Archive for the ‘thriller’ category

A Walk Among the Tombstones

September 21, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONESMatthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) has a way of getting to the point. In A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on the tenth of Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels, Scudder is snooping through a dubious character’s things, and is caught at it by Mr. Dubious, who wields a big knife. Scudder, an ex-cop and off-the-books private eye, takes one look at the guy and knows the knife isn’t about to be used. So instead of provoking him into violence, Scudder nonchalantly but firmly says something to the effect of, Look, I can take that away from you, but I’d rather not have to. Scudder isn’t a fan of brutality, though he has seen enough of it to tide him over several lifetimes. Liam Neeson, here and elsewhere in the movie, speaks and moves with the effortless authority of a man who still, at age 62, can fold you in half without breaking stride, but conducts himself with the grace of a man who would rather not have to.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is grim and sometimes ghastly, but its heartbeat is gentle and patient. Writer-director Scott Frank isn’t a fan of brutality either, though the plot is one of Block’s nastier items, about a pair of psychos who prey on the wives of rich men in the drug business. Such men are disinclined to call the police, and, realistically I guess, they don’t command a Tony Montana-style army. The psychos, too, depend on their marks to race into the situation with unclear heads full of stress and rage. Ultimately, the sickos demand a ransom but then deliver a kidnapped wife back in pieces. They don’t do it for the money, though the money does keep the lights on; they do it because they like torturing women, and the opening credits of the movie begin as a possible erotic afternoon delight and then gradually shade into something darker and more repugnant. Frank catches us leaning the wrong way here, but overall he suggests rather than lingers on the pain of the women.

The movie isn’t terribly concerned with women as anything other than plot motivators (Scudder’s prostitute girlfriend from the book has been omitted), which may draw it some charges of sexism it doesn’t really earn. It’s more engaged with the pain of men, the pain they’re in and the pain they cause. Scudder faithfully attends AA meetings, and a climactic event is intercut with an earlier church stop, where Scudder solemnly listens to a woman listing the Twelve Steps while in the future there is bloody cataclysm in and out of the rain. I don’t think anyone could call the movie pro-masculine; Scott Frank may elide the horrors, but he makes sure we catch enough of misogynist psychopathology to give us the shivers. One scene will haunt me: the two monsters, idling in their van, mesmerized by the sight of their latest prey, who walks the family dog and waves cheerily at them as she passes, while Donovan’s “Atlantis” — surely the creepiest use of it since GoodFellas — oozes from the van’s radio. It’s a terrifying sequence.

Scudder gets by with the help of a sidekick of sorts, T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless kid who uses the library for reading and occasionally sleeping out of the rain. T.J. is black, but as played by Bradley he’s admirably not-cute; we don’t have to sit there and worry about the white man patting his young Negro ward on the head condescendingly — T.J. is tough and smart and helpful in the case. Scudder finds himself in this mess when a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) comes to him seeking justice for his wife, returned in “poor condition” by the psychos. The dealer has a brother (Boyd Holbrook) who came back from Desert Storm a heroin addict and who might be useful if he can get over his own man-pain. T.J. is about the only character we see, Scudder included, who just gets on with things.

The movie is great on such things as addicts’ rituals (two shots and a cup of coffee), the alarming but bracing sounds of a gunfight in full eruption, the sickly quiet after said gunfight, the way a sociopath sits down and eats calmly five minutes after having garroted someone, a whiskey bottle swung into someone’s skull that doesn’t shatter but bounces off with a painful-sounding tonk!, the grotesque indignity of slipping on bloody stairs. A Walk Among the Tombstones, indeed, strikes me as the first great American film of the new season, a stoically gripping opening shot to inaugurate the cooler months, when we adults can bid a temporary farewell to superheroes and robots and go, once again, to movies made for us.

