Tag: thriller

Alone


Alone (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“You will reach your destination in 4 days,” according to Jessica’s GPS while on her way out of the city toward her new home for the time being. But this is a thriller and so we know that her plans will soon be thrown out the window. She is traveling by herself and so we know, too, that she must encounter a stranger, most likely a man, and will give her a hard time. From there, It is only a matter of time until the sick cat-and-mouse situation leads to violence, murder, and revenge. This is a skeletal checklist of a woman-in-peril thriller. “Alone,” written by Mattias Olsson and directed by John Hyams, is not original—nor does it need to be. But it must be entertaining from more than one angle. Otherwise, why make a picture when you have only one thing to say or show?

I enjoyed the film to some extent, but the problem is that it does not go far enough. It starts off slow but with enough sense of foreboding and drama. We look at Jessica, played by Jules Willcox, and immediately noticeable, almost palpable, is a great sadness written all over her face, starting with her eyes. The score is minimal and utilized sparingly. When her car is out of the city and surrounded by mountains, rivers, and trees, there is a constant reminder that not only is she isolated—physically and mentally—but that she can easily be crushed like an ant—and I think she feels small, too. Something happened to this woman, and what she is about to experience will remind her of her strength, her power to forge ahead despite what life throws at her, no matter how unexpected or unfair.

That’s the intent anyway. If I don’t describe the movie in this way, I suspect that most audience will not “get” what the story is truly about. Many will claim it is about another serial killer picking out some poor woman to serve as his latest victim. But had this movie been dirtier, perhaps more fast-paced, with a real mean streak when it comes to violence and gore, the message would have been clearer. The thing about exaggeration, especially in suspense and thrillers, is that it inspires people to pay attention—both on the level of what is shown on screen and, for more discerning viewers, why the movie is functioning as if on steroids. And when exaggeration is lacking, as the case here, especially for long periods, it inspires viewers to relax or tune out. I was able to stick by the picture because I look for new wrinkles in an oft tread path. I can only imagine that casual audiences will be less forgiving. There’s irony in that.

The story is divided into six chapters—“The Road,” “The River,” “The Rain,” “The Night,” and “The Clearing.” One way or another, these are elements that our heroine must contend with in order extract herself fully from a tricky unnamed villain portrayed by Marc Menchaca (he is credited as The Man). The Man is an expert spectacled liar, the kind of guy you won’t look twice at a convenience store even if he dropped a case of beer on the floor. He is that ordinary. Naturally, this man will be the constant threat to our protagonist. He is persistent.

I appreciated that when this character is introduced, facing the terrified Jessica while in her car at the motel parking lot, it is readily apparent that he is turned on by her fear. He greets her not with a mask or any sort of disguise—but with a smile. That smile does not translate to “I’m friendly. What’s your name?” It is a smile that says, “I will have you locked up in my basement in a couple of hours.” Willcox portrays Jessica as if on the verge of an emotional breakdown. That is the correct choice because then it makes sense that the character is highly sensitive to slightest suggestions or implications. The first part of this story—the tease—is stronger than that half-pulled punches in the latter half. This is where my earlier critique concerning the lack of exaggeration comes into play. Once the intrigue is shed, now what?

“Alone” is worth seeing at least once, especially those who are aspiring filmmakers. It is apparent that the work is made under a limited budget, but it does get more than a handful of elements right such as the heroine’s backstory, a portentous atmosphere, and the earlier encounters between Jessica and The Man. But the later portions needed to be just as strong in different ways than we have just seen. (But note that the final five minutes is terrific.) Even though the setup is familiar, the goal should be to keep viewers guessing anyway. The best thrillers are in a constant state of evolution.

Centigrade


Centigrade (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Survival thrillers that take place in an enclosed space can be especially tricky to pull off as demonstrated so clearly in “Centigrade,” a movie that lacks tension, creativity, humor, horror, or even a lick of common sense. It was supposed to be written by two minds—Brendan Walsh (who directs) and Daley Nixon—and yet the ninety minutes is such an ordeal of boredom that one would be confident to wager that the screenplay was drunk-scribbled by someone who had a quarter of a brain and half of that quarter was malfunctioning. I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could start something productive like run errands, exercise, or sleep. Here is a cure for insomnia.

Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) and Matt (Vincent Piazza) wake up in their vehicle to discover that none of the doors would budge. The night before, they decided to pull over to the side of the road because the awful blizzard combined with the dark made it difficult to see where they were going. It could have been a savagely amusing twist on the phrase, “Better safe than sorry,” but the work is blind to irony. This is a premise with potential: two people whose relationship will be tested by an impossible situation. However, the material fails to evolve over time. Once the basic premise is laid out, the film becomes a waiting game: will the couple try to get out or simply wait for rescue?

