Black Death (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) was a young Christian monk who decided to go with Ulrich (Sean Bean), the envoy to the bishop, and his men (Emun Elliott, Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Tygo Gernandt, John Lynch) to guide them in reaching a village surrounded by a marsh beyond the Dentwich Forest. It was a place of special interest because word went around that a necromancer had taken control of the area. The heretic was to be apprehended and sent to the bishop for trial and execution. Based on the screenplay by Dario Poloni, “Black Death” was a gripping gothic horror with a supernatural premise on top of the Bubonic Plague backdrop. Since no one understood the science of vectors and disease, people surmised that the pestilence was an act of God, a way for Him to purge away the sins of His people. As the film got deeper into the mystery involving a person being capable of raising the dead, it was interesting to observe the way the men’s faith was challenged. Of particular interest was Osmund, torn between his devotion to his religion and being with a woman (Kimberley Nixon) he loved. Being a monk, he had to choose one or the other. The changes that occurred within each character, not all of them given enough time to get to know by the audience, had variation and maintained a certain level of subtlety. What was straightforward, however, was the physical journey that the men took toward the village. When the group stopped, they faced some sort of death. The standout was a battle among thieves in the forest. The violence was gruesome–throats were sliced, swords went through torsos, arms were torn off completely–but somehow it never felt gratuitous. I got the impression that we actually needed to see how fierce the men were so that later on, when they eventually had to face something so monstrous and they cowered like children, we had an understanding of their fears. The village in question was very curious. Since it was unexpectedly peaceful, the director, Christopher Smith, milked certain looks given by its residents. Hob (Tim McInnerny) was obviously the alpha male, his voice commanding and stature very proud. Langiva (Carice van Houten) was also worthy of suspicion. Her blonde hair which complemented her very pale complexion probably concealed a very dark evil. The abandoned church, given Christianity’s influence back in the day, was a good signal that something wasn’t quite right. There was one detail that didn’t make sense to me. After finding out about the unused place of worship, why did the men continue to trust the villagers by eating their food and drinking their wine? It felt like a plot convenience, a weak set-up so that the men from the outside would lose their advantage. It was a surprise to me because prior to that point, the material did a great job in circumventing eye-rolling clichés. Nevertheless, “Black Death” was very atmospheric, especially the sequences when the men had to wade through the marsh, and offered engaging performances, particularly by Redmayne. The movie worked because it sacrificed cheap scares for more thoughtful denouements.
Angel Heart (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a private detective from Brooklyn, was hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a man named Johnny Favorite. For $5,000, Harry took the job. All clues pointed to Louisiana where some people were believed to practice witchcraft. However, every person who divulged information about Johnny’s whereabouts were eventually murdered in a gruesome fashion. Some of the dead bodies included a doctor (Michael Higgins), a psychic (Charlotte Rampling), and a musician (Brownie McGhee). Based on a novel by William Hjortsberg, “Angel Heart” was like watching a confused animal move from one side of the room to another. It was interesting because of the dark atmosphere that surrounded the mystery but it didn’t have enough rewards to keep us guessing. While murders consisted of bucket-loads of blood on the floor and on the walls, we felt no attachment to any of the characters because Harry didn’t spend enough time with them. The theme of the picture was a man suddenly forced into a world that was, to say the least, strange to him. He wasn’t aware of less popular religions so he feared people who practiced them. He claimed he was just a man from Brooklyn. We also learned his quirks which included an oral fixation and the wave of anxiety he felt when he was around chickens. He was an enigma because he had kind eyes but he kept himself from a distance. Even the girl named Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet) with whom he eventually fell for was kept at arm’s length. The picture’s strongest asset was the performances. Rourke was charismatic but he possessed a quiet danger. When chased by thugs and questioned by cops, he had a certain way of defending himself and answering questions without giving much away. There was chemistry between Rourke and Bonet. Their sex scene, though graphic, was magnetic. I would say it was the highlight of the film. De Niro wasn’t given many scenes but he made the most of it. His character was one-dimensional, a snide leer here and there, but he relished every word and emotion to the point where we believed that maybe he was up to something devious. Directed by Alan Parker, I wish “Angel Heart” wasn’t so predictable. I correctly guessed who the evasive Johnny Favorite was and where he was located about half-way through the film. I’m afraid audiences with a keen eye for mystery would most likely pick up the red herrings too quickly, come to a conclusion, and then lose interest. Unfortunately, a multi-layered mood and consistently solid acting weren’t enough to keep it afloat.
The Thing (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.
