Archive for the ‘ Suspense ’ Category

The Frozen Ground

Based on a true story — and actually feeling real, which is often not the case — The Frozen Ground is a film detailing a trio of interconnecting stories which give us a character on each side of the story. The film is about Robert Hansen (John Cusack), a serial killer who kidnapped, raped, killed, and buried around 20 young women over the course of several years. We follow him for part of this film. We primarily watch a detective, Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), attempt to bring Hansen down. We also spend some time with a victim, Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), who managed to escape.

The most surprising thing about this movie — apart from it not being terrible — is that it doesn’t try to be a whodunit or toy at all with who the villain is. It’s clear after the first couple of scenes that Hansen is guilty. The film is more concerned with Jack’s attempt to find enough evidence to put him away for good. This is a police procedural, a genre rarely seen in cinemas. Hansen is smart and has figured out a way to get away with his crime for years and years, so it’s going to take determination and intelligence to figure out how to prove he did it.

It winds up coming down to a race against the clock, as several factors wind up working against detective Jack. The Frozen Ground isn’t the most thrilling film — particularly because it’s too formulaic in many aspects to generate much suspense — but it has low ambitions and does match them. This could have been a terrible slog, but it’s not painful to watch at all. In fact, with a quick pace and some good performances, it might just be worth checking out.

The one thing I will say is that there is no reason for this to be a movie, except that a show like CSI wouldn’t go back in time to the 1980s to tackle a real-world case. This case could easily fit in a 60-minute television show, and apart from profanity and a scene set in a strip club, this material would be perfectly at home on a television screen. What I’m getting at is that it feels too small to be a feature film. It’s not a bad watch but it didn’t feel different from the countless detective shows on TV.

What makes it different and worth seeing, I suppose, are the background moments. Watching, for example, Jack attempt to gain Cindy’s trust, especially after all of the other police officers disregarded her claim after learning that she’s a prostitute — “How can a prostitute be raped, anyway?” — is good cinema. Her vulnerability coupled with his urgency and compassion makes for many good scenes.

You will struggle to overlook the clichés. Jack is close to moving and this is his last case. He has a wife (Radha Mitchell) who thinks he works too hard, and he should drop the case, but then she turns around at a crucial moment. Higher-ups dislike Jack re-opening cases that had been closed for a long time. One woman at the strip club takes in Cindy because “stripper with a heart of gold” is too juicy to pass up, I suppose. The entire story is predictable. You’ll notice these while the film is playing and they reduce its credibility and attempt at suspense.

Surprisingly, though, it all feels as if this is how it could have happened. The small town in which the film is set feels authentic, the scenery is used to great effect, and the actors all turn in strong performances. About the only thing that doesn’t factor in is the time period. The film is set in the early 1980s but I forgot about that a few minutes in. It could easily be taking place in 2013 and not much would have changed. About the only thing keeping it in the ’80s is the fact that it’s based on a true story.

Nicolas Cage. Just saying his name promotes a wonderful response from almost anyone — even those who aren’t big film fans. We forget how grounded and real an actor he can be. He demonstrates that in The Frozen Ground. He is our anchor. John Cusack is creepy as the villain. As the teenage prostitute, Vanessa Hudgens turns in her best performance to-date. Even those with bit parts, like Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Radha Mitchell and … actually, those are about the only names you’ll recognize. 50 Cent is in the movie but is too ridiculous to take seriously.

The Frozen Ground is a decent police procedural and does a decent, if formulaic, job of bringing this real-life story to cinema screens. It’s not terribly thrilling, but it has a strong sense of itself and where it’s set, and it contains strong performances from most of its cast. Its side stories are more engaging than its main one. It’s a middle-of-the-road movie but it doesn’t feel like it’s a waste of time to see.

