Monthly Archives: April 2014
by Steve Habrat
Over the past four years, the once-glorious production company Hammer Films has been slowly trying re-establish itself in the horror genre. From the 1950s through the early-1970s, Hammer enjoyed financial and critical success with gothic horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and many more terrifying classics that have amassed legions of devoted fans over the years. By the late-1970s, Hammer’s popularity had started to diminish, and the company slowly faded from the public’s eye. After many years of silence, Hammer Films returned in 2010 with Let Me In, a spooky remake of the celebrated 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In. Between 2010 and 2012, Hammer released two smaller films before returning to the mainstream with The Woman in Black, another eerie release that suggested that the company still had a few terrifying ghouls kicking around in their cobwebbed crypts. After another two-year wait, Hammer continues its comeback campaign with The Quiet Ones, a stale haunted house thriller that clumsily attempts to run with the countless other “found-footage” horror movies that have been quickly churned out. Though The Quiet Ones may not be as scary as recent supernatural offerings like Insidious, The Innkeepers, The Conjuring, or Oculus, the film is executed with plenty of chiaroscuro elegance, and it reveals that star Jared Harris was born to be a member of the Hammer family—one that consisted of gentlemanly greats like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Oliver Reed.
The Quiet Ones picks up in Oxford, 1974, with Professor Joseph Coupland (played by Jared Harris) enlisting the help of a student cameraman by the name of Brian McNeil (played by Sam Claflin) to help with an unorthodox experiment being conducting on campus. The experiment involves a young girl named Jane Harper (played by Olivia Cooke), who believes that a nasty spirit by the name of Evey has possessed her. It turns out that Coupland rejects theories about the supernatural, and that he is convinced that he can cure Jane through advanced scientific methods. After the university unexpectedly cuts funding for the experiment, Brian, Coupland, and his two student assistants, Krissi (played by Erin Richards) and Harry (played by Rory Fleck-Byrne), travel to a secluded country mansion where the group can work without disruption. Things get off to a relatively uneventful start, but soon, Jane’s condition worsens as Coupland draws out the sinister forces within her. As the spirit of Evey grows more and more dangerous, Brian discovers a horrific secret about Jane’s past that will change the course of the experiment and threaten the lives of everyone involved.
With The Quiet Ones, Hammer reveals that they are well aware of the gimmicks that have been dominating the horror market for the past several years. Scattered about the film is Hammer’s trademark gothic set design and gloomy atmosphere weighing heavily on the action. Frankly, the film gets far flashing Hammer’s calling card, and you get the impression that if director John Pogue had solely committed to the gothic blueprint, The Quiet Ones would have been an old-fashioned success. After all, Hammer found an audience with a taste for undead ghouls, Frankenstein monsters, and gentlemanly vampires in the ‘50s, a time when atomic monsters, extraterrestrials, and giant bugs were the hot ticket at local movie palaces and drive-ins. What would prevent it from working in the smartphone age? Sadly, where The Quiet Ones drops the ball is with the application of the “found footage” approach that has been sweeping through American horror movies. While it is exciting to think that Hammer is attempting to modernize itself a bit, it quickly becomes obvious that it’s here simply to allow Hammer to run with the current big boys of horror. What is even more frustrating is the fact that the filmmakers are clearly experimenting with this technique and had absolutely no idea how to apply it properly. It’s painfully clumsy and only twice does the film milk any suspense from this approach. However, the impact of both sequences is softened by cheap jump scares that just come off as lazy and pathetic. You mean to tell us that Hammer—a company that made some seriously silly, low-budget junk work splendidly in their heyday—couldn’t devise any new or creative ways to make the audience tremble with fear?!
