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Identity (2003)

This film, directed by James Mangold, is one that I was very impressed with in its original theatrical release, and revisiting it now, it still holds up as an effective thriller.  Supported by a remarkable ensemble cast and a brilliant screenplay, Identity delivers a mind-bending story that cleverly weaves its way around a classic murder mystery premise.

Strangers from all different walks of life are all trapped by a torrential rain storm on a Nevada road one night.  They are forced to take shelter at an old roadside motel, run by the nervous manager Larry (John Hawkes).  There is Ed Dakota, a limo driver, escorting fading television star Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay), the turbulent married couple of George & Alice York (John C. McGinley & Leila Kinzel) with their young son Timothy (Bret Loehr), Rhodes, a Department of Corrections officer transporting the dangerous convict Robert Maine (Jake Busey), a beautiful call girl (Amanda Peet), and a couple of young newlyweds (William Lee Scott & Clea DuVall).  None of them are at ease amongst these strangers, but circumstances become dire when someone begins murdering them one-by-one.  Accusations begin to fly as paranoia and fear escalate, but they will all begin to discover very strange truths about their supposed chance encounter here.  Meanwhile in an undisclosed location, in an eleventh hour court hearing, psychiatrist Dr. Mallick (Alfred Molina) tries to prove the innocence and sanity of his patient, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has been convicted of murder, and is scheduled to face execution in twenty-four hours.  How both of these stories connect is a mystery of identity.

This film will keep you guessing from one moment to the next as to many things.  Many twists unfold in plot and perception, and when you think this film has twisted your thoughts into many knots, it throws one final one at you.  Now, these twists won’t leave you lost, there’s plenty of breathing room and enough exposition to allow you to understand all that is happening.  It is very cleverly paced and structured to keep an audience ensnared through the entire mystery.  This film is tense, suspenseful, creepy, and haunting.  It is an excellent psychological thriller that has far more to it than just a group of people getting killed off in a very Agatha Christie fashion.  In fact, no other film I have seen has utilized this genre quite so well.  There is just as much psychological terror for the characters as there is for the audience.

Director James Mangold brilliantly builds suspense and paranoia with a troubling sense of unease.  A group of strangers stranded in a run down desert motel definitely lends to that feeling.  Considering one of them is a known violent criminal heightens that even more.  Subtle things are revealed to the audience that add to our apprehension knowing certain people are not who they claim or appear to be.  This creates plenty of clever misdirection.  Add in some volatile and emotionally distressed characters, and the tension is wrapped so a tight, unnerving level.  When that tension finally breaks, it’s heart pounding.  The film hardly never allows an audience to relax fully.  There’s regularly some form of urgency or excitement that propels the characters forward towards danger.

The style of the film is very original such as with the immediate flashbacks.  You’ll see a lot of them at the start and a bit near the end.  They show how certain events brought everyone together in a unique non-linear fashion.  It nicely punctuates certain plot elements such as it was Paris’ high-heeled shoe that flew out of her opened suitcase that caused the York’s flat tire later that night.  It’s a nice, quick storytelling tool that helps move the story ahead quickly without leaving even small questions unanswered.  I enjoyed that element quite a bit, and the direction and editing of them was very handled well.  The addition of the rain storm throughout the film is classically atmospheric, and adds to the treacherous, mysterious qualities of the plot.  Danger and paranoia are abound as things get stranger and stranger, and the torrential rain and thunder claps simply unsettle the characters and the audience further.

The surreal aspects are also subtly handled.  They forge an underlying peculiarity for the strangers at the motel.  They attempt to explain them in various ways, but eventually, these occurrences go far beyond mere coincidence or rationale.  They can’t make sense of it, but it truly freaks them out.  It creates a bizarre, twisted web for them all.  These aspects build up so beautifully to an absolutely mind-blowing revelation.

