‘Deadfall’ is an Effective Thriller with Strong Performances and Beautiful Cinematography

Deadfall movie poster

Deadfall” is a riveting thriller which held my attention from beginning to end, and sometimes that’s all I ask of certain movies. This one came out under the radar back in 2012, premiering on VOD first and then debuting in a few theaters, and it is no surprise in didn’t catch on with audiences as a result. But while it may not break any new ground in the crime drama genre, and I did have a couple of issues with the script, I did admire the performances from the entire cast. Also, director Stefan Ruzowitzky does strong work in keeping the level of tension high throughout the proceedings, and this is enough for me to give the movie a solid recommendation.

“Deadfall” opens with Addison (Eric Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) driving through a snowy landscape while on their way to the Canadian border. They have just robbed a casino which didn’t go exactly as planned (things like that never do), and their situation gets even more precarious when their car crashes which forces them to split up. The car crash which opens the movie is a hair raiser and pretty nasty, and it reminded me of how deer are more fascinated with oncoming headlights than they have any right to be.

Meanwhile, Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just been released from prison and is contemplating the possibility of meeting up with his parents June (Sissy Spacek) and Chet (Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. But things get bad for him as well after he accidently injures a former colleague severely, and he ends up on the run rather than run the risk of going back to jail. While driving through blizzard conditions he comes across Liza who is shivering due to the lack of warm clothes, and he quickly saves her from freezing to death. From there, you know all these characters’ paths will eventually cross with one another by the movie’s end.

The first thing I want to point out is how beautiful the cinematography in “Deadfall” is. It was shot in Canada and director of photography Shane Hurlbut does incredible work in capturing the snow’s beauty as well as how unforgivingly punishing it can be. Even as I watched this in a very nice air-conditioned screening room, I found myself wanting to put my jacket on. This became even more so while watching poor Olivia Wilde walk through a blizzard while wearing a miniskirt. After watching her in “Deadfall,” you cannot say she is not brave actress.

As for the performances, the best one was given by Eric Bana as Addison. The actor has left an indelible impression on us in movies like “Chopper,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Munich,” and he makes Addison a very charming bad guy. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Addison’s a psycho and someone we would all be best to keep our distance from but you can also understand why some of the characters in “Deadfall” hang out with him a lot longer than they should. Bana proves to be very unpredictable in the role, and you can never be sure at certain times if he’s going to be naughty or nice.

Wilde also delivers a strong performance as Liza, and she once again proves what a fiercely intelligent actress she is. Throughout “Deadfall,” we watch as she takes Liza from seeming like a lost girl to becoming a person whose confidence in their self continues to build. The relationship Liza ends up developing with Jay helps start the process of freeing her from Addison’s Svengali hold, and Wilde creates a fascinating portrait of a woman who manages to come into her own by the movie’s end.

Charlie Hunnam, best known for his work on the television show “Sons of Anarchy,” looks appropriately tough in the role of Jay. As we watch him getting released from prison at the movie’s start, he looks more than capable of boxing any opponent into complete submission. But the strength of Hunnam’s performance comes from those shades of vulnerability which his character cannot keep hidden. While prison has made him hard, it has not robbed him of his soul. Jay has made some foolish mistakes in his life, but Hunnam makes you care about him to where you cannot help but be deeply involved in his plight.

Kate Mara is also very good here as police officer Hannah, but she is unfortunately saddled with a father who treats her poorly because she’s a girl. Treat Williams plays Hannah’s dad, but while he’s always good, his character feels like an unnecessary addition to “Deadfall.” All we see him do is talk down to his daughter even when we can tell she is absolutely right about everything she sees going on. It’s the stupidity of characters like which really gets on my nerves.

You also have to give credit to Ruzowitzky for taking the time to cast Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson as Jay’s parents. It’s astonishing to realize these two actors have never worked together before, and they bring an authentic down to earth flavor which helps ground the movie’s story in a reality we can recognize. Kristofferson’s part is a little underwritten, but it’s still fun to watch him here.

“Deadfall” ends on a somewhat frustrating note as there are a lot of loose ends left over and the fates of certain characters are left unresolved. Still, I found it to be a very entertaining movie thanks in large part to the terrific performances of the entire cast. And yes, the cinematography was incredibly beautiful, and especially for a movie which cost only $12 million to make. It alone reminds me to bring layers of clothing the next time I visit a blizzard-ridden city as I have been spoiled by the sunny California weather for far too long.

* * * out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT THE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEFAN RUZOWITZKY FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED.

Advertisements

Brian De Palma’s ‘Domino’ is Not One of His Best Movies, But Not One of his Worst Either

Domino 2019 movie poster

BRIAN DE PALMA HAS A NEW MOVIE OUT. Now that last sentence was capitalized because I’m fairly certain most of my friends do not know this, and they are big fans of De Palma’s work. His latest film is “Domino,” not to be confused the late Tony Scott’s 2005 film of the same name, and it is being released quietly in a few theaters and on VOD on May 31st. Because of the lack of any real fanfare, many are calling this film “lesser De Palma” even before they have had a chance to view it. Even De Palma doesn’t seem all too excited about its release and is instead more interested in talking about what a difficult and horrible production it was. Now this is not the way you want your movie to open.

Well, I agree that “Domino” belongs in the “lesser De Palma” category, but having seen it twice, it’s actually better than you might expect. Yes, this was an underfunded production, and the movie is a standard cop revenge one we have seen many times before, but it still contains moments which quickly reminded me of what a master filmmaker De Palma can be when he is given the freedom to unleash his cinematic magic.

