Posts Tagged psychological thriller

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.    Starring Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, and Derek Jacobi.

As an opening disclaimer, I am one of the world’s biggest fan’s of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Christie’s novel with Albert Finney as Poirot, and I am also one of the world’s biggest fans of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, so despite the lousy trailers, I went into this hoping it would be fun and passable, even if it vastly paled in comparison to Lumet’s film. While it’s certainly not all bad, and a few stretches are good, there is very little good in this Murder on the Orient Express.

Let’s start with the opening. To explain why Hercule Poirot is riding the Orient Express, there is a pointless, obnoxiously action heavy prologue where he solves a theft, which is about to cause a riot in Istanbul. This was one of the most depressing scenes I’ve seen all year, mostly because in its laborious introduction of Christie’s famous detective (he’s Belgian, the greatest detective in the world, has an extravagant mustache, and other peculiar quirks) it became quite apparent that there is an entire generation who has no idea who Poirot and Miss Marple are. There are also poop-jokes, because what’s a whodunit without some feces thrown in?

After solving this crime, Poirot boards the Orient Express for a vacation, where he meets the ensemble of Famous Actors, all acting so blatantly suspicious that the answer to the crime should be instantly obvious even if one had never heard of Christie’s novel before. Indeed, the solution to the mystery is so obvious, it’s baffling that the world’s greatest detective takes so long to solve it.

All of the cast is decent, and a few in particular stand out, but no one holds a candle to their counterpart in the 1974 Lumet film, which is mostly the film’s fault, because none of the supporting actors are given enough time to establish their characters, other than Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., and Johnny Depp. Even Judi Dench is not as good as Wendy Hiller as the Princess Dragomiroff. Michelle Pfeiffer is sadly wasted as Mrs. Hubbard, who has a much smaller role here, but at the same time, as good as Pfeiffer is in her limited screen time, no one can ever top Lauren Bacall. I admit I actually more or less enjoyed Branagh’s extravagant scenery chewing as Poirot. Finally, Depp is surprisingly good as the thuggish but frightened Ratchet; it’s one of his best performances in some time, which is sadly not saying much.

The pacing of the film lurches and stalls until the murder, after which it finally gets going, and for awhile, it was fairly enjoyable. The interrogation scenes were fun, even if they were parade of celebrities. Unfortunately, someone felt the need to interject sloppily filmed actions scenes whenever the dialogue really got going, because what’s a whodunit without some punches and bullets?

The most glaring absence from this film is Sean Connery’s line about the necessity of trial by jury as the bedrock of civilized society to determine guilt or innocence. In its place is Poirot’s internal wrestling with whether good people can do bad things, which culminates in one of the most horrifically miscalculated finales, itself a continuation of the sloppily filmed action scenes that punctuated the film.

There are also countless reminders that racism existed in 1934, with Poirot being an anachronistically woke character, which to be fair, Branagh manages to pull off despite the ham-fisted lines of dialogue he responds to. While there is an attempt to tie the racism into the plot, once the mystery gets going, the characters’ prejudices are thrown out the window.

Finally, there is the threat of a sequel with a gratuitous reference to Christie’s next most famous Poirot mystery, Death on the Nile. While the 1978 film of that title certainly has room for improvement, this outing gave me no confidence that these are the filmmakers to attempt it.

Personal recommendation: C

Advertisements

, ,

Leave a comment

mother!

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Darren Aronofsky.   Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

“God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God,” and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.” – Pope St. John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to Artists

The question at the heart of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream heavily infused with Biblical allegories, is what happens when an artist abuses that power. Portrayed by Javier Bardem, the artist in question receives no name throughout the film, and he is clearly meant to serve as an archetype of something, but what that something is remains a mystery for much of the film. One thing that is clear throughout the film is that more than desiring to write great poetry, he longs for mass adulations from his adoring fans to the chagrin of his doting, supportive wife, the titular mother (Jennifer Lawrence).

Mother herself is another allegorical character, with touches of the Virgin Mary, Hestia, and Aphrodite, but she is primarily drawn from Gaia, or mother nature herself. Whatever combination of metaphors mother is meant to represent, Lawrence draws on them all effortlessly, creating a sympathetic character who never seems gullible or foolish for blindly going along with her husband or pouring all her energies into refurbishing their mysterious house, another process of creation and a sort of vocation that no one, including her creative genius husband, appreciates.

