Review — Taken 2

Taken 2 (Megaton, 2012): Coming at a time when the action genre was dominated by shaky-cam Bourne editing shenanigans, 2008’s Taken registered as a pleasantly streamlined surprise: A straight-ahead thriller where the clean, clear style both matched and accentuated Liam Neeson’s ruthless blunt object force. Strangely, the sequel feels much more in line with producer Luc (The Transporter, Columbiana) Besson’s other franchises — noisy, chaotically slammed together, and in dazed thrall to its own flash. (If there’s an opportunity for a swooping helicopter shot or a fruit cart collision, this sucker’s going to go for two.) However, even if it can’t match the impact of its predecessor, the sight of Neeson in righteous revenge mode still carries some considerably addictive juice.

Set several years after the events of the first installment, the story finds Neeson’s black-ops professional losing ground with his beloved daughter (Maggie Grace), while forming a tentative rapprochement with his ex-wife (the always welcome Famke Jannsen). While on a working vacation in Istanbul, their family ties are sorely testing by the appearance of an army of villains with a particular score to settle.

Director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3) digresses wildly from previous director Pierre Morel’s no-nonsense approach, choosing instead to revel in over-the-top implausabilities; some pleasantly goofy (two words: grenade cartography), and others just sort of baffling (the reprisal of the first film’s famous phone call comes in the middle of a fight scene, while a bunch of armed goons stand around obligingly.) Still, even if the narrative rarely makes sense, Neeson keeps things from wandering too far off track, via sheer movie star presence. Taller and craggier than ever, he makes for an ideal Family Man of Action: self-contained, tender in repose, and absolutely ferocious when provoked. When he gets going, prepare to feel a little sorry for the bad guys.  (originally published at


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Review – Killer Joe

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2012): Director William Friedkin’s films have been called many things over the years, but “subtle” has never been one of them. While his brash, purposely nuance-free style can sometimes prove overpowering, when it clicks with the right material, it booms brilliantly. Killer Joe, Friedkin’s reunion with playwright Tracy Letts (Bug), finds the director’s in-your-face expressionist tendencies working like gangbusters, propelling this black comedy to places where most movies fear to tread. The laughs become winces, and vice versa.

Letts’ script (adapted from his play) follows a Texas bottomfeeder (Emile Hirsch) with some serious gambling debts. Looking for a way out, he teams with his dim dad (a hilarious Thomas Hayden Church) to hire a legendary hitman (Matthew McConaughey) for some dirty work. When the duo fail to come up with the collateral, however, Killer Joe sets his sights on Hirsch’s beautiful sister (Juno Temple). Things go downhill at warp speed from there.

Trafficking in bad taste from the very first scene (Gina Gershon makes a sleazy entrance for the ages), Friedkin and Letts take a no holds barred approach to their low morality tale, depicting even the darkest moments with overwrought relish. The already unstable mood is only boosted by the somehow endearing scuzziness of Hirsch, Temple’s lovely space cadet, and the fantastic Church, who deadpan annihilates every line and reaction shot tossed his way. Ruling the roost, however, is McConaughey, who spikes his trademark charisma with layers of serious menace, creating a villain who can seemingly do anything at any given moment. In a movie where virtually every character has an aura of thirty-weight motor oil, he shines the darkest. (originally published at

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Lawless(John Hillcoat, 2012): Director John Hillcoat and writer/musician Nick Cave made a brutal, sporadically brilliant splash with The Proposition, a revisionist Outback Western that quickly tore away any lingering notions of frontier romanticism. Lawless, the duo’s take on another turbulent period of history — namely, the bloodiest years of American Prohibition — eases up on the unrelenting grimness a bit, but the hard edges still shine through.

Adapted from the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Cave’s script follows three Virginia brothers determined to continue their family’s legacy of providing quality moonshine to their faithful customers (including members of the local law enforcement) during the Great Depression. While the youngest brother (Shia LaBeouf) attempts to gain the business of a feared local mobster (Gary Oldman), the three find themselves under assault from a ruthless federal agent (Guy Pierce) with a sadistic agenda of his own.

