★★ / ★★★★
Jamie (Jim Sturgess) was born with a heart-shaped birthmark on the left side of his face. It turned him into a self-conscious person because people did not want anything to do with him and his teratoid appearance. After his mom (Ruth Sheen) was killed by hooligans who wore monster masks, Jamie was intent on taking revenge. But when Papa B (Joseph Mawle), possibly the devil himself, offered Jamie to live a life without his birthmark, Jamie reluctantly accepted. If he was beautiful, he figured he could finally ask an aspiring model (Clémence Poésy) out on a date. But his newfound beauty didn’t come without a price. Written and directed by Philip Ridley, “Heartless” started with a heavy-handed premise about true beauty being found within but it got stronger over time because it wasn’t afraid to take us to many surprising directions. I must admit that I had a difficult time believing that Sturgess was ugly just because he had a birthmark on his face. It was almost laughable because his character’s shyness was reflected by his habit of wearing hoodies and always looking down on his feet. And, just to top it all off, he spoke ever so softly. It didn’t require much effort to see that he was still handsome. However, once Jamie made a deal with the devil, the movie became much more interesting. We had a chance to observe what he was willing to go through in order to keep his face unblemished. When asked to kill, a part of his payment, there was something darkly comic about the whole ordeal. I particularly relished the Weapons Man’s (Eddie Marsan) visitation of Jamie’s flat as he explained what kind of weapon our protagonist had to use to murder, the type of target he must get his hands on, and the ridiculous rules he had to abide by. Even more amusing was the potential victim Jamie had actually chosen. I liked that there were vast shifts in tone because the Faustian fable was something we’ve already seen many times. However, I wished the filmmakers held back on using shrieks when something scary would appear on screen. It felt too Horror Movie 101, more distracting than horrific, and it took away some of the originality it worked hard to reach. Lastly, the picture would have benefited if Timothy Spall, who played Jamie’s deceased father, was in it more. Jamie obviously missed his dad not just because he was family but because Jamie saw his father as a role model, someone he’d always aspired to be. “Heartless” may not have reached its ambition by tackling the deeper angles of broad issues like religion, physical beauty and social decay, but I appreciated its well-meaning attempt and solid performances by Marsan, Spall, and Sturgess.
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.
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.
True Grit (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a plucky fourteen-year-old girl, was adamant about finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s cold-blooded killer, and getting even. She left her grieving mother and siblings at home while she went to town to hire a competent bounty hunter. She crossed paths with an alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) who was first reluctant to tackle the task. Mattie desperately wanted him because she claimed he had “true grit” or the right spirit she was searching for. Mattie and Cogburn were accompanied by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who also wanted to bring the criminal to justice. The western genre is normally not my cup of tea, but I couldn’t help but enjoy this film. Steinfeld’s energetic performance as a headstrong girl who wanted vengeance instantly caught my interest especially the very amusing scene when she tried to sell back the horses her late father bought. In just one simple scene, Steinfeld established that Mattie was intelligent, resourceful, and unafraid to bluff when the occassion called for it. She saw adults as untrustworthy so she had to be self-reliant and use fear to motivate others. Adults saw her as a child who didn’t know any better. On the positive side, she could get away with certain things that older folks simply would not. Much of the picture’s humor was embedded in the scenes where Cogburn and LaBoeuf tried to ascertain which one of them was the more effective lawman. Cogburn, aging and a drunkard, just didn’t know when to quit while he was ahead and LaBoeuf was difficult to take seriously because he walked around as if he already deserved to be respected. Bridges was successful in delivering the softer side of a man who wanted minimal contact with the world. Meanwhile, Damon complemented Bridges’ character by wanting to be seen, heard and admired. It was obvious that both were having great fun with their roles. As opposite as Cogburn and LaBoeuf were, the two could make a great duo when the situation turned grim. I admired the look of the film because I felt transported to that era. The contrasting images of the blistering hot desert and the bone-chilling snowy nights not only were great visually but they reflected what the characters felt, especially Mattie since we saw the story from her perspective, during their arduous journey. I just wished we had a chance to get to know Chaney a bit more in order to make room for another layer of complexity. Based on Charles Portis’ novel and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “True Grit” was a straightforward and character-driven revenge story. Simple is not something I’m used to when watching Coen brothers picture. Maybe that’s the irony.
