Tag Archive for thriller

I Saw the Devil Review (Film, 2010)

If an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, what happens when the first person to take revenge doesn’t go for equal punishment? What happens when he choose to torment the original perpetrator in a bizarre reconditioning experiment? And what happens if the desire to repeat the offense is amplified by the violent intrusion?

That’s the premise of I Saw the Devil, a revenge thriller so dark from South Korea that it has to be called horror. Kyung-chul Jang rapes and decapitates young women in his workshop. The first victim in the film is the fiance of Soo-hyeon Kim, a secret agent. The victim is also the daughter of the local police chief who gives Soo-hyeon all the information on the top four murder suspects and sends him out to get revenge.

isawthedevilagent I Saw the Devil Review (Film, 2010)

Debut screenwriter Hoon-jung Park crafts a brutal narrative of revenge and misplaced aggression. His story arc and character development is so twisted that it turns into a sincere satire of revenge thrillers. The audience is made to feel disgust over their immediate reactions to the crimes committed. Every effort the characters make to squash the conflict turns into a new revenge narrative. Does one disgusting act alone make it so that we have to support whoever steps up to get revenge? Hoon-jung Park’s story will make you question the very core of the revenge drama.

Byung-hung Lee and Min-sik Choi are evenly matched as the agent and the killer. Their performances are strong, unnerving, and ultimately alien. Though they look, talk, and bleed like humans, their personalities are too cold and distant to fully become human. These are two actors who clearly understand that the hero and the villain both believe they are the force for good in the world and are starring in their own story. I Saw the Devil just gives both sides their due as the sympathetic figure.

isawthedevilkiller I Saw the Devil Review (Film, 2010)

There is a large flaw in the film and that is the original score. Mowg composed beautiful themes that match the tone of the film. They are just mixed so prominently in the soundtrack that they take away from the harsh reality of the story. There are a handful of scenes that are pushed into cliched melodrama in a story that soars when it betrays expectations.

There is nothing cliche about the unflinching brutality on display in I Saw the Devil. This violence lacks the veneer of safety that the over the top or mindless gore of the average horror provides. It is so believable that it begins to wear on your nerve. After the first murder scene, you’ll think that director Jee-won Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) wouldn’t dare go any further; he’s already gone beyond the scope of most thrillers with the first act of aggression. Then you realize that the first scene is subtle and suggestive compared to what comes next. By the time the film is finished, the first scene might as well have been children playing in a park on a sunny day for how tame it seems in context.

I Saw the Devil is a brutal and challenging film. It rewards you for engaging with the subject matter and taking the quiet moments without dialogue to consider all the moral evidence presented throughout the film. It is a long and hard film to watch, but ultimately one that deserves an audience on the level of well-executed risk alone.

Rating: 7/10

You can catch I Saw the Devil on Netflix streaming right now. It’s a trip. Share your thoughts below.

Cosmopolis Review (2012, Film)

David Cronenberg knows how to create a universe. Even when adapting his films from novels, there is never a doubt as to ownership of the film. Cosmopolis is an adaptation twice over, working with the premise of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis and the more rigid structure of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Eric Packer is worth so much money that he can’t even tell you how much money he has. He travels Manhattan in an almost sound proof stretch limousine stocked with the latest technology available. All Packer wants to do is get a haircut on the other side of the New York City. It just happens to be the day that his risky investment against the Yuan will falter.

cosmopolisericpacker Cosmopolis Review (2012, Film)

Leave it to Cronenberg to create a tight thriller that takes place almost entirely inside of a car. The claustrophobic environment ramps up the tension as one person after another enters Packer’s mobile office to discuss what he can do to salvage his investment company. Packer does leave the car to pursue his wife, but they always wind up in a tight corner of a diner or bookstore. It forces the focus on Packer and his scene partner no matter the circumstances.

There is not one weak link in this cast. Robert Pattinson proves himself a strong talent with his laser focused Eric Packer. Kevin Durand steals every scene he’s in with his dry and brutal turn as the head of Packer’s security team. Samantha Morton gets the longest series of monologues in the film as Packer’s Chief of Theory, actually forcing you to pay attention to her alone as Times Square devolves into a violent mob scene. Sarah Gordon proves Packer’s strongest foe and only true intellectual equal as his new wife. Juliette Binoche, Paul Giammati, and Mathieu Almaric also give fantastic performances. No one overpowers anyone else in a scene as the essence of Eric Packer is an ability to observe and adapt no matter the circumstances.

cosmopolispairs Cosmopolis Review (2012, Film)

This character will, unfortunately, be a flaw for many film goers. While Cronenberg’s satire and dry wit run strong through the film, the tone is very fluid. The structure of the film is intentionally repetitive and built almost entirely around two person scenes. The confined locations and submissive presence of Packer can give the impression that Cosmopolis is aimless or dull. It’s not.