The former is the more interesting angle because characters are forced to take action. It is not enough to introduce characters, show their situation, and let the viewers’ imagination fill in the rest. Consider a picture like Rodrigo Cortés’ “Buried” which centers around a man who is buried alive in a coffin. A lot happens in that one location because the character is written in a proactive manner. It isn’t that he is especially smart or resourceful; sometimes the lightbulb in his head is born out of desperation. Although he can communicate with the outside world, there remains an increasing sense of unease. We cannot help but to laugh at times because his situation becomes increasingly hopeless. In this film, Naomi and Matt are dead dull. They argue, scream at each other, give out pointed looks, and the like. They have attitude to spare but neither bite nor substance.

The writers fail their characters on two fronts: by not writing them as sharp protagonists and by not putting them through a wringer. Instead, the duo sit in the car and mope. Eventually, they are supposed to be dehydrated and yet their lips aren’t the least bit chapped. It creates a depressing experience rather than one we cannot help but watch. Even the pregnancy angle offers no suspense or excitement. When the predictable birth scene arrives, it isn’t even shot correctly. Yes, the vehicle is cramped. But there is no excuse for not finding the best angle so that viewers are on the edge of their seats, wanting to know whether the infant or Naomi will survive.

Had the screenwriters taken a real good look at the material, they would have realized that the story is about a doomed marriage. One is a drug addict and the other is oblivious to the fact (perhaps by choice). The survival thriller aspect is surface level drama. The excavation of their secrets, what they love and despise about one another, and how they deal with problems when things are at their bleakest are the meat and potatoes. A unique, odd, or quirky situation is not drama. It can lead to drama. But work must be put in so that the story can take off.

The Frozen Ground


The Frozen Ground (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

For a movie that tells the capture of the most notorious serial murderer in Alaska, “The Frozen Ground” is bland, uninspired, a bad compilation of detective movies set in snowy small towns. There is a disconnect between its cold but unimaginative approach and its subject matter that inspires outrage. After all, since it is based on a true story, we know that to this very day corpses of young women remain buried across the state. A case can be made that although the killer, Robert Hansen (John Cusack), died in prison due to natural causes, he went to his grave victorious. And so why isn’t the film more layered, more haunting?

In the middle of it, I couldn’t help but wonder how the film might have turned out differently had a director like David Fincher been at the helm. While Scott Walker, in his debut picture, proves capable of presenting relevant facts and moving important figures across an event board, there is a lack of flavor in his approach. Particularly noticeable is a lack of rhythm between suspense and thrills. Observe how something must always be moving—the camera, the characters—for the movie to command a semblance of tension and excitement.

This is a problem considering that following subtle clues and paperwork is critical. A standout scene, for instance, involves a prolonged search for hard evidence in Hansen’s house, but it contains a wrong approach: For the most part, it places viewers out of the action. A director of high caliber, like Fincher, would likely have chosen to place us in the middle of that search, with emphasis on desperate hands of those performing the search.

Switching perspectives between state trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), two weeks from retirement due to his occupation taking a toll on his family, and Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), a seventeen-year-old prostitute who passes as twenty-three, is often rushed and off-putting. Although the screenplay briefly touches upon the relationship through the lens of a substitute parent and a child who lost her way (but wants to be found), there is a lack of realism in their interactions. When all else fails, it is ensured that we catch the teardrop rolling down one’s cheeks. I snickered at its blatant approach.

Cage and Hudgens are committed, but the dialogue is like pulling teeth at times. It feels like every small but deeply personal moment they share functions as setup for the next chase or big plot development. As a result, we regard the cop and the prostitute as mere chess pieces to picked up and dropped off rather than real people who are desperate for closure. Cindy should have been especially compelling considering the fact that she is the only woman to have escaped from Hansen’s clutches. What makes her special?

Even the movie fails to reach a boiling point when Cage and Cusack are finally in the same room. Here are two performers who can read the same lines in a hundred different ways. But line readings that made it onto film are generic, occasionally boring, colorless. At least the actors retain genuine emotions in their eyes. When all else fails, I found myself looking into their eyes and I felt as though I knew precisely what they characters wish to express despite a limited script. At the same time I felt the leads wanting scream and break out of the shackles that hinder them.

