Archive for the ‘ Suspense ’ Category

13 Sins

Sometimes it’s a shame that we don’t live in a vacuum. 13 Sins has been released roughly a month after Cheap Thrills, and that’s not enough time to make them feel like completely separate entities. Their plots are close, they contain similar themes, and the former is better, which means that the latter can only really disappoint. 13 Sins isn’t a bad film, but if you’ve just seen Cheap Thrills you should probably give it a few months before you choose to watch it, if that’s what you ultimately choose.

I’ll mention now — because I know somebody will point it out in an attempt to show me up — that 13 Sins is actually a remake of a Thai film released in 2006 titled 13 Beloved. No, I haven’t seen it. No, I didn’t know it existed until I looked up 13 Sins. I mention it here because (1) it’s good information to have and (2) to make sure you don’t think I’m saying that 13 Sins is ripping off Cheap Thrills. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I just think they’re too similar and released too closely together to both be worth seeing right at release. You’ll get a sense of déjà vu.

The plot revolves around Elliot (Mark Webber), a salesman who refuses to upsell and is an all-around nice guy. Not a “nice guy,” but a genuinely good-hearted man who just can’t say “no.” He’s about to be married and have a child, he cares for his mentally impaired brother (Devon Graye), and, as the film opens, also takes in his abusive and racist father (Tom Bower). Add on student loans and credit card bills, and he’s got a lot on his plate. And then he gets fired, primarily due to that whole “refuses to upsell” thing I mentioned earlier.

While driving alone one night, sitting at a red light even though the streets are completely clear of traffic, Elliot receives a call. The person on the other end of the line seems to know everything about him. “Swat the fly in the car for $1,000,” he’s told. So he does. The Game begins. Elliot is now going to go through 13 increasingly awful challenges in order to acquire more and more money. If he drops out, or tells anyone about The Game, he loses all of it, and will also probably wind up in jail because many of these challenges are very much against the law.

13 Sins primarily follows Elliot, but it also has a parallel story involving a detective played by Ron Perlman, who is trying to get to the bottom of the recent string of crimes — all caused by Elliot. For the most part, this allows the film to drop hints of back story and exposition for the audience while keeping Elliot in the dark.

The idea here is that the 1% of the 1% controls everything in the world, essentially becoming gods, and they’re bored. So, they’ve cooked up this game, which turns good people into monsters all for money. “How far would you go?” becomes the central idea at play. Will Elliot do these heinous tasks in order to procure a life-changing fortune? Given that this isn’t a high-budget Hollywood film, at least there’s some semblance of doubt to this question. You can never say for sure just what Elliot will do in order to win The Game.

One problem that 13 Sins has is that it becomes too silly and too ridiculous to really make its “everyone can become a monster with the right provocation” philosophy make an impact. Some of its tasks are that difficult to take seriously. The film isn’t entirely successful at thrilling us to begin with, but once the stakes get raised it becomes even tougher. This isn’t a comedy — although some people might find a few scenes darkly funny — but it becomes laughable by the time it ends.

I was worried that it would introduce a bunch of elements and then never use them for anything other than set-up. Elliot’s entire family situation seems initially to be nothing more than a plot to make us see how unfortunate his situation is. It looks this way for a lot of the film, but eventually it winds up becoming more. The way that his family members get tied into the main plot is clever, and calls back to earlier moments that previously felt like nothing of importance, but were actually foreshadowing later events.

Mark Webber is not a well-known actor. You may recognize him, but it’s more likely you will not. He is quietly good in this film. He has to play both likeable but also capable of terrible deeds. And you can believe him in both roles. You root for him because of the former, but also fear him thanks to the latter. Mix in good but brief supporting performances from Rutina Wesley, Ron Perlman, Devon Graye, Tom Bower, and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and you’ve got a solid cast of actors.

13 Sins feels derivative, especially with Cheap Thrills being released in such close proximity to it, but if you can put similar films out of your mind, you’re likely to have a decent time with it. Its ideas of what extremes people will go to for money are interesting. It does get too silly to take seriously at times, and that keeps it from really driving its message home, but that’s only a minor problem. It’s not particularly thrilling, but it is engaging and it’s more fun than you might expect. If the premise intrigues you, it’s worth watching.