Identity is masterfully shot and edited.  Shooting in all that nighttime rain never muddles the visuals.  We always have a clear picture of what’s happening without sacrificing the dramatic, moody cinematography.  The film evenly balances between various indoor and outdoor scenes giving an audience enough variety in the visuals to keep our eyes interested.  There is such great atmosphere crafted into how the film is shot, and the editing really supports the lingering suspense expertly.  When things begin deconstructing in the third act, the editing creates an amazing visual style which perfectly represents the psychological chaos.  It’s all a superbly executed thriller with many gripping twists and turns that have an excellent conclusion.

This ensemble cast is magnificent!  There strong performances all around with John Cusack being the obvious trusting protagonist.  He brings his usual heart and wit along with a solid dramatic weight.  Ed Dakota is a very relatable character with a great depth of pain and desire to do what is right.  He’s given a strong back story that Cusack really grasps the emotional weight and guilt Ed carries with him, making him someone we can invest our confidence in.

Ray Liotta has a nice turn showing both a hardened strength and a shadier side that surfaces later on.  He is very intense, confrontational, and adversarial while projecting a presence of authority with a more temperamental edge.  Jake Busey is convincingly intimidating and dangerous with a crazed look in his eye coupled with his reliable charisma.  John Hawkes is another stellar actor who can deliver a deep array of emotions.  Here, he runs the full gamut ranging from nervous and skittish to violent and unhinged.  And I really have to say that Rebecca De Mornay is hotter here than I have ever seen her before.  She’s beyond gorgeous in my view, as I have an affinity for red heads, and she does a wonderful job as the somewhat egotistical actress Caroline Suzanne.  She’s definitely a pleasure.  And of course, I always expect nothing less than excellence from John C. McGinley, as many do these days, and he doesn’t fail here.  His George York is a very nervous man with little self-confidence who doesn’t cope with these violent, tragic situations well.  McGinley brings a lot of compassion and simple innocence to this caring husband and step-father.

Alfred Molina is perfect as Dr. Mallick presenting a soft-spoken, intelligent psychiatrist with a sense of empathy.  Pruitt Taylor Vince has always impressed me taking on some substantive and sometimes peculiar roles, and doing an exceptionally unique and standout job in them.  For what little time he has on screen, he brings that same level of talent to Malcolm Rivers.  That jittery eye trick he does seems to land him these off-kilter roles, and it is distinctly effective.

I really have to hand it to the screenwriting talents of Michael Clooney, and especially the directorial abilities of James Mangold.  Both crafted together a very solid, smart, and effective thriller that has plenty of genuine scares and suspense to entertain an audience.  Because of this, it still has re-watch value.  The film is so strong that it would still work just as marvelously without the major twist at the end.  The mystery thriller aspect with people being killed off at the motel is just expertly executed in every way.  The addition of said twist just ups the psychological brilliance of the concept.  I definitely give Identity a wholehearted recommendation, just as I did when it was theatrically released.

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American Psycho (2000)

Brilliance!  That is what this film has always been to me.  It had controversy surrounding it when it was made and released, but time resolves these issues.  Films that take chances and tackle some explicit subject matter often polarize audiences, but all I ever saw from this was a hell of an entertaining, genius piece of cinema.  A true twisted classic that introduced me to one of my favorite actors of all time.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is an empty man.  He lacks emotion, he lacks a sense of reality, and seriously lacks a genuine sense of humanity.  “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman…but I simply am not there.”  For whatever perverse reason, Patrick Bateman is completely disassociated from the rest of humanity.  He’s a Wall Street executive that really does nothing all day long, but earns loads of money despite it.  He finds many people despicable from his girlfriend Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) to his own co-workers to the random homeless man on the street.  By night, he has a terrible bloodlust that he is slowly losing control of.  But the question ends up being – what is reality and what is just pure fantasy?  This is a dark, dark journey through the mind of one demented and empty individual – welcome to the life of Patrick Bateman.

