Wind River (****): In the battle between you and the world…

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Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene, Martin Sensmeier

It seems in an ever political world that one can find statistics for everything. Everything except missing Native American women, according to Taylor Sheridan. If it were not for this film about two such women found murdered, and the lives their loss affected, the reality of these losses might have been lost to me, too.

Whatever one can glean from the well written trio of films on his resume, Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, we get to see damaged and resilient people who forge ahead in a world without mercy. That doesn’t mean that mercy is absent from the experience for the viewer.

In the winter on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, we see a young woman, Natalie Hanson (Chow) struggling barefoot though the snow in the midst of night. She doesn’t make it far, from what we see. We find out that her last trek is much more astounding, however tragic.

The next day Wildlife Agent Cody Lambert (Renner)is in the midst of a normal winter morning, tracking down predators of the local herds. We see him take down a significant portion of a wolf pack in the midst of sheep. This is not the last time we will see this. After picking up his boy from their mother Wilma (Jones) we discover the reason for their divorce, ostensibly in the altar displaying the short beautiful life of a young woman on the mantle.

Soon Cody is asked to help his in laws track a mother mountain lion. On his way to visit them on the reservation we see a tattered American flag blowing upside down in the wind over a group of Natives building a bonfire in the snow. He takes a sled to follow the tracks and comes across the last tracks Natalie Hanson ever made. He crumbles into the snow beside her.

Natalie was the daughter of his own deceased daughter, found much the same way a few years earlier. After calling it in, the FBI sends Jane Banner (Olsen) from a seminar in Las Vegas. She is nowhere near ready to handle this case. Like many of Taylor Sheridan’s female protagonists, she has more than enough fortitude for the task.

There are two separate journeys in Wind River, neither of which revolve around the mystery of who committed the murders. Instead we are seeing how one grieving father sees the legacy he thought was cut short survive through his helping another person in her quest to do the same.

Renner is excellent here, choosing to play his character as one who expects little from life, even if he’s still willing to give what he has to those that he feels are deserving. His interactions with the Natalie’s father Martin (Birmingham) are among the film’s highlights. A companion in grief, he offers what solace he can while promising to help Banner hunt for the “predator” who brought his friend’s daughter to her end.

When giving Natalie’s brother the news, we get an insight to his mind:

Chip: Man, I get so mad i want to fight the whole world. You got any idea what that feels like?
Cory Lambert: I do. I decided to fight the feeling instead. Cause i figured the world would win.

As Banner, Olsen has the least amount of room to move. If there can be one criticism of Sheridan’s characters, it’s that he tends to put them on an idealistic pedestal. She’s young and willing to help and learn, and she has to yet go through every road that the seasoned men have already gone through. And unlike men, women here are either victims or on their way to deliverance. The men get to cause the victimhood, learn from it, and understand their nature as the harsher sex.

If this is the limit to Sheridan’s ability, he’s still got more wisdom than most artists in the film industry. His prose and dialogue are incredible in their power, understanding and wisdom. And he’s quotable as hell.

The character actors are a huge asset as usual. Graham Greene is exactly the perfect combination of wisdom and humor. It’s a crime that they don’t have a spot for him in every movie. His delivery is impeccable, like when he answers Jane’s request for backup:

This isn’t the land of waiting for back up. This is the land of you’re on your own.

Gil Birmingham may be my favorite actor right now. He’s been around for years, but it wasn’t until Hell or High Water when I realized how much nuance a man can show with such a stoic demeanor. Seeing him (lower right) in this Diana Ross video for Muscles gives no indication of an actor, but it sure is funny. The best work he’s done give no indication of that body, just a depth of soul.

muscles

The fact that there is little mystery to the film shouldn’t matter if character and feeling are what you are seeking. The reveal at the end is less of a surprise than the action of the climax. And in typical Sheridan fashion the climax is never the conclusion of the story. Time must be taken to recover. That is time where most people live in a world without mercy.

