Identity

Identity (2003)

Dir. James Mangold

Written by: Michael Cooney

Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes

 

Identity has been quietly resting on my shelf for a decade, unwatched. It’s a disc that got mixed into my collection from a previous roommate at some point, and I have never had the urge to watch it. I saw Identity in the theater, with this same eventual roommate, no less, and I can remember both of us being wholly unimpressed with the movie, and with its prominent plot twist. In the years following up the success of The Sixth Sense and M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent couple of movies, it seemed like the game-changing plot twist was the flavor of the month for Hollywood studio thrillers, and I think that some fatigue from the overwhelmingness of the trend led to my total dismissal of Identity. I largely forgot about the movie until discovering it in a box of DVDs when I moved into the house that I’ve been living in for the last six years, and in the time between then and my decision to start this project, I only thought of Identity, cursorily, as a real-life version of “The Three,” Donald Kaufman’s asinine screenplay from Adaptation. in which all three principal characters are revealed to be the same person. Since starting this project, however, Identity has loomed large in the back of my mind as a movie that I was both anticipating and dreading screening and writing about. I fully anticipated Identity to be, at best, a generic and predictable thriller not worthy of the collected talent that it assembles, and, at worst, a derivative and implausible B-movie driven by a third act plot twist it doesn’t earn. Maybe it was the low bar that I had going in, but I was pleasantly surprised by Identity, and I found most of my remembrances of it from 15 years ago to be incorrect.

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Identity begins by introducing Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an inmate set to be executed for several brutal murders. Rivers’s legal team and psychologist, Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina), file a midnight appeal for a stay of execution, arguing a legal defense of insanity citing new evidence that has come to light in the form of a diary. The midnight hearing is assembled during a tremendous storm, and begins without Malick, who is being transported from prison. At the same time, a group of ten strangers become stranded at a roadside motel, forced to bed down for the night due to the storm. They include a former cop, Ed (Cusack), who is now working as a limousine driver, a Nevada state trooper, Rhodes (Liotta), who is transporting a convicted murderer, a prostitute on her way to a new life in Florida, Paris (Peet), and the hotel’s manager, Larry (Hawkes). The group have come together in spectacularly coincidental fashion, which is shown in a flashback, involving a family getting a flat tire from striking a loose high heel that flew out of one of Paris’s suitcases. The mother, Alice (Leila Kenzle), is struck by Ed’s limousine when he is distracted by his passenger, the actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca de Mornay). Ed brings the injured woman to the motel in search of a working phone, and while he is trying to get help for her, the rest of the group assembles at the motel. As they realize they are stranded for the night and begin to bed down, a killer starts to pick them off one by one, leaving motel keys with the bodies, counting down from 10 to 1. The group begins a paranoid hunt for the killer, and the bodies continue to pile up in rapid fashion, while at the same time the survivors begin to discover more inexplicable coincidences, such as the fact that they all share a birthday. Meanwhile, as the competency hearing continues, and Rivers arrives, the extent of his multiple personality disorder is revealed, and it becomes apparent that the events at the motel are the representation of the psychic trauma of Rivers’s multiple identities being dragged to the surface and vying for primacy in his mind. Dr. Malick makes contact with the Ed personality and urges him to save Rivers’s life by eliminating the personality that drove him to commit the murders, and the action returns to the motel for the film’s climax.

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While Identity certainly owes a massive artistic debt to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even going so far as to obliquely reference one of the novel’s many film adaptations, it still managed to feel relatively fresh to me. While the film’s revelation that all of the characters at the motel only exist inside of Rivers’s mind is a little bit predictable, Identity still managed to largely keep me interested and on my toes. The movie brings in the twist a little too early, but it leads up to it with a series of McGuffins and red herrings that I actually found to be pretty satisfying. It’s a movie that strives towards prestige, and though it doesn’t quite achieve the level of a top thriller, it’s a workmanlike effort that I found to be much more enjoyable than I ever would have imagined. Mangold turns the desert motel into a disorienting funhouse maze, utilizing canted angles, tight shot framings around corners and down narrow hallways between the buildings, and the persistent rain and gloom, to disrupt the audience’s sense of visual continuity of space. While the mystery isn’t particularly compelling after it’s revealed that the characters are all psychic projections, up to that point, the film’s visual style and a few well-timed surprise killings had me heavily invested in discovering the killer’s identity. I had the knowledge that Ed, Rhodes, Paris, and the others are all just manifestations of Rivers’s psyche tucked away in the back of my mind, but the taut editing and brisk storytelling of the first segment at the motel all but made me forget that the reveal was coming.

