I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House


Ruth Wilson looks for clues.

Ruth Wilson looks for clues.

(2016) Gothic Horror (Netflix) Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Lucy Boynton, Bob Balaban, Brad Milne, Erin Boyes. Directed by Oz Perkins

 

Haunted houses are a part of our culture, both in the West and in the East. Spirits of the departed that remain behind, sad and sometimes angry, have a delicious fascination for us. Perhaps it is a part of our morbid nature, our obsession with death – after all, we’re all going to die eventually and we are fearful of that unknown. Sometimes that fear becomes something more.

Lily Saylor (Wilson) is a hospice nurse come to a clapboard home at the end of Teacup Lane in Braintree, Massachusetts (home to founding fathers John Adams and John Hancock) to care for Iris Blum (Prentiss), an infirm woman who was once a famous writer of horror stories, a sort of distaff Stephen King (or a latter day Shirley Jackson to be more accurate). Lily takes over the care and feeding of Ms. Blum at the behest of Mr. Waxcap (Balaban), the estate executor.

Almost as soon as she settles in she gets a sense that things are a bit off in the house. Although the house looks spic and span (and she takes great pains to make sure it remains that way), there is evidence that the house is beginning to show it’s age (it was built in the 19th century if not earlier) with walls warping somewhat and soon, a bloom of black mold appears on one of the walls. Then there is the tapping sound that manifests in the night and sound like they’re coming from inside the walls. And Lily is annoyed that Ms. Blum habitually calls her Polly. Who is this Polly that her charge has confused Lily with?

Lily investigates and discovers that a brutal murder took place in the house many years before; a young bride (Boynton) was killed by her groom (Milne) on her wedding day. The bride’s name was Polly. Furthermore, Iris wrote a book about it, The Lady in the Walls. The book’s conceit was that a writer was communicating with the murdered bride but the communications mysteriously stopped. Lily attempts to read the book but is soon unable to continue; a sensitive soul, she is easily frightened. That’s not such a good thing in a house like this.

One of the most difficult subgenres of horror to do is the Gothic horror. Gothic depends heavily on atmosphere and creating that atmosphere of foreboding requires a great deal of patience. You have to have the right cinematographer and Perkins chose a doozy in Julie Kirkwood. She not only has a terrific eye but she also understands the mechanics of what makes a great atmosphere; slow camera movements that never jerk the audience around when the camera moves at all, angles that are unsettling without being overt, and a palate of white and goldenrod, making the film look not so much washed out but like an antique photograph. The result is that the movie looks like you’re looking back in time (in fact the scenes are set in what appears to be somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s) at tragic events unfolding.

That sense of foreboding is set right off the bat with Lily’s narration. “The pretty thing you’re looking at is me. Of this I am sure. My name is Lily Saylor. I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago I turned 28 years old. I will never be 29 years old.” The narration is for the most part pretty flowery which at times can be eye-rolling. It is also delivered in a flat monotone, as if Wilson is reading a book aloud which adds to the creepiness.

Wilson has shown some pretty sizable acting chops, particularly in the BBC series Luther but here she’s oddly lifeless, as if she’s already become a ghost and is simply awaiting the formalities. I would have also liked to get a bit more backstory from her – we are led to understand that she’d been involved in a romantic relationship but it ended badly – and a little more emotion from Wilson. Then again, it might have been a conscious choice to play Lily as someone extremely repressed emotionally speaking.

Prentiss doesn’t have a lot to do but the former comedienne is certainly a welcome sight. She hasn’t appeared onscreen in nine years and it’s good to know that even though her part is small (but important), she is still out there working.

There are not many haunted house movie clichés here but enough to be unwelcome. Still, overall this is an extremely strong and welcome entry into a genre that is largely ignored these days. Fans seems to like their horror more visceral than subtle these days. Perkins has an impeccable pedigree and even though this is just his second feature film in the director’s chair, he’s served notice that he is a talent to keep an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: There are some exquisite images here. It’s always nice to see an actress the caliber of Paula Prentiss working. The atmosphere is truly haunting.
REASONS TO STAY: A few too many haunted house tropes are present here. The dialogue is pretentious in places. Wilson comes off a bit flat tonally.
FAMILY VALUES: Some unsettling images and an overall atmosphere of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins is the son of the late Anthony Perkins; the song “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” which is played several times on the soundtrack is sung by his father; the movie clip that Lily is watching on TV is from Friendly Persuasion in which Anthony Perkins starred.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting of Hill House
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Why Him?

