In-Depth Movie Reviews & High Quality Trailers

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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.


Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien vs. Predator was a disastrous, pathetic, and lame piece of garbage.  I won’t even get into it, but after seeing it at the theatre, midnight showing no less, I wanted my money back.  Unfortunately, I got into the showing via a free movie pass from purchasing the Predator Special Edition DVD.  So, I couldn’t even get that satisfaction.  I don’t think I’ve ever held a film in such disdain as to have the desire to demand my money back.  Instead, I wish I had those two hours of my life returned to me.  When things were developing for AVP2, obviously there was a lot of speculation and negative light upon it.  Though, with Anderson nixed, the film seemed to have some hope.  I was very interested in seeing the film theatrically, but then, I heard scores of negative reviews.  It really made me back away from it.  I see now that was a mistake.

This film picks up directly after the conclusion of the previous AVP film.  A Predator-Alien hybrid is born, and begins to wreak havoc on board the Predator space craft.  It soon crash lands in a small Colorado town.  All Predators on board are killed, and the Xenomorphs are set loose on the population.  The crash landing is monitored from the Predator home world (seen for the first time ever on film), and a veteran warrior departs to clean up the mess.  Face huggers attack many of the townspeople, giving rise to further Aliens to ravage the town.  The lone Predator attempts to hunt and eliminate every trace of the Xenomorphs’ presence.  The residents do all they can to defend themselves, but it’s a Catch-22.  Anyone with a gun is immediately a target of the Predator, but without firearms, you stand zero chance against the Aliens.  Eventually, humans, Aliens, and the Predator collide after dark, and all hell breaks loose.  Even help from the National Guard is short-lived, and ultimately, more extreme measures are necessary to eliminate this escalating threat.

Yes, I enjoyed this film (the unrated cut), and kept waiting for something totally bullshit to happen to justify all the god-awful reviews.  It never really came.  There are definite problems with it, but it’s not deserving of being saddled with the statement that “this isn’t even as good as the first Alien vs. Predator.”  I could provide a very long list of how AVP-R is superior to its predecessor, but that’s not the point here.  Though, brief comparisons will be made.  I am not at all saying AVP-R is of the same caliber as Alien or Predator, but at its lowest, it’s no worse than Predator 2.  I’d probably put it a notch higher than Alien 3 (either the theatrical or special edition cut).  But let me get into the meat of things.

My first impression of the film was how excellent the cinematography and lighting was from Director of Photography Daniel Pearl (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974 & 2003).  There’s a definite cinematic feel to this film with good use of angles, cranes, and camera moves.  The film really pushes to give itself a grander scale and impact with its visuals.  The few shots on the Predator home world are marvelous.  Somewhat reminds me of the scenes on Vulcan in Robert Wise’s ‘Director’s Edition’ of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  The lighting itself can be intriguing and amazing, at times.  Thin layers of fog and smoke add atmosphere in select scenes.  The best looking visuals are mainly the scenes inside the space crafts, and the daytime sequences.  Problems arise during the far darker scenes in the subterranean tunnels and the rain.  At times, the lighting is so minimal and the framing so tight, it is difficult to follow the action.  As the film goes on, the framing gets better as the creatures are better revealed, but never in full light.  They essentially remain as silhouettes throughout the movie.  This is much more akin to the original Alien – only showing glimpses of the monster.  Still, the majority of the film is very dark, and whenever frenetic action begins, it can be a chore to keep track of it all.  Maybe, a high-def presentation might lessen this problem marginally, but standard-def is my current situation.

One thing that I’m sure would be truly enhanced by a high-definition viewing is the excessive, yet welcomed gore levels.  This absolutely goes back to John McTiernan’s 1987 film that introduced the merciless Predator.  Bloodshed is everywhere, and people are killed indiscriminately.  Only one person survives who you’d swear should be dead, but other than that, people are slain left and right.  The film is very satisfying in that aspect because the filmmakers, aside from the just mentioned situation, don’t go out of their way to keep people alive in the face of certain death.  If it looks like they’re gonna die, they die.  No dodging hits at the last second or anything of the sort.  Children die, pregnant mothers die, old guys get their arms acid burned off.  There’s really no holding back, which can’t be said of its PG-13 predecessor.  The makeup and visual effects are simply astounding.  Some of the gore and creature moments are even down right grotesque and sick.  The opening shot of Earth from space with the sun glaring in the background seems to have such an old school quality to it.  It doesn’t appear to be so much of a digital composition.  It really looks more like similar shots from Predator, Aliens, or even John Carpenter’s The Thing.  There’s just such depth of detail to the shot, and impressive sense of scale that you rarely see nowadays.  I was captivated by this shot.  Subsequent CGI shots are also presented with such a standard.  Nothing ever felt like a digital effects shot.  It all blended smoothly and seamlessly with the live action.  The movement of the Predator or Aliens never seems goofy, awkward, or over the top.  It’s very much in line with the characters’ presentation from the seminal films of each, separate franchise.  CGI versions of them are only used when it is necessary.  Everything else is practical, physical effects.

