suspense

Detour (2016)

Detour is not the type of movie I watch for fun on a Saturday night, but dammit, Emory Cohen. The actor’s sensitive, Gilbert Blyth turn in Brooklyn has got me working my way through his back catalog and man, is it a dark, disturbing journey. Take Detour, which throws three lonely souls together on a cross-state road trip, ostensibly to kill one of the party’s stepfather. There’s a hitch in the plan, but not the typical kind like a cop coming up from behind on an empty road, though that happens too.

The film begins with Harper (Tye Sheridan), listening intently as a law professor expounds on how to get away with murder. The aspiring attorney has other things on his mind though. His mother is in a coma, thanks to a drunken joyride with his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), who decides to visit his younger mistress instead of the hospital. Harper suspects Vincent’s upcoming trip to Las Vegas is more pleasure than business and is willing to take drastic measures to keep his stepfather from straying. The tidy coed gets sloshed, stumbles into a trashy bar, and sets off a very regrettable chain of events.

Harper meets Johnny Ray (Cohen), a coked up tough who has “Fear” tattooed in Lucida Calligraphy font on his bicep. The guy is clearly bluster, but he’s enough of a live wire that you’d avoid his sightline just to be safe. Harper does the opposite and drunkenly admits to wanting his stepfather dead, which is good enough as a job offer for Johnny. When he shows up at Harper’s house the next day, it’s too late to turn back, and the two, along with Johnny’s girl, Cherry (Bel Powley), hit the road towards Vegas.

Except the movie takes some unexpected, well, detours. Johnny insists on seeing some snarly drug boss named Frank (John Lynch, who will always be Lord Archibald Craven or Balinor to me). It’s a meeting he characterizes as a courtesy call but is actually a mandatory stop and one that could have disastrous consequences for Cherry. A casual sit-down at some sleepy diner also escalates into a situation that well, doesn’t end cleanly. The most surprising diversion though is the film’s narrative shift. The movie starts to flash back as it moves forward, and the slow drip reveal of Harper and Vincent’s relationship, and of its deterioration, unsettles the entire timeline.

Detour rumbles and disturbs but leaves its best parts untouched. The talented cast, all garlanded with breakout star laurels, give meat to the script. Sheridan is a capable lead, walking his character down a fine line of privilege and insecurity and tipping him just over the edge when he gets too close to type. His is not the most interesting role but has the most closure. Powley, meanwhile, gets the most underwritten part. The actress is a tour de force in The Diary of a Teenage Girl but is too confined as the girlfriend/hooker/occasional drug mule. Still, she’s magnetic and it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I have to say Cohen is the best, and not because I keep toggling between sweet Tony Fiorello and trashy Tony Fiorello. Johnny is actually a pretty stale character, kind of a C-grade Ben Foster type. But Cohen shares a scene with Lynch that immediately transforms his character into someone who’s much less tough and selfish than he appears. That’s the Cohen I love.

Released: 2009
Prod: Julie Baines, Phil Hunt, Stephen Kelliher, Jason Newmark, Compton Ross
Dir: Christopher Smith
Writer: Christopher Smith
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley, John Lynch, Stephen Moyer, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017

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Confession of Pain (傷城)

confession of pain

Confession of Pain had the misfortune of arriving on the heels of the critically and commercially successful Infernal Affairs trilogy, released in the early 2000s, which recalibrated Hong Kong film standards for the new century. This film featured many of the same principals, including directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak and writers Mak and Felix Chong as well as star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. So it wouldn’t be overstating things to say that expectations were high, or that the result was a grand disappointment.

Granted, it’s hard to follow up on a hit series that went on to become an Oscar-winning adaptation directed by Martin Scorsese. Confession of Pain tries to one up the intense cat and mouse game that fueled the creators’ previous effort with another catch-me-if-you-can mystery. Unfortunately, it gets derailed by overambitious plotting. At its most basic, the film is a murder mystery. A wealthy man (Elliot Ngok) is bludgeoned to death along with his manservant (Vincent Wan). Inspector Lau (Leung) tries to solve the crime with the help of his ex-cop friend turned private investigator, Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and bring some closure for the victim’s daughter, Susan (Xu Jinglei), also his wife.

If the murder is unspectacular, the unraveling of this mystery certainly is not. The killer is revealed about twenty minutes into the film, and that’s when things get a little fancy. Instead of the traditional whodunit, the story keeps its audience guessing about motive. In this way, it trends towards a character study. There’s enough stillness in the storytelling and camerawork to allow viewers space to pick apart the murderer and why he or she committed the crime.

