Saturday, September 15, 2012


(Canada, 2012)
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell, Douglas Smith
Written by: Brandon Cronenberg
Directed by: Brandon Cronenberg

Brandon Cronenberg claimed in the press notes and at the post-screening Q&A that he's never seen any of his father's films.  His father, incidentally, is none of other than David Cronenberg, once crowned "King Of Venereal Horror" and known for such distinctive horror classics as "Shivers", "Rabid", "The Brood", "Scanners", and "Videodrome", before becoming more mainstream later in his career with the likes of "A History Of Violence" and "Eastern Promises".

I can't imagine how one could reach his late 20s and not have at least accidentally come across his father's work on television, even while channel surfing, but assuming this statement is true (c'mon, he wasn't ever curious--not once?), then there's something to be said of David's statement that "biology is destiny".  .  It defies any categorization but one, and that is the term Cronenbergian...but not to belittle Brandon at all--despite an overlapping sensibility and some story-specific elements, it's a distinctive, and utterly original, debut.

Cronenberg claims the conceit came to him while watching an appearance by Sarah Michelle Geller on Jimmy Kimmel Live, when she complained of a cold and swore if she sneezed she'd "infect the entire audience", and the crowd perversely cheered...

Sometime in presumably the near-future, Syd March (Jones), works for The Lucas Clinic, a biotech firm that specializes in selling celebrity diseases to the public.   Agents make deals with company to harvest various strains of disease, illnesses, and infections--everything from venereal diseases to common colds--distil them into a portable product, which can then be injected to those fans who want to share an experience with their object of devotion. 

On the side, though, Syd infects himself with his company's "products", extracts them from his body (courting illness and death with each sample), and sells them to the black market.  One of his most loyal customers is a butcher shop that sells cuts of meat genetically-engineered from celebrity cells. 

Syd's own obsession is ubiquitous actress Hannah Geist (Gadon), whose representation calls Syd to harvest some of her disease--which is killing her--for sale to the clinic.  He immediately injects himself, of course, but then, Hannah dies.  She lives, but only through him.  The ultimate fan dilemma...

In a world where, not so long ago, John Lennon's tooth, Britney Spears' (used) gum, and Brad Pitt's breath sold at auctions for some serious coin, "Antiviral"s premise is powerful because it is all-too-likely.  Any advance in technology is eventually embraced for the dumbest possible use--cell phones, the Internet--so why wouldn't any breakthroughs post-mapping-the-genome result in anything different?

Re-edited to reportedly a tighter running time after its spring Cannes premiere, "Antiviral"  wastes nary a scene or detail  (despite some criticisms of a dull third act, I found the entire thing to be gripping from top to bottom). Beautifully shot by Karim Hussain, its ambient, white-on-white, antiseptic aesthetic (punctuated by shocking glimpses of all things bodily-oriented and horrible) owes as much to "THX 1138" as it does "Dead Ringers".

©Robert J. Lewis 2012

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


(USA, 2012)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko , Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardhem, Tatiana Chahine
Written by: Terrence Malick
Directed by: Terrence Malick

One of American cinema's most divisive directors is also one of its least-prolific:  having directed only six features in forty years, Terrence Malick dazzled with his1973 independent debut "Badlands", only to retreat from box-office and critical success and follow up five years later with the bewildering "Days Of Heaven", which spent two years in post-production as Malick experimented with various cuts and voice-overs.   When he came out with a new film twenty years later, it took "Days" approach even farther, as this adaptation of a fairly-straightforward novel by James Jones became a largely plotless "meditation" on war.  It's an approach--and some of his dissenters would argue is a formula--he's stuck with since...

Malick's newest narrative feature, "To The Wonder" follows the lush, bewildering "Tree Of Life" (which stopped after act one to reel back from 1950s Texas to the very creation of the universe) after just two years, but it's still an event for adventurous film buffs nonetheless (esp. with the equally polarizing recluse Stanley Kubrick gone--a pandering populist by comparison), and for those who thought his last film was a brief reprieve into spirituality and anti-narrative montage, well, for some, "To The Wonder" will make that one look like something from the Syd Field playbook...

