Winchester


Sarah Winchester doesn’t get out much.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Emm Wiseman, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Tyler Coppin, Angus Sampson, Alice Chaston, Eamon Farren, Michael Carmen, Bruce Spence, Curtis Bock, Andy de Lore, Adam Bowes, Laura Brent, Amos Ciza, Red Horse Rivera, Tom Heath, Phoenix Suhrou-Dimarco, Laura Sutton. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

 

In the face of multiple and intolerable tragedies the human psyche can react in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it gets stronger, allowing the person to become better, more charitable and closer to those they love. Sometimes, it builds a wall, shutting everyone out. Other times, it simply goes around the bend, preferring to explain those tragedies with some sort of preposterous explanation.

By all accounts Sarah Winchester (Mirren) took the latter course. The heiress to the massive fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, following the untimely deaths of her husband and only son became convinced that her family was cursed due to all the deaths caused by the guns her family company had manufactured. She was convinced that the only thing appeasing the ghosts was 24 hour a day seven day a week construction on the mansion she inhabited in San Jose, California – then an orchard-filled backwater town south of San Francisco.

Alarmed at the prospect that the person running the company was a certified loon, the officers of the company set out to, well, certify her. They enlist the aid of San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price (Clarke) who is slowly drugging himself to oblivion with laudanum, a potent combination of whiskey and opium, after the tragic death of his wife.

Dr. Price is given the rare opportunity to observe Winchester in the confines of her massive home and as time goes by, he discovers that the woman is far from the mentally frail old woman she is portrayed to be; she is, quite frankly, an imposing independent woman who is very clearly in charge of her own household. Yes, she is getting architectural instructions for her kooky mansion via séance but even given that she seems no less sane than you or I…which then leaves the unthinkable conclusion: that she is right about the curse.

I lived for more than a decade in the San Jose area and have been to the Winchester Mystery House; yes, it’s a real mansion and the story of Mrs. Winchester believing the family to be cursed is a true one. Pretty much there is where the similarity between fact and fiction ends. I will say that I have many fond memories of my visits to the mansion and that may color my review a bit. I can tell you that the interiors, built on a set in Australia, are reasonably close to the actual rooms in the mansion that are shown on the tour (the external shots were of the actual house).

Mirren is one of the finest actresses working today and to her credit she makes her portrayal of Sarah Winchester a memorable one, even if it isn’t anything like what the real woman’s personality was said to be – she was rarely seen publicly (only one photograph exists of her) and she was said to be shy and somewhat easily shaken up. The Sarah Winchester here is more of a warrior than a wimp. Clarke also delivers a strong performance here and holds his own against Mirren, no easy task indeed.

There are an awful lot of jump scares – too many for my taste – but when the Spierig brothers go for genuine atmosphere, they succeed. They also use a minimal amount of CGI, opting for more practical effects and dong so makes the movie feel a bit homier, if you get my drift. This is how they used to make them and given the setting, it makes a lot of sense that the Spierigs opted for that route.

This is a haunted house movie that delivers the goods for the most part. While there are some historical inaccuracies (there are references to victims of the Winchester rifle during the Civil War but the company wasn’t formed until 1866, the year after the Civil War ended), the final test of any good horror film is whether you come out the other side grinning ear to ear and so I did. This is complete nonsense but it’s wonderful nonsense.

REASONS TO GO: When it is at its best, the movie succeeds. Mirren is a force of nature here.
REASONS TO STAY: History is played with in a fast and loose manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There is supernatural (and natural) violence, disturbing images, some drug use and sexual allusions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Sarah Winchester was a mere 4’11” tall and walked with a distinctive gait due to her severe and debilitating arthritis. By comparison, Helen Mirren is 5’4” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious: The Last Key
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
War Machine

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5 Flights Up


All they want is a room with a view.

All they want is a room with a view.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Alysia Reiner, Carrie Preston, Sterling Jerins, Cynthia Nixon, Claire van den Broom, Korey Jackson, Josh Pais, Maddie Corman, Miriam Shor, Nadia Gan, Katrina E. Perkins, Joanna Adler, Hannah Dunne, Liza J. Bennett, Jackie Hoffman, Marcia DeBonis, Jimmy Palumbo, Jordan Baker, Maury Ginsberg, Grace Rex. Directed by Richard Loncraine

What makes a house – or an apartment – a home? It isn’t the things that you’ve accumulated over the years, although that’s a part of it. It isn’t the location, although that’s a part of it too. It’s mainly the people that live in it and the memories you make together.

