Tag Archives: thriller

Edge of Darkness (2010)


Starring: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenwriter: William Monahan, Andrew Bovell
Rated: R for strong bloody violence and language.

Remaking his own 6 episode BBC mini-series, director Martin Campbell attempts his reboot skills, this time not for a fictional character, as was the case with James Bond (twice even, in 1995 with Goldeneye and 2006 with Casino Royale), but rather one made of flesh and blood, Mel Gibson. “Edge of Darkness” is an attempt at a comeback for the 80’s violent conspiracy/revenge/Mel flicks. And it sort of works that way too.

Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) is a Boston homicide detective. When his daughter is killed right in front of him, he begins an investigation which leads him into the murky corporate underworld, complete with nefarious government cover-ups, silenced witnesses and henchmen driving around in black SUVs. His daughter was working for Northmoor, a company she discovered was secretely manufacturing nuclear weapons. Now, it’s up to Mel to avenge his daughter, plow through the bad guys and bring down Northmoor executive Jack Bennet (Danny Huston). What a great set-up for a trailer. You can even imagine that deep trailer voice announcing all this stuff.

The most important thing to keep in mind when deciding to watch this movie, is the fact that it’s throwback to the 80s conspiracy thrillers. It doesn’t always make sense, and the fact that a 6 episode plot was condensed to a two hour movie leaves a lot of the story feel rushed. While the mini-series was supposed to be a dark mistery with a slow pace, this one is supposed to be just as dark, but more action oriented, and tailored to Mel Gibson’s brand of intense performance. Indeed, Mel is back into his “Lethal Weapon” game, chewing scenery whenever he can, but, as you can imagine, in a way more appropriate for his age. I was afraid they would have him do James Bond stunts, but, thank God, there’s none of that.

Besides Mel, there’s another interesting character, Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), who describes himself as “the man who stops you from connecting A to B”. His job was to take out Craven before he would become a nuisance for the government, but something about Craven intrigues him. They share a couple of lengthy conversations, and in a separate scene, we find out Jedburgh is terminally ill. All these will lead to a puzzling final scene I will not spoil. His motivations are a mistery, much like the character himself. There’s a certain depth to him that doesn’t feel fully developed. Just, intriguing.

The whole film is full of little contradictions. It has a deliberately slow pace, that ends up conflicting with the condensed and rushed plot. It throws in shocking, unexpected scenes of graphic violence that fit the revenge plot, but remain nothing more than shock tactics in an otherwise tame movie. It shows us the promise of a psychological thriller, but by the end it’s nothing more than a shoot’em up. Everything shifts and turns. The only constant and dependable things are Mel Gibson’s overacting and Danny Huston’s weasely villain. It’s the kind of movie that can be enjoyed especially if you aknowledge and accept these facts and savour them for what they are. If this is your kind of fare, then you’re going to love “Edge of Darkness”, like I did.

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A History of Violence (2005)


Starring : Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris
Director : David Cronenberg
Screenplay : John Olson
Rating : R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.

David Cronenberg is a true artist. His films are the kind that you either instantly hate or instantly love. His vision is always uncompromising and almost always bleak and depressing. He focuses on the dark core of humanity, questioning the reality his characters inhabit, whether it is the life they live or the world they live it in. Brutal, dark, original and thought-provoking, Cronenberg’s vision is just as vivid in one of his most recent succeses “A History of Violence”.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a model citizen. He lives in a small town, he’s married, has two kids, a cozy household, and owns a modestly succesfull diner. The peaceful life he so much enjoys is torn apart when two psychopatic killers attempt to rob his diner. He guns both of them down with extreme prejudice, turning him into a local hero. His celebrity unfortunately extends beyond the borders of the small town, attracting unwanted attention from Philadelphia mobster Richie Cusack (William Hurt) who sends Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and a couple of henchmen to bring back Tom who they believe is Richies’s brother, a former assassin for the mob who dissapeared a long time ago. Fogarty and his crew shake things up in the small peaceful rural living while Tom himself must bring back some of his past bad habits in order to save his new life, and the life of his family.