Things start off in Copenhagen on June 20, 2020. Why this movie takes place in 2020 is never made clear, but anyway. We are introduced to police officers Christian Toft (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars Hansen (Soren Malling), and we quickly discover they have been partners for quite some time to where they see one another as family. Even Lars’ wife, Hanne (Paprika Steen), sees Christian as a son, and the closeness they all feel with one another is quite palpable.

But this partnership is brutally destroyed one night when Christian and Lars investigate a domestic disturbance which has them arresting suspected ISIS member Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney). While Christian is checking out a crime scene, Ezra breaks free of his handcuffs, attacks Lars and slashes his throat in the process. Christian gives chase, but Ezra ends up being taken away by men who have other uses for his violent talents. Regardless, Christian vows to avenge the attack on Lars and promises to bring Ezra back to face justive.

Clearly this is a straightforward revenge flick, but other layers are added to the plot as we are introduced to duplicitous CIA agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce) who intends to use Ezra for his own needs such as using him as a pawn to catch other ISIS members. Then there is another Copenhagen cop, Alex Boe (Carice van Houten), who is eager to bring down Ezra as well and for reasons which we will eventually become clear. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but here it comes with an endless set of complications which will lead to many, many lives being threatened.

The attack on Lars leaves Christian riddled with guilt as he made the mistake of leaving his gun behind at home, forcing him to borrow Lars’ and leaving his partner defenseless. I tell you, if this were an American cop, the gun would never have been forgotten or left behind. It would have been remembered because Americans are a little too much in love with their guns, you know? Perhaps the Danish are a bit more relaxed with guns or, better yet, they have better way of dealing with gun control policies than Americans do.

While “Domino” fails to have the same production values which are evident in De Palma’s best work, there are still moments which remind us of what a master filmmaker he can be and how brilliant he is in ratcheting up the suspense. This especially is the case in the movie’s climax in which Christian and Alex chase down a team of ISIS terrorists who are preparing to set off a bomb in an arena. As things escalate to an explosive conclusion, De Palma keeps us on the edge of our seats through some brilliant editing and the music of one of his favorite composers, Pino Donaggio.

De Palma also utilizes split screens here and there, particularly in a terrifying moment when a female suicide bomber lays waste to a red-carpet event with a machine gun. The thought of death terrifies her, but she is endlessly manipulated by ISIS leader Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay) who promises her a road to God no one else can give her. Of course, it’s quite telling how he is willing to let others meet God before he does, or maybe he is simply getting others to do things he doesn’t have the guts to do himself.

Some will be quick to point out how stereotypical the terrorists are in “Domino.” Granted, they do fit the stereotypes many people have of Middle East terrorists, but I personally don’t see how you can judge an entire race of people or an ethnicity just from the portrayal of a handful of them in a movie. Then again, this is not a movie eager to dig too deep into the politics or deeply held religious beliefs. It is simply a straightforward thriller eager to give us an exciting, if not altogether memorable, time at the movies or at home on television which is where “Domino” will likely find its biggest audience.

The acting for the most part is serviceable. Coster-Waldau is believable as a cop plagued with guilt, and he gives the movie the protagonist it needs. Ebouaney helps to make Ezra more than the typically stereotypical terrorist as his acts of violence serve a similar need for vengeance involving his own family. It’s always great to see Carice van Houten in anything, and she makes Alex a strong female cop and an interesting foil for Christian. But perhaps the most colorful performance in “Domino” comes from Guy Pearce as the corrupt CIA agent who thinks nothing of working with terrorists to get what he wants, or of the laws being broken in the process. Pearce is a delight to watch as he swiftly moves from one place to another with relative ease and without ever breaking a sweat.

Indeed, “Domino” will not go down as one of De Palma’s best works, but I am glad to see it is far from being one of his worst. It certainly fares much better than “Snake Eyes” which, despite an amazing opening shot, quickly turned into a hopelessly idiotic mystery thriller. It is taut, has a streamlined running time, and while its ending feels a bit too pat, it gets the job done. Although this movie is getting dumped alongside blockbusters such as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “Rocketman,” it is not the complete loss many have made it out to be.

In the documentary “De Palma,” the filmmaker talked about how he feels he can no longer make a studio movie. I thought “Domino” would be his ticket to escaping the shackles Hollywood executives are quick to put any filmmaker regardless of their long-standing reputation, but judging from the behind the scenes stories, it sounds like he didn’t quite break free of them. Regardless, this movie shows he still has his gifts. While many see him as being past his prime, I still believe he has a masterpiece or two left in him. I just hope whoever he works with next gives him the tools he needs instead of forcing him to make do with only what he has been given.

* * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Guillmero Amoedo About ‘The Stranger’

Guillermo Amoedo photo

Uruguayan writer and director Guillermo Amoedo has left a solid mark on Chilean audiences with his short films and movies, and he was a co-writer on the Eli Roth productions of “Aftershock” and “The Green Inferno.” In 2014, he left his mark on American audiences with the supernatural thriller “The Stranger.”

Cristobal Tapia Montt stars as Martin, a mysterious man who arrives in a small Canadian town to look for his wife. The reasons why Martin seeks her out become clear as the movie goes on, but he quickly discovers she has died and decides to commit suicide as a result. But after he is viciously attacked by a trio of criminals, the incident soon has a snowball effect on the whole town, and its inhabitants soon find themselves ensnared in a nasty bloodbath many of them will be unable to escape.

I got to speak with Guillermo about “The Stranger” and of how he came up with the idea for it. Although it his film, Eli Roth’s name is heavily featured on the movie’s advertisements and it had me asking Guillermo how much the “Hostel” director was involved in its making. Guillermo also discussed how Cristobal was cast, of how a particularly brilliant vampire movie became a strong inspiration for “The Stranger,” and of how family always plays a big part in horror films.

The Stranger 2014 movie poster

Ben Kenber: What was the genesis of “The Stranger’s” story for you?