The only real flaw in Cosmopolis is that Cronenberg fully embraced the creation of very strange, neurotic, and laser focused characters. You don’t become as wealthy and powerful as most of the characters by having an easy going attitude and a general sense of knowledge. If you want to be the Chief of Theory for the largest financial company in the world, you better be able to speak that language fluently; if you want to run the largest financial company in the world, you better be fluent in all the business languages. This is not an affected presentation or something better suited to the stage. This is a film that willingly subverts the visual structure of cinema while grounding itself in the narrative structure of a more traditional film.

That narrative structure comes from The Odyssey. While DeLillo’s novel provides the plot and characters, Homer’s epic provides the direction they take. Each of these one on one encounters roughly corresponds to a chapter of the poem. It’s not always the clearest narrative link, but the encounters usually tackle the same thematic concern in some way. The only difference here is that Packer’s goal is a trip to the barbershop, not a return to his lovely young wife.

Cosmopolis is weird. It’s Cronenberg weird, something I haven’t been comfortable labeling his work since A History of Violence. Even then, it’s a psychological spin on his more aggressive body horror that refuses to give the audience any satisfaction when the infatuation with the body manifests itself onscreen. Cosmopolis is an epic you won’t soon forget no matter how much you might want to. It will slap you repeatedly and make you beg for more.

Rating: 9/10

Thoughts on Cosmopolis? There are just a few too many loose ends for me to go with a perfect rating. So much is so tight that the few unexplored moments pull away from the impact just a hair. Share your thoughts below.

Film Review: Drive (2011)

You don’t know how badly I want to love Drive. The crime/thriller from director Nicolas Winding Refn has to have some of the best editing, sound design, and structure of any action film I’ve seen in years. It’s uber-stylish and filled with a great cast.

drivewhois Film Review: Drive (2011)

Who is the Driver? Who cares? He's generic do-good criminal du jour in Drive.

Yet, the cast has nothing to work with. They’re all playing static, two dimensional characters that just don’t pop onscreen. The actors do what they can to raise the importance of their characters. It’s just not enough to make you care about what happens to anyone.

Drive is all about underground crime in LA. Ryan Gosling stars as the Driver, a master stunt driver whose main source of income is getaway driving for criminals. He gives his fleeting collaborators five minutes to complete their job or else he’ll leave them without a ride.

At the same time, Driver develops a relationship with his new neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan). Irene is raising her son Benicio on her own while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. Driver helps Irene out with her car and starts to look out for the two of them. When Standard gets out of jail, the criminal world collides with Driver’s quiet public identity.

It’s so hard to judge Drive. The story being told is excellent. It’s tight, it’s unpredictable, and it feels very suspenseful as it unfolds. Yet, I kept being reminded that the characters aren’t developed beyond those two paragraphs of plot above this. How do you care for the safety of Irene and her family when they are nothing but generic bystanders to a generic crime world better suited to a video game?

drivecast Film Review: Drive (2011)

With a lesser cast, Drive might have been unbearable

The actors who really did create characters–Bryan Cranston as Driver’s boss, Albert Brooks as the head of the mob, Christina Hendricks as a mob doll–don’t have enough screen time to combat their lack of depth. You believe that Cranston and Brooks have a long history, but–generic crime beats aside–have no clue what that could entail. Hendricks gives a really nice arc to her ten or so minutes of screentime but her character is perhaps the most static of all. She exists only to move the plot in a slightly different direction.

The problem with Drive is backstory. The events of the main plot are new and interesting. How everyone got their is bland and generic as can be. Feud within the crime family? Detrimental loyalty to friends? Garages and restaurants as the gateway to organized crime? And? What else you got? Nothing.

All of that is a big shame. Winding Refn very much deserved the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for wringing every possible drop of tension, surprise, and thrill out of the under cooked adaptation of James Sallis’ book by Hossein Amini. That a movie with a screenplay this bland feels sharp and exciting while it’s happening is no small feat.

Unfortunately, Drive is a film that is hard to relate to. I felt no empathy for the characters and never thought anyone was really in danger. It really did feel like a video game where your avatar exists just to carry you through the story and no amount of death will stop you from reaching the final cut scene.

