Every 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.
This film of magical heists and mystery looked like just a fairly fun outing from the trailers, and I’m glad to say that is what I received. Now You See Me has a great cast of talent that delivers, a script that is smart enough, and a premise that maintains your interest to see where the next twist will take you. It’s not brilliant, but it is well designed to entertain.
An elite FBI squad, led by Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is pitted in a game of cat and mouse against “The Four Horsemen,” (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, David Franco) a super-team of the world’s greatest illusionists who a year ago were mere street performers. “The Four Horsemen” pull off a series of daring heists against corrupt business leaders during their performances, showering the stolen profits on their audiences while staying one step ahead of the law. Their sensationalistic crimes also ensnare the attention of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who now debunks and exposes the tricks of magicians for his own gain. As the Horsemen’s grand game of misdirection and slight of hand escalates towards their grand finale, it’s a cunning game of wits for all to pull the curtain back to unveil the hidden truth behind it all.
Indeed, what sells this film in general is the excellent acting talents involved. Morgan Freeman is surefire as this former magician who now seeks to debunk the best in the business for higher fortune. He keeps the riddles twisting around the audience leading us on, but never fully revealing the next step. How he deconstructs how the Four Horsemen executed their tricks and heists is smartly done. Freeman does a wonderful job here bringing his usual intellectual savvy to this perceptive character.
The Horsemen themselves are vibrantly portrayed with Jesse Eisenberg being the strongest of them as J. Daniel Atlas. He really projects some smart, quick witted savvy that demonstrates Daniel’s leadership, and his humorous banter with his co-stars is quick and sharp. He definitely feels like the guy who could outsmart anyone in the room, and do it with style. Isla Fisher plays nicely off of Eisenberg as Henley and Daniel have some romantic fallout between them, but it’s kept light and smart. Woody Harrelson puts in a real good performance showing Merritt McKinley to be a very intuitive personality from his skills as a mentalist. He can read people up and down, inside and out to pull little hints of information from them, and Harrelson uses that to solid comedic effect. Dave Franco might seem like the weak link in the team, by design, but he eventually gets his moments to shine as street hustler Jack Wilder. Altogether, this is a great foursome of sharp talents that never upstage one another, but instead, complement each other in a cohesive fashion. They’re very fun to watch.
And of course, Mark Ruffalo is a charming treat as Dylan Rhodes. Ruffalo brings charisma and a rough edge to Rhodes, but maintains him as an enjoyable, smart guy that you can connect with. He is always portrayed as a competent and solid FBI Agent, but you see him trying to deconstruct all of these theatrics with regular investigative work. So, it’s a fun ride to see him weave through it all dealing with Thaddeus Bradley as well as French Interpol Agent Dray, who you’re given reason to suspect as being not entirely as she seems. Ruffalo has decent chemistry with Mélanie Laurent. There are never sparks flying between them, but it’s an honest and sweet pairing that has its light humor and genuineness. Basically, if you liked what Ruffalo did as Bruce Banner in The Avengers, I think you’ll enjoy the humor, heart, and charisma he brings forth here.
The visual effects throughout the film are very excellent. They sell the flash and style of the Horsemen’s illusions with stellar results. There might be one or two moments where the CGI isn’t as good as it is elsewhere, but in the vast majority, this is seamless and awesome work. It gives the film its visual flare and style. And it is an exceptionally well shot movie. Director Louis Leterrier really knows how to put together a visually solid movie as I did very much enjoy The Incredible Hulk, and the integration of visual effects into live action is superbly done under his direction. Leterrier beautifully utilizes all the rich talent he has at this disposal here, and executes this script with smart direction that kept me engaged and guessing.
And while I expected fun and flashiness, I was pleasantly surprised that the film had some nice action sequences. There’s a decently well stage foot chase through the crowded streets of New Orleans with some clever beats. Later on, when the FBI is closing in on the Horsemen, we get an extremely impressive and acrobatic fight scene with Franco and Ruffalo. There’s some great, fast, and fluid moves in this that just stunned me from Dave Franco. He’s combating people with swift actions like that of a ninja, and this sequence showcases smarts and sharpness in every second. Following this, there’s a really good car chase through Manhattan, New York. All of this action is very well done with only a few minor moments of shaky cam, but it ultimately came out to be very pleasing. The film’s climax isn’t really action based, but focused on the story and motives behind this elaborate magic trick. It unfolds nicely with fine dramatic beats, but surely, I won’t be spoiling any of these well written and executed reveals to you at all.
How the mystery all plays out is engaging and intriguing. I kind of view the movie, going in, as The Prestige crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, and that’s generally how to look at it in concept. It doesn’t match the brilliance of either of those films, but as I said, it’s a fun, entertaining experience. It is the twisting and turning puzzle that the Horsemen are constructing that make it interesting. You don’t know what the next trick will be, but it’s about even more than that. It’s not just the magic that they perform and how they did it, but the motives behind it keep you guessing. It’s cleverly designed through and through. How it’s all setup with a mysterious benefactor bringing together and enabling this foursome, even the Horsemen don’t know the full truth, and so, there is a layered mystery at hand. The FBI is just interested in catching these performers in the act of the crime, and Bradley is interested in burning them down for his own self-serving fame and fortune. So, everyone has their motives, and they all nicely interweave into the reveals at the film’s end. The ultimate twist is something I’m a little divided on. I liked the moment of the reveal as it is dramatically and beautifully played, but it wasn’t quite setup in the film. All of the other pieces are there to assemble the motives and interwoven storylines together. As a magic trick played on a grand canvas, this film does a really excellent job of doing that. The ultimate reveal just felt like it needed a little more punch. Something like a Keyser Söze reveal where the clues were there the whole time, but you couldn’t pick up on them. Something subtle, something between the lines that would strike you at just the right moment. I could figure out the why, but not entirely who amongst this cast or beyond would be the Horsemen’s ultimate benefactor. It’s far away from being a poor ending, but it could’ve benefitted from a little more setup.
Frankly, I think Now You See Me is just a fun time to have at the movie theatre. I’m sure if you went into it with a critical mind you could nitpick it apart, and see how really unbelievable the plot is in all its little nuances. Thankfully, I was enjoying myself consistently throughout this movie, and was able to sit back, relax, and just have a pleasant time with it. Just like magic, you have to let your mind go and just allow yourself to be entertained by the cleverness and spectacle at hand. The film is smartly written overall, in my opinion, and I found that there was plenty of subtle setup and pay-off for practically everything in here. This film captures the spirit of magic very well, and it’s almost refreshing to see a film of so many vibrant characters without a real villain in the mix. Everyone is enjoyable in their own ways, and next to no one is tinged with villainy. It’s just a fun ride that I think essentially anyone can enjoy if they’re willing to just embrace it.
I 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.
I’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.
This film, directed by James Mangold, is one that I was very impressed with in its original theatrical release, and revisiting it now, it still holds up as an effective thriller. Supported by a remarkable ensemble cast and a brilliant screenplay, Identity delivers a mind-bending story that cleverly weaves its way around a classic murder mystery premise.
Strangers from all different walks of life are all trapped by a torrential rain storm on a Nevada road one night. They are forced to take shelter at an old roadside motel, run by the nervous manager Larry (John Hawkes). There is Ed Dakota, a limo driver, escorting fading television star Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay), the turbulent married couple of George & Alice York (John C. McGinley & Leila Kinzel) with their young son Timothy (Bret Loehr), Rhodes, a Department of Corrections officer transporting the dangerous convict Robert Maine (Jake Busey), a beautiful call girl (Amanda Peet), and a couple of young newlyweds (William Lee Scott & Clea DuVall). None of them are at ease amongst these strangers, but circumstances become dire when someone begins murdering them one-by-one. Accusations begin to fly as paranoia and fear escalate, but they will all begin to discover very strange truths about their supposed chance encounter here. Meanwhile in an undisclosed location, in an eleventh hour court hearing, psychiatrist Dr. Mallick (Alfred Molina) tries to prove the innocence and sanity of his patient, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has been convicted of murder, and is scheduled to face execution in twenty-four hours. How both of these stories connect is a mystery of identity.
This film will keep you guessing from one moment to the next as to many things. Many twists unfold in plot and perception, and when you think this film has twisted your thoughts into many knots, it throws one final one at you. Now, these twists won’t leave you lost, there’s plenty of breathing room and enough exposition to allow you to understand all that is happening. It is very cleverly paced and structured to keep an audience ensnared through the entire mystery. This film is tense, suspenseful, creepy, and haunting. It is an excellent psychological thriller that has far more to it than just a group of people getting killed off in a very Agatha Christie fashion. In fact, no other film I have seen has utilized this genre quite so well. There is just as much psychological terror for the characters as there is for the audience.
Director James Mangold brilliantly builds suspense and paranoia with a troubling sense of unease. A group of strangers stranded in a run down desert motel definitely lends to that feeling. Considering one of them is a known violent criminal heightens that even more. Subtle things are revealed to the audience that add to our apprehension knowing certain people are not who they claim or appear to be. This creates plenty of clever misdirection. Add in some volatile and emotionally distressed characters, and the tension is wrapped so a tight, unnerving level. When that tension finally breaks, it’s heart pounding. The film hardly never allows an audience to relax fully. There’s regularly some form of urgency or excitement that propels the characters forward towards danger.
The style of the film is very original such as with the immediate flashbacks. You’ll see a lot of them at the start and a bit near the end. They show how certain events brought everyone together in a unique non-linear fashion. It nicely punctuates certain plot elements such as it was Paris’ high-heeled shoe that flew out of her opened suitcase that caused the York’s flat tire later that night. It’s a nice, quick storytelling tool that helps move the story ahead quickly without leaving even small questions unanswered. I enjoyed that element quite a bit, and the direction and editing of them was very handled well. The addition of the rain storm throughout the film is classically atmospheric, and adds to the treacherous, mysterious qualities of the plot. Danger and paranoia are abound as things get stranger and stranger, and the torrential rain and thunder claps simply unsettle the characters and the audience further.
The surreal aspects are also subtly handled. They forge an underlying peculiarity for the strangers at the motel. They attempt to explain them in various ways, but eventually, these occurrences go far beyond mere coincidence or rationale. They can’t make sense of it, but it truly freaks them out. It creates a bizarre, twisted web for them all. These aspects build up so beautifully to an absolutely mind-blowing revelation.
Identity is masterfully shot and edited. Shooting in all that nighttime rain never muddles the visuals. We always have a clear picture of what’s happening without sacrificing the dramatic, moody cinematography. The film evenly balances between various indoor and outdoor scenes giving an audience enough variety in the visuals to keep our eyes interested. There is such great atmosphere crafted into how the film is shot, and the editing really supports the lingering suspense expertly. When things begin deconstructing in the third act, the editing creates an amazing visual style which perfectly represents the psychological chaos. It’s all a superbly executed thriller with many gripping twists and turns that have an excellent conclusion.
This ensemble cast is magnificent! There strong performances all around with John Cusack being the obvious trusting protagonist. He brings his usual heart and wit along with a solid dramatic weight. Ed Dakota is a very relatable character with a great depth of pain and desire to do what is right. He’s given a strong back story that Cusack really grasps the emotional weight and guilt Ed carries with him, making him someone we can invest our confidence in.
Ray Liotta has a nice turn showing both a hardened strength and a shadier side that surfaces later on. He is very intense, confrontational, and adversarial while projecting a presence of authority with a more temperamental edge. Jake Busey is convincingly intimidating and dangerous with a crazed look in his eye coupled with his reliable charisma. John Hawkes is another stellar actor who can deliver a deep array of emotions. Here, he runs the full gamut ranging from nervous and skittish to violent and unhinged. And I really have to say that Rebecca De Mornay is hotter here than I have ever seen her before. She’s beyond gorgeous in my view, as I have an affinity for red heads, and she does a wonderful job as the somewhat egotistical actress Caroline Suzanne. She’s definitely a pleasure. And of course, I always expect nothing less than excellence from John C. McGinley, as many do these days, and he doesn’t fail here. His George York is a very nervous man with little self-confidence who doesn’t cope with these violent, tragic situations well. McGinley brings a lot of compassion and simple innocence to this caring husband and step-father.
Alfred Molina is perfect as Dr. Mallick presenting a soft-spoken, intelligent psychiatrist with a sense of empathy. Pruitt Taylor Vince has always impressed me taking on some substantive and sometimes peculiar roles, and doing an exceptionally unique and standout job in them. For what little time he has on screen, he brings that same level of talent to Malcolm Rivers. That jittery eye trick he does seems to land him these off-kilter roles, and it is distinctly effective.
I really have to hand it to the screenwriting talents of Michael Clooney, and especially the directorial abilities of James Mangold. Both crafted together a very solid, smart, and effective thriller that has plenty of genuine scares and suspense to entertain an audience. Because of this, it still has re-watch value. The film is so strong that it would still work just as marvelously without the major twist at the end. The mystery thriller aspect with people being killed off at the motel is just expertly executed in every way. The addition of said twist just ups the psychological brilliance of the concept. I definitely give Identity a wholehearted recommendation, just as I did when it was theatrically released.
