The Autopsy of Jane Doe


The face of death.

The face of death.

(2016) Horror (IFC Midnight) Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Parker Sawyers, Jane Perry, Mary Duddy, Mark Phoenix, Sydney, Yves O’Hara. Directed by André Ǿvredal

 

When we die often the most reliable evidence for how we died is our actual bodies. The things scraped from under our fingernails, the DNA inside our mouths, the lesions in the skin and the damage to internal organs all tell a story. That story not only tells the coroner  how we died but also how we lived.

Tommy Tilden (Cox) and his son Austin (Hirsch) run the Tilden mortuary (in the family for generations) in a small Virginia town. They also act as the town’s medical examiners. It’s just been the two men since Tommy’s wife passed on several years ago, but Austin has a pretty girlfriend named Emma (Lovibond) who unbeknownst to Dad has been urging Austin to follow his dreams which don’t include being a medical examiner in a small town. Austin has been trying to find a way to break the news to Tommy when Sheriff Sheldon (McElhatton) brings in a body that he needs autopsied right away, even though it’s well past business hours.

Jane Doe (Kelly) was discovered buried in the basement of a home where a brutal mass murder took place. What she was doing there is a mystery as is what relation she might have had to the killings; the Sheriff needs answers and is relying on Tommy to give them to him quickly. Tommy agrees to stay and even though Austin and Emma were about to leave on a date, Austin blows her off to help Dad out, not wanting him to be left holding the bag on what looks to be a rough autopsy.

For one thing, the body appears to be pristine – no evidence of external wounds or even a clue as to what the cause of death might be. Once the two open up the body though some unsettling facts begin to come to life; the victim’s tongue was severed, for one thing. Her lungs are black as if she had inhaled smoke. Also her wrists and ankles are broken even though there’s no external bruising.

As they perform the autopsy a bad storm hits town but now some odd things are happening. The radio changes stations on its own. The doors to the storage units for the bodies in the morgue open on their own. And there’s evidence that the dead may be walking around again and no Sheriff Andy to save the day. When things at last get to be too creepy, Tommy decides to get out (which Austin had been urging him to do for some time) but it’s far too late now. They are trapped inside the morgue with a supernatural entity who may have a bone or two to pick with them.

Ǿvredal is the Norwegian director best known for The Troll Hunter, a very different kind of horror film. This one has less of a sense of humor than his last movie and is his first English language film. It’s a whiz bang effort that relies much more on creepy atmosphere rather than over-the-top effects; like that film, there isn’t a ton of character development either.

One of his smarter moves was to cast Emile Hirsch as Austin. Hirsch is an often underrated actor who given some of his performances should at least be in the top echelon of actors but for whatever reason hasn’t gotten that kind of recognition. He plays Austin as a pretty decent guy who wants to do the right thing but has a bit of a backbone problem. Cox is one of the most respected character actors out there with such roles as Hannibal Lecter (he originated the role in Manhunter) and General William Stryker (from X-Men 2). His Tommy Tilden is very proud of his son, a pride that doesn’t allow him to see that his boy is moving down a different path than he. I would have liked to have seen more of the dynamic between them but once the horror action starts basically that element is left behind.

Otherwise, the movie is extremely well-written and creates a mythology that is easy to follow and yet is original. The ending is a bit of a letdown but not much of one; it certainly leaves room for a sequel and I have to admit that there is some appeal in the possibility that this might become a horror movie franchise, although I’ll grant you that to my mind there aren’t a lot of places a franchise can go to with this concept. The concept here – following a corpse through the autopsy process with terrifying results – is a solid one that is unique so far as I know.

The scary stuff starts pretty quickly into the movie but it doesn’t feel rushed. It builds, rather, and it builds fast. Once it gets going even horror veterans are going to find their hearts pounding and their adrenaline rushing through their systems. It’s legitimately scary and those who are sensitive to gore and nudity (the corpse of Jane Doe is naked throughout) are well-advised to consider carefully whether this is the film for them.

There has been a renaissance in horror movies over the past decade or so and Ǿvredal is one of the leading lights of it. We have seen some movies that are sure to be classics of the genre over the past three or four years in particular and this one is likely to be one of them. It’s a great time to be a horror fan and movies like this one are the reason why.

