• La Isla Minima / Marshland (2014)

    La Isla Minima, also known as Marshland, is a Spanish thriller that has won ten Goya Awards, the Spanish equivalent of the Academy Awards. For once, this film truly deserves the praise it got. The story revolves around the mysterious disappearance of two teenage girls in the desolate countryside deep in Spain's south. Two homicide detectives need to work together and soon uncover more mysterious disappearances related to their case.

    There are numerous elements that make Marshland an outstanding movie. One element are definitely the landscapes and locations. The southern marshland looks desolate and raw as one can discover both beauty and despair in such a place. The movie takes us into shady bars, into spare hotel rooms, on dusty roads and into numerous abandoned and isolated buildings. Most characters don't really like to live in this place which has an impact on the gloomy atmosphere of this movie.

    A key element behind this movie's success are its two charismatic main characters. Pedro Suarez is a young, motivated and ambitious homicide detective who is openly critical of Spain's past during the Franco dictatorship. His critical and direct attitude helps him to solve his cases but it also creates conflicts with his more conservative superiors which is the reason why he got sent away from the Spanish capital to the marshland. On the other side, Juan Robles seems to be a calm and sociable homicide detective who doesn't question his superiors and who gets along with local people which helps him to get more information than his colleague because people trust him and don't only see him as police officer. On the other side, he can get quite brutal and emotional at times and seems to have a shady past as well as a dark future.

    Another convincing element of this movie is its mixture of genres. Even though it is mainly a thriller and focuses on a story with a few gruesome twists, this movie is also the portrait of a country that is going through important changes. The movie takes places in the early eighties, just a few years after the end of the brutal Franco dictatorship. Some characters desire to embrace democracy, move on and open the country towards the world. Others are still stuck in the old system and use bribes, corruption and violence to become or remain influential. Some characters seem to be lost between both worlds as they face demons from the past but are also afraid of what lies ahead. This movie is an authentic drama, historical portrait and character study all at once. It's also a road movie as the main characters walk, drive or take the boat to investigate their case in the marshland numerous times.

    To keep it short, Marshland is a very convincing thriller that stands out thanks to a coherent yet diversified mixture of genres, two very interesting and profound main characters portrayed by the excellent actors Raul Arevalo and Javier Gutierrez and atmospheric, charismatic and unique landscapes and locations. La Isla Minima is one of the very best thrillers in recent memory and I would definitely recommend it and watch it again myself.

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  • Split (2016)

    Just like “The Visit” a year earlier, Shyamalan’s new movie “Split” offers a great mixture of psychological suspense, horror elements and an emotional drama with a lot of depth. The great story line, the tense atmosphere and the stunning acting pardon for the lack of a real twist as we usually get from Shyamalan.

    The story is quickly told. A man diagnosed with twenty-three different personalities kidnaps three teenage girls and keeps them in an abandoned basement. The girls quickly realize that they can manipulate some of the split personalities while others are very hostile to them. It becomes obvious that the twenty-three personalities prepare for the emergence of a twenty-fourth personality called the beast that plans to feast on the teenagers’ impure bodies. The three girls must find a strategy to escape before their lives will be in danger. At the same time, the psychologist of the man with the numerous personalities realizes that something seems to be wrong with her patient during their therapy sessions. Will the girls manage to escape and the psychologist find out the truth before it’s too late?

    The movie develops a quite diversified pace right from the start. The teenagers get kidnapped within the first five minutes of the movie and have to face one of the more aggressive personalities right from the start. The movie then slows down and presents us seven of the twenty-three different personalities. The film also gives us background information thanks to therapy sessions with the perpetrator and his psychologist as well as flashbacks of one of the girls that will become more and more important trhoughout the movie. The last quarter of the film quickens up the pace and leads to a furios showdown and an interesting reference. If compared to Shyamalan’s last movie, some questions are though left unanswered and indicate a potential sequel to this movie. The restricted space in the basement, the calm and precise camera work, the gloomy light effects and the sinister soundtrack progressively increase the uneasy atmosphere of the movie.

