Hostel: Part II (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Affluent Beth (Lauren German), debbie-downer Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and brassy Whitney (Bijou Phillips), American art students in Italy, decided to go on a trip around Europe over the weekend for some relaxation. While on the train, one of the models (Vera Jordanova) they had the pleasure of sketching just hours prior recommended a gorgeous must-visit hot springs in Slovakia. It seemed too good to refuse so the trio happily accepted. Little did the girls know that just minutes after they checked into a hostel, there was an auction, held by Elite Hunting, a murder-for-profit group, in which rich men bid on women where the winner could do whatever he wanted with his winnings. Written and directed by Eli Roth, I give a little bit of credit to “Hostel: Part II” because it tried to do something different from its predecessor. Instead of focusing solely on the would-be victims, it actually spent some time with the men who wanted to experience something they’d never forget. Todd (Richard Burgi) was gung-ho about killing something with his hands while Stuart (Roger Bart) was more reluctant. The way Todd and Stuart talked about committing an act of unimaginable violence to another human being was disturbing because certain phrases they uttered, like a joke or a snide remark, reflected an underlying struggle in attempting to make their victims less human. For instance, while sitting in the car on their way to the torture factory, Stuart asked his friend if he thought what they were doing was sick. Todd answered the question as one would express strong dislike toward a certain type of food. Furthermore, the picture allowed us to peek inside the business. We saw the important figures who made the negotiations when something went wrong. We discovered some of the requirements stated in the contract if one chose to be a part of Elite Hunting. We also learned that certain rules were allowed to be broken for the right price. Although it had potential to be a good sequel because it strived to expand its universe, the film just wasn’t good enough. Because there weren’t enough scenes dedicated to Todd, Stuart, and their relationship with the business, watching it all unfold was like observing a drowning person: an occasional gasp of air came hand-in-hand with its desperation to keep afloat. For the sake of so-called suspense, the material had a natural tendency to relegate to the three girls trying to run away from the burly bad guys in leather yet we knew all along that they had no chance of outrunning them. That was a crucial difference between this film and its predecessor. Part of the fun of “Hostel” was we actually believed that Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who made an appearance here, was able to escape despite his odds. There was technique, tension, and, most importantly, humor, in the manner in which he had to camouflage with the environment to avoid being detected. In here, a character ran into the forest and we expected her to trip. And she did. Lastly, I was especially sickened with the scene in which an adult pointed his gun on several children’s heads. One of them was shot in the face. But for what? Some could argue that the adult intended to teach a lesson. I argue it was for mere shock value. It felt cheap. “Hostel: Part II” was plagued with boring protagonists and lackluster execution. I wanted to find dark humor in its extreme nature but I ended up just sitting in my chair, depressed with all that was happening.
Kill List (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), ex-soldiers, were experiencing financial difficulty because Jay hadn’t worked in months due to his back. After a dinner party turned into a verbal battlefield between the husband and wife, Gal (Michael Smiley) informed Jay about a contract job that paid a solid sum. Jay, desperate to keep his household together, accepted. Fiona (Emma Fryer), meanwhile, talked to Shel about her son (Harry Simpson) and her prospect about having kids. “Kill List,” written by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, was a fine fusion of thriller and horror where many details were purposefully vague. As questions plagued our minds, the three title cards, “The Priest,” “The Librarian,” and “The M.P.,” that took over the screen were the only certainty, signifying the three people that Jay and Gal were assigned to kill in which the reasons were unknown to them. But they didn’t need to; what was important was the money. At times, the picture’s abstruse nature worked for itself. For example, one of the persons they had to kill had a prodigiously negative impact on Jay’s psychology. Instead of being a professional and going for the easy and clean kill, he lost his temper and went on a violent, gory rampage. Even Gal, seemingly no stranger to murder-for-profit, had to look away. Though we didn’t know exactly what Jay saw in the videotape that pushed him over the edge (although we were able to hear sounds), it probably had something to do with what happened back then that traumatized him as a soldier. At its best, the mystery piqued my curiosity. It forced me to look closer on how the characters reacted to dialogue and the things they experienced through sight and sound. However, at times, its secrecy was frustrating. As Jay descended into madness, which conflicted with his motivation to be a good husband and father, not enough of our questions were answered. What did the client (Struan Rodger) have against the three men? What was so special about Jay and his family that they had to go through dark twists in the latter quarter of the film? We deserved to be informed because we put time into watching the story unfold. By not answering some of our key questions, the movie felt shallow. Eventually, I got the impression that it had a great idea of making a hybrid of two genres but the writers didn’t quite know how or they were too lazy to piece information together. Ultimately, the project felt like a gimmick rather an a compelling story worth sitting through and thinking about. Directed by Ben Wheatley, “Kill List” benefited greatly from good performances. I enjoyed the contrast between the ugliness of marriage when things were tough and the macho friendship between Jay and Gal even when things were tough. Since those two aspects felt real, I cared when they were challenged. If only I was able to say the same about the nightmarish spiral down the rabbit hole.