The direct-to-video end of the Hellraiser franchise has not yielded very admirable results. However, I found this entry to be a great surprise. Granted, this one doesn’t have a lot of Hellraiser-style gore, but gore alone does not make a Hellraiser film. Although, one early scene might spur thoughts from Hellbound, and I feel this is the best sequel since Hellbound: Hellraiser II. While this does share some elements with Hellraiser: Inferno, it blends everything together very nicely for a superior film. It is a whole twisting story that wraps itself with past mythology and storylines featuring the return of Ashley Laurence.
We open to Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) and her now husband, Trevor (Dean Winters), driving down the road speaking vaguely of things we are yet to understand. They start playfully fooling around, start kissing, but Trevor narrowly misses a head-on collision with an SUV which swerves the car off the bridge into the river. Tthe car sinks, Trevor escapes, but is unable to free Kirsty. Naturally, Trevor believes she drowned to death, but her body cannot be found. Trevor wakes up to some amnesia along with several disturbing experiences, but he takes them as nightmares due to his head trauma. Trevor is re-oriented to his peculiar surroundings including his sexually aggressive boss Gwen, his sexy young neighbor in his apartment complex, and his somewhat oddly-behaving co-worker and friend Bret. Trevor is plagued by bizarre images and nightmarish experiences all the while more and more of his memory returns. He can’t explain why someone dies in his apartment, but then, reappear alive with no memory of such events. Or why he sees an image in the video camera happening right before him, but yet, it isn’t. Why he feels he’s being watched or followed by a faceless, dark figure. None of it makes sense to him. One cop believes he’s done nothing wrong, but another believes he killed his wife. The further it all progresses, the more it comes together like any sort of puzzle. It’s all cleverly woven into a worthy sequel to the first two Hellraiser films.
I really have to say that I think Dean Winters is a severely under-recognized talent. He’s an actor with a lot of charisma and emotional strength capable of being a major leading man. He always puts everything he has into everything he does. Hellraiser: Hellseeker is no different. He carries this film excellently reflecting various states of confusion, heartfelt emotion, inquisitiveness, menace, and passion. He embodies that wide range with ease and depth. With both how the story is structured, and the honest quality of his performance, even in the end, I didn’t really despise Trevor despite what he tried to do to Kirsty. You can come to feel empathy for Trevor as the man you’ve come to know over the course of this film instead of the man he really was.
The entire cast really is a solid mixture. Detective Lange is given plenty of humanity and compassion by William S. Taylor, and conversely, Detective Givens is nicely hard edged and abrasive by way of Michael Rogers. The ladies of the film are all very attractive, and handle the steamy, seductive aspects of their roles with a lot of passion and assertiveness. There’s definite some stimulating sexually charged action in the movie that further throws Trevor into a whirlwind of confusion.
Doug Bradley puts in one of his best performances here. Of course, he portrays Pinhead, and does so with a lot of chilling, intimidating vigor. He seemed very amped up for this script as it gives him a very juicy role that he sinks his teeth into very deeply. The film puts in just the right amount of Pinhead to keep him compelling with just a few poignant scenes. Since they avoid over indulging in the character, those scenes have strong impact which had been missed in the last several entries. The previous film, Hellraiser: Inferno, had so little Pinhead in it that he had nearly zero impact. Hellseeker gets it right. Bradley also portrays a sort of second character which he brings a different, yet similar quality to. He’s more cryptic and tempting in a subtle fashion that is very effective. His performance as this Merchant really sets a foreboding, mysterious tone for much of the film. The scene is very nicely interspersed throughout the film as Trevor flashes back to it every so often to reveal more of it.
The structure used here to build up these very vivid and terrifying hallucinations, and slowly reveal the darker truths surrounding Trevor is, dare I say, very brilliant. While it’s not all that original of a structure, the execution is just so exceptionally effective. The hallucinations are startling and constantly unnerving to an audience who must regularly question the reality of the situation. The mysterious aspects are greatly interwoven for a very compelling story that moves at strong, steady pace. Overall, this is just an exceptionally well written and executed script that has a strong punch of a twist ending.
The film was directed by Rick Bota, who had previously been an amazing cinematographer on a number of movies. So, it’s no surprise that he makes this film look far above its direct-to-video status. He clearly worked extensively with director of photography John Drake to create a very textured and moody look for Hellseeker with its blue and green tones. It creates a hardened, cold aesthetic that benefits the story very well. There is plenty of grit in the darker visuals and a rich depth of contrast that enhances the moodiness. The visuals really have a lot of weight and integrity, and the camera work is very solid. There’s plenty of dramatic angles, used sparingly, and competent camera movement to give this film production value and artistic quality. Overall, this is a film that is shot very solidly.
While the Steven Edwards’ score is definite departure from the classic Christopher Young style music, it suits this film nicely. There are some electric guitar pieces mixed in with the orchestral work, and I think that gives this Hellraiser film a bit more respectable self-identity. The score of Edwards surely supports the unnerving and startling tone that is so very well executed by Rick Bota.
Hellseeker still unsettled me after several years since my last watch of it. There were plenty of graphic sequences that made me squirm and wince. These are great story beats that weave into the overall plot smartly by the end. Nothing’s ever gratuitous. It all has a purpose once understood in retrospect. The effectiveness of this nerve twitching moments are a testament to both the amazing make-up effects work of Gary Tunnicliffe, and the digital effects work headed up by Jamison Goei. Regardless of a direct-to-video budget, the results of both are greatly impressive. Tunnicliffe really raised the standards of practical effects back to the first two films of the franchise. I will admit that the Cenobites still have the same quality as they do in the other later sequels, they are surely photographed better. The visual effects of Goei are very admirable on this kind of level. I’ve seen big budget summer blockbusters with horrendous CGI, but here, it’s quite good. It’s not Jurassic Park quality, but for a horror franchise of this budget, it’s superior to what you’d likely expect.
All in all, this is a damn good sequel. While I do feel this is the best sequel since Hellbound, don’t go thinking that this is a comparison to the first two films because it’s not. Those are different styles of stories than this. It’s a far more suspenseful, creepy, and mysterious film. It’s not so dependent on the Cenobites to drive the story forward. It has its surreal, bewildering qualities as Trevor’s own perception of reality is increasingly distorted. This is what Hellraiser: Inferno should have been, but failed greatly by detaching itself from any backstory or mythology that the series had been built on. That’s what Hellraiser is, it’s a story built on mythology as well as inner and outer conflicts. To lose the mythology and the backstory really doesn’t make it feel like Hellraiser. From the very beginning of the original Hellraiser, we’ve got mythology and history that was rich with depth. That’s what gives this series its strength. Pinhead and the rest of the Hellraiser mythos have so much that is yet to be known. There’s so much fertile ground that can still be harvested for further stories such as this one. With something as vast and as dark as Leviathan’s realm, there has to be much more that can be told about it.
While this was another original script re-written and adapted to be a Hellraiser film, I believe those writers did a solid job doing so. Tying the entire story into Kirsty was exciting and smart. Seeing her and Pinhead square off yet again was awesome, and acknowledged some substantive history with the franchise. On the DVD, there is an extended version of that scene which is very well written re-treading their back story that better explains why Pinhead sought her out. It’s only too bad that Ashley Laurence reportedly said Dimension Films only paid her enough for a single payment on a refrigerator. That stings, a lot! Regardless of that, she still put in her all for this performance, and it was a great stronger, edgier side to the character which fit perfectly into this excellent story.
This film really stands up, and it’s good that you learn things along with Trevor. You’re about as confused as he is as these bizarre, horrific, and startling events keep intruding on what he believes is reality. It’s all a puzzle that both you and Trevor discover together. It’s a film that really pays respect to the origins of the franchise, and continues on Kirsty’s story in a very intelligent way. Rick Bota proved he could be a solid director of horror with the right script. The film has a great level of grit and harden atmosphere that sets a perfect unsettling and creepy tone. Simply said, Hellraiser: Hellseeker is one to see for any Hellraiser fan!
I haven’t been a loyal follower of Tim Burton’s career, but the films I have seen from him, I very much do enjoy. Sleepy Hollow is a very pleasant entry in his career, collaborating with Johnny Depp, that strikes the right balance between Burton’s quirky humor and dramatic gothic storytelling. It’s fun, exciting, and scary all at the same time.
Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) of the New York police arrives in the small village of Sleepy Hollow in 1799 to solve a mystery of murders. With all the victims found with their heads missing, everybody in Sleepy Hollow is talking about the ghost of the “Headless Horseman.” He is supposedly out in the woods seeking revenge for his murder many years ago. Crane, believing only in logic, refuses to believe the public’s theory about the horseman and begins his investigations, only to find his faith shattered when he himself encounters the headless horseman. Yet, he is compelled to resolve his investigation after falling deeply in love with the beautiful young Katrina (Christina Ricci). Their fates intertwine as Ichabod attempts to unravel the supernatural and wicked mysteries that threaten everyone’s lives in Sleepy Hollow. It’s a magical tale of sense against myth.
While I think general audiences today are a little worn out on the repeated Burton-Depp collaborations, Sleepy Hollow is an excellent piece of work that’s worth your while. Depp does a brilliant job as Constable Crane. He brings a certain young naivety to the ambitious investigator. He has bold new ideas about using science and intellect to deduce crimes that his superiors lightly dismiss. The contrast of everyone’s grim, fearsome attitudes to Crane’s more upbeat mentality creates an amusing dynamic. Crane is definitely intelligent and educated, but Depp’s clever, delicate balance between the serious and the tongue-in-cheek tone of Crane makes him such a delight. True to the source material, Ichabod is somewhat cowardly, but he can muster up courage when it counts. Beyond all else, he’s determined to resolve this twisting mystery that seems to have an air of conspiracy about it. That’s what makes him a character to invest yourself in. Despite his own trembling fears, he picks himself back up and pushes forward to finish what he began. Depp shows a lot of sweet charm and humor making Ichabod a pure hearted hero that both amuses and inspires.
I will absolutely admit that I once had a fascination with Christina Ricci. She’s a beautiful and highly talent actress who doesn’t shy away from challenging material. What she gives us as Katrina is a lovely, graceful young lady that is indeed bewitching. She carries an ethereal aura about her reflecting Katrina’s depth and purity of soul. Ricci and Depp have a gorgeous chemistry that really lights up the screen, and enraptures an audience with their magic. They are such an excellent fit that I’d love to see more of them together.
At the time of release, it was kept a secret that the Hessian Horseman was portrayed by Christopher Walken. It was an added pleasant surprise when I first saw the film in 1999. Aside from some animalistic grunts as he slays his victims., the Horseman has no lines of dialogue, and doesn’t need any due to how he is portrayed and presented. It was a great idea to tell the Horseman’s story early on to have the bloodthirsty psychotic face embed itself in the audience’s minds. The Horseman filed his teeth to a razor sharp point that made him appear more frightening in his enemies’ eyes. It’s an amazing, ferocious design that sends a chill up your spine, especially in conjunction with Walken’s charismatic physicality. It’s also great that the Horseman is not the ultimate villain, but a weapon used by a treacherous conspirator.
Tim Burton really culled together a magnificent cast with several veterans of stage and screen as well as some fine young talents such as Casper Van Dien. Adding in some Hammer Films alumnus like Christopher Lee and Michael Gough was a very nice touch. Miranda Richardson has a wonderful turn in this film that she seemed very enthusiastic about throwing herself into. Her overall performance is marvelous.
The visual effects of Sleepy Hollow are astonishingly good. Just getting the Headless Horseman to become a reality on screen was a big challenge, I’m sure, and there is nothing but top notch quality on display here. The various decapitations and other gory slayings are phenomenally done. What else would you expect from Industrial Light & Magic? The effects never cease to impress throughout the entire movie. The film has a generous helping of blood and gore to make some squirm or jump in their seats while others will simply relish its exquisite glory. The practical effects are seamlessly integrated with the digital effects for a visually amazing experience. I cannot praise this work highly enough. While there are some silly moments with the visual effects, they are perfectly at home in a Tim Burton movie.
The gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton are realized in a magnificent way. The film has a slightly desaturated, gritty look giving way to a more grim feeling of looming danger. Sleepy Hollow is shot beautifully, strongly maintaining that dark tone of horror and tension. Yet, there are plenty of picturesque sequences, such as a series of dreams Ichabod has which further enrich the fantastical, and sometimes, enchanting aspects of the movie. This truly is a visually gorgeous film in a style that could only come from the imagination of Tim Burton. And of course, Danny Elfman created a powerfully grandiose score that fits perfectly with Burton’s gothic stylings. It is a stunning, sweeping piece of work that enhances all the dark, lovely, and magical atmospheres of Sleepy Hollow.
This movie really is a lot of fun. Burton doesn’t take it too seriously as he applies his own dark comedy to the more violent, gruesome moments. So, while the Horseman is chasing down and chopping off the heads of hapless victims, there’s usually a humorous quirk in there, but Burton keeps it in check. He never allows it to compromise the dramatic integrity of the story, and instead sort of does it at Ichabod’s expense, which is entirely fitting. Said story has plenty of mysterious aura and thrilling moments of tense horror and suspense. The Horsemen, head or no, is very scary and intimidating. He’s mercilessly violent and very smart. There are superbly executed plot twists that are never cheap. This is a smartly crafted screenplay which weaves its way around these solidly conceived characters. The secrets and manipulations abound under the surface of this quiet village make for a fertile ground for this sort of story. How everything is unraveled in the end is quite wicked.