Guillermo Amoedo: Well it was an idea that I had five years ago in between scripts. It came actually from the idea of what kind of vampire movie I would like to see. I’m actually not a vampire movie fan, but I saw a vampire film called “Let the Right One In.” I really loved the way it is designed by genre and I really loved the way they treated the subject, and I wanted to do something very grounded in the kind of vampire films that I would like to see; more grounded and more character driven than the ones that are out there right now. I wanted to take the tone of that film and make it more grounded, but then also make it my own kind of story that was more of a character driven story about this guy who has to choose between his own family or humankind. I like this kind of character that had this deep moral conflict inside of them and has to make the tough decisions.

BK: On the surface, “The Stranger” looks like a vampire movie, but it also has elements of a ghost movie as well as supernatural elements as well. Was it always your intention to mix up genres with this movie?

GA: Yeah, that was the idea. It has of course some supernatural elements, but it’s more about the people than it was about the supernatural powers. That’s why I wanted to make all the supernatural stuff as minimal as possible. They don’t have wings, they don’t fly, they just have some stuff from the vampire mythology but they’re actually pretty human.

BK: “The Stranger” has Eli Roth’s name on the top of this movie’s advertisements and I know that you worked with him previously on “Aftershock.” What part did he play in the making of “The Stranger?”

GA: Well he helped a lot in the development of the script and had a lot of notes. He also helped us a lot in post-production with different cuts and ideas. He was involved in different stages of this process. This is the fourth film where we have been involved with Eli and we have a very friendly collaboration process with him.

BK: I really enjoyed Cristobal Tapia Montt’s performance as Martin and I love how he holds the audiences’ attention just with a single stare. What was it like directing him in “The Stranger?”

GA: He was amazing. Originally the script was written for someone older, much older, like 45 or 50 years old. But then before doing the film I made a short film and I casted him for it. I changed the age of the character in order to cast him, and he did such a wonderful job that I changed everything so he could play the role of Martin. He’s a terrific actor. He has a lot of experience working in Chilean films and TV, and I hope he can have more opportunities in the future.

BK: I liked that, as a writer, you didn’t go out of your way to spell out everything in the movie’s story for the audience. As a writer, how important is it for you to keep secrets from the audience?

GA: Well I think it has to be a balance of how much you can tell without revealing everything, but you also don’t want to reveal too much. There’s a line that says the secret to being boring is to tell everything. You have to test sometimes the script and then the movie to see how much you can hold back from the audience and how much you have to give them so it’s tricky sometimes. It also depends a lot on the kinds of audiences. Some people get mad because they want to know everything. It’s like the tip of the iceberg; you have to tell as much information as necessary so that the audience can understand the story, but then you can leave a lot of stuff that the audience can fill with their own imagination. So I like to do a lot of that stuff where people have to fill part of the story with their own imagination.

BK: Ariel Levy who plays Caleb, the town bully, was he meant to have the same hairstyle as Eminem in this movie?

GA: (Laughs) That wasn’t actually the idea, but now that you mention he does look a lot like an Eminem fan. It was to change Ariel’s aspect as much is possible, so we changed his haircut and his hair color and he was intended to resemble Ben Foster in “3:10 to Yuma,” but something like that more than Eminem. It was changing Ariel’s aspect everything to get him more involved in his character.

BK: Nicolás Durán’s character of Peter is referred to as a tagger which is slang for graffiti artist, and it was interesting to see the symbolism in what he was painting. Was there any intentional symbolism in what he was spraying over the walls in town?

GA: There is one thing: the symbol that he writes on the walls is the same as the marking that Cristobal’s character has on his wrist. That’s actually the idea that there is some kind of connection between them, and it’s a made up symbol that has to do with something the Greeks used to do. They used to mark the people who are ill before Christ, so we are trying to build a mythology between that and what kind of character that Cristobal plays.

BK: I imagine you had a very tight budget to work with on “The Stranger” and a short schedule to make it in. How much did that force you to be more creative while shooting?

GA: Always limitations, I think, are better. Sometimes you have too many limitations to work with, but when you have enough… It’s a good thing to know your limitations from before, so when I wrote the script I knew how many pages we could shoot a day and how much stuff we could do so I tried to plan everything right from the beginning. Then when there’s so much trouble that I think we were pretty much prepared for the worst, and we ended up doing a pretty good job.

BK: The town where you shot “The Stranger” in has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it as well as a great small-town vibe which fits the movie perfectly. Did you always plan to shoot the movie there, or did this town come to your attention through a location scout?

GA: Well we actually planned to shoot everything at another town that was farther away from the town (we shot in), more South. This town is near a place near another town where one of the producers of the movie has a house where he always goes to for vacation. He told me that this place was great and had lakes and volcanoes and everything. We went there and it was amazing. I mean everywhere you could shoot from anyplace and you would have three volcanoes in a lake in the town in the view and everything. It was an amazing place to shoot.

BK: How would you describe “The Stranger” to an audience that has yet to see it?

GA: I would say it is a supernatural thriller about the clash of two fathers who have to decide why on one side this father has this desire to save his son or put in danger the whole of humankind and decides to save humankind, and there’s the other one who decides to save his kid and puts the whole of humankind in danger. So there’s this clash of morals between fathers.

BK: Family always plays a big part in the best horror films.

GA: Yeah, and that’s what actually the film was about. Aside from the supernatural stuff, it’s about how far would you go to save your kid. How much would you put in and risk to save them? Even though your kid might become a monster, it’s still your kid. So that kind of challenges and creates a moral conflict, and that’s what the movie is about.