I think the writer-director wished so badly to make a movie that passes off as respectable to the point where nearly all of its life marrow is sucked right out of it. Debut features that fail to take risks are almost always dead on arrival. There is some interest here—why Hansen is drawn to prostitutes, placing us into the mindset of a victim who knows she’s about to die, the many frustrations (and dangers) of gathering physical evidence—but these moments are pushed to the side just when things are getting interesting.

Why is this the case when specificity is the life blood of procedurals?

The Guilty


The Guilty (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a portrait of a man who so wishes so badly to save a life. Is it simply because it is a part of his job? Written and directed by Gustav Möller, “The Guilty” takes place in two rooms of a police dispatch center. The rooms are nondescript and increasingly claustrophobic the longer one stares at a wall. And despite the type of calls police officers receive, everyone manages to go on about their mundane day. What they do has become such a norm, they can stomach eating a sandwich on their desk. The rest of the story, however, takes place in the viewers’ imagination. We hear the many voices from the other line and eventually we are groomed to assign a number for each call, from number one as minimal threat to number ten as immediate danger. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) receives a level ten call from a woman who claims to have been kidnapped.

It is not a typical suspense-thriller in which the person who receives a call becomes so desperate that he ends up leaving his place of work to chase after a perpetrator. Instead, the work turns inwards. With a penchant for tight close-ups, we are forced to observe Asger as helplessness begins to take over his mind and body. Although clearly a trained professional who knows the rules—but not unwilling to break them—his moments of humanity, of controlled panic, makes for a compelling watch. Certainly we are meant to question what we would have done had we been in his shoes. He does not always do the right thing, and he knows it.

Notice how his hands shake more noticeably the deeper we get into the story without the help of the camera focusing on this particular body part. The attention is always on the subject’s face. We get a distinct impression that the unblinking eye aims to capture or reveal something. Less effective filmmakers tend to focus on the whirlwind all around instead of how inner turmoil creates intestinal knots within their subjects’ being. This is Möller’s first feature film and it offers a certain freshness that more commercial or Hollywood pictures tend to struggle with when it comes to race against time stories.

The woman on the other line is named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) and not for one split-second do we ever lay eyes on her. We only hear her voice, how afraid she is of being killed. The center of the picture is the connection between Asger and Iben; Asger finds purpose in her as does Iben in him. We learn about her children at home. We learn about Asger’s reputation at work. There is urgency in the plot and yet the material is willing to slow down just to give these characters time to forge their connection—critical because we must care about the people involved in a familiar story.

Its use of sound is particularly suspenseful. Shuffling footsteps, the closing of a car door, swooshing vehicles on a highway, the pattering of rain. The noise—and sometimes its absence—is so amplified that when another character explores a foreign room, for instance, we imagine the worst yet to be discovered. In this way, we are always ahead of the action.

Our minds go toward an imaginary place and yet the camera is transfixed on the police officer assigned to desk duty. We trace his evolution from a man who is so blasé about his job—it is revealed early on that it is his last day in the dispatch center—to somebody who actually wants to do right thing, to honor his occupation and his chosen path.

Come to Daddy


Come to Daddy (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Comedy-thriller “Come to Daddy,” written by Toby Harvard and directed by Art Timpson, is not without the ability to entertain. Looking at the work as a whole, there are darkly comic scenes dispersed throughout the morbid reunion story between father and son, but it leaves the audience longing for more substance both as a piercing character study and as a lavish genre exercise. Because it does not offer much in the way of both, the attempt comes across undercooked—almost good enough to recommend but not quite. When the end credits began to roll, a part of me wished it had chosen an extreme and let it rip.

Elijah Wood is Norval, a thirty-five-year-old self-proclaimed artist from Beverly Hills, California who accepts an invitation from his father to visit his seaside home. They have not seen one another in three decades, so the man Norval meets at the doorstep (Stephen McHattie) feels like a complete stranger. Still, Norval so wishes to establish a genuine connection with his father that he tries to overlook the insults and cold shoulder. Wood is highly watchable as a man-child whose default is to try building himself up when facing criticism because Norval knows that deep down he is a loser. So when he admits that he has had issues with alcohol dependency and had been involved in a suicide attempt, we are ready to recognize and believe the sadness inside him.

If only the screenplay were as sharp as the lead actor’s ability to sell a story without relying on words. We have a potentially complex character established during the first thirty minutes, but when the action revs up about halfway through, putting a magnifying glass on Norval is no longer of utmost importance. Instead of maintaining our curiosity, it chooses to make us wince, cringe, and gag from the torture, violence, and murder. Although possessing a keen eye when it comes to creating natural lighting so we can easily buy into the realism of a moment, I found the overt use of violence to be less effective than its more restrained moments, its quiet (or disquiet).