That said, this has a hell of a great climax with plenty of fiery action and dramatic revelations. Characters are kept in serious peril as it becomes a race to save lives while the Horseman in unleashed once again. Action and suspense build up to a highly energetic and exciting level, and the pay-off is quite ironic and fitting. It is all very satisfying tying up all the plot and character threads with that classic Tim Burton wit and charm.
This is a beautifully crafted film in every aspect. It’s a visual masterwork backed by an excellent script written by the deeply talented Andrew Kevin Walker with a story co-developed by Kevin Yagher. The latter of the two also worked on the creature effects here, and doing a remarkable job at it, too. There are many tried and true Tim Burton talents who were involved with this film which instilled it with an amazing depth of artistry and talent. The film definitely delivers on exciting tension and fearsome scares with a light air of dark, quirky humor. It also weaves an enchanting love story through its haunting and startling mystery. I really, really like Sleepy Hollow because, beyond everything else, it’s just a fun watch with plenty to take pleasure in. This is truly one of Tim Burton’s finest outings, and I’m glad that Johnny Depp was along for the ride. They both do a brilliant job through every frame of this film. I give Sleepy Hollow my full recommendation. It’s more than worth your while.
The benefit of doing Forever Horror Month is that it has forced me to watch films that have been collecting dust in my DVD collection for about a decade. I saw From Hell theatrically at the discount theatre with a number of my friends in 2001. I do recall general impressions and plot details from back then including a slight letdown of the film’s conclusion. Of course, my tastes have certainly matured since that time, and so, it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the film has altered any today.
Set in London of 1888, Jack the Ripper has been running amok in the Whitechapel district murdering and dissecting prostitutes. Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), aided by his partner, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), are on the case to figure out who this serial killer is and why he is killing these women in such a brutal manner. Abberline is an opium addict and when “chasing the dragon” he is able to have visions of the future, a certain psychic ability that allows him to solve cases. As Abberline and Godley investigate the crimes, they become acquainted with the prostitutes who were friends and colleagues of the victims. Abberline begins to fall in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), one of the prostitutes, or as the nobles called them “unfortunates”, being hunted down by Jack the Ripper. Abberline digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy and attempts to solve the case before Mary Kelly is the next victim.
This was adapted from the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell by the Hughes Brothers – Albert & Allen. It’s not one I’ve ever read, but the comic book visual aesthetics occasionally show through. There are striking moments of heavy reds or sickly greens that are very stylized, and do work with the editing approach to those gruesome moments. The rest of the film is competently shot maintaining a natural look to the time period. The identity of Jack the Ripper is kept artistically hidden through shadows, shots from behind, and smart framing. It doesn’t get gimmicky. It plays scenes out with the Ripper with an imposing, mysterious quality that builds up the threat of him. It’s very solid work from a director of photography who started out shooting Evil Dead II and later occasionally working with surreal filmmaker David Lynch.
Now, this is a genre that kind of hits me in a pleasant place. Mixing crime drama with a suspenseful, bloody horror genre just feels like my kind of taste. The Jack the Ripper case is an iconic one in many peoples’ minds, and this film crafts the investigation and mystery very smartly. It incorporates some great forensic knowledge which further enhances the quality of Inspector Abberline’s abilities. This is very important as Jack the Ripper happens to surgically remove various organs from his victims, leaving behind a sickening and horrifying sight. While the film inevitably takes liberties with the known truth, and hypothesizes about the unknown truths, what we get is tightly and sharply crafted. It’s a very good script realized by some richly talented filmmakers.
The production design and wardrobe departments did an amazing job. They seem to have realized the late nineteenth century with beautiful detailed realism. The wardrobe is especially impressive with the distinct styles given to each character. This extends to hairstyles and the overall grooming of the actors. It’s elegant craftsmanship through and through which gives the film its grounded texture. The filmmakers took great care to reproduce the sights of the murders and the wounds inflicted upon the victims. While the film lays back on its graphicness for most of its runtime, it does have visceral impact through sharp editing styles and some impressive practical make-up effects. There is one very graphic throat cutting scene that would likely have many squirming in their seats. As the film chillingly drives towards its climax, the violence becomes immensely more graphic and disturbing.
Getting down to the performances, I believe Johnny Depp does a very fine piece of work here. I like the accent he adopts for the role. Very different from the one he used in Sleepy Hollow or as Captain Jack Sparrow. He clearly worked on the details very meticulously to bring this intelligent person to life. While, Frederick Abberline was a real life Inspector for Scotland Yard, the clairvoyance and drug use was reportedly not true about him. Regardless, the character that is Abberline here is given a good measure of charm and perceptive intelligence. Depp cautiously balances out Abberline’s assertiveness with the manner of a gentleman. While he is a man that indulges in less than respectable vices and beliefs, he is still a man that is respected in his profession. It is an impressively strong and dimensional performance. Depp leads this film excellently.
Depp also displays a subtle heart and passion opposite Heather Graham. She inhabits this particularly lower class woman with a lot of spirit and compassion. While the love between Mary and Frederick is not a major part of the story, it is developed through the building of trust and charm between them. The chemistry of Graham and Depp is solid and genuine.
Robbie Coltrane does very well as a Police Sergeant who takes his job with a lot of serious weight. Sergeant Godley is written well as both a consummate street level investigator, and a trusting confidant for Abberline. It’s a very well rounded performance that instills credibility and faith in Abberline’s unconventional methods for the audience.
The highly revered Ian Holm is also especially strong as the former surgeon Sir William Gull. He shares some solid scenes with Depp throughout the movie, and delivers a fine dramatic performance that also offers up an intimidating quality late in the film. He really portrays all facets of the role remarkably well. All around, this is just a stellar cast with a great depth of talent creating an array of fascinating and realistic characters. They all make a distinct impression upon an audience.
The affluent pretentiousness of Abberline’s superior, portrayed by Ian Richardson, strikes me funny. His assertion that no Englishman would be capable of such an act shows how much sensibilities have changed in law enforcement over the decades. Today, everyone’s a viable suspect, no matter who you are, but back in the 1880s, an educated or even sophisticated person would never be thought of as a violent criminal. It was preposterous. Furthermore, his arrogance impedes Abberline’s investigation to the point of obstructing justice. Unlike Sergeant Godley, he has little faith in Abberline’s deductive abilities. He cares only for the perception of the investigation, not the truth that it should uncover. It’s simply another fine detail which exemplifies the era this is set in, and what struggles Abberline has to surmount and combat to prove his theories correct. It sets a treacherous path that he must walk to expose this gruesome killer.
Ultimately, the Jack the Ripper plotline is resolved in a ghastly psychological manner that has a sort of fitting quality. Considering, in reality, he was never publicly, definitively identified, the ending to this has to have an air of secrecy. There’s really no way around that. So, it couldn’t have ended as a standard crime story with an arrest and conviction. Still, it lacks any sort of dramatic gratification of justice. Grisly, unspeakable murders are committed, and for an audience, it demands something equally harsh. It’s sort of a subjective feeling. If for nothing else, this conclusion just lacks a real punch.
Again, the romantic aspect is gracefully handled, but it can get a little lost amongst the main plotline. Abberline becomes deeply invested in Mary’s well being, but it’s more of an ancillary story. It comes and goes in the film never really dominating the characters’ actions too much, but it does surface every now and then when it has relevance. It possibly could’ve been developed into a fuller part of the film to have more substantive impact. The conclusion to this story is also a little downbeat. I’m not sure it was necessary for it to end as it did, but it’s definitely not a bad ending.
So, yes, I think my initial impressions about the film remain about the same. It has a very good story with plenty of suspense and intelligence, but the pay-off is quite lacking. Maybe there are those that can appreciate it more than I can, perhaps those that have read the comic book series. There was more than enough rich talent involved making this a very well made and slightly stylish horror crime mystery. The Hughes Brothers did a very high quality job with this material, and Johnny Depp puts in a very satisfying lead performance. While it’s not as quirky as some of his better known roles, this is a nice departure into more serious ground that I did enjoy. “Do I recommend From Hell?” is the pressing question. Sure. While it’s ultimately not as wholly satisfying as desired, it’s still a worthwhile watch for many reasons. If for nothing else, it’s a respectably well executed moody and chilling piece of horror cinema.
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.
As I have mentioned in several of my reviews here, I am an independent filmmaker. From before I even was one, I was watching ultra low or even no budget filmmakers develop their talent aspiring for the day I would become one of them. Now, as one, I truly enjoy supporting and promoting other independent filmmakers. One I have become a great fan of in recent times is Brad Jones. Some may know him as a comedic internet personality with characters like The Cinema Snob, 80’s Dan, or Kung Tai Ted, but he’s been an exploitation independent filmmaker for far longer. Being a filmmaker who has grabbed inspirations from Michael Mann works like Thief, Manhunter, Miami Vice, Heat, and Collateral, I have really enjoyed the sleazy, sordid crime stories Brad Jones has told in feature films like Midnight Heat and The Hooker With A Heart of Gold. However, in 2011 came a haunting thriller written by Brad Jones and directed by Ryan Mitchelle titled Paranoia. It’s a definite shift in tone from what Brad Jones has given his fans in the past, but in my view, it’s still just as solid and satisfying only now, with Mitchelle’s help, has the technical quality to give his work a more professional polish and sheen. The results are great!
A serial killer is terrorizing a small town. Mark Bishop (Brad Jones) has just killed an intruder (Brian Irving) that attacked him in his home. Mark’s not sure if this was the real serial killer, but on the night where his wife has finally left him, he is certain he doesn’t want the attention. Mark needs to get rid of the body and avoid the authorities, but Mark can’t shake the feeling that the real killer is still out there. As his peculiar, tiresome night unfolds, further unusual and violent circumstances impact him and the people he encounters towards unexpected ends.
As I have watched more and more of Brad’s films, I have become increasingly impressed with not only his screenwriting talents, but the strength of his acting. While most likely know him from his comedy work on his website, most of his films put him in very dramatic roles. Paranoia is probably the most straightly dramatic, yet. Mark Bishop is a very down and out man who I could feel for right from the start. His life is starting to spiral out of control, and all he wants is for one thing to go right. The film continually allows the audience to feel empathy for him as he bares his soul every so often. He’s already a rather sad guy to begin with that just falls into one bad situation after another, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Mark Bishop. Brad Jones shows a wide range of realistic emotions and inner turmoil in this role. From the fearful urgency to the contemptuous conviction to the somber and cynical to the embittered, lonely man, he gives the character a strong, sympathetic depth. He carries the film with a weight and ease.
The supporting cast is generally quite good. Brian Lewis has a very genuine, endearing charm as Officer Randy who encounters Mark Bishop early on, and later, is shown to have an affection for the waitress Claire. In that role, Jillian Zurawski gives a heartfelt and vulnerable performance. Claire is sweet, but is clearly a little on edge being all alone in this restaurant late at night with a killer on the loose. You can definitely feel for this isolated young woman who starts out trying to cheer up the tired and jaded Mark Bishop, but is subjected to more of Mark’s ill fortunes through an armed robbery gone awry. Sarah Lewis has been increasingly excellent in all of Brad Jones’ movies, and she has a solid outing here as Marissa Bishop, Mark’s wife. There’s that tired sadness and heartbreak in her performance conveying just how strained the Bishop marriage has become, and that really carries through with Mark’s emotional state after her departure. Brian Irving is fairly alright. He plays the intimidating aspects of Carl Stowers effectively, but the more humanistic scenes in the climax feel rather monotone. A little more heart and soul in the delivery of lines could’ve added a lot weight to his words. It’s not remotely a bad performance, but I feel it could’ve been pushed towards a place of more emotional depth. Considering Irving took on the role about an hour before they shot those scenes, it’s forgivable that the performance lacks some of those qualities.
I absolutely love the tone of Paranoia. It definitely feels like a late 1990s independent thriller. Considering that’s when the script was originally conceived and written that is no surprise. The first comparison that comes to mind, in terms of tone, would be David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Paranoia carries a very somber and mysterious vibe allowing every dark, isolated, and imposing element to soak deep within an audience. The high definition cinematography is handled with great competence. This looks like a very high grade feature film shot by people with the talent and tools to realize their vision. Handheld camera work is smartly and realistically done. Many big budget filmmakers like to add excessive shakiness to their handheld work, but from the independent filmmakers I’ve seen, they take a far more subtle, natural approach. That’s what we get here, but there are plenty of instances where the camera is locked down for more rock solid compositions and still moments. While no director of photography is listed in the credits, I believe director Ryan Mitchelle is to credit for all the camera work. He and gaffer Jerrid Foiles created a very solid and consistent lighting scheme for this film. Strong shadows are used throughout to great atmospheric effect. A minor thought of mine was that some of the dialogue scenes could’ve used a few master shots to get more than a single actor in frame. However, the coverage they have is quite good with different angles and focal lengths, and Mitchelle does a very fine job as the film’s editor. He keeps an even, consistent pace that allows the tone to flourish amongst the tension and suspense of the story. Some of the sound effects editing could’ve benefited from a little more volume or some reverb filters to integrate them more realistically into their environments. As an independent filmmaker myself, sound editing is probably the hardest art to craft if you don’t have professional grade tools and skills at your disposal. As the DVD commentary makes clear, Mitchelle made sure that the production audio was as top notch as possible, and the quality of it is very highly admirable and consistent. The only piece of ADR that he mentions, a scream from Claire, is exceptionally and seamlessly done.
