The Keeping Room


Augusta, get your gun!

Augusta, get your gun!

(2014) Drama (Drafthouse) Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock, Charles Jarman, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Luminita Filimon, Delia Riciu, Stefan Veiniciuc, Bogdan Farkas. Directed by Daniel Barber

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we think of war, we think of the men (and lately, women) on the battlefield, the ones actually shedding the blood and dying for their cause. We rarely think of those left behind to take care of things while their kinfolk are off to war.

As the Civil War was coming to an end and William Tecumseh Sherman was making his inexorable march to the sea, three women on a bucolic South Carolina farm were desperately trying to survive. Augusta (Marling), the eldest, is the most practical and the hardest working. She has come to realize that her daddy and her brothers are not coming back and that whatever they have to eat is what they grow and what they hunt, so she’s getting to business.

Louise (Steinfeld) is a teenager, spoiled by her place as the younger daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. She’s used to be coddled and cared for, her every little whim taken care of by someone else. She’s never worked a day in her life and still thinks that once the war is done and the Yankees vanquished, things will return to the way they were.

Mad (Otaru) is a slave that has become indispensable, strong and tough by years as a slave but compassionate for the girls that were once her mistresses. She, like Augusta, knows the war isn’t going well and hopes it will come to a swift conclusion so that her man Bill (Pinnock) will come home to her and help her tend this farm.

When Louise gets bitten by a raccoon, Augusta realizes that medicine will be needed or Louise might die. She stops at a neighboring plantation, only to discover horrors that she never could have imagined. She continues on into a nearby town which is mostly deserted except for a kindly bar owner (Dennehy) and a compassionate prostitute (Nuttall) – and two scouts for Sherman, Henry (Soller) and Moses (Worthington). Henry has lost any sense of decency; he’ll kill anything that moves and rape anyone who’s female and will drink anything that will banish such demons as men like this possess. Moses is looking for love in all the wrong places and by all the wrong means. The two had recently murdered a white woman they’d raped, a carriage driver and a passing slave. When Augusta gets away from them, they decide to track her and follow her back to the farm. What they don’t know is that the women don’t plan to give up without a fight.

Barber has a keen eye and an understanding of setting a mood; often his scenes are shrouded in midst or bright sunlight depending on the mood. He uses a lot of stunning images to get across more than any dialogue could tell; for example, early on he shows a flaming carriage pulled by terrified horses in the night. The spooked equines are galloping as fast as they can to escape the flames, not realizing they are pulling their own destruction with them. I don’t know if you could get a better metaphor than that.

Marling is becoming one of my favorite young actresses; she’s very poised in her roles (this one included) and seems to have a very good sense of which projects to choose as I haven’t really seen her in a movie that doesn’t showcase her talents well yet. She has the kind of self-possession that Robin Wright has always carried, which bodes well for Marling’s future.

Steinfeld who is no stranger to period pieces isn’t given as much to do, mainly acting the spoiled brat and then the frightened young girl. When backed against the wall Louise comes out swinging but for the most part she’s been used to depending on others all of her life and not on herself; the chances of Louise surviving the post-war South will depend very much on her ability to find an eligible husband.

Otaru is a real discovery. I hadn’t heard of her before, but she holds her own and then some against two very capable young actresses. She is mostly silent throughout the beginning of the movie but she has a couple of long speeches in the movie that really give you a sense of who Mad is and what drives her.

Barber also knows how to ratchet up the tension to high levels and the second portion of the movie is basically up to 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 in that regard. There are those who may say that there’s too much of a good thing in the tension department, but I would guess that Alfred Hitchcock might disagree; while this isn’t Hitchcockian in the strictest sense, I think the Master of Suspense would have approved of this. Some of the cliches of the genre however are very much in evidence, maybe a little too much so.

