SILENT HOUSE

 

By R. David

Published March 9, 2012

This week, instead of the “found footage’ gimmick currently being affixed to at least one film per month, “Silent House” offers up a new experiment:  Will a rather traditional horror flick be any more interesting to audiences if it’s presented as one unbroken, real-time camera shot?  I’m not sure why it would, as one shot or a hundred shots has nothing to do with little things like a compelling story, convincing performances or effective scares.  But audiences routinely settle for less as long as there’s a splashy gimmick attached, so the answer, perhaps, is ‘yes’.  As for whether or not the movie meets all those other pesky film-making requirements; not so much.

Elizabeth Olsen, a revelation who gave an Oscar-buzz-igniting performance in last year’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, stars as Sarah, a teenager who, along with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), finds herself terrorized in their secluded (and dilapidated) summer house by an unknown and unseen assailant.  “Silent House” is essentially a whodoneit (or rather, a who’s-doing-it?).  Immediately, well-trained audiences will start coming up with possible suspects and scenarios:  Is it the vandalizing squatters we told may frequent the house?  The odd-duck childhood friend Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) who shows up seemingly out of nowhere?  The unfaithful boyfriend Sarah is willing to give a second chance but her father can’t stand?  Is it all in her head?  Or is it simply a random attacker who sees a teenage girl in a remote location as easy prey, as in so many similar horror flicks?

It won’t take savvy audience members very long to figure “Silent House” out.  But that is the least of the film’s problems.  None of the the conversations or dialog in this film feel the least bit natural.  In fact, the line readings by the entire cast, save for Olsen are, often strikingly amateurish and obnoxious.  Olsen fares better than the rest of the cast, but she is generally wasted thanks to script that gives her little of interest to do or say.  We are provided with this all-important tidbit, however:  None of the phone lines in the house are activated and cell phones don’t work.  Natch.  It’s all barely one step above your average campy 80s slasher flick (Dad even utters the proverbial kiss-of-death cliche:  “I’ll be right back.” – clearly, no one in this house has ever seen “Scream”.)

The filmmakers fail to provide any justifiable reason for the “unbroken shot” gimmick (it is not presented as “found” or any other sort of actual footage, so why shoot it as such?) in “Silent House”, but the camera work – and music – is often rather effective at creating tension.  The camera never seems to be looking quite where you want it to, or is a beat late at panning over to investigate whatever that ‘thud’ was; which is frustrating but an effective tactic for keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.  Still, what begins as an efficiently creepy, low-budget exercise quickly devolves into what feels like an aimless journey as the film wears on and the camera continually lopes in and out of the same dark rooms and up and down the same hallways, eventually draining all the suspense from the concept and all life from the film itself.

Olsen is able to rise above the material, but she is required to do little more than wear a tight tank top and panic in full-on scream queen mode.  They could have changed the the name of this thing to “Cleavage and Crying”.  The film’s ending is either ambitious or laughable depending on your preference for such “reveals”, however it is the only time during ‘Silent House” where the screenwriters seem to be interested in thinking outside the box.  But that’s what happens when you build a film from a gimmick up.

2 stars out of 4.

PROJECT X

By R. David

Published March 2, 2012

Another month of 2012, another “found footage” movie.

“Project X” is a generic teen house party flick with the twist (or gimmick, if you will) that the film you are watching is the footage taken by one of the teens as they chronicle the events leading up to the party, the party itself and its aftermath (that’s one hell of a battery this kid’s camera has).  The plot is besides the point, primarily because “chronicle of a teen party” more or less sums it up.  I guess it should be noted that the kids throwing the party aren’t very popular so they are hoping this party becomes so epic that it catapults them to “cool kid” status, and the main kid – the one whose parents are out of town – is crushing on one of his female friends of, like, forever, and she probably likes him too, but neither is sharing.  But unless you’ve never seen one of these movies before, you already knew all that.

If it wasn’t for the film’s final act, the absolute only thing that would separate “Project X” from any other film of this type (and I mean any – this movie is literally one big storyboarding cliche) is the found footage angle, which by itself is rather pointless here.  But “Project X” has one other trick up its sleeve.  Unlike most of these films which are content to see a house trashed, or even set on fire in some extreme cases – only to see the kids either beat the rap, or end up grounded for life in fair trade off for getting the girl, becoming popular, getting into the school or frat or whatever the was the thing that inspired said blowout – “Project X” goes completely balls to the wall in its destructive, shitfacedness. The house doesn’t just burn down, most of the neighborhood burns down.  The party doesn’t just rage out of control, it rages into the streets.  Where are the cops you ask?  Oh, they come – and eventually so does a SWAT team, and I think that’s the National Guard there at the end.

