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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If a major motion picture studio gave you $50 million to make the movie of your choice what would it be like? If you’re producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost it’d be a loving lampoon of geek culture and an homage to the films of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution but nostalgia is both an advantage and disadvantage in director Greg Mottola’s Paul.
Pegg and Frost star as a pair of nerds from across the pond who fulfill lifelong dreams when they fly to San Diego for the annual Mecca of nerdom Comic-Con. The doofy duo extend their trip to tour America’s extraterrestrial hot spots including Area 51 where they pick up an unexpected alien hitchhiker on the run from the proverbial men in black. Across the country they go getting into trouble picking up more passengers and building bromantic bonds as the little green man Paul inches closer to his escape from planet Earth and the shadowy government official who has been exploiting his knowledge of the universe since he crash landed in Wyoming over 60 years ago.
Fan-favorite filmmakers since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Frost have been making geek chic for years now and continue to create identifiable roles for themselves while finding humorous ways to write their like-minded friends into their movies. Their collection of wacky characters is charming if incredibly derivative but for better or worse they are the heart and soul of the film. Jason Bateman Kristen Wiig Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio turn in fun performances but I expected a bit more from the Jane Lynch David Koechner and Sigourney Weaver cameos. Still Seth Rogen’s vocal performance as Paul adds significant layers to an already adorable alien and enlivens the adequately rendered CG character.
The comedy is surprisingly sweet and doesn’t bite like Mottola’s Superbad though there are enough religious jabs and signs of anti-establishment fervor to call it mildly subversive. Lack of laughs isn’t the issue here; lack of originality is. Mottola is too dependent on pop-culture references and inside jokes pertaining to E.T. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so much so that the film ultimately becomes a parody of itself as its storyline mirrors that of Steven Spielberg’s massive 1982 blockbuster (in this world the movie mogul actually consults the incarcerated alien for inspiration for his beloved family film). While these nods are all amusing they’re not enough to carry the film and Mottola/Frost/Pegg offer little else. At its worst Paul will give you a reason to revisit those classic sci-fi staples and remember the good old days. At best it provides a few mindless chuckles and gives you good reason to give the geek next to you a great big hug.
From the moment Hailee Steinfeld enters the frame in Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent western True Grit an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (or re-adaptation — John Wayne's 1969 version got to it first) the film belongs to her. This is no easy feat especially for a 13-year-old actress making her feature-film debut but Steinfeld not only holds her own alongside such heavyweights as Jeff Bridges Matt Damon and Josh Brolin she often upstages them.
The film which is set in the 1870s stars Steinfeld as Mattie Ross a pigtailed 14-year-old sent to the frontier town of Fort Smith Arkansas to settle the affairs of her deceased father an honorable man murdered for two gold pieces by a monstrous simpleton named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Mattie also comes seeking justice: Chaney is still at large having escaped to the dangerous foreboding expanse of the Indian Territory and she intends to see to it that he is captured and brought to trial.
Frustrated by the local authorities’ ambivalence toward tracking down her father's killer Mattie turns to Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) a slovenly alcoholic U.S. Marshal renowned for his cruelty and itchy trigger finger. Were there a Miranda warning in 1870s Cogburn would have little use for it; chances are few of his perps would understand it through his grouchy guttural slur anyway.
Pleading to join their makeshift posse is LaBoeuf (Damon) a pompous upright and overly chatty Texas Ranger — the Good Cop to Cogburn’s Bad Cop — who covets Chaney’s Texas bounty which holds more value than his Arkansas bounty. Cogburn agrees reluctantly to take him on recognizing that Chaney now likely holed up with his criminal gang a vicious bunch headed by a spittle-spewing snaggletooth named Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper) is too formidable to approach alone. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are natural rivals and long rides on the trail of Chaney afford them ample time for dick-measuring contests which invariably necessitate the intervention of their teenage mother hen Mattie.
Mattie may be the most mature member of the posse but she is nonetheless still a child — eventually the job of exacting final vengeance must fall upon the men with guns. Here Mattie’s stout heart has an ennobling effect on Cogburn who after briefly giving up during a booze-fueled bout with self-doubt stiffens his resolve to see things through.
