Devil’s Knot


Colin Firth looks to untie the devil's knot.

Colin Firth looks to untie the devil’s knot.

(2013) True Life Drama (RLJ/Image/TWC) Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Rex Linn, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Stephen Moyer, Robert Baker, Kollette Wolfe, Jack Coghlan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Matt Letscher, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Atom Egoyan

The case of the West Memphis Three has gotten about as much notoriety as any criminal case since the OJ Simpson trial and with good reason – it is considered one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in the history of our judicial system.

Stevie Branch (Jurgensmeyer) pedaled off from his house after school one beautiful spring day, admonished by his hard-working mom Pam Dobbs (Witherspoon) to be home by 4:30pm or face being grounded. When he didn’t show by the time he was given, his mom got angry. When he wasn’t home by the time she came home from work, she was worried. When he still wasn’t home the next morning, she was terrified.

Her worst fears would be confirmed. Detectives of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department discovered a shoe floating in a nearby drainage ditch in the Robin Hood woods where Stevie and two of his friends had last been seen riding their bikes. It didn’t take long before the nude bodies of the boys, hogtied with their own shoelaces, were found – in Stevie’s case, horribly mutilated.

The attention of the police turned to Damian Echols (Hamrick), an 18-year-old misfit who loved heavy metal, had at least a passing interest in the occult and was thought to be a Satanist. His friends Jason Baldwin (Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Higgins) also fall under scrutiny. Misskelley is interrogated by the cops for 12 hours and eventually admits to being present at the crime. Misskelley is also severely challenged intellectually, only a few IQ points above the level generally assigned to mental retardation.

When Aaron Hutcheson (Coghlan), a classmate of the dead boys, comes forward with a harrowing story of the ritual murder of the three youngsters and implicates all three of he accused, it looks fairly open and shut. Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator, isn’t so sure though and with moral objections to the death penalty (which was being sought), he decides to offer his services pro bono to the harried defense attorneys who gratefully accept.

It doesn’t take long for Lax to find inconsistencies and disturbing trends in the police reports and evidence. The cops never were disposed to look at any other suspects besides the three young men, despite a lack of physical evidence that connects any of them to the crime scene. Nichols’ interest in Satanic rituals was enough to convict him in the eyes of this deeply religious community. The stakes are very high – can Lax get justice for the West Memphis Three – and in so doing, bring justice at long last for Stevie and his friends?

The first question one has to ask themselves about this movie is whether or not it is needed. After all, there are two documentaries that have been made on the case – the multi-part Paradise Lost that first aired on HBO and brought the case to the attention of a national audience, and the more recent West Memphis Three. Will a dramatized account bring anything else to the discussion?

Well, no, not really. The filmmakers painstakingly researched the case and wherever possible, used dialogue directly from court transcripts as well as from interviews by the police and media. That gives the film a certain amount of credibility. However, that turns out to be a double-edged sword in that much of this material has already been made available in the documentaries.

It should be noted that in a kind of strange twist, the dramatized version seems more balanced than the documentaries, both of which seemed to indicate that the documentarians believed that Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad and Pam’s husband at the time of the murders (they have since divorced), was the real culprit. Certainly a case is presented for him, but also for Christopher Morgan (DeHaan), another teen whose behavior was certainly peculiar and who also confessed to the crime. There’s also the blood and mud-caked African-American man who came into a local Bojangles chicken restaurant the night of the murder and whose bizarre actions certainly warranted investigation – but the blood samples taken by police were never analyzed and were eventually lost.

What you watch this movie for then is the performances and with Firth and Witherspoon, both Oscar winners, leading the way, those performances are powerful indeed. Witherspoon in particular delivers some of the best work of her career which is saying something. She has to play a gamut of emotions from incomprehensible grief to doubt to fear to determination and strength. Witherspoon is gifted enough to let all of Pam Dobbs’ personality shine through no matter which emotion is dominant at the time. Firth similarly plays Lax with bulldog-like determination as he becomes enmeshed in the horrible injustice being perpetrated in plain sight.

