★★★ / ★★★★
Carol (Julianne Moore) is an upper-middle class housewife living in the San Fernando Valley who begins to develop a set of non-specific symptoms that has her doctor baffled. Despite her constant headaches and general feeling that something is not quite right with her body, she is perfectly healthy—at least according to the medical exams. What caused this illness—assuming there is one to begin with? Could it be due to the smoke she inhaled while driving on the freeway? Could it be because of the so-called “fruit diet” that she and her best friend took part in? Or is it due to something else entirely?
Written and directed by Todd Haynes, “Safe” is a polarizing film because it is not easy to sit through. The dialogue is sparse and seemingly superficial. The pacing is slow and deliberate. The use of the camera can come across static at times. Not one of the supporting characters are the least bit interesting. It does not provide easy answers with respect to the protagonist’s condition. And yet it is worth seeing.
Moore delivers a magnetic performance. Because dialogue is limited, the performer must be able to pull our attention by exhibiting an intelligence, a desperation, a certain strength that cannot be denied. Although Moore plays a character whose health is flailing, she provides substance by welcoming us to consider what Carol is thinking.
This is particularly apparent when the subject is looking herself on the mirror. Sure, there is the basic question of “What is happening to me?” inside her head but there is also sadness, regret, frustration. Another is when the camera transfixes on her face. Those eyes are haunting—she just as well could be a friend or a loved one in silent suffering.
Notice the writer-director’s ability to frame a scene. Initially, I was thrown off by the camera’s insistence of observing from afar despite a conversation occurring between two characters. The picture made me realize that I am so used to recognizing context or body cues when characters are interacting that once that comfort is removed, I am frustrated. But after the same technique is employed about three or four times, I began to wonder what Haynes is trying to accomplish.
Since Carol’s source of illness is believed be environmental, are we supposed to take notice of the bed flowers from just a feet or two away? The couches that have been delivered recently? The room that provides no proper air flow? Since the clues are there, the film begs for a second viewing. Such is a sign of a great movie.
The latter half piques our interest because there is doubt regarding the validity of the treatment center that Carol comes to join. Because the former half makes us paranoid of what is in the air, the food, the water, on the bedsheets, maybe it is possible that the group is some kind of cult. I looked for classic signs—some are present but many pieces are missing—but was unable to form a precise conclusion. This group lives in isolation. There are many more trees than there are shopping malls. Still, Carol does not appear to be getting better. What is going on?
“Safe” engages the viewer to ask questions and to look a little closer. Not many things are exactly as they appear. There are no twists to make someone go, “Oh! So that’s what’s going on all along!” There are only inferences and sometimes the terror is in the not fully knowing.
Silent House (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In order to sell their lakeside home, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her dad, John (Adam Trese), were required to clean the place and pack memorabilia they wanted to keep. Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), John’s brother, lent a helping hand and the two fixed up the basement while throwing playful insults at each other as most close siblings tend to do. As Sarah lit lanterns and began sorting through boxes, there was a knock on the front door. It was Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), Sarah’s forgotten childhood friend, and the two eventually decided that they would hang out and reminisce old times. Sarah got back to her work. There was another knock on the door. There was no one there. Based on Gustavo Hernández’ “La casa muda,” the film followed every step that Sarah had taken from the moment we laid eyes on her as she stared placidly across the lake up until she was finally allowed to walk away from the house–all supposedly taken in one take. I’m not sure if such a claim was true, but even if it was an illusion, it was executed convincingly. The picture demanded prodigious patience. There were no shocks that forced our hearts to jump out of our chests every five minutes. The images were supposed to get under our skin and make us believe there was something odd around the corner. Since there was no electricity, every room looked menacing because boxes, plastic bags, and random pointed objects created shadows that suggested there could be something there if one looked closely enough. There were also plenty of mirrors. In horror movies, we’ve been conditioned to expect our protagonists to pass by a mirror, preferably old-looking, without noticing a ghost or whatnot staring right at them. While I will refrain from saying whether or not that cliché was implemented here, the material was able to construct an increasing amount of dread with every creaking door nearby, strange tapping in the room, and deafening thuds next door. Olsen was required to be more than a girl cowering in fear. While her character was fearful of every little thing, which, admittedly, I found quite annoying in the first few minutes, Olsen had way of combining terrified expressions with confusion and anticipation. Turning the doorknob was a challenge for Sarah. Most of us would find ourselves leaning back just in case something on the other side was waiting to go, “Boo!” Since Olsen’s performance had subtle variations, I believed that Sarah was consistently doing the best she could to try to get out of the house and find help. What I didn’t enjoy about the film, however, was its payoff. Imagine being in a roller coaster as it climbed higher and higher up until you just wished it would just reach the top, finally go down and shrill screaming began. But once it reached the top, the unexpected happened: the descent was languorous and very controlled. It felt unnatural so you couldn’t help but feel out of place. That’s how I felt while watching the final act: there was nothing scary, suspenseful, or thrilling about it. Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Silent House,” at its best, made me gasp once or twice. At its worst, however, I shook my head in frustration that it believed it could get away with a cheap resolution just because the supposed single take style looked impressive.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) was one week away from retirement when he was thrusted into a case that involved an obese man who seemed as though he ate himself to death. Enter Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an ambitious man of the law who was supposed to replace Somerset. In the meantime, the two had to work together in order to catch a killer who was intent on personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. That is, turning each sin against the sinner in grotesque and often very violent ways. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, “Se7en” was about the two detectives as well as the crimes the killer inflicted on his victims. The contrast between the two detectives went beyond their age and the way they perceived their role in law enforcement. Somerset was the patient intellectual who bothered to read between the lines in search of deeper meaning, while Mills was the mercurial brute arm who had less proclivity toward delayed gratification. As the duo got deeper into the macabre case, we came to observe their strengths and weaknesses as well as learn about their histories. Despite their differences in personality and the way they approached problems, they made a good team. And like all good teams, sometimes they made game-changing mistakes and created repercussions that they just couldn’t walk away from. By allowing us to observe Mills and Somerset as they explored the increasingly cryptic assignment, the film argued that in order for a person to understand evil, one has to be willing to, if necessary, be an agent of the thing he is fighting against in hopes of ultimately overcoming it. Yet nothing was certain and the picture offered no easy answers about motivations, revenge, or redemption. I admired the film’s cold detachment in terms of the details of the crime. I’ve always been a curious person but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed when Fincher allowed the camera to be as close to the subject as possible. For instance, when the obese man was in the morgue coming off a post-mortem examination, we could clearly see the various discolorations on the man’s skin, every fold of fat and fibrous vein, as well as the points of incision. When such details were so precise that my nervous system couldn’t help but react so strongly, that’s how I know I’m watching a master at work. The picture could easily have been a gimmick about the cardinal sins. But notice that with each passing victim, the camera spent less time on their mutilated bodies. Increasing attention was directed to the two detectives’ varying reactions. Take Mills as an example. He was easy to crack jokes about the corpses. He didn’t do it to be mean or disrespectful. It was his own way of coping with what he just saw so that at the end of the day he would be able to go home and sleep next to his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). “Se7en” had respect for its complex story and, more importantly, it respected us as an audience. Its willingness to stare into the ugly depths of the psyche as well as the bleak streets and underground alleys of sin made it a harrowing and rewarding experience.
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.
House of Games (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite her many successes in her career, a psychiatrist named Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) felt like something was missing in her life. She had her routine at work but at the end of the day she wondered if she was even alive. A void was inside her was increasing in size and she didn’t know how to fill it up. When a patient with a gambling problem confessed to her that he’d be killed if he didn’t come up with the money the next day, she went to a bar and met Mike (Joe Mantegna), the man who supposedly would murder her patient. Being next to him, she felt instant attraction. And when she found out about his occupation, she felt excitement–something that helped to cure the emptiness inside her. The film’s greatest weapon was its script. Every time the characters would speak, I was drawn to them because they were intelligent but ultimately wounded. The camera would move with jurisdiction whenever there was a subtle change in tone so I was always curious with what was about to transpire. After many twists involving several cons, I tried to stay one step ahead of the material just as the characters eventually tried to outsmart each other. The filmmakers had fun with the material because there were times when I thought a twist would occur but it simply didn’t. There were other times when my hypotheses were correct. Furthermore, I was surprised how exciting it was even though it lacked car chases and explosions, elements that are easily found in movies like this one. Instead, the picture focused on the characters and how the dynamics between them changed drastically with a slight of hand. As much as I liked the heist scenes, I found Dr. Ford’s compulsions to be most disturbing and haunting. The way the darkness in her moved from her thoughts to her actions made me feel very uncomfortable. The scary thing is that I found a bit of myself in her. I’m a perfectionist and I love my routine. I love being around people and working with them but sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth it. Like her, there are times when I feel the need to do something completely out of character because constantly trying to have everything just right had become trite and painfully boring. In other words, sometimes I feel like the law doesn’t apply to me because I’ve been a model citizen. Written and directed by David Mamet, “House of Games” was a psychological thriller that worked in multiple levels. Its subject matter directly and astutely commented on human nature and how our behavior could sometimes define us.