Aronofsky has said that his original idea for mother! was to convey a feeling of dread and helplessness as one watches their home destroyed, an allegory of mother earth’s helplessness in the face of environmental destruction That is an easy interpretation to see, especially considering the selfless giving of mother to her husband and the increasingly disturbing string of guests he parades through their home because they love his work. At the same time, if the invasion of the home is a parallel to humans destroying the earth, it also functions as an example of a self-centered artist allowing his wife’s handiwork to be abused and destroyed because he wants all fame and glory for himself, not much different from an abusive artist trying to usurp glory from God or misuse His creation.

As the destruction to the house crescendos in increasingly disturbing ways, it is impossible not to sympathize with mother as Aronofsky builds up to the horrific finale of his disorienting thrill ride. That sense of sympathy and compassion serves as a lament in the face of evil as we watch mother’s suffering. mother! may be a horror film, but it’s a profoundly sorrowful one. If the desire for fame can give birth to the ugliest of human behavior, idolatrous religious fervor fortifies those tendencies. mother! shies away from depicting neither.

The horror of human capacity for evil is made strikingly apparent by Aronofsky’s choice to saturate this film with Biblical allegories. The ones that feature into the finale are a jarring choice considering what happens, but that dissonance emphasizes the twofold horror of the artist who thinks he is God and of the inherent idolatry of adoring fans who placing their faith in works of art rather than allowing the art to remind them of something greater.

(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph, skip it if you wish to avoid them.)

The metaphorical nature of Javier Bardem’s poet has caused consternation among many Christian reviewers, and while he is certainly meant to be indicative of God the Father on some levels, he is just as much drawn from Pygmalion in Greek mythology with his doting trophy wife half his age, carefully concocted to be the ultimate fulfillment of every sexist fantasy regarding the subservient housekeeping wife whom the husband can ignore, whose existence seems due to a magical crystal he owns. He is also a highly incomplete portrait of God with his obsession of permitting people to do whatever they want provided they tell him he’s awesome. Mother is also representative of God with her sense of justice, the way she breathes life into the house, and the way she bears its burdens. If the poet represents a god where mercy has been divorced from justice, the abuse heaped upon mother results in a god where justice is divorced from mercy. Both are horrific alternatives, and the film depicts both.

It would be easy to dismiss mother! as an offensive and badly muddled allegory of religious themes, and indeed, many Christian reviewers have done just that. Furthermore, considering the damning way in which uniquely Catholic symbolism plays into the film’s climax, adding one more such condemnation to the fray would have been all too easy. However, to have done so would have been to ignore the thoughtful and complex way Aronofsky wrestles with the vocation of the artist and how that can be abused in a unique setting haunted by Biblical themes.

I believe the key to understanding mother! is to remember that it is not a straightforward allegory, but one that deliberately scrambles all its metaphors, much to the frustration of audiences. Alissa Wilkinson mentioned that Michelle Pfeiffer, in a scene stealing performance, is simultaneously an Eve and Serpent figure. That is the sort interpretation this film requires. Jacob and Esau are merged with Cain and Abel. The Nativity and the Passion are referenced almost simultaneously. And in a predictable, yet brilliant twist, Alpha and Omega symbolism bookends the film.

mother! is a grand, macabre symphony of big, bold, Mahlerian-scaled allegories that pummel the viewer through a psychological horror tale about creation, its destruction, and the artist’s vocation. The relentless pacing, disturbing and revolting plot twists, plethora of closeup shots, and the predictable yet nonetheless WTF ending all contribute to an atmosphere which will challenge even the most adventurous of viewers, causing many of them to abhor it. And for all those reasons, which create a perfect marriage of style and substance, I absolutely loved it.

 

Content Advisory: Disturbing graphic violence, including cannibalism, a scene of physical assault with fleeting nudity, a couple non-graphic sex scenes, a few harsh obscenities, and brief male nudity.                    MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

 

, , , ,

1 Comment

The Wall

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Doug Liman.                   Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli.

Two soldiers, a sniper, and a crumbling stone wall. As Scott Renshaw pointed out, this scenario basically writes and films itself, which makes the occasional stumbles all the more frustrating. Even with those stumbles, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) does a good job of milking this premise, crafting a tense thriller in which a cat and mouse game is set against the backdrop of the “won” Iraq War.

Criticism of the Iraq War and the notion that there could be any victory from that mess abounds throughout the film. The first title card tells us in 2007 the USA declared victory and the war was over, but the irony and dishonesty of that claim is highlighted by the opening shot of two soldiers camouflaged as they observe an oil pipeline where soldiers had been ambushed by an attack. Later, when the sniper hacks their radio signal, he asks them what they’re still doing in his country if the war is over. Finally, the closing shot will remain one of the most surprising conclusions of any film this year, and it strongly reinforces the notion that the Iraq War is unwinnable.