★★★ / ★★★★
Locked out from their hostel because of curfew, Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) were invited by Alex (Lubomír Bukový) into his room and recommended that they go to Bratislava, Slovakia if they wanted women who were willing to have sex. In need of no further convincing, the trio took the train and checked into a pretty nice hostel in which they had to share the room with Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova). They were well-endowed so the guys more than welcomed the situation. After the first night of flirting, drinking, and dancing in a club, Oli was nowhere to be found in the morning. Unbeknownst to the American backpackers, the girls were hired by a murder-for-profit group to lure them into unconsciousness only to wake up in a dungeon full of sharp tools. Written and directed by Eli Roth, “Hostel” was overwhelmingly violent even though there were only two scenes that featured torture. Two was more than enough and they were shot with incredible realism. I felt like I was there in that room and anticipated things to go very wrong and very bloody. The horror and suspense came in when the masked person about to inflict pain held up his cold instrument of choice and decided which body part he was to make contact first. As the characters screamed to the top of their lungs, vomited, and begged to be released, I wanted to look away because of the violence yet, at the same time, I was desperate to see how or if the characters could extricate themselves out of their predicament. That’s why I enjoyed the film: There was always a possibility that the characters, even though they weren’t exactly model citizens, could get away and exact revenge. Sure, they did drugs, engaged in casual hook-ups, and had a lack of respect for the locals, but not one of them deserved to be tied up in a chair and mutilated in any way. Furthermore, the picture was not devoid of a dark sense of humor and genuinely sad moments. When Paxton accidentally dropped two of his excised fingers while playing dead, he had to quickly reach for them with his three remaining fingers before the butcher, busy chopping up limbs, turned around. I was tickled with the fact that Paxton was desperate enough to keep his two fingers when what was at stake was his life. The butcher must’ve been three times his size. If he got caught, it would surely be over for him. And then there was Josh, pressured by his friend to travel all over Europe to have sex with as many women as possible. He was a closet homosexual, possibly bisexual, and there was sensitivity in his interactions with a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasák) while in sitting in the bar. If Josh and Paxton were so close, why not just tell him the truth? Surely Paxton, if he were to look closely, could have recognized the signs. “Hostel” consistently embodied a menacing atmosphere that became more apparent and potent as the story unfolded. I watched in terror and disgust through my fingers, very thankful to have every single one of them.