Hillcoat, working with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, delivers a fantastically realized period piece, one where the folksy, lived-in atmosphere is randomly dispelled by moments of shockingly raw savagery. Unfortunately, the attention to detail doesn’t quite extend itself to LaBeouf’s character, whose motivations and actions feel strangely half-baked throughout. Still, even if the main storyline occasionally falters, the film offers plenty to recommend itself, including Cave’s ominously cheery score, small but vivid turns by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, and the gloriously weird Pierce, who starts his performance somewhere in the outer stratosphere and just keeps heading upwards. The main draw, however, ultimately comes from Tom Hardy, who goes all out and then some as the enforcer and reluctant father figure of the family. Clad in incongruously mellow cardigans and mumbling like a cartoon sailor man, he’s a Terminator for the ages. When it comes to his performance, White Lightning hardly covers it. (originally published on

The Proposition(John Hillcoat, 2005): The Western has gone through so many revisionist phases over the years that it’s difficult to remember when a man could be happy on a horse, or a six-gun just stood for a six-gun. The Proposition, the highly touted screenwriting debut for legendary Aussie goth rocker Nick Cave, certainly has a lot to say, and some exceptional actors to do the saying, but for all of its mythic, even Biblical, aspirations, it keeps getting bogged down in the underneath.

Beginning with an alarmingly visceral bordello massacre, Cave the writer wastes no time in getting down to narrative business. After notorious Irish desperado Charlie (Guy Pearce) gets nabbed in said shootout, the local sheriff (a superb Ray Winstone) offers a choice: watch his younger sibling (newcomer Richard Wilson, overdoing the waifishness a bit) swing from the noose, or agree to hunt down and kill his older brother (Danny Huston), a much-feared butcher rumored by the local aboriginals to have shape-shifting powers. Along the way, Charlie meets up with a drunken mad-dog bounty hunter (John Hurt) and his torturous moral path just gets muddier and bloodier.

As his discography proves (particularly the great bad aural trip Murder Ballads), Cave has no small gift for capturing the uneasy allure of violence, a notion which transfers stunningly onto the screen. Swift, brutal, and not exactly shy of the closeup, the copious savagery here genuinely hurts.  Unfortunately, the moments between bloodlettings are less successful, with an overall reaching for sagebrush poetics that too often falls flat. The strength of the central performance, however, makes it possible to forgive a lot. Pearce brings a disturbing physicality to his character’s inner soulsick turmoil, to the point where he literally seems to be turning into a ghost on camera. Under the gaze of his reluctantly vengeful death’s head, the rampant pretensions and ceaselessly wailing tumbleweeds almost cease to chafe. Almost. (originally published in The Stranger)


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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Here’s my contribution to The Skuriels.  Head there immediately.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927): Years before Orson Welles fired up his Hollywood train set, F.W. Murnau dipped deep into the studio pockets to deliver this, an astonishingly fluid tone poem filled to bursting with imagination and sentiment. Effortlessly whirligigging between nightmare and dream, Sunrise is many things at many points: horror story, small town tragedy, pie-eyed romance fable, and a surprisingly goofy comedy (that drunk pig!).  Even at its broadest moments, however – the Woman from the City’s unnerving jitterbug after proposing murder, The Man’s sudden transformation into a slope-shouldered zombie – the sense of wonder remains. Above all, this is a film where you can feel the director blissing out on the sheer possibility of what movies can do. The advent of sound would soon put a limiter plate on this type of unfettered expressionism; Murnau’s masterpiece still stands, untarnished and somehow newly minted. I could watch it every night.

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Reviews – Easy Money, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Dark Horse

Easy Money (Daniel Espinosa, 2011): A propulsive, intriguingly divided tour of the Swedish underworld, this crime thriller whips up an intensely caffeinated frenzy without ever losing sight of its spiraling narrative. Adapted from Jens Lapidus’s novel Snabba Cash, the story follows a trio of desperate men linked by a looming drug shipment. While Spanish prison escapee Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) tries to keep the lines of communication flowing between supplier and the increasingly violent demandees, a weary Serbian enforcer does his best to intercept the goods. Their cat-and-mouse game takes on new levels with the introduction of J.W. (The Killing‘s Joel Kinnaman), a student whose frugal existence barely masks an intense need for the good life. When a chance encounter gives him an opportunity to lend his financial talents to the operation, he eagerly burrows into the muck. The title proves to be more than a little ironic for all concerned.

Initially, director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) takes a frantic Mixmaster approach to the material, throwing flash-forwards and backtracks together at a breathtaking rate. As the pivotal event draws closer, however, the film locks in and clamps down, with those early stylish flurries serving to illustrate the inexorable downward path of its main characters. Fans of Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma may find some familiar patterns sprinkled throughout, but Easy Money more than delivers on its own merits, telling a relentless morality tale that leaves its viewers winded without feeling ill-used. Like all good crime thrillers, it shows how simple it is to end up on the dark side of the street. (originally published at

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011): Powered by an amazing central performance by Elizabeth Olsen, this unstuck-in-time mood piece stands as the most unnerving kind of horror film: the sort where the unease builds and builds, without any easy resolutions. Olsen plays the multiple-named title character, a member of a remote commune held in the thrall of its leader (the excellent John Hawkes, deepening both the menace and charisma he displayed in Winter’s Bone). When she temporarily regains her senses and escapes, she ends up under the care of her sister (Sarah Paulson), a well-to-do newlywed who is understandably baffled by her sibling’s three-year disappearance. As Martha attempts to make sense of her new surroundings and come to terms with her past, she begins to receive menacing hints that her former friends may not be so willing to let her move on.