Malick is known for encouraging improvisation on set and then building his narratives in the editing room, pouring through hours of takes and experimenting with wildly different plot structures, which often, regrettably, rely too heavily on internal monologues and. As with all of his films since "Badlands",  "To the Wonder" went through five editors to reach its current form (I say "current" and not "final", as the film had been recut for TIFF since its Cannes premiere months earlier--who knows which version, if any, will reach cinemas at year's end?).  As with "The Thin Red Line", which cut lead Adrian Brody to a glorified extended cameo, actors Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, Jessica Chastain and Michael Sheen were cut entirely from the film.

What is there, is, conceptually, Malick's simplest tale yet:   When an American man (Affleck) returns to Oklahoma after living in France with his foreign wife (Kurylenko) and her daughter (Cahine), the culture clash proves more than she can bear and she flees back to Europe with "Tatiana".  "Neil" then reacquaints himself with damaged "Jane", who is struggling to deal with the loss of her own child and find some spiritual meaning.  She's found some solace in the presence of local Catholic priest "Father Quintana" (Bardem), who finds his own faith is dwindling...
"The Wonder" if the title is never explicitly explained, but according to press notes, it refers to the peak of the island of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, where Marina proclaims in her voice-over that she will be “forever at peace”...

Affleck reportedly read the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and studied the roles of Gary Cooper to prepare for his role, but onscreen, his unnamed character appears only in the peripheral edges out of the frame or just a bit out of focus past someone's shoulder (he may even crack a smile, twice).  His livelihood is equally opaque, but he's seemingly an environmental activist who spends his time snooping around the oil fields on whom the people of Bartlesville rely on for their living. 

Bartem's natural presence and great steely demeanour does much to compensate for the fact that Father Quintana's inner monologue reveals much more than his exterior, which spends a lot of time staring off in the distance and or skulking in doorways.

Kurylenko and McAdams have meatier roles, in that their respective characters at least evidence a pulse.

DOP Emmanuel Lubezki’s ever-roving Steadicam captures the director's patented collisions of carefully (almost painfully) composed compositions and the immediate, intimate verite of local colour (the memorable, experience-ravaged Oklahoman extras seem to be genuine--if they are in fact, actors, then they've been impressively coached).  This sumptuous visual feast, featuring gorgeous American and European locations and much twirling into sun flares by Korlenko (or it simply recycled footage of Jessica Chastain from "Tree Of Life"? It's sometimes hard to tell), is scored by a rousing score of selections by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Haydn, to name a few...

 After all that, where, ultimately, do I stand on it?  To quote Bruce Dern in "The Trip": "just go with it man".  I went in with a good idea of what I was in for, and decided after Korlenko's 2700th twirl to not fight it and surrender the sensory overload.  I would recommend that you see it once for its visual-and-auditory beauty, but I can't help but feel it's just too precious, wilfully impenetrable, and let's face it, defiantly dull to connect with anyone beyond the most devoted Malick disciples and the too-easy-to-flatter anti-blockbuster brigade.

Malick has two more features in preparation for release--"King Of Cups", and "Lawless", rumoured to be shot back-to-back--but when either will be ready for release, and in what form, can only be, well, wondered...

©Robert J. Lewis 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


(France/Germany, 2012)
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Paul Anderson, Karoline Herfurth, Rainer Bock
Written by: Brian DePalma and Natalie Carter, based on a screenplay by Alain Corneau
Directed by: Brian DePalma

Well, here we go again: another TIFF, another new Brian DePalma film, another dashed hope that this could be the one to restore him to former glory, back when, despite an indifferent--if not downright hostile, critical base (excepting Pauline Kael)--he was an audacious, and wildly-inventive purveyor of thrillers that have proven as timeless and influential as those of the director he was regularly accused of pillaging: Alfred Hitchcock.

Even DePalma's less-personal stint as a studio-director-for-hire found him highly energized and creative, evidenced by the enduring power of "The Untouchables", "Casualties Of War", "Carlito's Way", and of course, his remake of "Scarface".

His last effort, the shot-on-video Iraq War drama "Redacted", was a raw and confrontational work that suggested a new direction as he approached his sixth decade as a filmmaker.   But here, after a five-year wait, he's back in his familiar milieu, brandishing his usual arsenal of once-clever and visual flourishes, remaking a French film few thought was all that special the first time around.  To hear DePalma talk of reinforcing "his brand" in interviews is a depressing thing indeed--how could such a defiant and independent artist succumb to point form clichés from a marketing Power Point presentation?

