James Norton

Things Heard and Seen

08/05/21

Netflix

Many films can be accused of not having enough going on but, in the case of Things Heard and Seen, there’s the opposite problem. There’s so much happening here the movie’s creators can’t seem to make their mind up exactly what they want this to be. In its early stages, it looks like it’s setting out its stall as a straightforward haunted house tale – but, as the convoluted storyline unfolds, it becomes much more than that. And really, this should be a positive development, because, let’s face it, there’s hardly a shortage of those. Ultimately, however, it’s TH & S’s ambition that makes it overreach itself.

It’s 1980 and Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried) is working happily as an art restorer (though she’s experiencing an ongoing battle with an eating disorder). Then her husband, George (James Norton), qualifies as a lecturer in fine art and promptly lands a job in Chosen, upstate New York. Almost before Catherine knows what’s happening, the couple and their young daughter have relocated to a remote farmhouse, one that by all accounts comes with a sinister backstory. Catherine feels isolated here, but is determined to make the best of things. The couple have the house renovated and even find part time jobs for Eddie Vayle (Alex Neustaedter) and his younger brother, Cole (Jack Gore), who actually grew up in the house – though George keeps this fact a secret from his wife.

George starts his classes and is an instant hit, both with his young female students and with his department head, Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), who, it turns out, has a bit of a passion for the occult. Catherine starts experiencing troubling visions in the homestead – flashing lights, eerie whispers and glimpses of a sinister woman. And then it emerges that George might not be quite the charming, artistic academic that Catherine has always believed him to be…

Writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini never seem quite sure which direction they want to head in next, and opt instead to veer left and right, trying to cover all the bases. The acting is mostly good (Norton in particular is deliciously villainous) and even minor characters are afforded plenty of characterisation, right down to Karen Allen’s realtor, Mare Laughton and Rhea Seahorn’s inquisitive neighbour, Justine. And, to the film’s credit, there are some scenes here that are genuine surprises.

But somehow the overall story arc fails to gel and several of the plot developments we’re asked to accept are frankly pushing credulity a little too far.

As it thunders headlong into its final third, all credibility has pretty much gone out of the window, and the last scene demonstrates a conceit that must have been in the author’s mind from the very beginning. It feels shoehorned in and makes for a disappointing conclusion to what has mostly been a decent enough entertainment. 

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Flatliners

29/09/17

If there was a prize for the least anticipated remake ever, Flatliners would probably be pretty high on the list. On its release, Joel Schumacher’s 1990 original was roundly drubbed by most critics as ‘pretty but vacuous’ and this new version seems to have reached the big screen with very little trumpeting from its makers. On the face of it, not much has changed from the original story.

A bunch of medical students based in an American hospital, all of whom are haunted by incidents in their past, decide to run a series of experiments where they deliberately stop each other’s hearts in order to try and discover the answer to an age old question: is there life after death? Ring leader Courtney (Ellen Page) is tormented by the fact that, nine years ago, she inadvertently caused the death of her younger sister in a car accident. Rich-kid Jamie (James Norton) ran out on his pregnant girlfriend. Sophia (Kiersy Clemons) was the ringleader of a bullying campaign on a vulnerable girl at her high school, and Marlo (Nina Dobrev) accidentally caused the death of a patient at the hospital and then falsified the records. Only Ray (Diego Luna) appears to have no skeletons rattling in his closet but, luckily, he’s the one who always knows what to do in any given emergency – and, inevitably, things go wrong fairly often.

From the word go, viewers are asked to swallow a rather unlikely premise – that there’s a fully equipped and functioning operating theatre down in the hospital’s basement, one that isn’t guarded and is only ever to be used ‘in an emergency.’ (Yes, I know.) However, if you can accept that, what follows is entertaining enough in a kind of breathless, galumphing sort of way. Each character undergoes a freaky near-death experience – and afterwards, is haunted by ghostly visions and inexplicable events. The jump scares are expertly handled by director Niels Arden Oplev and the first two thirds of the film whizz by quite entertainingly. It’s only as it thunders into the final furlong that things begin to run out of steam and I find myself with the conviction that the writers haven’t really thought the story through properly. To be haunted by a dead person is one thing. To be haunted by somebody who is still demonstrably alive and existing happily in the world, is quite another. And to me, that’s a problem. Because, if the ‘spirits’ are only a manifestation of an already guilty conscience, why do the young doctors need to flatline in order to awaken them?

The acting from the ensemble cast is consistent throughout and it’s interesting to see Happy Valley’s James Norton making what looks like a pretty assured transition to Hollywood. Just for the sake of tradition, Kiefer Sutherland (who had a lead role in the original) throws in a cameo performance as a rather grumpy teacher, prone to snarling at his pupils and banging his walking stick on their desks whenever they fail to answer his questions correctly. The film’s somewhat cheesy conclusion – that people need to be ready to ‘forgive themselves’ – kind of blows what’s left of the credibility.

Ultimately, I think, this is one to watch when there isn’t much else on offer – and, come to think of it, that’s exactly why we’re seeing it. It’s decent enough entertainment but, in the end, forgettable and a bit… dare I say it? Flat.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney