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Friday
Mar092012

Silent House

The horror genre is quickly becoming a gimmick. It seems that actual scares don’t really matter, just so long as the film is shot in a quirky way. Found footage is all the rage these days, but for every solid Paranormal Activity, you have a Grave Encounters or The Devil Inside. Films are simply imitating others, riding their coattails if you will, rather than coming up with a new and interesting idea to gain exposure. This week’s Silent House isn’t a found footage film, but the point remains. The 88 minute movie is meant to look like it was done all in one take with zero cuts so the events occur in real time and the end result is a gimmick in search of a story.

The film begins with Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) sitting on some rocks near a creek outside of a rickety old house. She is there along with her father, John (Adam Trese), to fix the place up for sale, but once they get inside, she hears a noise coming from upstairs. Her father goes up to investigate, but then disappears. She later finds him bloody and bruised, but still breathing, so she begins to look for a way out. Unfortunately, the windows are boarded up (for no discernible reason), all the doors are locked and the one key that would let her out has mysteriously vanished.

Silent House is a remake of the 2010 Spanish film, La Casa Muda, and much of what was done in that film remains here. The one shot gimmick is ever present, the basic story remains the same and many of the scares are recreated practically down to the letter. Aside from the gimmick (both do a pretty good job of hiding probable cuts), the original film does everything better, which certainly doesn’t say much for Silent House given that the majority of its source material’s moments culminated in a bewildered “that’s it?”

Both do a good job of building suspense, but their eventual revelations are hardly frightening, which effectively makes those builds moot. Creepy little girl apparitions, slamming doors and an overused twist are clichéd and boring. The twist in question (which I will, of course, not give away) differs a bit in this movie from the original, but its unreservedness in its clue dropping, which include blatant musical cues and barely cryptic dialogue, make what is to come fairly obvious. What the two twists from each movie do have in common is that once they are revealed, they bring into question the legitimacy of everything you saw leading up to it. The specifics of what happens may be different, but the effect is the same: they don’t make sense.

Aside from its technical prowess (that one shot illusion sure is convincing), the biggest thing Silent House has going for it is its lead star. Elizabeth Olsen, who many claim was snubbed of an Oscar nomination for her powerhouse performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is very good here, even if the occasional tweak of her supposedly frightened face in close-up makes her look more constipated than afraid. She plays the perfect vulnerable girl and she manages to make us care about her, but a movie like this needs more than just a performance. It needs ideas. Without ideas, it becomes the same old song and dance we’ve sat through countless times. The horror genre is in trouble and needs fixing. Silent House is evidence enough of that.

Silent House receives 2/5

Friday
Feb102012

Safe House

It’s always a pleasure to watch Denzel Washington, even when he’s in a movie that fails to live up to his screen presence. If anything, his mediocre films, like Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Book of Eli, only strengthen that argument. He’s so good in all of them that he makes them better than they deserve to be. Still, one can’t help but long for his glory days of starring in bona fide winners, like Man on Fire and Training Day. His latest, entitled Safe House, isn’t a return to form, but it’s a step in the right direction, easily a notch above his last few efforts, but far below the quality of film he deserves to be in.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA traitor who has been leaking important government information to a number of various parties for years. He has just been caught and transported to a government safe house in South Africa, which is cared for by an up and coming agent named Matt Weston, played by Ryan Reynolds. However, the safe house is quickly breached by an unknown party and Matt soon finds himself in possession of Tobin and tasked with bringing him in.

Safe House has a pretty simple story, though it tries to cover it with talk of government espionage, encrypted files and the like. It’s little more than an action movie where the characters have to move from Point A to Point B while dodging gunfire and participating in car chases. There aren’t any surprises to be found, including an eventual revelation that someone inside the CIA may be corrupt, but it moves forward at a brisk pace, occasionally stopping for some expositional dialogue, and always manages to entertain.

This lack of story development may be frustrating for some, but in this case, its simplicity is its gain. Many films with government conspiracies and espionage get bogged down in their own confusing narrative, but Safe House doesn’t, instead focusing more on what the characters are doing rather than why they are doing it. With two impressive performances from its leads, including Reynolds who has come a long way since his goofy comedy days, this focus works. Reynolds and Washington manage to keep the audience gripped, even after they’ve lost interest in the overall goal of the film.

