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‘Anna’ offers thrills and chills now on VOD

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Anna

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If you’re wishing to scratch your horror itch, but there is nothing new opening in theaters, you can always find plenty of worthy scares through VOD. Your local cable provider, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video are all making many horror movies available before they open in theaters, sometimes months before their national release. “Anna”, a Spanish/American production, is one of them. It doesn’t hit Cineplex screens until June 6, but it debuted on VOD this week of May 5.

“Anna” is a savvy psychological thriller with enough blood to satisfy horror aficionados. And it stars a couple of actors who’ve exceled before in the genre: Mark Strong, Taissa Farmiga and Brian Cox. Mark Strong often plays villains (Heck, he said so himself in that Jaquar commercial during the Super Bowl!) but here he plays the good guy. He’s John, an investigator working for a company named Mindscape that helps clients solve their problems by entering their minds. (Ah yes, the influence of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”.) He’s vulnerable to his own memories too as his wife recently committed suicide in the family bathtub and it haunts him daily.

He’s trying to get past it, but his new assignment doesn’t exactly help. He’s charged with helping Anna (Taissa Farmiga), a troubled teen who may have turned her past sexual abuse into a vendetta against anyone who threatens her now. Her impatient parents will send her away to a sanitarium if he can’t help. And to top it all, Anna’s developed an eating disorder, to go along with whatever is eating away at her psyche.

It takes some cajoling, and some witty cat & mouse banter, but John finally convinces Anna that he’s there to help. And once the moody, reluctant girl agrees to the probe, both get more than they bargained for. As he hooks her up to electrodes and takes her hands in his, as much will be unearthed about his past as hers.

He discovers Anna's memories are chock full of predatory men, bullying schoolgirls, and imaginary friends, but are they real or merely acts of her vivid imagination? And as he probes deeper, his own notorious past starts popping up in hers. Visions of water and overflowing suicide tubs start appearing. Is Anna tormenting him on purpose, to throw him off her scent, or is he so unstable that his world is melding with hers?

Strong, who is expert at seething macho roles, is vulnerable and moving here. He's been terrific on screen in so many supporting roles, like in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "Sherlock Holmes". "Anna" holds one of his best screen performances to date and hopefully it will open up more opportunities for him to play heroes and leads.

Farmiga is used to playing the dangerous schoolgirl as she proved in her two terrific seasons on “American Horror Story” (http://bit.ly/1kSoIuS). And in this undertaking, she never quite lets John or the audience in. Farmiga flirts and charms to keep all of us on Anna's side though, even when her actions are telling us to not trust the dangerous teenager. Farmiga's work here is exceedingly clever. And her performance is as coyly calibrated as Anna's play acting is.

Spanish director Jorge Dorado, who did a great job on the movie “Orphan” in 2009, does a wonderful job of bringing Guy Holmes’ taut screenplay to life through character and craft here. He’s even cast his film with some real smarts, confounding expectations and keeping the audience guessing. All of his actors, except for Farmiga, are essentially playing against type in this movie. Brian Cox, one of cinema’s great baddies (“X-Men 2”), isn’t the villain you’d expect. And Indira Varma (http://imdb.to/1jpAeAd), who can do vixenish turns in her sleep (“Game of Thrones”, “Kama Sutra”), plays fully clothed here and is an utterly mature and compelling screen presence in a supporting role.

Dorado has a knack for snappy cinematography and editing too. His cinematographer Oscar Fuara shoots throughout with an eerie dreamlike nature, blurring the line between the real and the fantastic, as to echo John’s difficult grasp on reality. And Jaime Valdueza’s editing is as impressive for its tense cutting as it is for letting certain shots linger on screen.

I wish that Holmes’ screenplay hadn’t mined some thriller cheats, including one involving the tardy revelation of a certain figure too obviously apparent in the corners of certain scenes. Logically, if John maintains so clear a presence in Anna’s memories, wouldn’t the intruder in his mind be just as apparent? According to what Holmes' script has set up, yes, but clearly the writer and director wanted to save a big surprise for the movie's twist ending. It works, but it’s more than a bit unfair in many regards.

Still, all in all, this is an exceptionally smart film. And it’s got a great sense of dread throughout and really delivers the scares too. In fact, the whole thing reminded me a lot of Chan-wook Park’s “Stroker” from last year, and that’s a big compliment as that movie was truly an exceptional piece of gothic horror. Spending time in the mind of “Anna” is very scary and will reward thriller fans however they choose to go there, either via the small screen now or the big screen come June.

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