Review: “Stonehearst Asylum” 12.14.14

I used to speak director Brad Anderson’s name under the same breath as I did with some of my all time favorite filmmakers. As his one-two punch of both 2001’s “Session 9” and 2004’s “The Machinist” introduced to a new kind of psychological horror director. Particularly with that of the former, which I still consider to be one of my top 10 psychological horror films of all time. Following these two films he made a nice, 1 hour entry to the “Masters of Horror” series, and then for the most part, pretty much bottomed out. His next 3 subseqent films – “Trassiberian” (2007), “Vanishing on 7th Street (2010), and last year’s “The Call”. All wound up being totally duds and were panned by most if not all critics (with the sole exception being “Transsiberian” which got mediocre reviews…fitting for a mediocre film) and gave me and a lot of his other fans the impression that what we had was someone whose career which had started off so promising, had practically vanished and he became just another studio director who makes low quality films at the expense of his audience. Which I viewed as was and still is a complete and total shame. I had just about written Anderson off as a director, but I saw this film’s title among a new release calender that I check monthly for titles to add to my Netflix queue. The film more or less looked like a return to form for Anderson, at least in terms of genre, as the synopsis of the film said that it was a psychological thriller set in a mental institution. Strikingly similar to what I still consider to be his masterpiece in the aforementioned “Session 9” (2002). Though unlike his “has been” type casting of his crop of recent films, this boasted a rather impressive cast in Ben Kingsley, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Strurgess, Kate Beckinsale, David Thewlis, and Michael Caine. The story itself also deriving from an old Edgar Allen Poe story called “Eliza Graves”. So this seemed to be like it could be a possible return for director Anderson as it appeared from the surface that put him back into a position working within a genre that he became a big part of and was instrumental to in the early 21st century.

The film starts out simply enough. We are first brought into a classroom of apparent aspiring young medical students whom are being taught by a professor played by Brendan Gleeson in 1899 at the turn of the 20th century. To help in his presentation of this particular lesson he brings in one of his patients, played by Kate Beckinsale, a woman who is plagued by some sort of mental illness. Gleeson makes the case that she’s uncurable. But there seems to be something much greater going on here that is both aiding and abaiding her specific case. We then flashback and meet a young doctor (played by the great British actor Jim Sturgess), a recent medical school graduate from London’s prestigious Oxford University, who takes a job in the country at a mental institution called the Stonehearst Asylum. Upon his entrance there he meets the asylum’s director and overseer (played by Ben Kingsley, a role reminiscient of the work he did with Martin Scorcese in 2010’s “Shutter Island”). He quickly learns that the asylum operates both very unconventional and unorthodox ways as they see it as being somehow therapeutic to integrate the patients with that of the hospital staff. Sturgess’ doctor first meets and lays his eyes on one seemingly gifted patient (Beckinsale) who appears to be some sort of piano prodigy named Eliza Graves. It almost seems like love at first sight, and the young doctor doesn’t seem to have a care in the world for the young Eliza’s mental illness. And as strange events begin to occur he starts to doubt her mental illness, as he starts to do with the asylum in general, in one of those situations in which things aren’t quite what they seem at the surface. Especially when Sturgess’ character stumbles upon a basement containing one of the asylum’s best kept, deepest, and darkest secret. A revelation that pretty much sets the stage for the events that transpire as the rest of the film plays itself out.

This a mostly unwatchable and forgetabble effort. One that finds itself consistent with much of Anderson’s recent work. A film that felt like it had almost zero originality, by a director who continues to show us that he is more or less a studio director without any remaining semblance of his own sense of individuality. Really the only thing worth mentioning is that the film at least slightly kept my attention by the oddly overqualified cast of seasoned actors. Sturgess is the lead here and makes the most out of the minimally written and drawn out character he is given. Kingsley is also serviceable here as well, but his performance comes across as strikingly all too similar to the role he played in “Shutter Island”. I thought David Thewlis (whom I haven’t really seen in anything since Terrance Malick’s wonderful “The New World” (2007)) and Kate Beckinsale (who admittedly I really like in the “Underworld” series) are both standouts in an otherwise weak script. Michael Caine (who one can only sit back and wonder why he would sign on to a project such as this one) is also nice to see up on the screen and has a pretty considerable role. But again, the weak script and shoddy story narrative make it difficult to highlight some of the films stronger points like the acting. Outside of that I found it mostly flat and not even remotely scary. I also thought it’s underlying message about the mentally ill to be ludicrous and borderline laughable, as someone who works with this population I feel like I’m qualified to make such a statement. Do yourself a favor and skip this one, as well as anything that director Brad Anderson does from this point forward throughout the rest of his apparent continued failing career.

