CineFile: Reviews of ‘Deliver Us From Evil’ and ‘Begin Again’

Cinefile reviewer Kyle Wells says small summer films fail to fill the gaps

My friends, things are heating up here in Victoria, BC, and all across the country, which means only one thing: stupid, loud movies. Now some of them I love (Edge of Tomorrow) and some of them I honestly can’t be bothered with (Transformers 4), but we’re not going to talk about the blockbusters today.

No Sir, today we’re going to take a look at some of the smaller films coming in under the radar of the behemoth summer movies. Because along with your comic book movies and your gross-out comedies, a few indies manage to peak through the cinema curtains.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be disappointing too.

Summer typically hosts a couple of horror movies every year and, just like their big-screen brothers, some turn out rather good indeed (The Conjuring) and some fall flat. This year the best bet seemed to be Deliver Us From Evil, which opened last weekend. It’s from director Scott Derrickson, who is now a name among us horror fans for a couple of movies, particularly 2012’s excellent Sinister, with Ethan Hawke and some seriously twisted home movies.

Derrickson has a good sense for scares and knows how to use gritty realism to draw audiences in before assaulting them with some pretty intense scares. He takes the same approach with Deliver Us From Evil, using the genre of a police procedural crime film to set things up and then slowly having those cinematic sensibilities give way to a full-on possession movie.

At first it works. It helps having Eric Bana as your lead, who despite not always picking the best projects, is still a compelling force on screen and often the best part bad movies. He’s great here, taking on the role of a Bronx detective who, as with all screen cops, sinks too deep into his job at the sacrifice of his family and has a problem with the rage boiling beneath his tough exterior.

I enjoyed the setup, especially knowing it was a horror film. The cop stuff drew me in, as intended, and when things started to get weird I enjoyed how the two genres started to blend together. It laid the groundwork for what could have been a unique take on both.

Ultimately, however, the film doesn’t know how to hold it all together. It’s far too long for one thing. The immediacy of a horror film like this, bump-in-the-night style, loses its edge when you have to grind everything to a halt to explain complicated connections and plot points, as is per usual for a crime film. This drags the film out, spreads the scares too thin and ends up feeling flimsy and convoluted. It tries to do both and ends up not being able to get either right.

When the horror is there, it relies too much on genre staples that don’t really work in a film trying to do something different. You have children in peril, you have doors shutting on their own, you have faces flashing on the screen, creepy music (by the way, if the demon had really wanted to torment the guy he should have played him some of The Doors live recordings. Or The Eagles. Shudder), a priest, Holy water and, of course, the necessary exorcism finale. We’ve seen it all before and we’ve seen it used to greater effect (The Possession, The Exorcist).

It’s not a terrible film by any means, and some of Derrickson’s touches do shine through, but ultimately it felt like a failed experiment.

On the other end of the movie spectrum, we have Begin Again, opening this weekend, from John Carney, the director of Once, the surprise musical hit which people seem to love but I must admit I never saw. In that film he gained a lot of recognition for taking some musician non-actors, putting them in a DIY-spirit film and making magic (so I hear).

Now that we all know who he is he’s gone the other way by hiring big time non-musician actors (Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo) to play nobody musicians in a larger-budget Hollywood movie.

There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, but the problem is that even in that context Carney tries to make a cutesy, indie type film and the whole thing ends up feeling a little overwrought and confused.

Begin Again is not without its charms. The actors all generally do a great job, especially James Corden as the comic relief and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) as a record company executive. It has some nice touches, like a scene where Ruffalo and Knightley’s characters walk around New York listening to music on an iPod, enjoying the transformation of mundane scenes into inspirational sights through the magic of music. I liked the relationship between Ruffalo’s character and his daughter (played by all grown up and wonderful Hailee Steinfeld, known best for the Coen Brother’s True Grit).

Unfortunately there’s enough in the movie which doesn’t work to spoil all its good intentions and folksy charm. My main problem was the music, which can be a hard criticism to make as the enjoyment of music is so subjective. But for a film which relied on the plot point of a down-and-out music producer discovering a music hidden gem, the music which Knightley’s character plays and Ruffalo’s brings to life is disappointingly flat and generic.

There’s a great scene where Ruffalo’s character first hears Knightley sing and the audience, through the magic of movies, gets a chance to hear the producer mentally adding accompaniment to her lone voice and guitar. We see an unmanned piano strike up, a ghost hand moving the bow across a cello, the drums spring to life as if played by spirits. It’s a great gag and it’s done well. It brings to life the idea of what collaboration can produce; her music plus his ear for hits.

All the ghoulish instruments in the world can’t inject any life into songs the equivalent of which you could flip on any adult-contemporary radio station and hear right this minute, however. And that takes you out of the story. You want her to be great, you want to cheer on this talent as she comes into her own, but, I’m sorry, some folks got it, and some don’t.

The movie also can’t bend its own sentimental leanings into anything more than typical Hollywood schmaltz, likely because it was made with the typical Hollywood components, actors and all. While an indie film can be cutesy, a Hollywood film usually lacks the singular voice to make it seem genuine, and that seems to be the case here. It feels too much something like a focus group has already poured over to give it any legit emotional weight. Maybe it’s the shiny A-list actors faces, maybe it’s the over-production, maybe it’s the inclusion of Adam Levine in any way, shape or form. Maybe it’s all of that. Whatever it is, it ruined any chance of me buying into its earnestness.

I wish I could tell you to forgo the explosions and prequels to take in this smaller fare, but I just can’t. I can’t really recommend the big films right now either, though. I’m hoping Dawn of the Planet of the Apes changes all that, but for now maybe just go outside. I’m told the sun can be rather pleasant at times.

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