‘Blade Runner 2049’ is Astonishing, Glorious and Mesmerizing

Blade Runner 2049 movie poster

Many words come to mind when describing “Blade Runner 2049.” Among them are mesmerizing, amazing, glorious, beautiful, and astonishing. I put special emphasis on the word astonishing because it is almost unbelievable to see what director Denis Villeneuve and company got away with here. Not only have they conceived a sequel which does its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic “Blade Runner,” proud, but they also got away with making an art house film with a budget of over $150 million and a running time of almost three hours. What were the studio executives thinking? Well, it doesn’t matter as this eagerly awaited sequel proves to be well worth the wait.

Taking place thirty years after the events of the original, the sequel introduces us to a new blade runner played by Ryan Gosling, and he comes to be known by a pair of names for reasons best left unsaid here. After enduring a brutal battle as he attempts to retire rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he becomes aware of a long-buried secret which is overdue for a thorough investigation. In the process, he tracks down former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been off the grid for many years as he seeks answers only Deckard can give. What results is a form of evolution no one could have seen coming.

Telling you more about “Blade Runner 2049” will prove to be detrimental to your viewing experience as you should only know so much about its plot before going into the theater. What I can tell you is the future world portrayed is even more beautifully bleak than the one Scott gave us 35 years ago, something I didn’t even think was remotely possible. The colors are vibrant, but everything is still subject to a never-ending rainstorm, the kind we needed in California for the longest time. And in this fictional universe, Pan Am is still a corporate giant even though it ceased operations in the real world back in 1991.

While I was bummed to learn Scott would not be directing this sequel (he serves as executive producer instead), they couldn’t have found a better filmmaker here to fill his shoes as Villeneuve takes on what must have been a truly daunting challenge here. “Blade Runner,” despite being a critical and commercial disappointment, has long since been considered one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and it certainly is. Making a sequel to it interested many including myself, and yet it could easily take away from the original as nothing easily compares to what came before. But Villeneuve is the same guy who gave us “Arrival,” another sci-fi masterpiece which invited and deserved comparison with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and this gave me confidence he could bring something special to “Blade Runner 2049.” Indeed, he has made a sequel which will prove to be every bit as memorable as its predecessor as the years go by as he expands on the themes and delivers a cinematic experience which is equally profound.

Furthermore, Villeneuve allows things to go at the same methodical pace Scott went at back in 1982. If you go into “Blade Runner 2049” expecting something along the lines of “Star Wars,” you will be seriously disappointed as the original defied sci-fi conventions with a vengeance. What was unique about “Blade Runner” is how it enthralled audiences with big ideas more than with wall-to-wall action sequences. The same is true with “Blade Runner 2049” as it probes the idea of what it means to be human, and it deals with characters searching for something which doesn’t feel the least bit artificial in a world dominated by technology. For me, the key line of dialogue comes when Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright) tells Gosling’s blade runner, “We’re all just looking out for something real.” This is certainly the case here, but as we catch up with these characters, their chances of finding anything real seem very small.

By the way, if Roger Deakins does not get this year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, I will be seriously miffed. For far too long, this man has been the Randy Newman of the cinematography category, and this feels criminal as has given us beautiful and extraordinary images in “Sicario,” “Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Shawshank Redemption” to where it is not easy to compare his work to others. Deakins, however, really outdoes himself here as he gives each scene in “Blade Runner 2049” a stunning look which shows both the beauty and the emptiness of the world these characters are forced to inhabit. What he has accomplished here is simply extraordinary as it all feels incredibly unique.

Gosling has long since proven to be as good an actor as he is a tremendously sexy one, and he is superb in a role which is very tricky to pull off. Again, I can only say so much about his character as it is too easy to spoil certain aspects of this movie, but once you understand who this blade runner is, it becomes clear as to the kind of balancing act Gosling has to play here. While life in the rainy and futuristic city seems to have burned this blade runner out completely, there are still glimpses of humanity to him which come out in a way which feels spontaneous and never forced. As a result, the “Drive” actor proves to be a genius at playing someone who is no longer certain as to how he should feel about the discoveries he has made.

Harrison Ford doesn’t show up as Deckard until the movie’s third act, but he makes it worth your time to wait for his first appearance. After watching him have tremendous fun playing Han Solo again in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it’s great to see him bring another of his iconic characters back to life. Ford makes Deckard into a burned out shell of a man who is forced to hide not just from those threatening his existence, but also from the things he yearns to connect with most of all, and he illustrates the character’s never ending internal conflict without ever having to spell everything out for the audience.

The rest of the cast is superb as they bring a unique quality to roles which have them acting in both human and inhuman ways. Robin Wright kicked ass earlier this year in “Wonder Woman,” and she does it again here as Gosling’s superior officer who is a no-nonsense Lieutenant and eager to keep a war from being ignited. Ana de Armas, whom you might remember from Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock,” is perfection as Joi, Gosling’s hologram girlfriend who is definitely even better than the real thing as she comes equipped with a humanity which strikes at your emotions. Sylvia Hoeks is riveting as Luv, a replicant who can appear charming at one moment and incredibly lethal in the next, and she makes this character vicious and frightening as she is determined to make discoveries before others do. Jared Leto and Dave Bautista have essentially cameos here, but they make the most of their time onscreen and show the depth they are willing to give to even the smallest of roles.

My only real disappointment with “Blade Runner 2049” is we will never get to hear the music score by Villeneuve’s regular composer, Johann Johannsson. For some odd reason, he was removed from this project and is contractually forbidden from talking about why he was let go. His score to “Sicario” is one of my favorites, and it would have been great to hear what themes he could have brought to this sequel.

Having said that, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the latter who recently did the music for “It,” is excellent as it captures the vibe of Vangelis’ score from the original without simply updating it for a new audience. It doesn’t even sound like the typical Hans Zimmer score as his music is usually pretty easy to recognize, although the last few cues do have a bit of “Dunkirk” in it. I feared “Blade Runner 2049” would get a more conventional score than the great one Vangelis composed years ago, but Zimmer and Wallfisch bring something wonderful, beautiful and thrilling to everything we see and listen to here.

The original “Blade Runner” came out in 1982, one of the greatest years for movies and one which many have called the year of the nerd. In addition to “Blade Runner,” we also got “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “The Dark Crystal,” “Tron” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” among many others. “Blade Runner” was not a commercial hit and critical reaction to it was sharply divided, but like “The Thing” and “Tron,” its stature has grown over time to where it is now revered as the great motion picture it always was.

