Savage Grace (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a tragic true story, Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) was an American socialite in Europe who put her reputation above everything else. She had a husband (Stephen Dillane) who grew increasingly distant and angry with her over the years. She also had a son named Antony (Eddie Redmayne) who she greatly depended on but she failed to let him live his life the way he wanted to. In the end, the son reached a breaking point and murdered his mother. Ambiguity was the film’s greatest asset but there were times when the understated felt insular. Most scenes involved a character talking about, say, a type of linen. We all know that the conversation was not really about the linen but a roundabout way of a character expressing his or her unhappiness. The obvious lesson was money did not particularly equate to happiness. Although the Baekeland family was rich and did not have to work a day in their lives, they spent most of their time as an empty shell, shuffling about the gorgeous beaches and resorts, bathing themselves in sex and sensuality, and not talking about anything particularly meaningful. I felt sad for the characters but I did not pity them because they actively chose not to break outside their bubble. Given the era in which the Baekeland family lived, it was somewhat understandable because repression was almost in style. Julianne Moore was magnetic. There were no other big names in the film aside from Hugh Dancy, but he had a relatively small role as a sort-of lover of both the mother and the son. Moore completely embodied a parent who was not ready to take care of herself, let alone raise a son in a healthy way. Her character was like a teenager who loved and lived to party and became fixated on that stage. As a result of the negligence of the mother and the father leaving his family for a woman half his age, Antony had no one to look up to and model a sense of self who was strong and independent. And since Antony was a homosexual, his mother wanted to “cure” him and would go to desperate measures to do so. Were the parents to blame for Antony’s actions? The movie did not give definite answers. The way I saw it was the parents’ apathy and inability to accept their son for his sexual orientation was a critical catalyst that drove Antony to a breaking point. “Savage Grace,” directed by Tom Kalin, dealt with a dark subject matter in an elegant and respectful way despite showing certain scenes that would make us want to look away. Dysfunctional families in America are often portrayed as quirky and funny. This was a bucket of cold water in the face but, although tragic in its core, it was refreshing.
★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene of the Spanish film “Eskalofrío” depicted Santi (Junio Valverde) desperately running away from the sunlight as if he was a vampire. When he woke up from the nightmare, we learned that he wasn’t a vampire but had a condition in which his skin had an acute sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Direct contact to sunlight weakened Santi and could potentially kill him so the doctor recommended that Santi and his mother (Mar Sodupe) move to an area where the sun did not appear for very long. Coincidentally, when the mother and son moved to an isolated village in the mountains, grizzly murders started to occur. The film successfully generated genuine thrills and scares. Even though the movie felt small due to the budget, it had confidence in putting characters in really scary situations and allowing them to extricate themselves from painful deaths. Santi was someone we could immediately root for because he craved the life of normalcy but instead had no choice but to only be active at night due to his strange condition. He was outsider in the city and he was still an outsider in the small village. For a horror film, it was extremely fast-paced. Quick cuts were abound but I did not find them distracting because each scene was straight to the point, one rising action after another up until the first murder in the woods. Was the murderer a person, a monster, or perhaps both? Once the movie forced us to ask questions, its momentum and sense of dread consistently increased. What I loved about the film was once it reached a boiling point, it delivered one or two terrifying scenes, and would continue to build again. The most memorable scene for me was when Santi was alone in the house and he started to panic about the murderer possibly wanting to break in. It was very funny to watch because he did exactly what I would have done: Run like the wind and lock all the doors and windows, block the fireplace using a couch, grab a weapon, and sleep in the biggest area of the house. But it was also scary because we knew nothing of the intruder other than it was very strong and capable of killing in a heartbeat. Another great pay off was when Santi and his friends went into the woods à la Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez in “The Blair Witch Project,” video camera and all, in hopes of catching the killer on film to prove to everyone that Santi was not the murderer. “Eskalofrío,” directed with quiet power by Isidro Ortiz, is one of those gems that worked as a thriller and a horror film. It had a small twist in terms of monster flicks and it made me wish that American horror and thrillers would aspire to be just as inspired and imaginative.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
