Like a playbook version of Donald Trump's MAGA plan. Complete with Russian murder tourists. Prescient much?
The second RAMPAGE film isn't near what the first was, nor does it do anything different whatsoever.
Maryland (also billed as Disorder). 2016. Directed by Alice Winocour. Screenplay by Winocour & Jean-Stéphane Bron.
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant, Percy Kemp, Victor Pontecorvo, Franck Torrecillas, Chems Eddine, Philippe Haddad, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, Rachid Hafassa, David Colombo, & Rabia Elatache. Dharamsala/Darius Films/Mars Films.
Rated PG. 98 minutes.
There have been plenty cracks, as of late, at tackling PTSD through cinema. Some good, some not so good. It’s all in the way you go about it. You can show many sides. Each person suffering with the disorder can experience it much differently, depending on the event which triggered the symptoms. Along comes Alice Winocour, writing alongside Jean-Stéphane Bron, giving us Maryland; a film that so deftly handles PTSD with suspense, tension, and a few good thrills.
All the elements are in place here to have made a proper thriller, filled by interesting interpersonal drama and a couple heady doses of action. First, there’s Matthias Schoenaerts, whose talents at doing more with his face, expressions, body language than many actors can manage to do with their entire repertoire. Second, Diane Kruger gives her character more weight than simply being a poorly written female character tossed in to give the plot a feminine angle. And finally you can’t deny Winocour’s talent as a director. Personally, I’ve not yet seen anything else she’s done so far. Shame, really. Because clearly she knows how to make magic on the screen. Not only is there a great look, Winocour combines the visual aesthetic with one impeccable aural feast, from sound design to the soundtrack itself by Gesaffelstein. Honestly it’s one of the better movies of its kind in the last few years. Like I said, the PTSD film has really become more of a thing again since the Invasion of Iraq, and everything soldiers have been mixed up in since. But Maryland offers up a look into that type of mind, one fractured deeply by the horror of war (and perhaps later the necessity for a life filled with violence). We don’t get all the typical moments you’d expect. Rather, Winocour shows us the genre we’re convinced is in front of our eyes, then makes it into something else more interesting.
One of the immediate elements of the scripts is the paranoia. A technique Winocour uses that we’re given often in a film that leans towards a psychological story is that for the better part of the whole runtime we’re right alongside, behind, near Vincent (Schoenaerts). Sometimes we follow behind him. Others we’re at mid-range, as he talks to others, interacts with Jessie (Kruger) and the various people at the Maryland estate. Further than any of that, Winocour uses the cinematography of Georges Lechaptois to draw us into the sometimes hallucinatory headspace of Vincent. We’re not always sure exactly when reality ends and the PTSD working overtime within Vincent’s poor head begins. In fact, the very final shot has such impact due to the fact we’re consistently drawn into a place where the reality we witness is undermined by Vincent and his penchant for hallucinating. While the major events of the plot are clearly real, that final shot begs to question exactly how unstable is Vincent, as well as whether he’ll ever be able to fully heal again. Or maybe it’s real. You can never be sure. Although my two cents? I think the final moment is a hallucination. Essentially, he retreats into that world inside his mind when he’s all alone. Aside from seeking out violence, or violent situations, because of his time in the war – who knows what happened to him over there – Vincent likely works in security still due to the fact he needs to be near people, he has to have noise to occupy his brain. You’ll notice that while Vincent does have a couple moments of intense stress, most of the party is a distraction to him. It’s only once he gets to a quieter, less populated area of the party does his paranoia get into overdrive. Interesting little distinction.
The music from Gesaffelstein pushes certain scenes to the limit of psychological suspense. A tension ratchets at times until you think either you or Vincent are about to burst. People will pass off the music as “derivative of ’80s synth-pop” (something I actually read online if you can believe that) when it’s just electronic excellence. Plus, as I said, the music then works in conjunction with the cinematography and Winocour’s directorial choices to make the mental state of Vincent a thoroughly visceral experience. That sequence at the beach? The heavy electronic notes ramble until Vincent’s able to calm himself. And that whole minute or so is an exercise in how to draw out a tense scene. This of course leads up to another wild moment, which confirms for sure if Vincent is seeing things or if it’s all real. Nevertheless, on numerous occasions the visual and aural elements of the film combine to make the action and the drama exciting in equal measures.
Schoenaerts is beyond a good actor. He has all the wonderful energy of a De Niro or a Pacino, a Hackman, a Hoffman (Dustin or Phillip Seymour), a Vincent Cassel or a Jean-Paul Belmondo, anybody you can think of really. He’s got the physicality to play any number of tough guy characters, already proving that in spades through his performance in my favourite film, Bullhead. However, he gets to show even more of his acting chops here (even though I still prefer that one). The way he paves a path into the world of Vincent, that inner paranoid inside the hulking exterior, is fascinating. His vulnerability is always present. He’s this big time security guard, and at the same time he has this gaping wound in his soul that comes out from time to time, piercing the outer shell of his military swagger, that built up, constructed masculinity. Again, as in the aforementioned performance, he taps into that side of masculinity, what it means to be a soldier in modern times/what it means to be a man, as well. It lifts the film up with how deep the performance goes, right to the last drop.
Likewise, Kruger does a pretty solid job, too. She plays a woman wrapped up in something that she doesn’t exactly understand. At first, she’s hesitant to treat Vincent with much more than awkward, casual conversation. Then, as events evolve and change her perception, she’s forced to rely on a man she does not know. Moreover, she has no idea of his real personality, the PTSD he deals with on a regular basis. So to watch her performance along with what we know, it makes for good excitement. Jessie isn’t a character just left helpless, she’s a mother also ready to shield her child from any danger. Added to the fact Kruger doesn’t play her as helpless, nor is she a waif-like woman. The bravery in her comes out after she plunges into a dangerous world with a man charged to protect her against whatever comes next, as she never gives up or hesitates to do what’s necessary.
