm, packaging a combustible narrative into one of the best pictures of 2012.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
"Oh boy, you are in for a show tonight"
Seven years of appreciation, seven years of hindsight. In 2005, Batman Begins was a critical, creative and financial success. It remains a thrilling introduction to Nolan's brave new Gotham. In 2008, The Dark Knight arrived to thunderous applause, smashed records, earned more than a billion at the box office, and mounted an equally impressive run on home video. It still stands as one of the best comic book movies of all time; a near-perfect culmination of everything the genre has fought so long to achieve. Then came this past summer and the release of The Dark Knight Rises. Could it escape the dreaded trilogy capper curse? Could it surpass The Dark Knight? Would it deliver a satisfying conclusion to Nolan's Batman saga? It's been eight years since Harvey Dent plummeted to his death. Eight years since Batman took the real fall and disappeared from the public eye. Eight years since Gotham City police commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) agreed to allow the city to mourn a villain and forsake its hero. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a recluse, his butler and friend Alfred (Michael Caine) is his only contact with the outside world, and his father's company is safely in the hands of trusted ally in arms, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). But when a new evil comes to Gotham with plans to level the city -- a terrorist mastermind and former member of the League of Shadows known only as Bane (Tom Hardy) -- Wayne decides it's time for Batman to return. To stop Bane, Batman first elicits the help of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), beat cop-turned- detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Ultimately, though, Wayne has to face his greatest fears if he hopes to pry Gotham from Bane's steel grip. Even though The Dark Knight Rises was more divisive than many anticipated -- it is, after all, a vastly different film than mass audiences were expecting -- those who returned to the theater more than once hopefully discovered a more masterfully crafted tale than they may have caught the first time around. Nolan and younger brother/co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan skip the sort of traditional three-act structure that might lighten their load and divide the film into three grand Acts, each of epic proportion.(Beware. Mild spoilers lurk ahead.) Act I: Bane emerges, Batman is broken and Gotham is left unprotected. Act II: Bruce is locked away, Bane makes his move and Gotham is held hostage. Act III: the Dark Knight returns, Bane tightens his grip and Gotham hangs in the balance. Months pass. Seasons change. Power shifts hands. Forces collide. And the game changes forever. It's almost too much for one movie to encompass. And yet there's just enough time to pull it off. No scene is wasted, no shot is squandered, no moment is tangential. Every piece moves at Nolan's command, nothing slips by the director's watchful eye and every theme, arc and obstacle established in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is brought full circle. My first viewing was thrilling but bewildering. The initially jarring breaks from one act to the next knocked me off balance, and the sudden lurch into "No Man's Land" territory only exacerbated matters. Wayne's early sluggishness, wounded and ineffectiveness gave me pause as well, Alfred's exile from much of the story baffled me, and the film seemed to lack the strong but steady momentum and ragged-edge inventiveness of its predecessors. It was still an incredible experience, made even more incredible in IMAX, but it seemed to lack the dexterity of Begins and the will, fortitude and raw power of The Dark Knight. But oh what a difference a second viewing can make. Once-jarring breaks allowed previously unforeseen heroes to fill the void left in Batman's absence. Wayne's resignation and fall only enrich everything that follows. Alfred's absence strips the Dark Knight of his greatest ally and leaves him vulnerable to the betrayals to come. The film's ultimate reveal traces back through all three films and unites them more than any other element. And the momentum and inventiveness I craved were out in full force, albeit so radical in comic book nature that I nearly failed to notice the intricacies of Nolan's master plan.
Over-analyze and you'll surely uncover plot holes. Resist investing and you'll see little more than a cumbersome actioner. But lean forward, dig in and open yourself to the delights of Nolan's trilogy prestige and you'll come away with few complaints. The action is bigger, bolder and more electrifying than before, the superheroics are grounded but gripping, those wonderful toys are more wonderful than ever, the scope and scale of the story is breathtaking, and the performances are some of the series' most rewarding. Bale drags Bruce and Batman to hell and back, Cotillard is a sly enigma, Caine's work is heart wrenching, Oldman walks a fine line between guardian and charlatan, and Freeman gives it his all. It's Hathaway, Hardy and Gordon- Levitt that steal the show, though, and The Dark Knight Rises is all the more absorbing for it. Hathaway manages to summon every iconic Catwoman from page and screen and create an alluring antihero all her own. Hardy is a presence to be reckoned with, a frighteningly charismatic terrorist and something far more intimidating and intriguing than the brainless bruiser his Bane could have been. And Gordon-Levitt strides confidently into the fray -- the vigilant heart and soul of the third film -- coolly crafting a very human hero struggling to survive a larger than life clash of the titans.
The Dark Knight Rises isn't a perfect film, nor does it leave as significant mark on the genre as The Dark Knight. But it comes close, and makes up the difference in ambition, nerve and sheer scale. What will the next Batman project look like? It's safe to say, though, that whatever it is will have an exceedingly difficult time standing shoulder to shoulder with Nolan's trilogy.
The Avengers (2012)
Avengers Assemble...with blend of humour and heroism
After years of insides jokes, cameos, hints, and calculated introductions, it's finally led to this. "The Avengers" pays off a promise made in 2008's "Iron Man," bringing together Marvel's greatest superheroes (and two question marks) for a battle to save the Earth, after they're done pummeling one another. A mildly clunky but largely soaring presentation of citywide devastation, costumed hero neuroses, and flamboyant evildoing, the feature gathers all the details and character quirks fans could want from a super-sized outing such as this. And who better to direct than a man with practically his own religion in the realm of geeklandia, Joss Whedon.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has returned to power, aligning himself with a fierce alien race known as the Chitauri, hoping to use the power of the Tesseract to invade Earth and enslave humanity. While his early efforts to secure the power cube involved hypnotizing S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into service, Loki finds himself blocked from further mayhem when Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) launches the Avengers Initiative, teaming superheroes and faithful allies to fight a common foe. Making up the squad is Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Despite tensions and secretive motivations dividing the group, the Avengers must learn to work together to thwart Loki's devious plan of global conquest, using combined powers, rage, and intelligence to rise up and defeat their powerful enemy and his relentless army of alien aggressors.