REASONS TO GO: If you love scary movies, this is the one for you. Terrific performances by Cox and Hirsch drive the film.  Ǿvredal creates a terrifying atmosphere that doesn’t relent during the entire film. Ǿvredal doesn’t wait too long to get into the thick of the horror.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some extremely gruesome images, plenty of foul language, graphic nudity and some intense violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  After seeing The Conjuring, director Ǿvredal told his agent that he wanted to do a horror film for his next project and to find him a good script. This is the one that his agent brought to him and Ǿvredal was immediately taken by it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Witch
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Chapter & Verse

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Death Valley (2015)


Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

(2015) Thriller (Indican) Katrina Law, Lochlyn Munro, Victoria Pratt, Nick Tarabay, Kelly Hu, Jeremy Ratchford, Juliette Beavan, Cela Scott. Directed by T.J. Scott

It is said that in the desert that there are no shadows to hide in and that the scorching sun boils away the pretense and exposes the real person inside. I’m not sure who said it. Maybe it was just me.

A quartet of attractive people are driving on a brand new road in Death Valley on the way from a charity party in Hollywood to a spur-of-the-moment wedding in Vegas. The road is so new, in fact, that it isn’t open to the public yet but for producer Billy Rich (Munro), Hollywood Golden Boy, rules don’t apply and every door is open. He is the prospective groom and star actress wanna-be Annie Gunn (Law) is the bride. Along for the ride are married couple Roy (Tarabay) and Jamie (Pratt) Dillen, who won tickets to the star-studded exclusive party on a radio station promotion and have befriended Billy and Annie. Presumably, they will be the witnesses at the wedding.

One thing that is true about the desert is that oddball things can happen at any moment. A scantily dressed blonde (Beavan) emerges from out of nowhere and starts shooting at the people in the car. Rich, who is behind the wheel, swerves and manages to hit the blonde before skidding off the road.

The blonde is a goner. So is the car, which the blonde managed to perforate in some vital places before expiring. Of course, there is no cell service in the middle of nowhere – and because the road hasn’t opened yet, not much hope of any good Samaritans showing up from either direction. The old road is said to be about five miles away, paralleling the new road. With no real choice, the quartet begin hoofing it, taking with them the champagne they were going to toast with at the wedding.

The further they walk, the more frayed their nerves get – and the more secrets get revealed. Like a good noir film, layers begin to be scrubbed away by the gritty sand exposing further layers below. Will they find the road and presumably rescue? Or will the journey there kill the lot of them?

Those who are paying attention to the opening scene will know the answer to that. Veteran TV director Scott has a good feel for suspense, building slowly without turning it into a tension fest. This is more than a slow burn than a quick flame. He also makes excellent use of the environment, giving us some really beautifully desolate footage of the desert and giving the audience an excellent feel for how vast and forbidding an environment it is.

The movie’s problems tend to lie in the characterizations. It’s difficult to find someone to identify with in this movie because all of the main characters are pretty rotten, particularly when their guard is let down after the downing of much booze and pills. While it is kind of enjoyable to watch some sleazy Hollywood types get their comeuppance, from a human standpoint it isn’t easy to watch people suffer even though they may well deserve it.

It is also not easy to watch people make bad decisions, some of them incomprehensibly bad. For example, one of the women given an opportunity to change from her party dress and heels into something more appropriate refuses, and goes out walking on the desert sands in her heels. While I admire the grit of women who walk in heels because it requires balance and a certain amount of fortitude, I would think that heels would be absolute torture on sand. Not that I would know. In any case, I don’t think any sane person would choose that nor would anyone in a survival situation allow vanity to trump practicality.

Another thing I would have recommended is a little more focus on the Billy Rich-Annie Gunn relationship particularly in flashback. We see a little bit of them interacting at the party but we never get a sense as to why someone who is as likely commitment-phobic as Billy would be would agree to pull the marriage trigger with someone he just met. We get that Annie’s sexuality is a large part of the reason but we don’t really get to see it on display except for one scene in the desert. A little more exposition would have been nice on this matter.

Most of the technical aspects of the film are strong, but a caveat – I’m a fan of 8mm, the band that delivers the soundtrack here. While this isn’t their best work, it was definitely a plus for me to hear them doing their thing on a movie soundtrack. There are those who likely won’t think it is the advantage that I do. C’est la musique.

