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Heat (1995)

Heat The year of 1995 is my favorite year in film giving us so many beloved favorites of mine such as Lord of Illusions, The Usual Suspects, Seven, In The Mouth of Madness, GoldenEye, The Prophecy, Strange Days, and more.  This year also gave us a brilliant union of powerhouse talents when Michael Mann brought together screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat.  While I consider Manhunter my favorite, and The Insider to be Mann’s best film, I cannot deny that Heat is a crime saga masterpiece.  It is finally Michael Mann refined and matured to a breath-taking level developing his signature concepts to perfection.  I can think of no more appropriate film to hold the honor of the 200th review on Forever Cinematic than Heat.

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who lives by the simple discipline of “have nothing in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the “heat” around the corner.”  His crew of career criminals is a high-tech outfit pulling off professional jobs that impress even the likes of Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino).  But Hanna, a man driven through life only by his work, becomes obsessed, at the expense of his private life, with bringing McCauley down.  As McCauley’s crew prepare for the score of a lifetime, and Hanna’s team tries to bring him in, the two find that they are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives.  Ultimately, they find themselves challenged by the greatest minds on the opposite side of the law that either one has ever encountered.  With this much heat, the streets of Los Angeles are ready to sizzle and explode!

Heat is filled with excellent performances from everyone involved that it’s hard not to touch upon most of them.  Firstly, I am engrossed by the dynamic between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley.  Hanna is a man whose life is wholly dedicated to his job, and thus, his home life is a disaster with multiple divorces to show for it.  Meanwhile, McCauley has his life in control as he takes precision high line scores, but lives a disparate life of bare necessities allowing himself no attachments he cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if circumstances require it.  Thus, despite these men being on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves in a near symbiotic relationship which fuels the compulsions of their lives.  They are both driven by their jobs being out there on the streets in the middle of danger, and everything else in their lives is sacrificed for that.  All they are is what they’re going after.  That’s what fuels their existences, and Heat is all about that electrifying synergy.

Al Pacino has always been known as a passionate, charismatic actor, and Vincent Hanna surely has that energetic, sharp edge which makes him immensely entertaining here.  However, it is the more subtle aspects of the performance that are where the real juice is.  You see the razor sharp mind of Hanna when he arrives on the armored car robbery scene.  He sees it, absorbs it, and hits all the marks deconstructing every detail of the crime.  He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t overlook or dismiss anything.  You see the proficiency of Neil McCauley and how his crew operates, and then, you see Hanna and his team operate on that same exact level only on the opposite side of that coin.  Yet, the depth of Hanna comes to the surface when Vincent converses with his wife, Justine.  The weariness and ugliness of his job forces an emotional rift between them, and Pacino’s performance reflects the inner angst and emotional toll that it wreaks on Hanna.  These things do affect him, but he never becomes a jaded, pessimistic, desensitized person.  Al Pacino absorbs all of that into a subtle and complex performance that energizes the screen.

And delivering a performance on an equal level of weight and intelligence is Robert De Niro.  He’s entirely formidable making Neil McCauley a very serious and definitive threat to everyone who opposes him.  De Niro has a serious, hard edged presence that dominates the screen, and every move, every word, every course of action he makes is efficient.  There’s a full immersion into the character in all his nuances and textures.  Sometimes, a great performance is seen in raw emotion, but other times, it’s all in the subtle complexities.  That is what De Niro give us here showing the versatile diversity of this character from cold, hard criminal to the loyal, caring friend and lover.  Despite being the antagonist in the story, we see a real heart when Neil becomes involved with Eady.  It’s takes a masterful actor and filmmaker to take a character like McCauley who will sanction and be entirely sociopathic about the murder of innocent people, and do something so human with him to where you genuinely feel his depth of heart.  Surely, that’s nothing you would want translated into reality, but in a fictional narrative, it provides a captivating dimensionality that Robert De Niro captures with pitch perfect substance.

Val Kilmer was really in his peak at this time after his stunning turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.  Thus, he was filming Heat concurrently with Batman Forever, really capitalizing on two excellent opportunities.  Here, his role might be overlooked by the presence of Pacino and De Niro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t top notch.  Chris Shiherlis proves to be a really intense character with his gambling addiction and marital strives, and Kilmer really absorbs the weary heart of Chris deeply into his performance.  Despite infidelities on the part of Chris and his wife Charlene, portrayed tremendously by Ashley Judd, their final shared moment strikes deep within the heart to show just how much they both truly loved one another, but their marriage was never built to last.  Kilmer hits all the marks to make this character standout solidly alongside De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Tom Sizemore does the same as the more action junkie sociopath Michael Cheritto.  There’s a real strong brotherhood between Neil and Chris that shows through shiningly, and that relationship brings a lot of dimension to both characters.

I’m fascinated by the chain reaction of events here which create numerous exciting plot turns.  Essentially, Waingro is the key cog who sets everything in motion.  Without him going off the handle and facilitating the triple homicide, Vincent Hanna likely would not have been as dogged to track down McCauley and his crew.  He’d be intrigued by the precision professionals, but it would just be another robbery.  Then, Waingro betrays McCauley to his enemies, forcing the bank heist to turn into a violent, deadly shootout and propelling McCauley to make the irrational decision to go after him instead of escaping free and clear.  Waingro turns the tide of the story at pivotal moments because he is a wild card with no loyalty to anyone but his own base, primal impulses.  Furthermore, Kevin Gage is perfect in this role making for a wholly convincing hardened ex-convict sociopath who is dreadfully frightening and intimidating.  It’s sadly poetic that less than a decade later he would become a federal convict for cultivating medicinal marijuana.

The other intriguing quality of Heat are the women.  Michael Mann always makes the affectionate, strong women of his films vitally important to the arcs and stories of the male leads, and never objectifies them.  The significant others of Hanna, McCauley, and Shiherlis are all passionate, loving women who desire a stable life.  Justine Hanna grapples with Vincent’s internalized angst from the horrors he sees out on those streets, and just wants a husband who opens up to her instead of being distant, closed off, and vacant in their marriage.  She wants a marriage with love not ragged leftovers of a man who drifts through their lives empty.  Eady, portrayed by Amy Brenneman, is the most innocent of them all existing entirely outside the world of cops and criminals.  She’s a simple, honest, warm person that unexpectedly opens up Neil’s world and gives him something to be affectionate about.  For a man who lives with no attachments of any kind, it’s finally someone in his life that makes him care to have a life.  Charlene, however, is the real gold for me as Ashley Judd is confident, heartbreaking and truly empathic as Chris’ wife.  As I said, there is a deep down, genuine love between Chris and Charlene, but there’s so much addictive and combative garbage in the way that it was destined to crumble.  For me, the Shiherlis dynamic is the most complex and substantive one of the film because of that real quality of conflict and adoration between them.

Without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, and he does an excellent, stunning job with Heat.  He composes so many carefully selected shots which tell a very visual story that holds weight.  Just as Mann had fully refined and developed his artistic sensibilities so had Spinotti making this a very sophisticated looking and composed picture.  There are pure moments of inspired artistry creating a masterful canvas that this story is told upon.  This is also a film that feels very engrained and engrossed in the fiber of Los Angeles because of the visual vibe.  Shots of the skyline in hazy daylight or glowing nighttime neo noir create that great backdrop that has substance and life.

Upon this watch of the movie, I picked up far more on Elliott Goldenthal’s amazingly original and pulsating score.  A lot of what he does are subtle textures and melodies that nicely underscore various scenes.  His score doesn’t fight for dominance in the audio mix.  It complements everything that Mann is doing with the emotion, characters, and story.  At times, Goldenthal’s score can be very powerful and striking such as the moment where Chris and Charlene are forced to abandon each other because of the police stakeout.  The emotional pain swells into the score in a haunting swirl.  Then, there’s the parting phone call between Neil and Nate that reflects the sorrowful feeling of two people, best of friends, saying goodbye for the final time, and Goldenthal’s score hits that mark so beautifully.  Every single moment is so perfectly punctuated, and should be considered amongst his best work.  Additionally, the two tracks by Moby are beautiful, superb, innovative tracks that saturate the power of their respective scenes, most notably being the ending with “God Moving Over The Face of The Waters.”

Of course, the big, electrifying selling point of this film was having two of America’s most celebrated actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, collide in all their glory.  That would not be complete without the excellent diner scene where Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley have a very probing conversation.  The very interesting quality of that scene is that this is the only point in time where these two men are able to be entirely open, honest, and reveal their inner workings.  They are more intimately connected with each other than with anyone else in their lives.  Again, the subtle performances of depth and honesty make this the absolute nexus of this entire film.  Heat was previously made as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown by Michael Mann, and when you watch this scene performed by very second rate, stiff or hollow actors with almost identical dialogue, you realize the gold standard quality of Pacino and De Niro.  In their hands, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are brilliantly fleshed out and fascinating characters, and this is the scene that shows them stripped down.  They show what haunts them and what drives them.  There is no pretense between these men, and they realize that they are very similar despite being the flip side of each other.  These are the only two people alike in this world of Michael Mann’s film that truly, undeniably understand one another.  Furthermore, this scene is entirely integral to how the film’s climax unfolds.

Firstly, that shootout in the streets of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most ear-blistering sonic experiences ever, and that’s coming from a heavy metal fan.  Michael Mann had considered using post-production sound effects for this, but realized that the realistic production audio created the true power and impact he wanted.  It conveys the violent magnitude of real life gunfire and enhanced the danger of this sequence exponentially.  The precision of every tactic is true to how Michael Mann approached his films.  He made sure that every detail was accurate to life, and that mentality makes his films far more interesting to witness than the more over-the-top action sequences we get in the big, fun blockbusters.

The climax of Heat narrows everything down to what the whole film has been about at its core – Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley.  These two men, who exist in a world separated from the mainstream of society and defined by its own rules, are now pitted against one another in an electrifying, tense, and suspenseful cat and mouse sequence that is absolutely pitch perfect, and showcases the unequivocal skill of Michael Mann.  The moment where McCauley sees Hanna just as he is to ride off with Eady is beautiful, painful, and eloquent.  Neil invokes his “thirty seconds flat” rule turning away from Eady for his own survival, and the ensuing chase towards LAX is wonderfully and smartly plotted.  The climactic moment is excellent and poetic.  Then, after it’s all over, these two men are bonded together in a strikingly profound moment that ends the film on an astonishing stroke of pure brilliance.