Final Destination 5 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of co-workers were on their way to a retreat that would supposedly help them become a better team. But when Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) was somehow able to see the future involving the collapse of the suspension bridge their bus was on as well as the deaths of his colleagues, he grabbed his girlfriend, Molly (Emma Bell), got off the vehicle in a panic, and a walked away from the impending disaster. Gymnast Candice (Ellen Wroe), lubricious Isaac (P.J. Byrne), myopic Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), patient Nathan (Arien Escarpeta), whistleblower Dennis (David Koechner), and mercurial Peter (Miles Fisher) followed paranoid Sam to safety. Sure enough, the survivors, dubbed “Lucky 8” by the news, started to die in the order in which they were supposed to on that bridge. Written by Eric Heisserer and Jeffrey Reddick, “Final Destination 5” was like its other sequels with one scintillating detail. Bludworth (Tony Todd), a recurring character in the series as a mysterious coroner, informed Sam and his friends on how to quench Death’s thirst. With this knowledge in mind, we got to observe, at least in the latter half of the film, how the characters turned against each other, as well as possibly forcing strangers into the mix, because they wanted to live. Yet even when we were presented with a solution, the execution wasn’t strong enough. This could be partly attributed to a weakly established protagonist with a motivation as shallow as a dog’s. After each death scene, the picture relegated to the hackneyed romance between Sam and Molly. During the first scene, the Molly broke up with Sam. Naturally, the latter was very confused because, at least from his point of view, everything seemed to be going well. Later, we came to discover that she felt she needed to break the relationship for Sam. It turned out that her ex-boyfriend was offered an internship as a chef in Paris, but he wouldn’t accept it if Molly was to remain in America. The romance was not only a sophomoric attempt to get us to care, such scenes slowed down the picture’s momentum immensely. They were good at pouting and giving each other puppy dog eyes but none of these qualities contributed to the horror and the suspense. Why must there always be a couple fighting for their love in just about every other horror movie? If it’s not necessary, it’s an easy way to fill up the minutes with junk. What I wanted to see were more scenes that built up to one character inevitably meeting his or her grizzly demise. There was a dark sense of humor in the deaths. I especially liked the massage parlor with the acupuncture needles and the LASIK surgery scenes. They got under my skin, in a good way, because I have a fear of allowing someone else, like a masseuse or an eye surgeon, to be in charge of my body. Range was also present. Some deaths were quick and painless (only appearing to be painful with all that blood on the floor) while some were slow and almost unimaginable. Directed by Steven Quale, “Final Destination 5” was forebodingly formulaic but the deaths contained enough imagination. If the romance was completely excised in place of the main character actually doing something relevant to stay alive, it would have been more exciting.
Shark Night (2011)
★ / ★★★★
A group of college students (Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Chris Zylka, Sinqua Walls, Alyssa Diaz, Katharine McPhee, Joel David Moore) visited a lake house in Louisiana for some fun in the sun after finals. One of them, Sara (Paxton), was from the area but she left her hometown three years ago and never went back. Her friends thought it was strange how Sarah, in all the years they’ve known her, never became intimate or even hooked up with a guy. Meanwhile, the barely clothed undergraduates, gleefully playing in the lake, were unaware that the water was infested with sharks. “Shark Night,” based on the screenplay by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg, lacked the courage to come off as completely ludicrous. If it had been more confident, it could have worked as a parody or even a satire. From its first scene involving a topless girl who had to search for her swimsuit in the water, it was obvious that the material wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. The shark attack lasted for about three seconds of choppy editing and it wasn’t scary in the least. While a handful death scenes, aided by CGI, were rather neat, the few seconds prior to the characters’ deaths felt almost like wasted time. There was no patience from behind the camera prior and during the attacks. The formula was this: The camera would go underwater and about five seconds later, someone screamed out of pain. Sometimes having a character just pulled from underwater by a very strong shark and its victim never having to scream for help could work just as effectively or even more so. Let the camera linger for about five seconds on the surface of the water. Doing so would give us a chance to observe waves created out of panic turn into utter quiescence–an illusion that a shark attack never happened. Moreover, the movie could have benefited from more extreme typecasting. For instance, Nick (Milligan) was supposed to be the geek who wanted to become a doctor. He had his MCAT coming up but the only reason he decided to come with was because he pined for Sara. They knew each other through other friends but he lacked bravado to ask her out on a simple date. He didn’t think he was good enough for her. Yet without his glasses, he looked like another jock who should have all the confidence in the world. How were we supposed to believe that he had something to prove? The one character I found most interesting was Blake (Zylka), the blonde Adonis obsessed with fake tanning. He wasn’t especially smart, even self-absorbed at times, but when tragedy struck, it turned out he was the most sensitive and relatable. Having a final girl, which inevitably just had to be Sara because it was her hometown, was anticlimactic and frustrating because the character wasn’t established as strongly as she should have been. As a rule of thumb, for horror movies that require a “final girl,” the protagonist has to be someone we will be behind no matter what. Sara wasn’t that person. Ironically, it was Blake. It could have been an excellent twist if the writers had been more aware of and fleshed out the inconsistencies in their screenplay. Directed by David R. Ellis, “Shark Night” was tame compared to other bloodfests like Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha.” It wasn’t even as fun.