The ending is on the dark side, but that’s what happens with noir. You don’t get many uplifting, feel-good movies of the year with noir. This is a movie about a dark descent of four people who are More Than What They Seem, another noir trope. Fans of the genre should be sufficiently pleased although the movie has its share of flaws. Nonetheless, a fine effort for those looking for some sun-baked (literally) off the beaten path entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautifully desolate cinematography. Dark ending. Soundtrack by 8mm.
REASONS TO STAY: Lack of sympathetic characters. Some weak moments in the script. A little bland for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexuality and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Law and Tarabay have both appeared in the television shows Arrow and Spartacus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lifeboat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Walk

The Grey


The Grey

Liam Neeson will know better than to fly economy next time.

(2012) Action Thriller (Open Road) Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw, Peter Girges, Jacob Blair, Lani Gelera, Larissa Stadnichuk. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

In the deep heart of the North, it is always cold, a block of unforgiving ice that will freeze all hope. Only the strong may roam freely there and even those know the harsh reality of life – that as strongas you are, there is always something stronger and more fierce.

John Ottway (Neeson) has that same cold place in his own heart. He is a contractor at an Alaskan oil pumping station, working with roughnecks in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization. He is on the security detail, making sure that the men are protected from grey wolves and other Arctic predators. However, there is a predator inside him, one that has eaten him alive. His wife (Openshaw) has left him to his loneliness and that burden is one he can no longer carry.

He intends to kill himself, takes his high-powered rifle and puts it in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger. Instead, he heads back to his barracks and waits for his contract to be up so he can go home with the other roughnecks who have worked their contract.

They board a small plane, ready to fly to Anchorage and from there to points beyond but the plane never makes it there. It crashes in the wilderness, leaving a handful of survivors. The weather is freezing, with a blizzard making visibility nearly zero. There are many dead and dying, like Lewenden (Dale) who is frightened but eased into the abyss by Ottway.

It becomes clear they aren’t alone in the wilderness when Ottway spots one of the stewardesses whimpering in the underbrush. He goes to rescue her and realizes that she was being eaten by a wolf. Ottway believes that they’ve had the unfortunate luck to crash in the midst of the territory of the wolves who take exception to the intrusion.

Things get worse when Hernandez (Bray) who’s on watch is killed and partially eaten by a wolf. Knowing that they are exposed in the wreck with little means of defending themselves, Ottway believes their best chance is to head south and hopefully exit the territory of the predators. He also knows that nobody will be looking for them terribly hard.

As the men make their way through the unforgiving wilderness, they come to terms with their impending mortality, the existence (or non) of God, and the significance of their lives. As they fall to the cold, the terrain and to the wolves, soon it becomes clear that the cold heart of the North is a grey wasteland of death and redemption.

Carnahan, whose body of work includes Smokin’ Aces, does some of the best work of his career. This is not your ordinary wilderness survival film; these are no cardboard cutout characters with heroes and villains vying for control in the elements. These are hard men, worn down by hard lives whose tough fronts begin to crumble when faced with horrible death. There is an awful lot of that, from wolf attacks to falls to freezing to death.

Neeson has made a career transformation from an Oscar-caliber dramatic actor to an action star. Pushing 60, the rugged Neeson has become king of the beginning of the year action flicks, with success in both Taken and Unknown coming in the first two months of their respective years. As with those films, he lends The Grey gravitas, bringing the inner turmoil of John Ottway to the surface but only in a subtle way, one that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the film or ever ring false 

Carnahan also cast his film with mostly character actors who are largely not well known to the general public, although some might recognize Mulroney from My Best Friend’s Wedding – he is virtually unrecognizable here. Grillo and Roberts also deliver strong performances.

Part of the allure of The Grey is the cinematography. Masanobu Takayanagi brings the snow-covered landscape of British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) a kind of stark but majestic beauty. The cold is almost palpable through his fine work.

While there are some gruesome scenes of wolf attacks and of human remains, both from the plane crash and the attacks, the action here is almost more internal than external (not that the latter is lacking in any way shape or form). This is about the journey and not so much the destination. The movie is based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who also wrote the first draft of the script) and if the movie’s Nietzschean themes are any indication, it might be worth checking out.  

The movie has been getting a fair amount of critical acclaim with a lot of folks surprised at how good it is. For my part, Carnahan has done some good work and has exceeded expectations here. Nobody should be surprised that Neeson delivers such a fine performance – while not Oscar worthy perhaps, it certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A raw, unadulterated survival film. Neeson again gives a strong performance.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a bit too Nietzsche for some.  