The November Man

September 14, 2014

The-November-Man-trailer-2-750x310Has it really been twenty years since Pierce Brosnan was officially announced as the then-latest James Bond? (Brosnan’s debut, GoldenEye, marks its twentieth anniversary next year.) Now 61, Brosnan seems interested in interrogating the cold 007 archetype from different angles, whether farcical (2005’s The Matador) or serious, as in his new thriller, The November Man. The movie is based on the seventh in a largely overlooked series of spy novels by Bill Granger about Devereaux — no first name, though in the film he goes by Peter — a former agent who keeps getting pulled back in to contend with international crises. Here, Devereaux must protect a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who possesses dangerous information about a piece of rapist slime who’s being groomed for the presidency of Russia.

The newsworthy thing about The November Man, directed with old-school grit and clarity by Roger Donaldson, is how emotional its violence feels — and there’s plenty of blood spilled. The fights and gunshots seem to burst forth out of rage and contempt — and that’s when the good guys do it. Well, “good guys” according to whatever definition means anything in this gray context. Devereaux is brought in by old handler Hanley (Bill Smitrovich, doing his best Peter Boyle), who soon turns on Devereaux, takes over from section chief Weinstein (Will Patton, doing his best J.T. Walsh), and sends Devereaux’s former protege Mason (Luke Bracey) after him.

What we’re never allowed to forget is that the convoluted plot is powered by those who perpetrated war crimes on vulnerable girls and those who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. Devereaux is already nursing a painful personal loss at the callous hands of his employers. Later in the film, he will present a harsh and bloody choice to Mason. In part, the movie is about the misogyny at the highest levels of government and federal intelligence. Usually women in spy movies are bargaining chips or femmes fatale or, with 007, a motivation for the hero to press onward vengefully. Here, Olga Kurylenko is allowed central importance, with back-up from Caterina Scorsone as an agent, Amila Terzimehic as a fierce and unstoppable assassin, and Eliza Taylor as Mason’s warm, cat-owning neighbor.

Brosnan’s Devereaux is cool, abrupt, coiled for action. Not suave like 007, he’s closer to a spy version of Donald Westlake’s Parker, brutal and pessimistic. Combined with Julian Noble of The Matador, Devereaux is Brosnan’s way of telling us that he understands that a 007 in the real world would be a monster, or at least monstrously desensitized. Still, Devereaux isn’t far enough gone to see that a woman who seeks justice should have it. And again, somehow the violence Devereaux commits in the movie feels like an expression of anger at what the world of dirty international politics does to innocence and to women (Devereaux, it’s revealed at some point, has more than one personal reason for being angry). The November Man is structured like a routine spy thriller — and it sure goes like lightning — but it means more than meets the eye.

The Purge: Anarchy

July 21, 2014

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The disappointing thing about the Purge movies is that the marketing makes them look spookier and more radical than they turn out to be. The first one, from last year, used a promising if unoriginal premise — every year in futuristic America, there’s a 12-hour window of officially ignored criminality — as the backdrop for a standard home-invasion thriller. Now The Purge: Anarchy employs the same concept as wallpaper for an action-thriller that swipes alternately from The Warriors and Escape from New York but lacks the style of either.

As the annual Purge is about to kick off, we meet a variety of civilians preparing for the long night. The mother-daughter duo Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) plan to hole up in their apartment. The troubled young couple Shane (Zach Gifford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to her sister’s house. A mystery man (Frank Grillo) arms himself and goes out into the chaos. Eventually all these people wind up under the protection of Mystery Man, whose name, Wikipedia informs me, is Leo, even though I don’t think I heard it mentioned in the film.

Somewhere in there is a revolutionary faction opposed to the Purge, but aside from serving as a deus ex machina (both Purge movies are full of last-minute rescues) they don’t amount to much. More is made here of the Purge essentially being an elitist culling of the 99%, with the rich paying to kidnap or hunt the poor for fun. But the politics of this is callow compared to two other recent dystopian thrillers, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The action, on the rare occasions that you can make out what’s happening, is uninspired; the putatively ghastly sight of prowling killers in ironically innocent masks is muted when we find out what they’re really up to. Random cruelty, to me, is scarier than conspiracy theories, which arise from the human need to impose order where there is none. There’s certainly order in the universe of The Purge, which makes the conflict comprehensible and dull and politically questionable even if you’re on the side of the 99%.