While the throwaway “found footage” gimmick and the jump scares keep The Quiet Ones from standing out in the crowd, the film does reveal that Jared Harris could very well be Hammer’s new Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. He is charismatic and gentlemanly, yet he is capable of awakening an inner slumbering madman when poked hard enough. Late in the film there are hints of Cushing’s unhinged Dr. Frankenstein, as he resorts to extreme measures to carry out his sinister work. Harris really charges up the film even in its slower moments, and he is able to largely cover for the more amateurish performances from the rest of the fresh-faced cast. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s Sam Claflin is probably the best of the young talent as Brian, the group’s skeptical cameraman who slowly develops feelings for the tortured Jane Harper. He’s a vanilla hero—that no one can deny—but he succeeds in remaining watchable for the duration of the film. And then we have Olivia Cooke, who physically channels Christina Ricci’s Wednesday from The Addam’s Family. Her performance is a glob of clichés as she hovers over a creepy doll and plucks its hair out, or stares blankly through sleepy eyes and rambles on about Evey, the spirit who has called her body home. The weakest links are undoubtedly Erin Richards, who stumbles her way around the feisty hippie Krissi, and Rory Fleck-Byrne, who’s Harry is present only to add slight bits of exposition for the cutting-edge methods the group is experimenting with.
While Harris puts forth considerable effort to salvage The Quiet Ones, more damage is done through the film’s lackluster finale, which crashes and then literally burns right in front of our eyes. The script finds the team of screenwriters—which includes Pogue, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, and Tom de Ville—looking back and paying tribute to Hammer’s satanic/occult offerings from the mid-1970s. The ghosts of films such as The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter clank and bang around in the darkness, but the climax can’t match the sleazier thrills of those memorable releases. One the positive side, the film’s cinematography looks fantastic, and the chiaroscuro wash keeps you from drifting off into the abyss of boredom. In true Hammer fashion, The Quiet Ones is also extremely tight and low budget, which allows the film to remain in the tradition of their early horror work. Overall, it’s a thrill to see Hammer’s name back on the big screen, but The Quiet Ones ends up being a step backwards for a company that had made considerable strides in re-establishing themselves. You can’t fault them for attempting to appeal to the new generation of horror fans, but they should be embarrassed that they didn’t attempt to bring anything new to this supernatural séance.
by Steve Habrat
By this point, you know if you’re a proud member of the Wes Anderson fan club. After films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, you know if you’ve developed a taste for his meticulously organized frames, quirky casts of characters, dry sense of humor, and surprisingly touching dramatics. If you’re one that hasn’t been tickled by Anderson’s cinematic efforts, don’t expect anything to change with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which finds the auteur indulging his whimsical artistry like a kid in a candy store. With all of the usual traits in place, Anderson sends the audience spiraling through a small slice of history—one fashioned from the winking cartoonish touches that Anderson has become noted and celebrated for. While this zany murder mystery is contagiously colorful and cute even in its raunchier moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fuzzy tribute to storytelling, and a sugary tribute to classic slapstick comedy of years past presented to the viewer in 1.33 aspect ratio, common in silent cinema, which appears to be a major influence here. And then there is his cast, a list bursting at the seams with fresh and familiar faces ready to take a big bite out of the oddball creations that Anderson has scribbled up for them.
The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes), the beloved concierge of the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, nestled in the snowy mountains of the Republic of Zubrowka. The tale picks up in 1932, with young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (played by Tony Revolori) arriving at The Grand Budapest Hotel and having his first encounters with Gustave H. It turns out that Gustave H was carrying on an affair with a wealthy elderly woman named Madame D (played by Tilda Swinton), who, while visit Gustave H, reveals that she has a premonition that something bad is going to happen. Despite Madame D’s concerns, Gustave H laughs off her premonition, but a few weeks later, Madame D turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. Together, Gustave H and Zero travel to Madame D’s home, where her will is read to a house full of grieving friends and family members. Much to the horror of the guests, Madame D’s will states that she is leaving him a coveted painting called “Boy with Apple,” something that enraged her son, Dmitri (played by Adrien Brody), who vows to come after Gustave H. After making off with “Boy with Apple” and returning to the hotel, things get worse for Gustave H when authorities led by Inspector Henckels (played by Edward Norton) arrive to arrest him for the death of Madame D. Stuck behind bars and with Zubrowka on the brink of war, Gustave H races to escape from prison and prove his innocence with the help of Zero and some unlikely inmates. Meanwhile, a shadowy assassin called J.P. Jopling (played by Willem Dafoe) closes in on Gustave H and those closest to him.