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)


This guy could teach Mad Max a thing or two about vengeance.

This guy could teach Mad Max a thing or two about vengeance.

(2014) Comedy (Sony Classics) Ricardo Darin, Rita Cortese, Maria Marull, Cesar Bordon, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado, Oscar Martinez, Osmar Nunez, Maria Onetto, Erica Rivas, Diego Gentile, German de Silva, Dario Grandinetti, Monica Villa, Julieta Zylberberg, Nancy Duplaa, Lucita Mangone, Alan Daicz, Hector Drachtman, Margarita Molfino. Directed by Damian Szifron

Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold although it must also be said that in Latin American countries, there’s nothing cold about good ol’ hot-blooded Latin revenge. It is a cultural imperative, as a matter of fact.

This collection of vignettes each looks at vengeance from a different angle, all of them funny and some of them downright hilarious. Mostly set in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires (although at least one is set out in the hinterlands of Argentina), there is a delicious quality to all of them which goes against what we normally see in American movies in which we are taught that an eye for an eye tends to leave everybody blind.

Herein we see a variety of different scenarios, with the first one begins with a beautiful model sits down on a strangely uncrowded airplane and strikes up a conversation with a neighbor. Soon, all of those aboard the plane discover they have a connection and that they aren’t aboard the plane by happenstance.

From there on we go to a waitress, discovering that the corrupt politician who ruined her family has sat down in the deserted diner in which she works is egged on by her somewhat diabolical cook to take her justice, then to an incident of escalating road rage, followed by a demolition expert whose car gets towed, setting off a chain of events that grow more and more devastating. Then we see the results of a drunken hit and run by a spoiled scion of a wealthy man who, sickened by the corruption of those who want to cover up the deed, is torn between saving his son and not contributing to the corruption. Finally we end of with the ultimate Bridezilla who makes a devastating discovery on her wedding day.

Each of the vignettes is told with a sense of humor that has a distinct Latin feel; some of it is quite subtle while some of it is broad to the point of slapstick and there is even some grossness that would make Apatow shudder and exclaim “Now, that’s going too far” – as in the road rage vignette in which one of the combatants defecates on the auto of another. Many auto-worshiping American men would rather have their genitals cut off with a butter knife than have that happen to their own car.

I was fond of the opening vignette which may be disturbing to some because of recent events in France which have some similarities to what you see here. The second one set in the diner isn’t nearly as clever as the others and briefly made me wonder if the rest of the movie would be like the first scene or the second; it turned out to be the former which was quite the relief.

My favorite was that of the munitions expert who is caught up in a corrupt, greedy scam of a towing company and his quest for justice ends up costing him nearly everything. However, in this particular case, his redemption turns him into something of a folk hero as a little man takes on the big machine and wins out. I think we’ve all felt like that at one time or another.

There is definitely a class element here; the road rage incident, for example, involves an upper class man in an expensive sedan versus a working class man in a beat up truck, while the case of the hit and run drunk driving we see the police and lawyer conspire with the wealthy man to have a groundskeeper in the wealthy man’s employ take the fall for the action committed by the wealthy man’s no-account son, which seems to indicate that justice is never truly served when it can be bought by the rich.

If you can see elements of the great Spanish director Pedro Almodovar in the movie, you are to be congratulated for your insight. In fact, Almodovar served as a producer for the movie although he didn’t direct it. Certainly his influence as a filmmaker can be felt in every scene.

This truly isn’t for everybody, I will admit. Americans don’t always find the Latin sense of humor palatable, although I think that we have more in common with it than not. Still, I enjoyed this very much and laughed throughout. It can be absurd and sometimes gross and even occasionally thought-provoking but there is some real superior filmmaking here.

REASONS TO GO: Howling with laughter funny. No weak vignettes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find some of the scenes crass and the opening vignette has elements in common with a recent tragedy that might make it offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of violence, a little bit of sexuality and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh film from Argentina to make the final list of nominees for Best Foreign Language film and the third straight to star Ricardo Darin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: It Follows

27 Dresses


Always a bridesmaid...