At least this is the idea. It’s an intriguing and novel twist to the genre, especially for filmmakers on the vanguard of popular art cinema. The trouble is that absent a motive, it’s hard to give any meaning to the performances. Leung is cool and detached as Lau, effortlessly flinty as an officer who doesn’t blink twice when dispensing justice on a rapist. Leung the charmer is also on display though through tender gestures towards his wife. The actor holds his character’s duality in one consistent performance, allowing a strain of malevolence to underline everything. This shiftiness isn’t confined to a single person, and Susan’s coldness towards her father, embodied by Xu’s chilling stares, also points towards a dark path down which everyone seems to be heading. There are a lot of places to hide one’s secrets. Bong is eager to dig around, but as a recovering alcoholic who blames himself for a personal tragedy, he does little to liven the mood.

Their individual behavior begs explanation and fails to crescendo towards more concrete characterizations. But the plot is structured so that too many hints about the murderer’s intentions would bring things to a hasty conclusion, for the movie and the killer. So until the big reveal snaps quickly into place at the end, things shift into a prolonged limbo. Appearances by Chapman To and Shu Qi are supposed to help, somehow. To plays another investigating officer and brings what he usually brings to a piece – comic relief and bluster, but Shu does precious little as a chipper beer girl and is about as welcome as a squawky clarinet. Her role in particular clashes with the story’s darkness – the title translates to “Hurt City.” On this account at least, the filmmakers succeed; the internal struggles of the characters find little relief in the landscape, their images juxtaposed against long shots of Hong Kong at dawn or midnight when the city is at its loneliest and most abandoned.

Released: 2006
Prod: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Writer: Felix Chong 莊文強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武; Xu Jinglei 徐靜蕾; Shu Qi 舒淇; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Elliot Ngok 岳華; Vincent Wan 尹揚明; Emme Wong 黃伊汶; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥
Time: 110 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

The Conspirator

the conspirator

In parallel tales of plans gone awry, this movie about conspirators of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination goes much the same way as the assassins and assailants. Many stories are told about Lincoln, fewer about those who killed him, fewer still about Mary Surratt, the lone woman convicted of and hanged for her role in the president’s murder.

Director Robert Redford and James D. Solomon seize on this forgotten piece of Americana but in doing so, they trade a compelling story for a dull civics lesson on due process. Surratt, the filmmakers tell us, was a victim of a distrusting and vengeful climate stirred up by the Civil War and Lincoln’s death. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played as a non-entity by Kevin Kline) and the War Department, eager to restore calm and its authority hastily mounted a military trial for the civilian defendants.

And so 1865 Washington becomes the landscape for which Redford and company ask Americans to examine their own post-9/11 pursuit of justice, namely Guantanamo. Surratt’s guilt or innocence is immaterial and the film does little to explore that. Instead, it uses history to indict and judge present day actions and how the country does or does not continue to play loose with the Constitution.

This makes for a useful extra credit project for a high school history class but not for a good film. In choosing agenda over narrative, the filmmakers lose the stories of the people at the heart of it. Robin Wright delivers a wrought and finely tuned performance as Surratt, but her character remains literally and figuratively wrapped under layers of black silk. Only in certain moments does she become an active player in the drama of a president’s assassination. One such time is when her daughter Anna, played with restrained anguish by Evan Rachel Wood, testifies against her brother on her behalf, and the two are kept apart by a curtain of soldiers despite tearful protestation.

Similarly, Surratt’s inexperienced defender Frederick Aiken does little more than stand in as the film’s righteous conscience. James McAvoy has little character to draw on but plenty of platitudes, which he delivers with vigor. But these quickly bore and annoy Aiken’s miscast and poorly written friends, including Justin Long and Alexis Bledel, who also want to hear something more substantial than constant cries for a fair trial and about nebulous American ideals.

The story of Lincoln’s assassination is one of many unexplored strands, but these are not used to ground the historical characters and events of “The Conspirator.” One is treated to a parade of names and facts but comes away with no clearer sense about the people who (may have) conspired to kill the president nor the people involved in the trial.

Released: 2010
Prod: Robert Redford, Brian Falk, Bill Holderman
Dir: Robert Redford
Writer: James D. Solomon
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Johnny Simmons, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Danny Huston, Toby Kebbell, Norman Reedus, Stephen Root, Jonathan Groff, John Cullum, Colm Meaney
Time: 123 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014