STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing and Violent Images, Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Brad Anderson

Written by: Joe Gangemi

(based on the short story THE SYSTEM OF DOCTOR TARR AND PROFESSOR FETHER by Edgar Allan Poe)

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Jason Flemying & Sinead Cusack

The source material for STONEHEARST ASYLUM isn’t Edgar Allan Poe’s most renowned tale. THE SYSTEM OF DOCTOR TARR AND PROFESSOR FETHER is more like a one-note joke that’s spread out for a few pages. Not even Roger Corman (who adapted as much Poe as he could in the 1960’s) bothered to touch this material. It’s 2014, enter screenwriter Joe Gangemi and director Brad Anderson. This filmmaking team have fleshed out a darkly funny little tale into something special. Anderson, who’s been on a bit of a downward spiral with his last efforts (VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, THE CALL), has returned to cover his second creepy movie set in a huge asylum (he’s responsible for 2001’s disturbing SESSION 9). STONEHEARST ASYLUM isn’t perfect due to a couple of issues, but it’s probably my favorite of the genre crop for 2014’s Halloween season.

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The story begins on Christmas Eve 1899 at an isolated sanitarium in Britain. Edward Newgate is an up and coming doctor who only needs clinical experience to move his career forward. He chooses to gain his hands-on knowledge at the countryside Stonehearst Asylum. It is here that he meets the eccentric Dr. Lamb, who employs unorthodox methods in feeding patients delusions and letting them roam free around the asylum. Though uncomfortable with his surroundings, Edward is immediately attracted to a patient named Eliza Graves. Graves suffers from hysteria, but finds solace in music thanks to Lamb’s treatments. During his first night at the hospital, Edward discovers terrible evidence in the basement that suggests that the unusual Stonehearst staff might actually be mental patients who have taken over the Asylum (NOT a spoiler, it happens about 20 minutes into a nearly two-hour movie). Edward must keep his head low, search for clues, and use any clever ideas he has in order to get out of the hospital alive.

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STONEHEARST kicks off with quality right out of the gate in a thick fog-laden atmosphere and an eerie location. This film would be right at home in the 1960’s with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as headliners (could you imagine how awesome that project would be?). This isn’t a detriment at all. There is plenty of style, glossy visuals, and fantastic sets (I believed this was a real location and wouldn’t be surprised if it actually was) that feels as modern as you can get in a period piece set at the end of the 19th century. The story is also compelling the whole way through. Even if it does rely on a couple of familiar clichés in a few scenes (a guy hiding in a closet while someone’s about to find him), I was hooked from start to finish.

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Besides a great atmosphere and solid story, the cast here is hugely impressive. Jim Sturgess is good as Edward Newgate and Kate Beckinsale is Eliza Graves. The relationship between the two feels a little forced (which is one of my problems with the film). They’re really not the focus here though. The script is packed with such an interesting array of characters that I found myself entranced with each individual for different reasons. Michael Caine plays a side character who doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but raises a few questions as to what kind of man he is. Jason Flemying and Brendan Gleeson also have ever-so-fleeting roles as well that leave enough of an impact to warrant their appearance. David Thewlis steals almost every scene he’s as the ironically named Mickey Finn (meaning drink laced with drug). The best performance here comes from Ben Kingsley. Silas Lamb is not a simple character by any means and Kingsley’s talent lends to the man being a complicated antagonist of sorts. Even if I didn’t agree with his actions, I saw we’re he was coming from and completely understood his motivation. Fleshed out villains offer more to chew on than someone who’s all out evil. Kingsley sells Silas as such.

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Aside from the forced romance between Sturgess and Beckinsale, the plot weaves through one twist too many. Though there’s plenty of unexpected revelations and reveals through this tale that never drags, STONEHEARST ASYLUM needed a better closing scene. I didn’t completely buy what the movie was selling me, but everything else up to that point was so awesome that it didn’t wreck or put a damper on the whole film. STONEHEARST perfectly captures madness in its various forms, which is entirely appropriate and essential given the subject matter. While the lunatics are indeed criminals, the methods being used by the staff aren’t humane either (science and medicine were far from they are today). Add to the mix that some off-centered camera angles and little details (like a cook eating a maggot off a piece of fruit) blend in perfectly to the unsettling tone of the film too.