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

In case you’ve somehow forgotten, Sin City was a really excellent movie. It looked unlike almost anything before filmed, it had very entertaining stories, its cast was amazing, and it dove into the subject matter like nothing else. It felt like a walking, breathing, comic book. And completely forgetting that The Spirit exists — because you should forget, and probably did before I mentioned it here — it remained as a single entity nothing like anything before or after it. For almost a decade it remained this way. Now, we finally have a sequel. Or, a sidequel. Prequel? Successor? Sure, let’s go with that one.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is another Sin City movie, which is something for the longest time nobody thought would happen. It has a few different stories, and jumps around on the time frame. Characters who died in Sin City are suddenly alive again. Others look different, and will be shaped by events in this movie. The film is technically based on the second comic book in writer/co-director Frank Miller’s series, although certain sections were written specifically for the movie.

I feel like it would be pointless to try to detail all of the narratives and characters. By my count, there are four of them. The film begins by jumping back and forth, introducing all of them, before settling on the titular story, “A Dame to Kill For.” This is our longest story, and perhaps the most captivating. After it concludes, we get to finish off the shorter stories. When it hits home video, we can only hope an edition will be released where we can watch each story in its entirety, much like the first film. That’s the best way to enjoy a Sin City movie.

Or, perhaps I should just say “that’s the best way to enjoy Sin City.” Apart from a couple of re-casts, A Dame to Kill For fits in perfectly with the original film. Watching them back-to-back offers an experience of watching a really long version of one movie; they mesh that well together. What Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have done is create additional stories to the Sin City movie canon. They didn’t create a sequel; they just created more.

In some ways, I can see this being a problem for some people. Many of the tales of Sin City are similar in plotting and theme, even if the characters are all different. For some, that’s enough of a difference to keep things interesting. For others, that’s just putting a mask on a sheep and calling it a cow. Don’t think too hard about that one.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a beautiful, beautiful movie. Yes, even with all the violence, blood, nudity, smoking, drinking, and all those other distasteful things. It really does look like a comic book brought to life — maybe even more this time. It’s primarily in black and white, fitted with heavy shadows, and every twinge of color, whenever present, stands out. There are small touches that make it seem even less like a live-action film and more like a comic book or graphic novel. Look at the way the arrows have been rendered, or the background of the city whenever a character is standing on a mountaintop or driving along an outer road. It’s also incredibly stylized, as one might expect, especially if they saw the first film.

A wonderful cast has been assembled for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Maybe a better cast than the original, if that was even possible. Returning actors include Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Jamie King, and Powers Boothe. New additions include Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Ray Liotta, Jamie Junh, Juno Temple, among others. Apparently Lady Gaga was in this movie and I didn’t even notice. It’s almost too loaded.

And at only just over 100 minutes, it definitely could have been longer. The first film wasn’t exceptionally long on its theatrical release, either — although it ran longer than this one — but it was given an extended cut on home video that fleshed certain elements out. Here’s hoping this one does well enough in theaters that it will get a similar home video treatment. Seeing more from actors who only get one scene would be nice. Or, really, just more in general would be great. All the actors are fun to watch, and all the scenes are enjoyable. I wouldn’t have cut a single thing from what we get here, and another thirty minutes of content wouldn’t have hurt.

The elephant in the room, however, is that A Dame to Kill For isn’t as good as the first film. With the slight repetition, along with the visual aesthetic not being quite as fresh to us, it loses some of its mystique and appeal, especially if viewed as a separate product from the original. Viewed as an extension of the same film, it works incredibly well. It does so as a standalone, or a successor, too, but I think it’s best viewed back-to-back with Sin City.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is basically the sequel/prequel/extension/successor that we could have hoped for. It took nine years, but it finally happened. We got our Sin City 2. And it’s good. It’s very similar to its predecessor — too similar, I wager, for some, as there is repetition in plots and themes — and it fits right in. The stylized aesthetic, the ultraviolence, the sendup of film noir — everything you want from a Sin City movie is present. What a fun movie.

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Passion

Isn’t it funny when the title of a film is exactly what it’s lacking? Passion, from director Brian De Palma, is a remake of a 2010 French film called Crime d’amour. It centers on two women at an advertising firm and their desire to move up in the world. It features deception, and lust. It wants to be an erotic thriller, but it’s mostly just confusing. At times, you won’t have a clue what’s going on. That’s intentional, but it doesn’t make for a great watch.

