I know this is a slow week for new movies, but I didn't realize quite how slow until I went to see "Silent Hill." Coming out, I wondered about some of the actors, particularly Radha Mitchell, the tartly alienated wife in "Finding Neverland," and Sean Bean, the stalwart Boromir in the "Lord of the Rings" films. What are they doing in this dismal, $50-million sump of a movie? Getting well-paid, I hope.
The picture is drawn from a series of Japanese video games which are themselves highly regarded for their bleak, foggy environments, to which the movie is exceedingly faithful. The games' storyline concerns a desolate town that's home to a nameless evil, as they say, and players, dodging demons, can determine its outcome. In the film, we follow a young mother, Rose Da Silva (Mitchell), who's driving her 9-year-old daughter, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), to Silent Hill, where a catastrophic fire 30 years earlier still has nearby residents spooked, possibly because the fire is still burning in the underground coal caverns. Or possibly because of something else, if you get the drift.
Sharon has been having scary dreams about Silent Hill, a place to which she's never been. Rose is determined to get to the bottom of this, despite the misgivings of her husband, Chris (Bean), who's researched this mysterious municipality on the Internet and found it listed under "Ghost Towns of America." En route, Rose and Sharon encounter a female motorcycle cop named Cybil (Laurie Holden), who's so heavily accoutered in black leather and inky shades that she might have stepped in mid-thrash out of an S&M video. These three make their way to Silent Hill, which is clearly one of the less lovely precincts of Hell. Everything is rotted and rusted and falling apart, and the air is white with flakes of what appear to be snow, but which turn out on closer examination actually to be ashes.
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A weird old woman pops up quite a bit, too, saying doomy things; and eventually we meet the town's non-demonic residents — yes, they're still there, despite the lack of plumbing and grocery stores — and their leader, a stern martinet named Christabella (Alice Krige), who shelters them in the town church, where they're protected by their own strange faith. Or are they? Guess.
All of this owes a heavy debt to the demon-stoked Cthulhu stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and the movie actually approximates the baleful tone of those tales with a grisly flair. But the plot, which also involves Sharon's much-less-cuddly twin sister and another creepy little girl who's vague about her identity, is tediously complicated, and it goes on and on and on (the movie feels about 30 minutes longer than its two-hour running time). The characters are ciphers — you don't really care what happens to them. And because the picture is so unrelentingly morbid, and its visual design so unvaryingly grim, it makes you feel as if you're trapped under a rock. This may be part of the appeal of the video games; in a movie, where you can't break away to grab a sandwich, it quickly becomes oppressive.
In a way, "Silent Hill" is well done; it definitely has its own look, and its own blighted emotional atmosphere. But it's not enjoyable in the way that good horror movies always are. It's a dank, slow trudge, an oddly meandering trip that, halfway through, you may wish you hadn't bought a ticket for.
There may not be much new in theatres this week, but there are some interesting movies coming out on DVD. Among them, these:
"Casanova" (2005): People were so busy praising Heath Ledger for his performance as a tormented cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain" last year that this small, glittering gem of movie passed by practically unnoticed. Ledger plays the celebrated 18th Century lover with enormous charm, dash, and wit. Jeremy Irons is uncommonly over-the-top (and fairly hilarious) as a priggish bishop, and Oliver Platt is very funny as a lovelorn lard merchant. Sienna Miller is too beautiful ever to pass for a man, maybe, but that's a quibble — the movie's a farce, and those things happen. The film was shot in Casanova's native Venice, and the city looks especially, dazzlingly gorgeous. There's a magical balloon ride, some lively sword fights, quite a few laughs, and a lot of romance. A perfect date movie.
"Match Point" (2005): Not a great movie, but certainly Woody Allen's best in years. Transferred to London, his customary focus on the lifestyles of the well-to-do seems more apt, and the story-telling is fresh. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who's in virtually every shot, holds the picture together with remarkable command as a social-climbing tennis pro who'll do anything to snare a slightly disreputable young American actress (Scarlett Johansson). He'll also do anything to maintain his marriage to a wealthy Englishwoman (Emily Mortimer) — even murder. The sex scenes are more graphic than anything Allen has shot before (nothing shocking, though), but otherwise the movie's a little too low-key for its own good. That it's also unapologetically downbeat might, at this point in the director's career, go without saying. Still, the picture's worth seeing for Rhys Meyers, who rises entirely to a challenging role, and for Johansson, who gets inside her character's frustrated aimlessness, and anger, and has never looked lovelier. She almost glows.
"Elevator to the Gallows" (1957): The critics and directors and directors-to-be of the French New Wave loved the cheap American crime melodramas of the 1940s, and they invented a genre for them: film noir. Their own exercises in this area often have a distinctive perversity, and this is a memorable one. The plot is pure noir: An older woman and her young lover conspire to murder her husband, and we follow them to their doom. What distinguishes the movie is the forceful performance of the great Jeanne Moreau, who would go on to star in such later New Wave classics as "The 400 Blows" and "Jules and Jim," and the atmospheric score by Miles Davis. And of course the streets of Paris, captured by director Louis Malle and his celebrated cinematographer, Henri Decaë, in — what else? — evocative black and white.