ANNIHILATION (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Bloody Images, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: Alex Garland

Written by: Alex Garland

(based on the novel ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer)

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno & David Gyasi

Going into 2018, ANNIHILATION was easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. Besides a high concept premise and a very intriguing trailer, the main reason for my excitement came from the presence of director/screenwriter Alex Garland. This man helmed one of my favorite science fiction films of the past decade: EX MACHINA. Needless to say, I was more than a little eager to see what his sophomore directorial effort would look like. While I won’t claim that ANNIHILATION is perfect and on the same level as EX MACHINA (for a couple of reasons that will soon become clear), this is a damn fine combination of arthouse storytelling,  thought-provoking science fiction, and disturbing horror!

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist struggling with serious grief. A year ago, her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared on a top-secret government mission. Lena’s trying to mentally cope with the harsh reality that he might be dead, when a near-comatose Kane randomly shows up at her door. One strange conversation and a nosebleed later…and Kane is whisked away to an unknown government facility. Because they can’t have any witnesses, Lena is held at the facility with him and (in an effort to save her dying husband) volunteers to venture into the strange shimmering area where her husband originally went. Biological nightmares, thick tension, and bizarre Lovecraftian horror ensues.

ANNIHILATION is a strange beast of a film. The trailer sold it as something far more straightforward than it actually is. The narrative is spun in a non-linear fashion that flashes forward to a surviving Lena relating her tale to a group of baffled government officials, shows us what occurred within “The Shimmer,” and also flashes back to Lena’s relationship with her husband. In less talented hands, this approach might have wound up as a cheap cop-out that spoils key moments early on. In Alex Garland’s hands, it’s a brilliant way of piecing together a weird cerebral puzzle for the viewer.

This film nails its smart science-fiction and grisly horror in equal measure. I won’t go into specific details, because one could easily spoil some of the film’s huge twists. The scariest horror bits easily belong to encounters with a heavily mutated bear. There is one sequence in the film that might very well rank in my scariest movie scenes of all-time. You’ll definitely know it when you see it and an aftermath conversation makes that moment ten times more chilling. ANNIHILATION also knows when to keep its monsters in the shadows and when to showcase them in their crazy mutated glory.

This film isn’t a simple creature feature though, because there is other disturbing stuff happening within “The Shimmer.” Some details are given in scientific conversations that confirm worst fears and elaborate on grim theories. The film never feels the need to specifically spell everything out for the audience though and it expects you to use your brain while watching the strange story evolve. ANNIHILATION’s final third contains one of the biggest “holy shit” moments that I’ve seen in recent years. This revelation will likely result in many debates about the film’s open-to-interpretation ending. One of the story’s most terrifying concepts is glimpsed early on (The Shimmer seems to cause memory loss), but is never returned to again. Fully utilizing this concept might have pushed things further into nightmarish territory and made the film even smarter. Sadly, it was completely abandoned for a more straightforward-ish narrative.

As far as the acting goes, things get a bit mixed in the performances. Natalie Portman is good as the main character who’s clearly struggling with grief and all sorts of newfound knowledge. This causes her to react in complicated ways during certain scenarios. Oscar Isaac doesn’t receive a ton of screen time, but makes a big impact in what he delivers. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny are serviceable as the supporting scientists. The weakest performance comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh. While some viewers might potentially argue that the bland acting was just in relation to her character, I’d argue that it was just bland acting and this particular character felt wooden as a result of it.

ANNIHILATION nails its storytelling, delivers cool spectacle, and brings forth nightmarish images that will likely flash before my eyes when this movie gets mentioned in casual conversations. The film delivers many amazing qualities (especially in its horror concepts being utterly terrifying and its sci-fi ideas being absolutely brilliant). However, the film occasionally drops the ball in a couple of missed opportunities (one concept is completely abandoned and one key performance is hollow). If you dig strange deliberately paced science-fiction and otherworldly Lovecraftian horror, you’ll find a lot of love in ANNIHILATION.

