Friday, February 14, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: HAUNTER (2013); ENOUGH SAID (2013); and HOW I LIVE NOW (2013)

(Canada/France - 2013)

Detroit-born, Canada-based filmmaker Vincenzo Natali's place in the cult movie pantheon was established with his 1997 debut CUBE, but he's largely maintained a low-profile since.  CUBE spawned two inferior follow-ups sans Natali, who instead went on to the mandatory unpleasant Miramax experience with the long-shelved CYPHER (dumped on DVD in the US in 2005, four years after it was shot), and then the quirky character piece NOTHING (2003), and a segment in 2006's PARIS, JE T'AIME.  He returned to big-screen sci-fi with 2009's bonkers SPLICE, which proved a little too odd for the summer multiplex crowd, which brings us to his latest film, the ghost story HAUNTER.  It's refreshingly old-school in its restrained approach, but it has some genuine scares, a sense of unease throughout, and a strong lead performance from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Oscar-nominee Abigail Breslin.  Breslin is Lisa, a gothy teen in 1985 who seems condemned to live the same GROUNDHOG DAY-type scenario every single day.  She lives with her parents (Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden) and little brother (Peter DaCunha), and every day begins the same way, as they eat the same meals, do the same chores, and have the same arguments as Mom asks the same questions and Dad perpetually works on a car that just won't start.  The phone is dead and the house is surrounded by thick fog.  Only Lisa seems to realize that they're all dead and stuck in some sort of purgatory.  Lisa uncovers clues in hidden doors and in the attic, and is visited by an ominously spectral "Pale Man" (a terrifying Stephen McHattie) who warns her to accept that she's dead and to stop trying to contact the living.  Lisa has been somehow been summoned by the one of the house's present-day occupants, a teenage girl (Eleanor Zichy) whose father (David Hewlett) is seemingly possessed by the Pale Man, a serial killer who lived in the house prior to Lisa's family moving in.  His victims' souls are trapped in the house, kept from rest by the vengeful Pale Man, but Lisa must find a way to cross over into the real world to prevent history from repeating itself with the family now occupying the house.

Natali and screenwriter Brian King (the pair previously collaborated on CYPHER) are wearing a lot of influences on their sleeves here.  Not just GROUNDHOG DAY and THE OTHERS, but THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE SHINING, and a little of the 1988 cult classic LADY IN WHITE, and a lot of Lucio Fulci's THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETARY with its children reaching out to the living in a cursed house inhabited by a murderer who wreaks supernatural havoc on each new set of tenants.  With its foggy surroundings, Natali blankets the film in an almost Euro-horror sheen with some unabashed Spielbergian sentimentality.  Other than some cheap, TV-movie-looking visual effects, HAUNTER comes across like the kind of film that could've been made in the 1980s.  While the effects are disappointingly-executed at times and Natali goes for some tired RINGU-type ghost action in the finale, HAUNTER succeeds on style and atmosphere and some solid acting all around, particularly Breslin and McHattie.  It's not quite THE HAUNTING or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, but for the most part, it's a nicely low-key and pleasantly surprising little throwback horror film that just fell through the cracks and deserves to find an audience.  (Unrated, 97 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

(US/UK - 2013)

Since her 1996 breakthrough WALKING AND TALKING was released during the height of Miramax's indie heyday, writer/director Nicole Holofcener has been a distinctive voice with smart, insightful movies about women that don't resort to "chick flick" clich├ęs.  Her latest, ENOUGH SAID, relies a little more on dumb contrivance than her earlier films, and right down to its title, frequently feels like the kind of pleasant-but-middling effort her one-time mentor Woody Allen (Holofcener was a production assistant on Allen's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) might crank out between genuinely great films.  That's not to say it isn't enjoyable, but were it not for a dumb decision by its main character, there probably wouldn't be a movie.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus is excellent as divorced, middle-aged masseuse Eva, stuck in a rut and fearing the empty nest once daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) goes off to college.  Dragged to a party by her friend Sarah (Toni Collette), she meets Albert (James Gandolfini), an affable, schlubby sort of guy, and they immediately hit it off.  Meanwhile, Eva has a new client in poet Marianne (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), who does little but trash-talk her ex-husband.  Eventually, Eva figures out that Marianne's ex is Albert, and can't stop herself from projecting Marianne's issues back on to him, jeopardizing the relationship (at one point, after an uncomfortable dinner with friends, Albert says "Why do I feel like I just spent the evening with my ex-wife?").  Here's why this whole conceit doesn't work:  Marianne is a bitter, pretentious, unlikable bitch, which goes without saying as she's portrayed by Catherine Keener, who, with rare exception, more or less has a lock on this type of character.  Eva doesn't seem desperate enough for a friend that she'd latch on to Marianne the way she does, or be so inclined to nitpick to such a level that she'd fatalistically torpedo her relationship with Albert.  Yeah, it's a romantic comedy, but real characters in real life--or, at least, characters in earlier Holofcener films, would've resolved this situation in a matter of minutes.

