The Lodge(2/20/2020)/The Invisible Man(2/27/2020)


Horror has almost always run in trends whether it’s the slasher movies of the 80s, the post-modern slashers of the 90s, or the torture porn of the 2000s.  Mini-trends would exist alongside these larger macro-trends and there would of course always be one-offs that exist outside the bigger waves, but generally speaking it wasn’t too hard to spot what’s been in vogue with the genre.  For much of the time I’ve been reviewing films the most dominant trend was haunted house movies with lots of jump scares, not a trend I welcomed, and while I’m sure some of those movies are still being made things do seem to finally be moving on but what are they moving on to?  Well there seem to be two tends that may be contenders for the title of “next big thing.”  Within my personal viewing patterns the most noteworthy trend is almost certainly the emergence of indie horror films like The Witch and Midsommar from studios like A24, which perhaps represent a sensibility more than a specific sub-genre of film.  None of these have been bona fide blockbusters but amongst those who know they loom large and I can only assume that they continue to penetrate the culture after release and that they may well become bigger with time.  The next trend, the one that is likely in the lead if we’re going to view this as a race, is to make horror movies in the mold of Get Out that tackle social issues in a very direct way that more or less make subtext text.  So if these two trends are going to the shape of horror to come it makes sense to take a look at the first two movies of the  year that are seeking to represent each trend: the indie horror film The Lodge and the social issue tackling The Invisible Man.

Like a lot of elevated horror movies, The Lodge opens with a major moment of trauma as a woman leaves her kids with their father, who tells her the time has come to formalize her divorce.  She then goes home and shoots herself.  We pick up shortly thereafter as the father (Richard Armitage) is trying to blend his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough) in with his teenage son Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and tween daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) and decides that the best way to do this is to have the whole blended family go to a lodge for Christmas, which Aiden and Mia are strongly resistant to partly because they blame Grace for the death of their mother and partly because they know that when she was a child the lone survivor of a fundamentalist cult that went Jonestown.  His ultimate plan is to leave her alone at the lodge with the two children for a couple of days while he takes care of some business, but this proves to be a very bad idea.  Meanwhile The Invisible Man deals with a very different kind of trauma from its onset, namely the extensive trauma that its main character Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) experienced prior to the film’s beginning when she was apparently the victim of extensive domestic abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).  Griffin is someone who has earned millions in the “optics” business, but is by all accounts a controlling sociopath and Cecilia needs to literally break out of his home at night in the first scene.  Two weeks later she’s in hiding and receives news that Griffin has killed himself, but she starts to wonder about this when strange things start to happen around her.

The thing about the “elevated horror” movement is that it’s definitionally an alternative movement, which is a dynamic we’re perhaps more used to seeing in music than in movies, and when alternative things become popular there’s always the looming threat that they’ll be coopted by the mainstream.  That’s something I worried about when I saw the advertisements for that Gretel & Hansel movie, which kind of looked like the Silverchair to The Witch’s Nirvana.  Granted I didn’t end up seeing it and that impression could be wrong, but it’s a distinct vibe I got from it.  I had a little more hope for The Lodge but that was misplaced as it is very much the Bush to Hereditary’s Pearl Jam.  In fact it’s kind of remarkable just how specifically the film is trying to be Hereditary what with its focus on a grieving family and its tendency to cut to a symbolic model house.  That said it’s not trying to be a satanic cult thing and instead focuses on the tension of whether this woman is crazy and will go after the kids or whether the kids are the crazy ones who are going to go after her.  There’s some interest to be found in that dynamic but it’s kind of lessoned by the fact that this whole setup is patently ridiculous.  Blending families is never easy but trying to go about it through the trial by fire of leaving traumatized and clearly resentful children alone in an isolated building with an also traumatized woman is about the stupidest and most contrived thing imaginable.