There is a recurring theme involving traditional masculinity here. Right from the film’s opening seconds, we note how Norval dresses, how he moves, how he acts, how he speaks. Look at his posture, his frame. He is a not a typical alpha male; he isn’t alpha at all. Norval fails to recognize himself in the man that greets him at the door. And so our subject is thrown into a world of survive-or-perish. I will not reveal the twist that occurs halfway through because I feel it would do a disservice to the picture, but there is a way to comment on the toxicity of having rigid qualifications for masculinity without solely relying on showing brutality or violence. This aspect of the work is underwritten and one-dimensional.

At least for a while, “Come to Daddy” offers some creativity; it is difficult to guess where it is heading. At one point, we begin to wonder if it is heading toward the territory of supernatural horror given the inexplicable noises in the house at night, a figure blending in the leaves, a corpse seemingly moving on its own. And so it is most disappointing that the work fails to offer a strong and memorable punchline. It’s quirky and clever on occasion but not much else.

Red Dragon


Red Dragon (2002)
★★ / ★★★★

Remakes must exude a purpose for existing. Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon,” based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name which was adapted to screen in 1986 by Michael Mann, only truly comes alive during the final fifteen minutes. The rest of it, while watchable mainly due to the terrific performances by Edward Norton who plays a retired FBI profiler Will Graham and the inimitable Anthony Hopkins once again stepping into his iconic role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, is merely a polished retread of Mann’s superior “Manhunter.” One of the key differences between the remake and the original is that in the latter, Graham and Lecter interact more often. But it is curious that their exchanges do not necessarily reveal more in regards to their symbiotic relationship in catching serial killers—before and after Graham discovered that Lecter was the notorious Chesapeake Ripper who ate his victims. There is no tease, no seduction. What results is a movie that is longer but not more informative—at least in ways that count. At times I found that Ratner’s film aspires to fill in some blanks that “Manhunter” left open for interpretation—a mistake because certain details, like specifics of a murder or crime scene, are better left to the imagination. Mann’s film may be rough around the edges and the performances not as strong when compared to Ratner’s picture. But the remake, while tolerable, fails to surpass the original because it comes across as yet another psychological thriller with minimal intrigue; everything must be shown or explained for the viewer out of fear that it may across as too oblique or strange otherwise. It is too safe when the material is far from it.

The Pool


The Pool (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

It is curious that the situational horror “The Pool” opens by exercising its shoddy visual effects: a man (Theeradej Wongpuapan) at the bottom of a dried up swimming pool being hunted by a hungry crocodile. It is six meters deep; no ladder, no one else around to ask for help, no apparent means of escape. Nothing about the confrontation is believable, let alone terrifying, because it is obvious the actor is performing in front of a blue screen. But that’s what I enjoyed about it: It makes no pretense in regard to its limited budget. This first scene is a rebel yell that writer-director Ping Lumpraploeng plans to push his wild concept all the way through the finish line. However, it cannot be denied that the journey there is not always first-rate entertainment. Logic is thrown out the window one too many times in order to introduce more conflict rather than to amplify those already present, particularly when the man’s girlfriend (Ratnamon Ratchiratham) enters the equation. Tension could have been far more potent had this been a man versus nature story, not man and his girl. When not illogical, the screenplay goes for syrupy drama (cue the soap opera-like flashbacks), and eventually its anti-abortion stance gets in the way of straightforward storytelling. I felt that its edges are softened for the sake of stroking the more conservative viewers’ bubbles. The third act shows it is more than capable of treading darker territory and yet shies away last-minute. It chooses a happy ending over one that feels right for the material. By doing so, its power is lessened significantly.

The Silence of the Lambs


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It seems everywhere she goes Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), one of the top students at the FBI training academy, feels the male gaze caressing her: the local cops who find a corpse that had been underwater for days; her fellow trainees and superiors; the director of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (Anthony Health); even the serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), dubbed Hannibal the Cannibal by the media, the former psychiatrist Clarice has been assigned to interview in order to gather information about a recently infamous psychopath known as Buffalo Bill—whose M.O. involves removing women’s skin after murdering them. He intends to stitch the skins and wear them. “Are you about a size 14?”