As to be expected when dealing with a multitude of iconic characters, "The Avengers" is one stuffed burrito of a motion picture. Not only must an original plot be established to introduce a worthy conflict for the heroes, but most of these figures of justice require an update since their last adventure. This leaves the opening half of the script sprinting forward with Loki's rise to power as he clears a power cube runway for his space overlords, while the rest of the time is devoted to dissecting sensitive superhero headspace, catching up with the likes of the recently thawed Steve Rogers, who's having trouble acclimating to contemporary society. There's Tony Stark too, growing domesticated with assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) while working to perfect a sustainable energy plan using arc technology.
Every major personality receives time in the spotlight, as Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn make a herculean effort to bring together these forces of nature with a clean understanding of trepidation, finding each member of the team greatly unnerved by Loki's scheme. Bruce Banner's journey is especially interesting, with "The Avengers" rebooting the good doctor for a third time since 2003. Well played by Ruffalo, Hulk's second banana position is ideal for such a tragic figure, challenging the production to articulate the doubt and turmoil raging within Banner without the need to stretch simplistic internal instability over two hours. Here, the doctor is a troubled man housing a dark impulse, while Hulk is displayed as beast of fury gradually finding an attitude of heroism, with plenty of HULK SMASH! action worked into the viewing experience. A few of his scenes are sure to elicit standing ovations.
It's rather remarkable how well Whedon manages the chaos, establishing a crisp story of alien invasion while massaging conflicts within the group, staging a few hero vs. hero fight scenes that highlight the not-so-friendly competition between these strangers. Thor is particularly troubled in this script, displaying the God of Thunder as a conflicted man, torn between the defense of his adoptive home and his commitment to the safe return of Loki back to Asgard for a proper rehabilitation. It's an emotionally loaded subplot that doesn't exactly get its due, yet remains tangible due to the Hiddleston and Hemsworth's snarling commitment to the toxic reunion. With so much to juggle, including the interests of S.H.I.E.L.D personnel (Cobie Smulders and Clark Gregg co-star), it's a wonder anything gets accomplished in "The Avengers." Credit must be paid to Penn and Whedon, who knit a fresh adventure out of dangling plot lines, creating a distinct comic book tone to the effort, with larger-than-life acts of bravery and transport (the good guys take refuge in a flying aircraft carrier) punctuated by distinct superhero charisma radiating from the majority of the cast.
The finale takes to the streets and skyscrapers of New York City (a tired setting for the ultimate showdown), where the Avengers begin to exercise their teamwork abilities to successfully repel the Chitauri invasion. The sequence is enormous, with a few bravura shots providing a sense of scope to the superhero resistance, sold with incredible visual effects -- the Hulk's attack blasts are worth the price of admission alone, joining the fray in a comfortably exaggerated manner. The action is intense and extended, keeping track of the Avengers as they unite and scatter, hitting such thrilling notes of unity, it's easy to forget the film's occasional faults. And true to the Marvel universe, a few seeds are planted for further development in future sequels and personal adventures.
With such a high-flying spirit and big screen heft, it's difficult to imagine anyone walking out of "The Avengers" unsatisfied. Whedon and his team have pulled off an impossible task, juggling ego and backstory with flair, introducing the world to a united front of superheroes while most of these characters are still in the midst of their own individual narratives. It's an enormous picture, supplying requisite jolts of courage and contemplation with panache.
The Ides of March (2011)
Considering the troubling times we're currently stewing in, "The Ides of March" has been released at an opportune moment, tempting the discontented with a story of utter political corruption. Of course, we've been here before, with cinema always there to expose the evils of ambition, especially when it concerns the fanged machine of Washington. The feature is a perfect fit for co-writer/director/star George Clooney, who constructs a decidedly modern take on underhanded business, yet channels the movie-making masters of 1970s to help reach an unsettling position of stillness, watching as corrupt men and women slowly come to the realization that they've lost their integrity. It's a sharp, satisfying plunge into duplicity, perhaps Clooney's most intriguing offering as a filmmaker.
Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a hotshot aide to Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Democratic presidential candidate using rampant idealism to bewitch voters. Stationed in Ohio, the Morris team scrambles to secure local support, with campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) frantically working his connections to help the cause. On a whim, Stephen decides to take a lunch meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), a top dog with the party rival, curious as to what he'll find. When word of that meeting spreads to New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), Stephen slips into panic mode, a prison cell of paranoia exacerbated by his affair with Morris intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachael Wood), a young woman holding numerous secrets that could bring down the entire campaign.
Adapted from the play "Farragut North" by Beau Willimon, "The Ides of March" sheds every bit of stage-bound immobility, pushing forward as a charging piece of drama, perfectly at home on the big screen under Clooney's expert care. Established as just another tale of innocence lost in the pro-wrestling world of modern politics, the material proceeds to introduce subtle changes of behavior, revealing itself to be a thematically rich investigation of honor in a vocation that feeds on dishonesty. The screenplay doesn't blare any horns, instead assuming a serpentine route of revelation, observing Stephen's arc move from buoyant political conductor to a cheated man out for revenge, only understanding the true purpose of his work when he's finally tasted fraud, comprehending that gamesmanship, not optimism, is the key to winning public office.
This is a cynical film, kept afloat by its thriller overtones, gradually morphing into a tale of suspicion as Stephen comprehends the depth of sin inside the Morris campaign. "The Ides of March" is provocative but also enormously entertaining, held in place by Gosling's riveting performance in the lead role, supported by a superb ensemble of meaty character actors having a ball chewing on the juicy acts of intimidation and humiliation that litter the story. It's a stellar cast, sniffing out that uncomfortable place between professionalism and utter chair-throwing rage, summarizing politics as a world where everyone is out to get everyone, but there's always a handshake and smile to greet even the vilest opponent. Clooney captures such visceral frustration, that it keeps the picture fresh, even when the finale encounters formulaic acts of blackmail. The script needs a little convention to provide a conclusion, but the moments leading up to the climax are irresistible in their extraordinary discomfort and eye-quaking wrath.
"The Ides of March" retains the sensation of a terrific Sidney Lumet film; steady with dark material, yet procedural enough to make the viewer feel like they're learning something about the system. The balance is wonderfully maintained by Clooney, who saves his knockout punch for the final shot, studying the life in Stephen's eyes drain away, capturing the exact moment where the soul has dried up, replaced by steely, rehearsed political ambition. Chilling, but the truth often is.