When Drive works, it really works. The car scenes and tense conversations between the various criminals are strong. It’s the rest–the too quiet moments between new neighbors, the dreams of a better tomorrow, the walk away or watch what happens decisions–that fall short. People who love action/crime films will surely get a kick out of Drive. Everyone else might be left wanting a whole lot more than a few good chase scenes.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts? I’d love to hear what some crime or action films fans have to say about this one. Sound off below.

Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

I decided to put the time in to watch the entirety of Death Note over the weekend. It is a 37 episode anime series adapted from the manga series of the same name. Essentially, it’s a twisted detective story/crime thriller hybrid. A super intelligent high school student named Light finds a supernatural notebook that allows the owner to kill anyone by writing their name and imagining their face. Light begins to kill all of the violent criminals appearing on the news, attracting the attention of L, the world’s top private investigator and Light’s equal in every way. From there it’s a slow trek to any sense of resolution, with tons of repetition and a lot of style to distract from the pace.

thekillingcar Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Tune in four weeks from now to see what's in the trunk on The Killing.

In a lot of ways, Death Note reminds me a lot of another detective show currently airing: The Killing. This show follows the investigation into the murder of a teenager. Season one has 13 hour long episodes that only cover two weeks of the investigation. The case is not resolved by season end. Season two–another 13 episodes–promises to reveal the killer in the last episode. The performances, style, and investigation are interesting. It’s just the information is revealed so slowly that you might lose interest in who killed poor Rosie.

I’m not willing to call a shift toward slow and methodical plot pacing a trend on television at this point. Long story arcs driving prime time series are not common. There are overriding arcs–The Big C has coping with the cancer diagnosis, Glee has nationals, etc.–but the individual episodes are more contained. Longer arcs are typically saved for genre shows, but even American Horror Story and Fringe break things up with stand alone episodes.

The issue at play with all of these decisions is pacing. How fast do the writers want you to realize what’s happening? How much information will they give you at any given time? How much time passes in a given episode? Where is the story focused?

deathnotereflection Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Even the characters on Death Note are bogged down in slowly revealed TV drama.

In the case of Death Note and The Killing, there is no sidebar content. If you’re not dealing with the crimes, you’re dealing with the lives of the people connected to the investigation. They’re all consuming narratives that rely on the novelty of the story arc and character development to retain viewers. There’s also a certain emphasis on style.

Both of these shows have a distinctive style. The Killing is simultaneously pale/dreary with supersaturated environmental elements. The grass will jump out at you more than the people investigating in a field. There’s a common joke at this point about the presence of rain, but it is a moody detective series. Rain makes sense.

deathnoteimagination Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Hyper-stylized noir makes Death Note stand out.

Death Note is animated and hyper-stylized noir. As soon as Light or L begin to piece together a plan in their minds, the world is transformed. Everything is gray scale except for eyes and hair. Light is bright red, L dark blue, and Light-stalker/enthusiast/ally Misa bright blue. Space and time fail to exist any longer in their imagination.

When it takes so long to make any progress at all in a story, is a strong visual style enough to keep your interest? I don’t think so. It comes down to how the story is told. And in the case of long form storytelling on TV, that’s all about pacing. If the pacing or character development is too slow, you’ll lose the audience before you resolve the story.

thekillinggrass Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Look how high the grass grew before they got a single clue in The Killing

The Killing has a major inertia issue. It’s not that the story is taking too long to unfold. The problem is that the writers don’t know how to maintain the pace without frustrating the viewer. Can you really expect people to stick around for a detective show where a red herring is explored to the end almost every week? The Killing is taking a serpentine route to its conclusion. It’s covering a lot of ground in each episode, but it’s not really advancing the plot.

Death Note has the other issue going on. The story moves at a quick pace, even if time itself is moving slowly. The characters, however, are static and underdeveloped. You learn everything you need to know about Light, L, and everyone else as soon as you meet them. Their motivations and approach to the investigation/crimes do not change so long as they are in their original states. The overriding story is hindered by the character development issues. Why should you care who wins in the end if the protagonists are Mary Sue’s and everyone else is static?

I’m drawn to slow and methodical storytelling. Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors and I love to sink into a two+ hour film with small stakes and oodles of character. The problem with this long and slow approach on TV is the episodic format. The genre is designed to be told in installments.

deathnotenoir Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Slow and stylish works if the characters and pacing match the story.

