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Friday, September 09, 2005
Disappointing suspense films
I was looking forward to this, as the presence of Franka Potente makes this one of a select few horror films that I could have gotten Pete to watch with me. She stars as Paula Henning, a brilliant med student who adores her grandfather, a legendary anatomist, and despises her father, who tossed away a promising career to run a small clinic for low-income families. After receiving phenomenally good test scores, she is accepted into a prestigious graduate anatomy program, the same program her grandfather used to run. She quickly begins to suspect, however, that there is something sinister going on at the school, and uncovers evidence that a group calling itself the Anti-Hippocratic society has been performing unethical medical experiments on the college grounds, including the dissection of living people.
The script and direction are both by Stefan Ruzowitzky, and I'm frankly surprised that this wasn't his first film. The film is geologically slow, even beyond the slowness I've learned to sometimes associate with German films. The film is almost half over before Potente must face anything more hazardous than student pranks and the logical disbelief in the Anti-Hippocratic society that her classmates display. The film also seriously miscalculates by revealing the identity of the killer too soon, as well as his motive. He's not the coldly calculating amoral scientist the film's set-up would suggest. No, he's just a sociopath, taking advantage of the coldly calculating amoral scientists to get his jollies killing people. The film also wastes a good deal of time in a lot of needless shuffling of Potente back and forth between locations. She leaves the school, only to turn around and return to the school. Where she knows a killer he is. She escapes from the killer, only to be immediately recaptured by him. The only real stand-out performance in the film is Sebastian Blomberg's Caspar, and he doesn't even get anything particularly interesting to do until past the films half-way mark.
At a certain point in the film, I was just waiting until one of the villains was linked to the Nazis. With the rather obvious direction and predictable red herrings the film was throwing out, you knew it was only a matter of time. But then, it could have been worse: I could have decided to rent Anatomy 2 as well...
The Card Player
When Dario Argento is really on his game, he makes some of the best suspense films around. When he's off his game he makes painfully unwatchable garbage. This is somewhere in between. It's no Opera or Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but then it's no Phantom of the Opera or Trauma either. Stefania Rocca stars as police detective Anna Mari, who while working at her desk one day gets an e-mail from the man who claims to have kidnapped a missing woman. If the police play video poker against him and win, she'll live. If not, or if the police lose, she'll die. What follows is an hour of watching people play video poker while mumbling about indistinct clues, followed by thirty minutes or so of an actual Argento film.
The idea of a serial killer taunting the police with games is vaguely clever, but the choice of game here leaves much to be desired. Poker isn't particularly exciting to watch other people play, video poker even less so. And there are a lot of long scenes of watching people click buttons to play video poker. There's also a lot of very, very stupid police work on display. No one ever thinks to ask why Mari was sent the e-mail, since she apparently wasn't connected to the missing girl case. No one ever thinks to ask how the killer knows about the poker prodigy helping the police win games. No one ever thinks to ask how the killer knew where Mari lived or that she was the "Sara" he was chatting with during the video poker sessions. It's not until the killer reveals that (Spoiler Alert!) Mari was the real target all along, that any of the characters acknowledge what the audience must have figured out sometime during the film's first thirty minutes.
There are times when it almost doesn't feel like an Argento film. It lacks his usual touches. None of his usual cast appear. There is a black-gloved killer, but he is mostly glimpsed in grainy web-cam footage. There is no false lead misdirecting the audience to the killer's identity, no secret from the past returning to haunt the present, no vital clue hidden in some song or picture. There is one interesting visual flourish, the only real point in the film at which I really did feel like I was watching an Argento film. Mari is trapped inside her house with the killer, and Argento films the scene at night, using only natural moon-light shining through windows and curtains, to light the scene. It makes an almost pitch-black composition, leaving only barely lighted areas in which quick flashes of movement are seen. And it works. He manages to pull it off and make the scene watchable and compelling, despite the audience not really being able to see anything that's happening.