By virtue of getting out and about, and having a more varied cast than Ethan Hawke and his family, The Purge: Anarchy packs marginally more entertainment value than its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it’s boring to watch and to think about, and sadly, these movies are meant to be thought about. But they’re overtly political in a way that reminds me of a high-school kid who’s just discovered radicalism. The writer/director of both films is James DeMonaco, who may for all I know have a shelf full of Noam Chomsky, but one of the executive producers is Transformers perpetrator Michael Bay, whose low-budget horror-flick shingle Platinum Dunes is behind the films. Bay is decidedly a one-percenter, and I would reflexively distrust anything supposedly radical with his name on it. These movies are like something that would be shown to the poor folks of Panem in The Hunger Games to pacify them, keep them from actually doing anything.

The Counselor

October 27, 2013

the-counselor-michael-fassbenderReaders of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script for the convoluted new thriller The Counselor, might ask who this movie’s Ultimate Evil is, the Judge Holden, the Chigurh, the suzerain of the earth, silent and serene. Is it the drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem)? Or the middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges deals between men like Reiner and men who need a lot of cash? Or even the sallow-faced assassin (Sam Spruell) we see stringing wire across a desert highway, the better to separate a motorcyclist from his helmet and its contents? Or could it be the never-named Counselor (Michael Fassbender), whose naïve dabbling in the drug trade stands to win him either $20 million or despair? Who in this amoral universe knows all, sees all, claims that nothing must be permitted to occur upon the earth save by his dispensation?

There’s an answer to that, late in the movie, and meanwhile we watch as the chess pieces, set in shaky motion, march towards a properly bleak McCarthy end. The Counselor is not so much a thriller, really, as it is a new gloss on McCarthy’s favorite conflict between the evil that knows too much and the good that doesn’t know nearly enough. The key, for those inclined to seek it, might lie in a late-inning phone chat between the Counselor and a cartel bigwig (Ruben Blades), who sounds like a somewhat gentler Judge Holden and speaks obliquely about crossings and events long set in stone. Over and over, the Counselor is himself counseled to avoid the path he wants to follow, and once he’s too far along the road, he is told it’s too late.

The movie is full of odd one-on-one conversations that may exasperate those who want the film to get to the point, but the dialogue is the point. It’s not snappy or clever, but it does evoke Hemingway in its weary fatalism and particularly its repeated assessment of women as a threat to the male Garden of Eden. Without women, you see, there would be nobody for men to impress with diamonds and other flashy indicators of wealth, and therefore no crime, no war. I don’t think the movie itself (or McCarthy) believes this — rather, it’s one more way in which the desperate and stupid men in the film sabotage themselves. The Counselor is not a feminist work — not with the old reliable madonna/whore construct represented by the Counselor’s innocent fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Reiner’s cheetah-owning girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) — but it’s not a masculinist work either. McCarthy is not much into heroes except when he’s writing about the literal end of the world.

The Counselor is vaguely apocalyptic as it is, set in a world where cartel thugs dispatch the unwise with vicious time-activated nooses called bolitos — McCarthy digs sending human beings to their maker with implements that seem designed for use on livestock, as with Chigurh’s cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. (In Cuba, a bolita refers to a lottery ball, and someone’s number comes up here.) The movie is being called violent, but the brutal bits are few and far between; we get what we need to keep our dread fresh. The Counselor has been directed by Ridley Scott outside his usual mode of ladling hot/cold visuals onto the screen to let us know that he, Ridley Scott, master visualist, directed it. As a result, it’s Scott’s best film in quite some time. He serves McCarthy’s story. We get the sense that the script magnetized everyone involved, who felt no need to diddle with anything or show off. The cast hums with a low intensity — there are no Oscar moments here, no disgraceful displays like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. This film isn’t getting, but should, the grateful accolades that Prisoners got, and shouldn’t have.