If you want to tell a twenty hour continuous story over the course of a few months (doled out a half hour or hour at a time), you need to find a way to keep the audience interested. This is why shows like The X-Files have monster of the week episodes. You go off track for a week or two in order to recharge the audience. It’s the intermission at a play or halftime at the football game. Even then, if you put the break in at the wrong part of the story, you lose interest. Anyone else remember the outrage when Trey Parker and Matt Stone inserted a nonsense Terrence and Phillip special in between the two-parter about Cartman’s real father?

Do the challenges mean that people should avoid creating long form stories for TV series? I don’t think so. Some stories need more time to develop. Some of those stories could make for interesting television. It comes down to how much work the writers are able to put in to get everything mapped out in a way that makes sense. There needs to be a delicate balancing act between character development and story pacing that stays internally consistent. It’s not simple, but I would imagine getting it right is rewarding.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Film Review: One for the Money (2012)

One for the Money has a big fundamental problem: it’s a lazy film. The studio knew that Janet Evanovich’s loyal fans would show up to see their favorite unintended bounty hunter Stephanie Plum come to life onscreen, so they aimed for the cheapest product they could. From inexperienced screenwriters to a one keyboard score, it feels like no money was put into the film beyond securing a recognizable cast of film and TV actors.

All of that is a shame. Say what you will about Evanovich’s writing. The story of Stephanie Plum should have made a fun popcorn mystery/thriller without much struggle. Stephanie Plum loses her job as a lingerie manager in Newark, NJ. After being unemployed for six months, her car is towed and her eviction notice is served. She is forced to take on the only job available to her: working as a bond recovery agent for her cousin. Stephanie stumbles into a big bounty by accident. Her ex-boyfriend skipped out on a $500,000 bond on charges of murder. She becomes obsessed with taking in the highly trained police officer who manipulates her into investigating the actual circumstances of his arrest.

oneforthemoneyfilm Film Review: One for the Money (2012)

Stephanie Plum is after bond jumper Morelli in One for the Money

Now tell me how, in a series of books where all non-A-plot detours can be skipped over without losing the story, the screenwriting team of Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray, and Liz Brixius managed to skip over any character development or logical thought process in solving a crime? The scenes where the writers actually put the story of One for the Money into the hands of the actors work. From Stephanie Plum getting intelligence from a pair of hookers to wanted murderer Morelli breaking into Plum’s apartment to push her in the right direction, these narrative scenes actually come alive.

The problem is that these scenes seem to pop up randomly with no rhythm or purpose. Moments of character growth and development–such as Plum learning how to pick a lock for the first time–are glossed over in favor of lingering glances at a hamster in a cage and long stretches of Plum sinking down in her car seat as a suspect slowly walks by.

There is no excitement in the early phases of the investigation as Plum is never in danger. By the time you learn that she really is in over her head, it’s hard to believe anything bad can happen to her. The previous bad encounters were total non-events. Why should you care when people suddenly wind up dead and cars start exploding?

Director Julie Ann Robinson does a poor job of bringing any life into One for the Money. You can’t just blame the screenwriters for big gun/chase sequences falling totally flat in a mystery/thriller film. It takes a special kind of director to decide that a tense confrontation between two characters–professional fighter Ramirez has Stephanie Plum in a choke-hold in a cage-fighting ring–needs to be interrupted as soon as contact occurs by close-ups of mirrors exploding under gunfire. The focus is not on the gunfire itself, nor Plum’s escape, but a ring of mirrors blowing up one by one.

oneforthemoneyposter Film Review: One for the Money (2012)

One for the Money Poster

Robinson’s experience is mostly in television, which shines through whenever One for the Money focuses on two characters talking. Those quiet dialogue scenes have a natural rhythm to them that is appealing even in the consistent overuse of camera cuts to separate lines. As soon as the characters start moving and talking, it falls apart.

Unfortunately, One for the Money is a film that has to travel all over Trenton, NJ to get its point across. For every scene where two characters interact in believable way, there are at least two scenes involving cars, guns, or other props that are totally fumbled. It’s frustrating to watch the film focus on inconsequential traveling when it does the one-on-one investigation elements much better.

No matter what you can say about the writing and direction, you cannot fault the ensemble cast of actors for the failings of One for the Money. Katherine Heigl is an engaging Stephanie Plum. It’s easily one of her best onscreen performances to date and you can’t help but like her character in spite of her, shall we say, prickly exterior. You find me another movie where you cheer on the psycho ex-girlfriend who hopped a curve to run over her ex-boyfriend’s leg for taking her virginity.