(**** of *****)

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Captain America: Civil War (*****) Goes where the Avengers cannot

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Captain America: Civil War

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo
Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl

Who would imagine a question posed in Marvel’s very first feature would take until the 13th film overall and the 2nd film in Phase III to be answered?  That is patience my friends. And confidence. And damn fine film-making. The question and answer is one of the many incredible things about Captain America: Civil War.

The story acts as the epicenter of two crossroads. The first is the trajectory of the Avengers. There have been two films thus far and thankfully we have not until now been forced to waste celluloid covering petty disagreements blown out into meaningless brawls. In this case, the disagreement is philosophical in nature, and has organically grown from the character of the principal leads, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. The time and care they have taken in developing the characters and motives for the two has been remarkable in that one can see it happen bit by bit in each movie (even in the Avengers) for the superheroes, but still retain the cohesion of each film’s original plot.

Tony is a man who moved from callous weapons manufacturer, to thinking he could manufacture weapons that could ensure peace until now, a man who doubts every idea he has other than the one where he seeks the help of a higher authority. This authority, Major Ross and the United Nations. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, has gone from whatever I can do to help Uncle Sam, to questioning anyone’s authority and judgement but that of himself and his friends. As we find out, Tony used to be one of those friends.

Steve’s journey is the other and in this case, most relevant crossroad. The purity of vision that his country had in WWII (The First Avenger) has given way to a new world in which most people in power are interested in keeping that power and blowing away anything that could remotely be a threat (The Winter Soldier). Now another force is playing Steve’s concern into downright paranoia and contrasting that with Tony’s doubts about his ability to control the use of his and his friends power.

As both Avengers move towards what they think is the answer, battle lines are drawn and sides are chosen. The best part of this battle is that it feels real and the stakes are something worth fighting for and about. As silly as one could feel Tony Stark is for deciding to have someone else in charge, one can see how he’s come to the decision. Rogers, meanwhile, makes us feel downright proud to be free and independent thinkers, until we find that he is not without his own poor judgement.

Therein lay the strength of Civil War. Each side has its own clear vision, but they also have downright viable flaws. The vision of Kevin Feige and his co-collaborators is that in making compelling heroes, one cannot make them infallible.

We’ve seen a pretty flawless Steve Rogers up to now, but the upward trajectory of his character lay in his always appearing to be the weakest link in the chain. Our enjoyment was from knowing that he knew the odds and he also knew how to turn them into his favor, without making a big todo in the process. He is America, in stature and make up. We’ve been the mutt that was given the smallest chance to succeed, and succeed we have. Imagine the feeling for those who have followed when we realize even he might have succumbed to weakness, calling it judgement, on his way to larger aspirations.

As for the Russo brothers, I think it’s safe to say they are the best directing siblings alive today. So far they are two for two, and the decisions they make are always in favor of the story over making any sort of distinct mark on the film, to which the Cohen brothers occasionally fall victim. The decision to have so many lead characters playing support in a film almost never works. It’s too hard to get everyone their moment in the sun. Joss Whedon spent the better part of two Avengers movies doing this, until the movie seemed like a series of one liners. The Russo brothers don’t cut corners here. The shots that might just be grand standing in lesser films move forward plot points here.

There are so many surprises in this film, there is never a time in which one does not feel like smiling, even when there is so much at stake. My favorite superheroes have always been War Machine and Iron Man, yet I found myself wishing for them to be at least incapacitated just to see heroes I couldn’t give a crap about 10 years ago succeed.

The story surges ahead and it really is quite centered, despite the number of characters involved. The premise is a simple one, yet the questions it asks are profound. It really extends on the premise on how we want to be governed. Do we want to fulfill our own destiny, or do we want to push that responsibility to the side in wait of the judgement of others who may or may not be wiser.

The Infinity Wars looks like a daunting task. The comic is tedious and lacks any real intrigue. If it succeeds, it’s going to require some serious pairing down. Can Feige, the Russo’s and Marvel succeed with such an outlandish plot that seems doomed to have more special effects and less development? It’s hard to imagine that it is possible to make it palatable, but I am glad they have the Russo’s at the helm.

(*****)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (****1/2) too much good to be bad

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Avengers: Age of Ultron – 2015

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Tony Stark / Iron Man (facing fire of the enemy) Guys, wait. We gotta talk this through. (after incapacitating all of them with leg shots) It was a good talk.

Random bad guy writhing on the floor No it wasn’t!

It’s nice to know that after 3 years, Whedon hasn’t lost his sense of humor. After the stern Twitter lecture he gave about sexism the other day about a Jurassic World clip, that was no guarantee. With so much riding on the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time, it’s easy to bet that he might take the thing too seriously this time. Thank God he didn’t script this film like he judges other people’s work.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a remarkable and assured piece of work. Once more, Whedon has taken many threads and woven them into a cohesive work that moves characters forward without sacrificing story and moves the story forward without sacrificing characters. Well, all of them except for War Machine. He always gets the short end of the hero stick, though.

This time around, Tony Stark has stumbled across some Artificial Intelligence tech that he can’t wait to work on with Bruce Banner. It’s nice to see them work. Together, with J.A.R.V.I.S (Stark’s almost living computer program), they decipher the code they come across and move toward Stark’s dream of being able to create a force of living Iron Men that can allow the Avengers to retire.

Ultron, their creation, decides to help them on their quest to retire, but not with a $50 watch and a spot on the beach. After incapacitating J.A.R.V.I.S., Ultron disrupts The Avenger’s after-party and starts on his own mission, with the help of two mutants (Can we call them that? No? Oh, well…), Wanda and Pietro Maximoff.

Wanda has the ability to mess with people’s minds and create red plumes of chaos. Pietro is really fast and creates a friction that tears stuff apart. That these are not exactly the “gifts” they have in the comics is of little consequence. It’s close enough for Avengers work.

The messing with the minds part provides a lot of the challenges in the story. Everyone sees their doubts exploited except for one of them. That one’s a nice, sensible surprise, just like much of the film.There are very few moments that don’t surprise or satisfy those who have invested much in this universe.

Tony Stark has been in a free fall since the end of the Avengers Assemble, and that continues here. His work has always been fueled by his perceived weakness. This imprint works itself into the prototype. He keeps trying through the end. It’s been this continually evolving spark that has been expertly applied since the first Iron Man film by Downey, Jr. We see a continuation of what we thought was an endpoint in Iron Man 3 that is not entirely explained. Since it is in the same direction, it works.

Ruffalo’s Hulk has been the most interesting take on a tough character to find compelling. His forward progression shows in the form of a relationship with Black Widow (Johansson). The tenderness shown between the two is an expression of the vitality of both and definitely neat to watch. What happened to the guy who’s angry all the time? He’s trying real hard to work through his feelings again. It feels like a backward step.

Thor has more effective lines in this film than he did in his second solo film. Hemsworth is clearly comfortable working with Whedon’s dialogue and situations. His quest for answers is intriguing and I like the role he has in creating a solution to the problem. Ragnarok could be the Thor film for which we’ve waited.

Black Widow, as usual, plays a Jackknife of all trades. She acts as a salve to every part of the Marvel Universe that needs one. Johansson is complex without being wordy or emotional and is probably the most fully developed character Whedon has produced. Given what he has invested in her, one can understand why he might be sensitive to how Chris Pratt’s character talks to Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. Doesn’t make him right for that, but it makes him right for Black Widow.

The other major woman character, Wanda, aka The Scarlet Witch is a bit more limited, which is understandable given her role in the story. Johnson’s job is to be pissed at the good guys, work for the bad guys, find out that they are bad and then work with the good guys. Then she gets all confused and emotional. One shouldn’t have to wonder if she’ll snap out of it.

Pietro, aka Quicksilver is even more emotionally isolated. Taylor-Johnson gives a good read on the arrogance of one waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him, but the accent is considerably weaker than his uncanny strength,

Captain America was my favorite character from the first film. Evans had the best film of Phase II and he’s rolled right into the third film with the authority of one who owns the team. He has several of the best action scenes, simply for Whedon’s remarkable ability to make his strength’s and weaknesses believable. His morality is as entertaining as it is true to the spirit of the straight-laced character. The fight scene with Ultron in Korea is one of the highlights of the film.

Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is given tremendous depth and he nearly steals the show. As one of the more fragile Avengers, we discover he has even more to lose than his own life. It adds a nice resonance and makes the stakes something more identifiable. Whedon’s true gift is his ability to find a way to make the ones who might be easier to ignore impossible to forget.

Sam Jackson’s Fury acts as another sort of moral arbiter with the few scenes he shares with the rest of the cast. Nonetheless, Whedon gives him some great lines and allows him to fit inside his conspicuous existence, It’s hard to say where Fury goes in this Universe, but his character remains interesting.

As villainous voices go, they couldn’t have found one more delicious than Spader for Ultron. His lines are Spaderish to the point where he lays waste to cliche as easily as he does protagonists.His magnetism is lost a bit with the lack of expression afforded to a robot, but since when did Spader over emote?

Let me take the time to explain my plan...
Let me take the time to explain my plan…

Just when it seems like we’ve covered all the characters, we see an incredible new one. Bettany, who for several films has been the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. is allowed to evolve into an amalgam of Tony’s creations, along with some key assistance from other resources. Vision, always an enigmatic personage, is no less a mystery here. He is a creation – drawing strong allusions to Frankenstein – that will have huge implications beyond this film. Bettany has a complete grasp of the character and its role in the plot. His entrance begins the most intense part of the story and it doesn’t let up.

To say Whedon nailed it is an understatement. He inhabits this world as much a participant as creator. It is obvious that he cared as much for the enterprise as anyone this side of Kevin Feige. That he is not going to be here at the next duo of films would be more of a concern if the guys that are taking the helm from him hadn’t created the best Marvel film in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Anthony and Joe Russo are also directing the next Captain America film called Civil War. Judging by the cast, they might as well call that Avengers 3.

If he wants to leave, best to do it now, when the mistakes are far outweighed by the things he’s gotten right. As for those mistakes, it is a little long. There is a little too much walking away from destruction with a stern warning. And, really, how do they keep the body count so low? I’m talking heroes, too. At least they don’t have Coulson die again.

Perhaps the best thing for me, though is seeing War Machine in action without making him embarrass himself.

(****1/2 out of *****)

They finally get Godzilla right, but does it really matter?

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Godzilla – 2014

Director Gareth Edwards
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston
Screenplay Max Borenstein based on Godzilla by Toho

The world’s been destroyed so many times in so many worthless films that when watching the previews of Godzilla, there is a fair amount of exhaustion at the prospect of having to go through more decimation.  No matter what they do to justify the existence of these monsters and how likely it is that all this destruction could happen, be hidden and then happen again, it’s going to be labored through once again.  The willing suspension of disbelief to the Nth degree.

One of the big surprises for me was they roped Bryan Cranston into the mix.  After spending years doing great work on Breaking Bad, it’s amazing to think that the would place all of his earned capital into Godzilla.  It’s like blowing your life savings on pull tabs.  Thankfully, his screen time is limited, so the amount of damage to his career is minimized until he does a superhero film.

The story: 15 years after a disaster at a nuclear plant claimed his wife, Joe Brody (Cranston) calls his son (Taylor-Johnson) back to Japan to prove his contention that the events were not accidental.  He proves this concept, but not without a cost.  A MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) is released and starts to make itself across the ocean.  This beast is NOT Godzilla.  It is, however, something that Godzilla hunts.  Therefore, in another part of the Pacific Ocean, Godzilla starts tracking the monster.  From here, government types do their best to trap one then both beasts, and of course they do not succeed.  The last half of the film sees a third giant.  The purpose of all 3 makes sense in the plot.  The actions of the humans, for the most part, do not.

Taylor- Johnson and Olsen exist primarily to be where the monsters will show up.  Indeed, each of their jobs seem specifically configured to make them necessary. It’s an old trick, and not all that fun once you realize every disaster film will have to have someone who works at the hospital but never calls in sick when they are missing a loved one.

For those who looked forward to having a genuine Japanese actor in a Godzilla film, we have Watanabe, who plays a scientist who is generally along to be the one saying the things that make sense and are therefore ignored.  He looks very concerned, and has some good guesses when the lead military guy (Strathairn, looking clueless), asks questions.