A big thank you to Guillermo Amoedo for taking the time to talk with me. “The Stranger” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Cristobal Tapia Montt about ‘The Stranger’

Cristobal Tapia Montt in The Stranger

American audiences may not know who Cristobal Tapia Montt is, but they will not be able to forget him after watching him in Guillermo Amoedo’s horror thriller “The Stranger.” A Chilean actor who has spent much of his career acting in Spanish language movies and television, this Eli Roth production marks his first ever performance in an English language movie.

In “The Stranger,” Cristobal plays Martin, a mysterious man who arrives in a small town in the southern part of Canada to find his wife, Ana. The both of them are afflicted with a horrible disease which gives them a never ending thirst for human blood, and Martin is in town to kill her. But upon discovering that she died some time ago, he decides to commit suicide so he can eradicate this disease once and for all. However, after being brutally attacked by the town bullies, his presence in the town soon creates a snowball effect which will plunge its inhabitants into a bloodbath they have little chance of escaping.

It was a real pleasure talking with Cristobal about his performance in “The Stranger” as well as his other artistic works. Many have noted his unique approach to the characters he has played, and he has also been recognized for his work as an illustrator and musician. We talked about these things and a lot more, and I invite you to read our interview below.

The Stranger 2014 movie poster

Ben Kenber: Your performance in “The Stranger” is really good. I liked how you managed to hold the audiences’ attention with a single stare.

Cristobal Tapia Montt: Yeah, there is a lot of staring in the movie (laughs).

BK: How do you prepare for moments where you have a close-up and stare straight into the camera?

CTM: I don’t know if there’s much preparation for that. I didn’t have a lot of lines so I knew I was going to have to work on this face and attitude where you could actually understand what I was thinking or feeling, so I just jumped into it on set. Guillermo was directing me pretty well so he really knew what he wanted, so it wasn’t really hard at all. It was really easy and everything was pretty clear from the beginning.

BK: In the production notes it says you have a very unique approach to the characters you play. Could you tell us more about your approach?

CTM: Well actually I didn’t go to acting school, so every character I portray comes from a gut feeling. Whenever I try to imagine myself being that person, I see my characters as living beings as friends or people I’ve met. I just try to understand and have empathy on whatever they are going through or what they are going through and just understand them. It’s a really weird way I guess for me because I don’t know if anyone else does it that way, I try to picture living creatures and try to understand and be them for a while. It’s very intuitive and I just play it by my gut and whatever I feel. It sounds pretty scary, but I guess acting is kind of like that for me.

BK: Your character of Martin remains a very mysterious character in this movie. He’s not necessarily a vampire, but he’s also not entirely human. Did you have to create a whole backstory for this character?

CTM: Yeah of course. Actually I asked Guillermo to help me out with that because he had a backstory already, so he shared it with me and we discussed it and I kind of added my own backstory because there was a couple of years and a couple of gaps in between with his wife and what he had gone through. I just had to come up with this whole backstory and the 16 or 17 years that passed by because you don’t really know what happens. The moment that Martin appears in this northern city in Canada I just had to fill in the gap of all those years, so that’s essentially the backstory that had to come out with because no one really knew went on during those years.

BK: I’m guessing Martin has been on this planet for a lot longer than anyone realizes.

CTM: Yeah, exactly. That was the whole idea in the beginning. That was a really interesting transition because you never hear the word vampire in the movie, but you end up understanding that this movie has a lot to do with vampires. Vampires never grow old, but what we wanted to do… You can see a transition through the years. We just wanted him to have the longer beard and we wanted him to look actually beaten up a little bit just because emotionally he got beaten up so we wanted to reflect that physically. I think you see that in the movie as well because in the flashbacks we (Martin and Ana) both look not younger but fresher in a certain way and Martin looks lighter. We wanted to portray them with this burden 16 years after, and I think you can appreciate that in the movie.

BK: Speaking of emotion, this looks like a very emotionally draining part to play. How were you able to maintain such strong emotions throughout shooting?

CTM: I guess as an actor you get trained to get into it, and when you’re on set you do it and then you just disconnect. It’s kind of like a switch, you know? So in that sense it wasn’t really hard. It was just like getting into it and then stepping out of it. We were shooting at night because most of the movie was shot during the night, so whenever I went home to the cabin where we were staying in, I would just sleep so I didn’t really have any time to even think about it. I would get there at like seven in the morning and wake up at four and just go for it again. It’s exhausting as an actor to shoot at night, but emotionally I was doing pretty much okay. It was fine. It wasn’t really that draining.

BK: What was it like shooting in that small town where the movie takes place?

CTM: It was amazing. It’s this beautiful town down in the south of Chile and it’s amazing. It’s like super green, it’s way down south, it’s rainy, it’s gloomy and it sets the perfect mood for the movie as well. I think we were there for 12 or 14 days, and just to be there and to stay at a cabin that was right off the shore of the lake and wake up to that was very inspiring. It’s easier shooting a movie when you’re in such an amazing location.

BK: What interested you most in playing Martin in “The Stranger?”

CTM: Well the fact that it was in English. It was my first opportunity to play a character in English because I’m a Chilean actor so I’ve only played characters that speak Spanish. So it was a huge opportunity acting wise to try that out and see what it was like to act in English and if I could pull it off as well. The opportunity to be in a movie that is being shown in the (United) States was just very, very attractive, and that possibility existed since the beginning of the movie. I speak English and Spanish so I wouldn’t mind trying to act in English for a while because I’m a native speaker. The story was very interesting as well. I’m a horror fan and I’ve always liked vampire movies and science fiction, and it’s my kind of genre so that was pretty cool as well. It’s like, I get to play a vampire! It was a very interesting project so I was attracted to it from the beginning.

BK: What would you say are the differences between doing a movie in English and doing a movie in another language?