I've never see Alain Corneau's 2010 thriller "Love Crime," which starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, but apparently, the overall concept and setup are the same: in the male-dominated world of advertising, two women, seasoned executive Christine (McAdams) and creative neophyte Isabelle (Rapace) engage in a combustible dance, as, after Christine steals one of Isabelle's marketing ideas, vengeance is waged in the boardroom and the bedroom, with Isabelle gaining vengeance, and eventually corporate power, via her affair with her boss's husband  (Anderson).  Double-crosses, humiliations, revenge fantasies, and murders that may-or-may-not-be-real abound, building to a climactic revelation few are likely to find satisfying...

Pauline Kael defended DePalma for possessing "the wickedest baroque sensibility at large in American movies."   There's little evidence of that here, with the film's soft 80's look,  cheap-dream sequences, and hackneyed notion of "kink" confined to garter belts and "Eyes Wide Shut" masks.  Once a master of audience manipulation and so fearless to embrace all the tools of cinema AS cinema, DePalma now doles out split screens and tracking shots as if they were contractually obligation as part of his branding.

"Passion" does mark a welcome reunion with composer Pino Donaggio, whose score, other than McAdams' teeth-and-claws performance, is the liveliest thing in an otherwise shrill and hokey melodrama.

The best part of the film, a homemade jeans promo quickly created by Rapace to dazzle her superiors and win a contract, is not a creation of DePalma's, but tellingly, based on a real viral spot that was licensed for the film.

Otherwise, "Passion" reveals little-of, steeped with the same tossed-off, cynical boredom with the genre DePalma first revealed in 1992's "Raising Cain", requiring that I endure the glowing cell phone screens and increasing snorts of unintentional laughter around me...I will admit that by act three I found myself cursing under my breath, not at my fellow patrons, but at the notion that perhaps, they were right...

©Robert J. Lewis 2012

Monday, September 10, 2012


(Midnight Madness)
(USA, 2012)
Cast: Clancy Brown, Dan Fogler, Macon Blair, Clifton Collins Jr., Robyn Rikoon
Written by: JT Petty
Directed by: JT Petty

This would-be orgy of blasphemy, making its World Premiere at TIFF, is essentially “Ghostbusters” with foul-mouthed, whoremongering drunken priests and naked demonesses, with a good deal less spent in the special FX department (even by the comparatively lower budgets spent on Reagan-era spectacles).  Like a Lady Gaga video, it seems a bit too desperately engineered to end up on the Vatican's "condemned" list, but mostly, it's just another comedy where everyone on set seems to be having a lot of fun, with disproportional translation to the audience, making for a long 85 minutes...

The titular “Hellbenders”, are, in fact, “The Hellbound Saints of Brooklyn Parish”, who are the ones “you’re gonna call” when the likes of Father Merrin fail miserably.
To be ordained into their bong-water-and-piss-stained inner sanctum, one must be a sinner of the highest (or would that be lowest?).  As embodied by their leader Angus (Clancy Brown), the more sins one has committed (all seven, ideally), the better equipped to confront and defeat evil on its vilest own terms.

The other saints include married, conflicted Larry (Colins, Jr.), bookish apprentice Stephen (Royo, "Bubbles" from "The Wire") who chronicles The Saints' epic transgressions,  hard-drinking Saint Elizabeth (Rikoon), and "Balls Of Fury"s Dan Fogler as the requisite funny-fat-guy whose character barely registers (and sits out the entire climax).

When the Saints are called to a tenement for what seems to be a routine exorcism, one of them becomes possessed by a particularly vile Norse demon who will stop at nothing less than world domination and the End Of Times.  That is, if the persnickety Catholic Church bureaucrat (read: "Walter Peck"), under instructions from the new Pope,  doesn't shut them down first...

Produced by Circle of Confusion and OffHollywood Pictures, and directed with much enthusiasm by JT Petty, the film intrigues with a lively setup, but doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting after the first act.   Petty’s earlier films, the monster-western “The Burrowers”, and the straight-to-video “Mimic 3”, were far more inventive visually.   Here’s there’s an over-reliance on master shots and gloppy makeups.  Apparently, this is a straight adaptation of Petty’s own graphic novel, which I’ve never read nor encountered on shelves…

The always-welcome Clancy Brown tears into the role of Angus, and walks away with most of the script’s best lines, most of them unprintable here.

