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Friday
Feb042011

Sanctum

Why anyone would want to go cave diving is beyond me. It’s dangerous, you’re surrounded on all sides, there’s no natural light to be found and, as one character so astutely observes early in the new cave diving thriller Sanctum, nobody above ground cares about what you’re doing. Whatever their goal, whether for fun or for reason (like mapping out its structure), it seems a bit crazy. But that’s precisely why the subject is so ripe for the picking. It’s a setting where characters truly have no escape and cell phones have a reason to not have a signal. The people that venture into those caves are lost to the outside, but, unfortunately, Sanctum doesn’t fully capitalize on this intriguing idea.

Inspired by a true event, but certainly more dramatic than what actually happened, Sanctum follows a cave diving team that is forced to find a way out after a freak storm above ground closes off their exit to the cave system. Any extraneous plot details are unnecessary. Why they’re there and whatever issues they’ve brought along with them are poorly defined and do nothing in the way of heightening the drama.

All of that is instead done by the actual cave where one wrong move or a sudden loss of calmness can lead to death. The design of the cave system is second to none and it looms over the characters in every shot. It’s almost like a character itself; the villain in a horror movie. Adding to the authenticity is a cast of relative no names (the sole exception being Ioan Gruffudd who played Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four films), which allows viewers to place themselves in the film rather than focus on a massive star adding more money to his bank account.

So when things go wrong—and they do—it gets intense. You’ll sympathize for the characters, despite hit and miss performances, and shudder and cringe at every morbid turn. Unfortunately, you’ll cringe at other, less opportune times as well, like the first 20 minutes or so where forced humor, cheesy small talk, eye rolling film references and foreshadowing dialogue (“What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?”) take over the screenplay.

As Sanctum rolls along, it suffers from redundancy. It hits a cyclical pattern that makes sense given the nature of the story, but nevertheless doesn’t make for a very interesting movie. Being trapped in a cave only produces a limited amount of drama and excitement and, perhaps aware of this, the filmmakers make an attempt to switch things up, but artificiality takes over. Characters make incredibly stupid decisions which then lead to even worse decisions and an eventual death.

With James Cameron credited as executive producer, it comes as no surprise that Sanctum is in 3D and uses the technology Cameron created for Avatar. However, despite working in Avatar (though that may be because that film came prior to the influx of 3D movies and filmgoers weren’t really sure what to look for yet), it doesn’t here. Aside from the endless double vision and headaches brought on from trying to focus on constantly shifting depths, the glasses make the inherently dark cave system look even darker, which presents a visual problem that is sometimes hard to overcome.

At times, Sanctum feels so eerily similar to films like The Descent and The Abyss that you half expect some creature to appear. But despite sharing similar traits, it doesn’t remain fresh like they do. Those films had mysteries surrounding them and things to discover. This doesn’t. It’s a movie with an interesting idea, but nowhere to go with it.

Sanctum receives 2.5/5

Friday
Dec102010

The Tourist

It almost seems like a no brainer to pair Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, two of the hottest celebrities around right now, in terms of star power and good looks, together. Jolie is one of the most gorgeous women on the face of the planet and has the talent to back it up and the ladies all swoon over Depp, who also turns in a good performance each and every outing. That is why it’s such a shame they are stuck together in The Tourist, a movie that should have been so much more. It’s still stupid fun, but the first half of that description is what disappoints the most.

As the movie begins, we watch as a British agency led by Inspector Acheson (Paul Bettany) tails Elise (Jolie), who is linked to a mysterious man named Alexander Pearce, a fugitive criminal that they are trying to track down. However, nobody knows what he looks or sounds like, so they are hoping she will lead them to him. As she sits down for a coffee one morning, she receives a letter from Pearce that tells her to board a soon-to-be-leaving train. When she is on, she is to find a man with his shape and size and make the British police force believe he is Pearce. She finds that man in Frank Tupelo (Depp), an American tourist.