CTM: I thought it was going to be very, very different and maybe more difficult, but in the end it’s the same thing. It’s the same language film wise. You’re speaking a different language but you’re still telling the story. It’s very much the same, you know? I don’t think it’s different at all. But the main difference is that you will probably reach a larger audience because English is a universal language. A lot more people speak English than Spanish I’m assuming. I could be wrong, but I guess it’s easier to show in different countries if it’s in English, and I guess that’s the main difference from acting in Spanish.

BK: I also read that you are known for your music and illustrations as well as your acting. Can you tell us more about that?

CTM: Yeah sure. I’ve been drawing since I was very young. I’ve been drawn to the artistic world in all its forms. I started playing on the piano when I was 12, so I’ve been always been playing music and drawing since an early age. I dropped out of college. I was there for three years and I was interested in studying design. I just kept on drawing and playing. I’ve played a cello, I’ve played in different bands, and I have a music project that I’ve been a part of as well. I compose and sing and play instruments. I just really enjoy art as a channel of expression. Acting is just another form of that art and it just helps me get stuff out of my system. If I didn’t have that it would drive me nuts. It’s very personal though. I’ve never really gotten my music out there. At art shows I show my drawings and I’ve had two that sold, and I play live sometimes. But it’s not something that… I feel like it’s more personal. I really don’t have the urge to just like put it out there and make everyone listen to my music. It’s more about me expressing myself and putting myself out there.

I want to thank Cristobal for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stranger” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Cold Pursuit’ is Far More Devious Than the Average Liam Neeson Film

Cold Pursuit movie poster

I went into “Cold Pursuit” believing it would be a typical Liam Neeson action film and a cross between “Taken” and “Death Wish.” Heck, it feels like Neeson has been doing the same movie over and over in recent years as he keeps playing characters who are either out to rescue their children or avenge the loss of a loved one. As we watch Neeson operate heavy machinery in a place which looks infinitely colder than the one he traversed in “The Grey,” I kept waiting for him to say, “I have a particular set of snow plows I have acquired over a very long career…”

Indeed, “Cold Pursuit” has the attributes of the average Neeson action flick, but I was surprised to see it also has a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. Even as the violence gets increasingly brutal and the blood flows more frequently, I found myself laughing endlessly as Neeson’s quest for revenge inadvertently sets off a war between rival gangs intent on protecting their own self-interests. As a result, this film was and was not what I expected, and as it went on I had no idea of the twists and turns the story would end up taking.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, an ordinary man who lives a quiet life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) in the small Colorado town of Kehoe. As “Cold Pursuit” begins, Nels has been given Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year award, something he accepts quite humbly as he considers his job as a snowplow driver nothing particularly special. Nels is also revealed to be a quiet man as his wife encourages him to speak more regularly at the dinner table and use as many words as President Abraham Lincoln said during his address at Gettysburg.

It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike when Kyle dies of a heroin overdose. Nels refuses to believe his son could ever be a drug addict even when the police, long since hardened by the morbid work they do, remark how parents always say that. From there, the movie does not slow down as Nels goes from being the town’s key citizen to a vigilante as cold as the frosty weather he works in on a daily basis. Seeing him do deadly deeds either with a snowplow or a sawed-off rifle made me think of a line between Chevy Chase and Tim Matheson from “Fletch:”

“You shoot me, you’re liable to lose a lot of these humanitarian awards.”

Neeson inhabits the role of Nels as effectively as any he has played in the past, and I could tell he was having a lot of fun with this particular character from start to finish. Unlike the government agents and trained snipers he has played previously, Nels is nothing like them as he truly is an ordinary guy caught up in a situation he has no control over. At one point he even tells his brother, Brock “Wingman” Coxman (William Forsythe), how he learned about disposing dead bodies from a crime novel he once read.

“Cold Pursuit” also introduces to one of the slimiest and most comical drug kingpins I have seen in some time, Trevor “Viking” Calcote. Trevor is played by Tom Bateman in an inspired performance as he makes this drug dealer as brutal as he is hilariously hypocritical. While he shows no remorse in offing another human being, he is equally intense when it comes to making sure his son learns all he can about life from William Golding’s classic novel “The Lord of the Flies” while eating foods which do not contain the slightest ounce of high fructose corn syrup.

What intrigued me most about “Cold Pursuit” was how Nels’ quest for vengeance ends up triggering a turf war between drug dealers and American Indian gang members. In the process, we are subtly reminded of how America was stolen from the Indians (they are called Native Americans for a reason folks) and that the word “reservation” has more than one meaning. In this small Colorado town, a bad review on Yelp or Trip Advisor can be every bit as damaging as a bullet. This all results in a motion picture with a body count somewhere in between Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.”

“Cold Pursuit” is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance” which starred Stellan Skarsgard, and both films were directed by the same man, Hans Petter Moland. Learning of this made me wonder if Moland would fall intro the same trap George Sluizer did when he remade “The Vanishing” in America and changed the ending to disastrous effect. However, it looks like little was loss in the translation as this remake retains much of the brutality and black humor of the original. This was a giant relief to me after witnessing the misbegotten remake of “Miss Bala” which all but neutered the original for the sake of a PG-13 rating. Unlike “Miss Bala,” this film is anything but generic.