I had always taken Heat for granted as that great crime saga pinnacle for Michael Mann, but until now, I never peered deeply enough into it to see the subtle brilliance of it.  Many of his films are easier to see the inspired breadth and depth, but Heat has so many fine brush strokes of detail, interwoven threads, and subtext that only a real immersion into it made me absorb it all.  This is truly a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that did not get the recognition it deserved during awards season.  Michael Mann himself received no nominations for his screenplay or directing, and Pacino, De Niro, or Kilmer received no acting award nominations either.  It’s amazing to me that so many incredible, mold breaking, and standard setting films were released this year, and those I hold in highest regard barely got any recognition from any major awards organizations.  This is why I find it hard to put much weight into these organizations because they’d rather nominate a movie about a talking animatronic pig over brilliant masterpieces like Heat, Strange Days, The Usual Suspects, or Seven for Best Picture or Best Director.  Today, nobody talks about Babe, but people still endlessly praise those others films because they launched careers, took stunning risks, set new standards, and blew peoples’ minds.  And when Michael Mann finally got his just nominations, he didn’t win a single one for what no one will ever be able to tell me wasn’t the best movie released in the year 1999 – The Insider.  However, for the next review, I go back to the beginning of Michael Mann’s feature film career with Thief.

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Prisoners (2013)

PrisonersEvery so often a movie comes around that just looks interesting, but you are not prepared for just how stunning it truly is.  It just seems like another good thriller that might be nicely satisfying, but this movie is far and beyond such meager expectations.  Prisoners attracted me because I really love Hugh Jackman.  He has such a genuine depth of humanity and intense screen presence in so much of what he does, but even then, I didn’t expect a performance and a film on this level of masterful brilliance.

How far would you go to protect your family?  Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is facing every parent’s worst nightmare.  His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in.  The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street.  Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but a lack of evidence forces his release.  As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child’s life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands.  But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

Brought to us by director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is undoubtedly the best film I have seen all year.  A tight, taut, suspenseful and engrossing thriller that hits powerful emotional chords everywhere.  If you thought the trailers gave too much away, you are very mistaken.  There is so much more substance and plot nuances that a trailer could never accurately convey.  Surely, I will not spoil anything for you, but the mystery of this film is cunningly devised with intelligent turns and a remarkable progression.  There are many fine layers of character, emotion, and story here that interweave perfectly and beautifully.  We are treated to so many well fleshed out characters inhabiting a story of very intense emotions and radical, unsettling violent actions with nerve racking consequences.  You feel every ounce of emotion from these characters, and Villeneuve’s direction shines gloriously in every detail.  I also love that nothing in this film is a red herring.  Every lead, every piece of evidence, every detail adds to the puzzle which is brilliantly plotted out from a stunningly well written screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski.  Prisoners is meticulously mapped out every step of the way, and Villeneuve utilizes all of that emotion and strategic, deliberate pacing to absorb you into the movie.

The cinematographer for this film was Roger Deakins, who also shot Skyfall which was immaculate work, and he does not falter here at all.  I was constantly struck by the quality of the compositions as they all hold so much weight.  Villeneuve has this shot and edited in a very conservative manner so that the substance of every frame soaks into the viewer so deeply.  Early on, I love how fairly brief scenes are played out in wide masters to give you a dramatic and stoic impact on the story.  The inspired cinematography constantly envelopes the screen translating the dramatic power of Villeneuve’s cinematic narrative in such exquisite detail and poignancy.  The quality of the visuals, how the film is shot, and the style of editing constantly made me feel like this was a very 1970’s thriller with a modern polish.  Even the Earth toned color palette reflects that, and the autumn / winter setting adds to the grim, somber atmosphere.  Every technical quality of this movie is used to suck you into the depth of what transpires.  Even the score is immensely effective, yet subtle.  Everything just works with such precision to excellent effect.

I honestly believe that Hugh Jackman could possibly earn himself some accolades come awards season time.  My faith in his talent has been paid off time and again, and I love seeing him in these gritty, hard hitting dramatic films.  Keller Dover is a man who believes in preparing for the worst while praying for the best, and so, he is used to doing everything possible to protect his family from all dangers.  When he feels he must take matters into his own hands, the emotional intensity of the film escalates drastically.  Jackman is intensely powerful in this role pushing himself to that extra level that separates great from extraordinary.  Pure, raw emotion pours out of him as Keller Dover struggles with doing the right thing for his daughter even though it is the worst, most unimaginable thing he’s ever done.  The absolute conviction of what he believes he must do penetrates right through the screen right into your soul.  This film constantly pushes this character into further emotionally and morally strained situations that challenge Jackman to deliver on higher and higher levels which he exceeds over and over again.  This is why I love Hugh Jackman and why I was drawn to seeing this movie.  He’s an incredibly relatable and engaging acting talent who pulls you in based on his depth of humanity, and that is gorgeously on display here in a masterfully crafted film.

Now, I haven’t seen Jake Gyllenhaal in anything since Donnie Darko, and it’s great seeing him in a mature, hard edge role.  He is really solid as this vehemently dedicated cop who maintains a level head while remaining fully committed to this case.  I love seeing how Detective Loki handles the strained, heated emotions of the Dovers and Birches, and how he manages everything with meticulous perceptiveness and a dogged mentality.  It’s a wonderfully written character that empathizes with these hurting people and conveys his confidence with sincerity.  Gyllenhaal is intensely compelling and intriguing to watch as the film progresses.  From the moment he’s introduced, eating alone at a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving, he is complex and unique.  I like the nuances added into his character such as the various small tattoos on his hands and neck.  They give him a darker, grittier edge along with Gyllenhaal’s sort of dark aura.  Yet, he is not a dark character, but is a riveting one that adds his own intensity to the narrative.  This is also a marvelous performance that only becomes more fascinating and gripping at the film progresses.

The rest of the cast is equally as powerful.  Mario Bello’s character of Grace Dover deals with this frightening tragedy of her abducted daughter by falling apart, relying on medication, and just becoming a mess.  It’s a pure visceral deterioration of a person torn apart by fear and pain for a loved one.  Terrence Howard is another actor I just love, and he delivers such vulnerability.  The struggle Franklin Birch faces when Keller pulls him into the abduction and torture of Alex Jones is a perfectly human conflict.  He wants his daughter back so badly, but almost can’t reconcile the morality of what he and Keller are doing to this man with the IQ of a ten year old.  The dynamics between all of these characters and their passionate, pained emotions is magnificent to behold.  Even Paul Dano makes you empathize so deeply for Alex.  You are never certain whether he is responsible for anything at all, or that Keller is torturing a completely innocent man.  The story twists around so beautifully wrapping everyone up in this complex tapestry that any truth is possible.  Even more so, nothing is all that clean cut for any suspect, and no one is completely innocent.  Everyone has something shameful, shady, or tragic which shows that these are real, textured, flawed people.  Every character is written and performed with such substance and rawness that you can never take anything for granted or predict where this story will lead you.

I was constantly pleased with the sophistication of storytelling here.  There were times I was a tad apprehensive that the pay-off of the mystery, or that the identity of the abductor would be spoiled too soon.  Instead, it was another element of the puzzle being laid out carefully with surprising, unexpected, yet entirely purposeful turns.  As I said, nothing is a swerve.  You’re not lead down a frivolous path to a false lead.  Everything introduced in this story is there for a substantial reason.  The ultimate reveal is great allowing for everything to really fall into place, and put certain characters into further, tenser jeopardy.  I loved how the final act unfolds.  There’s real danger at hand, and nothing proceeds remotely like a cliché.  This is a fresh, smart thriller that will captivate your attention for its entire 146 minute runtime.  One would think that a deliberately paced thriller with that kind of runtime would lag somewhere or feel drawn out, but Prisoners makes amazingly solid use of every minute of screentime to progress every element of story and character to its ultimate, immensely satisfying and brilliant conclusion.

Denis Villeneuve has just come out of nowhere for me, and now, he has my undivided attention.  Prisoners is absolutely perfect.  There is not a single aspect of it for me to criticize, only praise.  This is an incredible cast delivering amazingly powerful and raw performances in a rattling and haunting thriller.  I have never stated in a review of a newly released movie that it is the best one I have seen all year because you never know what else could surprise you in the remainder of that year.  However, I cannot imagine what else is possibly going to steal away that title from Prisoners because it is that stunningly impressive without a flaw in sight.  Do yourself a great favor and see this movie and support it.  I hope you are as enthralled with it as I was.


Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

Someone to Watch Over MeMost of the films in Ridley Scott’s filmography are fairly well known, but there are a few that are glossed over for whatever reason.  For this film, the fact that it didn’t even make its money back at the box office is the likely reason, but it still garnered very positive reviews from critics.  This is indeed a film of special, exceptional quality.  Someone to Watch Over Me is not your typical Ridley Scott film, in most part.  It’s story is definitely a cop thriller with a great urban atmosphere, but primarily, this is a romantic film done with great, beautiful artistic flare.

A stunning New York socialite and a down-to-earth city cop are caught in a deadly web of illicit passion and heart-stopping suspense.  Newly-appointed detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) finds his life turned upside down when he’s assigned to protect Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers), the beautiful eyewitness to a brutal murder.  Lured into danger and the dizzying heights of Gregory’s glamorous lifestyle, Keegan struggles to walk the line between protection and obsession – while trying to stay one step ahead of the psychotic killer Joey Venza (Andreas Katsulas), and not allow his happy marriage to fall apart over his affair with Claire.

I really like the vibe of this movie.  It does have a very romanticized artistry to it, but with the moody subtlety that Scott is a master at.  Oddly, while watching this, I got a very similar feeling as I got watching the John Badham romanticized version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella.  It’s that foggy, subtle romantic visual quality with its greens and ambers which really struck me that same way.  Someone to Watch Over Me is a finely crafted and gradually paced work of art that smartly blends the seductive beauty with the dangerous crime elements.  By the trailer, you’d likely expect something a little more thrilling and exciting, but even then, this film easily roped me in.  This is surely due to the great casting and excellent acting.

Michael Keegan is not the usual kind of movie cop.  He’s surely streetwise, but he feels a little green and out of his element.  Having just been promoted to Detective, he doesn’t have the consummate manner of those around him, and coming from Queens, he’s not accustomed to the high life sophistication of Claire’s world.  So, he’s a bit of a blue collar style easy going guy, and Tom Berenger does a stellar job in this role.  He’s extremely likable and fun loving early on, and progresses into a more serious, emotionally complex character as events unfold.  You can see that Mike is very happy with his family, but as he gets deeper involved with Claire, everything begins to be torn apart within him.  Berenger has great and distinctly different chemistries with Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Michael’s wife Ellie Keegan.  Both relationships have their own touching qualities, and work equally as beautifully.  Ellie perfectly reflects the man he is, but Claire gives him something fresh and seductive.  It’s an odd dynamic that you can feel so much for Mike and Claire, knowing they have something unique together, but also, view Mike as the bad guy opposite Ellie.  That’s really a testament to Berenger’s talent.  He makes Mike a very down to Earth guy with flaws, but never comes off as a reprehensible adulterer, just a man of sympathetic conflicts of the heart.