How seldom we see the feared cartel monsters, or even the drugs themselves, in this putative cartel thriller. Almost everyone in the movie is on the margins of the trade, profiting from it without getting their hands bloody. This isn’t a noir thriller featuring the poor and desperate, but rather the rich and desperate, desperate to maintain their spot in the hierarchy. The story is simple but told with a terse economy that doesn’t spoon-feed us the narrative. The Counselor is one of McCarthy’s late-period minimalist fables, philosophical in speech but plain in action, unlike the efflorescent wilderness of pain and madness painted in McCarthy’s gravestone work Blood Meridian. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” says Judge Holden in that book, “but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” We don’t see many drugs in The Counselor because the people may as well be clashing over rocks or sand or flags. The Judge or Chigurh of the movie is revealed before the credits roll, but ultimately the Judge and Chigurh represent human folly, the illusion of control over events save by our dispensation.

Cold Blooded

September 28, 2013

timthumbThe aptly-titled Cold Blooded is the first feature film directed by Jason Lapeyre; he made it before co-directing the terrific I Declare War (both are newly available on iTunes). Both films are tightly wrought meditations on violence, though Cold Blooded fits much more comfortably into a genre file drawer — it’s a crime thriller, handled with what Hemingway called clean hands and composure, appealingly minimalist and sharing some DNA with the early work of John Carpenter. (The end-title music strongly recalls Carpenter’s Escape from New York theme, and the premise tips its hat to Halloween II and Assault on Precinct 13 while being worthier of the latter than Precinct 13’s own remake was.) Judging from Lapeyre’s two features thus far, I’d say we have yet another Canadian director to watch. Must be something in the water up there.

The movie kicks off with a Reservoir Dogs vibe: thieves escaping from a diamond heist. It goes badly, and one of the thieves, Eddie Cordero (Ryan Robbins), is badly beaten and taken into custody. After better than two days of unconsciousness, Eddie wakes up in the hospital to find himself guarded by no-nonsense cop Frances Jane (Zoie Palmer). Before long, we discover that Frances isn’t so much guarding against Eddie’s escape as guarding him against heist colleagues who now want to kill him. They’re both up against cobra-like Louis Holland (William MacDonald), a top-flight sociopath who isn’t above using surgical tools close to hand to obtain what he wants.

Cold-Blooded is almost what Michael Douglas described in his recent Emmy speech as a two-hander — much of the movie is a contest of wills between Eddie, who’s not as violent or as psychotic as the crew he ran with, and Frances, who insists on following the law even when it would seem to do her the least good. The Carpenter feeling continues in the performances of Palmer (who resembles the young Edie Falco) and Robbins, who have a gratifying ice-and-fire rapport. Lapeyre doesn’t forget about the other characters, though; we spend a bit of time with two separately terrified men — a doctor (Husein Madhavji) and the diamond-store clerk coerced into facilitating the heist (Sergio Di Zio) — who of course end up paired off, each nattering about protecting their families.

There’s a bit of grisliness early on, unrevealed by me, that’s a gift that keeps on giving — it raises the stakes, puts a ticking clock on the proceedings, and provides several queasily absurdist moments. (Admirably played straight by one and all.) It also signals that all bets are off, since we don’t expect to see such a game-changing event so soon in a narrative. It informs everything that follows, and, though bloody, it isn’t leered at or even shown in much detail. Jason Lapeyre used to write for the excellent Canadian horror magazine Rue Morgue, but he isn’t a gorehound; covering movies that treated violence as a meaningless game and movies in which violence actually meant something may have shown him which way to go. Cold Blooded may depict cold-bloodedness, but its own blood is warm and vital, without succumbing to unearned sentimentality or emotion (Eddie and Frances don’t become best friends or something).

The filmmaking is remarkably clear-eyed and economical. The first images, almost still photos, suggest snapshots of what happened and why it went wrong. Every edit and line of dialogue have a purpose: not for nothing do I compare Cold Blooded to early Carpenter, who never let plot get in the way of the story. We like Frances and even sleazy Eddie, they get put in a bad situation, and we watch them trying to think their way out of it. You could probably count the number of gunshots on the fingers of one hand, have enough fingers to count the number of clichés, and still have a pinky left over. Lapeyre’s one concession to visuals over logic is the heroine’s iconically bloody face, which maybe could’ve been wiped clean sooner, but nobody’s thinking much about skin care under the circumstances, and it fits in with Lapeyre’s concerns running through both I Declare War and Cold Blooded: blood is sticky and messy, and having it there on the heroine’s cheek is a constant reminder.

