★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Christopher Smith takes elements of classic noir pictures and modernizes it in his clever, sometimes exciting, thriller “Detour,” about a law student named Harper (Tye Sheridan) who finds himself embroiled in a murder after becoming convinced that his stepfather (Stephen Moyer) has planned his mother’s car accident which resulted to her ending up in a coma. Although the film might have improved by undergoing more polishing, it remains consistently entertaining as it gives way for us to reevaluate its characters just when we are convinced we completely understand the archetypes they embody.
One of its more intelligent choices involves the story being split into two. While out drowning his sorrows in booze, Harper meets Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), a thug who does certain… favors—for a fee. Our protagonist shares his thoughts of wanting to teach his stepfather a lesson. Notice how the camera inches closer to the characters’ faces as the decision on whether or not to kill the husband under suspicion grows ever closer between the two young men. The next morning, Johnny Ray shows up on Harper’s front door. We then follow two strands: 1) Harper joining Johnny Ray as they head to Vegas to carry out their plans and 2) Harper turning down Johnny Ray’s offer and deciding to stay home.
The dialogue almost always commands a sharpness to it. It can be described as Tarantino-lite in that attitude slowly bubbles to a boil from underneath the surface. Even when a character shifts on his seat while saying nothing actually says something. An observation I have about movies aimed toward modern audiences is that its characters tend to lack ways of communicating other than through words. Here, silence and body language are utilized to get the audience to consider that perhaps a character, or characters, is planning a course of action outside of what has been decided already.
Although its look is nothing special, there are instances where bright colors are employed to make certain objects stand out. For instance, Harper’s yellow-cream jacket, the flowery red designs on Cherry’s shorts (Bel Powley), the sudden patch of yellow hair after Paul (Jared Abrahamson), Harper’s best friend, spends the weekend dropping acid. It would have added a layer of detail if each character sported a certain color, a way for us to cull information about these characters or what role they may end up playing in the story. Providing deep substance is not the screenplay’s strong suit.
Neo-noir “Detour” is stylish, energetic, and it moves like lightning. Although the writing could have done a better job in smoothing out details once certain story aspects are unveiled, nearly every performance is highly watchable and the control from behind the camera creates a level of engaging tension despite the picture’s sunny desert look.
★ / ★★★★
An explosion at a truck yard, located seventy-two miles from Nevada, reveals a number of dead bodies. Detective Burquez (Radha Mitchell) is assigned to lead the investigation. Although Burquez feels Detective Reese (Stephen Moyer) is not ready to return from his leave, a part of her is convinced that the case is going to need his help. After all, the explosion corrupted most of the forensics. The only thing that they have to go on in order to catch whoever is responsible is a three-hour video taken from four different cameras.
“Evidence,” written by John Swetnam, has an interesting premise but it proves to be yet another toothless horror-thriller, more concerned about how to capitalize on its found-footage style rather than telling a smart, genuinely scary or suspenseful story. Even though much of the focus is on camera tricks and editing, these elements provide nothing new or game-changing. They distract from the film as opposed to engaging the audience.
For a story with supposedly two intelligent detectives, there is a lack of actual investigation. Instead, the majority of the running time is devoted to watching the videos which is a mistake because we already know that most or all of the people in it would end up dead. We are subjected to numerous screaming, yelling, and “Oh my god!” moments, but the attacks offer no excitement or creativity. As a result, a passive experience is created as we wait for the victims to get picked off one by one. There is no tension or intrigue if the outcome is already revealed.
The picture might have been improved if the screenplay had devoted a majority of its time providing the details of the investigation coupled with the personalities that drive it. It gives no good reason why Burquez and Reese are fit to try to solve the crime at hand. Mitchell and Moyer have shown in their previous work that they are performers who know how to deliver lines in an interesting way. They embody the looks and attitudes of contrasting detectives and so I was perplexed as to why the filmmakers chose not to play upon their casts’ strengths in order to make up for what was lacking in the script.
The lambs meant for the slaughter are neither charming nor entertaining. We have a stage actor, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, a musician, a runaway, a dancer, a bus driver, and someone holding a bag full of cash. These personalities do not clash—or work together—in such a way that their archetypes reflect how they attempt to survive the night where help might as well have been a thousand miles away.
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, “Evidence” has the audacity to go for a misplaced twist ending that makes no sense whatsoever. The intent is supposed to surprise and make us want to look back on the footages we had seen. Instead, we wrinkle our brows out of frustration and at the idea of reliving the passivity we had just endured.