    James McAvoy has the challenging task to portray eight different personalities all at once and his acting performance alone elevates this movie to a very high level. He is credible in all of his roles and convinces as unpredictable patient that is both perpetrator and victim at the same time. This unprecedented acting performance should be honored with a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role next year. The main actress incarnated by the talented Anya Taylor-Joy is almost as perfect as her character develops a fascinating chemistry with the perpetrator. Initially, she seems to be a shy outcast but turns out to be a clever and empathic young moment who will fight relentlessly for her survival. She’s the tragic heroine of this movie and empathic viewers will definitely care about her fate. She would also deserve a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role next year. Among the secondary characters, Betty Buckley convinces in her role as open-minded psychologist who is walking a thin line between tolerance and insistance to uncover her patient’s gloomy secret. I think she would deserve a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress next year. Overall, the cast is really convincing and easily the best in the psychological horror genre since Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”.

    The only reason why this movie didn’t get all ten points are a few minor lengths in the story telling during the first half of the film and the fact that the movie didn’t come around with a stunning twist in the key of many of Shyamalan’s previous works. 

    Still, “Split” is an extraordinary psychological thriller with an intense plot, an uneasy atmosphere and absolutely outstanding acting. Genre fans might even have their best movie of the year right here. Even those who like to criticize Shyamalan should admit that “Split” is a success and one of the best movies in his career. This film should definitely be rewarded with awards and is one of the few Hollywood movies that actually deserves all the attention it gets.

    Final rating: 9/10

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  • Charlotte Link: Die letzte Spur

    I have just watched this German crime movie based upon a Charlotte Link novel and this film exemplifies everything that is wrong with the mass production of German crime movies nowadays that are flooding numerous television channels and over-saturating the market.

    First of all, this crime movie has the exact same type of atmosphere as the majority of German crime flicks these days. This film is very depressive, numb and slow. The sky is grey and the sun never shines. The chosen settings consist of abandoned ports, old buildings and ugly streets in shabby suburbs. The characters look unhappy and never smile.

    This film also includes the usual dose of social criticism. The problem of German script writers is that they always try to add a moral to their stories instead of focusing on an entertaining story. This film mostly criticizes ruthless journalists and brutal pimps. Instead of adding a thought-provoking element, this type of social criticism artificially stretches this film, slows down its pace and feels very repetitive and stereotypical. That being said, there are already countless movies criticizing journalism and prostitution which proves that the makers of this film are running out of ideas and delivering a pale routine job.

    This would be pardonable if the story were only interesting. Sadly, the story isn't interesting at all and highly predictable. Pretty much everything I was expecting to happen actually happened in the end. The plot is really a typical German crime flick by the numbers.

    The acting is the only aspect that isn't abysmal but it isn't great either. The actors and actresses are busy looking sad, taking a considerable time to finish most of their sentences and are slowly walking around as if they were sleepwalking. The acting is everything but enthusiastic but since that was the filmmakers' intention, one must admit that the actresses and actors fit perfectly to the depressive atmosphere of this movie.

    It's beyond me why German producers are unable and unwilling to produce a crime flick with a positive and vivid vibe, or a thriller with some humorous elements, or a suspenseful flick with some gripping action sequences. The only thing German producers are able to offer these days are slow-paced crime flicks with repetitive story lines and some melodramatic social criticism in suicidal grey settings. If they can't find any stories of that kind among German authors and script writers, producers decide to invest in foreign authors and script writers with a very similar style as in this case. German crime flicks and television series need a revolutionary revamp. Get rid of the conservative, depressive and moralistic stereotypes and try out something new. Let German television be creative, emotional and energizing again.

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  • ''I as in Icarus'' is a slow-paced yet very tense French conspiracy thriller that convinces with a realistic plot inspired by true events, an intense series of investigations and a strong acting carried by Yves Montand as incorruptible prosecutor.

    The movie is obviously inspired by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Just as in the true case, the president of an anonymous, globalized and modern country gets assassinated in his car by a sniper. Just as in the original case, the main suspect dies under mysterious circumstances and is declared the sole executor of the crime. Just as in the historical events, a prosecutor refuses to accept this thesis and investigates further, unveiling step by step an unspeakable conspiracy that might shake up the world as one knows it.