I was very pleased with what Mimi Rogers accomplishes in this role.  The few moments where Claire is confronted by Venza are intensely fearful, and Rogers is greatly convincing.  However, the majority of the film is focused on Mike and Claire becoming closer and more intimate.  She proves to be a gorgeously romantic woman who is not a seductress.  There’s nothing lurid about these two becoming involved.  There is a genuine endearing attraction there that is quite touching, and the building of a chemistry and attraction with Claire is done quite subtly.  She is charming, elegant, and vulnerable, but still exerts confidence.  There’s a fine line between where she feels safe and self-assured and feeling very frightened that Rogers handles with delicate balance.

Through all this, you honestly feel for Ellie a great deal because she’s done nothing wrong to deserve this betrayal of her love.  Lorraine Bracco is wonderful showing the agonizing pain of Ellie.  She loves Mike so dearly, and that pours out so richly once she is scorned.  This is really an exceptional performance as we see a full spectrum of emotion from Bracco from the loving and down to Earth woman to the deeply hurt wife and even beyond that in the film’s climax to utterly frightened to death.  While the film is heavy on the Mike-Claire relationship, Bracco does such a strong job to keep Ellie’s end of the film relevant and emotionally impactful.  By the end, that is the crux of the film’s resolution.

And I really adore Andreas Katsulas.  He was taken from us far too soon.  Many would know him as the one-armed man in The Fugitive, but my heart with him lies with the science fiction series Babylon 5.  Here, his role is full-on in intimidating heavy mode.  His screentime is fairly restrained, but his presence is almost always felt.  That presence is very effective right from his first few minutes of screentime all the way through to the taut, thrilling climax.  Katsulas takes that great talent of his and compounds it into a lethally threatening performance.  Like with everything else here, the key word is definitely “subtlety.”  Ridley Scott has such a great handle on tone with his visuals and actors that it is no surprise that everything is just pitch perfect throughout this cast.  Of course, I couldn’t forget to mention the late and charming Jerry Orbach as the solid Lieutenant Garber.  Orbach is always a bright pleasure to see in anything he ever appeared in.

It also put a smile on my face when Michael Kamen’s credit came on screen as the composer.  I really, dearly love his work.  There was always a real elegance and sophistication he brought to his scores, and Someone to Watch Over Me definitely gave him the opportunity to flesh out some lush, romantic cues.  There’s the obligatory saxophone parts, but it’s done so very beautifully.  It really is a lovely tapestry of romanticism that he weaves throughout this film while never remotely approaching over the top melodrama.  He’s aided a little by a smooth jazz style arrangement of the title song by Sting, and some fine music tracks from Steve Winwood and Fine Young Cannibals early on.  The work Kamen does with the tenser, more thrilling scenes is very effective and taut.  This is the perfect score for this movie accentuating every subtlety with careful craftsmanship.

Also, it seems that no matter what cinematographer Ridley Scott works with, his visual style always comes through brilliantly.  You could turn this movie on, not knowing anything about it, and know it is a Ridley Scott movie just by the rich atmospheric noir look of it.  Someone to Watch Over Me is absolutely gorgeous re-crafting the looks of Alien or Blade Runner into a romantically effective package.  The scenes early on in the night club and art gallery are brilliant, perfect examples of Scott’s signature style.  Later on, inside Claire’s upscale apartment, the overall look is very seductive with soft, dim amber lighting.  As usual, Scott uses very deep blacks and smoky, shadowy visuals to create a mysterious atmosphere, and even on the streets of New York, that works so stunningly well.  If for nothing else, Scott is one of my favorite directors based on his gorgeous visual neo noir style.

Beyond all of the stunning aesthetics, the story played out in both the seductive romanticism and the dangerous crime thriller are perfectly interwoven.  I found the balance just right for the film’s intended emotional direction.  I would definitely imagine a film like this today being forced to be packed with a lot more action and excitement instead of developing the romance and subtle suspense.  Thankfully, this was made in a time when someone like Ridley Scott, whose last couple of films had not done well at the box office, was able to make the movie he wanted to make.  He does a fantastic job with Howard Franklin’s screenplay just enveloping it entirely in his articulate, detail oriented sensibilities and wonderfully inspired visual style.  Yet, the visual awe is not used to mask any lack of substance, but to enhance the strengths of it all.

I really did enjoy Someone to Watch Over Me.  If you enjoy a classic thriller with a twist of romance, which the film’s tagline boasts, you will certainly find some satisfaction here.  Ridley Scott directs this film with class and a focus on the smooth moody atmosphere and gradual development of its characters.  The cast is absolutely top notch featuring substantive and respectable work from everyone involved.  This film is actually a very clear precursor to Scott’s next film, Black Rain, which was an excellent full-on thriller, but still with a lot of that romanticized atmosphere of danger.  If you’re looking for the exciting flipside to this seductive film, Black Rain is absolutely that film.  Just forego watching the trailer.  It’s a little on the spoilery side.  Anyway, Someone to Watch Over Me is a very beautifully crafted and executed film that I really do highly endorse.


Nighthawks (1981)

NighthawksThis is one of those Sylvester Stallone gems that both seems like it’s gained a respected following, but has never become a high profile hit.  It doesn’t fall into the light hearted fare like Tango & Cash or Demolition Man or the substantive drama of Rocky or First Blood.  Instead, this is a very good gritty cop thriller with a definite 1970’s aesthetic boasting a great performance by Rutger Hauer that foreshadows his acclaimed work in Blade Runner and The HitcherNighthawks has its definite merits, but surely demonstrates why it’s a lesser noted film for Stallone.

When Europe’s most feared terrorist known as Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) explosively announces his presence in Manhattan, two elite undercover NYPD cops (Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) are assigned to stop him before he strikes again.  However, the ruthless terrorist has other plans for the city – and the detectives – as he begins to hold its citizens in the grip of fear.

In the wake of big blockbuster successes like the Rocky and Rambo movies, and films with more flash and crowd pleasing excitement, you can understand how Nighthawks kind of flies under the radar.  It’s very grounded and much more low key.  It is also a slow building film with a focus on the psychological aspects of its main adversaries, and capturing that gritty, urban New York street cop vibe.  Still, within that context, you’ve got a very admirable crime thriller here lead by some strong casting choices across the board.

I really believe Stallone leads this film quite well.  Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a solid cop who doesn’t back down easily.  He takes on crime with intensity and fierce dedication, even if it costs him his marriage or his well being.  Stallone makes DaSilva a tough cop, but one with a morality and heart.  Despite the fallout with his wife, Deke still desires that loving connection, and he won’t become the cold blooded assassin that the British counter-terrorism specialist wants him to become.  Stallone does a solid job keeping DaSilva true to who he is sticking to his principals as a seasoned cop, doing his duty, but doing it his own way.  We see him as a perceptive, smart cop that is dogged in his pursuit of Wulfgar.

As DaSilva’s partner, Detective Sergeant Matthew Fox, Billy Dee Williams entirely carries his own.  Fox can be more even tempered and flexible than DaSilva, allowing for him to keep his more passionate partner grounded and focused.  Billy Dee also has some playful moments adding a few minor moments of levity as, again, a counterbalance to Stallone’s harder edge intensity.  Still, when the situation gets serious, Fox is as solid of a cop as anyone.

Rutger Hauer has shown his talent for brilliance, and Wulfgar is no exception.  He brings a cold, calculating sophistication that forges his gravitas.  When Hauer is on in a film, he captivates your attention with a electrifying presence, and he does that here.  As Wulfgar, he can be frightening because as dedicated as DaSilva is, Wulfgar is equally so to his cause.  You know he’s a sociopathic killer who is a vehement believer in these radical causes.  He’s more than just a hired gun, and that makes him immensely more dangerous.  It’s not about money for him.  He inflicts this death and terror for a political purpose that he believes in, and he is not going to stop.  As the British counter-terrorism specialist says, “He’s only beginning.”

I also have to give some praise to Joe Spinell who portrays Lieutenant Munafo.  While his role is minimal, he’s damn good carrying a commanding weight and authority.  He mainly works opposite Stallone, and keeps the somewhat hot headed DaSilva in line very convincingly.  Of course, Persis Khambatta complements Hauer extremely well as the dangerous, cold-hearted Shakka.  It’s a polar opposite turn from her role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and that is largely welcomed along with her rich, beautiful black hair.

Like I said, this feels entirely like a 1970’s cop film with the gritty style, Earth toned fashions, Stallone’s beard, and sort of a streetwise funky vibe of the score.  It might be an early 80’s film, but you can find plenty of bleed over from the previous decade through to about 1983.  Considering this started out as a second sequel to The French Connection, it’s easy to see why this works so well in that context.  The pacing is methodical lending more towards the dramatic development than excitement.  The film could probably use a little more excitement to ramp up the danger and stakes in the second act, but especially for its time, this was quite good.

Now, Nighthawks surely has a few action set pieces including a great foot chase through the New York streets and into the subway.  However, it is very much a thriller built on suspense and tension.  Stallone and Hauer create this electrifying connection which drives the entire film.  The sequence on the Roosevelt Island tram is a great example of those personalities at conflict enhancing the peril of Wulfgar’s game.  His terrorism is no longer just about a cause, but a game of wits between both men.  Wulfgar toys with DaSilva, bringing him in so close, forcing the Sergeant to look him in the eye time and again, but denying him at choice to fight back.  This results in a nicely solid and taut piece of work.  The ending is superb focusing on a great deal of suspense and imminent peril, but I would think a modern audience might feel it’s not as climactic as it could be.  This ending has become the most memorable aspect of Nighthawks, and it is executed with great care and a few inspired visuals.

As I said, this is a film build as a slow boil thriller than an exciting action ride, and I feel it succeeds at that.  Surely, more could have been done to intensify the narrative and build more momentum going into its climax.  Regardless, I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed Nighthawks.  Stallone does a really solid job complemented well by Billy Dee’s supporting role, and greatly counterbalanced by Rutger Hauer’s chilling brilliance.  If you enjoy the work of either Stallone or Hauer, I definitely believe this is one you should not overlook.  Bruce Malmuth did a fine directing job here, but in a fourteen year career, he never had a breakout hit.  His only other high point was the decently effective Steven Seagal action vehicle Hard to Kill.  With Nighthawks, it’s a nicely solid film that likely won’t blow you away, but may indeed intrigue you through the high quality performances it offers.


Jack Reacher (2012)

Jack ReacherI did see this movie in theatres, but it was a week after release and I didn’t have much ambition to write up a review.  Now that it’s out on home video, I can put my thoughts together on this very well made thriller that, yet, still lacks a certain memorable quality.  Jack Reacher is based on One Shot by Lee Child, and while the movie does some significant departures from the 6’5″ towering blonde character with the casting of Tom Cruise, on its own merits, there is an enjoyable film to be had here from a very capable director with a fresh style.