Some reviewers have criticized this movie for being manipulative. Holy God, if your emotions aren’t being manipulated by the brutal murders of three children and the anguish of the community that followed, I’m not quite sure what else is going to do it. The subject matter itself is manipulative. Yes you’re going to have an emotional reaction to what happens in the film. That’s not a bad thing.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Mike Morris and Christopher Byers remain unsolved. The three accused who would be convicted on the crime, would eventually be released after serving 18 years of prison time, although the State of Arkansas still lists them as convicted felons despite the DNA evidence that has exonerated them. At this point it seems extremely unlikely that the murders will ever be solved, even though the real life Lax, Pam Hobbs and in a bit of irony, Damian Echols, remain focused on finding out the truth behind this terrible crime.

It is quite discouraging that it seems that the three teenage boys who were convicted of these crimes were railroaded essentially because they were outsiders, square pegs in the very round hole of West Memphis.  The movie captures with at least a relative amount of objectivity the events of this case which have been so divisive in so many ways. While I can’t really recommend these over the documentaries (particularly the three-part HBO set), I can recommend the performances here as worth the trouble to go and find this movie on VOD or in local theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Firth, Witherspoon and much of the supporting cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Non-illuminating. If you are familiar with the case or have seen one of the documentaries about it, you won’t learn anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and some extremely disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily in Georgia, and made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cheatin’

Beneath the Darkness


You never know when Dennis Quaid might sneak up behind you.

You never know when Dennis Quaid might sneak up behind you.

(2011) Horror (Image) Dennis Quaid, Aimee Teegarden, Tony Oller, Devon Werkheiser, Brett Cullen, Stephen Lunsford, Dahlia Weingort, Conrad Gonzales, Wilbur Penn, Amber Bartlett, Sydney Barrosse, David Christopher, Gabriel Folse, Melody Chase, Cameron Banfield, Richard Dillard, Timothy Fall, Cheryl Chin, Paige Creswell. Directed by Martin Guigui

 

When someone close to us dies, we handle our grief in different ways. Some of us go a little crazy, hallucinating or turning to unhealthy ways of dealing with our grief. Some of us go a lot crazy. Some of us never recover.

Travis (Oller) is still grieving the loss of his sister a few years earlier. People look at him suspiciously because he claimed that he saw her ghost after her death. In this small Texas town that is tantamount to painting yourself blue and wearing a petunia on your head. It’s just not acceptable behavior.

He and classmates Abby (Teegarden) and Brian (Lunsford) are passing by the mortuary when they spy the silhouette of mortician Ely (Quaid), once a football hero which in a small Texas town is a big deal, dancing with a mysterious figure. Ely lives alone, his wife dead several years – so who is he dancing with?  We’ll go with what I’m sure is your first answer – a ghost. What, you thought he was dating? Not that kind of movie, bub.

So of course they report their sighting and of course nobody believe them. Who knew, right? So in true Scooby-Do fashion the kids decide to investigate the sighting themselves. Ruh roh Shaggy! That’s a bad idea and it gets one of them killed as it turns out that Ely is, well, a little unhinged.

Now Ely’s got his sights set on the two remaining Scooby gang kids and things don’t look too promising for their potential college careers. After all, they’re being chased by a maniac and nobody believes that they’re even in trouble. All the Scooby snacks in the world aren’t going to get them out of this pickle gang – until the great unmasking at the end. “Norman BATES!?!” “Yeah, and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!”

All kidding aside, this is the kind of thriller that my buddies and I used to make fun of in college. A plot so hoary and ludicrous that even Ed Wood might have thought twice about using it. A mortuary that makes the Psycho house look like a Disney park. Performances from most of the cast (some of whom are much better than they show they are here) that have all the energy and passion of someone reading a molecular chemistry textbook out loud.

The saving grace is Dennis Quaid. Criminally underrated as an actor pretty much his entire career, his grin is infectious but here it’s terrifying, in fact downright diabolical. With a role like this one, all any actor can really do is just cut loose and not worry about embarrassing themselves and so Quaid does some pretty manly scenery-chewing. Is it over the top? Hell yes, but who cares? It’s at least entertaining.

WHY RENT THIS: Dennis Quaid is hyeah.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bland, tired plot. Rest of cast seems to have no energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,600 on a $7M production budget; wasn’t even close to making back its costs.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Wild Girl Waltz

Accidents Happen


Sometimes all you can do is try to look chic in the face of disaster.

