The Films of Jaume Collet-Serra
House of Wax (May 4/05)
Based on the André De Toth film of the same name, House of Wax features an intriguing premise - a madman encases his still-breathing victims in wax - but exceedingly little in the way of character development and plot. In terms of the latter, screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes don't even attempt to disguise the fact that House of Wax is essentially not about anything; the film is generally dominated by long, unnecessarily prolonged sequences in which the various characters are either poking around where they shouldn't or hiding from a deformed maniac. It's obvious that the filmmakers have been heavily inspired by the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, as House of Wax is essentially a carbon-copy of that film. The last thing one expects out of a silly slasher flick such as this is a slow, almost interminable build-up; the viewer is forced to sit through almost an hour of mindless dialogue before the first murder occurs. While there are a few effective sequences - a particularly nasty moment in which a character encounters a friend encased in wax is an obvious highlight - the film suffers from an inordinate amount of downtime (it's clear that there's a good amount of padding at work here). Director Jaume Collet-Serra imbues House of Wax with a distinctly unpleasant visual style, drowning the film in murky darkness (a problem that's exacerbated by Collet-Serra's reliance on jittery handheld cinematography, which is presumably meant to bring a sense of grittiness to the proceedings). The performances are expectedly lackluster, though it's hard to entirely blame the actors (character development within the script is almost entirely non-existent). And then there's the ludicrous conclusion, in which we discover that the house of wax is actually made of wax. Aside from the obvious logistical issues involved in building an entire house out of wax, it's at this point that the film becomes engulfed in over-the-top and thoroughly distracting special effects. It's an unusually hectic conclusion for a movie that's otherwise far from lively, and feels like nothing more than a last-ditch effort to engage the audience.
Goal II: Living the Dream
Orphan (July 24/09)
The latest entry within the increasingly crowded killer-kid horror subgenre, Orphan follows suburban couple Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) as they decide to adopt a nine-year-old girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) from a local orphanage - with trouble ensuing as Kate becomes increasingly convinced that there's something just a little off about her new daughter. It's a fairly conventional set-up that's employed to primarily positive effect by director Jaume Collet-Serra, as the filmmaker does a nice job of infusing the proceedings with an appropriately ominous atmosphere that's complemented by the uniformly impressive performances. Screenwriter David Johnson's reliance on almost excessively familiar elements is thereupon not nearly as problematic as one might've assumed, with the progressively sinister actions of the central character going a long way towards sustaining the viewer's interest through the film's more overtly superfluous interludes (which, given a running time of over two hours, there are more of than entirely preferable). And as effective as both Farmiga and Sarsgaard are here, Orphan's success is ultimately due in large part to Fuhrman's absolutely chilling work as Esther; armed with a creepy Russian accent and an antiquated dress sense, Fuhrman's Esther immediately establishes herself as one of the most compelling and downright indelible screen villains to come around in quite some time (ie she's just so evil). The inclusion of a twist ending that's flat-out jaw-dropping in its audaciousness virtually justifies the entire movie's existence by itself, and it subsequently goes without saying that Orphan definitively establishes itself as a better-than-average horror endeavor that's an obvious cut above such similarly-themed efforts as Godsend and the recent Omen remake.
Unknown casts Liam Neeson as Martin Harris - a mild mannered scientist who arrives in Berlin for a biotechnology conference and almost immediately falls into a coma following a car crash. Four days later, Martin awakes and sets out to find his wife (January Jones' Elizabeth) - with complications ensuing as Elizabeth denies knowing him and even produces another man named Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). It's an irresistibly compelling premise that is, at the outset, employed to better-than-expected effect by Jaume Collet-Serra, as the filmmaker, working from Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell's script, does a superb job of infusing several early sequences with a palpably tense and engrossing vibe (ie the scene in which Martin first confronts his wife is nothing short of riveting). Neeson's expectedly solid turn as the baffled protagonist plays a key role in perpetuating the film's engaging vibe, with the actor's strong work going a long way towards both grabbing the viewer and heightening the impact of the central mystery. It's only as Unknown progresses into its disappointingly meandering middle that one's interest begins to wane, as Collet-Serra begins to emphasize Martin's increasingly tedious investigation to an almost oppressive degree - with the less-than-gripping feel compounded by the filmmaker's incomptent handling of the movie's action sequences (ie enough with the shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing already). And while the film admittedly does improve as the various pieces begin to fall into place, Unknown is never quite able to recover from its lackluster midsection - which ultimately dulls the impact of its action-packed, revelation-heavy third act (ie the whole thing is just not able to become as enthralling as Collet-Serra has clearly intended).