Come and find me
What is Hanna? it certainly isn't what I thought it'd be. At all. Chances are it isn't like anything you've seen before. Weird, wild and beautiful, it's Jason Bourne by way of the Brothers Grimm, David Lynch by way of Hans Christian Andersen, Luc Besson and Tom Tykwer by way of huntsmen, evil witches and big, bad wolves. It doesn't hesitate, it hurtles along. It doesn't flinch, it charges. It prowls and pounces, haunts and disarms. It has a pulse, a heartbeat, a rhythm. It roars. It cackles. It sings a lullaby. It hums. It whistles. And, really, you should stop reading right there. The joy is in the discovery, as they say, and Hanna is best served with as few expectations as possible. Whether you ultimately find it baffling or bewitching is, frankly, beside the point. It's well worth watching -- experiencing, rather -- and you'll be hard- pressed to deny the thrill of such a bizarre, breathtaking ride.
Once upon a time there was a very special girl named Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan). Since she was two-years-old, Hanna has lived in the secluded forests of Finland with her father, Erik (Eric Bana). There, she's learned to survive, hunt, fight... and kill. When she turns sixteen, her father decides she's ready to hear the truth and to be presented with a choice: continue living in seclusion or flip a switch on a dormant tracking device and alert a vindictive CIA chief, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), to her whereabouts. It seems Marissa has been searching for Erik and Hanna since she failed to assassinate the pair fourteen years ago, and Hanna is all too anxious to meet the woman who murdered her mother and sent her father into hiding. The choice is simpler than Erik had hoped. Hanna flips the switch the moment he steps away from the cabin. And then? Then all hell breaks loose. Hanna, captured and taken to a CIA facility in Morocco, kills a woman she believes is Wiegler, steals intel about her true origins, escapes into the desert and hitches a ride with a family of tourists bound for Germany, where she plans to rendezvous with her father. But she'll have to stay one step ahead of Marissa in a strange, alien world of television, traffic and the internet, and dodge the CIA witch's fiends, led by the maniacal Isaacs (Tom Hollander).
Hanna leaps over vast genre chasms with the grace of the fully realized dark-fantasy, action- thriller hybrid it is. Director Joe Wright has created something so wholly in tune with his vision, so true to its own delirious delights and hard-hitting flights of fancy that it floats high above the Hollywood fray. It begins simply enough, explodes soon thereafter, and then slowly reveals its secrets and intentions with meticulous precision, descending into increasingly offbeat, grotesque territory only after enchanting viewers with its siren call. Wright pushes, sure. But he knows exactly how much to push his audience at any given moment. He challenges convention, but knows just how much pressure to apply. He demands a lot of those watching the film for the first time, but never more than they should be able to bear. (And Hanna is even better on repeat viewings.) His mad-hatter action opera doesn't overwhelm or overreach; it hypnotizes, mesmerizes and casts a spell with fierce fist fights, coming-of-age tenderness, cruel villains, audaciously long tracking shots (complete with brawls sans cutaways or cheap edits), dazzling photography, and organic electronica (from The Chemical Brothers, no less).
Ronan doesn't buckle beneath the weight of Hanna or Hanna, and approaches every scene with the same killer instinct her adolescent assassin approaches an assailant. Wright and Ronan seem acutely aware of how easily the film could plummet over the edge and adapt (or die) accordingly, creating a young protagonist both beyond her years and subject to childlike awe. (Hanna squeals with girlish excitement at the sight of a passing plane mere moments after gutting a deer and battling her father on a frozen lake.) Elsewhere, Blanchett gobbles down helpless scenes with toothy vehemence and devilish zeal (she's the Wicked Stepmother, the Foul Enchantress and the Evil Queen), Hollander licks his deranged chops and bears his fangs with sick pleasure, and Bana brandishes his best Bana -- the somber but soulful soldier -- and lends balance to an eccentric ensemble. The travelers Hanna joins -- a family played with flaky bohemian funk by Jason Flemyng, Olivia Williams and kinetic ball of energy Jessica Barden -- may be the straw that crack some filmfans' backs, but their presence is only jarring initially and only the first time through. Further viewings (and a bit of patience) illuminate their true purpose -- no wandering fairy tale princess would be complete without a band of quirky creatures and peculiar new friends, be they dwarfs, talking forest denizens or free- spirited European hippies -- and make them every bit as essential to Hanna as anything else. It's through her temporary surrogate family that she learns things her father neglected to teach her, for reasons that become painfully clear as the film nears its endgame.
But not everyone will be so forgiving. Hanna is a divisive genre-bender that will infuriate as many cinephiles as it entrances. Even if you and I typically see eye to eye, we may not this time around. Wright's fourth feature film defies expectation and explanation, and must be seen to be believed. It may not ensnare you, but it'll sink its claws in for two spellbinding hours. Hanna will probably make its way onto my Top Ten list this year, and it will undoubtedly find its way onto some of your lists as well, albeit as one of the Worst Films of 2011. You'll just have to brave its dark, demented forests to find out.
Black Swan (2010)
Black or white, love it or hate it, it is one of the best.
It makes sense that Black Swan has provoked such a divisive response in viewers; the film itself seems to be a contradiction, a melodramatic mix of art-house ideas and psychosexual thrills. The influence of several predecessors looms shadow-like over Black Swan, from Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, to David Cronenberg and David Lynch—all filmmakers who have balanced "genre" elements with higher philosophical pursuits. Comparatively, Aronofsky's film is shifted more toward the commercial end of that particular scale—it tends to be obvious where a better film would be ambiguous—but Black Swan is still a brazen, daring piece of work, the kind that doesn't often make its way to the multiplex.
At the film's heart is Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake: "We all know the story," says Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the swaggering director of the New York City Ballet. "Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince, but before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself and, in death, finds freedom." Thomas intends to start his new season with a "visceral" and "real" reinterpretation of the tale, but he needs a star ballerina capable of embodying both the White Swan's innocence and her dark twin's wanton abandon.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) desperately wants the role—in the opening scene, we see her dreaming about it—and as Thomas puts it, "If I was only casting the White Swan, she would be yours. But I'm not." Nina is too wholesome by half, a sexually-stunted dancer who has devoted her life to her craft, practicing perfect technique but never losing herself in the movements. She still lives with her overbearing stage mother (Barbara Hershey)—a resentful former ballerina who lives vicariously through her daughter—and she sleeps in a doll- infested, powder-pink bedroom. It's the room of a girl, not a woman, and it says everything about her. Nina claims she's not a virgin, but we have a hard time buying that. Still, Thomas sees some "bite" in Nina and gives her the part, convinced he can coax out her dark side. Known for having stormy intimate relations with his lead dancers, Thomas is a master manipulator, using seduction and withholding to get the results he desires on the stage. His first direction to Nina is grounds for a sexual harassment suit: "I have a little homework assignment for you. Go home and touch yourself. Live a little."