Alex (Freeman) and Ruth (Keaton) Carver have lived in the same Brooklyn fifth-floor walk-up for the 40 years of their marriage. Now Alex, a moderately successful painter, and Ruth, a retired teacher, are both getting on in years and that five flights of stairs is likely to only get harder on them. They’ve decided to sell and find themselves an apartment that at least has an elevator for them.

Lily (Nixon), their high-strung niece who is also a realtor, is getting them ready for their open house. The neighborhood they live in has undergone gentrification and Lily is confident that they can get north of a million for the apartment. Alex is unsure about this move; he is fully aware that they’re unlikely to get an apartment that has the same charm as the one they own and certainly none of the memories. Ruth realizes this too, but she tends to be more optimistic that they’ll find a new place to fall in love with.

But there are some complications. Their beloved dog Dorothy has gotten to be very sick and requires an expensive operation. The open house itself, which brings quirky and shark-like New Yorkers to the apartment to try and snatch up the property before someone else can, is hindered by an ongoing news story about the driver of a fuel tanker abandoned on the Williamsburg Bridge who may or may not be a terrorist. The media being what it is these days opts for the former.

Alex’s misgivings grow as they find an apartment in Manhattan that they both like, which sounds a little strange. Sure it’s a nice apartment. Sure it’s got an elevator. But can it be a home? Doesn’t sound so strange now, eh?

Loncraine, who has produced some pretty solid romantic comedies and feel-good movies on his resume (Wimbledon, My One and Only) continues to mine that territory here. Much of the movie’s success resides in its casting; Keaton and Freeman both banter with each other so well and show each other the kind of affection that only couples that have been married for decades can really get right that it’s hard to believe the two haven’t been a married couple for as long as Alex and Ruth have been. The two are both such screen pros in any case that they know how to work well with just about anyone, and here they both make each other shine.

This is a very New York-centric movie and New Yorkers are going to get it more readily than those who live outside the Big Apple. For them, the soaring cost of housing is of no great surprise; the rest of us might be nonplussed at what a million dollar listing is in Brooklyn. Then again, if I had to walk up five flights of stairs every time I came home, I’d either be a lot thinner than I am now or dead of a heart attack.

There is also a whole lot of dialogue about open houses, listings, market values and real estate in general. Fortunately, great actors like Freeman and Keaton can make even that dry kind of conversation sparkle, but only so much. The movie could have focused less on the sale of the house and more on how the concept of that sale was affecting Ruth and Alex, although they do spend a fair amount of time on that.

Clearly this is a paean to the dwelling. Not as a physical space mind you, but as a concept and more importantly, as an emotional touchstone. Using flashbacks to act as memories that were on the minds of the couple (played as newlyweds by van der Bloom and Jackson who channel Keaton and Freeman respectively very satisfactorily) enhances the idea of residence being more than four walls but a place where memories reside as well as people. Long after the physical layout is forgotten, the memories of a lazy Sunday afternoon, a rainy day movie, or a Christmas morning will linger in the heart and mind.

Loncraine has crafted a winner of a movie that sadly got shuffled off to the side during the onslaught of early summer blockbusters. I think that the suits at Focus felt that the material would appeal only to older audiences and in that sense they’d be correct, but I think that that same demographic that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a hit could have made this one a hit too. In any case, this is definitely a feel-good movie that left me with the warm fuzzies and is going to appeal to anyone who has ever lived in a home that they’ve loved. Although it got anemic box office during its limited theatrical run, I think that viewing this at home is the best possible place to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderfully effective performances by Freeman and Keaton. A celebration of home and hearth. A slice of New York life.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little more real estate chatter than I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: A smattering of curse words here and there, and some artistic nude images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the open house sequence, the book that Alex is trying to read in the corner is A War Against Truth by Paul William Roberts.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On Golden Pond
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Southpaw

All the Light in the Sky


As any good surfer will tell you, the surf's up even when you're down.

