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Review: Insidious


Directed by James Wan.
Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, and Lin Shaye.

I’m not a horror fan, so take this review for what it’s worth. For the most part, I know horror by its clichés, through its parodies, its trailers, and a handful of its well-known specimens: I like Nightmare on Elm Street 1, 3, and 4; I like Night Breed and Alien; I like The Others, The Orphanage, and The Devil’s Backbone (which are arguably not horror movies). Simply put, it’s not a genre I peruse when I’m looking for stuff to watch on Netflix. But in Multiplex, Jason’s going to be getting a bit of an introduction to horror in the near future, so I figure I’ll need to force myself out of my own comfort zone and do my research.

So, for the toe-dip into the pool (filled with blood, naturally)… Insidious.

Screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan are best known for creating the Saw franchise. Their two non-Saw follow-ups Dead Silence and Death Sentence were met with mixed reviews and so-so box-office. For their fourth feature, the two team up with Paranormal Activity‘s Oren Peli as producer for a pretty much gore-free haunted house flick that feels more than a little bit like “What if Paranormal Activity had a bigger budget?” — not much bigger, mind you. Insidious cost only $1 million to make.

Insidious starts out like a lot of these stories do: a family moves in, and weird shit starts happening. There’s an accident, and the oldest child, Dalton, has falls into a coma. More scary shit happens, but like clockwork, right when the guy down the aisle from you starts shouting that they should move to a new house, they actually do. It’s a little disappointing that they blow this twist on the usual haunted house story in the trailer, because I thought it was interesting, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter much. The family moves, but that doesn’t stop the scary shit from happening, and so they go looking for professional help.

Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson are Insidious‘s best special effects.

Their characters might be thin on the page, Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson work well enough together that Renai and Josh feel fleshed out. It certainly helps that they’re allowed to behave like intelligent people actually might if facing these ludicrous circumstances. If you can entertain the “what if?” at all, you’ll enjoy Insidious as it teases you with an answer. Unlike Paranormal Activity, it’s not all teasing until the very end; in Insidious, you start to see supernatural stuff (in small doses) pretty much right away, although you don’t necessarily know it the first time.

The third act will be divisive. It will lose some, because there’s no real gore to speak of (it’s PG-13, after all). It’ll lose some people with the comic-relief duo of hyper-competitive paranormal investigators, whom I liked. It’ll lose some based on how they show the supernatural elements of the film. (Spoilers.) The design of a certain red-faced demon that becomes prominent late in the film is a little uninspired, but the approach seemed appropriate to me; it evoked a little kid’s real-world nightmares. (End spoilers.) The point is, I went with it.

Insidious doesn’t reinvent the wheel for horror; it feels more like a “reset,” back to a time before Saw and the ensuing wave of torture porn had taken over the whole genre. Insidious trades in the crutches of most recent horror — creature effects and buckets of blood — and instead uses three of the oldest special effects: a clever, efficient script; two talented actors; and good cinematography — and it uses them pretty damn well.

Insidious is out in the US now. It’s rated PG-13 ’cause it’s scary.

Review: Another Year


Directed by Mike Leigh.
Starring Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, and Peter Wight.

Another Year, from Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake director Mike Leigh, centers around one blissfully happy family, Tom (Jim Broadbent), Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), and a handful of profoundly unhappy satellites — chief among them Mary (Lesley Manville), a divorced, forty-something co-worker of Gerri’s, desperately lonely and unable to meet a man up to her inordinately high standards.

True to life, Mary finds Ken (Peter Wight), another friend of the happy couple’s, whose brand of loneliness is nearly identical to her own, “weird” and pushes away his (admittedly ungentlemanly) advances, steadfast in her belief that she could do better…  and, in fact, setting her sights on Tom and Gerri’s thirty-something son, in the process. Mary’s one-sided flirtation with Joe becomes complicated by the introduction of a new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez), but… as the title would lead you to believe, the film ends more or less where it began. The film has no climax, and few confrontations; those few that occur are largely by Tom, and he’s quickly glanced into submission, presumably out of some sense of propriety. The sad irony, of course, being that in some cases, tough love is the greater love that you can give someone you honestly consider a friend.

While it may be open to interpretation, and this is certainly colored by my own experience (as are all films), I felt some measure of quiet condemnation of Tom and Gerri’s relative inaction to their friends’ loneliness. They may not be responsible for their misery, but you can’t help feeling that the couple takes some satisfaction in surrounding themselves with the desperately unhappy, or that they could, just possibly, make a little more of an effort to help them. Judging from other reviews, that may just be my reading of it, having had a few spots of crushing loneliness myself, on a few occasions in my life (yes, I know, poor me), but in one early, telling sequence where Mary is invited over for dinner, she inquires about whether anyone else was going to be there, and Tom replies, “We want you all to ourselves.”

Tom, Mary, and Joe in Another Year

That is the real beauty of Another Year (and, indeed, all of Leigh’s films that I’ve seen): thanks to its flawless cast (largely consistent of Mike Leigh regulars), the characters are just so utterly real, that you love them, ache for them, become cross with them and tire of them like real people. Over the course of Another Year, Mary’s numbing misery of loneliness slowly and surely eat away at her, and you die a little each time. Ultimately, Another Year is a bit of a downer. But, you know, that’s how life is sometimes.

Another Year was released last fall in the UK and a few other countries. It is currently in limited release here in the States and will find its way to Australia later this month.

Review: Vera Drake

(Originally published in Gapers Block on October 29, 2004. Vera Drake is now available on video and On Demand through Amazon, as well as on video through Netflix. I’ll be posting a review of Leigh’s latest film, Another Year, later today.)


Directed by Mike Leigh.
Starring Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Peter Wight, Eddie Marsan, Adrian Scarborough and Daniel Mays.

In Topsy-Turvy director Mike Leigh’s new drama, Vera Drake, Imelda Staunton (Sense & Sensibility, Shakespeare in Love) stars as the title character, a wonderfully cheerful, caring wife and mother of two grown children who works as a housekeeper for a few wealthy families in post-World War II England. Vera helps care for a few of her neighbors and her elderly mother as well, out of the kindness of her heart, and whenever a problem arises, Vera puts on a kettle — because a cup of tea fixes everything. Leigh takes his time setting up what a remarkably kind woman Vera is, but he drives home this point one time too many when her brother-in-law comments to her husband, Stan, that “she’s got a heart of gold, that woman.” It may seem to be an insignificant moment of excess, but it is still somewhat significant considering Vera performs illicit abortions for women who can’t afford or wouldn’t be allowed a legal one.

In contrast to Vera’s impoverished clientele, Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of Vera’s wealthy employers, is raped by a suitor and becomes pregnant. Going through the legal channels, she procures her abortion for the sum of 150 guineas. By comparison, Lily (Ruth Sheen), the woman who puts those in need of help in touch with Vera, charges two guineas for Vera’s services. Vera is unaware of this, however; her own motivations are entirely charitable. While Susan is required to submit to a rather demeaning psychological exam, her ordeal is a simple one, on the whole. At the time, British law only permitted abortions when they were deemed liable to endanger the health of the mother, so Vera’s clients — including a woman with seven children already and a woman who didn’t want her husband to know she had cheated on him — would most likely not been granted one, even if they could afford one.

Vera administers the abortions by pumping soapy water (with a small amount of disinfectant, presumably for sterilization) into the woman’s vagina through a rubber syringe until they feel full. After a day or two, they feel a pain, they go to the bathroom, and it all comes out. She does this for a number of women in the first half of the film, and all of them presumably turn out fine. (We are told later on in the film that this was considered the safest method by other back-alley abortionists. In any case, she’s not scraping the women’ insides with a coat-hanger.) Eventually, however, one of Vera’s clients has complications and is taken to the hospital — the first of her clients to have any problems, to her knowledge, in her twenty or so years of administering them. While the girl’s mother initially claims that her daughter is having a miscarriage, the doctors realize the truth of the matter and call the police.

Staunton’s performance has already won her the Coppa Volpi for the Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and it is certainly riveting. Vera’s two main modes in the film are cheerful benevolence, as she is in almost the entire first half, and tearful remorse, as she is in almost the entire second half. During the first hour, this constancy makes the role seem almost one-note, but with one absolutely heart-wrenching shot, spotlighting Vera’s face as it transitions from the former to the latter as she realizes why the police have shown up at their home, Staunton masterfully demonstrates that trick lost on most Hollywood actors: subtlety.

Mike Leigh also shows an admirable amount of restraint, considering the film takes on such a hot-button issue. In one of the few times the film addresses the morality or immorality of abortion, Vera’s disapproving son Sid (Daniel Mays) trots out the baby-killing argument, but this line of conversation is … er, aborted … before it collapses into a series of all the tired, cliché arguments from either side of the issue. Vera never denies that what she did was illegal — and, of course, few people would argue that it should be legal for people who are not registered medical practitioners to give abortions.

It’s not really the morality of abortion in general that the film is really tackling, which I was tremendously grateful for, having always felt that the mainline arguments by pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike are utterly full of shit. What Vera Drake addresses is a much more practical subject: the morality of a society that only allows safe abortions to be accessible to the rich. Neither didactic nor melodramatic, Leigh has managed to create as objective a treatment of the subject as I can imagine. As such, Vera Drake is an effective condemnation of such a society — and, if that wasn’t enough, it’s just a damn fine movie.

Vera Drake is playing at the Landmark Century and the Century 12/CinéArts 6 in Evanston.

Review: The Counterfeiters

(This review was originally published at Movie Make-out on February 20, 2008. The film is currently available for purchase from Amazon on disc and download, as well as for rent from Netflix.)


Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky.
Starring Karl Markovics, August Diehl and Devid Striesow.

Unless you paid attention to the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar nominations, you probably haven’t heard of The Counterfeiters; I hadn’t heard of it until then, myself, but after seeing the trailer (at Apple), I made sure to keep it on my radar. When I saw that the Gene Siskel Film Center had an advanced screening of it a couple of weeks back (at Landmark’s Century Centre), I leaped at the opportunity — and I was not disappointed.

The Counterfeiters is a tight, thrilling, true-life drama anchored its amazing lead, Karl Markovics, who plays Salomon Sorowitsch, a Polish Jew known as “The King of the Counterfeiters.” Arrested in the lead-up to WW2 and subsequently sent to a concentration camp, Sorowitsch survives on his artistic skills before being transferred to the Sachsenhausen camp. There, he learns the officer who arrested him is heading up “Operation Bernhard,” a Nazi plan to destabilize the British economy by flooding it with counterfeit pound notes — and they need his help to perfect their forgeries.

Sorowitsch and his fellow counterfeiters — comprised mainly of bankers, printers, and other artisans — are treated surprisingly well, compared to the other prisoners at the camp (from whom they are kept apart), which keeps The Counterfeiters from being quite as depressing as many Holocaust films, but they’re constantly reminded of the killings going on outside their isolated corner; certainly, the Nazis don’t think of them any different than the rest of the Jews and only treat them differently because their commanding officer, Sturmbannführer Herzog (Devid Striesow), orders them to — more because he recognizes that these artists need to be in good health to do their best work than because he thinks well of them.

The director, Stefan Ruzowitzky, occasionally goes out of his way not to paint the Jewish characters in black and white; some older Jews at the camp complain about a few others singing “that nigger music,” for instance. But he needn’t have bothered: Sorowitsch is hardly a picture of morality; the true moral “hero” of the story, if he can be called one, is a fellow named Adolf Burger (played by August Diehl), a collotype expert who singlehandedly — and against his fellow counterfeiters’ wishes — sabotages the plan to counterfeit the US dollar for months.

But this is not a story of heroes; it’s a story of survival. And it’s one hell of a story.

The Counterfeiters is rated R. It begins a limited release run stateside on February 22, 2008.