Prisoners

September 21, 2013

Capture19You know what you’re in for with the first shot, of a snowy patch of woods in late autumn, while a voice-over intones the Lord’s Prayer. A deer wanders into the frame, and the camera pulls back to reveal someone aiming a rifle. Bang! Christianity and unmotivated gun violence: ain’t that America? Prisoners, the first film in English by the Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), feels as though it wants to be part of the national conversation; it seems to want to be more than a kidnapped-kids thriller (especially with its generous running time of two hours and thirty-three minutes). For a long time, Villeneuve’s patient formalism and Roger Deakins’ typically luscious cinematography make Prisoners a pleasant, and pleasantly adult, sit. Then it seems to remember that it has to wrap things up neatly (why?), and the last half hour, despite the occasional jolt of excitement, is an embarrassment.

In a drab Pennsylvania suburb, two families get together for Thanksgiving: Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello head over to the (slightly better-looking) home of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Jackman, I think, also brings some of the deer his son just shot in the first scene. The families each have a teenage kid and a small daughter. The two small daughters leave the house after Thanksgiving dinner and never return. Prisoners then becomes about how the parents, and specifically Jackman, respond to the crisis. Howard and Davis recede, and Bello zonks herself out on pills — the brief moments of levity the elsewhere-vibrant actresses Bello and Davis share pre-kidnapping have to last us a long time, because the movie turns into The Hugh Jackman Show. The poor man, who seems to have dedicated much of his film career to making us forget he can also be a charming song-and-dance light comedian, rages and suffers and howls and falls off the wagon and generally comports himself like someone even Wolverine might cross the street to avoid.

The police, led by Jake Gyllenhaal as a detective who’s “never lost a case,” find a mentally challenged young man (Paul Dano) who certainly seems to be the kidnapper, but the girls are nowhere to be seen, and after 24 hours the cops have no evidence on him and have to release him. Wolverine — er, Jackman — swings into action, kidnapping Dano, stashing him in a dilapidated, abandoned apartment building he happens to have inherited, and torturing him for information while Terrence Howard mostly stands around looking queasy. Meanwhile, someone else is sneaking around the neighborhood at night and apparently breaking into the Jackman and Howard homes. Could he be the kidnapper? Or how about the old child-molesting ex-priest who has something interesting in his basement?

Denis Villeneuve appears to be fighting this material tooth and nail. He brings a burnish of high burgundy seriousness to the staging, but the plot is irredeemably pulpy and runs on a thin tank of coincidence and convolution. Villeneuve seems to want the film to say something about the American character as personified by Jackman, a struggling carpenter (Jesus?) who fills his own basement with survival supplies and passes easily into righteous fury. Gyllenhaal’s cop, I guess, is there as balance, but he doesn’t do much of anything, and it takes him forever to figure anything out (some detective). The extended running time is there to pile on more and more twists, not to discover anything in the characters. The only thing we learn about Terrence Howard’s character, aside from his not having the stomach for torture, is that he plays the trumpet badly. About Viola Davis we learn not even that much. Spike Lee’s comments about mishandling of black characters in films made by white people are sometimes an occasion for eye-rolling, but after seeing Prisoners you might acknowledge he has a point.

And then the movie gears up for its gripping climax and becomes terrible. The filmmaking remains crystalline, immaculate, which makes the implausibilities much bitterer pills to swallow. Something seems to happen, and then no, it didn’t happen that way, and someone is in custody that the cops like for the crime, but then whoops, someone isn’t in custody any more, and someone goes alone to someone else’s house and at that point, by simple process of elimination, you wait for the big reveal, and it happens, and while you’re still trying to get your brain around the laughable disparity in size between the threatened party and the threatener, more stuff happens and people act stupidly and good god, is this going to be over any time soon? There are two movies at war here: a glum, wintry character drama from the Atom Egoyan mold (say, The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica) and a very-particular-set-of-skills thriller á la Taken. Guess which movie wins, but it’s not even fun on a Taken level, never mind as devastating as Sweet Hereafter. This movie is impeccably-made horseshit.