While more accesible than his past films, this is still Cronenberg at his best. A psychologicaly tormented lead male character, borderlining split personality, who denies his life as hellraiser Joey Cusack, clearly a psychopatic killer back in the day, while maintaining his current identity as family man Tom Stall, under the pressure of his violent past coming back to haunt him. Definetly right up Cronenberg’s alley. What’s also interesting is how Joey/Tom’s history of violence is reflected on his family in the way their psychology bends almost as if organically reacting to the new identity of the family head. Tom’s deceit and the thought of his criminal past has devastating effects on the family psyche, provoking unusual behaviour. Their adolescent son explodes with violent rage against the local bully in an act of rebellion motivated by his loss of the male role model he identified with, Tom and his wife engage in very rough sex on the staircase (borderline S&M), venting their frustrations, a mix of love and hate, right after she just lied to the local sheriff about Tom’s true identity, herself deeply conflicted about accepting this new man in her life. All of it underlines deep changes in their lives, with the new Tom being the root of all evils, unleashed on their unsuspecting innocence. He’s both the problem and the key to solving their dilemma. The question is : will they now accept him for who he really is, which will probably mean a new beginning ? Standard issue with stories like this, but Cronenberg doesn’t go for the cliches even if the solution to Tom’s problems is easy to forsee. In the end, the only way to ensure his quiet life is to violently kill his past. Now, usually this is a paradox very familiar to action films, but Cronenberg doesn’t do Arnold Schwarzenegger films, so the big climax is a dialogue between Tom and Richie (fantastic line delivery by William Hurt, nominated for an Oscar), which of course ends in violence, but is basically built on tension and character motivations rather than nonsensical shoot’em up.

Since violence is the foundation of this film, it certainly won’t dissapoint gore hounds. Cronenber himself is a crafty director when it comes to blood and guts. “A History of Violence” depicts hardcore violence intentionally framed in gross close-ups and carefully choreographed. He does not glorify it, but instead throws it in our faces in all its horrifying details. This enhances the effect of the story in a way, since it’s all about the violence in these character’s life, how it grows within our society, and acts as a catalyst for our inner demons.

So what is essentially a thriller, pushes the lines of conventional cinema with style and subliminal usage of violence, allowing the viewer to form their own conclusions while being entertained by the perfect acting and tense atmosphere. A must-see.

The Skeptic (2009)


01skeptic_6006Starring: Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Andrea Roth, Robert Prosky, Bruce Altman, LJ Foley
Director: Tennyson Bardwell
Screenwriter: Tennyson Bardwell

Inspired by last week’s great reviews I decided to watch more horror movies in spite of being a total pansy and as I started with “Orphan” – because of which I may start billing Skellington for all the electricity I’m wasting keeping the lights on at night, I continued with “The Skeptic”, given to me by the very sweet and considerate little monster that is my sister. I honestly don’t think there will be a third one; I am just not cut out for this.

“The Skeptic” tells the story of Bryan Becket, played by Tim Daly, who decides to move in his late aunt’s house as a warning to his wife who wants him more emotionally attached. He is very cold, calm and collected, a control freak that hates human bonding. His only friend and his wife both get the jerk treatment, as his calculating lawyer ways leaving no room for emotional blackmail and psychobabble.  That was at the beginning. But soon after he moves he starts to experience a series of inexplicable events. A supermodel psychic join him in his quest to find out what exactly I causing all the apparent supernatural phenomena that makes him question everything he believes in (or doesn’t believe in). He is, of course, The Skeptic.

Tim Daly (the only other thing I’ve seen him in is the TV show “Private Practice”, where I was frankly not impressed with his work, as I thought he was bland, had the mobility of a block of wood and the script tried too hard to make him kind and loving by showing cheesy lines down my throat) grows on me in this movie that requires from its main lead an intentional lack of expression and emotion. And by the end of it, I saw many scenes beautifully acted and a potential for more. It came as a shock to me, but he is very good in this role and about two potatoes out of these 6 are all his. His wife is Robin (Andrea Roth), and she is a little bit too preoccupied to be pretty and blonde for my taste. And the believer, played by Zoe Saldana, started out by being incredibly annoying, but she managed to integrate herself into the story and thus she became useful, but not irreplaceable.