Sometimes all you can do is try to look chic in the face of disaster.

(2009) Drama (Image) Geena Davis, Harrison Gilbertson, Harry Cook, Joel Tobeck, Wendy Playfair, Sebastian Gregory, Sarah Woods, Morgan Griffin, Troy Planet, Erik Thomson, Viva Bianca, Rebecca Massey, Katrina Retalick, Jayden Hall, Damien Garvey, Peter Lamb, Johnny Xenos, Ivy Latimer, Karl Beattie, Tyler Coppin (voice), Rosslyn Powell. Directed by Andrew Lancaster

Some people are just inherently luckier than others. They seem to lead charmed lives and little if anything bad ever happens to them. Conversely, there are those born under a bad sign. Nothing ever seems to go right for them and if it weren’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all. They are the kings and queens of bad breaks.

Billy Conway (Gilbertson) is one of those latter sorts. A car accident left one of his brothers dead, another brother in a vegetative coma, a third brother (Cook) constantly at his throat and his parents Ray (Tobeck) and Gloria (Davis) in the process of divorce. Billy starts hanging out with neighborhood friend Doug Post (Gregory), a mischievous sort. However when they are fooling around with a bowling ball, their shenanigans leads to a Rube Goldberg-sort of accident that leaves Doug’s father dead. Their role in the accident has gone unnoticed by the police but Billy’s guilt and feeling of living under a curse begins to prey on his mind, necessitating his own confrontation with his family’s past.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is in fact an Australian film written by an American, set in Connecticut (based on the writer’s own childhood recollections) with Australian actors (except for Ms. Davis) playing American accents. I should say, mainly inexperienced Australian actors but more on that below.

I can give the film props for cutting out the twee indie cuteness that is so prevalent in modern independent films. And while this movie is marketed as a comedy, it really isn’t one. It’s not even a dramedy – it’s more of a drama with some comedic overtones. Certainly the idea of a family curse can be thought to be in and of itself funny although if you were in said family I suppose you wouldn’t find it very funny. However, this really isn’t played for laughs.

Davis, one of my favorite actresses of the 80s (see The Fly and Beetlejuice) and the 90s (see Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own) but since her acclaimed performance in The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996 she has appeared only in three Stuart Little films and this, having devoted her attentions to activist causes and television roles. Her Gloria is a force of nature, foul of language and quick of wit. She’s fiercely loyal to her children but she’s been given quite a battering from life which has certainly had its effects on her.

The rest of the Australian cast is largely inexperienced and it shows. Accents slip regularly and there is a lot of mugging that goes on in lieu of acting which is awfully choppy at times. The concentration of a family curse which is played for drama is self-defeating; it turns the characters into self-pitying parodies which largely turns the audience off – at least in my case it did.

This isn’t completely without merit although I would have liked to have seen a little more experience in some of the lead roles. While I’m all for giving newcomers a break, there were too many of them and I suspect that Ms. Davis simply didn’t have the bandwidth to mentor all of them. Worthwhile simply for seeing Geena Davis on the big screen, sadly it’s brief theatrical run went largely unnoticed so you’ll have to be content with home video for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare star turn for Davis who is sadly far-too-absent from the screen. Less pretentious than some indies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pushes it’s “unlucky family” conceit a bit too much. Most of the rest of the cast is less credible in their roles.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and at least one disturbing scene. There is also some teen drug and alcohol use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally supposed to be filmed in Connecticut, the producers decided to film in Australia due to costs, but then ran into some local opposition when their shooting schedule in suburban St. Ives was seen to disrupt local traffic and lives with local residents threatening to wave lights and play bagpipes in order to cause disruption to the production. Eventually, they were able to negotiate a truce and filming took place over two days with the critical car crash scene moved elsewhere.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188,160 on a $5.8M production budget; was a box office flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: My One and Only

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Hangover Part III

The Perfect Game


Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

(2010) Sports Drama (Image) Clifton Collins Jr., Cheech Marin, Louis Gossett Jr., Emilie de Ravin, Bruce McGill, Patricia Manterola, David Koechner, Frances Fisher, Tracey Walter, Jansen Panettiere, Jake Austin, Moises Arias, Ryan Ochoa, Julieta Ortiz. Directed by William Dear

The mightiest heroes can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places. You never know where inspiration is going to come from. You never know how.

