Sunday, 26 March 2017

Daniel Espinosa - Safe House, Child 44 and Life

I first became acquainted with the films of Swedish born film Director Daniel Espinosa in 2012 with his espionage thriller Safe House and having followed his career ever since here are my spoiler free reviews of Safe House, his 2015 follow up Child 44 and this year's latest and eagerly awaited release of Life.

This blog only reflects the above named three films, however prior to 2012 Daniel also helmed three further films, Babylonsjukan in 2004, Outside Love in 2007 and Easy Money in 2010.

It is not my intention to provide spoilers for the coming three films, but rather my purpose is to give a flavour for the films as I do not want to spoil these for you in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy these superb cinematic creations.

Safe House (2012)

"Do you want to be the guy that lost Tobin Frost?"

As a lifelong fan of the works of Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson and the ever dependable screen presence of Liam Cunningham I was excited to see these stand out performers team up for the 2012 release of Espinosa's Safe House. I liked and enjoyed this on my first viewing five short years ago and having re watched this for the purpose of this blog again recently, I found the film still retains the verve, vitality and visceral action sequences I remember from my first viewing. Perhaps sandwiched between the behemoth ongoing franchise that is Jason Bourne, Safe House does have an incredibly striking resemblance to the loving creation of Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, dealing as it does with a rogue Agent being relentlessly tracked remotely by the CIA in Langley, Virginia as well as on the ground in various world destinations. Where Bourne travels from place to place, "Tobin Frost" (Denzel Washington) is holed up in Cape Town, South Africa but no sooner has he blown his cover he is tracked (again in Bourne fashion) with the frenetic street action of Cape Town juxtaposed with the hi-tech capabilities of the CIA. Like Bourne, he has many internal secrets to divulge but unlike the Matt Damon character (and here's where my Bourne comparisons will end) he is captured and bundled to a Safe House for interrogation under the anxious and watchful gaze of "Matt Weston" (Ryan Reynolds) a rookie and somewhat bored Safe House "Housekeeper". Ostensibly, this happens in the film's opening frames and by the time the film has a second to breath some fifteen minutes in, the frenetic pace, action sequences, gun fights and car chases have been quite some spectacle indeed. The pace of the film only sags a little in it's middle third however as a rule the film rarely does let up in it's intensity as Frost and Weston are thrown together in a frantic search for a house that is actually safe!

The aforementioned Liam Cunningham heads a stellar supporting cast list as "Alec Wade", another rogue Agent and friend of Frost, and being a fan of his deadpan style of acting I wanted to see more of his character throughout the film. And here is my only real gripe of the film, that of a lack of character development. Each character is well written but rather two dimensional and lacking a real narrative arc, whether it's the outstanding as ever Vera Farmiga as remote CIA Operative "Catherine Linklater", Brendan Gleeson as another CIA Chief and Operative "David Barlow" or Sam Shepard as CIA Director "Harlan Whitford". It is to him that we find the film's most prescient and telling quote as we approach the film's denouement: "People don't want the truth anymore Matt. It's too messy. Keeps them up nights".  

Written for the screen by David Guggenheim (Stolen, Designated Survivor) Espinosa brilliantly directs a thrill ride of a film that continually builds tension amid a series of violent and visceral gun fights interspersed with the spy thriller tropes of never knowing who to trust who may be playing who and for what ends. The film is often unnerving and claustrophobic at times, especially so within the safe house(s) and brilliantly realised by Director Espinosa during the numerous gun fights within the confines and corridors of the house. Bloody and brutal at times with accomplished central performances from Washington, Reynolds and Gleeson, I rather enjoyed Safe House five years on from my first watching of it and if you're looking for an albeit minor plot but thrilling and explosive espionage saga, this may be the one for you.

