Gothika


Gothika

Penelope Cruz and Halle Berry conduct a pretty faces who aren't just pretty faces face-off

(2003) Supernatural Thriller (Warner Brothers) Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Dutton, Penelope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Dorian Harewood, Bronwen Mantel, Kathleen Mackey, Matthew G. Taylor, Michel Perron, Andrea Sheldon, Amy Sloan, Anana Rydvald. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

 

After an Oscar-winning tour-de-force in Monster’s Ball and a well-received role as Jinx in the James Bond  (Pierce Brosnan-era) flick Die Another Day, what Halle Berry needed to do was to show that she can open a film, in Hollywood parlance, to move up into upper echelon of stardom.

On the surface, Gothika would seem to be a strange choice for Berry’s declaration of superstardom. After all, it comes from Dark Castle Productions, which up to that point had for the most part been serving up remakes of William Castle-produced B-movie horror classics, only with better budgets and modern eye-popping effects (see House on Haunted Hill, Th13teen Ghosts). This one is a bit different. For one thing, it is a completely original story, one of the first Dark Castle produced.

The plot isn’t a simple one. At first glance, Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) seems to have a pretty nice life. A respected psychologist at a gothic woman’s prison in New England, she’s married to the warden (Dutton), himself a psychologist of some repute. There are hiccups, of course. One of her patients, Chloe (Cruz) seems to be imagining phantom rapes that she claims were perpetrated by the devil. When Miranda seeks a more rational explanation, Chloe exclaims “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy.” But the ever-rational Dr. Grey, who believes in logic above all, finds that Chloe’s rantings are the cries of a woman attempting to displace her guilt at having murdered her abusive husband.

That dark and stormy night Dr. Grey is forced to take a detour home when her normal route is washed out by the rain. She has to pass over a lonely bridge, when she nearly runs into a girl (Mantel) standing in the middle of the road, causing her car to skid into a ditch. When Dr. Grey goes to see if the girl is all right, she finds the girl is badly gashed. That’s the last thing she remembers.

Three days later, Dr. Grey wakes up — to discover she is now a patient in the penitentiary at which she formerly worked. When she demands to see her husband, her former co-worker, Dr. Graham (Downey), informs her that her husband isn’t in and wouldn’t be in again for the foreseeable future – and that Dr. Grey herself had punched his ticket for the choir invisible.

When Dr. Grey loses it, she is sedated. Over the next few days, she tries to piece together what happened, through therapy sessions, interviews with the sheriff (Lynch) who also happened to be her late husband’s best friend, and her own fragmented memory. When Dr. Grey sees the girl in the prison shower that she nearly ran into that fateful night, she becomes upset which I suppose is perfectly justifiable.

After some digging, Dr. Grey discovers that the girl is actually the daughter of a hospital administrator (Hill) and there is a bit of a problem; the girl had committed suicide years before. Dr. Grey, being the logical, stable person she is, doesn’t believe in ghosts. The problem is that ghosts apparently believe in Dr. Grey, and they begin to have several violent encounters with her, escalating with each incident, and always prefaced by flickering electric lights which go largely unnoticed in a prison that has had electrical problems for years.

It becomes obvious that there is more to the murder of her husband than Dr. Grey was led to believe, and that something or someone is willing to kill the good psychologist to silence her about what she knows. The only way to survive and find the truth about her husband’s murder is to escape from the maximum security prison, and only then will Dr. Grey confront what really happened to her husband – and find out that her life will change forever.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz sets up a wonderfully spooky atmosphere, which is absolutely essential for a ghost story. Unfortunately, Sebastian Guttierez’s script has a few leaps in logic which — when you consider his main character is supposed to be defined by her devotion to logic — derails the movie at times. For example, during the escape from the prison, Dr. Grey is allowed to leave by a friendly guard who even gives her his car to use. Why would he trust her when the evidence points to her as an axe-murderer?

There is another, even more glaring hole, but I can’t discuss it here without giving away a vital plot point. The characters are a bit stock but Berry does an excellent job. She has to play a strong, self-confident woman whose whole world is shattered. Dr. Grey is not the perfect hero; she loses it from time to time, which makes her more realistic. She has to re-evaluate her view of the world as it becomes more and more evident that there is a supernatural element in the events transpiring. She shows self-pity from time to time, but her inner strength carries her through.

With an Oscar victory in hand and an important role in the X-Men franchise, Berry is a formidable presence in Hollywood. In Gothika she more than proves that she is capable of carrying a movie herself. Kassovitz, who has directed Crimson Rivers (one of the best horror movies of recent years) and Amalie, a delightfully charming fantasy, is a first-rate talent. Although the flickering electricity can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed, he prefers to build the horror through atmosphere, suspense and misdirection. There are some horrific moments of gore, but the gore isn’t so over-the-top that it defines for the movie. With this impressive cast (Downey and Cruz are wonderful), he does a fine job in his first English-language movie. I had hoped we would see great things from him at the time this came out although to date that hasn’t happened yet.

Gothika is one of those movies you don’t want to see in a dark room without someone to clutch. There are a few genuine shocks, but nothing that will put a pacemaker into overdrive. It derives its success from excellent acting, fine directing and a compelling story advanced by characters who rarely stoop to cliche. If 2003 is remembered as the year visceral horror made a comeback (and it well should be), Gothika should have been noted as one of the films that fueled the trend. Unfortunately it didn’t get the respect it deserved.

