Monday, March 19, 2012

A Mr. Anderson Double Feature: Silent House & Friends With Kids

I took this past week off from work, tired and worn down from the stresses of a job that sucks forty hours of life from you on a good week. I'm sure you all know the feelings that can sometimes accompany that, even if it's a job you absolutely love. Sometimes you just need to take time off, even if you don't plan to go anywhere or see anyone. Since this is me we're talking about, that meant watching movies. Some TV and video games, certainly, but mostly movies. Because I DID see so much, and because I don't need (or want) a two week buffer for potential reviews, I thought I'd take this opportunity to look at two of the titles I saw last week: the supernatural horror film Silent House and the romantic comedy Friends With Kids.

Silent House is a remake of the Uruguayan horror film La Casa Muda, originally released in 2010. Olsen Twins reject Elizabeth Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman who is helping her father repair their worn down old lakeside summer home in hopes of selling it. While exploring the house, Sarah hears something making noise upstairs, and her father disappears while investigating. What follows is Sarah doing being hunted by something in the house, and her trying to escape whatever it might be. But the closer she gets to freedom, the closer the house's secrets get to revealing themselves to the world.

One of the main draws for seeing Silent House is of course Olsen, who impressed many with her debut in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene to the tune of several industry awards and nominations. While Silent House does have multiple characters, they do little but provide a backdrop for Olsen, who really proves that her success last year was no fluke. While there's little at first for Sarah to do besides creep from room to room, it is that steady deliberation that makes you fully appreciate Olsen's performance as a modern-day scream queen. And as her character slowly develops over the course of the film, you garner respect for just how deep her role really is.

That tank top is otherworldly.
Unfortunately, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (who were the creators of the popular 2003 film Open Water) can't seem to make this great short story idea run properly over the length of a full feature film. The film's main gimmick (and it IS a gimmick) is that it is meant to look like the entire tale is shot in one continuous take, with no breaks or sudden shot changes. The fact that much of the film actually looks like it easily follows this formula is impressive, though in the mostly-dark house there are several times when the directors could have stopped the cameras without anyone noticing. More impressive is during the film's many slow moments, when it is far more difficult to get away with cutting off your shots. I don't know how much the directors had to get JUST RIGHT, but their technical prowess is all but unquestioned when you consider the impressive look of the final product.

Okay, NOW she looks a bit more like her sisters...
The story however... Kentis and Lau do an amazing job building tension as Sarah moves from room to room, but all that work is worthless if you don't let some of that out from time to time. True to the film's slow pacing, the tale doesn't feel as though it's going anywhere, and when it does, we've seen it coming a mile away. With the exception of a few small scares, there's also not much frightening going on, with the film in the end taking on a more psychological thriller aspect that changes the whole makeup of what I thought I was watching. Silent House is utterly a disappointment; an excellent performance by Olsen utterly sabotaged by a predictable script and a distinct lack of scares.

On the flip side of that equation is Friends with Kids, my new #1 film for 2012. I feel kind of bad cramming this film into a double feature review, and I hope this doesn't go unnoticed down here as the film likely will be in the outside world. Written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt (who also co-wrote and acted in 2001's Kissing Jessica Stein, but is probably best known for her relationship with John Hamm), the film tells the story of best friends Julie and Jason (played by Westfeldt and Piranha 3D and Parks and Recreations star Adam Scott) who, in their thirties and wanting children, don't want to fall into the traps that have befallen their married friends. After stating that having children would not change things, their friends seem eternally miserable with their lives and marriages after having their kids. As neither Julie nor Jason have found "The One", they decide they will have a baby themselves, sharing equal responsibilities for raising their child while dating other people, thus avoiding the relationship drain from which their friends suffer.

