'Heartless' - Directed by Philip Ridley - England

'Heartless' starts strong, with its story of the young man Jamie (Jim Sturgess) crippled with shyness over a conspicuous heart-shaped birthmark that takes up a good portion of his face and the hooded demons he notices as they commit violent crime in London's back alleys. It's shot well, the demons provide some early, freaky moments of horror, and Sturgess makes for a sympathetic, interesting lead character. Then, it all sort of goes downhill.

Writer/director Philip Ridley seems to be attempting a Neil Gaiman-esque story of a disaffected youth whose life is altered by colorful, supernatural characters, but doesn't appear to have a specific goal he's working toward narratively. When Gaiman approaches material like this, no matter how fantastic and unbelievable things get, its obvious he's building to something. Ridley's approach is more kitchen sink, tossing everything into a hodge-podge of murky motivations and half-baked concepts that never really pay off, in the hopes that something, anything, will work.

There's so much spiritual, otherworldly mumbo-jumbo going on (most of it revolving around a Faustian pact with the Devil, here named Papa B, and his pre-pubescent Indian princess sidekick, who, inexplicably, starts referring to Jamie as "dad"), that when Ridley tries to wrap things up with a big, emotional ending involving Jamie's dead father, nothing on screen feels earned. Worse, nothing on screen feels rewarding by this point. While ambitious, 'Heartless' derails in a big way, stacking the deck with weird moments intended to give it some kind of cult status, without considering that films specifically designed to be "cult" are rarely the ones that actually are.




'Kidnapped' (AKA 'Secuestrados' AKA 'Hostages') - Directed by Miguel Angel Vivas - Spain

If you need to challenge your personal threshold for watching realistic human suffering, then look no further than this nihilistic Spanish home invasion thriller. 'Funny Games' meets Brian De Palma would be an apt description for the gimmicky 'Kidnapped,' the harrowing tale of an affluent family forced to turn over all of their cash to violent hooded thugs. Vivas treats his characters (and the audience) rough, unleashing a tiresome feature-length onslaught of relentless tears, screaming, and sobbing amidst occasional bursts of queasy shock-value violence.

The most reprehensible part of the affair is that it forces you to suffer along with the family for one single, remarkable technical moment; a split-screen camera move that is the film's centerpiece and the only real pay-off for so much rampant ugliness. Vivas himself seems immediately disinterested in his own film after he pulls off his De Palma trick, and concludes the movie with such obvious disregard for his own characters and his audience, that the only natural response, whether you like the film or not, is to leave the theatre completely shell-shocked.


'Primal' - Directed by Josh Reed - Australia

'Primal's' set-up is a familiar one for horror fans -- a group of young adults brave a remote wilderness for a camping weekend, and things go horribly, horribly wrong. Don't they always?

And in this way, 'Primal' is a bit like creature feature comfort food -- a reliable old shoe of a monster movie, that delivers where it counts, with simple genre goals and an able and willing cast. 'Primal' starts with a centuries-old evil in the woods, warned about through the cave paintings of ancient man, but here in the modern day, shortly after one of the fresh-faced gals on the trip takes a dip in a murky pond, 'Primal' soon becomes the world's best anti-skinny dipping PSA.

There's not a bit of the film that feels new, but there's not a bit that feels dumb either, and that's refreshing. As monster movies go, 'Primal' ends up being worthwhile through its own simplicity. Pretty people get killed in bloody ways while trying to save themselves from a vicious, unexplained threat. The end. The old formula works when done right, and Josh Reed and company do it right. 'Primal' is a lean, mean killing machine, and it doesn't want to be anything else.