The Stepfather (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Nelson McCormick directed this remake of the “The Stepfather” released in 1987 which starred Terry O’Quinn. In this version, Penn Badgley comes home from military school with some worry about his mother (Sela Ward) deciding to get married to another man (Dyan Walsh). Despite his initial suspicions, at first everything seemed to have been going well up until a elderly neighbor recognized that Walsh’s character resembeled someone from America’s Most Wanted. The longer the infamous killer stayed with his new family, the more people started to ask questions about his past. The killer evaded the questions as often as he could but he could only circumvent the issue for so long so he decided to go on another murder rampage. I believe this remake had a real opportunity to improve on a pretty average original film but it didn’t because it directed its focus on impressing the thirteen-year-old girls. In just about every scene that Badgley was in, he was either shirtless or he was wearing a wife beater. It also didn’t help the fact that Badgley isn’t a very good actor. As a fan of “Gossip Girl,” I feel like he’s more suited to television because he lacks subtlety. Other than that, the movie stapled itself to the conventions of slasher flicks such as the big showdown occuring in a dark, stormy night. I found myself rolling my eyes and yelling at the screen how stupid the characters were pretty much the entire film. It’s like none of them has ever seen a movie about serial killers before. For me, the writers were to blame because they deliberately treated the audiences as if they couldn’t think for themselves. Everything was too obvious and painfully generic. Even with the big showdown in the end, the music provided the tension and the images were just there. If the soundtrack was off, I wouldn’t feel any sort of excitement because the characters didn’t have a solid foundation to make me want to root for them. When I watch a movie about serial killers terrorizing families, I want to feel genuine suspense throughout and sympathy for the family. In here, it was all shiny glitters on the surface and no substance. The writers are in desperate need to go back to Thriller 101 and really try to understand what makes a successful thriller for both the young adults and the older ones. My one advice is that half of the picture should be about the tease and the rest about the pay-off. This remake of cult classic “The Stepfather” had neither. I have no idea why studios decided to give this film a green light when the script was beyond egregious.
The Stepfather (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Stepfather,” directed by Joseph Ruben, stars Terry O’Quinn as a psychopath who goes from one family to another to play the stepfather. When the family he decided to stay with did not meet his idea of perfection, he killed them in the most ruthless ways possible. His new family consisted of a nice mother (Shelley Hack) and a troubled daughter (Jill Schoelen). The latter had a gut feeling that there was something seriously wrong with the new man in her mother’s life. Confiding to her psychiatrist (Charles Lanyer), she decided to follow her instincts and researched about the man who gave her the creeps. I thought I would like this movie more because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it such as being a hidden gem of horror of the 1980s. I found myself being slightly disappointed because while it did have tension, it didn’t have a good sense of rising action. Specificially, the picture would build and build but then it would die out again without some sort of payoff. The technique wore out its welcome and I slowly became frustrated because I could see its potential. O’Quinn was very convincing as a charismatic psychopath with a possible dissociative identity disorder. The scenes when he would talk to himself and let out bottled rage were disturbing yet I couldn’t get enough of it. The way the circumstances finally drove him over the edge was fascinating for me to watch. While I did expect the last twenty minutes to be gory and violent, I didn’t expect it to lack logic. The part that bothered me most was the daughter’s decision to run up to the attic instead of running downstairs to scream for help in the street. She was such a smart girl up until that point so her lack of logic bothered me. I also thought the bit about the detectives didn’t have any payoff. We get a couple of scenes that featured them trying to investigate but their storylines didn’t quite tie into what was happening with the family in focus. In order words, valuable minutes were wasted when it could’ve been used to generate more suspense and creative twists. “The Stepfather” is certainly not a bad movie but it isn’t a very good one either. It’s a nice film to watch on an uneventful night but I’ve seen better movies that pretty much followed the same formula. Some viewers claimed that the movie made them think but it didn’t require much pondering on my part. I thought it was a pretty straight-forward story about a man who was always on a brink of murder.
