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Entries in Thriller (24)

Friday
Oct012010

Case 39

It has been a long journey to American theaters for Case 39. It was shot four years ago and has been sitting on the shelf ever since. Generally, when that happens, the movie ends up terrible. I don’t think there’s any argument to the contrary, but “generally” doesn’t mean “always” and every now and then, that long forgotten movie that needed to be dusted off to be seen turns out to be a good one. Case 39, naturally, isn’t one of those movies. It’s a lazy, been-there-done-that supernatural thriller that’s about as chilling as a jalapeno pepper.

Renee Zellweger plays Emily Jenkins, a social worker at Child Services Division, a company that seeks out abused children and gets them away from their parents. She’s a busy bee and is swamped with work, 38 cases to be exact, until her boss gives her one more (natch). The kid in question is Lilith Sullivan, played by Jodelle Ferland, who seems as innocent as can be. But after her parents try to cook her in an oven (harsh parents), Emily becomes her foster mother and finds out that she’s not all sugar and spice and everything nice (though that might explain why her parents tried to cook her).

Case 39 is a wreck from top to bottom. It’s hard to believe it actually made it to the big screen because this is strictly straight-to-DVD fare. It’s a flatline of a movie that never truly lives and breathes. It just putters along with its slow building horror story, but the problem is that it only follows through on half of that equation. It’s certainly slow, but there’s no building.

The characters, in particular, hit huge personality extremes, but never have anything in between to get them from one end to the other. The little girl, for example, is kind and loving and sweet for the first half of the movie. Then out of nowhere, she completely flips and begins to show her demonic side. I knew exactly where this movie was heading because it’s as predictable a thriller as I’ve seen in some time, so it wasn’t much of a surprise, but there still needs to be some type of arc to get her to that point.

In fact, her demonic side is more aggravating than frightening, especially in a late scene where she repetitively asks Emily one single question, similar to the nagging kids in the back seat annoying their father with echoes of, “Are we there yet?” It’s certainly not scary, so seeing Zellweger freak out, complete with those puffy chipmunk cheeks that make her look like she’s storing nuts for the coming winter, is just silly. Her performance, when it isn’t overbearing, is stiff and bland. She nonchalantly floats through this thing like an amateur actress in a B-movie, which is essentially what this is, only with an inflated budget and big name stars.

Even with those contributing factors, Case 39 is all score. Without its frantic beats and loud rhythms pacing it, you have nothing. The dialogue is ham-fisted, the story is uninteresting, the acting is mediocre at best and the jump scares are frustrating, coming out of literally nowhere, which includes one of the most random and pointless barking dog jolts in horror movie history.

I know October has just arrived and there are those out there who are looking for a good fright flick, but they won’t find it here. It’s still early and the month is looking promising, already starting off on the right foot with the terrific Let Me In, so let’s hope Case 39 is merely a small stain on an otherwise fantastic month for horror.

Case 39 receives 1/5

Friday
Oct012010

Buried

To call Buried depressing would be like calling a pool wet. The very idea of being buried alive is inherently distressing and while not all suffer from taphephobia, there’s no denying how intense it would be if caught in the situation, however unlikely. There’s no hope for escape, no way to contact the world above and a limited amount of air depleting with each passing breath. All you can do is lay there and wait for death. That is Buried in a nutshell, a riveting thriller seemingly of Hitchcockian descent, one that the Master of Suspense may have enjoyed watching himself.

The film’s one and only star is Ryan Reynolds, who plays a man by the name of Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver for a contractor in Iraq. He has just woken up in a wooden coffin bound and gagged with only a lighter and a cell phone. With a dying battery and diminishing oxygen, he must quickly figure out where he is if he hopes to make it out alive.

Thrillers come in all sizes. Some are massive in scope while others are small, tight and calculated. My favorites tend to be in the latter category. Movies like Hitchcock’s own Rope and Rear Window have always appealed to me because they are able to take so little and make something big. They are set in one small area and the characters are dealing with an immediate threat, which gives you a chance to connect with them and care about what they are going through. Buried is like this. With not a single frame of the picture existing outside of the coffin, you feel like you come to know Paul, even if only limitedly.

Most effective, however, is the intense feeling of claustrophobia, the likes of which I haven’t felt since Neil Marshall’s terrific little 2005 monster movie The Descent, but what that movie accomplished pales in comparison to the feeling of being trapped in Buried. You’ll feel the walls surrounding Paul and choke at the thought of losing your air supply. It’s the type of movie that forces you into discomfort and doesn't let go until you walk out of the theater, a feeling of freedom that you’ll most surely enjoy after experiencing this.

Even so, some questionable decisions lighten the grip. Non-diegetic music and unnecessary zooms in rapid succession do nothing more than displace you from the coffin, a feeling some viewers may welcome, but most will find frustrating. For the purpose of the movie, I wanted to stay there, trapped by those wooden walls, but sometimes my suspension of disbelief and connection with the events on screen were pulled right out from under me, reminding me that I was indeed in a theater.

Despite my affection for Buried, it’s still a gimmick and like many gimmicky movies—Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project to name a couple—it wears pretty thin by the end. Although I can see it working wonders as an old school radio program, given that the majority of the mood and tension derives from the audio, it does little as a visual experience. Director Rodrigo Cortés does a serviceable job of keeping the flow of things diverse, but there’s nothing that can offset the inherent monotony of watching somebody talk on the phone.

Still, Reynolds is marvelous in the role, conveying emotion even when unable to move and he, much like John Cusack in 1408, puts on an effective one man show, a true testament to his underrated talent. Sure, it’s depressing and doesn’t necessarily hit any real insight on the human condition outside of our natural will to survive, but Buried is nonetheless an interesting experiment that’s worth checking out.

