Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Film: “The Gift”

August 19, 2015

Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in “The Gift”

When I read about the plot of this film, I was intrigued because it sounded like a remake of one of my favorite films of recent years, Chuck and Buck, written by and starring Mike White. It turns out there is a resemblance in the setup: a young married couple is visited by a creepy guy who went to school with the husband years before, and complications ensue. Actually, there’s not much resemblance, although, like White, writer-director Joel Edgerton cast himself in the role of the creepy guy. But the earlier film is a charming comic fable, while The Gift is a goose-bump shocker that slowly uncovers a crime from the past. And, despite flaws, the premise works. I was creeped out for sure, but also entertained and satisfied.

It begins with Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) arriving in Los Angeles, where they have bought a home near Simon’s new job. Simon had grown up there, and has scored a top position because of his expertise in cyber security. The move is also a fresh start for the couple, who hope to start a family after Robyn’s miscarriage the year before. The positive mood is sustained, or so it seems, when Simon is recognized by Gordo, a schoolmate from high school, who seems delighted to see him again. He heartily welcomes Simon’s return, and is soon stopping by with gifts for the couple in their new home.


Rebecca Hall as Robyn

Gordo’s overly friendly actions soon become suspicious, however, especially his “stopping by” just when Robyn is alone and Simon is away at work. Although Simon is mildly annoyed, Robyn seems sympathetic because Gordo is clearly a sad misfit with miserable social skills.

This setup is a little slow since we’re expecting Gordo to reveal sinister motives, and likely psychotic tendencies, as we’ve seen in so many other films. But then there is a sudden shift in tone, and the film bends into a different, and unexpected, psychological thriller. This shift occurs in one scene – the most crucial in the film – when the couple accept Gordo’s invitation to dinner. Gordo gets a phone call and, without further explanation, says he has to leave briefly because of an “emergency” at his job. But once the couple is alone, Simon reveals just how much he distrusts Gordo, and that he is convinced he has designs on Robyn. Simon’s sudden hostility is fierce and defensive, and it has the effect of preparing the audience for the revelations to come: just what did happen between these two “friends” that Simon is trying to hide.

There are at least two surprise twists that get the blood racing before the powerful conclusion. But, as my readers should expect, some glaring plot gaps should not be ignored: a major character is drugged, and falls unconscious, but there’s not a clue as to when or how the drugging occurred; a lie is spread that ruins a person’s life, but no legal recourse is ever mentioned; and, most glaringly, how is it that a professional security expert takes absolutely no measures to protect his own home? Finally – and I’m no spoiler here – the deserved retribution is simply not as devastating as it used to be because of recent medical advances.

Another quibble: although Bateman is superb in the crucial scene mentioned earlier, the fact is that he is basically miscast. The second half of the film calls for reserves of rage and menace that are simply outside of his range. If he was looking for the kind of career altering triumph, like what Steve Carell did in Foxcatcher, it doesn’t work.

Edgerton is fine, however, even though the role is underwritten and sketchy. But Rebecca Hall is in the most three-dimensional role, and she is the reason the film works so well. Her transformation from passive yuppie-type innocent to disillusioned and resentful wife is totally convincing, and gives the story emotional heft.


Film: “A Hard Day”

July 21, 2015

Lee Sun-Kyun as Det. Ko Gun-su in “A Hard Day”

Several interesting new films had local openings recently. I chose this South Korean thriller and had a good time. Directed and co-written (with Lee Hae-jun) by Kim Seong-hun, it was a Directors’ Fortnight selection at Cannes 2014. Like many Southeast Asian crime films, the heroes can be cops or crooks, almost interchangeably. This one gives a new slant: the hero is a crooked cop.