The film’s politics are unmistakable, but they are never heavy handed, and they provide added tension to the confrontation between Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli). Less successful is the backstory for Sgt. Isaac which is hinted at throughout the film, but when it’s made explicit in the last act, it comes across as a half-baked attempt at guilt and trauma which adds nothing to the psychological and physical standoff between the soldier and the sniper.

The other major misstep of the film is the scriptwriter Dwain Worrell’s decision to make the sniper a genius psychopath more knowledgeable than Hannibal Lecter who knows everything going on inside Isaac’s head, has orchestrated his plan to the last unexpected detail, and is fazed by literally nothing. Eventually, the characterization begins to approach caricature.

However, the cat and mouse game is largely successful due to the commitment of the actors and Liman’s skilled directing. At ninety minutes, the film moves along briskly even as it never changes location. I questioned the wisdom of a couple cuts to the sniper’s point of view – they really dissipated the tension – but otherwise, the editing brilliantly redirects our attention from the one soldier to the other, to the wall, to the corpses scattered around the pipeline, and to any possible location of the sniper. Liman knows precisely where to place the camera to achieve a balance between knowing what is happening and feeling just disoriented enough to share in the soldiers’ confusion and discomfort.

The Wall doesn’t make the most of its premise, but it gets enough out of it to be an engaging and thoughtful thriller with a worthwhile cross examination of the costs of invading Iraq, and Doug Liman proves his chops for directing action sequences once again.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, intense violence, including brief but graphic images of bullet wounds.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

, , ,

Leave a comment

The Babadook

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Jennifer Kent.  Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, and Tim Purcell.

The nearest point of comparison to The Babadook is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in that both are horror films which begins as films about a frightened, psychotic child then transitions to a film about a frightened, psychotic parent. I have seen a few critics call The Babadook superior to The Shining, and while I understand the reasoning behind that claim, (the transition from child to parent focus is more subtle and unnerving) I’m not sure I can go quite that far, although a second viewing may change my mind. However, I will give The Babadook this: it’s scarier than The Shining.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, whose husband died nearly seven years ago as he was driving her to the hospital to deliver Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia has never really accepted her husband’s passing, and while she occasionally visits her sister and stops to chat with her kind elderly neighbor, she has mostly shut herself and Sam alone in their house, with their main outside interactions being work and school.

Sam naturally does not fit in at school or among his peers. He is obsessed with monsters and loves telling stories that disturb not only other children but their parents as well. His favorite hobby is building weapons to fight the monsters. He smuggles those weapons to school in his backpack, and some of them would be extremely dangerous and painful if employed against a child. Amelia responds to the school’s concern by promising to have a serious talk with Sam, and when they suggest psychotic evaluation, she pulls him out of school with plans to find another one.

The setup is perfect for a horror film. Sam’s bratty behavior and obsession with outlandish tales of monsters make it so that almost no one would believe him if he really were in danger. Amelia’s desire to keep up appearances of normalcy, even as she increasingly isolates herself and her son so no one knows of their troubles, makes her foolish decisions believable and prevents any of them from being clichéd, stupid horror film choices, even when she copies one of Jack Torrence’s reckless actions in The Shining. Noah Wiseman is terrific at portraying a the terror of a child who *knows* that he and his mother are in danger from the monsters in the basement or in the closet as well as the determination of a child to protect himself and his mother. As Amelia, Essie Davis fluctuates perfectly among a deeply concerned mother, a neglectful and barely coping parent who expects her child just to behave on his own, and a mother exasperated by her son’s disobedient behavior.

The source of the horror stems from the tension between mother and son and the way it undermines the love that both of them ultimately have for one another. The Babadook is a character in a morbid children’s popup book, and it first appears when Amelia reads the book to Samuel before bedtime, unaware of the gruesome nature of the story. What was an effort for mother and son to bond gives birth to the thing that threatens to destroy them. When Sam begins insisting that he can see the Babadook and that they are in great danger from the monster which it is impossible to get rid of, the strain of such claims begins an escalation of sleepless nights, anger, resentment, and threats of violence which would be unsettling without the aid of a demonic presence. With the possibility of some unknown monster, it’s terrifying.

First time feature film director Jennifer Kent makes two great choices. She eschews trumped up special effects and gore, and creates an atmosphere of dread though suspense and suggestion, which she heightens with brilliant editing. Whenever a character is in jeopardy or frightened, the camera cuts to the next scene right before the resolution, leaving the outcome uncertain and starting a new conflict before the viewer can fully relax from the previous one. Kent also wisely avoids portraying the Babadook as a traditional scary monster which would make the audience jump on first sight, but then calmly sigh (and laugh) once they had seen it. I won’t spoil the minimalistic appearance, but it assists the menacing atmosphere of the film.