Buried receives 3.5/5

Friday
Sep172010

Devil

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8 NIV.

Those words from the Bible, or at least a variation of, open the latest thriller Devil. Within the context of the film, they serve one single purpose: to set up a supernatural story where evil people come face to face with Satan himself in an elevator. From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan, but thankfully neither written nor directed by him, Devil is a solid, if a bit underwhelming, horror movie.

The story is simple. Five people get on an elevator. There’s a fragile old woman (Jenny O’Hara), an attractive young girl (Bojana Novakovic), a claustrophobic security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a loud mouthed salesman (Geoffrey Arend) and a soft spoken, rugged man (Logan Marshall-Green). One of them is the devil. After the elevator breaks down, strange things begin to happen and Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who doesn’t believe in God and the devil, is the closest person on the job that can help.

Perhaps to counteract Detective Bowden’s atheism (but mostly to provide some background for the flimsy narrative), there’s a religious security guard (Jacob Vargas) who knows exactly what is going on. His mother used to tell him stories about how Satan works and he knows from the get go that he is on that elevator, manifested in one of those people. He tries to convince Bowden, despite his skepticism, telling him, “Everybody believes in him a little bit, even if they pretend not to.” It’s a classic tale of a non-religious person learning that there is indeed deeper meaning to life and someone is out there looking over us.

It’s a noble story that’s been done to death, but it doesn’t necessarily work here because Bowden is an outside spectator and the chills of the movie rest inside that elevator. Devil tries to have it both ways by crafting a morality tale of forgiveness and understanding outside while also hoping to provide a claustrophobic nightmare within the broken down lift, but neither fully work.

When the movie reaches its most tense moments inside the elevator, it repeatedly ruins them by cutting away to the events outside. It lacks that feeling of the walls closing in on you that movies like The Descent or the upcoming Buried possess. While some characters address the camera directly, effectively placing you in the shoes of someone in that elevator, the movie leaves its confines too much, which strips away much of its dread.

However, it does a decent job of keeping you guessing until the end, though that’s only because there aren't any real clues to tip you off. Who the devil is in the movie doesn’t seem to be so important. Any of them could be and it wouldn’t make much difference. Each of the characters in the elevator are interchangeable, almost to a fault, and some of the ways the film throws you off the right trail is almost cheating, but I commend Devil for restraining itself when it came to the violence and for not succumbing to the temptations of a typical Hollywood ending. While it’s not perfect, and despite having Shyamalan’s name attached to it, there’s something unsettling in Devil that I just can’t shake. If anything, that’s a good thing.

Devil receives 3/5

Friday
Sep172010

The Town

A few short years ago, hating Ben Affleck was the cool thing to do. Gigli, Daredevil and an astoundingly bad performance in Pearl Harbor all provided enough ammunition for Affleck haters to spread their contempt for the man. But in 2007, he released his first directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone, an intense, dramatic and wonderful little gem that should have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Although questions remained about his talent in front of the camera, he showed he was more than capable behind it. Now three years later he releases his sophomore effort, The Town, which, though flawed, should dispel any remaining doubt.

The film takes place in Boston, the bank robbery capital of America (at least according to the opening text). Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is one of the reasons why. Along with his partners James (Jeremy Renner), Desmond (Owen Burke) and Albert (played by rapper Slaine), Doug is a professional thief and he is on his way to rob a bank. Although he hopes to do it swiftly and safely, they run into a snag and are forced to take a hostage named Claire (Rebecca Hall). After they get away, they let her go thinking she saw nothing, but as Doug gets closer to her, eventually developing a romantic relationship, he learns that she has seen more than she lets on. To make matters worse, local FBI agent Adam (Jon Hamm) is on their trail and is doing everything he can to bring them down.

It is now evident. Ben Affleck is multi-talented. He can write, he can act and he can direct and he gives a terrific performance here while honing his craft behind the camera. Direction wise, The Town is a step up from Gone Baby Gone, but its effect is, unfortunately, a bit flat. Its story isn’t as interesting—coming off as a bit derivative of other heist movies—while the thought provoking, morally ambiguous ending of Gone Baby Gone is replaced with a silly, overly dramatic one. At over two hours, The Town runs out of steam and by the time the out-of-place ending arrives you’ll find yourself slightly disappointed.

That, however, is not an indication of its overall quality. It’s not one of the best movies of the year as many will hope, but it’s still solid, anchored by a stellar cast and fluid writing. While the pacing is a bit off, awkwardly transitioning from heavy laden scenes of dialogue to slam bang action scenes, it’s that dialogue that keeps it afloat. The authentic exchanges between the characters coupled with spot on Boston dialects from the actors makes for an engaging experience. The dialogue is well written and believable and is hampered only by a few too many long, overwrought speeches on the characters’ seemingly irrelevant histories.

In fact, only one of those history speeches ever plays a major part in the movie, and even then its inclusion can be argued. A scene partway through shows Doug as he goes to visit his father Stephen (Chris Cooper), who is serving a life sentence for executing two people. Some may relate this scene to the opening text that explains how the business of felons is passed down through generations, but it felt like filler to me. It’s an emotional scene where you sense that Doug is disappointed in his father, as if Doug is a perfect example of an upstanding citizen.

And that may be the film’s biggest problem. These are bad men. There have been movies that depict bad men while still giving the viewer something to latch onto, but The Town isn't among them. There’s no reason to care for them or fear for their plight. They are established almost as antiheroes, but they don’t do enough good to warrant that label. Still, even with all of that taken into consideration, The Town is a worthy movie, even if it does fail to realize its own potential.

The Town receives 3.5/5

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