By casting Nina in the lead role of Odette, the swan princess, Thomas displaces the dance troupe's former star, Beth (Winona Ryder), an aging prima-donna who refuses to go gently into retirement. He also nurtures a strategic rivalry between Nina and her understudy, Lily (Mila Kunis), a dark-haired nymphet who personifies the Black Swan's animal-like lust. She likes her meat bloody, she's a shameless flirt, and she even has a set of black wings tattooed across her shoulders. (Yes, Kunis and Portman do share a sex scene that's simultaneously hot and terrifying, bringing new meaning to the phrase "it'll scare you stiff.") At first, this may seem like just another backstage dance drama with all the conventional elements— competition and ambition, jealousy and backstabbing—but Nina's real conflict is progressively with her own ever-fracturing psyche.
The film is told exclusively from her perspective—she's in every scene—and we quickly suspect that she may not be a completely reliable narrator. The hints start small. Nina picks compulsively at her hangnail-ravaged fingers and scratches a nasty rash on her back; one second she's bleeding from these wounds, but when she looks again, there's no blood, no torn skin. It escalates. Nina begins to see flashes of her own dark doppelganger, a mysterious, highly sensual version of herself. Like the similarly sexually infant woman played by Catherine Deneuve in Polanski's Repulsion—the film that most influences Black Swan—Nina grows paranoid and unhinged, troubled by grim, anxiety-induced hallucinations. Her delusion becomes clear: she's turning into the Black Swan. Mentally. Physically. Entirely.
It's here that the film grows a little too literal minded. And this speaks to a larger problem that holds Black Swan back from greatness—for every evocative, emotionally nuanced scene, there's another with a cheap jump scare or some other trapping of the horror/thriller genre. (A few are genuinely scary —and necessary—but others seem like overkill.) Aronofsky uses the old "reflection that moves on its own in the mirror" trick no less than three times here, to diminishing effect. And this also dulls the film's symbolic use of mirrors, which work as a feedback loop of narcissism and self-loathing for unhealthily body-conscious ballerinas.
Nonetheless, Black Swan is a haunting fable that has the power to hang over viewers like a shroud. It's Gothic and lacy, decadently surging on urges so repressed they've morphed into neuroses. It explores female sexuality and ambition in uncommon ways, and it terrifies with a feathery variation on David Cronenberg's "The Fly". This is just the story; I haven't even touched on the lush production design, the impressive dance numbers, or the convincing performances. Natalie Portman deserves her Oscar win for Best Actress; as Nina she's beautifully frail and panicked, a not-quite-woman who gives into the darkness and pays the cost of artistic perfection. Mila Kunis is sex-charged and smoky, Barbara Hershey makes an unsettlingly perfect bitter-but-loving parent, and Vincent Cassel gets a break from his usual violent villain roles to play a masculine, eel-like impresario. This is Darren Aronofsky's best film since 2000's manic Requiem for a Dream, and while he's yet to make a masterpiece, Black Swan certainly comes closest.
Bold, engaging and breathtaking
There is a small, militant camp of malcontents who despise everything Christopher Nolan has ever committed to film, and their numbers only seem to grow as countless critics and the movie-going masses at large declare him to be one of modern cinema's greatest visionaries. To them, Nolan's latest buzz-earner, Inception, is either a dull, confounding, over-plotted misfire or a convoluted, self-important, superficial brain-bender. I've long been one of the masses, willingly drinking more and more of Nolan's Kool Aid with each passing film. As far as I'm concerned, Inception not only stands as the pinnacle of a master filmmaker's canon, but as a cerebral masterpiece in its own right; one that's far and away my favorite film of 2010, and a strong contender for my favorite film of all time. Anyone who can pen a concise, revealing, spoiler-free plot synopsis of Inception is a far better writer than I. Hoping to implant an idea in the mind of a recently deceased entrepreneur's heir (Cillian Murphy), a rival businessman (Ken Watanabe) hires a team of highly skilled thieves -- sullen team leader Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt), master forger Eames (Bronson's Tom Hardy), dreamscape architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) -- trained in invading other people's dreams. But dream-diving isn't an easy task, especially when the goal is to plant an idea rather than extracting information from the target's conscious. Complications abound of course: the creation of an elaborate array of dream worlds is required to pull off the job, subconscious projections pose a serious threat, and waking up isn't always as simple as it sounds. Nor is Nolan's intricate film. Part heist flick, part densely plotted sci-fi genre pic, part dramatic character study, part action thriller, part cinematic enigma, Inception braves intertwining paths most films would avoid altogether. And Nolan? The famed writer/director toys with everything from perception to reality to time itself, all within the span of two-and-a-half perfectly paced, magnificently constructed hours. Even if you don't enjoy Inception's story as much as others, it's difficult to walk away without some appreciation for its balance, artistry and spectacle.
Imagine six of these equally complex lines laid out across one another, arranged symmetrically, and then folded into a Rubix Cube of interlocking twists and turns. Now imagine holding this bizarre little puzzle box and being asked to solve its mysteries as it comes to life in your hands. This, dear readers, is just a taste of what it's like to watch Inception for the first time. Plot points arrive in droves, rules and exceptions to those rules are divulged in quick succession, and psychological analyses come fast and often. All the while, an eclectic ensemble of wounded protagonists, witty heroes and conflicting interests threaten to muddy the waters, but are never given the chance to do so. Nolan's command of his cast is as commendable as his command of his cameras, and their pitch-perfect performances are a testament to his control of an increasingly unconventional production. It's the stuff of nonsensical nightmares and filmmaking failures. Yet Nolan manages to maintain a focused narrative, ably develop his characters, address any and every possible plot hole and deliver an incredibly satisfying pay-off.