The Invisible Man was released by Universal Pictures and is ostensibly meant to be the remake of the 1933 James Whale movie which was in turn based on the H.G. Welles novel of the same name, but the more telling logo in front of it is the Blumhouse Productions logo.  Blumhouse does a lot of things and I wouldn’t go so far as to say he has a house style, but one of the things he tends to do is give his horror films a certain social edge that goes beyond the more subtle allegories that have existed in the genre in the past.  Sometimes that comes in the form of silliness like their The Purge series, sometimes it just kind of feels like desperate pandering like their recent take on Black Christmas, but in general they’re really interested in getting the people who fight about stuff on Twitter into watching their scary movies and when they strike a chord like they did with Get Out there are high rewards.  The Invisible Man’s strategy to do this is to make no bones about the fact that its protagonist is a victim of an abusive relationship and to make her plight through the movie to be an extreme manifestation of the kind of controlling behavior that exist in these relationships and also to show the bad guy’s scheme as essentially a form of gas lighting where he’s trying to make her look and feel crazy when he is in fact being supernaturally awful.

It’s still a little staggering that they were able to make the invisibility effects work as well as they did for the 1933 film using a variety of camera tricks.  I’ve come to understand how they did them through a photochemical tick where things are shot in front of black screens but their challenge is still palpable.  Even when Paul Verhoeven was making Hollow Man in the year 2000 and had a variety of CGI effects it still felt like a showcase of cutting edge ideas.  The effects in this new invisible man movie are probably going to be less mind-blowing to anyone who knows anything about visual effects (I’m pretty sure it was a dude in green spandex on set who was digitally removed) but the scenes are shot with conviction just the same and director Leigh Whannell does seem to understand that he isn’t going to get away with just stringing together a bunch of invisibility gags.  Where the production falters a bit more is in the acting, specifically the supporting performances.  Elizabeth Moss is obviously great in the film and is well cast in her role, but a lot of the other actors here kind of seem like they got their job because the filmmakers were trying to keep their budget under control.  None of the performances are terrible necessarily but a lot of them felt a bit “syndacated television” to me.  I got the same feeling from Whannell’s last movie Upgrade, which didn’t even have a great lead performance at its center, so maybe something in his direction is to blame for that.

The acting is actually one of the stronger aspects of The Lodge.  There isn’t anything in it as noteworthy as Elizabeth Moss’ performance but the cast in it is able to make the material work better than it might have otherwise.  Riley Keough does a reasonably good job of keeping the audience in suspense about whether or not her character is the crazy one and the kids aren’t bad either.  However a lot of the psychology the script gives them really does not pan out.  The movie is trying to create a mix of trauma, mental illness, religion, and isolation to turn the titular lodge into a sort of pressure cooker for its characters but a lot of it just kind of feels like bullshit.  Granted, a lot of “psychological thrillers” probably don’t hold up perfectly but those movies are entertaining and this one is not, in fact it’s quite boring at times.  The movie is trying to do a sort of slow burn sort of thing, which can be thrilling when done right but I don’t think it’s done particularly well here and it’s all leading up to a twist that’s kind of predictable and also completely preposterous in the number of things that would have had to go exactly right and the logistics don’t go together at all.

The Invisible Man is less pretentious but I do think it has some ending problems as well.  The movie is a little too quick to confirm that Cecilia’s suspicions rather than playing out that ambiguity and is far too quick to explain Griffin’s means of becoming invisible and they look kind of silly.  The movie also takes a bit of a turn towards being more of an action piece in the vein of Upgrade, which is kind of fun in its own way but it lacks some of the primal terror that the first half was gesturing toward and I found the film’s final climax to be rather oddly staged and anti-climactic.  None of this is a deal breaker, but it does hold the movie back a bit and keeps it more in the realm of the elevated B-movie rather than any sort of true horror classic.  The Lodge by contrast is a movie that’s trying to be a serious horror classic but is just a complete non-starter for a variety of reasons.  If these movies represent the shape of horror to come I’m not sure either makes a perfect case for their respective approaches.  The Lodge shows that good ideas are not above being misused by wannabes and The Invisible Man kind of shows the limitations of what Blumhouse is going to be able to do at times, but as a movie unto itself The Invisible Man is plainly the stronger of the two and the one I’d much more quickly recommend.