I can’t say it enough: Maryland is a god damn amazing movie. I’ve not stopped raving about it since getting the chance to watch it recently. There’s a soft spot in my heart for filmmakers who take a chance on subverting genre expectations. While many think this is a typical story from seeing the trailer, once you get into the mix and let Alice Winocour take you for a pulsing, frantic ride right next to Vincent, the irreparably damaged soldier, you’ll find out this film is something more than its foundation suggests. Schoenaerts and Kruger sell the characters, giving us more to latch onto than any number of recent movies trying to ride off the success of stuff like Taken. This film shows us the tough guy protecting the woman we’ve seen all too often in a different light. The well written screenplay takes on PTSD, using sight and sound to push the envelope. All the while serving up some piping hot action and thrills in the midst of its engaging drama.
And if you don’t find yourself impressed by the surprise of Maryland, you may have an empty chest. Not an empty head; this isn’t a cerebral drama in that there’s anything utterly life altering being presented. But the excitement is such that by that last shot, if you’re like me, you’ll want to watch the whole thing over again to pay closer attention.
Using a fake country as the setting for a brutal revolution, director & writer John Erick Dowdle's NO ESCAPE is pure action-thriller to the core.
Carnage Park. 2016. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, James Landry Hébert, Michael Villar, Bob Bancroft, Larry Fessenden, Andy Greene, Alan Ruck, Graham Skipper, & Darby Stanchfield. Diablo Entertainment.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
Ever since seeing Ritual, I’ve been hooked on Mickey Keating. His directing and writing are a sight for sore eyes in the world of indie cinema. These days there are lots of talented people coming out of the independent scene. But Keating has an old school sensibility, a practical effects-driven manner of taking on horror specifically. The way he directs has a wonderfully rock n’ roll-style feel. The atmosphere of his movies is always wildly palpable, no matter what the ultimate main genre. Most recently Keating wowed me with Darling; a trip down the rabbit hole of guilt, murder, shame, and more.
Carnage Park does not come with anything overly original. It’s the way in which Keating gives the material over to us that’s exciting. Best of all, like Darling and its Roman Polanski vibes, this movie – via Keating admittedly – is fashioned after the Sam Peckinpah, machismo-filled 1970s films about dangerous men running wild on the fringe with guns and knives and big steel balls. At the same time, the movie switches genres, transforming from action-thriller into something more horror oriented as the various characters collide out in the eponymous park.
The opening sequence, while deranged in its own right even in comparison to what comes later, is a lot of fun. It has an energy that kicks the story off right. We get a taste of Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy) right off the bat, then it switches into us spending time with Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert), his soon to be dispatched buddy Lenny, and the kidnapped Vivian (Ashley Bell) in the trunk of Joe’s car. Keating keeps the pacing solid, moving fast. Everything gets really interesting then once the different characters come together, and the movie shifts gears.
Isolation is the key here. Under the cinematography of Mac Fisken the desert looks like a gaping, open wound, a vast and dry sore in the earth. Watching Vivian try to make her way through the large lot of privately owned land is akin to somebody wandering a giant hedge maze, but instead of any hedges it’s all sand, shrubs, rundown billboards, so on. The isolated hills in between which Vivian finds herself lost are so huge and far reaching that it’s impressive the way Fisken and Keating create a claustrophobic sense of that isolation. Like The Thing or any similarly remote set script, Carnage Park takes us out into the open while simultaneously bringing us deeper into our own minds, into the head of Vivian who’s faced with outrunning a maniac in the vast desert.
What I love is that this story Keating draws out, the characters and their respective plots, is all a disturbing little slice of Americana from the late ’70s. The unstable Army veteran at the centre of it all, Wyatt, has so clearly been affected negatively by the war. Meanwhile, his brother is the local sheriff, whose ideas about his brother seem pretty clear despite what he tells himself, and especially despite anything he admits to knowing. Within these two characters there’s wrapped a whole bunch of socioeconomic significance, as we consider everything from the dishonesty of those charged with serving and protecting, to the right of land owners in America (in certain states) to shoot anyone that comes onto their property, to the concept of all those men coming back from Vietnam, devastated emotionally and mentally, not receiving any proper care other than some cash and a pat on the back. Instead of a simple setup of a madman with no backstory there’s the fact Wyatt has been psychologically traumatised in the war, which sort of ups the ante on the usual scenario. Watching the various, hideous bits of American life unfold out across the sprawling hills on Wyatt’s property is a tense nightmare that’s hard to predict re: where it may head next.
The performances really help sell the whole thing. Bell does a nice enough job with her character, especially considering all the back and forth moments we see, going from being Scorpion Joe’s hostage to being at the fingertips of a demented ex-soldier, to the shocking scene where she stabs the wrong person than who she intended. She does well showing us the breakdown this woman experiences while going through the most trying day of her life. But best of all, Pat Healy – the god damn man, as far as indie movies are concerned. He’s been in lots of stuff, though never better than when working on something daring, something small, things like Cheap Thrills and The Innkeepers, among more. As Wyatt, we see him become a truly scary individual. At first you almost don’t know if he’s going to be some kind of anti-hero, the sort we’d expect out of a neo-noir-Western hybrid like this becomes now and then. Then when it’s becoming clear that Wyatt is the big evil in the situation there’s a feeling you start to get each time his eerie, smiling face comes into the frame that tells you: this guy is bad, bad, bad news. This is a great role, one that might end up as a load of generic garbage were it left to a less talented actor. Rather, Healy gives us lots to enjoy, as he touches all corners of the spectrum, creeping about, charming a little, and above all else terrifying his victims.