    Another inspiration for the movie comes from the fall of Chilean president Salvador Allende and the rise of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. It's important to know that lead actor Yves Montand was raised in a communist family and had openly criticized the violent revolution in Chile prior to the making of this movie. While more conservative viewers might criticize this movie for its underlying anti-governmental left-wing message, this film can't be seen as a propaganda picture since it raises far more questions than it actually answers. In addition to this, the film was at the pulse of its time when conspiracy theories were quite popular.

    Another important element of this movie is the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures which is shown, explained and analyzed in detail in relation to mass genocides such as the abominable crimes of Nazi Germany in this film. This element is related to potential executors being used such as pawns in a game of chess.

    All these elements offer a lot of food for thought to the viewer and also request quite some background knowledge, especially for younger contemporary audiences who might not be familiar with the events and experiments mentioned above. This is what makes this movie intellectually challenging, profoundly philosophical and an authentic document of its time in retrospective. This factual approach of the movie translates into detailed conversations, precise investigations and a unique ending as opposed to more emotional, stereotypical and vivid conspiracy movies in the key of bigger Hollywood pictures. Even though some elements of the film might seem old-fashioned today, the film's plot is still unusually captivating which makes this movie one of the very best of its kind. 

    To keep it short, this is one of the very best, if not the best conspiracy thriller of all times. It's unconventional, rebellious and realistic as it's clearly inspired by social and political events of the sixties and seventies. More than anything, it's an intellectually challenging film about the price of truth. Concerning its intentions, it makes me think of the equally brilliant ''Twelve Angry Men''. Those who like clever suspense movies should definitely be familiar with this often forgotten and still underrated masterpiece. Those who are simply looking for an entertaining crime film, might have to deal with some information overload.

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  • The Girl on the Train (2016)

    ''The Girl on the Train'' is a psycho thriller in the key of but not as good as ''Gone Girl''. It's recommendable for genre fans but far from being a highlight.

    The movie deals with the disappearance of a nanny and is told through numerous changes of time, space and perspective. We constantly switch from the present to events that have happened a week, two months, four months, six months or even several years ago. Numerous parts of the film take place in recurring closed spaces such as an apartment, a house, a psychologist's office and a train. Most parts of the movie are told through the eyes of an alcoholic divorcée while other parts are told through the eyes of the mentally unstable nanny. Other parts are however told through a third person view from an omniscient narrator. These constant changes aren't forming a clever puzzle as in a movie like ''Memento'' but only harm the coherent flow of the film and evoke an illusion of diversity to compensate for a rather shallow plot. The only advantage of this procedure is that the movie is focusing on character development by giving some vital background information about the main characters. The disadvantage is not only that the structure is confusing but also that many mysteries are revealed too quickly. In the last third of the movie, it becomes so obvious what must have happened to the nanny that it drastically decreases the tension of an initially promising story.

    While the acting of all actresses and actors involved is really good, it's difficult for the audience to identify with any of the characters. Most of them are twisted, shameful and repulsive in one way or another. Most characters are either particularly dishonest or menacingly violent or even both in certain cases. While there are interesting things to discover about each character, it feels unrealistic, pessimistic and exaggerated how negative each main character behaves in this film. This might add to the movie's overall sinister mood that suits the genre but it also feels too simplistic and partial.

    Another weakness is that despite its numerous changes of time, space and perspective, many parts of the movie are repetitive and predictable. The middle part of the film is particularly slow-paced. In the beginning, it's still intriguing to see the helpless alcoholic divorcée having a breakdown or the fragile nanny having a meltdown when confronted with her emotions but when these things are happening for the third or fourth time, these scenes lose their initial efficiency despite great acting performances by Emily Blunt and Haley Bennett. 

    In the end, what kept me watching this movie until the end are its sinister mood and the great performances by Emily Blunt and Haley Bennett. The below average plot and repetitive storytelling patterns are the downsides of this film. My recommendation would be to read the critically acclaimed novel of the same name instead of watching this slightly above average film.

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