If there is any issue I have with this film, it is the inescapable fact that Laura Dern is completely wasted here. She is always a welcome appearance in anything she appears in, but she disappears from “Cold Pursuit” way too soon to where I wondered why they bothered casting her at all. Frankly, I am getting sick of seeing Dern reduced to playing the helpless housewife whose love is wasted on male characters who fail to return it in equal measure. She deserves much better.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by “Cold Pursuit” as it proves to be an effective thriller and a twisted delight. For those who like their humor especially black, this is a film worth checking out as it features everything including a child who knows all there is to know about the Stockholm Syndrome. More importantly, it features female characters played by Emmy Rossum and Julia Jones who are far stronger than their male counterparts who are too caught up in their own jealousy and self-interest. The scene where Jones shows how she has her ex-husband by the balls, literally and figuratively speaking, is one which will never be quickly forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

 

‘I Saw the Devil’ Serves Up Revenge at its Coldest and Most Brutal

I Saw the Devil movie poster

Many people will be quick to criticize “I Saw the Devil” as being excessively and unnecessarily violent. Indeed, it is an unrelentingly grim cinematic experience as we watch a serial killer chop up beautiful young women into little pieces and the boyfriend of one of them getting his revenge on the evil bastard. I’m guessing there will be a number of critics as well who will say Americans would never come up with such graphic depictions, but we know otherwise (“Saw” or “Hostel” anyone?).

But unlike other horror movies, “I Saw the Devil” does not exist to simply gross us out or make us uncomfortable as humanly possible. There’s a real story here amidst all the carnage about the hollowness of wanting revenge and of what it does to those who seek and get it. But Jee-woon Kim, the same man who directed “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” has created a motion picture which finds brutally fresh new twists that keep us pinned to our seats for the entire two and a half hour running time. Yes, it is truly unrelenting.

The movie starts off with the beautiful Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) talking with her fiancé Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) on the phone while she is waiting in her car on a snowy road out in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, a man by the name of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) viciously attacks and knocks her out. Back at his grungy workshop, Joo-yeon begs for her life and tells Kyung-chul she is pregnant, but it does no good. Kyung-chul’s face is an enigma as you are not sure what he is feeling at the moment. You want to think he has some form of empathy in his rotten soul, but to him this is a luxury he cannot afford. Either way, it doesn’t stop him from chopping away at Joo-yeon with a rusty hatchet.

Upon finding her severed head in a nearby lake, Soo-Hyun, a special agent, vows to make her attacker feel the same exact pain he made his victims feel. From there, the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more vicious and violent. Unlike most American revenge thrillers where we can tell the hero apart from the bad guy, the line between them is hard at times to make out.

The first thing I want to say about “I Saw the Devil” is just how beautiful the cinematography by Lee Mo-gae is. It’s kind of a cross between the vivid colors of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and the immensely cold and snowy landscape of “Let the Right One In.” I’m guessing Kim Jee-woon and Lee Mo-gae were inspired by the filmmakers of both movies, and even he succeeds in finding a beauty amidst all the hideous carnage which goes on. The image of the snow proves to be a metaphor for how cold the soul of the two main characters are or have since become, and things grow colder for them all the way towards the movie’s messy climax.

In terms of acting, Choi Min-sik’s performance stands above everyone else’s here. Choi is best known for his amazing and unforgettable performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” Throughout the movie’s running time, he never tries to hide the fact his character of Kyung-chul is a pure psychopath and a manipulator of emotions he is unable to fully experience on his own. It’s a brave performance which doesn’t hold back anything, and it makes you wonder what depths the actor went to in playing such a twisted human being.

Lee Byung-hun also deserves points for bravery as the now fiancé-less Soo-Hyun. This is the character we most easily identify with here, but he soon becomes “I Saw the Devil’s” most tragic one as well. We can’t really blame him for wanting revenge and to torture this killer without a conscience, but as the movie goes on, we see how his quest for vengeance it is destroying whatever is left of his damaged soul. Lee makes us care about this man even as he becomes almost as depraved as Kyung-Chul. Even when he slices off a key part of Kyung’s body, we still follow him even if we are increasingly repelled by his actions. His conscience comes out in the form of Soo-Hyun’s family, but their sane take on the situation is not enough to pull him back from the abyss of hatred he is forever trapped in.

Make no mistake, “I Saw the Devil” is a seriously violent motion picture. It feels like forever since I’ve seen so much blood spurting out of the human body on the silver screen. I also can’t remember the last time a guillotine was used so predominantly in a movie either. All the same, like any great Argento movie, it’s rendered in the most beautiful cinematic fashion. This is not your average “Friday the 13th” sequel where things are thrown together in the cheapest way possible. The colors are vividly realized, making everything we see here all the more cinematically gruesome.

Once you get past the seemingly unending carnage, you will see how these two men pretty much deserve one another. “I Saw the Devil” is a strong character piece featuring people who, in any other movie, would be at opposite ends of the law-abiding spectrum, but who have more in common with one another than they initially realized. While a part of us wants to see this sick bastard suffer horribly, there’s another part slowly reminding us how we can suffer just as much in wanting an eye for an eye. It’s also full of twists and turns you cannot see coming, and none of them seems convoluted in the slightest. The movie is full of surprises, many of them incredibly grim. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark, this will redefine the term for you.

Now look, I am not saying it is bad to like revenge/retribution movies. Lord knows we need them every once in a while in order to exercise the parts of our psyche which are hopefully ruled over by common sense. But sometimes we need a cinematic reminder of how wrong it can be to get what you wish for. Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was one of the harshest examples of this, and “I Saw the Devil” is not far behind.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Invites You to Peel Back its Many Layers

Bad Times at the El Royale poster

Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of those movies I have really come to deeply admire as it is like an onion you keep peeling at continually to see what’s underneath. Just when I thought I knew where things were heading, the story heads in another direction to where what we were initially introduced to is not all what it seems. As Bo Diddley once sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover, and while this movie’s poster tells us what we need to know before going into the theater, there is more to discover than we could ever anticipate.

The El Royale of the movie’s title is a hotel which, at one time, was one a glorious place to visit, but it has since fallen into disrepute. The first sequence shows a man entering a room there, digging beneath its surface to play a bag of money beneath it. He is later greeted by another man who he kindly welcomes in, but who quickly shoots him dead with a shotgun. It’s a wonderfully elaborate sequence which brings us into a motion picture which promises not to be the usual mainstream fare.