Grade: A-

GOOD TIME (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Violence, Drug Use and Sexual Content

Directed by: Ben Safdie & Josh Safdie

Written by: Josh Safdie & Ronald Bronstein

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Safdie, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster & Necro

GOOD TIME is an independent crime-drama that wasn’t exactly a hit at the box office, but made a big impression on the festival circuit. Some folks have even gone as far as to compare this flick to Martin Scorsese’s early work and that comparison is completely valid. Shot in an unconventional style and brimming with seedy plot points, this film might rub certain viewers the wrong way. If you’re a fan of gritty crime-dramas that push the envelope of what is appropriate and dig on arthouse cinema, then GOOD TIME is likely up your alley.

Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) wants to make some quick cash by robbing a bank. In an effort to make this seemingly simple job go by as easily as possible, Connie enlists the help of his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie, who also co-directed this film) as back-up. The robbery goes wrong and Nick is hauled off to Rikers Island. Worried that his brother won’t survive the night in a holding cell, a desperate Connie scrambles to get together 10 thousand dollars to secure his sibling’s release. This night-long journey puts Connie in some tricky scenarios and forces him to come face-to-face with unsavory individuals as his situation increasingly goes from bad to worse.

When I say that GOOD TIME is shot in an unconventional style, I mean that the Safdie brothers like using close-ups…lots of them. In fact, there are hardly any wide shots or establishing shots to be found in this film. There are a few of both that exist to give the viewer a bearing on where characters are or because an on-screen event requires more visual room, but that’s about it. 90% of this film is told with close-ups on characters faces and items. This style takes a few minutes to adjust to, but has a weird effect of sucking the viewer into the film. This movie’s technical aspects are just as impressive as the gritty race-against-time plot.

Speaking of which, GOOD TIME’s script threatens to become cliched and familiar at any given moment. We have a bank robbery gone wrong. There’s a disabled brother who placed into a dangerous situation. The events unfold over the space of a single night. The protagonist is running from place to place in search of a solution. However, GOOD TIME never once feels predictable or forced in its progression of going from bad to worse to “oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening” and this all makes for one hell of an intense cinematic ride.

Another remarkable quality in GOOD TIME arrives in the form of its protagonist, who one could easily describe as the scum of the earth. Robert Pattinson delivers an amazing performance as Connie, a man who has love for his brother…but it’s the wrong kind of love and his methods of showing it are downright detestable. There are moments where the viewer might almost be able to sympathize for Connie and then Pattinson’s character does something even more repugnant. This character is a dumbass and doesn’t have any redeemable qualities, but he sure makes for an extremely interesting lead and I never got bored while watching him.

This being said, GOOD TIME will likely make every audience member uncomfortable at some given point. There is a specific scene that knocked me senseless in how it progressed and I could not believe that the film went there. It was a disturbing moment that also felt like a bit of harsh realism that’s often passed up in gritty crime stories about trashy gangsters, run-down neighborhoods, and bad situations. You’ll know the scene that I’m talking about if/when you see this movie. Also, Ben Safdie’s portrayal of Connie’s mentally challenged brother (complete with a mumbled voice and slack-jawed appearance) doesn’t feel the least bit exploitative. That in and of itself is an impressive feat and his final on-screen moment is emotionally sound.

If there are any complaints to be found in GOOD TIME, it’s that the film has one flashback that feels completely unnecessary and briefly breaks the flow of following Connie’s neon-lit quest through New York’s scummy side. Put that one sequence aside and pretty much everything else about GOOD TIME blew me away. If you’re into gritty crime-dramas that make you want to take a shower afterwards, you’ll find an uncomfortably effective experience in GOOD TIME. If you appreciate unconventional filmmaking, you’ll love the technical craft of GOOD TIME. Finally, if you devour great pieces of cinematic art, you’ll find that GOOD TIME is actually a great time!

