The Mechanic (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) was a hitman but a well-connected one. He was a part of an international company with clients willing to pay millions to further their goals. Arthur was considered valuable because his adherence to his rules made him an efficient machine. But his next job proved to be more challenging: he was to assassinate his mentor (Donald Sutherland) who happened to be bound on a wheelchair. Although reluctant, he eventually went through with it because he believed that another contract killer couldn’t do a better job. Less pain was a big favor in their profession. Guilt-ridden, he decided to train his mentor’s son, Steve (Ben Foster), to become a hit-man even though the deceased mentor and Steve shared no meaningful relationship. Dean (Tony Goldwyn), the man in charge of Arthur, was displeased with the idea because Steve was everything Arthur was not. He felt like he always had something to prove, his work was messy, and he was a loose cannon. Directed by Simon West, “The Mechanic” was a rush of adrenaline. Only an hour and thirty minutes, each scene was a build-up to a cathartic action sequence, but there was something sorely lacking in order for it to become more than an empty-calorie action movie. It needed an ounce of character development in order to make the characters less cartoonish and more sympathetic. We knew nothing about Arthur except for three things: he relied on his rules for survival, he cherished being by himself, and the only woman he seemed to have interest in, physically, was a hooker. His body needed her and when he was done, he would leave the money on the counter. Maybe he was attracted in the fact that she, too, was a professional–that it was all about the service and the money. If the film had provided more information about our protagonist, I would have been more convinced of his guilt for killing a person he considered to be his only friend. However, the action scenes were strong enough to keep the movie afloat. I thought it was interesting that Arthur was the kind of assassin who chose not to rely on bullets to kill. He used science, like inducing a heart attack or an “accidental” overdose, to disguise a murder. Furthermore, there was an understated comedy in some of the kills due to irony. For instance, a man who claimed to have a direct connection with a higher power turned out to be a drug addict. The only thing that actually possessed his body was unhealthy doses of ketamine. He liked to listen to holy sermons while feeding his demon. “The Mechanic” was enjoyable on the surface but it would have been more involving if the material had allowed Arthur to do something else once in a while other than simply polishing his gun, if you will, until the next job.
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a hardworking bartender who had to support two teenage boys, decided to put herself through law school so she could get her brother, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), out jail for being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1983. Written by Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn, the film immediately established why, aside from the fact that they shared the same bloodline, Betty Anne would go to great lengths, even as to sacrifice her entire life and family, to free Kenny. Although it focused on their childhood, it was done with brisk pace and the techniques employed were not melodramatic. I could imagine kids from a broken home being separated to be raised by different foster parents respond in the same way they did. Swank had a challenging role. She had to balance being tougher than a leather Prada bag yet still remain sensitive so we could understand that her decisions of sometimes putting her family aside for the sake of her brother really did took a toll on her. Failing to reach that critical balance while making it look easy could have made Betty Anne look more like a caricature than a real person. Despite some formulaic elements, like scenes in the courtroom designed to make us feel that the murder was an open-and-shut case, the film was spearheaded by Swank’s nuanced acting. The way she held back her character emotionally was equally powerful as the explosive celebrations–like when we learned that she passed her bar examination and, along with the friend she met in law school named Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), when she found DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate Kenny of the crime. The picture was exciting for me because I never followed nor heard about the Waters case. Despite the DNA evidence, there was possibility that Kenny really did commit the murder. There was a feeling that maybe Betty Anne’s quest of more than sixteen years would not result to Kenny’s freedom. I wish the film took a moment to acknowledge that DNA evidence was not an easy solution: It could be tampered with while in storage and scientists were capable of human error. Such instances were not unheard-of. The filmmakers were smart in deciding not to inject too much humanity in Rockwell’s character for the sake of mystery. While there was a small evolution in his character, we were never certain whether or not he committed the crime. What mattered most was Betty Anne’s determination to fix what she thought was a crime in the justice system. Another fascinating character was a corrupt cop played by Melissa Leo. The one scene that Leo and Swank shared had deep tension that could scar. It look forward to seeing them star in the same film in the future. “Conviction” left some unanswered questions such as how Betty Anne was able to support her two boys with a bar-tending job while putting herself through law school and still living in a nice house. Her ex-husband might have supported or perhaps she took out a loan. Were her adoptive parents wealthy? It wasn’t clear. Regardless, the film had an inspiring story supported by the filmmakers’ defined vision and strong acting from the cast.
The Last House on the Left (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I’m not going to say that this was predictable because I saw the 1972 version directed by the legendary Wes Craven. Garret Dillahunt, Riki Lindhome and Aaron Paul star as the three criminals running from the law who eventually come upon Sara Paxton and Martha MaxIsaac. After a series of numbing humiliations and assaults, with the help of Dillahunt’s son (Spencer Treat Clark), Paxton’s parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) find out what happened to their daughter and they crave bloody vengeance. I must say that this was more thrilling the 1972 version. It was smart enough to tweak some of the details from the original to keep those who’ve seen the classic guessing. I also liked the fact that Dennis Iliadis, the director, provided some sort of backstory of Paxton’s character so the audiences will be able to sympathize with her more during the more gruesome scenes she has to go through. It has a different feel than most slasher movies coming out in 2009 because the camera tends to linger on the characters’ faces in silence to fully get the picture on how a particular character is feeling after or while going through a trial. However, what I didn’t like about it was that it’s a bit lighter than the original. Some of the implications are gone because this modern version feels like it wants to garner a wider audience. In other words, it’s more commercial in its storytelling, use of music and violence. When the credits started rolling, I asked myself whether I liked the film. The answer would be a “Yes.” But I also asked myself whether this modern interpretation of the original was necessary in the overall scope of horror cinema. The answer would be a resounding “No.” Yes, the classic may be dated but an upgrade is far from necessary. For a horror picture, this “House” has the thrills, blood and suspense but watching that gruesome rape scene again made me sick to my stomach. (But then again maybe that’s the point: To place shame on the audiences due to their willingness to pay ten bucks to see something brutal.)