I do prefer other Keating films about this one. However, Carnage Park is a good time; through and through. The performances are one thing. The adrenaline pumping pace is what kept me glued. I can sit through all sorts of films, but a great effort usually has me consistently stuck to each scene, wondering where exactly things are about to move. Not once did I know for sure where the plot might go, or which characters would go on to survive. The ending didn’t totally eclipse me in any way. Still, it is a fantastic finish to a nicely executed bit of indie cinema. Whereas other filmmakers could have gone in vastly different directions throughout, Keating sticks to his old school style, his simple though beautiful way of directing. This way nothing strays too deep into familiar territory so as to bore the viewer. Ultimately, the cat-and-mouse thriller that frames the entire film is jammed full with suspense and the tension you’ll feel is like a chokehold. Keating takes you into the darkness fully, never once really letting you go. Take the ride, even more so if you dig his other directorial efforts. This one is yet another top notch instance of his talents.
Minority Report. 2002. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Jon Cohen & Scott Frank; based on the short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick.
Starring Tom Cruise, Max von Sydow, Steve Harris, Neal McDonough, Patrick Kilpatrick, Jessica Capshaw, Anna Maria Horsford, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Tim Blake Nelson, Lois Smith, Mike Binder, Jessica Harper, & Peter Stormare. Amblin Entertainment-Cruise/Wagner Productions-Blue Tulip Productions.
Rated PG-13. 145 minutes.
Steven Spileberg is one of those directors whose work usually calls me back to a specific time in life. The memorable cinematic experiences of my early days were informed by Jaws which is the reason for my fear of deep water, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and its long lasting effect on my strange interests (aliens, paranormal, so on; even though I’m a major sceptic), as well as the adventure and thrill I found in Raiders of the Lost Ark and of course the emotional ride that is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. So many times, Spielberg wowed my young mind, as he did to so many, many others long before me. And yet even while I grew up the classics kept on coming. Jurassic Park changed my life in terms of how I saw movies, that they could be action-oriented and full of science fiction, that the adult and childhood interests in dinosaurs could find a way to fuse in one exciting bit of fiction. On top of everything, Spielberg has dipped his talent into producing a vast number of projects, many of which are classics in their own right without him having taken the reins as director. So usually if his name is attached, I’ll watch a movie simply for that sake, no matter how it turns out.
Minority Report didn’t get ravaged by critics, in fact it generally received a positive turn out. Furthermore, the movie did well domestically and overseas; the profit was more than triple its budget of just over $100-million. At the same time, I feel it’s not as well remembered as it ought to be when considering how great a movie it is, from acting to the direction to the overall look and atmosphere. Reason being that 2002 was a massive year in film, including releases such as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Spider-Man, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Men in Black II, Die Another Day, Signs, The Count of Monte Cristo, and those are just the big ones. Getting lost in the cracks, Minority Report is one of Spielberg’s best post-2000, and one of the last legitimate dives into sci-fi that he took (until taking on duties for Ready Player One). There’s enough excitement and intrigue in this movie to fill a few of them. Cruise gives a solid performance, and Spielberg keeps us on the edge of our seats while we roam the futuristic landscapes of an America that feels not too far off. Ultimately, Spielberg and the writers explore Dick’s story while asking if the technological advancements our society is capable of can manage to outwit the corruption and moral weakness at the hands of the people tasked with using that very technology. The bottom line of Minority Report concerns morality, humanity among the advancements of science, and the will of man to do evil, despite all odds.
The entire process of the Precrime system is a ton of fun. Spielberg really went to town on coming up with the whole thing. I’d like to know more about how the design was decided. Just that room where Cruise’s character does his thing with the screens, those tailor-made wooden, varnished balls, every last detail is incredibly fun. Of course part of this most likely comes from the original short story by Philip K. Dick, though as I understand it the story’s been changed a good deal. I don’t doubt Dick’s story definitely has plenty of the detail Spielberg then used to come up with the look of his Washington, D.C. law enforcement facility of the future. However, part of it is definitely the master filmmaker himself putting his mark upon the adapted material.
One thing I’ve always loved is the design of the roadways, even the cars themselves. The chase scenes are incredible. Funny how certain reviews out there, by professional critics, have claimed these scenes are silly. Really? Are we watching the same movie? Because these chase scenes are perfectly science fiction and every bit the epitome of action. Totally exciting. That first sequence where Cruise is jumping down across the various vehicles is heart pounding. As far as the visual effects go, there are only one or two slight missteps. When you’re not dealing in practical effects, CGI and the like can sometimes let you down. Luckily, these moments are seldom, only one or twice throughout the over two hour runtime. The large majority of the effects look great, keep the pulse thumping, and add another nice element to the dark, gritty nature of the story and its feel.
A huge part of what interests me is the idea of the surveillance state. We’ve almost got this amplified version of the CCTV-laced streets in the U.K. in this future vision of Washington, D.C. and other areas. For instance, as Anderton first tries to get away he moves through the malls and the subway stations, and every screen nearby is flashing his name, speaking to him through personalised advertisements, the newspapers in other passengers’ hands read pop-up headlines about John and his Wanted status. Overall there’s a really great riff on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in that Dick, as well as the screenwriters here, further explore the concept of the ‘thoughtcrime’, the idea that basically forms the foundation of the Precrime Division and their precognitive awareness/action on crime.
