The Collector (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
A couple (William Prael, Diane Ayala Goldner) just got home from a night out. When the husband flipped the light switch downstairs, none of the lights turned on. His wife screamed from upstairs. The dutiful husband ran in a hurry for his wife’s aid but she seemed to be okay. The two of them found themselves in front of a menacing red box in the middle of their bedroom. On top of it was a note which stated that it was for The Collector. Based on the screenplay by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, “The Collector” unfolded curiously while maintaining a nail-biting cat-and-mouse game between Arkin (Josh Stewart), a contract handyman who needed money so that loan sharks wouldn’t hurt his wife and daughter, and the mysterious masked figure (Juan Fernández) who was kinder to bugs than people, but the answers that we so very much deserved were denied with impunity. In order for us to understand the whole picture of whatever was going on, it begged for a sequel which just won’t do. It was a shame because the film did contain moments of creativity. When Arkin realized that the mansion that he was going to steal from was filled with booby traps, the camera was almost cheeky in the way it revealed the various devices and triggers. My jaw dropped: there were at least ten different ones–overkill–and yet I wanted to laugh but couldn’t do so. I was too worried that at any second Arkin was bound to take the wrong step or touch the wrong thing and the masked man, torturing the patriarch and matriarch (Michael Reilly Burke, Andrea Roth) in the basement, would discover that someone was upstairs. Running was simply not an option especially if invisible wires could cause the knives to be ejected from hidden corners. I knew I was very involved with it because when the protagonist did get hurt, I found myself covering my mouth. Somehow, I thought that if I didn’t scream from horror, he wouldn’t scream from the pain of being maimed. The first half was a lot of fun because the secret prowling around the house combined with very little possibility for an escape created increasing levels of tension. The picture began to fall apart, however, in the second half. While the chase scenes were exciting initially, they lost their appeal quite quickly not only because it became redundant, the plot failed to move forward. As corpses began to pile up, so did our questions. And while the lifeless bodies could be left by themselves, our questions could not. With its degree of violence, I wondered what the masked man was doing in the house and what exactly he wanted from the family. While a sentence or two offered an explanation, it wasn’t enough and it didn’t make sense. I found it amusing that the opening credits of the film, directed by Marcus Dunstan, was obviously inspired by David Fincher’s “Se7en,” from the grotesque images, quick cuts, and very unsettling music. While “Se7en” was violent, the screenplay showed that there was a point to the blood and mayhem with respect to its universe. In here, there seemed to be no point other than for us to watch a well-meaning thief struggle for his life as we winced uncomfortably in our seats. I did pull my limbs closer to my body for safety but there proved to be no comfort against the nagging questions in my brain.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
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 VI (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I just realized that a “Saw” sequel was released every year since the original. So it made me wonder when they would stop delivering us torture porn. Even though I do not particularly like the “Saw” franchise, I’m inclined to watch each movie that comes out because of my curiosity. In “Saw VI,” it was the same old formula: Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) gave his mindless and psychopathic minions (Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell) cryptic envelopes from the grave that contained photos of people who “needed to learn how to appreciate life more.” I’ve never and will never agree with Jigsaw’s illogical rationalization of “teaching” people but it was brainless entertainment so I went along with it. I enjoyed saw “Saw VI” more than “Saw IV” and “Saw V” because it focused more on one individual (Peter Outerbridge) which was one of the leaders of an insurance company who devised a formula that decided whether the company would cover the cost of a person’s treatment for an illness. I also enjoyed (I’m not sure if that’s the right word) the opening scene which involved sacrificing the most amount of flesh for one to survive and the carousel scene. Other than those, the filmmakers threw the audiences random flashbacks designed to explain how “everything is connected.” For me, it’s all smokes and mirrors and I don’t see any brilliance in them. While most audiences would probably go, “Oh my god, that’s so smart!,” I just sit there and think, “That’s it?” because I could sometimes guess what the twist was (such as in this instance). While watching the movie, I actually thought of the possibility that one day, a writer would reset the franchise and make a hard-boiled procedural film (somewhere along the lines of “Zodiac” or perhaps even “Se7en”) about the Jigsaw murders instead of just featuring one torture scene after another. Instead of seeing the murder from a psychopath’s perspective (which we’ve been experiencing since “Saw II”), it would be nice to see it from a detective’s point of view. But not just any detective; a detective who is a good person even though he or she has her inner demons. A little bit of intelligence and heart would certainly benefit this franchise because so far, it hasn’t offered me anything new. But will that stop me from watching “Saw VII”? (Come on, I bet it was already in post-production by the time I saw this movie.) Probably not.
