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THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH

Producer: Richard Jackson, Simon Oakes, Ben Holden and Tobin Armbrust
Director: Tom Harper
Writer: Joe Croker
Stars: Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy, Oaklee Pendergast and Jude Wright
Studio: Relativity Media 

D

One has to admire a horror movie that eschews the grisly gore so common in the genre nowadays in favor of more traditional devices like musty atmosphere and strange noises, but this one is so turgid and enervated that it’s more likely to generate snores than shudders. “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” is simply too old-fashioned and genteel to make much of an impression at all; it’s as ephemeral as the ghost in its title.

The first picture in the series from the rejuvenated Hammer studio was notable mostly for providing one of the first post-“Harry Potter” roles for Daniel Radcliffe. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and directed by James Watkins, the 2012 release was an Edwardian-era period piece about a young lawyer who went to a remote Yorkshire manor, Eels Marsh, to survey the papers of a recently-deceased client, only to find that the place was haunted by the malevolent spirit of a woman who’d lost her young son to drowning and has ever since been luring local children to their deaths. This follow-up, also based on a story by Hill, is set in 1941, when the German bombardment of London led many families to send their sons and daughters to the countryside for safety’s sake.

As part of the exodus, a group of eight youngsters are assigned to Eels Marsh under the care of pretty young Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and the far more rigid Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory). Unwittingly, the good women are in effect laying out a buffet of tasty morsels for the spirit that still inhabits the long-deserted, decrepit place, which is almost constantly shrouded in fog and also happens to be situated on a hill that’s cut off from the mainland at times of high tide. No wonder some of the little ones become targets, with somber little Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), whose parents have just been killed in the Blitz, the most obvious of them. Eve takes a special interest in protecting him, even as she becomes aware—from creaking doors, strange sounds and a rocking chair that moves even when no one is in it—of a strange presence in the house.

But Eve has her own demons. She has recurring nightmares about a child she bore but abandoned—a fact of which the ghost seems aware. And though Harry (Jeremy Irvine), a handsome RAF pilot she encountered on the train trip north, appoints himself her protector, he’s also tormented by the past, specifically a crash that took the lives of all his crew. Can two such damaged souls save Edward and the other children from the titular menace?

The best things about “Angel of Death” are visual. Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design is impressive, and George Steel’s lustrous widescreen cinematography drains much of the color from the images, leaving a painterly blue-and-gray palette. In its earlier incarnation Hammer made pictures that looked remarkably classy on low budgets, and on the evidence here, the studio hasn’t lost its touch in that respect.

But on the dramatic side the news is much less good. Tom Harper’s direction emphasizes mood to the near-exclusion of energy and tension, and even when he tries to add some shock moments—especially in the last third of the running-time—the effect is feeble. Things aren’t helped by Mark Eckersley’s humdrum editing, or by the drab performances of Fox, Irvine and Pendergast. McCrory is no better than they are, but at least her portrayal of stiff-upper-lipism is so over the top that it might provoke a few smiles. Ned Dennehy shows up briefly as a mentally unstable blind man who appears to be the only inhabitant of the derelict village near the manor (apparently depopulated since the time of the first film, where it was a thriving little place); he has no purpose except to provide a few cheap “gotcha” moments. Unfortunately, “Angel of Death” misses out on one of the nicest ironies of “The Woman in Black,” where the title character was played by an actress named Liz White. This time around, she’s been replaced by Leanne Best, and the witty juxtaposition is lost.

For a film about the supernatural, “The Woman in Black 2” is unremittingly mundane, and in that respect it’s no better than its tepid predecessor. Any hope that Hammer might have of continuing this series is probably just wishful thinking.

AMERICAN SNIPER

Producer: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan 
Director: Clint Eastwood 
Writer:  Jason Hall
Stars:  Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban, Keir O'Donnell, Cole Konis, Luke Sunshine, Mido Hamada and Sammy Sheik
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

B

Made with the craft one has come to expect of Clint Eastwood’s movies (with their repertory-style crews) and boasting an impressive performance by Bradley Cooper (so beefed-up that he’s almost unrecognizable), this adaptation of the late Chris Kyle’s autobiographical memoir is notable for its deliberately equivocal approach. “American Sniper” is on the one hand hagiographical, celebrating the sacrifices Kyle made in the Iraq war (as well as those he made after his return stateside); but it also raises some troubling questions about his mission, and even more about the devastating impact, both physical and psychological, combat had on him and his comrades. In that respect it aims to pull off somewhat the same trick that “Patton” did: some viewers read that as the ultimate exercise in bellicose patriotism, while others saw it as essentially an anti-war movie. It’s a tightrope act that “Sniper” doesn’t manage quite so successfully, though it deserves credit for trying.

