Red Hill (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) and his pregnant wife (Claire van der Boom) decided to move in a place where she could get some peace and quiet in order to keep her blood pressure under control. They moved to Red Hill, a small town whose inhabitants were very protective of their land. Incidentally, Shane’s first day as a police offer became his worst nightmare when a known murderer named Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) escaped from prison. It turned out Shane making a good impression on Old Bill (Steve Bisley), his superior, should be the least of his worries. Jimmy, with half of his face burnt which made him look like a serial killer in an ’80s slasher flick, made it his goal to assassinate Red Hill’s police officers one by one. Written and directed by Patrick Hughes, I found “Red Hill” to be entirely predictable. As a moviegoer with a critical eye for character development and understanding their motivations, I quickly figured out the picture’s major twist fifteen minutes into the killing spree. I surmised that the lawmen did Jimmy wrong in the past when the escaped inmate showed a soft spot for Shane. I didn’t know exactly what had transpired to make Jimmy hell-bent on taking bloody revenge but when the cards were laid out for us, it felt painfully ordinary. When Jimmy hunted the cops like animals, I thought it was strange that it lacked tension. The murder scenes followed an eye-roll worthy formula: the cop was caught off-guard by Jimmy, the cop begged for his life (sometimes a ruse to get to a gun), and Jimmy killed him anyway. My lack of feelings for the characters about to be slaughtered was proof that the filmmakers weren’t successful in creating an engaging story and characters with depth and complexity. Other than Old Bill and Shane, I could not recall any of the other police officers’ names. The film also suffered from a tired exposition. A panther, not ordinarily found in the Australian outback, killing horses was a heavy-handed metaphor for an outsider that threatened to tip the balance of power and cause change. In this instance, Shane was the outsider who entered a protected sphere governed by old men who desperately protected a secret. There were some amusing bits about Shane always losing his gun. However, it was difficult to root for him when he was always hiding, getting caught, or walking for miles. He would have been better suited as an awkward but funny supporting character who was killed somewhere in the middle. But as a main character, I wasn’t convinced he was strong enough to survive the raging madness and flying bullets. Not even with his luck.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A woman was driving in the middle of nowhere and her luck turned grim when one of the tires gave out. She called her husband, Secret Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), to inform him of her predicament. In the middle of their phone conversation, a man named Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) knocked on her window and offered to help. She refused, told him that she already called a car service, and thanked him for his kindness. He insisted but she refused again. So he decided to break into her car and beat her until she lost consciousness. When, covered in a plastic bag, she became aware of her surroundings, he transected her limbs and threw her head into the river. Written by Hoon-jung Park and directed by Jee-woon Kim, “Akmareul boatda,” also known as “I Saw the Devil,” was an intense psychological study of a man so hell-bent on vengeance, he didn’t care if he hurt the wrong man. The lush cinematography made an interesting contrast with the characters’ dark ideations. When the searchers found the woman’s head in the river, there was something so sad and sinister about the scene. It was sad because her father and husband expected that the head wouldn’t be her’s but at the same time they somewhat knew that it was over. It was sinister because I felt like Kyung-chul was watching among the crowd of journalists and photographers. What I found unique about the story was in the way Agent Kim had the upper-hand for most of the film. It was unpredictable because it didn’t follow a typical narrative. For instance, the sadistic killer and the husband confronted each other prior to the half-way point. With each time the killer lost a physical confrontation, a part of his body was broken and he was allowed to run (or limp) away. Unbeknownst to the killer, the secret agent forced him to swallow a tracking device. The comedy kicked in when Kyung-chul was aghast that every time he was about to molest a young girl, Agent Kim foiled his plans and gave him another broken body part. Behaviorism failed to work. We wanted to see the killer suffer but there came a point where we had no choice but to ask ourselves how much was enough. Agent Kim claimed that the violence he inflicted was driven by the promise he made to his late wife. But maybe there was something inside him that relished being in control of another human being and acting like he was above the law. It worked as a meticulous case study of what torture does to the person inflicting the pain. As wild as the picture became, I admired that it had ways of pulling us back to the murdered wife. I especially liked the way the director handled the difficult phone call between Agent Kim and his wife’s family. His father-in-law actually asked him to stop. I imagine it must have been so difficult for him to come to that decision. “What you’re doing will not bring her back,” the sister said. Agent Kim’s eyes searched for an answer that could prove her statement wrong. There wasn’t any.