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The film’s cast, which is surprisingly stacked for a movie of this sort, also does a lot of heavy lifting in making Identity a more successful film than it otherwise might have been. I don’t think that either Cusack or Liotta, who are the leads of this deep ensemble, are particularly inspired in their performances. Both of them are as solid as they typically are, but neither really brings much new to the table, either. The supporting cast, however, comes on strongly, with Peet doing a nice job of maximizing her role as the film’s third lead. She’s steely and resilient, managing to give some depth to a character that is probably a bit underwritten. We don’t get many specific details about Paris’s back story, but Peet’s performance gives hints towards the type of life that she’s running from. John Hawkes, who I had completely forgotten was in the movie, is the real gem in the supporting cast, though. While his character seems at first to be relegated to a comic relief role, his story is fleshed out and given a surprisingly dark makeover halfway through the film, and the shift in how the audience perceives his character from that point is a testament to Hawks’s versatility as an actor. He goes from being agitated and put-upon to eluding a quiet menace after it’s revealed that he isn’t actually the hotel manager, but that he found the manager dead one day and assumed his responsibilities while hiding his body in the freezer. All the while, though, he imbues Larry with the sympathy-evoking beaten dog qualities that are so common in Hawkes’s characters. The strong assemblage of veteran character actors that round out the cast, and the A-list stars in the film, help lift it above genre material and convincingly sell a movie that might otherwise have collapsed under the weight of a less-than-novel structure and narrative contrivance.

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I was actually really satisfied that I found myself to be a bigger fan of Identity that I had expected. I’ve written before that I don’t particularly enjoy writing about movies that I don’t like and that I find it difficult to produce quality writing about films that I don’t think are of a very high quality. I was totally psyched up to write about how much I hated Identity, but, luckily, I was able to avoid that and instead write about what a pleasant surprise it was that this movie wasn’t total trash. Of course the movie has its faults. It really is fairly predictable, with its major twist being telegraphed from the beginning, but it packs in enough genuine surprises along the way that it makes up for the larger lack of mystery surrounding its central narrative. I don’t see myself returning to Identity anytime soon, and I wouldn’t really recommend that anyone go out of their way to see it, because it really is a pretty paint-by-numbers example of a thriller, but it’s a decent enough diversion. It’s the sort of movie that if I caught it on basic cable in another decade I would probably have forgotten about all over again, but I guess that could make the rediscovery that much more satisfying. There’s not anything being offered here that hasn’t been done before, and probably done better, as well, but the cast is solid and the atmospherics are actually quite well done. Identity isn’t the sort of twist movie that requires a lot of active thinking or reflection on the part of its audience, but it’s an entertaining enough ride if you want to turn your brain off for a while.

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Dir. Edgar Wright

Written by: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton

 

I can remember the anticipation surrounding the second installment in Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (though I doubt it was referred to as such at the time) leading up to its release in the spring of 2007. The trilogy’s first entry, Shaun of the Dead had been a cult hit upon its release, and it had become a favorite of mine in the few years after its release. Of course my friends and I were eagerly awaiting the sequel, and Hot Fuzz definitely did not disappoint. The comedic team of Wright, Pegg, and Frost shift their sense of humor and aesthetic from the horror genre to the action blockbuster and they don’t miss a beat in the process. I don’t think I felt this way at the time, but I think that they managed to improve upon Shaun of the Dead in every way with Hot Fuzz. The film is bigger in every way, and Wright starts to really come into his own as a visual filmmaker as he attempts to ape the style of Michael Mann and Michael Bay. I love all three movies that make up this oddly-named trilogy, but Hot Fuzz has always been the standout for me. Despite that fact, it’s the entry in the trilogy that I had watched least recently, probably not having watched it since shortly after I purchased The World’s End. As always, it didn’t disappoint.