This entire angle makes for incredibly interesting plot developments. The fact Anderton is tagged in every way to be recognised by all the various computer systems makes for a tough predicament. There’s an optical recognition system around the entire city, which heightens the police search, as it’s not as simple to just hide away when every street corner, every sidewalk is seemingly rigged to scan your eyeballs and go straight to the source for your identity. Eventually, John finds a doctor whose talents lie in the black market – eye surgeries, to be exact. That’s actually one of my favourite sequences, including a cameo for one of the best character actors Peter Stormare; the whole thing is dark, gritty, weird, it’s an awesome bit that adds to the atmosphere, and turns into a nice addition to the chase elements of the screenplay. What I love most about this whole part of the film is that it speaks to the loss of privacy, the great lengths to which some will go in the future to avoid all the intrusion on their personal lives by way of technology, and so on. Before the film released, Spielberg talked about the technology he envisioned for the movie, and it’s also interesting to note he usually consults a lot of technical experts when making science fiction in order to try and bring some degree of realism to the subject matter. So go check out the TED talk with John Underkoffler, a scientific adviser who worked with Spielberg on the film. Then try and tell me we won’t see more of that in the future. In turn, we’ll watch our privacy disappear, more and more. Online ads are already tailoring themselves to our Facebook and Twitter accounts, our personalised information that’s floating around inside the internet. Soon enough, we’ll walk down the street, just like Anderton, and find the screens looking out at us, scanning, tailoring their ads to who we are as people. Most of all, Minority Report isn’t merely thrilling action: it’s a scary vision of a future world towards which we are headed, if we’re not too careful.
The performances are good, from Cruise in the lead to Farrell and Max von Sydow in their respective supporting roles. Above anything, the atmosphere is what makes this one for me. I love Spielberg’s movies and every one of them feels different, though each of them also has that same magic. Despite moving from genre to genre, as well as through many types of characters and stories, Spielberg always retains that classic style. No matter if the subject material and themes are dark, friendly and youthful, or if they explore a world completely foreign to our own, his films are all capable of transporting us into a sacred space, one beloved by many cinephiles around the globe. Minority Report is one of his best in recent years. There’s a constant excitement, even in the more low key moments. The pacing is exceptional and keeps the whole thing going, allowing Spielberg to stop between his big chase scenes to flesh out a deeply personal, emotional story involving a father and the loss of his son, the crumbling of the relationship with his wife, all of which is folded up in a wonderfully compelling sci-fi tale. Don’t sleep on this one. If you’ve yet to see it, get out and do yourself a favour. Especially if Spielberg gives you the nostalgia feeling in your stomach the way he does for me.
The Matrix. 1999. Directed & Written by Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, & Marc Aden Gray. Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures/Groucho II Film Partnership.
Rated 14A. 136 minutes.
An interest of mine, as well as the minor in my Honours degree, has always been Philosophy. Even the times when I can’t grasp a concept the entire school as a whole is intriguing. There are so many different philosophies, ranging the gamut of Eastern and Western Philosophy, many great thinkers since time immemorial. So what happens when you take the ideas of many philosophies, create an interesting, modern story, then wrap the whole innovative package inside an action film?
Then, you have The Matrix.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly known as Larry and Andy) wrote one of the most unique, original science fiction-action adventures in cinematic history, let alone of the 1990s. Their ideas concerning various philosophies translated into something which captivated the minds of those willing to think outside the box. No more did a science fiction-actioner flick need to be about a renegade ass kicker taking on bad guys, villainous henchman, terrorists, and so forth. Nor did it have to involve space, as was often the case before this came along. After The Matrix, this changed. Writers became more willing to take chances, at least until remake and sequel fever got too serious. For a while, though, we coasted on the high of the Wachowski genius. No matter how you feel about the sequels, this first film broke new ground, daring to go where no one had ventured, at least not in any significant capacity. The story, the action, every last bit is equal to the portion before it. And not many movies can make their stories so amazing while also doing amazing stunts and action sequences overall. That’s where this movie gains its traction.
The Oracle is one of the best parts. Her dialogue does so much. She questions cause and effect. Above her kitchen door is KNOW THYSELF in Latin (Temet Nosce), which was supposedly inscribed in The Temple of Apollo at Delphi; this connects to the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia. In relation to Delphi, this iteration of the Oracle follows suit with the fact the Pythia, the one through whom Apollo spoke, needed to be an older woman “of blameless life” it is said.
One of the most obvious allusions in the screenplay as whole is the concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, narrated as usual by that bad motherfucker named Socrates, or as he was known in his break dance circles Socra-deez-nuts.
If you’ve never actually heard of this allegorical story, jump over here, then come back.
So Neo (Keanu Reeves) is essentially one of those people down in the cave. Chained to his life, this imposed reality, he’s left staring at the blank wall. Only here the blank wall is a falsified reality, one that looks and feels alive, real, genuine. But underneath, outside of the cave, is an actual life. One where things have deteriorated. Now, in Plato’s allegory there’s none of the post-apocalyptic storytelling. Only that the truth is beyond the cave, it is out in the light, beyond darkness. So Neo sits watching the fire in the cave, his supposed life and reality and believing the shadows it casts upon the wall are his only truth. Then in comes Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He brings the truth. All of a sudden, Neo is in the light. At first, it isn’t easy. Like Plato’s narrating Socrates relays, the people exit the cave, they see the light, and initially the light burns their eyes. Likewise, Neo is served the truth so quickly, so cold, his body reacts physically. This is a great adaptation of Plato into a recognizable, yet smart package.
