Enemy [Mild Spoilers]: when a history lecturer spots his doppelgänger in the background of a movie scene he becomes increasingly fascinated by the actor. Quite a difficult film to articulate, this probably falls vaguely under the ‘Psychological Thriller’ banner. There’s a deliberately slow and intense build up, magnified by a doom-laden score that the intensity relies heavily on. This is completely Jake’s film, as we see him pull off playing two people, and then each character ‘impostering’ the other (Imagine Face/Off^²). Stylistically, there’s an intense amber hue for the duration, which I didn’t really see the point of – or understand. Naturally, there’s a lot of playing around with duality, repetition, mirrors, doubles, from the get-go, and although the film’s not explicitly wrapped up (the ending is a bit of a mystery/clusterfuck) there are a lot of clues and lines in there; namely that our lead may have a split personality. Definitely the least accessible film since he started working with ‘big’ names; this bleak, tense, and dark thriller is the perfect appetiser for Arrival; and lays out the “un film de Denis Villeneuve” style that he’s kept right through to his current, mega-budget films.
Southpaw [minor plot spoilers]: a boxer’s life crumbles when his wife is killed, and he loses everything else he cares about. For a standard beat-down/comeback sports story arc, it feels overly ripe and melodramatic – the ‘Fall’ section of the story takes forever and just gets worse and worse, to the point where it’s becomes borderline comical: losing wife, then fighting licence, then money, then child, then house, then gets a shit job… Because this bit and the token training montages take so long the short-but-more-upbeat ending doesn’t really counterbalance the emotional front end. For a boxing movie we don’t actually get much fighting either; as the focus is on 1-dimensional characters (slimy agent, has-been trainer…) and a well-worn story arc. Although his character’s a simple short-tempered meat-head Gyllenhaal puts in another sterling shift (talk about a hot streak); the rest of the cast are definitely supporting roles. You’ve seen everything in Southpaw before, but with a bit of emotion and some strong storytelling Fuqua and The Weinsteins deliver a solid – if unremarkable – boxing picture.
Prisoners: When two six-year-old children go missing the local detective and one of the parents try to solve this with two completely different methods. This has a great cast, and leads with Jackman and Gyllenhal, who are both in great form; one as an unconventional detective, he other as a pragmatic father with everything to lose. I feel rather sorry for Paul Dano however; he only ever appears to get cast as creepy and/or insane and/or perverted characters. The film’s mood is beautifully crafted: it’s slow, brooding, and intense with lots of sustained anxiety – child abduction is a heavy enough subject, but when you add torture and a potential creepy cult into the mix it’s serious stuff; it reminded me of watching Kill List and feeling suffocated in parts. The city and the suspects are perfectly shot to look grimy, grotty, dilapidated and repulsive. Although it centers on a ‘micro drama’, there are plenty of larger questions and ideas lurking in the background, challenging your viewpoint and making you choose who’s wrong, who’s right, who would you be in this film? Prisoners is a completely gripping and compelling thriller about ordinary people in extreme situation; and while it’s not an ‘enjoyable’ film per sé, it’s completely immersive.
Nightcrawler: when he spots an opportunity to sell footage of crimes to news channels Lou Bloom goes from petty thief to media entrepreneur – and nothing’s getting in the way of his thorough business plan. First off, this is an absolutely stunning portrayal of a sociopath; somewhere between Patrick Bateman and Anton Chigurh (No Country). Gyllenhaal does intensity like few other actors, with a role that covers everything from genuinely motivational speeches to disturbingly perceptive and socially inappropriate awkward-fests. Like all of the best on-screen psychos there’s an unsettling charisma around the character that draws you in; allowing them to supply moments of admiration, and not just shocks. Los Angeles feels equally divided between the soft ethereal skies and harsh emergency & neon lights – providing the perfect setting for this equally bipolar character. More generally, the film’s beautifully shot and put together – with several very intense, heart-racing moments of genuine tension. It also serves up a thick layer of social commentary and (bleak black comedy) leaving you to judge who’s the worst – the guy filming it, the news broadcasting it, the people watching it… or you for enjoying this? Despite being overlooked at awards season I couldn’t recommend this enough; great performances, well-crafted, entertaining, shocking and thought-provoking – Nightcrawler has it all.
End of Watch: two of LAPD’s finest end up with a bounty on their heads after accidentally disrupting the activities of a brutal cartel. From the opening car chase this feels very realistic, shot primarily on dashboard / surveillance / handheld cameras etc. This style not only lends itself to authenticity – glamour is played down throughout – but heightens the drama and urgency of action sequences. Both leads (Gyllenhaal and Peña) are superb, the naturalistic script makes them genuinely feel like friends, and their performances make you believe that they are regular guys – the fire scene in particular shows us that they are real heroes. What sets this aside from most cop films is that the antagonists are painted as being so ruthless and violent that there’s a genuine sense of danger that simmers throughout the film, hitting boiling point at the climax. My only major issue is that because the overall style is ‘handheld’/’genuine’ footage, characters in the middle of drive-by shootings / full-blown firefights / intimate moments are always carrying a camera/phone etc; even when there’s plenty shots in the film that aren’t handheld, so it seems a bit stupid. Also, if the penultimate scene had been cut, the ending would have also been so much more powerful. Niggles aside, End of Watch is a stunning cop film, with a strong ‘buddy’ vibe, real threat and two great performances at its heart. This is easily the best cop film in years, and arguably ever.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – Our prince must save the girl, his family, the sands of time, a magic dagger, himself and the entire world… because why not! This film has everything you could want in an action adventure; heroes, villains, a hot heroine, fights, chases, exotic locations, shaky cam, plot twists… unfortunately it’s just so lackluster and clichéd. CGI snakes. CGI landscapes. GCI weather. GCI sets. GCI Parkour etc etc. What ever happened to the days where escapist blockbusters were shot in massive physical studios (or locations) with a thousand props and at least a hint of realism? Based the eponymous computer game, 90% of the visuals seemed to be borrowed from the Assassin’s Creed franchise, particularly the chase sequences. Furthermore, the story was pretty much the Lion King with humans, no awesome songs and a Pirates of the Caribbean feel. The only standout was Alfred Molina, who happened to land the best character with all the good lines – and he nailed it. Otherwise, the acting’s generally flat, but I’ll blame the pants script and shallow characters. Gyllenhaal rocks a ridiculous accent that can only be described as ‘Orlando Bloom spoof’ but I guess his physique shows some dedication to the role. At the end of the day this film is, and does, exactly what it says on the ‘Blockbuster’ tin, and for that you can only applaud it. Unfortunately, it’s painfully middle of the road in every other aspect.
Zodiac: this is a pretty damn good film. Great story, especially if you’re in to your crime/thriller films. The one thing that stood out for me is the acting, all the main characters are absolutely superb; Gyllenghall and Rufallo especially proving that they’re good enough to be proper leading men & Downy Jr playing his typecast ‘crazy guy’. The only real problem for me was that it wars a touch on the long side, at just under 3 hours, it seems pretty dragged out – which isn’t helped by a slump around the 110 minute mark. Despite this it remains interesting and looks really retro / authentic. It’s also amazing how slow and fragmented old-school investigations were – this will definitely go down as one of the best cop films of the naughties!