Where it suffers is where many action films these days do: its persistent use of shaky cam. When things get hectic in Safe House, so does the camera, which leads to disorientation and the occasional inability to tell what’s going on. Ever since the Bourne movies, this technique has been a go-to for many filmmakers, but it rarely works. Although it may give more of a sense of actually being there, which is a benefit for some movies (most notably “found footage” films like Cloverfield), it prohibits the audience from achieving maximum enjoyment. In Safe House, it’s a hindrance.

With an untested director behind the camera, this ill-advised decision isn’t surprising (though cinematographer Oliver Wood, who also framed the aforementioned Bourne movies, does what he can to make it work). With his insistence on the technique and off-putting lighting filled with dark, dank hues, it’s difficult to say whether Daniel Espinosa has the chops to be a big time filmmaker, but at least he chose the right movie to make his American debut. It’s nothing so special to be out of his talent range, but nothing so dumb that he will be written off. Safe House rests squarely in between. It’s not the smartest movie of the year, nor the most exciting, but given its February release, it’s enough.

Safe House receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jan272012

Man on a Ledge

Man on a Ledge is a misleading title. Unlike Snakes on a Plane or Zombie Strippers, whose titles reflected everything they had to offer, Man on a Ledge tries to be more. It starts, sure enough, with a man on a ledge, but its story isn’t confined to that man or that location. Its seemingly succinct title is just a glimpse of what the movie has to offer. Unfortunately, what it offers doesn’t amount to much more than the occasional mild thrill. It’s not the worst movie to ever come out in the dump month of January, but it’s a good example of why this time of year is the worst for moviegoers. Even movies with interesting premises and plenty of potential fail to live up to quality standards.

The film stars as Sam Worthington as Nick Cassidy, the titular man on the ledge. He has just escaped from prison after being convicted of stealing a $40 million diamond from a real estate mogul named David Englander, played by Ed Harris, a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Now he wants to clear his name, but to do so would mean finding the diamond in Englander’s possession and showing to the world that he was set up. So as he talks with a police psychologist, played by Elizabeth Banks, about his intentions, a massive heist run by Nick’s brother and his brother’s girlfriend, played by Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez, begins only a building over.

That’s a great premise if there ever was one. Sure, the trailers ruined it beforehand, but if you walked blindly into Man on a Ledge, it would look like a simple tale of a desperate man contemplating the unthinkable. The story twist would throw you for a loop, but that twist’s inherent intrigue never pans out into anything meaningful. Your interest grows weary as the story loses traction, becoming even more outlandish as each minute ticks by. For instance, after you learn that it took a year to plan the heist, you can’t help but role your eyes over the team’s approach, which involves such ridiculousness as taking a picture of a room with a digital camera and then dangling the picture in front of a security camera, slyly fooling the guard who just so happened to look away as they hung it up. Such a trite course of action surely couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes to figure out, much less a year.

Though small in nature, quibbles like that eventually lead the viewer to a realization. How did the team know the layout of the building anyway, including the vents? How did they know what vault they would be up against once inside? How did they know anything at all? You’re supposed to just go with the fact that they planned for a year and already looked into everything, but I wasn’t buying it. The writing leaves too many questions unanswered and uses plot conveniences to get the characters where they need to be. Nothing is explained and the final twist, which will remain unspoiled, is a real head slapper. This thing needed at least an extra hour at its front to help lead into what you eventually see.

The thing is that if the heist was fun, these questions wouldn’t matter so much and would be easy to look past, but it’s relatively small in scale (at least compared to other heist movies) and the cutesy, flirty dialogue between the two pulling off the heist is beyond annoying. The over-the-top and comically insane heist pulled off in last year’s Tower Heist is more interesting (and believable) than this.

