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Take Shelter (2011)

It’s rare that I get to take some local pride and puff my chest about a movie being shot in Ohio. Take Shelter, a small, suspenseful character-piece, was filmed in Loraine County, near Cleveland. Several of the actors in the production are local actors, including Tova Stewart, the adorable seven-year-old who plays the onscreen deaf daughter. The young gal, who is also deaf in real-life, is from Columbus and was in attendance at the theater I saw Take Shelter at. And I can beam with even more local pride at the fact that Take Shelter is unwaveringly magnificent. It’s a remarkably tense movie, deeply realized, expertly crafted, and one of the best films of the year.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a working-class family man in rural Ohio. He works as a manager of a two-man drill team, scouring the earth for valuable deposits. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), cares for their recently deaf daughter, Hannah (Stewart), and sews pillows and embroidery on the side. They are making ends meet to save up for Hannah’s cochlear implant surgery. This family tranquility is interrupted when Curtis begins having strange visions. He sees dark, ominous storms that no one else seems to see. He hears loud cracks of thunder during clear skies. He feels the dark rain fall on his person. He wakes from frightful dreams detailing friends and family turning on him. What does it all mean? Curtis feels compelled to remodel the storm shelter in the backyard. He even purchases a cargo container and buries it in the yard, collecting some end-of-the-world provisions. Could Curtis just be crazy? His mother has been in a psychiatric home since she abandoned Curtis as a child. She began having schizophrenic episodes in her mid 30s, and Curtis is now 35. Is he being warned of what lies ahead or is he succumbing to the pull of a hereditary mental illness?

This is very likely the most nerve-racking, tense, dread-filled film I’ve watched since 2009’s Oscar-winner, The Hurt Locker. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) masterfully lays out the particulars of his tale. Even the family drama has some nicely constructed tension. Curtis’ family is living paycheck to paycheck, so his backyard project is a real financial setback. By borrowing equipment from his work, Curtis is even risking losing his job, the only way he can afford his child’s cochlear implant. Not only do we dread stormy weather and strange flocking patterns for birds, we dread the everyday struggles of keeping afloat. Curtis following his visions can very likely put his family into financial ruin, but is that a risk worth taking? Nichols nicely creates an authentic small-town setting. There are small, acute character touches that enrich the story, like when Dewart (Shea Wigham) concludes that the best compliment a man can give is that “he’s lived a good life.” When Curtis and Samantha watch their daughter sleep, they share behavior they are still trying to kick in adjusting to having a deaf child (“I still take my boots off not to wake her,” he confides. “I still whisper,” she returns). These people and their troubles feel believable, and their reactions to Curtis’ strange behavior feel extremely believable. Whispers begin to spread and people start to treat madness like it’s a communicable illness. Religion seems like a natural landing zone when discussing anything apocalyptic and/or prophetic, but Nichols sidesteps this discussion. There could have been some interesting theological room to explore here, considering a Biblical prophet would likely be derided as mentally ill in our modern age. Nichols keeps things secular. Curtis is admonished for missing church again, but that’s about the extent of religion in the man’s life. He does not seek out spiritual advice. He seeks out psychiatry, at least if he could afford it he would.

There are some terrific standard thriller moments, like some well-calculated jump scares and many nightmare fake-outs, but the film’s real skill is drawing out tension to the point where you want to shout at the screen. This is a deliberately paced thriller knotted with unbearable tension. We become conditioned to start doubting the onscreen imagery after Curtis’ series of nightmares. Every time there’s a storm now the audience, too, fears the validity of what we witness. What is the significance of these portent signs? There’s a moment toward the climax, where a storm door needs to be opened, and I simultaneously was dreading every second leading up to that door opening and silently screaming in anticipation. Every part of me wanted to see what was going to happen next and I could not guess where Nichols would take us. I was a nervous wreck. The dread was so heavy, so all consuming, and not just from an apocalyptic standpoint. Curtis understandingly thinks he may be nuts, especially since his own mother is a paranoid schizophrenic. The threat isn’t just the strange apocalyptic signs but also Curtis himself unraveling and lashing out. He worries that he’ll become a danger to his own family, and if he cannot discern the difference between reality and fantasy it’s only a matter of time before he jeopardizes his loved ones. He fears he’ll be ripped away from his family. He wants to be better, he wants to be “normal,” but he can’t trust his own senses.

