Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe is a haunted man in The Woman in Black.
  • Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe is a haunted man in The Woman in Black.
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The Woman in Black *

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My first reaction to The Woman in Black was “all nerves, no heart.” But I have a weakness for the sort of nerve-stretching that the film employs. The sort that comes from a long shot that peers down a dim hallway in an old house and strains at the darkness, waiting for something to emerge. The sort that mounts as a pale solicitor (Daniel Radcliffe) tries key after key in a locked door behind which he can hear a persistent thump and scrape. The sort that is almost glad when the ghost makes its appearance, because the waiting is the hardest part. So the nerves part tended to obscure the heart part, which is perhaps as the makers intended.

With the benefit of hindsight and daylight, my opinion has softened on both fronts. First, the nerves weren’t as nervy as they might have been, relying too heavily on big noises and jump scares and not enough on the creepy Victoriana surrounding our hero as he tries to sort out a dead widow’s paperwork in a ruined house in the middle of a boggy marsh. The first time we got a glimpse of the alarmingly lifelike monkeys in the traditional see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil pose, I shivered at the thought of how the old saying might come into play. Alas, it didn’t. And don’t these people know that one creepy wind-up clown doll chiming away in the silence of an abandoned nursery is a good deal scarier than ten, all sounding off together?

And the heart was more heartful than I first realized. Radcliffe begins the film as a haunted man, having lost his wife in childbirth four years before. What follows is his journey toward peace, as opposed to the ghost’s. (The role was a good choice as a first cinematic step away from Harry Potter — Radcliffe’s fine features go taut with ease, and his eyes look haunted without even trying.) It’s what keeps him going in the face of some grisly encounters in the haunted Eel Marsh House.

As for the rest, a curious element of the Japanese horror genre seems to hang about the edges in the form of a horrific curse randomly applied. But the look is sumptuously English; even the heavy, overcast sky glows with moody brilliance.

The Flowers of War *

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Now we know why they called it the Rape of Nanking. The Flowers of War tells the story of one American man’s attempt to save a group of Chinese schoolgirls from rape at the hands of Japanese invaders in the late ’30s. We are witnesses to attempted rape when the Japanese first break into the cathedral that is supposed to serve as the girls’ sanctuary. We get actual rape when the Japanese catch a couple of the prostitutes who are also hiding out in the church. And we have the promise of rape when...well, I won’t give it away. Rape, rape, rape, sometimes accompanied by sacred choral music.

Does it sound over the top? Perish the thought. There is no top. We’re talking about bullets punching through a stained-glass window to save a girl from sexual assault. A paper-factory booby trap that sends rainbow-colored shreds soaring through the exploding air. A church with sassy whores in the basement and pious virgins in the attic. I could go on. I think the story might make a fine opera.

Christian Bale is our reluctant American hero, and his attempt at playing a drunken jerk in need of some humanity at the start of the story had me longing for the seedy, self-regarding charm of William Holden or Richard Burton. His role as White Savior is more believable — the Japanese are reluctant to harm a Westerner, and so he is the last best hope of the Chinese who beg for his protection. Converted by a mix of compassion (for the girls) and lust (for the whores), he impersonates a priest and sets about trying to repair a ruined truck on the church grounds so that he can smuggle his charges to safety.

For all the film’s cheerful willingness to wallow in the extremes that wartime may bring, it does pause to dabble in humanity and nuance: a motherly prostitute here, a repentant schoolgirl there. Simple, powerful stuff. Plus, it looks amazing. So while I can see how some might condemn The Flowers of War as brutal, bathetic exploitation, I can’t quite join in.

Opens February 17 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within ***

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“This may sound like a cliché in a Hollywood movie,” rasps the narrator at the start of the Brazilian cop drama Elite Squad. The rest of the sentence isn’t important. What matters is the smackdown that the narrator, and the entire film, delivers to the American action-film hegemony.

Lt. Colonel Nascimento starts the film as the head of BOPE, Rio de Janeiro’s version of a SWAT team (albeit one that uses a skull as an emblem). But after the squad’s clampdown on a prison riot goes south — Nascimento wants to let the drug cartels kill each other, while the human-rights advocate who married his ex-wife (!) wants to negotiate peace — he finds himself booted upstairs to a desk job, monitoring wiretaps and running BOPE from above.

What follows is one man’s war against the system, and the struggle is fascinating and visceral. Nascimento defines the system as “an articulation of loathsome interests,” and it’s those interests that make things interesting. The system isn’t any one thing, controlled by one man, opposable by force applied at one point. It’s many things, controlled by many men — from politicians to cops to criminals — and force applied at one point may produce unintended effects in others.

A soldier who is used to defined missions with clear objectives must now consider motivations and weigh consequences, and guess what? Though his moral vision is clear, his judgment is not, and he makes serious mistakes.

The heavy use of narration makes it feel a little like film noir. The machinations — betrayals, conspiracies, manipulations — are worthy of any political thriller. The family dynamics, instead of being tossed in for the sake of adding depth to the protagonist, wind up being the central drama. But the feeling is pure police action.

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