The Rite (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), son of a mortician, decided to go to seminary school because his family could not afford a four-year college education. His plan was to send his resignation after four years because he had serious doubts about his faith. When he did, a concerned priest (Toby Jones) sent him to Rome to attend an exorcism class led by Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds). But this only increased Michael’s doubt as he brought up the questionable methods done by the Catholic church in terms of dealing with people who claimed to have been possessed. Avid in psychology, he claimed that demon possession had classic signs of known psychiatric disorders. Since seeing is supposedly believing, Father Xavier sent Michael to Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a practicing exorcist in Rome. Inspired by a true story and based on a book by Matt Baglio, “The Rite” took a more realistic path in tackling the issue of exorcism, a practice undoubtedly still happening today. It was great to watch because it wasn’t afraid to acknowledge how exorcism was portrayed in movies. As Father Lucas puts it, when it came to exorcism, people tend to expect “spinning heads and pea soup,” referencing William Friedkin’s horror classic “The Exorcist,” but that wasn’t reality. The reality was people would come in for multiple sessions and a priest would try to exorcise the demon by attempting to find its name and getting control of it. A certain level of the unexplained was there, such as the supposed possessed person knowing certain things about another, but an uncanny level of insight could potentially be explained via an observation of behavioral responses and first impressions. I liked its approach and I was fascinated. Even though I don’t necessarily believe in the devil, I wish the film had spent more time in the classroom because it elucidated and dispelled common myths about the practice. But the picture also had elements of the supernatural. As Michael got deeper into his experiences with Father Lucas, he began to experience horrifying possible hallucinations like a demon taking on a form of a mule and hearing his dead father’s voice on the phone. He also had dreams about the time he saw his father cleaning up after his mother’s corpse. Was Michael experiencing symptoms of a mental illness? Or were the hallucinations and nightmares triggered by guilt? Guilt of leaving his father, guilt of using the seminary school, and guilt of continuing to deny that what he had seen could be real. Directed by Mikael Håfström, “The Rite” wasn’t a typical film about exorcisms because it was willing to laugh at itself and its characters. Since it was more grounded in reality, when the supernatural was thrown at us, the scares and creepiness were all the more effective.
★★ / ★★★★
“Requiem” was based on the real-life story more commercially covered in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Michaela (Sandra Hüller) had been plagued by chronic seizures ever since childhood but the picture instantly suggested there was something far worse happening to her. So when she was finally accepted to attend the university, her parents (Imogen Kogge, Burghart Klaußner), especially her mother, did not want her to leave home. In college, at first things were fine despite her occasional–and natural–loneliness quickly remedied by a nice boy (Nicholas Reinke) and a classmate from high school (Anna Blomeier). But as the year pressed on, she slowly lost control of her body to the point where she was unable to reach religious symbols or even pray. After I saw this movie, I did not like it because I expected a more obvious approach in telling a story about a possessed girl that lead up to an exorcism. In other words, I expected a horror film. However, when I separate my expectations from what the film had to offer, the more I thought about it, the more I enjoyed it because it tried to stray from the obvious. I loved the fact that her condition was not an obvious demonic possession. I can even argue that she wasn’t possessed at all. From her symptoms, I can argue that she had schizophrenia because of the paranoia and imaginary visions and sounds. Then I turned to her very sheltered environment–how she was raised and the sexual repression she endured over the years. But then the movie commented on how we could easily turn to science for an explanation of things that we couldn’t fully understand. It added one layer of complexity after another while remaining true to its naturalistic also documentary-like style. Her progression from a normal girl to someone who reached a mental break was subtle and frightening in its own way. However, I thought the film needed more work on delivering more consistent payoffs. The first half relied heavily on setting up the background with small rewards dispersed few and far between. It would have been more terrifying if the camera allowed us to see through Michaela’s eyes and seeing the things she saw or hearing the voices she heard. By having more scenes that actively blurred the line between the real and the supernatural, the project would have been more frightening. Written by Barnd Lange and directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, “Requiem” was an interesting psychological drama with a lot of promise. It did not completely work for me because the first half was somewhat difficult to sit through but once it started picking up in the second half, my eyes were transfixed on the screen.