Monterrey, Mexico is as impoverished as it gets in 1957. It’s an industrial community, dirt-poor and with few amenities. The kids of Monterrey don’t have a lot to do, so local priest Padre Estaban (Marin) encourages them to start playing baseball. When he discovers former major league prospect Cesar Faz (Collins) has returned home after leaving the St. Louis Cardinals organization, he enlists him to be their coach.

In fact, the only job Cesar could get with the Cardinals was  as a janitor but still he hoped he could get into their organization but soon it became clear that the ghost of Babe Ruth himself could have proclaimed him a surefire star and the Cardinals still would have turned the other way. Maybe he should have swept the floor for the Dodgers instead.

In any case, he soon realizes that Angel Macias (Austin) has an enormous amount of potential as a pitcher and he takes him under his wing. Under Cesar’s hard but compassionate coaching the Monterrey youngsters soon learn to play as a team and they begin winning. And winning. And winning some more. Soon, they qualify for the Little League World Series.

But the obstacles are many. To get to Williamsport they will need money and there isn’t a lot of that in Monterrey. Besides that even if they get there no team outside the United States had ever won the Little League World Series. How could they even hope to compete with America in their own national pastime?

Because you’ve seen this kind of movie many times before and once you figure out that this is based on a true story (more on that later), you know that Monterrey is going to overcome all those obstacles. Even though you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat for a foregone conclusion, still you will catch plenty of that feel-good effect that so many sports underdog films bring out in you.

This is based on a true story – not the actual story itself. It is fiction, based on fact. That’s something to keep in mind. Those who want to know the real story behind the team will need to look up Los pequenos gigantes, a 1960 documentary made about that team. It’s in English, but it is extremely hard to find.

There is a bit of Bad News Bears here as well as a bit of Miracle. I don’t think there is anything here that really sets this apart from other similarly-themed movies other than that the heroes are Mexican and much of the movie is set there, and shows some of the poverty that was and continues to be an everyday reality there.

The actors playing the kids on the team do all right but they are basically given one-note characters who exist to fulfill a function either within the plot or on the field. Austin’s Angel Macias is at the heart of the film from the kid’s aspect and he does pretty well. Macias is coping with a father who is disinterested in baseball and whose harsh, critical eye drive the young boy to tears sometimes. Fathers can do that when they see their children only as they want them to be rather than as they are.

Collins does a pretty good job as Cesar who has secrets of his own to hide. Marin, who those who loved him in his heyday will have a hard time seeing him as a priest, makes for a decent one. De Ravin plays a cub reporter looking for a big story and finds one, gets a part that seems to have been lifted from a screwball comedy and transplanted here. She’s pretty and sexy in the role, but that doesn’t go well with the rest of the movie – which is a problem with the script more than with her.

Those who love those sports underdog movies will like this a lot. Those who are sick of them should probably steer clear. This is inspiring sure but not as much as the real Monterrey team whose story is Hollywoodized here.

WHY RENT THIS: Has plenty of heart.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can be overbearing with its message in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements might be a bit over the head of the younger crowd.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Real members of both the Monterrey and La Mesa little league teams who played in that championship game can be seen in the stands as fans during the championship game sequence.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a kind of music video (really just a montage of clips from the movie set to music) in both Spanish and English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.9M on an unreported production budget; it’s likely that the production made money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Miracle Match

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Shrink

Goats


 

Goats

This is what it looks like when David Duchovney loses a bet.

(2012) Drama (Image) David Duchovney, Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Keri Russell, Anthony Anderson, Dakota Johnson, Adelaide Kane, Evan Boymel, Justin Wheelon, Timothy Gibbs, Olga Segura, Nicholas Lobue, Ricardo Andres, Caleb Dane Horst. Directed by Christopher Neil

 

As the saying goes, we can choose our friends but we don’t get to choose our family. We’re kind of stuck with them, regardless of how much (or how little) we like them. That can be a bad thing but it can be a good thing too.