“The Thing” and “Tron” managed to generate a prequel and a sequel more than 20 years later, but neither could equal the power of their predecessors. This makes the achievements of “Blade Runner 2049” all the more profound as it equals the original film and digs even deeper into its theme which Scott explored to brilliant effect. What Villeneuve and company have come up with here feels as unique in today’s cinematic landscape as “Blade Runner” did in the 1980’s. I had every reason to lower my expectations on this one as sequels which come out decades later are typically doomed to failure, but this one defies the odds and I am so thankful everything worked out so well. It may not have Rutger Hauer, but very few movies can ever be perfect.

And for God’s sake, give Deakins the Cinematography Oscar! No excuses!

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Paranormal Activity,’ a Movie Not to Be Watched Before you Go to Bed

Paranormal Activity movie poster

“I know something about opening windows and doors

I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors

I know where to find precious things in all your cupboards and drawers

Slipping the clippers

Slipping the clippers through the telephone wires

The sense of isolation inspires

Inspires me

I like to feel the suspense when I’m certain you know I am there

I like you lying awake, your baited breath charging the air

I like the touch and the smell of all the pretty dresses you wear

Intruder’s happy in the dark

Intruder come

Intruder come and leave his mark, leave his mark

I am the intruder…”

                                                                                                       -from “Intruder” by Peter Gabriel

                                                                         (sounds even scarier when he sings it in German!)

I finally got around to watching “Paranormal Activity” on Blu-Ray, and I truly regret not seeing this movie while it was on the big screen. How great it must have been to take in the audience’s reaction; watching all the ladies shriek and recoil into their lovers’ arms, and seeing guys who think they are so fearless jump out of their seats during some of this movie’s scariest scenes. I imagine the experience would have been like when I first saw “The Blair Witch Project” back in Irvine at a crowded art house movie theater. The last scene of that indie horror film had the audience completely freaked out, wondering if what we saw was real or fiction.

“Paranormal Activity” is an ingenious little horror movie which cost only $15,000 (excluding marketing costs of course) to make and made over $140 million dollars worldwide. It has joined the likes of “The Blair Witch Project” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as one of the most profitable independent films ever made and was released through Paramount Pictures which employed a unique strategy where audiences had to “demand” for it to be shown in their area via the internet. This strategy is probably what kept me from seeing the movie initially because prints of it had already been sent out to theaters all over the country, so the whole idea of participation was just an illusion to get people excited as they are led to believe they have the power. But getting past the overblown promotion which threatened to upstage it completely, “Paranormal Activity” is one of the most unnerving horror movies I have ever seen.

The word paranormal is a term used to describe unusual experiences that are outside of science’s ability to explain or measure (I think Dan Aykroyd has a PHD in this). This is exactly what’s going on in the home of Micah and Katie, a normal looking couple when we first meet them. Micah has recently purchased a video camera to capture what happens while they sleep at night. Katie has confessed to Micah and a psychic that a ghost has been haunting her since she was little, and she now believes it has followed here to their house in San Diego. They are both told by the psychic this ghost is a demon which feeds off of negative energy, and it will pursue poor Katie everywhere she goes. From the start, you know this is not going to end well for anybody.

Micah Sloat, like Katie Featherston, uses his first name for the character he plays. With him parading around the house with the camera, he could have easily been a character in George Romero’s “Diary of The Dead.” Like those college students studying film, Micah seems more interested in catching paranormal activity happening more than in helping Katie until later on, and he complete annoys Katie in the process. But he soon discovers there is a mysterious force intruding on their well-being as they sleep, and it puts them in the most vulnerable position possible.

Don’t worry, I’m not going into a scene for scene breakdown where I give away the best moments of “Paranormal Activity” as it is full of many hair-raising, jump out of your seat moments which deserve to be discovered with your own eyes if you dare. With a budget similar to the cost of hiring a celebrity bodyguard, director Oren Peli utilizes special effects very simple in their construction, yet incredibly effective when used. By filming in a typical suburban house, it feels no different from homes we grew up in. There’s nothing extravagant shown here, and that’s exactly the point. The more this home reminds you of your own, the scarier this movie becomes.

The suspense and tension which continually escalates throughout “Paranormal Activity” is accomplished through the power of suggestion. It does not contain the gallons of blood and gore most horror films employ. Not that I have any issues with gory movies, but what makes a horror movie all the more effective is when the filmmakers don’t you show everything. It’s what you think you see that really messes with your head as it forces your own fears and superstitions onto these characters throughout the film’s 90-minute running time.

Watching “Paranormal Activity” reminded me of a story my dad said he heard as a kid which scared him half to death. It involved some guy on TV talking directly to the camera about how that sound you heard behind you was probably nothing, or so you would think. But what if it was something sinister? What if that feeling of someone coming up from behind you was not just a feeling? Anyway, the more my dad talked about, the scarier it seemed.

Anyway, I bring this up because “Paranormal Activity” gets at a fear so universal and primal as we try to get a good night’s sleep, something which seems impossible these days without Ambien. Those little noises you hear right around you… What if they’re not just noises? What if someone is in the room with you? What if you didn’t lock all the doors and bolt all the windows? Peli plays will all the sounds which keep us awake at night, and the shocks these characters end up enduring easily resemble ones we have all experienced. It was a huge mistake to watch this film at night before I went to bed. I figured it would not be so scary as it was said to be while in theaters, but then again, I made the same mistake with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Movies often benefit from a music score which can really escalate the powerful emotions the director has already captured. But as “The China Syndrome” and Michael Haneke’s “Cache” demonstrated, sometimes they benefit by not having one. I honestly think “Paranormal Activity” would have suffered if it had a score as one would have made several moments seem anticlimactic and premature as a result. The sound of loud footsteps from someone you’re not sure you know is scary enough as it is.

What Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston do act as much as they inhabit their characters here. They are not called upon to be Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis. If we were to actually catch them acting, the illusion of the movie would have been completely destroyed. What both succeed in doing is acting naturally, and they make us recognize ourselves in them. We quickly come to recognize their fear and relate to it in a way we would rather not experience on a daily basis. These two were complete unknowns when this movie was released, and this elevates the sheer terror we feel for them as casting known actors would have taken away from the proceedings.