The score for the film captures the absolute perfect mood. Michael “Skitch” Schiciano uses a very somber and mysterious mix of piano chords and synthesizers in his score. At most times, it reflects the dark, lonely, isolated feeling of the film in a man alone roaming the streets not knowing what to make of the next moment. The music is very in sync with what Mark Bishop is going through and feeling every step of the way. At times, it has an ominous, pulsating relentlessness that is very unnerving, and perfectly complements the chilling and fearful aspects of the film. You could definitely get an early John Carpenter vibe from the synthesizer part of the score, a la They Live, Prince of Darkness, or Assault on Precinct 13. Schiciano does one hell of a remarkable job, and I’m glad to know that Jones and Mitchelle continue to retain his services for their subsequent films.
Paranoia has a superb twisting and turning surrealism to it. It gradually eases you into it the same as it does Mark Bishop. It’s a slow descent into a psychologically twisted reality. To a point, you can buy into this all being in Mark’s physically and emotionally exhausted mind, but eventually, things deconstruct to where you know there’s something more at work. Both the screenplay and the film itself nicely craft these subtle elements, and allow them to discretely pile up until the flood gates break wide open. Some might call the ending a twist, but it has far more substance than most twist endings. This is essentially the whole third act of the film, and deals with the meanings and repercussions of what is truly going on. I still fully felt for Mark Bishop through to the film’s end due to the character I came to know for over ninety minutes. Again, this a testament to Brad Jones’ very realistic and emotional performance, and the quality of the script written.
Paranoia really is a style of movie that I would’ve loved to have made. It’s a very smartly written and executed film with a great atmosphere and tone that I find fascinating. Ryan Mitchelle did an excellent job with Brad Jones’ material. He is a very intelligent filmmaker who brings a high grade, respectable style to Paranoia. The films Brad Jones directs always have a gritty visual quality to them reflecting his exploitation film influences, but for this film, the sleeker style is definitely to its benefit. However, I do agree with Brad Jones that the film does play even better in black & white. The stronger noir aesthetic just seems to add to the isolated and dark atmosphere of the film, and the contrast lighting directly supports a film noir style. Brad has released an alternate “Writer’s Cut” of Paranoia for free viewing on his website which presents the film in black & white with some purposeful edits that adhere the film closer to the script he wrote. It also adds in some pop songs from the 60s and 80s which enhance the ambient, sadly emotional musical atmosphere. However, since he doesn’t own the rights or licenses to any of those songs, he cannot commercially release that cut of the film. Both versions of Paranoia are great, and have their own distinctive and excellent qualities. This is a very impressive and haunting thriller that strengthens my fandom of Brad’s filmmaking, and showcases the great talents he has surrounded himself with. I had the pleasure of meeting Brad Jones at Wizard World Chicago Comic Con 2012, and he was as interested in hearing about me as I was about him. He was the coolest, friendliest, most approachable person I’ve ever met, and it was truly a great experience hanging out with him. His light-hearted enthusiasm showed through regardless of fatigue, and I was glad to have been able to share my admiration for his work in person. I would highly recommend checking out the Writer’s Cut of Paranoia to help influence your decision whether or not to purchase the features-packed DVD from Walkaway Entertainment, as I did.
For those not in the know, Prometheus was developed as a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science ficition / horror classic Alien. While it still is that, Scott admitted a long time ago that it evolved into something more than that. After seeing the film, I certainly see the broader canvas that this story is told upon, and how it can branch out beyond that far more narrow storyline of Alien. I can’t say I was expecting anything specific with this film, just that I anticipated something amazing. It’s hard to say if I exactly got that, overall, but let’s break it down a little at a time.
In the late twenty-first century, a team of scientists lead by Drs. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discover clues to the origins of mankind on Earth. With the aid of the Weyland Corporation, headed by the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), they launch a journey into deep space aboard the spaceship Prometheus. Cave paintings from various ancient civilizations that had no contact with one another point to a distant star system where these scientists believe the answer to our origins lie. Among the ship’s crew and other specialists in various scientific fields, the voyage is aided by the advanced Weyland Corporation android David (Michael Fassbender) who is caretaker of the craft who has been learning countless languages in order to potentially communicate with these alien “engineers,” if and when they find them. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is a liaison for the Weyland Corporation itself, and is overseeing the mission to make sure its interests are maintained. As they explore this alien planet, dubbed LV-223, they face discoveries both amazing and frightening. Eventually, what they seek becomes not what they hoped for, and they must battle a horrifying reality in order to save the future of the human race.
Before the review starts, which is in the next paragraph, two things about my theatre experience to note are that, one, there were no trailers screened ahead of this. It went right into the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, and that was it. No time was given to let the audience settle in and get ready for the movie once the lights went down. It was exceptionally strange, and it took several minutes beyond the opening credits to sink myself into the movie. Why the theatre did this, I have no idea. I’m very interested to know if this was an isolated incident or more wide spread. Someone even had to run out of the theatre to grab a theatre employee because the curtains were drawn for a 1.85:1 aspect ratio when this was the wider 2.40:1 format. So, for part of the opening credits, the partially drawn curtains were distracting. The second thing is that I like sitting all the way in the back of the theatre. Last row, top of the stadium seating. When I saw The Avengers, the sound was a little low even sitting further down into the theatre. This time, the surround sound speaker right next to me was very loud, and at times, the film’s score was louder than the dialogue. And with all the reverb rich environments in the film, it made for a strange audio experience at times. This certainly got better as the film went on, but early on, it was difficult to understand all of the dialogue sitting where I was. Because of this, it took a long time to actually catch all of the main character’s names. Thankfully, for this review, I have website resources to inform me better. So, now, on with the review of Prometheus.
This is a film with a deliberate, methodical pace. It certainly takes a while for the film to really get into the meat of the story. It will certainly require your patience. I surely do not mind a slow build, but the first act of a story is designed for you to get to know the characters and connect with them. However, learning their names or not, I really didn’t start feeling much of a connection or distinction with anyone until the final act. I think this is partly because there are so many characters populating the early half of the film that no one really stands out, aside from David, and so, it’s hard for the film to spend a lot of time with any particular character for long. For at least the first hour of the film, no one is an obvious protagonist. In Alien, it felt more like an ensemble piece, and you generally latched onto and cared about all of these characters. Here, it’s not at all handled that way. The film feels like it’s waiting for the heard to thin out before giving anyone a moment of prominence, and that contributes to a lack of character driven focus.
Something that contributes to this issue is that no one is explored in any real depth until the panic starts driving the story. For instance, Dr. Shaw states what she believes this mission is all about, but at no time does she tells us why she believes this. We’re just supposed to take it for granted that she does, and not ask those questions, yet the entire purpose of the movie is to ask questions. It’s a scientific exploration, and science is all about being inquisitive. She wears a holy cross necklace, and I’m not sure if that’s meant to imply that her scientific beliefs should have no more definite explanation than religious faith. Scientists should be able to explain what they believe, especially when you’re dragging a good dozen or more people on a two year voyage into deep space. It would add so much more depth and purpose to the character if she actually explained why she believes that the human race was birthed from an alien species to justify this large expedition.
On the stronger side, Michael Fassbender’s android character of David is remarkable. His performance is the real highlight here. In him, you see wonder, awe, foreboding, sinister intent, and child-like innocence. He maintains a nice through line with the performances of Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen as the other droids of the Alien series, but makes David all his own. He is clearly not human with a unique off-center performance. No authentic emotion comes from him, but he can still appear personable, thoughtful, and courteous. He is designed to be indistinguishable from humans, but over time, he clearly becomes well aware of his superior brilliance, making him truly feel superior to them in every way. He has fascination with everything he observes and consumes. He is, partially, a character we can see things through, experience them through his sense of amazement. However, as the film goes on, you see ulterior motives surface in him, and that kept me highly intrigued as I did not know where they were coming from. Were they his own personal twisted perversions, or part of someone else’s agenda? The answer was quite satisfying to me, and cohesively tied in with the overall storyline. Fassbender is truly the standout talent in this film, and David is an impressive creative achievement.
Now, I was rather put off by the fact that Guy Pearce appears here as only an elderly Peter Weyland. He is only ever seen under heavy make-up and prosthetics to make him appear to be of advanced age. It seems like an odd choice, but putting that aside, Pearce is excellent. He has remained a captivating talent through the years, and really brings some poignant gravitas to the role. Weyland’s motives behind supporting this expedition are entirely relatable, and Pearce’s grounded strength keeps it from being anything obsessive or off-kilter. When he enters the story, he gives it an injection of weight and dread as his agenda motives everything forward from then on.
Again, later in the film, I really came to enjoy and connect with Idris Elba’s Captain Janek. The actor himself described the characters as, “a longshoreman and a sailor, with a military background,” and that sums it up nicely. He has that laid back style of confidence while also only minding the business of the ship and its crew, but clearly has the experience to make decisions like a military man. As he forms a friendship with Dr. Shaw, you get to see some of his heart and soul, and that’s what clicked for me with him.
Noomi Rapace is the lead of the film as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. I don’t want to say she’s a Ripley allegory. She’s definitely her own character with her own strengths and vulnerabilities, but I’m sure there will be those that try to make that comparison. Again, it would have drawn me into the character earlier on if I had gained an understanding of her scientific beliefs, and why she is so committed to this expedition. Just get more into her heart and mind a little. However, when things start to become unhinged and chaotic, that is when Shaw becomes truly sympathetic and a powerful standout. She comes to understand the truth of what they have discovered, but few others care about that except Janek. She’s put through some hell when she has to cut an alien organism out of her own body in an intensely frightening and unsettling scene. I love what that organism evolves into later on, and you certainly cannot put the pieces together until that later point. Rapace brings a very compassionate, likeable quality to Elizabeth Shaw. She’s fascinated by this discovery, at first, and continues to show enthusiasm and curiosity until things go awry. Rapace is solid in this role showing heartfelt moments with Charlie, and carrying the more intense sections of the film with great skill and composure. She fights through the maddening fear and physical strain, not giving up at any point. She’s going to see everything through to the end, and that is the real gravitas Rapace brings to the film. A very solid lead that does take a while to move into the forefront of the film, but when she does, she easily becomes someone to invest yourself into.
What didn’t grip me much was Logan Marshall-Green’s Dr. Charlie Holloway. He seems either a little one dimensional or too concerned with himself to allow an audience to get into his character. It’s partly how the character is written, but still, the actor doesn’t do much to show a real dimensional performance that could make him accessible. We never come to know much about him, and all we know is what he hopes to find, not why he’s fascinated or compelled by the prospect of it. We get the evidence that sparks the intrigue, but not why it means so much to him personally. There’s no context given to Dr. Holloway to make him anything to think much of, and that’s definitely a big negative considering all that happens to him later on in the movie and how it affects Elizabeth. Much of the supporting cast is the same. Maybe a little quirk added to them here or there, but ultimately, they are nothing more than what the script needs them to be for the benefit of the story. Again, there are so many characters in the first half of the film that it would be impossible to dig deeply into all of them, but sometimes, it doesn’t take too much. Just the right hint of an endearing character trait, and the right actor to convey those elements of humanity. However, I’m not going to mark this as a negative critical element. Just a thought that could be used to enhance them further, but considering this is a horror film where much of the supporting cast is going to not survive, anyway, I can give it that concession.
Moving on, the production design maintains aesthetic touchstones with the Alien films, but upgrades them. Considering we’ve never truly seen a state of the art vessel meant for scientific exploration, this makes sense. The Nostromo was a freighter, requiring nothing more than the bare minimum technology to do its job. The Sulaco was a military transport ship which didn’t need anything special to complete its missions. However, the Prometheus is a science vessel needing the most sophisticated technology available to thoroughly accomplish its mission. That is a welcomed way for the filmmakers to take advantage of modern day technological advances, and apply them to what a vessel of this sort would be like in eighty years without betraying what was established in the other films (which chronologically take place after this film). The ship’s interiors as very reminiscent of the Nostromo, but with a little better living conditions and a generally more inviting appearance. All of the alien technology and architecture is definitely in line with the franchise as H.R. Giger was brought back to expand upon some of his ideas and world. That absolutely helped to create a wider and richer culture for this species, and yes, the Space Jockeys are extremely integral and vital to the story here. That had always been one of the big things Ridley Scott had wanted to explore about this mythos, and I’m glad that is the major focus of Prometheus.
The visual effects are truly awe-inspiring. Nothing low grade here. They can be very enveloping, and key sequences are likely stunning in a 3D presentation. As usual, I stick with the standard 2D theatrical experience. Ridley Scott really allowed the visual effects to live up to his more than three decade long standards. The more intense effects are immensely effective. The various life forms they encounter are startling, frightening, and impressive. They share some design elements with the franchise’s facehuggers and Xenomorphs themselves, but they keep it subtle. This is clearly a different ship with a different engineering of these creatures. So, that gave the filmmakers freedom to do more with their ideas, and present something more varied, yet still related to what is familiar. The more environmental effects of space and the planet LV-223 greatly add to the film’s atmosphere setting the tone for the entire film. Ridley’s not afraid to make the visuals dark and very shadowy lighted really only with flashlights, and that only enhances the creepy, unsettling nature of the alien structure’s interior.