Grade: A

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: Amy Heckerling

Written by: Cameron Crowe

(based on the book FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH: A TRUE STORY by Cameron Crowe)

Starring: Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Romanus, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Amanda Wyss, Ray Walston & Forest Whitaker

Many screenwriters have attempted to create authentic teenagers in cinema, but only a handful succeed at constructing adolescent movie characters that feel real. Richard Linklater accomplished this in DAZED AND CONFUSED and most of John Hughes’s filmography was built upon fleshing out believable teenage protagonists (with THE BREAKFAST CLUB being arguably his greatest movie). Before his career took a recent nosedive, Cameron Crowe turned an experimental trip back to high school into a film with FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. This film doesn’t work on a concrete plot because it mainly follows teenagers attempt to survive a year at the titular high school. However, it’s very entertaining, quite funny, and packs unexpectedly emotional punches that resonate with the viewer.

Times are moving fast at Ridgemont High, so fast that we see an entire school year encapsulated in 90 minutes. As I mentioned before, FAST TIMES doesn’t really have a singular storyline because the script follows a bunch of different characters as they progress through their teenage lives. Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) is a senior who’s attempting to break up with his girlfriend, so he can enjoy freedom in his senior year of high school. He also suffers the daily indignities of working a fast food job. Brad’s sophomore sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is desperate to discover sex, as she receives advice from older friend/co-worker Linda (Phoebe Cates). Meanwhile, Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) has the hots for Stacy, much to the amusement of his slick best friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). Also, stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) runs afoul of strict teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston).

FAST TIMES plays fast and loose with its narrative flow, jumping from Brad to Stacy to Mark to Linda to Mike to Spicoli and then whoever it feels like returning to at any given time. The film spends more time with certain characters than others, but the overall result is a cinematic collage of teenage life. Even though this film was made in the 80s and it wears that badge with pride (lots of good tunes, aged technology, and outdated fashion sense are present in every scene), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH still feels very contemporary in tackling problems that teenagers face on a daily basis. I’d consider this to be one of the more believable teenage-oriented movies out there (alongside THE BREAKFAST CLUB and DAZED AND CONFUSED).

There are points where FAST TIMES pumps up its sexual escapades and comedic bits for big laughs. The stand-out of these light-hearted moments are easily Spicoli’s dreams about being a surfer in his porno-decorated room and his escalating conflict against Mr. Hand. These scenes are the ones that everyone seems to remember the most about FAST TIMES, not least of which as a result of Sean Penn’s hilarious performance. There’s also the sheer awkward laughs that result from Stacy practicing blow job techniques on a carrot (in front of an audience of her peers in the cafeteria), an embarrassing scenario that’s likely happened to everybody at least once in their lives, and more.

FAST TIMES isn’t strictly a comedy though, because the film does get into heavier material as it moves along. Friendships are tested and one harsh reality is faced by a certain character. Adult viewers who have long since forgotten about the drama of their teenage years will likely be reminded about difficulties they faced on their own and relate to RIDGEMONT’s characters more than they might expect to. Films like FAST TIMES serve as solid teenage-oriented entertainment because they feel real and also elicit empathy from viewers who may not fall into the intended age demographic.

What makes FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH so special is that the film never goes past the boundaries of reality and never gets too over-the-top for its own good. This very much feels like a slice of teenage life, regardless of the decade that it was made in and continues to be watched in. The performances from every cast member are convincing, even though certain characters receive significantly more screen time than others (one of Mark’s big subplots ties itself up a bit too quickly and easily). There are laughs and surprisingly potent drama to be found in the FAST TIMES that speed by in the space of 90 minutes. If you want to see a good coming-of-age teenage comedy-drama, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH is well worth a watch!

Grade: B+

ANOMALISA (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity and Language

Anomalisa poster

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Voices of: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Tom Noonan

Directed and written by Charlie Kaufman (the screenwriter of ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), ANOMALISA is the first R-rated film to ever be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. Though I highly doubt it will win that prestigious award (the power of INSIDE OUT is simply too strong), it is very much a one-of-a-kind viewing experience. Told through painstakingly detailed stop-motion animation, the story begins with an amazing premise and then doesn’t do anything particularly remarkable with its plot. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed this film, but I do feel that it’s being a tad overhyped at this point and isn’t near the high-points of what Kaufman has given us thus far.