I also have to give credit to Mark Fredrichs who plays the psychic who visits Micah and Katie’s home. This role could have been an absolute cliché, one guy who comes across as a madman no one ever fully believes until it is too late. Seriously, this guy could have been just like that crazy old man from the first and second “Friday the 13th” movies who kept warning all those camp counselors, “You’re doomed! YOU’RE ALL DOOMED!!!!” But Fredrichs makes this character into a down to earth guy whose fear is quite palpable once he enters the peaceful looking home. Mark never overdoes anything here, and he more natural he is, the scarier this movie becomes. While the psychic is only on screen for a brief time, it is long enough to where he makes a forceful impression of impending doom.

They say “silence is golden,” but what is truly golden about “Paranormal Activity” is how silence is used so effectively. We’ve all had nights where we lie in bed and hear something fall in another part of the house, but maybe that something didn’t fall on its own. Maybe someone pushed it off to get our attention, to lure us out of our safety zone. Most movies are jam packed today with noise, but Peli recognizes how powerful the lack of sound can be, and he uses it to brilliant effect. I don’t know about you, but I need to be listening to something like soft music as I fall asleep. The quietness of the night has my mind racing when it should be resting.

Some will despise “Paranormal Activity” as nothing more than a gimmick while lacking the blood, gore, and occasional impalements and decapitations they feel are mandatory in a horror film. Others will hail it as a new horror masterpiece which will leave audiences extremely unsettled after leaving the theater. For me, this movie is definitely on the same level with “The Blair Witch Project,” a movie this one owes a huge debt to. It doesn’t try to blow us away with an overabundance of special effects, but with simplicity as the ordinary things are far more terrifying than monsters who wear hockey masks. Seeing a chandelier swaying back and forth definitely throws off my balance and makes me feel wide awake because I get so used to seeing it staying so still. Seeing a chandelier move from side to side in this movie gives the events an especially unsettling feeling.

Okay, I’m going to stop writing about this movie now. The thought of it is freaking me out, and I’m going to end up ripping down my shower curtain if I’m not careful.

* * * * out of * * * *

Mike Flanagan Makes the Unfilmable ‘Gerald’s Game’ a Cinematic Reality

Geralds Game movie poster

Of the many Stephen King novels, “Gerald’s Game” is one of my favorites. Hearing the author talk about it on an episode of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, I was instantly intrigued by its premise of a couple’s sex game gone wrong to where the husband dies and the wife is left handcuffed to the bedpost with no means of escaping. The more King talked about it, the quicker I was to leap out to the bookstore to buy a copy (albeit, when it came out in paperback).

I was also intrigued at the possibility of “Gerald’s Game” being made into a movie as it presented unique challenges to daring filmmakers; how can you stage the action when much of it takes place in the character’s head? Furthermore, how many actresses would be willing to play such an emotionally draining role? Many have described this particular King novel as “unfilmable,” but I always had a feeling this would be proven wrong.

Well, Mike Flanagan, the director of “Oculus,” “Hush” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” accepted the challenge of adapting “Gerald’s Game” as he is also one of its biggest fans. Along with screenwriter Jeff Howard, he has made this seemingly unfilmable novel a cinematic reality as he puts us right in the head of its main character as she is trapped in a predicament which presents her with physical and emotional terrors we live to avoid in real life.

We are introduced to Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) as they pack their bags for a weekend getaway to their house by the lake. It is filmed to look like an average vacation with them gathering their things. That is, until Gerald puts two pairs of handcuffs in his bag. Once they arrive, it doesn’t take long for them to get up to the devil’s business as Gerald cuffs Jessie to the bed. You can see in her eyes she is really not into this sex game of his, and she tells Gerald to stop. Gerald, however, suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack as the result of taking one Viagra pill too many, and he drops dead right there on the bedroom floor. Just like Renton told Begbie in “Trainspotting 2,” “Remember not to exceed the stated dose.”

Jessie is then trapped in a most unfortunate situation as she and her husband picked a time to vacation when everyone else is not, so it’s unsurprising to realize is no one around for miles to hear her screaming for help. I have seen this a lot in horror movies, a married couple vacationing at a time when the tourist season is non-existent, and it’s like they have the whole place to themselves. Heck, “Gerald’s Game” would make for an inspired double feature at New Beverly Cinema along with “Honeymoon” as both deal with the same predicament.

Flanagan sets up things for us cleverly as he shows how isolated Jessie and Gerald are from regular society. We meet the dog who will later become hungrier than ever even after Jessie offers him a piece of steak which Gerald tells her costs $200 a pound.  Beyond that, the two of them even leave the front door open as if the house represents Pandora’s Box. This all adds to the growing tension as we know how badly this game will turn out for the two of them.

Once the action focuses on Jessie being handcuffed to the bed, Flanagan gleefully tightens the screws. A cellphone is on the nightstand next to her, but it’s just out of her reach. There is a glass of water nearby, but she cannot bring it to her lips. And then we become witness to her hallucinations as her situation becomes increasingly precarious to where we feel every bit as vulnerable as she does.

The way Flanagan handles Jessie’s hallucinations is quite brilliant as they take the forms of herself, her dead husband, and even her younger self (played by Chiara Aurelia). Flanagan also edited the film, and he keeps us guessing as to where we should be looking next as the focus changes before we realize it. I loved how successful he was at catching the audience off guard as the POV shifts constantly as I had no idea where it would go next.

“Gerald’s Game” does feature a music score by The Newton Brothers, but the film works best when the only sound, other than what’s outside Jessie’s window, is silence. I don’t know about you, but I need some form of sound, soothing or otherwise, to calm my brain just to even fall asleep. When everything is silent, I cannot help but be all too aware of my surroundings and feel like Dee Wallace’s son hiding under the covers in “Cujo.” Flanagan seizes on this silence as every single sound takes on a new, and much more frightening meaning.

Things get even more unnerving when we are taken back to a time when young Jessie was watching a total eclipse with her father. While watching it with special glasses, her father ends up doing something no father should ever do to their child. We don’t see exactly what he’s doing, but it’s enough to make us squirm in our seats as we know it’s something very inappropriate. Henry Thomas, years removed from “E.T.” and “Cloak & Dagger,” turns in a fantastic performance as Jessie’s father, Tom. Just watch him as he carefully manipulates Jessie into keeping this event a secret from her mother. The way he slyly gets Jessie to see things his way reminds me of what a good actor Thomas still is, and that’s even when you want to break his character’s nose.

