(Video On-demand, March 2013) For a straightforward low-budget woman-in-peril thriller, House at the End of the Street isn’t too bad: There are a few narrative curveballs, the lead actress is compelling and the brisk pacing forgives a lot of other issues. Few people outside the Ottawa area will care that the film was shot in the neighborhood, but plenty will see the film because it stars a then-little-known Jennifer Lawrence. Fortunately, Lawrence has what it takes to play a plucky teenager in danger: her performance is compelling as she holds her own alongside Elizabeth Shue. The rural setting is good enough for a few chills, and after a clumsy start, the direction builds a decent sense of tension as each suspense set-piece is put together. It wouldn’t be fair to overhype House at the End of the Street as anything more than a run-of-the-mill thriller, especially during its first act, but it’s quite a bit better than its savage critical reception may have suggested. If nothing else, it shows Jennifer Lawrence running around looking scared in the classic tradition of exploitation thrillers.
(On DVD, July 2011) There’s a mess of intentions in Hamlet 2 that makes it hard to cohere as a purely enjoyable comedy. On one hand, the film is generally more successful when it plays things broadly, taking advantage of Steve Coogan’s go-for-broke willingness to try anything, and an irreverent attitude that places no gags beyond the script’s reach. The “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” musical number is the highlight of the film, topping whatever risqué subject matter and foul language may not have reached. There are a few good absurd touches and unexpected character reversals, such as starring Elizabeth Shue as herself, taking plot directions from a young drama critic, meeting the accomplished parents of a good kid posing as a gang-banger, and ultimately having the kids save their teacher’s self-esteem rather than the usual other way around. As with most comedies, there are a few smiles here and there. But Hamlet 2 is also saddled with a misguided intent to delve into humiliation comedy, to carry scenes too long after the point of the joke, and to attempt providing redundant emotional scaffolding to the comedy. As a result, the film runs long even at roughly 90 minutes. Coogan, playing a character often too dumb to live, is exactly the kind of actor who overacts when he’s not reined in: his performance is a symptom of a film that hasn’t quite mastered tonal harmony from beginning to end. There’s enough off-kilter experimentation here to keep anyone interested, and the third act is successful enough to patch most of the early film’s laugh-free rough spots, but Hamlet 2 doesn’t quite manage to do justice to the kind of film it’s mocking. The DVD contains a making-of featurette that tells us a bit about the writers’ intentions (parody the “inspirational teacher” movies sub-genre) and shows us that the film’s been fun to make.