Child 44 (2015)

"I'd rather spend a lifetime in a shit hole like this with you, than a minute in Moscow without you"

"There is no murder in paradise" so says the opening frame of the film and a paraphrased statement from Dictator Joseph Stalin of his post World War Two nation of the Soviet Union. With "murder is strictly a capitalist disease" and "blind obedience" also early statements in an eminently quotable film based on the worldwide best selling novel from Tom Rob Smith, these are also indicative of several of the film's key themes: of blindly following the Communist party line for the greater good, the refusal to accept nefarious characters amongst the populace unless they are traitors to their mother country and there are no murders in the Soviet Union paradise, just mere accidents. All of which is juxtaposed with the reality of human reasoning and instinct, pitting brother against brother, husband against wife and those who refuse to accept the orthodoxy, against the State as a whole. There are numerous interweaving stories throughout Child 44 and running alongside the above noted themes is a prolific and horrific child killer and central to every concurrently running story is "Leo Demidov" (Tom Hardy), a hero of the Soviet Union for his courageous efforts in capturing Nazi Germany's Reichstag Building and flying the Russian flag from it's pinnacle thus announcing the Russian forces seizure of the German city. From the end of the Second World War in 1945 the film quickly moves to the present day in the Soviet Union (Russia) with Demidov now a Commander of Russian State Security tasked with tracking down dissidents and traitors to the communist cause. Hardy, adopting a thick accentuated Russian linguistic brogue is the film's true stand out star in a performance of smouldering, quietly building rage against a system he believes in yet cannot fully understand as he quickly comes face to face with many of the film's early themes, lying to his friend and comrade "Alexei Andreyev" (Fares Fares) over the death of his young son and his refusal to denounce his wife "Raisa Demidov" (Noomi Rapace) as a traitor. Defending the party line of accidental death rather than murder and unable to comprehend his wife as a dissident traitor, Demidov is sent from Moscow and demoted from national hero to a simple Militia in the army. However the violent child killings continue in a similar vein and again going against the socially constructed orthodoxy of there being no murders, only accidental deaths in his homeland, he enlists the help of a resistant Army General "Mikhail Nesterov" (Gary Oldman) to investigate the continuing grisly murders.

Hardy's character (and performance) is the most rounded and drawn of the huge numbers of characters in the film. He has that silent building rage inside him yet a humanistic and compassionate side to his character too and Hardy demonstrates this arc really well throughout the film in a role and performance that continues to be underrated as his career progresses. Rapace too is excellent as his wife Raisa who in a more subtle performance has a character arc that hides her true intentions and beliefs and which develops alongside the film. Gary Oldman has the smaller of the three central roles but gives a thunderous at times portrayal of a somewhat jaded Army General Nesterov. With so many concurrent story lines there are numerous cameo performances from a stellar A-list cast, from Vincent Cassel as "Major Kuzmin", Jason Clarke as "Anatoly Brodsky", a brilliant Paddy Considine as "Vladimir Malevich" however the stand out supporting role falls to Joel Kinnaman as "Vasili Nikitin", a deliberately "cold" and repugnant portrayal of blind obedience to the cause and self importance.

I first saw Child 44 on the opening weekend in 2015 and left the soothing dark confines of my local cinema somewhat befuddled by the numerous narrative strands and from what is, deliberate or otherwise, a very cold film. I have since watched the film a further two times and have warmed to it, pulling the narrative strands together and enjoying far more the background details in the film's set decoration, cinematography and attention to the period details than I did on my first viewing 2 years ago. What continues to impress on repeated viewings is Hardy's brilliant central performance and Rapace and Oldman in stellar support. After these repeat viewings I have one remaining issue with the film and this is the affected accents from a British/European cast of an entirely Russian story. One or two of the accents (particularly Hardy's is full blown and heavy) whereas the majority remain with a much lighter touch. This can take you out and away from the film, especially if the bleak and cold narrative isn't ultimately for you.

Life (2017)

"This is some Re animator shit!"