The cinematography of Dariusz Wolski is very much in line with Ridley Scott’s visual sensibilities. It’s even more surprising since he’s never worked with Ridley before, but has done some notable work. He was cinematographer on The Crow, Dark City, Crimson Tide, and all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The lighting and camera is very solid, atmospheric, and effective. Light and shadow mixed with some of Ridley’s signature smoky environments make for an incredible visual tone. They create the sense of danger and mystery that these characters are engulfed, but it doesn’t stop with just the visual aspects.
The musical score by Marc Streitenfeld was amazing and enveloping, much like some of the visual effects. The theme he composed for Prometheus is heard quite often, and it is haunting, enchanting, mysterious, and wondrous. It sets a perfect tone for the film, and the remainder of the score is equally as rich and effective. I would highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack which contains nearly an hour of the film’s amazing music. This really feels like a musical masterpiece as it complements the complex tone of the film so well.
Now, the big question is if this really is a good prequel to Alien. I believe it is an excellent pseudo-prequel, and I use that terminology because Prometheus is so much more than just a prequel to Alien. As you’ve probably figured out by now, Prometheus does have more than its fair share of graphic horror and scares. While Ridley Scott has made a film that has a far larger scope than Alien, he entirely keeps it within the same tone as that film while adding to and expanding upon it. It’s even more frightening of a film at times because it’s not just alien organisms using human bodies for gestation, we’re dealing with genetic engineering. Things that can infect your body and transform you into something inhuman. The film does explore the origins of humanity as a species created by a far more advanced race of beings, and the desire for answers as to why. This opens the film up to some philosophical discussions amongst its characters that are decently explored, but don’t weigh down the film. Prometheus is a film that can stand on its own aside from the franchise. It has its own strength, its own direction, and its own motivations to follow through on that are bigger than the franchise has ever explored. This could easily branch out into a whole other franchise leaving the facehuggers, chestbursters, aliens, and so forth to their own machinations.
The other question is, well, does this answer the questions one would have walking into this film knowing it is an Alien prequel. Partially. It answers a few questions, but leaves many hanging in suspense, capturing, at least, my compelling interest. Let it be known that this film does not have a definitive ending. It is truly setup for another dangerous and fascinating adventure with the surviving characters which is far more likely to explore the ideas and questions raised in this film, and hopefully, bring us many of those answers. I knew this walking in, and that took the edge off an ending which could’ve been a little sour and cheated in my mind. It’s not an abrupt end as it does segue way nicely into a conclusion, but getting there does feel a little rushed. In a film that took a gradual pace with establishing everything, the setup for the sequel segue ending is run through with a much faster pace than expected. It works well mixed in with some frightening action, and maintains character motivation and determination. The pace was just a little throwing. This might’ve been because I kept expecting a hanging conclusion to the film, and feared for an abrupt cutaway to credits every so often. Thankfully, that did not happen. The ending does have me enraptured to know where this storyline can go, and how a further fleshed out exploration of these ideas and characters can be enhanced through another film. I surely think a second viewing, more evenly positioned in the theatre, will feel smoother for me. I have no doubt that a sequel would answer these questions, and not leave the Alien prequel connection unsatisfied.
The only truly spoiler section of this review will be this paragraph, and so, skip over it if you wish to remain free of them. The film reveals that the human race was created and descended from the Space Jockeys, who have a very pale and human appearance beneath the “exoskeleton” style space suits we saw in Alien. It is eventually learned that they decided to eradicate humanity with ships full of organisms designed for that very purpose. It is not answered why they decided on this course of action, which was halted two millennia ago when these organisms broke loose and killed the crew. However, the thought that ran through my head was echoing Ash’s statement in Scott’s original film – “perfect organism.” Perhaps, the Space Jockeys finally achieved perfection in genetic engineering, and decided that all inferior life forms they engineered should be wiped out to make way for their ultimate creation. Still, there does seem to be more rage, more visceral determination with this motive from just how the one still living Jockey acts. He’s violent, murderous at the sight of human beings, and immediately begins to kill them all. He appears dead-set determined to complete this mission at all costs, and leave no human living anywhere. So, while my speculation might have some validity, there certainly appears to be a more personal, primal motivation to their agenda. And while we don’t get to see the classic title character of the Alien franchise, the Space Jockey does give birth to a similar being. I would likely call it a prototype Alien. There are similarities in the design, but it’s much less developed and more angular. This is the image that closes out the movie, and gives a little fan service that is nicely placed. Like much of the film, it leaves you hungering for more. It would have been amazing to see the original creature appear on screen, but if Ridley Scott wants to save that for a sequel to give that film the big pay-off, I can subscribe to that idea.
I think the best compliment I can give Prometheus is that, even sixteen hours after seeing it, my mind is still alive thinking about it. Synapses are still sparking, and I think I need to see this again. There is so much to absorb and process that additional viewings are certainly needed to let it all settle into my mind. Even as long as this review is, I don’t think it thoroughly covers every thought I should have about it. However, for allowing a reader to determine whether it’s worth their while, I’m sure I’ve said plenty. While there are aspects that could have been done better in terms of making the characters stand out more and allow the audience to get to know them better sooner, overall, I think this is an exceptionally successful film. It is a very intelligent work of science fiction and horror that screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof and producer / director Ridley Scott should be commended for. It’s been too long since we’ve gotten a science fiction film of this caliber with some sophistication, artistry, imagination, and intellect. I’m sure there will be many mixed reactions out there, and again, I’m still uncertain of my final perception on it, but I am definitely hooked into what Prometheus has to offer. It’s only unfortunate that it appears to be only one half of a whole, and with Ridley Scott already having two other film productions upcoming, including the sequel to Blade Runner, it’s going to be a good couple of years before we get a continuation for Prometheus. Thankfully, Ridley seems to churn out films pretty quickly. There’s rarely more than a two year gap between his films, sometimes all of a single year, but by no means, do I desire for him to rush anything along. Prometheus was a film a long time coming, and I think it was a generally worthwhile wait. We’ll just have to see if that second half of the whole makes good on the potential shown here.
Admittedly, I am not a book reader. Whatever my issue, I find it difficult to sit down and read a full novel. So, while I have a good amount of say regarding this film, I have no frame of reference on the James Patterson novel it was based on. I like the Alex Cross character very much in what Morgan Freeman has given us, but with all of two films from more than a decade ago, it’s never been much of a film franchise. Both this and its follow-up Along Came A Spider (whose novel is actually a prequel to this) have similar problems, but Kiss the Girls is definitely the better of the two. Still, it doesn’t live up to the potential it could’ve had.
Washington, D.C. forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) travels to North Carolina to investigate the apparent kidnapping of his niece Naomi. The local police have the evidence, but not the investigative intuitiveness to put the pieces together. Meanwhile, the strong willed, yet compassionate surgeon Dr. Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd) is abducted and later escapes from this collector and killer of exceptional woman who calls himself “Casanova.” Now, aided by the sole escapee, Cross begins an investigation that takes him from one coast to the other and back trying to identify and capture the disillusioned “great lover.”
The actors in the film’s central focus, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, are both very good. Judd makes Kate a very empowering character from the start, and she is easily presented as someone you can care about and feel strength from throughout. She’s physically tough, is confident, determined, but also, shows that she has vulnerability and compassion. It’s great that the film introduces her prior to her abduction in order for the audience to see the woman as she is naturally. From there, we are emotionally connected with her through her trauma and recovery. She was a strong person before, and this experience merely solidifies those qualities within her. Judd has plenty of gravitas and vibrancy. She keeps Kate McTiernan a forefront character that continues to stand tall throughout the narrative. It easily demonstrates the strong core of Ashley Judd’s acting ability, and why she has become such a revered talent over these many years.
Freeman is masterful as Alex Cross. He’s always been a very intellectual actor allowing the audience to see the gears turning in his head, and establishing a very particular manner for his roles. He inhabits them all well, and makes them subtly distinct. In this role, he shows us one of the best investigative minds in fiction. Cross is able to see the lines of connection that others can’t because he’s so detail oriented in his work, the same as Freeman is with his acting. When he walks into the squad room with all the abduction victims on the board, it doesn’t take him long to put it all together to understand why they were picked, and what Casanova’s agenda is. Just how Freeman’s eyes operate in a scene say so much of what Alex Cross is thinking and deducing. Cross is also tempered. He is calm and calculating in his investigative process. While the local cops are all a little smarmy and egotistical, Cross maintains a cool perspective on everything bringing a serious psychology to the case. He rarely allows his emotions to dictate his behavior, but even if he doesn’t show it, they can influence it. There’s no denying his personal stakes in this investigation, and that alters how he handles everything. In an interrogation scene, he can’t help but become enraged as a sleazy suspect talks sexually ill of his niece, and that shows that Cross is just as human as anyone. While he can remain focused and professional, maintaining his cool in dangerous situations, he has his limits. Still, he is able to rebound, admit his errors, and ultimately tie things up. Alex Cross, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is truly a fascinating characters full of potential. However, despite the strength of the character and the actor, that is not enough to lift the film into exceptional territory.
The unfortunate side of things is that the story and how it unfolds lacks compelling development. The bi-coastal killer plotline with the Gentleman Caller essentially has no pertinent relevance to hunting down Casanova. It comes off as a divergence ultimately added just to throw in some gunfire and stakeout scenes. While it does connect with the main story, it’s ancillary. You could cut it out, and it wouldn’t make a real difference towards the capture of Casanova. It only amounts to a gunshot echoing through the woods that leads Cross to finding the lair, and in time, they likely would’ve found it, regardless. This subplot is there so the characters have somewhere to go and something to do until the final act with its weak twist ending.
This is a negative mark against both Alex Cross films. They both have these twist endings that come out of nowhere which have no organic flow from the story or characters. By how Kiss the Girls is presented, Casanova could’ve turned out to be anyone or no one. Casanova ends up being a character that’s been there in the film all along, but no one knew it. The problem is that there is zero evidence presented throughout the movie towards that end. You take Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects for an example here. When you watch that movie for the first time, you see his performance in one way. However, on repeat viewings you see an entirely different performance because of what you discover at the film’s ending. Spacey himself hasn’t changed, but your perception of the character has. You see a subtle thing here or there that does seem peculiar, and does add up to something more substantive and telling later on. Unfortunately, none of that is here in Kiss the Girls. You can’t re-watch this movie and pick up on something you didn’t notice before in the performance of the actor who turns out to be Casanova. It’s played straight in every scene as if the character is exactly who he appears to be, but then, the performance changes entirely once the twist ending begins. That is very shallow and generic work from script to direction and beyond. A movie with a twist ending like this needs those little clues you can pick up on throughout, but not be able to fully assemble them until our protagonist has. However, when you look back, you see how all the pieces of the puzzle come together seamlessly. None of that exists in this screenplay or film. The ultimate reveal of who Casanova is turns out to be unsatisfying because of this issue.
This is not to say that the actor in question handles this turn poorly. It’s quite an exceptional performance that has substance and an unsettling quality. He sells it well, and doesn’t need a mask or shadows to make him appear intimidating and chilling. It’s simply the execution and lack of pre-existing evidence to that effect which is the failure here. Not to mention, the film ends kind of flat. It’s more about structure than anything. Casanova is dispatched with, and the film ends. All of the character resolution happens before this to make way for the surprise twist after the audience has let their guard down.
I feel like Alex Cross is an extraordinary character inserted into a mediocre film. The story structure is not tight enough to remain thoroughly satisfying, and the mystery of Casanova is not complex enough to really take advantage of Cross’ compelling intellect. There is more mystery about finding Casanova than actually exploring him. In another similar film like Manhunter, it’s all about putting every little piece of forensic and psychological evidence of the killer together to drive the protagonist of Will Graham towards confronting and stopping Francis Dollarhyde. Finding him is as important as discovering who he is from the inside out because they are symbiotic. It’s a chain reaction of one revelation begetting another. Within Alex Cross’ first moments on the case, he’s already figured out Casanova from the inside out, and it just becomes about finding and identifying him. However, this happens so early on in the storyline that actually finding Casanova requires the film to tangle up in a lot of unnecessary plot developments. It’s a great aspect of the character of Cross that he can do that, but it’s also a complication in the plot progression. Every new plot development is a red herring. It misdirects the characters towards something that ends up at a dead end, and only serves to pad out the run time. Also, the Gentleman Caller subplot almost immediately can be perceived as a bust to the audience because his behavior is such a stark opposite to what we experienced with Casanova earlier. Casanova is not a violent, impulsive person. He’s more subdued and even tempered. It’s not a good swerve in the plot, and results in no furthering of the plot or characters.
On the positive side, the cinematography of Aaron Schneider envelopes this film with excellent visual atmosphere. There is definitely some neo noir edge present with strong blacks, a little haze, and solid blue tones throughout. There’s enough light and shadow at play with a restrained color scheme to create a consistently tense visual style. It never gets too heavy, but it surely sets the tone of the world we’re delving into. Despite the shortcomings in the screenplay and story, Schneider’s work makes Kiss the Girls look especially good. The camera work itself might not be of particular note, but its subtle touches punctuate the right dramatic beats. One can take or leave the heavy use of Dutch angles in the final scene, but it’s probably more of sign of the times in the late 90s.