The best actor in this movie is the house. Remember Norman Bates’ mother’s house? Well, this one is at the same level of emoting creepy vibes, only without the benefits of black and white cinematography; I don’t know if they built it or they actually used an existing one, but if someone lives there in real life, then in spite of the multitude of rooms and great architecture, I just cannot imagine any place I would want to be less. It is one of those houses that cannot stop screaming “haunted” even when in broad daylight. The director does a good job focusing on the strong cast, the close ups and tight frames make you afraid of what might happen outside the shot, in the background or in the eyesight of the respective character. These are the good.

The bad? The script is average bordering on nauseating, and the scare tactics are a little overused and clichéd. Some moments make you scream: “Enough already, stop trying to wedge in every leftover horror prop known to man!”, others just remind you of better movies where you saw that exact scene/take/framing. It is scary, yes, and its goal is thus achieved, but it is also completely unoriginal and I am under the impression that it somehow fails to impress the genre fans (which I am not, so it is just a supposition based on the horrible reviews, i.e. 8% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), who have more comparison material. The core story is good, but somehow not meaty enough to sustain an hour and a half of plot development. It could have been worse, but it also had the potential to be much, much better.

This movie is a decent slasher flick. It never amazes, never disappoints, it’s sometimes frightening, sometimes boring, it rests heavily on the actors’ shoulders and it fails at the creativity chapter, but for a night out with friends it will do just fine. Written in the ‘80s, it would have been a hit then, but it has clearly not aged well, as it is not making any waves now.

Orphan (2009)


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Starring: Isabelle Fuhrmanm, Peter Sarsgaard, Vera Farmiga
Director: Jaumet Collet-Serra
Screenwriter: David Johnson
Rating : R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language.

As soon as you see the trailer for “Orphan”, it’s pretty easy to write it off as standard slasher fare thriller, but surprisingly this is one of the few times when you’d be wrong. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“House of Wax” , the silly 2005 remake) and writer David Johnson manage to break out a different kind of evil kid thriller, based on some of the classic cliches, yet remarkably original.

The orphan in the title is Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a bright, mysterious 9-year-old russian girl, adopted by Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard), a young couple still trying to deal with the tragedy of their stillborn daughter. Kate and John already have two other children, a boy, Daniel and a deaf-mute little girl, Max. It might seems strange that the two would feel the need to adopt another child (other than it being a reason to trigger the plot), but it could be argued that perhaps they needed to fill the void left after losing their baby, sort of undo the unfortunate event. However, as the film progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Esther is not all she seems to be and her inclusion in the family will prove to be a fatal mistake for the Colemans.

In all appearances, Esther is a poster child for good behaviour. She’s polite, well-mannered and has an overall “old-school” charm about her. All this is just for show unfortunately, as there is a far darker side of her that she hides with surprising ability. In fact, you could swear she’s just too mature for her age (and with good reason). In one scene, she displays advanced knowledge of sex and the usage of the F-word in that particular context, which is what tips Kate off that there may be more to Esther than meets the eye. Well, that and the fact that she broke a classmate’s leg by pushing her down a playground slide.

Something’s not quite right with Esther. On the other hand, something’s not quite right with the Colemans either. Kate struggles with alcohol addiction and John is trying to earn back Kate’s trust after having an affair some years in the past. The family is in a fragile state, with issues left in the backstages of their lives. But Esther seems more than keen to play with these issues, speculating their weakenesses, turning them against each other. She even turns their children on her side by means of aggressive intimidation. Now Kate slowly grasps Esther’s intentions, but who’s going to believe her ? She’s the one currently on therapy. Every time she tries to talk to her husband, he treats her like a mental case. By the time everyone realises what’s going on, it’s too late.