Anomalisa 1

Michael Stone is a self-help author who’s traveled to Cincinnati in order to give a speech at a customer service convention. During this very dreary evening, Michael has found himself pushed to his emotional limit. He’s become completely and utterly bored with life itself and the world in general. Everybody literally sounds the same and everything fails to arouse possible excitement or happiness out of the deeply depressed Michael. The course of the night changes when Michael meets Lisa. In a world where everybody has the same voice, Lisa is unique and sounds different. Michael becomes instantly stricken with her…but is it true love and what can possibly come from this blossoming relationship?

Anomalisa 2

The first thing that needs to be praised to the cinematic heavens about ANOMALISA is its animation. While the screenplay might be underwhelming, the visuals are astounding. Lots of attention to detail was placed in everything from the fabrics on the clothes to the props and settings, even to each puppet’s anatomy (hence the reason for the R rating). The camera frequently follows characters in long-takes that I can only imagine were extremely difficult to pull off. One continuous shot has Michael going from the hotel lobby to the elevator to a hallway and then to his room. I have no idea how all of it was pulled off, but I guarantee it probably took a few days work (at the very least). A complicated dream sequence easily stands out as one of the best moments of the entire film. As a work of pure artistry, ANOMALISA can be fully enjoyed as something beautiful to gaze upon for 90 minutes. On a sheer technical level, the film is perfect. All of my complaints lie within the Kaufman’s script.

Anomalisa 3

While ANOMALISA’s premise begins as a simple and creative set-up that has a lot of promise, the actual plot leaves something to be desired. Kaufman does a good job of putting the viewer into the depressed, deflated mindset of Michael as we hear Tom Noonan’s repeated voice in every character who isn’t our protagonist. This allows for a bit of comedy as Michael cannot tell who’s speaking over the phone and the audience cannot be sure of which characters are female until we get a long look at them (as Noonan’s deep, manly voice is coming from every direction). The chemistry between Michael (the always wonderful David Thewlis) and Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a bit hard to believe in spots as the two have a number of conversations that frequently shift from charming to awkward in a matter of seconds.

Anomalisa 4

Kaufman keeps his film’s tone planted squarely in serious adult drama territory with brief comedic moments (a running joke about the Cincinnati zoo received some big laughs as well as a midnight stop to a toy store). To me, the story seemed simple to a fault. As a result, the pacing slightly drags as we see Michael struggling with his emotions and only get Lisa’s introduction about halfway into the film. The story also takes its time in setting up potential romance between the depressed self-help speaker and the nervous, unconfident Lisa. The story’s conclusion is sure to pack an emotional wallop for some people (as evidenced by mountains of praise being heaped upon it by friends and fellow critics), but I just wasn’t that affected by it. Ultimately, I think the plot’s takeaway message and how it hits you on a personal level will make or break this film for you. It simply was lacking for me and I hoped for a more emotional send-off.

Anomalisa 5

While ANOMALISA is beautifully animated and I loved it strictly as a work of art, I wasn’t engaged in the story and wish that the ending had sent me off on the deep note that seemed to hit everyone else in the theater. I somewhat feel like ANOMALISA’s Michael Stone in my mixed reaction towards this film. Everybody around me seems to love it, while their voices mix together as one continuous compliment towards a movie that I felt was good, but not great. If you’re a fan of stop-motion animation, then you need to see this film for the impressive technical work. Maybe, it will also affect you as an adult R-rated drama. I walked away satisfied by the animation and disappointed in the plot.

Grade: B

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, a scene of Violent Sexual Content, Language and some Graphic Nudity

Hateful8 poster

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum & Zoe Bell

Love him or hate him, it cannot be argued whether or not Quentin Tarantino is a unique filmmaker. You can always tell when you’re watching a Tarantino film. To me, he hasn’t yet made a bad movie and his winning streak continues with the heavily anticipated HATEFUL EIGHT. Tarantino’s eighth movie is a gory western crossed with an Agatha Christie mystery. Though HATEFUL EIGHT definitely isn’t made for everyone, I had a blast watching Tarantino’s suspenseful, stylish western-mystery unfold.