In an innocent heartland city, five are shot dead by an expert sniper.  The police quickly identify and arrest the culprit, former U.S. Army officer James Barr (Joseph Sikora), and build a dead bang guilty case.  Regardless, Barr claims he’s innocent and delivers only one message to the police, “Get Jack Reacher.”  A former Army Criminal Investigator, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) sees the news report and turns up in the city, but comes only to condemn Barr based on past history.  However, Barr’s attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), pulls Reacher into her investigation in order to get to the truth, but he will only do so if she looks into the lives of victims so to gain an objective, moral view of Barr’s alleged crime.  Reacher sets out to confirm for himself the absolute certainty of the man’s guilt, but comes up with more than he bargained for as he uncovers a seedy conspiracy of corruption.

This film is directed by Christopher McQuarrie who also wrote the screenplay.  He is most well known as the screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, but this is a distinctly different style and tone of film that I do feel he handles competently and sharply.  The film starts with a strong weight of drama as we see the cold, calculating, and brutal sniper killings resulting in a traumatic, jarring impact.  How Reacher is pulled into the story reflects perfectly on the character himself – smart, sly, quick-witted, and unpredictable.  McQuarrie is able to firmly ground the drama of this story while still offering sharp dialogue with dashes of levity and personality.  We do get these clever moments of humor that are somewhat unexpected, but for whatever reason, they are very entertaining and just work surprisingly well.  The balance between the serious and humorous are in the right balance.  He uses the humor to add levity and entertainment value to the movie while the drama creates the narrative’s momentum.  McQuarrie also knows how to solidly plot out a mystery, as The Usual Suspects demonstrated.  He lays out all the facts, perceptions, and details in very intelligent ways.  It never feels like a dry procedural, but a compelling web that Reacher is intricately and confidently pulling apart one strand at a time.

And it is the Jack Reacher character that makes the investigation so intriguing.  How he approaches the evidence, what nags at his mind, how he perceives motive and reasoning create a fascinating deconstruction of this mystery.  Tom Cruise embodies these qualities exceptionally well.  I also love how he slyly bulldozes his way through a situation.   He’s not a guy who suffers anyone, and is determined to get to the truth no matter who’s standing in the way.  Yet, he’s not a battering ram.  He uses smarts, wit, and bravado more than force which makes him intriguing to watch.  Cruise harnesses a hard edged confidence and presence that creates an intense electricity in his performance.  Despite his average size and build, Cruise feels formidable from how he carries himself.  While the Reacher of the books is meant to be this physically large man sort in the vein of a Dolph Lundgren, I feel that Cruise’s smaller stature works to excellent effect.  He’s more unassuming, more average looking.  You don’t expect a brutal ass kicking from him, but that’s just what you get.  In Cruise’s hands, Reacher is a skilled and intelligent man with a sort of dry yet sharp sense of humor who can assault any enemy with tactical efficiency.  This has long been within Cruise’s physical capabilities between his work on Collateral and the Mission: Impossible films, and he has always been an immensely dedicated physical actor.  Altogether, I feel Tom Cruise is a stellar, wicked cool fit for this role as written here, and he puts in a solid performance.

Another great performance comes from Rosamund Pike.  The script gives Helen Rodin a smart set of conflicts that are both internal and external.  Reacher has her get personal with the victims of this sniper attack, and it forces her to realize the impossible nature of her position as the defense attorney.  It gets pushed further as the truth is unraveled by Reacher, and it becomes more and more difficult for her to trudge forward with any course of action, yet she still does.  Externally, she has her own father as the District Attorney opposing her from continuing on with this case, and there are conflicts with Reacher as they battle back and forth on their ideals and viewpoints on the case.  Pike gives us a character that does question herself, and struggles with these moral quandaries that Reacher puts her into.  Yet, she is her own person, making her own choices, and showing her strength while still being a vulnerable, compassionate person.  Rosamund Pike is purely excellent in this role giving us emotional dimension and assertive strength, and it surely doesn’t hurt that she is exceptionally beautiful to my eyes.

The film’s villain comes from a surprising source – German filmmaker Werner Herzog.  He portrays The Zec, a former prisoner of a Russian gulag, now the leader of this gang perpetrating corruption in this city.  He’s both a chilling, threatening presence and a darkly enjoyable villain.  He’s got this pretty extreme back story of having gnawed his own fingers off to survive his incarceration, and tries to force this average street thug into doing the same to prove his worth to him.  It’s a crazy moment in The Zec’s introductory scene that really sets the tone for how tough and ruthless this villain is, and I really liked it.  It surely feels a little over the top, but the dead serious weight given to it sells it in entertaining fashion.  Herzog certainly has done acting in the past, but it’s certainly a surprise turn in this film that succeeds in spades.  And even Jai Courtney is thoroughly impressive as the more action centric villain Charlie who causes trouble for Reacher throughout the movie, and battles with him at the end.  He’s got a solid presence that sells a lot of his character without him having to say much.  He showcases charisma with just a sly smirk, and just feels like a sharp talent with a lot of potential in him.

And lastly, we get a fun, quirky performance from Robert Duvall as this ex-Marine that runs a gun range and ultimately aids Reacher during the climax.  His chemistry with Cruise creates some great levity during the very dark and heavy final act.

On all technical levels, this is a rock solid feature.  It is excellently shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.  The fantastic use of smart angles and purposeful compositions really enhance the intrigue and calculating aspects of the story and characters.  In conjunction with the great, conservative editing by Kevin Stitt, we get a very effective thriller with solid scenes of suspense and poignant character moments.  With McQuarrie’s very competent and solid talent at the helm, it really forged something that highly impresses in both technical skill and storytelling ability.

While the film has an intricately woven mystery at hand, it never overshadows the worth of the characters because without them the story doesn’t mean as much.  I do love that the film does take the time to flesh out who those victims were, what their lives were like, and allows us to connect with them on a brief but strong emotional level.  Christopher McQuarrie does the same thing with us that Reacher does with Rodin in this instance – have us connect with those people on a personal level.  These are not just faceless victims.  These were people with lives and loved ones, and they are not trivialized in this film, which is immensely commendable and really a breath of fresh air.  It emotionally motivates both Reacher and Rodin to move forward in their efforts to unravel this plot and expose the truth, and it has purpose in unraveling the mystery.

And indeed, this film features one of the best car chases in recent memory.  It has a very tense stare down between Reacher and David Oyelowo’s Detective Emerson after Reacher has just been framed for a murder.  That stare down then explodes into this visceral 1970’s throwback car chase.  It’s fantastically shot never tightening the frame too much, or shaking it all around with incompetence.  We have beautiful compositions all around with an intense visceral quality fueled by the mere rumbling sounds of a muscle car engine, and solidly paced editing.  That’s a page taken right out of Bullitt, and I think this chase does follow strongly in that tradition.  It was a great happenstance that the Chevy Chevelle actually wouldn’t start during filming creating this great, real moment of it stalling out in the middle of the chase.  This is an awesomely hard edged chase that does not overstay its welcome.  It’s right to the point delivering a dose of adrenalin in the middle of the film, and the sly, clever ending to that car chase is so right for this character.  The film does have very good action scenes, but it’s not proper to call this an action movie.  It’s definitely a mystery thriller with solid shots of action.  There are some entertaining fight scenes, and a very hard edged, very violent climax.

McQuarrie does choose an interesting tone and approach to the action scenes in that there’s hardly any score that plays through any of them.  I saw this approach taken during the anti-climactic shootout in 2006’s Miami Vice, and I didn’t feel it was especially successful.  Here, while I was undecided about it after my theatrical viewing, I do now feel it is rather effective for Jack Reacher.  The tactical shootout in the quarry starts out with just the sounds of gunfire and some stellar cinematography and editing to make it work.  However, when it moves further along, we get some suspenseful music cues, but the action itself remains raw and visceral without any music accompaniment.  When Reacher and Charlie finally throw down, it’s just the harsh sounds of bones cracking and rain pouring to sell the hardened violence.  The conclusion to this is very telling of the character in regards to his code of justice.  It’s not really what you’d expect from an procedural crime thriller, but it is fitting overall.  Now, I do feel like the ending lacked maybe a definitive sense of closure or consequence.  There aren’t any actual hanging plot threads that I picked up on, but a more solid, stronger ending might have given it that extra added punch to please audiences.  Reacher simply departs after all the action is done leaving others to clean up his mess which creates a feeling of an unresolved something.  The ending has some poignancy and sly qualities in two separate scenes, and this ending is far from being poor in any aspect.  I just think it could’ve used a stronger punctuation for the story and characters.

Ultimately, Jack Reacher is a very well directed, well acted, and overall very solidly made movie.  The screenplay is very smart with a unique balance of dramatic weight and humorous levity that oddly works very well.  The Reacher character is a very interesting one well embodied by Tom Cruise.  He’s not explored in a lot of depth, but we get insights into who he is, what he values, and what his convictions are.  How he operates, how he thinks, and what actions he takes tell us all we need to know in this story about Jack Reacher.  It’s great seeing that despite Reacher having a predisposition towards Barr’s guilt, he’s able to maintain an objective point of view in his investigation.  His own personal feelings against Barr never cloud his judgment.  He wants the truth, no matter what that might be.  These are sure signs of a very smartly written film and well developed character that is thoroughly understood by both McQuarrie and Cruise, thanks to the novels of Lee Child.  Yet, despite of all this, I do feel the film lacks that extra spark that would catch on with audiences.  It probably stems from the fact that this is not especially an action film, despite the marketing, and more of an intelligent thriller that doesn’t lend to a rousing, exciting experience.  For everything that these filmmakers were striving to achieve, they did so with great success, but I don’t feel there’s a great demand for a franchise based on this outing alone.  If the filmmakers can put together a film with more action and excitement, I think it could take off fairly well, but as it is, this film didn’t set audiences on fire with anticipation for another installment.  While it’s not impossible, Cruise surely has plenty of other projects he’s quickly developing, including a fifth Mission: Impossible film, that he’s not in a major need to launch another franchise.


Bad Boys (1995)

Bad BoysPeople like to rag on Michael Bay a lot, but most forget he has a few gems amongst the over bloated messes in his filmography.  Quite frankly, I believe his first movie was his best, and that is indeed Bad Boys.  Burdened with a really bad script written for a Dana Carvey / Jon Lovitz comedy vehicle, Bay relied heavily on the comedic smarts and chemistry of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to salvage it with extensive improvisation.  What he got was an exceptionally well made, tightly paced, and sharply stylized charismatic action hit.

One hundred million dollars worth of confiscated heroin has just been jacked from police custody.  Once the career bust of Detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), the missing drugs now threaten to shut down the narcotics division of the Miami Police Department.  The thieves turn deadly when they murder one of their own, a once crooked cop, and Maxine, a beautiful call girl who was a close friend of Mike’s.  Now, the only witness to this double murder and the link to recovering the dope is Maxine’s friend Julie (Téa Leoni), who must come under the protective custody of Lowery and Burnett before these criminals eliminate her permanently.

