Silence, The (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
As one sits through the increasingly disappointing creature feature “The Silence,” one begins to wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to tell this particular story after the outstanding “A Quiet Place” has got everyone talking. The plot is familiar: A family attempts to survive in a world overrun by monsters that are sensitive to sound. A big difference, however, is in the effectiveness of execution. John Krasinski’s picture is told with great focus and alacrity while John R. Leonetti’s work does not appear to know where to go. And given if it did, it possesses minimal conviction.
At least the creatures are somewhat interesting from a visual standpoint. At first glance, they appear to look and sound like bats, particularly when they are discovered in a cave that has been hidden for quite possibly thousands of years. Upon closer inspection, they are orange-yellow, about the size of an eagle but featherless. They have sharp teeth and hunt in groups. As expected for having lived in the dark for so long, they have no eyes. We are shown webpages and newsreels about how they are quite similar to wasps. They look menacing indeed and the screenwriters find ways for the characters to trigger loud noises—even if it means making them seem as though they have minimal survival instinct. The violence of the attacks are occasionally, and appropriately, horrific. These creatures eat their meal to the bone.
But one of the elements that separates solid monster movies from merely passable ones is from which perspective the audience experiences the story. The Andrews family is, for the most part, a bore. Stanley Tucci and Miranda Otto play the vanilla parents; Kate Trotter as the grandmother who hides her lung cancer from the children; and Kiernan Shipka and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf as the elder sister and younger brother who emote a whole lot. Shipka as Ally is supposed to be the central protagonist but we only know this because she is given narration and no one else.
She tells us about having recently gone deaf due to an auto accident. We see her being bullied by some boys at school. Clearly, these situations are introduced in order to win our sympathy. Do not be fooled. Look closely. Notice she is not given anything special or memorable to do—an opportunity to show why she is our heroine in this story. Contrast this with the Regan character in “A Quiet Place” (she is also deaf). It is abundantly clear which of the two is the more compelling figure. Which one would you rather have on your side during a time of crisis?
A group of characters are introduced late into the film. Their tongues are cut off and so they do not utter a word. They are creepy, how they are dressed in black or brown clothing. The leader focuses on Ally. It is thematically inappropriate to introduce human villains so late into the story and then disposing of them just as quickly in a most uninspired way. I felt as though they are used only to extend a film already running on fumes.
Although many might argue that the real enemy are the ancient creatures, I claim it is more about our limitations to adapt quickly and efficiently in life or death situations, especially when loved ones are involved. The enemy is our lack of understanding of, or the lack of willingness to understand, what is initially unknown. But the screenplay by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke are not interested in the more curious philosophical musings. I wager they themselves do not know what makes their story special and worth telling.
Annabelle: Creation (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
As can be expected from a solid horror picture, “Annabelle: Creation,” directed by David F. Sandberg, is able to deliver the requisite scares alongside a story with intrigue. Once paranormal activities begin to terrorize the curious orphans who recently move into the Mullins’ home (Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto), just about every other scene builds up to something—whether it be an alarming moment or a piece of the puzzle that sheds light on the possible reasons of the haunting inside and around the property. Clearly, it is a significant improvement from the uninspired, waste of time predecessor “Annabelle.”
Some scares are noticeably more effective than others. Pay close attention to scenes that revolve around Janice (Tabitha Eliana Bateman) and her seeming inability to refrain from investigating a strange noise. Because the character is crippled by polio, the movement of the camera must adapt to how fast she can move. This makes for a compelling watch because she simply cannot run out of the room as a demonic presence closes in. A shot that usually requires a split second turns into a second, maybe a second-and-a-half, and it makes a whole world of difference when it comes to amplifying the tension.
Weaker parts involve a lack of restraint when CGI is utilized. Aside from ostentatious display of black smoke and shadow looking utterly fake, at times I found the appearance of the demon to be laughable. Sometimes showing less really is more and the picture might have benefited greatly from this adage. However, the filmmakers have truly done a great job in not showing the doll move on its own too much. Rotating its head a couple of degrees at the right moment is more than enough to creep out the viewers. I enjoyed it most when the doll does not move at all and the shot simply lingers on its face because we get a chance to ascribe our thoughts and emotions onto it—which ties neatly into what the doll is supposed to be within the scope of this story.