Speaking of such things, AVP-R presents both alien races with a great deal of respect.  The Predator, this time, is a definite seasoned warrior.  He knows how the hunt is played, and takes on a good dozen Aliens on his own.  The only one that really kicks his ass is the PredAlien.  He’s not some punk rookie Predator in some training ground.  It’s a real situation with him taking it upon himself to clean up this mess, and proves to be exceptionally capable.  Though, this doesn’t mean the Aliens get busted up like a bunch of bitches.  They hold their own, stalking and attacking with intelligence and ferocity.  This is much like James Cameron’s Aliens.  They work as both a cohesive whole and lethal individuals.  They are indeed an infestation that continues to grow out of control, and is never made easy for the Predator.  I really feel the filmmakers treated both sides with great respect.  I love how we see the Predator work, even before he even begins the hunt.  How he gathers his gear, and investigates the crash site.  The film treats him like a proper character with a keen mind and cleverness, not a one-dimensional ugly beast rampaging through scenes.  Just the level of intelligence both alien races are given says so much.  Just as the Aliens set traps for others, the Predator shows he’s able to do the same.  It’s a very pleasant surprise.

Now, I found the music to be appropriate to the film.  I wouldn’t say it is exceptionally memorable, but it served the purposes of the movie.  It is jarring, tense, and explosive.  Thought did go into it, and you’ll notice the end credits theme is a mixture of the original Alan Silvestri Predator theme and the James Horner Aliens theme.  It is titled ‘Requiem.’  I felt there was a good level of suspense in the film.  Not a great deal, but in certain scenes, there is build up and tension towards a pay-off.  I think the subterranean sequence is probably the best and most cleverly crafted one in the whole film.  The fight choreography is inventive and imaginative.  The staging of the cat-and-mouse hunting / stalking scenes are continually creative.  It’s far more of what I would’ve wanted from the first film, and it is as an Aliens vs. Predator film should be.  It’s quite fascinating as they are both the hunter and the hunted at the same time.  Kill or be killed, it seems.

The acting certainly comes up as a negative on the reviews I’ve scanned over.  Not every film can have the caliber of acting of a Scorcese or Coppola film.  Like Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula, sometimes you get Gary Oldman, and sometimes you get Keanu Reeves.  The acting here falls within that deep gap.  Essentially, it is solid enough to serve the purposes of the film, and I never felt that it turned ridiculous or annoying.  You, honestly, don’t need Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando quality acting in an Aliens vs. Predator film.  That’s not me discounting the wonderful performances we’ve had in the Alien & Predator films, but what are you really expecting from this film?  The content and context of the film do not call for such glorious depth of acting ability.  This is not to say that the acting here is crap.  This is far above standards of something like Jason X or Freddy’s Dead.  Those films feature a cringable lack of acting talent.  What you get here is good, and allows you to enjoy the meat of the film.  I didn’t feel like the film was dragged down by any of these characters, or their own, individual stories before the action begins.  It helps the pace of the film to build up slowly as all elements begin to converge.  I know Steven Pasquale from the cable television series Rescue Me, and John Ortiz I’m familiar with from the 2006 Miami Vice feature film.  Both present characters with identifiable, relatable, and likable traits.  They certainly show range to me, knowing those other roles they inhabited, and I found them to be worthwhile characters to spend my time with.  These characters are quite human, but have a good deal more depth than your standard slasher film fodder.  The filmmakers and screenwriters seemed to treat these new characters with respect.  They easily could’ve gone with the fodder that Anderson’s AVP film offered, but chose to spend some decent time to develop their personalities on-screen.

The film’s ending needs to be addressed, and is certainly a borderline turn.  It could either keep you hooked or lose you completely.  The filmmakers could’ve really botched it up if they had everyone taken out, but there are survivors.  So, that eases the tension.  Still, there are elements that could be called cheesy or stupid.  I, personally, don’t agree with that.  You have to remember that while these are sequels to the Predator films, they are prequels to the Alien films.  Events need to fall in line with that continuity to preserve certain knowledge of the Xenomorphs amongst humanity.  Government cover-ups are necessary to serve that purpose, and the extra tag at the end was nice, if not somewhat predictable.  Where in AVP, you met Weyland, this time, you meet Yutani – whose two corporations eventually form the infamous ‘Company’ from the Alien franchise.  As I said, things of this nature could potentially lose an audience who perceive it as fanboy bullshit.  They need to realize that this film was made because of fanboys (as much as I hate the term).  Without them, these films would’ve died out a very long time ago.  The ending might not be the most universally satisfying, but it is a logical and appropriate one.  I could go further into depth about it, but suffice it to say, it helps to avoid continuity conflicts with the Alien films.

Colin & Greg Strause made a conscious effort to stay true to both franchises, and make this a real tribute to the fans.  I think they succeed, to a point.  It is a gorgeous film at times, and also a very grotesque feature, as well.  It’s simply more technical elements of lighting, composition, and editing in certain scenes that lessen the effectiveness of those scenes.  The film is terribly dark, visually, and the addition of a rain storm can complicate matters.  It would’ve helped to cast some extra light on the battling alien beings to better distinguish them from each other.  Still, at the most pivotal and impactful moments, the filmmakers allow for the shots to play out more dramatically.  They hold on the shots longer, and the action therein is better defined.  Beyond those shaky aspects, I feel this is a far superior film to 2004’s AVP.  Everything is handled with a great deal more respect and weight.  No ‘buddy cop’ Predator sidekick moments, no rookie Predators getting their butts kicked, and no skimping on the gore.  While this doesn’t equal the caliber of Alien or Predator, it doesn’t fall very far below those standards.  A classic this won’t be, but I feel it’s a worthy addition to your DVD or Blu Ray library.