Tense one-take ‘Silent House’ undercut by lack of depth

Silent House/2012/LD Entertainment, et al/88 min.

Does the average moviegoer care if a movie seems to be shot in one continuous take? Maybe, maybe not. To create the appearance of a one-take thriller, “Silent House,” directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, was filmed on one Canon 5D camera with two operators in 13 total shots.

Whether you know or care about tricky production, the point is to try to make you feel the fear of the main character Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) a girl who’s in for a bad night at her family’s dark, isolated, creaky, spooky (natch) summer home. “The continuous take in itself is really what builds the tension,” said Lau at a recent press day in Beverly Hills. “She’s trapped in terror.”

(Similarly, Alfred Hitchcock crafted the illusion of a continuous shot in his first color film, 1948’s “Rope,” starring James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger.)

Kentis and Lau (co-directors of 2003’s “Open Water”) remade “Silent House” from Gustavo Hernández’s “La Casa Muda” (2010), which was inspired by events that occurred in a Uruguayan village in the 1940s. For their version, Lau wrote a new script, working late at night and listening to Nine Inch Nails. In addition to Trent Reznor, the filmmakers said they drew inspiration from psychological thrillers like Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965).

“Silent House” also features Adam Trese and Eric Sheffer Stevens as Sarah’s father and uncle, and Julia Taylor Ross as a family friend, but ultimately it’s Olsen’s movie. Because she’s rarely offscreen, the film hinges on her presence and acting.

Expressive, vulnerable and luminous, Olsen is compelling to watch. “I felt like I was part of the editing process,” said Olsen at the press day. “It was like dancing with the DP [Igor Martinovic] and figuring out a rhythm.”

The drama hinges on a devastating secret, long hidden within the walls of this sinister summer home. Though “Silent House” is swift and slick, unfortunately, the twist that’s supposed to lend psychological depth feels clumsy and lame, like a thin slap of paint on a faded front door.

“Silent House” opens today nationwide.

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Dark dramas shine at Chicago International Film Festival

Dark domestic dramas led the fine slate of high-style movies at the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, which boasted a lineup of nearly 200 titles.

In “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (UK) by Lynne Ramsay, neo noir meets New Age parenting in a haunting thriller. We witness, in jagged pieces that jump back and forth in time, the unthinkably brutal rupture of a dysfunctional but not entirely unhappy family.

Creating buzz at many fests, Tilda Swinton will doubtless continue to earn acclaim for her wrenching portrait of a mother struggling to love her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) who comes into the world seething with anger. Chicago-born John C. Reilly plays her denial-prone husband. Rich with visual metaphor and captivating performances (though the script is not fully there), this is destined to be a neo-noir classic. (“We Need to Talk About Kevin” does not release in the US until February.)

Samuli Niittymaki

I doubt Finnish director Zaida Bergroth had “Mildred Pierce” in mind when she made “The Good Son,” which won the top prize in the new directors competition. But I kept thinking of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 classic starring Joan Crawford as a flawed single mother of two daughters, the elder of whom is a bit of a snake, as I watched Elina Knihtila portray Leila, a flawed single mother of two sons, the elder of whom (Samuli Niittymaki as Illmari), is a bit of a psycho.

Eero Aho plays Leila’s new love interest, a kindly writer named Aimo. Anna Paavilainen is excellent as Illmari’s girlfriend as is Eetu Julin as Unto, the younger brother. Arresting images, subtle acting, nicely paced.

Arguably, “A Dangerous Method” (Germany/Canada) by David Cronenberg could be classified as a domestic drama, dealing as it does with the long-term adulterous relationship between renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and a patient-turned-student-of-psychoanalysis Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud; Sarah Gadon is Jung’s wife. This finely crafted film is already generating Oscar buzz.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” (US) is the kind of film that leaves you reeling, then lodges in your mind for days. Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Ashley and Mary Kate) stars as a young woman who escapes from an evil cult and struggles to reconnect with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and her new brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Writer/director Sean Durkin’s fragmented narrative swerves from past to present; the tension mounts masterfully to a claustrophobic level. Thoroughly mesmerizing, but as much as I admired Olsen’s presence and vulnerability (she may be an Oscar contender), I felt no sympathy for her character. John Hawkes (of “Winter’s Bone”) is unforgettable as the warped cult leader.

English actor Dexter Fletcher makes an impressive directorial debut with “Wild Bill.” Though the story is essentially rooted in cliché, the fresh writing and powerful acting inject vitality into this tale of an ex-con (Charlie Creed-Miles) reconnecting with his young sons (Will Poulter and Sammy Williams) in London’s East End.

A desire for a father-daughter reunion drives the ex-con (Mark Pellegrino) in “Joint Body” by Brian Jun. But he gets sidetracked when he meets a stripper (Alicia Witt) in a seedy residential motel in downstate Illinois and the two end up on the run. (The term joint body refers to a convict who works out and walks the walk with confidence.)

Too melodramatic to be a real thriller, Thierry Klifa’s “His Mother’s Eyes/Les Yeux de Sa Mère,” (France) about a writer’s plan to ingratiate himself into a fractured family, is still intelligent, engrossing and features an easy-on-the-eyes cast, which includes ever-lovely Catherine Deneuve, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Géraldine Pailhas and Jean-Baptiste Lafarge.

And though definitely not a noir, the festival’s grand-prize winner, “Le Havre” (Finland/France) by Aki Kaurismaki, recounts the forming of a temporary, makeshift family. A working class French man (André Wilms) befriends and protects an African boy (Blondin Miguel) who lands illegally in Le Havre on the way to reuniting with his mother in London. Lit and composed like an Old Master painting, Kaurismaki’s film brims with humanity and humor.

Tomorrow: More about movies at the festival

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