Ultimately, though, this is not a movie for us to watch people trying to stop beasts.  So big are these monsters, there is seemingly nothing we should be able to do. The wisest choice the makers of Godzilla do is to get out-of-the-way and let the animated MOTU fight it out.  The result is very cool to watch, even if it is somewhat depressing to imaging the amount of humanity expiring with every missed tail or landed stream of fire.  The only difference between this and the Man of Steel is that one would not expect Superman to kill people with his collateral damage.

If you did not care for Godzilla (and who could if you only have seen the films of the last 20 years), this film will not likely bring you to a great appreciation.  If you enjoyed the tradition of monster films from the 50’s until about 10 minutes before the Devlin Emmerich turd was released, this will give you at least some of the fascination.

Stuck somewhere between, I have never been a huge fan.  It’s easy to appreciate the way they went about it this time, but it’s really hard to figure how they could justify another one.  That won’t stop them from making one though.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Peace, Love and Misunderstanding: Peace, Love, Dope!

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Peace, Love and Misunderstanding – 2012

Director Bruce Beresford
Starring Catherine Keener, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chace Crawford, Nat Wolf, Kyle MacLachlan
Screenplay by Christina Mengert, Joseph Muszynski

I’ve never been a fan of Jane Fonda, but then, she’s never been this bad.  I can’t speak with total authority, though.  A few years ago, when she made her big comeback with Monster In Law, I was smart enough, according to my wife, to avoid this.  It’s bad form to write movie reviews in the first person, but this time, I figure it doesn’t matter.

If you add up the good performances, subtract the bad performances, and then do the same with the good and bad parts of the script, the viewer of this film comes out the loser by a long shot.  I usually like Olsen, Keener and Morgan.  Here they are good, but in no way challenged by the script.  The rest of the cast, except, perhaps, Crawford, are completely swallowed by it.

Fonda plays a hippie who, surprise, lives in Woodstock, smokes dope, screams at the moon and lets chickens run rampant through the house.  She has some convoluted reasons for why, but I didn’t really care to remember that.  She has a daughter (Keener) who has not seen her in 20 years.  The daughter, named Diane, has 2 kids and her husband recently asked her for divorce.  What better time to pack up the kids and visit your mother, who you last saw when you had her arrested on your wedding day.  Keener plays a somewhat reasonable conservative.  I say reasonable because she does not abandon all her beliefs and buy the crap her mother is peddling.  Well not all the crap.

In the town of Woodstock, there are love interests for all.  What false crisis await each of these people?  Should we care?  Nope.  The boy kid (Wolf), makes a movie that does not make sense, but it wins an award.  Maybe they were comparing it to the rest of this film.  Olsen is a person who objects to eating meat, so of course, she falls for a guy in the meat shop.  Perhaps she would have enjoyed being on The Bachelorette, instead.

The problem with this movie is not just its tired “You can go home again” premise.  If done well, it would be passable.  The never-ending nonsense that Fonda spouts has no basis in anyone’s reality.  This is one time in particular Fonda’s politics falls in line with her character.  As one who was selfish enough to pose for a picture in the seat of a battery used to fire on American troops in Vietnam, I should be able to totally absorb her selfish mother who exposed her child and grand children to sex, drugs and bad folk music.  One thing Fonda does well in this movie is she looks like Frances McDormand on the box cover.  McDormand might have been at least entertaining in the role.

As for Roseanna Arquette…what the hell happened?

Beresford is hard to explain as well.  He’s made very few clunkers.  His most recent film, Mao’s Last Dancer, was one of his best.  There is nothing here that distinguishes him from the director of any of the straight to video American Pie films.

