The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
Nicholas Gessner // 1976 // 91 mins
Adapted by Laird Koenig from his novel of the same name, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is a mostly forgotten thriller from the 70's that stars a young Jodie Foster as thirteen year old Rynn Jacobs, a bright young girl that lives with a poet father that nobody has ever seen.
Though packaged and categorised as a horror there is very little true horror present here, and the film would be more appropriately described as a drama with thriller elements. Though Rynn regularly talks about her father and his solitary ways, his lack of appearance throughout the film is a constant source of mystery and intrigue amongst both the characters and the viewers. The young girl is visited repeatedly by various adults from the town curious about her independence and elusive father, and through these encounters the film creates an interesting commentary on the ways in which adults impose themselves on children. Rynn constantly proves herself capable of taking care of herself but this independence is undermined time and time again by adults that see her as nothing more than a helpless little girl. This is yet another strong performance from Foster early in her career and as the smart-mouthed Rynn she outshines every one of the mature actors she comes up against.
By far the most controversial aspect of this film is the presence of Martin Sheen as Frank Hallet, an heavily-implied pedophile who spends the majority of the film attempting to molest Rynn. It's a startlingly different character from Sheen who inhabits the creepy role completely, contributing to an unsettling tone that lingers long after the film has ended. A slight reprieve from the otherwise unwavering dark tone comes from a surprisingly strong performance by Scott Jacoby as Rynn's love interest. His wise-cracking provides a few much needed lighter moments while his own curiosity over Rynn's father adds a fair amount of conflict and suspense that helps prevent the plot becoming too repetitive. The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane is a solid thriller whose numerous controversial elements file this away as less 'they don't make them like they used to anymore', but rather 'they can't make them like they used to anymore'.
Courtney Hunt // 2008 // 97 mins
An assured directorial debut for Courtney Hunt, Frozen River explores the world of illegal immigrant smuggling from the perspective of a struggling single mother who enters the trade as a last resort to make easy money when she is suddenly left by her husband. Melissa Leo is a force to be reckoned with as Ray Eddy, delivering a layered performance that drives the narrative and ensures the success of the overall piece. When her husband leaves her bringing up two sons and owing payments on a new trailer, Ray struggles to make ends meet working in a store under a manager that refuses to promote her. While trying to track down her husband Ray spots mohawk Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) driving her car, and follows the woman to her reserve where Ray is tricked into smuggling Chinese and Pakistani immigrants across a frozen river that avoids the Canadian/US border. Though initially outraged, when she learns of the easy money that can be earned from making the journey and turning a blind eye Ray, in an act of desperation, decides to continue to work with Lila until she has earned enough money to buy her new home.
Like other films of it's kind, Frozen River explores the grey area of good people pushed into illegal activities as a result of life's hardships, offering a sympathetic insight into actions that we are fully aware are wrong. The predictable, low-key narrative is anchored by two admirable performances from Leo and Upham, as for the film to have any impact at all Ray and Lila must feel like actual people rather than characters. Both actresses fully inhabit their respective roles, elevating the material and enjoying a strong dynamic that greatly enhances even the simplest of scenes shared between them. The films major drawback though, and that which ultimately harms the overall experience is that despite Hunt's achievements in creating a raw, naturalistic style that feels like a faithful representation of this world, the plot regularly falls into familiar melodramatic trappings that lessen the impact of the story and preach the film's message a little to forcefully.
M. Night Shyamalan // 2000 // 106 mins
As a precursor to the now mainstream trend of darker, more realistic superhero films, M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable is remarkable for anticipating the advantages of grounding the fantastical origins of a superhero in reality a whole half-decade before Christopher Nolan popularised the concept. This is the story of two men; one whose fragile bones can shatter at the slightest impact and another who is seemingly invincible. When David Dunn (Bruce Willis) emerges from a horrific train wreck as the miraculously unharmed, sole survivor he is approached by comic art dealer Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who is infatuated by the possibility that Dunn could be a real life superhero.
