Easily described as “NON-STOP on a train”, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Irish star Liam Neeson (after UNKNOWN, RUN ALL NIGHT, and the aforementioned airplane thriller), THE COMMUTER is another Hitchcockian homage from the pair, though not in the self-aware manner of Brian De Palma. A B-movie with A-list talent, it draws from Hitch’s ridiculous 1951 film STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (as well as other locomotive-based thrillers like THE NARROW MARGIN and even MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) in its depiction of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation via the devious machinations of an unfamiliar acquaintance, in this case portrayed by a smirking Vera Farmiga. Neeson has played this type of role before (indeed, these days it seems it’s all he plays), but he’s never quite as ordinary or everyman as the script calls for: he’s always an ex-cop, or an ex-mob enforcer, or an ex-CIA agent with a particular set of skills. THE COMMUTER is no different, and it’s precisely Neeson’s superhuman abilities in a quotidian role that prevents the film from becoming a middlebrow classic in the Hitchcockian mould.
Horror movies – especially the great ones – are all about subtext. This genre, perhaps more than any other form, heavily relies on metaphor by employing their fantastical monsters and otherworldly fears as allegories for whatever is troubling society at the time. The Xenomorph in ALIEN represents sexual violence. The Thing in THE THING symbolizes AIDS. The Brundlefly in THE FLY exemplifies the ravages of old age and, again, AIDS. Etcetera. It is thus unsurprising that Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, the debut horror feature from the sketch comic, is brimming with subtext. Only it would not be fair to call it subtext precisely, as the film operates almost entirely on the surface level, with little-to-no hidden meanings or metaphorical symbols. Concerning a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time, it is a cautionary racial tale, with the dangerous white liberals standing in for… dangerous white liberals. In GET OUT, the subtext is the text.
Nineties nostalgia is so hot right now (just this month, new versions of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, POWER RANGERS, and GHOST IN THE SHELL hit the big screens), so it is of little surprise that 1996 cult favourite TRAINSPOTTING gets the twenty-years-later sequel treatment. Picking up two decades after heroin junkie Mark Renton (the ageless Ewan McGregor) betrayed his friends and walked away with £16,000 of drug deal money, the oddly-titled T2 TRAINSPOTTING (seemingly a slight against James Cameron) finds fellow addicts/criminals Spud (Ewen Bremner), Simon aka Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) in pretty much the same place they’ve always been – scraping by a harsh existence in the slums of Edinburgh. Returning from a self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, Renton reenters his friends’ lives ostensibly to make amends, but his seeming contentedness masks a cold truth about his own life. “Choose life” was the sarcastic slogan of the original film, referring to Renton’s long-winded monologue and cynical mantra about the world, but here the real meaning of that statement is interrogated and scrutinized.
When film historians look back at this cinematic era, they may discover that Marvel’s THE AVENGERS, released in May of 2012, was the most influential movie of its day and age. Representing the culmination of four years and five superhero films, its massive success reinvigorated the crossover film (up until then resigned to the dominion of creature features and slasher flicks) and spawned the now-ubiquitous cinematic universe. Indeed, hardly a week can go by in Hollywood these days without yet another press release about a franchise property being re-imagined as a multi-film-spanning narrative arc. In that spirit, Warner Bros., not wanting to fall behind the other studios – namely, Disney – and with plenty of pre-existing properties underneath their corporate umbrella, has decided to revive Japanese studio Toho’s Shôwa series begun in the 1950s, when behemoths like Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan ruled the screens. Starting in 2014 with Gareth Edward’s GODZILLA reboot, the so-called MonsterVerse is alive and well, continuing with the second film, another inevitable reboot: KONG: SKULL ISLAND.
Cinematic adaptations of video games have always had a sketchy relationship with critical acclaim. From the very first film based on a game – the infamous 1993 flop SUPER MARIO BROS. – right through until this past December’s ASSASSIN’S CREED, no video game adaptation has ever scored above 50% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that every single one has been negatively received by a majority of critics. Of course, aggregate reviews are hardly a barometer of actual cinematic quality, merely a cumulation of a handful of journalists’ (sometimes ill-informed) opinions. Case in point: Paul W.S. Anderson and his RESIDENT EVIL series. This long-running franchise, based on the even-longer-running Japanese survival horror game series, has repeatedly been a whipping boy for the critical community, with none of the films scoring higher than 35% on the Tomatometer (RT jargon for their aggregate score measurer). But the movies themselves have ranged from mindlessly entertaining (the non-Anderson-directed sequels APOCALYPSE and EXTINCTION) to playfully meta-cinematic (notably AFTERLIFEand RETRIBUTION, but even the original to some extent), and certainly not deserving of scorched-earth scorn and disapproval. They may be junky, but they’re not terrible.