The film’s lead is Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), who is trying to make a name for herself in the advertising business. Her boss is Christine (Rachel McAdams), who is hoping to move to New York and gain a higher position in her company. The film takes place in Germany. Christine is in a relationship with Dirk (Paul Anderson), who on a trip to London has an affair with Isabelle. Christine seems to find out, and even seems to want Isabelle for herself. Christine takes credit for an advertisement that was Isabelle’s idea. The two begin a feud that is filled with sexual tension.

Or, it wants to be filled with sexual tension, but in reality it just has the two leads stare at each other rather blankly and kiss a couple of times with little reason. There’s a lack of, well, passion to the proceedings. Maybe “Passion” is an ironic title. It’s all about career advancement and possibly getting revenge on someone who could jeopardize that. There isn’t love here and the leads don’t exhibit anything that could be misconstrued as “emotion.”

The film also changes dramatically in tone at the two-thirds mark. It becomes less about office politics and more like a murder mystery. A third character, Isabelle’s assistant named Dani (Karoline Herfuth), gets more involved. A murder (or maybe two or three or four) occurs. Blackmail is threatened. Copious amount of drugs are taken which allows De Palma to go crazy when it comes to filters and the cinematography. Dreams within dreams become frequent — or do they? It’s chaotic, unfocused, and if you’re able to make heads or tails of it on a first watch you’re a smarter person than I am.

No, I couldn’t follow the final third of Passion. Even when one character begins recounting the events, we still get more confusion afterward. The plot, as laid out in text, reads as silly. When it’s playing, it’s moderately successful at keeping suspense, although it does so more because you won’t know what’s going on at any given time. Sometimes the twists and turns feel arbitrary. It’s never unwatchable but if you can’t handle not knowing what’s happening you’ll want to skip this one.

It’s fun to watch Rachel McAdams chew scenery as Christine. She is seemingly omnipotent and watching her attempt to fish responses out of people and then enacting revenge on them is funny. Not thrilling, but funny. You might be able to interpret Passion as a black comedy. It’s too hard to take seriously and I can’t imagine a director like Brian De Palma not being able to make a serious thriller from this material.

At least this isn’t a visually dull movie. That’s one thing you’ll rarely be able to accuse De Palma of. He is someone with a keen sense of style and some of the angles he chooses are not what you’ll typically see. There’s even a split-screen scene in Passion, which further adds to the confusion. I keep coming back to this point because Passion is just so terribly confusing. You can’t separate its good elements from its lack of narrative cohesion, even if that’s done on purpose. The overwhelming feeling of “what?” overpowers everything else.

I’m not even sure if it all adds up. I don’t want to watch Passion again to find out or even think about it a great deal more than I already have. This is trash. High quality, good looking trash, but it has no pretensions at being anything more than a sleazy and confusing thriller. The latter part is overdone. If it all does work out, it doesn’t feel like it does in the moment. Even during the explanation — where one character delivers a monologue telling us exactly what happened — I wasn’t being convinced.

Noomi Rapace is almost completely emotionless as the lead. She has a nervous breakdown once and it’s laughable; her strength seems to be playing strong roles who aren’t required to show vulnerability. That’s why she was so great as Lisbeth Salander. This works well enough against McAdam’s more showy role. The best work probably comes from Karoline Herfurth in what initially seems to be a small role but winds up being crucial. Is that a spoiler? It doesn’t matter — you won’t be able to tell what’s going on anyway. One could read a plot synopsis and then watch the movie and still not be sure what’s going on.

Passion is trashy and on a certain level will probably be enjoyed by some as just that, but if you want any sort of coherence to a narrative, you won’t find that here. This is a confusing film — so much so that its confusion overpowers any of its positives, like director Brian De Palma’s unique style, which is on full display in later portions of this movie. Passion is moderately entertaining and does keep you guessing, although it leaves you unsatisfied and its actors are varying forms of passionless.