Double Indemnity (1944)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This noir classic about a man (Fred MacMurray) who works for an insurance company who plots with a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband (Tom Powers) was impressive through and through. Unhappily married to her husband because she married him only for the money, Stanwyck suggested to MacMurray that they commit murder, collect her husband’s insurance money of $100,000 (assuming the husband dies on a train–a situation covered under the double indemnity clause) and be together forever. Only things started to go seriously wrong when an insurance investigator (Edward G. Robinson) began to feel like the death was due to murder rather than accidental because everything was set-up so perfectly. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character (played by MacMurray) narrated the picture and told the audiences outright how everything was going to turn out. So then the focus turned to the journey of two conniving individuals so blinded by greed and passion, they failed to consider the ramifications of what could happen after the deed was done. Stanwyck’s character was an expert of hiding her true emotions and an excellent liar; MacMurray’s character was obsessed with details and had a natural ability to think ahead. But both of them needed each other and that was ultimately their downfall (in which a train became a perfect metaphor). I thought it was fascinating how we saw the story through the antagonists’ perspectives. With most noir films I’ve seen, the story is always through the good guys’ eyes so watching this movie was a refreshing change. “Double Indemnity,” directed by Billy Wilder, being a noir film, I expected it to have a great ear when it comes to dialogue and a stunning use of black and white cinematography. What I didn’t expect was for the script to be very amusing, especially in the first half when MacMurray and Stanwyck conversed for the first time. It provided a nice contrast with the film’s darkness and cynicism. This movie kept me on my toes because just when I thought the characters were at the crest of the wave and were going to get away with everything, they hit a trough just as quickly and they started to figure out ways how they could survive even if it meant sacrificing one another.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jean Reno, a reclusive assassin whose best friend is a plant, takes twelve-year-old Natalie Portman under his wing after her family was killed by police officers led by Gary Oldman. Written and directed by Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “La Femme Nikita”), I enjoyed “Léon” because it was more about the humanity of a contract killer instead of his many interesting ways of killing. Even though the action sequences could be found more toward the beginning and the end of the picture, I still found Reno and Portman’s relationship to be quite endearing. Undoubtedly, there were times when I found the director would cross the line between father-figure/daughter relationship and older man/younger girl relationship. Those scenes made me uncomfortable but perhaps it was because this was Besson’s first full English-language movie. In my opinion, European films have a more sensual feel compared to American movies. Still, I was able to overlook such flaws because I found the story to be interesting even if it needed to have more depth. Another quality I liked about this film was that there really was no “good” character. Pretty much everyone had done something shameful in their lives. And the main character was aware of this so he locks himself up in his room and only comes out whenever he has an assignment. Oldman’s character was the kind of guy that you love to hate because he has no redeeming quality. Nevertheless, I thought he was very interesting to watch because of his quirky mannerisms and sinister aura. I kind of expected an intense duel between him and the protagonist so I was somewhat disappointed with the ending. For such a sadistic man, I thought the bad guy would suffer more in the hands of another killer and get the delicious irony he deserved. If one is looking for action with picture with a heart, I’m giving “Léon” a pretty solid recommendation despite its sometimes glaring flaws.
Halloween II (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Zombie, “Halloween II” is a complete waste of time. What I really liked with Zombie’s 2007 interpretation of the 1978 classic was that it really tried to tell a story. The 2007 film spent a third of its time explaining Michael Myers’ psychology as a child–something that other “Halloween” movies that came before did not do. With this 2009 sequel, we’re back again on the level of wait-and-kill without any sort of plot to drive the story forward. Basically, Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) wanted to hunt down Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) a year after they had a showdown in Haddonfield. Meanwhile, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), Michael’s ex-psychiatrist, wrote a book about the killings and tried to wrestle with the media’s barrage of questions and his conscience (or lack thereof). In my opinion, Dr. Loomis’ storyline should totally not have gone in that direction. Instead, we should have followed Dr. Loomis’ mission (or downright obsession) to hunt down Michael and protect Laurie from him. That’s much more interesting (and relevant) than scenes of him signing books and being interviewed on some television shows. As for Michael’s rampage, although I still thought that the stalking and violent scenes were very gruesome, none of it was particularly scary. Well, except for that scene in the hospital which occured during the first twenty minutes (the only effective scene in the whole movie). I also hated the fact that Zombie decided to inject Deborah Myers’ ghost (Sheri Moon Zombie as Michael’s mother) into the storyline. Not only was such a decision poorly executed, the scenes were downright laughable. If I wanted to see a ghost story with a psychological aspect to it, I’d watch “The Others” because that one was actually chilling to the bone (not to mention clever). Slasher fans simply do not pay ten bucks or so to watch a slasher flick with ghosts roaming about and supposedly instigating the broken mind of a killer. I went into this movie with an above average expectations because the 2007 version was very enjoyable. But after watching this movie, I think Zombie should just stop. He doesn’t quite grasp the idea of the brilliance that comes with simplicity and a truly terrifying soundtrack, which defined John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween” classic.