Take Shelter is also so effective thanks to Shannon, a talented actor who always seems to be on the brink of freaking out. The bug-eyed, crazed, monotone actor has played plenty of nutcases in the movies. He was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for Revolutionary Road for playing such a nutter. He’s a live wire of an actor, simmering, waiting for the final cue to explode. Shannon uses this intensity to his great advantage, wonderfully mirroring the movie’s compounding dread. Shannon’s character is troubled, that’s for sure, and worries about slipping into insanity. His performance is simply riveting, searching for answers amidst the desire to keep his family safe at all costs, even if that eventually means his removal. When he has to confront his central dilemma, the legitimacy of his visions, Shannon is racked with fear, eyes glistening with tears, terrified to go on faith, and your eyes are glued to the screen, completely taken in by the depth of the performance. I hope Shannon gets some due recognition come awards season because I doubt I’ll see few performances more compelling.

Chastain has had quite a breakout year for herself with lead roles in Tree of Life, The Help, and The Debt. She has a remarkable vulnerability to her, radiating an ethereal vibe (no doubt why Terrence Mallick chose her), and both aspects are put to fine use in Take Shelter. She’s much more than the oft underwritten put-upon wife, silently enduring her husband’s foibles. She’s desperate for an answer to explain her husband’s actions and motivations. She’s alert, angry, compassionate, and deeply concerned. Chastain holds her own with Shannon, and the two elevate each other’s performance subtlety, making their supportive relationship even more believable.

Take heed movie lovers, and make sure to find Take Shelter, an intelligent, expertly constructed, suspenseful drama with powerful performances and a powerful sense of dread. Shannon’s coiled intensity nicely fits the mounting tension. Nichols has created a taut thriller, a fiercely felt human drama, and an involving character-piece attuned to the talents of its cast. Take Shelter is a commanding, unsettling film that puts the audience in the unreliable position of the main character’s point of view. You may almost hope for some actual apocalypse just to validate the guy’s struggle. When was the last time you secretly hoped for the end of the world just to give one person a sense of relief? Take shelter from inferior movies and find a theater playing this tremendous movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Get Low (2010)

This slice-of-life Depression era tale examines a hermit named Felix (Robert Duvall) coming to terms with his life. He’s the scary old man that everyone has a story about, and now he’s come to town to make his funeral arrangements with a sleazy funeral director (Bill Murray). Except Felix wants to have his funeral while he’s alive, invite everybody in town, and have them share their collected stories, and he?s got his own story to share that’s been haunting him for decades. This is a very slow burn of a drama, to a fault. It works itself into a corner, and when Felix reveals his haunting secret you sort of shrug and think, “Is that all?” The pacing is languid; the movie feels lived-in and authentic down to its terse sense of humor and local color. You can feel the fingerprints of the Coen brothers on the film even though they had no involvement. This is a mildly touching, occasionally inert drama that benefits tremendously from the talents of Duvall and Murray, both relishing their folksy characters. This is a movie where the actors have time and space to dig in and explore their characters. Duvall and company keeps the movie from drifting off into melodrama. Get Low follows a cue from its lead actor. It’s understated, low key, and will likely go unappreciated because of its emphasis on subtlety, sometimes too much subtlety.

Nate’s Grade: B

American Haunting (2006)

Courtney Solomon made one of the worst movies I have ever seen, 2000’s abomination Dungeons and Dragons. It is bad on a rarely seen cataclysmic scale. The shot selections were awkward, the handling of the actors was cringe-worthy, the story lightweight but ridiculously stupid, and the special effects were like something a third grade diorama contest could best. Dungeons and Dragons holds my record, in all the many films I’ve seen, as having the worst line readings of all time. Fortunately, the film is one of those so-bad-it’s-hilarious entries to stop it from being an absolute wash. Now six years later Solomon is back with An American Haunting. Normally his name alone attached to a movie would guarantee my avoidance, but I checked this out for you, dear readers. Let’s just say Solomon has a looooooong way to go before he even reaches the competence of Uwe Boll

In 1818 Tennessee, the Bell family moves into a new residence. John Bell (Donald Sutherland) has cheated an outcast woman on her land loan. This woman, branded a “witch,” curses the Bell family. Things are fine for a while, but then young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is being attacked by an invisible spirit night after night. Her father and mother, Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), are powerless to stop the haunting. Before you can ask, “Why don’t they let their daughter sleep in a different room?” they’ve reached out to a preacher and schoolteacher (James D’Arcy) romantically curious with Betsy. No one can stop this haunting and John Bell searches to gain atonement for his sins to spare his family.