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The Raid 2

With the debut of The Raid: Redemption in 2011, we knew that there had to be a sequel, either spiritually or in reality. The action scenes, some of which were called “best action I’ve ever seen” by some people, needed to be duplicated or even topped. Its director, Gareth Evans, needed to show us more pencak silat, the Indonesian martial art that was primarily featured in The Raid. We were entertained for 100 minutes with little more than solidly shot, edited, and choreographed action scenes.

Where it had an issue was in its complete lack of story and very little reason to care about everything that was happening. It was hard to really feel for these characters because there was nothing to them. The plot was also about as simple as they come. But its action scenes were so good, so brutal, that this basically became a moot point. Now, with the sequel, an additional 50 minutes have been added to the running time in order to bring more of a story and better character development. This is overkill — 20 or 30 minutes would have been enough — but Raid 2 is a better movie than its predecessor thanks to this addition.

Taking place directly after the first film — it’s an hour or two later — and involves Rama (Iko Uwais) being approached to go undercover in an attempt to uncover corruption in the police force. To do so, he enters prison in order to befriend Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of crime boss Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). The road we’re going down is “generic undercover cop movie.” Rama sees a whole lot of things he probably shouldn’t, Uco continually struggles with not getting the respect from his father he thinks he deserves, and tensions escalate between Bangun’s crew and the Japanese, who have a 10-year truce that you can guarantee will be broken by film’s end. The only thing we’re missing is Rama never seems to be enjoying what he does, and there’s no question about whether or not he’ll “turn” to the dark side. And that’s used so frequently in these types of movies that it’s a bonus to not have to wonder about that this time out.

The Raid 2 is chock-full of the action scenes that made its predecessor a hit. This is a martial arts film in which the heroes fight a great number of bad guys who almost always approach them one at a time, because one-on-one fights are far more visually dynamic, and the “mob mentality,” while practical from the villains’ perspective, is far less exciting. Hand-to-hand combat scenes are the primary form of action — there’s one shootout and one car chase, too — and some of them are among the best I have ever seen. The same was true of the first film, but this one takes it up another level.

It’s difficult to describe just how good these scenes are without simply showing you one, saying “look at how beautiful this is,” and leaving it at that. The choreography is phenomenal, the cinematography lets you see everything clearly, and the cuts come in places that add, not detract, from the scenes. It never feels as if the filmmakers are trying to hide a lack of talent; they’re on full display and the result is something truly great.

And, thanks to the much-expanded story element, we actually get to know the characters in The Raid 2, which makes the action scenes mean more to us. We get context, reason, and real characters in the sequel, even if there is some inefficiency to the storytelling. A film like this one does need to be 150 minutes in length. There are a few lengthy stretches between action scenes, and a couple of the plot points wind up feeling repetitive by the time we’ve wrapped everything up. Cut it down by 20 or 30 minutes and The Raid 2 has a better balance and is a more well-paced film.

The type of people who will dislike The Raid 2 are also the people who didn’t like the first one. You people are dead to me (semi-kidding). It could be the brutal violence that gets to you and makes you dislike it, and that’s fair. Every film isn’t for every person, and if you dislike violence, then you won’t enjoy a film like this one. The violence feels eerily real, especially when it comes to bones being snapped or limbs being impaled with objects.

Iko Uwais is the lead and apart from a face of determination and an impeccable skill set when it comes to the martial arts, he doesn’t have to do a lot of acting. This wasn’t a problem last time around, but this time it’s more apparent because he’s given the opportunity to do so and basically gives us one face for the film’s entirety. The standout actor winds up being Arifin Putra, whose internal struggles and external conflicts allow him for several great scenes. And, in the one English-speaking scene in the film, he showed command of the language and spoke without a troublesome accent. He could become a Hollywood star if he desires.

The Raid 2 is a more complete film than its predecessor, being an immensely enjoyable action movie that also brings with it a full story and a great cast of interesting, well-developed characters. It’s a little too long at 150 minutes — it could use a haircut — but I’ll take too much of something over not enough almost any day of the week. If you liked The Raid: Redemption, you’ll really enjoy this one.