★★ / ★★★★
Jennifer Chambers Lynch (“Boxing Helena”) directed this thriller about the investigation of two FBI agents (Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman) regarding the murders of two serial killers. In the police station, they had three witnesses whose commonality was someone close to them was killed: a little girl (Ryan Simpkins), a drug addict (Pell James), and a police officer (Kent Harper). The FBI agents tried to put pieces of the puzzle together but not all of the information they gathered fit. I did like this movie until half-way through the picture. I found the murder scenes to be chilling and horrific. I also liked the idea that the inaccuracies of testimonies were explored in a meaningful way through extended sequences when the interviewers would ask pretty much the same questions in various ways. However, I grew tired of the movie because of the uninterminable scenes regarding the two officers shooting tires since they were either bored or had nothing better to do. I believe that it took away a significant amount of time from the film instead of really exploring who the killers were. A lot of critics mentioned the fact that Jennifer Lynch was David Lynch’s daughter. While that may be true, I thought their ways of telling a story were very different from each other, which was a good thing because I thought Jennifer Lynch really came into her own. However, toward the end of “Surveillance,” I felt that she tried to inject some of her father’s methods of storytelling. It did not work for me because I thought that the twist did not add much for the movie’s dramatic weight. In fact, I felt a bit cheated during the revelation. This film’s sinister tone definitely reminded me of memorable thrillers like “Se7en” and “The Usual Suspects” but, as a whole, it was more limp instead of haunting. I definitely wanted more emotional resonance instead of empty darkness and despair with far too many loose ends.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by the enigmatic David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Panic Room,” “Zodiac”), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a sight to behold, but it is too long for its own good. While the first and last hours are absolute perfection, I couldn’t help but feel tired during its saggy middle. There were so many repetitive elements that Fincher could’ve left out because they do not contribute to the overall big picture. I consider this film as one of Brad Pitt’s most complete performances. Throughout most of the picture, we see him with wrinkly skin and broken down posture; however, we feel for his character so much because even though he is born in extraordinary circumstances, he leads a pretty ordinary life. Pitt reminds everyone that he is more than just an actor who is mostly known for his pretty face. Prior to watching this film, I thought this would be another “Big Fish” which highlights oddities and fantasies but I was glad to be proven wrong. Although the characters we meet during Pitt’s journey are colorful, they are not out of the ordinary–they are people who are not unlike anyone we can meet off the streets, but they have fascinating stories to tell because of their beliefs and drive. My favorite character who Pitt meets is played by Tilda Swinton. She craves to do something with her life, but she feels trapped because of a specific failure she experienced in her past. That fear to continue only to possibly fail again is universal so I couldn’t help but get affected. Cate Blanchett is always amazing in every movie I see her star in so it was no surprise that she delivered. I couldn’t take my eyes off her during her ballet sequences. I could feel the pain in her eyes whenever the topic of getting old is discussed; her insecurities are heightened whenever she sees her lover get younger every time they meet. Like the fear of failure, the fear of getting older is universal as well. Although those two actresses did a great job, I think Taraji P. Henson, as Benjamin’s mother, should be recognized as well. She played her character with such sincerity, I felt warm whenever she’d express her enthusiasm. Even though this film is about many universal ideas, my favorite issue it tackled was the idea of returning home. There was a quote that made me think because, being a college student that goes to school about seven hours away, it is true in my case: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed, is you.” I didn’t love this picture, but I really liked it because it has so much to say about life. In a nutshell, despite its depressing tone, it made feel so thankful and so happy to be alive.