Who better to play the blank slate, the tabula rasa that is Neo than Keanu? Honestly, though. I personally love the guy as an actor, he can be compelling at times. But really, his sort of disaffected attitude works in the beginning. He’s able to feel like this almost teenage-like character, one whose adult life hasn’t fully kicked in. Then as the hits keep coming he begins to feel more real, an emotional man that opens up to the truth of the world. Added to that, Reeves can do the action bit. He’s attuned to this kind of role. Best of all in terms of his casting is that he doesn’t even need to do a whole lot of intense dialogue. Not that he can’t, he certainly can. Rather, the Wachowskis needed someone able to convey the innocent qualities of the character then carry the action star part as the plot progressed. They got what they needed.
Then there’s Laurence fucking Fishburne. A treasure, unheralded. Yes, he gets lot of roles. I just don’t think people appreciate his range. He’s done everything from play in a Coppola classic to portray a wild gangster to give us the best performance as Thomas Harris’ Jack Crawford character on screen. Here, he gives us the perfect Morpheus. Nobody else could have done it this way. He has an iconic voice anyway, though it’s all in his presence, the delivery of his lines. It’s in the fact Fishburne makes Morpheus truly feel like this all-knowing, ever knowledgeable, almost ancient-type figure. This is a star role as is, but Fishburne gives it the extra boost needed to lift his dialogue off the page and make it live.
There’s an equal balance of philosophical musing and action in this film. The innovative bits aren’t solely in the enjoyable screenplay. One massive portion of that is due to the unique action sequences. The Wachowskis single-handedly coined the term Bullet Time, which of course comes out in the iconic sequence where Neo finally discovers what Morpheus meant earlier when implying he wouldn’t have to dodge any bullets, someday, at some point. A solid moment. Before that we’re given a wonderfully bullet laden sequence as Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) enter the building on their way to locate and free a confined Morpheus. This entire series of scenes is amazing, as they go right up to the top of the building. That’s where Neo first dodges bullets, almost all succesfully. It’s not until later in a hallway facing the agents that Neo realizes he can literally stop bullets with just his hands. Both of those moments are well executed and intense, particularly the latter as its effectively the climax of the movie, after The One discovers his full potential. But any action fan in their right mind will love this movie for its wild fun. Hundreds of bullets literally drop from the sky when Neo and Trinity go for Morpheus, the agents are tough to beat, and this makes for exciting scenes. Love when Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) comes up against Neo, they’re riveting to watch, and the fight choreography is stellar (as were the scenes where Neo trains alongside Morpheus fighting). Instead of watching the typical sort of action, the Wachowskis give us gorgeous stunts, a bit of the odd elements that come along with the agents and The Matrix’s physics, even Neo himself. You can’t be bored watching any of this stuff, bottom line.
For me, The Matrix is an outright masterpiece of modern cinema. Again, it taught people that action, specifically that with a science fiction angle, needn’t always be the same tired formula. Philosophy and action can mix. Brain and brawn find middle ground, a territory where each co-exist in the minds of bold filmmakers. There are a couple solid performances, a plethora of action sequences to boggle your brains, and a satisfying finale that’s ripe to lead into other stories, yet can easily be taken as one standalone film if you want to see it that way. No matter how you cut it The Matrix blew things wide open. A movie right before the turn of the 21st century that I’ll never, ever find far from my mind. It comes along with exciting memories of being 14, hanging with best friends, eating chips and drinking Pepsi, watching movies late into the night and having fun. And that’s part of what movies are all about, good or bad. Fortunately, this is better than good. It is perfect.
Everybody's dreamed of murdering someone horrible, like a rapist, or a druglord. But THE BOONDOCK SAINTS go a step further to take back their streets.
Taken. 2008. Directed by Pierre Morel. Screenplay by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen.
Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Kate Cassidy, Holly Valance, & Famke Janssen. 20th Century Fox/EuropaCorp/M6 Films/Grive Productions.
Unrated. 91 minutes.
As a director, I dig Pierre Morel mostly. His first feature District B13 is by far his best work. Although, Morel does nice stuff working off a solid script from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. If there’s anything Besson knows incredibly well it’s action, plus he Kamen have worked together before on The Fifth Element. Even only as a writer Besson works with action in a way others don’t always manage. Already having done a big feature, Morel takes the talents of the writers and turns this into a revolutionary action flick. Yes, I said revolutionary. Because with Liam Neeson in the saddle as lead ass kicker Bryan Mills this movie made way for all the older stars in Hollywood to come back with their action-styled (usually revenge) thrillers.
Taken wraps us in darkness. Our adventure begins with a personal family drama before morphing into a sprawling, dare I say epic mission of revenge, of love, of survival. Mills goes to every length in the search for his daughter after human traffickers take her. We dip into a world highly foreign to any normal person, as Bryan goes further down into the rotten basement of Parisian life discovering danger after danger. There’s a lot of great cinematography, which gives the film a nice look and in turn helps with the action sequences. Nothing worse than lame looking action. This is a visually exciting, stunt-filled fight to the last breath. From the moment the first punch is thrown, you know this will be something intriguing to watch. The sequels don’t match up. Don’t hold that against this one, as Taken holds it own weight in blood, bullets, kicks, and punches.
The one interesting thing about the whole screenplay is how Bryan is paralleled with the new husband of his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). At the beginning, he gives his daughter a present that she likes, but then that guy outdoes him with a horse. It’s ridiculous, and embarrassing to see these people fawning over money like that while Bryan clearly loves his daughter. Well, tragically he gets to prove exactly what he’s really worth by using his “particular set of skills.” He proves who the real father is by going to find his daughter after she’s been kidnapped. Money doesn’t mean anything if you can’t keep your children safe. Likewise, in that whole angle is the fact that because of those special skills he did damage to his family. So there’s an irony in all of it. The whole screenplay and its plot is built on an irony, in that Bryan sends his daughter off to Europe only to be tricked by her and Lenore as to the reason for the trip; the ex-wife cons him in, saying it’s safe, and despite his best judgement he relents. Then his daughter’s nabbed.
