Found-footage filmmaking has been all the rage in horror films for the past few years with the Paranormal Activity franchise and its innumerable variants making enthusiastic use of the cheap but effective vérité technique for conjuring scares. Silent House the new (well somewhat new) thriller from the husband-and-wife directing team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau may not technically be found-footage but its hand-held “captured in real time” approach achieves essentially the same effect minus the idiotic faux disclaimers attesting to its "authenticity."
Presented as a single 88-minute take without any visible editing (think Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope) Silent House stars Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) as Sarah a somewhat aloof young girl staying with her father (Adam Trese) as he and his brother (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate their family’s waterfront vacation home in preparation for its sale. After years of neglect the house has fallen into disrepair lacking electricity phone lines or much of anything else that might possibly aid a girl in surviving a home invasion the potential for which is made abundantly clear in the film’s opening act.
And just who might wish to pay Sarah an unwelcome visit? Silent House’s script written by Lau offers any number of likely suspects from the vandals who’ve repeatedly trashed the vacation home to the unsavory ex-boyfriend who’s recently resurfaced in Sarah’s life. And that supposed “childhood friend” who paid her an ominous visit can’t possibly have good intentions. Oh and let’s not forget the simmering feud between Sarah’s father and uncle the fallout from which is bound to turn one of them homicidal. Perhaps they’ll all join forces and form some kind of supergroup the Power Station of sociopaths.
Whoever they are they’re exceedingly ill-tempered as Sarah learns when she happens upon her bloodied father in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Sounds of footsteps signal that his attacker(s) is near and soon Sarah is engaged in a terrifying game of hide-and-seek scrambling about the house to evade capture.
Generous kudos must be paid to cameraman Igor Martinovic who works in lock-step with Olsen in Silent House trailing close behind as she darts up and down the stairs peering over her shoulder as she gingerly opens a door and training on her face as she grimaces in silent terror trying to contain her panic as her unseen tormentor approaches. There are times however when Silent House could use a steadier hand. During some of the film’s more frantic moments the action becomes so hopelessly frenzied as to turn cinema vérité into cinema vomité.
Silent House’s "captured in real time" gimmick is exceedingly well-executed with hidden cuts spread pretty much seamlessly throughout the film. (Of course the fact that I spent a good deal of time scanning for said hidden cuts testifies to its potential to become a distraction.) Lau and Kentis establish a steady build-and-release rhythm with the tension while dropping in subtle clues here and there as to the motives behind the mayhem.
The success or failure of Silent House ultimately hinges on the efforts of Olsen who quite impressively shoulders the burden of inhabiting nearly every frame of the film. Olsen is significantly more nuanced than your typical scream-queen and it’s her performance alone that holds the film aloft during its more ludicrous moments.
Good as she is Olsen can’t hope to rescue the film’s poorly conceived third act. Over a year removed from its 2011 Sundance debut Silent House saw its ending thoroughly rejiggered in preparation for its theatrical release with the final 15 minutes replaced entirely. In its existing iteration the film abruptly takes leave of its senses during the climax with a flurry of preposterous twists and revelations that are only frightening in their abject inanity.
Click here to hear Elizabeth Olsen talk about Silent House's arduous shooting process in our exclusive interview.
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February 07, 2011 12:46pm EST
When a dramedy gets too sentimental it quickly becomes sappy but with the right balance – and the right actors – it can work well enough to entertain on multiple levels. Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a perfect example of tonal equality; bittersweet in every sense of the word but outright hilarious when the comedy gets going. I thought the best qualities of his direction would carry over into his latest production the recent Sundance entry Cedar Rapids. While his influence as producer is identifiable (particularly in its score) director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) made a more conventional film than I expected to see.
Our story begins in Brown Valley Wisconsin where the dignified Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) works lives and loves his former 7th Grade teacher (a dull Sigourney Weaver). When the top dog at the insurance company he works for dies it’s up to him to represent at a do-or-die insurance convention in Cedar Rapids Iowa a bustling metropolis compared to the small town he’s never left. Once there he befriends a pair of agents (Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and John C. Reilly) cavorts with another (Anne Heche) and parties with a local prostitute (Alia Shawkat). When it comes down to business however he learns quickly that the insurance racket isn’t the noble industry he once thought it was.