The Lodge: *1/2 out of Five

The Invisible Man: *** out of Five

Little Women(12/31/2019)

If there’s any movie I’ve been kind of dreading this award season it was probably Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women.  Not because I thought it would be “bad” by any means, it’s been critically acclaimed, has a stellar cast, and is the follow-up from the director of the movie Lady Bird which I liked quite a bit.  So I had little doubt it would be well crafted, but what really had me dreading it is that I worried it would be a movie that I wouldn’t really be in a position to analyze or talk about all that intelligently.  I’ve never read Louisa May Alcott’s novel of “Little Women.”  It wasn’t assigned to me in school and have never been enough of a “classics” buff to read it of my own volition.  I have seen a handful of its various film adaptations in passing and they’ve never done much for me and I even rewatched a couple of them in the last month in an attempt to get a better grasp of the story and the different ways to interpret them and they still didn’t really connect with me all that much.  It just seems like one of those public domain books that gets kind of mindlessly remade over and over again on the big and small screen without much alteration every single generation like the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.  But I certainly wasn’t going to skip something this big and talked about out of reviewer cowardice.

The film’s plot is largely unchanged from the story we’ve heard before.  The film is set in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War and a few years after and looks at a household where a mother (Laura Dern) is looking after her four daughters while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army.  Those daughters are the traditionalist Meg (Emma Watson), the tomboyish Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and the troublemaker Amy (Florence Pugh).  The family isn’t poor exactly but it’s hardly rich and they do have more well off relatives like their snobby Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) and also live across the way from the estate of a wealthy man named Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), who is the guardian for his grandson Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) who comes to befriend the girls.  Love triangles ensue and the girls eventually grow up and grow apart but certain bonds can only be broken so far.

Of all the adaptations there have been of this novel the one with the longest legacy up to this point was probably George Cukor’s Academy Award nominated 1933 version.  That was not the first adaptation of the film (they’ve been remaking this since the silent era) but it was a major hit  even if it’s probably less famous for its Alcott reworking than for how it fit into a sort of culture war that was brewing in Hollywood at the time.  This was during the “pre-code” era and there was a lot of controversy at the time about the gangster movies and sex comedies coming out of the major studios at the time and this version of Little Women was being celebrated in certain circles as a conservative alternative that celebrated family values.  Elements like Jo’s tomboyishness were still there (she was being played by Katherine Hepburn after all) but at its heart it is still very much a family movie with an emphasis on wholesome sentimentality and to some degree that’s also the case with the 1949 version (which is pretty much only notable for being in color) and the 1994 version which is shockingly sincere and straightforward for something starring Winona Ryder in the mid-90s.  And that is more or less why I’ve never cared for these movies, they all kind of feel like they’ve all kind of felt like they exist to be played in middle school English classes and even when they depict tragedy they just feel kind of cloying.

Enter Greta Gerwig, who hasn’t made Little Women any less PG rated than her predecessors but has in many ways made the first adaptation of this thing that seems to be directed toward adult sensibilities.  The clearest alteration that Gerwig has made is that she took the chronological narrative from the book and adjusted it into something closer to a flashback structure.  The first scene is of Jo as an adult in New York working as a tutor while trying to get stories published and we also catch up with Amy in Paris, Meg dealing with her marital woes, and Beth having health problems.  It then flashes back to their youth and the movie cuts between the two timelines through the rest of the movie.  I’ve heard some reports of people finding this format confusing, and I may have benefited somewhat from seeing previous adaptations, but I thought it was pretty clear and also that the way this benefits the story more than outweigh any drawbacks.  For one, it really helps to define the personalities of these four sisters right up front by showing them when they’re more developed.  Previous adaptations struggled in this regard; they were able to make Jo’s differences clear enough with her tomboyish qualities but the other three sisters kind of blended together when they were just a bunch of children playing without extensive dialogue or internal monologue.  Additionally, knowing from the beginning where these characters end up kind of ups the stakes on the childhood sections, which could often feel a bit episodic and aimless in the other adaptations where you don’t have a clearer end goal.  And finally this allows those childhood flashbacks to feel more like pleasant memories than sappiness played straight and that somewhat plays into why I consider this adaptation to be more adult in its outlook than previous versions.