Keener’s character does well to call her out on this nonsense, but seems to look past the fact Fonda actually introduced her kids to pot.  Then of course, there’s the end of the movie.  I don’t want to talk about that, though.  Instead, I will treat you with this Terence Mann quote, from one of my favorite films, Field of Dreams:

“How about this: “Peace, love, dope”? Now get the hell out of here! “

(*1/2 out of *****)

Liberal Arts: Radnor is no Woody Allen, Thank God

Liberal Arts Movie Poster

Liberal Arts – 2012

Written and Directed by Josh Radnor
Starring Radnor, Elizabeth Olson, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Zac Efron, Elizabeth Reaser

As a 35-year-old college admissions officer in New York, Josh Radnor has the face that crosses most people after they’ve been gone from college for long enough to realize that this is all their life has become.  Fortuitously, he gets a call from his favorite college professor, asking him to come back to Ohio for his retirement.  His professor (Jenkins) could be considered an age-progressed version of himself.  Neither has anything to show for where they are.  Then there’s Zibby (Olson).

There is an attraction, of course, and there is little resistance at first, except for Zibby’s wish for ritualistic dating.  She gives him a Mix CD, he really gets into it, and they start a letter writing relationship.  He starts working with numbers, and hoping it could work.  The whole thing is very quaint.  Until he makes a return trip.

Meanwhile, his professor has second thoughts on his retirement.  There is another professor (Janney) that he enjoyed and somewhat fantasized about.  And then the depressed but brilliant student (Magaro) and a deceptively brilliant dippy non-student (Efron).  Each of these characters add something to the story, and, wisely, something to the character.

For Radnor, this is an impressive work.  He shows a subtle understanding of many aspects to the life of his character, Jesse.  He is a guy who always must carry a book, lives in his mind, and has a fundamental misunderstanding of life.  That he can show his character’s weaknesses and still give him charm, charisma and a willingness to learn.  All the while, he adheres to his own sense of morality.  The best part of his journey is his mission to recognize and shed himself of delusions.  In this trip, he finds some people ahead of him, and some people behind.  Age is not the deciding factor.  For Jesse, there is no deciding factor, except for what you choose to do and not to do.

Olsen gives a great performance of one who might seem wise, especially if one is looking to move in on her.  There was a point to the film where I thought Radnor was going to cruise in that direction, to live out some Woody Allen type of lie.  If he had, the film would have been entertaining, but ultimately a disappointment.  Since he doesn’t, Olsen is allowed to become a full person, instead of some winsome whore.  Great move.

The rest of the cast is spot on as well.  By keeping the characters in an arc around Jesse’s story, they seem richer than they would had they gone through to their own conclusions.  He allows his characters to teach each other along the way in life, much like improv, as one of his character says.  This is the work of a talented filmmaker, but more importantly, it is the work of a conscientious human being.  We need more people like this.

(***** out of *****)

Red Lights: There mostly to annoy

Red Lights – 2012

Written and Directed by Rodrigo Cortés
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Elizabeth Olson, Cillian Murphy, Robert DeNiro, Joely Richardson, Toby Jones, Leonardo Sbaraglia

One of the worst possible scenes anyone can do is to flip out in front of a television while watching someone or some thing.  If they are doing this in front of someone, it seems like they are trying too hard to convince that person.  If they are doing this in front of no one else, it looks like they are trying too hard to impress us.  In Red Lights, it is meant to pass along information that is painfully obvious to the discerning viewer, but presumably clever to the film maker.

Cillian Murphy has a subtle quality to his performances most times.  He has been a looming presence in the Batman / Dark Knight series, his eyes haunted 28 Days Later and there is a definite air of mystery to his character in Red Eye.  This time, we get an example of over-reach.

From the moment that acclaimed psychic Simon Silver (DeNiro) is first seen, Murphy’s Acedemic Tom Buckley begins to pry off the hinges of his heretofore meek character.  Almost every subsequent moment of Red Lights, we see Murphy in a breathless huff to prove that Silver is a fraud.  His Professor Matheson (Weaver), is more cautious.  She has crossed Silver in the past and came away with the only moment of doubt she experienced in her career of exposing psychic frauds.  Along for the ride, but really of little consequence is Elisabeth Olsen, as “star student” Sally Owen.

The problem with the movie is the characters.  Weaver’s professor is clever, but really transparently weakened, for the sake of the plot.  I can’t remember seeing her so compromised in a film before.  DeNiro’s “mysterious” Silver reminds me of the kind of characters Brando might play in the 20 years leading up to his death.  DeNiro’s talent is not mystery…it’s passion and there is none of that, here.  Olsen is carried around by the plot, mostly there to be dropped off when things get too dangerous.

