Tag Archives: suspense

Black Swan (2010)

An interesting thing about Black Swan is how many different potential movies are crammed into its actuality. For instance, there’s a not particularly compelling ballet movie in it, which is sad when you consider how much effort Natalie Portman told Terry Gross that she put into training for the physical aspects of the part. And then there’s a somewhat formulaic suspense thriller in which Portman vies with ballet company newcomer Mila Kunis for the dubious affections of the company’s French artistic director as well as the lead in the first show of the season, Swan Lake, while a tragically underutilized Winona Ryder looks on from the sidelines as the cast-aside prima ballerina from seasons past. And if you’re getting the impression so far that I found it okay at best, you’re right up to a point; I would have been pretty disappointed if I had been watching either of those two movies.

The movie that I was watching, which I more or less loved, was a psychological study of an obsessive mind pushed to the brink of utter collapse under a myriad of internal and external pressures. And I don’t want to say more than that, because it made for utterly compelling watching as each element unfolded. I’ve been on record in the past as approving of unreliable narrators in fiction. I think this is the first time I’ve seen one on film that wasn’t eye-rollingly bad; to the contrary, I hope Portman earns some awards over the next few months.

Devil

It turns out that there was another M. Night Shyamalan movie this year besides The [apparently horrible] Last Airbender. Devil had very little of his touch, though; only the story concept was his, with both script and direction handed out elsewhere. I honestly don’t have an opinion on whether that’s particularly good or bad, though I will say that it was less overwrought than, for example, The Happening. It was extremely religious, which is another of his hallmarks, though I suppose with a title like that it is to be expected here. The premise is simple and more than enough to determine if it will hold your interest: a group of people are on a malfunctioning elevator when suddenly bad things start to happen, including an eventual belief that one of the people trapped on the elevator is the devil, tormenting people for their sins even before they are dead.

On the one hand, I felt like a lot of what happened outside the elevator was fluff to pad out the movie and could have been cut, up to and including a last moment shock reveal that was neither shocking nor revelatory to me, despite that I had not figured out the “twist” ahead of time or anything like that. But then again, it’s an 80 minute movie, even padded. It was good enough for what it was, I guess, but I think I have to be disappointed by the fact that not nearly enough energy was spent on script and face time in the elevator itself, because, violent deviltry in an enclosed space, with no way to know who to trust? That sounds like an incredible premise to me, yet I don’t feel like it’s what I actually got.

Splice

Here is the main thing you need to know about Splice: it is being mismarketed in the previews as a horror movie. It is occasionally scary, it’s intensely psychological, and it has a moral component big enough for any three normal movies. But except for an unfortunate five minute interlude near the climax of the film, it is decidedly not horror. The real problem is that I’m not exactly sure what else to say; my options seem to veer between massive spoilers and convincing people that they shouldn’t watch it, neither of which would be my intention and both of which seem likely if I really tried to explain it. I’m pretty sure I can manage to dodge the spoilers, but the other part will be trickier.

So, what happens is, there’s this genetic engineering lab being funded by a pharmaceutical company, and the two lead scientists are rock stars in their field, even on the cover of Wired, for their work in splicing various genes together to create new organisms with solid pharmaceutical applications. Also, they are a couple because of how a man and a woman cannot simply be professional colleagues in a movie. (Or, it occurs to me, in comic books. But as this would be a messy digression, I’ll stop now.) Then, like you would probably expect to happen in a sci-fi morality play, they decide that it’s time to up the stakes by including human DNA into their splicing experiments. This is successful via the power of montage, and from there forward what you have is a movie. The thing is, it’s a very disturbing movie, and although I’m glad I saw it and would even say I liked it, I don’t think I want to see it again anytime soon.

Which is exactly the concern I had, because I feel like this was a very successful film in several ways: emotionally affecting, structurally sound, and technically excellent all three. Although I’m not convinced the masses will really understand[1] the distinction, I feel like they did an especially good job by portraying the moral component strictly via the  characters and their actions, never really focusing that hard on the idea that the creation of Dren (the putative star of our drama) had a positive or negative moral component at all. Which, to bring it full circle, is another way I think the previews / marketing have failed the actual movie, though again, I doubt the viewing public will realize that particular “moral” dimension was disregarded so thoroughly.