Needless to say there’s plenty that goes right here that has little to do with radical reinvention and everything to do with just getting certain things right.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that Gerwig has assembled an all-star cast of actors young and old.  Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh are a pretty unimpeachable trio to play the main sisters and Timothée Chalamet in many ways seems to have been born to one day play Laurie.  I will say that Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk seem to struggle a little bit here, in part because they’re playing overly virtuous and altruistic characters who don’t fit as well in this slightly more cynical interpretation of the source material, but other actors playing adults here like Meryl Streep and Tracy Letts do work well here and add fun little diversions to the film.  Gerwig has also done a great job of making adjustments to the period detail that make things feel less stuffy without feeling overly anachronistic and Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty score really helps to make things flow well.  I also must say that even though the film is only fifteen to twenty minutes longer than any of the previous adaptations of the novel it sure feels like it has more breathing room which goes a long way toward making the story flow more naturally.

Now, I mentioned before that the 1933 Little Women was received as a conservative vision insomuch as it was family friendly so it is perhaps a bit of an irony that this latest version re-interprets the novel as something that was actually rather subversive, particularly in terms of how it viewed the role of women in its society.  Some extra lines are written into the film to underscore this which do kind of stand out and feel a touch on the nose but I don’t exactly begrudge the movie for.  I am a bit more on the fence about what the film does with its final moments in which (spoiler I guess) Jo is re-written to have become the author of a novel based on the lives of her sisters that is basically the novel “Little Women” (an idea the 1994 film also had) and a metatexual element takes over where a cigar comping publisher demands that this book be given the happy romantic ending that the real Louisa May Alcott was pressured into having, which then effects the final ending of the movie.  This feels a bit like an out of place attempt on Gerwig’s part to have her cake and eat it too given that nothing else in the movie up to this point is trying to be particularly meta.  On the other hand, that other ending legitimately does kind of suck and letting it play out sincerely like the other films do would not have been a satisfying end.  So, at the end of the day I think my worries about not being able to engage with an analyze this movie were for naught and in many ways it’s actually a lot better than I had even hoped.

****1/2 out of Five

The Lighthouse(10/24/2019)

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years talking about a trend of elevated horror movies.  Granted, calling this a trend is a little nebulous as the movies don’t have that much in common aside from being horror movies that are more artisitic than what Hollywood makes and there’s no real evidence that they’re really influencing one another, but they’ve become part of the film discourse just the same.  2019 is in many ways the year where the whole “movement” really pays off because we’ve gotten follow-up films from most of the directors that have defined it.  We’ve gotten new films from the directors of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale), Hereditary (Ari Astor’s Midsommar), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake), and It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults’s upcoming Waves).  Some of these follow-ups were really solid and suggested more good things to come, some suggested that their filmmakers maybe weren’t as good as their debuts promised.  Some suggested a doubling down on horror as their filmmaker’s genre of choice, and some didn’t.  But the film that I’ve personally been waiting on the most was The Lighthouse, the sophomore effort of Robert Eggers, director of the amazing 2015 film The Witch which is probably the very best of all of them.

After the release of The Witch there were rumors that Eggers was working on some sort of new version of Nosferatu and I’m not sure if he’s still working on that or not but clearly he transitioned into making another film that harkens back to the early days of cinema called The Lighthouse.  That film is set in an unclear time and place but it appears to be at an island somewhere in the vicinity of New England at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century.  On that island is a tall lighthouse along with some lodgings and a little bit of space.  As the film begins a man named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is boated over to this island having gotten a four week contract to act as a worker at the lighthouse which is otherwise overseen by an old former sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).  Wake proves to be a rather bossy and uncompromising man with a strange habit of going up to the top of the lighthouse and bathing in its light.  Winslow also proves not to be a prime example of mental health either as he’s having odd visions of mermaids and other nautical horrors and soon after arriving starts to think that the island’s seagulls are stalking him.  Over the course of these four plus weeks of work the two start to antagonize each other and a deranged war of wills commences.