Currently on a worldwide speaking tour promoting his newest film T2 Trainspotting, Danny Boyle had an interesting take on the creation of a film set in space. Addressing questions on his own 2007 space film Sunshine, Boyle simply stated what an incredibly difficult proposition making a film set in space is and he has immense admiration for any Director who attempts it. This is Daniel Espinosa's "space movie" and for all of it's flaws and overt nods and ideas taken from previous films set in space his creation is one of real enthusiasm, love and film making craft that at only 103 minutes is a romp of a science fiction spectacle and whilst it isn't as accomplished as some of it's contemporaries in recent years doesn't take itself overly seriously, has a balance between light hearted fun and skin crawling horror as well as shining a light on the nature of being a human, of the creation of life itself and of "incontrovertible life beyond earth".

Released nationwide on Friday 24th March I saw Life on opening night after weeks of eager anticipation and 12 hours later I returned to see it all over again, which is a recommendation of sorts. For there is much to admire in this short (by recent cinema standards) film from Espinosa. Initial kudos falls to the Director and his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey who with their swirling and always moving camera capture everything inside and outside of the International Space Station (ISS) brilliantly, with a 360 degree camera movement circling, upside down and forever flowing through the ISS which instantly brought back memories of seeing the Alfonso Cuaron/Emmanuel Lubezki 2013 Oscar winning behemoth Gravity for the first time. The "swimming" nature of the astronauts experiencing weightlessness on board the ISS is brilliantly realised too but what also struck me immediately was the adoption of so many extreme close ups on the six astronauts for this is a very real human story, of life, death and the creation of life itself amid the carnage and scares of the Alien style horror film still to be played out. Espinosa and McGarvey's pin sharp space realisation is beautiful on the big screen.

With a total cast of just 15 characters (plus a space Alien named "Calvin" by students in a remote conversation with the astronauts on the ISS), it is the six astronauts doubling as medical officers, biologists and observers who dominate the screen and Jake Gyllenhaal as Senior Medical Officer "David Jordan" who stars and propels the heart of the film in it's largest and most drawn out role. Gyllenhaal excels with a back story far from the confines of the ISS. With over 470 days on board he is the longest serving member of the crew yet prior to this it's established he was a medical officer serving in Syria and has seen death at first hand numerous times and pointedly laments he prefers life in space and "can't stand what we do to each other down there", meaning life on earth. In a truly international crew aboard the ISS Olga Dihovichnaya plays the Commander of the ISS "Katerina Golovkina" and Hiroyuki Sanada portrays the pilot "Sho Murakami" particularly well, tellingly experiencing the birth of life as he's thousands of miles above the earth from where his daughter is born. Ryan Reynolds brings levity and obscure cultural and film references to the movie in his garrulous role as "Rory Adams" with the last two more substantial roles brilliantly portrayed by Ariyon Bakare as English Biologist "Hugh Derry" and Rebecca Ferguson as Quarantine Officer "Miranda North". Spoilers aside, each character has a back story of sorts, however a minor gripe of the film is these are often superficial or never fully explored.

After eight months of waiting for a probe to return to the ISS with a sample of soil from Mars, this crash lands but successfully docks with the ISS. Through stimuli the sample begins to grow exponentially and with the crew all eagerly looking on (captured brilliantly in extreme close up to build the film's early tension) mistakes are made, Hugh Derry becomes "drunk" on his interactions with the alien life form and soon the idyllic space life that David Jordan and the rest of the crew so thoroughly enjoy becomes a living nightmare as it soon becomes apparent that the stimulated alien is a carbon based life form, requiring oxygen and matter on which to survive.

Life is part Gravity, part Alien, part Event Horizon and there could be an argument made that it's part Planet of the Apes and classic vampire films of the past, for you have to invite a vampire in before he can feed off you, right? Life is skin crawling at times and shock horror at others and whilst the ending is telegraphed many minutes before this 103 minute science fiction thriller reaches its denouement it's a fun ride that doesn't quite match up to it's constituent parts.


No comments:

Post a Comment