What really grabs me about Bad Boys is how sharp and funny Lawrence and Smith are.  These two have excellent chemistry that would be hard to constrain, but I think Bay had himself in sync with these two.  He directed their banter down the right line which wholly fits their characters, and never allows it to go on a wild tangent.  I like the quick scenes early on that just have them trading comedic blows, but it serves a purpose to build the characters and establish their relationship.  The opening scene is a big favorite of mine.  This is Michael Bay focused and driven to deliver something impressive.  He had something to prove in his directorial debut, and the script he had was so horrible even he called it a “piece of shit.”  I only wish he still had those standards today.  So, it was a lot of pressure making Bad Boys, but he surrounded himself in extremely talented individuals like Smith and Lawrence along with two blockbuster producers to make this a success.

This has all the hallmarks of a Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer production.  It’s slick, stylish, fresh, and exciting.  I miss the time where producers like them or even Joel Silver alone influenced the quality and style of the movies.  They were as big of a mark of quality as the right director.  Bay’s style is also evident here with a lot of dynamic camera angles, beautiful dramatic lighting, and some gorgeous sweeping camera movements.  Bay creates a very visually stunning work that energizes the movie, raising it up to a very high quality cinematic level.  It absolutely has that 1990’s music video visual scope and beauty which was essentially originated and refined by Bay.  There’s some elegant and artistic production designs throughout that just give it an extra flare of style that does feel very Miami.  The film also has very tight editing keeping the story moving forward at a great clip.  Unlike many later Michael Bay films, it doesn’t languish on indulgences in comedy and frivolousness.  Yes, there are almost straight comedy bits in there, but they just add to the fun of the movie.

The dramatic aspects of the film are handled as amazingly as the comedy.  There are several moments in the film where the impact of Maxine’s death reverberates and resonates.  Bay gives it epic weight to propel the motivations forward for Julie and Mike.  In many of Bay’s later films, those qualities are often drowned out by too much bad comedy or just poor characterizations.  Here, he shows he knew how to do it right.

I know there are many who find Martin Lawrence irritating, to say the least.  I can see that, but I just feel he does his best in this movie, especially when he has someone like Will Smith to work off of.  Marcus Burnett is a guy with a lot of stresses on him from not getting his “quality time” at home, and the constant danger everyone keeps getting him into.  The biggest being having to impersonate Mike for the sake of securing Julie, who trusts Lowery solely, and being forced to lie to his own wife about the arrangement.  So, the wiseass quips and abrasive attitude are dead-on-the-mark.  It also creates the classic buddy cop dynamic of conflicting personalities.  Mike is smooth and competent while Marcus is more excitable and apprehensive.

Of course, Will Smith is charming and charismatic, but injects a lot of toughness and conviction into Mike Lowery.  He’s not just a smooth player.  He’s a dedicated, determined, wicked good cop that works situations with savvy and sharp aggression.  Mike might be a rich kid with a comfortable lifestyle, but as he says he “pushes it to the max every day.”  It’s a great dynamic between Burnett and Lowery, and this performance showed Will Smith to be a vastly marketable leading man and action capable actor.  Proving that statement is the fact that his very next film was Independence Day.

Téa Leoni is really great.  The panicked, emotionally unsettled part of her performance has a lot of weight and depth.  Yet, she makes the transition to the lighter tone smoothly with really good chemistry with Lawrence.  She becomes even more enjoyable when Julie figures out that Marcus is really Marcus, and not Mike.  She plays around with him, and that just adds a little more intelligence to her.  Most of all, Leoni creates a very sympathetic and likeable character.

While Joe Pantoliano portrays almost the stereotypical angry police Captain, he’s great at it.  As always, he’s smart and funny.  Captain Howard barks orders with the best of them, but you understand the stress he’s under.  The biggest bust his department’s ever achieved is lost, and all of their jobs are on the line under a very tight timetable.  He has to motivate his detectives to work fast and smart before all their time and luck has run out.  So, Pantoliano has that relatable quality where his yelling never overshadows the consummate cop underneath.

Tchéky Karyo gives us a fairly good villain.  If there’s any weak area of the film it’s not his performance, but Fouchet is not well developed.  It’s rather generic, but Karyo elevates it to a higher level through his very good presence and subtle touches he puts into it.  He can evoke a calm tension when he speaks softly, but can really punctuate greatly when the aggression is unleashed.  If Fouchet was a stronger villain on the page, I think the film would feel like it has a beefier pay-off.

I absolutely adore Mark Mancina’s score.  The main theme is beautiful and perfect with its slight Latin flavor, hip hop rhythm, rock electric guitar, and epic scale strings.  It’s an inspired meshing of musical styles that feel just perfect.  His overall work on this movie was big, heart pounding, and dramatic flowing perfectly with Michael Bay’s directorial style.  The entire soundtrack just hits the right 90’s intensity and style all the way through.

If there’s one thing that I’ve never seen disputed about Michael Bay is that he knows how to do action sequences amazingly well.  He really is a master of epic action using score and weighty slow motion shots to intensify every dangerous scenario.  The entire climax is excellently done with plenty of explosive moments and greatly satisfying action.  The final car chase is insanely intense with its great use of tight close-ups, tense, pounding music, and extremely tight editing.  The violent, dramatic quality of it all is just masterful.  This really does follow in the tradition of Tony Scott, but pushed to the next level.  That is probably much due to the Simpson / Bruckheimer backing.

While the story is rather simple and straight forward, it is populated with a lot of fun.  Bay keeps the mix of dramatic momentum and comedic wit appropriately balanced.  The comedy might be in abundance here, but it never dilutes or dwarfs the dramatic urgency of the storyline.  Both the comedy and action stick strongly in your mind after the film’s over.  It all just blends together smoothly and smartly for a wildly entertaining and fun ride.

Bad Boys really set the tone for late 90’s action.  Very polished and stylized cinematography, largely dramatic slow motion action, and just an epic feel all around.  It launched the careers of Bay and Smith into the stratosphere as two the biggest blockbuster names around, and for good reason.  While Bad Boys isn’t as big of an action movie as either of them or Simpson / Bruckheimer were involved with, it’s greatly fun, exciting, and spectacularly made.  Sharp, smart, and beautifully shot, this vibrantly showed that there was talent here to harness.  These days, I think Michael Bay could use some restraints and more focused vision like he had here.  Even Bad Boys II came off a bit over bloated and self-indulgent by taking what was great in this first movie and amplifying it beyond what it needed to be.  Still, if a third movie ever does eventually get made, I’m sure I’ll be game to give it a fair chance as you should definitely do for this movie, if you haven’t already.


Bullet to the Head (2013)

Bullet to the HeadI have no preface for this review except to tell you that Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone are a blockbuster combination that have delivered an excellent, hard-as-hell and graphic action film that you MUST SEE!  Simply said, this has Walter Hill’s vintage style all over it, and I love it!  If Bullet to the Head signals a turning of the genre back to its best roots of hard edged bad assery, I’m all for it!

After the seasoned criminal Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) and his partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) carry out a hired hit, they are targeted by a mercenary named Keegan (Jason Momoa) who kills Blanchard, but fails in his attempt against Jimmy.  With the mark for the hit being a former corrupt Washington D.C. cop, it brings Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) to New Orleans to investigate who he was hooked up with, and why he was killed.  However, Kwon soon finds himself lethally targeted, and joins forces with Jimmy in order to weed out and bring down whoever wants them both dead.  The unlikely duo soon take on all who stand in their way, but where Kwon wants procedural justice, Jimmy is ready to exact brutal, unforgiving revenge.

I revisited both 48 HRS. movies within the last two months, and so, Walter Hill’s classic style is really fresh in my mind.  I am a longtime fan of The Warriors, but Bullet to the Head certainly follows more in line with that sort of buddy cop dynamic.  I could really feel that vibe coming off this movie right from the start, and it had me hooked in by the end of the opening credits.  I was loving this movie within the first five minutes, and it never disappointed me.  Aside from the modern technology aspects, this feels right at home with a solid 1980s hard-hitting action film, but Hill does throw in some modern style to update it a little.  Bullet to the Head has a neo noir edge to it, but it doesn’t go down the Michael Mann route.  This vibe is mainly due to large chunks of the film taking place at night, and we get some very appealing cinematography out of it.  There are some shaky cam tropes used every so often, but it’s far from being the worst I’ve seen.  There’s some restraint used to keep the action scenes really satisfying, and while I would’ve preferred more restraint or at least wider compositions, it did work quite well for this film.

Stallone is excellent through and through.  He shows that he’s still got what it takes to be a top tier action hero.  He is really in phenomenal shape showcasing a lean, ripped physique that presents a man that can clearly rip you to pieces.  Sly gets plenty of chances to show his physicality with some really bone crunching hand-to-hand combat in addition to all the brutal, graphic gun violence.  Yes, indeed, there are numerous people getting their own bullet to the head throughout the movie.  Acting wise, Stallone’s solid.  He really carries the dramatic weight of Jimmy well, much in part to his grizzled voice.  The film’s not dripping with emotional grief or anything, but you definitely feel Jimmy’s dead set determination in finding the people responsible for his partner’s murder.  The scenes Sly shares with Sarah Shahi, who portrays Jimmy’s tattoo artist daughter Lisa, are really well done.  There’s definitely a rocky relationship there, but not one of heavy friction.  They play well off of each other creating a mature and honest father-daughter relationship that has some weight and grit.

The humor in the film is really played out nicely between Stallone and Sung Kang.  The trailers did do it justice as it seemed a little low grade, but in the context of the film, it really had me laughing quite a bit.  I like how Kang’s Detective Kwon keeps poking fun at Jimmy’s age, and it’s handled in an almost bad ass way when Stallone retorts that still sells a laugh.  It’s nicely written and smartly performed.  Both actors really grasped the tone and chemistry the film was going for, and it kept the tone light and fun when needed in between the slam bang action scenes.  That is a perfect example of a 48 HRS. Walter Hill style and balance of tone.  The humor works with the hardened action tone of the film, and invests you in the characters in how they contrast and complement one another.  It’s certainly something not every director can do, but Hill proves he still has that skill.