You’re Next

August 25, 2013

xsharni-vinson-youre-next.jpg.pagespeed.ic.96791YOdvaA lethal disease sometimes afflicts horror filmmakers. I call it “explainitis.” This disease has been known to erode mystique, decay plots, and dilute true terror. In the best home-invasion movie of recent years, The Strangers, the killers were asked “Why are you doing this to us?” Their response: “Because you were home.” That’s really all you need; any motive more explicit tends to drag shadowy demons into the withering sunlight of logic, and you might as well be watching Murder, She Wrote. (This is why David Lynch, who is not officially a “horror director,” has birthed some of the most frightening moments ever committed to film: he deals in mystery, dream logic. Nothing is scarier than the incomprehensible.)

You’re Next, a horror/siege thriller greeted in some quarters as if it were the second coming of Sam Peckinpah, has a raging case of explainitis. It trucks along efficiently until we have to stop and learn why this is all happening. We begin with a random couple murdered by people wearing animal masks. Then the story proper gets underway, as four thirtyish people, accompanied by their significant others, head to their wealthy parents’ house to celebrate their wedding anniversary. One of the parents is played by genre stalwart Barbara Crampton, making this the second thriller of the year (following Would You Rather, with Jeffrey Combs) in which a veteran of The Re-Animator presides over a dinner gathering that promptly turns brutal. Someone is outside with a crossbow. The whole family, except the unlucky one who happened to be at the window when the first arrow came through, convenes hurriedly in another room, and the cat-and-mouse game begins.

The family is dysfunctional, which means many scenes of bickering before the slaughter commences. One of their number, the Australian girlfriend of one of the sons, turns out to be quite competent at deflecting murderous intentions; Sharni Vinson, who plays her, is probably already being groomed as the next scream queen in a genre that’s been lacking one since Neve Campbell screamed her last, though if Vinson is lucky she’ll move on. She does a great deal of damage to the killers, who become oddly humanized through their pain and frustration. You’re Next flirts with being a meta-horror movie, which can be a way of making a routine slasher flick while making fun of routine slasher flicks. The engine, however, runs like a routine slasher flick.

For a small segment of the audience, the movie will play as a wink to fans of recent indie cinema: one of the sons is played by mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, while retro-horror director Ti West appears as the boyfriend of the family’s sole daughter. The film’s director, Adam Wingard, has collaborated with Swanberg on various projects and contributed, along with West and Swanberg, to the horror anthology V/H/S. None of this meant much to the uninitiated around me in the theater, many of whom were audibly exasperated with Wingard’s over-reliance on shaky-cam even when it isn’t called for (such as a simple shot of a family portrait on the wall). Wingard can set up a decent jump scare, even if none of them really made me jump. There’s some gratifyingly nasty dark comedy. It’s not a dud, but one way or another you’ve seen most of it before.

So is You’re Next really an artsy sheep in wolf’s clothing — i.e., a snide, deadpan send-up of home-invasion thrillers? It’s certainly not being marketed as such, which might explain my audience’s underwhelmed response to it. The motive, when it’s revealed, raises unfortunate questions and reduces the terror to a twisty gimmick that excludes our identification with the victims: Unless you’re one of these specific people, you’re not next — it’s not going to happen to you (not the way it does in this movie, anyway). The family’s patriarch is a retired national-defense worker, so I thought he might have been getting a political comeuppance, but no such luck. The movie is certainly more entertaining than The Purge from two months ago, though at least that film’s premise was more promising (even if it was squandered). If you combined the sci-fi elements of The Purge with the visceral violence and bleak humor (not to mention the crowd-pleasing Sharni Vinson character) of this film, you’d probably have a terrific siege thriller. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either version) killed this genre and spat on its grave.


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