Cold Fish (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) was caught shoplifting by a store manager, he called her father, Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and stepmother, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), before calling the police. But when Murata (Denden), the store manager’s friend who happened to be on the same tropical fish business as Syamoto, came barging in the office to brag about his gigantic rare fish, he persuaded that the police needn’t be involved. Syamoto and his family were very grateful, but Murata wasn’t as generous a man he seemed. Behind his fish business, he and his wife, Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), murdered people for money. Written by Shion Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi, “Tsumetai nettaigyo,” also known as “Cold Fish,” was an exercise on how a family, through a paternal figure, needed to be shaken up by horrific events in hopes of breaking out of their rut. Mitsuko was a wild teen who didn’t have an ounce of respect for her parents. She beat her stepmother without remorse and considered her father as a joke. Hoping that she’d change for the better, it was no wonder her guardians agreed for Mitsuko, equipped with free room and board, to work for Murata. The father was partly to blame. He was too lenient. If I was a teenager and got caught stealing from a store, my parents would throw a fit. When Murata allowed Mitsuko off the hook, there was not one scene where the father attempted to discuss with his daughter why what she did was unacceptable. We should be disturbed by that lack of proper parenting. The filmmakers made sure that the family drama was deeply rooted in reality before diving into the excess of gore, perversity, and dark comedy. The murders and step-by-step ways to make a person “invisible” didn’t leave much for the imagination. Once the victim had been poisoned, he was taken to a remote location, a shack next to a church, to be chopped into manageable pieces. Red liquid flooded the bathroom floor like sickness, organs were everywhere, and body parts that were still whole glistened in morbidity. However, it was mostly done in a comedic way. For instance, a silly, playful music would play in the background as someone desperately gasped for air. Close-up of the Aiko devoid of reaction, almost somnolent, because she’d seen a man struggle for his life more than she could count. As Syamoto was forced to dispose human meat in the size of chicken nuggets by the river, Murata would enthusiastically say things like, “You’re doing a good job!” and “The fish will be happy!” Shion Sono, the director, paired violence with sex. The physical act meant differently for each character. For instance, Taeko considered it a way to escape her miserable marriage while Aiko held it a symbol for being wanted. I admired “Cold Fish” most because I felt like it wasn’t restrained by anything. It was able to make a statement, with clarity, about how we live and the powerful elements that influence, consciously or otherwise, our decisions. It was a lesson in responsibility.