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In Hot Fuzz, hotshot cop Nicholas Angel (Pegg) finds himself transferred from the London police department to Sandford, a sleepy, rural town in the English countryside. Upon arrival, Angel has trouble adjusting to the slower pace and lack of crime in Sandford, as well as to his slovenly, unskilled partner, Danny (Frost). The town elders, however, including Danny’s father, Frank (Broadbent), who is the chief of police, and the local grocer, Simon Skinner (Dalton), hope to keep Sandford quiet and crime free to boost their image in the upcoming Village of the Year competition. When villagers start dying in a series of unlikely freak accidents, Angel begins an investigation that threatens to damage Sandford’s reputation and standing in the competition. He and Danny continue their inquest into the deaths, despite the protestations of the village elders, and discover a secret that Sandford has been keeping under wraps for generations.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to pick a favorite out of the three films that make up Wright, Pegg, and Frost’s feature film collaborations. All three films feature a perfect blend of cheeky parody and reverent homage to the genres that they’re working in. All three films feature perfect casting, with a collection of characters that are both outlandish and utterly relatable. And, finally, all three films use the shield of adherence to genre sensibilities as a Trojan Horse for a heartfelt story about the development of a relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic. Shaun of the Dead laid out the template for the Cornetto Trilogy, and established its creative brain trust to worldwide audiences. The World’s End felt like something of a victory lap, with the whole gang getting back together for one last romp through the familiar landscape that had been established in the first two films. Hot Fuzz, the second entry in the trilogy, stands head and shoulders above those two as the crystallization of the Cornetto aesthetic and as Wright’s ultimate parodic achievement. It broadens the scope of Shaun of the Dead while maintaining its independent feel, and stops short of pulling out all of the narrative stops that The World’s End is determined to barrel right through. It introduces a more complex story with better and more interesting supporting characters that Shaun of the Dead, and the blockbuster milieu in which the film operates gives Wright full license to start branching out and developing as a visual filmmaker.

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When I first saw Shaun of the Dead in 2005, it seemed like a perfect answer to the glut of studio comedies that had been clogging American theaters during the beginning of that decade. While I enjoyed, and still rather do enjoy, the comedic stylings of Judd Apatow, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and Will Ferrell, I was quickly starting to age out of their more sophomoric movies, and discovering the offbeat humor of Pegg, Frost, and Wright felt like a breath of fresh air. That sense was only expanded upon when I saw Hot Fuzz, with the film packing in more memorable supporting roles for great British character actors, more reverent, humorous genre send ups, and more perfectly-timed asides and one-liners. Pegg playing against type as the uber-competent Nick Angel is a great wrinkle in Hot Fuzz that adds to its comedy quotient. Frost expands on his fairly dim everyman best friend character from Shaun of the Dead, ably providing both physical comedy and a broad foil for Pegg’s frustrated cop. The scenario that the three dreamed up for Hot Fuzz, involving a shadowy cabal of village elders who have been engaging in a decades-long covert war against petty crime in Sandford, is more involved and audacious than the simplistic narrative pleasures afforded by Shaun of the Dead. It’s a sublimely absurd conspiracy that’s played totally straight throughout the film, and the principal antagonists being a malicious group of Boomers dead set on maintaining their own standards of proper decorum rather than a gang or a drug cartel is a perfect send up that turns a foundational trope of the action genre on its head.

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November will have to be a month of shorter posts by necessity for me, so I won’t get too much more involved with Hot Fuzz. It’s a movie that I think most people should have seen by this point because, while it hasn’t necessarily gained the cult following of its predecessor, it was more widely successful upon its release than the other two entries in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. That success is well deserved and reflective of Hot Fuzz’s impact on a big screen. It deserves a spot in the canon of early 21st century comedies, but it is every bit as entertaining and valuable as a meta-action movie. Wright, Frost, and Pegg have created a love letter to the genre more compelling, more thoughtful, and more nuanced than any Expendables sequel could hope to be. Though I haven’t had a cable subscription in about five years, I wonder if Hot Fuzz has ascended to the once-vaunted status of TBS weekend afternoon movie. I’ve written before about the existence of these movies in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was a pre-teen and teen, that aired on cable on the weekends and gained an iconic, populist-classic status, despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of prestige trappings. Popcorn fare like Point Break, Con Air, Bad Boys, movies that if they were on, I’d more than likely just stop and watch through until the end if I didn’t have anything else to do. I think that Hot Fuzz is a better movie than all of those, but it would be in perfect company among their ilk, because those are exactly the movies that Hot Fuzz is celebrating. It’s a perfect, fun, funny, movie that can be just as satisfying for a mid-afternoon partial watch as it is to dissect for a tenth time, picking up on clues to the film’s central mystery and sly jokes along the way.