I find the whole sequence where Kim (Maggie Grace) is taken tense as hell. There’s a scary element to the whole thing, but watching Bryan listen to his daughter as they come for her, screaming out whatever she can to identify the captors, it’s super emotional and also wild. That whole mini-monologue he gives to the man over the cellphone is perfect, Neeson knocks it out of the park. It could easily come off as cheesy. Instead, Neeson makes the lines powerful and savage without going over-the-top.
Part of the enjoyment in watching Bryan Mills take apart these Albanian gangsters and pimps is because of the dark subject matter. This is an element of what sets Taken apart from the pack. It could easily fall into the realm of unforgettable action-thrillers. Not with Besson and Kamen putting their heads together. These gangsters traffick in humans, women in particular. They sell ladies into sexual slavery. It’s a hideous business that goes on around the world largely unchecked. Taking us into the sordid dens and luxury yachts, the screenplay sheds light on a murky underworld. Then it lets Bryan smash this little criminal universe to bits. It’s all the more satisfying in action film when you can legitimately hate the people against which the hero is fighting. In this case these human traffickers deserve every last bit of pain Bryan brings along with him. Along the way even Bryan must get a little dirty, as he and his friend have a falling out when he worries the man is in on some of the shady business; when he shoots the guys wife I’m always WOWed.
An action film, no matter its story, always has to rely on the strength of – ta daaa! – its action sequences. There don’t even need to be elaborate sets, as long as the fights themselves are interesting. Now certainly there is no shortage or want for sets. We travel all over Paris, through the streets, through the buildings, and further on. Through walls, onto boats, into cars. But just the sheer awesomeness of the fights is something to behold. Right from the first moment Bryan steps foot on Parisian soil there are moments of ass kickery. And the stunts are all spectacular. Just the way Bryan gets pulled from the cab when he’s confronting that little weasel Peter, his face smacks the ground; brilliant, brief bit that leads into another guy for him to fight. Everything escalates, of course, as action so often does. The fights get bigger, more intense. Bryan fights his way through a number of Albanian henchmen in various situations of close quarters combat, and it’s oh so wonderful. And the body count? 35 men. He kills thirty-five different people on his way to find Kim. That’s pretty solid for an action flick. Not a small number by any means in terms of murder. Not too big so that’s it overly abundant and makes things implausible; y’know, if this would’ve really happened I could believe thirty-five, maybe not a full hundred.
A side note – Liam Neeson received training in combatives and weapons handling skills from a former SAS (Special Air Services) soldier Mick Gould, whose work as a technical advisor, weapons trainer, and combat specialist includes films like Heat, Ronin, Collateral, Public Enemies, and more. It’s interesting to see the type of training actors receive, and you can tell in a number of scenes Neeson has a grasp on what he’s doing. They make it look flashy. Though it’s hard to fake some things and Neeson does a fine job, in my opinion.
A few of my favourite sequences are as follows…
The initial big fight with some of the Albanians at the construction site. Not only does Bryan kick a few asses, there’s a nice little chase sequence, some guns to boot. That’s another reason Taken is a proper action movie – you’re never stuck with the same thing, over and over. Yes, there are a ton of fights, yet they’re all interesting and unique in their own way. In between, you get this chase to keep the pace steady and the adrenaline flowing.
When Bryan makes his way into the Albanian hideout under the pretence of being a dirty cop, this fight is magnificent. Because the efficiency of his skills makes for an interesting watch. Neeson isn’t ancient, but he’s getting on. To have him playing Bryan and doing a bit of fighting is totally entertaining. He gives it everything, which shows in the final product. The following torture scene is pretty inventive, as much as it is nasty.
You’ll be hard pressed to find lots of action like Taken. It isn’t perfect, nor is it anything as technically innovative as other big blockbuster movies that came before its time. Still, it’s a revolutionary bit of cinema because of its star, how it pushes the limit on his abilities, as well as the fact the script is willing to get dark and dirty. Right to the last fight, you’ll be wondering exactly how Bryan Mills is prepared to get out of each situation in which he finds himself. And somehow, he keeps swinging. The finale is one of my favourite sequences, as it features a saucy little weapon called a karambit, which is an Indonesian fighting blade; it’s extremely hard to disarm because of a finger hole at the handle, which is evident during Bryan’s struggle with the man holding one. Everything leading up to these moments is action packed and wild as hell. This will always be one of those action flicks I can put on any time to enjoy, never gets old. Neither does Neeson, apparently.
A first-person shooter inside an action film inside a sci-fi story inside a whole lot of fun.
Unleashed. 2005. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Screenplay by Luc Besson.
Starring Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon, Vincent Regan, Dylan Brown, Tamer Hassan, Michael Jenn, Phyllida Law, Carole Ann Wilson, Mike Lambert, Jaclyn Tze Wey, Puthirith Chou, Tony Theng, & Owen Lay. TF1 Films Production/EuropaCorp/Danny the Dog Productions.
Rated 18A. 103 minutes.
Admittedly not huge on Louis Letterier’s filmography as director, The Transporter was some nice light and exciting action, and his 2008 The Incredible Hulk is definitely the better of the two most recent iterations of the character before Marvel’s Cinematic Universe came into being and blew up wildly. Also, Now You See Me was much better than expected, even if it isn’t anything overly amazing.