The film is written by Gary Dauberman and it is a welcome surprise that it finds the time to show relationships amongst the orphans (Lulu Wilson, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran) as well as between the orphans and the nun (Stephanie Sigman) in charge of their overall wellbeing. Similar works with poor writing tend to paint awkward and unconvincing connections between characters while not doing a good job in crafting horrifying situations. Or worse—they do not bother with it at all. Here, there is a smooth flow between character development and inflicting terror.
“Annabelle: Creation” offers nothing new or exciting to the genre, but it does offer old-school frights and entertainment. Horror fans who appreciate the unfolding of a scene—especially in silence when we hear only footsteps, the creaking of a door, a bell from afar—rather than being bombarded with evanescent jolts and annoying loud noises are likely to be pleasantly surprised. It tweaks enough usual tricks for us to overlook some of the clichés.
Flores Raras (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Though it is slightly out of her comfort zone to travel, American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) decides to visit an old friend from college in Brazil. Mary (Tracy Middendorf) just so happens to “live with a woman” named Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires), an architect who is very passionate about her work, so passionate that she is continually remodeling her country estate in Petrópolis. The plan is to stay for three days—a long enough time span for Elizabeth to catch the attention of Lota. Three days extended to weeks and soon Mary is out the door and Elizabeth is moving in permanently.
Based on Carmen L. Oliveira’s book, “Flores raras e banalíssimas,” and adapted to the screen by Matthew Chapman, Julie Sayres, and Carolina Kotscho, “Reaching for the Moon” is a beautifully executed love story between two women who fall in love but their own personal demons are so strong that either they are not able to give themselves to one another completely or their feelings for each other are always out of synch. Their constant struggle to connect fully—without shame, without insecurities—is worth looking into.
I have trouble when it comes to writers being portrayed in the movies. They are usually shown as these strange creatures who whine a lot about their comfortable lives for no good reason. Usually I respond with annoyance; often I respond with great frustration. So it is a nice surprise that Elizabeth is actually depicted as a real human being. I enjoyed how Otto infuses small but dark qualities in her character without making her unlikeable or detaching her completely from a good person with a wonderful talent for stringing words together. This way, the alcoholism feels real in that the duality is apparent—and painful to watch—in scenes where Elizabeth is intoxicated.
I loved what Pires has done with her character. There is a danger to her portrayal of Lota because of the decision to make her masculine. But the performer does not rely on stereotypes. She uses our expectations as a template to surprise us. As a result, when Lota’s more sensitive moments come into light, we are delighted or devastated. There is no in-between and that polarity makes us want to get to know the character more.
Interior and exterior shots are disarmingly arresting. When the camera shows the beauty of the spacious estate, I wanted to jump inside the screen to caress the grass, sit on the benches, play in the water. When it shows the inside of a house or a building, I wanted to stand in front of the shelves so I can learn what kind of books the characters read, to discover the contents of the drawers, to feel the texture of the rug. In other words, a convincing version of a real life is shown on screen. It is most inviting.
However, some sections of the second half are problematic in terms or pacing and level of depth. When the ‘50s and ‘60s Brazilian politics enter the picture, there is less of an emotional pull not because the backdrop is not interesting but because the screenplay does not provide enough sufficient details for someone who may not be familiar with the history of Brazil. When politics come to a boiling point which run parallel to the couple’s emotional and psychological drainage, there is not much of an impact.
Directed by Bruno Barreto, “Reaching for the Moon” might have been better off as an immersive three-hour film. I felt as though some of its scope and depth are sacrificed for the sake of having a more digestible running time. Lota and Elizabeth are two very passionate and accomplished individuals—whether they are a couple or not. In movies that portray two people in a relationship, showing that quality with honesty is rare. Therefore, no compromises should have been made.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.