Review – Red Sparrow (2018)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey
As Jennifer Lawrence has transitioned from just being an actress to being a fully fledged superstar her public persona, the irreverent, funny goofball, has come to the fore. Red Sparrow, in which she is reunited with director Francis Lawrence who helmed the final three films of the Hunger Games series, gives her the opportunity to return to those qualities which first grabbed the world’s attention in Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook: strength, defiance, determination.
“Every human being is a puzzle of need. Learn how to be the missing piece and they will give you anything.” This is the mantra of the Sparrows, a special program within the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, focused on psychological manipulation. Continue reading
Review – Nightcrawler (2014)
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
As news outlets cut back their staff and refuse to pay overtime, late night footage gathering has become the realm of private operators. Known as nightcrawlers or stringers, these police-chasing cameramen listen in to their police scanners for car accidents, drive-by shootings, armed robberies and homicides, aiming to be first on the scene so they can sell their footage to highest bidding news network. With his darkly satirical Nightcrawler, writer-director Dan Gilroy takes us into this peculiar subculture.
Louis Bloom is an unemployed hustler, making a living by stealing and selling scraps and building materials. One evening, he happens upon a horrific car accident on the freeway and is fascinated by the nightcrawler who pulls up, takes a few seconds of gory footage and then disappears into the night. Seeing an opportunity, Louis buys himself a video camera and a police scanner and sets off on his new career. A fast-talker who sounds like a mix between a self-help book and an infomercial, Louis convinces the naive and desperate Rich to come on board as an unpaid intern and before you know it he is the intriguing new player in the industry. But Louis’s ruthlessness and unchecked ambition sees him willing to cross ethical lines in the name of good footage, and what starts with moving some items to create more compelling shots soon becomes something much more dangerous.
This film is built around a compelling lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears in every scene of the film. Not a hero but also not a villain, Louis Bloom manages to be equal parts disturbing and disarming. Louis is overly polite and uncomfortably intense in his friendliness. He is a lonely man in need of connection, but incapable of naturally achieving it. Having lost a significant amount of weight for the role, Gyllenhaal’s hollowed out features take on an animalistic quality which is matched by an unblinking intensity in his performance.
Nightcrawler doesn’t judge Louis. The film is less of an indictment of his character than it is of the system that rewards him. When Louis proudly delivers his first piece of footage to Channel 6, he is given the rundown from Nina Romani, the news director on the graveyard shift. White deaths are worth more than black deaths, wealthy is worth more than poor. What they want is urban crime creeping into the suburbs. The jackpot, he is told, is a wealthy white woman running down her suburban street, screaming having had her throat cut. This is ratings-driven news based on hype and hysteria. If a sociopath is defined by their lack of human empathy, surely the industry who lives off Bloom’s material is every bit at sociopathic as the man that gathers it.
Dan Gilroy is best known as a screenwriter and his screenplay here is really strong. What prevents this film from being just another anti-hero story is that Gilroy approaches his narrative from a different angle. He envisioned Louis Bloom’s story as a success story, in which an unemployed man, through his own determination and entrepreneurial spirit, founds his own business and builds it into a thriving company. As such, the film becomes a perverse take on the American capitalist dream.
An independently financed film with a budget small enough ($8.5 million) that it was free from the usual constraints and rules of Hollywood filmmaking, Nightcrawler is an unsettling but compelling piece of satire anchored by a brilliant lead performance.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Nightcrawler? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Review – Gone Girl (2014)
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris
Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller Gone Girl was a literary sensation and was destined for the big screen. Flynn herself was given the task of streamlining the novel into a 150min screenplay, and with films like Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network and Zodiac proving him to be a brilliantly methodical director and a master of misdirection, David Fincher was just the director to manage the various major twists and turns that Flynn’s story throws at us.
On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne arrives home to find his wife Amy missing. The police are called in but something doesn’t seem quite right. The kidnapping investigation soon becomes a murder investigation, and with an intensifying media circus that brings with it revelations big and small about their relationship, Nick finds himself the prime suspect.
Gone Girl looks at the role the media plays in turning investigations into sensations. We see the ease with which public perception is manipulated by the media, how little details and tangential titbits can be put under the spotlight and made to look incredibly significant. It is Nick’s inability to appropriately play the media game that causes him to look suspicious, and the court of public opinion judges accordingly. Ben Affleck is perfect casting in this regard. As we watch Nick being hounded by the press, and we see him breaking under the pressure of constantly being scrutinised and judged, knowing that Affleck has lived that experience adds to the character.