Unfortunately it takes the entire film for “Project X” to reach this absurd level of inspired hysterics.  There is plenty excess (booze, pot, exstacy, plenty sex talk, bare breasts and foul language to the degree of tedium) along the way, but they’re really the basic staples that any good “party movie” should provide.  They also happen in quick, blink-and-you-missed-it bursts and at random times or in the umpteenth montage, so none of it really registers as being particularly fun, funny, exciting or titillating. The film is cut together like a highlight real or a feature-length trailer.  But no one is likely to expect the firey finale.  It’s the only time the film really goes for broke and attempts to one-up any film in this well-milked genre.  It’s not really enough to save the film, but if this sort of thing is your bag anyway, it certainly provides an added bonus to the expected shenanigans.

“Project X” is a film that delivers on its promise.  If that is worth anything depends on your view of films to begin with.  If you can’t get enough of them, this one works as well as most and offers a truly insane final act to boot.

2 and a half stars out of 4.

SAFE HOUSE

By R. David

Published February 10, 2012

“Safe House” is one of those espionage action thrillers with a plot so standard and generic it hardly matters at all.  Denzel Washington is introduced as the villain of the film, a rouge CIA agent so handy at what he does he has become the stuff of legend within the organization.  The CIA has caught this dastardly threat to national security and have brought him to super-secret underground lair (or safe house, if you will), manned by junior spook Ryan Reynolds, to be interrogated.  Everything goes haywire when security is breached and a team of assassins comes gunning for Washington.  Reynolds proves more resourceful than anyone predicted and gets Washington to safety, only to have Washington give him the slip.  He is told by his superiors (Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Vira Famiga) that Washington is a traitor and cold-blooded murderer.  Initially Reynolds takes to tracking Washington down in order to prove himself a valuable agent and get out of his dead-end job as a safe house watchdog.  But several plot twists later, Reynolds comes to realize Washington may not be the threat he has been led to believe and in reality, Washington has proof that many of Reynolds’ superiors are in fact traitors.  Soon the two are working together to keep the evidence out of the hands of dirty agents and stay alive as assassins hunt them down at every turn.

“Safe House” is as action-packed as it is standard issue.  Director Daniel Espinosa seems to be proudly waving his recent degree as a graduate from the Tony Scott School of Directing here.  Washington is a frequent Scott collaborator and this film not only has the herky-jerky camera work of his Scott-helmed thrillers like “Man on Fire”, “The Taking of Pelham 123″ and “Unstoppable”, but a similar look and tone, as well as a now-typical anti-hero role for Washington.  But the film is well made and the action sequences are competently staged.  Still, like the plot itself, its all fairly workmen-like and offers nothing truly special or memorable when compared with any number of standard issue spy thrillers.  Would-be surprises such as which characters will turn out to be a mole and even who lives and who dies can be spotted a mile away, while the mentor-student relationship that develops between Washington and Reynolds feels pretty forced, despite both stars equating themselves nicely in their roles.  Washington is good but could make a film like this in his sleep.  It’s Reynolds who stands out here.  It’s easy to forget, because he often stashes himself in generic rom-coms (“The Proposal”) and broad sophomoric comedies (“The Change-Up”), but he is a capable dramatic actor and man of action.  He was one of the better elements of Joe Carnahan’s over-the-top but underrated “Smokin’ Aces”.  It’s probably no coincidence then that in both “Aces” and “Safe House” he is playing a naive, idealistic agent who’s world is suddenly rocked and he is forced to man-up.  Clearly he excels with such material.

“Safe House” might be boilerplate fare, but it delivers on its action-packed promise without turning into a complete eye-roller.  Credit the capable cast and well-staged action sequences.  It’s nothing too memorable, but it’ll most likely please its intended audience.

2 and a half stars out of 4.

CHRONICLE

By R. David

Published February 3, 2012

The whole “found footage” thing wore out its welcome with me right about the time “The Blair Witch Project” got all overrated and people started ripping it off ad nauseam.  Like any good entertainment trend, every ten years or so Hollywood has been sure to recycle what was once new, then old, then new again for a new generation.  And so it goes.  Since “Paranormal Activity” pulled a “Blair Witch” in 2009 (similarly shitty, similarly overrated, similar huge box office return on a cheap investment) Hollywood has been churning out low-fi, low-cost horror flicks that all purport to be some sort of document of a tragedy discovered after the fact.  Already in this new year we’ve had the abysmal “The Devil Inside” which worked the same angle.