But Unleashed is one whopping action movie with plenty emotional drama and a story filled with underground crime to the brim. Having already worked together through the aforementioned Transporter film, Leterrier uses another Luc Besson screenplay to absolute demolish the senses right along with the various bones broken and skin torn to shreds throughout the plot. Jet Li is at his peak here, no matter what anyone says. Furthermore, this breaks him away from so many typical roles he ends up with in the Hollywood action landscape.
This is an unusually dark, tense ride through an underworld of crime, which contains a lot of great fights, memorable characters with some solid performances, and what I’d consider Leterrier’s best work as a director. And much as I love Besson as a science fiction director and writer, his writing skills in Unleashed show off why he’s able to put an innovative spin on the action genre, and why his talent endures in the industry.
Any action film, no matter the content, is best served by opening things up with a solid action sequence. Seems a little unnecessary to point out, as the name of the genre might suggest inherently you’re going to get action right off the bat. But some movies don’t always stick to their guns. Action movies that don’t start out with a bang, instead opting for scenes to start fleshing out characters and the emotional stakes of the main plot, risk alienating the people to whom they’re addressing as an audience. All the same, not every action flick has to open with a 10-minute sequence that crosses three or four locations/set pieces and has explosions, so on. No, all a movie needs to do is start out with a key sequence that displays some of the action magic we’ll see throughout the rest of the film’s runtime. Besson’s screenplay gets things kicking, literally, and then still within the first 20 minutes he’s also included a major dramatic aspect to his story. So there’s still an hour and a half afterwards to go in all sorts of directions. With the adrenaline pumping, Besson could’ve digressed into a ton of drama. Instead he opts to alternate between a heavy dose of action and then the introduction of Sam (Morgan Freeman) before diving back into violent action. I also love the anti-climactic first fight Danny (Jet Li) has in the underground club, because it’s anti-climactic in such a fun sense; we’re expecting this impressive sequence where Danny’s about to show off some major skills to these people, and he does, just not in their ideal way of entertainment. So while there’s an aspect of disappointment, this sort of fake-out Besson writes in works so well and makes the scene darkly funny.
Bart: “As my saint of a mum used to say: Get ‘em while they‘re young and the possibilities are endless”
Wyeth: “It was the Jesuits who said that”
Bart: “Probably got it from my mum“
A major aspect of why Unleashed appeals to me is because for both Besson and Leterrier, this is an unusually gritty piece of work. And not simply the story. The look and feel are also equally dark. Often, even in the stuff of his I enjoy so much, Besson can be unbearably flashy. Likewise, Leterrier’s got a penchant for big, brash action that’s totally focused on looking bright and sleek, almost akin to a car commercial. This movie is definitely slick, just not in the sense it’s visually shiny; it moves along with a nice pace and a thorough flow, both in its dramatic portions and most certainly while the action is pounding the screen (and your pulse). The cinematography keeps everything grim and rugged, as do the specific locations chosen for filming which compliment the camera work. For an action film (not knocking them but we all know the focus is on the visuals mostly and not as heavily dependent on intricate plotting), Unleashed lines up so nicely on all fronts, as the story’s emotions and the visual style meet in sync. And even for a gritty slice of action, there’s plenty drama to fill out the spaces in between.
The fight choreography is unreal. Specifically, the fight club pit where Danny faces off against a host of strange and terrifying fighters contains some amazing moments. The second night Bart sends Danny into the ring things start to get intense. From one moment to the next, Unleashed brings its ferocity, wearing energy on its sleeves. Li is always an awesome fighter, but takes it to the next level at many points throughout the film. The pit scene where they send several fighters in against him is some nice group fighting, which sees Danny get the shit kicked out of him before going absolutely berserk. While there’s a slight bit of wire-work involved, most of these bits are just out and out brutal. Even against weapons, Danny only uses his feet, fists, skull, and other body parts to combat the psychopaths he’s put up against (okay he uses a sledgehammer but only for a few seconds). That’s part of why I love the fight scenes because Li’s natural talent is on total display instead of trying to amp things up unnaturally. We get the full, furious magic of Li giving us his all. Also, you can’t forget the other fighters who face Danny – including an early, brief Scott Adkins performance (he might not be the best actor but this man can fight). Overall, the fight choreography and the execution in the hands of the actors, most importantly Li in what I consider one of his all around best films (from acting to fights), makes this a spectacular piece of action cinema.
The climactic fight scene during the last twenty minutes or so is one hell of an action piece. In a movie that could easily become a drain on the senses, the previously mentioned lack of flashy looks helps immensely. Where everything is dreary and almost urban gothic-looking, Leterrier keeps us engaged completely. Keeping the look gritty adds an extra layer. Meanwhile, the fights in this whole sequence are wild, especially once Danny squares off against the guy in the flowing white karate gi. My favourite aspect to this finale is that mostly all the other fights confined themselves to one immediate location, whereas Besson and Leterrier take us through a bunch of locations in an apartment complex while Danny and the man in white fight one another tooth and nail. Simultaneously, the choreography of these scenes allows for a further, closer look even as we’re jumping from one location to the next; Danny and the man in white exchange some wicked little close quarters combat technique that will pump your blood hard and fast.
This is absolutely a 4-star bit of action. You have Jet Li kicking ass and also using his acting chops to draw out an emotional core plot the whole film’s story. Then there’s also a favourite of mine, Bob fucking Hosins (R.I.P), whose talent never ceased to amaze me – his abilities as a hateful bad guy are used to the fullest extent and he puts on a good show. Altogether, the look and feel of the camera work, some soundtrack work by Massive Attack and RZA, the dirty, raw locations, Hoskins and Li (and Morgan Freeman), the writing, the direction: it’s plenty of fun. Unleashed might not be considered as stellar by others. For me, it’s one of those action movies that ticks off almost every last box, and makes a disturbing little story into something grandiose. I can forgive its flaws. Because there’s much to love.
