Tag: mystery

Under the Silver Lake


Under the Silver Lake (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Beware: “Under the Silver Lake” is a hundred forty minutes of writer-director David Robert Mitchell masturbating on film and then dunking the viewer’s head onto the pretentious bodily fluid. It is polarizing and perplexing… and yet the same time an argument can be made it is a passionate amalgamation of genres tied together by a central mystery. There is a saying that one man’s trash is another’s man’s treasure. To me, this is trash. Let me tell you why.

I found no enjoyment out of it. The question to be solved involves what really happened to a neighbor (Riley Keough) whom Sam (Andrew Garfield) developed a crush on over the course of one meeting. Sam’s initial investigation suggests that she perished in a car explosion along with two other women and a man. The story takes place in Hollywood and so it is insinuated that the neighbor is some sort of call girl. Throughout the picture the viewer is required to read in between the lines. At times we have no choice but to make assumptions based on other media we had consumed. While not a negative quality, the picture is filled to the brim with bizarre coincidences, many of them leading nowhere. One wonders eventually why the story must be told in a protracted manner. There is no reason for it but to punish even the most patient watchers.

Even Garfield’s performance is awkward and strange. Although I found it fresh that he has chosen to play a boyish loser who has five days left to pay his rent before getting evicted instead of yet another hero or some sort of genius, I did not believe his portrayal. There is not one second when I was not reminded that I was watching Garfield acting. The character’s sense of being changes from one scene to the next—so much so that at one point I wondered that perhaps Sam is a manic-depressive. Here is a man so desperate to find the girl that he wills himself to find clues that may or may not be there to discover. Sam is defined mostly through irrational behavior, but it is a critical miscalculation that the screenplay fails to move this figure beyond that.

It is supposed to be a neo-noir mystery-thriller with a sprinkling of comic touches. Way before the halfway point I caught my mind drifting toward Rian Johnson’s excellent “Brick.” In that film, the investigation is tightly paced, every character we come across matters, and the central mystery is so potent, we get the sneaky suspicion that it may not end well—for anyone. Yet it is not without a sense of humor. They talk funny, they act funny, even the pauses in between are funny. Together, these elements make all the difference. In Johnson’s film, the world is a living, breathing microcosm. In this film, on the other hand, nearly everything feels like plastic decoration. If this is the point, then the commentary is shallow. It is important to change gears once in a while.

If I wanted to watch a series of freaky moments that do not add up to anything significant, I’d log on YouTube. Despite the colorful eccentricities of “Under the Silver Lake,” the overarching message is that there is an insanity to Los Angeles (the mystery to be solved) and yet people all over the world (our protagonist) are drawn to its enigma and/or promise of a better life. But this is obvious, nothing new, certainly not fresh. Neither is its approach. It fails to command tension even in the most rudimentary manner. Then what are we left with as intelligent consumers?

Burning


Burning (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Watching Chang-dong Lee’s “Burning” is like sitting in front of a whiz poker player. It keeps its cards close to its chest, it has no tell, and everything is on the line. It is a fascinating story that evolves slowly then suddenly… and just when we think it has completed its final stage of metamorphosis, we wonder if the developments are simply a reflection of our own expectations all along. It is a mysterious, engaging, modern picture that is certain to frustrate those who expect to be spoon-fed. It is a gift for both deep thinkers and movie lovers.

This Rubik’s Cube’s opening moves involves two acquaintances from childhood meeting by chance. Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is a delivery boy and Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun) is an entertainer who dances in front of a store. She recognizes him, but he does not recognize her. She claims it is because she is beautiful now post-plastic surgery. It is a bizarre opening chapter, but Yoo and Jun share an intriguing and effortless romantic chemistry. If the film were a romantic comedy or drama, this duo would be worth following on the basis of the performers’ physicality and surface personalities. But, in essence, the work is a mystery; and so the sort of meet-cute exposition becomes a wonderful but purposeful juxtaposition of what is to come.