The film was obviously cast with the seventeen (soon to be eighteen) possible sequels in mind. They cast Sherri Shepherd as wise-cracking hooker with a big heart Lula, Debbie Reynold’s as Plum’s death-obsessed gun-crazy grandmother, Jason O’Mara as hard-edged ex-boyfriend/bond jumper Morelli, and Daniel Sunjata as overly-protective private security agent Ranger. Throughout the series, these characters play bigger and bigger roles in Plum’s bounty hunting and the four actors are perfectly cast. Shepherd and O’Mara have the most to work with in One for the Money and they both shine.

The problem with One for the Money is greed. The studio wanted an origin film in what is essentially an anthology mystery/thriller series with a comedic edge. However, they introduced the main cast for later films at the expense of not telling a solid story in the first film.

Had the production and creative team trusted the source novel as a guide, One for the Money could have been a fun and fast-paced mystery film for adults. Instead, it’s a limp, inconsistent, lazy 106 minute introduction to a franchise that might never be continued if audiences don’t show up for the poor first entry.

Rating: 3/10

Thoughts? love to hear them.

Thoughts on Haywire: Who is Gina Carano?

To say that Haywire is the Gina Carano show is an understatement. She is the only reason to see the film. I can only hope Hollywood takes notice and actually gives her one of these big budget action film leads that have been going to tiny waifs like Angelina Jolie and Zoe Saldana.

MMA fans know who Gina Carano is. She’s the undefeated middleweight champion of the octagon. She wins her matches by getting her opponents to tap out. Frankly, it looks like every action scene in Haywire was choreographed so she could do more and more elaborate submission holds. From the highly effective arm bar to a moment where her legs are wrapped around someone’s neck while she yanks on her legsto nearly pop the guy’s head off, these MMA moves she’s known for worked beautifully on film.

I first noticed Carano on the new American Gladiators. She was the reason to watch the show. As Crush, she rarely lost an event.

Her strength was an event called Earthquake. This was a grappling competition on a tilting platform where the loser was the participant who fell off first. Suspended MMA without the kicks? How could she possibly lose?

Actually, calling that event her strength was short sighted. Any time she got to touch the contestants, she won. Period. The only times she lost were when she broke some stupid rule about hand position. Just look for yourself.

Ok, technically she did curb-stomp that other contestant in the chest to take the wind out of her and knock her off the platform. But it was all in good fun. Or it was an attempt to get screentime for bigger and better things.

Judging by her MMA record and dynamic personality, Gina Carano would seem like a natural choice to try and develop into an action performer. Combined with her good looks and name recognition, it should come as no surprise that her first wide release film features her in a starring role (and her face and body all over the marketing material).

She’s clearly untrained as an actress. This works to her advantage as often as it comes across poorly. Frankly, I blame the screenplay for the bad moments as she developed a good bit of nuance and style when left to everyday conversation and movement when not fighting.

Gina Carano has potential. She needs training to make a real stab at acting as not every film role will be tough as nails trained fighter chick fighting and acting tough. Haywire‘s few good moments come courtesy of her physicality and the right project could make her a big action star.

Haywire is not that project.

Full review here.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Film Review: The Ghost Writer (2010)

Think of the easiest way to insult a professional writer. Did you think to accuse them of not being a “real writer?” In the most tense and authentic moment in The Ghost Writer, Olivia Willams’ Ruth Lang accuses Ewan McGregor’s The Ghost of being less than a writer. The unnamed man has been brought in to ghostwrite her husband’s, Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang, memoirs of his time as prime minister of England. A simple editing and styling job turns into an international mystery of murder and war crimes as The Ghost starts to uncover how his predecessor died while working on the same book.

theghostwriterreviewblog Film Review: The Ghost Writer (2010)

Ewan McGregor's The Ghost fades into the background in The Ghost Writer.

So much of The Ghost Writer works brilliantly. The performances from the principle players are strong. You cannot take your eyes off of Olivia Williams’ suffering wife performance. Her disdain for her husband’s actions rarely bubble over the surface, making the few flashier scenes all the more powerful for having a basis in her character’s prior behavior.

Ewan McGregor fades into the background as the unnamed writer. His job is to distance himself from his subject’s reality and his only break is in the “Didn’t you ever want to be a real writer?” spat with Williams. It’s strong subtle performance work that’s easily overlooked.

Pierece Brosnan nails his former actor turned major politician turned paranoid shell of his own design role. His part is the flashiest and he doesn’t overwork any scene.