Christian Bale is a marvel!  I really was not familiar at all with Bale before this film, but afterwards, I took close notice of him.  When I heard he was up for the role of Batman / Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins I was 100% in support of him, and he proved me and many others right.  The man has brilliant acting abilities, and fully immerses himself within his roles, both mentally and physically.  As Patrick Bateman, he plays the role with a lot of fun.  The manic and maddening nature of Bateman is brought out fully under Bale’s talents, and it becomes a wholly satisfying performance that will disturb and entertain.  Bateman is a seriously sick man, and honestly has no comfort zone in this world of ours – probably why he becomes lost in his own world of fantasy. Bale just plays it up like I believe no one else ever possibly could.  His moments of introspection are unsettling as he knows that he’s a sociopath, but has no idea just how far off the deep end he will go.

The supporting cast is wonderful as well.  They give quite the counter-balance to Bateman’s madness and hysteria.  Reese Witherspoon has a small, yet pertinent role as Bateman’s girlfriend who is a regular materialistic, high society snob that’s rather oblivious to Patrick in general, and Bateman, in return, cannot stomach her.  Willem Dafoe wonderfully portrays Detective Donald Kimball, who is hired to investigate the disappearance of one of Patrick’s co-workers – Paul Allen (Jared Leto).  Through the brilliance of Dafoe’s acting and Mary Harron’s directing, you never quite know what Kimball does or doesn’t know.  He keeps Bateman guessing – not to mention sweating.  While much has been admittedly attributed to editing two different performances by Dafoe, he delivers both qualities with a great deal of skill.  He has fantastic chemistry with Bale.

Jared Leto is also wonderfully hilarious as Paul Allen.  There’s enough satire in what he does to make the character not simply a stuck-up moron.  Leto plays stupid very intelligently.  He holds up his end of the scenes with Bale equally well.  He’s immensely entertaining, and an excellent encapsulation of this film’s satirical mindset.  The entire cast is just great.  They all play very intriguing characters, and they all do so extremely well.  There’s not a negative note about any of it.

The music in this film plays up the off-balance mental state of Bateman.  It goes between very high class music reflecting an affluent sensibility, and Bateman’s love of contemporary pop music.  With this being set in the late 1980s, the soundtrack is rich with songs from Phil Collins, Robert Palmer, and Huey Lewis & The News.  When this music is set against particular scenes, it accentuates Bateman’s dementia to an extreme.  My favorite is with Lewis’ “Hip to be Square” where Bale engages in the lamest little dance which is actually a stroke of improvisational brilliance on Christian Bale’s part.  If ever I were to meet Mr. Bale, I’d love to put this song on the stereo, and have him re-enact that moment.  It cracks me up like crazy.  The score is beautifully composed by John Cale, and it was an absolute stroke of genius to take this route.

This film is a dark satire on 1980s American capitalism in how the desire for wealth dominates everyone’s lives, and how it dwarfs their sense of humanity and morality.  Most of the characters are so full of themselves that they can barely tell one person apart from another, or at least, don’t place enough worth on anyone else to care.  Mistaken identities are abound in the film, which is an allegory to how Bateman has no real sense of self.  Everything in the film reflects upon that since it is all told from his perspective.  With Christian Bale being a Welshman, I’m sure that allowed him to bring an original perspective towards the satirical subject matter and Bateman himself.

American Psycho was mainly controversial for its use of explicit sex, violence, and twisted psychological subject matter.  That means the film is not for everyone as these are all taken to generous extremes, especially in the highly satisfying unrated cut.  There are a lot of great sequences in this film because of those elements, none that I will spoil for you, but many are there to reveal the fact that Patrick Bateman tries to emulate certain behaviors.  From a pornographic video to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he integrates them into his twisted fantasies, but there remains the question – how real are they?  The psychological ambiguity of this film is masterful.  There is plenty of evidence to support whatever theory you choose, but you have to look at the subtleties to truly grasp all the possible meanings.  Did Bateman actually do all these horrendous, violent acts, and the world is just so consumed with greed, self-importance, and indifference that it doesn’t matter?  Or is Bateman so far out of his mind that he cannot separate his own sick fantasies from hard reality?  Both theories are fascinating to explore, and neither can be entirely discounted.  This is not one of those films which presents you all the evidence, and just leaves you blowing in the wind as the credits roll.  That’s where Patrick Bateman’s internal monologues come in.  They give you a perspective on these things, and allows you to see it all through his eyes.  And even at the end, Bateman doesn’t know what to believe, but with that internal voice, an audience gains the only thing that matters – what it all means to Bateman.