The pacing is slow but never boring. I found it interesting that although the first third of the story focuses on Jong-su’s romantic attraction to Hae-mi, love is not what the material is really about. I think it is about how genetic predispositions can limit a person psychologically, how a traumatic past can change a person permanently, and how pressures of the current situation can lead to acts of desperation. On the surface, not much happens—this is true. But just beneath the sclera is a wealth of commentary that goes beyond human psychology.

It also has something to say about social classes in South Korea, the anger of youth culture, destiny being tethered, in a way, to where one starts off in life. Take note, for example, of where Jong-su lives—his country home is so close to the North Korean border that he is able to hear daily propaganda being broadcasted on air as it were an alarm clock. Contrast this to the home of Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy man Hae-mi meets during her trip to Africa, how it is so quiet and the sound that can be heard is that of actual music rather than disinformation. Of course, the interiors and exteriors of the residences are nearly opposites. “Ben” is a western name, “Jong-su” is not. This isn’t to suggest that in order to have an appreciation of the film, one must analyze every frame. These details are simply there should one feel included to look more closely.

Perhaps the most curious relationship is between the two men who are stark opposites. Yeun plays Ben almost like sociopath—but not quite—who feels a certain kinship with our protagonist from the moment they meet at the airport. In some scenes, the director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jung-mi Oh, makes a point to communicate that Ben is elated—relieved even—because he is able to share a part of himself to Jong-su. Maybe they even have a common understanding or morality. But due to life’s circumstances, their commonalities end up tenuous at best. Others might say these are simply suppressed or hidden.

“Burning” is an enigma, a work worthy of rumination both as it unfolds and well after the final chapter ends. I enjoyed being led by it and in directions that made me feel unease. By constantly being two steps ahead, always ready to pivot, the suspense builds as we are left with more questions than answers. Like great novels, the more profound answers are found in us, how we perceive and interpret the story and its characters. It is no accident that Jong-su is an aspiring novelist whose favorite writer is William Faulkner.

Beast


Beast (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“Beast,” written and directed by Michael Pearce, is an interesting hybrid of romance and murder mystery, but it is not a thoroughly engaging psychological piece because the way it is shot gets in the way of telling the story raw and unflinching. Take any individual scene and notice its stylistic flourishes, from the way it is photographed, the calculated acting, and the manner in which the camera moves. Nearly everything is so planned out that we never forget we are watching a movie. The lyricism that courses throughout its the images and the feelings it evokes functions like filter—an incorrect approach because the central couple, particularly the darkness living inside them, demands to be understood without restraint.

Moll and Pascal are played by Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, respectively, and they share strong chemistry. Physically, they look good together and there are a handful of instances when we are convinced of the romance simply by the two of them looking into one another’s eyes. But the fluctuating screenplay, especially when it is demanded that one of them raises his or her voice suddenly, does not work. It disturbs the relaxed chemistry built by the two performers and the material moves toward the territory of soap opera. One cannot help but wonder that this weakness could be attributed to the fact that it is the writer-director’s first foray into helming a full feature film.

The main question is whether Pascal is the one responsible for the series of murders involving underaged girls that have taken place on the island. Those well-versed in murder mysteries are certain to recognize the classic clues, even subtle ones, that are designed underline the mysterious stranger’s guilt. I enjoyed that the material is seemingly aware of the tropes and so it leaves enough room for us to doubt, that perhaps the many signs are simply red herrings meant to distract. Is it possible that the killer is simply a random stranger that just so happen to be visiting the island?

Intriguingly, the screenplay demands for the viewer to consider Moll as a suspect as well, even though we see the story through her eyes, because of her violent altercation with a schoolmate. Early scenes suggest she is a deeply disturbed young woman, brought up in a home that demands to control every aspect of her life, that she is left with barely any breathing room to be young, free, and spontaneous.

Buckley fits the role like a leather glove; she can look vulnerable and threatening at the same time. It is most unfortunate that the supporting characters, particularly Moll’s family, are so one-dimensional, these people fail to function as mirrors that reflect who Moll is outside of her extreme emotions, blackouts, and tendency to hurt herself or run away. Clearly, in order for the material to work, whether it be a mishmash of genres or otherwise, the drama must be established in a clear, concise, and convincing manner. Here, we never get past curious behavior.