If I have any complaint at all about The Babadook, it is this: about an hour in I said to myself, “If this is going where I think it is, it’s going to need a twist.” It went where I thought, and it did have a twist, but I will need a second viewing to determine whether the twist is strong enough to work. I am inclined to say it is, because it cleverly ties together two earlier themes, and it reminds the viewer that:

Once you invite him in by reading his book,
There’s no getting rid of the Babadook.

 

Content Advisory: Much terror throughout, deeply disturbing scenes of violence between a parent and child, off-camera masturbation, and occasional rough language.                   Not rated; would be R.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A

, ,

1 Comment

Perfect Blue (Pafekuto Buru)

Year of Release: 1997     Directed by Satoshi Kon.               Voices of Junko Iwao, Rika Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, and Emi Shinohara.

“Excuse me…who are you?” Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) nervously repeats her only line as she prepares to shoot her first scene as a television actress. After a successful career as a Japanese pop idol, the young celebrity wants to expand her work to include more serious forms of entertainment. However, change is difficult, and due to obsessive fans and crippling self doubts Mima begins to question her profession and her identity as hallucinations that blur her television series with her personal life cause her perception of reality to start slipping away.

On the other hand, Mima’s hallucinations might not be projections of her uneasy subconscious. It is clear that a devoted fan is stalking her, the threats she has received are very real, as are the murders of those who exploit her vulnerability.

Then again, the police can find little connection between the murders, and by the time they happen, Mima is already so upset and self-conscious that she is sure everything is somehow connected to her. Regarding the obsessive fan, after the opening scene where he threatens a rioter trash talking Mima, no one notices him again. Mima is the only one who sees him loitering in the shadows everywhere she goes.

To compound Mima’s confusion and anxiety, a devoted fan has set up a webpage called “Mima’s Room,” which functions as an online diary of Mima’s daily activities. When she first discovers it, Mima is amused at how well one person knows her idiosyncrasies. However, as the online account deviates more and more from her daily activities as an actress, instead detailing her daily activities when she was a pop star, Mima begins to wonder which version of her life is real. To make things worse, Mima is discovering tangible proof in her apartment of the online account of her supposed activities, activities of which she has no memory.

The driving force behind Mima’s fear is a projection of her subconscious which criticizes every choice she makes, calling her a traitor to her real self. Mima is susceptible to these criticisms, because she does feel uneasy. She misses her friends with whom she used to perform, but more notably, the television executives are writing scenarios that are freakishly similar to her personal life, and they are exploiting her and trying to force her into racy situations that will boost ratings. The first appearance of Mima’s critical subconscious is synchronized with the arrival of a script that demands she film a rape scene. When Mima is tricked into a nude photo shoot, the subconscious informs her that she is no longer the real Mima and that the real Mima (the subconscious) will return to performing as a pop star while the actress fades into obscurity.

Until the very end, it remain unclear whether Mima is being driven insane by a dangerously obsessed fan, whether her own guilt is making her uneasy, or something else entirely. The depiction of this uncertainty and the possible surreal obfuscation of multiple mentalities is what Perfect Blue captures brilliantly. The editing effortlessly fluctuates between different realities, and towards the end, the film begins to show repetitions of the same event. One time it is depicted as it takes place in Mima’s television series, the other time it is within the nightmare of Mima’s subconscious. Each version concludes with Mima waking up in her apartment, distressed and confused, heightening the mystery of what is real and what is not.

Perfect Blue was released in 1997, and director Satoshi Kon makes excellent use of the novelty of the internet. The world wide web was a new phenomenon and obsession, and in the film it is used to manipulate Mima’s perception of reality as well as mirror her uncertainty as she begins a new career. Even five years later, that sensation would have been lost.

The film is also very culturally aware of other horror films, and there are references to two of the greatest psychological thrillers concerning split personalities and character transformations: The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. The television series Mima is filmingconcerns a serial killer who skins his female victims so he can become a woman, like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Another scene refers to a role that Jodie Foster played before The Silence of the Lambs. And the ending takes a page directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece.

Before his tragic death in 2010 at age 46 from pancreatic cancer, Satohsi Kon directed four feature length anime films and created one anime television show. Perfect Blue was the first of those, and it is an incredible achievement for a debut film, capturing a terrific sense of mystery and showcasing the danger of obsession that twists reality until it is almost unrecognizable.

 

Content Advisory: Graphic depiction of rape, full frontal nudity, several very gruesome murders, and an atmosphere of horror throughout.                         Not rated, would be NC-17 if it were live action.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

, , , ,

Leave a comment