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images of the wolf attacks and their aftermath are awfully disturbing, and there’s plenty of bad language for all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carnahan, Neeson and producers Tony and Ridley Scott previously worked together on The A-Team.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

SNOW LOVERS: There is plenty of it on the ground and falling from the sky. This is as cold-looking a movie as you’re ever likely to see.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Garden

Winter’s Bone


Winter's Bone

As the NRA says, the family that shoots together…

(Roadside Attractions) Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, Lauren Sweetser, Shelley Waggener, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Isaiah Stone, Tate Taylor, Sheryl Lee, Ronnie Hall, Ashlee Thompson, Casey MacLaren. Directed by Debra Granik

Note: This is a film I first saw during the Florida film festival, at which time I posted a capsule review here on Cinema365. It is opening in limited release today, so here is the full review written back in April.

Life in the Ozarks can be as hard as bone and twice as frightening. It breeds hard people, tough people, people who will do anything to survive.

Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is 17 years old, pretty in the way of mountain folk, soft-spoken and polite. A girl like this should be in school, worrying about the senior prom or the math test next week. Instead, she has to deal with keeping her family fed. Her mother has had a mental breakdown that the medication doesn’t seem to help. Her father, Jessup, a meth cooker, has fled, leaving Ree to hold the bag and somehow take care of her younger sister and brother.

You won’t find Ree complaining, despite her dreams of joining the military. She’s mountain-tough and very practical. When the sheriff (Dillahunt) comes knocking at her door to tell her that her father has a court date in a week, that doesn’t surprise her. No, the surprise is that dear old dad put the house and lands up as collateral for the bail bondsman and has appeared to skip out. If Daddy doesn’t show up at his court date, the house and property will be forfeit.

Ree has no choice but to go looking for him. Having no idea where he might be, she starts questioning people who used to hang out with him but she runs into a surprising wall; nobody wants to tell her where her Daddy is, even though they are well aware of the consequences to Ree and her family if she doesn’t find him. Each person she questions is more frightening than the last, each more violent and more unpredictable. As Ree makes her journey with the help of her best friend Gail (Sweetser) and her dad’s brother Teardrop (Hawkes), the mystery will unravel before her eyes and she will have to be as tough as she’s ever been to survive the winter.

This movie got tremendous buzz at Sundance and rightfully so. I think it could well be this year’s Hurt Locker if things play out right. The movie was picked up by Lionsgate subsidiary Roadside Attractions with the intent of distributing the film on a limited basis, although the Oscar success of Hurt Locker may alter the way Lionsgate distributes and markets this.

At the forefront of the film’s selling points are the marvelous performances. Lawrence stands out as the young, plucky heroine who finds herself biting off way more than she can chew. It’s a performance that is surprisingly nuanced and incredibly mature, and is likely to bring a lot of well-deserved attention her way. Veteran character actor Hawkes (The Perfect Storm, “Lost”) is nearly unrecognizable as the taciturn Teardrop. He is the sort of man who explodes at the slightest provocation and even men much bigger and double tough think twice before crossing him. Teardrop also has a tender side that manifests itself unexpectedly. Although Lawrence will undoubtedly get the most ink from this, to my mind Hawkes also gives an Oscar-worthy performance here.

Director Granik uses the beautiful rural Ozarks as a nice backdrop, the stark winter images of the ramshackle houses and trailers, the forests and hilltops, give you a nice sense of time and place. She also gets the mentality of the mountain folk right; their nearly obsessive loyalty to one another, their suspicion of those “not from around here,” their violent tempers and the importance of music to their daily lives (even Teardrop plays).

This is another standout film playing the festival circuit (I saw it at the Florida Film Festival in April) and one that should it come to a theater near you is one you should go out of your way to seek out. This is a moving, stark drama, a hillbilly Hamlet if you will. There are noir-ish elements to it for certain, but the unsettling feeling that things aren’t going to end well permeates the mood. You can expect to see it on a lot of year-end top tens – including mine.

REASONS TO GO: Star-making performances by Lawrence and Hawkes may very well attract Oscar notice. A gripping, powerful drama that will keep you squirming in your seat.

REASONS TO STAY: The tone may be a little too bleak for some.

FAMILY VALUES: A heaping helping of foul language, sudden and terrifying violence, depictions of drug use and a few disturbing images help make this a movie for the mature adults in your family only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Prior to this movie, Jennifer Lawrence was best known for playing the daughter on “The Bill Engvall Show” on TBS.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this may be hard to find in theaters but if you look hard enough it will be worth your while. If you can’t find it in your local art house, it will be just fine on home theater as well.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Goya’s Ghosts