★★★ / ★★★★
A family (led by Russ Grieve and Virginia Vincent, the patriarch and matriarch) got into an accident in the desert while on their way to California. It happened during the most unfortunate time because the area in which their vehicle broke down was a nuclear testing site and was occupied with deformed cannibals. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “The Hills Have Eyes” was a horror film with a simple premise but it expertly embodied an animalistic tone and gathered momentum until the final shot. For a slasher flick, I found it strange because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. I enjoyed the way Craven framed regular well-meaning folks and forced them to eventually become like the monsters that terrorized them in order to survive. While it was very violent, especially the events that transpired in the trailer which consisted of murder and rape, it was far from gratuitous. I felt Craven holding back in terms of showing certain images that might glorify the terrible things that there happening. It was successful at allowing us to feel anger so that we could root for the remaining members of the family to not just seek revenge but also obtain something that meant a lot to them. The heart of the picture was arguably the siblings Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston). Brenda was unhappy about her father’s decision to take an unknown route while Bobby almost immediately sensed that there was something wrong about the environment they had no choice but to occupy. As the title’s anthropomorphic title suggested, the environment was like a creature that lived, capable of defending itself when threatened. However, things such as rattlesnakes and the possibility of dehydration and starvation were the last elements the characters had to worry about. The animalism and savagery became a trend. One angle was when the characters eventually got over their fear and sadness and decided to fight back even if it meant losing their lives. Another was using the family pet, a dog that was normally friendly unless threatened, as a figure readily able to attack and kill. Perhaps Craven hoped to suggest that the deformed cannibals living in an isolated world were really no different than regular people that successfully integrated in society. Lastly, I thought its abrupt ending was a smart decision. There was no explanation about how the characters would end up. It did not need to because the situation in which they were thrusted upon was beyond reasoning. Its main goal was to show whether or not the cannibals would get their comeuppance. “The Hills Have Eyes” did have its flaws, such as characters who whined too much for no good reason, but the quality of horror was consistent and it ended on a very high note.
The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Flickan som lekte med elden,” or “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” was the second installment from Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series which took place about two years after computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) solved their first mystery. A freelance writer (Hans Christian Thulin) was hired by the “Millenium” magazine because he claimed to have names of high-ranking officials within the government who were involved in sex trafficking. But prior to the anticipated publicity of the article, the writer and his girlfriend were murdered in cold blood. Lisbeth was framed for their murder. Despite the film not having the same level of tension and intrigue as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” I still highly enjoyed it because it did not feel like a carbon copy of the first film. Instead, we had a chance to observe the two main characters apart from each other and see how they attempted to solve problems laid before them. Its strength remained in being a character-driven, gritty crime procedural. More importantly, it answered big questions I had about Lisbeth’s past and why she did not enjoy the company of men who saw and treated women as less than their equal. Furthermore, the story remained fresh. In some ways, it was a nice surprise. Since the mystery involved sex trafficking, I thought the protagonists were up against some sort of an underground society where a number of interconnecting companies were involved. Instead, the climax felt small and when key information were revealed, it almost felt muffled and understated. It also had enough time to introduce fiery new characters such as a prostitute, a professional boxer, and a hitman with a rare genetic disorder. However, there were some plot points where I thought the picture could have improved upon. I was curious about Erika Berger (Lena Endre) and her obvious sexual and possible romantic relationship with Mikael. When she was on screen, I could not help but feel like there was something about her character that was overlooked or did not translate from novel to screen. I hope she will become a prominent character in the final installment because Endre had such elegance about her. “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” directed by Daniel Alfredson, successfully separated itself from its predecessor in terms of tone and pacing. Nevertheless, it made itself necessary by giving us new information which complemented pieces that did not quite fit prior.