Some horror movies either show very little or show everything, and with “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan finds a balance between this. We never see much of Gerald’s body once it flops onto the floor and out of Jesie’s eyesight, nor do we get a specific view of which body parts the dog is feasting on (what did you expect? He almost got to eat a $200 steak). He does, however, show us Jessie’s ever-so-delicate movements as she retrieves a glass of water without breaking it just as Eddie Murphy had to carry one over a bottomless cavern in “The Golden Child.” Of course, this moment is completely dwarfed by the method Jessie undertakes to free herself as it provides us with a cringe-inducing scene on the level of James Franco amputating his arm in “127 Hours.”

If there is anything wrong with “Gerald’s Game,” it is the inclusion of the Raymond Andrew Joubert character (played here by Carel Struycken) whom another describes as “the man made of moonlight.” Indeed, this was also a big problem with the novel as Raymond figures prominently in its last half to where it felt like I was reading a whole other book. Flanagan would have been best to leave this part out of the movie as it never fits here in any meaningful way, and the ending suffers because of it. Having said this, the character’s inclusion is almost worth the trouble as Struycken makes him a terrifying presence, especially when he first appears out of the shadows in the corner of Jessie’s bedroom. It is truly the stuff nightmares are made of.

Carla Gugino would not have been my first choice to play Jessie, and this ends up saying more about me than anyone else. Her work in the “Spy Kids” movies, “Sin City,” and on television shows like “Spin City” and the short-lived “Karen Sisco” should have made her a bigger star, and yet she still seems to be flying below everyone’s radar. Her performance in “Gerald’s Game,” however, should quickly remind us all of how fearless an actress she can be. This is not the most appealing role for anyone to take on as it is emotionally draining, and actors can fall into the trap of emoting rather than acting here. Gugino never does fall into this trap though, and she never backs away from portraying Jessie’s most agonizing moments as her privacy is invaded in different ways.

As for Bruce Greenwood, you can never go wrong with him. While he in no way fits the physical description of Gerald in the novel, it doesn’t matter because he makes the character both loving and undeniably creepy. Just wait until you see the look in his eyes. Even after Gerald dies, Greenwood remains a strong presence as he takes the form of one of Jessie’s hallucinations, and he makes Gerald as creepy in death as he was in life.

The images King evoked in “Gerald’s Game” still remain strong in my mind even though it has been over 20 years since I read it. Thanks to this novel, I will never listen to the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” in the same way ever again. I even got my dad to read it, and he later told me, “Why did you make me read this? It’s so revolting!” While many consider this novel one of King’s lesser works, I completely disagree as it still permeates my consciousness to this very day.

With this cinematic adaptation of “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan has succeeded in making a motion picture both compelling and agonizing to sit through. Even though I know how the story turns out, my eyes were glued to the screen as I wondered how the director would visualize the novel’s most extreme moments. In a year where King adaptations have ranged from excellent (“It”) to utterly disappointing (“The Dark Tower”), this one delivers as it prods at our deepest fears in the real world as they prove more terrifying than anything from the supernatural realm.

Speaking of “The Joker,” I kept waiting for that song to come on. Maybe issues with song rights kept Flanagan from using it. Or perhaps, after our first look at Raymond and his box of bones, it is clear he is not about to speak of the pompatus of love.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Is ‘Blade Runner: The Final Cut’ Ridley Scott’s Solution to his Masterpiece?

Blade Runner movie poster

I always wondered why Ridley Scott could never leave “Blade Runner” well enough alone. It was released back in 1982 and, at that time, was one of the few Harrison Ford movies to bomb at the box office. But, like many great science fiction movies, it has gained a well-deserved cult following which appears to be getting bigger and bigger each year.

One of my close friends is a die-hard fan of this movie, and he believes Scott went back to do another cut because the acclaimed filmmaker realized he would never ever have it this good as a director ever again. Ridley has made a lot of great movies since this one, but I can see what he meant.

“Blade Runner” remains, after all these years, one of the best science fiction films ever made as it has a look which is so unique to where I cannot easily compare it to any other movie from its genre. It puts a lot of other futuristic movies to shame; especially those made so cheaply (remember “Cyborg” with Jean Claude Van Damme?), and seeing it on the silver screen in all of its visual glory was a sight to behold.

Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a blade runner who is hired to track down and kill replicants who have escaped and are looking for their maker. Replicants are human clones created to serve colonies outside of Earth, and this shows how far we have gone in terms of space travel in regards to the time this movie takes place in. As a blade runner, Rick specializes in terminating replicants who have been labeled illegal after a bloody mutiny which they caused.

Ford embodies the character of Fred Decker as though he walked out of a detective story from the 1940’s. Decker is from a long line of burned out detectives who are the best at a job they no longer want to be the best at. But of course, they have to come out of retirement as no one else can do what they do so well. Ford looks as though he has had the life sucked out of him at the movie’s start, but he becomes resurrected upon becoming involved with a female replicant named Rachael, and she is played by Sean Young.

Watching Young in this movie is something else as she is perfect here as a female who is so clearly a replicant when we first meet her. However, as the movie goes on, we find ourselves forgetting this as she exhibits human emotions which we would not expect to see from someone like her. Decker becomes utterly infatuated to her, and you want to say he is falling in love with what is essentially a robot. But I guess when a robot is as pretty as Young is here, and she was in her 20’s when the movie was released, I guess you can’t really argue with that.

Seeing “Blade Runner” for the first time in years, it is funny to see how its themes have been used over and over again in popular culture This movie seems to suggest we made these replicants to remind ourselves of how human we used to be. Like U2 said, they threaten to be even better than the real thing. They exhibit a life force which has long since been burned out of us as we have become numbed to how brutal real life can be on our conscious mind. Or maybe they are here to remind of us how much of a slave we have become to technology. There are points where you have to wonder if any of these characters can tell the difference between what is real and what is not.

The leader of this group of renegade replicants is Roy Batty, a viciously passionate replicant played to the hilt by Rutger Hauer. He has ten times more passion than the humans he relentlessly torments, and his last speech in “Blade Runner” is one of the most beautiful moments ever in a 1980’s film. The “tears in the rain” part of it was something he actually improvised on the spot.

So, what is it about this “final cut” which makes it different from the other versions? To be honest, I’m not sure. My understanding is the director’s cut which came out previously did not have Scott’s input on it. So, it is safe to say this cut is his final statement, so far, on this movie.