“The Silence of the Lambs,” based on the screenplay by Ted Tally and directed by Jonathan Demme, is first-rate entertainment. It is filled to the brim with sharp, intelligent, and fluid dialogue; carefully calibrated performances that not only demand viewers not to blink but also invite us to lean in and listen more closely; and memorable images so graphic at times that when we close our eyes our brain traces the outlines of grotesque images in the back of our eyelids. It is a psychological thriller so potent, tension gathers every step of the way—and it doesn’t let go until Clarice’s gun is fired in the expertly paced final ten minutes.

The picture’s centerpiece is the interaction between earnest Clarice and cunning Dr. Lecter. The relationship is curious because it is strictly a business transaction, a bartering of crucial information: Clarice provides details—sometimes painful details—about her past, Lecter gives insight on how to detect and capture Buffalo Bill. There is no trace of romantic connection. Not even a twisted father-daughter connection. It is a thrilling chess match between two perceptive individuals must who must work together in order to achieve their goals.

I think deep down they like each other. Perhaps there is even respect there. This is a masterstroke in an already top notch material. It is a true horror film in that we are asked to identify with a serial killer who eats his victims and feels no remorse. There is no explanation offered regarding this compulsion. It just is. Hopkins appears on screen for less than fifteen minutes in total yet his presence can be felt throughout. The level of menace he injects in the Lecter character is so high that it is able to pierce through every scene with ease. He need not be mentioned because Foster carries Clarice’s exchanges with Dr. Lecter like a scar. She is challenged to think like him but at the same time overcome him in order to avoid being played.

Demme possesses an understanding of how to capture situational horror effectively. Forget corpses on a platter or blood spatters as security guards are beaten with a truncheon. Look at the way images are framed as Clarice walks down the hall seconds before she introduces herself to the notorious Dr. Lecter. Observe the manner in which Buffalo Bill interacts with his victims, particularly the scene where he tries to copy the way a woman screams. On the surface, it appears as though he’s simply mocking her misery. But no. Like Clarice and Dr. Lecter, Buffalo Bill is a person who studies, who yearns to be free through a kind of transformation.

Pay special attention to the finale when Clarice must make her way through the dark… while the killer, standing about five feet away from her, wears night vision goggles… gazing at her. All of these examples require patience to unfold so that they truly get under our skins. We remember them not necessarily for the images but how they make us feel, how anticipation grips us by the throat.

Bloodline


Bloodline (2018)
★ / ★★★★

First-time director Henry Jacobson wishes to tell a story about a monster hiding in plain sight in “Bloodline,” a psychological thriller so devoid of suspense, creativity, and drama that to say it is a Great Value version of the television series “Dexter” would be an insult to the brand—because the brand is meant to save us money while the film wastes our time. Nearly every second of its ninety-five minute running time feels like pulling teeth because no tension is accumulated; we are simply meant to sit through a series of would-be shocking events which almost always end up with a victim getting his or her throat sliced open. Cue the blood spatter on the killer’s face.

In the middle of it, I wondered if Seann William Scott actually read the screenplay before signing on for the project. He must have because it is obviously an independent film with limited budget—not at all a multimillion-dollar franchise in which an actor gets paid the big bucks. Did he owe someone a favor? Was he threatened to do the picture? Is this a two-part deal? In any case, his talent is wasted here. His character, a high school counselor who has a new baby at home, is not written with searing insight, great depth, and surprising details—strange because the intention of the work is for us to look at Mr. Cole and recognize eventually he is a portrait of evil. It is not enough to show him killing people that he thinks deserve to be punished; we must have an understanding of what makes a complex subject tick. What is/are his moral code(s)? Does he have any? Whatever the case, what makes this character worth looking into?

Mr. Cole’s penchant for killing stems from a traumatizing childhood event. (Aren’t they all?) These flashbacks lack control in terms of editing and how it is shot. They are presented to us randomly, perhaps when the subject becomes so stressed in his home life and/or while at work. The intention, I guess, is to show that he has such a flimsy grasp on reality that his mind must reach back into the past in order to cope. It is most unconvincing because the material also suggests that Mr. Cole is addicted to killing. It cannot be both because these are two different needs. There is a lack of both consistency and a basic understanding of abnormal psychology in Avra Fox-Lerne, Henry Jacobson, and Will Honley’s screenplay.

Strong debut pictures are usually propelled by great energy. At times first-time filmmakers wish to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their project—just in case they will not have another opportunity to make a second movie. In “Bloodline,” it is almost the exact opposite. There is no sense of desperation here channeled into something positive. It is lifeless, dour, and nearly every element feels constricted. Listen to the dialogue, for instance. It sounds like actors are reading from the script instead of simply being. Look at how scenes are shot indoors versus outdoors—there is little difference. It is no wonder the work is flat in look and feeling.

