Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW: Post-Oscar Weekend Double Feature



February 26, 2015

Hot off Oscar-weekend, this week brings a fresh crop of films to tickle your film fancy. David Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner collaborate to bring us the delicious (albeit polarizing) "Maps to the Stars" with newly minted Oscar-winner Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams and Evan Bird in this tale of a dysfunctional, incestuous Hollywood family. As is expected in a Cronenberg film, and a Wagner script or novel, the envelope is pushed, metaphor and subtext abound and the result is riveting. With each actor cast against type, the performances are bar-raising which, especially in the case of Moore and Williams, will withstand the year and perhaps lead to Oscar buzz come awards season.

Then there's a new entry from Blumhouse in the horror/thriller genre from first time feature director David Gelb, "The Lazarus Effect", which, you guessed it, is predicated upon the idea of raising the dead. There's also '71. Also from a first time feature director, Yann Demange, "'71" is a powerful look at the human condition and character study of a man over the course of one night in the months preceding the bloodiest battles in Northern Ireland during the IRA conflicts in the 1970's.

Documentaries get off to a strong start with "The Hunting Ground." From Kirby Dick, who brought us "The Invisible War", "The Hunting Ground" takes a hard look at rape on US college campuses and the "cover-ups" and mishandlings that take a toll not only on victims and their families, but the higher education system as a whole.

But, right now, let's take a look at THE LAZARUS EFFECT and '71.


As Producer Jason Blum, founder and CEO of Blumhouse, knows, I was less than impressed with last year's "Oculus" which was released under the Blumhouse banner. However, knowing that Blumhouse's participation in "Oculus" was after the fact and late in the game, I held out hope for the next project, believing it would fall in line with the excellence of the "Insidious", "Sinister" and "The Purge" franchises (not to mention the non-horror ventures of Blumhouse, like "Whiplash"). My faith was more than rewarded with THE LAZARUS EFFECT. A film filled with stunning metaphoric cinematography, killer sound design and a story rooted in fact and faith that invites reflection and discussion, not to mention some real thrills and heart stopping chills, THE LAZARUS EFFECT rises to the top of the genre with defining elements of technical and performance excellence. Plus, there's a cute dog!!

Scientific researchers Frank and Zoe have spent the past several years hidden away in a university basement lab obsessed with their latest project: raising the dead. Not a new concept, theologians and scientists alike have been fascinated by and drawn to the idea of resurrection, going back to biblical days as written in the Gospel of John which details the four-day dead Lazarus being miraculously resurrected by Jesus Christ. Since that time, there have been documented historical reports of "resurrection", as recently as 2013, involving humans and animals alike. Having developed a serum which Frank believes when injected into the brain and electrically charged will resuscitate life, ongoing trials have been conducted on dogs and pigs but without success. Until now.

In a surprising turn of events, Frank, Zoe and their team - computer whiz Niko, freewheeling pot-smoking Clay, videographer Ava - bring a dog, Rocky, back to life. Amidst celebrating this breakthrough, Zoe has second thoughts about what they've done. Grounded by her Catholic faith, guilt kicks in, compounding frightening recurring nightmares from her childhood which have intensified the closer the team has come to success. And while at first blush Rocky seems to be a happy normal pup, it doesn't take long to see that something isn't quite right with him, fueling even more fear in Zoe. The team as a whole doesn't seem too impressed by the idea of resurrection or the fact that they have done it; that is, until Clay spends a night with Rocky during which some strange events start to unfold.

While Frank plots their next move, political underpinnings within the university and the project's funding are called in question and pulled, raising questions about Frank's code of ethics and exactly what he's been doing. As a pharmaceutical company comes in with military and governmental efficiency confiscating everything in the lab and all data, Frank and Zoe know they must try and recreate their work or lose all credit for finding the key to life and resurrection.

In a covert late night break-in to the lab, the team makes a hasty recreation with disastrous results leading Frank to push the envelope of scientific discovery even further and resurrect a human life.

Mark Duplass, indie darling in front of and behind the lens, ups his game in this new genre delivering a solid and mature performance as Frank. Finding that edge between scientific indifference and human emotion, Duplass turns in one of his strongest career performances to date, leaving me wanting to see more. Going toe-to-toe with Duplass is Olivia Wilde who stuns as Zoe. Showing us even more depth and expanded skill set than what we've seen in the past from her, Wilde has moments of true fright and then turns on an emotional dime to frightening effect.

Real supporting standouts are Donald Glover and Evan Peters as Niko and Clay, respectively. Adding a youthful - and necessary - lightness and touch of inherent humor, their performances demonstrate an effortless ease. Terrific casting cameos come in the form of veterans Amy Aquino and Ray Wise who add a depth and genre gravitas to the proceedings.

Written by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater and directed by David Gelb as his freshman feature, the story is well crafted and constructed. Designed as a pseudo-science thriller set against a centuries old religious debate, little details of scientific importance as well as religious iconography are infused into the story with quick visuals planted in your mind. The debate of religion vs science is extremely well presented without ramming either position down anyone's throat and creating openings for thought and debate. The issues at the core of the story stay with you long after the curtain has fallen. Characters are extremely well crafted with resonant character traits further fueling the religious and scientific debates.