Shallow Ground (2004)
★ / ★★★★
When a boy, naked and covered in blood, appeared at the police station with a knife, the three officers (Timothy V. Murphy, Stan Kirsch, Lindsey Stoddart) in charge of the small town suspected he had committed murder. But when a medic (Natalie Avital) looked at the blood sample, she discovered that the blood had come from three or four different people and the cells had been dead for about a year. “Shallow Ground,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, was a horror movie that made no sense. It didn’t know whether to be a slasher film or a supernatural thriller; it ended up a hybrid of both but the story was too weak to sustain our attention. There were hints that the events that were happening in the small town were happening in the city as well. Was there some kind of virus that plagued certain areas? Maybe the strange events were triggered by something alien like in George A. Romero’s zombie flicks. Instead of taking advantage of our curiosity and exploring that angle, there was a barrage of painfully unnecessary flashbacks involving a girl that one of the cops failed to rescue from a hooded, knife-wielding killer. One or two flashbacks would have sufficed but there were about ten. None of them served to push the story forward. The writer-director just wanted to hammer the fact that the cop was plagued by guilt and that was the reason we should root for him to survive. Furthermore, the picture relied too often on false alarms aided by its obnoxious music. Due to its formulaic use of scary music, we grew accustomed to its techniques. We knew exactly when something would pop out of the dark corner so there was no tension in the kills. The eerie whispers, rustling leaves, doors opening and shutting were simply not scary. The movie also tried to scare us with blood. It was almost amusing how much blood was used to the point where I managed to put them in groups. One type of blood was the kind that moved as if it had a mind of its own. It reminded me of the very inspired Black Oil saga from Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” When touched, it gave someone a jolt and the person was able to see another’s darkest secrets. It helped to drive people to kill “the sinner.” The second type of blood was, like the film’s pacing, stagnant. It did no harm to the person who happened to touch it. I called it “regular blood.” Both types looked incredibly fake and neither generated scares. Weren’t the filmmakers aware of the fact that blood by itself didn’t necessarily equal to a good horror movie? Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was scary because the shark ate people and then we could see blood in the water. Blood was a byproduct of something horrific, not the element that caused the terror. “Shallow Ground” failed because it tried to be too many things at once. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Eden Lake (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by James Watkins, Steven (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly) decided to retreat to the country for a weekend of relaxation. Steven chose the place because his last visit gave him fond memories of stunning landscape and invaluable peace. But nothing was like as he remembered it. There were now gates that surrounded the area to keep people away and sociopathic teenagers scoured the vicinity. When the hoodlums, led by Brett (Jack O’Connell), stole the couple’s car, a prank turned toward a deadly route. “Eden Lake” drained every bit of energy I had because I was so desperate for the couple to escape and find their way home. Although the picture was realistic in terms of its violence, it did not glorify it. We were meant to be sickened by the teenagers’ increasingly bad decisions and maddened by the fact that none of them voiced out that what they were doing was immoral. When some of them decided to stand up to Brett, they quivered and their resistance didn’t last for long. Although a one-dimensional character, O’Connell did a wonderful job in portraying a very troubled individual. Rash and incredibly ruthless, we rooted for the moments where he made mistakes and wished that one of his errors would lead to his downfall. We didn’t need to know his life at home or if he was bulled in the past. What mattered was the decisions he made that changed the lives of those around him. It was compelling because not only was the kids’ and the couple’s situation scary, it was also very sad. Jenny, a nursery school teacher, was essentially put into a situation where she had to reevaluate her connection with the young. We left to wonder what we would do if we were in the same situation. Personally, if someone is trying to kill me, good luck to them because gender and age become irrelevant. However, there were some pieces that bothered me. For instance, when Steven, prior to being captured, told Jenny to ask for help: What did she decide to do? She hid in the bushes, slept it off, and didn’t even look for help until morning arrived. In a life or death situation, I am convinced that no one will be able to sleep. It may be dark and the person may be tired but if I was in her shoes, I would have ran until I saw civilization. Even then I wouldn’t trust the people who decided to help because the kids had to live somewhere nearby. Despite the material’s occasional lack of common sense, I enjoyed it because it was successful in generating tension and holding onto it until the payoff. “Eden Lake” knew the difference between suspense and thrill. It was suspenseful when we were left squirming in our seats and wondering if our protagonists were going to get caught. It was thrilling when Character A was running from Character B and the latter knew exactly which direction the former was heading. The best scenes were the ones where I felt chill running up and down my spine.