Gone Girl starts on the morning of Amy’s disappearance and follows the investigation from there, but we get flashbacks of their relationship narrated to us through excerpts from Amy’s diary. As such we experience Nick in an objective present, but Amy in a subjective past. What we see and know of Amy is determined by what she has written in her diary, and as the film progresses the reliability of her narration comes into question.
Unlike a traditional thriller, Gone Girl gives us its game changing reveal quite early. Barely halfway through the film we learn the truth about Amy’s disappearance. That revelation changes the focus of the film. For the audience, the investigation is no longer about working out what happened to Amy, but about revealing who Nick and Amy really are. More than just a mystery thriller, Gone Girl is a film about human relationships, and quite a cynical one at that. The film explores the place of narcissism in marriage, examining the way in which people play roles during courtship, pretending to be the person they want their partner to think that they are, or the person they think their partner wants them to be, and then how relationships break down and resentment builds when partners grow tired of playing those roles. Through its hyperbole it asks how well one can really know their partner when both are simply playing roles.
As good as Affleck is, it is British actress Rosamund Pike for whom this movie is a real breakout. Pike’s look perfectly suits Amy; the privileged, trust fund kid. We believe her intelligence, and we also believe her insecurity. After all, her trust fund is the result of a successful series of children’s books her mother wrote in which the lead character, Amazing Amy, lives out an idealised version of her own life. But there is also something mysterious and unreadable about Pike and as we start to discover more about her character she shows us something new and the film really becomes hers.
Gone Girl is an extremely interesting and engaging film, but it is not without its problems. Tonally it will cause some viewers difficulty. What starts out as a pretty straight drama gradually morphs into a tragicomedy, a perverse satire, without ever openly embracing a satirical tone. There are moments in the film that are quite brutal and others that are obviously being played for laughs. It is a very fine tonal balance that the Fincher is trying to strike, and he is not always completely successful in achieving it. Similarly, after an engrossing first and second act, the third act falls flat. Rather than building to a crescendo, Gone Girl reaches its peak at the end of the second act and then gently burns out. With a two-and-a-half hour runtime, it is in this third act that the film starts to feel long.
Gone Girl is the kind of smart, insightful, middle-budget (around $50 million) film which is few and far between in Hollywood these days. Well performed and expertly directed it is a peculiar and engrossing piece of filmmaking.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Gone Girl? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Review – Non-Stop (2014)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o
Liam Neeson is a terrific actor who has been in some really wonderful films. But at some point in the last decade, despite being on the other side of fifty, he has made an unlikely transition into being an action hero, a kind of contemporary Clint Eastwood. The upside of being a recognised movie action hero is that he can pay the bills by doing paint-by-numbers thrillers, of which Non-Stop, which sees him reunite with director Juame Collet-Serra from Unknown, is definitely one.
Neeson plays US Air Marshall Bill Marks, a burned-out alcoholic who is on a routine flight from New York to London when he starts receiving a series of text messages threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a secret, off-shore account. With the lives of 200 passengers in his hands, Marks has to determine which one of them is the culprit, preferably without causing a state of panic 40,000 feet above the ground.
Setting a thriller on an aeroplane mid-flight creates an interesting variation on the Agatha Christie formula which sees our key players – the detective and all of the potential suspects – confined to one location for the duration of the story. From the very outset of the film, before we know what is about to unfold, some clever camerawork from cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano creates suspicion of every character we encounter. Likewise, before it is even revealed that Bill is an Air Marshall we know that he is a watcher of people. It is through his gaze that we notice little details about the passengers around him.
As the narrative progresses, with its countless red-herrings, there are moments in which you are genuinely hooked into this mystery. This cat-and-mouse scenario creates some legitimate tension, and Non-Stop looks like being a basically enjoyable, if largely generic, thriller. But then it steps into the ludicrous. Like a plane with serious engine failure, this film plummets in its final third. The final reveal is disappointing, due in part to the sheer ridiculousness of the motives at play – the hijacker is the last in a long number of characters in the film who share needlessly elaborate, and in this case nonsensical, backstories. But surely the point at which this film completely descends into farce is when a moment of anti-gravity caused by the free-falling plane righting itself sees a gun that was lying on the floor levitate in front of our hero at the opportune moment for him to grab it and fire. I’m not sure the 50-50 split between groans and laughter is the audience reaction that the filmmakers were hoping for.
