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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Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy

Warm Bodies


Love is not only blind, it doesn't have much of a sense of smell either.

Love is not only blind, it doesn’t have much of a sense of smell either.

(2013) Zombie Romance (Summit) Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict, Daniel Kindress-Kay, Vincent Leclerc, Clifford LeDuc-Vallancourt, Billie Calmeau, Adam Driscoll, Robert Reynolds, Christine Rodriguez, Debbie Wong. Directed by Jonathan Levine

Zombies are in these days with the success of The Walking Dead television show (one of the best things on television right now) and movies like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. For the most part we see those imperiled by the zombie apocalypse. But what are the zombies thinking?

A young man wanders around the airport, listlessly. He doesn’t work there; he’s been dead for some time but has been reanimated by forces unknown. He has some memory but can’t remember his name, other than that it starts with R. So R (Hoult) it is. His best friend (if you can call it that) is another shuffling undead flesh-eater whose name might have begun with M (Corddry).

R’s life kind of sucks but then it kind of doesn’t. He collects things and puts them in the jumbo jet he’s converted into his home, a kind of zombie man-cave. He listens to old LPs on a turntable (where’s the power coming from for it?) and stares at little knick-knacks he picks up around the airport. Occasionally, he goes hunting for food with M.

There are zombies and then there are Bonies who are kind of like hardcore zombies who have given up. One day they just start tearing their own flesh off. They’re superstrong, super-aggressive and super-grouchy. There are a few humans left who live in a walled-off section of town. They are led by the military-stiff Grigio (Malkovich) whose daughter Julia (Palmer) and her boyfriend Perry (Franco) are leading a party of scavengers to get medical supplies for the survivors.

That’s where R’s hunting party finds them. The attack is brutal and the outcome inevitable. Perry is a big talker but not a great shot – and as you know from your zombie 101 that zombies can’t be killed with anything other than a head shot. Perry’s shot hits R in the chest which just pisses R off and he chooses Perry to be his brain snack.

When a zombie eats the brains of a victim, they are able to access the memories of that victim. R sees Perry’s memories of Julia and decides to save her, managing to smuggle her out and to the relative safety of his airplane. After an aborted escape attempt convinces her that it is terribly unsafe to go out of the plane, she agrees to stay with this most unusual zombie.

The presence of Julia is changing R rapidly. His vocabulary improves. He begins to have tender feelings towards Julia (although are they his own or a product of Perry’s memory? an intriguing question the movie doesn’t bother to pose) and there are physiological changes as well. What’s more, M and the other zombies are beginning to change as well.

The Bonies don’t like that one little bit and want to find R and stop this “cure” before it gets too far. Julia needs to get back home but her father and his fanatical soldiers would shoot R on sight (and it’s for damn sure that they’re better shots than Perry). What’s more Julia has developed some powerful feelings for R as well. Is this love as doomed as that of Romeo and Juliet?

It’s no secret that the story here is loosely based on the Shakespeare play with several characters referencing characters from the play (R=Romeo, Julia=Juliet, M=Mercutio, Perry=Paris etc.). That no doubt suits the audience that this is intended for just fine – the preteen/teen girls who adore Twilight and their moms. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of the target audience is only aware somewhat of the R&J connection and have had little contact with the original play itself if any.

One of the things that works really well here is the chemistry between Hoult and Palmer. Hoult, who as a young man has become a seasoned veteran of the movies (some of you might remember him as young Marcus in About a Boy), is rapidly turning into a star. This might be the film that propels him to the next level. Palmer, whose done several genre films targeted towards young adults (I Am Number Four and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice among them), plays a plucky independent sort that the young teen girls seem to flock to these days. She and Hoult make an attractive couple (even if one of the is rotting away).

There are some pretty funny moments, particularly with R’s inner monologue. There is also a nice sweetness here that while not going to get you running out to the nearest zombie apocalypse to find yourself a boyfriend, it will at least touch the teddy bear softness of your heart. The only real complaints I have about the movie are the CGI Bonies which are unconvincing (which is a rather charitable assessment) and several plot points that kind of get little play, like Julia’s reaction to the news that R ate her ex. Not something most girls are going to get past very quickly I would think.

Still, this isn’t a bad movie at all. In fact, it’s a pretty good one – much better than I thought it would be, wondering if the filmmakers would be pandering to that target audience (they do but they don’t – Levine and cohorts seem to be of the opinion that teen and preteen girls appreciate a good movie more than a mediocre one). It’s actually a movie that I wish more Twihards had gone to see – I think those pining away over the absence of Bella, Edward and Jacob might find this right up their alley.

REASONS TO GO: Endearing and funny when it needs to be. Nice chemistry with Hoult and Palmer.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI Bonies are weak. Glossed over some important plot points.

FAMILY VALUES:  As there are zombies, there are extensive scenes of zombies eating people as well as getting shot in the head, although the gore is relatively mild (think The Walking Dead). There’s a lot more bad language though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Nora character was part-Ethiopian with brown skin in the book but was changed to a Caucasian for the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100; I’d say the reviews are slightly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Amour