300. 2006. Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by Michael B. Gordon, Kurt Johnstad, & Snyder.
Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro, Giovani Cimmino, Stephen McHattie, Greg Kramer, Alex Ivanovici, & Kelly Craig. Legendary Pictures/Virtual Studios/Atmosphere Pictures/Hollywood Gang/Warner Bros.
Rated 18A. 116 minutes.
Zack Snyder is a director I’m not particularly sold on. I did love how he remade Dawn of the Dead because he kept enough to retain the wonderful legacy of George A. Romero while also throwing his own spin on things. Later, his adaptation of Watchmen was good enough, though to be fair no film adaptation could/would ever make Alan Moore’s words fit properly into the form. Other than these two films, as well as 300, Snyder to me is a second rate filmmaker. He knows how to capture an image, how to make it pop, and how to give his films an impressive atmosphere. But Snyder seems to consistently lack the essence of a visual storyteller. He’s more of a visual mood painter, as opposed to a painter that evokes poetry in his imagery.
I don’t read too much into any of the so-called political analysis critics have heaped onto this film. Sure, you can try. Ultimately when it concerns the Spartans they are a tiny group, tough, though against all the odds stacked high in the favour of their enemies. So how can you try to say they’re representative of a right-wing element, or a superpower? Don’t think so. Also, there’s the fact this is based on Frank Miller’s comic – before Frank got a little Conservative himself – which is itself a historical fantasy, inspired largely by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. While its basis is in Greek history, the comic and film are meant as part fantasy. Isn’t that obvious? Shame I have to say that. Furthermore, we get solely the Spartan perspective throughout this story. That should speak for itself.
But aside from that 300 is not all it’s been cracked up to be. The look is astounding, even if there’s CGI dripping from most of the frames, the actors do a fine job with their characters. There’s just something missing. Not only that, the look – to me – is not revolutionary as some have claimed, likening it to the groundbreaking work in The Matrix. Honestly the films of Tarsem Singh, particularly The Cell at times, really came to mind. Not everything feels lifted, only a few points where Snyder’s imagery and technique feels similar. Regardless, the constant fixation on an arresting visual style draws us away from the characters, effectively leaving us with CGI and action that never lifts this up past mediocre cinema.
There’s a wonderful atmosphere and look to 300 that compliments its graphic novel roots. While I do find some of it is definitely similar to Singh (The Cell, The Fall), the action sequences are exciting and the visual flair gives them an extra edge. So no, it isn’t as groundbreaking and astonishing as others make it out, but it does look great. I’m not a big lover of CGI. As a huge horror fan, I’m often repelled by the need to use CGI instead of practical makeup effects. Of course there are particular images you just aren’t going to make look proper if you use practical effects – mostly in terms of difficulty and practicality, budgets, et cetera. However, it feels like the intent for 300 was always layer it down in CGI, crunch up the contrast and other visual elements until the look is like a Renaissance painting. Only a Renaissance painting is beautiful not just because of its look, but due to the fact underneath that look there is purpose, reason. Snyder doesn’t achieve any of that extra stuff. Just flash.
For all its beauty, there are times I don’t like certain scenes. Some of the stuff with the sun rising or setting in the background, shots of the sky, it comes off as gaudy and overwrought instead of well put together in its complexity. In addition, Snyder overuses slow-motion to the point of agony. I get it, we want to slow down and let the eye catch on some blood, gore, and the impressive fighting skills of the Spartans against the massive Persian army. Overboard, Zack. Way overboard. It’s as if every minute (or less) we’re getting a shot slowed to a crawl, until finally it becomes all but ineffective.
Tyler Bates has gone on to do some good composing. He almost killed his career here, using unauthorized pieces of other scores including significant bits from the Shakespearean adaptation Titus. And funny enough, the whole score isn’t that impressive anyways. Since this film Bates has done genuinely nice work, including John Wick and Ti West’s The Sacrament. But a lot of this stuff here is generic. Others have said quite the opposite, that is really amps things up. Certain pieces work. Most of it just doesn’t feel up to par with the epic filmmaking attempts by Snyder. There’s a mixed-mashed sense to a lot of the composing here, which doesn’t end up coming together in the right manner. If Bates had stuck to one style instead of crossing from orchestral pieces into quasi-heavy metal riffs and thumping drum kits, the music would’ve probably complimented the action correctly and in turn intensified a lot of already loaded moments.
This is a mediocre action film with historical fantasy weaving through its cracks; a 3-star piece of cinema. Zack Snyder tries best he can to elevate 300 into the realm of innovative action where work like The Matrix still reigns supreme. Not all is bad. The film has its moments. Lena Headey and Gerard Butler sell their characters well, their performances both fierce and emotional at the correct times. Outside of them and a couple of the other cast members (Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes is damn solid and also fairly unnerving), nothing is any better than the sum of its parts.
While some will hail this as a great achievement and an awesome bit of cinema post-2000, I’d take a lot of other movies in the past 16 years over this one. 300 is enough to satisfy a bit of hunger for action, a slice of history, some historical fantasy, too. Otherwise it is a run-of-the-mill movie with Snyder’s brash style laid over top. You can still have fun here, just don’t let anybody confuse you, and don’t get confused yourself – there are better movies out there in the same realm. Snyder isn’t some contemporary action genius, even if he keeps being handed massive amounts of money to make his middle of the road films.