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Bullet to the Head

Assuming you’re completely okay with a straight-faced, no-nonsense, action movie starring a past-retirement-age Sylvester Stallone, you’re probably going to have a good time with Bullet to the Head, which works on more than one level. It’s a competent buddy-cop movie, a decent revenge-thriller, contains elements of film noir, and also functions as a throwback to junky action films of the 1980s. Pack all of that into a 90-minute ride, and you’ve got yourself a good time at the movies.

We begin with the death of a man and an injury to his partner. Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) — seriously, that’s his name — and Louis (Jon Seda) pull off a job — they’re hitmen — and go to a bar for some celebratory drinks. Here, another hitman, Keegan (Jason Momoa), stabs Louis to death and tries to kill Jimmy, only to be driven away by the older man. Now, Louis is dead and Jimmy wants revenge. He’s going to fight his way to the top of the criminal ladder in order to find out who ordered his and Louis’ death, and then take out that person.

Meanwhile, a Detective from outside the town, Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang), is sent to investigate the murder that Jimmy and Louis pulled off earlier. Upon discovering Louis’ death, he winds up tracking down Jimmy and offers to team up with the hitman to take down the criminals far more important than a common hitman. So begins the buddy-cop element to Bullet to the Head. These are reluctant allies who could turn on one another at any moment. Their banter is also some of the most fun the film has to offer.

Maybe I’m an easy audience member to please, but listening to Sylvester Stallone be semi-racist and too old to understand how a cell phone works, and watching Sung Kang try to get him to join the 21st century made me laugh. There aren’t a lot of these scenes in Bullet to the Head, but they’re funnier than a lot of other mismatched-partner films likely because it’s not overdone through its duration. These are brief scenes that break up the violence that serves as our primary focus.

Yes, most of the film is violence. Jimmy has to fight his way up the ranks of the New Orleans crime scene, and this results in a series of one-on-one confrontations. This is a bloody film with more kick to it than you’d expect. It’s a straight-faced film that seems like it would be far more at home in the ’80s than in 2013. As that, it actually works better than the Stallone-directed Expendables series, which is too silly and too stupid to work as a throwback or homage.

Granted, when you take a step back and think about this film — and in particular, its villain — you’re also probably going to be inclined to throw those terms at it, too. The main bad guy is played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and his evil plan is … to build affordable condominiums. No, you didn’t just misread that. He’s involved in corruption and murder to do that, but that’s his big scheme. That’s both silly and stupid, but when you’re watching the film it doesn’t feel that way because of the tone established by director Walter Hill.

That’s really what separates Bullet to the Head from other ’80s “homages”; it doesn’t think of the subject as light or stupid, and instead revels in its gritty, if a bit cheesy, action scenes and heroes. Stallone even gets a few one-liners, and they’re pretty good ones. Sometimes people say that you have to be in the right mindset to enjoy a film like this one; Bullet to the Head puts you in that mindset by not messing around. That’s what makes it succeed even if you don’t have high hopes going in.

This isn’t to call Bullet to the Head a complete success. It has the most basic of plots, which means you’ll feel as if you’ve seen it before. And surprises or shocks fail to have their desired effect because of its simplicity and predictability. Jimmy has a tattoo artist of a daughter (Sarah Shahi) who exists for two reasons: (1) to be captured late in the picture and (2) because we need more nudity in our movies. The editing of the action scenes is also too frantic for its own good, possibly in an attempt to hide that, despite being in great shape for his age, it probably looks really silly watching him fight Jason Mamoa in hand-to-hand combat.

You can’t deny that for a man in his mid-’60s, Sylvester Stallone is in tremendous shape. I mean, how many 65-year-olds still have a six-pack? That doesn’t make him a good actor, but it does at least give some credibility to the screenplay, which frequently has him square off against people half his age. Stallone’s job is to carry the action scenes and for the most part he’s able to do that.