Red Hill (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) and his pregnant wife (Claire van der Boom) decided to move in a place where she could get some peace and quiet in order to keep her blood pressure under control. They moved to Red Hill, a small town whose inhabitants were very protective of their land. Incidentally, Shane’s first day as a police offer became his worst nightmare when a known murderer named Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) escaped from prison. It turned out Shane making a good impression on Old Bill (Steve Bisley), his superior, should be the least of his worries. Jimmy, with half of his face burnt which made him look like a serial killer in an ’80s slasher flick, made it his goal to assassinate Red Hill’s police officers one by one. Written and directed by Patrick Hughes, I found “Red Hill” to be entirely predictable. As a moviegoer with a critical eye for character development and understanding their motivations, I quickly figured out the picture’s major twist fifteen minutes into the killing spree. I surmised that the lawmen did Jimmy wrong in the past when the escaped inmate showed a soft spot for Shane. I didn’t know exactly what had transpired to make Jimmy hell-bent on taking bloody revenge but when the cards were laid out for us, it felt painfully ordinary. When Jimmy hunted the cops like animals, I thought it was strange that it lacked tension. The murder scenes followed an eye-roll worthy formula: the cop was caught off-guard by Jimmy, the cop begged for his life (sometimes a ruse to get to a gun), and Jimmy killed him anyway. My lack of feelings for the characters about to be slaughtered was proof that the filmmakers weren’t successful in creating an engaging story and characters with depth and complexity. Other than Old Bill and Shane, I could not recall any of the other police officers’ names. The film also suffered from a tired exposition. A panther, not ordinarily found in the Australian outback, killing horses was a heavy-handed metaphor for an outsider that threatened to tip the balance of power and cause change. In this instance, Shane was the outsider who entered a protected sphere governed by old men who desperately protected a secret. There were some amusing bits about Shane always losing his gun. However, it was difficult to root for him when he was always hiding, getting caught, or walking for miles. He would have been better suited as an awkward but funny supporting character who was killed somewhere in the middle. But as a main character, I wasn’t convinced he was strong enough to survive the raging madness and flying bullets. Not even with his luck.
★★★ / ★★★★
Fifteen years ago, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) escaped an abandoned factory where she was tortured for reasons unknown. When she was placed in a facility which housed victims of child abuse, she was befriended by the kind Anna (Morjana Alaoui) despite Lucie’s much darker past and chilling visual hallucinations. Anna voluntarily took up the role of the Lucie’s crutch so she had to be the strong one. Eventually, Lucie made it her quest to hunt down the people responsible for her torment but that was simply the beginning. Although highly influenced by the “Saw” series, “Martyrs” was a stronger breed because the gore was amplified, the violence was more unflinching, and the questions it brought up about cruelty and human experimentation were actually interesting. The film had a Hitchcockian twist. Since Lucie was the survivor of the first scene, I assumed she would be the one we were supposed to follow throughout the picture. But as it went on, I started to doubt whether she was a particularly trustworthy protagonist because she didn’t have a full grasp with reality. Was the family she murdered in cold blood truly responsible for her kidnapping and torture? Then the film made an astute decision. Half-way through, it was revealed that this was Anna’s story as she had the unfortunate luck to go through what her best friend went through and then some. When she was taken in a torture chamber, there was a brilliant twenty to thirty minute interval when not a word was uttered. All we heard were sounds of a spoon scraping a metallic plate as a woman forcefully fed Anna some disgusting-looking green goop, a man landing heavy blows on Anna’s already frail body, and the sounds of scissors chewing through Anna’s hair as if it hadn’t been fed in years. It was very painful to watch but I was so curious as to why such cruelty was being done to her. When it was revealed, it felt inspired yet empty. It was inspired because I could not recall a villain that performed evil things for the same reason. It was nice that the mysterious individuals didn’t want their victims to learn a lesson or to value the life they’ve been given. At the same time, it was empty because the tormentors’ endgame was so subjective. I started asking questions like how they earned money to build such futuristic-looking facilities and machines. I had to laugh to myself a little bit. But perhaps it was a defense mechanism because I needed to process the very shocking images I just saw. Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, “Martyrs” is without a doubt not for people with a weak stomach. Meanwhile, fans of sadistic horror might be pleasantly surprised. I had no idea what I was in for. In the end, I felt a mixture of sadness, horror, and disgust. My body felt so weak, I couldn’t even make a proper fist.