Ellis (Phillips) would probably lean towards the former if you asked him. His parents are divorced, and are none too friendly with one another. His mom Wendy (Farmiga) is a trust fund hippie who never met a new age concept she didn’t become obsessed with. She’s self-centered and vindictive; not the best mom on Earth (as Ellis normally is the one who has to pay her bills because she’s so flighty) but she’s not the worst either.

How his dad (Burrell) wound up with her is something of a mystery. He went to an exclusive prep school in New England where he’s used his connections to get Ellis accepted into. Although a snooty prep school would seem to be a completely alien environment for Ellis, who’s used to the desert psychedelics of Arizona, he recognizes that it would be a boon for his future so he goes but not without much whining from his mother.

Ellis isn’t particularly upset at being separated by so many miles from his mom, but he does feel something for Goat Man (Duchovney) who goes by Javier but who’s real name is Steve. Goat Man is a herbologist and botanist who look like a cross between Jerry Garcia, Grizzly Adams and Moses with a Smith brother thrown in for good measure. He lives in the pool house with his goats, in exchange for tending the pool and landscape for Wendy. Their relationship is strictly platonic. Goat Man is most interested in botany so that he can grow some amazing marijuana, which he shares with Ellis. Goat Man takes Ellis on treks which are essentially walkabouts with no particular destination in mind – just an exploration of the land and its inhabitants.

Ellis is doing well in school but the pressure is getting to him. His roommate Barney (Lobue) is clearly not a good influence on him; his father is making overtures at reaching out and establishing a relationship with his estranged son. Goat Man, who promised to send Ellis weed hasn’t sent him anything and Wendy’s obnoxious lout of a boyfriend (Kirk) won’t let Ellis talk to his mother.

But Frank turns out to be a decent soul even though his impending marriage to Judy (Russell) is doing the fandango in Ellis’ brain, almost as much as the impending birth of his half-brother to the very pregnant Judy has. And he’s been coerced by the coach (Anderson) of the track team to run cross country, which he’s not really comfortable with at first. How can you run towards a future if you don’t even know which way you’re going?

Based on a novel by Mark Jude Poirier, this is one of those quirky indie movies that really wanders aimlessly through the plot the way a Deadhead might wander through a pot field, with a benevolent smile and a lack of purpose. Ellis doesn’t really have to much of a major crisis; sure he drinks too much for a15-year-old, and he does way too much pot, but he’s getting straight A’s and for the most part is a pretty well-adjusted kid given to bouts of douchebagness from time to time which is not out of line with the behavior of most real life 15-year-old boys.

Duchovney has always been a big draw for me. His easy-going laid-back charm meshes nicely with his intelligence. That the X-Files movies didn’t make him a major movie star has more to do with what was going on behind the camera rather than in front of it; both he and Gillian Anderson have all the tools to be big screen power players. In her case, I think it’s a choice not to go down that path; that also might be true of Duchovney.

I don’t think Farmiga really knew what to make of her character and in many ways that’s my main frustration with the movie. She’s quite the self-centered bitch throughout but there’s no doubt that Wendy really loves Ellis with all her heart and soul; Frank’s betrayal, whatever it might have been (and it’s not really explained why they split up, at least not that I can remember) really devastated her and has been in some ways the focal point of her life. She has certainly poisoned her son towards her father, making it impossible for Frank to see him. Early in the movie, Ellis believes his mother about the behavior of his dad, but as the movie progresses and he gets to know not just his dad but also his sweet-natured fiancé his attitude towards him changes.

There are no real epiphanies here other than that adults aren’t perfect and that there’s nothing wrong with life that a little toke can’t fix. Phillips plays Ellis like he’s living in an “Afterschool Special” and doesn’t do too bad a job of it, but I never really got to know Ellis all that well and found Goat Man far more interesting. Now, I’m wondering if there’s going to be a sequel all about Ellis’ discovery of peyote.