So, let’s get this whole thing straight, spoilers be damned. An American Haunting is marketing itself as a film based on the only medically credited murder to a ghost. Never mind how you verify that, just go with it for a second. This couldn’t be any more wrong. We learn at the end (“learn” wouldn’t be the right word since the film requires voice over to explain itself) that Betsy had been raped by her father. But wait, it gets better. Betsy had subconsciously developed a protector spirit to guard off further molestation and to punish her father. So right there the ghost in An American Haunting isn’t even a ghost, just the angry manifestation of an abused girl. There is one death accredited to the ghost, that of John Bell. However, the movie presents his wife poisoning him, not the ghost. So then the murderous ghost is neither. Plus, one has to wonder how shocking John’s loss is if he was willing to kill himself to lift the curse from his family. How believable is a “true account” of a medically documented haunting death when people were blaming demons for things for ages? I mean, there must be written accords from medical professionals of the day attributing the Black Plague to man’s sins. Just because an official said so centuries in the past does not make it medically sound today. If that were true no one would last through puberty without flogging themselves to death (and I did NOT mean it like that). An American Haunting is not true, is not about a ghost, and isn’t about a ghost committing murder.

Writer/director Solomon has made some strides in his filmmaking, but the results are still laughably the same. He’s gotten a better feel for actors and … that’s about it as far as improvement goes. An American Haunting is a creaky old timey ghost story that couldn’t scare a soul. It feels more attune to a 1970s made-for-TV flick. Solomon cribs all his scare tactics from Spook 101, which means lots of stagy jumps and creaky noises. The most annoying decision Solomon makes is that when he wants to convey the point of view of our ghost, he quickly swoops the camera down and up, spinning around the room like a paper airplane. I’m surprised more ghosts don’t get motion sickness if this is how they roll. You’ll either grab your stomach from the camerawork or the story.

Solomon’s story is just painfully uninteresting. Some good actors do their best to liven up a pretty run-of-the-mill haunting tale. An American Haunting is insufferably boring and lame. The first half is also exceedingly repetitive, as we watch the spirit creep into Betsy’s room and beat the daylights out of her. I don’t know how many times Solomon expects us to still be entertained, let alone scared, by just repeating this scene verbatim. Apparently, if a ghost keeps smacking you it won’t wake up the people sleeping right beside you. I always did wonder. An American Haunting is lackluster and boring, but it’s the arbitrary current day scenes that open and close the film that makes it truly awful. A modern-day mommy discovers Richard’s diary of the haunting and sits herself down for a good read. Then once she gets to the end she sends her little daughter off to spend time with her ex-husband/daughter’s father. And then Betsy’s protector spirit pops up in the car, looking very sad as she’s driven away. An American Haunting is trying to make us connect that the modern-day woman’s husband is molesting her daughter, but the movie expects you to make a lot of jumps to get there. I don’t think “spirit pointing” will hold up in the court of law. And truly, if the Betsy protector spirit was really trying to be helpful, shouldn’t it be less vague and just spell it out? These modern segments feel tacked on and needless if the whole of the film is spent on the 19th century ghost story. An American Haunting requires gobs of text at its conclusion to explain that it was, technically, a ghost story by its new and expanded definition.

The only nod I can give Solomon and his tale is that they cover my number one complaint of all haunted house movies: why the hell don’t the people just leave? Your house is haunted with the spirits of the damned, so you’re just going to wait it out? MOVE people. Find another place to live! An American Haunting features a spirit that can travel outside the bounds of its house and attack carriages, no less.