Alexandre Desplat’s score helps The Ghost Writer move along at a great pace. Using a gritty mix of bassoon, flute, English horn, and possibly bass clarinet (it’s either very pushed bass clarinet or a wobbly alto clarinet), Desplat sets up a fast moving loop of off-putting tones. The notes go together but the combination of instruments is less than complimentary. The drums rarely kick in to announce the arrival of chimes or a muted trumpet. The score does wonders for livening up some very uneventful chase sequences.

The failing of the film is Roman Polanski and Robert Harris’ adaptation of Harris’ novel The Ghost. The film becomes very heavy-handed when Polanski and Harris try to set up the final twist in the end. The twist doesn’t so much solve the mystery as raise more questions about what you just sat through. Perhaps it’s more fulfilling in a novel where these preparatory scenes would be given equal weight to the red herrings.

However, for me, I realized in the first overdone scene involving the major players what was actually happening. Obviously more of the narrative is revealed as the film goes on, but the core twist is exposed early in the film and brought up again and again until the final scene.

As a mystery or thriller, The Ghost Writer does not measure up. What it does provide is an interesting character study and a sharp piece of social commentary.

Ewan McGregor’s Ghost character is an odd choice to be the center of a film. He’s a man who makes his living writing as other people. He wears neutral suits, talks in pleasantries, and wants to make everyone else look better but himself. Yet, as he dives deeper and deeper into the not-so-mystery of his predecessor’s demise, The Ghost begins to take on more of a personality. Or perhaps you project a personality onto him.

In a typical mystery/thriller, the main character solving the mystery has a stake in the game. The mother in The Ring will die in seven days if she doesn’t unravel the mystery of the tape. The father in Taken has to find his daughter before she’s sold into trafficking or murdered.

Here, The Ghost’s stake is finding out how to make the former prime minister look good. The death, the international court, and the family drama have no role in his life. Yet he pursues those mysteries with an eye for detail and a precision reserved for the finest film detectives. This mystery with no stakes for him becomes his obsession as a way to understand the motivations of his subject. The Ghost does not crack open so much as slowly overtake us with each new scene.

The social commentary is broad but cuts hard. Former Prime Minister Adam Lang is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. His administration allegedly captured for British citizens and tortured them to get intelligence on terrorist organizations. Lang’s whole world begins to crumble at the time his personal life is about to be exposed to the wide world.

Protesters swarm his American mansion. Reporters hound him and his staff for comments. And his former friends, employees, and coworkers throw him to the wolves to save their own lives. Told through large staff meetings and omnipresent media coverage, the pending trial of the Ghost’s subject is perhaps the most thrilling aspect of this thriller.

Unfortunately, The Ghost Writer falls short of its intended goals as a mystery or thriller film. The great secret of the film is not as compelling as the context of the picture or the undercurrent of the role of a ghost writer in his subject’s life. While a thriller fan will find something to enjoy, this is hardly the grand event it should have been with this cast and creative team.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Instant Watch: Internet Thrillers After 2000

There was time not too long ago (in the grand scheme of history, that is) where the Internet was a mysterious force. People were becoming aware of its many uses for discussion, research, and entertainment, but there was still a “are they out to get us?” paranoia about the technology. It’s not uncommon for the later adapators of a new trend to be nervous about it. This holds especially true when the medium thrives on personal information.

For this edition of Instant Watch, I’ll be going through three early “the Internet is dangerous” thrillers to see if those initial trepidations still hold power over the viewing audience.

Trap (2006)

First up, we have Trap. This is a competently made thriller about the potential the Internet holds to plan crimes. Nicole is afraid to get out of her abusive marriage, where she isn’t even able to leave the house for ten minutes without her husband tracking her down and dragging her back home. Through communications with online friend Amy, she makes the decision to kill her husband and venture off to Amy’s big city apartment where they will escape to Mexico and live out the rest of their lives in anonymity and freedom. The only problem is that Amy is killed by her husband before Nicole shows up for also being an abusive spouse.

There is nothing particularly wrong with Trap as a film. The performances are good, if a bit hammy at times, and the use of the usually insufferable “blue means it’s scary” filter is handled in a reasonable way. The only issue is that the film doesn’t have enough narrative to sustain a feature length. The pacing crawls at times, acting like a flashback is an excuse to pad a very straight forward story into an almost ninety minute running time. What it feels like is an overly-long concept short used to sell a studio on actually producing the real feature length script. It’s worth watching if you like noir-tinged thrillers, but otherwise, you’re not missing much.