After all these years, “Blade Runner” remains a true sci-fi classic which is ever so deserving of its huge cult following. Again, there is really no other movie I can easily compare it to on a visual level. Thematically speaking, there are many movies which deal with the future, dystopian or otherwise, but none of them will ever look like the one Scott conjured up here.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Exclusive Video Interview with Matthew Heineman on ‘City of Ghosts’

City of Ghosts poster

Of the documentaries released in 2017, “City of Ghosts” is one of the most important to witness. It follows the journey of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), a group of anonymous activists who came together after their peaceful hometown was taken over and decimated by ISIS in 2014. What results is a film which is as astonishing as it is harrowing to sit through. We watch as Raqqa goes from being a town whose inhabitants celebrate weddings for a whole week to one laid in ruins as the radical terrorist group ISIS uses every weapon available to suppress the population and silence those who would speak out against them. Despite being threatened by one of the greatest evils in the world today, this group of citizen journalists continue to stand up against the atrocities ISIS has committed, and the images they have captured show just how far they will go which includes executing the father of one of the journalists.

“City of Ghosts” was directed by Matthew Heineman who previously gave us “Cartel Land,” a documentary which examined the ongoing drug war at the U.S./Mexican border and of the vigilante groups fighting the Mexican drug cartels. Heineman was inspired to make a documentary about RBSS after reading an article about them in the New Yorker, and he managed to gain their trust very quickly to where it didn’t take long for filming to begin. We watch as these journalists and activists flee their homeland and struggle to keep their spirits up as the threat of death continues to hang over them no matter how far they manage to get away. Also, we view the horrifying footage they have captured of the horrific acts ISIS has committed in Raqqa which includes executing and crucifying its citizens in public view. What is shown cannot be easily erased from our minds, but these crimes of humanity need to be seen as this threat needs to be stopped, and the actions of RBSS need to be commended in a time when journalism is being attacked by those who do not want to hear the truth.

It was an honor to speak with Heineman while he was in Los Angeles to talk about “City of Ghosts,” and he spoke of how he became inspired to create this documentary as well as the current state of the war in Syria which will hopefully end sooner rather than later. Check out the interview below as well as the documentary’s trailer. “City of Ghosts” will make its streaming debut on Amazon starting October 13, 2017.

‘Prisoners’ is Not Your Average Child Abduction Thriller

Prisoners movie poster

From the trailers, “Prisoners” looked like just another average child abduction movie with a strong cast which would hopefully make it seem slightly above average. I have seen so many movies like this to where they now seem like the same one no matter who is starring or directing. Boy, was I wrong about this one! “Prisoners” is a heavy-duty character driven drama which generates an agonizing amount of tension and never loses any of it throughout its two and a half hour running time. In a time when many movies are in serious need of an editing job, this one manages to make every single minute count.

It’s a snowy day when Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes his family over to his friend Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) house to celebrate Thanksgiving with a big feast. Both men have loving wives, two teenaged children who are unsurprisingly not all that interested in hanging out with their parents, and they have two beautiful six-year old daughters named Anna and Joy who can never seem to sit still for a single moment. But when Anna goes back to her home with Joy to fetch her safety whistle, both of them disappear without a trace and their families begin a desperate search to find them before it is too late.

The only suspect in the case is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the IQ of a 10-year old, whose RV Anna and Joy were playing around earlier in the day. When the police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) are not able to get any answers from Alex as to where the girls are, they are forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Keller, however, becomes convinced Alex does know where they are at, and he becomes infinitely, and frighteningly, determined to make Alex give him the answer he wants. Suffice to say, some moral boundaries are definitely crossed.

It should be no surprise Hugh Jackman gives a seriously intense performance here as a father obsessed with finding his child as we have gotten used to him playing the Wolverine in all those “X-Men” movies. But as furious as he got in “Logan” this past year, Jackman seems even more frightening here as he loses his moral perspective while desperately searching for answers. Just watch him as he bashes a bathroom sink with a hammer.

Jake Gyllenhaal also gives one of his best performances ever as Detective Loki, a man equally obsessed with getting the girls back even as he struggles with an uneasiness which will not let him be. What I especially like about Gyllenhaal here is how he implies certain things about this character without ever having to spell it out for the audience. Loki is a man with a troubled past who has his own demons to fight, and while we don’t always know what those demons are, this allows Gyllenhaal to add another layer to his character which only increases Loki’s complexity.

Terrence Howard, who gave a terrific performance in “Dead Man Down,” gives another one here as the other desperate father. It’s interesting to see him go from playing an intimidating crime lord to a helpless dad who finds himself in a morally dubious position when he is presented with a way of getting the answers, but he becomes increasingly unnerved at the way Keller is trying to obtain them. Howard is great at showing how helplessly conflicted his character is, and he makes you feel his inescapable pain and confusion as he is forced to go down a path he becomes convinced is the wrong one to go down.

Kudos also goes out to Maria Bello and Viola Davis who play the wives to Jackman and Howard. Bello portrays Grace Dover, and she has an especially difficult to watch scene in which she completely falls apart emotionally as she faces the worst nightmare no parent ever wants to face. As for Davis, she once again proves how powerful she can be in the smallest of roles. It should also be noted how each of these actors is a parent in real life, and I cannot even begin to think of what emotional depths they went to give such authentic portrayals.

Paul Dano continues to astonish in each film he appears in, and his performance as Alex Jones is one of his most enigmatic to date. Dano could have just fallen into the trap of making an Alex a caricature or the clichéd mentally disabled character we have seen too many times, but he is much too good an actor to do that. We can never figure out if Alex is truly helpless or cleverly manipulative, and Dano keeps us guessing as to what the answer is for the majority of the movie.

“Prisoners” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian writer and director who won the Genie Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Director three times for his films “Maelström,” “Polytechnique” and “Incendies,” the latter which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. In recent years, he has given us the brilliant “Sicario” and “Arrival,” and it makes sense he is at the helm of the eagerly anticipated “Blade Runner 2049.” Like I said, I have seen many movies involving child abduction, but he succeeds in making this one of the most intense and agonizing ever made. The fact he is able to main such a strong level of suspense and tension for over two hours is very impressive, and “Prisoners” would make for a great, albeit an emotionally exhausting, double feature with Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski seems well thought out and has characters who don’t seem like anything the least bit stereotypical. Looking back, this could have been one of those scripts where the writer would come out saying, “Look how clever I am! I kept you guessing, didn’t I?” Guzikowski, however, is not out to make us feel like an idiot and instead gives us a fairly realistic scenario of just how harrowing a kidnapping situation can get.

