★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Becky (Tracy Arnold) recently left her husband so she decided to live with her brother Otis (Tom Towles) and his roommate Henry (Michael Rooker) for the time being. She immediately developed a crush on Henry, not aware of the fact that Henry and her brother stalked and killed unsuspecting women as their extracurricular activity. Directed by John McNaughton, it was easy for me to see why “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” became a cult classic. I admired its cold detachment from its subject just as Henry and Otis treated their victims as less than animals. They obsessively videotaped their conquests and Otis was even sexually aroused as he repeatedly watched the tapes in their apartment. However, I found the first half to be a bit amatuer filmmaking and the project only found its identity half-way through. While the first forty-five minutes’ purpose was to establish the cruelty and analytical nature of Henry’s actions, it eventually repeated itself too often. I wanted to learn something new about the main character who was plagued with the need to kill. The movie came alive when Henry talked about the importance of not having a signature in terms of murdering people. He claimed that a signature was the key to getting caught so it was important to use various weapons when taking a life. That scene was memorable to me because Rooker described it in such a way that it was like a surgeon talking about the instruments he was about to use prior to an operation. The film was able to look the character in question in the eye and note a total absence of humanity. Another scene that stood out to me was when Becky and Henry tried to share something very personal from their past. When Henry shared about his abusive home when he was a child, Becky seemed moved and was able to completely sympathize with him. But when it was Becky’s turn to share, I was convinced that Henry did not feel a thing, that he could only pretend to care about her past. I think much of the movie’s power was the fact that it chose not to paint Henry’s story so that we could understand him better or feel sorry for him. It treated us as smart audiences because Henry was essentially a textbook serial killer. While both Otis and Henry were murderers, there was an important difference between them. Based on a true story involving Henry Lee Lucas’ confessions, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was unsettling movie to watch because there were times when the pointless murders felt downbeat to the point where it felt almost too authentic. It argued that there was nothing romantic about killing in cold blood.
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The West Yorkshire police hired Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) to help out with the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Initially, the police were cooperative with Peter, giving him everything he wanted like unlimited access to files relevant to the case and even bringing in people he trusted such as John Nolan (Tony Pitts) and Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), the latter with whom Peter had an affair with. I enjoyed this film more than “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974” because it actually focused on the investigation of the Ripper. As a procedural, I thought it worked because we had a chance to observe the protagonist interviewing potentially important individuals that might lead to the identity of the killer. The pacing was slow and the tone was darkly morose but there were enough rewards dispersed throughout to keep me guessing. But as Peter got deeper into the investigation, it seemed as though the West Yorkshire police force slowly but actively hindered the progress of Peter’s assignment. It was interesting that main character had to battle corrupt men in position of power but at the same time having to face a faceless killer in which the only lead he had were some handwriting and a voice. We even had a chance to learn about Peter’s home life involving the wife (Lesley Sharp) being unaware of her husband’s infidelity and their struggle to bring a child to the world. It was easy to want to root for Peter to succeed, despite his indiscretions in his romantic life, because he genuinely and eagerly wanted to bring justice for the women who were murdered. More importantly, he was not willing to be corrupted. But I had important question about the victims. In the first film, children were the victims but, in this installment, it was more about women. In fact, no one mentioned anything about the child murders, so I found that a bit odd and somewhat confusing. Perhaps the inconsistency was done on purpose and the third movie would help to explain everything. Based on the novel by David Peace and directed by James Marsh, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980” was a strong follow-up to an interesting case about monsters in various positions of power. It posed several interesting questions, one of which was who we should fear more: the blood-thirsty killer or the people who we were supposed to trust to protect us? The killer may have killed a dozen or so but how many have the cops murdered in cold blood to prevent the truth from being exposed?
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Agatha Christie’s novel, “Murder on the Orient Express” stars Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective with great logic and acumen. In 1930, a little girl was kidnapped and later murdered in cold blood. Five years later, the murderer boarded a train and was later found dead. Since the train was stuck due to weather, the police couldn’t get to the train. It was then up to detective Poirot to figure out who killed the murderer. (I love the irony.) Aboard the train with him and the murderer were twelve other people (Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Michael York) who came from different backgrounds and had unique personalities. The question is, which one or which ones of them did it? I had a lot of fun with this movie even though I found it quite difficult to keep track of the characters. The dialogue was electric; I loved the way Finney used different tactics of interrogation that matched a character’s type of personality. For the longest time, I had no idea who to suspect but even after the mystery was revealed, I still found myself shocked with who committed the crime. However, I have to say that this movie is not for everyone. Although it is essentially a mystery picture, it is very heavy on the dialogue (the main reason why I loved it) and the whole movie consisted of characters being stuck on a train. The movie also started off pretty slow because it took about thirty minutes to introduce all of the important characters. But I think with a little bit of patience and really paying attention to what was happening, people would find this movie worth their time. “Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by the masterful Sidney Lumet, has a wonderful supporting cast that fascinated me from beginning to end. The big names involved in this project really lived up to their reputation because they were able to inject complexity and dimension to their characters even though they didn’t get much screen time as opposed to, say, when they were asked to carry an entire film. This film had nice twists dispersed throughout so it was never boring once the viewer gets accustomed to its style. For a two-hour film and having more than a dozen crucial characters, the pacing was efficient. I wish there are more modern whodunit films are being released in cinemas these days because I’m just a sucker for them (it probably explains why obsession with board games like “Clue”).
Lovely Bones, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Lovely Bones,” adapted from Alice Sebold’s novel and directed by Peter Jackson, was about a fourteen-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) who was murdered by a child predator (Stanley Tucci). As years went by after her unsolved murder, the protagonist watched over her family (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Rose McIver, Christian Thomas Ashdale) and the monster who killed her in cold blood. I’ve read a plethora of reviews claiming that this was a mediocre picture and was underwhelming. Maybe they expected too much considering Jackson’s power as a director but I thought the movie was above average. It felt painfully personal. I was moved when Ronan realized that she was dead but she was stuck between the real world and heaven. I thought it was very sad when she realized that her family was slowly being ripped apart after her death. Those dramatic elements worked for me because the exposition was consistently strong. It immediately made me care for the lead character because she wanted to do so many things in life. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fantastic imagery when Ronan lived in “the in-between.” I thought the images were magical, inspired and intelligent because the images she encountered almost always related to the things that were happening back in the real world. As great as the images were, I argue that they didn’t overshadow the picture’s emotional resonance. In fact, the imagery took the emotions to the next level. As for the villainous creepy neighbor, I thought Tucci was electrifyingly effective. Tucci excelled with his character’s eccentricities and the way he lured Ronan to her grave gave me the shivers. However, I thought the film came up short when it came to consistency. The last third lacked the momentum of the first hour and twenty minutes. About two-thirds into it, I started questioning when it was going to wrap itself up. Essentially, I think the movie would have benefited from a shorter running time. The scenes of Weisz’ struggle with the loss of her daughter (an emotional breakdown?) felt like it didn’t need to be there. I understood right away that everyone in the family was impacted by the tragedy so it didn’t need to hammer that point again and again. Luckily, Sarandon had a good amount of screen time to alleviate some of the seriousness by means of perfect comedic timing. If I were to describe “The Lovely Bones” in one word, it would be “misunderstood.” A lot of people thought that the CGI became the main focus and not the characters. I would advice those same people to watch the movie again and do what I did: ignore the fact that Jackson directed the film and swallow it as a “regular” film from a not-so-popular director. It may not have been as consistent as I would have liked but I thought it was able to deliver when it needed to.