Children of the Corn (1984)
★ / ★★★★
After church, Job (Robby Kiger) and his father went to a diner for breakfast. It seemed like a regular Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska but something sinister happened. The kids started to give each other strange looks and the next thing we knew, they started killing the adults around them. The only kids who did not seem affected were Job and his sister (Anne Marie McEvoy) who had a gift of foretelling events through drawing. When a couple (Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton) accidentally ran over a boy, they eventually decided to stop by Gatlin to report the incident. The picture started off strongly. The thought of kids murdering people without reason, including their parents, gave me the creeps. I was curious about what triggered the strange events and the endgame of those involved. Unfortunately, the film failed to give any answer. Instead, it spent half of its time showing us the couple driving on a seemingly interminable freeway. While their interactions were somewhat amusing and the establishment of their characters necessary, there wasn’t enough edge to hold my interest. I saw one distraction after another which made me think about the weakness of both the writing and the execution. I wanted to know more about the psychic sister. What made her and Job unsusceptible to the urge to commit murder? Instead, the picture focused on the many speeches of Isaac (John Franklin) and almost caveman-like Malachai (Courtney Gains). It was obvious that the material wanted to comment on taking religion too seriously along with their respective scriptures word-for-word, but focusing on that one aspect diminished the creativity and imagination that should have been applied to the overall story. It would have been more haunting if the monster or devil known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” was not shown but merely implied. It wasn’t that I was unconvinced my the special and visual effects (I’m always more concerned about the concept), but the idea that some force could drive children to madness was enough. Sometimes simplicity is key. It just needed to elaborate on its big ideas and consistently raise the bar instead of recycling horror movie clichés. Based on Stephen King’s short story and directed by Fritz Kiersch, “Children of the Corn” was a huge disappointment because it had such a promising first scene. When the couple walked around a seemingly abandoned small town, I felt like I was there. It needed more creepy moments like that instead of its dull fixation on human sacrifice.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Paradise Lost 2: Relevations,” directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, picked up four years later after three former teens were convicted to go to prison–two (Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin) for life and one (Damien Echols) on death row. Most of the victims’ families declined to participate in the documentary except for the stepfather (John Byers) of one of the slain kids who, after the first movie, people began to suspect for killing the boys. There were a lot of changes that I thought were fascinating. First of all, the three guys who were sent to prison grew up so much and it really made me sad because it showed me that they were essentially just boys when they were convicted. Unlike in the first movie, they were much more willing to talk to the camera and they were much more eloquent. I liked the way the directors showed scenes from the first film such as asking a question to one of the boys and not getting an answer and the way it asked the same question but getting an answer this time around. What’s unfortunate was the fact that the lawyers from both the prosecution and the defense did not allow the filmmakers to record scenes inside courtroom because the first movie gained so much notoriety. It would have been much more compelling if we were actually there alongside scenes where Byers tried to prove his innocence using a lie detector test. I thought the project sometimes became too convoluted because it spent too much time focusing on Byers and his anger. I understood that there was a lot of suspicion surrounding the man and it was important to provide a psychological portrait of him, but I would rather have spent more time watching and hearing more about Misskelly and Baldwin. By showing Byers and his strange mannerisms and tendency to lie on camera, it painted him as a monster. I didn’t think it was a correct decision because what if the man did not have anything to do with the murders? It could possibly lead to another tarnished reputation all for naught. Instead, the movie had to rely on the result of the lie detector test (which had its own red flags) and the overlooked bite marks on the victims’ bodies. Were those really bite marks? How did the medical examiners miss such critical information that could have helped exonerate the three so-called satanists? Was there some kind of a conspiracy within the small town that they were willing to withhold important information for the sake of easy answers? I had a million questions and I genuinely worried about the results of the case (I tried not to read too much about it prior to seeing this film) because I believed that Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols did not receive a fair trial. In year 2010, the three guys are still in jail and the real killer–or killers–is still out there. They’ve spent practically half of their lives in jail not because of hard evidence but because of people’s stereotypes. That, too, is another tragedy.
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a deputy sheriff in a small town in Texas, was a charming guy who everybody knew and trusted. What they didn’t know about him was the fact that he liked to be violent in the bedroom and he had a proclivity to kill. Assigned to drive a prostitute (Jessica Alba) out of town, Lou became sexually entangled with her instead. For reasons that did not make sense to us but certainly made sense in Lou’s sick mind, he murdered her with his bare hands. As the bodies started to pile up, people slowly started to figure out who might be responsible for the brutal murders. I’ve read a number of negative reviews about this movie. While I do believe that it’s not for everyone, I think the filmmakers made a solid effort in painting a portrait of an enigmatic serial killer. Lou was an anomaly. At first I found it easy to figure out his motivations and what he could be thinking while interacting with people who tried to get him to admit that he was a killer. As the film went on, I thought his many lies were eventually catching up with him. But then it occured to me: He wanted to get caught. All of the interrogations and the “mistakes” he left at the scene of the crime were a part of his game. He wanted to feel the fear of getting caught because he found it difficult to feel in general. He threw around phrases like “I