Shyamalan's impeccable screenplay is a slow-burn exploration of what would happen if one day a regular man was introduced to the notion that there might be something truly spectacular about him, and by favouring an intimate, personal drama over spectacle the writer/director has crafted an effective character study of a prospective hero. There is barely a single scene in Unbreakable that could be considered an action sequence by any stretch, yet the film is a tense thrill-ride from start to finish and that is down to how Shyamalan carefully draws the viewer in and convinces them that this seemingly normal man could actually become a superman. Willis strikes the perfect balance between the everyman that Dunn believes himself to be and the powerful individual that Price hopes he is. Once Dunn discovers he does indeed possess unique abilities there is the slightest change in Willis' performance which, in conjunction with the epic direction and grand score culminates in a single, note-perfect sequence that captures the immense, awe-inspiring presence that we all expect of a superhero. Jackson is just as effective in the role of a comic fanboy obsessed with Dunn's potential, this is Jackson at his most vulnerable and the characters sympathetic history is astutely captured and channeled within his every scene. Though Price is a primarily tragic figure, Jackson conveys the determination and psychological power that his character possesses in spite of his physical weaknesses. His passion to find a real life person with the abilities of the characters he read about growing up is unwavering, unbreakable and his desire to make Dunn see his own potential makes him an emotionally layered character that would be just as likely to be seen in the pages of a comic as Willis' heroic figure.
Unbreakable is a prime example of the 'less is more' mantra and demonstrates how a strong, personal narrative can be miles more effective than excessive action when telling a superhero origin story.
Wes Craven // 2005 // 85 mins
Red Eye's strong concept is backed up by two great performances by Rachel McAdams as Lisa and Cillian Murphy as the sinister Jackson Rippner. The pair enjoy a strong chemistry that enhances the dynamic between their characters in the first act, where their encounter implies a romantic connection, and even more so once the genre shifts into thriller mode and they are pitted against each other.
However this genre shifting technique is also the films biggest weakness, as the three act // three genre structure results in a very uneven experience. The romantic angle of the first act is fine, with the two leads keeping our interest, but knowing the film was primarily a thriller I found this to simply feel like filler. The choice to mislead the audience into thinking the film is a certain genre and then switching it on them is an admirable one, but the impact diminishes considerably when watching the film long after the initial release as the element of surprise is lost. The second act, which takes place on the plane, is where the film is at it's strongest and truly excels. The confined space, Lisa's personal conflict and the battle of wits between her and Jackson all come together to make an excellent, tense act that holds so much more potential than is tapped into here. It is so disappointing then, that the final act drops such a successful formula, becoming a straight horror as Lisa is stalked through her fathers home by a now monstrous Jackson. This conclusion to the story, while mildly satisfying, is a real let down after such a fantastic second act and the film suffers for it. Red Eye had a lot of potential, but only a portion of that potential is explored. When it is good it's great, but when such greatness is stuffed between two lesser acts it is prevented from shining as brightly as it should have.
Run Lola Run
Tom Tykwer // 1998 // 80 mins
I challenge anybody to find me a film that is more intrinsically 90's than Run Lola Run, a non-stop thrill ride that explores and pushes the filmic medium to its most stylish potential. Franka Potente is Lola; a young woman partly responsible for the imminent death of her boyfriend at the hands of his mob boss employer. Lola has 20 minutes to get 100,000 marks to her beau, and Tom Tykwer's 80 minute film takes place entirely in that 20 minute window. The film explores concepts of fate, luck and chaos through a butterfly effect style narrative that presents three different realities and three different outcomes to Lola's story. This is existentialism packaged for the ADHD pop-culture generation and a rare example of a style-over-substance approach actually enhancing a films thesis.
Tykwer's film is a huge technical achievement, a masterfully shot action film that seamlessly blends countless techniques and styles that shouldn't work together but do thanks to the fast-paced plot. Employing a time-bending narrative the film toys with the concept of chance vs. fate in a world where if something goes wrong you can simply reset and try again. This allows Tykwer to examine how even the slightest moment of change in Lola's journey can completely change the impact of not only her future, but every other person that she comes into contact with. Though the film can pride itself on effectively capturing the high-stakes, heart pounding nature of Lola's situation, it is also able to take a breather from the action and explore our heroines relationship with boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) through intimate snapshots of them talking in bed. These moments occur as intervals that separate the three timelines and though it is never made clear if these scenes are actual past events or a romanticised afterlife they ensure that the importance of their relationship and Lola's need to save Manni is felt by the viewer and not just a hollow plot device to drive the action.
Though certain elements, such as the heavy use of 90's trance music and occasional use of gaudy animation, threaten to date the film there is no questioning the impact that Run Lola Run still holds. It is a completely unique film that dares to try things that others would't and still don't. Tom Tykwer's film may not be a masterpiece but it is unlike anything else and contains an icon-making performance from Potente.