Compared to its predecessor the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit is both funnier and less sentimental. There is little room for tenderness or romance on the Coens’ frontier but opportunities abound for the kind of black humor for which the writer-directors have become so famous. As in Fargo they have a great deal of fun with language; characters speak in a laughably rigid formalized manner almost Shakespearian in its tongue-twisting complexity. The film's ironic conceit that such codes thrive in a land ruled by violence and chaos is best illustrated in Mattie’s constant almost charmingly naive threats of legal action against her adversaries. They react to her threats with a kind of befuddled amusement; the phrase "I'll see you in court" is still several decades away from joining the popular lexicon.
Critics often bemoan the abundance of remakes in modern risk-averse Hollywood. A more productive strategy at least for the cause of quality filmmaking might be to properly exalt the better ones. This True Grit may be the best of them combining the look and feel of a classic western with a distinctly Coens brothers tone. And Ms. Steinfeld is nothing short of a revelation.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Julie & Julia melds the analogous stories of cooking legend Julia Child’s life in 1950s France with the modern-day tale of writer Julie Powell’s real-life quest to prepare all 524 recipes in Child’s classic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The film neatly covers Child’s life in post-World War II Paris with her foreign diplomat husband Paul her foray into and eventual mastery of French cooking and the difficulties she encountered while trying to publish her groundbreaking cookbook. Intercut with Child's story is Powell’s decision to shake up her life as an unfulfilled government employee in post-9/11 New York by challenging herself to cook and blog. Her inevitable trials (she burns an important meal gets in trouble at work and pisses off her husband) and victories (a perfectly poached egg a write-up in the New York Times) are all included.
WHO’S IN IT?
Ever lovely Amy Adams plays endearingly bedraggled Julie with hopeful conviction and Chris Messina is cute and convincing as her sweetly supportive husband. It is of course Meryl Streep who steals the show with her joyful high-energy portrayal of the 6-foot-2 master chef. Streep as she is apt to do turns in a nuanced humanizing and wholly hilarious portrayal of a cultural icon many associate with Dan Akroyd's impressions on Saturday Night Live.
Stanley Tucci proves a savvy charismatic match for Streep as Paul Child Julia’s affectionate charming and unflinchingly supportive husband. Jane Lynch momentarily steals Streep’s spotlight as Julia’s equally tall equally whirling dervishy sister Dorothy.
Julie’s life in Queens is populated by Mary Lynn Rajskub who plays her pragmatic friend and Casey Wilson and Vanessa Ferlito who make memorable cameos as Julie’s condescending corporate ladder-climbing carb-avoiding frenemies.
All of it. Nora Ephron’s script elegantly weaves the story of Child in Paris and Powell in Queens portraying both locales as the prettiest freshest versions of themselves. The film is a joy to look at not only for the sumptuous shots of Powell’s many creations and Child’s rich French fare but also for the pristine recreation of the style and fashion of 1950s Paris. It will make you want to drink champagne cocktails wear chiffon and eat chocolate cake. And beef. And bruschetta. And anything else available.
The film is superbly acted and manages to be funny inspiring and poignant without falling into schlocky chick-flick territory. The story is refreshing in its depiction of two happy drama-free marriages. The true romance here is with all the gorgeous food which Streep Tucci Adams and especially Messina consume with joyful gusto.
At just over two hours the film runs a bit long especially for a comedy. Although it never slows or bores several scenes about publishing the cookbook could have been shortened or cut completely to pick up the pace. While the ending is lovely the film then wraps up a bit hastily.
Julia first learning her cookbook might be published and frenetically rushing into the house screaming “Paul! Paul Paul Paul!” while nearly tripping over herself has just a slight advantage over the scene in which Julie confronts her moral dilemma about killing lobsters and is subsequently traumatized while boiling them alive.
Finely crafted from start to finish Meryl and the food take the cake so to speak in terms of star power. The movie is lighthearted fare for anyone desiring inspiration in the kitchen — or any other life department for that matter.