The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first five minutes of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” written and directed by J Blakeson, observed from a distance how two men prepared to kidnap an unsuspecting Alice (Gemma Arterton). I immediately thought there was something strange with how the kidnappers paid particular attention in preparing the woman’s bed. Did they want her to feel comfortable so they would feel less guilt? Did they personally know her? Were they doing it for the money or was it simply to hurt someone who was close to her? Vic (Eddie Marsan) was the more methodical of the two criminals. He knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve them. Danny (Martin Compston), on the other hand, seemed to follow orders without question. What I found most impressive about the film was I didn’t care much about Alice (or whether she would make it out alive) yet I was always fascinated with what was happening. For me, the driving force of the picture was Danny and Vic’s complicated and volatile relationship. When Danny’s loyalty began to stray, there was an unrelenting tension because we knew that Vic was very intelligent and much more dangerous. Vic was huge in stature, had a booming voice, and his calculating nature made him a predator. Danny was a bit lanky, inclined to whisper, and his transparent lies made me wince. He was under Vic’s control and I desperately wanted him to untangle himself. But how could he when he was stuck in the apartment as much as the victim? In a way, he was also a prisoner. There were a handful of twists that I didn’t see coming. However, the twists didn’t feel at all gimmicky. Since Vic and Danny had to be secretive while performing their job, keeping quiet as often as possible, I was able to learn a lot about them with the way they responded to situations that weren’t in their favor. Just when I thought they would react one way, they took a different route and surprised me. I wished that Alice was more likable because I wanted to root for all of them. When I’m torn in several directions, I find myself that much more emotionally involved. Instead, I thought she was devoid of charm, whiny, and spoiled. She needed to be more resourceful in her attempt to wriggle herself out of the two crooks’ plan. The majority of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” took place in an apartment, but it was as suspenseful as globetrotting adventures of the same breed because of the constantly evolving power play between the three characters. Unlike most movies about kidnapping, the film didn’t rely on the question of whether or not Alice would make it out alive. It challenged itself by observing who could handle the most pressure when the situation arrived at a tipping point.
★★★ / ★★★★
Lovers Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold Jr. (Craig Chester) liked to commit crime and became sexually satisfied by getting away with them. But when Loeb decided to withhold sex from Leopold, the latter was willing to do anything for Loeb in order to prove his love which included kidnapping and murdering a Jewish kid. Based on a tragic true story in the 1920s, Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” was beautifully shot, adopting a cinematic style in that era which included a grainy black-and-white look with accompanying music common in silent pictures. However, the subject was very dark because we had to explore the mindsets of two monsters who were bored with their privileged lives. They claimed to know what love was but their inability to feel for the welfare of others begged the question whether they were able to feel anything at all. The main characters were fascinating to study because, after they were caught by the police, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was still all a game to them. I was certain that they believed they were smart enough to get away with murder, but I detected that they were simply playing with the cops as they were interviewed about the crime. They lied through their fingers, purposefully and strategically recalling incorrect details but there came a point when they started to take it seriously. I liked the fact that it was difficult for me to point at exactly where the game changed for them. “Swoon” is far from being a commercial film. There were images of cross-dressers that left me wondering about their purpose in the story, anachronisms such as the usage of modern telephones which I was not sure to be deliberate or due to the limits of the budget, and the connection of phrenology to the crime other than the fact that the two lovers were Jewish. I’m afraid such polarizing images would leave most audiences confused or frustrated. Furthermore, the picture ran a little too long. I sensed a handful of possible endings that would have worked better prior to the actual one which made me question if the director had a real control and a clear vision of his project. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film from the perspective of character study. Despite the film’s level of detail, I did not feel like I understood the two completely, but perhaps that was the point. Only an irrational and troubled mind could abduct an innocent child and murder that child for no compelling reason other than to prove a point. The story of Loeb and Leopold had been told on film multiple times (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion”). Maybe we’re not meant to fully understand.
Gardens of the Night (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Gardens of the Night” was about a little girl (Ryan Simpkins) who was kidnapped by an older man (Tom Arnold) and a younger guy (Kevin Zegers) on her way from school. In the hands of the sick duo who was running an underground business involving sex and children, the little girl met a boy (Jermaine Scooter Smith) who became her friend for life. Years later, the little girl along with the little boy (now by played by Gillian Jacobs and Evan Ross, respectively) grew up in the streets stealing, doing drugs and prostituting themselves. In a shelter, Jacobs was adviced by a counselor (John Malkovich) to seek her parents. “Gardens of the Night” started off well because the whole experience involving the two guys’ insidious methods of kidnapping a child was so visceral, it almost felt wrong that I was watching the event unfold. I really felt like I was in the car with the kidnappers and in the room with the kids; no matter how much I wanted to help the children escape, there was nothing I could do about it. But when the focus shifted to the whole prostitution and living in squalor angle, it wasn’t as powerful because I didn’t feel like the main character wanted to make her life better. I felt like she had a defeatist attitude despite her longtime friend (who’s in the same situation as her) offering alternative ways of leading their lives. And since I didn’t feel that strength inside of her, I wasn’t as emotionally invested as I was in the beginning. Although the film tried to tackle the issue of redemption with another girl that was about to sell her body for sex, it was so one-dimensional and I could see how it woulld turn out right from the moment that specific character was introduced. I did like, however, the scenes when Jacobs finally decided to see her parents again. However, her reaction to the whole thing angered me because I felt like she had this sense of entitlement–that nobody was supposed to move on despite her absence. I get that the movie was trying to comment on the connection between a child and her parents being no longer there but with such a dark material, the way it unfolded felt heavy-handed instead of natural. It’s as if Damian Harris, the writer and director, did not want anybody to experience a happiness that the lead character so rightfully deserved. “Gardens of the Night” certainly had potential but the second half could have used a little bit more work in terms of pacing and staying true to that poor little girl who was picked up by two strangers on her way home.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The best thing about this movie was its intensity. From start to finish my heart was racing like crazy because I knew that something bad was always bound to happen. Liam Neeson stars as an ex-CIA agent father who embarks on a mission in Paris to rescue his daughter (Maggie Grace) from the hands of slave traders. I can see why this became a sleeper hit: it had a lot of genuine thrills, exciting action sequences, and a plot that was easy to understand. Aside from the obvious rescue mission, this was a story of revenge in its purest form, supported by the fact that Neeson’s character did not take any prisoner. This was essentially a very “guy” movie because the lead character had a one-track mind and would do anything–even hurt innocents–to get to his daughter. I’ve heard a lot of complaints from audiences that it did not make any sense that a “regular guy” suddenly turned into a Jason Bourne (from the “Bourne” series). I am happy to say that those people simply did not pay attention because in the exposition of the picture, it was discussed that Neeson’s character was once a part of the CIA. I feel that this criticism needs to be addressed because, as a person who waited to see this film on DVD, such comments implanted a seed in my head that the movie was going to be unbelievably atrocious. It was far from ridiculous because active agents who go on assassination missions do exist and, as we very well know (unless one is so deluded or lives in a bubble), slave trade exists as well. Lastly, I have to commend Neeson for essentially carrying this entire movie. Not only was I convinced that he was a dangerous man, but I was convinced that he was a father who really loved his daughter more than anybody in the world, including himself, even if his gestures were not quite appreciated given the amount of thought and effort that was put into them. (He’s very detailed-oriented.) Directed by Pierre Morel, “Taken” is a must-see movie for fans of secret agent films and those who love great suspense mixed with good action sequences.