I found myself completely immersed in the film and committed to the story, which is exactly where you want your audience to be. While there are a few missteps – some stiff or awkward sequences by some of the actors, an overuse of an unconscious hero waking up just in the nick of time to save one of the others – by and large this is a beautifully crafted, intensely thrilling work of cinematic art. Definitely one to keep on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful images. Beautifully atmospheric. Impressively tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Overuses the same thriller cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of violence, a bit of sexuality, some cussing and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set during the American Civil War in South Carolina, it was entirely filmed in Romania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Uncle John

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The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death


Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Relativity) Phoebe Fox, Helen McCrory, Oaklee Pendergast, Jeremy Irvine, Pip Pierce, Jude Wright, Amelia Crouch, Adrian Rawlins, Amelia Pidgeon, Casper Allpress, Ned Dennehy, Mary Roscoe, Merryn Pearse, Leanne Best, Eve Pearce, David Norfolk, Chris Cowlin, Julie Vollono, Hayley Joanne Bacon. Directed by Tom Harper

There’s kind of an unwritten law that sequels to horror movies tend to be less scary and of a lower quality than the originals. Hammer Films, the classic British horror factory however has been the exception to that rule for the most part, churning out Dracula and Frankenstein sequels that are just as good if not better than the originals. Would that record hold in the latest incarnation of the studio?

Taking place 40 years after the original Woman in Black with the Second World War in full bloom with the London Blitz in particular at its height. With the constant nightly bombing, the decision was made to evacuate as many children as possible out to the country and a group of school children with their principalĀ  Jean Hogg (McCrory) herding them much like a shepherdess if given an unruly mob of sheep and one of her teachers, Eve Parkins (Fox) to assist.

There is another Nazi raid the night before they are to leave and a direct hit to a nearby house leaves young Edward (Pendergast) an orphan. Rendered mute by the experience, he resorts to making sinister drawings which in turn draw out the cruelty of some children, the sympathy of others with the impatient and imperious Jean leaning towards the suck-it-up school of grief counseling. She is married to a Brigadier General, after all.

Of course with shortages in placesĀ  in safe places to stay, this particular group is sent to Eel Marsh House, home of the Woman in Black (Best) who still rages and haunts there after her son was taken away from her forcibly and later drowned. Now, she seems to be enraged at the children in the charge of Ms. Hogg and Ms. Parkins, although Edward seems to be a favored target and Eve’s own maternal instincts are flaring up like the hair on a dog’s back. However, Eve has secrets that have drawn the Woman in Black to her.

I have to say that the first film had much more atmosphere and better scares than this one, which has some good ones but not nearly as many. Whereas the first film was generally dark and gloomy, this one is brighter although just as fog-shrouded with the occasional rainstorm. Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com suggested that the film would have been better off had it been filmed in black and white and I can’t say I disagree with him. In fact, it would have been a capital idea.

Whereas the first film had Daniel Radcliffe turning in a solid performance, the cast of lesser known Brits (at least in this country) do workman like jobs, although McCrory some might remember from the Harry Potter series (like Radcliffe) has some moments and Jeremy Irvine, who plays a dashing English pilot with secrets of his own, has others. Another thing missing from the first is the village of the suspicious people which has been changed to one single demented resident (Dennehy). Doesn’t quite feel the same.

Maternal guilt is a big theme here, particularly Eve’s and it is an interesting twist of normal horror conventions that the children are a means to an end – that end being punishing Eve. However, rather than further exploring that theme, the filmmakers are content to replay the same flashback over and over again, trying to be cryptic I suppose but only a dimwit would fail to realize that the dreams are about a traumatic experience in Eve’s life and why the Woman in Black is drawn to it. Perhaps showing how the event effected Eve’s life and brought her to her teaching position may have been a better use of the filmmaker’s efforts rather than replaying the same scene over and over again. That’s just lazy filmmaking.

This isn’t a bad film at all, although true horror fans might find it a bit lean on scares and atmosphere. However, the film is reasonably well-made and has enough going for it that I can give it a mild recommendation which for films released this time of the year is like gold.

REASONS TO GO: Some great views of misty marshes. Explores maternal guilt. Some effective scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough of those effective scares. Lacks a truly creepy or scary mood. Performances are merely adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: There are definitely some frightening images, as well as kids in peril. Not a lot of gore or foul language, some of the thematic elements are on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first sequel to be produced by Hammer Studios since 1974, although none of the events of the first film is referred to in this one, nor do any cast members return.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unbroken