What makes “Orphan” so different from so many other thrillers ? First of all, its willingness to subject children to unspeakable on-screen perils. I mean, I don’t think I can name another film where grade school kids are treated this brutally. It’s unflinching in its display of preteen violence, which makes it all the more shocking. Then, there’s the great performance by Isabelle Fuhrman. According to IMDb.com she was 10 at the time (she turned 11 while filming), and it’s shocking to see her turn from sweet kid to cold-blooded manipulative homicidal girl. It’s not a simple task for a 10-year-old to play a psychotic killer convincingly, but she does it. Which is not to say her co-stars don’t do a great job. Vera Farmiga is wonderfull, turning a classic character type into a solid, convincing lead, powerfull enough to hold the film all by herself. Peter Saarsgard isn’t given much to do except act in defiance to his wife’s complaints, all the while being pleasant and mild mannered. He’s not a bad guy, it’s just that he seems too eager to trust Esther rather than his wife. He’s been the one with the guilty conscience up until now, so he probably feels it’s just the right time to shift the blame game on his wife. Lastly, I have to say I was surprised at the how well the script plays the psychological aspects of the broken family. It’s not terribly deep, but it just feels like it’s hitting all the right notes, despite having some of the good ol’ horror flick scare tactics.

There’s not a moment in the film where you can dismiss the plot as dumb, even when the twist towards the end turns the whole story on its head. It has that strength, to take hold of the audience and not let go until the credits start rolling. A solid cast and spine-tingling moments contribute fully to its strength, so don’t miss this one.

Black Christmas (1974)


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Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin
Director: Bob Clark
Screenwriter: Roy Moore
Rating : R

The slasher genre is probably one of the most popoular in the world for over 30 years now. The first of its kind was Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, though some would point out “Thirteen Women” (1932). Those were the precedents that gave birth to a world-wide phenomenon, the film that portrays the criminal endevours of a psychopathic killer. In time, the genre has suffered mutations, reaching out to such outlandish genres as Science Fiction, draining it of even the last molecule of originality. Freddie Kruger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface, Chucky, Jigsaw are but a few of the names in the pantheon of horror. Among the films that set the rules straight where the 1974 classics “The Chainsaw Massacre” and “Black Christmas”. But it wasn’t until the box-office success of 1978’s “Halloween” that really helped the genre break out into the mainstream.

“Black Christmas” can safely be called a standard slasher. A sorority houe in Canada is terrorised by psychopath who makes obscene phone calls. Hidden in the attic of the house, he quickly makes the transition from harmless calls, to brutal executions, taking the girls out one by one, during the Christmas holiday.

The cast is largely unknown except for Olivia Hussey (Maria from “Jesus of Nazareth”) and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane from the original “Superman”). But, the true star is the unseen killer. There’s plenty of carnage going around but don’t expect any gore. The killer blows are mostly off-screen, or visually stylised to conceal any explicitness. The violence is reduced to a level of suggestion rather than the more modern showcasing of blood and guts (see “Saw”), with more efficiency in terms of suspense.

The moments that rely on atmposphere and tension work well and are interesting enough, even if everything feels just a little bit dated and too predictable (only because we’ve seen this done over and over again in countless clones). For example, there’s a scene where the police is trying to trace the call. Not these are the 70s, so don’t imagine any kind of hi-tech tracking gear. No, there’s this cop waiting at the phone company for the call. When the call does come, he has to run around in a big room full of ceiling-high mechanical machines to see which one connected the call. Obviously he doesn’t get it the first time around. Or the second. It’s all about how fast he can get to the right machine in order to find out the address where the call came from. This generates loads of tension, but it’s also funny compared to all this new slick technology on display in modern films.

Obviously, it’s no Oscar contender. Slasher flicks belong to a league of their own that does not require critical acclaim. In a way, they appeal to our darker side, which makes us tolerate these sinister stories. The quality level is subjective, depending on our likes or dislikes regarding the genre. In fact, the only reason why this gets a high poatato score, is because it was an original take on a subject that would never stop being remade.