And I have to say: for as many tales of woe that have been written about viewers' first encounters with Inception, I didn't have any problem. I never felt lost or frustrated; I never felt out of my depth or in need of some point-by-point map. (And that's saying a lot considering Nolan simultaneously juggles four time lines, four separate dream levels and four prevailing story lines.) But I was also aware that I wasn't fully digesting every single detail that graced the script and screen; I recognized how much more Nolan's world had to offer that my brain could absorb in one sitting. Was it overwhelming? Yes, but not for the same reasons some outspoken critics have described, and certainly not in a way that disappointed me in the slightest. I felt such an emotional connection to the characters, such an intense fascination with Cobb's quest (both internal and external), and such inexplicable awe at the sheer audacity on display that I reacted accordingly. The hair on my arms and neck stood at attention. Chills ran up and down my spine for the better part of two hours. The film's closing moments were as moving as any in recent memory. It's rare that a film so readily engages my intellect; even rarer that a film elicits such a visceral response from my mind, heart and body.
I could go on at length about Inception's casting and performances, its mind-blowing visual and practical effects, its beautiful cinematography or inventive set pieces, the subtleties of its story and themes, its intriguing realities and refined dream mechanics, the driving surge of Hans Zimmer's infectious score, the effortlessness with which Nolan weaves exposition into the fabric of his tale, or the emotional undercurrent that charges each scene. Oh, did I mention the many, many ways in which key aspects of the film are left open to thought-provoking interpretation? Be that as it may, Inception should be experienced and savoured; describing anything other than the film's impact would only take away from the thrill of discovering it all for yourself. If I could get away with writing, "you simply must see Nolan's latest tour de force" and nothing more, I would, just in the hope that newcomers would watch the film with as clean a mental slate as possible. So, for what it's worth, "you must see Nolan's latest tour de force." Not only is it an amazing, eye-popping technical achievement -- the likes of which have to be seen to be believed -- the entire film defies explanation and shatters expectations. My advice? Stop reading reviews of the film and tackle it for yourself. The less you know about Inception, the better.
Body of Lies (2008)
Sharp writing and strong performances deliver the goods
I recently re-visited this movie again. Hotheaded method actor Russell Crowe and acclaimed director Ridley Scott have forged quite a partnership over the last decade. Crowe's commitment to his craft and Scott's precise vision have been a perfect match, allowing the award-winning collaborators to charge through lavish productions, forgotten history, and controversial subject matter with great success. After inspiring a Roman revolution and taking home Oscar gold with Gladiator, the pair tackled love and prosperity in A Good Year, the rough-n-tumble criminal underworld of '70s Harlem in American Gangster, and, most recently, the disconnect between American and Middle Eastern interests in Body of Lies. Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover CIA agent working in Jordan, turns tragedy into opportunity when a botched assignment nets him precious intel concerning a terrorist cell led by an elusive mastermind named Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul). Reporting directly to his supervisor at Langley, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), and working to maintain a shaky relationship with the Chief of Jordanian Intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong), Ferris struggles to appease both men, stop a recent outbreak of global terrorist attacks, and keep his head on his shoulders (quite literally). Caught between two warring factions and two diverse cultures, Ferris devises a clever plan he hopes will trap Al-Saleem, satisfy Hoffman's demands, and strengthen Hani's trust in his countrymen. Body of Lies manages to rise above the genre fray with the help of screenwriter William Monahan's unconventional script and Crowe, DiCaprio, and Strong's electric performances. Ferris isn't simply a brash upstart; he has a keen sense of the situation, respect for Hani's authority and culture, and a distinct understanding of his own duty. Hoffman, on the other hand, is lazy, self-centered, and pushy; a man who constantly ignores cultural sensitivities in favor of blunt shock and awe. His encounters with Ferris dabble in the debate at the heart of American involvement in the Middle East. The two allies never turn on each other (as one might expect after watching the misleading theatrical trailers), but their constant bickering illuminates the internal arguments that have embroiled US agencies and officials for decades. Their's is a particularly refreshing relationship that defies the typical trappings of geopolitical thrillers and leads to plenty of exciting exchanges. Hani is the world-weary power-player caught between Ferris and Hoffman's differing methodologies; a man whose interest in his homeland far outweighs his need to engage in global politics. It's this trio of characters and performances that grabs hold of the story and molds it into a different beast entirely. Thankfully, Scott and Monahan make few attempts to disguise their political agenda. Both storytellers go to great lengths to focus on the cultural tug-of-war that continues to keep the world at odds. There's always a force who wants things their way, always a force who longs to reach a middle-ground, and always a force content with protecting personal interests. It's Scott and Monahan's experiments with these three philosophies that allow the film to emerge as a rare and effective political morality tale; a study of exactly what perpetuates conflict and what helps to subvert it. Unfortunately, Body of Lies stumbles upon reaching these lofty heights with a few tired developments. After incorporating a contrived romance into the story, fumbling around with the film's pacing, and devising a fairly anticlimactic closer, the filmmakers lose their grasp on what could have made the film so wholly and utterly unique. Fleeting flaws and missed opportunities aside, Body of Lies works on several fundamental levels. It soars as a tense, action-packed thriller, earns legitimate laughs with a surprising dose of humor, and pits three fantastic performers against each other in a game of wits and lives. The film may occasionally meander and get lost in its own tangential subplots, but I still found myself enjoying it from beginning to end.
Minority Report (2002)
Gotta keep running
One of the best films in the exciting category of "future technology and radical ideas run amok," Director Steven Spielberg's (Saving Private Ryan) Minority Report dazzles through its high-octane action and visuals that are both gritty and fantastically futuristic, while at the same time the film thematically explores the dangerous world of pre-judgment and the quandary of pitting personal liberties and freedom of choice -- not to mention the moral, ethical, and judicial nightmare that is the notion that one may be found guilty of a crime that has yet to be committed -- against the guise of making the world a safer place. While other films similarly explore the dangers and downsides of the role of advanced technologies in futuristic settings, Minority Report proves the best of the bunch for its ability to counter the wonderfully-realized visuals of a bright and glossy utopian future world with an examination of the dark and disquieting elements that under the surface make it so, with superb special effects and exceptional actions scenes in tow to make it a complete Science Fiction picture.