An American Haunting is marketed as a true-life ghost story, the only in our nation’s history where a murder was credited to a spirit. However, this movie doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to scare an audience beyond stagy high school theatrics. It’s not a ghost story, unless you swallow whole the film’s flimsy recanting of what a ghost is, it doesn’t feature a murder by haunting, and it isn’t even true, unless you can additionally swallow ye olde folksy, biased medical accounts. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy this. This movie isn’t so bad that it’s funny; it’s just boring. People as a whole should steer clear from this dull, amateurish fright flick. The only screams you’ll hear during An American Haunting are unintentional laughter.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Ring Two (2005)

I loved The Ring. Loved it. So I had some trepidation when I found out they were making a sequel. Surely it wouldn’t have the punch of the first film. To see Ring Two I went to a theater frequented by somewhat affluent teenagers and pre-teens. Big. Mistake. People were chattering away the entire time, laughing stupidly, and shouting ridiculously lame jokes: (on seeing a damp bed: “Oops, somebody wet the bed”). There were two managers that had to patrol the theater to keep order. Worst of all was a team of easily riled prepubescent girls that sat behind me, shrieking like banshees even during movie trailers. The same thing happened to me when I went to see The Village at the same theater. I must attract the most annoying people in the crowd. The sound quality in my theater was also very poor. Now, I can’t help but think that this was some divine act to warn me how bad Ring Two was going to be.

Rachel (Naomi Watts) has taken her son Aidan (the creepy David Dorfman) to a new town to start a new life. It’s been years since the incident with the videotape, and Rachel feels guilt about her role in spreading the killer tape. She’s got a new job at a small town newspaper but yet she can’t escape her past. A teen has been found with a contorted face, soggy floor, and a certain videotape. Rachel finds the tape and burns it. Samara, the evil young girl who started the evil tape, is none too pleased. Seems the evil tyke wants to be a real girl with a real mommy, and is slowly taking over Aidan. His temperature is dropping, he’s not sleeping, and bad things are happening. Rachel confronts more of Samara’s history to learn what it takes to stop her and get her son back.

Everything that worked in the first film feels forced and meaningless when rehashed in Ring Two. In the previous film, there was context for the image of a tree on fire and Rachel yanking a fly right out of a TV screen. In Ring Two, these plot points are now reduced to being contrived signs of doom. There’s a scene where we’re supposed to be scared because a single fly comes out of a faucet. Huh? The fly and the tree made sense in The Ring, but in the sequel they are stripped of their context and seem alien. And dumb. After everything fit so tightly together in The Ring, it’s disappointing that little makes sense in the sequel.

Watts is such an enormously appealing actress that even in dreck like this she can come off as luminescent. With the two Ring films and Peter Jackson’s upcoming King Kong, Watts could establish herself as the scream queen of her generation. She’s a gifted actress and melts into whatever role she plays.

Ring Two‘s director, Hideo Nakata, knows a thing or two about the territory. He did direct the original Japanese Ringu films, which the American remakes are based upon. Nakata generates a fun sense of anticipatory dread. He also lucks into the occasional eye-opener like a bathtub whose water flows up and fills the ceiling. Nakata has a confidant touch but I miss the sheen of Gore Verbinsky’s direction.

What’s sorely missing is a killer premise like in The Ring. The premise was razor sharp, presenting a videotape as a virus and human nature’s willingness to taste forbidden fruit as the vehicle for its spreading. There was a sense of urgency because of the looming seven-day death deadline. In Ring Two there is no sense of urgency at all. In fact, the film takes an overly leisurely pace. It’s quite awfully boring. Samara wants a mommy and can?t really be stopped until a late revelation. This leads to a lot of impotent pacing and waiting. Except for a snappy opening, Ring Two completely ditches the videotape virus storyline that made its predecessor so compelling. As a result, it also ditches suspense and most of its intelligence.

The Ring had a strong central mystery and a sense of urgency, which both blended to create tightly wound tension. Ring Two sputters around and relies on gimmicky jump scares as its main source of spooks. We see a character look into a mirror, look away, and then look back and something else is right there! Does this really work for anyone still? I just assume when a character ducks out of the way of a mirror that something’s coming. It’s these kinds of creaky, transparent tricks that Ring Two goes back to over and over to goose an audience. Because the story isn’t engaging the filmmakers have to resort to gimmicks. Since we’ve seen the results of Samara’s murders (the grotesque facial distortion) is it even scary to see it again when we know exactly what we’re about to see? The essence of horror is the unexpected. Finding the expected is about as scary as looking at leftovers in the fridge.

There’s a great moment early in Ring Two. Rachel and Aidan are driving through a forest and are followed and then attacked by a horde of deer. It’s the lone sequence in this sequel that feels different and exciting. It’s somewhat crazy, somewhat marvelous, and very weird. Too bad Ring Two relapses from there on into a turgid horror flick.