American Psycho is a crazed psychological descent into a giant black void that is filled with immense entertainment values. You can indulge yourself in Bateman’s over-the-top manic madness, or get completely freaked out by it – or both.  Whatever the case, director Mary Harron delivered a massively unique and fascinating adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel.  It gave Christian Bale what was most likely his breakout role.  I absolutely love this film, and if that means I’m a bit strange, then I find that to be nothing new.  I give American Psycho a perfect score and my strongest recommendation to whoever feels this is for them.


In The Mouth of Madness (1995)

What if you were nothing but a fictional character?  What if you were simply a figment of an author’s imagination?  What if reality, as you know it, ceased to exist?  What if you were the creation of horror writer Sutter Cane?  This is the premise for John Carpenter’s 1995 classic, In The Mouth of Madness.

Sam Neill stars as John Trent, a freelance insurance fraud investigator.  Trent is the best in the business, and has just debunked an insurance claim for his friend and colleague, Robbie (Bernie Casey).  After his job is done, Robbie wants Trent to investigate an insurance claim that has to do with the disappearance of best-selling horror novelist, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow).  Though, their meeting is cut short by an axe wielding maniac with a very bizarre look in his eyes.  This maniac nearly kills Trent, and he soon learns that this was Cane’s agent during a meeting with Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), the head man of the publishing company for Cane’s books.  Harglow introduces Trent to Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), who says that Cane’s writing tends to have a strange impact on its readers.  With the masses clamoring for Cane’s next novel, Harglow is desperate to find Cane, and more importantly, the complete manuscript for the novel, In The Mouth of Madness.  Grounded in reality, Trent believes this is all some elaborate publicity stunt by Harglow, and even concocts his own theory of it all.  Ultimately, he discovers a map built out of the Cane’s own book artwork that leads to the supposed fictional town of Hobb’s End, New Hampshire.  John is sent off with Linda to decipher this mystery, but slowly, reality begins to come undone as Sutter Cane starts to take control.  And no matter how much Styles tries to sway Trent’s perspective of everything that’s going on around them, he stands strong in what he believes to be real.  However, will this unraveling of reality around John Trent drive him straight into the mouth of madness?

Before I get into the meat of this film, I have to express my enjoyment of the film’s music.  As is well known, John Carpenter composes the music for his own films, and has a strong track record of excellent scores and main title themes.  Carpenter teams with Jim Lang to produce a fantastic score, and a very bluesy, yet extremely catchy main title theme.  If you like Carpenter’s score for Vampires, this theme will be right up there with it!  I have been a proud owner of the film’s original soundtrack album for many years, and that opening title theme is a true highlight for me.  Carpenter really kicks off this film right with this opening credits sequence, and really sets a great tone for the whole film.

Now, this final installment in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (which also consists of The Thing and Prince of Darkness) features a fantastic cast!  In addition to Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Event Horizon), Jürgen Prochnow (Beverly Hills Cop II), and Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes), you’ve got the great character actors in David Warner and one of my personal favorites, John Glover.  Warner starred in the late 80’s horror classic, Waxwork, has had several parts in the Star Trek film & television franchises, and worked previously with Carpenter on the anthology TV movie Body Bags.  John Glover you may know from the 1999 Mel Gibson revenge actioneer Payback, as the Devil on the short-lived FOX series Brimstone, from Gremlins 2, or more recently, his role as Lionel Luthor on Smallville.  Carpenter character actor regular Peter Jason also has an appearance early on in the film, and he brings out one of his best performances opposite Sam Neill as an insurance scammer.  It’s just a stellar cast that I think only Carpenter could’ve culled together.  Every single actor puts in a great performance, and Julie Carmen (Fright Night, Part II) is no exception either.