In an age where throwbacks and homages to the action films of the 1980s is somewhat commonplace, Bullet to the Head actually feels like an ’80s action flick, not an homage to one. It plays things straight, and while there are laughs, they don’t come from the acknowledgment that the material is silly. This separates Bullet to the Head from its contemporaries. It’s violent, it’s simple, and it’s predictable, but its mix of action, noir, revenge, and buddy-cop makes for an enjoyable cocktail.

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The Signal

You have no idea how much I hoped that The Signal would work. From its mysterious trailer to its first … two acts, really, this is a film that seemed like it would be one of those sci-fi thrillers that anyone who saw it would be unable to stop talking about it. But it eventually becomes a completely different movie, and that doesn’t work to its benefit. Some groaner-level plot twists take us out of the story, and the mystery winds up being less interesting the more we find out about it.

Our movie initially follows three MIT students, Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke), and Jonah (Beau Knapp). Nic and Haley are a couple, and the three are on a cross-country road trip to help Haley move. They’ve also been dealing with a hacker calling himself NOMAD, who in an early scene breaks into their computer. They track him down and decide to confront him. The first change in direction is here, as the film briefly diverges into found-footage horror. They approach the house of this NOMAD fellow, go inside, look around, and then … Haley is puller into the sky, the camera fades to black, and then Nic, our lead, wakes up in a room sitting across from Dr. William Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who tells him that he and his friends were abducted by aliens.

Yeah, that happened. Nic is understandably in shock, as are we. Something is off, but we can’t tell what. Soon enough, Nic starts to hallucinate. We’re unsure if he’s a reliable narrator. He answers some questions but demands to see Haley. The place he’s being held in is like a hospital-prison. It looks like a hospital, but operates more like a prison.

Another change in direction comes when Nic tries to break out of the facility with a semi-comatose Haley (Jonah is nowhere to be found; Damon claims they did not recover his body). And then it takes a couple of different turns, the plot twists begin mounting, and it just gets silly. We spend much of the movie confused by what’s happening, but once we find out what has happened, we groan and say “that’s it?”

The mystery and the atmosphere are big parts of The Signal, so this comes as an even bigger disappointment. The tension mostly comes from never knowing what’s going on. That’s it. The characters aren’t particularly interesting, it’s hard to view the “villains” as much of a threat, and the chases and shootouts are not involving. It’s all about finding out the truth. And the truth winds up not being worth finding out. So what does The Signal have to fall back on?

Well, its direction is really, really solid. These problems come not from the person behind the camera, but from the one behind the pen. Unfortunately, in this case, the same man filled both roles, at least in part. William Eubank directed The Signal and co-wrote it. There’s no issue with the direction. Scenes are wonderfully composed, the film has a distinct style, and the mix of different styles winds up working. The ability to keep the level of mystery up throughout most of the picture is astounding. The problem was on the writers’ table. The story just doesn’t work as a three-act film.

At least the film is about something, as most good science fiction should be. The lead character — and the only one with any depth or development — is Nic, and his growth consists of growing from a completely logical being to one who relies on emotion. No, seriously. That’s the whole point. This logical MIT student needs to start thinking with his heart and not with his brain. Emotion trumps logic. That’s fine. The movie can say what it wants. I’m not judging.

Early on, I really wasn’t sold on the acting. Brenton Thwaites’ “confused and in pain face” was really bad, and it was on-screen for something like five minutes. But after he got past that stage, he made for a solid protagonist. Laurence Fishburne is always a welcome presence, even if he’s there just to be a, well, solid screen presence. Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp are relegated to decidedly supporting (and uninteresting) roles, as the film is clearly focused on Thwaites’ character.

The Signal is weird, scattershot, and confusing for most of its running time, even if the mystery is ultimately not as interesting as the film builds it up to be. It’s a letdown, actually, which is a shame. There’s some real talent shown behind the camera, but the plot needed a couple of additional re-writes. It’s stylish and visually fantastic, and it has a message, but it’s hard to get over how much of it relies on building to mysteries that turn out to be underwhelming and unsatisfactory. It’s almost worth seeing if you’re a big fan of low-budget sci-fi, but for most people this is a film to skip.

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