REASONS TO GO: Duchovney is interesting, even behind all that hair. Dynamic between Ellis and Frank works nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Too quirky for its own good. Meanders quite a bit. A movie for stoners.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of drug use, including teen pot smokers and alcohol drinkers. There is also plenty of bad language, some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers had to hire someone to teach Duchovney to roll a joint like an expert – the actor claims he’d never rolled one in his entire life..

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100. The reviews are pretty poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dead Poets Society

NEW MEXICO LOVERS: Several of the “trek” scenes are shot in the beautiful New Mexico highlights, doubling for Arizona.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Lovely Molly


Lovely Molly

Molly may be lovely but she’s also scary as Hell.

(2012) Psychological Horror (Image) Gretchen Lodge, Johnny Lewis, Alexandra Holden, Ken Arnold, Shane Tunney, Tony Ellis, Katie Foster, Lauren Lakis, Daniel Ross, Brandon Thane Wilson, Dan Franko, Todd Ryan Jones, Tara Garwood. Directed by Eduardo Sanchez

 

Going back home is usually considered a bit of a warm fuzzy; all of our glowing childhood memories of safety and security packed with the joy of childhood. Of course, if your childhood as awful filled with sexual abuse and drug use, going back home carries a whole different connotation.

Molly (Lodge) is a new bride, having married her sweetheart Tim (Lewis). She works as a janitor in a local mall while he drives a truck for a living and is gone for long stretches at a time. The new couple has moved into Molly’s childhood home, which she inherited after her  father passed away. Her sister Hannah (“Franklin and Bash” regular Holden) has serious misgivings about this since in that home Molly was repeatedly molested by her father, which sent her into a downward spiral of drug abuse and psychosis from which she’s only recently recovered.

At first things are lovely and idyllic in the bucolic Maryland countryside house that goes back to the Colonial era. Then, Tim gets called away for a long haul just before Molly’s birthday. She begins to hear noises in the night – terrifying footsteps, and doors slamming on their own accord. She hears voices, male voices whispering unintelligibly in the night. Molly carries around a digital video camera around with her but can’t seem to get more on film than things that can be explained away.

She starts to see shadowy but hideous demonic forms out of the corner of her eye. The noises and unexplained phenomena are beginning to get more intense and threatening. She talks to a pastor (Arnold) about her fears but he can’t really help her – and she can’t afford health care in order to see a therapist or psychiatrist.

Tim has been supportive but even he is wondering what’s going on with his bride. Is she having some kind of psychotic break, or perhaps relapsing into drug use again? Or is the truth that she is legitimately being haunted, perhaps by the ghost of her father – or something more insidious, sinister and ancient?

Sanchez, whose first movie was the legendary Blair Witch Project, has made a career out of creating atmospheric horror films in which the audience is never 100% positive about what they’re seeing. One of the things I liked most about this film – and in fact of all of Sanchez’ films – is that he casts doubt on the evidence of your senses. Is that really ghostly whispers or the minds of the protagonists playing tricks on them?

It helps having an unknown actress throwing down a powerful performance in the lead. Gretchen Lodge doesn’t have a lot of on-screen experience but she makes up for it with a nuanced performance that captures her fragile psyche as well as her dangerous and unpredictable aspect. If Molly isn’t genuinely beset by supernatural forces then she is surely psychotic and maybe even schizophrenic. That you cannot be certain which is both a tribute to the writers and to Lodge herself.

The problems here are also in the writing; there are some logical leaps of faith that are a little bit too much to ask of the audience, particularly when it comes to how other characters react to Molly. For example, if Molly were truly having so many problems in the house, why not go stay with her sister who evidently lives close enough by to make regular visits? Also, there’s a sense that some of the elements have been seen before, like the horny pastor. That little subplot doesn’t really work and could easily have been excised from the film to the movie’s benefit.

Da Queen didn’t like this movie at all when we saw it at the Florida Film Festival, but then again these are the types of movies she really doesn’t care for at all so that must be taken with a grain of salt. There are a good deal of things that work here, particularly in regards to keeping the audience guessing about Molly’s veracity. That makes this the kind of movie that is a candidate for repeated viewings as audiences will want to see it again with a different point of view in mind. This isn’t a remarkable film – it’s too cliché for that – but it is genuinely spooky and innovative in its own way. If Sanchez could have tightened up a few things here and there he’d have made a genuine classic.