Even the relationship between husband and wife (Mariela Garriga) is most unconvincing. We are supposed to notice a difference in how their lifestyle changes as a couple once the adorable baby arrives—when it is not painfully apparent the performers are carrying or interacting with a doll—but there is nothing to sink our teeth into because minimal context is provided when it comes to how their lives are like before parenthood. It does not help that Scott and Garriga share no chemistry. When they are in bed together, it feels like a bad joke. We wait for the punchline.

Plagues of Breslau


Plagues of Breslau (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Patryk Vega’s “Plagues of Breslau” begins with a curious premise involving a cow hide being found in a market and inside it is a man who has died only two hours prior, but despite the handful of grim occurrences throughout, it is not a captivating thriller. It is as clear as day that the picture is highly influenced by Jonathan Demme’s modern classic “The Silence of the Lambs” and David Fincher’s savagely entertaining “Se7en.” However, it does not possess a screenplay that is character-driven nor one that is deeply interested in complex morality. What results is a parade of reveals surrounding fresh corpses with words seared on their bodies: “degenerate,” “corrupt,” “oppressor,” and the like. What should be gruesome grows stale.

Lead investigator of the serial killings in Wrocław is Helena whom we meet in her car, crying and holding a pistol in her hand. She is played by Malgorzata Kozuchowska with silent intensity and with a voice so calm, even soft at times, we wonder if she is moved at all by the murders. Or perhaps she is numbed by the fact that although her fiancé had been killed by a drunk driver, the driver went unpunished. Does she harbor anger for the system she works for? Clearly, she remains in mourning. Is she fit to be on the job at this time, especially when facing a very clever unsub?

Kozuchowska makes some fresh choices on how to portray Helena despite the screenplay’s lack of willingness to engage with the character in such a way that by the end we see a whole person rather than a tough persona of a woman who has been in the police force for years. The work does not answer the question of why this particular heroine is worth following other than she is simply on screen sporting a quirky haircut (a third of her head is shaved). The shallow characterization makes, for example, flashbacks toward the end feel rather cheap, tacked on. Although they fill in certain pieces of the puzzle, these revelations come across forced.

It is a shame because the picture offers a few attention-grabbing set pieces. A great example involves a racehorse galloping down the street as terrorized pedestrians jump out of its way. Because the action functions on such a level, matched by skilled editing and energetic framing, we miss so much information at a given time that when a twist occurs, we feel it is deserved because all the answers have been presented to us. It plays fair. If only the rest of the movie functioned on a consistently breathless but detailed level.

Notice when the action dies down, there is minimal detective work. Helena and Iwona (Daria Widawska), a specialist profiler from Warsaw, visit places and interrogate citizens, but there is a dearth of hands-on, dirty police work; it feels sanitized, a fantasy version of what actual police work is like. We merely anticipate what the killer will do before 6PM strikes. Because it is revealed early on that the unsub appears to be inspired by an 18th century figure who felt he needed to purge human fallacies (degeneracy, pillaging, corruption, slandering, oppression, treachery) in order to bring justice and peace to his city. And so for one week, beginning on Monday, one person who is guilty of one of the fallacies will be publicly executed. (Sunday is considered to be a holiday so a total of 6 people are expected to die.)

“Plagues of Breslau” plays a hand so conventional, I thought about similar television shows that work on a much higher level about half a dozen times. While it can be entertaining on the surface level, there is nothing but air once you bite into it. Certain elements—like women being disrespected in a traditionally masculine work force or what is expected from the female gender despite so-called progressivism in our modern times—are there to make a really angry film with something of value to say. But for some reason, the writer-director fails to focus on what it is he wishes to communicate by using serial killings as a template.

Calibre


Calibre (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The British suspense-thriller “Calibre” is the kind of picture that glues viewers onto their seats. The premise involving a hunting gone wrong is quite standard, but it is elevated by writer-director Matt Palmer’s efficient screenplay. Notice that once living bodies hit the ground, every scene inspires the audience to ask, “Then what happens?” Will the two friends and eventual murderers, Marcus (Martin McCann) and Vaughn (Jack Lowden), make it out of the Scottish village or will they die in the hands of a close-knit community who believes that a debt must be paid in full?