Surprisingly, the film was shot, deliberately, with 3D technology, but it benefits in no way whatsoever by exploiting the Z axis, with minimal--nay, zero--effect here.

Film Arcade will release Hellbenders theatrically in the North America in 2013.

©Robert J. Lewis 2012


(Gala Presentations)
(USA, 2012)
Cast: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Brian Cranston, Alan Arkin, Philip Baker Hall, Clea DuVall
Written by: Chris Terrio
Directed by: Ben Affleck

This riveting, pulse-pounding race-against-time thriller is yet another one of those "based on a true story" deals that ignited more than enough controversy and cries of "foul" before it was even announced as one of TIFF's most-coveted galas.   The back story holds a special place in the hearts of Canadians--we're not a  country of many myths and tend to downplay our achievements in diplomacy, but as a nation "The Canadian Caper" is as sacred as the story of George Washington skipping a silver dollar along the Potomac.  It even inspired one of the greatest SCTV parodies...

Those of us of a certain vintage (like this reviewer) might have been a bit too young to absorb all the facts (we were too busy waiting for "The Empire Strikes Back" to be released), but in long-ago/not-so-long-ago 1980, but from what we could glean from our parents' copy of Macleans went something like this:  on November 4th, 1979, the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, was stormed and seized by Islamist militants, in protest over America's harbouring of their deposed Shah.   

Six American diplomats--Robert Anders, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz--managed to evade capture and execution.  Anders contacted his friend John Sheardown, a Canadian immigration officer, who eventually brought them to the residence of Canadian Ambassador To Iran Ken Taylor, where they remained for 79 days.  Taylor contacted the Canadian government for assistance. Fake Canadian passports and forged Iranian visas were created and issued to the six Americans, and CIA agent Tony Mendez, something of a master-of-disguise, provided the cover story of a Hollywood location scout. The six boarded a plane to Frankfurt, Germany on January 27, 1980. Everyone made it home safely.

Chris Terrio's screenplay is based largely on Joshuah Bearman's Wired article "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran",  written within a decade after the records were declassified by the Clinton administration, and on Tony Mendez' own account "Master Of Disguise".  Does it take liberties with the real-life tale?


The film hits the ground running with a mixture of archival news footage and restaged events that chronicle the turbulent series of events that eventually have the six Americans splitting out on the street outside the embassy into two panicked groups. Once holed up at the home of Ambassador Taylor (Garber), CIA consultant Mendez (Affleck) is brought in and entertains a series of increasingly bizarre rescue plots, everything from fugitive school teachers to dropping down bicycles for an ambitious border run.   A chance late-night screening of "Battle For The Planet Of The Apes" gives him another idea, and he tracks down old friend and CIA cohort John Chambers (Goodman), known to most as the Oscar-winning makeup maestro behind "Star Trek", "The List Of Adrian Messenger", and the "Apes" saga.

Chambers suggests that for the fake-movie scam to work, it must be entirely believable, and for that, it's essential not only to convince the Iranians, but the entirety of Hollywood as well.  Old-school producer Lester Siegel (Arkin, tearing into a role invented for the film) is game to get in and even stages a fake reading and arranges prominent trade ads and billboards for his upcoming faux-"Star Wars": "Argo" (in fact, an unfilmed adaptation of the Roger Zelazny sci-fi classic "Lord Of Light").

The film plays out more or less faithful to actual accounts, but Affleck and co. never hesitate to ramp up the melodrama whenever possible and add more complications that were necessarily present, chief among them, a lengthy inspection of the passports and visas by a suspicious airport guard (never happened), and a jeep pursuit along the tarmac by armed security as the fugitives' escape craft pulls away (definitely never happened)...

Still, the film is beautifully shot (Istanbul doubles as Iran), inventively staged (menace lurks around every corner), and masterfully edited (the climactic three-way cross-cutting is dizzying), servicing a wonderful, perfectly-cast ensemble and Affleck's most confident and muscular direction to date (casting himself as Mendez in a role that curiously underwritten and merely serviceable, might be the only misstep, but not to the film's detriment).