Even though Neeson is clearly going through the motions, he, like the rest of a surprisingly quality cast, struggles valiantly against some sub-standard material and manages to give more than it deserves. Ultimately though, Non-Stop fails to live up to the potential of what could have been quite a fun premise.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Review – Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh
It has been over a decade since Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the hero of The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears and the man who is to financial analysts what Indiana Jones is to archaeologists, last appeared on our screen. So therefore it is time for a reboot and that is exactly what we get in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
As reboots are want to do, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit takes us back to the beginning for an origins story. After being badly injured in a helicopter attack while serving in Afghanistan, Jack Ryan is recruited by the CIA to work covertly as a financial analyst on Wall Street. There he uncovers a Russian plot to crash the US economy with a terrorist attack. So Ryan finds himself upgraded to operational status and on his way to Moscow to try and work out when and where this attack is going to occur before it’s too late.
Clancy wrote Jack Ryan as a Cold War hero, but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – the first Ryan film not to be directly based on a Clancy novel – recreates him as a hero for the post-9/11 world. It is the attacks on the World Trade Center which compels the young Ryan to abandon his PhD study in London and join the Marines. While in keeping with Clancy’s novels the antagonists in the film are from Russia, it prefers to play off contemporary fears of terrorism and economic meltdown rather than old Cold War tensions.
Having previously been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, it is Chris Pine’s turn to step into the role. However, despite this being the fifth Ryan film, audiences don’t have the same clear expectations of the character as they do for someone like a James Bond, so the pressure on Pine stepping into the role is not as intense. That said, he does a good job. Unlike his brash, impulsive Captain Kirk, Pine imbues his intellectually brilliant Ryan with a certain vulnerability that is fitting of an agent at the beginning of his career who is not yet battle-hardened.
Pine is surrounded by an impressive supporting cast. Kevin Costner continues his recent career resurgence as a quality supporting actor in his role as the stoic William Harper, the CIA agent who recruits Ryan. As Ryan’s girlfriend, Keira Knightley gets slightly more to work with than the usual love interest character, with some of the scenes between the two of them being quite touching. Kenneth Branagh, who is also directing here, makes for a steely villain as the Russian Viktor Cherevin.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit largely follows the spy thriller playbook established by the James Bond and, more recently, Jason Bourne franchises. In this globetrotting film we move between London, New York and Moscow, and are given regular action sequences, whether helicopter attacks, hand-to-hand combat or car chases. However, the quick cutting shaky-cam used in the action scenes does take audience disorientation to a new level.
While Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a contemporary reboot engaging with contemporary concerns there is something wonderfully old-fashioned about it. It is a classic espionage film. It is still Americans against Russians, it still comes down a race against a ticking time bomb, and it is still quite a lot of fun.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Review – Stranded (2013)
Director: Roger Christian
Starring: Christian Slater, Brendan Fehr, Amy Matysio, Michael Therriault
Is a thriller still a thriller if it doesn’t thrill? That is ultimately the question you are left with if you make it through Roger Christian’s sci-fi thriller Stranded.
When a lunar space station is severely damaged by a meteor shower its four staff must prepare to return to Earth. But one of the astronauts becomes infected by some spores found on one of the meteors. The result is a rapid pregnancy shortly followed by the birth of a healthy baby alien. The creature continues to develop rapidly, taking the form of one of their fellow astronauts, and starts to wreak havoc on their station while they wait for help.
Director Roger Christian has a strong science fiction pedigree. He won an Oscar as a set decorator on Star Wars and was art director for Ridley Scott’s Alien. Unfortunately when it comes to his work as a director his calling card is Battlefield Earth, a film renowned for its awfulness. Stranded is a scrapbook of ideas snipped from other films. Primarily, it is a pale imitation of Alien – we even get the alien spawning in the uterus of a female crewmember – that fails to create the intense, claustrophobic mood which was so central to that film’s success. The simple narrative is entirely uninteresting and devoid of logic and the characters don’t engage you. The film simply doesn’t make you care.
Christian Slater is the ‘name’ that leads this small cast of unknowns (Doesn’t that say something? When was the last time you chose to see a movie because Christian Slater was in it?) but he clearly isn’t overly invested in what he is doing here.
If Stranded has one saving grace it is that the film is almost completely devoid of CGI. One can only imagine how terrible the effects would have been if the rest of the production is anything to go by. That the alien conveniently takes on human form also means there is no need to design a convincing looking alien.
The movie finishes with a lame excuse for an open ending. Ordinarily you’d interpret that as leaving things open for a sequel, but surely the filmmakers here cannot seriously believe that is on the cards. Stranded falls into the awkward middle ground for genre films where it is not good enough to be enjoyed seriously, but not tacky enough to be enjoyed ironically.