The Barrens (2012)
★ / ★★★★
It was important for Richard (Stephen Moyer) to help his family to feel closer to one another so he decided to take everyone camping in Pine Barrens, the same grounds that he so enjoyed visiting when he was a kid. But even before they reached the campsite, a bloodied deer without antlers and intestines hanging out walked across their car and died, foreshadowing the horrors about to come. The Pinelands, at least according to local legend, was haunted by the Jersey Devil: a ravenous creature with wings, a kangaroo’s body, and a horse’s head. Written and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, what could have been an interesting tale of the lengths a man would go to force his family to function as a single unit partnered with their collective struggle to survive in the woods was hampered by poorly executed and redundant scenes of arguments, intense glares, and idle chatters that served little to move the story forward. Once the rangers gave the family their designated spot, the aura of mystery and intrigue was immediately sucked out of the picture. Not even a supposedly scary story around a campfire felt inspired. Of course it had to end with a person sneaking up to someone and yelling, “Boo!” There’s just something wrong when our own experiences of listening and telling stories around a campfire had scarier moments in it than what was being portrayed on screen. The family dynamics was not without drama. Cynthia (Mia Kirshner), Richard’s wife, was not the biological mother of Sadie (Allie MacDonald), a teen in her rebellious phase. While it was nothing new that the two eventually learned to depend on each other when circumstances turned dire, Sadie was especially hard to root for given that the material failed to offer a believable explanation as to why she had so much animosity toward her stepmother. If the negative energy Sadie exuded came from her need to protect the memory of her biological mother, it wasn’t communicated or explored in any way. Since the premise of the film was for the family to get closer as a unit, we should at least have had an inkling about where each was coming from. They should have been allowed to speak about what was important to them even if the things they valued didn’t seem that important to us. The only character who passed as believable enough to be in this story was Danny (Peter DaCunha), Sadie’s little bother who was depressed about the disappearance of their dog. He did not want to go camping just in case his pet returned when he was away. DaCunha gave the most entertaining reactions to the increasingly horrific elements encountered in the woods. I wondered if the film would have had a more potent mix of horror and wonder given that we experienced the story through his eyes. The connection between the reality of the missing dog and the legend of the Jersey Devil was eventually revealed with little force behind the punch. This could be attributed from the script’s lack of perspective, relying too much on showing people being lost in the woods and finding dead things. The ending of “The Barrens” was reflective of the picture as a whole: abrupt, superficial, and unsatisfying. It felt like no one bothered to write a final act that felt right as long as there was blood dripping from behind the screen.
★ / ★★★★
When a family (Stephen Moyer, Mädchen Amick, Lily Collins) was attacked by hungry, eyeless vampires, Priest (Paul Bettany) disobeyed the church’s orders not to take action. The institution claimed that vampires were contained in the Wasteland and those who terrorized the family were not creatures of the night but simply lawless men. Hence, Priest should not concern himself. However, to Priest, the attack was personal because the girl in the family, Lucy, turned out to be his daughter. Based on the graphic novel by Min-Woo Hyung, “Priest,” written by Cory Goodman and directed by Scott Charles Stewart, was a humorless, uninspired video game. Like most role-playing video games, the main character started off on his own and teamed up with other warriors throughout his journey. One was Hicks (Cam Gigandet), a sheriff with a talent for throwing knives, who loved Lucy. The other was Priestess (Maggie Q), who was assigned to bring our protagonist, dead or alive, back to the church. But unlike an RPG game, the picture paid no focus to each character. We knew nothing about them except for the fact that they wanted to rescue the girl. Good intentions aside, the dialogue became redundant because their specific motivations lacked depth. But one of my main problems with the film was its universe being devoid of complexity. We knew someone was bad because they chopped off chickens’ heads; we knew someone was good if they had the slightest screen presence. The rest, like the buildings and people’s homes, looked grimy and one-dimensional. Humans cowered at the word “vampire.” Meanwhile, the vampires were somewhat interesting because they were portrayed as beasts. Other than Black Hat (Karl Urban), the leader who was half-human and half-vampire, the rest didn’t have the capability to speak. They were hungry and blood was what they were after. The CGI kept my lowest level of interest because of the way the ravenous vampires moved. They were bulky yet they moved quickly, eyeless but always seemed to know exactly where their target was located. But the CGI’s magic was transient. I wanted to know more about the war that was often referred to between the clergy and the vampires prior to the latter’s exile in the dreaded Wasteland. Due to a lack of background information, I didn’t understand why the Priests became rejects of society. After all, weren’t they the ones who protected mankind from becoming dinner? Sure, they were no longer useful after the vampires had been contained but, if you ask me, they should have given at least a glimmer of power and authority after the war. As a film, “Priest” lacked flow. If injected with key transitions and history, it would have been stronger. The action sequences were exciting but if we don’t feel the gravity of what they were fighting for, we just don’t care about the outcome.