★★ / ★★★★
Eddie (Kellan Lutz) and Shane (Jonathan Tucker) broke into a house they thought was empty and murdered a child in the process. Detectives Noah Cordin (Nick Stahl) and Leslie Spencer (Rachel Nichols), equally determined, were assigned to catch the criminals. As they got deeper into the investigation, Noah started to realize that the persons involved in the murder might be from the small town he grew up in. “Meskada,” written and directed by Josh Sternfeld, was a realistic look on how cops might possibly solve a case. Despite the fact that a child being killed was no small matter, the director made a smart decision not to feature any grand overtures to convince us how important it was. Seeing an innocent and lifeless child on the ground was enough to get our attention and hope that Noah and Leslie were successful in their mission. We saw them unglamorously go through trash in search of evidence, feel frustration because they had no lead, and try to balance the peace when economics and politics came into play. The story was interesting because the cops weren’t just up against criminals. They were up against people who were willing to protect their family, friends, livelihoods, and community. They were also up against themselves as they struggled to weigh short-term and long-term rewards. Sometimes they didn’t always make the smartest and most ethical decisions. For that reason, I also admired that the picture didn’t always offer easy answers. After all, a case being closed isn’t always synonymous with a case being solved. However, what the film needed was more details about the characters, particularly the ones who committed the crime. Shane and Eddie coming from a poor background wasn’t enough to explain why they were desperate enough to steal. Others from their hometown were just as destitute but they didn’t commit robbery. In fact, most of them decided to work together so that a company would eventually decide to build a factory in their town. There had to be something different about Shane and Eddie that made them feel like they had no other choice. Perhaps it was in the way they processed and translated challenges that faced them. We couldn’t be sure exactly because they didn’t share enough scenes together. We weren’t given enough time, unlike with Noah and Leslie, to ascertain the dynamics of their ultimately toxic partnership. Nevertheless, I liked the ambition that “Meskada” proudly wore on its sleeve. It was absent of gimmicks in terms of storytelling but it managed to inject complexity by exploring real human emotions, psychology and error.
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.
Children of the Corn (1984)
★ / ★★★★
After church, Job (Robby Kiger) and his father went to a diner for breakfast. It seemed like a regular Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska but something sinister happened. The kids started to give each other strange looks and the next thing we knew, they started killing the adults around them. The only kids who did not seem affected were Job and his sister (Anne Marie McEvoy) who had a gift of foretelling events through drawing. When a couple (Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton) accidentally ran over a boy, they eventually decided to stop by Gatlin to report the incident. The picture started off strongly. The thought of kids murdering people without reason, including their parents, gave me the creeps. I was curious about what triggered the strange events and the endgame of those involved. Unfortunately, the film failed to give any answer. Instead, it spent half of its time showing us the couple driving on a seemingly interminable freeway. While their interactions were somewhat amusing and the establishment of their characters necessary, there wasn’t enough edge to hold my interest. I saw one distraction after another which made me think about the weakness of both the writing and the execution. I wanted to know more about the psychic sister. What made her and Job unsusceptible to the urge to commit murder? Instead, the picture focused on the many speeches of Isaac (John Franklin) and almost caveman-like Malachai (Courtney Gains). It was obvious that the material wanted to comment on taking religion too seriously along with their respective scriptures word-for-word, but focusing on that one aspect diminished the creativity and imagination that should have been applied to the overall story. It would have been more haunting if the monster or devil known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” was not shown but merely implied. It wasn’t that I was unconvinced my the special and visual effects (I’m always more concerned about the concept), but the idea that some force could drive children to madness was enough. Sometimes simplicity is key. It just needed to elaborate on its big ideas and consistently raise the bar instead of recycling horror movie clichés. Based on Stephen King’s short story and directed by Fritz Kiersch, “Children of the Corn” was a huge disappointment because it had such a promising first scene. When the couple walked around a seemingly abandoned small town, I felt like I was there. It needed more creepy moments like that instead of its dull fixation on human sacrifice.
★★★ / ★★★★
I love spiders. I used to capture and raise them when I was a kid. When I was bitten, it didn’t stop me from wanting to capture more, make them battle, and observe the way they ate. In “Arachnophobia,” an undiscovered killer spider from Venezuela hitched a ride in a coffin to terrorize a small town in the United States. The killer spider mated with a typical house spider and lived in the barn next to the house that a doctor (Jeff Daniels) and his family recently moved into. It didn’t help that the doctor had a great fear for spiders. Despite my adoration (and respect) for spiders, the film gave me the creeps. The director, Frank Marshall, craftily balanced horror and comedy. As the picture went on, it became scarier but at the same time the laughs were that much more pronounced. The comedy scenes worked because it relieved a lot of tension such as when a spider would sneak up on someone taking a shower. John Goodman’s performance was a catalyst because his mere presence elevated the funny bits. The picture expertly and confidently took advantage of vulnerable situations such as when a character would reach into a cereal box and expect to get food or when they would sit in a toilet. I didn’t find those scenes cheesy because the film established how dangerous the spiders were within the first few minutes. But at the same time, we were aware that these spiders did not take pleasure in killing; their actions were simply means of survival and colonization. What impressed me most was the final duel between man and spider. The filmmakers did a fantastic job weaving three elements that scared people most: darkness, enclosed spaces, and bugs. It was terrifying to watch but I couldn’t look away because I wanted to see how the protagonist could wiggle himself out of another dangerous position. The scene was relentless. I caught myself holding my breath when the doctor did not know where the spider was and voicing out advice about what he should have done next to lure or trick the spider. The jump-out-of-your-seats moments were efficient. Lastly, but most importantly, the film had an after effect. After I finished the movie, I headed to the bathroom and from the corner of my eye, I saw a black figure on the floor. For a split-second, I thought it was a spider and I became very alarmed. For a person who normally adores spiders and then suddenly be scared of them, that’s when I know the film had done something right.