The men behind Nick’s set up are obvious from the get-go, Banks is miscast (in perhaps the worst actress-to-profession casting since Tara Reid as an anthropologist in Uwe Boll’s misfire, Alone in the Dark) and Worthington’s eventual transition into an action hero cross between James Bond and Spider-Man is sudden and insane, but it’s not all bad. Ed Harris is great as the evil mogul, which gives at least a little bit of a reason to care for the good guys to prevail and a couple of late movie stunts are fun to watch, but there comes a time when you want it to get to the point. The problem is that there is no point and its thrills are insubstantial, certainly not good enough to carry a 102 minute movie. It simply doesn’t have enough to sustain itself through what eventually becomes another lame, predictable action flop. Like I said earlier, Man on a Ledge may not be the worst movie to ever come out in January, but that in no way means it’s good.

Man on a Ledge receives 2/5

Friday
Sep232011

Abduction

Abduction is a movie that knows its audience. With Taylor Lautner in the lead role, it does everything it can to be what can only be described as an action-fueled Twilight. The problem is if you’re catering to the Twilight demographic, you’re not aiming very high. The surprise, however, comes from how utterly incompetent, atrociously stupid and highly unbelievable it is, even when compared to Twilight. And if you’re unfortunate enough to have sat through all three of those, just imagine what’s in store for you here.

Lautner plays Nathan, a mild mannered high school kid who is crushing on the pretty young Karen, played by Lily Collins, and as luck would have it, he is partnered with her on a school project. While researching one night at his house, they stumble on a missing persons website where they find a picture of a child that looks suspiciously like him. After some digging, they realize it is him, so they contact an administrator of the site. What they don’t know is that it’s a mock site created by Kozlow, played by Michael Nyqvist, who has been searching for him for many years and now that he knows his location, the chase is on.

The story goes to great lengths to be interesting and delves deeper than what I’ve detailed above. There are undercover agents posing as parents, a mystery involving Nathan’s actual parents and a journey to uncover what his significance to Kozlow and the US government is. It’s a silly tale built for the tween crowd who have never been properly introduced to a proper thriller before, but its idiocy isn’t its problem. Any story can be told well if the foundation around it is solid, but Abduction is so poorly put together, it makes director Uwe Boll look like a masterful craftsman.

For starters, it must be said that Taylor Lautner, an all around mediocre actor who is wildly inconsistent from scene to scene, is not a leading man. Depending on what he’s doing, he can either look like a veteran or a nervous first time performer. Lautner is a martial arts expert, taking up the craft at an early age, and he works best when he’s punching something. He brings forth an unexpected ferocity to the action scenes. If not for his boyishly good looks, he might even be intimidating. He’s dependable on that level and in an action thriller, that counts for something, but his inability to develop his character, build emotion or create an authentic chemistry with his co-star only goes to show how lousy he can be. He and Collins feel distant in the film, despite spending much of it side by side. No romantic tension is ever built, which makes a random, steamy and aggressively uncomfortable make-out scene in the middle feel forced into place. Lautner simply doesn’t pull this roll off. He may have a voice that is calm and commanding, but his mannerisms are stiff and awkward. He walks into certain scenes like he’s in the middle of a battle with a particularly itchy hemorrhoid.

Of course, if you’ve seen the Twilight films, you know he’s not in this for his talent. He’s in it for the way he looks with his shirt off (and if you don’t know what that looks like, you will within five minutes of watching this film). His lousiness shouldn’t come as a surprise, but you might be taken aback by the amateurish editing that can’t even sync up the action onscreen with the appropriate sound effects, like in one scene where Nathan turns his head to watch a car drive off, despite the noticeable delay of the vrooming engine. It’s a laughable mistake, something that should have been corrected in Editing 101. The rest of the film fares a tad better, though it is perhaps a bit too fast paced for its own good. The fistfights are edited together so choppily, if certain shots were any shorter, they’d be subliminal.

Rounding out this disaster are some of the worst and most distracting extras I’ve ever seen in a movie, though to be fair, they were unpaid. The finale of the film takes place at the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium and the scenes were shot during an actual game with an unsuspecting crowd. Although good in theory—that packed stadium gives some credence to an otherwise ludicrous film—the final product speaks to its failure. The people in the crowd, stunned that Taylor Lautner is being filmed only a few feet away from them, begin to stare, point and take pictures. It’s hard to fault them (besides, they weren’t obligated to act normally), but it’s easy to criticize director John Singleton for not realizing the challenges of shooting such a scene in such a setting.