[C-]

Review: ‘How I Live Now’ 9.22.14

Scotland born director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”, “Marley”) is one in a slew of directors who work in both the feature film and documentary formats. Some notable others including the granddaddy of the crop, Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”, “Rescue Dawn”, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, “The Bad Leiutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” ), followed closely by Spike Lee (“Do The Right Thing”, “4 Little Girls”, “Inside Man”, “When The Levees Broke”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”, “Life Itself”, “Prefontaine”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980“), and Joe Berlinger (The “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”) just to name a few. Macdonald is that rare breed of filmmaker like Herzog or Lee that are just as proficient making feature films as they are documentaries. In the documentary format, Macdonald wowed myself with both 2003’s “Touching the Void” and 2012’s “Marley”. As for the feature format, I found myself both really liking 2006’s Academy Award winning “The Last King of Scotland” as well as 2009’s underappreciated “State of Play”. So I saw it as only be befitting that I would see whatever it was that he came out with next.

We first meet up with the central character, Daisy (yet another bold performance by Saoirse Ronan), as she’s getting off a plane in what appears to be a war torn London. She is picked up and driven to some sort of compound, where shortly after we learn is inhabited by the sister of her estranged father, who seems to be some sort of extremist fighter. Daisy is a closed off, irritable, angst ridden teenager; who has a very difficult time warming up to all of her many cousins who live at the house. She also has quite a few phobias. She’s deathly afraid of bacteria, washes her hands incessantly, and has a mind that seems to be in a constant state of overdrive. While at the compound, she meets a young man named Eddie (played my George McKay), who has an almost unspoken language and communication with animals and who, coincidentally, can also hear Daisy’s thoughts. She begins to take a liking to and forms a bond with him. But just as soon as they can fall in love, a radio announcement is received declaring a Civil War throughout all of Britain. The compound soon becomes under attack, and the military detains them splitting the men from the women. Diasy declares that no matter what situation she finds herself in or no matter how far they take her, she will come back to find her true love. Her younger cousin and she are then taken to a kind of foster home where they plan their escape. At a pivotal moment when they’re just about to do so without any risk of harm or violence, a devastating turn of events takes place at a checkpoint, and the two are left to flee which is when their journey really begins.

I really have nothing but good things to say about this film. Even though I did find the ending to be a bit contrived and stayed a little bit too close to Hollywood tropes. From an artistic stand point, Macdonald does a magnificient job at filming the war ravaged English countryside, capturing some stunning photography in both the beauty of its nature and the devastation of its ruin. Macdonald also expertly jumbles a film that takes on many parts – it’s part War film, part Romance, part Drama, and part Action/post-apocalyptic film in equal measures. As mentioned above it also features a fine performances by its two leads, Saoirse Ronan and George McKay, who also provide the center of the love story and whose relationship and on screen chemistry feels genuine and without artifice.  I also found that it was both engaging and moved at somewhat of a quick pace while evoking a sense of urgency, dread, and suspense throughout the entire proceeding. My one or two criticisms of it had to do mostly with the ending as I mentioned above. I felt like it laid the sentiment on a tad too thick and came across as slightly overmelodramatic. That aside, this was a solid film that I had a lot of fun with and enjoyed many aspects of it. Thus proving once again my belief that if a director does you right more often times than he does you wrong, then chances are that much greater that you’ll walk away satisfied with their next film.

Grade: B