Rarely as compelling as its premise might've indicated, Non-Stop follows Liam Neeson's Bill Marks, an alcoholic air marshal, as he's forced to take action into his own hands after a shadowy figure begins taunting him (and, eventually, murdering passengers) aboard a crowded airliner. It's a good setup that's employed to consistently middling effect by director Jaume Collet-Serra, as the filmmaker, working from a script by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, proves unable to wholeheartedly draw the viewer into the deliberately-paced proceedings - with the movie's arms-length atmosphere perpetuated by a continued emphasis on the mystery of the perpetrator's identity (ie much of the midsection essentially feels like Clue on a plane). The viewer's efforts at working up any interest in or enthusiasm for Marks' ongoing exploits are, as a result, fruitless, which subsequently ensures that large swaths of Non-Stop are simply not as exciting or enthralling as one might've expected/hoped. (There are, having said that, a handful of standout sequences, with Marks' tense attempts to ferret out the terrorist using just a mobile phone standing as a highlight.) By the time the lackluster ticking-clock third act rolls around, Non-Stop has established itself as a missed opportunity that squanders its appealing storyline and performances - as the movie suffers from a paucity of elements designed to capture and sustain one's interest (ie there's just nothing here worth getting invested in).
Run All Night
The Jaume Collet-Serra/Liam Neeson partnership hits the wall with this absolutely (and often astonishingly) misguided thriller, which follows Neeson's Jimmy Conlon as he attempts to protect his son (Joel Kinnaman's Mike) from the vengeful advances of a brutal mobster (Ed Harris' Shawn Maguire). Run All Night certainly seems as though it should be another briskly-paced and action-packed title in the vein of Unknown and (to a much lesser extent) Non-Stop, and yet the film primarily comes off as a generic, by-the-numbers fiasco that trudges along for the duration of its nigh endless 114 minute running time. Collet-Serra's inability to inject even an ounce of excitement into the movie's action sequences proves disastrous, with the less-than-engrossing nature of such moments compounded by an overly (and needlessly) frenetic visual style. (Hasn't the shakycam's moment come and gone by now?) And although there are a few good scenes sprinkled here and there - eg a tense moment inside a diner - Run All Night ultimately comes off as a hopelessly perfunctory effort that feels phoned in on almost every level and by virtually all involved. (Neeson is good, sure, but he's not doing anything here he hasn't done countless times before.)
After a run of palpably mediocre thrillers, Jaume Collet-Serra bounces back with an erratic yet often thoroughly engrossing shark movie that's more engrossing than most similarly-themed efforts (including, impressively enough, Steven Spielberg's Jaws). The narrative, which follows Blake Lively's Nancy as she's stalked by a vicious shark near an isolated beach, does get off to a slow and somewhat underwhelming start, as Collet-Serra employs an overly lackadaisical pace that's compounded by scripter Anthony Jaswinski's emphasis on Nancy's solo, survival-oriented antics. The less-than-captivating vibe of the movie's first half is due mostly to Lively's difficulties at transforming her character into a wholly sympathetic figure, as the actress, who is admittedly quite good here, doesn't quite possess the charisma required to anchor an entirely picture by herself. It's a complaint that effectively becomes moot as time progresses, with The Shallows' shift from watchable to enthralling coming as Nancy begins actively looking for a way out of her increasingly perilous situation (ie she stops just surviving past a certain point). Collet-Serra's decision to amp up the shark action doesn't hurt either, of course, and it's hard to deny that the film's momentum builds steadily as it barrels towards its intense, exciting finale - with the end result a solid effort from a filmmaker who's been floundering as of late.
An obvious improvement over Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson's previous collaboration, 2015's disastrous Run All Night, The Commuter follows Neeson's Michael MacCauley's recently-sacked insurance salesman as he's drawn into an elaborate conspiracy on board a train by Vera Farmiga's mysterious Joanna - with the narrative detailing Michael's ongoing and increasingly perilous efforts at completing Joanna's seemingly simple task. The degree to which The Commuter improves as it progresses is ultimately rather shocking, as the movie suffers from a decidedly hit-and-miss first half that doesn't hold a lot of promise - with the early emphasis on Michael's train-based investigation certainly perpetuating the less-than-engrossing vibe. (There are, for example, far too many scenes of Michael harrassing various passengers as he attempts to solve the mystery.) It's clear, though, that the film improves considerably as it progresses into its watchable and sporadically enthralling second half, as certain revelations pave the way for a far more streamlined atmosphere that's rife with thrilling action sequences - including a solid hand-to-hand fight in the train's vestibule and an unexpectedly over-the-top yet entertaining derailment interlude. Neeson's typically solid work as the grizzled central character remains a consistent highlight, to be sure, and the satisfying concluding stretch ensures that the whole thing ends on a palpably positive note - which confirms The Commuter's place as a solid thriller that's ultimately far better than one might've anticipated.