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updated: 8/30/2012 8:11 AM

'Awakening' hardly enough to keep audiences awake

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  • Rebecca Hall stars in "The Awakening."

    Rebecca Hall stars in "The Awakening."


Reel Life mini-review: 'The Awakening'

I have a Sixth Sense that The Others in The Orphanage might find Nick Murphy's Brit ghost movie "The Awakening" to be every bit as generic as its overused title.

Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a professional London hoax debunker who figures out how con artists pull off fake seances and hauntings for profit during 1921.

She reluctantly lets a teacher named Mallory (Dominic West) persuade her to investigate a case in which a ghost allegedly has scared a student to death at an imposing, isolated boarding school.

Then the handsomely photographed movie (shot in desaturated colors and striking compositions) ramps up to a moderately interesting series of fleeting shadows, things suddenly popping into the frame, mysterious images in photographs and the obligatory bathtub scene in which Cathcart suspects she's being watched.

None of this feels particularly inspired, despite occasional mild jolts that keep us from nodding off.

Besides, the characters at the school are a dreary lot. In addition to the taciturn, war-injured Mallory, the building houses a creepy groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle), a cane-wielding professor with emo issues (Shaun Dooley), a kindly house matron (Imelda Staunton), and a cute student named Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), left behind on school break because his parents are away in India.

Hall's character is clearly a modern Englishwoman out of place in 1921. She commands respect and no one challenges her. And in early scenes, she wears trousers at a time when not even Katharine Hepburn could get away with it.

Murphy's directorial debut strives for atmosphere, but winds up as a rather airless supernatural tale.

For a moment, you almost hope that Staunton reverts to Delores Umbridge from the Harry Potter movies and takes dictatorial control of the boarding school.

Now that would be a horror film.

"The Awakening" opens at the AMC South Barrington. Rated R for violence and nudity (both are quite subdued). 107 minutes. ★ ★

A horrible person?

Dann: I accidentally came across your review of "I Heart Shakey." Who is it that you think you are?! This was a great film considering its small budget. You should be ashamed of yourself bullying these people! Were you picked on when you were young? Is that why you treat people like this?

Maybe if it was your money involved, you would treat it with better care. Movies are meant for entertainment and morals of the stories, not to search out and criticize! You are a horrible person. -- A. Lee

Dear A: You ask some good questions and I'll try to address your email as best I can.

A.) Who is it that I think I am? James Bond, of course. But I'm getting too old for the role, even in my imaginative fantasies.

B.) The greatness of a movie never hinges on its budget. Great movies can cost $1 million a minute ("Titanic") or in total the price of a Toyota Camry ("The Blair Witch Project"). A big budget shouldn't raise the bar for greatness. A tiny budget shouldn't lower the bar, either.

That bar would have to sink to the Earth's core for the well-meaning but amateurish "I Heart Shakey" to be called "great."

C.) "Bullying these people"? I prefer to think of it as not pandering to the filmmakers by plying them with unearned praise for a job not well done.

D.) Yes, I was picked on when I was young. Why? Was it supposed to stop?

E.) If my money were involved in this production, I would take a really big write-off on my taxes. For the record, I could not ethically review a movie if I invested in it.

F.) Am I a horrible person? I've been called worse, I suppose. Take the Schaumburg reader who wrote: "History will show Mr. Gire to be a pathetic little man bent on not educating the public, but on being overly critical, vitriolic and nasty."

Let's not forget the fan who wrote: "I began pondering how this Dann Gire idiot could review or see any movie ... with his head stuck so far up his (bumpkin)!"

Next to those, "horrible" doesn't sound so bad.

'Big Lebowski' returns

Classic Cinemas' special "Midnight at the Tivoli" series presents the Coen brother's 1998 cult-classic comedy "The Big Lebowski" at midnight Friday at the historic Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. $5 admission! See the Dude on the Tivoli's enhanced 4K digital projection and sound system.

'Lawless' author talks

Matt Bondurant, author of the novelized family history that served as the basis for John Hillcoat's new Prohibiton-era crime drama "Lawless," stopped by Chicago for a chat with the press.

I asked Bondurant -- grandson of the movie's central character Jack Bondurant -- how he ended up being a writer.

"I was an introspective child and I spent a lot of time by myself reading," he said. "So I had an early relationship with words. I came to appreciate language, especially in a story. I was writing poems in college and stuff. I was trying to get girls."

Did that work?

"No. I should have been working out in the gym instead. I could have done other things that worked a lot better. But I took literature very seriously at an early age."

I asked Bondurant if he liked what Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave had done with his book.

"I'm very happy with it," he said. "Considering the wide range of possible outcomes, it's a fantastic outcome! From the very beginning I felt very safe. When I heard that John Hillcoat and Nick Cave were attached to this, I'm a big fan of their work. No complaints here."

What was it like to see your novel translated to the silver screen?

"It's incredibly humbling," he said. "All this money and time and effort and creative people on this set! All these things were dedicated to the task of rendering my story into a medium that thousands of people could enjoy. And they were betting that people would like it.

"There was this mountain of stuff that suddenly piled on top of what began as this simple story. It's humbling.

"I didn't feel aggrandized. I didn't feel inflated. I actually feel smaller and less significant in the face of it. Which I think is a good thing."

"Lawless" opened in area theaters Wednesday. Go to

Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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