We are provided information about how the friendship works. Vaughn, a father-to-be, is the more soft-spoken of the two former boarding schoolmates. We have a clear picture of his morality. He is supposed to be the “good” half of the duo. Marcus the businessman is single, confident, and enjoys having fun with a line of cocaine or three. He takes risks and draws attention to himself—inadvertently or otherwise. Palmer ensures to keep the camera on Marcus as rural folks measure him up. Marcus enjoys attention and admiration. It is critical that we have an appreciation of how the two men are like together and apart. We are meant to observe how they react the moment they shoot a person dead. We measure how their morals are similar or different to our own.

Surely the dead deserves justice, but it is curious that we find ourselves rooting for Marcus and Vaughn to make it out of the village alive anyway. It is not that we wish for them to get away with murder. But if they did not, then there would be more corpses by the time the weekend rolls around. Yes, it is a survival thriller. However, the writer-director underlines the fact that the duo must survive first in order for the situation to have a possibility of being corrected—at least when it comes to the standard rule of law. At the same time, the writing makes a point that because the community lives way up in the mountains, they have their own laws, rules, and morality.

The picture is shot in a matter-of-fact way. I appreciated its simplicity. The ground is always wet and muddy—the filmmakers do not go out of their way to make the woods, the various business establishments, and the people look beautiful or appealing. They just are so it is easy to believe that this particular isolated village exists out there somewhere.

Foot chases possess a savageness to them. Nervous and guilty people on the run get tired easily. There is minimal score. It is so quiet at times that we can almost hear the characters think. When they stare off into space, it is a statement. As they evaluate situations, notice the fond use of close-ups. Clearly, Lowden and McCann are expressive performers. It is not a surprise that the villages eventually begin to suspect their characters. Yes, they are outsiders. And, yes, they are the only ones hunting that day. But they also tend to wear guilty looks on their faces. They are worthy of suspicion. It is darkly comic how something always comes up which prevents the two from leaving the village. Maybe they are already sentenced to hell.

“Calibre” strums the nerves as if they were guitar strings. It is entertaining because the writer-director appears to have an understanding of the push-and-pull among suspense, action, and thrill. At its best, the material even goes out of its way to touch upon the economic hardships of rural communities, how desperate people are unable to find work so they can put food on the table. I wish this aspect were explored more thoroughly, not only a passing glance. It is no accident that our protagonists come from the city.

Dragged Across Concrete


Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Two detectives, Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are caught via phone camera for being too rough on a suspect. Six-week suspension, no pay. The former has an idea: To rob criminals planning to execute a bank heist. The latter is given a choice on whether to join his partner. He accepts, albeit reluctantly; money is needed in the likely event his girlfriend accepts his wedding proposal. Like strong thrillers told with clear vision and precision, “Dragged Across Concrete” offers a straightforward plot—and yet many may find it to be a challenge to sit through because of its formidable patience. Without the fat, it is barely a ninety-minute feature. And yet it has a total running time of two hours and forty minutes. In this rare case, fat provides flavor.

This is a story of people who are required to sacrifice something important in order to achieve what they want. Most of them will pay with their lives. It is quite grim in its vision of reality, but I found it to be honest, too. Our detectives are not pleasant people to be around. For instance, one of them is a proud racist. The other tolerates his partner’s… eccentricity. One feels he is owed by the city he has protected for doing “good and honest work” which supposedly justifies the corruption he is about to step into. The other knows he is smart and can do much better than to sit next to an increasingly bitter man who is twenty years his senior. Yet this man chooses to remain stagnant, coming up with one justification after another in order to delay what is right for his career.

These are interesting characters precisely because of their flaws. Exchanges between Gibson and Vaughn command electricity; they adapt a rhythm that feels cinematic without losing that roughness or jaggedness innate to independent films. Ridgeman and Lurasetti enable one another yet challenge each other in small ways, even in petty ways. Attempts at humor are present when it comes to their behavior, especially when both are confined in a small space—like how a sandwich is eaten. We spent ample time in their car, just waiting for something to happen. Those thirsty for action will likely get bored, but those who wish to understand these men will be curious of what they have to say or do next. I fall in the latter category.

Zahler’s daring screenplay shines not just during shockingly violent in-your-face moments. Although I must say there is a murder that occurs about halfway through that haunted me until well after the end credits. Notice the material is not afraid to put the rising action into a screeching halt in order to provide exposition regarding new characters, who may or may not be critically important during the final act, and reveal their motivations. Instead of giving us repetitive car chases and shootouts, we take a quick peek at their home lives: the state of their living space, who is important to them, and why they come to the conclusion that money will solve their current woes. But what good is money when you’re dead and you’re not there to share joy and laughter with loved ones? To these people, it is worth the risk.

