Saturday, July 27, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE SILENCE (2013); VEHICLE 19 (2013); and THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES (2013)

(Germany - 2010; 2013 US release)

It took three years to find a US distributor, but the German import THE SILENCE was worth the wait.  In a chilling prologue set in 1986, two pedophiles--apartment-building maintenance man Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) and university math student Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring)--follow 11-year-old Pia (Helene Doppler).  Peer rapes her in a field while Timo watches.  When Pia fights back, Peer repeatedly hits her in the head until she dies.  A horrified Timo sits in the car in shock as Peer dumps the body in a lake and without even telling Peer, immediately packs his bags and leaves town.  Pia's bicycle and headphones are found in the field and when her body is discovered some weeks later, a memorial is placed in the field by her mother Elena (Katrin Sass).  23 years later, her murder remains unsolved, and on the anniversary of her disappearance, 13-year-old Sinikka (Anna-Lena Clenke) has a fight with her parents and is later ditched by her friends at a carnival.  She then goes missing, with her bicycle and gym bag left in the same spot as Pia's memorial.  Retiring cop Mittich (Burghart Klaussner) is still bothered that he was never able to close the Pia case and is certain Sinikka is dead and it's the work of the same killer.  The investigation is mostly left to the shaky Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg), who's still mourning the death of his wife from cancer, sometimes even blacking out and waking up in her dresses.  The coincidences of both cases create a media frenzy, and guilt-ridden Timo, now a successful architect with a wife and two kids, journeys back to the town to find Peer, convinced he's recreated the crime.  Peer is still working and living at the same building and is happy to see his friend again, even inviting him in to watch kiddie porn.  Peer denies he's responsible for Sinikka's disappearance and that Pia was "a one-time thing," but Timo isn't buying it, and as the cops re-interview potential witnesses and go back through the case files, Jahn doesn't think the parts add up.  And Timo is faced with the dilemma of going to the cops with his suspicions about Peer's involvement in the new crime, which will then expose his own sickness and complicity in the 1986 case.

Writer/director Baran Bo Odar, working from a novel by Jan Costin Wagner, has about an eight-hour miniseries' worth of plot to deal with (I didn't even get into Mittich's affair with Elena, or all the other weird things Jahn does as part of the grieving process) in just two hours, but does a commendable job of keeping the dark, grim story clear, concise, and captivating.  There's a definite Friedrich Durrenmatt feel to the story, particularly with the Mittich character, but the film is more about the effect of the dead/missing girls on the people left behind--the families who loved them, the police who want to bring the perps to justice, and the perps who have to live with what they've done.   It's a powerful film about guilt, grief, regret, and loneliness.  Everyone is damaged and hurting.  It's also very refreshing to see a plot take an unexpected direction and have it play very naturally as opposed to a hackneyed, shoehorned-in twist ending.  The wrap-up is unexpected, but it's a plausible unexpected.  THE SILENCE is very downbeat and depressing, but it's superbly-crafted and the ensemble cast is excellent.  Music Box Films only opened this on 11 screens in the US, but it's worth seeking out.  (Unrated, 119 mins)

(US/South Africa/Germany - 2013)

With some down time between FAST & FURIOUS sequels and doing Vin Diesel's laundry, Paul Walker headed to South Africa to shoot this barely-released thriller that offers the novel concept of the actor being chased in a vehicle.  Arriving in Johannesburg to meet up with his estranged girlfriend who's giving him one last chance, American ex-con Michael Wells (Walker) is mistakenly given a mini-van at the airport car rental office but since he's in a hurry, he decides to keep it.  First he's stuck in a traffic jam and his girlfriend doesn't believe him, then he finds a phone in the glove compartment and a gun under the seat.  A cop calls him and says there was a mix-up at the rental office and that his car was intended for a cop on an undercover assignment, that they have his car and that they need to meet to make an exchange.  On his way to meet the cop, Michael discovers a bound and gagged woman stowed away in the storage area behind the backseat.  She's local prosecutor Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean), who recently disappeared after starting a crusade against corrupt Johannesburg cops.  Michael soon realizes that the cops are going to kill her and frame him for it and finds himself a wanted man in a strange land as the cops start a citywide manhunt, forcing him to clear his name and blah blah blah.

Writer/director Mukunda Michael Dewil tries to do something a little different and sets almost the entire film inside the mini-van, but it never really establishes the claustrophobic tension of a PHONE BOOTH or a BURIED.  Dewil shows little sense of pacing and the film manages to be deadly dull despite the urgency of the situation.  Also, too many details are simply glossed over:  why is Michael's girlfriend in Johannesburg?  Why do they have to start their life over there?  Does she transfer to a job there?  Who knows?  How can Michael so easily violate his parole and board a plane in the US, headed for a foreign country and then effortlessly pass through customs?  It's also amazing how quickly Michael acclimates himself to driving on the opposite side of the car and the road.  After nearly killing someone because of the driving confusion, he's eating a Twinkie, slurping a juice box, and talking on the phone in heavy Johannesburg traffic in no time.  I also love how he's given directions and has no idea where anything is, and just drives around the huge, bustling city hoping he'll find his destination.  Add to that a frustrating non-ending, clich├ęd dialogue ("I'm a man with nothin' to lose!" Michael tells the taunting cop on the phone), and a bland Walker performance and there's little reason to see the forgettable VEHICLE 19.  (R, 85 mins)

(US - 2013)

Originally titled JEFF--a title I actually like a lot more--this documentary approaches the story of the infamous Milwaukee cannibal/serial killer from the perspective of three people whose lives were changed by their involvement in the 1992 case:  medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, homicide detective Pat Kennedy, and Pamela Bass, who lived in the apartment across the hall from Dahmer.  All three are remarkably candid in their memories of Dahmer--Kennedy, who spent hours in an interrogation room with Dahmer, even admits part of him empathized with the killer, and Bass expresses anger when she found out about the house of horrors across the hall, still unsettled by the memories of occasional lunches she had with her introverted but friendly neighbor, saying "We'd have a beer, and he would make sandwiches...I've probably eaten someone's body parts."  Director Chris James Thompson incorporates re-enactments with co-writer Andrew Swant as Dahmer that play a lot like a mumblecore take on Dahmer's day-to-day life, buying several gallons of bleach at the grocery store, inquiring about buying huge barrels, sitting at the bus stop, etc.  The style of the staged footage is probably what attracted IFC Films to pick this up, and while it's interesting, with the facts presented quite bluntly ("There were containers with penises in them"), there's nothing really cinematic about THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES.  Given its rather short length, it plays a lot like the kind of true crime doc that you see all over cable on the weekends.  Consistently engrossing--how can anything about the Dahmer story not be?--and it offers a sometimes unique perspective on a subject that's been covered to death, but we're not talking Errol Morris-level documentary filmmaking here. (Unrated, 76 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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