"So, there are no cameras, right?" "Sure."
A lot of the marketing buzz surrounding this release focused on a reunion of sorts, with much of the cast of last year's sensation Bridesmaids returning together to the big screen once again. Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Hamm and Chris O'Dowd all do excellent work together as couples who go from happy-go-lucky to miserable with the difficulties of child rearing introduced to their lives, but any going to see this film with the expressed intention of seeing these actors in action will be disappointed: this is Westfeldt and Scott's show all the way. Jason and Julie are those friends you know (or maybe have been part of): they live in the same apartment building, they've been friends with one another since just about forever, know everything there is to know about one another, have secret games they play constantly, and mesh on just about every level you can imagine with perfect ease. They're also the friends who aren't attracted to one another in the slightest and you CAN'T UNDERSTAND WHY, since it's obvious that together they'd make the perfect couple. For their part, Westfeldt and Scott put forth two of the best performances I've seen so far in 2012, their motivations and characteristics feeling more like those of living, breathing, and thinking human beings than you ever see in typical Hollywood fare. Westfeldt is incredibly sweet and brilliant as Julie, and Scott is roguish and charming as Jason, the actors succeeding in making both characters impeccably likable and easy for the audience to relate to.

They're just angry that I ended a sentence with a preposition.
The secondary cast does get some opportunities to hog screen time, but anyone hoping for the hilarity of Bridesmaids should be reminded that Melissa McCarthy was one of the main reasons that film's humor margin was set so highly, and she's nowhere to be found in Friends With Kids. Also missing from this film is the low-brow level of smart humor that made Bridesmaids a widely-revered modern classic. Instead Friends with Kids prides itself on being merely incredibly smart, with only a few poop jokes present (there are diapers, after all) while the main focus of the film is the dialogue concerning adult relationships and how children affect that dynamic. Both couples (consisting of Wiig with Hamm and Rudolph with O'Dowd) have their issues, but Wiig and Hamm seem eternally miserable being around one another, while Rudolph and O'Dowd still seem affectionate even while they're shouting at each other. The few times the film actually focuses on these pairs are wonderful moments; it's a shame the filmmakers couldn't fit them in a bit more to diversify the story a tad. Other notable performances come from Edward Burns as a divorcee and Megan Fox (!) as a modern dancer, both of whom are considered "The Ones" by Julie and Jason respectively. Burns does some of his best work in years, and while Fox really only manages to play herself, she is still tons better than anything else in which I've actually seen her.

Scarier than any part of Silent House.
The only detraction I can come up with for Friends With Kids is that the romantic comedy storyline is still too normal and predictable to fully get behind. If it wasn't for the excellent performance of the cast, especially Westfeldt and Scott, this could easily have flopped into forgettable territory, even in a year when great films seem to be a true rarity. Instead, this is a success for first time director Westfeldt, who creates a nice twist for a classic story, much like the one by the late Adrienne Shelly in 2007's Waitress. It might not be as raunchy as Bridesmaids before it, but Kids With Friends would be well worth hunting down even if there were viable alternatives in the world of cinema right now.


Richard J. Marcej said...

Saw "Friends With Kids" last night. I was with it through most of the film, thought the performances were strong and story was good. Then they lost me completely with a pat, expectable ending. I felt it was a real cop out (and reminded me of the extremely weak and forgettable movie "The Switch" from two years ago).

Also was kind of surprised that the marketing department didn't jump on the "from the actors and actresses you loved in "Bridesmaids" " opportunity. Yes, it would have been a kind of lie, but it never stopped marketing departments before.

julesrules3114 said...

I was never a big Olsen twins fan, in the sense that i wasn't counting down the days, until they became legal.
But Elizabeth Olsen is a different story, altogether.
That expressive doll face, that white tank-top (the camera spent a lot of time peeking up her shirt, in this film).
I also love the fact that her voice doesn't really match that exquisite face.
Okay, i'm rambling here...
I loved the first three quarters of "Silent House," i really did.
But the final act left me as bewildered as the actors themselves (was it me, or did they even seem confused?)
I still recommend it, though, if only for Olsen's soundless screams (Those sort of hushed open mouth screams, should be her trademark).
Olsen is very, very good.
Watch this, then check out the intense, Martha Marcy May Marlene, for a nightcap.