As any good surfer will tell you, the surf’s up even when you’re down.

(2012) Drama (Swanberry) Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Lawrence Michael Levine, Ti West, Susan Traylor, Lindsay Burge, Simon Barrett, Allison Baar. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 Florida Film Festival 2013

I’ve heard mumblecore defined as “a bunch of dialogue in search of a plot.” That’s not entirely accurate but it isn’t without some merit. The mumblecore movement, whose adherents include directors like the Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalsky and Lynn Shelton,  have had a champion in Joe Swanberg as well.

Swanberg, based in the Chicago area (he attended film school at Southern Illinois University) has been as prolific a director as anyone in the business. He’s not quantity over quality either – some of his films have included Hannah Takes the Stairs, Silver Bullets, Autoerotic and Kissing on the Mouth, all very fine films. Actress Jane Adams, who also starred in Autoerotic and made a name for herself in Todd Solondz’ film Happiness, co-wrote this new film with Swanberg which would seem to have at least some autobiographical elements.

Marie (Adams) is a respected film actress who at 45 is hitting the brick wall that actresses get as roles for middle aged women dry up. She lives in a beach house with a gorgeous view of the Pacific into which she paddleboards every morning. She lives a healthy lifestyle, making herself smoothies for nearly every occasion, and has no romantic entanglements.

Her niece Faye (Takal), who intends to follow in her footsteps as an actress but has been working mostly on the East Coast, comes for a visit. This delights Marie, who one suspects is a little bit lonely but also adores her niece to begin with. Marie shows her around town and gives her some advice on navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood.

Marie knows those waters well. After losing a desirable role to Kristen Wiig, she accepts a part in a micro-budgeted indie as a solar scientist and does extensive research with one to prepare for the role. She also begins a relationship with Dan (Swanberg regular Osborne) who does a lot of pot and is handy around the house, but as Marie looks past the sex doesn’t really see a lot more there- and that may well be just fine by her.

Faye for her part has a boyfriend (Levine) at home with whom she Skypes almost nightly with. Some innocent flirtations trouble her; she seems tempted at times with some of the boys she hangs out with at parties and such but quickly learns that their interest in her mainly ends when her clothes stay on. That’s not uncommon in L.A. or anywhere else for that matter.

Marie’s friend Rusty (Fessenden) paddleboards with her every morning. He’s a bit of a player although he prefers partners who are younger. They have a fairly comfortable relationship but after having a few drinks with dinner, things get a bit awkward.

The story really revolves around Faye’s visit and a few days on each side of it. This isn’t a movie in which things happen, which some viewers might find infuriating. Rather, things get discussed – everything from women’s breasts to the need for solar energy to the advantages of marriage and the price for independence. Some of these conversations are interesting indeed.

For my part, I have this issue with movies that are essentially people talking about life – it’s a very passive endeavor. I need a little more interaction. When I see an interesting conversation onscreen, I want very much to be part of it and it can be quite frustrating to be a mute onlooker. Sure, you can carry on some of the conversations afterward (and Da Queen and I did) but it isn’t the same – you’re never as brilliant afterwards are you are in the moment and the value of your insights can get lost.

I like Swanberg as a filmmaker and Adams as an actress. They both respect their audiences and don’t talk down to them. Simply put, I just didn’t connect with this movie the way I would have liked to. Perhaps I wasn’t in the frame of mind to enjoy it properly and needed a bit more space on either side of the film than you can typically get in a busy film festival schedule. That said, do take my final rating with a grain of salt – it isn’t meant to judge the quality of the movie, which is significant, only my recommendation on seeing it. It’s a very acquired taste, but those willing to put some effort and focus into it should find ample rewards. Unfortunately, I honestly didn’t but the fault may well have been mine rather than the filmmakers.

REASONS TO GO: Smart and topical. The dialogue sounds like real people talking. Very slice of life, L.A.-style.

REASONS TO STAY: Very talky. Lacks action and a traditional story.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rough language, adult situations and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swanberg directed six films that were filmed in 2010 (and co-directed a seventh), one of the busiest years for a single director since the silent era.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baghead

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: SOMM and further coverage of the films of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!