Rating – ★
Review by Duncan McLean
Review – Runner Runner (2013)
Director: Brad Furman
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie
Brad Furman’s Runner Runner is a movie about gambling and as Justin Timberlake’s character Richie Furst assures us in the film’s opening voice over, “Everybody gambles.” Of course not everyone plays online poker, the focus of the film, but whenever you take a chance, whenever you put yourself in a situation where in order to get something there is a chance you could lose something, that is gambling.
Richie is a gambler in every sense of the word. He used to be a Wall Street guy but lost his job and all his savings when the stock market crashed. Having returned to Princeton to complete his Masters, he pays his tuition by promoting and playing online poker. When he becomes convinced that the site has cheated him, Richie heads to Costa Rica to confront online poker tycoon Ivan Block. Block is so pleased that Richie chose to come to him rather than going to the press that he not only refunds his losses but offers him a job and before long Richie is living the high life as Block’s protégé. But of course Block is not the legitimate businessman that Richie had assumed and Richie soon finds himself needing to get his hands dirty, watch his back and ultimately make the biggest gamble of his life.
In the hands of a different, more ambitious filmmaker Runner Runner might have been an interesting, anthropological exploration of the world of online gambling – think what Scorsese did with Goodfellas and Casino – but Furman’s direction doesn’t give it that texture, that requisite sense of authenticity. Truth be told, he may have been hamstrung by the film’s screenplay, which has some problems. The familiar man-out-of-his-depth tale is difficult to completely get on board with because it is hard to believe that Richie, who the film’s early passages at Princeton are supposed to suggest is some kind of genius, could be so incredibly naïve. He seems to be genuinely surprised to discover that something the slightest bit dodgy might be going on at the off-shore online gambling empire he has joined up with.
Justin Timberlake has persevered through the novelty of being a singer who is having a go at acting to establish himself as an actor and has demonstrated some real talent. But at this stage in his career he seems better suited to supporting roles. He doesn’t yet have the charisma as an actor (as a performer is a different matter) to be a Hollywood leading man. Comparatively, despite all the unfair flack he gets, Runner Runner comes alive when Ben Affleck is on screen. He gives Block a real presence, using his usual friendly, charming persona as a disguise for Block’s darker side. While both are forced to wrestle with some pretty stilted dialogue, their predicament is preferable to that of British actress Gemma Arterton. Her character, spray-tanned to within an inch of her life, is as two-dimensional a love interest as you will find and the lack of characterisation means she struggles to generate much in the way of chemistry with either of the male leads.
While Runner Runner has its problems, it is a well enough made thriller that it will keep you interested and as you watch these expert gamblers plan their moves, make their plays and take their chances you will have a bit of fun.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Review – The Call (2013)
Director: Brad Anderson
Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Roma Maffia
The Call is a simple thriller with a premise so perfect that it is amazing we haven’t seen it a dozen times before. Halle Berry plays Jordan Turner, a veteran 911 dispatcher in Los Angeles. She fields a call from Casey, a teenage girl who has been kidnapped by an unhinged man at the mall and is locked in the trunk of a moving car. Casey’s phone is disposable and therefore unable to be traced electronically, so it is up to Jordan to try and figure out where she is before the car reaches wherever it is headed.
They call the Los Angeles 911 phone centre ‘the Hive’ because it is always buzzing. The Hive is the hub which connects the many emergencies taking place in Los Angeles at any given moment with the first respondents who are sent to deal with them, and it is a really interesting setting for a thriller. Jordan is a middle-man, and as such the ideal substitute for the audience. Despite being in the middle of this situation and feeling a great deal of responsibility for its outcome, her ability to influence it is limited. Her feeling of helplessness as she hangs on the line as they try and get a trace on the phone is a similar feeling to ours as viewers, forced simply to watch on in horror as the events unfold.
With the exception of a short prologue giving us some backstory on Jordan, the events of the film take place over a period of just a few hours. The clock is always ticking and the tension building. Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin shoulder most of the responsibility of keeping us invested. Breslin, once the little girl from Little Miss Sunshine, is not required to do much more than cry and scream, but effectively embodies the terror of her situation. Berry finds the difficult balance of someone struggling to maintain the control and composure she’s been trained for in the face of an emotionally crippling situation.
Where the film goes off the rails, and ultimately what prevents it from becoming something quite special, is in its final act when we leave the Hive as Jordan takes it upon herself to do some detective work and get involved. This sacrifices what had been quite a unique and effective premise in favour of a much more run-of-the-mill situation and, ultimately, resolution. But that doesn’t change the fact that The Call, while a bit gruesome at times, is short and punchy and filled with tension. While it won’t necessarily rock your world, for people who love a thriller that can have them on the edge of their seat it is an ideal Friday night movie.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Review – Riddick (2013)
Director: David Twohy
Starring: Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Dave Bautista
For all the limitations Vin Diesel may possess as an actor, he definitely has a talent for getting sequels made. In the same year that saw the sixth instalment in the Fast & Furious franchise we also get Riddick, the third in the sci-fi thriller series that started back in 2000 with Pitch Black.