Rating: 5/10

Four Boxes (2006)

Four Boxes is another slow-moving thriller about the fear of the Internet. In this one, long time friends and business partners Trevor and Rob scour the neighborhood for funerals. If no one shows up but them, they’ll break into the deceased’s house and sell off all his belongings on eBay. They find a streaming video website called Four Boxes that shows four parts of an apartment. A mysterious man is doing increasingly strange and criminal things and the friends decide to solve the mystery of where it’s happening and who is involved.

Four Boxes is a complete non-starter. Forty minutes into the film, nothing has happened but petty human problems. Amber used to date one friend but is now engaged to the other. The old man they broke into the house of doesn’t have any worthwhile belongings. Rob doesn’t want to share his legos with Trevor because Trevor won’t share his army men with Rob. Ok, that one doesn’t happen in the film. But the film knows it doesn’t have enough content to be a feature and just frontloads the picture with boring rich people problems until they have just enough time to tell the far more engaging story of the Four Boxes website. Except that story isn’t too great, either. This is a morbid curiousity watch only.

Rating: 1/10

The Card Player (2004)

Dario Argento hopped on the Internet bandwagon with his 2004 film The Card Player. This modern day giallo film tells the story of a serial killer streaming his latest crimes on the Internet. The twist is the detective investigating the case has developed a twisted relationship with the killer. She must play his game to find out any new information. If she loses, she is connected to the private Internet stream of the latest grusome murder. She teams up with a British detective to solve the case through the Internet.

The Card Player isn’t as good as Argento’s earlier films, but there is enough novel content to make it worth watching. The film is oozing with Argento’s signature style and the performances are, as always, compelling. The only real problem is the conceit of the film doesn’t hold up very well if you think about it too hard. So don’t. Go for the ride and embrace style and novelty over substance. That’s always the way it is with Argento’s gialli and I doubt it will ever change.

Rating: 5/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Film Review: Hanna (2011)

What happens when a sci-fi hued thriller offers little character development and no plot points that can’t be pinpointed in the movie marketing? The thriller fails. It doesn’t matter how slick, how well-acted, how stylized the action is–if there’s nothing to the plot, there is nothing worth watching in the film.

Hanna is sadly one of these sci-fi hued thrillers with no plot advancement. Hanna (played very well by Saoirse Ronan) is a teenage girl raised by her father (Eric Bana, doing his best with no real character) in the woods. He trains her to fight, defend, hunt, track, and kill humans. When she is deemed ready, she is allowed to flip a switch that will send out a signal to federal agent Marissa Veigle (Cate Blanchett in her Notes on a Scandal scene-chewing mode). Hanna has two jobs: kill Marissa and reunite with her father in Germany.

So once that’s all laid out, nothing changes for any of the characters. There are different scenarios–Hanna escapes a federal bunker, Hanna negotiates a room rental, Hanna stows away in a camper–but everything that happens is leading to the inevitable showdown between Hanna and Marissa. Had screenwriter Seth Lochhead and David Farr done anything to build a sense of suspense or mystery in their screenplay, Hanna would be a great film. Instead, we have a picture with a well-placed stretch of introductory exposition, a lot of pretty landscapes and teen milestones, and a five minute info dump ten minutes before the end of the picture that explains nothing we didn’t already figure out.

Cerebral Thrillers: How Far is Too Far?

Cerebral: adjective–betraying or characterized by the use of intellect rather than intuition or instinct.

I recently watched a thriller on Netflix Instant called Exam. It’s an independent British thriller about eight unidentified job applicants competing for one position. They have to take a final exam that only has one question with only one answer. The problem is they do not know what the one question is. They have eighty minutes to find the question and answer. If they communicate with the proctor or security guard, they are eliminated. If they spoil their answer sheet, they are eliminated. If they leave the room, they are eliminated. Otherwise, there are no rules.

While I rather enjoyed the film, I think writer/director Stuart Hazeldine got stuck in his head. The ending of the film, when the ultimate answer is revealed, left me with more questions than answers. Call me dense. I just didn’t get it while the movie was playing. I picked up on all the clues that were laid out quite quickly, but could not piece them together to anything that resembled the one correct answer to the film. I wound up sitting at my desk with a notepad, jotting down the clues and sequence of events to try and work out the method for the solution in reverse. I eventually figured out what Hazeldine was going for, but not without figuring out many alternative solutions that also satisfied the same conditions set forth in the film. The ending is just a disappointment because of its specificity.

