The Films of Mikael Håfström
Days Like This
1408 (June 18/07)
Based on a short story by Stephen King, 1408 casts John Cusack as Mike Enslin - a skeptical author who finds himself trapped within the confines of a decidedly abnormal room whilst researching his latest book. Director Mikael Håfström - working from Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski's screenplay - initially infuses the proceedings with a sinister and genuinely creepy vibe, but there's ultimately little doubt that the film's build-up is more effective than its pay-off. Much like the source material, 1408 works best in its opening scenes - Mike's confrontation with a pragmatic hotel manager (superbly played by Samuel L. Jackson) is an obvious highlight - due primarily to the fact that it becomes awfully difficult to sympathize with Mike's predicament as the story progresses and things just get weirder and weirder. Yet there's certainly no denying the strength of Cusack's work here; the actor, forced to spend large chunks of screen time by himself, does a superb job of holding the viewer's interest through what is essentially a one-man show.
The Rite (January 31/11)
Directed by Mikael Håfström, The Rite follows disillusioned seminary student Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) as he travels to Rome for a course in performing exorcisms - with the film subsequently (and primarily) detailing Michael's ongoing exploits alongside his newfound mentor (Anthony Hopkins' Lucas Trevant). Håfström has infused The Rite with an almost unbearably deliberate pace that only grows more problematic as time progresses, with the film's lack of momentum ensuring that the viewer is simply unable to work up any interest or sympathy in the central character's increasingly perilous plight. The movie's less-than-compelling atmosphere is exacerbated by Håfström's pervasively somber modus operandi, although, as ultimately becomes clear, it's O'Donoghue's aggressively bland performance that stands as The Rite's most misguided and misbegotten attribute (ie the actor is devoid of charisma to an astonishing degree). There is, however, little doubt that the movie does improve somewhat in its third act, as Håfström offers up a final exorcism that's actually quite well done and genuinely suspenseful - with Hopkins' larger-than-life work during this stretch injecting the proceedings with a short-lived burst of much-needed energy. The strength of the climax is hardly able to compensate for the film's slow-moving opening hour (which feels as though it could've easily been condensed into a swift 15 minutes), and it finally goes without saying that The Rite stands as the weakest of the recent spate of exorcism-themed thrillers.
Though it boasts the dream pairing of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Escape Plan, for the most part, never quite becomes the fun, escapist action picture one might've anticipated - with the narrative, which follows Stallone's Ray and Schwarzenegger's Emil as they attempt to break out of a high-tech prison, suffers from a depressingly sluggish midsection that proves disastrous. The film does, however, fare surprisingly well in its opening stretch, as filmmaker Mikael Håfström, working from Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko's screenplay, kicks off the proceedings with an exciting jail-break sequence that seems to lay the groundwork for an exciting (and unapologetically ludicrous) thriller. And although there's plenty of promise in Ray's initial arrival at that aforementioned prison - Jim Caviezel's scenery-chewing turn as the comically evil warden is a highlight, to be sure - Escape Plan segues into a second act that is, for the most part, devoid of compelling segments and hopelessly by-the-numbers in its execution. The movie's less-than-engrossing feel is compounded by the inclusion of padded-out and entirely needless subplots, with, for example, the continued emphasis on Ray's dealings with a reluctantly helpful physician (Sam Neill's Dr. Kyrie) ranking high on Escape Plan's list of superfluous elements. Just as the viewer is ready to write the film off as a well-intentioned failure, however, Håfström offers up a genuinely exciting finale that's as fast-paced, over-the-top, and flat-out fun as everything preceding it should have been - which ultimately does cement the movie's place as a disappointing yet sporadically engrossing throwback to the violent actioners of the '80s and '90s.