Abduction is bad, and that’s putting it mildly. Never mind that it clearly doesn’t know the definition of the word “abduction,” the film simply lacks efficiency in front of and behind the camera. The story is hokey and the acting is weak. Similar to how Twilight effectively ruined vampires, Abduction effectively downgrades the action thriller genre. It takes it to a dumbed down, preteen level and it will only be enjoyed by those who are less interested in good filmmaking techniques and more interested in once again seeing Taylor Lautner’s impeccable abs. I can’t say I’m one of those people.

Abduction receives 0.5/5

Friday
Sep162011

Straw Dogs

Although I, unfortunately, have never seen Sam Peckinpah’s original Straw Dogs, I’ve heard plenty about it. I was told about its uncomfortable rape scenes, off-putting violence and general nihilism. The more I heard, the more it sounded like a spiritual companion to Last House on the Left, a film (or two if you include the remake) that I simply cannot handle. That movie is sick, twisted and it disguises evil as good, looking at the world from a pessimistic, animalistic viewpoint. I wasn’t exactly a fan of that film and the trailers for the remake of Straw Dogs, which looked so similar to that movie, didn’t get me particularly excited, but after seeing it, the contrast between the two is clear. Straw Dogs isn’t sensationalism. It may get a rise out of its viewers, but that’s not its goal. It aims to tell a story, albeit a dark and violent one, and it does it well. If you can stomach it, it’s well worth seeing.

David (James Marsden) and Amy (Kate Bosworth) are a happily married couple. They both work in show business, David a writer and Amy an actress, where they met one day while working on the same television program. Now, they are getting away from the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle and heading to Blackwater, Mississippi, Amy’s hometown. Upon arriving, they run into Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), Amy’s high school boyfriend. He and his buddies have a contracting business and they are employed by David and Amy to fix their shed, which lost some of its roof thanks to a recent hurricane. As time goes on and Charlie begins to manipulate David, tension mounts, inevitably leading to a violent confrontation.

Straw Dogs is a smart movie that doesn’t feel gratuitous like many other similar films, including the aforementioned Last House on the Left. It doesn’t jump right into the abyss, eager to get to the bloodshed. No, it takes the time to build its characters up before killing them off. The tension builds not through attempts at excessive style or moody music or jump scares; it slowly percolates through dialogue and character interaction, which is no small feat. By the time the bloody end rolls around, you’ve invested yourself in what’s going on and it’s practically guaranteed to get your heart pumping like you just ran a marathon.

What disappoints, however, is how we end up reaching that bloody end. Throughout the film, there’s a bout of wits between Charlie and David. Neither likes the other, David aware of Charlie’s lust for his wife and Charlie seeing David as an unworthy companion to the girl he used to love. There’s also an odd sexual connection between Charlie and Amy; some of Amy’s bizarre actions are evidence enough of that. The way these are presented in the film is more than enough to make us believe violence could erupt, but the film instead relies on its B story to get us there. It involves an autistic man and a 15 year old cheerleader that goes nowhere fast, other than to set up a narrative contrivance that will lead the man into David and Amy’s home while the cheerleader’s father, alongside Charlie and his goons, stands outside with weapons demanding his head.

The way the film ultimately gets there is unsatisfactory, but at the same time, that route gives it a moral compass. David refuses to give up the man because he knows the guys outside will severely harm or even kill him. He knows keeping him in the house will lead to violence, but he doesn’t have it in him to turn over a man who is unable to comprehend what he did. Unlike Last House on the Left, where the “heroes” sought out their victims in the middle of the night and killed them in cold blood, David is protecting someone. He only kills because he has to.

If nothing else, that is what sets Straw Dogs apart from the rest of the pack, a likable main character who doesn’t try to justify his actions with flimsy reasoning. The film doesn’t romanticize the violence he inflicts on his attackers and it treats an earlier rape scene as it is, as an awful, soul crushing event. It’s not the most technically accomplished film ever made, but it knows what it’s doing. It works in its own crazy way and, though it’s certainly not for everybody, it’s one to keep your eye on.

Straw Dogs receives 3.5/5