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-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Interstellar’ 11.8.14

In what I considered to be the second biggest movie release of the Oscar season behind the already released David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, the just released “Birdman” by director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” (released next week), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming “Inherent Vice”. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” was, well, just like any other Christopher Nolan film in terms of my anticipation for it which was very high. I remember when thinking back to the build up and buzz of his 2010 mind bender “Inception” and seeing a preview for it during the 2009 Oscar season; a full 7 months before its release date, and from that point forward I tracked its every move. From filming, to post-production, to the months that Nolan’s films get marketed (due probably because he is the most successful director post-2000 and one of the only directors (truth) that doesn’t need to pitch a project to a studio. His films are so profitable they will just write him a blank check right then and there on the spot). But what’s even more important to point out, is that not only is Nolan the most bankable director currently working in the business, but he’s also the most artistically inclined commercial director in the business (think early to mid era Steven Spielberg). His films, even in being big budget studio films, are always something much more. Films that are always challenging comes to mind if describing a Christopher Nolan film. He basically reinvented the indie landscape with his 2000 game changer “Memento”. A film that was just as influential on the independent film movement of the nineties than was say Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1995). His follow up, the surprisingly mostly under seen and overlooked 2002 film “Insomnia”, which was a bona fide crime thriller that was equal parts mystery and suspense. Then came his widely successful Batman/Dark Knight trilogy which were and still are solely responsible for changing the superhero/comic book landscape. What’s so amazing about those films is they set the bar so unbelievably high for every superhero movie to follow. There’s a reason why the sheer quality of the genre became better after the Nolan Batman films. It’s because everyone who took a stab at the genre following it used it as a template in trying to hopefully make a film like it. That and he made the trilogy dark and challenging. Something that had been missing from the genre in the past. Enter 2010 and Nolan is back with a film that he somehow managed to squeeze in-between the second and third Dark Knight installments, “Inception”, which as mentioned above, was a mind bender that proved that Nolan could make genre films that were just as successful outside of the superhero/comic book box, and once again, make something for the audience that was both thought provoking and challenging. A trademark of all of Nolan’s work. Skip 2 years after his last Batman installment, in which he chose to hang the towel after, and we have a new Nolan film. One that promises to bring us to mankind’s next step in the universe, while also hinting that it could be our last.

“Interstellar” first introduces us to Matthew McConaughey’s (in yet another great performance) character, Cooper, a former engineer and test pilot who now is a widowed family man with two young children and who lives on a plot of land in rural America as a farmer who tends to his crops as a means of survival. A wind/sand storm hits, and within it there’s a revelation to both Cooper and his family that the dust that remains on the floor in its aftermath presents them with some sort of gravitational irregularity because of the pattern of its arrangement. This leads them to a NASA compound run by Michael Caine’s character. He talks of some kind of wormhole that is circling around Saturn, and states that the only way mankind is going to be saved by the growing weather and agricultural nightmare that has befallen on them is to travel through this wormhole to set up new worlds in other galaxies. As life on earth as we currently know it won’t survive much longer. Cooper meets Caine’s daughter (played by the not always consistent but serviceable Anne Hathaway). Cooper is in charge to lead this new mission, while being employed to carry out another mission to find out what happened to another spacecraft who made an attempt at their same mission to travel through the wormhole many years earlier and merely vanished in space. Cooper takes on the mission, much to the chagrin of his daughter, knowing that it might be the single most important thing to help save mankind. Both he, Hathaway’s character, a geographer played by the under appreciated and underused Wes Bentley, a physicist, and 2 robots who’s names I can’t remember at the moment, but who both play an integral role, as they embark on their space adventure.

The film is a bit of an over-stuffed hodgepodge of different ideas and existential themes that are packed within its almost 3-hour run time. Now I don’t mean this to necessarily be a bad thing. It’s just of all of Nolan’s films to date this one feels the most substantial and headiest. Certainly his most challenging. For me personally, I always value substance over style. Which this movie has both of. However, I found it difficult to follow at times and dare I say almost found it too challenging. There was so much going on within the narrative that I often times was wondering if my mind wasn’t working hard enough that the movie demanded of me. Or if it was just something that was over my head. Whichever really was the case, I let that thought go about a third of the way through, around the 2nd act, which is when the space travel truly begins. And like the great Science Fiction films that have explored space and beyond. Films like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Philip Kaufmann’s “The Right Stuff” (1983), Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), Danny Boyle’s 2007 “Sunshine” (which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to), and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013), it brings its own unique approach to how we look at space travel. Once Cooper and crew reach space, they go through a series of events that contain some of the most dazzlingly stunning images I have seen put onto film since Terrence Malick’s “creationism” sequence from “The Tree of Life” (2011). The first descreption of it that came to mind as I walked out of the sold out theater afterwards was a “visual splendor”. Nolan and his crew of special effects experts do a fantastic job at presenting us with some of the most spellbinding visual effects I’ve seen since James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009). Besides the visual grandeur of the whole thing, it also contains a pretty authentic feeling and emotional subplot involving unforeseen time passing and Cooper’s 2 children, played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain, both of whom are always superb as they are here. In what at points almost falls into over-dramatic territory, Nolan and his writing partner brother John seem to think to know their audience is much too intelligent to allow that to happen. So besides the gorgeousness of the whole proceeding, this subplot was what I found to be the second standout. It tugs at the audience’s heartstrings without feeling contrived or trite. Lastly, which was my one biggest criticism of the piece, and one in which I think I hinted at above, was that it felt a bit overwrought in the ideas and themes in which it presents. Like it could have maybe been dumbed down a bit (and I almost never say that about a film) as I can imagine a lot of people who see this film, like me, are going to be slightly confused at times by the sheer amount of material and shifts in story that go on within it. I can imagine a lot of people will preach knowing what they thought the film was about but having a hard time articulating what exactly that is. But like I also hinted above, if you can leave out that element of trying to follow every little shift in the story or scientific jargon that is spoken (which there is quite a bit of), you should find yourself sitting back and marveling at the eye candy and incredibly innovative space thrill ride that only someone of Nolan’s caliber of filmmaker can take you on.

[B]

*Also, as an added disclaimer – I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing this on the big screen. To not do so would be doing yourself a big disservice.