Chuck Koplinski: Truth more intriguing than fiction in weird 'Winchester'

Chuck Koplinski: Truth more intriguing than fiction in weird 'Winchester'

The story of Sarah Winchester and her family fortune is a fascinating one.

Upon the death of her husband, William Wirt Winchester, she inherited $20 million (over half a billion in 2018 dollars), controlled half of the stock in the famous firearms company and was allotted an allowance of $1,000 per day.

Having consulted a medium after the death of her infant daughter some years earlier, she repeated this course of action after her husband died and was told by a charlatan out of Boston that her family was cursed, haunted by the spirits of all of those killed by Winchester rifles.

Taking this to heart, in a foolish effort to appease the supposed ghosts, she moved to California, bought an eight-room farmhouse and began having additions attached to the home, a project that continued, literally, around the clock, every day for more than 20 years. Winchester's thinking was that if she provided refuge for the spirits, they would be put to rest in the rambling structure, one so large and confusing that servants were given maps so they wouldn't get lost.

All of this constitute the "inspired by actual events" part of the Spierig Brothers' haunted-house thriller "Winchester," an elaborately produced period piece that takes place at the turn of the century, quite some time after the proprietress' residence had taken on its Rube Goldberg-like quality.

The script from Tom Vaughan, rewritten by the Spierigs, uses the history of the house as a jumping-off point, putting Winchester (a game Helen Mirren) front and center as the subject of a psychological evaluation to be performed by Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a doctor with a less-than-stellar reputation. Seems the board of directors that runs the arms works thinks she might not be mentally able to run the company and wouldn't mind wresting control from her if this can be proven.

It's quite a setup, and rather a solid one as far as haunted-house movies are concerned. And the fact that Price is a nonbeliever where the paranormal is concerned gives us a proper skeptic for the spirits to convert. Yet the film is a mystery; the premise is solid, the acting is good and the production design is constantly intriguing what with the erratic nature of Winchester's home, yet somehow it never really engages us.

The fact that it takes the movie a bit of time to get on its feet certainly doesn't help, and neither does the fact that the Spierigs rely far too much on jump scares and little more to rattle the viewer. This isn't nearly as clever as their previous features "Predestination" or "Daybreakers," both of which took established genres and turned them on their heads.

In films such as this, there needs to be a memorable set piece or two that will have audiences talking afterward. No such moment occurs as the movie plods along from one mildly interesting revelation to the next, none of which adds up to anything unique or compelling.

Mirren doesn't phone it in, which is something, and Clarke continues to prove he's one of our most criminally overlooked screen actors.

Be that as it may, "Winchester" takes a fascinating story and turns it into a "meh" of a movie that fails to frighten, though it may spark enough interest for you to dig further into Sarah Winchester's fascinating, tragic life.

'Winchester' (★★ out of four)

Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Bruce Spence, Sarah Snook, Emma Wiseman, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren and Thor Carlsson.

Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig; produced by Tim McGahan and Brett Tomberlin.

A CBS Films release. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, drug content, sexual content and thematic elements). At AMC Champaign 13, AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Nonsensical 'Paradox' a 'Cloverfield' reject. (★★ out of four). A funny thing happened amid the hoopla that was Super Bowl LII. Netflix ran the first trailer for "The Cloverfield Paradox," the next entry in J.J. Abrams' unorthodox sci-fi franchise ... and then announced it would premiere immediately after the game.

Whether this sort of surprise release strategy results in a large number of initial viewers remains to be seen.

The real question is what this approach means where the future of film distribution is concerned.

If the quality of "Paradox" means anything — and I think it does — this approach will be used any time a major studio has to unload a film that didn't quite live up to expectations. The fact is, the movie isn't very good, something I think Paramount Pictures has known for quite some time as it has had three different release dates that have all come and gone without "Paradox" gracing any screens.

I'm assuming Netflix got the rights to screen the film for a song, obviously a price much cheaper than what a theatrical release would cost, and Paramount, knowing that movies premiering on the streaming service aren't reviewed in advance, hoped to sneak one by viewers.

Chances are, fans of the "Cloverfield" franchise will likely feel hoodwinked after taking in "Paradox," an inert movie that contains a good idea or two but doesn't know what to do with them.

Seems the world is suffering from a massive energy drought that has pushed various superpowers to the brink of war. A group of scientists has been rocketed to the cosmos to a space station that, in theory, can harness some sort of energy that can be transferred to Earth. Problem is, there's a theory that if this were to be accomplished, it may cause rifts in time, various dimensions to overlap and all sorts of other scientific anomalies.

The plot is far too complicated to get into here, and frankly, not worth it, but once all is said and done, the crew finds itself orbiting an alternate Earth, one member's arm is severed and has a mind of its own, while an "and then there were none" approach is taken as the astronauts start getting knocked off one by one.

"Paradox" is reminiscent of last year's "Life," another misguided sci-fi actioner that also consisted of familiar plot tropes and the same lack of urgency. The script by Oren Uziel makes little sense, as if he's making up the science as he goes, and once that other shoe drops, the manner in which "Paradox" fits into the "Cloverfield" universe is tenuous and comes off as a tacked-on afterthought.

Curiously, the fourth film in the franchise, "Overlord," is completed and scheduled to hit theaters at the end of October ... that is, unless it suddenly shows up on Netflix, which will tell us all we need to know where its quality is concerned.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

Topics (1):Film
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