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?

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Amanda Knox


This is what a thousand yard stare looks like.

This is what a thousand yard stare looks like.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, Giuliano Mignini, Meredith Kercher, Nick Pisa, Stephanie Kercher, Valter Biscotti, Dr. Stefano Conti, Dr. Carla Vecchiotti, Rudy Dengue, Curt Knox, Arline Kercher. Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn

 

Most of us have a certain amount of faith in our legal system. We believe that we are protected by the laws that require that preserve the rights of the accused. In other words, if we are innocent, the law should protect us. However, recent history has taught us that it isn’t always the case.

On November 1, 2007, British exchange student Meredith Kercher was raped and murdered in her apartment in Perugia, Italy, an apartment she shared with American student Amanda Knox and two Italian students. Knox, who claimed to have spent the night with her new boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, became the focus of the investigation largely because of her behavior which in the eyes of the Italian police and prosecutors seemed to show a lack of grief over her roommate’s brutal murder.

What followed was a nightmare. The media caught hold of the case and the tabloids, particularly in the UK, had a field day. Knox was characterized as a sex-crazed lunatic and was accused of  murdering her roommate in a sex party gone bad. When the bloody fingerprints of a known burglar named Rudy Guede were found on some of the victim’s things, he was added to the accused along with Raffaele who was considered an accessory. DNA evidence seemed to confirm this and Knox and the two men were convicted.

Except that questions began to rise about the veracity of the DNA evidence and the behavior of the prosecutor Giuliano Mignini who fancied himself a modern-day Columbo and of the Italian police in general. An appeal process was begun and soon suspicions began to circulate that Knox and Sollecito might well be as innocent as they claimed to be. In the meantime the media circus continued.

Equal parts documentary and cautionary tale, the filmmakers show a clear reverence for Errol Morris and his style, incorporating it somewhat. Modern documentaries have become parades of talking heads offset by archival footage and animated re-creations but while those elements are all present here, Amanda Knox comes off as a scripted mystery (albeit one most of us know how it ends) more than a typical doc. In fact, this is as entertaining a documentary as you’re likely to find without sacrificing any of its mandate to educate.

Nick Pisa, a tabloid reporter who supplied the Daily Mirror with much of its headline copy, represents the media here and does he ever have a warped view as what the responsibilities of journalism entail. In an era where the media’s coverage of president-elect Donald Trump has brought a focus onto that very subject, we can see where the “If it bleeds it leads” ethos has taken us and how the media, rather than being a public advocate, is now a lapdog in search of ratings and advertising dollars. It no longer is important to get things right but to get things first. As a former journalist myself, it makes me want to puke.

Mignini also doesn’t come off looking good. An aficionado of detective fiction, after his DNA evidence is debunked he still maintains that Knox is guilty because as he puts it he can see it in her eyes. While Mignini seems a congenial man he certainly doesn’t seem capable of being a prosecutor – at least not a competent one. Of course, it should also be taken with a grain of salt that we are seeing things entirely from the point of view from the Knox camp which also has it’s downside.

Knox has not talked about her ordeal since it ended until now, and she makes a striking presence. I’m not sure if her commentary was scripted or off the cuff but she does come off as an intelligent young woman. Now pushing 30, she is far from the flighty 20-year-old she was when these events occurred. Certainly she made some mistakes in judgment but come on, she was 20. What 20 year old gets every life decision right? Her thousand yard stare, pretty much captured above, is the most haunting image I’ll take from this film. While it should be remembered that Meredith Kercher was ultimately the victim here (and to the filmmaker’s discredit she is little more than a supporting character here as was her family which continues to assert that Knox was the killer) she wasn’t the only one and it seems to me that we are all partially to blame. If we didn’t eat up these lurid and gruesome news stories like Halloween candy the media wouldn’t lose their minds around stories like this – and maybe justice might be more than a possibility.

REASONS TO GO: Less documentary style so much as a whodunit style. It’s very much an indictment of modern mass media as well as the Italian police. We get to hear from Knox herself.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some profanity along with some disturbing crime scene photos and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This marks the 25th original documentary to be distributed by Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thin Blue Line
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Look of Silence

Conviction


Conviction

What could be stronger than the love of a sister and brother?