Hateful8 1

In the aftermath of the Civil War, black bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren has found himself stranded in the middle of a wintry wilderness. His chance at survival comes in a lone stagecoach carrying John Ruth “The Hangman” (a bounty hunter who keeps his prisoners alive to see the hangman’s noose) and prisoner Daisy Domergue (a murderess with ten thousand dollars on her head). Warren, The Hangman, Daisy, and another passenger are overtaken by a vicious blizzard and find shelter in an isolated lodge. Inside this comfy establishment are a handful of questionable folks. Things slowly turn violent as one of lodge guests appears to be have deadly intentions of setting Daisy free.

Hateful8 2

Two versions of THE HATEFUL EIGHT are currently playing in theaters: the general release (the version that I saw) and an extended director’s cut (running 20 minutes longer in road show format). The film is a little long in the tooth (mainly due to establishing shots and scene transitions), but definitely packs the bloody punch. Though it’s a far more contained movie than INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (my favorite of Tarantino’s filmography) or DJANGO UNCHAINED, HATEFUL EIGHT finds Quentin returning to his roots as the film somewhat resembles his debut RESERVOIR DOGS. A majority of the story takes place within a single location (in this case, the lodge) and most of the tension arises from an antagonist hiding in plain sight.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

My comparison of Tarantino’s latest film to his directorial debut is not meant as a negative one, because HATEFUL EIGHT thrives on slow-building suspense and mystery that is unlike anything this filmmaker has attempted before. While the rest of his filmography ranges from bloody journeys of vengeance to non-linear crime tales, this is ostensibly a murder mystery set in post-Civil War Wyoming. The first half builds on uneasy tension and colorful character introductions/interactions. The second half becomes a carnage-laden bloodbath and dangerous discoveries lie around every corner.

Hateful8 4

The HATEFUL characters themselves are played by a solid cast of talented performers. Samuel L. Jackson takes center stage as Warren and its one of the best roles of his entire career. Tarantino has managed to combine everything that’s badass about Jackson’s usual action heroes into one character with a complicated sympathetic side. Kurt Russell seems to be channeling John Wayne in “The Hangman.” Jennifer Jason Leigh is a fiercely unhinged screen presence as the psychotic, dangerous (and frequently abused) Daisy Domergue. Walton Goggins (previously seen in this year’s underrated AMERICAN ULTRA) receives the biggest role of his career thus far, while Tim Roth plays a slimy character with unclear intentions. Meanwhile, Bruce Dern shows up as a racist old-timer, Michael Madsen plays a foreboding cowboy, and Channing Tatum also has a brief (but very memorable) role. The best thing about all of these characters is that we don’t know who to root for and clues revealed during the second half of the film unveil who’s bad and who’s worse.

Hateful8 5

To cap all of these positive qualities off, HATEFUL EIGHT’s cinematography is gorgeous and the dread-soaked soundtrack lends a perfect sense of unease to the already well-crafted story. Seeing as this is a Tarantino film, you should brace yourself for plenty of witty dialogue, over-the-top bloodshed, and a darker than dark sense of humor. The last of these qualities seems to have made a splash with people as one of the running gags could be seen as controversial. However, it seemed to get a big positive reaction from the audience in my theater and I was laughing the whole way through. Tarantino has managed to balance unexpected suspense with his special brand of expected blood-soaked mayhem. Though THE HATEFUL EIGHT might run a tad long, it’s a near-perfect film from one of my all-time favorite directors. Face it. You already kind of know whether this movie is for you or not.

Grade: A

EXISTENZ (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sci-Fi Violence and Gore, and for Language

Existenz poster

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: David Cronenberg

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley & Willem Dafoe

Though he might be known for his dark dramas today, a strong argument can be made that David Cronenberg single-handedly pioneered the sub-genre of body-horror on film. From disturbing early efforts like SHIVERS, THE BROOD and VIDEODROME to his far more mainstream remake of THE FLY, Cronenberg has never been a director afraid to get his hands dirty with a few bodily fluids all while throwing more than a little social commentary into his work. EXISTENZ is Cronenberg’s final body-horror film before totally making it into art-house dramas and though it might not be at the peak of his bizarre masterpieces, it’s a damn fine note to go out on. This film is pretty much VIDEODROME with video games and that’s not a bad thing in the slightest.