The Ghost Writer (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from Robert Harris’ novel, Ewan McGregor played a ghostwriter who was hired to help complete an ex-British prime minister’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoir. Suspecting that something wasn’t quite right in the former British prime minister’s stories compared to what was said by the media and those around him, The Ghost did an investigation of his own which led him to endanger his life. Directed by the controversial Roman Polanski, what I liked most about the film was the director’s ability to take material that we’ve seen before concerning the dangers of politics and inject just the right mood and pacing to create something quietly sinister. I must admit that I did not immediately understand what was going on because it felt as though the protagonist was thrusted onto an island where he had barely any idea what he was doing or why he was really there. He tried to convince himself that he was there for an assignment (with great pay) but his instincts made him question until he couldn’t bear his curiosity any longer. The characters such as the former prime minister’s lead assistant (Kim Cattrall, whom I would love to see more in serious roles), wife (Olivia Williams), and even the housekeeper made me feel uneasy so I could not help but suspect them of hiding something key that might lead to the big revelation. Another interesting layer was the question of whether The Ghost was really on an assignment involving politics, or personal revenge, or possibly both. The questions were difficult to answer and the answers were vague. But I liked the fact that the movie chose to challenge its audience by allowing us to read between the lines. Since the real answers were elusive, we couldn’t help but question whether our protagonist was truly on the right track in terms of solving the mystery or whether he was merely putting together random information and forcing himself to make sense of them. “The Ghost Writer” thrived on subtlety and often reminded me of the underrated “Breach” directed by Billy Ray. Like that film, what kept the film together was not the extended action scenes but the strong acting and constantly evolving atmosphere. Perhaps I am giving the movie too much credit but I did notice some references to noir pictures in the 1940s, the most obvious one being Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” My only minor complaint was I hoped Polanski used Tom Wilkinson a lot more. Wilkinson managed to do so much with how little he was given and it would have been interesting to see how much more he could have turned the main character’s life upside down if he had been given more material.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Mark Polish and Michael Polish, “Northfork” told the story of a community in Montana forced to be uprooted from their homes because the area that they lived in would soon be underwater. Six men (James Woods, Graham Beckel, Josh Barker, Peter Coyote, Jon Gries, Rick Overton) were assigned to persuade the residents to move out of their homes by any means necessary. On the other side of the spectrum, a dying child (Duel Farnes) was dropped off to an orpanage by his parents to be in the hands of a priest (Nick Nolte). In the child’s mind, the child tried to persuade ghosts (Daryl Hannah, Robin Sachs, Ben Foster, Anthony Edwards) that he was an angel and therefore they should take him with them when they leave Northfork. I love the fact that the film and was not really about anything; there was a plot but there was no story yet it was such a pleasure to watch. The way it played with the atmospheric images of the landscape to match the very eccentric characters somehow moved me. Even though there were times when the scenes with the six men did not completely work for me because some of the humor were not easily accessible, I couldn’t help but appreciate those scenes because of the creative visual puns. For me, the stronger scenes were the ones focused on the dying child. I was on the verge of tears when I thought about how his parents just left him to die because it was more convenient for them and how desperate he was leave the world of the living. There was a nice contrast between how alive he was in his mind and how weak he was in the “real” world which made the experience all the more touching. My favorite aspect of the film was the fact that it was very open to interpretation. I saw it as a story of loss and renewal. The residents may be losing the comfortable world they lived in but outside their comfort zones is a possibility of a better life. The boy may be losing his life but the result might offer a world where he need not be abandoned. “Northfork,” directed by Michael Polish, is a challenging picture. Less thoughtful audiences may be quick to judge and claim that nothing happened and therefore it wasn’t a worthwhile experience. Others may argue that it borderlines insularity. I may agree to an extent but I thought it worked because it captured the mindsets of residents living in a small town. I admired the ambitious philosophical questions it raised. I just wished it had more scenes when the camera would pull into a wide shot and showcase the breathtaking landscapes that were about to be erased.
★★ / ★★★★
Written, directed and starring Nuri Bildge Ceylan, “Iklimer or “Climates,” was about a couple (Ceylan and his real-life wife Ebru Ceylan) who decided to break up during a holiday because they felt as though they were drifting apart despite the suggested happy years they’ve spent together. The film was divided into three parts: the break-up, the lead character’s wandering as a single man and his reconnection with a former flame (Nazan Kirilmis) and a reunion with the love of his life. This Turkish film was obviously not intended for general audiences because there were many minutes where nothing was said and pretty much the whole film had this languid tone. However, I thought that the tone fitted this picture because it reflected the characters: no one knew what they wanted but they just yearned to move on because dealing with the main problem was too painful. I also thought the silences were just right because it really highlighted the awkward moments in the conversations that eventually led up to disagreements and arguments. However, the major problem I had with this film was it didn’t spend enough time trying to understand the female lead. That very first scene got me hooked because one minute she was happy but when she decided to sit down and really thought about the situation she was in, she wanted to break down. I wanted to know the reasons why she couldn’t handle it anymore and why she stayed in the relationship for so long. Being “in love” was too simple an explanation and there were implications that were never really in love–they simply enjoyed each other’s company, like being around one’s best friend or a very nice roommate. Instead, we saw the story from the man’s perspective, which I thought wasn’t very interesting. (Sorry, guys.) The way he met up with his other lover was particuarly amusing to me, especially that aggressive sex scene. I wasn’t exactly sure if it was supposed to be funny but I laughed and I thought it was a good change of tone considering all the sadness that was happening on screen. What this film needed was more focus regarding that special connection between the former couple. With such a slow-moving film that felt longer than its running time of about a hundred minutes, focusing on the problem at hand could’ve done wonders instead of wearing out the audiences’ patience with silly sidequests. I saw moments of greatness in “Climates” when it came to the inspiring images regarding the various seasons. It’s definitely not for everyone but I somewhat enjoyed the slow burn (in parts) of this Turkish film.