Most beautiful to me is in the way it showcases the story’s animalistic themes. Look at the way Moll and Pascal make love, how they dance, how they wrestle, how they play. Notice how their body language collapses when surrounded by proud trees and verdant meadows. Pay attention to the lack of words shared between the two during deeply intimate moments. Its images are quite strong that at times I considered that perhaps the project might have worked better as a silent film.

Gemini


Gemini (2017)
★ / ★★★★

As the minutes trickle away, especially after the murder of interest, it begins to feel blatantly obvious that the material does not know where to go. At times it appears as though “Gemini,” written and directed by Aaron Katz, wishes to be a film noir. When it no longer feels like wearing this suit, it goes for a standard murder mystery. And all the while it wishes to make a statement about Los Angeles and its celebrity culture: the agents, assistants, superfans, paparazzi, and those involved in making movies; it is a mess and by the end, the viewer no longer cares about the answers it provides—probably because those experienced with mysteries have long figured out its endgame.

The assistant who investigates her client’s murder, an actress (Zoë Kravitz) whose career is currently red hot, is played by Lola Kirke, sporting a mannequin-like facial expression almost throughout the entire picture. To me, she delivers an interesting performance because it appears as though Jill is sleepwalking after the trauma of coming across her friend’s corpse. But the screenplay fails to give an intriguing performance any support. Naturally, the assistant is the number one suspect from the perspective of a detective (John Cho) who is assigned to the case.

There is a mechanical pattern to its attempts to increase the tension: Jill enters a hotel room, a house, or a place of business—basically any place where she shouldn’t be—because she is following a lead. The threat is almost always someone potentially finding out about what she is up to. What if the killer is the person whom she least suspects and he or she happens to be nearby? The formula exasperates rather than entertains the viewer because there is no variation in the expected beats. With a running time of less than ninety minutes, breezy for a mystery-thriller, it still drags.

Notice how the dialogue sounds so overwritten. When there is conflict between two characters, one of them suddenly begins to sound like the writer typing the dialogue and trying to make exchanges sound intense instead of actually being in the moment and embracing its messy intensity. And because we notice that the character and the words he employs does not sound like himself within moments of great friction, we are taken out of the moment. Thus, the drama comes across as false and occasionally laughable.

It is clear that the picture’s strength is its visuals. There are moments, especially scenes that unfold at night, when Los Angeles looks like an underworld of darkness and neon lights. Perhaps the only element missing is an eighties soundtrack. But kaleidoscopic visuals do not make an intriguing or ingenious mystery. The writer-director must have a screenplay so sharp that by its opening scenes its claws have us by the throat and never let up. There is no surprise to be had here, just a whole lot of boredom.

Open Grave


Open Grave (2013)
★ / ★★★★

A man wakes up among a pile of corpses and discovers a bite mark on his arm. Disoriented and with no memory of who he is, he comes across a gun and enters a house. There, he discovers five people who appear to be in a similar situation as he is. They decide to work together despite being suspicious that perhaps one of them knows exactly what is going on. While exploring the surrounding area of the house, a little boy calls the man Jonah (Sharlto Copley), the former clearly terrified of the man’s presence.

Movies with an interesting premise but failing to aspire to achieve anything else should not be tolerated by audiences. “Open Grave,” written by Eddie Borey and Chris Borey, is this kind of film—so devoid of horror, intrigue, and rudimentary idea of how to create a steady rising action, I wished the film were over less than halfway through. Almost everything about it is uninspired.

The screenplay lacks life despite a mystery that involves a group attempting to figure out who they are and why they are thrusted in an almost impossible situation. It does not have an ear for dialogue. Listen carefully to how characters speak. Ignore the voices and focus on the words and phrases. Notice that they talk almost in an identical manner. As a result, the characters come across wooden, mere figures on screen who do not inspire us to want to know them.