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A forced relationship and one tiny plot twist too many are the only two flaws that keep STONEHEARST ASYLUM from being a completely ideal film. Everything else considered, this is a really solid horror flick that doesn’t rely on gore (the PG-13 rating is not a distraction here) or quick jump scares to freak out the viewer. Instead, a sophisticated sense of ever-building dread and a complicated story full of interesting characters (boasted by great performances) make this one of the best horror films I’ve sat through in 2014. Those who love Roger Corman’s Poe classics and yearn for a throwback to those films had better check themselves into STONEHEARST ASYLUM for two hours.

Grade: A-

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Mature Thematic Elements, Sexual Content and some Violent Images

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Directed by: Justin Chadwick

Written by: Peter Morgan

(based on the novel THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by Philippa Gregory)

Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mark Rylance, David Morrissey, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Juno Temple & Andrew Garfield

Word of warning: I might sound like a pretentious snob in this review, but that’s a result of the frame of mind this movie has put me in. THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL tackles a highly fictionalized account of Henry VIII’s marriage with his second wife Anne Boleyn and the affair he committed with her sister Mary. To say that this film is historically inaccurate would be merely scratching the surface of how Peter Morgan’s script (based on Philippa Gregory’s novel) murders an interesting piece of history that changed the face of England forever. Movies are movies. Books are books. History is history. There’s no full-fledged way that a film or written work will ever fully do justice to events that have already passed. There can be masterpieces nonetheless (12 YEARS A SLAVE, GOODFELLAS, among many more), but a fictional story portrays itself as being a true account of how things went down is mind-bogglingly insulting. OTHER BOLEYN GIRL commits such a heinous crime and goes further to vastly mischaracterize the historical figures it’s trying to portray.

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When Catherine of Aragon cannot produce a male heir, Henry VIII is on the lookout for a mistress. Having an inside ear to all of the happenings within the castle, the Duke of Norfolk throws his niece Anne Boleyn into Henry’s path. The two seem to get along relatively well, but the king is more entranced with Anne’s younger sister Mary. Sure enough, this causes a ripple between the previously inseparable Boleyn sisters. When Anne’s jealously gets the better of her, she causes Henry VIII to do something that tears the country apart beyond repair and spells out her bloody fate. I should state right now that I will give away plot developments that couldn’t be further from the truth.

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Indeed, Henry VIII had relations with Anne and Mary Boleyn, but it’s not at all how the movie portrays it. Eric Bana’s Henry VIII is a poor victim of would-be love. In reality, Henry was a man who could do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted in whatever fashion he wanted. That was the perk of being king and eventually led the man into madness. Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson aren’t convincing as the Boleyn sisters either. Due to sloppy screenwriting, the relationship between the siblings and perils it faces feels too rushed to be compelling. Going back to Bana’s performance as Henry VIII, he turns the highly educated king into a gullible sap led on by the cunning Anne Boleyn. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare too well either, though it was neat to see a bunch of bigger names from today in earlier roles (e.g. Benedict Cumberbatch, Juno Temple, Andrew Garfield, among others). At least the production values are good as far as convincing costumes and the extravagant sets. I believed I was watching a tale set in this time period, but it just wasn’t at all anything resembling the actual events.

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The dialogue is made up of melodramatic drivel and the story only gets interesting near the ending as Anne Boleyn’s fate draws nearer. The real crime in THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is that it screws up genuinely awesome material that’s nearly tailor-made for a compelling historical drama. A great movie could have been executed (pardon the pun) from the actual history of what really happened between Henry VIII and the Boleyn family. The biggest historical inaccuracy is that Anne Boleyn’s temptress ways are solely what made a reluctant Henry VIII tear off into his own church. The reality is that if Henry VIII wanted to have sex with Anne Boleyn, he could at any time he pleased to and ordered her to do so with a smile on her face (or act as if she enjoyed it). It was a blatantly horrible time for sexism (among other things like medicine, science, racism, and class systems) and to portray it as otherwise is not only dishonest but insulting to the intelligence of those educated in or unaware of English history.

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THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL isn’t a fully irredeemable piece of trash, because it looks gorgeous in the set design and costumes. The final 30 minutes also drastically pick up the pace into interesting territory as Anne Boleyn’s inevitable fate is given. The writing is horribly inaccurate for the most part and takes the “blame the victim” scenario as far as Henry VIII’s second wife is concerned. In this day and age, to use such a misguided trope is a little scary. Though beautiful to look at and boasting a lot of big name talent, BOLEYN GIRL is the most historically inaccurate plot I’ve seen committed to film. The visuals and last third entertained me, but the film ends up being a pretty looking mess. As far as the truth is concerned, you could do better watching Homer Simpson’s portrayal of Henry VIII in the “Margical History Tour” episode of THE SIMPSONS.

Grade: D+

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