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Gothika (Frank's Take)

01/01/2004. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

Buy Gothika in the USA - or Buy Gothika in the UK

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Who says that an overwrought and absurd horror/suspense thriller blessed with a stellar cast cannot be appealing in its occasional lapses? Frank gets scary with his latest movie review.

Gothika (2003) Warner Brothers 1 hour. 34 minutes. Starring: Halle Berry, Robert Downey, Jr., Charles S. Dutton, Penelope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Dorian Harewood Directed by: Mathieu Kassovitz.

Who says that an overwrought and absurd horror/suspense thriller blessed with a stellar cast cannot be appealing in its occasional lapses? Well, French actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz (acted in Amelie; directed La Haine) proves this very same point by conjuring up this convoluted creepy display in his American debut piece Gothika.

Although sparsely intriguing and glossy in its stylistic and visually enhancing presentation, Kassovitz's mental illness scarefest feels very exploitative and awfully silly-minded in its gimmicky gumption. Whatever chintzy scare tactics that Kassovitz employs in this ridiculously jumpy mind-altering pseudo-thriller, Gothika is not aided properly thanks to screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez's labored and spotty script that insists on piling on the hackneyed horror-themed clichés without trying to spearhead a solid and sinister frightfest full of shockingly fresh vigor.

One wouldn't necessarily blame the Oscar-winning eye candy actress Halle Berry for trying to take on the challenge of breaking into a boo-oriented psychological genre and letting the chips fall where they may. However, the talented Berry is inexplicably reduced to running around frantically while aimlessly shouting at the top of her lungs in mundane material that fails to entice or enthrall too convincingly.

Having Berry prance around in revealing clothing that wouldn't properly cover a department store mannequin probably wouldn't get much argument from satisfied hormonal onlookers (nor should it) but this does in fact cheapen the respectability of Berry's so-called credible heroine in the name of the perplexed Dr. Miranda Gray.

As this story unfolds, we're introduced to Berry's Miranda Gray whose professional practices as a therapy psychiatrist at Woodward Penitentiary for the insane is praised due to her outstanding work and reputation. In fact, Miranda just happens to be married to this facility's chief physician on staff named Douglas (Charles S. Dutton). Miranda has in her charge at this prison hospital a seemingly delusional patient named Chloe (Penelope Cruz).

Chloe has made some startling accusations that she has been repeatedly accosted by a mysterious Satanic figurehead. Naturally, Miranda is quite concerned about Chloe's revelations but hubby Douglas dismisses this whole act as mere hallucinating hogwash. Apparently, Miranda is not too enthusiastic about the suspect care of the guinea pig patients at Woodward, particularly when it comes to the issue of medication abuse. Somehow, her boss and better half Doug cops an indifferent attitude to the concerns of his young, desirable wife.

Soon, Miranda is about to experience her own surrealistic surge. While driving home one dreary and dark rainy evening, the shapely shrink encounters somewhat of a haunting spirit that spontaneously pops up out of nowhere and puts her in some trance-like state of mind. Before one can utter the phrase "boo", Miranda wakes up from her fainting spell to find herself in one of the prison hospital's squalor-induced cells.

Understandably disoriented, Miranda is fishing for answers as to why she's incarcerated and what took place before she landed in such a predicament. Her colleague, Dr. Peter Graham (Robert Downey, Jr.), informs his troubled coworker that her lock up is warranted because of the alleged brutal slaying of her husband Douglas.

There are noticeable feelings that Peter possesses for the periled Miranda. Now the misunderstood and maligned Miranda has to figure out how to beat the rap regarding her presumed axe-wielding tirade that claimed the life of her departed spouse.

Gothika doesn't seem to mind its edgy yet outlandish premise. The way Kassovitz tosses about the gory goings-on in this sketchy supernatural mystery suggests that the filmmaker is content with kicking around moody smoking mirrors and nothing else. There's no doubt that Kassovitz's narrative is dressed up with the throbbing flourishes that incorporates Matthew Libatique's unique cinematography touch or the enriching dank aura of Graham Walker's production design.

To say the least, Gothika is suitably atmospheric and wants to tap into that psychological realm that fearlessly examines the depth of sanity. Unfortunately, Kassovitz's technique is rather clumsy if not heavy-handed in its efforts to portray itself as a first-rate suspense vehicle. Folks, this is nothing but an elaborate and hokey grade B thrills-and-chills anemic sideshow that poses also as a disjointed and watered down whodunit.

With a top-notch cast led by the normally resilient and quite fetching Ms. Berry, Gothika is plagued by more than a frazzled blonde-haired figment of a ghostly hussy misbehaving. The dire intentions of the proceedings here inspire no real surprises or sense of urgency to bring us to our compelling knees.

The dialogue is relentlessly moronic and the shock value has all the heft of a nun sticking up her middle finger in anger. The preposterous spectacle of seeing Berry's harried Dr. Miranda being manipulated by her bad-tempered ghost gal is quite laughable. She freaks out uncontrollably and her free-for-all frenzied routine is supposed to make us accept this monstrous mayhem as something overwhelming in its inherent vibes.

As Berry's alter ego is tortured by her demonic force that doesn't mind flinging her left and right like some neglected ragdoll in her claustrophobic cell, we're wondering just how desperate the movie handlers want us to buy into this chaotic and cockeyed mess.

The energy behind Gothika simply morphs into some generic redemption thriller we've all seen hundreds of times before where the main principle swears that they will get to the bottom of this pending dilemma that threatens their good name. The formula works more often than not but usually in the specific case of a cheesy produced cable TV movie.

The session becomes utterly monotonous as Berry's respectable doctor gets dragged down and becomes the vulnerable patient courtesy of a bizarre happenstance. See Miranda forcibly succumb to anti-psychotic drugs. See Miranda make an escape attempt away from the doomed venue in order to search for clues stemming from her own depravity.

See Miranda become humiliated by the psych ward itching to see this brainiac babe get her holier than thou comeuppance. See Miranda strut around in a skimpy T-shirt amongst her less attractive cellmates and prison guards looking to make the delicious-looking doc pay for her privileged pretty self. As the hysterical drama dribbles and drabbles ad nauseam, we cannot help but to witness just how lazy and uneventful Kassovitz is in his mission to borrow from just about every other stimulating contemporary thriller that has hit the big screen within recent memory.

Gothika has no patience for logic and insists on trudging along with its long-winded madness of disillusioned characterizations that go through the typical motions of despair and distrust. Berry's Miranda Gray is an overworked pro whose helplessness defines her in key moments but we're never really convinced of her wounded psyche the way we were with her pronounced desperation in her Academy Award-winning turn in Monster's Ball.

Downey Jr. is given to us in limited doses so his persona of the lovesick Dr. Peter that pines for Miranda's affection doesn't register as much. Another Miranda Gray admirer, the local sheriff (John Carroll Lynch), can't seem to express his emotions for the trophy wife of his late close friend Dr. Douglas Gray either.

Cruz's portrayal of the tainted patient Chloe whose footsie-playing with the devil on the side is sympathetic and the real source of vulnerability that the movie could have promoted more heavily as she was fabulously interesting in her angst-ridden mode.

The nuance of this nightmarish nonsense is lacking and the predictable steps toward the film's finale certainly doesn't help elevate the lackluster lunacy that Kassovitz mistakes as a caustic and whirling wonderment of mind-bending pathos.

It's a safe bet that the ravishing Halle Berry won't be clutching her second best actress Oscar for this high-maintenance hair-raising hokum.

Frank Ochieng

(c) Frank Ochieng 2004

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