The Lighthouse was shot in black and white and in 1.19:1, which is a very narrow aspect ratio associated with the very earliest days of sound filmmaking.  These choices seem to have been made partly to give the film a certain sense of unreality.  You could say that this gives the film a certain dream/nightmare quality, I’d even compare it to Eraserhead to some extent but it doesn’t get completely weird right away.  I think there also might be something to be said for the tall aspect ratio mirroring the verticality of the lighthouse and for the black and white just generally selling some of the period details a bit better.  This is not, however, a film that is strictly impressive on a visual level.  Eggers’ writing is also quite a thing to behold as he has once again opted to really lean in to the unique dialect of the period he’s set his film in.  Dafoe’s character in particular finds himself using an old fashioned seafaring slang and adopts an accent which is not unlike the captain from “The Simpsons.”  Occasionally the character will start reciting long passages of nautical invective that was almost certainly an ordeal to write and even harder to recite.  The film is well aware of how close this character comes to self-parody, and even comments on this at one point, but it still manages to make it work. It also does a great job of making the Pattinson character very different from Dafoe’s despite still largely being a product of his time.

But what does all of this mean?  I don’t know… does it need to mean something?  My running theory while watching it is that the island is functioning as a sort of purgatory for the Pattinson character.  Over the course of the film he’s constantly being tested in various ways, has a variety of temptations placed before him, and is also sort of forced to face some sort of incident from his past that he feels guilty about.  This is not necessarily a Christian purgatory however and a lot of the film’s imagery (especially the final shot) is strongly rooted in older mythology, and alternatively the whole thing could be thought of less as a literal purgatory and more as a sort of manifestation of this character’s guilt through a sort of nightmare.  Having said all that I wouldn’t recommend getting to bent out of shape trying to “solve” this movie, not on a first viewing anyway.  Instead I’d recommend going with the flow and taking the movie in as a sensory experience and as an almost theatrical exercise in two characters kind of dueling it out for two hours.
****1/2 out of Five

Long Day’s Journey Into Night(5/4/2019)

The first half of 2019 has proven to be something of a landmark year for Chinese arthouse films.  Earlier this year we got Jia Zhangke’s latest meditation on a modernizing China Ash is Purest White, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Standing Still played in very limited release (missed that one), and soon we’re going to see the release of Zhang Yimou’s latest film Shadow.  We’re also getting the release of the sophomore effort of a promising young filmmaker named Bi Gan called Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  For the record the film has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name and I’m not exactly sure why Gan opted to jack that title other than the fact that the film is quite literally set over the course of a long day and it eventually journeys into the night.  The film generated a lot of buzz at last year’s Cannes film festival both for its cryptic nature and for the fact that it has a fifty five minute long unbroken shot which is, unlike the rest of the film, in 3D.  That was enough to peak my curiosity even though it was almost too arthouse for the arthouses and instead played at a local modern art museum.

The film is set in a city called Kaili, which is a somewhat remote city located in Southwestern China and follows a guy named Luo (Huang Jue) who has returned to this town after a long absence to attend his father’s funeral.  We get only the vaguest details of what his life was like back in the town.  We know he had a friend named Wildcat (played in flashbacks by Lee Hong-chi) who was killed over some criminal activity involving a gun in a wagon of apples.  We also know that there was a woman in his past named Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei).  And that’s about all we really get in the way of conventional plot as much of the movie simply follows Luo as he goes through the city seemingly searching for Wan Qiwen but doing so in ways that don’t always fit conventional logic.  We see certain things which are ostensibly flashbacks, but don’t necessarily announce themselves as such and weave into the film in ways you don’t suspect.