Gelb more than proves his mettle. He engages. He invites. He shocks. He rises to the top of the horror heap of directors with the likes of Ti West, James Wan and Adam Wingard. One of Gelb's most effective skills is his keen visual eye and sensibility. Together with his cinematographer Michael Fimognari, the two develop a visual palette and bandwidth that seamlessly melds lighting, framing and reflection with mirrors and windows to metaphorically and tacitly imbue us with the duality of man, the duality of life and death, the battle of science and religion. This visual construct adds an enhanced layer of storytelling to an already interesting topic.

Where Gelb truly soars with THE LAZARUS EFFECT though, is with his sound design. Doing what directors fear to do and rarely, if ever do, Gelb plunges us into total darkness. No candles, no lights, no shadows. Just pitch black darkness. He then employs sound to tell chapters of the story, calling on the unknown to tap into the imagination and mind of the audience. The effect is chilling. Having already seen the various pieces of set dressing that can be used for sound, the mind reels with every clank, squeak, break, smash only to then be revealed with the sole bright white beam of a flashlight. Gelb takes us into the darkness, into the fear and wraps it around is with singular focus, intensifying the experience.

THE LAZARUS EFFECT elevates the genre, raises question and raises the terror level to new heights. I am loving LAZARUS!


A fascinating character study and study of the human condition and a time in history that sets the stage for what became the worst bloodshed in the UK/Northern Ireland probably since the days of the ancient Picts and Celts, Yann Demange's '71 is a standout. Focusing on realism and paying close attention to the political and moral ambiguities of the day (and which are still present today in analogous settings), Demange, working with a script by Gregory Burke, goes for the gusto with a gut-wrenching action thriller/ character drama that speaks to the conscience.

'71 is told through the POV of Gary Hook, a soldier in the British Army. A fresh recruit, he and his unit have been deployed to Northern Ireland to help maintain peace and provide support in the pursuit of IRA members. On the night in question, Hook is pulled away from his unit amidst a riot and finds himself stranded in a strange city (here, Liverpool doubling as 1971 Belfast). Not knowing the people, the Celtic language which many speak, the city, or most importantly, the "whys" of the conflict, Hook is a fish out of water. As the night passes, intrigues takes place, traitors are uncloaked, and Hook finds that friends can come from the most unexpected places.

Thanks to a strong performance by Jack O'Connell and equally strong visual and story construct by Demange and Burke, we are immersed in time. Gary Hook is our eyes and ears. A young man believing in the nobility of being in the military and serving his country yet questioning "why" this battle, "why" these people, and who's who on the playing field, his mind is as murky as ours thus making the character and the story more resonant. We feel what he is feeling and that's due to O'Connell and the superb camera work of Tat Radcliffe. The inner conflicts of the individuals that set the stage for riots and what would come just a year later in real life, are presented in a balanced manner. We see the battles of father and daughter - help a young man who was plunked into "hell" or save one's own skin and do the politically right thing and turn him in. The corruption of the upper echelon military and how war is manufactured and people manipulated excels. And through the youngsters, and particularly Barry Keoghan's Sean, the battles become all too real, the struggle for self-independence and free-thinking powerfully obvious. The complexities of characters fueled by the very nature of the complexities of politics and religion is stingingly vibrant and engrossing.

Performances are all strong (although some of the sound mix with the very heavy Irish accents made some of the dialogue difficult to even hear), notably Babou Ceesay who as "Corporal" provides a conscience for a mamby pamby indecisive Lt. Armitage, the latter of whom never finds a backbone even by film's end. A testament to Sam Reid in pulling this off thanks to facial nuance and a wonderful use of pause for second-guessing in Armitage's thought process. Always love seeing Richard Dormer and here is no different as he embodies the ethic of humanity with Eamon, a former military medic, who believes in saving human life above the question or friend or enemy. David Wilmot always seems to have a slightly smarmy or dichotomous edge to his characters and here, as Boyle, is no different; Boyle is a necessary player in any battle. And again, as young Irish lad Sean torn between finding his own voice and conscience and obeying his elders, Barry Keoghan mesmerizes. Those eyes of his and the way the camera just lingers on them. At times looking like a deer in headlights, at times showing a cold icy steely inner anger, Keoghan's silence lets his eyes show Sean's inner conflict. Beautifully played and lensed. And I just want to scoop up little Corey McKinley. A scene stealer every second he's on screen, McKinley is killer! Cocky, confident, adorably precocious. He is the heart, the essence of the price of war, the price of battle. Your heart will stop and virtually shatter in a pivotal scene involving McKinley and O'Connell.

Tat Radcliffe's cinematography is inspiring. Hand held, immersive, vibrant - we are on the edge of our seats thanks to the constant movement and the superb editing of Chris Wyatt who just furthers the visceral heart-pounding thriller. The use of fog, the labyrinth nature of the city scape, the outstretched hands amidst so much fog and smoke that the hand is blurred, dizzying, steep us in the same whirlwind as Gary Hook. We feel the confusion of the man, the confusion of the situation and as with any conflict, don't know which way to turn or which side to take.

And speaking of heart-pounding.....David Holmes music. That deep resonant percussion that is maintained through most of the film drives home the metaphor of troops feet pounding on the pavement as one as well as hearts pounding, blood coursing.

'71 is a film as relevant today as real life events were in 1971 and packs a powerful punch at every turn.


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