My Bloody Valentine (2009)
★ / ★★★★
This is another one of those typical horror movies where the characters make stupid decisions as they run away from the killer. After the brilliant and truly terrifying “Scream” and “Scream 2” and the mediocre spoofs that came after them, slasher campiness rarely works nowadays. This is also one of those horror movies where a particular event happened ten years ago and the survivors’ paths collide ten years later from where it all started (preferably a small town that is “God-fearing”). “My Bloody Valentine,” directed by Patrick Lussier, stars Jensen Ackles, Jaime King and Kerr Smith–the three survivors of a killing rampage performed by a person in a masked miner atttire. I’ve seen it all before (and you probably have as well) and there’s nothing particularly imaginative about this movie. While there were some notably interesting death scenes, the story just doesn’t work so I found it difficult to care for the protagonists. I found this horror flick particularly one-note in all respects especially the acting. The actors are either yelling at each other or they’re trying to look scared instead of actually being scared. Not to mention that the script felt like it was torn from a bad daytime soap opera. There’s just no modicum of subtlety; the characters always voice out what they’re thinking instead of bottling up some of their emotions and they always act on their first impulses. Real people simply do not act like them so I was rubbed the wrong way right off the bat. Moreover, I could tell that this picture had a low budget. But what’s worse is that it’s the kind that has a low budget with no redeeming qualities. Now, I don’t have a problem with pictures (especially horror pictures) with low budgets as long as it has a brain–such as the original “Halloween.” It’s just that, to me, if a movie is lacking something, it needs to try to excel in other aspects such as its script, acting or soundtrack, for instance. “My Bloody Valentine” did not even try to impress in any way. It’s purpose was clear: to attract blood-thirsty teenagers (particularly boys as they drag their terrified girlfriends along) during Valentine’s Day to waste their money on something that is neither engaging nor rewarding.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie left me emotionally drained because I was able to feel a whirlwind of emotions as it unfolded. At first it was about Andrew Bagby’s murder in the hands of the psychotic ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner but then it changes gears twenty minutes later. It then begins to document the struggles that David Bagby and Kathleen Bagby went through in order to take care (and gain custody) of Zachary Bagby, Andrew and Shirley’s son, while at the same time trusting the law to do its job by putting Shirley away for the overwhelming evidence of pre-meditated murder. As the film went on, the rug was pulled from my feet once again and the documentary-family portrait becomes something so much more profound and heartbreaking. I can see how some people could point out and claim that the film is a bit amateurish and shouldn’t be trusted fully because it comes from a close friend of the Bagbys. But considering the many years of custody battles and emotional rollercoasters, I thought the way Kurt Kuenne, the director, told the story was very personal (and sometimes too personal; there were some interviews that made me feel like I shouldn’t be watching or hearing what they’ve got to say) and the amateurish production reflected that. It’s also effecient because I noticed that every twenty minutes or so, the audiences get to learn something new and reevaluate the things that were explored prior to that point. As for the criticism regarding its lack of objectivity, being fair is not the film’s purpose at all. Its purpose is to show how much the Bagbys are loved and Canadian government’s inaction regarding a woman who they claim to be “not a danger to society.” Although I haven’t experienced the pain of losing a friend in the hands of another, I found it easy to relate to the people in this documentary via imagining myself in their situation. Those scenes when David and Kathleen were willing face the murderer of their son just so that they could spend time with their grandson really got to me. I honestly don’t know how they got through it or if I could ever go through it if something similar happens to me. I thought this film was impressive in many respects and it reminded me of the revelatory “Capturing the Friedmans.”