Kyle, of course, became the country’s most renowned sharpshooter, credited with more than a hundred and fifty combat kills in Iraq during four tours of duty there—a feat that earned him the nickname of “Legend” and made him a chief target of insurgents. In 2013, four years after leaving the service, he was shot to death, allegedly by a troubled Marine veteran he was trying to help deal with his PTSD. After a prologue showing him with a woman and her young son in his sights as they approach a group of American soldiers on patrol, Eastwood’s film quickly cuts to a flashback showing Kyle’s childhood aptitude in marksmanship before jumping to his days as a wild-living rodeo rider. It’s 9/11 that leads him to enlist in the Navy SEALs, and to succeed in their rigorous training program despite being older than most of the recruits. It’s during that training period that he also meets, and weds, feisty Taya (Sienna Miller), right before being shipped out on his first tour.

From this point “Sniper” alternates between scenes of combat in Iraq—by far the larger portion of the film—in which Kyle’s phenomenal skill is repeatedly showcased, and shorter episodes in which he returns to the States changed by the experience and increasingly uncomfortable in a peacetime environment. (The contrast is none too subtly shown when Taya and Chris share phone conversations while he’s in the midst of battle.) Eastwood, his usual cinematographer Tom Stern and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach do a fine job with the individual wartime episodes, which range from relatively brief recreations of specific kills to more extended episodes in which Kyle, for example, joins Marines on the ground to assist them in clearing houses. But the focus gradually turns to Kyle’s effort to take down a terrorist leader called The Butcher (Mido Hamada), lieutenant to Al-Quaeda chief Abu al-Zarqawi, which leads him and the special team he heads into a virtual competition with an insurgent sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), an Olympic medal winner as adept as Kyle at his deadly trade. Even in a climactic mission, when Kyle and his comrades find themselves stranded on a rooftop in enemy-controlled territory, the action is depicted in an unfussy but compelling way that once again demonstrates the smooth professionalism with which the director and his roster of behind-the-scenes cohorts are able to pull off such complicated sequences.

Not nearly as complex as the battle choreography is the film’s depiction of the Iraqi insurgents. There’s one scene, when Kyle’s squad takes over the apartment of a family for surveillance purposes and discovers that the husband has a secret cache of arms under the floorboards, that comes close to showing a degree of understanding of a civilian population complicit in attacks on Americans, and there’s a grudging recognition of Mustafa’s ability, even if it ultimately proves unequal to Kyle’s. But the Iraqis are generally treated as a faceless mass—dismissed by one soldier as “savages”—except in an episode involving a sheik (Navid Negahban) who’s been pressured to cooperate with the US forces and who, along with his young son, suffers terrible retribution at the hands of The Butcher as Kyle watches, unable to intervene. Of course the entire narrative is told from Kyle’s perspective, and so the characterization of those he must take aim at has little room for nuance, except for his own agony at deciding whether to fire at a boy with a grenade. For something more—something akin to the treatment of the Japanese Eastwood himself offered in “Letters from Iwo Jima”—we’ll probably have to wait a decade or two.

The stateside interludes, by contrast, aren’t quite so impressive. Cooper certainly captures the sense of alienation Kyle feels from “normal” American life and the almost irresistible inclination to return to the “abnormal” environment he’s now accustomed to by repeatedly going back to Iraq and the fellow soldiers for whom he feels more responsibility than perhaps he does to his own children. It’s the same issue that Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James faced in “The Hurt Locker,” though traced here in a more subdued fashion; and like that film, Eastwood’s necessarily raises the issue of the psychological toll that the reality of war takes on its protagonist. But while Kathryn Bigelow, dealing with the matter in purely fictional terms, was able to explore it unflinchingly, here it’s understandably treated more cautiously, and some of the dialogue, especially that given to Taya, is so clichéd that it takes the picture close to soap opera.

Otherwise, however, Miller is quite good as a woman supportive of a husband from whom she can’t help but feel increasingly distant. The actors playing Kyle’s fellow soldiers likewise do admirable if unremarkable jobs. But the linchpin holding the picture together is Cooper, who subtly registers Kyle’s shift from the swaggering, ingratiatingly straightforward young man of the film’s early scenes to a more pensive, if not tortured, individual as the experience of the war—and in particular the realization of what it means to have taken so many lives from a distance while yet regretting not having saved more of his comrades by taking still more—sinks in. It’s easily the most subtle work the actor has done on screen, and together with his current Broadway turn in “The Elephant Man,” evinces his growth from the emptier work of the “Hangover” franchise and even “Silver Linings Playbook.” Eastwood’s own score matches it in its economy and restraint.

“American Sniper” is a respectful, and more than respectable, attempt to celebrate Kyle’s service while also taking account of the effect it had on him and his family. If in the end its achievement doesn’t quite meet its ambition, it remains an admirable effort.