★★★ / ★★★★
A couple, one a writer (David Duchovny) and the other a photographer (Michelle Forbes), decided to travel across country to California while visiting infamous murder sites. But since they didn’t have enough funds for gas, they decided to put up an advertisement and another couple, one a killer (Brad Pitt) and the other a girl (Juliette Lewis) unaware that her boyfriend was a murderer, answered. I was fascinated with the way the movie was shot. While it was very violent and gory, it was obvious that the picture’s goal was not to glorify such things but to look into the darkness in hoping that a monster would leer back at us. And it did. There were shots that featured the vast landscape and it allowed us to ponder about what was happening and create ideas about what might happen next. It was an intense experience because for more than half the film, Duchovny, Forbes, and Lewis weren’t aware that they’ve been spending their time with someone who they’ve talked about in person, on tape, and captured in photographs. The three obviously felt fear toward Pitt’s character but they couldn’t quite place what was wrong with him. They felt as though jumping to a conclusion was just as dangerous as not doing so the characters felt trapped despite the open spaces that surrounded them. The film constantly tried to break away from the obvious and it became an increasingly challenging experience as it went on. For instance, the material had constructed an argument that there was a big difference between visiting a place where a grizzly crime had occurred and actually being a victim of someone who didn’t feel remorse and guilt. The characters talked about crimes as if directly taken from the news and books but eventually, once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they realized that no amount of explanation in books could even begin to describe the harrowing experience. Their dark adventure was intensified by Duchovny’s narration (à la “The X-Files” delivery of lines), asking questions like what was the difference between a regular person compared to a killer, or even if there is a difference. Do regular people have an extra something or are they missing something in comparison to someone who kills? “Kalifornia,” directed by Dominic Sena, was an effective thriller not only because it had intelligent characters who knew how to survive but also because the director had control of his material and he always worked toward a goal. It may not be for everyone because it sometimes didn’t offer easy answers. But for those who enjoyed crime thrillers such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” (a more commercial work in comparison to “Kalifornia”) should be able to enjoy this chilling road trip. Along with movies like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride,” this is the kind of film I think about when I stop at gas stations during a long drive.
Saw 3D (2010)
★ / ★★★★
In “Saw 3D,” written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, the supposed final installment of the commercially (although not artistically) successful “Saw” franchise had three strands. First, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), Jigsaw’s wife, was on the run from Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) so she took refuge at a police station. In return for protection, she was willing to divulge information about the infamous murders. Meanwhile, Detective Matt Gibson (Chad Donella) was in charge of solving a new crop of grizzly murders. Unlike the ones before him, would he be lucky enough to survive? Lastly, Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery) claimed to have been been kidnapped by Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and was successful at escaping his famous traps designed to teach a macabre lesson through painful irony. He and his entourage benefited from his fame based on untrue information. When he was kidnapped, was he capable of living up to his promise? “Saw 3D” was an excellent example why the series should simply end. I found no redeeming quality in it because every other scene was a flashback to the other six “Saw” pictures. Flashbacks are normally used to enlighten its audiences, not drive us into further confusion (and frustration). When I read reviews from fans of the franchise, they claim that they love the movies because “everything is connected.” No, it’s not. Just because a flashback makes a reference to a one minute scene from another movie, it does not necessarily mean there is a strong connection between the two. Aside from the first “Saw” movie, the rest lacked logic. Somewhere in the middle the central theme was lost. The victims were led to believe that they could get out of the traps. In reality, the possibility of escape was zero. How can we root for the character if we know she’s doomed? But I digress. “Saw 3D,” directed by Kevin Greutert, was plagued with clichés. From the cops’ arrival three seconds prior to the gruesome kill to a foggy night when something bad would eventually happen, it was one disappointing scene after another. The only comfort I found was to laugh at the ridiculous situations the characters found themselves in. I particularly enjoyed the scene of the woman, equipped with a shrill voice and in charge of public relations, who had a fish hook (along with a key necessary for her escape) stuck in her stomach and Bobby, using a string, had to pull it out of her mouth. It was bloody, flinch-inducing, grimly ironic, and fun to watch. Throughout the years, the franchise earned the label of “torture porn.” I thought it was appropriate. The acting was as bad as the ones seen in the very best pornographic films. I had to wonder where the casting directors found the actors. Maybe the actors knew the material was egregious but they just needed a big break. Who could blame them?