In the year 2054, Washington, D.C. has become one of the safest cities in the world. Premeditated murder has virtually disappeared, and crimes of passion are at an all-time low thanks to the Department of Precrime and the work of the Precogs, a trio of individuals with the capability to see future murders unfold and allow the would-be assailants to be arrested before they've had the opportunity to commit their heinous acts. The Department is headed by John Anderton (Tom Cruise), a divorced man who years earlier lost his son before the arrival of the Precogs. The program having proved a rousing success in the nation's capital, it's on the verge of going national, and Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a representative from the Attorney General's office, has arrived for one final inspection of the process. When Anderton finds himself identified by the Precogs as a would-be assailant in a future murder, he must go on the run in an effort to clear his name of a crime he has yet to commit. In the process, he becomes privy to information that could jeopardize the future of the Precrime division while unearthing further disturbing information surrounding the project's origins.
Though perhaps most readily identifiable by its stunning action scenes and nearly impeccable and highly-advanced special effects, Minority Report is, at its core, a cautionary tale that, like the best of Science Fiction, incorporates ideas that may be seen as relevant today but framed within the worlds of tomorrow. Based on a story by the famed Science Fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, Minority Report tackles some hard-hitting questions about not only one possible future of the American justice system, but also the impact of highly-advanced technologies on personal liberties. Is the future set? Is there no personal choice? Is one possible outcome of an as- of-yet physically unrealized future event enough to accuse, convict, and punish a man for a crime that ultimately went uncommitted? Spielberg, through the prism of Dick's story, manages to mesh a brilliant philosophical undertone with a big-budget special effects extravaganza, the film is a rare movie going experience that manages to be both very smart and a lot of fun at the same time.
Indeed, Minority Report's invigoratingly deep and incredibly well-integrated thematic structure only helps in making the picture a complete experience that delivers everything the modern movie going audience could hope for in a film such as this. The tale of the hunter becoming the hunted and suddenly forced to more personally understand what it is he's done to others and experience firsthand how the system he heretofore so enthusiastically embraced can fail when forced to look at it while on the other side of the law lends yet another added layer of tension and purpose to the film, further accentuating the questions raised throughout the story. Featuring a quality cast, Minority Report still isn't a movie that's sold by its stars. Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, and Max von Sydow don't disappear into their roles, but they do embrace them wholeheartedly and all deliver convincing performances that, again, only accentuate both the heavier themes and exciting action pieces that define the movie. Cruise is Cruise, his character not all that different than other roles he's played (his John Anderton seems at least partially reminiscent of Ethan Hunt), but the actor manages to capture the feel of the movie superbly and convey enough raw emotion in conjunction with his abilities as an Action star to play the part very well in each of its several layers of complexity. Just as importantly, the picture's special effects are not only seamless, they're cool; and in conjunction with the wonderfully-choreographed action pieces and Composer John Williams' (Star Wars) heart-racing score, Minority Report proves a wonderful movie when examined from every angle.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Ridley Scott's harrowing film is a revelation
Black Hawk Down premiered in December of 2001, a mere three months after the world had faced the harsh reality of the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. I vividly remember a small controversy brewing at that time, questioning the film's release in the wake of the attacks. Apparently, some critics felt that the film was arriving too soon after the attacks and that audiences weren't ready to see a film that dealt with the realities of the military and terrorism. Despite those concerns, the film was heralded as an instant classic; moviegoers responded by turning up in droves. Perhaps the reason behind Black Hawk Down's success lies in the strong sense of optimism the film displays, in spite of the tragedy that it portrays on screen.
Somalia, 1993: A small team of Army Rangers and Delta Force Troops on a peace-keeping mission in Somalia, attempt to help avert mass genocide and to protect Somali citizens from barbaric acts of violence and the various militias that occupy the country. When one hundred American soldiers are sent into Mogadishu to arrest a handful of particularly sadistic militia leaders, they find themselves in the midst of an international incident with deadly consequences. Each soldier will be confronted with the realities and horrors of combat as they protect innocent civilians and each other from the surging ranks of hostile forces. Black Hawk Down is a relentless, harrowing and true story of bravery, in the face of the horrors of war.
Black Hawk Down can be a seriously difficult film to watch; its hyper-realistic portrayal of battle and in-your-face violence drive home the almost impossible adversity that the soldiers are faced with. The film is nothing if not extraordinarily unnerving. By situating the viewer in the line of fire and in the midst of the battle, Director Ridley Scott achieves the effect of rendering his audience in a near state of panic. It's an unforgettable, exhausting and purposely unpleasant experience.
One of the most amazing things about Black Hawk Down is that in spite of the seemingly random confusion represented on screen, the film brilliantly maps out the soldiers' strategies and tactics. There is, indeed, a method in all of the madness. Being a true virtuoso, Mr. Scott frames the action so precisely, and through such perfect camera angles and placement, that we are able to follow all of the action on screen as though we are participating in the battle. With just about any other director, this kind of controlled chaos could have led to a very confusing film experience for the viewer. It is clear that every last detail of this film had been thoroughly choreographed and intricately planned. Mr. Scott's under-appreciated skills as a visual storyteller make this film a success. Ultimately, Black Hawk Down is a painful film that shows us the realities of war and the horrors of the situation in Somalia. Whatever your political affiliations or opinions might be, this is an important film that deserves to be seen.
Inside Man (2006)
A thriller not to be missed, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington's strongest collaboration together.
Spike Lee is widely considered the most talented and relevant African American director, but many of his films lack focus. More than ten years lapsed between two of his most cohesive movies, Clockers and Inside Man. Clockers was dropped in Lee's lap by Martin Scorsese, who was too busy with Casino at the time, and Inside Man was passed up by Ron Howard, who instead opted to direct Cindrella Man. Perhaps all of Lee's films should come to him already in development by other filmmakers. In contrast to titles Lee develops from the beginning, both Clockers and Inside Man are relatively free of his overt statements on race relations, allowing him to focus on the crime/drama elements of each movie and to capture the people and places of New York as only Spike Lee can.
Inside Man starts off with intriguing narration by Russell: "My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself. I've told you my name: that's the who. The where could most readily be described as a prison cell. But there's a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison. The what is easy: recently I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery. That's also the when. As for the why: beyond the obvious financial motivation, it's exceedingly simple... because I can. Which leaves us only with the how; and therein, as the bard would tell us, lies the rub." This soliloquy is followed by a well-executed and impeccably filmed bank heist in downtown Manhattan. Adding a great deal to the production is the cinematography by Matthew Libatique, who also directed photography in IronMan), and music by Terence Blanchard, who composed scores for many previous Spike Lee movies.