[1] Then again, the masses won’t go see this movie anyway, so I may not have a point here after all.

After.Life

Last night, I made a mad dash out of work to the one of three theaters in the area that had a late enough showing of After.Life for me to get to it in time. Yes, really, even though I am well aware of just how terrible the name is. Because the concept made up for it, and it’s not like it was a book where I would have to see the text over and over again. And I’m definitely glad I did. Of the two late night horror movies that I see this week, it will almost certainly have been the best, and by a wide margin.

What happens is this: after an unfortunate argument and a brutal car accident, Christina Ricci is trapped between life and death in the basement of a funeral parlor, at the hands (malevolent or beneficial? That is the central question of the plot) of funeral director Liam Neeson; and erstwhile boyfriend The Mac Guy lingers forever around the edges, possibly to lighten the dreamlike quality of the central interactions or possibly to add moderately unneeded melodrama to an otherwise extremely thoughtful film. Because that central plot-driven question is completely beside the point; it is the theme of crossing the veil between life and death that gives the film its real weight. There are certainly hints throughout the opening frames that Ricci is already dead long before any collision occurs, and as each interminable[1] day between death and burial gives way to the next, she looks ever more pale and bloodless and gothic; by the end, she is reminiscent of Wednesday Addams more surely than she has been in years. Despite all these indicators, she clings to her life with a tenacious grip that leaves Neeson ever more exasperated at her unwillingness to accept his assistance in letting go. And that tension between the pull of life and the inevitability of death drives the film along even farther than probably 20 minutes of nudity did[2], much less that potential horror plot I mentioned earlier.

If I may, I think I would like to see more indie horror scripts that explore the same kinds of human questions that are usually relegated to sfnal settings. Thinking man’s horror, if it were to take off, would I’m pretty sure be the first new movie genre I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

[1] To her, that is; despite being slowly paced, nothing ever felt as though it was dragging to me.
[2] Because, yeah, if you can keep me interested in the questions you are raising while Christina Ricci is naked, you’ve probably done a pretty good job with your movie.

Shutter Island

Shutter Island is one of those movies that Hollywood (in the collective, generic sense) manages to abuse badly and thereby annoy me.  The previews have been going for at least six months, with the obligatory gap in the middle when they realize that they don’t know when they’ll release it after all, and hadn’t they better wait and find out? But then, after the gap, right back to the same previews as before. Plus, separately, the previews themselves were horrid and revealed to me everything about the movie.[1] Still, good cast led by a good director and in a beautifully dreary setting means that for the bargain price of a free day-ahead sneak preview, I was more than willing to go see just how it turned out, regardless.

And do you know, there was a period in the middle-to-late section of the movie where they actually had me doubting my preview-based conclusions? Ultimately, I found myself correct all over again, just like I’d known from the start, but despite everything, I did not walk out of the theater pissed, nor even mildly annoyed save at myself for getting briefly suckered. Because, the journey really was the worthier part, this time around. Turns out that, just as with rewatching an old favorite, knowing the outcome doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the ride. Oh, and speaking of engrossing and well-acted psychological thrillers, I’m nearly positive that I recognized at least two interior sets from the incredible Session 9.

[1] Look, if you know what I mean by this, they’ve probably already done the same to you too. If not, just don’t go looking for it, I guess?

Frozen (2010)

There’s this movie, Frozen, that you’ve never heard of. I had never heard of it before it showed up on my list of ‘movies to see on a Wednesday afternoon’ last week. And even though I found the idea of college kids trapped on a ski-lift during a winter storm to be extremely compelling, pretty much nobody else did, at least by appearances; I’m pretty sure it won’t even be showing in area theaters anymore by tomorrow. What’s cool, though, is that for movies that nobody much has heard about, I get to be the representative of the film in a way that my review of, say, Avatar holds no comparison to. And it’s not like this is uncommon for me; I watch a fair number of movies that are outside the mainstream. But only every once in a while do I see a movie that people maybe haven’t heard of, but should still actually watch.