I get it.  It’s not only an easy way for studios to make a film on the cheap and all but ensure a profit, even if by the standards of almost any other film their movie isn’t a box office success, but it allows burgeoning film makers a means to have their voices heard.  Studios won’t risk a lot of money on them so they are forced to deliver a cheaper product.  What better way to disguise the lack of budget or faith in your film than to present it as a home movie?  It’s only a bonus that also happens to be a hot sub-genre again; at least for the moment until it once again wears out its welcome.

But as with every trend, there are good and bad products produced within its confines.  “Paranormal Activity” had about as perfect and irresistible a set-up for this type of film as any, but the execution was almost insultingly ineffective for something so hyped and which held so much promise.  A squandered opportunity (x 3 as of this writing, thanks to it’s equally mirthless sequels).  “Cloverfield” and last year’s overlooked “Attack the Block” were far more interesting, ambitious, and better executed entries in the genre.  And now comes “Chronicle”, John Trank’s surprisingly sturdy (if still too gimmicky) amalgam of SCI-FI matinee homage and YouTube generation fetishism.  The film is simple, even contrived at its core, but surprising in its schizophrenic tone, which shifts from a sense of feel-good wonder to disturbing anger without much warning.  It is an effectively jarring transition that catches the audience off-guard and keeps you guessing just how far the film is willing to go.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is the quite, unpopular high school kid with a rotten home life (Mom is dying of cancer, Dad is an abusive alcoholic) in the Seattle suburbs.  As if to fill the void of tedium in his life (or perhaps to chronicle it), Andrew decides to start filming his entire day-to-day life, hence the the found-footage the film purports to be.  Andrew’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell) has made it his mission to help Andrew break out of his shell, pointing out his many eccentricities that are potentially turning people off and dragging him along to parties in order to loosen up and “be normal”.  Andrew begrudgingly follows his cousin, but ultimately ends up feeling out of place, bullied and generally ostracized.  One night the two cousins, along with Steve (a jock, aspiring class president and an all-around beloved, cool guy the two cousins would not normally be worthy of associating with if they didn’t all happen to be at the same party) stumble upon a huge hole in the woods.  Steve and Matt are thrilled by the discovery and coax Andrew to follow them down into the crater.  Inside they discover a bright, shimmering, seemingly alive wall of light.  They all blackout and when they come to and emerge from the hole they discover they have certain powers – innocuous but nonetheless thrilling abilities at first, like the ability to throw a baseball or assemble Legos with their mind.  But before long the boys realize they have the ability to throw moving cars off the road, levitate and even fly.

“Chronicle” creates a thrilling sense of wonder as the boys discover and attempt to control their new-found abilities.  All too soon however they realize they can easily and unwittingly go too far and hurt others.  They set rules and agree to never use their powers in anger.  But Andrew’s abusive father and antisocial tendencies make that all but impossible.  Once he realizes he now has the ability to fight back and no reason to be afraid, Andrew begins to give in to his darker tendencies.  How far he will go becomes the central question of the film.

“Chronicle” is only 83-minutes long, but it covers all the ground you’d hope for in that amount of time, always moving briskly forward.  The early moments as the boys “play” with their powers are entertaining and thrilling in a “what if”, “wouldn’t that be cool?” sort of way.  Once they realize the true potential of their powers the film thrills with yowza visual effects that are low-fi enough to look realistic in a visceral sense.  Then the film makes the tonal shit from whimsy to realizing the dark possibilities of both these powers and Andrew’s psyche that can be felt hovering over the film from the beginning.  The film can be looked at as the origin story of any number of superheros and supervillians; how some go to the darkside and why others are forced to defend humanity against them.  You almost wish the film took the time to delve even deeper into this metaphor, especially since the last 15 minutes or so are taken up with the requisite explosions and toppling buildings this genre basically demands be the firey conclusion of such stories.  That’s not to say some of it isn’t thrilling, but it goes on too long and at the expense of exploring some intriguing ideas that may have proved to be just as fascinating as any action climax.
Where “Chronicle” best excels is keeping the audience off kilter; wondering what disturbing turn the film might take next.  It goes far enough to make you wish it had gone further.  However, within the confines of PG-13 entertainment, one knows there is unfortunately only so far a film like this can go.  That’s not to say the drama and surprises it does manage aren’t plentiful or more than enough – especially for this genre – to sustain viewer interest for the duration of the brisk 80-plus minute running time.

“Chronicle” is smart enough to offer something new, even if it is mixing and matching well-worn genres.  This lack of contempt for its audience is refreshing in sea of so many similar films that are either too lazy to come up with something original because they know their gimmick will automatically sell the film to its intended audience, or there was never much of an idea, besides ripping off a better film (and audiences), in the first place (cough, cough “The Devil Inside” cough).

3 stars out of 4.