It relies on flashbacks to create a dramatic arc. This is almost always a mistake because it requires not only a first-class screenplay but also deft direction to make it work. Because so much information relies on flashbacks, the current events surrounding the characters are overshadowed. Thus, why set the film’s plot, including its climax, in the present when, clearly, the past is more important? Miscalculations this significant should not be overlooked—by the audience and the filmmakers themselves.

The confused characters scout the area for possible answers. Instead of the material focusing on answering the mystery, already dramatic scenes are overemphasized further by two characters staring intensely in one another’s eyes. Supposedly, that sort of thing triggers memories. I laughed at it at first but then I grew bored by it just as quickly. By the fifth similar scene, I was convinced it was only biding time in order to keep the mystery covered up. It is a charade designed to waste everybody’s time.

Despite some wide shots involving obvious CGI, I enjoyed looking at piles of dead, rotting human bodies. In movies of its type, I find that there is something beautiful about rotting flesh cobbled together in silence with buzzing of the flies highlighting the effect.

“Open Grave,” directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego, is insufferable. It makes one too many elementary mistakes that we wonder if the filmmakers had any inspiration to draw from. The characters are confused. More importantly, we are confused because the persons behind the camera fail to plan and execute a story that comes together in such a way that is adroit or even remotely original.

Solace


Solace (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Mystery-thriller “Solace,” written by Sean Bailey and Ted Griffin, commands an intriguing premise but the deeper the picture gets into the case involving a series of “mercy-killing” murders, it proves unable to sustain and deliver upon the intrigue it promises. Instead, the film is reduced to a final showdown using guns, an uninspired avenue traversed too often by generic thrillers with not much to say so long as the antagonists meet their doom in the end. The first half has potential but the latter half is so pointless, near worthless, that a part of me was surprised it received the go signal to be made.

Anthony Hopkins is immensely watchable as a former doctor/FBI investigator named by John Clancy who is approached by Special Agent Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with the hope of providing insight on an especially difficult assignment. The murders have been executed so well, no DNA has been found on the crime scene, no witness, not even a footprint or sign of forced entry. The MO is the same: a puncture mark on the back of the head, the sharp weapon used believed to pierce the medulla oblongata—resulting in a quick and painless death. Merriwether is convinced Clancy will be able to help given the old man’s special ability to see into the past and future by simply touching a person or an object of interest.

Hopkins injects elegance into material that would have been unbearably standard without his presence. His way of delivering lines, the manner in which he plays with pauses, the ability to communicate using only his eyes tend to elevate the scenes he is in. He creates a creepy feeling by making his character a bit detached from everyone he encounters. At times, however, his performance is diluted by various images shown quickly on screen—a distracting depiction of what John sees in his mind.

Such an approach is a miscalculation. It doesn’t work in many high-caliber thrillers and it doesn’t work here either. Having such a consummate performer like Hopkins at the helm, why not simply allow the camera to rest on his face and so we are forced to observe the minuscule changes in his facial expressions? Why do we need to see the images the character sees in his mind? The answer is, we don’t. Showing such images is simply a crutch—a technique to spell out nearly everything for the audience. The material treats us like we are neither patient nor intelligent.

The look of the picture is bland in that there is no personality in each of the environment we visit, whether it be a police station, a crime scene, or a murder victim’s home. Notice that even a solid episode of “Criminal Minds” tends to deliver a certain look or feel to it. And that is on television. In other words, the film does not come across cinematic. If this were playing on TV and I just so happened to come across it, after a few seconds I would likely think it was a show doomed for cancellation. There is a lack of an artistic eye here—disappointing because the filmmakers could have taken inspiration from David Fincher’s “Se7en,” for example. In that movie, the unsub has a twisted sense of morality, too.

Directed by Afonso Poyart, “Solace” offers a few clever moments and solidly watchable performances, especially by Hopkins, but the writing lacks focus, a highly analytical nature despite clairvoyance added to the mix, as well as a powerful visceral punch, essential elements to create a memorable and chilling crime-thriller.

Gosford Park


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.