Looking at the work as a whole, I think its goal is to censure systemic problems in our current society: racism, corruption, and the constant failure to hold cops responsible for their actions in a way that is healthy and therefore have positive effects long-term. The movie is a look at how punishment-driven we are: imprison criminals when they need rehabilitation, suspend cops without pay when what most of them really need is proper training not only as cops but also as enforcers of law who must learn to relate better with the diverse communities they serve. Finally, it condemns how we as a society have allowed those in power to put money on such a high pedestal that we are willing to die to attain it. That is why the violence must be framed in an extreme fashion. The film is angry and we should be, too. Yes, the movie entertains, but it also works as social commentary should viewers bother to look underneath the sclera.

The Survivalist


The Survivalist (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is about twenty minutes into the film until the first word is uttered in “The Survivalist,” intelligently written and directed by Stephen Fingleton, a thoroughly engaging and unsentimental look into a future after a steep decline in human population. The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed man (Martin McCann) who lives deep in the forest. We meet him while dragging a naked male body across the forest floor, seconds before pushing the corpse into a shallow grave. Based on the survivalist’s body language and his clockwork efficiency, this is not his first time throwing out the trash.

Fingleton dunks our heads into the main character’s daily routine. He wakes up, washes up, tends to the small farm situated right outside the front door, checks bear traps for intruders, forages berries, washes clothes in a neighboring stream, and checks on the crops some more. Although we hear not one word word from or about the man, we learn so much about him in how the camera fixates on his movements, his eyes when he attempts to solve a problem, his posture when he longs for human interaction. An intoxicating rhythm is established and we come to have an appreciation of a specific person’s lifestyle. It gets details exactly right. For instance, it is appropriate that our protagonist have dirty fingernails because he massages dirt every day; that his body leans toward the scraggy side since there are bouts of food shortages.

We also get a feel for the survivalist’s mental state. There is a suggestion early on that perhaps he is on the brink of losing his sanity. He feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns around, in horror, and yet there is no one there. The writer-director makes the astute decision to linger on the face of our protagonist. He, too, wonders whether he is losing his mind. Again, we get an impression that this is not the first time it has happened. Keep in mind that up until this point not a single line of dialogue is provided yet. Despite this, however, we are able to extract a wealth of information because the screenplay, direction, and performance are so alive.

The plot does not take off until two women—mother and daughter—arrive at the small farm. The mother, Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré), asks the man if she and her daughter, Milja (Mia Goth), could take some of the crops. The man is unmoved. Jewelry is offered. Some seeds, too. He holds his position, shotgun pointing at the intruders, waiting for them to slip. An arrangement is made eventually. We know precisely what it is our protagonist desires based on earlier observations. The well-written screenplay has provided exactly what it is we need to know about the survivalist for the entire film’s duration. But this is not to suggest he no longer has the ability to surprise.

“The Survivalist” is not for everyone. Although it adopts a dour tone similar to numerous post-apocalyptic films, the pacing moves at a snail’s pace—without compromise. It keeps plenty of valuable information from unobservant viewers. I admired this decision; by focusing on the humanity of the characters instead of the action, every decision comes across calculated and important. We are challenged to wonder and predict which choices would prove fruitful later on or haunt the characters ten-fold. While most post-apocalyptic stories tend to be glamorized, this particular story goes the opposite direction. Its world is so unforgiving, there is no place for the weak.

Body at Brighton Rock


Body at Brighton Rock (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Situational horror picture “Body at Brighton Rock” inspires the viewer to look up the qualifications for becoming a part-time summer park ranger because the protagonist (Karina Fontes) has a tendency to make one mistake right after another, most often due to a lack of common sense and consistent failure to follow simple directions, that we question whether she is worth following all the way through the story. And so despite the film just clocking in under ninety minutes, it feels significantly longer. It is highly frustrating to watch a main character—one hired to be out in the wilderness and promote safety—who has minimal knowledge of survival skills. Imagine this: Wendy comes across a lighter and she still has trouble starting a fire. The screenplay by writer-director Roxanne Benjamin is the issue here; it lacks pragmatism, creativity, and imagination. It does not know where to go once Wendy comes across a corpse. There is talk among friends that the woods may be haunted. It is acknowledged that Wendy might be sitting in the middle of a crime scene. Cue shots of creepy-looking branches which suggest the woods may be alive. Is a hungry predator within the vicinity? Leaves make crunching noises but there is no one there. Likewise, ideas are introduced but never explored in meaningful ways. There is no suspense, thrill, or horror. Just a whole lot of waiting for nothing to happen.