“I’ve been around religion a lot; I went to Catholic school for 10 years and my parents are fairly religious Hindus. I also live in a diverse area with people from all kinds of religions. Still, I’ve never been a big fan of organized religion, but I do like to talk about it because it’s important to me. So I use different subjects — ghosts, aliens, comic books — to have those conversations about faith. What do we believe about the unknown? I definitely believe in something, but it’s very tied to our own power. I don’t like what most religions, if not all of them, say, which is the thing that’s amazing and powerful is over here and you’re completely powerless. I actually feel the reverse: that each of us is super-powerful and we control a lot. My base feeling is the universe is benevolent. Even with this election!”
Any discussion of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film SPLIT must inevitably begin with a discussion of the director’s oeuvre, both due to the unique nature of the film (more, spoiler-y thoughts on this later) and the unique nature of the director himself. Shyamalan is still somewhat of a rarity in this cinematic day-and-age: a mainstream genre filmmaker who both writes and directs, rarely adapts others’ material, and is both consistently commercially successful (SPLIT will be his ninth in ten wide-releases to open over $25 million, and the lone holdout – LADY IN THE WATER – would cross that mark when adjusting for inflation) and intermittently critically acclaimed. His latest continues the (don’t call it a) comeback begun in 2015’s lo-fi found-footage horror THE VISIT, making two positively-reviewed films in a row after a string of five negatively-received ones. From his breakout with THE SIXTH SENSE through his nadir of THE LAST AIRBENDER to his re-emergence as a B-movie master and box office king, his career has never been less than fascinating, and now that he is peaking again, it’s just as compelling to look forward.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has flirted with the horror genre throughout his career, but THE NEON DEMONrepresents his first explicit engagement with the form. Set in a largely nocturnal Los Angeles – one not so dissimilar from the ethereal City of Angels depicted in Refn’s 2011 masterpiece DRIVE – the film concerns a young woman (Elle Fanning) breaking into the cutthroat fashion modelling industry, and the alternating acceptance and resistance she encounters. As the virginal, sixteen-year-old Jesse, Fanning exudes a blankness and innocence instantly recognized as pure, natural beauty by the titans of the industry, inviting jealousy and scorn from the other, older models (played with equal parts icy aloofness and caustic sarcasm by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). Her ascension to the ranks of America’s Next Top Model is challenged, then, by the Machiavellian machinations of a pair of meaty mannequins, as ruthless as they are vapid, setting up the nightmarish drama to come.
In this age of CGI-fuelled reboots and remakes, along comes an honest-to-goodness standalone sequel to a 35-year-old franchise utilizing practical stunt work and real locations that are augmented, not supplanted, by digital effects. Recasting the lead out of necessity but refreshingly remaining within the same continuity, the fourth installment in the Australian post-apocalyptic action series MAD MAX is of a piece, tonally and narratively, with its predecessors, owing to the returning presence of visionary creator George Miller. Unlike so many modern updates of classic cult films, homogenized and whitewashed into something inoffensive and uninteresting, FURY ROAD maintains the same eccentricities as its origins, from colourfully-named and bizarrely-outfitted characters to the esoteric slang of this future world. The result is a summer blockbuster that feels completely fresh and unique, linked to a name franchise but by no means bound to it (this just as easily could’ve been called IMPERATOR FURIOSA, if not for the ungainliness of such a title). It’s also the best big-budget action picture in years.
I’m reviving my long-dormant blog, after seven months of inactivity (that’s what getting a full-time job will do), to belatedly count down my favourite films of last year. Though there’s still dozens of 2014 features that I’ve yet to catch up on (everything from Fury to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), I feel relatively confident that this list will hold up in the months and years to come. 2014 was an especially great year for big-budget filmmaking, as blockbusters as varied as Noah, Godzilla, Interstellar, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes all cracked my top 25; strong, too, were the lower-profile genre exercises, ranging from Indonesian action sequel The Raid 2 to Australian post-apocalyptic drama The Rover. As such, my top ten of the year is a decidedly diverse affair, spanning the globe and transcending both generic and national boundaries. Without further ado, the best of 2014:
This film will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was the first R-rated movie I saw in cinemas legally (in fact, I watched it on my 18th birthday, less than a week after I had first seen it illicitly). That said, revisiting it over the years has proven to be a less-than-rewarding and somewhat dejecting experience, as time has not been kind to both its (at one point) state-of-the-art visuals and hard-boiled attitudes. Over the past decade, films such as 300, Watchmen, and Dredd have all strove to match (or better) the hyper-stylized graphic-novel aesthetic pioneered by Rodriguez and Miller, whilst neo-noir has gone in an even more post-modern direction with the release of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Brick, The Black Dahlia, Drive, and the Veronica Mars TV show (and subsequent movie). One can only point to the critical and commercial failure of Frank Miller’s solo effort The Spirit in 2008 to see how far this particular subset of a sub-genre fell in just a scant three years. Clearly, Sin City is no longer as cool or radical as it once was, and thus rewatching it once again (in preparation for the far-too-late sequel) seemed an interesting task.
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