WHY RENT THIS: Stellar performances and well-received scares. Kassovitz creates an admirably spooky atmosphere, perfect for a good ghost story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many lapses in logic and plot holes. Some of the characters are a bit stock. The ending is a bit weak.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, a bit of nudity and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Berry broke her arm during production when Downey grabbed her arm harder than he meant to and snapped it.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a Limp Biskit video covering the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” a song that figures prominantly in the movie. The Special Edition DVD also includes an episode of “Punk’D” featuring Hallie Berry being led to believe she had been locked out of the premiere of the movie, as well as an MTV documentary on the making of the Limp Biskit video. There is also a featurette on the inmates in the prison, giving their backstories. It doesn’t really add much to the movie but it’s a nice touch.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $141.6M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:One for the Money

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The Express


The Express

Ernie Davis rumbles for the end zone in the 1960 Cotton Bowl.

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles Dutton, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Saul Rubinek, Nelsan Ellis, Nicole Beharie, Aunjanue Ellis. Directed by Gary Fleder

In this age where most of the great athletes in our country are of African-American descent, it seems almost incomprehensible that at one time they were not even allowed to play in the national spotlight. For those pioneers who led the way, the path was often painful.

Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) was a humble young man who had spent much of his childhood in western Pennsylvania with his grandfather, affectionately called Pops (Dutton) who had managed to rid Ernie of his stutter by getting him to read passages from the Bible. Ernie was blessed with natural athleticism, speed and strength, all good qualities to have if you want to be a football star and that’s just what he was on the verge of becoming in High School.

Syracuse University Head Football Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid) is about to lose the best player in college football, Jim Brown (Henson) to graduation and the Cleveland Browns. Replacing him will be a tall order. Brown, for his part, is not unhappy to see the University moving behind him into the rear-view mirror. He encountered a great deal of racism on campus and despite being the best running back in the game by far, he had been denied the Heisman Trophy because of the color of his skin. For a man with the kind of pride possessed by Brown that’s a difficult pill to swallow, so when Schwartzwalder, with whom he had an often contentious relationship, called upon him to recruit the young Ernie Davis, Brown was understandably reluctant.

Still, he accompanies Schwartzwalder on the recruiting visit and is pleased and a little taken aback that Davis can quote all his statistics off the top of his head and obviously has a case of hero-worship. Brown relents and quietly makes his sales pitch to Davis, asserting that Schwartzwalder can make him a better player. That’s all Ernie Davis needs to hear. 

On the campus of Syracuse, Ernie has to put up with a certain amount of disdain from the students as well as a hellacious workout regimen. Even though he’s a freshman and ineligible to play on the varsity, he practices with them and dresses for the games, which is painful because Syracuse definitely underachieved that season, falling to lowly Holy Cross in the season finale.

Still, with Davis eligible to play, the 1959 season is full of hope for the Orangemen and with Davis leading the way, the Orange are propelled to an undefeated season despite encountering racial hatred and all sorts of abuse. Still, things could be worse for Ernie; he’s got a great friend in Jack “JB” Buckley, a big lineman with an easygoing sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a beautiful girlfriend in Cornell coed Sarah Ward (Beharie). When the team is sent to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on January 1, 1960 to play the second ranked Texas Longhorns for the national championship, one of the most memorable bowl games of all time would be the result, a game that would cement Davis’ reputation as one of the great college football players of all time and propel him to a destiny both glorious and tragic.

Director Gary Fleder pulls out all the emotional stops in this one, and given the facts of Davis’ life that’s not hard to do. What I don’t understand is why he and his writer Charles Leavitt felt constrained to exaggerate some of the facts of his story and flat out make up incidents that never happened, the most egregious example of which is a game at West Virginia in which, the filmmakers assert, bottles and other dangerous projectiles were thrown at the players (particularly the African-American ones) and set the scene for a dramatic confrontation between Davis and Schwartzwalder. Guys, I’m sure the same confrontation could have easily have been accomplished without maligning the good fans of West Virginia.

Rob Brown does a fine job at capturing the essence of Ernie Davis, who in life was most certainly a leader but led quietly. He was said to be unfailingly polite and kind with a gentle demeanor when he was off the football field. Brown captures that aspect of him, but gives him a core of steel that Davis undoubtedly had to possess in order to accomplish what he did, and showed the fierce competitive streak that players of that caliber must have in order to succeed.

Quaid does a solid job as Schwartzwalder, giving the crusty old ball coach a soft core but one ringed with steel. The unfortunate aspect is that while Schwartzwalder wasn’t a racist per se, he was a man of his times and it took some fortitude for him to unlearn behaviors that were ingrained into white America for decades.

I was a little concerned about the lighting which was sometimes a bit on the underlit side for my tastes, but that’s a minor quibble. While the era is captured with some success, I never really felt immersed in the era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when this took place.

Still, I’m really glad that a film is finally being made of Davis’ life. He was the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman and would have undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted and died at age 23, having never played a down in the NFL. His legacy, however, is unquestioned and his story should be told, and despite the historical gaffes, it’s told pretty well here.

WHY RENT THIS: A fair depiction of a pioneering athlete who has gone largely forgotten by history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the historical inaccuracies are completely egregious and are just as completely unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racism with plenty of racial slurs (including the N-word) as well as other foul language. There’s also a bit of sensuality but overall, it is suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Penn State score is given as Syracuse 32, Penn State 6 but the actual score of the game was 20-18, one of the Orangemen’s toughest games in that undefeated season.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a wonderful retrospective on Davis that features interviews with Jim Brown and surviving members of his family and friends. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is a feature on the Syracuse championship season, with interviews with players and coaches both archival and contemporary and archival game footage from that season.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past