Gosford Park (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A British wealthy couple, William (Michael Gambon) and Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), invited their friends to their estate for a bit of hunting. Set in the early 1930s, their guests took their maids and valets along; the guests lived upstairs while the helpers lived downstairs. None of them saw what was coming: one of them was about to be murdered… twice. Written by Julian Fellows and directed by Robert Altman, “Gosford Park” was a sharp observation of the British class system and a wonderful murder mystery. The majority of the comedy was embedded in the dialogue, from the juicy gossip among the staff to the vitriolic remarks among the socialites, the material made fun of everybody. The enmity and jealously seemed to penetrate the walls. I particularly enjoyed listening to Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) speak her mind and watching her maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), solve the murder mystery. Constance was was one of the most vile of the socialites. She was an interesting specimen because, despite being an aging woman, she essentially acted like a child. She craved attention, positive and negative, and she saw self-reliance as a sign of weakness. Her philosophy was why rely on yourself if you have the money–or a maid–to do everything for you? As much as I disliked her, I could easily imagine people like her especially given the setting of the story. Mary, on the other hand, was an unlikely heroine: she was soft-spoken, she tried her best to mind her own business, and she was actually willing to listen. I think the reason why she was the one to solve the mystery was because she was able to take the back seat, select which conversations held meaning, and ask the right questions. She was a good detective. I also enjoyed watching Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), a Scottish man with a questionable accent, and his homosexual boss, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a movie producer in Hollywood. Their relationship was one of the many subtleties worth noting upon multiple viewings. I admired the film’s cinematography. Despite being shot inside for the majority of the time, it looked bright. The grand paintings on the walls caught my attention as well as the utensils on the dinner table. Most impressive was in the way the camera slithered from one conversation to another. There was a natural flow to it. It always felt as though the camera did the walking for us, sometimes over the shoulder, other times from afar, without bouncing about. When the picture did make rapid cuts, it only served to highlight the parallels of the conversations between the rich and the poor. Both viewed each other’s roles as easy when, in reality, nobody was really happy with what they had. Despite the comedy and the mystery, there was sadness in it, too. “Gosford Park” remained focused despite having over a dozen interesting characters. More importantly, Altman found a way to comment on the symbiotic relationship between master and servant without getting in the way of the mystery.
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.
★★ / ★★★★
Eddie (Kellan Lutz) and Shane (Jonathan Tucker) broke into a house they thought was empty and murdered a child in the process. Detectives Noah Cordin (Nick Stahl) and Leslie Spencer (Rachel Nichols), equally determined, were assigned to catch the criminals. As they got deeper into the investigation, Noah started to realize that the persons involved in the murder might be from the small town he grew up in. “Meskada,” written and directed by Josh Sternfeld, was a realistic look on how cops might possibly solve a case. Despite the fact that a child being killed was no small matter, the director made a smart decision not to feature any grand overtures to convince us how important it was. Seeing an innocent and lifeless child on the ground was enough to get our attention and hope that Noah and Leslie were successful in their mission. We saw them unglamorously go through trash in search of evidence, feel frustration because they had no lead, and try to balance the peace when economics and politics came into play. The story was interesting because the cops weren’t just up against criminals. They were up against people who were willing to protect their family, friends, livelihoods, and community. They were also up against themselves as they struggled to weigh short-term and long-term rewards. Sometimes they didn’t always make the smartest and most ethical decisions. For that reason, I also admired that the picture didn’t always offer easy answers. After all, a case being closed isn’t always synonymous with a case being solved. However, what the film needed was more details about the characters, particularly the ones who committed the crime. Shane and Eddie coming from a poor background wasn’t enough to explain why they were desperate enough to steal. Others from their hometown were just as destitute but they didn’t commit robbery. In fact, most of them decided to work together so that a company would eventually decide to build a factory in their town. There had to be something different about Shane and Eddie that made them feel like they had no other choice. Perhaps it was in the way they processed and translated challenges that faced them. We couldn’t be sure exactly because they didn’t share enough scenes together. We weren’t given enough time, unlike with Noah and Leslie, to ascertain the dynamics of their ultimately toxic partnership. Nevertheless, I liked the ambition that “Meskada” proudly wore on its sleeve. It was absent of gimmicks in terms of storytelling but it managed to inject complexity by exploring real human emotions, psychology and error.