I will admit that Sung Kang himself start out a little weak in the film.  He wasn’t really selling me for the first few scenes, but once he clicked into the chemistry opposite Stallone, he really fit in quite well.  Detective Kwon is a very by-the-book type of cop.  He’s using Jimmy only as a means to an end, and is quite set in his ways of adhering to the law all the way through.  So, there’s this tough, seasoned hitman paired with a rather mild mannered police detective who wants to keep what they do on the straight and narrow.  However, they regularly clash in stellar fashion creating both some of that humor, but also, a fine building of a relationship that keeps forcing them back together.  Still, despite Kwon being very conservative with his violence, he regularly impresses by having the skills to take down an adversary quite efficiently either by hand or by gun.  So, Stallone doesn’t get all the action glory.  Sung Kang has his fair chances to show us something unexpected and satisfying in that vein.  There might be some that feel he wasn’t the absolute best choice for this role, especially since Thomas Jane was originally cast in it, but I think he earns his merit before the end.  Beyond anything else, Kung and Stallone work very smoothly together making this a very entertaining film.

Now, I was extremely impressed by Jason Momoa.  His role of Keegan is a very stern faced killer, but one that is simply a massacring bad ass.  As his employers say in the film, he enjoys the work he does.  He takes pleasure in killing, and he gets a ton of chances to indulge himself.  He never just walks in to kill one person.  He’s there to kill everyone in sight, and Momoa delivers to us a genuinely sadistic villain that you’d love to hate.  He may only be a hired gun, a mercenary, but he fits right into that perfect role of like James Remar from 48 HRS or Andrew Divoff from Another 48 HRS.  He may not be the mastermind criminal, but he is the number one force to contend with and is the one that we really want to see taken down.  Momoa is really awesome in this role, and he seemed to have loved playing it.  He makes Keegan intimidating and heavily threatening, despite his impressive muscle bound size of 6’5”.

Christian Slater has a nice turn as the somewhat sleazy Marcus Baptiste, a rich lawyer who enjoys his women and narcotics quite a bit.  He only has a few scenes, but Slater does sell the antagonistic character with plenty of zeal.  Baptiste is working with the actual mastermind of Morel, an African gentleman portrayed with sophistication, arrogance, and amoral villainy by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbajeas.  It’s a very subdued performance, but one that works quite well for the character.  Both actors gives us some firm antagonists with realistic motives that solidly fit the film and story.

And indeed, this is a hard R rated action movie with plenty of bloody gunshots and some explicit female nudity.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an action film be so casual and open with showing nudity, and it was very much a pleasing sight to my eyes.  Baptiste has a masquerade party where many of the masked women are wearing little else but those masks.  It was very titillating, but it does not distract the film away from its plot.  It doesn’t indulge in anything gratuitous beyond that.  Conversely, this may not have as much graphic violence as Dredd, but it surely lives up to that standard I just recently discovered.  Just like in Dredd, and again, living up to its title, people get shot in the head continually.  The film even sets up the need for it early on when a guy doesn’t go down until he’s shot in the head.  So, Jimmy Bobo is dead-on-the-mark, accepting nothing but point blank kill shots to the cranium.  While some of the blood splatter is likely CGI, it at no point did it distract from the awesomeness of this movie.  We get some big explosions in this that kick ass, and tell you that this movie is taking no prisoners.  It’s going to deliver that hardcore bombast that has been missing in most action films these days, and it’s gonna to do like only Stallone and Hill can.  What I really loved was when Jimmy and Keegan duel with those axes.  That is not something I believe I’ve seen in an action film before, and it seriously made for one really intense and suspenseful fight.  On wrong move, and you could be missing a body part.  It was a tremendously climactic and amazing action scene that amped up the level of tension and brutality that I wasn’t expecting.  From the trailers, I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it to be that damn good of a scene.  It was fuckin’ great!

I also really loved the score by Steve Mazzaro.  It’s very bluesy with some hard electric guitar and prominent and beautiful use of harmonica, giving this a real seasoned and down to Earth feel.  It sets a real down south vibe for this New Orleans set film that really just works amazingly well.  However, most of the action scenes are very minimal on music.  At most, you get a little underscore for a low end vibe, but mostly, you’re hearing the sound effects of guns firing, fists crunching bone, bodies slamming into hard surfaces, and axes clanging together.  I think that worked excellently with this very hard edged action as there is a lot of impact with those sound effects.  They really enhance the brutality of the movie, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Seeing both this and Dredd within the same month really energizes me into believing that hardcore R rated action movies are making a genuine, high quality comeback.  Talented filmmakers, both old and new, are delivering to us some really amazing movies lately that are giving the action genre that hard hitting adrenalin shot it needed.  Stallone is in top form and clearly enjoying himself in this movie, and he was in masterful hands with Walter Hill as the director.  I had a HELL of a great time watching this in the theatre, and if a friend of mine was going to see it later, I’d tag along for a second viewing.  Bullet to the Head is a fun, exciting, ass kicking 90 minute thrill ride that is worth taking more than once.  It keeps itself simple by not trying to complicate the plot with any big twisting narrative.  It’s very straight forward and right to the point.  This is one awesome movie that satisfied me from the very beginning to the very end.  And this is literally a movie that starts with a bang!  I give Bullet to the Head a definite SLAM BANG recommendation!  This year now has a lot to live up to in terms of action movies for me, and I damn well hope it delivers.  So, 2013 – you have been put on notice!


Deception (2008)

DeceptionI’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release.  It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget.  It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience.  However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller.  What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti.  The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat.  I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.

Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies.  While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals.  Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence.  When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight.  He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters.  However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway.  Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.

An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence.  It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature.  He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of.  The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in.  However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere.  The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness.  What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story.  From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.

Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt.  It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances.  He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise.  This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life.  The sex and nudity are never raunchy.  Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy.  We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan.  Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous.  It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man.  However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it.  They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous.  They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters.  Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences.  When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick.  Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.

Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film.  The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing.  The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch.  It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story.  Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene.  The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything.  It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace.  The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script.  However, it really didn’t require or demand more.  What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film.  We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence.  The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing.  All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly.  The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure.  I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film.  This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline.  Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.

Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for.  While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work.  As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality.  He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring.  His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath.  He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him.  When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way.  McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible.  There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance.  It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him.  He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.

I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am.  He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role.  He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life.  He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences.  Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life.  Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here.  His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish.  There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance.  Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film.  Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.

Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty.  She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S.  She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence.  She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive.  Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film.  They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters.  She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan.  She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.

The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality.  As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral.  Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me.  Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film.  It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest.  He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.

Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level.  The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors.  Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood.  Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful.  This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail.  The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release.  The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter.  Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes.  It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire.  Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint.  The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.

The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well.  I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off.  It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done.  On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story.  Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story.  I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman.  I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off.  Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity.  I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.

Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script.  The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them.  I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities.  Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns.  The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in.  It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.

So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance.  I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents.  I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads.  Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze.  It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion.  If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone.  Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes.  Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.


Lord of Illusions (1995)

While I have only ever seen two films directed by macabre horror writer Clive Barker, he is actually one of my favorite filmmakers.  Hellraiser was the first reason, but this film, Lord of Illusions, is the biggest reason.  Released in 1995 in the midst of a bad stretch of time for the horror genre, Clive Barker was ambitious in telling a film noir detective horror story.  Theatrically, the film was not well represented with a lot of pertinent, quality scenes cutout for a tighter runtime, and box office was not very lucrative.  I cannot find a record for the film’s budget, but I’m sure it exceeded the box office gross of $13 million.  Thankfully, the home video market allowed Barker the opportunity to release his definitive director’s cut of this excellent film, and I can’t imagine anyone watching this film in any other way.

New York private detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) finds himself repeatedly drawn into disturbing supernatural events, much to his strong reluctance.  He takes an insurance fraud case in Los Angeles as a change of pace, but soon, he finds himself in the world between illusion and true magic.  The world’s greatest illusionist Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) is killed in a graphic on-stage accident, and Harry is driven to discover the truth behind it.  Hired by Swann’s gorgeous wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen), Harry delves deep into the secretive world of magic, and encounters dangerous foes including the peculiar, yet lethal Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman).  What Harry uncovers is that a cult leader named Nix (Daniel von Bargen), who could perform real magic and taught Swann to do so as well, is feared to be able to defy the grave that Swann and Dorothea put him in, and will return to exact horrific revenge upon the world.  What Harry D’Amour may come to realize is that death is the ultimate illusion.

The film sets a very dangerous, foreboding tone right from the outset.  A series of grim images of a decrepit, desolate wasteland open the picture telling you that dark, evil forces await us.  This opening sequence shows Swann and his friends confronting Nix and his followers in the Mojave Desert thirteen years prior, and sets the stage for where Harry D’Amour will enter their unsettling lives in the present day.  It clues you in on exactly what horrors Nix was capable of, and why Swann and his estranged friends now fear his return so gravely.  The production design of Nix’s stronghold is perfectly macabre and disturbing.  It has that dead-on Clive Barker dark, gritty style with a sort of grotesque beauty.  It is photographed with a generous amount of shadow using the light to accentuate only certain sections of the environment.  This style carries over into all the visually darker scenes creating a gorgeous film noir style.  This is just a beautifully shot movie in any condition of light or shadow.  While cinematographer Ronn Schmidt doesn’t have much in the way of high profile films to his résumé, I can surely tell he had a major wealth of artistic potential when coupled with the right director.

Clive Barker magnificently proves his talent and worth as a filmmaker here.  I think Lord of Illusions really is a masterpiece of supernatural noir horror.  It’s a greatly intelligent film that blends two very comparable genres together in a beautiful way.  The film sets up the horror elements first with that amazingly chilling opening sequence, but doesn’t really explain anything to the audience.  So, as Harry D’Amour is pulled into this plot, we still have questions that need answering, and it is a dangerous path for Harry to walk to reach those answers.  There are plenty of secrets that many would kill to have or to keep hidden, but Harry is an intelligent enough hero to see through the spook tactics and walls of deception to get to that truth.  The moments of horror are powerful such as the flashes Harry has of the exorcism he was involved in.  The sight of the stark white demon is nightmarishly striking.  Dorothea also has visions of blood and death which tell her that Nix’s return is soon to come.  Butterfield’s strange lackey Miller also provides much in the way of savage gore and violence.  How he survives a third story fall to the pavement enhances the bizarre nature of the film’s foes.  Clive Barker knew how to use film as a canvas for brilliant brush strokes.  Melding so many different complex aspects of this story would not be easy to do, but he had a clear and vibrant vision which he was able to realize.  Not to mention, he brought us one of his absolute best creations ever.