The Last House on the Left (2009)


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Starring: Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dillahunt, Martha MacIsaac, Riki Lindhome
Director: Dennis Iliadis
Screenwriter: Carl Ellsworth

Because “The Beautiful Life: TBL” had its premiere last week, I wanted to see what the lead actress, Sara Paxton – a name that I’ve seldom heard, but never seen on an actual credit ,  was capable of, so I watched “The Last House on the Left”, a remake of the Wes Craven 1972 movie with the same name.  And as I usually avoid gory flicks (I admit I am very sensitive: I only saw the first “Saw” and the first “Hostel” through my fingers and only because I was curious, a curiosity for which I’ve paid dearly), I was surprised to see that what was presented as a low budget horror movie was actually a very brutal thriller.

The movie starts with a random escape from police custody. The perpetrators are taking their time and start torturing the policemen, which shows that they either don’t care about their odds of freedom or they are just sadistic psychopaths. Spoiler: it’s the latter. On their path to freedom they come across two teenagers who they kidnap, torture and kill and rape, respectively. It’s unjust, cruel and vicious and it is presented in all its glory. And you want to see all of them suffer. Their luck changes when they are forced to seek shelter from a storm at a vacation house by the lake. The owners of the house happen to be the parents of the girl they raped and left for death. When the parents realize who they were helping, a no mercy survival and revenge war with no prisoners ensue. It is a very educational one too: ten ways of killing/torturing someone using only our household appliances are presented (I will never look at a microwave oven the same way again).

Although almost a freshman in the movie industry, Dennis Iliadis does a pretty good job, even if the camera movement is sometimes clunky and (intentionally?) oscillating between sudden and lingering. If there was ever a movie that required no script, this was it: what they say is not important, but what they do and how they do it say everything. I do not remember one line (and the villain has a scene where he tells the father how he raped his daughter, a scene from which I only remember faces and expressions), but I recall visual scenes, woods, lakes, pictures on a fridge, rain and BLOOD. The choice to not   have everything happen in one night is a smart one, as it leaves room for one of the most effective scenes in the movie: the one where the teenagers are stabbed/raped/shot in the woods, a scene that is made even more horrifying by the fact that it all happens in broad daylight, close to a construction site, and the knowledge that they were so close to salvation makes it unbearable. That is the scene that prepares the viewer for what follows, and it seems hard to believe that the murderers could ever be rightfully punished. Well, prepare to be surprised.

Sara Paxton, the reason for my venture in the bloody depths of new age thrillers, is very good at conveying innocence and vulnerability, and that is her character’s main task: to make us hate the fugitives with the fire of a thousand suns for what they did to her. The parents, Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn, are also good, their fear and rage is visible and understandable. The four criminals are convincing and menacing, they are each the embodiment of at least one different mental disorder: paranoia, schizophrenia, perversion and depression. Together they are a dangerous, destructive and self-destructive mix. The question being asked by the creators of the original and for which the creators of the copy are not to be given credit for is: what is the line between victim and criminal, justice and revenge, cruel and necessary? What would you have done? I, for one, would’ve fainted.

The movie brings nothing new to the growing industry of borderline snuff flicks, and it may seem long and tedious at times, especially for the ones that are attracted by its advertised violence. It may also fall into the avoidable category of films that are too violent for the sensible people (like me) and are not violent enough for the genre fans (like Skellington). It has some serious plot holes that stretch plausibility that I won’t discuss here. Over all, a decent attempt of reviving a seventies nihilist classic.

The Happening (2008)


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Starring : Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo
Writer and Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Rating : R for violent and disturbing image

M. Night Shyamalan had a pretty sweet reputation built for himself. „The Sixth Sense”, „Unbreakable”, „Signs” introduced him to the world as an imaginative director whose stories immersed, challenged and surprised. „The Village” came as a confirmation that he indeed was a one-trick-pony, whose original stories are told in pretty much the same manner. Needless to say, by the time „Lady in the Water” bored the life out of me, I was sure that he either needs to reinvent himself or find a new job (or at least drop the annoying cameos). „The Happening”, while far from being a reinvention, seemed to be at least a fun horror ride. Or at least that’s what I initially thought after seeing the trailers.