Except, I’ve already told you most of what you need to know about Frozen, and where does that really leave me? I mean, the plot is kind of predictable. Of course they’ll get trapped on the ski lift in some unlikely way. That’s the premise! And of course they’ll have moments of rescue that are dashed away. That’s the genre. But eventually the reality of the situation sets in[1], and then you have a compelling glimpse at physical danger, emotional collapse, and the ways that people react in the face of death. And even before that reality hits, the film is at times brilliantly shot. I shouldn’t spoil the scene I’m thinking of, as it’s quite affecting. But, like the rest of the movie, it really drives home the tagline, which I will repeat here instead of relegating it to mouseover text as usual: “No one knows you’re up there.” In a way, that simple fact is more terrifying than all the snowstorms, fifty foot drops, and razor-sharp cables in the world.

[1] Interestingly, at least to me, I think this happens for the audience before it happens for the characters. Or maybe it is just my personal experience with a superficially similar situation that made me sensitive to it.

A Perfect Getaway

I had a fundamental misunderstanding about this movie that completely changed its makeup for me. Luckily, I would say the change was for the better. A Perfect Getaway chronicles the fates of three couples on vacation in Hawaii who, while hiking in the largely unpopulated wilds of Kauai, are constantly dogged by rumors of a man and woman who gruesomely murdered a pair of newlyweds in Honolulu just days before. So, what I thought I went to see was a horror movie, in which the couples face a gradually hopeless game of cat and mouse against the killers. Instead, the movie is a suspense thriller in which each couple suspects the next of being the harbinger of their doom.

I think that’s the most I can safely say, suspense thrillers being what they are. I will add that our main characters shine pretty brightly, Steve Zahn continuing his [largely successful] quest to transform a supporting actor’s looks and general air into a leading actor’s success using nothing but his talent, and Milla Jovovich successfully portraying a bubbly, vivacious, and merely moderately attractive leading actress with talent you would not suspect her knockout looks to be capable of. (If you found that sentence nauseating and impossible to get through: they were good!)

Lakeview Terrace

The only serious problem with LakeviewMV5BMTI0MzI0NDI4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk4ODk3MQ@@._V1__SX1859_SY847_ Terrace was the advertising campaign. It went from Hey, cool preview! to Why didn’t that movie ever come out? to I am so tired of these previews, hooray that the movie finally being out means I’ll never have to see them again! Maybe there was a delay in the release? Dunno. Anyhow, I’d pretty much written it off, but last Wednesday I found myself with some time to kill, and it was the best fit for my schedule and interest level. Which is good; I would have needed closure.

Surprisingly, and to the film’s benefit, it’s not really the boilerplate thriller it appeared to be. Sure, all that ratchety tension stuff is in there, and played quite well on all sides. But mostly, it’s a character study about two people who simply don’t like each other. There are all kinds of proximate causes: racism features heavily, but jealousy, loneliness, power imbalances, and family values differences all play their roles. But I really think the underlying issue is that some people just can’t stand each other, and these two had the misfortune of living next to each other. (Well, and the misfortune of Samuel L. Jackson being just enough off-kilter to turn it from the typical coldly polite avoidance into a constantly escalating conflict. But make no mistake, the other guy[1] was carrying around plenty of his own contributory macho bullshit.)

I think what really impressed me, though, was that despite all of that, SLJ was frequently sympathetic. Not, y’know, a lot, but more than enough to take him out of the caricature territory one expects from his boilerplate thriller character type. To balance that, the travails of Not SLJ and his wife were mostly disinteresting; real and depth-creating, just like SLJ’s sympathetitude, but it just never fit the tone of everything else that was going on, at least to me. Still, minor quibble in an otherwise above-average experience.

[1] Not Samuel L. Jackson, I think, is what his name is?

88 Minutes

So I saw 88 Minutes, starring Al Pacino and Leelee Sobieski and a fair number of recognizable TV actors. (Oh, and the serial killer guy is also mostly in movies, but I can’t remember his name. You’d know him if you saw him.) Anyway, Al Pacino is a forensic psychologist for the FBI who testified to get the serial killer locked up, but it’s questionable whether his testimony was completely accurate or fair, and maybe that guy actually isn’t a serial killer at all, y’know?