But ENOUGH SAID excels in other areas:  Louis-Dreyfus is very good and Eva's parental panic over her baby venturing into the real world is handled in a believable and sympathetic fashion.  She's also very funny, especially in a scene late in the film where she's insulted by someone and lets loose with a laugh that displays outrage, dismissal, and hurt all in a matter of seconds, and it's a vintage Louis-Dreyfus moment.  And then there's Gandolfini in his penultimate role (his last film, the crime thriller THE DROP, is due out later this year).  Released four months after his death, ENOUGH SAID lets the actor show a vulnerable side of himself rarely seen before.  You've always heard women say "he just had something about him," but he never really got to play a romantic lead until this and it's a stellar performance.  ENOUGH SAID is likable if a little too slight and predictable, but it's a must-see for fans of Louis-Dreyfus, who's really flourished post-SEINFELD (her HBO series VEEP is one of the funniest things on TV), and especially the much-missed Gandolfini.  (PG-13, 93 mins)

(UK - 2013)

This dumb, drab adaptation of Meg Rosoff's 2004 YA novel about a American teenager's survival in England after the country is leveled by a nuclear attack only made it to 68 screens during its US release.  Pick a reason why:  is it that it centers on the most abrasive and coarsely unlikable heroine in recent memory?  Is it that the target audience is too young to get into R-rated movies?  Is it that the central romance in the film is between cousins?  Coming off like a TWILIGHT-ized CHILDREN OF MEN and showcasing all the depth of a Taylor Swift song, HOW I LIVE NOW manages to defeat the gifted Saoirse Ronan, who's never turned in a bad performance but can't do much with the bitchy and complaining Daisy, a standard-issue Ugly American spending the summer--against her will, it seems--with some cousins who live in the English countryside.  While she churlishly resists any attempts to bond with them until they playfully throw her in a river and goo-goo eyes with the oldest, Eddie (George Mackay), quickly escalates to all-out cousin-fucking, London is nuked, Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) disappears, and the military comes through to round up the survivors.  The kids--there's also 14-year-old Isaac (Tom Holland, so good in THE IMPOSSIBLE), and nine-year-old Piper (Harley Bird)--are split up, with Daisy and Piper forced to fend for themselves.  It's amazing how quickly Daisy goes from spoiled bitch to hard-nosed survivalist almost instantaneously.  Even in the context of a fantastical film, it's too much of a stretch and even an actress as good as Ronan can't sell it.  There's no suspense, the pace is deadeningly dull, and while it might be aimed at sullen teens, it feels like it's made by them as well, which is quite shocking considering that director Kevin Macdonald (ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER, TOUCHING THE VOID, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) and co-writer Tony Grisoni (the RED RIDING trilogy) have made very good films before (Macdonald is also the grandson of legendary British filmmaker Emeric Pressburger).  A meandering misfire from the start, you can probably live the rest of your life without subjecting yourself to HOW I LIVE NOW.  (R, 101 mins)

1 comment:

  1. "Yeah, it's a romantic comedy, but real characters in real life--or, at least, characters in earlier Holofcener films, would've resolved this situation in a matter of minutes." THANK YOU!!! This is why I was so perplexed that people were praising this film as one of the best of the year. I think it's easy to let the charming performances by Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini, and they are really damn charming, overshadow major script issues that don't feel like anything Holofcener would include or even tolerate in her earlier work. It turns a little sitcom-y for me, which is comfortable territory for Louis-Dreyfus, and even if the ruse had continued, I feel like it could have been handled more intelligently. I liked the movie but it definitely didn't crack my top 10 or even my top 20 of the year.