With that beginning, one might assume that the movie is on a fast track to absurd action and ridiculous scenarios, almost like Knight and Day only with the gender roles reversed, but that isn’t the case. There is some action, but it isn’t the main attraction. The reason to see The Tourist is to watch Jolie and Depp play opposite each other. They both are magnificent and produce some of the best chemistry we’ve seen all year.

Being an espionage thriller, The Tourist is a tad confusing. At one point, Elise apologizes to Frank for bringing him into all this, but I wasn’t quite sure what “this” was exactly. It’s all explained by the end, but there’s a serious lack of context throughout the majority of the movie. It’s like the filmmakers were so happy to have Depp and Jolie onboard that they forgot to make sense of what they were doing.

At the same time, however, it’s believable. Aside from one early usage of a technology that I’m not sure exists, this is more realistic than Salt, the aforementioned Knight and Day or any other similar espionage thriller to be released this year. Of course, it’s all still preposterous and requires your suspension of disbelief, but I was willing to grant it that and it worked for me. At least until the end rolled around and packed a final twist that was so outlandish it took that suspension of disbelief and vaporized it.

But that isn’t enough to destroy The Tourist. Sure, the screenplay is all over the place and the action scenes leave a lot to be desired—director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (who I mention only because his name is awesome) stages them poorly and doesn’t have the finesse to make them exciting—but the performances are great and there are some hearty laughs, particularly from Depp who has some fun with tourist stereotypes and speaks Spanish despite being in Italian locales.

This is a movie that knows what it wants to be. As the British agency follows Jolie in the very first scene, one of the camera operators zooms in on her butt. His boss, not amused, tells him to “be professional.” As soon as this line is said, Donnersmarck cuts to his own close-up of Jolie’s curvaceous backside. Right here, he’s telling us to sit back, relax and not think too hard. He’s not trying to impress us with flash. He’s just trying to give us some silly fun. And I found myself entertained, so I guess he achieved his goal.

The Tourist receives 3/5

Friday
Dec102010

All Good Things

There’s nothing worse than watching a bad movie that you know had the potential to be so much better, a movie with an interesting idea and a terrific cast that does nothing to set itself apart from the rest of the crowd. This notion lingered in the back of my mind the entire time I watched All Good Things, a supposed mystery thriller that slowly spiraled downward the further it went on. I tried to like it, but by the time I reached the end, I had given up.

The story is inspired by what the press release says is the most notorious missing person’s case in New York’s history. Ryan Gosling plays David Marks, the young son of real estate mogul Sanford Marks, played by Frank Langella, who narrates the movie through his testimony at his trial. His story spans multiple generations and he begins in 1971 when he meets the love of his life, Katie, played by Kirsten Dunst, whom he eventually married. Their rocky relationship raised the eyebrows of those around them and after Katie went missing, David quickly became the prime suspect.

All Good Things is a movie in search of a tone. It tries to be a romance, drama horror and thriller all in one, but it mixes them together poorly resulting in wave like tonal changes. For instance, one scene shows David as he violently grabs Katie by the hair and drags her out to the car, which then instantly cuts to inside their home where she acts like he’s done little more than burned dinner, least of all physically abused her. Once Kristen Wiig shows up, it even turns into a kind of light comedy, though the laughs are outmatched by the unintentionally funny final third of the film where David starts to dress up in drag, effectively creating one of the most unconvincing women in Hollywood since the Wayans brothers in White Chicks.

Much like this year’s Charlie St. Cloud, only a musical change would be required to completely flip the meaning of a scene or shot. The ominous music that plays while lingering on David’s empty stares show him as unstable and evil, but without it he would merely look depressed. Similarly mishandled, his evolution to violence is faulty. Before his aforementioned violent eruption, he is shown talking to himself, a supposed sign of mental instability, which at this point has become a cinematic cliché. Lots of people talk to themselves (hell, I do) and scientists have actually found it to be beneficial. More needed to be done to convince me to be afraid of David.