The filmmakers have also employed the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, who should have gotten the Oscar for “Skyfall,” and he makes the snowy climate these characters inhabit all the more vividly freezing. Even as the setting gets bleaker, Deakins still manages to find a haunting beauty in everything going on.

Child abduction movies can be very difficult to pull off because it is easy to fall into the realm of exploitation. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors that “Prisoners” never falls into this trap as it instead focuses on how frayed and unraveled emotions can get when parents have no idea where their children are. This is definitely not a film for new parents or those with small children to watch as I’m sure it will make them seriously uncomfortable. But for those who like their movie going experiences to be infinitely intense, “Prisoners” is definitely worth checking out. It was not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Goodbye 100.3 FM The Sound, Dammit

1003 The Sound Banner

I honestly thought it was a joke when I first read the article on LAist.com, “100.3 The Sound to Be Replaced with Christian Music Station.” LOL. I mean, come on. Replacing the best classic rock radio station in Los Angeles with one which has one singer praising God and then another saying how much they love God and even another one speaking of how God got them through tough times? You know, a radio station with real variety. Aren’t there a couple of radio stations on the AM/FM radio dial with Christian music already? Do we really need another featuring songs indistinguishable from the others played before them?

Well, it turns out this is not a joke and, as I write this article, April Fool’s Day is not around the corner. In completing its merger with CBS Radio, the American broadcasting company Entercom has agreed to sell three of its radio stations, among which is 100.3 The Sound. The classic rock station is to be replaced by the Christian Contemporary station, K-LOVE and, according to Program Director, Dave Beasing, The Sound now has 30 days until their operations are shuttered. Now radio stations may come and go, but to learn this one is heading towards the annals of radio history has left me utterly infuriated and deeply depressed. Like many out there, I found The Sound and am not prepared to lose it.

Like everyone else, I grew up on FM radio with KISS-FM in Southern California (Rick Dees in the Morning!) and KFOG up in Northern California, but as the years went by, I grew continually restless with every single station I tuned in to as commercials and advertisements became more prevalent than actual music. I eventually gave up on radio for a time and became much more open to inserting a cassette into my car’s tape deck where I could get my music fix more easily and be spared from another advertisement for car insurance.

100.3 The Sound, however, was different. They would play a bunch of songs in a row, and they were the kind of songs which, even after listening to them hundreds of times, I could never get sick of. When the commercials came on, I never found myself eager to change the station as I eagerly anticipated which classic song Uncle Joe Benson, Rita Wilde, Cynthia Fox, Mary Price, Tony Scott, Tina Mica, Steve Hoffman, Mimi Chen, Andy Chanley or Gina Grad would end up spinning next. Did it matter which song they played? No, because I could always count on it being one which raise my spirits whenever I am stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam on any given Los Angeles freeway. Furthermore, listening to this station on a daily basis keeps making me forget 95.5 KLOS still exists, and this is quite a feat.

Of course, it became an obligation to turn the volume down whenever that blasted Kars 4 Kids jingle was played. So simplistic and annoying in design and yet so catchy at the same time, it has long since proven to be equivalent of the Silver Shamrock jingle from “Halloween III.”

It didn’t matter if they were playing Led Zeppelin, Styx, The Eagles, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones because 100.3 The Sound made you realize why classic rock became classic rock; you never got sick of listening to it. Songs like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” never get old for me, ever. “Hotel California” still has relevance in this new millennium. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” still has us holding out hope even when times seem darker than ever. And while I may not have “Too Much Time on My Hands” like Tommy Shaw does, I always look forward to hearing it as much as another Styx song, “Mr. Roboto.”

That’s the thing about classic rock, it never ever gets old. It has heart and soul which today’s music seriously lacks. The artists of the here and now seem way too focused on generating the next big #1 hit to where they employ an obscene number of writers and producers on a single song in an effort to create something commercially viable, demographically friendly and inoffensive to the most sensitive of ears. Musicians from years past were never as concerned about making hit records as they were in creating music which spoke to them as much as it did to us. Even today’s generation has a great love for these bands to where their music’s power is undeniable. Taylor Swift may be the hit maker of today, but can you see “Shake it Off” or “…Ready for It?” having the lasting power of “Bohemian Rhapsody?” I think not.

Whenever I am driving people all around Southern California, they remark how the music playing on 100.3 The Sound makes them feel like they are in high school again. I feel the same way, and I went to high school back in the 1990’s! Sure, there are some passengers who instead want to hear the latest in hip hop which is fine, but more often than not, they dig listening to what this great radio station plays had on its playlist.

I love it when Andy Chanley breaks down a song to where you hear only the lead singer’s vocals or a particular guitar riff. I love Rita Wilde’s album side at 11, and she made me realize Journey’s “Frontiers” album was actually not a part of my record collection and needed to be. I love Uncle Joe Benson’s “10 at 10” as he was great at taking you back in time to a year which remains fresh in our minds, and his show “Off the Record” had him indulging in down to earth conversations with artists I always want to know more about. This station even managed to lure Mark Thompson back into the realm of morning radio, albeit for far too brief a time. Still, he had his “Cool Stories in Music” podcast which I always enjoyed listening to on a Sunday night.

100.3 The Sound also plays host to “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” the guitarist and “Sopranos” actor’s radio show which showcases what he sees as the “coolest songs in the world.” Now this is what Vincent Vega would call “a bold statement,” but in Little Steven’s case, he is absolutely justified in making it. While he plays songs by The Rolling Stones and The Monkees, bands we know and love, he also includes the grooviest of tunes from Butch Walker, The Weeklings, Jeremy & The Harlequins, Fleshtones, and the Kurt Baker Combo. I have to say I don’t know these ones but feel like I should, but with his show, Little Steven has introduced them to a new generation of listeners. It is also further proof of how my rock and roll education is far from over as his song selections provide me with a gloriously rockin’ good time.

Plus, how many other radio stations have a show like “Your Turn?” This is where Sound listeners like you and me can spend an hour as a DJ (pre-recorded of course) and play our favorite tunes for devoted listeners to hear. Now this is a radio station which respects its fans like few others do. While many of them may not sound ready for prime time, it is always great fun to hear what songs they selected. I was hoping to get a chance to do it, and I do have experience as a radio DJ, but thanks to corporate greed, it is unlikely like I will get the opportunity.