Therefore, come the scheduled day of execution, things go wonky. There’s a copycat killer in town for the first time in 8 years, unless it’s the real killer? And evidence points to Al, who meanwhile has been warned that he has 88 minutes to live by someone using trademark phrases the convicted guy used during the trial. And anyway, maybe Al really is the serial killer, in which case it’s the convicted guy and not the real serial killer threatening him? Plus, there has to be an accomplice, which might be his TA, or one of his students, or the creepy motorcycle guy who’s stalking around everywhere.

That right there is where the movie excelled. It ratcheted up levels of paranoia, both in Pacino and in the audience who couldn’t be sure about his real role in events, on a non-stop basis. And there were layer after oniony layer of new questions continuously being exposed. The problems I had weren’t really enough to bring me down from that high, but they were real problems.

For one thing, the script was often wooden. I would normally blame this on the actors, but I’ve seen these actors excel elsewhere, and I know that when you’ve got a Pacino on set with you, your game is naturally raised up anyway. So I listened to the lines themselves divorced from intonation, and hotty Alicia Witt bemoaning her choice to fall for her professor while he sits beside her in stony silence, almost as if she’s supposed to be having an internal monologue, that was a terrible scene. But I can’t believe it’s because she or Pacino are terrible, which leaves few options. I suppose the directing may have been bad instead; or perhaps they colluded, partner-style, one from prison? Oh, oops. Forget I said that. Anyway, that was an occasional issue, plus the ending kind of stalled out for me. But since I can’t point to any specific complaint, it may just tie back into the original issue, that the villainous monologue had the same kinds of problems as at other script-points.

But I’m seriously about the paranoid tension. They hit that one out of the ballpark.

Vacancy

Sometimes my ability to fall behind on reviews can be ascribed to laziness, sometimes to being excessively busy. This time, though? Sheer exhaustion. Well, and being excessively busy. Since I saw Vacancy, I’ve had one day of weekend followed by three more days of being at work. And I didn’t really get enough sleep on Sunday, much less the other days. On top of which, Monday and Tuesday were as busy as any days at work I’ve had here, with the added virtue of occurring back-to-back and did I mention on not enough sleep? My fake vacation cannot occur quickly enough. (Literally. If the place weren’t so understaffed with other people on vacation right now, I’d go ahead and take off tomorrow, lost money be damned.)

Speaking of bring trapped in a Sartreian room that has a snuff film running on loop in the corner[1], estranged married couple Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale set out to re-demonstrate a lesson we’ve all long since learned: don’t take a shortcut unless you want something bad to happen to your car in the middle of nowhere, don’t expect the stranger in the tiny town a mile or two from the middle of nowhere to actually have your best interests in mind, and don’t stay in hotels where the proprietor is funny-looking and you are the only guests. But it’s okay; these lessons are clichéd for a reason.

Because once they get into that vacant room, they start to realize just how much trouble they’re in. I mean, watching people in your room getting murdered on video has a way of putting those petty little snipes and dislikes and even deep-seated angers with one another into perspective. (Which is the difference between this and actual Sartre; his characters would have finished the conversation first, then worried about how to escape imminent bloody death on videotape. In a way, I’m the mildest bit disappointed now and wish I hadn’t though of the comparison to start with.) From there, it’s all cat-and-mouse tension that is never relieved for any longer than what is required for the audience to remember to breathe. At least one scene is genuinely disturbing, and another is pretty terrifying in a laudably subtle way. And one scene, well, simply doesn’t fit the movie. But as that’s my only complaint, I say good on them. It’s not like it’s the best movie you’ll see this year, or even this month, but it might well be the best dramatic thriller you’ll see this year. Unless that one with Halle Berry and Bruce Willis is good? I think I heard not, though. So, yeah, this one, then.

[1] I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. I could probably complain to someone and get the channel changed. But the alternative is this weird propaganda loop, and after a while the screams provide their own cold, inhuman comfort. …sorry, got distracted there for a second.