Though it has some heart the film doesn’t hit the funny bone like its trailer teased. The biggest laughs don’t come organically; instead Reilly’s crass Dean Ziegler (the best part of the movie) spews them from every orifice he exposes. Most of the other jokes are flat including the bulk of Helms’. Lippe’s naivety is all too reminiscent of Andy Bernard his beloved character on The Office and though you’d think that would be a good thing it just feels stale. Heche gives the best performance of all portraying a melancholy working mother who’s both vulnerable and independent but her character doesn’t have much effect on the narrative. The most fun comes via a series of supporting roles and cameo’s from the likes of Thomas Lennon Stephen Root Rob Corddry Kurtwood Smith and Mike O’Malley but none of them have enough screen time to leave a lasting impression.
Lack of humor aside the film suffers most from trying to tackle too many topics at once. Screenwriter Phil Johnston stuffs many themes into the 87-minute feature including the growth of the man-child (an indie cliché at this point) corporate corruption and separation of church and office but no single subject is developed enough to care about. Had the filmmakers stuck to their guns and delivered an all-out comedy be it conventional or quirky Cedar Rapids would be easier to endure.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Writer/director Woody Allen chose to remain behind the camera for Whatever Works employing Larry David as his muse. The Curb Your Enthusiasm star plays a cranky pessimist who becomes the initially unwilling husband to a much MUCH younger Southern girl with a father fixation. But when her conservative mother arrives all hell breaks loose as Mom tries to drive her daughter away from the old guy and toward a much younger model. But New York City has a strange effect on everyone and soon everyone in this very disparate group learns the best things in life are really “whatever works.”
WHO’S IN IT?
Forgoing the umpteenth opportunity to play the May/December romance bit again Allen turns over the starring role to David in an inspired bit of casting about which it’s simply impossible to curb your enthusiasm. David given hilarious monologues that riff on life and border on a constant stream of doomsday analysis is perfect casting in Allen’s peculiar New York world. What’s most surprising is he actually creates a three-dimensional character we grow to care about even though the flow of one-liners rarely stops. As the super-conservative Southern yokel mother-in-law Patricia Clarkson is equally at home in Allen’s universe and takes the stereotypical role into unexpected places. As the innocent ex-beauty queen who bounces into David’s life Evan Rachel Wood practically channels a backwoods Tammy persona but somehow it works well enough for us to believe she could actually fall for such a cranky old man. Also of note is Ed Begley Jr.’s terrific turn as her pious father and estranged hubby of Clarkson who shows up near the end and defies all convention.
After a sojourn abroad first to England for his expert thriller Match Point and the less successful Scoop then to Spain for last year’s delightful Vicky Cristina Barcelona Allen returns triumphantly to his New York roots for the first time since 2004’s Melinda and Melinda. Despite the absence he hasn’t lost a beat when it comes to his very singular view of the Big Apple and its inhabitants. Casting David was the masterstroke that makes this one stand out as one of the prolific Allen’s (he turns out a film a year) most consistently amusing works in some time.
Whatever Works is very slight and feels more like one of the comedian’s New Yorker short stories than a fully fleshed-out motion picture. But when you’ve got this kind of sharp dialogue and these performers it’s hard to quibble about substance.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Whatever works for you but if you’re a Woody Allen or Larry David fan it’s a must wherever you see it.
Starting near the end of his short 24-year life and then told in flashback this film version of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace’s (Jamal Woolard) rapid rise from the streets of Brooklyn to fame is told in standard-issue Hollywood biopic style. We see this Catholic honors student (played by his real life son Christopher Jordan Wallace) become a teenage drug dealer and accidental father before a chance recording finds its way to Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) who engineers an almost immediate rise to fame fortune -- and trouble. “Biggie” now must juggle his newfound recording career a marriage to fellow artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) his romantic encounters with female rap comer L’il Kim (Naturi Naughton) and a major East Coast/West Coast rivalry with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) that leads to tragedy for both. As Wallace Brooklyn rapper Woolard is almost indistinguishable from the real man himself. He’s completely convincing performing B.I.G’s biggie hits and proves himself to be a first-rate dramatic actor as well -- at least in a story like this that he can clearly relate to. As his mother Angela Bassett makes the most of limited screen time (despite top billing) and expertly conveys the angst of a parent fighting a losing battle for her son. Luke again shows why he is so promising playing Puffy with just the right amount of flash and supreme confidence. Unfortunately the “balanced” portrait of Combs and many others in B.I.G’s life is tainted by the fact this film was produced by some of the real life players including his managers mother and executive producer Combs. George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) directs this by-the-numbers account of Biggie’s life in a style we have seen countless times before. Except for a couple of occasions he doesn’t even let the rap sequences play out to give us an idea of how this guy whose songs reflected his rough Brooklyn lifestyle could climb to the top so fast. Whatever was special is lost in what appears to be a brazen attempt to sell soundtrack albums.