I don’t know much about Bi Gan but I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that he’s really into David Lynch because this is definitely a movie trying to channel a similar kind of dream logic.  The film isn’t in exploring some of the darker depths and extreme imagery that Lynch occasionally dips into but he certainly shares his willingness to eschew conventional plot coherence in favor of mood. This certainly came as a surprise to the film’s opening weekend audience in China, who were actually drawn to the movie in large numbers because of an unconventional and wildly misleading marketing campaign that made the film seem like a romantic comedy that couples should see at one of several event screenings on New Year’s Eve.  It was a move that earned the movie $37 million during its opening weekend and also reportedly causing several walkouts and angry posts on Weibo.  I haven’t exactly seen those advtisements, but if they’re anything like as misleading as the stories in the trade publications make them sound I can see why people would be pissed.  It’s kind of like the people who went to see Drive expecting it to be like a Fast and Furious movie, but at least Drive did have some car stunts in it.  This movie, by contrast, is about as oblique and “arty” as a movie can be and isn’t much of a romance at all outside of the way it explores the depths of how much Lou misses Wan.

The part of the film that has gotten the most attention, by far, is the last fifty minutes which are a single continuous shot and unlike the rest of the film are in 3D.  Of course making a movie that’s only half in 3D is pretty strange and means that you find yourself sitting in a theater with a pair of 3D glasses sitting awkwardly on your lap essentially “burning a hole in your pocket” so to speak.  In some ways you can’t help but view the first 78 minutes as something of a prologue for whatever wild tone shift that last shot will presumably involve.  Indeed there is some truth to that as the 2D elements, while oblique and difficult in and off themselves do feel in some ways like they’re meant to give you the context for that final shot, which takes the film from being “dreamlike” to being what is almost certainly a literal dream sequence.  As a technical and logistical accomplishment this shot is certainly impressive and it manages to maintain a tone of melancholy reminiscent of the last episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” even when it occasionally stops to show off by indulging in 3D Ping Pong or Billiards.

I will say, however, that the whole promise of a 55 minute single take 3D shot had kind of led me to expect a movie that was a bit more visually adventurous otherwise.  Instead the movie actually has fairly drab digital cinematography that never quite captures the noir vibe that Gan is going for.  There are actually a lot of little things like that which hold me at a bit of a distance from this movie and truth be told I don’t feel ready to make a final judgement on it on a first viewing.  It’s a movie that is attempting to capture a certain state of mind and dream more than it’s trying to tell a story or make any kind of real statement about anything, so as an exercise I suppose it succeeds but as a viewing experience it can be frustrating.  It feels like it’s almost impossible to really “get” the movie after a single viewing, and yet its 3D gimmick almost discourages attempts at repeated viewings outside of theaters.  Maybe this is the Last Year at Marienbad of the 2010s or maybe the Emperor has no clothes.  Honestly I’d probably be more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt if it had been made by an old master rather than a 29 year old who frankly comes off as being a bit pretentious in interviews.  It’s not a movie I’m terribly comfortable about giving a traditional “verdict” on with a star rating.  I’m not prepared to declare the movie some kind of profound accomplishment today and it’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average viewer, but it certainly intrigued me and for the dedicated film enthusiast it deserves a viewing.

***1/2 out of Five

The Little Stranger(9/3/2018)

One of the most oddly sad things that movie studios find themselves doing is the “dumping” of certain movies.  This happens when studios fund certain movies and let them get made, but then start to have cold feet about them after they’re done.  Sometimes the completed film is simply bad but sometimes they just prove to be less commercial than the studio expected and it’s determined that it will be a harder sell with the public than they thought it would be.  Sometimes they’ll respond to this by putting out some sort of misleading advertising campaign, sometimes they’ll scale back the release and hope the movie catches on, but all too often what they do is the minimum possible to fulfil their contracts and cut their losses.  They’ll put the movies out in months like January or August or September when there’s the least competition and they’ll do the absolute minimum required in marketing.  They won’t bother putting the films in festivals to generate early buzz they might screen the movie for critics but even if they get good reviews they probably won’t capitalize on it.  Basically they’ll do everything in their power to make sure the film just kind of comes and goes in cinema and hope that interest picks up on DVD or something.  One of the more interesting and perhaps disappointing victims of “dumping” as of late is probably the latest film from Room director Lenny Abrahamson entitled The Little Stranger.

Set sometime after the Second World War, The Little Stranger focuses in on a country doctor named Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) whose mother once worked for a rural estate of the “Downton Abbey” variety called Hundreds Hall as a maid.  One day he’s called to Hundreds Hall because the current maid there named Betty (Liv Hill) has taken sick.  While there he sees that the place is a shell of its former self and is in a state of complete disrepair.  The family’s matriarch Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) is still around but has seemingly little influence and her son Roderick (Will Poulter) hasn’t been much of a “man of the house” since receiving extensive burn injuries during the war.  The brightest spot of the house appears to be his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who seems a bit more sensible and capable of moving on than her family members.  It soon becomes apparent that the downfall of this house seems to have been precipitated by the death of the family’s eldest daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) as a child.  Despite the state of the house Faraday still has an affection for the place and makes a point to keep visiting it to try an experimental treatment for Roderick’s burns and becomes more and more a friend of the family despite some very strange things happening in Hundreds Hall.

I think a big part of why this movie was “dumped” but the studio has less to do with its actual quality than with the simple fact that it kind of impossible to market.  The movie is about 75% “Masterpiece Theater” style British period piece and 25% a horror movie and will probably not give the audiences for either of those things exactly what they’re looking for.  The people looking for a Merchant Ivory movie out of something like this will probably not be thrilled with the ghost story elements and the typical horror audience will certainly not be happy with the dearth of scares to be found in the film (it makes The Witch look like The Conjuring by comparison).  Now, being an unconventional genre blend isn’t inherently a bad thing or commercial suicide.  That Nicole Kidman film The Others had a similar period piece to scares ratio as this does and it managed to be a hit, albeit almost twenty years ago.  But it you’re going to do something unexpected and unconventional you do sort of need to work extra hard in order to make people interested and I’m not so sure that The Little Stranger does.

The film was based on a novel by a woman named Sarah Waters, who is a contemporary British author who’s known to write novels in the same milieus that the likes of Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte used to specialize in but to look at them with a modern eye and to tackle issues that would have been taboo when the acknowledged masters were writing.  Film buffs would probably know her best as the author of the book “Fingersmith,” which was the basis for Park Chan-Wook’s excellent 2016 film The Handmaiden.  I was expecting that The Little Stranger would do a bit more to subvert its own genre in a similar way but it instead feels more like a fairly faithful replication of the traditional haunted house story like “The House of the Seven Gables” or “The Turn of the Screw” but I’m not really sure it’s doing anything that Henry James couldn’t have done if he wanted to.  But even as a bare bones gothic horror story this seems to be missing some elements.  For one thing, Charlotte Rampling proves to be rather dull as a matriarch driven mad by guilt.  Granted they were probably trying to avoid the cliché of the batty old rich lady but the alternative they came up with was a little boring and Rampling feels a bit wasted as a result.  They also don’t do a great job of establishing the backstory for Caroline’s deceased sister and why her ghost is so hellbent on revenge.  You keep expecting there to be some revelation about that but it never really comes.  Beyond that the film just never really breaks out cinematically.  It’s consistently competent, the performances are pretty good, it’s shot well but given that this is Abrahamson’s the follow-up to something as winning as Room you certainly expect something a lot more impressive than what we’re given.  It’s ultimately kind of a hard movie to really judge because at the end of the day it certainly isn’t “bad” so much as it’s underwhelming.