MSDEXIS EC007

In the near-future, video games has taken a disturbing new turn. There is no such things as consoles with remote controls anymore, because why would you need that when you can just literally stick yourself into a game (or stick the game into you). Nifty body modifications, called Bioports, are holes drilled into your spine and you’ll just insert something that resembles an umbilical cord into said hole to play whatever game you choose. Not surprisingly, a faction of radical folks called Realists (some real subtle social commentary) have risen up and are making violent movements against this abomination of reality. Allegra Gellar is a highly influential gaming designer testing out her new product (titled Existenz) when an assassination attempt is made on her life. Rescued by trainee Ted Pikul, the two go on the run. Gellar is suspicious that her new game may have been damaged or corrupted so the two decide to “play” it and from there on the movie turns into a fever dream of surrealism and nightmarish body-horror.

MCDEXIS EC006

EXISTENZ asks certain suspension of belief from the viewer, but not in a bad way. We are thrust into a world where body modifications and video games are one and the same. All sorts of oddities are given that we’re automatically forced to accept as viewers. There’s a two-headed reptile creature that’s just sort of kept as a pet and no real answer is brought up to exactly what this thing is…aside from it’s a friggin’ two-headed reptile. There’s a ton of creativity here and any lesser filmmaker could have just wallowed in Cronenberg’s little ideas that are merely set-up to the bigger picture at hand. The body-horror, though not nearly as gory or graphic as VIDEODROME or THE BROOD, manages to be every bit as insane and disturbing as Cronenberg’s earlier efforts. I mean, the idea that you’re literally modifying your body to play a video game is creepy enough, but it progressively gets even freakier with organic systems being plugged into you and other biological twists (including the erotic licking of someone’s Bioport hole and a skeletal gun that shoots teeth for bullets).

MSDEXIS EC011

As you might imagine any film that deals with escaping reality will inevitably ask the question of what reality means. 1999 was a year in which many films asks philosophical questions about what constitutes our existence. Besides EXISTENZ, there was the far more popular MATRIX and the criminally underrated THIRTEENTH FLOOR. Each of these films morphed its science fiction concept into something wholly unique and Cronenberg uses conspiracy theories as his little spin in the plot. Even when our characters are not being hunted in the real world, they are being pursued through the world of Existenz by threatening forces. The script comes off as convoluted, but there’s no denying that was entirely intentional. As a whole, the movie is about our characters escaping reality (or as one of them calls it: “a cage”) and trying to find their way back to it…which may or may not work in their favor.

MCDEXIS EC007

There are a couple of flaws that do stick out in EXISTENZ though. Jude Law is enjoyable as Pikul, even if his character is a bit of a whiny pansy at the start. Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm have brief appearances that I’d argue are wasted, but they make the most of the screen time they’ve been given. However, Jennifer Jason Leigh is wooden as the gaming genius Geller. Though it’s mentioned near the beginning that she’s antisocial and that quality leads to her nervous character quirks, there’s a distinct line between playing a character and bad acting. I think that Leigh crosses that line on numerous occasions in this film delivering philosophical rantings about the benefits of extreme gaming in a wooden way. I can also see people being slightly pissed about this movie’s ending and yeah, I’ll admit that it can be seen as a bit of a cop-out. However, I felt this was the only logical way that Cronenberg could have concluded the already twisted and bizarre story.

MSDEXIS EC008

EXISTENZ may not be Cronenberg’s best film, but it’s a damn fine conclusion to his body-horror period of filmmaking. Shades of VIDEODROME can definitely be seen throughout (from organic guns to hallucinatory nightmare logic), but EXISTENZ remains a mighty original and insane ride. The acting from Jennifer Jason Leigh can be a little wonky and some folks might not be satisfied by the ending, but there are so many ways that one can interpret this film (I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers) and each of those readings is completely valid. Overall, EXISTENZ is a gleefully crazed ride loaded with violent twists and strange turns. The subtext might not exactly be subtle, but that’s part of the enjoyment. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-

ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

RPerdition poster

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: David Self

(based on the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION by Max Alan Collins & Richard Piers Rayner)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker & Ciaran Hinds

Try to think of nice guy Tom Hanks as a hitman. It’s not exactly an easy image to get into your head, let alone process how it might play out. Talented director Sam Mendes and versatile actor Tom Hanks pull of this unlikely feat in ROAD TO PERDITION. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, this film combines a father-son drama with a crime thriller. The result is one of the best movies from 2002!