I really love the Harry D’Amour character as portrayed by Scott Bakula.  He is endlessly fascinating to me.  A hardened private investigator who gets caught up in all manner of supernatural danger is so ripe with potential.  The fact that he is reluctant to be wrapped up in this world, but is inevitably drawn to it makes for a great character dynamic.  He’s a man that has subscribed to many faiths in his day, possibly to attempt to find answers or solace for the evil he has faced.  It shows he’s a man of a wide open mind, but not without his skepticism.  True to being a detective, he accepts nothing purely on face value alone.  He has a probing mind with a keen intellect that makes him an interesting hero to follow.  He’s intent on unraveling a mystery in a world built upon secrets.  Scott Bakula gives a warm, soulful quality to D’Amour that comes to life opposite Dorothea.  He also shows Harry to be a capable and confident man of action making him a very well-rounded character.  He’s smart and perceptive as well as having a good heart that contrasts the darkness he’s engulfed in.  Bakula did research the role, and helped add in more traits of what Barker had previously written for the character.  The tattoo on Harry’s back resulted from that research and collaboration.  Scott Bakula does an excellent job with this role that I wish fortunes could’ve allowed us to be exposed to beyond this film, but nothing is ever truly impossible.  One can still hope for another prime opportunity to arise for Bakula and Barker to reunite.

When Clive Barker saw the headshot of Famke Janssen during casting, he knew he had found Dorothea.  Her air of class and elegance truly shines through in this role.  When Harry first sees her its in the golden late afternoon sunlight, and she couldn’t be more captivatingly beautiful.  She easily captures Harry’s heart, and that leads the two down a very passionate path.  Bakula and Janssen have a seductive chemistry that is captured magnificently by the camera.  Their love scene is gorgeous.  I like the fact that Lord of Illusions came just before Famke became a villainous Bond girl in GoldenEye.  Thus, it gives Barker some special credit for recognizing her talent and beauty before her breakout role.  As Dorothea, she is both vulnerable and strong creating a fine mix to make her a damsel in distress, but not one that’s afraid to fight for herself when the opportunity arises.

I have to admit that I love the character of Butterfield.  He’s perfectly androgynous with a slinking quality that makes him very serpent like.  Barry Del Sherman uses his body language fluidly as he slipped into the skin of this peculiar villain.  It’s wonderfully written as a dangerous, off-beat character that one might not take seriously at first glance.  However, Butterfield quickly demonstrates a lethal, sadistic quality that he uses in calculated fashion.  He truly takes deep pleasure in the torturous methods he uses, and Del Sherman absorbs himself fully into that mindset.  He portrays a wonderfully charismatic and juicy villain.  It’s also an interesting dynamic that Butterfield aspires to be Nix’s one and only apprentice, but even Nix acknowledges that there is no one else worthy but Swann.  While Swann gets to bask in the limelight of fame, Butterfield slinks his way through the dark underbelly of the world to prepare for Nix’s return, and he gets no respect for his loyalty or hard work from Nix.

Daniel von Bargen is a hell of a diverse actor that I have gained immense respect for over the years.  He can do drop down hilarious comedy, but also, put in a frighteningly charismatic performance as Nix.  What he does in the first few minutes of the film resonate throughout the rest of the picture.  His horrific power haunts Swann, and that fear translates over to the audience very sharply.  He is an awesome villain full of commanding presence and intense malevolence.  The power von Bargen throws into this role is masterful creating something that could truly haunt your nightmares in terrifying fashion.  He clearly had a fun time portraying this intense, chilling character.

Another amazingly diverse actor is Kevin J. O’Connor.  You may know him from his turn as the cowardly Beni from Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, or from the Patrick Swayze television drama The Beast.  As Philip Swann, he gives us a very unique performance.  I like how the film opens without presenting a clear hero to you.  Swann is not a confident or particularly stable person, and not the type to gravitate to as a protagonist.  He is very shaken by fear, and later on in life, he’s not a content man.  He has fame, wealth, and a beautiful woman at his side.  However, it’s the creeping knowledge of what Nix vowed he would do, defy death, that endlessly troubles him.  If he can do that, Swann cannot imagine what greater terrors he could unleash.  Even with all the power Swann possesses, he knows that Nix is more powerful, but most importantly, he has the will to do things Swann never would.  Nix messed with his mind once, and he’s never been able to shake that.  O’Connor passionately displays the depth of those turbulent emotional and psychological elements so well.  He makes Philip Swann a greatly fascinating and fractured character that maintains the foreboding tone of the film.

The supporting cast really put their all into their roles.  They add to the eclectic flavor of these textured and distinct characters.  Joel Swetow makes Valentin a very sophisticated but shady character.  He furthers adds to the mysterious and treacherous aspects of the plot.  All of the characters appearing in the Magic Castle sequence, portraying illusionists of all sorts, also really boost those spooky and colorful qualities of the film.  It’s just a damn solid cast that Barker put together.  There’s not a single weak link anywhere at all.

Clive Barker turned to the absolute masters of special make-up effects in KNB EFX Group for this film.  Their work has been unparalleled.  Whatever they do, big or small, severe or subtle, it always hold weight on film.  What they did here is bring the gory and challenging imagination of Clive Barker to perfect life.  The make-up on the resurrected Nix is purely, excellently disgusting, as it should be.  The protrusion in his forehead is something I still cannot stomach to look at.  Conversely, the digital visual effects are damn well up to standards.  The early scene of Nix juggling fire is seamless and convincing, and the effect of Swann levitating a car over Harry’s head is quite well handled.  Of course, I’m sure many would contend with the later scene of the apparition that attacks Harry and Dorothea late in the film, but Barker wanted it to look as it did.  He did not want those effects to be dead-on realistic.  He wanted a dream-like, unreal quality to them, and to a point I believe it worked.  I’m sure something a little more refined could’ve benefitted the sequence better, but I generally have no criticism about it.

The film has a very strong, haunting score by Simon Boswell.  It’s an excellent piece of work that regularly keeps the tension and ominous qualities present, but it also has its moments of beauty as with the Harry and Dorothea love scene.  A sensual saxophone chimes in to delve into that seductive passion.  The music during Swann’s stage show is marvelously theatrical.  In its most climactic moments, the score is powerful and darkly operatic.  Overall, it’s an immensely effective composition for a film with such diverse qualities.

Lord of Illusions has its generous share of heightened tension and frightening danger.  The opening and ending sequences with Nix bring the full boar horror in all its macabre glory.  In the bulk of the film, though, we have action based excitement with D’Amour, and some gory visuals that re-instill the haunting, chilling aspects of the story.  This is not a splatter film with some brutal threat stalking the characters.  It’s very supernatural with a more ominous threat stirring up their deepest fears.  The atmosphere is very strong regularly keeping an audience on edge, and keeping them enthralled as each new layer of the mystery is pulled back.  With lives being lost as he gets deeper into this and becomes more invested in Dorothea, Harry can’t just walk away.  It’s a great way to wrap the hero up in the story, and drive him forward in the face of ungodly horror.  Harry never gives into fear, and remains determined in even the darkest moments of the film.

The final act is powerful and amazing.  It serves as the proper climax to this story which pits apprentice against master in a chilling and grotesque confrontation that still manages to keep D’Amour relevant to the outcome.  It bookends the film smartly bringing Nix back in a far more chilling state than before.  The disturbing cultist aspects of the movie really are driven home by this point, and have an ironic, vile pay-off here.  It further sells the grave lethality and power of Nix.  This entire prolonged sequence is like a slow decent into the horrific depths of hell, and there is no one better suited for the task of realizing that than Clive Barker.  This ending will leave you still unsettled as the end credits roll.

If there’s one horror film that has inspired me as a screenwriter more than any other, it would be Lord of Illusions.  This would be the genre I would want to play around in because Clive Barker realized it so well here.  There’s a vast untapped potential for this supernatural noir genre, and this film is a prime example of that potential.  Barker wrote a brilliant screenplay based on his short story The Last Illusion, and turned it into one of the best, most original and intelligent horror films I have ever seen.  Thus, it is one of my favorite films of all time.  This film far exceeds expectations realizing every element and aspect with amazing, top notch quality.  It is only a shame that the studio difficulties Barker faced with this film caused him to turn away from ever directing another film again.  Fortunately, it has not ceased him being a producer on a number of film adaptations of his written work.  I think Clive Barker is one of the best masters of horror because has never let me down.  If this turns out to be the final film he ever directs, no one could ask for a better final bow than Lord of Illusions.


Constantine (2005)

I very much love this film, and count it as an all time favorite.  I saw it twice in the theatre in 2005 because I was very much enthralled by the concept of the film and the excellent execution of all its characters and ideas.  It has since remained a strong favorite of the genre for me, and has driven my fandom of John Constantine further.  I was not knowledgeable about him before seeing this adaptation, but in the years since then, I have become a fan.  In the Hellblazer comics from DC / Vertigo, he was a blonde Englishman created by the widely revered Alan Moore and visually based off of Sting, the front man for The Police.  Obviously, that does not fit the description of Keanu Reeves, who portrays the title character as a dark haired American in Los Angeles, and there are numerous other changes here that deviate from the source material.  That inevitably irritated numerous hardcore Hellblazer fans, but since this was my introduction to him, I can allow both versions to co-exist in my fandom.   There are many reasons why I highly love this film including its gorgeous visual style, the world it showcases, and the potential of the characters.

It is said that whoever possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in their hands, and the Spear of Destiny has just been found and put into the hands of evil influences.  In Los Angeles, exorcist and occult detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) begins to see foreboding signs of something big and unfriendly coming with demons forcing their way into our world, but at the same time, the anti-social chain smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer.  It’s not so much the diagnosis that troubles him as the knowledge of where he’s going.  John was born with a gift he didn’t want, the ability to clearly recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin, and Constantine was driven to take his own life to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision, but he failed.  Now, marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, the bitter hard-drinking, hard-living Constantine seeks a reprieve from his Hellbound fate.  He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell, hoping in vain to earn his way to salvation by sending the devil’s foot soldiers back to the depths.  Unfortunately, he gains no absolution from the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and no consolation from strenuous allies such as the ominous former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou).  They all adhere to “The Balance” which keeps half-breeds from directly interfering in human affairs in order to settle a wager between God and the Devil for the souls of all mankind.  When desperate but skeptical LAPD Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved psychic twin sister, their investigation pushes them deep into a subversive plot to use the Spear of Destiny to bring forth an evil that threatens to destroy humanity.  Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved, and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.

Director Francis Lawrence came from a music video background, and that can be hit or miss when moving to feature films.  However, Lawrence’s background was clearly a benefit as he injects a very powerful and epic visual style into this film.  Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot realizes that immersive vision brilliantly.  His composition is rock solid creating very engaging visuals that pull an audience into the story and characters.  There is depth to spare in his frames, and plenty of grace and integrity in how he shoots everything.  There’s never any handheld camera work.  It’s all fluid movement that contributes to the overall enveloping otherworldly tone of the picture.  The use of color temperatures is very key to the atmosphere as it accentuates the dramatic tones throughout with a vibrant palette.  This is a gracefully shot film with great attention to creating a unique atmosphere and tone in its visuals.