**1/2 out of Five

Leave No Trace(7/7/2018)

Usually for me a decision to go to the movies is something planned weeks in advance.  I keep an eye on release schedules for the big movies, I monitor festival buzz for the small movies, and I generally know what’s coming and when.  Every once in a while though I can be surprised a little by something, which is what happened with the film Leave No Trace.  I never saw a trailer for the movie and while I can see now that it did play at Sundance I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about it at the time, possibly because the title and basic concept don’t stand out a whole lot.  So the film was completely off my radar when I suddenly saw that it would be playing at my local limited release theater and when I googled it two things stood out to me: 1. It was directed by Debra Granick, who had a big breakout with 2010’s Winter’s Bone before sort of disappearing afterwards, and 2. that the movie had a 100% rating on Rottentomatoes.  Now I know a lot of people don’t think terribly highly of Rottentomatoes and a movie certainly shouldn’t be judged in its totality by having a good or bad score on it, but any way you cut it managing to get 120 film critics to agree on something has to mean something.

The film is by and large the story of a father and a daughter.  The father is a man named Will (Ben Foster) a veteran who suffers in some way from PTSD and whose wife appears to have died at some unclear time in the past for reasons that are never explained.  As the film starts Will does not own a conventional home and has opted to live at an illegal campsite in a national park in New York with his teenage daughter Tom (presumably short for “Thomasin” a name she share with the actress who plays her, Thomasin McKenzie).  The two have managed to survive a long time more or less off the grid and Will seems to have pretty effectively home schooled Tom along the way.  However this way of life comes under threat when someone spots Tom and the next day police arrive with dogs to locate the two of them.  The next thing you know Will and Tom are forced to justify themselves to Child Protective Services and fight to stay together.

“Family that shuns a conventional lifestyle and lives in the woods” has become something of a sub-genre as of late.  I’m sure there are even earlier precursors but I first remember a story like this coming to cinema screens with the 2007 documentary Surfwise, about a family that raised their kids in an RV that toured various beaches.  I believe there was another film along these lines called The Glass Castle but the film that probably told a story like this with the most commercial success lately was a film called Captain Fantastic with Viggo Mortenson as a widower father who has to defend his rights to raise his kids in the woods and homeschool them rather than enroll them in school or give them normal shelter.  In terms of high concept the similarities between Leave No Trace and Captain Fantastic are pretty clear but the movies actually have pretty different tones.  I think Captain Fantastic was technically an independent movie but it didn’t really feel like one.  It occasionally examined the negative effects of raising kids like this but it also wants people to see the family as kind of cute and let its audience decide the morality of it all.

Leave No Trace is perhaps a more realistic look at what a life like this would look like and almost has the opposite problem of not really explaining why anyone would find this kind of life so appealing.  Captain Fantastic was pretty upfront about that family’s motivations: the parents were hippies who had political qualms with modern life and was more than happy to expound on this at length.  Here the father’s motivations are left a bit more unspoken.  I wouldn’t call Will entirely apolitical but he certainly doesn’t seem like someone who’s inclined to have the family celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday.  Instead the implication here seems to be that Will’s inability to live in a house with running water seems to be a function of his PTSD.  One imagines a backstory where he came back from the war, stares at a cereal aisle like Jeremy Renner’s character from The Hurt Locker, but unlike him can’t re-enlist because he’s got a daughter who would be more or less orphaned if he did.  Tom by contrast mostly seems to be completely on board with this life but it’s not clear at first if that’s because she truly loves the outdoors or if it’s because she loves her father and doesn’t know what she’s missing from society.

As I mentioned before this is Debra Granick’s first film in eight years since directing the Oscar nominated Winter’s Bone, a film that perhaps unfairly became better known for introducing audiences to Jennifer Lawrence than it did for its direction.  Personally, I liked Winter’s Bone but I did think some of the hype around it was a bit overblown.  It certainly had an interesting setting but it often felt like it didn’t have much going for it beyond its anthropological observations about Middle America.  This new film has its Hell or High Water moments where it stops to make comments about rural America in decline but it doesn’t feel like the movie is merely a pretext to witness these communities and really does keep the focus on the characters for the most part.  That’s probably the right choice but I still don’t necessarily think this is a story for the ages or characters that will live on with me too long after I’m done watching the film even though they’re very well written and acted.  It lacks the veneer of genre that probably helped Winter’s Bone gain a wider audience so I don’t know that this is going to be as much of a breakout even though I largely consider it a better movie.

***1/2 out of Five