MCDROTO EC033

Michael Sullivan is a devoted husband and loving father who works closely with notorious mob boss/father figure John Rooney. His life is simple and he deeply loves his wife and two sons. When Michael Sullivan Jr. (his elder son) gets curious about his father’s mysterious work, he makes the shocking discovery that his father is actually a hitman for Rooney. This results in lives being lost and both Michael Sullivans (Sr. and Jr.) trying to get make it out of a bullet-ridden cat-and-mouse game alive, while also seeking revenge against Rooney’s gang.

MCDROTO EC020

I was hesitating about details in that initial synopsis of this film. It’s very easy to give key plot points away that might come as shocking to someone who doesn’t know too much about this movie to begin with. I will say that the premise sounds simple on paper, but things actually get complex. With those twists and turns included, it never felt as if story was overly complicating itself. There’s a looming suspense that’s hovering over the whole film from the moment Hanks’s job is revealed.

MCDROTO EC009

It goes without saying that if you have a movie where a son discovers that his father is a hitman, you’d expect the father and son to spend a lot of time together from that point onwards. That is the case here and it’s made all the better that their relationship feels real. Tom Hanks, though technically a bad guy, comes off as more of a concerned father than a cold-hearted killer. I never forgot what his violent profession was, but he was still a fantastic character. His job may have gotten his family into an awful mess, but I was rooting for him for the entire movie. Hanks breathes life into a character that was probably difficult to balance. A newcomer at the time this was filmed, Tyler Hoechlin (who hasn’t gone on to do much since) is phenomenal as Sullivan Jr. The pairing of Hanks and Hoechlin seems like a match made in heaven as they play off each other so well.

MCDROTO EC004

Besides Hanks, a lot of other big names populate the cast. The best of which is Paul Newman (in his final live-action appearance) as Rooney. The late actor (who still had a joyful glint in his eye) excels in mafia boss role, injecting conflicted emotions that help the audience feel the struggle of his tough dilemma. Rooney isn’t just a cut-and-dried villain. He’s actually a sympathetic guy. You understand the appeal of working for a man like this and he’s also a father being torn apart by the sins of his son (played by Daniel Craig, pulling off a damn good American accent). The relationship between Newman and Craig is the antithesis of Hanks and Hoechlin, but there are also a lot of parallels that make things even more interesting. Stanley Tucci and Dylan Baker aren’t given a lot of screen time, but make the most of what they have. Then there’s Jude Law as the creepy Maguire. With long fingernails, thinning hair, and a devilish smirk, Law embodies a ghoul with a gun. As if that wasn’t enough to make his character terrifying, he also has an unusual hobby (shown in his introduction).

MCDROTO EC017

To put the icing on the cake, the mood and atmosphere created in PERDITION is potent! If other directors had attempted to tell this story, they might have included tons of explosions and clichés galore. Sam Mendes opts for a more subtle approach and creates a quiet sense of tension that escalates in the more exciting scenes. It’s not all about brooding suspense though, as plenty of emotional moments (including a couple of devastating scenes) had enough impact to bring me close to tears. Adding to the mix is the awesome soundtrack from Thomas Newman, who seems to have constructed the music to fit the mood of each scene perfectly with a subtle pieces of music.

MCDROTO EC015

Overall, ROAD TO PERDITION is not nearly as big today as it was upon its original release, but remains an amazing movie that still has a powerful emotional core. The premise might sound predictable on paper, but it moves into some pretty unexpected directions. Instead of just being a movie about violence, tragedy and revenge, ROAD TO PERDITION is more focused on fathers, sons, actions and consequences. This movie is perfect and I adored every second of it! One of the greatest crime films I’ve ever seen!

Grade: A+

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