Film Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

Animal Kingdom is an unusual crime film in that the focus is not on any of the particular crimes committed by the crime family itself. Held together by motherly Smurf (Academy Award nominee Jackie Weaver), the boys (all but one fully grown men) try to hide out from the heat of a criminal investigator in the wake of one of them being shot at point blank range by the police. Josh (James Frecheville) is a seventeen year old orphan and, conveniently, the biological grandson of Smurf. His mother died of a heroin overdose giving him no option but to move in with the crime family his late mother shielded him from.

My initial reaction to the film was confusion. The pacing was so off from what I expected. Excluding still shots of a robbery during the opening credits, it took nearly twenty minutes for any sort of crime to be committed and it is such a non-event on screen that you could literally blink and miss it. The film rolls out in waves of emotion, not peaking until death strikes the family, and then quickly retaliating in wild and unpredictable ways. Once I caught on to what first time writer/director David Michod was trying to do, I started to enjoy myself.

Film Review: Mother (2010)

mother Film Review: Mother (2010)

Mother is a brilliant crime drama that breaks all expectations of the genre. The fact that a senior citizen is doing the investigating is enough to make the film stand out. Kim Hye-Ja plays the titular Mother. Her adult son, Do-joon has major mental issues, specifically an inability to remember what happens in his day to day life. He is accused of, and confesses to, the brutal murder of a local high school student and is sent to jail to await sentencing. Mother knows that her son couldn’t hurt a fly and sets out to solve the case when everyone else abandons it. She breaks into houses, confiscates evidence, and tracks down potential witnesses however she can to free her son.

Film Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

dragontattoo Film Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become somewhat of a phenomenon. The novel, the first in the Millenium trilogy from late author Stieg Larsson, concerns the exploits of Lisbeth Sanders, an unbalanced computer hacker. After being raped by her legal custodian, she takes full control of her life and forces herself into a mystery case being helmed by disgraced reporter Mikael Bloomvist. The novel has become an international best seller and will see its second film adaptation brought to life by director David Fincher in 2011.

The original set of films, produced in Larsson’s home country Sweden, has also done very well. The trilogy has been sold to twenty five different countries and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars internationally so far.

For fans of the book, I may seem to have described a small fraction of the plot. This is intentional. If there is a flaw in The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo film, it is that Mikael Bloomvist does not come alive as a character. All his introductory scenes–the trial, the exile from Millenium, and his initial investigation into the Vanger family–fall flat. It is not until his life collides with Lisbeth’s that the film takes off. By that time, people unfamiliar with the book might lose interest. Rest assured that all the slow-crawling exposition of who did what in the Vanger Group is there; it’s just not particularly compelling on the screen.

The strength of the film lies in Noomi Rapace’s performance as the titular character. She is ferocious and fearless. You never know what this slight little gothic/punk girl is going to do next, but you never doubt her ability to do it. Whether she’s defending herself in a subway attack or hacking into remote computers for pay and pleasure, Rapace’s performance feels real. There is something so immensely expressive in her face. Her character may be a creature of impulse, but Rapace makes those impulses seem authentic. She is wild and unpredictable. Her physical demeanor suggests a hard-lived life for a woman so young. Most impressive of all is how effortlessly she accesses the most physically and emotionally draining moments of the character. The rape sequences are graphic and tragic, and the revenge sequences even more so. Simply put, I cannot think of another working actress who could have performed all the elements of this character so well.

Where Rapace’s performance fails, the wonderful editing by Anne Osterod succeeds. The problem with adapting a book like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is how much of the action is driven by research. Lisbeth and Mikael are constantly digging through libraries and archives to stare at tiny photos, old receipts, business books, and newspapers. It’s not content that screams cinematic treatment. The only thing more boring than watching a writer onscreen is watching someone read onscreen. Osterod’s editing uses a lot of cross-cuts, fades, and overlays to engage the viewer in the research. Lisbeth will be digging through a pile of receipts in the library, bringing out stack after stack of folders and boxes to examine. The various papers float transparently over her face as she scans them for anything she can use. This is cross-cut with Mikael investigating a house on the remote island setting of the mystery. Osterod jumps back and forth, creating natural beats that rarely drag when Lisbeth and Mikael are following a lead in the case. True, such techniques have become the bread and butter of TV crime shows, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable for a film when done well.

For fans of the novel, the film is a must see. It is an almost-perfect realization of the book. For those who didn’t like the book or haven’t read it, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo is a solid mystery. It takes a little too long to really get going, but once it does, it’s an enjoyable diversion.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.