love you” but he had no idea what those meant. The scene that got to me most was not the brutal violence (although I did wince and had to look away during the prostitute’s death scene). It was when Lou admitted that he had a problem. He stated that the urge to kill would come to him at the most unpredictable moments. He would be reading a book and suddenly he would feel the itch to commit a crime and the need to scratch it. Affleck’s acting should be commended because he said it so nonchalantly, like telling a friend how his day went or how the weather was. Throughout the picture, Affleck held a quiet intensity and I was focused on him because I never knew when he would strike. Despite the film’s violent scenes, “The Killer Inside Me” did not glorify it. Those ugly scenes had to be shown to serve as a contrast to Lou’s very charismatic façade. Based on a novel by Jim Thompson and directed by Michael Winterbottom, “The Killer Inside Me” is a challenging picture to sit through because it doesn’t offer easy answers. Sometimes the conclusions it offers do not necessarily make sense but it works because the greatest evils lack logic. It just is and that is what’s so scary in staring into the unknown and not finding answers. In comparison, Lou Ford makes serial killers like Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan look very tame.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The documentary opened as it showed three eight-year-old boys’ naked and mutilated bodies in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. The main suspects were three teenagers (Jessie Misskelly Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols) who were labeled as devil worshippers by their community because they liked to wear black and listen to death metal music. I found this film scary not because of the suspects actually being into satanism (I believe they were curious about it but weren’t actually engaged in its practice) but because of the community willing to put the teens in jail for life (or even put to death) for the sole reason that they needed someone to blame. Since word-of-mouth and the media labeled the suspects as satanists, the jury became blind to the cold hard facts. For instance, they failed to put into account that Misskelly had an I.Q. of 72 and being cornered by the police’s leading questions would most likely result in a forced confession in hopes that the problem would “go away” as soon as possible. I’m assuming that since the jury did not have sufficient background with people who were mentally challenged, they couldn’t fully understand that the confession should be taken with great consideration. Furthermore, the lack of physical evidence was staggering. Since the victims were buldgeoned beyond recognition, I found it unsettling that blood was not found at the scene of the crime. No murder weapon was found aside from a knife conveniently found by the cops in a lake. A strange man with blood all over him was found by a pub owner at the night of the murder but the police didn’t bother to show up to investigate. I suspected foul play. If I was on that jury, there was no way I could have passed a guilty verdict on my part because so many things from the prosecutor’s side did not fit together. What I believe is that the community needed an easy, immediate answer. In the end, we don’t know for sure who murdered the children. It could have been the three teens. It could have been a family member of one of the kids. It could have been a serial killer who happened to pass by West Memphis that night. We don’t know. But what I know is that evil was committed in the community by means of injustice in the legal system. If the case was tried somewhere else, I strongly believe that the outcome would have been different for Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols. I may have sided with the defense on this case but what I admired most was that the film spent equal time with both sides. I understood the bereaved parents’ anger toward the three demonized teenagers. They claimed they wanted to kill the suspects or hurt them in some way. I didn’t blame them for it because if I were in their situation, I would most likely feel the same. “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, is an excellent documentary about skepticism and how powerful it can become if one is willing to listen and look beyond the obvious answers.
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Garfield stars as Eddie Dunford, a journalist on a quest to solve Britain’s infamous Yorkshire Ripper case. When a girl was found dead with wings stitched onto her back to make it seem like she was a fallen angel, everyone knew that the murder wasn’t a typical one. Everyone talked about it but no one was willing to come forward to the authorities or members of the media because they feared for their lives. I expected this film to be a procedural because it was such a popular case so I was a bit underwhelmed when it turned out to be otherwise. While I did enjoy the way the picture was shot and the dark undertones just boiling above the surface, it could have used a laser-like focus on the case at hand while exploring important questions such as why Eddie’s friend and fellow journalist (Anthony Flanagan) was killed. Instead, our protagonist became entangled in an unethical affair with the murdered child’s mother (Rebecca Hall), who may or may not know more than she lets on. I could have been more invested in the material if it had taken the time to explore and demonstrate how strong the bond was between Eddie and his friend. While Hall was strong as usual, the romantic angle grew stale pretty quickly because their relationship didn’t evolve. The script hinted at something insidious the more passionate the couple became but there were far too many scenes in the bedroom when the two would get intimate. Knowing that Eddie was keen at solving the mystery surrounding her daughter’s gruesome murder, I would think that she would encourage him to go deeper into the case and not into her. The film also consistently touched upon the corruption of the cops, journalists, and businessmen. Were they protecting each other because everybody wanted money or was it because something about the murder was mishandled in some way? There is no definite answer because the movie was too busy asking questions. The more questions were asked, the more frustrated I became because a lot of information thrown at us just did not make a lot of sense when I applied it to the big picture. Since this is the first of the trilogy, I am hoping that more of my questions will be answered the deeper I get into its mythology. Based on the novel by David Peace and directed by Julian Jarrold, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974” left a lot to be desired. The performances were engaging and the look of the movie reflected the times. It just needed more editing so it focused more on the actual case and less about our protagonist’s secondary adventures.