Adding upon that is the very good production design which gives life and personality to various environments. The police squad room looks authentic looking to have many years of use behind it. Casanova’s lair has its peculiar warmth in stark contrast to Dr. Rudolph’s cold, modern home. I like how Kate notes that it doesn’t feel like Casanova, and that design element alone fuel hers and Cross’ inquisitive minds. The environments reflect the characters that primarily inhabit them, and the cinematography captures them perfectly.
The supporting cast is good, some better than others, but none of them have much importance to the story being told. They serve their purposes and roles well, but in most cases, they are easily forgettable. Plus, I find it surprising that the always astounding Brian Cox is wasted in a minor role as Chief Hatfield. He puts in a strong performance, but why use such a powerful, diverse actor in what is essentially a nothing role? This film just seems to have a bad habit of wasting its potential.
I don’t have much exposure to director Gary Fleder’s other work. I recall seeing Runaway Jury several years ago, but it was more the performances from the heavyweight cast that made the impression more than anything. Here, it’s obvious he has a good handle on how to present the genre, and get some stellar performances out of his main actors. However, the loose storyline and pointless plot developments show that he’s not so much interested in presenting a tightly wrapped, riveting, or smart thriller as just going by the numbers. He tries to pass this off as a mystery when there’s only enough genuine storyline to fit into a 30-45 minute film. Everything else is pointless filler that amounts to nothing. Again, I do not know if these issues exist in James Patterson’s novel, but in this film, that’s what I perceive.
Kiss the Girls had the right base elements for a hell of a good thriller with an amazing lead character backed by an equally great actor. Ashley Judd anchors the film well giving Freeman someone to carry the weight with him. The film is boosted further with some nicely atmospheric noir cinematography. The premise is good but underdeveloped. There’s no real chase involved between Cross and Casanova. Nothing where one has to be more cunning than the other to stay ahead. That takes away the urgency, or at least, the relevant immediacy of the plot. You never get the feeling that there’s a connection between the hunter and the hunted, and the best films of this genre establish that in one way or another. Casanova never reacts to Cross as genuine threat, and Cross is too busy chasing down false leads to truly be in sync with his prey. Kiss the Girls is a decent thriller that is generally enjoyable, but lacks enough relevant plot developments to make it anything more than average. Again, Alex Cross feels like a potentially iconic character waiting for a film that is as intelligent and intriguing as he is. Whether we will eventually get that remains to be seen.
The year of 1995 was a great one for the crime genre, and one of my favorite years in movies. This year saw the release of Michael Mann’s Heat, David Fincher’s Se7en, and this, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. In my opinion, all three films are exceptional, unique, and standard bearers of their subgenres of crime. The Usual Suspects falls very much into that film noir category. It is a great film, but some say it has no re-watchability due to the twist ending. I happen to disagree. This is a film that has more than just story to satisfy, and I hope my insights here will help you see that.
San Pedro, California is the stage for the aftermath of a fiery mystery on a ship in the bay. Law enforcement discovers 27 bodies and $91 million worth of drug money, and has attracted the interest of the FBI and U.S. Customs. The only survivors are a severely burned Hungarian and the crippled con man Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). Verbal tells the story of how he and four other felons were rounded up and put into a line-up six weeks ago in New York for a trumped up charge about heisted gun parts. They are the wisecracking hijacker Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack), the short tempered and egotistical professional thief Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), his accent-heavy partner Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and the real prize for the NYPD is Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a corrupt former cop who has supposedly given up a life of crime. However, U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), who has a deep, invested interest in determining the fate of Dean Keaton, is not willing to let Verbal go without digging deeper into his story. He learns that the five men forge a loose accord to engage in a series of daring, highly profitable heists that lead them out to Los Angeles into an unforeseen, threatening situation. As Kujan probes Verbal for the truth, FBI Special Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) discovers that the Hungarian says he saw the devil, he saw Keyser Soze. He is the most feared and mythic of crime figures, and no one has been able to identify him, until now. Verbal’s story unfolds as Kujan and his colleagues slowly assemble the fragmented pieces of this puzzle which may lead directly to the identity of Keyser Soze.
I’m starting with the cinematography and music here because they are where the atmosphere of the film thrives. Newton Thomas Siegel was the director of photography, same as the later made Denzel Washington film Fallen. I previously reviewed that here, and highly praised the look, feel, and cinematography of that film. This film further solidifies Siegel’s rich talent in my view. He does absolutely brilliant work in evoking such strong and mysterious moods throughout the film with both his camera work and the lighting. It is a gorgeous example of film noir visuals in the color medium. Light and shadow are indeed key, but the subtle color temperatures give the right tinge of atmosphere and tone in key scenes. The compositions are very well plotted out to have, sometimes, double meanings upon first and second viewings. The staging and angles of the scenes between Spacey and Palminteri are amazingly well handled to never make it feel like the same old thing every time. There’s a new angle, a new composition, a new way the scene is played out in that limited physical space every time the film cuts back to it, and it all feels natural from the development of emotions and storytelling. Much of this is indeed a well planned out idea from the filmmaking team as a whole, but Siegel executes it with amazing skill and artistry.
John Ottman, who was also the editor, created a fantastic score that lives and breathes on its own. Listening to the soundtrack is a brilliant, vibrant pleasure. It has character and personality while maintaining the subtle style of the storytelling. The theme itself is great and is instantly recognizable when it hits, and it really drives the story forward in certain parts. There’s a nice flourish in the opening arrest montage where some steel drums chime in once Fenster is introduced. Just that little bit of Caribbean flavor conveys something to the audience about the character before he ever says a single word. That’s such a smart piece of work. Overall, Ottman’s score brings all the mysterious, suspicious, suspenseful, and dramatic elements of the film together in a powerful and vibrant way. As with the cinematography, it evokes a strong film noir style while still feeling contemporary.
Furthermore, Ottman’s editing is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Not just in how each scene itself is cut together, but how everything flows together. How the film transitions from present time to flashback and back again. I don’t know how much of it was in the script, but the execution is what truly matters. Things are well punctuated in these transitions allowing for the dramatic narrative to hit the right beats in the right context. Ottman knows when to pull us into and out of a flashback, and exactly how to do it. That also feeds much into the sound editing and design. It all feels organic and entirely in sync to create a cohesive flow and objective in pinpointing these moments. There is so much one can learn of good structural flow of a narrative by watching this film. I also love how there are many moments where Ottman and Singer just let the camera roll on the actor. They don’t cut away or mess with anything. They just let the actor work the moment, and that is so important in a film with this kind of cast and enveloping dramatic story.
And this film does have an immensely powerful and amazing cast! Everyone is great, but I think Chazz Palminteri is my favorite. As Dave Kujan, he’s smart, sharp minded, and subtly charismatic. The range he shows here is impressive. Kujan can be laid back talking friendly with Sergeant Rabin or Agent Baer, but then, he can shift into the probing investigative mind trying to deconstruct Verbal’s story and psyche. Yet, he can turn it up further getting right into Verbal’s face, and trying shake him up with his intense, confrontational words. Kujan is a driven law enforcement agent, but he never lets his invested interest in Dean Keaton get the better of him. He keeps it all in check, and works the case to the very best of his ability. He just wants the full truth so he can lay that interest to rest. Chazz balances all these elements of Kujan perfectly. He shows wonderful chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with further solidifying his role as main protagonist. He really commands the screen, but Spacey owns it just as much with a more subtle performance.
Kevin Spacey truly deserved the numerous awards he received for this performance. It is very intelligent, but underplayed. Verbal is a little quirky and socially awkward. He rambles on, but Spacey works all these elements into every moment of the performance. It’s never an abrupt shift in focus for the character. It’s a cohesive whole of Verbal’s personality. It all has purpose, even more so on repeat viewings. The body language of Verbal is also greatly realized as Spacey did extensive research for the character’s cerebral palsy to get all of it right. It adds further to Verbal’s perceived weakness. His physical weakness begets his weakness of will. The splashes of emotion with fear, self-pity, and pain are very powerful making Verbal appear to be a very sympathetic character. Still, the moments of sharp intellect slip through Verbal’s more cowering exterior, and really help sell that he’s not as foolish or naive as he sometimes appears to be.
Gabriel Byrne is excellent as well. He greatly reflects Keaton’s struggle between the ex-convict and the man trying to be legitimate. How the system won’t let him be that better man now, and how it drives him back into being the man they expect him to be. While he tries to deny that he is not the man Dave Kujan claims he is anymore, he quickly falls back into being that man. It is who he is, and Byrne is able to show how Keaton is unable to contently balance those two parts of his being. It’s a man fighting his nature who seems more comfortable and confident as the man he doesn’t want to be. It’s a fascinating dynamic that Gabriel Byrne pulls off with great ease and a dark, mysterious, and foreboding depth. He’s electric on the screen, and is entirely compelling. You can never quite get a handle on what his objective or intentions are, and that makes Dean Keaton terribly intriguing. As Bryan Singer says on the commentary, “Gabriel is the most easily complex actor.”
The supporting cast adds further flavor to the film. Stephen Baldwin’s McManus is an arrogant, hard-up man with attitude and ego to spare. As he himself says, he believes that “there is nothing that can’t be done.” He truly believes that the reward is worth the risk, every time. He plays off of Benicio del Toro’s Fenster beautifully. Benicio takes a character that was, admittedly, nothing special on the page, and gave him a memorable, standout quality. He created a whole character out of next to nothing, and the performance really put him on the map. Kevin Pollack adds plenty of levity, but not without his own bolstering attitude as Todd Hockney. How he and McManus clash constantly gives the team dynamic some needed conflict and turbulence. These are guys who joined up out of happenstance, not because they’re friends. Even Keaton and McManus have conflicts like when meeting Peter Greene’s wonderful character of Redfoot. He’s a fence, a guy who can move and sell stolen goods to discrete buyers. Greene gives him a fine Los Angeles quality with his slightly flashly entourage and charismatic style. Still, he’s a tough guy who doesn’t take any crap when McManus starts chewing him out after a job goes awry. For whatever reason, Greene didn’t take a screen credit for this film. Regardless, I really love the vibe he brings with him. He adds a shady element into the story as he can appear friendly, but under the surface, he’s all about his own agenda. He doesn’t mind manipulating anyone or putting other people in danger as long as he gets what he needs in the end. John Ottman even throws in a distinct musical cue for his two appearances that I also love.
The late Pete Postlethwaite always delivered fantastic performances giving them his all. As Kobayashi, he is a great conduit for the mythic Keyser Soze. He conveys authority without force or confrontation. His words and tone carry all the weight that is needed. Kobayashi knows that what he has to say is enough to rattle these men, and doesn’t have to dress it up at all. He’s very straight forward and matter of fact, but still with a questionable quality. He seems legit enough, but he leaves enough suspicion and truth with these men to keep them on edge. Enough to scare them, but not enough to for them to leverage their way out. Postlethwaite underplays the role just enough making him threatening and foreboding enough without betraying the professional manner of the character. He is exceptionally effective.
Another great addition to the supporting cast is Giancarlo Esposito as FBI Agent Jack Baer. He has a very fine charisma and upbeat attitude along with a nice feel for old style film noir sensibilities. He fits in here smoothly. Dan Hedaya is entertaining and enjoyable as Sergeant Rabin. He’s a bit strung out, but that just adds a more hectic element to the character dynamics in that police station. He adds to the texture of a film already rich with great characters.
Keyser Soze is one of the most brilliant cinematic creations of all time. A crime lord that purports his own myth through the fears and exaggerated stories of others. He just lays the seeds for it, and allows it to grow to service his own advantage. He works from the shadows, never allowing anyone but an extreme few to ever see his face. Anyone else who works for him almost never knows that they are doing so, and anyone who thinks they are can never be certain that they are. As Kobayashi says, “One cannot be betrayed if one does not have any people.” A spook story for criminals is perfectly film noir. Soze is an urban legend. Something that is so hard to grasp the truth about that you doubt it, but you dare not dismiss it in case any of it might be true. I also love that the subject of Keyser Soze doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour into the film, but the mystery of him exists from the start. This allows the story, characters, and the world they inhabit to be firmly established and grounded in reality before this mythic figure is truly introduced. With the introduction of him, it elevates the tension and danger for everyone.
The story structure is also quite fascinating. You have both a mystery happening in the present time while the supposed back story of the mystery is being told by one character. However, the one character, Verbal Kint, is constantly challenged on information he held back from the District Attorney. Verbal is shown to be not entirely forthcoming, and abridging his tale to protect his own self. So, Kujan has to keep probing to get the full disclosure. Thus, while you are getting engrossed in Verbal’s story, every once in a while, the audience has to question just how authentic his storytelling is. However, as the pieces of the puzzle are slowly put together by Kujan, Baer, and Rabin, you can see there is some truth in what Kint is saying. A lie is most convincing when it’s wrapped in some truth, and that is the screenwriting brilliance of this film. Lies and truth get so intermixed that it is nearly impossible to separate them. I also love that the film opens with that docks scene which is objectively presented. It’s not part of Verbal’s narrative to Kujan, and so, you know that this did happen as you see it. It’s just a matter of how they got there.
