Our House (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Haunted house flick “Our House” is so boring, so tonally flat, that not even the loudest ominous score is enough to jolt the viewer into caring—strange because the story revolves around siblings whose parents perished in a traffic accident. It has the foundation of a dramatic horror film in which a family’s crippling grief is eventually exorcised by facing literal demons, but the screenplay by Nathan Parker and direction by Anthony Scott Burns lack inspiration. When it doubt, it relies on silly- and fake-looking visual effects—are shadow monsters supposed to be scary? Were they ever?
The eldest of the three siblings is played by Thomas Mann, whose effortless awkwardness is not utilized in such a way that is endearing, someone who we can or want to root for against a mysterious paranormal enemy. Instead, Ethan is written without a strong personality. In the opening minutes, he is established to be a really ambitious college student—so convinced and motivated that he and his team can change the world by creating a device capable of delivering electric power to all appliances without wires . But when tragedy inevitably strikes, his edge, qualities that make him interesting, are swept under the rug. So that viewers would like him on top of feeling sorry for him, he is turned into a bore. And because the protagonist is pushed on autopilot, the rest of the film follows.
Strong horror movies with a concept, especially those that use science—or even pseudoscience—as a gateway for possible paranormal activity, are not afraid to explain how, for example, a technology of interest works. Even if it does not make a lick of sense, entertainment may sprout from the attempt. Here, however, we are merely shown the device spin about. There are buttons on the black rectangular box but we do not learn what any of them do. I could not even tell which one is the on/off button. It is extremely vague. I got the impression that not one of the filmmakers involved has an understanding of basic physics or electrical engineering. Would it have been too much to consult an expert so that the material may command some semblance of weight to it?
Scary movie tropes run amok without fresh ideas that propel them. Bathroom scenes involving a child (Kate Moyer) being threatened to drown in the bathtub with the mere presence of the camera commands no tension. The rebellious-looking middle child (Percy Hynes White—who gives a curious performance because there are times when it looks like he is about to cry any second and oftentimes for no reason) being blamed for initial paranormal occurrences can be seen from a mile away. Due to the lack of interest in establishing each sibling as a unique person with complex thoughts and emotions, one wonders eventually why it is worth watching these characters. The three of them living in a haunted house is not enough. They must be interesting even if there weren’t any haunting.
Perhaps the worst offender is the lack of an effective rising action. In the screenplay’s attempt to neuter Ethan by showing the every day ennui of taking his brother and sister to school, going to his unrewarding workplace, and returning home with a sink full of dishes, it forgets that the protagonist has a brilliant mind. It is necessary to show his depression considering the misfortune that has befallen his family. But without showing the phoenix rising slowly from the ashes, the redemption arc, the light of hope, there is no reason to watch the picture because all it offers is tedium.
And notice the cheapness and lack of subtlety of the final shot. It perfectly summarizes the laziness of the filmmakers involved. I felt annoyed because they could not be bothered to come up with a strong, original closing sentence. Instead, they present the viewer with something that is borrowed from any other forgotten horror film. It is a critique of itself.
Brain on Fire (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Beware: those who expect a high-class medical drama are likely to be disappointed with “Brain on Fire,” based on a true story of a healthy young woman who finds herself suddenly plagued with an enchilada of terrifying symptoms, from auditory and visual hallucinations to intense seizures and huge gaps of memory loss. But those with a penchant for disease-of-the-week television shows are equally likely to be engaged with the mysterious case at hand.
One might argue that the film’s greatest limitation is a barebones screenplay which makes the story feel rather non-cinematic. In its attempt to trim the fat completely and focus on the rare disease, it excises nearly everything else, particularly the complexities of the subject’s work life (Tyler Perry, Jenny Slate), love life (Thomas Mann), and family life (Carrie-Anne Moss, Richard Armitage). In a story like this, personalization is most critical because extra details lead to substance which helps to put a face on a particular disease.
Despite its occasional lack of subtlety, a few cringe-inducing dialogue, and familiar beats inherent to medical dramas, I found the work to be thoroughly engaging otherwise. While I craved to look closely at the medical charts and X-rays, especially exchanges filled with medical jargon, the screenplay by writer-director Gerard Barrett breezes through them because it is not his goal to create a first-class medical drama. And that is perfectly fine. I think the point of the project is two-fold: to make an easily digestible work for the more casual viewers and to shed light on a rare disease, and perhaps others like it, that is often misdiagnosed by the brightest professionals. On this level, it works.
Chloë Grace Moretz plays twenty-one-year-old Susannah Cahalan, a journalist for the New York Post. Her debilitation from a very lively woman to a catatonic vegetable is convincing and, at some point, genuinely touching. Perhaps the strongest moments are instances when the camera takes its time to show the subject’s pallid limbs, how her fingers liken that of old branches, how she can barely stand let alone put one foot in front of the other. Showing the effects of a disease is so important not just because it is frightening or sad but because it underlines the fact that every human disease has a cause and therefore an effect. We forget this fact sometimes, especially groups that choose to turn a blind eye on science.
While Moretz is front and center nearly throughout the film, it is Slate who steals the spotlight every time the two performers share a scene. Slate is known mostly as a comedian, but she proves once again that she can be equally effective in dramatic roles (“Obvious Child,” “Landline”). Look closely when Margo, played by Slate, visits her co-worker at the hospital. Margo is not used to seeing Susannah in such a vulnerable, wilted state and it devastates her. Notice the way Slate starts the scene with a comic weapon compared to how she ends it with a completely different technique. It’s impressive.
“Brain on Fire” can be criticized for being formulaic, but there is a reason why formulas exist. It is because when a formula works, it gets the job done. Such is the case in this curious picture. As someone who works in the field of science, it never ceases to amaze me how much we’ve learned in the past fifty to a hundred years—and also how much we have yet to learn. Imagine diseases out there with no correct answers yet—but are given “answers” anyway because some pieces, not all, seem to fit. It goes to show that our knowledge is still limited and we have work to do. Keep in mind, too, that certain diseases evolve over time.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) was feeling suicidal so he decided to check himself into a mental clinic. He hoped that the doctors would give him a magical quick fix for the troubles that plagued his mind. After meeting Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and several patients, he decided that it wasn’t the right place for him. But tough luck because the hospital, led by Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis), had a policy of keeping voluntary check-ins for at least five days. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, was a strangely moving coming-of-age film. We weren’t always sure whether Craig was truly clinically depressed or he was just going through the motions of being a teenager. We have different emotional tunings but we all went through a time in our lives when every single challenge seemed insurmountable, that our parents (Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan) cared more about their jobs or our siblings than they did about us, and that our friends (Zoë Kravitz , Thomas Mann) didn’t always have our backs. It was a sensitive time and we had a tendency to interpret every opportunity as a chance for failure. The hyperboles felt painful and real. The film was aware of all those factors. It had a sense of humor but it remained respectful of its subjects. Instead of going for the easy laughs like making fun of a person who happened to have schizophrenia or had suicidal tendencies, it remained focused on Craig struggles and discovery that maybe he should be thankful for being smart, talented and, indeed, even cool and charming without losing his sensitive nature. More importantly, especially since the rate of teenagers being on medication is on the rise, the movie had an important message. That is, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed once in a while. It’s better that we care about our future than to simply ride the tide. We may not like where the tide takes us. I found Gilchrist’s acting to be quite effective. In the first ten minutes, he convinced me that his character was miltidimensional without resulting to being quirky. I saw a lot of myself in him because of his proclivity to internalize everything and interpret that as some sort of strength. Both of us can at times be blind to the fact that turning to a support system is a sign of strength, too. I also enjoyed watching Galifianakis because he played a new character. Instead of being a manic five-year-old, he was solemn and more controlled yet capable of expressing devastating rage. But his bouts of rage weren’t played for laughs because the material wanted to take institutionalization and recuperation seriously. Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” took its audiences through a humanistic approach in understanding Craig. His troubles may seem small to us adults (like the pressure he felt from his father’s insistence that he applied for a summer program) but we all have days when we feel like we can’t go on. But one day we just wake up and it turns out we can.