★★★ / ★★★★
When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.
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.
Day of the Woman (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
An aspiring writer (Camille Keaton) decided to live in a secluded cabin in a small town during the summer to work on her first novel. At first it seemed like a nice place because the people (Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Eron Tabor, Gunter Kleeman) she met were friendly but those were the very same sick-minded individuals who eventually tortured and gang-raped her multiple times. This exploitation flick was definitely unsettling to watch because of its extended realistic violence. However, I thought there was a certain lyricism with its lack of soundtrack and periods of time when the characters did not particularly do anything interesting. It gave me the feeling that the events that I saw could have happened and can still happen to anybody which made it that much more chilling. While the rape scenes were indeed shocking and painful to watch, I liked the way the female lead took her time to systematically plot her bloody revenge. Although the things that were unfolding were dead serious, there was a certain cheekiness and dark humor with the way Keaton used her feminine wiles to lure the men who did her wrong and to push them to their grizzly demise. The second half was stronger not just because of the revenge scenes but also due to one of the characters explaining why they decided to rape her. Of course, the classic argument of a woman “asking for it” was brought up. There was also an interesting metaphor about catching fish and getting a woman. That relationship was compelling to me because the men treated her exactly like an animal. Perhaps worse. Many elements came together in the second half that took me by surprise because, to be honest, I did not expect the material to have much insight or intelligence due to my prior experiences with exploitation movies. I was happy that it defied my expectations. It would have been easier for the picture to rely on the obviousness of the images but it had a surprising amount of subtlety. In the end, I was convinced that writer and director Meir Zarchi successfully made a feminist film. I thought it was funny that the women in the movie were portrayed as smart and strong but the men were idiots and lacked goals. “Day of the Woman” also known as “I Spit on Your Grave” had risen beyond the sadistic and the ugly and actively confronted issues such as blame, responsibility, and entitlement.
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite the “Saw”-like twists and glimmering artistry of the vigilante’s (Gerard Butler) mission to teach a lesson about justice, “Law Abiding Citizen” was simply another one of those revenge flicks about a father out to get revenge for his slain family. Jamie Foxx played the assistant district attorney who made a deal with one of the murderers so that he could keep his 96% conviction rate. Ten years later, Butler returned to the scene. As a result of such decisions prior, one of the murderers was set free and the other suffered unimaginable pain during his death. If the movie wasn’t so entertaining and had good sense of pacing, I would have completely written this film off because the whole thing felt atrocious. I couldn’t believe for one second that one man could outsmart various levels of the government after only ten years of planning everything. At first I did root for Butler’s character because I could relate to the pain that he was going through. But when he started killing off innocent people, that was the turning point for me. With movies like “Kill Bill” starring Uma Thurman and “Taken” starring Liam Neeson, I was able to stay with the lead characters even though they killed people left and right. And the reason I was able to root for them until the end of their respective features was the fact that they only harmed those who were responsible. With Butler’s character, it was as if he enjoyed killing off people despite the scenes of where F. Gary Gray, the director, showed how much he was “suffering.” As far as morality tales go, I didn’t believe that it was as smart as it was trying to be. However–and this is a big one considering I’m giving the movie a recommendation–I did enjoy watching the movie because it was entertaining to watch the characters scurring around like rodents in hopes to be one step ahead of the vigilante and eventually dropping like flies when they unknowingly made bad decisions. It was not only thrilling because of the sense of dread that Butler’s character was able to deliver with each so-called deals but it was also very amusing because there were times when I found myself buying into everything that was happening. I’m one of those people that did not at all like the controversial ending because it made me think what the point was of it all. I felt as though the writer’s (Kurt Wimmer) decision to end it the way it did was a bit of a cheat after such strong build-ups. Thriller fans should be entertained by “Law Abiding Citizen” but those looking for something deeper might be a bit peeved. I also enjoyed the supporting performances from Leslie Bibb, Viola Davis and Bruce McGill. Overall, this is a pretty stylish cat-and-mouse film with brains on the outside but pretty emotionally and psychologically hollow on the inside. It’s just rare to find a film that embodies both.