Writer-director Sean Durkin makes an astonishingly assured feature debut, moving between reality, fantasy, and memory with an unpredictable, hazy grace. Aided by a spooky sound design and some ominous camerawork, the filmmaker has fashioned a gripping puzzle of a movie, one where the out-of-order storytelling creates a whole greater than its parts. Viewers expecting a clear-cut narrative may well be frustrated by the paths that Martha Marcy May Marlene chooses to take, most notably in the final open-ended shot, which raises a number of potential unresolved questions without any answers. Those in a susceptible mood, however, may find moments from the film lingering in their consciousness for some time. The disc includes a memorably creepy song performed by Hawkes, a brief yet fascinating look at cult mechanics, and a haunting short by Durkin, which serves as a semi-prequel to the film. Be prepared for discussion afterwards. (originally published at

Dark Horse (Todd Solondz, 2012): A lengthier-than-usual review for the Salt Lake City Weekly.

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Review – Deliverance

Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972): “This is the weekend they didn’t play golf,” reads the ominously jocular tagline for director John Boorman’s legendarily unsettling 1972 film, which stands along with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and the Coen’s No Country for Old Men as one of the most inspired combinations of filmmaker and source material in cinematic history. Based on James Dickey’s novel, Deliverance follows a group of Atlanta businessmen who take a canoe trip through the remote backwoods of North Georgia. What happens next has lost little of its power to shock, despite years of imitations and parodies.

Boorman, a filmmaker whose best work (Point Blank, Excalibur) has often brushed up against the supernatural, is in full command of his material here, attaching a haunting, mythic quality to the starkness of Dickey’s story. Combined with Vilmos Zsigmond ‘s moody camerawork and the sparse banjo-driven score, the director gives his locations a heightened, Grimm quality. As gripping as the work behind the camera is though, the film wouldn’t have nearly the kick it does without the central performances by Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, and especially Ned Beatty, who skews the already slippery moral compass further by not playing his character as particularly sympathetic, even in the wake of the movie’s most infamous scene.

This 40th anniversary collection does the movie justice, with a wealth of extras including a sterling commentary by Boorman (who details, hilariously, the friction between Dickey and the cast and crew), and a number of interviews with the actors, all of whom still seem justifiably proud of their work. Impressive as this supplemental material is, however, the main attraction remains the film itself, which hits a nerve early on and then just masterfully keeps on digging, transforming its story of horror into something primal and grasping. The times may have changed, but as the haunting final image shows, nothing stops a river. (originally published at

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Review – Savages

Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012): A frenzied Ground Bloom Flower of a novel, Don Winslow’s Savages is a ultra-black amorality tale that’s saved from nihilism by some unexpectedly lovely character notes and the sheer rocketing force of the prose. This cinematic adaptation (directed by Oliver Stone, who knows a thing or two about raising a ruckus himself) captures much of the propulsive energy of its source material, but can’t quite get a handle on the human element.

Kicking off with a grisly demonstration of how not to handle power tools, the story follows lifelong friends Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and O (Blake Lively), who benevolently run a top-tier marijuana enterprise in Southern California under the protection of a crooked cop (John Travolta). Once the quality of their product attracts the Mexican cartel, however, the not-so-heroic trio find themselves forced to confront the dirtier aspects of their business.

Stone, in his first film since 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, keeps his more excessive tendencies in check for much of the running time, with his trademark kinetic style serving to support rather than overwhelm the already-lurid plot. Unfortunately, the film’s gonzo pace gives little space to illuminate the complicated relationship between the main characters, which gave the novel its tragic backbeat and, perhaps more importantly, kept them a moral notch or two higher than their opposition. Here, no matter how game the leading performers are, their lack of substance makes them quickly pale next to Salma Hayek’s weirdly sympathetic drug lord, Travolta’s gleeful weasel of a policeman, and the magnificently bedraggled Benecio del Toro, as a henchman with an agenda of his own. Viewers in the mood for a guilty rush should find Savages more than satisfying, but don’t be surprised if your eyes keep sliding over to the bad guys. (originally published at

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