Most prominently, Sam Neill puts in a superb performance, as he always does, and grounds Trent well into the bounds of reality.  Even when a normal person would’ve given into some form of dementia or hysteria, Trent continues to weed out the con, and Neill makes it truly convincing.  He inhabits the character beautifully.  He richly knows the character.  He knows his reasoning, and understands how the character’s mind works.  He’s so dead set on finding some level of a con in all that’s going on around him that to give into the illusion Cane is creating is not a possibility.  Of course, when Trent eventually does go past the brink of sanity, Neill sells it well, but not by playing it as a crazy, but as a fearful prophet of doom.  He knows the inevitable truth, can do what he wants to stop it, but knows that it’s all a futile effort – the world is going mad, the end is near.  Overall, it’s an amazing and deeply fleshed out performance fueled by a wonderfully written character.

That being said, I cannot overlook Michael De Luca’s fantastic script, and I give him monstrous praise for the imagination it took to conjure together such a well-woven story of surrealism..  He forges a very intelligent piece of horror storytelling with a smart structure and strong, memorable characters.  It’s an entirely compelling premise that is frightening to contemplate, and is the core reason why this is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s not just the idea of reality as we know it degenerating into a horrific nightmare, but how it is masterfully woven together through Trent’s eyes that makes this such a brilliant piece of cinematic awesomeness.  Of course, bringing it to John Carpenter was simply inspired and perfect.

Some say John Carpenter had lost his style and talent by the 90’s, and there ARE examples of that – Village of the Damned, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and eventually, Ghosts of Mars in 2000 – but this is not one of them.  He directs and shoots this film as well as Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, or even Halloween.  Carpenter really entrenches you in the world of Sutter Cane, and presents Cane as the imposing, frighteningly powerful figure he’s been built up to be.  The cinematography by Gary B. Kibbe is fantastic here, and it fits well with Carpenter’s style.  It allows for dramatic tension, a foreboding atmosphere, and it nicely conveys the entire ‘unraveling of reality’ element that builds throughout the entire film.  This is one of John Carpenter’s best films ever, and it’s only a shame that it doesn’t get as greatly noticed or appreciated as it deserves to be.

The only detractor I find in the entire film are the ‘unspeakable abominations’ that are unleashed from ‘the other side’ late in the film.  Not to say anything bad about the usually fantastic makeup and creature effects of KNB EFX Group, but it may have played a little better if we never actually saw these creatures.  Keep them hidden, and left in shadow.  I just think that unspeakable abominations are better left to the imagination of the audience.  They just don’t sell well with me here, but their sequence is a quiet brief and only in quick cuts.  So, it’s nothing to ruin the film for you.  This is far too exceptional and frightening of a film to have such a minor thing like that overshadow it.  There are intensely horrific images within this movie that will disturb you, make you cringe.  One of the main influences for much of the film were the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  I have read a good deal of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and the imagery and feel of this film truly conveys much of what Lovecraft expressed in his work.  Thank KNB EFX Group for creating such dead-on creations that really hold to that influence.  They proved their cutting edge talent here with amazing and unsettling make-up effects which bring the horror to intense life.

In The Mouth of Madness is, without a doubt, a Carpenter classic, and is as deserving of all the praise as his other classics.  He takes De Luca’s superb screenplay, and realizes it with the skill of a master craftsman.  Every nuance in this subtle, intricate horror story is brilliantly executed with a dead-on perfect cast.  Carpenter and De Luca weave a chilling story that is strong, setting up characters, a reality, a plot, and then, slowly deconstructing it piece by piece.  What remains in the end is madness, and a thought-provoking, but still entertaining horror movie.  There is only one other thing to say here, and that is, you need to go watch this movie!