George Washington (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by David Gordon Green, “George Washington” tells the story of a group of friends (Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Curtis Cotton III, Damian Jewan Lee) who lived in small rural town whose lives changed forever after a tragic accident. That may sound like any other coming-of-age film but “George Washington” was much more complex than that because it was told with such a delicate touch and poetic lyricism. Being familiar with Green’s later projects, I was impressed that this was his first movie because he allowed his characters to speak to each other, to themselves and to us via narration. The characters expressed themselves like real people to the point where I thought at times that it was too naturalistic (but in a good way). I loved the fact that the characters evolved over time but the evolution didn’t come hand-in-hand with big realizations and deafening score. Their growth came in the quiet moments when they would just sit around and express to each other what they felt at that moment compared to how they were when we saw them in the beginning. I guess what I loved most about the picture was it didn’t go out of its way to impress and simply told the circumstances surrounding the subjects’ lives. A common theme I was most interested in was the suffocation both the adults and children felt living in that one particular town. One way or another, they expressed how they wanted to leave their homes to learn more about the world or possibly meet someone who could inspire or challenge them yet accept them for who they were. I’ve read some reviews claiming that not much happened or that the movie was too slow. On the contrary, I thought it was dynamic because even though the outside remained more or less static, there was so much struggle and hurt and questioning going on inside the characters. In a way, it reminded me of my childhood, especially during the summer, when all I would do was hang out with my friends or with my cousins all day. Our biggest worries almost always concerned our parents’ disapproval or someone getting hurt when would play games. So I thought the film was honest and painfully real and I was captivated by it. The final twenty minutes or so really pushed to reach a new level of imagination specifically the scenes about the boy yearning to be a hero. I thought it was symbolic of a person wanting to be someone else but not just to be any regular folk–someone who was worthy of fantasy and who everybody looked up to. “George Washington” is definitely for patient viewers who strive to look and feel beyond the surface. In the end, even though it had so much sadness in its core, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful.
New in Town (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
This is another one of those chick flicks where a seemingly cold business-minded character (Renée Zellweger) gets assigned to a small town and realizes that it’s not as bad as she initially thinks because the people (led by the hilarious Siobhan Fallon, followed closely by J.K. Simmons) are warm-hearted despite their many quirks. She also happens to fall for a handsome nature-loving guy (Harry Connick Jr.) with a sad past, which of course she initially has to dislike due to the embarrassment of mistaken identities over dinner. It’s all been done before and “New in Town,” directed by Jonas Elmer, unfortunately, does not have anything new to offer. It’s a shame because he has very talented actors under his belt but he failed to inject a certain edginess to the story. I think if the characters were a bit more unlikable, this would’ve been a completely different (and more interesting) picture. I felt like there were only two jokes in this movie: Zellweger’s reaction and adjustment to small town life and the quirky townspeople with funny accents. At first I thought it was cute but it quickly went downhill after thirty minutes because I kept hoping that another joke would come along. The factor that saved this movie was Zellweger’s acting. Even though her character somewhat reminded me of Bridget Jones, it was nice seeing her here because she’s completely aware of the fact that she’s not going to get nominated for an Oscar. Therefore, there’s a certain relaxed feeling about her character that I instantly liked even though she’s the kind of woman who is ambitious and not afraid to put people under the bus to get what she wants (initially). But like I said before, it would’ve been better if she remained that way or changed for the better only a little bit but not sugary and sweet as she was during the last ten minutes. If one is up for a film with gentle laughs and contains no inappropriate or offensive jokes, this is the one to see. However, for those who are looking for something a bit daring and multi-dimensional, I can’t quite recommend it.
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.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I have to give Michelle Williams kudos for starring in this really small, bare bones of a film. Her performance is so visceral and she fully embodies the ever-growing desperation that her character is going through. “Wendy and Lucy,” directed by Kelly Reichardt, tells the story of Wendy and her dog Lucy as the two try to go to Alaska so that Wendy can earn her money at a fish cannery. Things do not go quite as they had planned because Wendy’s car breaks down in Oregon, gets arrested for shoplifting dog food (she only had about $525 which was barely enough), and Lucy is nowhere to be seen when Wendy finally gets out of jail (Wendy left her dog tied to a rail in front of the store where she shoplifted). When Williams started looking for that dog, I felt like I was watching a mother trying to look for her child. It was really sad because things get from bad to worse in a matter of minutes and the hope of Wendy finding the dog grows dimmer and dimmer. Even though I really identified with Wendy’s situation, at some point I thought about just leaving the dog and going on ahead to Alaska. As cruel as that sounds, I think it’s justified because Wendy keeps spending money as she tries to keep looking for the dog. I get that Lucy is her only companion but, at least for me, the practical thing to do is to stop looking for the dog. Williams has come a long way since I’ve seen her first in “Dawson’s Creek” because she really uses her acting chops to carry this picture from beginning to end. I also have to give Reichardt credit for showing us a side of America where it’s not so glamorous. In fact, the places featured in this movie are downright depressing. Although the movie is about Wendy and Lucy’s friendship, sometimes I tried to pay attention to people on the background; some of them look like they’re sleepwalking through life. I find that particularly accurate because, though I didn’t grow up in a small town like the one in this movie, the area I grew up in was small enough to notice those kinds of people. Casual moviegoers may not like this film right off the bat or superficially consider it as “sad.” But film lovers should be able to look at it more closely and analytically and realize that it comes close to becoming something really special.