For me, the re-watch value of The Usual Suspects comes, primarily, from the fantastic performances, but also, the strong film noir tone. This is an excellent example of film noir in a contemporary movie. The mystery elements are still compelling upon repeat viewings due to how well constructed and presented they are. It’s a film that allows to see new things and put new pieces together every time you watch it. They are subtle things, but if you’re watching it with a probing mind like Dave Kujan, you can weed out a little more of what is truth and what is not. Even the seemingly most throwaway expression or action can turnaround with a new meaning. However, it is a film I wish I could watch again for the first time. Partly because I don’t recall what my reaction to the film was originally watching it on VHS in 1996, but because it is so effectively structured and executed that I’d love to have that feeling of tension and apprehension which comes from a fresh first viewing. Plus, I believe I fell asleep in the middle of watching it the first time. So, that sort of spoils the experience.
The chemistry amongst the cast is just electrifying. Everyone slips nicely into their characters, and the dynamics between them are rich and vibrant. Everyone makes a firm impression that is quite memorable. That is not an easy feat with an ensemble cast, but Bryan Singer handled these heavyweights extremely well. When one has the talent for being an exceptional director, it will always shine through, and this could not have been a better first major impression for Singer to make. He had done some smaller films before this, but they were not truly in the public eye. This was his first major motion picture with serious, high profile acting talents. While he had only a $6 million budget, the talents involved elevate the overall technical and artistic quality of the picture. Looking back, while it doesn’t have quite as much scale as some are accustomed to, it’s not really a film that requires much. The action is conservative because it services the plot, but it is nicely handled. The entire sequence on the boat is expertly shot, choreographed, edited, and paced. Nothing gets lost in the process of bullets and explosions. Again, the plot and characters maintain control of the film’s focus throughout.
The Usual Suspects is just an excellent crime thriller that is atmospheric, exciting, and enthralling. There are very distinct and dimensional characters everywhere you look that make it an entertaining and intriguing narrative. Everyone behind the camera came together to create one amazing film that flowed beautifully and coherently allowing the pieces of the puzzle to slowly slip into place, but not give you a full picture. It leaves you thinking and wondering, and that is an excellent accomplishment for any mystery. You need not answer all questions for the story to be satisfying. It merely has to keep you hooked in with a cleverly written plot, and that is the foundation for what made this a great film. I give much respect to Christopher McQuarrie for writing such an intelligent script, and to Bryan Singer for crafting a film that remains entertaining and interesting no matter how many times I watch it.
With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here. The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore. However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted. Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all. So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic. This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic. After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her. After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers. The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety. Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector. However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them. Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.
While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film. Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered. It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it. Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand. Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures. So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking. Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations. Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin. It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit. So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.
On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez. That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist. Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre. That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.
Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters. Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes. He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around. A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi. He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now. His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace. It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character. McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here. Of everyone in the prequels, his performances feel the most natural and dimensional. I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.
The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku. I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film. This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie. And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well. There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth. Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view. He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain. His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions. It is a pleasure indeed.
Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow. Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions. While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism. The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced. For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter. Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations. She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence. She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film. She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities. She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought. However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals. There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.
Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents. Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all. He played the character that was on the page. There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character. Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden. Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality. As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said. Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled. Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels. So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.
There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms. However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut. So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool. He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them. And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea. Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga. They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing. However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.
For example: the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan. The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss. This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader. Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further. Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime. The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker. So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes. They serve a very specific plot purpose. That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.
They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along. Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose. In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose. By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku. And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin. In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease. There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat. This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies. Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force. If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited. This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength. By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi. Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.
Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence. I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate. That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion. As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power. Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army. This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this. I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate. Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic? As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds. Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.
I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones. I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting. However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character. Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba. There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions. I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself. It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing. Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter. Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot. It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin. Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.
Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role. He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman. Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant. He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words. It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.
On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film. The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku. The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades. It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle. It’s shoddy work. There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences. However, the sound design in the film is excellent. The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard. The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.
What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story. The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly. The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film. As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango. The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable. Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive. This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.
Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates. It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild. It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points. In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told. It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous. Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers. Here, it’s just a nice visual. There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film. The duel itself is not that impressive, either. Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film. It’s entertaining and exciting. While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.
While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever. Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino. Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers. Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do. This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could. It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it. Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved. I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done. Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out. It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence. It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party. However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.
Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together. The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love. The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions. It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them. Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days. Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is. They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong. What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction. And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too. Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror. I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness. No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this. It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man. She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator. That doesn’t compute in my brain. No other reason is ever given. She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date. That’s her entire reason. No expansion on that at all. It’s ridiculous.
Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences. While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed. They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point. The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes. Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time. While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding. It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out. This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant. It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point. If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.
Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO. I won’t get into it. It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners. This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development. It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.
I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw. It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me. I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality. I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it. I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something. Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets. Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed. Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so. I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive. Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it. But that’s another review for another time. As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it. I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.
Evil is everywhere, and in everybody. That is never truer than in this film. I saw Fallen in its original theatrical run fourteen years ago. I loved it then, and I still love it today. I owned in on VHS, and later, it was one of the earliest DVDs I saw. At the time of release, I stated it was one of the best suspense thrillers I had seen. Now, even after being exposed to a wider array of films in that genre, this still holds up strongly for me. The supernatural twist surely adds to that. Fallen really is an inspired film of its genre that is gripping and engaging on multiple levels from the awesome beginning to the masterful ending.
Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) has already arrested serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas). He’s been convicted, and is now awaiting his execution in the gas chamber. Although, for a man facing his inevitable and imminent death he’s remarkably upbeat. Is he psychotic or is he something else? Hobbes witnesses the execution, and sees Reese die in the chamber. The case is closed, and it’s on with life. That is until a new series of murders arise which eerily share characteristics with those of Reese’s, but Reese is dead – isn’t he? An ancient, unseen evil known as Azazel took control over the man known as Edgar Reese a long time ago, but where Reese died, it endured. Now, it’s set its sights on Hobbes to enact revenge on him. Hobbes’ partner Jonesy (John Goodman) is naturally creeped out over the apparent links between these latest murders and those Reese committed, and their commanding officer – Lieutenant Stanton (Donald Sutherland) – is very shady, eluding to knowing a lot more than he’s willing to divulge. Hobbes attempts to solve the puzzle of why there is a space between “Lyons and Spakowski” that Reese left for him – before and after his death. This clue leads Hobbes to the death of a police officer who is survived by his daughter Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz) who becomes Hobbes’ path to answers that he is not easily willing to accept. What this mystery drags Hobbes into is a dark and dangerous reality which may only end up in death for all those who stand between this fallen angel turn demonic spirit and John Hobbes.
Denzel Washington – as always – delivers a powerful and solid performance. His character of John Hobbes is very human with a wide range of emotions, but most importantly, he’s loyal and dedicated to those he trusts and cares for. In the start of the film, Hobbes is depicted as a solid professional and a confident detective. He’s no glory hound with the media – he’s just a cop with a job to be done, and is glad that Reese has been brought to justice. As the story becomes stranger and more unreal, Hobbes slowly unravels the mystery with great skill. Denzel carries the film with ease. He handles the subject matter in a very grounded way making it all relatable through his usual charm, heart, and humanity.
This brings us to Elias Koteas who, despite his relatively short screentime, retains the biggest impact of the entire film. He makes every second of his time on screen count. Elias put a lot of hard, hard work into this performance so that it would stay with an audience throughout the length of the film. I’ve seen Elias in many different roles, the first of which was as the crime-fighting Casey Jones in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movie, and later, among the powerhouse cast in The Prophecy. No matter the film, whatever role he takes on, he makes it memorable. This one is no exception. Reese comes off as a very haunting and disturbing individual without rolling into Hannibal Lecter territory. Koteas brings an intelligence to the role that is hidden under layers of charisma, riddles, and supposed psychotic behavior. He entirely grasped the intent of the character in the story, and the depth of this evil entity.
Next, you’ve got John Goodman as the warm-hearted and emotionally supportive Jonesy. Goodman always amazes me with his natural talent. He can go from comedic and humorous to intense and dramatic at a moment’s notice. I thoroughly enjoyed his work on Roseanne as well as other movie roles, and in this film, he really puts it all out there. I don’t want to drop any major spoilers, but his performance at the film’s end is just everything he could ever pour into a performance and then some. Donald Sutherland does fine work – as always. His Lieutenant Stanton really offers a stricter and secretive counterweight to the more open relationship between Hobbes and Jonesy. He puts Hobbes at unease as he delves into this unsettling mystery. There’s also a smaller supporting role with James Gandolfini as a fellow Detective with a unique personae and attitude. Of course, he pulls it off with much charisma and energy that adds to the colorful nature of the cast.
How the supernatural aspects are handled add to the class and sophistication of this film. Fallen angles who were deprived of form that have lived on through the centuries possessing humans could have faltered if presented in the wrong way. Embeth Davidtz was given the task of conveying this exposition, and she hit it perfectly on target. As Gretta Milano, she offers up a strong, yet compassionate performance with a confident core set of beliefs that keep the film grounded, but allow for Hobbes and the audience to believe in there being something more out there. Something beyond what we can see that is still a very powerful threat. The film is set in Hobbes’ world of procedural police work where there is a simple explanation and tangible evidence. Gretta slowly convinces Hobbes to look beyond the obvious and open up his mind to the supernatural truth. Davidtz strikes up a good chemistry with Denzel that allows for a sense of trust to build between their characters. This, along with Davidtz’s strength of character, allows Hobbes and the audience to embrace the reality of Azazel.
Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography on this film is filled with fantastic depth and color temperature contrast. I still remember when I first watched this on DVD, and was highly captivated by the vibrant visual quality of the film. It is beautiful while remaining moody. The autumn setting is captured with gorgeous artistry. It is my favorite season of the year much due to how wonderfully colorful it becomes. They don’t just have it there because that’s the time of year they shot film, they make it an overall part of the film’s tone and color scheme. The “demon vision” look is effectively creepy and otherworldly. The score further adds to the haunting, mysterious atmosphere of the film. Of course, the use of the Rolling Stones’ “Time is On My Side” was terrific and inspired. A great choice that fits the manic and peculiar sense of humor of Edgar Reese. The song is constantly sung by those possessed by Azazel throughout the film as a sort of playful tease from the demon to Hobbes. Of course, John Goodman puts in the best performance while mimicking some moves of Mick Jagger.
This all adds up to an exceptionally effective thriller. The suspense of the feature is very taut creating a haunting sense where, eventually, John Hobbes becomes deeply unsettled by. Being stalked by a supernatural killer that is generally intangible who can transfer itself from one person to another with a simple touch was brilliant. There is a chase scene with Gretta Milano which uses this one concept to great effect. The misdirection of the film is also ingenious, and the bookend scenes happen to be a storytelling method I’ve come to use in many of own independent films. This story is all told from a certain perspective that you will not put into alignment until the end. Denzel’s voice overs are excellently handled to be both ambiguous as to the truth the first time around, but also, be entirely perfect on repeat viewings fitting into what you already know. This is mainly a testament to the screenplay of Nicholas Kazan, and the direction of Gregory Hoblit. Voice overs can tend to be a little dry without the proper direction and context given to the actor. Denzel gives them the right tone which feeds into the detective noir investigative aspect of the story, and ultimately, as something much more.
Kazan’s screenplay alone seems excellent. The concepts and how they are handled are done with a fine depth of intelligence and emotional poignancy. The philosophical discussions amongst these characters show exceptional attention to well developed characters, relationships, and storytelling detail. The actors inhabit those roles, along with all their beliefs and attitudes, perfectly. These are essential elements to explore for John Hobbes to develop through the film. He doesn’t give into wild paranoia, but more of a cautious, weary mindset that drives him to a very clear perspective. Azazel’s actions throughout the film makes Hobbes a man with his back against the wall, but he doesn’t flinch or become desperate. He gets smart, and decides upon a course of action that is quite cunning and smart. That’s very telling of the film. There’s nothing cheap or dumb about it. Everyone involved works towards creating a very smart film that maintains a sense of humanity.
Checking wikipedia for some credits on the film, I see there were many mixed reviews of Fallen upon its initial release. There were critics describing it with words like “convoluted,” “far-fetched,” “recycled,” and “not very engaging.” As a friend of mine consistently remarks, what good are critics anyway? I can hardly understand where they come from myself most times. I personally believe too many have forgotten how to simply enjoy a film as a piece of art or entertainment instead of analyzing it like a science experiment. How they could not see the rich depth of this movie is beyond me. I find it entertaining on many levels with dimensional, enjoyable characters, incredible tension and suspense, a fine interwoven mystery, excellent performances all around, and clever storytelling. Again, I felt this way in 1998, and I feel the same now in 2012. I’m sure I will continue to feel that way forever. This partially follows in the mentality of 1990s crime films post-Se7en, but there’s so much more self-identity and humanity within this story that is not often found as much in this genre. Fallen is a definite must-see for anyone who enjoys suspenseful thrillers with supernatural elements. This is a highly satisfying, sophisticated thriller which receives my strongest endorsement!
Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us. Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.
Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days. When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth. Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.
I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality. I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary. My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well. Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel. So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it. Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting. Unknown did not achieve that for me. It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough. There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it. The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.
Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him. Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all. It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around. Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with. What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie. His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well. That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents. He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck. I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles. However, this does work as an example of the movie. Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre. It’s all standard fare, average offerings.
The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot. I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do. Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions. Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.