Guard, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a man was found dead in an apartment, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), along with McBride (Rory Keenan), a cop from Dublin on his first day of work in the small town, was called in to investigate. Boyle surmised that the murder involved the occult due to the mysterious number painted onto the wall next to the body and a pot placed between the man’s groin. Meanwhile, an FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) was brought in from the United States to stop crooks (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot) from intercepting five hundred million dollars worth of cocaine. Inevitably, the two crimes were related so Boycle and Everett were forced to work with each other despite a very offensive and awkward first impression. Written and directed by John Michael McDonah, “The Guard” was uproariously funny mainly because of Boyle’s foul mouth. He was unable to keep his thoughts in his brain as long as he felt he had something to say. His racist remarks were very offensive, like publicly saying that he thought criminals only consisted of black people, but since he lived his entire life in a relatively isolated town in Ireland, he wasn’t even aware of his indiscretions. Yet his ignorance was no excuse. From the way the comedy was executed, we laughed at him because he didn’t know any better, not because his claims necessarily had merit. On the other hand, Everett was the humorless straight man who just wanted to get the job done. He was professional, charming, and patient but such qualities were tested whenever Boyle was around. Imagine being forced to work with someone you don’t like, but you need that person to achieve the same goal. As the Irishman and the American engaged in verbal sparring over drinks, the criminals almost did all the work so that they would eventually get caught. Because of this, the picture adopted an unconventional pace. We knew that the criminals’ and cops’ paths would eventually cross. Interestingly, it was actually the criminals who found Boyle first instead of the other way around. What I liked was the fact that the crooks weren’t just bad. They were bad and very funny. The small surprises made a lasting impact without coming off as forced. The film was also effective when the unlikely duo was apart. While Boyle’s interactions with the little boy (Michael Og Lane) with a pink bike and dog was rather whimsical, the scenes with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who lived in a care home, were funny and at times heartbreaking. The time they spent together showed us where Boyle got his fiery personality from and his overall capacity to do good. Just because he had a proclivity for spitting out racial slurs, it didn’t mean that he was incapable of being good person and a good son. What “The Guard” needed to be truly incendiary were more scenes of uncomfortable tension. When one of the cops accidentally encountered the bad guys, the camera remained a few feet away. The lens should have been up close to the cop’s face because he knew as well as we did that there was no possibility that the crooks would let him walk away alive. They had half a billion dollars to lose. Many men kill for much less.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of college students were driving up to the mountain to have some fun when they encountered two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), in a gas station. Having seen a lot of scary movies and heard of stories about grizzly murders in the woods, the college kids couldn’t help but translate Tucker and Dale’s every action as a possible chance to kidnap or kill them. In truth, the duo were only there because Tucker had recently bought a vacation home, a cabin, and they could use a bit of relaxation before heading back to work. “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson, directed by the former, had a chance to really sink its teeth in horror movie clichés about hillbillies being nothing but churlish, incestuous, often cannibalistic, folks but it ultimately felt superficial because the one-liners and the physical stunts lacked range. The set-up was this: The young men and women were so stupid, they ended up killing themselves by accident. Cut to Tucker and Dale’s shocked and horrified reactions. The material was very funny during its initial gags, but the filmmakers failed to detach from the formula, ironically constructing its own clichés by making fun of clichés. The title promised the two friends fighting evil. After they rescued Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, Allison’s friends thought that she was kidnapped because they observed from afar. This triggered Chad (Jesse Moss), innately irascible and shamelessly sporting an ugly popped collar, into a state of rage to the point where he ended up being as ruthless as the murderers his group of friends feared. The movie wasn’t specific in the “evil” that Tucker and Dale had to fight. Was it the negative stereotypes regarding hillbillies that became embedded in the genre’s bones over the history of cinema? Was it the apocryphal placidity in hateful individuals, who lived in the suburbs or cities all their lives, and their secret yearnings of violence just waiting to be unleashed? Furthermore, it failed to acknowledge that stereotyping can be a good thing; it helps our mind to process information faster than it normally would. For instance, they allow us to respond quickly to potential dangers. Relying on stereotypes and neglecting to put more thought into them, hence failing to sympathize with others who are different, is the real tragedy. If the screenplay had focused more on that message, tragedies even outside of horror movie conventions could have been effortlessly highlighted. The story really shouldn’t have been about the body count. Allison was in the process of getting her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, hoping to establish a career as a counselor. I expected her to be more self-aware. The subplot involving Dale and Allison falling for each other was a nuisance, almost worthy of a dozen eye-rollings. Wouldn’t it have been too much to ask if they didn’t pine for each other so profusely? With every bloody confrontation between the hillbillies and the college students, it was interrupted by Dale having to explain to Allison what had transpired. Given that we just saw what happened, the little summaries felt repetitive and I started to wonder if the filmmakers were simply biding their time to push the material to a typical ninety-minute mark because the script became indigent of fresh ideas that cut deeper than boning knives.
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a hardworking bartender who had to support two teenage boys, decided to put herself through law school so she could get her brother, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), out jail for being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1983. Written by Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn, the film immediately established why, aside from the fact that they shared the same bloodline, Betty Anne would go to great lengths, even as to sacrifice her entire life and family, to free Kenny. Although it focused on their childhood, it was done with brisk pace and the techniques employed were not melodramatic. I could imagine kids from a broken home being separated to be raised by different foster parents respond in the same way they did. Swank had a challenging role. She had to balance being tougher than a leather Prada bag yet still remain sensitive so we could understand that her decisions of sometimes putting her family aside for the sake of her brother really did took a toll on her. Failing to reach that critical balance while making it look easy could have made Betty Anne look more like a caricature than a real person. Despite some formulaic elements, like scenes in the courtroom designed to make us feel that the murder was an open-and-shut case, the film was spearheaded by Swank’s nuanced acting. The way she held back her character emotionally was equally powerful as the explosive celebrations–like when we learned that she passed her bar examination and, along with the friend she met in law school named Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), when she found DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate Kenny of the crime. The picture was exciting for me because I never followed nor heard about the Waters case. Despite the DNA evidence, there was possibility that Kenny really did commit the murder. There was a feeling that maybe Betty Anne’s quest of more than sixteen years would not result to Kenny’s freedom. I wish the film took a moment to acknowledge that DNA evidence was not an easy solution: It could be tampered with while in storage and scientists were capable of human error. Such instances were not unheard-of. The filmmakers were smart in deciding not to inject too much humanity in Rockwell’s character for the sake of mystery. While there was a small evolution in his character, we were never certain whether or not he committed the crime. What mattered most was Betty Anne’s determination to fix what she thought was a crime in the justice system. Another fascinating character was a corrupt cop played by Melissa Leo. The one scene that Leo and Swank shared had deep tension that could scar. It look forward to seeing them star in the same film in the future. “Conviction” left some unanswered questions such as how Betty Anne was able to support her two boys with a bar-tending job while putting herself through law school and still living in a nice house. Her ex-husband might have supported or perhaps she took out a loan. Were her adoptive parents wealthy? It wasn’t clear. Regardless, the film had an inspiring story supported by the filmmakers’ defined vision and strong acting from the cast.