We then move to 10 years later when a number of visitors arrive at the El Royale to stay for a night or two. They include the kindly priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), and a young hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All of them are greeted by the hotel’s concierge and apparently its only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who gleefully illustrates the location’s history and amenities for all of those willing to hear him out.

Revealing more from here would spoil one too many surprises as we discover not everyone is who they appear to be, but I can tell you the characters soon find themselves on a road to hell as their sins rise to the surface for everyone around them to see. In one way or another, everyone is either trying to escape their past or reclaim it in a way which offers no promises, and not everyone is going to make it out of their predicament in one piece.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” was written and directed by Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplays for the highly-entertaining “Cloverfield,” “World War Z” and “The Martian,” the one Ridley Scott movie in recent years which we can all agree on (in that it was great). Goddard also wrote and directed the horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie I should have seen already, but anyway. He composes this movie in vignettes just as Quentin Tarantino composes his with chapters out of a novel. Each one allows us to learn more about the characters and what brought them to this once glorious resort. The question is, do they all know about the valuables buried beneath one of the rooms?

I enjoyed how Goddard kept peeling away at each of these characters’ identities as we learn more about them in ways which are both illuminating and shocking, and it kept me guessing as to where things were going to go next. There’s even a scene of shocking violence involving a wine bottle which just comes out of nowhere, and it slammed me back into my seat in a way such a scene has not in recent years.

The movie, however, does suffer as it goes on. You should have heard the collective gasp from the audience at the press screening I attended when they were told the running time would be two hours and 21 minutes. Most Hollywood studios these days would never dare to let one of their releases last more than 90 or 100 minutes, so the amount of freedom Goddard got here seems astonishing in retrospect.

I have nothing against movies which last over two hours as long as they are able to justify their length. It is far too easy for a filmmaker to become self-indulgent. In retrospect, “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have used some tightening in the editing room as the story slowly drags towards its conclusion which involves a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, taking a much-needed break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and his much-too devoted follower, Rose (the wonderfully possessed Cailee Spaeny). By the time we finally arrive at the ending, it feels like everything is concluding on the wrong note. This could have been an even more frustrating ending than the one in “The Matrix Revolutions,” but saying so is a little too punishing.

Still, there is much to admire here such as the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, the terrific set and art direction and, of course, the great cast that tears into their roles with great gusto. Jeff Bridges continues to remain one of our finest actors as he inhabits his role of Father Daniel Flynn in a way few others could. Cynthia Erivo proves to have quite the vocal chops here as her singing left the audience I saw this movie with in almost total silence. Dakota Johnson, finally freed from those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, gets to show an enigmatic side of her acting that makes it clear how we have no business dismissing her as just another pretty face. As for Jon Hamm, he is as charming as ever, and watching him hustle the other characters almost effortlessly makes me believe he will be the next Batman.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a flawed movie, but for me, its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. I am curious to see how audiences end up reacting to this as it is coming out in a cinematic time dominated by superheroes. Goddard’s film definitely stands outside the norm, but my hope is audiences will take the time to discover something a little different from what they are used to.

Whatever you think of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” you have to admit it allows Jeff Bridges to utter one of the best lines of dialogue in recent years:

“Shit happens… Get the whiskey.”

* * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Video Interview: Dean Devlin Talks About the Making of ‘Bad Samaritan’

Bad Samaritan

With Roland Emmerich, he helped bring “Independence Day,” “Godzilla” and “The Patriot” to the silver screen. In 2017, he struck out on his own and made his directorial debut with the disaster film “Geostorm.” Now filmmaker Dean Devlin follows that up with his sophomore directorial effort, a horror thriller named “Bad Samaritan” which was written by Brandon Boyce (“Apt Pupil”) and stars former “Dr. Who” actor David Tennant, Robert Sheehan and Carlito Olivero. Whereas “Geostorm” was a big budget Hollywood blockbuster, “Bad Samaritan” sees Devlin taking the independent film route to create his most intimate motion picture yet.

We get introduced to Sean Falco (Sheehan), an aspiring photographer who works as a valet with longtime friend Derek Sandoval (Olivero) at a local Italian restaurant. What his employers do not know, however, is Sean and Derek have more on their minds than parking cars. Once customers give them their keys, they drive out to their homes to burglarize them, and among the items they abscond with is a diamond ring which Sean gives to his girlfriend, Riley (Jacqueline Byers). But one night, when Sean breaks into the home of an especially rude customer, Cale Erendreich (Tennant), he discovers a woman chained to a chair. From there, it becomes a cat and mouse game as Sean tries to find a way to save her without getting arrested as a thief in the process.

I was lucky enough to speak with Devlin at the London Hotel in Los Angeles, California where he was doing press for “Bad Samaritan.” Devlin talked about how making this movie reminded him of why he got into filmmaking in the first place, the twisted psychology of Tennant’s character, what made him especially interested in working with Boyce, and of the advantages he had in shooting the film in Portland, Oregon.

Please check out the interview below and be sure to catch “Bad Samaritan” which arrives in theaters on May 4th.

‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ is More of a Continuation Than a Sequel

Insidious Chapter 2 poster

My feelings towards “Insidious: Chapter 2” are not much different from how I felt about “Insidious.” Neither movie scared me in the way they scared my friends, and they don’t really hold a candle to the “Paranormal Activity” movies in terms of making you jump out of your seat, but I did admire their cleverness as they turned the genres they were exploring upside down, and both films gave me something I wasn’t expecting. But moreover, the real strength of “Insidious: Chapter 2” is it doesn’t feel like a sequel as much as it feels like a continuation of what came before it. Part of me was expecting a simple retread of the original, but the filmmakers succeed in adding more to what came before.