I should adjust that; only mildly crooked. Divorced and raising a young daughter, Homicide Det. Ko Gun-su “indulges”, like others in his squad, with occasional payoffs and padded perks, but stays true to catching the bad guys. But, from the film’s cynical perspective, that’s not enough to protect him. The film’s clever setup has him running over a man while driving from his mother’s funeral to the burial. Rather implausibly, he stuffs the dead “victim” in the trunk and gets to the parlor late, with apologies. In this first section of the film, about forty minutes long, maximum suspense is achieved when he conceives of a novel way to dispose of the body before the funeral parlor closes, although his shame at the disrespect to his deceased mother is most painful for him. This section also has the most wit and ingenuity, especially in the way he uses his daughter’s toys in his plan.

The rest of the film concerns the unexpected consequences of the car accident. It seems that the dead man lying in the road had actually been shot beforehand, and was a top criminal that Gun-su’s squad was investigating. Gun-su is blackmailed by a witness to the accident, whose identity is revealed slowly. There are plenty of twists along the way to a violent conclusion, and Seong-hun keeps the action hot and fast. Still, except for one jump-out-of your-seat shock, there are no real surprises.

One thing I always find interesting about the crime films from Southeast Asia is the use of close-ups. They rely much more on close-ups of the actors’ faces in the action sequences, while American films pull back to showcase all the movement within the frame. The latter certainly costs more. So why do it? Possibly because audiences for American films expect more, and more expensive, destruction of property to go along with the body count. Maybe, more buck for the bang?

Review: “Traitors”

May 1, 2014
traitors 1

Chimae Ben Acha as Malika (picture credit Benoit Peverelli and Niko Tavernise)

This film makes good use of what has become a clichĂ© in crime films: the hero, seemingly trapped in a drug deal, gets out of the jam and turns the tables on the mob. We bought this wildly improbable premise as far back as John Guare’s script for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. I’m buying it again with this Tribeca entry because of solid filmmaking, an appealing cast and the bonus of armchair travel to exotic Morocco. First timer Sean Gullette keeps it tight and colorful, and his own acting background (Darren Aronovsky’s Pi), no doubt contributed to the superior level of the performances.

The heroine, Malika, played by Chimae Ben Acha, is lead singer for the Traitors, an all-female, politically defiant punk rock group in Tangier. She’s told by an agent that they can get studio time for their first demo if they pay the production costs. Determined to get the money, Malika starts a desperate quest that includes posing as a prostitute – and bolting with the cash without being touched – and being a drug mule. The drug job is to drive a car loaded with heroin back to Tangier. Her accomplice, Amal, is an addict and girlfriend of one of the gang. She doesn’t hide her hostility for the beautiful new recruit, and warns her not mess up her “game”. But we’ve already come to expect the unexpected from Malika, who silently waits for the right moment to make a game-changing move of her own. While on the return trip, she notices Amal furtively looking at a piece of paper, and asks her: “Is that your sonogram?”

From that moment, the film morphs into a nerve-jangling thriller, building suspense on two fronts: first, because Malika is an amateur mixed up with ruthless, seasoned criminals and, second, because we still don’t know what the hell she’s up to. Part of the fun is in seeing how each piece in her plan fits into another piece, with surprises all along the way. Sure, credibility is tortured, but this kind of film only works if you care what happens to the characters. Malika is brave, yet vulnerable; compassionate, yet resolute in fighting against a male-dominated culture that treats women as inferiors. We may not be fully swayed to that view, but we never doubt her convictions. Or that she’ll risk her life to defend them.

All performances are good, but Soufia Issami, as Amal, is a standout. Crucial to the film’s success is making us believe that Amal will join in Malika’s scheme. Issami’s subtly shaded performance details her change from distrust to the awareness that Malika is giving her the only chance she’ll ever have for happiness.

At the screening, Gullette emphasized how great it was to have two cinematographers, especially for finding so many locations. This helped to maintain the film’s swift pace as we followed Malika, constantly on the move through so many views of changing streets and countryside. Probably of equal importance was the adroit editing of the renowned Sabine Hoffman.


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