Well, all I can do now is enjoy the remaining days 100.3 The Sound is on the air as I feel uncertain there will be another radio station like it in the near future. I have no real desire to tune into a Christian music station. Granted, there are some great Christian singers out there (Vanessa Jourdan, you rock!), but being without The Sound on my FM radio dial will make it painful to even try to tune in to this channel.

A big thank you to everyone at 100.3 The Sound for all the great times and songs they have given me. You will be deeply missed.

WRITER’S NOTE: I am including the following song as it started playing in my head loudly after it set in that 100.3 The Sound is going away. It was released back in 1992, and I believe this makes it “classic rock.” After all, this station also plays the music of Pearl Jam.

See also:

If I Had Hosted ‘Your Turn’ on 100.3 The Sound

 

‘I Spit on Your Grave’ Remains an Infinitely Repulsive Motion Picture

I Spit On Your Grave 1978 poster

I should have known better than to sit through this infamous motion picture. Years ago, when I received my first Roger Ebert Home Movie companion as a Christmas present, I read his review in which he described this particular movie as a “vile piece of garbage” and that attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of his life. After I finished reading his review, I felt as though I had watched as he didn’t even warn his readers how his review contained spoilers, and it showed how serious he was about convincing us to avoid this exploitation film as he found it to have no redeeming value in the slightest.

Reading Ebert’s review of “I Spit on Your Grave” filled my head with images my young brain had no business thinking about at such a tender young age, but I probably would never have known about this movie were it not for his review. As the years went by, the thought of it remained strong in my consciousness to where I was compelled to find out more about it. Plus, it had a cool movie trailer I couldn’t help but watch multiple times. Then again, “Maximum Overdrive” also had a really cool trailer, and we all know how that one turned out. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I am still alive, therefore I am no cat.

I Spit on Your Grave” is by far one of the most repulsive motion pictures I have ever allowed myself to sit through, and I have seen “The Human Centipede 3.” It tries to pass itself off as a feminist movie, but it instead proves to be a complete insult to feminism, and you don’t need to be a woman to realize this is the case. Even in the realm of exploitation movies, I could not divorce myself from the moral standards I was raised to believe in as they came into play here.

In case you don’t know the plot of “I Spit on Your Grave,” it follows Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) as she drives from Manhattan to an isolated cottage out in Connecticut in an effort to start writing her first novel. While there, she attracts the attention of three men and their mentally disabled friend, Matthew, who eventually abduct and brutally rape her for what seems like an eternity. Somehow, she survives and eventually turns the tables on her attackers in ways which will have men crossing their legs more often than not.

This is a motion picture I found myself skimming through more than watching as the rapes prove to be far too disturbing to endure. The sexual assault of Jennifer lasts for over half an hour, and just when you think it is over, it starts up again to where I wondered what writer and director Meir Zarchi was trying to prove. If he wanted to show how unforgivably brutal a crime rape is, he succeeded far more than he needed to.

For what it’s worth, I have to give Camille Keaton credit as she does make Jennifer’s suffering feel all too real to where she deserves a Purple Heart for her efforts. While the performances in “I Spit on Your Grave” are generally poor, Keaton doesn’t hide from the terrors her character is forced to experience in the most demeaning way possible. There is something to be said for her work even as this film proves to be every bit as deplorable as the violence perpetrated on her character.

At the same time, the major flaw of “I Spit on Your Grave” is how it revels in its heroine’s degradation more than in her revenge. In fact, Jennifer’s bloody vengeance on her attackers takes up less than half the time Zarchi spent on her multiple rapes, and there is something deeply wrong when you realize this. Jennifer comes to strangle, decapitate, castrate and disembowel those men who inflicted an infinite amount of cruelty on her, but we never feel her satisfaction as the morality of what she is doing never feels as justified as you would expect it to in any other exploitation film.

Another big problem with “I Spit on Your Grave” is that it is such an amateurishly made motion picture. The artistry behind the camera is seriously lacking to where the low budget cannot be blamed for this film’s shortcomings. There is no music score to speak of, and there is very little to no music throughout. As a result, the whole thing feels like a home movie which never should have seen the light of day.

The original title of “I Spit on Your Grave” was “Day of the Woman,” and this should show how intent Zarchi was on selling this as a feminist movie. But seriously, this is not what a feminist movie looks like in the slightest. While Jennifer is certainly entitled to her revenge, it doesn’t take away from the fact that what she does is just as bad, if not worse, than what those men did to her. This may be nothing more than a movie, but it is hard for me to escape this fact.

There are other movies which deal with rape in a far more probing and intelligent manner than “I Spit on Your Grave.” Among them are “The Accused” which stars Jodie Foster in her first Oscar-winning performance, and Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” which features a scene in which Monica Bellucci’s character is raped and beaten for 10 minutes straight and in a single shot. Even Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left,” a movie every bit as violent as this one, dealt with rape and revenge in a way which was as intelligent as any subject Craven dealt with in his career.

And yet after all these years, I find myself writing about “I Spit on Your Grave” as if it were a motion picture worthy of being celebrated. Many may see it as a film worth noticing, but I say it is one you must avoid even if you are open to movies which are psychologically damaging to sit through. It is also so poorly made to where you want to smack its most ardent fans in the face and ask them what they see in it. Some may defend its quality, but this will only make you wonder what the term quality actually means.

As I write this review, “I Spit on Your Grave” has long since been remade, and that remake has so far spawned two sequels. Also, it has just been announced that Zarchi completed a direct sequel to the original entitled “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” which will be released in 2018. All I can hope is that the sequel will show Zarchi as having learned more about filmmaking in the 40 years since he inflicted this infamous motion picture on us.

* out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: I really wanted to give this film a ZERO STARS rating, but I cannot deny the credit Camille Keaton deserves for enduring what she did here.

‘Dead Man Down’ Reunites Niels Arden Oplev with his Lisbeth Salander

Dead Man Down movie poster

The tagline for “Dead Man Down” is “revenge is coming.” But while revenge is a big theme, it’s really about forgiveness. These characters have been forever wounded by a past which will not let them be, and they spend their time trying to avenge it in order to find some form of peace in their lives. What results is a movie which doesn’t break any new ground (few movies these days do anyway), but it is still a compelling one filled with complex characters and twists I didn’t see coming.