It reunites the horror team of director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell, both who made the first “Insidious” movie as well as the first “Saw.” What drove me nuts about “Saw” and its sequels wasn’t the gore (the way I see it, the gore the merrier), but the plot twists which ended those movies left me with the most enormous of headaches as they expected me to believe Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) could pull this or that off, and I didn’t buy any of the conclusions for a second. The “Insidious” movies, however, don’t make the same mistake, and what I admired was how certain questions from the original film got answered here. Perhaps a close analysis would reveal plot holes, but both movies seem to connect together in a way which makes sense.

Like “Halloween II” (whether it’s the original sequel or Rob Zombie’s), “Insidious: Chapter 2” starts off where the original ended. Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) has successfully rescued his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from the Further, but after a peaceful moment where the family is reunited, his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) discovers paranormal investigator Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye) has been strangled to death. Josh is suspected to have strangled her, but he convinces Renai he did not. Soon after that, things slowly get back to normal as Josh moves his family into his mother Lorraine’s (Barbara Hershey) house, but it doesn’t take long for certain objects to move around on their own. The question is, did Josh really return from the Further, or did someone else come back in his place?

Now Wan and Whannell had a lot of fun playing around with the haunted house genre with the first “Insidious,” but now they are forced to up their game with this one. “Insidious: Chapter 2” is more of a domestic thriller with a bit of astral projection and time travel thrown in to mix things up. While it does deal with the same elements which made its predecessor a success, this sequel never feels like a simple repeat of the original. Both these films were made by people who have seen just about every horror movie known to man, and they have gone out of their way to subvert all those clichés we are used to seeing. With this movie, I was never entirely sure of what to expect, and that’s just the way I want it.

Wilson, Byrne, Hershey and Simpkins are every bit as good as they were in “Insidious,” and they don’t look like they have missed a bit between the original and the sequel. Angus Simpson and Whannell also show up again as Tucker and Specs, and they provide the comic relief this sequel needs, and they never overstay their welcome.

Joining the “Insidious” franchise this time around is Steve Coulter who plays Carl, Elise’s protégé in the paranormal arts. I am not familiar with Coulter’s work, but he gives a strong performance here as he works to help the Lambert family deal with what has been haunting them so viciously. It turns out he is a journeyman actor who has made many appearances in both film and television, and his veteran status serves this part well as Carl is an expert who has dealt with these situations extensively, and this makes him very believable as someone who has seen the worst things life has to offer.

Some fans may complain about the lack of scares in “Insidious: Chapter 2,” but for me, I’m just glad this sequel kept me intrigued throughout. Whether you find it terrifying or not, it’s a film which does keep you on edge from start to finish. When the movie ends, it turns out that there just might be room for another “Insidious” sequel, and there is a sequence at the end which implies a follow up will be coming our way. But even if it doesn’t, you can be sure the spirits (evil or otherwise) will be haunting you while you sleep.

* * * out of * * * *

Chris Marquette Talks About Working with Vincent D’Onofrio in ‘Broken Horses’

Broken Horses Chris Marquette

Broken Horses” stars Anton Yelchin and Chris Marquette as brothers who are as close as siblings can be, and it’s very poetic how this movie arrived in theaters on National Siblings Day. Yelchin plays Jacob Heckum, a very talented violinist who reunites with his brother Buddy (Chris Marquette) in their hometown after being separated for a number of years. Their paths have gone in different directions, and Buddy has long since fallen under the spell of Julius Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio), a gangster who has since gained complete control over Buddy to where he has denied him any chance of a scholastic education. But while Julius may have succeeded in turning Buddy into one of his most efficient mercenaries, Buddy is now looking for a way out of this mess he innocently fell into.

I got to talk with Marquette during at the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills, California where he was doing promotion for “Broken Horses.” Marquette began his career as a model at the age of 4, and he later made his acting debut as the son of Mira Sorvino’s character in “Sweet Nothing.” I was very interested in hearing from him what it was like working with D’Onofrio who is one of cinema’s most accomplished actors. D’Onofrio left a memorable impression on us all in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” and he has given us unforgettable performances in “Mystic Pizza,” “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Strange Days.” In addition, many will never forget his work as Detective Robert Goren on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” or on the “Subway” episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

Broken Horses movie poster

Marquette described what it was like acting opposite D’Onofrio, and his answer provided information about him which many of us didn’t know before.

Chris Marquette: He’s got a foot and a half on both of us which really helps. But D’Onofrio is a charmer and a great storyteller, and he’s really charismatic and that always carries weight and power. He’s got a million stories about the filmmakers and the sets he’s been on, so it was easy for me to start sliding into being whisked away by Vincent and Hench, his character. We were messing around one day and Vincent was just telling me stuff. I was asking him about his life and before he got into acting, and he was an amateur magician. With magicians you’ve got a way of doing tricks, and if you modify it slightly then you’ve technically invented a new technique. And so he invented some new technique on something really simple, and he’s telling me this and he starts doing the magic and it was… He’s telling me this whole story and I was so enthralled by it, and he was showing me this magic trick and I remember the next day Vinod and Abhijat (Joshi, the movie’s co-writer) called me and they said we think we’re writing in this… There’s a part where we are playing pool in the movie and he said, ‘You guys aren’t playing pool, I think he’s going to be showing you a magic trick.’ He was entertaining me like he would a kid, showing me this thing and I was like, ‘It’s amazing! Do it again!’

Not many actors get the opportunity of working with an actor like D’Onofrio, and Marquette is one of the lucky few who did. His thoughts on the “Full Metal Jacket” actor were truly fascinating, and I thank him for his time.

“Broken Horses” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.