The overall quality of the visual effects are stunning.  They are exceptionally consistent and of an amazing high quality.  From subtle effects like the fiery glint in the eyes of demons to the enveloping landscape of the Hell version of Los Angeles, they create a complete, rich, textured, and full world for John Constantine to exist within that is truly convincing.  The fearsome demonic creatures seen throughout are designed with consistency and originality.  This feels like a world with its own weathered history, and attention is paid to every detail to present it as such.  The entire “into the light” effect in the climax is awesome as the shadows are literally pulled away to force the evil presence into view.  There is never just one effect used over and over again as a crutch.  The film is full of vibrant effects that give the film its fantastical flare.  Overall, every effect is just executed and presented with amazing artistry complementing Francis Lawrence’s vision beautifully.

I also very highly enjoy the score to Constantine.  It has a great atmospheric, haunting electronic style that further fleshes out the otherworldly quality of the film, but still incorporates plenty of traditional score elements that punctuate the rousing, dramatic sequences as well as the softer, more intimate emotions of the film.  Composers Klaus Badelt & Brian Tyler put together one hell of a unique musical accomplishment with this.  I’ve never heard a score quite like this before, and it works so amazingly well.  There is a great use of melody all throughout which enhances the emotional depth that this film is truly rich with.  This is definitely a film that takes a different approach to things to give an audience a very distinctive identity for an all encompassing experience.  The addition of the song “Passive” from A Perfect Circle is wicked cool in my opinion.  It truly set a great tone entering into Papa Midnite’s club.

These enveloping elements wrap together to create a very rich story with a tone full of integrity and gravity.  It can be a very haunting and scary film that uses horror elements at times, but is best categorized as a supernatural dark fantasy action film.  The action in the film are not big set pieces with spectacular stunts.  John’s not some bad ass action hero who can slug it out with a demon.  Instead, he uses his occult and demonic knowledge as well as his skills as a con artist to help him win battles.  He fights smart using the tools he has acquired which exploit the weaknesses of his enemies such as holy water, Moses’ shroud, a pair of Holy Cross brass knuckles, dragon’s breath, and various eclectic items provided to him by his allies.

This story is partially inspired by the Dangerous Habits comics storyline, which I have read.  There’s little directly adapted from that story, and is more just taking the premise of Constantine being diagnosed with lung cancer and having to cope with that.  How he deals with it and the resolutions of the comic and the film are very different, but both greatly show off John’s cunning skill as a con artist to varying degrees.

Constantine himself is very fascinating, and I think this version of him is well portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  I am quite a big fan of his work ranking Point Break as one of my absolute favorite films ever.  I find his work quite enjoyable, and he has some highly impressive acting ability.  I think his approach tends to be more subtle, and with Constantine, he really drives home a very diverse character.  Reeves showcases Constantine’s jaded personality with depth and purpose.  He brings out that worn down, weathered texture that makes the character so intriguing and surprising.  He can be an outright asshole because he’s been both plagued by the knowledge he has about the world around him, and that he’s destined to spend eternity in Hell, regardless of what he does.  He’s tired and frustrated by these rules that these so-called “higher beings” have imposed upon humanity for their own sport, and he knows there’s little he can do to combat that.  Keanu gives the character enough edge while still maintaining an underlying sense of humanity which evolves through the film.  As the story goes along, he becomes more and more invested in Angela as a person instead of just her being a cog in a larger plot.  You gradually see the bond form between the characters, and how that starts to drive John’s actions.  There’s a pivotal shift in there where he stops sulking in his own pain and starts seeing Angela’s.  He sees her regret and how far she’s willing to go to mend it.  John can still be an asshole, but ultimately, it’s just to those that deserve it.  Reeves portrays these subtle and strong emotional beats powerfully showing that there’s more to Constantine beyond that spiteful, embittered exterior.

Another subtle part of John that’s retained from the comics is how his friends constantly pay the price for his battles.  In the comics, John is haunted by the ghosts of his dead friends, and the screenwriters slipped a brief line in here about John not needing another ghost following him around.  So, it’s no wonder that he’s as cynical and jaded as he is, but it’s also these circumstances which drive him to fight.  He challenges everyone on their egotistical or hypocritical behavior, and allows no one to slide.

However, the arc for the character takes him from being a self-serving person who fights evil for his own sake to someone that does the right thing for the sake of others.  It takes nothing away from the hardened core of the character, it just makes him an actual hero by the end.  That is helped immensely by Rachel Weisz’s emotionally impactful performance.  Reeves and Weisz had previously worked together on the 1996 film Chain Reaction as love interests, and perhaps that added a stronger chemistry between them.  In this film, their chemistry is exceptionally solid and tight.  They have great back-and-forth dialogue with sharp timing and rich character dynamics.  Angela is also easily able to stand up to John’s abrasive attitude which is a welcomed quality.  Weisz strongly portrays the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable counter-balance of the story.  This allows an audience to have a relatable conduit into the character of John Constantine and his supernatural world.  Rachel Weisz is an incredible actress showcasing a wide range of abilities here.  She is remarkably powerful bringing out the emotional pain that Angela has deep within.  However, while Angela is vulnerable, she is a police detective, and thus, Weisz never makes her appear helpless or incapable of defending herself.  She has a definite strong will and confidence about her mixed in with a grounded, engaging charm.  It’s simply that the character been impacted by tragic events, and is thrust into a potentially frightening scenario which brings out those fearful or unstable elements in her.  Weisz handles it all with dramatic weight and grace.

It is also immensely impressive how strong the supporting cast is in Constantine.  Djimon Hounsou has such an awesome presence as the witch doctor turned night club owner Papa Midnite.  His deep voice and subtle charisma give weight and gravity to his performance.  He can be greatly imposing and intimidating without even standing up in his initial scene.  Hounsou and Reeves spark a fascinating chemistry.  They play the characters with a sense of shared history which has its turbulent areas which causes friction and some antagonism between them.  The screenwriters had a good philosophy of the best way to convey exposition about a character is to show them working.  You get to know more about Midnite and Constantine through what they do and how they go about doing it than can really be conveyed through straight dialogue interactions.  This is showcased beautifully in the sequence with “The Chair” which allows John to see the path the Spear of Destiny has taken recently, and to find out where Angela has been taken.  It’s a manner of operating alluding to information that is necessary for them to know to do what they need to do, but is not necessary to be spelled out for the audience.  This further reflects the sense that this a world with a long, textured history between characters, and it is presented in a very smart way that never bogs down the film with extraneous exposition.  Midnite himself has a very pleasing arc in the story that ultimately shows Hounsou’s range and charm.  He makes the character very fascinating, imposing, but ultimately, highly pleasing.

Tilda Swinton is immaculately graceful and elegant as the half-breed angel Gabriel.  The filmmakers chose to go with an androgynous quality for the character, and absolutely wanted Swinton for the role.  They chose incredibly well.  Her performance has a gentle compassion that eventually turns into a subtle megalomaniacal mindset.  She also has an ethereal aura and presence about her that is pitch perfect.  It’s a nice dynamic when Constantine goes to see her with him ranting and calling out the hypocrisy at hand, but she offers up a very warm, motherly tone with him.  They are both trying to make each other see things from their perspective, and neither is entirely in the right.  There is a very aristocratic, snobbish mentality from Gabriel that John can’t stomach, and it works so exceptionally well for this character.  It’s such a remarkable performance that the words to describe it in depth escape me.

Now, this film was before Shia LeBouf started grating on peoples’ nerves, but here, there’s enough heart and charm with him as Chas to make his performance a pleasure.  Chas is spirited and driven to be given the chance to be of real assistance to Constantine instead of just his personal cab driver, but John just knows the danger of allowing him to do so.  Yet, Chas is eventually given the chance to show his worth.  As with everyone else, the chemistry is dead on the mark perfect.  Gavin Rossdale’s turn as the demon Balthazar is oozing with charisma.  He relishes being engulfed in evil, and that delicious smarmy arrogance just pours out over the screen.  The tension and spite between him and John is thick as can be.  You can’t help but love and hate him all at the same time.  All of the actors throughout the film really inhabited their characters with exceptional commitment and nuance, and came together as a cohesive whole to deliver something diverse and marvelous.

Of course, there is Peter Stormare’s magnificent performance as Lucifer himself.  There have been so many portrayals of the Devil over the years in cinema from some massively talented actors, and each portrayal has been unique.  Stormare takes unique to a whole new level here.  The physicality alone is unsettling as if he’s trying to uncomfortably fit back into a human form like it’s an old out of shape body suit, and it results in some peculiar and tense nervous energy.  The look is striking enough without devolving into shock.  The shaved eyebrows and shorn haircut along with the tattoos really present a standout visual that separates Lucifer from everyone else in the film.  Stormare takes all of this to forge a weirdly eccentric Devil that doesn’t need to flaunt an ego or boast of his power.  His creepy, chilling presence sells everything.  The addition of the pure white suit and bare feet was a nice touch, and it really fits the visual aesthetics of the film.

While I have nothing against a well done origin, it is very commendable that this is not an origin story spending a large percentage of the film showing how Constantine became the man he is today.  His back story is not even revealed until well into the second act as we get to know it alongside Angela, and allusions to other shared histories are sprinkled throughout.  The film treats its audience as intelligent by not having to explain every little thing.  It presents a world, gradually lays out the general parameters of how it works, and then, allows it to envelop the audience.  I like this approach for the character because there is a lot of John Constantine history that is very relevant to the character, but it would be nigh impossible to hit all the poignant marks to develop him fully in a two hour film.  Starting a film series here is very interesting because it takes John from the jaded, weathered depths to someone more purposeful and formidable.  It is a greatly executed arc wrapped up in a strong plotline backed by some excellent talents in front of and behind the camera.

It seems hard to judge where this movie stands in terms of general consensus.  It’s not one of those comic book movies everyone talks about, or includes on the list of the best or worst adaptations.  I seem to perceive this as a film that had good commercial success, but tends to get overlooked for no apparent reason.  Professional critics were divided on it, but the thing with critics is that they get paid to go see movies they are not always pre-disposed to enjoy.  This was a movie that appealed to my tastes via its marketing, and it did blow me away.  Again, the hardcore fans of Hellblazer likely had their passionate gripes with all the changes made to the established elements of the property, but it’s not a bad film at all.  It’s exceptionally well made from a filmmaker with great vision and artistry, and features an amazing cast that put their all into it.  From an objective point of view, it’s a greatly entertaining and satisfying film.  It has plenty of interesting action, an excellently crafted world, fantastic, stunning visual effects, a unique and fascinating score, and is just generally well written all the way around.  I really love this film, and I love what I’ve read in the Hellblazer trade paperbacks.  Both offer me something different but equally satisfying to my tastes for supernatural horror and dark fantasy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the property, this film can ease you into the heavier subject matter and grittier feel of the comics, but they are two unmistakably different presentations on the characters and the world they inhabit.  Taking the film on its own merits, it’s a highly imaginative, excellent piece of work that is worth investing your time and interest in.