Holy Motors

Holy Motors (2012)

Dir. Leos Carax

Written by: Leos Carax

Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob

 

I’ll never forget my initial attempts to see Holy Motors, a movie that I knew nothing about from a French filmmaker whom I’d never heard of, at the Three Rivers Film Festival in 2012. The film festival, organized by Pittsburgh Filmmakers every October, is an event that I look forward to as an opportunity to catch up on the year’s small indies, arthouse releases, and foreign films that didn’t find their way into wide distribution. I often go into these movies blind, choosing from the three dozen odd films based mostly on their paragraph-long blurbs on the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ website, and this was certainly the case with Holy Motors. The promotional image chosen, of Edith Scob’s Celine donning an unsettling mask meant to be a direct homage to the French horror classic Eyes Without A Face, was enough to sell me on Holy Motors as the one movie that I absolutely had to see at the film festival that year. I tried twice to make that happen, and twice my screening had to be aborted due to projection issues. Each time, I got far enough into Leos Carax’s surrealist fairytale for it to fully sink its claws into me, and, each time, I was disappointed when I couldn’t experience the ending of this one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. I had to purchase Holy Motors on DVD a few months later when it was released just so I could see the movie in its entirety, and it is one of the most satisfying movie purchases that I’ve made in the last decade. Holy Motors is nothing short of a masterpiece of absurdity, with Carax proudly bearing the surrealist torch. It’s a unique movie experience, and one that might not be easily digested by many or most audiences, but it is, nonetheless, one of my favorite films of the 21st century.

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Holy Motors begins in a place of incoherence, with its opening scene featuring a character named “The Sleeper (Carax),” who rises from his slumber, approaches a hidden door in his bedroom wall (which resembles a forest), and opens it, stepping into a crowded cinema. The Sleeper looks down from the cinema’s balcony, where he stands alone, observing a small boy and a giant dog who prowl the aisles, as the film begins. We then meet Mr. Oscar (Lavant) who exits his home, a brutalist compound patrolled by armed guards, and is picked up in a stretch limousine driven by Céline (Scob). As the two drive away, Céline reminds Mr. Oscar of the number of appointments he has that day, and refers him to a dossier which contains the details thereof. When he arrives at his first appointment, Mr. Oscar emerges from the limousine wearing heavy prosthetics, dressed like a crone, and walking, stooped, with the assistance of a cane. On this assignment, he begs for a while, lamenting the status of the old beggar woman, forgotten and ignored by all who pass, and then returns to the limousine where he removes the false nose and teeth, preparing for his next assignment. In this assignment, Mr. Oscar accesses a high security facility, donning a motion-capture suit, and performs a seductive dance with an actress, which is revealed to be the basis of a computer animation that has turned them both into water dragons. The film continues in this way with Mr. Oscar going from assignment to assignment, assuming various roles and performing a series of vignettes, many of which are absurdist or surreal in nature. While the film continues to defy strict narrative continuity, a thematic coherence begins to emerge, with Mr. Oscar’s assignments standing for film genres and his job emerging as that of the actor and audience surrogate.

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I’ve written before about my love for movies about movies and movie-making, but Holy Motors is a tour de force of meta commentary and heady, involved film theory. This is a movie made for those who love to speculate about the role of art and media, and film, specifically, in the life of the individual and within society. It’s a veritable buffet of sumptuous imagery and provocative narrative posturing. Carax, who is importantly positioned as The Sleeper in the film’s first scene, seems to be casting his gaze across the spectrum of visual media and casting a judgment upon society’s use of film as a distraction and as a communication medium. It’s a movie that I didn’t completely understand when I first saw it, and one that I still don’t claim to have mastered. I could go to its deep well of philosophical import a hundred times and find myself drawing new insights. I think that this mystery is what made me want to go back after my initial screening cut the film off before its end, and then made me want to purchase the film after my second screening experience was botched, as well. I didn’t need to go back to Holy Motors to gain some sense of narrative completion, but rather to wash myself in its utter strangeness time and time again, and to see how Carax would tie all of these disparate, surrealist threads together in the end. I was less interested in figuring out the film’s story as I was in exploring its philosophical home base. Carax’s film opens itself up to a wide number of interpretations from a film theory standpoint. It’s just as easily read as a treatise on screen theory and the role of the spectator as it is an examination of film genres, or on post-modernism and the role of the traditional film in 21st century society, at all. As a critic, I love to wrap myself in the film’s layers and feel its all-encompassing content engulfing my brain.