An astute beat officer notices something wrong at the bank and the NYPD is quickly called in. The officers' personalities and dialog--showcasing Washington's best performance of the past decade--make for a lot of fun as the scenes strobe back and forth between the grave hostage situation evolving in the bank and the police presence outside. Frazier, his boss--Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe)--and colleague Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) all share moments of light banter as well as heavier exchanges. The bank robbers show an international, politically motivated agenda, forcing the cops to jump through hoops, but will the cards played by the robbers give away their hand or is it just a stunt to confound the NYPD? Spike Lee always had a knack for dialog and language. As some of the hostages are freed and interviewed by the officers, Lee's gift for colorful exchanges pays off big time. Not only is the entertainment value of the film ratcheted up and made more multidimensional by these interactions and the dialog, but the characters of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who were held in the bank show a slice of the Big Apple that tastes really sweet.
Frazier is an ambitious detective, gunning for a promotion, and he knows that his advancement is riding on the investigation. As meticulous as he is in following leads and interviewing the freed hostages, he cannot make any sense of the case. The bank heist seems to involve no victims, no robbers and no stolen money or goods--at least not that Frazier has been able to find. But then he stumbles on the key to the entire case. The bank's safe deposit box, #392, has never appeared on any records since the bank's founding in 1948. No sooner does Frazier obtain a search warrant to open it then he is confronted by Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a lawyer for a wealthy, high-society client, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who just so happens to be the founding owner of the bank. White tries to get Frazier to drop the investigation by guaranteeing his promotion, but when tested, Frazier displays more ethics than ambition. The film shifts into an exploration of good and evil. Russell's bank heist may not have been the crime it first appeared, while Case's lavish lifestyle and penthouse apartment may be at the expense of innocent victims. But will Russell escape his crime? And after a lifetime of luxury is to too late for Case to pay for his? With sparing use of nonlinear plot devices, Inside Man is a twisting, turning, entertaining thriller that lets up a bit after the heist, but stays interesting right up until the end.
Stunning visuals, solid acting and rousing story
Since Errol Flynn graced the screen in Captain Blood, the genre of swashbuckling, seafaring films have enjoyed great notariety. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a period piece with modern execution. From the standpoint of the story and cast, Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey is the ultimate star of Master and Commander. He conveys an authenticity and charisma that few actors currently possess, which allows him to pull off the Aubrey role so authoritatively. But there is an even more impressive star of the film--a star you will not see. Richard King was brought on board by director Peter Weir as "sound designer". His passion and technical expertise in audio engineering make the film a powerhouse cinematic experience, transporting viewers from their seats to a place onboard the British Navy ship, Surprise, off the coast of South America almost 200 years ago. More than any other aspect of the film, the realism and immersive quality of the audio puts the audience in the middle of the action. King won the Academy Award of Merit for Best Sound Editing for his work on Master and Commander. It was very well deserved.
Based on Patrick O'Brian's novels about Aubrey's adventures, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World follows the Surprise, as it battles the Acheron, a superior U.S.-made ship in Napoleon's navy. After a surprise attack by the Acheron during the film's opening scene, in which the British ship takes nearly insurmountable damage and barely slips away in the cover of fog, Captain "Lucky" Jack decides to go after the faster, stronger ship instead of returning to England. At first, the decision seems foolhearty, as the Acheron again surprises Aubrey. This time, he escapes under cover of darkness. But the story is more than a series of chase and battle scenes, entertaining as those prove to be. Several aspects of naval and ship service are explored.
Part of the story touches on concepts like religion and science in the prism of 19th century thought. The latter part of the film takes place in the Galápagos Islands where the ship's Irish doctor and naturalist, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) convinces Aubrey to let him explore and collect specimens in a pre-Darwinian subplot. Unfortunately for Maturin, he makes an unexpected discovery that leads him to cut short his tour of the Galápagos. One of his specimens, an insect that looks like a twig, gives Aubrey the idea to disguise the Surprise, leading to the film's climax, an intense battle, featuring an extended sequence of intense hand-to-hand combat. It is worth asking if Master and Commander would have received more attention if it arrived in theaters at a different time than the much more successful Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Both feature "Captain Jack" characters, swashbuckling adventures on the open seas, and impressive battle scenes. Both films were very well executed, and it makes sense that a movie appealing to younger audiences would gross significantly more at the box office. The reality, though, is that audiences chose the equivalent of a theme park ride over an excellent series of books that easily could have spawned even better sequels to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The biggest disappointment of the film is that there would be no follow-up Master and Commander to follow Lucky Jack's exploits in the service of England's navy. Instead, we got two insipid sequels to the Pirates film, neither of which rose to the level of the first. Too bad. I would much prefer a trilogy of Master and Commander films, but it was not to be.
The Third Man (1949)
One of the greatest film-noir movies ever made..
A young American novelist, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), arrives in Vienna looking for his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Once in the city, however, he learns that Harry Lime has passed away. Shocked, Holly Martins starts asking questions, a lot of them. He is told a number of different stories that eventually lead him to believe that Harry Lime was killed.
Determined to find out who is responsible for Harry Lime's murder, the American embarks on a treacherous journey amidst the unfriendly streets of Vienna. Soon, he is entangled in a web of deceit and dangerous machinations. Along the way, the American also encounters the beautiful Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czech national with forged Austrian papers, who agrees to help him.
Written by the legendary Graham Greene, Carol Reed's The Third Man is a terrific hybrid of a film where noir, neo-realism and Hollywood bravado are mixed to perfection. Set in post-war Vienna, the film is very much a dark caricature of sorts where the finesse, elegance and tradition of Old Europe are seen through the eyes of a naive but ambitious American looking for his missing friend.
Contrary to what many critics have claimed, the actual story is rather complicated. A giant mystery surrounding Oscar Welles' character, Harry Lime, is slowly peeled off, piece by piece. As a result, The Third Man quickly evolves into a guessing game where every little detail is worth analyzing. As expected for a noir-film, there is also a dangerous femme fatale who becomes a prominent player as soon as the main protagonist reaches Austrian soil.
In addition to strong dark overtones, The Third Man also boasts a great deal of nihilism. Betrayal and impossible love for example are depicted by Carol Reed with a sense of realism that feels uncannily contemporary. Not surprisingly, The Third Man works incredibly well not only as a non-stop adventure film, but also as a realistic depiction of a world struggling to recuperate after an enormous tragedy.