After an unpopular detour into the fantasy genre with 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick attempts a return to the simple formula which made Pitch Black a hit. Once again, the Furyan killing machine Richard B. Riddick is fighting for survival on an unknown hostile planet. In the films overly long opening passage, we watch a lone Riddick employing his survival skills in dangerous desert terrain. We see him fight off aggressive aliens, treat his own injuries, and adopt an alien dog as his companion. This dull opening passage is accompanied by awful narration. This narration is absent from the films later passages where things are actually happening, and seems clearly to be the director’s acknowledgement that what we are seeing is not sufficient to maintain our interest.
Eventually Riddick stumbles across an abandoned supply station and activates a distress beacon. The signal, identifying the wanted Riddick as its source, draws two groups of respondents. One is a group of bounty hunters after his head, the other is a military squad after information. At this point the film undergoes a change in point of view. Our primary focus now becomes these respondents. After being the central focus of the first section of the film, Riddick becomes an ever present yet unseen menace who torments – and in some cases slightly more than torments – these new arrivals, in his efforts to commandeer one of their ships to escape. It is this passage of the film, where Riddick is the hunter seen only in glimpses, that is most engaging.
But time is not on Riddick’s side. A storm is coming and bringing with it a plague of giant scorpion-like aliens. So Riddick and his would-be captors have no choice but to join forces. As the plague of aliens descend on the characters cooped up in the small supply station, Riddick becomes very derivative of Aliens. Note that I specified Aliens, James Cameron’s gun-heavy, subtlety free sequel, rather than Ridley Scott’s suspense fuelled masterpiece Alien. Transitioning from the middle passage in which the danger, Riddick, could be anywhere, to this finale where the danger, aliens, is everywhere takes all of the tension out of the film. Your only reason to engage is if you care about the characters, and unfortunately even this late into the film you have been given no reason to.
Riddick is a film almost devoid of any likeable characters. There is no one you can comfortably side with. It is an action movie without a hero. Riddick himself is so violent in both his actions and his manner, and seems to take such joy from that violence, that it would be overly generous to suggest that he even qualifies for the status of an antihero. Even the decision to give him a dog, usually a sure fire way of humanising a character, can only do so much.
Not one for those with delicate sensibilities, Riddick is graphically violent and at times is downright offensive, particularly in the way it treats its only female character of substance, the military officer Dahl (played by Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff), who despite being one of the most capable soldiers there is constantly subject to sexual baiting from all sides. This seems to be a movie to appease the fans who felt let down nine years ago by The Chronicles of Riddick, but won’t hold much interest for anyone else.
Rating – ★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Review – Penthouse North (2013)
Director: Joseph Ruben
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Michael Keaton, Barry Sloane
Penthouse North is a largely generic home-invasion thriller with one key difference, the victim is blind.
Sara is a former photojournalist who lost her sight when she was victim to a suicide bomber while on assignment in the Middle East. She now lives a reclusive life in a luxurious New York penthouse with her boyfriend, Ryan. One New Year’s Eve she arrives home from doing some shopping to find, eventually, her Ryan murdered and the killer still in the apartment. It appears Ryan used to be involved in some shady business with some bad men and made off with a fortune worth of diamonds. They have now come back to collect.
Home-invasion thrillers tend to involve small casts, minimal locations and short time frames, and the best of this genre of films use those elements to create a claustrophobic feeling. Despite having these key elements, Penthouse North doesn’t quite manage to establish that atmosphere and therefore doesn’t succeed in truly unnerving you as a viewer.
With such a small cast, the majority of the film only involves three characters, a greater than usual burden falls on the actors to carry engage the viewer. Michael Keaton is the highlight. He has always had a manic, unhinged quality – he has the crazy eyes – and this has served him well in the past in playing characters like Beetlejuice and Batman. It is enjoyable seeing him play a villain and he does quite well here, giving his character a real sense of menace. The others perform solidly, but never really grip or intrigue you. As Sara, Michelle Monaghan tries valiantly, but it is hard to not see her as someone pretending to be blind.
This is director Joseph Ruben’s first film since 2004’s The Forgotten, and is strange choice of drought-breaker. David Loughery’s screenplay goes through the motions without offering any surprises, and the result is a film that lacks tension and suspense. Despite a reasonable cast, Penthouse North is unremarkable, even if it never actually becomes bad.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
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