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The Trials of Cate McCall

After becoming an alcoholic, being put on probation at her law firm, divorcing her husband, and losing custody of her child, Cate McCall (Kate Beckinsale) is attempting to get her life back on the right track. In order to do so, she accepts a pro bono case — one which she believes she will lose. She also attends AA meetings and visits with a therapist. The titular “trials” in The Trials of Cate McCall involve all of these things. This is a courtroom drama but it’s also a film about this particular person and her struggles.

The case is the “wrongful” conviction of a woman named Lacey (Anna Anissimova), who claims she only pleaded guilty to murder to protect her at-the-time boyfriend. She was told the court system goes easier on a woman. Now, she wants out of her life sentence, and it’s Cate’s job to make that happen. But, like most good courtroom dramas, doubt creeps into both stories, and before you know it, Cate is attempting to figure out right from wrong, all while trying to stay on a sober path and win back her daughter’s love.

There’s a lot going on in The Trials of Cate McCall. She is a busy woman, and always has a lot going on. This ensures that the audience is never bored. The different storylines are interwoven well and we don’t feel like we’re jumping back and forth or around too much. The film doesn’t feel unfocused, is what I’m saying. Since each of these plot threads revolves around a single woman, the film maintains its scope and focus without too much trouble.

I’m always pleased when films dealing with specific subjects don’t require an audience member to be familiar with all the technical jargon. Do I know what a Habeas Petition is? No. But I understand how it functioned in this movie, because it took the time to explain to me what it is. It did not, however, hit me over the head with it, or any other legal terms. You know how most of this is going to go anyway, so adding in confusing words and phrases doesn’t help. There’s enough for the legal-heads in the crowd, but not too much to turn off the general audience member.

In fact, balance is the key word when it comes to much of The Trials of Cate McCall. It has a lot of overlapping storylines, but it manages to give them all enough time and never detract focus from the rest. It provides enough legal terminology, but not an overwhelming amount. It transitions well between being a straight genre and a smart thriller. It does exactly what its lead character has to do: find a perfect balance in every aspect of its existence.

If there’s a point at which The Trials of Cate McCall struggles, it’s in trying to find its own identity. It does very little to distinguish itself from many other courtroom dramas, save for the fact that it’s being led by a female. And when you look at the history of courtroom dramas, you’ll see that the lead is typically male. It’s the rare exception in which our protagonist is female. Is that enough to make the film feel different from its predecessors? Well, it doesn’t make a big difference, but it’s at least something to draw your attention.

It helps that Kate Beckinsale turns in one of the best performances of her career. She’s in her Nothing but the Truth mode, but more vulnerable and more flawed. She keeps us out of melodramatic territory by never looking for sympathy even with her problems. She is this film’s anchor, and it would become laughable without her turning in good work. It’s a reminder of the type of performance she can deliver if given the proper role and motivation.

Her primary supporting actor is Nick Nolte, here playing both a fellow lawyer and her AA sponsor. He’s here to provide some legal help and support for our struggling protagonist. Given Nolte’s own history, it’s a little difficult to separate the man from the character, but if you can do that he’s a stable backing to a solid lead. You won’t have previously heard of Anna Anissimova before this role — I imagine, at least — but you probably will afterward. She’s really good as both a victim and later … not so much a victim, and she could go on to do good things in the future.

While it doesn’t attempt to reinvent the formula, The Trials of Cate McCall is a pretty good entry into the courtroom drama genre. Its distinction is that it is lead by a woman — a rarity with these kinds of films — and that its focus is not exclusively on the legal stuff; there’s a real personal story here. The “trials” of the title refer to far more than the tribulations in the courtroom. It’s suspenseful, it’s dramatic, and it has a very strong lead performance from Kate Beckinsale. The Trials of Cate McCall is worth seeing.

Note: The Trials of Cate McCall premiers on the Lifetime Network on April 5, 2014. I’ve been informed that the Lifetime Network censors the content shown on it. This is a movie that would receive an R rating in the United States for profanity. Some of that profanity is necessary in order to truly experience the film. While I believe this is a film worth seeing, I would urge you to wait until it is released on DVD in your region, or to import it from Poland (or possibly other territories, but I know it’s out there), where it has already been released (if you have a region-free DVD player).