We meet Victor (Colin Farrell), the right-hand man to ruthless New York crime lord Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), and he defends his boss in a nasty firefight at the movie’s start. Quickly, we assume Victor is as loyal to Alphonse as any gangland player could ever be and that he will soon get a meteoric rise to the top of the criminal food chain. However, it turns out Victor is actually seeking revenge against Alphonse for killing his wife and child, and he is getting closer and closer to exacting his revenge.

But then Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who lives in an apartment across from Victor’s, enters the picture. Beatrice is still recovering emotionally from a nasty car accident which has left her face permanently scarred. While the scar hasn’t taken away all her beauty, it has destroyed her self-image and left her with a deep-seated rage she is desperate to be rid of.

After a dinner where the two of them make small talk and discover things they have in common, Beatrice makes her real intentions clear to Victor; she wants him to kill the drunk driver who plowed into her car and ruined her face. Moreover, she is willing to blackmail Victor into doing this as she has evidence of him killing another man. Knowing Victor is capable of taking a life, she gives him no choice but to take another. Both have strong motivations for vengeance, but can they tear themselves away from their rage long enough to see the damage they are doing to one another?

Right from the start, “Dead Man Down” is filled with twists and turns which makes this average revenge thriller all the more entertaining to sit through. Even if the twists aren’t entirely plausible, they keep us on the edge of our seats as we can only guess what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, you don’t.

But what I really liked about this movie was how wonderfully complex the characters were. There is nothing black and white about them as everyone exists in a morally grey area. While Victor and Beatrice are clearly justified in having their revenge, we know the ways they are seeking it will do not make them good people. Even Alphonse comes across as much more than an average one-dimensional bad guy as he is someone who certainly wasn’t born evil. While certain characters may deserve some form of punishment over others, no one comes out of this story the least bit innocent.

“Dead Man Down” marks the first English language film from writer and director Niels Arden Oplev, the same man who gave us the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as well as the recent remake of “Flatliners.” Now when filmmakers from a foreign country come over to America, their talents usually get compromised in the process. But Oplev doesn’t appear to have lost any of his skill here as he gives us a strong motion picture filled with fascinating characters. He also gets terrific performances from each of his actors as well as some strong visual moments such as a descent down the middle of a stairwell.

Colin Farrell has gone from doing needless remakes like “Fright Night” and “Total Recall” to terrific movies such as “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.” He has become an actor who can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, and this makes him perfect for a character like Victor who could be seen as either. Farrell does excellent work in conveying Victor’s conflicted emotions as he goes about exacting his revenge. As he gets closer to achieving his goal, Victor begins to see how he is becoming just like those who destroyed his life. Seeing the pain in Farrell’s eyes as he makes this clear to the audience without words shows us how great of an actor he can be when given the right material.

Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander, is a powerhouse as Beatrice. Watching Rapace deal with her rage as well as the bad luck life has dealt her is enthralling to take in, and the scenes where she is attacked by a group of children who see her as a monster are devastating to witness. Like Salander, Beatrice is stuck in a moment which forever changed the course of her life, but Rapace gets to showcase more of a vulnerability here she wasn’t able to express as much in her star making performance. She remains a compelling actress to keep an eye on, and it’s great to see her reunited here with Oplev.

But I the performance which most impressed me was Terrence Howard’s as Alphonse Hoyt. Now when you see an actor take on the role of an evil crime lord, you expect them to chew the scenery and give an over the top performance. But Howard doesn’t do this here, and it is clear he has given this role a lot of thought. There is no doubt that Alphonse is an evil dude, but Howard is excellent in giving a method to this man’s madness. Howard left such a powerful impression on us with his Oscar nominated performance in “Hustle & Flow,” and his performance in “Dead Man Down” is a reminder of how he never lets us down as an actor.

In addition, there is a really good supporting performance by Dominic Cooper as Victor’s friend Darcy, and he has a wonderful scene at the start where he is holding his baby and talking about how he hopes being a father will lead him to a better future. The great Isabelle Huppert also shows up as Beatrice’s mom, Valentine, and she remains a remarkable actress even in the smallest of roles. There’s also strong cinematography from Paul Cameron and a wonderfully atmospheric film score from composer Jacob Groth to take in as well.

“Dead Man Down” is not the equal of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and its climax is a bit over the top for a movie like this, but I liked how character driven it was and you don’t see many movies like that these days. It is also a compelling story about how the power of forgiveness is more important than the need for revenge. In this day and age, it is important to remember that.

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Grey’ Has Liam Neeson Battling More Than Wolves

The Grey movie poster

I was stunned at just how powerful “The Grey” was. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I was unprepared for how deep it was on an emotional level. On the surface, it looks like your average action movie crossed with an animal attack movie as the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. But as “The Grey” goes on, it becomes less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle. The wolves are really just serve as a metaphor for the beast inside of us which threatens to tear us apart.

Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John, however, is not an oil worker, but instead a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife, Ana, (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear whether she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is John is pretty despondent about his current situation, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on living.

All of this contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the most frigid and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.

John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes they will be rescued, but they are soon met by a foe deadlier than the subzero temperatures: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those left over are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see how John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in their territory and not the least bit welcome in it.

Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut with “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life which has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel relatable and are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous as them.

Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way which makes you want to wear layers of clothing and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should also be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations, and the cast and crew did in fact shoot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!

Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I doubt this movie is meant to be an accurate depiction of these animals. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special, but if you are, why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.

But the more you get into “The Grey,” the more you realize it’s really not about man versus wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As these men make their way through unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not prepared to handle, they discuss the existence of God and if there was ever one to begin with. This movie is not out to offer any definitive answer to this question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for the characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level I didn’t expect it to go to.

It also helps that Carnahan has a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson to work with as they all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to single out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz. This character is the kind you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is like Hudson from “Aliens,” and excruciating pain in the ass, but Grillo makes Diaz into much more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.

You have got to hand it to Neeson though as he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few others can. If it were anyone else in this role, things might not seem as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has), and you need an actor like him in a movie like this.

“The Grey” also has an emotionally powerful film score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for several of his movies, and yet he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and this says a lot about his talent.

“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take familiar elements and creates a movie going experience I didn’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the film’s ending, I feel it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story which requires a heavy-duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie, but instead a character driven one, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in this particular direction. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something which seemed like business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that. Thanks goodness for that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *