Stonehearst Asylum (2014) Old Fashioned Gothic Romance Story

Stonehearst Asylum Film Poster
Directed by Brad Anderson (The Call, Transsiberian) and adapted for the screen by Joe Gangemi (Wind Chill, Inamorata) from an Edgar Allen Poe short story (The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether) Stonehearst Asylum stars Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Total Recall), Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas, Ashes), David Thewlis (Macbeth, The Theory of Everything) along with Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley as well as some of England’s finest character actors like Jason Flemyng and Sinead Cusak. Set in 1899 just as the world is slipping into the 1900s; Beckinsale plays Lady Eliza Graves, a woman driven mad by her brutish husbands sexual demands on their wedding night.

This is the reason given for her incarceration, but in reality, she attacks her husband with a comb and puts out one of his eyes when he attempts to force her into sodomy.

A doctor known as an Alienist, played by Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later, Safe House) parades Graves at a medical lecture where he induces her to have a fit by touching her “inappropriately.” Later, a young Alienist, Dr. Newgate, comes to Stonehearst Asylum to become the latest member of staff in the madhouse. The stone structure is out in the middle of nowhere and the first person the young doctor meets is Mickey Finn (Thewlis) who is disturbing to say the least.

Once inside, Newgate meets the Asylum head, Dr. Lamb (Kingsley) and learns that the doctor does not give drugs to the incarcerated patients and practices new and unusual treatments. The new doctor meets Lady Graves and later finds that Lamb and Finn are actually patients who overpowered the real staff and taken over. Dr. Salt (Michael Caine) and the remainder of the asylum’s professional care takers have been locked in cages in the building’s basement.

The look and feel of this 2014 film is a mixture of mystery, thriller and a good old fashioned romantic Gothic love story. Enough of the real inhuman treatments of the clinically insane are featured in the film and this marks the second time that Kingsley and Caine have worked together, the first being their Holmes and Watson double act in the 1988 film Without a Clue.

The sets and the lighting combine to create what looks to be a perfect recreation of the back end of the Victorian Era. Cinematographer Tom Yatsko (Gotham, The Day After Tomorrow) pulls out all the stops to make this film moody, atmospheric and Victorian. The only anachronism is the reference to slipping someone a Mickey Finn before the phrase became well known, as the setting is just prior to 1900 and the saying did not become popular until 1915 according to Wikipedia.

All the actors deliver brilliant performances. David Thewlis, who repeatedly plays roles so full of menace, does not disappoint as the mad lady-killer and Sturgess gives a wonderful turn as the love struck medico. Sir Ben Kingsley shows once again why he is an award winning actor and Michael Caine does the same. Beckinsale is appropriately stressed as the woman who freaks at a too-familiar touch and Brendan Gleeson is seen far too little.

A little nepotism is apparent in the casting, although not a lot as he does not appear until towards the end of the film, as Kingsley’s son Edmund plays the role of Sir Charles Graves, Beckinsale’s brutish screen husband whose sexual tastes drives her into the madhouse.

For anyone who adores British cinema (And who does not?) this is a 5 star film. Despite being set, very loosely, on a Poe short story, the movie feels as English as London fog. Streaming on US Netflix it is worth the time spent to watch it. Pop yourself some corn, grab a glass of fizzy and enjoy.

1 June 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Vacancy (2007): Remember When?

Still from film with Beckinsale and Wilson as the Fox couple
Watching the Hitchcockian thriller Vacancy, with Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson, the first thing that springs to mind is a sort of “remember when” game. Going back a few years to a time before cell (mobile) phones became smart and a time when not every vehicle had a GPS in it. The film recalls the helplessness of travelling without those modern safety nets. Of course, at one point Beckinsale’s character goes to use her cell phone but it has no signal.

In this world, apparently, unlike the “real world” the two people in peril do not each have a cell phone. They also rely upon an old fashioned mode of navigation, in other words, a map. The television that comes with their room (a homicidal killing room in fact) has an old-fashioned telly and a videotape machine with VHS footage of prior victims to watch.

The film itself is a sort of homage to Hitchcock type thrillers and it works extremely well. Sadly there was a sequel, but I have never watched it. The first feature works like a highly tuned orchestra and hits all the right notes. Anything else would be a pale echo of this piece and its original content.

Everything about Vacancy works. In the casting department, Wilson and Beckinsale make a believable couple as the Fox’s. Even more, the two deliver as parents who have lost a child with each handling the dilemma and their grief very differently. The underlying tension from their decision to end their marriage provides a great counterpoint to the increasing stress of the situation and a little comedy relief as well.

The hotel manager, Mason, played by Frank Whaley is perfect as the annoying ass that would lose more customers than gain with his attitude and priggish behavior. It is not really surprising that people, who end up staying in the human version of the “Raid Hotel,” are tricked into doing so. If they had a choice, the manager’s aura of obvious jerk-wad would drive them all off.

This all goes toward making us, the audience, uncomfortable with the place. On top of the manager and the reception area, everything about the room itself is disturbing. Right down to that awful green motif that did not look good in the 1970s when avocado was the winning color for most kitchen appliances.

Beckinsale’s character Amy Fox states firmly that she is “sleeping with my clothes on.” Wilson, as husband David, adds that he will be sleeping “with my shoes on.” Giving us further proof that we were not wrong to be “grossed out” and disturbed by this room. The “badness” of the place is apparent even before the giant cockroach is seen falling off the bathroom light switch.

The motel room looks like pretty standard fare. Tacky colors, questionable housekeeping standards and a slapped together style of decorating, the only thing missing is a coin operated “magic fingers” massage machine by the headboard of the bed. (Another remember when moment for me; I recall quite clearly begging my mother and father for quarters when one of our holiday hotel rooms had this marvelous contraption attached to the bed. Later, when my parents could afford more expensive motel rooms, these great jiggling machines disappeared from my young vacation life.)

During the special features of the Blu-Ray DVD, the film’s creator, director Nimród Antal talks about seeing these rundown and seemingly deserted motels by the side of the road and wondering how they managed to keep running. Sort of a real estate version of the lights being on but no one, like customers for instance, being home.

These slightly derelict inns gestated into Vacancy along with the weird, creepy and deadly guys who run the motel that the Amy and David are forced to check into. The feature also owes a lot to the myth of the “Snuff Film.”

This particular urban myth is fairly persistent and has generated a number of films and books about a movie where someone is actually murdered onscreen. A sort of ultimate thrill for the world’s sickest voyeurs and of course for as long as the rumor of these films has been around so has the insistence that they do not really exist.

A kind of cinematic version of the boogeyman, if you will, where experts (like parents) tell the public (children) that no such “monster” exists. A film type of “closet monster” which continues to be whispered about and that certain people swear really are out there to be viewed by the stubbornly curious.

By the end of the film, which also has a distinct Alfred Hitchcock feel to it, the audience is drained from all the suspense that this thriller has thrown at it. Vacancy is quite a short film at 85 minutes and it drives forward at a frantic pace. Each scene spins into the next with little respite for the film’s characters or the viewer.

But besides all the nail biting suspense, the film harks back to days when real keys opened your room door and not some sort of electronic card. Motels were these quaint one level affairs where, if you were lucky, there was a pool in front and the vending machines had a pretty good choice of snacks for way under a dollar. And of course “magic fingers.”

23 January 2015

Underworld: Awakening (2012) 3D RED Style

My daughter and I watched the latest instalment in the Underworld series/franchise last night. While the film itself is not going to win any awards for sticking to the ‘verse’ initially created by Wiseman and co, it does have the distinction of being the first 3D film shot entirely on the Sony Red Epic digital camera.

And as best as I could tell from watching the movie, it definitely did not suffer from being shot digitally. Having said that, we did only watch the 2D version as our telly isn’t 3D and we don’t have any of the special glasses either.

Underworld: Awakening is now among the growing number of films that are being shot digitally instead of ‘traditionally.’ If you Google the phrase RED you will find a plethora of references and websites all pertaining to the ‘new’ digital camera that is becoming a favourite among mainstream film makers.

If you look on Wikipedia, there is a long list of films that are due to be released this year and next that have used the Red camera to film them. It does appear that Sony is leading the list of ‘most used’ but, Cannon and a few other brands are creeping in there. *Link here – List of Films Shot on in Digital*

In most cases, it seems that the Red is being used in areas that are traditionally difficult to film with ‘traditional’ cameras and not the entire film. Until recently the only folks adventurous enough to use the Red for the entire process were the Independents.

Underworld: Awakening has proved that you can not only shot your entire project digitally, but it can also be used for the 3D process as well. A little ground breaking for sure.

Unfortunately that is the only thing that is ground breaking about Awakening. Directed by Måns MårlindBjörn Stein and with a screenplay written by Len Wiseman (with an addtional 7 credits listed on IMDb for writing, it seems to prove that too many cooks can spoil a broth) the only thing the film really has going for it is the return of Kate Beckinsale as lead character Selene.

The film strays quite far from the verse that Wiseman created over ten years ago with the original film. The story in a nutshell is that people have discovered the existence of the Vampires and Lycans and have set out to ‘cleanse’ them from the face of the earth. So far so good. But…

Michael and Selene get separated and when they reunite in an ambush both get captured and  put on ice (literally) for observation and experimentation. Once Selene escapes, (aided, she thinks, by Michael) the rest of the film deals with her trying to discover where Michael is and in the interim finding out that she has a daughter Eve (India Eisley).

India Eisley as Eve *Google Images*

Despite the ‘new technology’ used to shoot the film and added 3D, this film is never going to be a stand out from the other instalments. For one thing, it has been ten years since Kate Beckinsale got all corseted up as Selene the death dealer and it looks it.

I don’t mean in the face department, in that area Kate looks like she’s not aged a day. No, where the ten year gap shows is in the wire work and pistol shooting department. In the first two Underworld films, Kate did the wire work like a pro, smooth seamless and almost effortless. She also was one of the few folks in Hollywood who could squeeze off a multitude of blank rounds and never blink.

That has changed. Kate still doesn’t blink a whole lot, but, now she does blink and the wire work looked awkward and clumsy. Almost as clumsy as the patch-work plot.

It was a little sad to note that the only ‘older’ English actor they could seem to find to play a coven ‘elder’ was Charles Dance. I can only assume that the other older English cadre of Hollywood favourites were otherwise engaged or they thought that Bill Nighy‘s act was too hard to follow. I know that Derek Jacobi found the shadow cast by Nighy was difficult to overcome.

The film is worth a watch though, after all my moaning, just for Beckinsale and the young actress Eisley (the offspring of Olivia Hussey) who performs very well in her second feature film role. The other chap to watch for is Theo James as David. This man exuded buckets full of charisma, confidence and believability all in equal measure. An honourable mention also has to  be given to Michael Ealy as Detective Sebastian.

Michael Ealy as Detective Sebastian

If you don’t expect a film that is 100% faithful to the Underworld verse or don’t mind that things are introduced into the verse that are never explained, you won’t be too disappointed in the movie.

I feel that the directors and the crew got a bit too enamoured of the Red cameras and the 3D process to care about things that did not make sense. Sorry guys, but as nice as it was to see Kate Beckinsale as Selene again, that combined with your 3D did not make up for the films shortcomings.

A nice watch and definitely no more than a ‘one bagger.’