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Nymph()maniac: Volume II

After the first volume of Nymph()maniac, I remarked that I was excited to see the second, as well as the extended cut that lasted for somewhere around five hours. The reason for this was that the first part was funnier and more compelling than I thought it was going to be. It wound up being a very interesting watch, even if it wasn’t as thought-provoking as its director probably wanted. Given its storytelling method of breaking up the action into short chunks, it could endlessly reinvent itself and tell different stories each time, which means it never had to get boring.

Unfortunately, it turns out that after four hours of hearing a nymphomaniac tell her life story, it does start to get dull. Nymph()maniac: Volume II is significantly less interesting for the majority of its running time, in large part because it winds up feeling just like more of the same. The situations might be different — somewhat, at least — but it feels like we’re just going through the motions, waiting to finally learn exactly how our lead character, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), wound up beaten and bleeding in alley.

She was found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), if you recall, who put her in a bed, made her some tea, and began to listen to her story, often jumping in to make comparisons between her actions and things like fly fishing or the Fibonacci sequence. We find out early on in the second half that he is an asexual virgin, and that’s why he is so receptive to her story. He can’t judge because he has no personal experience in anything she’s saying.

Nymph()maniac: Volume II feels repetitive, but only when compared to its predecessor. The problem with that is that the first part is required in order to get anything out of the second, and by the time hours three and four roll in, you’re not likely to be all that interested. Director Lars von Trier goes to the well one too many times and the result is a film that’s not as engaging as it could have been. There’s this great format that’s established but it’s like he ran out of inspiration and creativity.

If you were someone who was hoping for even more graphic content than was in the first film, you get that here. Or, at least, it certainly felt like there was more. I didn’t count the minutes or number of scenes, so take that as anecdotal evidence at best, but that’s what I came away with. Perhaps it’s because one of the chapters of Joe’s life involves her becoming involved with a dominator (Jamie Bell), and involves a not insignificant amount of S&M.

Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe for the vast majority of Volume II. The first time around, all of the “story” segments had a younger Joe, who was portrayed by Stacy Martin. Martin is a warmer actor and made the part more compelling. The disconnect between Gainsbourg’s cold storytelling and Martin’s warmer portrayal was interested. Watching Gainsbourg tackle both duties is more … expected, I guess? As in, there’s no difference in personalities and nothing to figure out. We know Gainsbourg’s Joe and therefore there isn’t much more to learn, especially as the film goes down familiar paths we’ve already covered.

The biggest talking point of Nymph()maniac: Volume II is going to come from the ending. It comes as a shock and it seems as if it makes one of its leads go completely out of character. You have to know a bit about von Trier and his negative thoughts about people in order to get it, I think. The ending isn’t so much a “this character did X” as it is the director telling us that “you people are bad.”

Whenever Seligman jumped in while Joe was telling her story, I almost stopped caring. Some of the things he said made sense, but they seemed to become increasingly bizarre and arbitrary. Maybe they make sense if you’re a more abstract thinker, but the logical jumps didn’t seem, well, logical, some of the time. How they connect to Joe’s story, or what they’re supposed to represent — the connections weren’t always clear. I’m not sure how James Bond’s gun fit in other than to foreshadow a gun getting involved. Maybe that was the only purpose.

Apart from the downgrade that came from having Gainsbourg play Joe all the time, we get introduced to a couple of other famous actors in her stories. I already mentioned Jamie Bell, who is fierce and far removed from roles he’s usually associated with. Willem Dafoe has a couple of scenes, here playing a man who runs a debt collection agency. Shia LaBeouf appeared in Volume I and has a few scenes this time around, too, even if he’s eventually replaced by an older actor just like Stacy Martin was (Michaël Pas, if you’re wondering).

Nymph()maniac: Volume II is a disappointing conclusion to what started as an idea with limitless potential and creativity. It’s repetitive and far colder than its predecessor. Its ending will draw both criticism and praise, and will be something worth discussing for a while, but the fact that it takes four hours to get there — two of which are pretty good; the final two, while not bad, are not as interesting — means not that many people are going to want to get there. Volume II isn’t bad, but it’s a letdown when put side by side with its predecessor.