The Ring was a smart, tense, expertly crafted film that rose beyond genre conventions. Ring Two is nothing but genre conventions and repeatedly goes back to the well to drub up scares that aren’t there anymore (unless you’re the prepubescent girls that sat behind me). Watts is still in fine form and there are some visually striking moments. However, Ring Two is bereft of excitement and scares and has become just another tired, languished sequel. When I walk out of a horror moving saying, “I guess the best thing about that film was either Sissy Spaceck’s crazy cameo or deer,” then you are in a world of bad. Ring Two is meek, dumb, and boring. Let this one go straight to video.

Nate’s Grade: C-

In the Bedroom (2001)

In the Bedroom hits all the right notes of agonizing pain, devastation and loss. The heart of the film is on the grief encompassing Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) over the loss of their son. The Fowlers are well regarded in their cozy New England town. Matt is a flourishing local doctor and Ruth teaches a chorus of local high school girls.

In the Bedroom opens with Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) chasing his older girlfriend Natalie (Marisa Tomei) across an open grassy field. Frank is a budding architecture student home for the summer and thinking of prolonging his time so he can stay together with Natalie. Frank and Natalie have a distinct age divide but also seem to have been given different lots in life. She has a pair of boys from her abusive husband Richard (William Mapother) that she is finalizing a divorce from. Richard is hopeful he can reconcile with Natalie if he just gets another chance, but Natalie is stern in her refusal.

Ruth sees the relationship as a detriment to her son’s future. She’s even more upset that Matt is so casual with their son dating an older, working-class mother. Frank rushes over to calm Natalie after another of Richard’s outbursts of violence has left her house in shambles. She rushes her children upstairs just as Richard returns back. He manages to sneak in through a back door and confronts Frank in their kitchen, shooting and killing him. What should seem like a clear-cut case begins to unspool. Natalie admits she didn’t actually see the gun fire and the charges are dropped from murder to manslaughter. Richard is released on bail and free to stroll around occasionally bumping into the grieving and outraged Fowlers.

The majority of the film is the aftermath of the murder and the strain it puts upon Matt and Ruth and their marriage. Beforehand jealousy, anger, and bitterness would simply sit but slowly the tension begins to bubble to the surface. Ruth holds resentment and blames the leniency of Matt for the death of their son. Matt tries to get out of the house as much as possible, even if it means sitting in his car in their driveway at night.

One of the most harrowing scenes of In the Bedroom is also its emotional and acting centerpiece. After the mounting frustration with justice, Ruth and Matt explode into an argument that had slowly been building long before their son’s death. This is the first time they have truly talked about the whole situation and accusations fly like bullets in their first emotional confrontation. In the Bedroom could have easily fallen into the area of sticky made-for-TV land, but the exceptional performances all around by the cast and the deft and studied direction never allow it to falter.

Spacek (Carrie, Coal Miner’s Daughter) can begin writing her Oscar acceptance speech right now. Her portrayal of Ruth displays the pride and seething anger, but keeps her human throughout. She exhibits pure, raw emotion that strikes directly inside you leaving a knot in your stomach and in your throat. Her performance is truly breathtaking and so emotionally visceral to watch. Wilkinson (The Full Monty) plays Matt with passive-aggressive doubt and repression. He dominates in any scene he is in and takes the audience on a wide range of emotions. He has a commanding presence and compliments Spacek’s Ruth nicely. Perhaps the greatest thing Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, Slums of Beverly Hills) was known for was miraculously winning an Oscar and dumbfounding a nation. With ‘In the Bedroom’ she is given the ubiquitous “And” credit at the end of the opening cast list. She has less to work with and less screen time to work it, fully earning the “And”‘ credit she has.

Todd Field is an actor-turned-director and has appeared in such a wide array of films from Twister to Eyes Wide Shut. Field has layered his film with rich symbolism and an intelligent, patient pace. Most of the action in movies is centered on what is going on in a scene, but the most telling moments of In the Bedroom are what are not going on in the scenes. Field creates such an intimate portrait that the camera almost turns into another character, catching the lingering silences and the burgeoning inner turmoil. Field also adapted the screenplay from a short story by Andre Dubus, whom he dedicates the film to.

In the Bedroom is not going to be for everyone. Some will find it slow and some might even find it boring. As it stands, it is a powerful film on the study of loss that grips you and refuses to let go. You will feel all the blame, jealousy, anger, and pain of this family and for such emotions to resonate from the screen to the audience is a great achievement.

Nate’s Grade: A

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