Always a bridesmaid…

(2008) Romantic Comedy (20th Century Fox) Katherine Heigl, James Marsden, Malin Akerman, Ed Burns, Melora Hardin, Judy Greer, Brian Kerwin, Krysten Ritter, Ronald Guttman, David Castro, Danielle Skraastad, Marilyn L. Costello, Erin Fogel, Maulik Pancholy, Michael Ziegfeld, Peyton List, Jane Pfitsch, Brigitte Bourdeau, Jennifer Bassey. Directed by Anne Fletcher

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride; it’s said as something of a curse. However, any bride will tell you that the expense and stress of being a bride is a hell of a lot harder than being a bridesmaid. Still, there are those who long for that beautiful wedding. Some of that sort have a bit more need for the wedding than the marriage that follows it.

Jane (Heigl) is a terrific executive assistant. Her boss George (Burns) is the perfect man – sensitive, ruggedly handsome, successful and oh yes, eco-conscious too. Jane pines for him, bringing him breakfast burritos without him even needing to ask. You wonder why he scarcely notices that she’s there.

However Jane’s friends are all very well aware of her attributes. Her organizational skills, attention to detail and conscientiousness that make her a great executive assistant make her the perfect maid of honor. Every wedding that Jane is involved in runs without a hitch – even when there are two of them planned for the same evening necessitating her to travel to and from the ceremonies and receptions, changing dresses in the taxi en route.

When her little sister Tess (Akerman), a somewhat self-centered model, comes to visit Jane is horrified when Tess falls for the boss she’s been pining for. What’s worse, Tess is getting him to fall for her under false pretenses. In the meantime she meets Kevin (Marsden), a New York Times reporter who turns out to be the one who writes the wedding announcements she admires. Kevin himself yearns to be put somewhere where he can do real journalism and put the puff pieces behind him and the idea of a woman with 27 bridesmaid dresses in her closet seems like a ticket out. Of course, he starts falling for her and as Jane plans the wedding of Tess’ dreams, it seems like that 28th dress might just be her breaking point.

I don’t have to tell you how this will play out – you already know if you’ve seen any Hollywood romantic comedies made in the last 15 years or so. That the writing here is unremarkable and the characters pretty much stock take what might have been a really nifty little film and turned it into a fairly mundane by-the-numbers rom-com.

What elevates it beyond that is Heigl. This may well be her brightest moment on the big screen (although her fans may argue that her work on Grey’s Anatomy might just be a bit better) and it showcases all the things that are charming about her; the way she can play both a wallflower and a confident woman taking charge of her own destiny. Basically since this came out in 2008 Heigl has been one of Hollywood’s go-to girls for romantic comedies, taking the place held by Meg Ryan before her which isn’t a bad pair of Jimmy Choo pumps to fill.

She’s given some pretty decent support too. Although Burns looks kind of bored at times, he is reasonably solid as is Akerman as Jane’s deceitful, self-centered sister although one wonders how she could have possibly have grown up in the same environment as Jane. Marsden is also pretty decent as Kevin – he and Burns make as handsome and hunky a pair of male points in a love triangle as you’re ever likely to see. Judy Greer is, as usual, the plucky best friend and she’s never better at it than she is here.

If you’re looking for something that sets the bar higher in romantic comedies or does something new with the genre, look elsewhere. This is pretty solid entertainment that fits right into what the target audience is looking for. While I might have wished for a little more depth, there’s certainly nothing wrong than knowing what your audience wants and delivering it.

WHY RENT THIS: Heigl is at her best. Burns and Marsden are fine hunks while Greer and Akerman give solid performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable; typical formula rom-com.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there, some sexual innuendo and some not so-subtle sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the bar scene with Kevin and Jane, a Josh Kelly song plays in the background. Heigl is married to Kelly in real life.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the design of the bridesmaid gowns as well as one on the annual sale at Filene’s basement in New York City where wedding gowns are put out on big racks and sold at drastically reduced prices. Brides line up outside and make a chaotic dash for the dresses when the doors open.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $160.3M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wedding Planner

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Gravity