(2010) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Clea Duvall, Juliette Lewis, Loren Dean, Peter Gallagher, Bailee Madison, Tobias Campbell, Karen Young, Talia Balsam, Michele Messmer, Ari Graynor, Jennifer Roberts. Directed by Tony Goldwyn

Blood is thicker than water, and in some cases that blood is thick indeed. It is when the chips are down and every sign points to disaster that you need your family most. Sometimes, going the extra mile just isn’t far enough.

Kenny Waters (Rockwell) is a bit of an enigma in the small Massachusetts town of Ayer. He is the life of the party, a jokester, someone who doesn’t seem to take life terribly seriously. He’s a devoted father and a loyal brother to his sister Betty Anne (Swank). He also can be an unholy terror. When drunk, he takes offense easily and gets violent quickly. He has a string of petty crime arrests on his record dating back to his juvenile days when he and his sister grew up in a series of foster homes, his mother (Young) more interested in partying than parenting.

When a woman is brutally murdered in her trailer, Kenny is questioned for the crime but let go. The interrogating officer, Nancy Taylor (Leo) sees red when Kenny ridicules her and blows off the seriousness of her investigation. Two years later, she gets her revenge. A pair of witnesses have come forward, Kenny’s ex-wife (DuVall) and ex-girlfriend (Lewis), both of whom claim Kenny confessed to the crime. There is no physical evidence connecting him other than that Kenny has the same blood type as the murderer, but that’s enough to convict him and send him away.

Betty Anne doesn’t for one minute believe that Kenny is guilty. She visits him regularly and her husband (Dean) doesn’t seem to mind that, but after Kenny attempts suicide, Betty Anne realizes her brother will never make it in prison. No lawyer will take his case because no lawyer believes in him so Betty Anne makes the only decision she can – she has to be his lawyer.

That’s a tall order considering she didn’t even graduate high school but she does it, getting her GED, attending Roger Williams College in Rhode Island and paying for her tuition by tending bar. All this extra work puts strain on her marriage – too much strain, and she winds up a single mom with two rambunctious sons. She makes it work, largely with the help of her friend Abra (Driver) who admires Betty Anne’s ferocious tenacity and her fierce loyalty.

When Betty Anne discovers DNA testing might exonerate her brother, she goes looking for evidence which the police claim was destroyed after ten years (yes, ten years have passed). Undeterred, she goes searching in the courthouse archives for any sort of evidence that might have a residue of the killer’s blood. She enlists the aid of Barry Scheck (Gallagher), an attorney whose Innocence Project works to overturn unjust convictions by introducing new evidence. With his help they not only find the DNA evidence they were looking for, they interview both of the witnesses who admit that their testimony was coerced by Taylor. Even then the Massachusetts Attorney General refuses to exonerate Kenny but that won’t stop Betty Anne.

This true story is brought to life by perfect casting. Nobody does dogged working class women like Swank, and she gives Betty Anne some hard edges (she throws Abra out of the house for even suggesting that Kenny might be guilty in one interesting scene) but an admirable perseverance that allows her to take on almost insurmountable odds in getting her Law Degree, passing the bar, finding the missing evidence and at length getting the ruling reversed and Kenny freed. She even manages to find the time to arrange a reconciliation between Kenny and his now-grown daughter (Graynor).

Rockwell is one of those actors who always seems to be on the edge, like a young Nicolas Cage. He is perfect as Kenny, equal parts lovable loser, life of the party and ticking time bomb. You are left wondering if he is truly capable of murder and having to admit that he just might be. That is one of the crucial strong points of the movie.

Where it is weak is in that at times it comes off as a Lifetime Movie of the Week in some ways. Abra’s devotion to Betty Anne is never thoroughly explained and Betty Anne at times comes off as too much of a martyr. The movie could have used some trimming, compressing events a little.

Still in all, this is an emotionally charged inspirational story that shows the lengths that someone will go to for their brother in this case. It’s about not only the importance of family but also the importance of never giving up hope and believing strongly in your loved ones. The world could use a little more of that in my humble opinion.

WHY RENT THIS: Rockwell and Swank are at the top of their games. The story itself is inspiring.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a bit long and at times comes off as a made-for-TV movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few somewhat disturbing crime scene images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie spent ten years in development following a “60 Minutes” story on the subject which led to a bidding frenzy.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a conversation between director Goldwyn and the real Betty Anne Waters which delves into the relationship between Betty Anne and Kenny, and divulges the fate of Kenny (which the film doesn’t do) six months after he was released from prison.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.7M on a $12.5M production budget; the movie was unprofitable in its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness begins.