All Good Things looked like it was going to redeem itself in its closing minutes. Its ending is interesting and, assuming you haven’t done your research prior to viewing, unexpected. However, once you learn what he was on trial for, it makes you wonder what exactly the point was of the first hour. The two events portrayed in this movie are only loosely linked, so the beginning comes to feel kind of unnecessary upon reflection.

If it can be praised for anything, All Good Things wrings out some good performances from its cast. Gosling and Langella are effective as usual, but Kirsten Dunst, who hasn’t impressed in many years, shows she shouldn’t be written off yet. She has the most emotionally nuanced role of all and she carries it out with poise. But aside from that, I’m afraid there isn’t much to All Good Things. Its title is a lie. It isn't even mostly good things.

All Good Things receives 2/5

Friday
Dec032010

Black Swan

In today’s cinematic world, nobody nails surrealism like Darren Aronofsky. While you could argue he has some contenders, namely David Lynch, Aronofsky one ups them all for one reason. The weirdness doesn’t overwhelm the story. Lynch’s films are mind bending, but don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Lost Highway and Eraserhead in particular come off as weird simply for the sake of it and any type of analytical conclusion one could derive from those films is probably nonsense. Lynch himself has even stated that he has never read an analysis of Eraserhead that fits his own. Aronofsky, on the other hand, hits the perfect balance. He messes with your head and sometimes confuses you, but it’s nothing a second watch can’t fix. There’s more to his movies than meets the eye and his latest, Black Swan, is no different.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer in a New York ballet company that has just announced their next project, a production of “Swan Lake.” The play requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan and the Black Swan and Nina thinks she is right for the part, but the director, Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel, isn’t so sure. When she dances, he sees the angelic White Swan side of her, but not the other darker half. Nevertheless, he gives her the part of the Swan Queen, but she soon finds herself competing with Lily (Mila Kunis), who she thinks is trying to steal it from her. To keep it, she trains rigorously with a disregard for her physical and mental health and it begins to tear her apart.

At various points in the movie, Nina is told to “lose herself” in the role and she does, but not in the way the director intends. The story of the Swan Queen begins to mimic her life and it becomes her all. In the play, the White Swan morphs into her evil twin and Nina does the same. When we meet her, she is a fragile girl who is dealing with various kinds of abuse from those around her. Her mother is living vicariously through her, wishing for her to have the career she never had. She is seemingly friendless and she lacks the courage to stand up for anything, breaking down any time confrontations occur. It's this initial meekness that makes her eventual transformation so powerful.

The obvious color contrast between the good and evil sides of the play’s title character is not lost on the rest of the film. Black Swan plays with the motif of black and white, good and evil. Entire rooms exist that are washed in the two opposite colors and the main characters, Nina and Lily, wear clothes colored almost exclusively with one of them. In fact, I can’t recall one scene where Lily wore something other than black. The clashing colors is a stark reminder throughout the entire film that something has gone, or is about to go, horribly awry.

Refusing to simplistically limit itself, Black Swan also has fun with how Nina sees herself and the world through reflections. Mirrors surround her, whether she’s practicing in the mirror encompassed rehearsal room or passing through her house, someone or something is always staring back at her. The mirror theme may be too abundant, however. They’re so noticeable in the first half of the film that when crazy things do begin to happen, it's expected and not as shocking.

But that doesn’t detract from its intelligence. Black Swan is a smart film that may not make perfect sense right away, but slowly reveals itself upon reflection. To completely decipher the puzzle, multiple viewings are required and that’s okay because this is a fantastic movie that is anchored by Portman’s powerful performance. Even Mila Kunis, who had yet to convince me she had what it took to be a good actress, won me over here. Still, this is Aronofsky’s masterpiece. After his most straight forward film, 2008’s The Wrestler, he returns to the style that put him on the map. Like Requiem for a Dream and Pi, Black Swan is a dark and beautiful look into the macabre, and he spices it up with some terrific camerawork, like one nifty point of view shot as Nina pirouettes.

