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Column Fri Feb 03 2012
The Woman In Black
The thing that strikes you about the new Gothic ghost story The Woman In Black is how little talking there is. There are huge passages of this film that are completely dialogue free, and by committing to that filmmaking style, director James Watkins (maker of the little-known but well worth checking out Eden Lake) removes any distractions we might have from being as tense and scared as we possibly can. And believe me, you will spend a great deal of time being both while watching this one. Sure, Watkins throws in a few cheap thrills in the process (a bird flying out of a chimney springs to mind), but most of his scares are well-earned in this classic tale of vengeful spirits courtesy of the folks at the revitalized Hammer Film.
A much older looking Daniel Radcliffe (well, he looks older than a wizard schoolboy now) plays Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer whose wife died during childbirth, and who has been thrust into single parenthood to raise his son. His work at his law firm has also suffered as a result of his grief, and when his superior sends him to a small village in the English countryside to settle the estate of a recently deceased woman, he makes it clear that if he screws things up, his days at the firm are through. One of the more interesting aspect of The Woman In Black is how shrouded in death everything is even before Arthur gets to the village, where it's very clear that he is not welcome and that his very presence seems to send the parents of the community into a frenzy of hiding their children. The open sequence of the film is of three little girls having a tea party, suddenly stopping their play, and jumping out a high window to their certain death. As a fellow Chicago critic pointed out to me, there is an awful lot of child death for a PG-13-rated movie. Whatever you do, don't let that rating fool you; it in no way reduced the number of truly terrifying moments.
The one man in the village who befriends Arthur is Mr. Daily (Ciaran Hinds), perhaps the richest man in the area, who lost a child a few years earlier, an incident from which his wife (Janet McTeer) has never truly recovered. The plot (adapted the great Jane Goldman, based on the Susan Hill novel) doesn't try to hide the fact that there's a ghost at the center of the tragedies that have befallen this community, and that somehow Arthur's presence on the estate has stirred her up once again.
The scenes I love the most (and thankfully they take up most of the film) are when Arthur is working in the haunted mansion, sifting through piles of disorganized papers, trying to do his job. When Daily drops him off one morning and offers to pick him up that night, and Arthur says he'd prefer to work through the night, you can't help but smile as the hair on the back of your neck stands up. Inevitably, Arthur hears a noise in the house and begins investigating, going room by room through the barely candlelit manor. We dread him opening each new door, and in many ways director Watkins has recreated the best moments of a carnival spook house with his endless number of hallways, staircases and creepy, unused rooms.
There's certainly nothing overly slick about The Woman In Black, although the production values are high and the sets are beautifully realized. Radcliffe does a remarkable job of making us realize that this is a man who isn't afraid of death since he's been living in its shadow for so long, he actually might enjoy the company of a dead woman who is looking for something she has lost, much like himself. And while there are certainly moments where you question his ability (or sense) to even open another door that will likely reveal some new horror, we're right there with him and his curious face to see what we can see.
I also loved some of the film's small (if wildly implausible) touches, such as the long driveway to the house that is literally swallowed by the tide a couple times a day, making it impossible to leave for hours at a time. If memory serves, the estate is called Marsh House, but did they actually have to build it in the middle of a marsh? Why not Marsh Adjacent House? But this geographical detail makes for some great visuals, especially in the rain-soaked climax. But what I enjoyed most about The Woman In Black is that it seems to celebrate the ability of minimal, largely practical effects, a rich soundscape, an understated score, and strong performances to tell a wonderfully scary story (For those reasons, the film shares a healthy DNA with the great 2001 ghost story The Others, but without the twist ending.) It seems obvious, but it were so obvious, why don't more filmmakers do it? I hope Watkins continues making such riveting works in the future; he makes me feel slightly more optimistic about the future of this kind of atmospheric horror.
High school can be tough enough for a skinny kid who sticks to himself and doesn't have a lot of friends. A kid like that will likely get picked on mercilessly, but he won't say anything to his family or school authorities because the idea of those two universes coming together if far worse than having some bullies knock your books out of your hands. As much as the fantastic new film from first-time director Joshua Trank (whose biggest credit to date was editing Big Fan) and writer Max Landin (son of John) is about three kids who stumble upon a mysterious object in a cave that gives them extraordinary powers, Chronicle is really about Andrew Detmer (played by the gifted young actor Dane DeHaan), an outcast who is suddenly given the ability to defend himself and seek vengeance upon his tormentors.