REASONS TO GO: Creepiness factor through the roof. Lodge performs well in a demanding role.

REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic. A bit too vague in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic violence and sexuality, some disturbing images, nudity, drug use and let’s throw in some bad language for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gretchen Lodge’s first feature film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.The reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent House

COLONIAL LOVERS: The home in the film is an actual Colonial dwelling in Maryland not far from where The Blair Witch Project was shot.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dark Shadows

The Other Man


The Other Man

Ah, the game's afoot...or, in this case, a pawn.

(2008) Drama (Image) Liam Neeson, Antonio Banderas, Laura Linney, Romola Garai, Pam Ferris, Craig Parkinson, Sophie Wu, Lola Peploe, Richard Graham, Emma Fielding, Priyanga Burford. Directed by Richard Eyre

Even in a marriage we often don’t know everything about our partner that we think we do. Sometimes we discover a secret life that is completely unknown to us. When our world comes crashing about our ears, how do we rebuild it without destroying what’s left?

Peter (Neeson) is a successful computer software designer. He is married to Lisa (Linney), a successful shoe designer. They live in Cambridge (the English one) and have a pretty good life. That is, until Lisa disappears.

Peter is frantic, understandably and tries to find a clue, any sort of clue as to where she is. He hacks into her computer and discovers pictures – pictures that indicate she was having an affair with another man. In an instant, he goes from grieving husband to jealous, angry husband.

Using his sleuthing skills, he determines that the nameless Other Man lives in Milan. Peter goes there to find him and, quite possibly, murder him. His daughter Abigail (Garai) is concerned; her father seems obsessive and enraged. She wonders what he intends to do and he refuses to tell her.

Eventually, Peter tracks down Ralph (Banderas), a gentleman living in Milan. Without telling him who he is Peter meets Ralph in a chess café and has a game with him. Soon, Peter realizes that something is fishy about Ralph and that everything is not as it should be. The question soon becomes, where is Laura? The answer might surprise you…

Director Eyre has made some real good movies, including Notes on a Scandal which was far superior to this. Here he crafts a thriller without tension, a drama that isn’t terribly dramatic. The script seems to exist to send you sideways with different plot twists; unfortunately, it spends far too much time on unnecessary plot twists, as when Peter’s suspicions fall on someone working in the office with Lisa.

There is some real quality in the casting too. Liam Neeson is one of the most interesting actors alive; he has a rough exterior but a very soft interior and he is extremely skilled at using both. Some of his scenes as a grieving husband are extremely wrenching, and well worth watching on their own. Banderas is, I think, underrated as an actor, always cast as the Latin lothario but here he takes a part which is a bit different than what we see him in normally. The part appears to be that way, a Spanish gentleman in Gucci loafers, as Peter disparagingly refers to them, in Milan, the center of designer shoes. That should tell you a little bit about who Ralph is.

Garai also does surprisingly well as the daughter. I wasn’t familiar with her previous work, but the girl’s got skills. She infuses Abigail with both compassion and concern. She isn’t weak at all though; she stands up to her dad and gets in his face about things. Yup, just like an actual daughter. I appreciated that element of the storyline.

Unfortunately, not that much else in the film is compelling. Some of the big “twists” are hopelessly telegraphed and some of the action lacks fire. While having Peter and Ralph confront each other over a game of chess, it lacks the emotional charge that the confrontation should have had. There’s no dramatic tension, and that torpedoes the film overall.

However, a movie with these actors in it and a generally skilled director isn’t going to be all bad. This is going to go down as one of their more forgettable efforts but that doesn’t mean it isn’t completely without merit. I would say that it is a movie that isn’t impressive, but has some moments worth savoring.

WHY RENT THIS: Neeson is always compelling, and Banderas takes on a role that’s new for him. Garai does an impressive job. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is kind of bland and not well thought out. Certainly all the obfuscation about who the “other man” is was unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: Not rated, but there’s some bad language and adult situations regarding marital infidelity, as well as some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juliette Binoche was originally supposed to play the part of Lisa but had to leave the cast before filming started. She was replaced by Linney.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; chances are the movie didn’t make back its budget.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Promise