There isn’t a shot in The Grand Budapest Hotel that isn’t littered with Anderson’s cinematic fingerprints. Nearly each and every frame is neatly arranged down to the fussy tilts of a pencil or the messy stack of legal documents. It’s unmistakably Anderson to the point where if you scrubbed his name from the credits, it wouldn’t take the audience long to figure out that it sprouted from his distinct imagination. There are the tracking shots that explore the inside of The Grand Budapest Hotel as if someone sliced it down the center and peered into it like a dollhouse. There are also the glaringly artificial miniatures, which Anderson presents with his expected winks and grins. Though what sets The Grand Budapest Hotel apart from other Anderson fare is the nods to classic cinema, particularly silent slapstick comedies. The Grand Budapest Hotel could be muted and converted to black and white, have intertitles placed strategically throughout, and the film would work marvelously as a silent comedy. There are also a number of chase sequences throughout the film, the most outstanding—and vaguely Hitchcockian/German Expressionist—is a shadowy game of cat-and-mouse through a museum between Dafoe’s vampiric thug J.P. Jopling and Jeff Goldblum’s lawyer, Deputy Vilmos Kovacs. It’s the highlight of the picture, followed closely by a snowy ski chase that keeps you doubled over in laughter over how preposterous the action is.
As usual, Anderson enlists the help of an ensemble cast, many of which will be familiar to Anderson aficionados. The newcomer here is Fiennes, who takes great pleasure in applying his gentlemanly demeanor to Gustave H, the flamboyant concierge who sleeps with elderly woman, gags at the thought of drinking cheap wine, and is bound-and-determined not to become the “candyass” in prison. Fiennes is exquisite, but hot on his coattails is Dafoe, who excels in the role of the stocky assassin J.P. Jopling, a brick of a man who sports skull rings on each one of his fingers and mercilessly tosses cats out of windows. Other standouts include Norton’s dweebie Inspector Henckles, the barely-recognizable Swinton as the elderly Madame D (she’s basically an extended cameo that acts more as a visual chuckle), and Revolori’s Zero, Gustave H’s young sidekick who inks on his pencil-thin mustache and essential acts as our guide through the halls of the hotel. There are a number of other cameos from faces you’d expect to see, although, the most severely underused is Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha, Zero’s birth marked love interest who isn’t give much to do yet acts as a huge emotional weight. Overall, though The Grand Budapest Hotel may not rank as my favorite Wes Anderson picture, and it may not be as funny or tender as some of his previous work, it’s still an enchanting ode to the art of storytelling (it concludes with a nod to Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig), and to the eternal joys of silent cinema.
by Steve Habrat
In 2009, Hollywood revived the supernatural horror film with Paranormal Activity, the “found footage” hit that spawned four lucrative sequels. While the Paranormal Activity series has rapidly descended into a bloated cash grab, the upside is that it shifted America’s attention away from the torture porn craze and the disastrous Saw franchise. Since 2009, the ghostly scares of Paranormal Activity have drifted into other, better horror movies that have scared the pants off moviegoers, and audiences just haven’t been able to get enough. Most recently, the biggest hit has been last summer’s The Conjuring, the retro haunted house blockbuster that turned out to be one of the spookiest horror movies of recent memory. Now, less than a year after The Conjuring haunted movie theaters, comes director Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, a micro-budgeted effort that boasts a clever script, careful pacing, and some hair-raising moments of terror that don’t rely on loud blasts of music to send you to the ceiling. While some impatient viewers may find the mind-bending Oculus way too slow for their instant gratification taste, the snail’s-pace at which the film moves really mounts the tension and allows the filmmakers to play with the viewer’s mind.
Oculus begins in the present day, with twenty-one year old Tim Russell (played by Brenton Thwaites) being released from a mental institution after serving eleven years for the murder of his father, Alan (played by Rory Cochrane), after he witnessed him murder his mother, Marie (played by Katee Sackhoff) and attempt to kill his older sister. Simultaneously, Tim’s older sister, Kayie Russell (played by Karen Gillan), has been tracking down an ominous mirror that had once hung in their father’s home office, and that is believed to have caused a string of bizarre mental breakdowns and deaths everywhere it has hung. Desperate to prove that Tim was innocent of the murder, Kaylie devises an experiment to prove to the authorities that their father didn’t just snap—that there are supernatural forces that emerge from the mirror and drive anyone nearby out of their mind. Reluctantly receiving help from Tim, Kaylie begins trying to prove her theory about the mirror and the murder, but the supernatural forces appear to be laying dormant, at least at first. As the night goes on, reality begins to distort, ghostly apparitions appear, secrets from that horrific night are uncovered, and the sibling’s sanity is pushed to the breaking point.