Furthermore, even though The Third Man is a British film, its view on Old Europe is distinctively American. The clash of cultural ideologies, as witnessed through the interactions between Alida Valli and Joseph Cotton, is particularly impressive. There are entire scenes where Carol Reed focuses on the American whose alarming naivety produces some of the most hilarious yet, disturbing sequences that compliment the mystery.
Finally, Anton Karas' soundtrack is beautiful. The mellow sounds produced by his zitner grant The Third Man with an entirely new flavor, one that blends with the dark vistas from Vienna's sewers exceptionally well. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere The Third Man sustains is often cited as its greatest strength.
Ne le dis à personne (2006)
A smartly-penned, wonderfully-acted cinematic labyrinth...
Best judged after two full viewings, director Guillaume Canet's acclaimed, mind-bending French thriller, Tell No One, won over audiences the world over with its slick and slippery screenplay, impressed critics with a series of nuanced performances, and found its way onto several notable 2008 Top Ten lists. While I can't say I was as instantly taken with its occasionally overwhelming, densely packed story as other people were -- my first trip through the film left me unsure of what to think or feel -- I found myself warming to its wiles after settling in for another go. By the time I wound my way through it again, I was a convert. This time I was able to concentrate on the characters more than the film's central mystery, soaking up their every word and expression instead of searching for answers. More importantly, I was finally able to sit back and enjoy Canet's Hitchcockian subtleties without growing weary of his maddening sleight-of-hand. Based on the 2002 American novel of the same name by author Harlan Coben, Tell No One opens as two longtime lovers -- a pediatrician named Alex Beck (François Cluzet) and his beloved wife Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) -- visit the French countryside for a romantic getaway. Everything is just as Alex hoped it would be... until Margot is viciously murdered in the middle of the night. Knocked unconscious before he could identify their assailant, Alex is initially suspected of the crime but ultimately released when a serial killer is captured and charged with her death. Flash forward eight years. Alex still thinks of his wife every day and hasn't pursued a serious relationship with any other woman. While his sister Anne (Marina Hands) and her spirited wife Hélène (Kristin Scott Thomas) encourage him to let go of his painful memories, he quietly languishes in unresolved grief and refuses to forget his one true love. But when a mysterious e-mail and a shocking security video leave him confused and confounded, he embarks on a dangerous quest to discover what really happened to Margot that fateful night. If Tell No One has any debilitating weakness, it's that looking away from the screen at the wrong second can leave you scrambling to keep up with the third act's breakneck plotting and elaborate revelations. I suspect more casual cinephiles will give up the moment its methodical premise begins vomiting countless twists and turns, sometimes seemingly at random. No exaggeration... there were times I felt as if I needed a flow chart, a calculator, and a compass just to track who did what to whom, why they did what they did, and who decided to cover it all up. Unfortunately, anyone who succumbs to these frustrations will miss out on an intelligent, tightly-written psychological thriller that understands how to weave a mesmerizing mystery and take its audience by complete surprise. It certainly helps that Canet's perfectly-cast actors have an undeniable grasp on their characters and motivations. Cluzet, in particular, grounds the film's every thundering left hook in the reality of Alex's undying devotion and unrelenting fear; he masterfully transforms his screen time into a riveting performance that will keep you going even when the plot threatens to leave you behind. Therein lies the appeal of Tell No One. Despite the wildly winding paths of its story, its characters emerge as something all too familiar: human beings embroiled in very tangible trials and turmoil. It doesn't matter that the endgame is a bit too convoluted for its own good, nor does it matter that I could think of a dozen ways the real culprit/culprits could have avoided the whole mess had he/she/they taken some time to devise a better plan. All that matters is that I continually forgot I was watching a group of actors and started to feel genuinely invested in Alex and his plight. I wouldn't recommend Tell No One to anyone who doesn't have the patience to plow through it all with full attention, but I can assure anyone who does that the film's brilliant performances, sharp script, and stirring developments won't soon be forgotten.
Hors de prix (2006)
The film is cluttered with clichés, some quite well repolished, but it is nevertheless enjoyable.
Jean (Elmaleh) is every business owner's dream – he works hard and never asks for a pay-raise. But when a lovely looking girl (Tautou) walks into the cozy bar of the hotel where he works and asks for a drink, things suddenly change. Jean presents himself as a rich but lonely bachelor, the girl likes what she is told and after a few drinks the two end up in bed.
On the following morning, instead of revealing who he really is, Jean decides to stick with the bachelor play. Unfortunately for him, it becomes obvious that the girl is already staying at the hotel with someone else - a rich, twice her age, man with little stamina and plenty of cash to burn. Does Jean have enough in his savings account to earn the girl's heart? Priceless is a simple film with an even simpler story. It is about a girl fishing for her Sugar Daddy on the French Riviera. She is careful, kind, and always respectful with those willing to invest in her. Like most girls, she also likes expensive gifts and fine dining. But when a lonely workaholic falls for her, and later on manages to impressively beat her at her own game, Priceless gets interesting. Elmaleh and Tautou clash in a fascinating "let's see who's the better player" game where all bets are off.
Surprisingly, Elmaleh's game is better (well, let's face it, if it wasn't this film would have been unwatchable). He unexpectedly conquers the heart of an old widow willing to pay for a younger companion, and the once shy and poorly dressed bartender immediately becomes a man of interest. He acts as a gentleman, and Tautou's character begins to see in him what she couldn't while he was spending on her the last Euros from his savings account.
Obviously, as much as Priceless is a sweet comedy with plenty of clichés, it is also a film with a good dose of sour realism. The beautiful young girls at the French Riviera being pampered by their old (not older, I mean old) and financially stable partners, the young men being bought by wealthy old (again, old, not older) women to escort them, so they could parade themselves at the luxurious restaurants, all of this at times comes off as sour rather than sweet. With other words, Priceless offers plenty of humor, but there is a good dose of drama in it as well.
Tunisia-born French director Pierre Salvadori (who also helmed the similarly themed Après Vous with Daniel Auteuil and Sandrine Kiberlain) does a good job of capturing the glamor of the French Riviera. The endless chic hotels, expensive boutiques, and exotic cars seen in Priceless certainly allow the viewer to get a good taste of the playing field where Elmaleh and Tautou's characters collide. C'est la vie!