The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days. More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff. I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences. There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time. There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies. That time seems almost entirely behind us, now. Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago. Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any. The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra. Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake? I think that explains enough.
As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film. It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller. It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions. Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented. The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent. However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.
I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken. Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller. This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons. However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue. Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie. I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.
The Exorcist franchise is like a roller-coaster – lots of ups and downs. The original film is an eternal, bona-fide classic. The Exorcist II, while I have never seen it, is generally revered as a terrible mess of a film. Things swing upward with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III. Blatty adapts his novel Legion into this theatrical outing with him directing as well. While this film is very much in a far better direction, there was studio interference which mostly complicated and muddled the film’s ending. Still, there’s a surprisingly creepy piece of horror cinema to behold that has gradually become one of my favorite horror films of all time.
Set fifteen years after the events of the first film, we mainly follow Lieutenant Bill Kinderman (now portrayed by George C. Scott) who has formed a friendship with Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), friend and confidante of the late Damien Karras. It’s an odd friendship built on a love of movies and the memory of Karras. The Lieutenant is investigating an eerie string of disturbing murders that harkens back to those of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), who was executed fifteen years earlier. There’s a religious subtext to some of the murders, but none of the forensic evidence pieces together from one death to the next. Things become stranger when investigating at the hospital Kinderman discovers an isolated mental patient who claims to be James Venamun, the Gemini Killer, but bares a striking resemblance to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). He is clearly insane, but knows everything about the original Gemini killings. He also refers constantly to “the master” who slipped him into this body as Karras was slipping out after his fateful fall down the steps fighting Pazuzu. Kinderman can’t see the evil within, but he feels it and knows the death and dismemberment it has caused. As Kinderman comes closer to deciphering this demonic mystery, his own soul and life could easily be in danger as well as others’.
This is a positive review, but I’m going to start out with the bad first, just to change up the template. The ending to this film was changed because after the studio renamed the film from the novel’s title of Legion to The Exorcist III, they realized there wasn’t a single exorcism in the script. To accommodate this, an extra plot line was introduced which bought Jason Miller back, and a line about seeing through “the eyes of faith” to accommodate having footage of both Dourif and Miller portraying the same general character. None of that is really a problem in terms of storytelling or the quality of the film. It’s all handled and balanced beautifully through clever editing and storytelling. Where the problem lies is the climax and conclusion of the film. What we’re inevitably left with is an overly grandiose exorcism with a breadth of fantastical, biblical, and blasphemous imagery which seems a little out of place and over-the-top. Granted, there is a heavenly dream sequence with a wealth of respective imagery. Also, there are supernatural elements throughout the film, but they’re more subtle. This ending breaks the restraints and lets loose the floodgates. In one perspective, it might seem appropriate like the gates of hell have been breached, and everything is being unleashed. However, to my perspective, it doesn’t seem to mesh all that well with the rest of the film’s style, and twists the story into an odd direction which isn’t as satisfying or coherent as it probably could’ve been. There’s also the dictated addition of Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson) to the film who is not given any character building scenes to integrate him into the story. This addition causes some storytelling problems, and seems like an irrelevant diversion from the plot until the finale justifies it. All of this doesn’t kill the movie, but I would’ve been interested to see what Blatty originally had in mind. Apparently, the novel does not have a happy ending.
Onto the good stuff. George C. Scott commands this movie. From the guy who won an Academy Award for his powerhouse portrayal of General George S. Patton (though, declined the award), that’s to be expected. He offers up a dry sense of humor, some degree of grief, but overall, he provides conviction and intensity to Bill Kinderman. The highly acclaimed character actor Lee J. Cobb originated the role in the 1973 film, but the actor passed away from a heart attack three years later. Ed Flanders takes over the role of Father Dyer from the real-life priest, Father William O’Malley. Jason Miller is the only returning cast member from the original film, and does a very subdued and creepy performance as the brain damaged ‘Patient X.’ However, where the acting really soars is Brad Dourif. Whatever roll he was on going into this film, it made his performance enveloping. You just can’t turn away. With the monologues he had to deliver, the role and performance could’ve killed the film, dragging it down into boredom. Fortunately, Dourif has a magnetism that just reels you in hook, line, and sinker. His charisma eats up the scene, and the sparks that fly between him and Scott are the meat of the piece.
This was only the second film directed by William Peter Blatty. The first being The Ninth Configuration from 1980 which Blatty once considered the real sequel to The Exorcist despite it’s connection being one briefly seen, unnamed character from 1973 film. Despite such a brief directing résumé, Blatty shows a lot of skill and competency here. This film oozes with creepiness, making it one that’ll twitch your nerves, and keep you jumping. There is one particular sequence featuring a white gown and a killer musical stinger that’ll freak you out. Just thinking about it gives me the chills. No matter your own opinion of the film, this sequence will get you every time.
The musical score by Barry De Vorzon is quite fitting, and immensely effective. I was previously familiar with his haunting and intense score on the cult urban action film The Warriors, which was very much of its time in the late 70s. The Exorcist III score is much more traditional, but still haunting as well as chilling. It makes itself essential to building the atmosphere of the picture.
The director of photography, Gerry Fisher, gives this picture great composition and an amazing look in certain scenes. Every time the film ventures into the isolation chamber, the lighting is so beautiful in an exceptionally dark and eerie fashion. Fisher previously lensed the fantasy adventure classic Highlander with amazing artistic talent, and wonderful composition. The Exorcist III doesn’t call for anything as epic as Highlander, but the artistry is still beautifully evident. He definitely gives the film a visual impact that lasts.
There are some discrepancies between the original 1973 film and this sequel. Likely, these are due to Blatty focusing more on his original novel source material instead of Freidkin’s feature. The primary issue is that, in The Exorcist, Kinderman and Karras barely knew each other. They meet for one conversation for their first meeting ever, and are never seen together again. Here, it is heavily referenced that the two men were best friends, and knew each other quite well. It’s that friendship which drives Kinderman’s intense investigation, and motivates the plotlines along. I have not read Blatty’s novels, and so, I cannot confirm or speak to any of this speculation. However, considering he is the author, screenwriter, and director, it’s easy to conclude that these are character connections he always intended in some form or another. Other issues are easily resolved. The year of when the events of the first film occurred has been altered to 1975, but there’s nothing in the first film to conflict with this. Just the fact that it was released in 1973 is all that causes any issue at all.
Overall, I feel The Exorcist III is an amazingly well done film, and only the interference of Morgan Creek executives diminished and hindered Bill Blatty’s vision. Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin would also learn of this over a decade later when filming their respective prequels to The Exorcist, and Blatty blamed no one but Morgan Creek for both versions’ failures. A director’s cut of The Exorcist III is apparently never to surface due to Morgan Creek being unable to locate the footage. Still, despite these obstacles and tampering with the film, I honestly feel an effective, original, enthralling, and exceptionally satisfying horror film shines through. Blatty showed great talent and competence in both scripting and directing, and George C. Scott’s performance is a powerful and intense as you’ve come to expect from him. Ultimately, this is a great surprise considering the more maligned entries in this franchise (save the original), and is indeed one hell of a terribly creepy film. This is a horror film I can watch just about anytime and be pulled into every time. This is what has gradually made it a strong personal favorite of mine which I would also consider one of the best horror movies ever made. If for nothing else, it’s a good watch for a dark, lonely night.
This is a unique film. Helmed by Brad Anderson, the director of Session 9, and written by Scott Kossar, screenwriter of the recent remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & The Amityville Horror. I’ve never seen Anderson’s work before, but I’ve heard good things about it. Whatever the case, The Machinist pulsates with rare talent and dedication for a style of film that few venture into. The most shockingly impactful display of dedication comes from Christian Bale (American Psycho, Batman Begins) who shed 63 lbs for this gaunt, troubled role leaving him at a frail 120 lbs. The scenes showing his skeletal physique will just blow your mind. With this being such a unique film, a plot synopsis cannot go into details without spoiling anything.
Simply put, there is something wrong with Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), but what it is, even he doesn’t know. Trevor is a machinist that has wasted away to the point where “if you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” But what happens to be worse is that Trevor has not slept in a year. Trevor is in such bad shape that his machine factory co-workers believe he’s doing drugs, but it’s hardly the case. Still, the deterioration of his physical and mental state beg the question, “what the hell happened to him?” On the brighter side, Trevor has two women in his life – the lover and the mother. The lover is Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is a very warm and affectionate girl who happens to be a prostitute, but is certainly more to Trevor than that. The mother is Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who is a mother to a young boy, and gives Trevor some company while drinking coffee in the late night hours. Still, Trevor has recently become very interested in a supposed co-worker named Ivan (John Sharian) who he’s never seen before, and comes off a little creepier than anyone would be comfortable with. But what’s even creepier is that no one at the factory seems to know who he is – it’s as if he doesn’t exist. Although, to Trevor, he is very real, and Ivan continues to haunt Trevor to no end. Then, there’s the mystery of who’s leaving post-it notes on Trevor’s refrigerator door – taunting him with a game of hangman. Paranoia is only the beginning as Trevor tries to decipher this bizarre mystery, and ultimately, discover what secrets are buried in his scattered, tired mind. Like the tagline says, How do you wake up from a nightmare when you’re not asleep?
The sparkling gem in this film is truly Christian Bale. Beyond any other performance of his, this is the one that demonstrates the extremes Bale will goto for a great role. His dedication is full heart, body, and soul. He has a passion for film and acting that is just as unique and rare as this film. Bale practically starved himself to reach this striking physical goal, and believe me, you won’t be able to understand how anyone could live in this condition. Trevor’s a bit lighthearted about it all, and doesn’t really let it bother him (frankly, he’s got much more pressing matters at hand). Bale’s performance here is powerhouse indeed, treading through a flood of emotions over the course of the film. I simply cannot praise Bale’s acting talents enough, there aren’t the words for it. He is truly one of the greatest actors of our time, and I’m glad to be a witness to it.
The rest of the cast is very complementary as well. Michael Ironside’s role as Miller, a co-worker of Trevor’s that suffers an unfortunate mishap at the factory, is small but interesting. Ironside’s always so typecast as a villain or a hard-ass tough guy, it’s nice to see him as someone more light-hearted. Jennifer Jason Leigh is, as always, a wonderful talent. She’s done some fantastic roles in the past, and while this role as Stevie is more understated, she has heart and sympathy. Leigh is still a beautiful woman, and brings a needed bit of consult to Trevor’s troubled mind. Aitana Sánchez-Gijón (pronounce it if you can) is the overnight waitress at an airport coffee shop that Trevor visits every night. She’s also a mother with a son named Nicholas (gives me a smile) that Trevor befriends on Mother’s Day. And probably the capper is the mysterious and creepy Ivan as portrayed by John Sharian. He essentially haunts Trevor throughout the movie, and makes himself very suspect by the fact that he comes off as overtly suspicious. He seems like a sociopath, but there’s something far more unforeseen about him than that. Furthermore, his look is great! It was augmented to make him appear creepier than normal with a false set of larger teeth and a mangled hand (which is exceptionally freaky). Sharian plays up the role, but not too much. His look takes a lot of credit for Ivan’s effectiveness, and Sharian really has quite the Brando mojo going here.
Another striking element here is the cinematography and the entire visual design of the film. There are a lot of filters used, making the film take on a cold, monotone feel, but there is one or two scenes with a warmer look. Though, the surreal, unwelcoming visuals are what dominate the film. And while the story is set in L.A., it was actually shot in Spain, and I feel that the visual style applied here really pushes the film towards a more European look. The pitfalls, but I think it helps the film seem more surreal. The cinematography is absolutely wonderful, very inspired – admittedly – by Hitchcock among other things. It’s amazing work that is rarely seen these days. I mean, this is photography where the entire film is a large canvas that is painted on with great care. That’s much like how the script is with many layers, details, and textures that are slowly put together before we ultimately see the entire masterwork. The score also blends these elements together. It’s another Hitchcock-inspired detail, and has a very special, unique quality. Some films don’t utilize the score as a storytelling device, but here it is used to perfect potential. It definitely enhances all parts of the film with the eerie, mysterious qualities being in the forefront. Roque Baños has a rare talent for a style of score that isn’t heard enough any more.
Now, where everything really connects is director Brad Anderson. Again, I’ve never seen any of his other work, but I have to believe it’s just amazing. The talent he displays in this film, between subtle and obvious, is remarkable. Not a whole lot of directors develop their own personal style, but when they do, it makes them that much better. Anderson definitely leaves his mark with The Machinist. Whether it’s driving the actors, planning out the action in a scene, or what have you, he delivers a wonderfully crafted work of film. It would certainly take a very competent and highly skilled director to make this script work, but not only does it work, it lives, it breathes. Brad Anderson really made a potentially very confusing story and made it compelling, intriguing, thrilling, and engaging. He slowly reels you in, and you have no desire to pull away until the very end.
All in all, this is a great film. It’s strong, eerie, and by the end, will definitely have you in an array of emotions. It’s somber and strange, but Brad Anderson makes sense of it all. The entire cast is a pleasure with Christian Bale putting in everything he had, and showing his dedication and devotion on every single frame. The photography is something not seen since Hitchcock, and the score resides in that same class. Simply put, everything and everyone here makes this film everything it was meant to be and more. This is one great piece of filmmaking, and I highly recommend everyone check it out sooner than later. A pure 10 out of 10!