Saturday, April 6, 2013

Adventures in Netflix Streaming: THE AWAKENING (2012); THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY (2013); and OSOMBIE (2012)

(France/UK - 2011; 2012 US release)

This atmospheric, old-fashioned ghost story is similar in style and tone to last year's nicely-done THE WOMAN IN BLACK, and very well-shot by cinematographer Eduard Grau, paying particular attention to period detail and the gray, drab look of a dour post-WWI 1921 England.  Rebecca Hall, faring much better here than in the dreadful LAY THE FAVORITE, is Florence Cathcart, a well-known author and paranormal investigator who makes a living debunking fraudulant hauntings and other alleged supernatural occurrences. A misfit who demonstrates social awkwardness that's frequently mistaken for dismissive rudeness, she's summoned by stammering, war-scarred headmaster Robert (Dominic West) to a former private mansion turned boarding school, where an asthmatic pupil cruelly dubbed "Wheezy Walter" by his classmates has died under mysterious circumstances that may involve a ghost child seen as a lingering spectre in school photos for many years.  There is indeed a hoax being perpetrated, but that's just the beginning of the story as director/co-writer Nick Murphy gathers the primary characters--there's also Imelda Staunton as the school housekeeper and Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran Stark on GAME OF THRONES) as an orphaned boy who stays behind during a holiday break--all damaged souls who find a strange bond in their status as lonely outsiders who never really fit in anywhere (at one point, Staunton proclaims "I don't think there's a place on Earth where people understand loneliness better than here"), and Florence starts to get an odd feeling that she's been there before.  Murphy does a commendable job in the first 2/3 with an overwhelming sense of eerie foreboding (the dollhouse scene, which essentially--and extremely creepily--recaps the film up to that point, is a small masterpiece), but like last year's RED LIGHTS, another initially solid horror film about debunking the paranormal that just completely collapses in the home stretch, THE AWAKENING doesn't seem to know where it's going.  There's too much time spent on a subplot involving the drooling groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle) that's ultimately a complete red herring, and once the twist--obligatory in post-SIXTH SENSE ghost stories--is revealed, there's too many holes and contrivances for it to withstand any serious scrutiny.  An admirable effort and a great-looking film with strong performances by its leads, THE AWAKENING just loses itself with its inability to follow through on its potential, which is a damn shame because it was well on its way to being a noteworthy sleeper.  (R, 107 mins)

(US - 2013)

THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY offers a found-footage take on the legendary saga, a concept that was demanded by no one but given to us anyway by a couple of producers of THE LAST EXORCISM.  Documentary filmmaker Vicky (Heather Stephens) is working on a project about her college friend Dr. John Venkenhein (Kris Lemche).  Venkenhein has a theory that's gotten him suspended from academia, branded a laughingstock, and is about to cost him his girlfriend (Christine Lakin):  Mary Shelley conceived her novel Frankenstein as a fictionalized account of true events, with Victor Frankenstein patterned after a Venkenhein ancestor.  The young Venkenhein posits that the monster's DNA and physical makeup is such that he's still alive and still wandering the remote wilderness in barren, northernmost Canada.  With a small camera crew and a crusty, surly guide (SONS OF ANARCHY's Timothy V. Murphy as Robert Shaw as Quint), Venkenhein leads the expedition to track down the factual Venkenhein monster.  Directed and co-written by Andrew Weiner, THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY is an idea that could've worked, but its set-up is such that nothing can happen for at least an hour, so much of the running time is occupied by bickering, scientific babbling, and talk of caribou migration.  By the time the protagonists are trapped in a yurt with the howling beast outside, the film progresses in the most rote, predictable fashion possible:  destroyed snowmobiles?  Check.  Someone goes off for help and is later found murdered?  Check.  Someone drops a camera and then falls dead in front of it CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST/BLAIR WITCH-style?  Check.  Released to just a scant few theaters in early 2013 after two years on the shelf, THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY is nothing more than the labored wheeze of a subgenre's death rattle, plodding along and leading to absolutely nothing in a finale so frustratingly, jaw-droppingly anti-climactic that it makes the found-footage fuck-you of THE DEVIL INSIDE look crowd-pleasing by comparison.  (Unrated, 87 mins)

(US - 2012)

A jokey premise in search of a movie, the Utah-shot OSOMBIE has a US Special Forces team in Afghanistan, along with a couple of sibling civilians, battling an army of Al-Qaeda undead under the command of a zombified Osama Bin Laden.  The concept had some satirical potential, but the filmmakers came up with the idea and decided that was enough, delivering yet another run-of-the-mill, otherwise utterly generic zombie apocalypse film with the expectedly shitty CGI that pales in comparison to most iPhone apps.  The characters are your stock, run-of-the-mill military cliches (including the requisite squad joker being creatively nicknamed "Joker") and the actors are terrible, including star Corey Sevier, a veteran Canadian TV actor and DTV regular whose idea of character development is finding a new and dramatic way to take off his shirt in every other scene.  Maybe it's my own fault for expecting something out of a film titled OSOMBIE, but what a pointless waste of time. It's a lot like an Asylum production, only lazier.  At least Asylum flicks have a sense of humor about themselves.  Other than Joker's constant groan-inducing witticisms ("Confucius say 'Man who fart in church must sit in own pew'"), OSOMBIE is played totally straight. If you're making a movie about a zombie Bin Laden, the notion of seriousness is already off the table and you should at least have some fun with it.  They should've just made a fake trailer and left it at that. (Unrated, 94 mins)

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