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Speed Racer

Clocking in at an unacceptable two hours and fifteen minutes in length, Speed Racer tells an incredibly simple story about a boy and his race car and the quest to conquer the evil corporations ruining his favorite sport. You’ve seen this basic story before — probably more in cartoons and television shows (which is where the Speed Racer property began) than in feature films, but it will feel very familiar to most of the people watching it.

The boy’s name is Speed Racer (Emile Hirsh), because if you’re a parent and you happen to have the last name of “Racer,” wouldn’t you take advantage of that? He has liked to do nothing but race cars for as long as he can remember, and at the point he turns 18, he is good enough to be considered one of the best drivers currently racing. This is also set in some weird future where everything is as colorful as it can be, and cars can do things that the cars you know cannot. It’s much like a kart racing video game, now that I think about it. Think Mario Kart but with faster speeds and less silly — although no more believable — weaponry.

Since Speed Racer is such a good racer, early in the film he is recruited by a bunch of different teams, all of them hoping he’ll sign with them to bolster the brand. One offer in particular, made by one Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), is tempting but speed declines them all because of family reasons. Soon, he learns that most racers are fixed, including the Grand Prix, and that the whole sport is driven by businessmen, not the racers. Determined to prove them wrong, speed embarks to win a bunch of races in spite of the prevalent corruption.

By my count, there are two big races and a couple of smaller ones that happen in the film. They contain more colors than you might think imaginable in a “live action” film, although how much is truly live action will need to be looked at. Almost all of the film seemed to be either created in or enhanced by a computer. Only the actors remain intact, although they, too, are often covered up with CGI equipment.

From a technical standpoint, few films touch Speed Racer. This is a film of pure spectacle. It has been put together by two of the most technically sound directors working, the Wachowski siblings, and it has a unique visual style that you won’t have seen before at the cinema. It’s reminiscent of the original show but updated with more modern effects and techniques. It’s initially unsettling, I’ll admit, but after you begin to accept it and the world that has been created, it’s a marvel to watch everything unfold.

You can feel the skill and heart of Speed Racer drip from each frame. I can only imagine how much time and effort it would take to create a movie that looks like this one does, and that’s a testament to how much the filmmakers cared about the project. More cynical movies might have taken an ironic approach or put together a half-hearted effort, but this film has been assembled with great care. You appreciate the artistry of the filmmakers when you watch this movie.

The variety of racing environments is also beneficial. While some of it looks same-y — essentially a more “stadium” Rainbow Road — there are also ice portions, desert portions, and a couple of others I’m sure I’m forgetting. With this brings hazards and a new visual palette to look at. The races, as a result, don’t get dull. Motivations are clear, our sense of time and space is never compromised by sloppy editing or cinematography, and high speeds, sharp turns and dangerous racers mean a sense of danger is always present.

Perhaps the most important question now is: “Can a strong visual style and entertaining race scenes save a terrible plot that has characters as deep as a wading pool and takes contains as much story as a 30-minute television show episode?” My answer: in this case, at least, I think it can. Despite the awful plot, lackluster characters and lack of content, the film is more worried about its racing scenes and visuals. It functions more as a tech demo than as narrative cinema. The plot exists as an excuse for the effects and races.

Sometimes that can work, and I’m of the belief that this is one of those times. Showcasing “the best” effects is less successful, but when “very good” effects are used in a creative way, the spectacle can be worth seeing. And when there’s the amount of care and heart put into the project, its plot is almost inconsequential. That’s especially true, I suppose, when you consider that Speed Racer is essentially a film for children. You have to lower expectations of depth when you remember that.

Is Speed Racer worth seeing? Absolutely. It has such an interesting and unique visual style that will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Its races are incredibly exciting, too, which can be difficult to pull off when a good third, at least, of the film consists of racing scenes. I’ll take an overlong and lackluster plot that is in service to creative visuals made by people who seem to love this material over a cynically produced movie with as much heart as a machine.

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