My Little Eye (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Five strangers were picked to live in a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. If Matt (Sean Cw Johnson), Rex (Kris Lemche), Danny (Stephen O’Reilly), Emma (Laura Regan), and Charlie (Jennifer Sky) could stay together six months, they would receive a million dollars. It seemed like an easy task but living together became challenging when one of them ended up dead. If they stepped outside the premises or contacted the police, the game would be over. Directed by Marc Evans, “My Little Eye” was obviously inspired by reality shows like MTV’s “The Real World.” However, the film was more about the characters feeling isolated from society and the paranoia that resulted from cameras that surrounded the place instead of drinking, bar hopping, and engaging in all sorts of casual sex. The build-up from seemingly small pranks to a possible murder was executed nicely. Was there a killer among the five or was everything controlled by the company that chose them? The former was possible because there was no crew. Cameras were simply installed from a certain height and they moved according to someone’s motion. But the latter was also quite possible. Someone could just as easily sneak in the house as the five slept. They wouldn’t notice because the old mansion made all sorts of noises. Unfortunately, once the mystery was revealed, the picture lost the majority of its momentum. It became a routine running around the mansion until someone tripped or slipped. It wasn’t scary. Since it was so dark and the images from the cameras were blurry, I couldn’t help but adopt a passive stance. The editing was manic. Instead of lingering at one creepy shot, it would jump from one camera angle to another in attempt to show all the creepy shots. It’s better to have one very effective shot that goes for the jugular instead of having many less effective shots with questionable purpose. It wasn’t a good sign when I didn’t care who lived or died. We heard about Emma’s childhood story involving a friend who killed his family using a hammer but it didn’t reveal much about who she was. And as much as I appreciated the fact that the five strangers talked like regular people off the streets, I couldn’t help but snicker when a character would blurt out, “I’m scared!” or “I’m in it for the money!” Another unintentionally funny scene was when the remaining four decided to put the dead body outside, in the snow, right after one of them stated that they should leave the body where it was because it was a scene of the crime. For a bunch of mid- to late-twentysomethings, they lacked common sense. But then again, so are those who choose to appear on reality shows for the sake of fame that never lasts.
Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Tom (Richard Tillman), on leave for ten days from the military, decided to look for his brother in California after Jesse (Joey Mendicino) and Nicole (Julie Mond) had been missing for a year. Marilyn (Jessie Ward) and Jared (Graham Norris), Tom’s girlfriend and high school friend, decided to lend a hand. While loading their cars with gas, Jared noticed something that used to belong to Nicole. The gas station attendant (Steve Railsback) confirmed seeing the two lovers and suggested that the three stopped looking. Written by John Shiban and directed by Shawn Papazian, “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” had a promising first thirty minutes. The first murder attempt which involved Jared being tragically stuck in a porta-potty was darkly comedic, horrific, and downright disgusting. I was also excited of the fact that we actually saw more of the killer and how he abducted a person while the partner used the restroom. I even saw a pinch of ambition as Nicole discovered that the restroom seemed to defy time and space. I was very curious in how it would resolve itself. However, the film began to lose its promise when it relied on the ghosts to generate tension. The question stopped being about which of the characters would die next and how they would meet their demise. I became more concerned of whether the character on screen was indeed alive or simply a spirit. As a result, the tension of the serial killer and the manner in which he hunted his victims was no longer there. Moreover, Mond, who did not play Nicole in the first film, was especially weak. All of her scenes needed to be reshot. When she spoke, I could sense her about to burst into laughter. I was surprised her scenes made the final cut. I wondered why she was even cast because she looked nothing like her predecessor. The filmmakers should have been more critical because Nicole was an important character in the story arc given that she provided details that would lead to the picture’s climax. What I was most interested in was Tom’s desperation and rage. His sense of loss was explored only sporadically and in the most obvious ways. I didn’t get the sense that the two were really brothers. The emotions between them were mentioned using words but not actually shown in a meaningful or moving way. “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” felt cheap not because of its images or even the way it was shot but because it strayed too far from its original concept. Instead of resolving strands like the creepy family in the Winnebago and their twisted relationship with the killer, the film pulled a maddening last-minute twist. To me, it was evidence that the writer felt like he could have done more with the script. If he was happy with what he had, he wouldn’t have felt the need to add such an unnecessary thing.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.