The first thing that was changed, fueling disappointmen or relief (based on the Shyamalan Hate-O-Meter every person has) is the absence of the trademarked surprise ending. In fact, the most crucial piece of information is revealed 20-30 minutes in. Shyamalan seems to move focus in other directions. The plot device is that of a biological attack on the US, a sort of airborn toxin that makes people literarly kill themselves (in imaginative ways I might add). The biological agent deactivates the brain’s self-preservation functions shut down. The infected victim cannot move at first, becomes incoherent and confused, and then simply off themselves any way they can : jumping off buildings, impaling, shooting, stabbing themselves etc. The attacks seem to originate from the park areas of the major cities of the East Coast. The story focuses on Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who flees the city with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) his brother Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter. Their adventure across the East Coast is the focus of the film. I will reveal no more because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for everyone.

Shyamalan’s films have always been thrillers/horrors, but kind of clean in terms of violence and though their main goal was to scare, they were more than just horror films. Here, Shyamalan shifts more focus on violence. The suicides are pretty graphic and have a gross-out effect never before seen in his films. For example in a Zoo, a man jumps in the lions’ cage and calmly waits until the wild animals rips his arms off. It’s quite explicit, although even Shyamalan knows better than to shamelessly show off gore, so the point of view is that of a shaky phone camera complete with not- very-precise zooms. Another man lies down in front of his cart-size lawn-mower and you can see flesh spat out from the back of the machine, but it’s all witnessed from a considerable distance so it feels at once surreal and not very immediate. It certainly deserves the R rating, making for a bold change in style for Shymalan, but not a satisfying one.

Shyamalan’s stories are mostly a mix of sensationalism, philosphy and psychology mixed in various doses. Here, he kind of cuts down the complicated stuff, leaving more room for suspense and scares and much less for the actual story and character developement. There still is a subliminal message but it’s heavily diluted and too eco-friendly for my taste. The open space as opposed to the confined environments of his past films, leave room for outdoor exploration but not much inner exploration. It’s just people running from an invisible enemy which makes for good suspense but in this case lousy storytelling. The rythm is still slow. Shyamalan takes his sweet time but doesn’t offer much to make up for that. There is no big climax, no mind-numbing revelation. It’s actually kind of dissapointing once it comes to its conclusion. I miss the surprise ending.

The acting is definetly it’s weakest link. Mark Wahlberg is wrong for the part in so many ways it hurts. He’s supposed to be a biology teacher, but hearing him talk science is as convincing as Ashton Kutcher talking street. Zooey Deschanel does her alien-among-humans-blank-stare thing and it’s so dull and annoying that she should have been written off from the script before filming even began. John Leguizamo is the film’s biggest asset, but since he’s a supporting character, he finishes his part in the first half of the running time. He should have traded places with Marky Mark.

The cinematography is excellent doing the film more justice than it should, by generating subtle tension. It does not abuse style however, keeping it to a minimum, for the sake of realism. The mood they’re going for is to immerse the viewer in this apocalyptic scenario, unlike his previous films where it was like reading a story rather than living it. There are no hand-held shots however, thank God for that. I can’t stand shaky cameras. It’s becoming a trend now, with „Cloverfield” and the Bourne franchise, but it’s very irritating and headache inducing. I like clean, steady shots, so I can actually understand what’s going on. So, extra points for „The Happening” for holding steady.

In conclusion, it’s better than „Lady in the Water”, although considering how bad that one was, it might not be saying much. It’s still not worth getting excited about, but it’s a start. It certainly has some camp value. Maybe Shyamalan will get another chance to prove his worth. I feel he deserves it, but perhaps he is too content with writing stories that would easily do better as episodes of The Twilight Zone. I’m still waiting for a comeback Mr. Shyamalan !