As you watch Black Swan, your eyes and ears will catch things that you’ll swear can’t really be happening, but they are. It will trick you into noticing things that are out of the ordinary, but that’s precisely the point. As you think back on them, you’ll begin to see their significance and that is perhaps the film's greatest strength. This is Aronofsky’s best work to date and a late contender for one of the best of the year.

Black Swan receives 4.5/5

Friday
Nov192010

The Next Three Days

Russell Crowe’s star power seems to be dwindling. Two of his last three films (State of Play, Body of Lies) failed to do much more than fizzle at the box office. While they both went on to surpass their budgets in worldwide ticket sales, their domestic intakes were less than impressive. With that in mind, teaming up with Paul Haggis, director of the 2004 Best Picture winner, Crash, almost seems like a no brainer, but a messy script, uneven pace and a general lack of believability will most likely make The Next Three Days just another blip on Crowe’s devolving career.

Based on the 2007 French film, Pour Elle, the story follows John Brennan (Crowe), a normal family man and college professor who is forced to go to extreme measures to keep his family together. His wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), has just been arrested and charged with murdering her boss. Throughout the next few years, she appeals her case and loses every time. The only option left is the Supreme Court, who hasn’t heard a murder case in a very long time and isn’t likely to now. So John, certain that she is innocent, decides he’s going to break her out and bring her home to her child, Luke (Ty Simpkins).

The Next Three Days has a problem that is morally unsound. John knows in his heart that his wife is innocent. He loves her tremendously and refuses to acknowledge the possibility that she could have actually murdered somebody in cold blood. At one point, she even tells him that she did it, to which he simply replies, “I don’t believe you.” We’re supposed to go along with that, but it’s not easy to. Until the final scene, which comes off like a roundabout and more than a little late way of telling us how we were supposed to feel, there is no indication that Lara is innocent. In fact, every sign points to her guilt. She had just had a giant argument with her boss, her fingerprints were found all over the murder weapon, the victim’s blood was found on her jacket and a witness saw her fleeing the scene of the crime. But that’s all supposed to be irrelevant because John loves her. I wasn’t buying it, so the whole movie became useless to me. I didn’t want John to break her out. As far as I could tell, she was guilty and deserved to rot in prison.

The events that unfold in The Next Three Days are about as likely as Ann Coulter taking a liberal stance on anything, which is to say it could happen, but you’d be shocked if it did. John is an English professor (at a community college no less) who hasn’t done a harmful thing in his life. He wouldn’t even know where to begin if he wanted to steal a bag of chips from a 7-Eleven, but he somehow concocts a master plan that spans a giant radius of Philadelphia (complete with a pleasure ride on the metro) where he outmaneuvers the entire police force by accurately predicting their every move. He even plants evidence to send them on a wild goose chase. It gets to the point where you become exhausted. You can only take so many leaps of faith before your legs get tired.

It completely goes off the rails when John buys a gun and starts shooting people up for money (but not before setting a house with a meth lab in the basement on fire). Had I actually cared about what was going on up to this point, I would have found this scene questionable, but I didn’t. The Next Three Days has cinematic ADD, transitioning from the prison break to a shootout to playground shenanigans to romantic entanglements. The pace hits only highs and lows. It’s either moving at a crawl or zooming by.

Sadly, there is a good movie hidden somewhere in here. The Next Three Days is well acted and directed, but it’s only moderately engaging. It’s the type of movie where you’ll find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat in one scene and slumping over it the next. Had the script been tightened up and the proceedings made at least somewhat realistic, this probably would have been a good piece of entertainment, but instead it will sit in your mind for the span of its title and then disappear forever.

The Next Three Days receives 2/5