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Holy Motors is an invigorating and rewarding deep dive for theory nerds, but it still retains the pleasures of watching a breezy, if sometimes inscrutable, piece of entertainment. While the film’s structure and loosely-plotted nature might turn off some casual viewers, I think that most people would find quite a bit to like about Holy Motors. For starters, Lavant puts in a great, understated performance. Though he doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, he provides a blank template upon which the various “assignments” that Mr. Oscar acts out can exist, and those “assignments” leap into life on the screen. One early role, M. Merde, stands out as particularly memorable, with Lavant ditching the elegance of his choreographed motion capture lovemaking in favor of the animalistic, gestural M. Merde who arrives into the film as an agent of chaos. Clad in a shabby green suit, his skin and shockingly orange hair covered in filth and grime, M. Merde crawls out from a sewer, and shambles his way through a cemetery, where he feasts on graveside flowers and assaulting mourners before stumbling upon a fashion shoot. He crashes the photo shoot, kidnapping the model (Eva Mendes), and secrets her away to his subterranean lair where the two smoke cigarettes, and M. Merde eats various non-food substances, including money and the model’s hair. He then fashions her dress into a burqa and leads her deeper into the cave where he strips naked, climbing into her lap and reclining in a pose that is not dissimilar to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” The scene is profane, perverse, and purposefully obfuscates meaning, but there is obviously some deep theological and artistic significance to this reference, and it is also absurdly comical in its trashy nature.

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Contrast this moment with one later in the film in which Mr. Oscar meets up with a former scene partner (and perhaps lover) on the way to one of his last assignments. In this scene, Lavant plays Mr. Oscar naturalistically, free of any of his previous affections. He has been aged up for the role, but otherwise isn’t heavily made up. He and Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) reminisce about their work and time together as they leisurely explore an abandoned and crumbling hotel. The faded opulence surrounding the characters reflects the maudlin song that Eva Grace sings, the refrain of which, “Who were we when we were who we were back then?” in turn reflects the shifting nature of these characters’ identities. Who, indeed, were they when they were important to one another, and what weight does that importance really carry if they were only playing out roles. The camera largely follows Eva Grace with Mr. Oscar following behind her, somnambulant, reticent. It’s a far cry from the aggression and grotesquery with which Lavant played M. Merde. It’s fitting, though, and shows off his range well. Though little is made explicit about their relationship in the scene, the tenderness with which Mr. Oscar holds Eva Grace, and the devotion in his eyes when he watches her perform the song tell the tale well enough.  Minogue’s windswept performance is every bit as dramatic as something from a Hollywood musical, and the brief scene gives the film its heart, without ever delving into the details of the pair’s history. Carax is able to create a swell of feeling by manipulating a combination of these great subdued performances, Minogue’s expressive singing voice, a beautiful swell of well-timed strings, and a deeply evocative setting. It’s movie-making 101. Coming near the end of a film that has so wildly veered into experimental territory, this conventional scene surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place, but on the contrary provides the film with its emotional climax.

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Though its surrealist veneer and artsy trappings would likely prove difficult for many viewers to overcome, Holy Motors is the type of varied movie experience that anyone who likes movies should be able to draw some enjoyment from. It contains a handful of moments of high drama, a lot of absurdist comedy as well as sharp satire, and it borrows liberally from science fiction, horror, and action films. It’s a broad and multi-faceted piece of art that seeks to examine why people choose the distractions and the entertainments that they do, and whether film as an entertainment has the hold on the collective imagination in the 21st century that it did in the century before. In addition to being so rich with meaning for cineastes, the film is well-acted, visually sumptuous, and thematically engaging. While not every viewer might respond to the film’s metaphor of the cinema as an aging and dying art form, surely most can relate to Mr. Oscar’s concerns about his own obsolescence as he transitions into middle age, or to Céline’s obvious care and concern for Mr. Oscar, a man who she can never really know. If nothing else, its individual vignettes provide brief moments of engagement that, when taken separately, don’t add up to much, but prove that even the most esoteric of films is an entertainment, because the process of engaging with movies is fun. What makes Holy Motors successful is that even its most absurdist moments are grounded in a bedrock of strong realism, and that as convoluted as its structure and narrative might become, it continues to draw inspiration from the familiar tropes of genre films. It’s a reach for me to say that Holy Motors is accessible, because it really isn’t, but it’s so richly rewarding that I just want more people to see it. It’s the type of movie that reminds me why I fell in love with movies to begin with. It’s a big, all-encompassing, genre-bending work of art, and I want it to get as much admiration as possible.