In their debut film Open Water (2003), husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Chris Kentis and Laura Lau established a knack for building suspense and genuine fear by depositing hapless everyday folks into a hostile and unforgiving environment. They carry that experience forward with Silent House, a home-invasion thriller built around a gimmick and a twist, either one of which will elevate to cleverness or kill it in its tracks, depending on whether or not you buy into them.

The twist will not be spoiled here, whereas the gimmick is pretty well known at this point: Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Silent House unfolds in real-time via what appears one long, continuous shot (although observant moviegoers will spot at least a couple of the seams in the editing). The technique is tricky bit of stunt filmmaking that is rarely used, since they ultimately constrict the story. One can only squeeze so much plot and character development into such a tight narrative space. It should be noted at this point that Silent House is a remake of the 2010 Uruguayan movie La casa muda, which also used the same hooks, so originality is not to be found here.

Elizabeth Olsen stars as Sara, a pensive young woman helping her father, John (Adam Trese), and uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), empty out and repair the family’s vandalized lake house prior to putting it on the market. A remote two-story home with boarded up windows, no electricity, and in an area without cell phone coverage, it’s the sort of place that begs for nightmarish shenanigans. Within in 20 minutes Sara is separated from her family and stalked throughout the house by a stranger who is heard more often than seen.

There’s little more than that, at least not until the final ten minutes or so, when the big reveal is made and all is put into perspective. Getting to that point depends on the patience of the viewer. Though their choreography is superb, Kentis and Lau don’t maintain a consistent enough control over their filmmaking environment — nor can they, given the limits of the situation — and the movie suffers for it. The handheld camerawork is inconsistent, vacillating between fluidly unobtrusive and shaky incoherence; the lighting alternates between beautifully moody (especially the exterior scenes) and impenetrably murky.

It’s the climax that tries the viewer’s patience, however, when the story suddenly slides into camp psychodrama via the same kind of illogical bait-and-switch that yanked the rug out from under the crapfest that was High Tension. There’s some visual sleight of hand involved that is handled well, but like the final act it feels woefully out of place. Silent House is indicative of contemporary horror flicks, which have segued from torture porn to punish by proxy and cheap gimmicks for the sake of immediate and quickly forgotten impact.

If Silent House has a saving grace, it lies with its lead actress. Olsen is saddled with carrying the entire film; and though she’s given little else to do outside of the usual screen victim antics, she does make the most of the quieter moments that actually give her room to act. Olsen proved herself to be an actor worth keeping in eye on in last Fall’s chilling drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, which screened at last year’s Sundance Film Festival along with Silent House. Martha is definitely the stronger of the two, and it’s sad to see the talent she displayed there wasted on schlock as this. See John Carter review after the jump …

John Carter
Pulp space opera at its finest, John Carter is this year’s first truly fun piece of escapist filmaking, arriving just in time to liven up a sluggish winter box office. The movie is based on the 1912 novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan), and does a fair but choppy job of adapting the dated, old-fashioned source material without chucking out too much of it or diluting its sense of wonder.

Taylor Kitsch stars in the titular role, that of an embittered ex-Confederate soldier seeking gold in the Arizona badlands. On the run from the U.S. Army and Apaches, he seeks shelter in a cave and briefly finds his gold before suddenly finding himself on the surface of Mars — or Barsoom, as the locals call it.

He’s quickly acquired by the native Tharks, tall, gangly, four-armed, green warrior savages with tusk, led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). The Tharks are on the sidelines of a civil war between to warring humanoid city states: Helium, led by the benevolent Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) whose scientist daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is trying to find a way to save their dying world; and Zodanga, led by Sab Than (Dominic West), a warlord with notions of building an empire who is really the puppet of the mysterious Therns, led by Matai Shang (perennial villain Mark Strong).

It plays out like Flash Gordon meets Dune with a little Dances With Wolves thrown in, but mostly in a good way. Audiences unfamiliar with the original story may dismiss it as a Star Wars knock-off. Ironically, the DNA of Burroughs’ tales of the Red Planet can be found not only in George Lucas’ franchise, but everything from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s to Avatar and half the comic book superheroes in existence. Carter, however, has toiled in relative obscurity up to this point. The result is a movie that is as strangely familiar as it is exotic.

It’s that exoticism that gives John Carter the boost needed to make it stand out. Director Andrew Stanton honed his chops in various capacities on the animated Pixar productions Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and the Toy Story trilogy. With John Carter, his live-action debut, he continues to show a knack for creating impressively realized fantasy worlds, depicting Barsoom as an apocalyptic wasteland punctuated by ruined cities populated by the warlike Tharks in contrast with the lofty, glittering, paradisiacal Helium and grungy Zodanga, itself a mobile city on mechanical legs.

The only time Stanton only really misses a beat is in the pacing. The action sequences aren’t as cleanly edited as they should be and their coherence suffers for it. The story is almost as episodic and circuitous as Burroughs’ novel and, at about 130 minutes, it’s about half an hour longer than it needs to be.

The large ensemble cast helps spark some energy. Collins is fortunately saddled with an updated version of Dejah Thoris that paints her as far more than a damsel in stress. Strong does the medium-cool unflappable villain thing, and West is at his smug, scummy best. Hinds his joined by his former Rome castmates Polly Walker (as a scheming Thark) and James Purefoy as an Errol Flynn-esque Heliumite officer. Also appearing are Bryan Cranston as a cavalry captain; Daryl Sabara as Carter’s earthbound nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (a device carried over from the novel); and Samantha Morton and Thomas Hayden-Church, both lending their voices to Tharks.

As for Kitsch, he proves himself to be a strong (if occasionally tepid) leading man though he’s sometimes overwhelmed by the movie’s busyness. While Dejah and Tars Tarkas both want Carter to take up their respective causes, this soldier who is done with fighting is only interested into returning home even though it holds nothing for him. Stanton and screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon wisely spice up the hero — who was a run-of-the-mill ideal romantic hero in Burroughs’ series of novels — by giving him just enough emotional baggage, in the form of a personal tragedy, to make him relatably human before elevating him to the status of savior from another world.

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