I first noticed DeHaan when he appeared as the self-destructive gay high schooler on HBO's great series "In Treatment" and more recently on a couple episodes of the most recent season of "True Blood." He's set to appear later this year in John Hillcoat's Wettest County opposite some pretty heavy-hitting actors like Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain. Through no fault of his own, DeHaan eerily resemble a young, This Boy's Life-era Leonardo DiCaprio and seems to have the passion to match. In Chronicle, the world is piling on trouble after trouble. In addition to the bullying, Andrew's father (Michael Kelly) is a violent alcoholic and his mother (Bo Petersen) is dying painfully of cancer. The family is broke, so they can't even afford painkillers to ease his mother's suffering, giving Andrew an infinite number of reasons to get angry.
During a part that the three leads — including Michael B. Jordan ("Friday Night Lights") as Steve, one of the most popular kids in school, and Andrew's cousin Matt (Alex Russell) — find a hole in the ground in a field and decide to go down. I'm not spoiling anything by saying that they find something glowing and creepy that seems to be emitting energy that even disturbs the picture quality of the camera Andrew is also carrying with him. (Yes, the film begins as a found-footage exercise, but as the action ramps up, the filmmakers switch over to cell phone and security cameras to capture the impossible-to-believe images.)
There's a slight, unexplained jump in time after the glowing- ock episode, and now the boys realize that they have the ability to move small objects with their minds, often causing nose bleeds, but not always. And the more they practice using their gifts, the stronger they get and the heavier the objects they can lift get. One of the first things Andrew learns to lift is his camera, so now rather than have all of the footage be handheld, he's actually able to get some pretty cool elevated, drifting angles, which at the very least, keeps this from being a shaky-cam nightmare (a la Cloverfield). At first the boys use their ability to move things to play pranks on other people, and those scenes are pretty great. But when Andrew causes an aggressive driver to veer off the road, nearly killing the man, we get our first sense of what he's capable of. And then they teach themselves to fly, and we forget the bad stuff for a while.
I can't think of a film in recent memory that so perfectly captured what it would be like to fly under your own power; their genuine glee at flying in and out of the clouds is infectious. Jordan is a charismatic actor who exudes charm and personality, exactly the kind of all-around likable guy that would run for and win class president. And while he loves his powers, he doesn't see the bigger ramifications about having them. Russell's character is the vocal morality of the group; he wants to establish rules about when and how the powers can be used (Rule 1: don't use it on living objects). He also feels overwhelmingly guilty at times for not being there for his cousin during the hard times in his life, and he's using this opportunity to bring them closer together. These are nicely drawn characters, all of whom we grow to care about, which makes the final third of the film so magnificently devastating.
The final act of the film is one long action sequence shot in an unusual way that makes it feel like we're seeing these events in the real world (the film is set in Seattle), and it's the first chance we get to witness just how strong the kids have gotten and how skilled they've become at using their abilities in tandem. I especially like the all three leads are given the same power, but it's the weakest of the three that practices the most and has enough emotional instability to do things the other two would consider forbidden. And with a running time that barely cracks 80 minutes, director Trank keeps things moving at an appropriate pace without forgetting that slowing things down to take a breath is necessary for an audience to contemplate what new developments have occurred, and more importantly to consider how we would act in the same situation. Chronicle is one big mass of entertainment that tells the "young people with powers" story in such a different way that it ups the genre significantly and unforgettably. This should be your priority for the weekend.
No lie: I'm writing this after just coming from a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest done with elaborately constructed marionettes, which was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. The reason I bring this up is to illustrate that I love wild, original interpretations of Shakespeare's work, and I think it's pretty clear that Ralph Fiennes does as well, as he adapts one of the Bard's least performed works, Coriolanus, casting the lead character as a raving mad dictator who has had the humanity beaten out of him by a lifetime of soldiering. A wild-eyed Fiennes directs and stars in this tale of a Roman general who is cast out of Rome after winning it some of its greatest victories.