Don’t Look Up (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I can withstand a lot of bad movies but the really memorable ones are the movies that make me angry during and after I watch them. “Don’t Look Up,” directed by Fruit Chan, is a prime example. Marcus (Reshad Strik) was an aspiring filmmaker with psychic abilities. When he visited places with bad histories, which often involved a grizzly murder, he would receive visions and he would incorporate what he saw onto his script. While shooting a movie in Transylvania, his crew discovered an old footage of a prior film shot in their set. Soon “accidents” started to happen which led to a series of deaths until the film crew finally called it quits and left Marcus to deal with his demons. Everything about this picture was exaggerated. The acting was shockingly bad, the gore was gratuitous and unconvincing and the CGI was completely unnecessary. It was so bad, the movie tried to scare us with CGI flies. The last time I checked, CGI flies are not scary. It might have worked in Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” because that particular film had a nice balance of cheekiness and horror but “Don’t Look Up” desperately wanted to be taken seriously. Its desperate attempt to be liked left a bitter taste in my mouth. I did not appreciate its references to movies like the Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” and Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu;” instead of paying homage, I felt like the movie was parasite and was an extremely unsatisfactory leftover. The horror did not work because it acted like it was above trying to tell a story that was interesting, involving and, most importantly, a story that made sense. I didn’t understand the connection between Marcus and his ill ex-girlfriend other than to serve as a stupid twist in the end (something along the lines of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” only lightyears less elegant). Eli Roth playing a director in the 1920s left me scratching my head. And there was no explanation why the girl was murdered back in the day and what the apparitions wanted to accomplish. A “seed” was involved which I thought was metaphorical at first but it turned out to be literal. It was just a mess and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to burn the DVD so the next person interested in watching it can use his or her precious time doing something else (perhaps read a book or volunteer at a homeless shelter). “Don’t Look Up” is a smogasboard of everything bad about modern independent horror movies that heavily rely on special and visual effects. I just don’t believe anyone in the world can actually enjoy it. I am at a loss with why it was released in the first place but I suppose connections can go pretty far. If I can prevent at least one person from watching this, I consider it a triumph.
Day of the Woman (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
An aspiring writer (Camille Keaton) decided to live in a secluded cabin in a small town during the summer to work on her first novel. At first it seemed like a nice place because the people (Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Eron Tabor, Gunter Kleeman) she met were friendly but those were the very same sick-minded individuals who eventually tortured and gang-raped her multiple times. This exploitation flick was definitely unsettling to watch because of its extended realistic violence. However, I thought there was a certain lyricism with its lack of soundtrack and periods of time when the characters did not particularly do anything interesting. It gave me the feeling that the events that I saw could have happened and can still happen to anybody which made it that much more chilling. While the rape scenes were indeed shocking and painful to watch, I liked the way the female lead took her time to systematically plot her bloody revenge. Although the things that were unfolding were dead serious, there was a certain cheekiness and dark humor with the way Keaton used her feminine wiles to lure the men who did her wrong and to push them to their grizzly demise. The second half was stronger not just because of the revenge scenes but also due to one of the characters explaining why they decided to rape her. Of course, the classic argument of a woman “asking for it” was brought up. There was also an interesting metaphor about catching fish and getting a woman. That relationship was compelling to me because the men treated her exactly like an animal. Perhaps worse. Many elements came together in the second half that took me by surprise because, to be honest, I did not expect the material to have much insight or intelligence due to my prior experiences with exploitation movies. I was happy that it defied my expectations. It would have been easier for the picture to rely on the obviousness of the images but it had a surprising amount of subtlety. In the end, I was convinced that writer and director Meir Zarchi successfully made a feminist film. I thought it was funny that the women in the movie were portrayed as smart and strong but the men were idiots and lacked goals. “Day of the Woman” also known as “I Spit on Your Grave” had risen beyond the sadistic and the ugly and actively confronted issues such as blame, responsibility, and entitlement.