★★★ / ★★★★
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?
Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
★★ / ★★★★
Vengeance was in the air when Richard (Paddy Considine) returned home from the military after he learned that his mentally challenged brother (Toby Kebbell) had been bullied by local drug addicts and dealers (led by Gary Stretch). I love revenge movies but I felt as though this picture somewhat glorified the drugs and the violence. It’s not that I didn’t connect with Richard. I certainly did because if my brother was victimized, as scary as it is to admit, I probably would have done the same thing–maybe even worse. We watch the main character terrorize the drug dealers by breaking into their homes and leaving little warnings on the walls or on their bodies. And then we cut to scenes in black-and-white that showed us why the criminals deserved to be punished. It was heavy-handed and I wasn’t convinced that Shane Meadows, the director, embedded enough complexity in the material to go beyond threat-and-kill formula. As the body count began to rise, I kept waiting for the film to change the formula and infuse real human characteristics in its characters. It would have been more interesting if we saw a part of ourselves in the people who were about to be killed. Instead, none of them personally felt like they deserved what was coming to them. They kept running away, making fun of each other like they weren’t in deep trouble, and putting themselves in vulnerable situations such as drinking in the middle of the night until they passed out when they knew all too well that the person who wanted them dead could easily break into their homes. Their lack of logic made me feel like they were caricatures and when they did die, they made no big impact in my viewing experience. I simply thought, “Okay, so who’s next?” Toward the end, we were given a chance to feel Richard’s pain and his desperation to achieve some sort of redemption but it ultimately felt forced. Despite the anger and sadness in his eyes, I felt like there was a wall between me and his convictions. I felt no catharsis and I felt sorry for everyone involved in the madness. What “Dead Man’s Shoes” needed was complexity in who the characters really were under the façade they showed the world and laser-like focus in terms of exploring varying levels of responsibility and remorse. Although I must say the film’s best quality was its gritty realism. Either the actors were really good or there were some improvised material thrown in. It made me believe that the events that transpired could happen at just about anywhere.
★★★ / ★★★★
Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) had a dark ideation. Once a successful playwright but now struggling to keep up with his reputation due to his recent flops, he came across a manuscript written by one of his former students named Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve). Sidney invited unsuspecting Clifford to visit his home in order to offer some advice to make the play better, murder him, and pass Clifford’s work as his own. Sidney’s wife (Dyan Cannon) had heart problems in the past but she reluctantly went along with her husband’s devious plan. It took a bit of time for me to get into this film. At first I thought the plot didn’t quite know how to move forward. I also had some problems with its tone. Did it want to be funny or thrilling or both? I wondered, could it have its cake and eat it, too? I also found the acting a bit amateurish, especially Cannon. I was aware that the picture was based on a play written by Ira Levin but her acting felt stuck in that medium. I thought she was annoying, whiny and needy–a damsel-in-distress who stuck by her husband for no good reason. However, after about forty minutes, it gained its footing and the material showed me it had intelligence. Very unexpected twists upon twists were abound but what I liked best about it was it felt like a play but it gained enough power to work in a cinematic medium. The tension became so high to the point where the exaggerations almost felt necessary. Caine impressed me because I’m used to watching him play quieter characters that are almost grandfather-like and humble. It was a breath of fresh air to see him so bitter, so angry, so flawed. His character caught my attention because it was the kind of character that valued his reputation more than anything else. He talked of sociopaths which made me wonder if he was projecting his own characteristics onto someone else. Sidney Lumet, the director, astutely used mood as a weapon to surprise the audiences. At times watching the film was like reading a novel. Just when I thought the picture was over because the mood was reaching a serene plateau, it suddenly came to life and delivered shocking punches. In less experienced hands, it might have felt too contrived or forced. Lumet’s direction certainly helped the sudden shifts in mood to feel as natural as possible. “Deathtrap” did not start off with flying colors but it is difficult to deny that it was a sublime murder mystery once it found a connection with its core. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s slow but compelling thrillers should eat this one up like candy.
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.