Much like The Conjuring, Oculus is far from a lazy horror film. It doesn’t simply rely on loud noises or fake-out scares to get a jump from the audience. (There isn’t one loud bang or deafening musical cue to be found.) It has faith in its visual scares, which range from roaming apparitions with eyes like mirrors to more standard gore fare like ripped out fingernails, oozing C-section scars, and one character accidentally biting into a light bulb rather than the apple that they were previously snacking on. Nearly all of it nabs the groans that it is out to elicit, especially every single scene involving some sort of fingernail mutilation. (Flanagan must have a thing for it much like Italian horror director Lucio Fulci had a fetish for eye mutilation.) While the visual scares do have spunk, the distorted realities and unraveling mysteries that make up the center of Oculus are what really have the audience gripping their armrests. Flanagan masterfully flits between past and present, allowing the events of both to mesh together to the point where the audience isn’t sure what are the mirror’s demonic tricks and what is reality. What makes it even more nerve-racking is the fact that it remains strictly in the confines of Russell home. There is nowhere to run except up the stairs, and there is nowhere to hide except for the bathroom or the closet.
While the slow pace is sure to bore the pre-teens in the back row, where the yawns really stem from are the lifeless performances from our leads. Gillan’s Kaylie hurries around with wide eyes and muttering cryptic remarks to her husband about how everything will be all right once she confronts this mirror. Things improve slightly with Thwaites, who tries to rationalize the events that took place eleven years earlier, but he largely disappears into the sea of new up-and-coming actors all looking to be the next Taylor Lautner—who he shares a mild resemblance with—or Robert Pattinson. Together, Gillan and Thwaites are a ball of forced trauma, as they carry out rehearsed bickering over the mirror and it’s rumored supernatural powers. To make things worse on the two leads, they manage to be overshadowed by the younger versions of themselves, portrayed strongly by Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso. Then there is Rory Cochrane’s terrifying turn as Alan, the sibling’s deranged, cherubic-faced father who wanders around the home aiming a pistol and warning the children, “I have seen my demons and they are many. I have seen the devil and he is me.” He’s an overwhelmingly dark and erratic presence as the mirror’s spirits guide him around the shadows and seduce him into evil. Rounding out the main cast is Sackhoff’s Marie, the distraught mother who is convinced that Alan is having an affair and who predictably drowns her sorrows in bottle after bottle of wine. Her performance does have some bite (despite her missing teeth) when she endures Alan’s torture, which includes chains and a broken plate.
What ultimately sets Oculus apart from a good majority of horror movies today is the way it resists the temptation to constantly pay homage to classic supernatural horror movies that came before it. It’s not bogged down by tips of the hat, which usually tickle those in the audience with extensive knowledge of the horror genre. (I confess to be one of these individuals that is charmed by a sly homage or geeky reference.) This reluctance to constantly pay tribute allows the flow of the film to remain uninterrupted and leaves Oculus feeling strangely refreshing in a genre that thrives on name familiarity. The film also excites through its brainy script, co-written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, who really understand that confusion and disorientation can really up the tension levels. It’s a constant guessing game with Oculus, and it becomes increasingly absorbing as it unfolds. Where Flanagan and Howard go wrong—and you have to wonder if there wasn’t studio pressure here—is with the climax of the film. It leaves the door wide open for a sequel, and it hints that the studios are crossing their fingers for another cash cow series that will make money on (*gulp) name familiarity. Overall, it’s plagued by a handful of flaws and it may not be quite as scary or entertaining as James Wan’s The Conjuring, but Oculus is still a shrewd little horror movie that suggests that director Mike Flanagan is a talent to keep an eye on.
by Steve Habrat
Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.
Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.
Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.
As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.
The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.
With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.