★★ / ★★★★
Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell in “Moon,” written and directed by Duncan Jones, an astronaut who was sent on the moon by a company to gather precious gas that could solve the Earth’s energy crisis. Excitement came over him as soon as he realized that his three-year contract was about to expire in two weeks. However, his positive energy was quickly doused when he started hearing and seeing things that he wasn’t supposed to. I can’t help but feel very disappointed in this film because I saw so much potential in it. The feel of the picture very much felt like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but I appreciated the fact that it tried to bring something new to the table with regards to man’s relationship with machine (the super-computer named GERTY voiced by Kevin Spacey). I hate saying this about science fiction movies in general but I’m going to: it just didn’t feel real. I’m not talking about the visuals (which wasn’t that inspiring), I’m talking about how everything started to play out. For instance, when Sam realized that there was a clone of himself walking around, his reaction was very underwhelming. I don’t know about you but if I saw a copy of myself without my prior knowledge of its existence, I would freak out, throw things at it and attack it in every way possible (basically act like a crazy person) to get the upperhand. I won’t just sit there and play nice with it, especially when the copy is trying to bully me around. I also had a problem with its pacing. For a film that’s supposed to be full of wonder, mystery and surprising twists, it felt strangely stagnant. Once the clone was revealed, there wasn’t much to drive the story forward. Even their interactions weren’t really that interesting except that they seemed to have opposite personalities. The second twist regarding Sam’s life on Earth was sad but ultimately empty because I didn’t care that much about Sam. I agree with critics and audiences that it was eerie and atmospheric but that’s about it. I don’t see it as being a classic because the elements it tried to tackle weren’t fully realized. “Moon” felt like the SparkNotes version of a really dense material full of complex story arcs and mythologies. And it certainly didn’t have that wow-factor that could be found in sci-fi greats.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El espinazo del diablo” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” written and directed Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), was about a newcomer in an orphanage named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) and the dark secrets that were about to unfold during his short stay. I love the fact that the film started off trying to define what a ghost was. When the proposed definitions seemed unfit, it jumped into the story and actually showed us what a ghost could be. Of course, by the end of the picture, it was astute enough to let the audiences define for themselves what a ghost was after we’ve seen the events that happened in the orphanage. The three main adults in the story set in the middle of the Spanish Civil War included a lady with a prosthetic leg (Marisa Paredes), a doctor (Federico Luppi), and a caretaker (Eduardo Noriega). Stuck in the orphanage for so long during the war, tension begins to arise and secrets begin to mount among the three. Caught in the middle of it all were the children such as Carlos and Jaime–as one of the tougher older kids with a secret (Íñigo Garcés) involving a ghost named Santi (Junio Valverde). The organic manner in which all of the various elements came together and the extremely atmospheric orphanage was exemplary. By that I mean that the shadows in the backdrop looked alive and haunting even if the focus was supposed to be on a character’s facial expression as he discovers something morbid or shocking. I admired del Toro’s use of foreshadowing involving a missile that landed but never exploded though that event marked the day where everything changed. Each scene had some kind of purpose which began to make more and more sense as the film progressed. I also liked that half of this film was more of a supernatural thriller with elements of mystery and the other half was a story of survival. The director balanced the tone so well that each half complimented each other and ended up with a work that was touching, heartpounding and quite clever. There were certain shots in this picture that stood out to me. One of them was whenever the camera was fixated on a character’s face in a close-up as something terrible happened, the lens would zoom out and show a beautiful and peaceful background. Even though techniques like that stood out to me, it never distracted me from the film. In fact, it enhanced my experience because the events that transpired in “The Devil’s Backbone” often had a silver lining. I saw this film back in 2002 or 2003, liked it, forgotten about it, and since then became a sleeper hit. I’m not surprised at all because it was so well done. There’s still a lot of people out there that haven’t seen the movie and they really should because it takes ghost stories on a new level.