★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Christopher Smith takes elements of classic noir pictures and modernizes it in his clever, sometimes exciting, thriller “Detour,” about a law student named Harper (Tye Sheridan) who finds himself embroiled in a murder after becoming convinced that his stepfather (Stephen Moyer) has planned his mother’s car accident which resulted to her ending up in a coma. Although the film might have improved by undergoing more polishing, it remains consistently entertaining as it gives way for us to reevaluate its characters just when we are convinced we completely understand the archetypes they embody.
One of its more intelligent choices involves the story being split into two. While out drowning his sorrows in booze, Harper meets Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), a thug who does certain… favors—for a fee. Our protagonist shares his thoughts of wanting to teach his stepfather a lesson. Notice how the camera inches closer to the characters’ faces as the decision on whether or not to kill the husband under suspicion grows ever closer between the two young men. The next morning, Johnny Ray shows up on Harper’s front door. We then follow two strands: 1) Harper joining Johnny Ray as they head to Vegas to carry out their plans and 2) Harper turning down Johnny Ray’s offer and deciding to stay home.
The dialogue almost always commands a sharpness to it. It can be described as Tarantino-lite in that attitude slowly bubbles to a boil from underneath the surface. Even when a character shifts on his seat while saying nothing actually says something. An observation I have about movies aimed toward modern audiences is that its characters tend to lack ways of communicating other than through words. Here, silence and body language are utilized to get the audience to consider that perhaps a character, or characters, is planning a course of action outside of what has been decided already.
Although its look is nothing special, there are instances where bright colors are employed to make certain objects stand out. For instance, Harper’s yellow-cream jacket, the flowery red designs on Cherry’s shorts (Bel Powley), the sudden patch of yellow hair after Paul (Jared Abrahamson), Harper’s best friend, spends the weekend dropping acid. It would have added a layer of detail if each character sported a certain color, a way for us to cull information about these characters or what role they may end up playing in the story. Providing deep substance is not the screenplay’s strong suit.
Neo-noir “Detour” is stylish, energetic, and it moves like lightning. Although the writing could have done a better job in smoothing out details once certain story aspects are unveiled, nearly every performance is highly watchable and the control from behind the camera creates a level of engaging tension despite the picture’s sunny desert look.
★ / ★★★★
Kate (Franka Potente) was supposed to go to a party with a friend, but as it turned out, the friend left without Kate. Although she was disappointed that she didn’t have company, Kate decided to go by herself because meeting George Clooney at a party was too epic to give a pass. In order to get there, however, she had to use the London subway. With five more minutes until the last train arrived, Kate fell asleep on the platform. When she woke up, everybody was gone and she found herself locked inside the station. Written and directed by Christopher Smith, “Creep” used every cliché in the horror manual and beat us over the head with it, creating a very frustrating and maddening experience. When Kate woke up from her alcohol-induced nap, we were forced to observe her running around in her stilettos, banging on metallic gates, and screaming for help. It was interminable; for girl who was supposedly used to city life, I got the impression she didn’t know anything. I was at a loss on why she insisted on looking for a security guard after Guy (Jeremy Sheffield), a lascivious acquaintance from work who followed her to the subway, tried to rape her. Why didn’t she just pull the fire alarm so hunky firefighters, eager cops, and charming medics would come running for her assistance? When she eventually found Guy covered in blood because someone or something attacked him, Kate’s expression more or less remained the same. The director should have taken his actor aside and asked her to exaggerate a bit more. If she still couldn’t pull it off, another actor should have been called on set. Allowing the camera to keep recording was a bad decision. Ultimately, one of the main reasons why the rising action did not work was because of the dearth of variation in Potente’s acting. When something appeared from the darkness, naturally, she screamed. She screamed rather well, but it wasn’t enough. Considering that the camera focused on her face for the majority of the time, when she saw something from afar or when she had to look down from a certain height, because her performance was so one-note, I didn’t feel like I was stuck in the subway with her nor did I feel like she was genuinely terrorized. Another reason for the picture’s lack of tension was the poor screenplay. The villain (Sean Harris) was not at all interesting. Although it hinted at the terrorizer’s past using pictures and babies in jars, it left us nothing but vague glimpses. There was no way for us to put the pieces together in a way that made sense because there was a plethora of missing information. The audience could put them together several different ways but they wouldn’t explain why he felt the needed to kidnap people on the subway and sewers and kept them in cages. There was one very ugly scene when the villain held a saw and thrusted it in a woman’s groin. Since there was no background for the violence, I found it exploitative, shot for mere shock value. It was a cheap shot to scare us. It didn’t scare me. I was just disgusted.
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.