Murphy is there mainly to be beaten, bloodied and to look sweaty and desperate.  It’s not a good combo.  There are so many obvious hints as to the true nature of his character.  This movie does what it can to convince the viewer that he should not play a leading man.  Again, it’s not the fault of the actor, so much as the script and direction.

Toby Jones has two modes, mastermind (Infamous and W.) and stooge (Captain America…  and City of Ember).  Here he is the latter, and adds nothing big to the proceedings.  One of the good performances of the film is the ambiguous Monica Hansen (Richardson).  Hers is the lone performance that allows any amount of intrigue.  She is used quite effectively at first, but the second half of the film sees less of her, and less overall interest in what is going on.

Cortés is a director that had a good introduction to the big time with the low-budget Buried.  Here he loses all the traction the success of that film provided.  My guess is that he will have one more shot with a cast as good as this one.  He better not go 1 for 6 next time.  The pacing of the film is almost non-existent.  It felt like it was 4 hours for its 113 minute running time.  There are no memorable visuals, but for one curiosity   When Weaver’s Matheson is in the hospital, Buckley and Owen visit.  As they ponder over their professor, we see the person in the bed, who is a man who looks nothing like her.

“What’s the point of keeping him here like that?” asks Owen, watching the man with Buckley from a chair in the hospital room.

The same man seen in the bed later, during flashbacks is presumably killed by Buckley.  No other mentions at all in the film in my recollection.  My question, to the viewer matches the question of the entire film: what the hell is that?

(*1/2 out of *****)

P.S. – Thanks to a discerning viewer who hates my grammar (see comments), I have been informed that the man in the hospital bed is the son of Weaver’s character.  This is important…for no particular reason.  In retrospect, that he is waiting by the son’s side and is later found to be doing something physically to him makes no sense in the grand scheme of things.  If you watch the movie and find it to be a sensible inclusion, please let me know, preferably by clawing my literary eyes out, as a vulture would a dying carcass.

Silent House gives it away for free

 

Silent House – 2012

Directed by Chris Kentis, Laura Lau
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Haley Murphy, Adam Bennett
Written by Laura Lau based on the Uruguayan screenplay by  Oscar Estevez

Silent Househas a promising premise: a single shot horror film in real-time.  The story is that of a young woman named Sarah (Olsen), working with her father (Trese) and uncle (Stevens) to restore a Victorian style house, getting it ready to sell.  After meeting a mysterious girl at the front porch, there is a contrived dispute between her father and uncle, who heads into town.  Sarah is left in the house alone with her Dad.  Soon she hears some strange noises upstairs in the house, and she and her father go up to investigate.  Before long, her father is mysteriously incapacitated and she is running for her life from a mysterious stalker and a little girl.

Gee, I thought it a bit cold for attire such as this…

Olson does a great job of adding the silent aspect to the terror.  There are many scenes in which she battles with the lack of light, lack of access to an exit, and her own fear, trying her best to maintain silence as she searches for clues.  One problem persists with her performance, though, and it has little to do with her acting.  For some reason, someone decided that a thin tank top is right attire to wear in a house with no lights and much construction going on.  The result is an almost unobstructed look at her bra-less chest line during some of the most intense moments.  It was as incomprehensible as it was distracting from the performance of a promising young actress.

Similarly, the plot is remarkably obvious from the first moments throughout.  As if early hints aren’t enough for you, they literally have them dropped on the floor during the lead up to the last act.  It helps to completely unravel what tension the first half of the film produces.  By the end, one has the task of trying to keep from laughing…and from looking at Olsen’s chest.

The film continuity is a valiant effort, and ultimately adds to the enjoyment.  There were, according to the directors, about 12 cuts overall.  It gets a bit more interesting as more characters drop in and out.  It makes one wish that more filmmakers would attempt challenging themselves this way.  Only next time, make certain other aspects a bit less obvious.

(*** out of *****)