Also on hand in this thunderous production is Gerard Butler, in his best performance since 300, as the renamed Coriolanus' sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius, who soon becomes his ally against Rome. The ever-present Jessica Chastain plays the general's loving wife, but Coriolanus' heart seems more closely aligned with that of his scheming mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave, in fine form in one of her best roles in recent years). But an entire adult life of fighting has hardened the general's heart, and even the love of mother or wife cannot penetrate him long enough to keep him from brutalizing Rome. Fiennes interpretation of the work casts the plot (from a screenplay by John Logan) in a world where cable news is covering the battles (thus, when he gives a monologue to no one in particular, it comes off more like a press conference).
Fiennes and Butler really do play off each other like two wild dogs willing to sacrifice themselves as long as the other one dies. But when they pledge their allegiance to each other against Rome, it's certainly an uneasy union. Coriolanus feels modern because, like most of Shakespeare's great works, the story and fiery emotions are timeless. Toss in a couple of scene-stealing supporting roles from Brian Cox and James Nesbitt, and now you've got a film bordering on great. Wisely, Fiennes keeps Shakespeare's words intact, but you'll understand exactly what's going on at all times. The film may feel a bit relentless at times, but that's war, isn't it? And while it wouldn't have killed the filmmakers to add a sprinkling of levity here and there, the film doesn't really suffer without it. I hope Fiennes and company continue to tackle and modify Shakespeare's writing, making them more identifiable to a modern audience without cheapening or dumbing-down the text, because Coriolanus is a great piece of loud-ass cinema. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Writer, director and occasional actor Ti West is one of my favorite new filmmakers. He works fast, producers quality work, and has given us a slightly altered way of looking at the horror genre. For one thing, he actually cares about his characters and he wants us to care about them as well. Second, the way he weaves his plots, it's as if he wants us to back into the horror elements without even realizing we are. After making the highly effective Trigger Man and The House of the Devil (I wasn't a fan of Cabin Fever 2), his latest effort, The Innkeepers, is one of my favorite scare films of this year and last. I actually saw the movie nearly a year ago at the SXSW Film Festival, but upon a re-watch a couple of weeks ago, the thing still scared the crap out of me, thanks in large part to me liking the main characters enough to actually fear for their well-being.
But perhaps more than any of his other films, I also really enjoyed the non-horror story involving two employees Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) working the last weekend of operation in a rundown hotel. In addition, the pair are playing amateur ghosthunter, looking for a spectral presence in the hotel, and they get a little more than they bargained for — or do they? Perhaps what they hear and see is all a product of Paxton's paranoid imagination. West keeps that option open, and the result is spectacular while it maintains a fairly low-key atmosphere. A great deal of whether you will like this film or not comes down to whether you fall in love a little bit with Claire (that goes for the men and women). While she's far from a helpless little bird in a windstorm, Claire is not without her shortcomings that make you want to take care of her or at least nudge her in the right direction and away from a series of ill-advised actions.
The Innkeepers kicks into a higher level of creepiness when Kelly McGillis joins the fun as a washed-up actress who checks into the hotel, and she just happens to be a psychic who does readings that point to a nasty presence in the dwelling. Rather than run screaming from the hotel, Claire and Luke use this as the impetus to up their ghost hunting activities. The film keeps its scares coming on the regular, and I was impressed with how much of the fear I was feeling was coming from the horror on the faces of the actors than anything West shows us (although he does show us things from time to time). I had a great time watching this buddy film disguised as a horror movie, and I think you will get into the quirky nature of the structure and characters. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Writer-director Ti West will be doing a post-screening Q&A after the 7:20pm showing of The Innkeepers on Friday, Feb. 3 at the Music Box Theatre, with my pal Scott Tobias from The Onion's A.V. Club moderating as part of his Cult Canon series. The film will be playing on a double-bill (only on Friday night) with West's The House of the Devil. Advance tickets can be ordered at the Music Box Theatre's website.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Innkeepers writer-director Ti West and star Sara Paxton.