(Addendum: After the Gala screening, many were outraged at the film's postscript title card that said that the CIA let Taylor take the credit for political purposes.  After consulting with Taylor at a private screening at his home, Affleck has since changed the postscript  to read, "The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments."  Taylor himself is apparently fine with the revision, and acknowledges that a Hollywood movie can be expected to take certain liberties.)

©Robert J. Lewis 2012


ROOM 237
(USA, 2012)
Directed by: Rodney Asher

In 1980, when I had just started high school, theatrical films in the once-very-conservative province of Ontario were rated only “General” (the American “G”), Adult Entertainment (the American “PG”) , and “Restricted” (the American “R” and heavily-censored “X”),   There was no “PG-13”, no admission perk for those accompanied by an adult or legal guardian.  If you were under 18, you didn’t get to see it period—a rule that was strictly enforced, at least in my hometown, which was so prudish that Herbert Ross’ adaptation of “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” was retitled “The Best Little Chicken Ranch In Texas” on the marquee, and the newspaper advised those curious to “call theatre for title”.

Imagine my surprise, and delight then, when on my way home from the 7PM screening of “The Empire Strikes Back” (which took six months to reach local screens), I was passing by the competing cinema just up the street and thought I’d try my luck at acquiring a ticket to a movie that had a very scary trailer (and was based on a novel by an author I’d only recently discovered with the tale of a town overrun by vampires) and was successful…

I thrilled to Stanley Kubrick’s already-controversial take on “The Shining” with almost as much awe as I’d just regarded Lucas’ thrilling, artful sequel. My burgeoning horror fanatic got a major leg-up that evening—I didn’t always understand the film, but I’d never seen anything like it, and as I grew older I found it to be one of those reliable cinematic talking points about which everyone had their own bias and interpretation.  What are movies but a glorified Rorschach Test, really?

Well, I’ve encountered a great many unique takes on “The Shining” over the years, but none like you’ll encounter if you decide to brave the alternately stimulating and frustrating documentary “Room 237” (named for the Overlook’s notorious hotel suite, changed from 217 in King’s novel), which makes some of the JFK conspiracies seem positively reasonable in comparison.   Kubrick’s films have always invited controversy—I was told at a very young age by my middle-school SCIENCE teacher that “the guy who made ‘2001’ directed the fake moon landing”, but this one? A major-studio-produced, big-budget adaptation of a fairly famous novel? Sure, I knew Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson had taken some liberties with King’s text (just ask the author!), but still… maybe there was a reason for his penchant for 70+ takes. Maybe he was planting something...?

Officially entitled “Room 237: Being An Inquiry Into The Shining In Nine Parts” (a nice wink to “Barry Lyndon”), Rodney Ascher’s  committed chronicle of five key conspiracy theories hidden with "The Shining" eventually becomes exhausting, struggling to sustain a fairly long 107 minute running time...

The film is devoted to fanatical obsessives who have developed outlandish theories around obscure clues, often in the form of brief continuity errors,  fleeting details, and narrative loopholes within the adaptation.  Five, in total, featured here:

For Bill Blakemore, a correspondent for ABC News, Kubrick intended the film as an allegory about the plight of the American Indian.

For Jay Weidner, Room 237 refers to the roughly 237,000 miles from Earth to the moon, thus serving as Kubrick's confession that he did, as rumored, assist in faking the first Apollo moon landing.  The first clue: a box of Calumet baking soda in the hotel's food stores...

For Geoffrey Cocks, it's Kubrick's take on the Holocaust: Jack Torrance uses a German typewriter, and the number 42 appears frequently in the film (42 cars parked in the Overlook's parking lot), and referencing 1942, the year of The Final Solution...

For writer Jill Kerns, it's the Minotaur Myth, illustrated most obviously by the climactic chase through the Overlook's labyrinthine hedge maze, but also acknowledged in a poster in the hotel's game room, of all places...

For me, theory five is the most plausible: that the tale is largely an account of the fallout of abuse of young Danny Torrance, who blacks out from his first encounter with the murdered, and who might have concocted an imaginary friend, Tony, as a coping mechanism.  The conversation between Wendy and the doctor reveals that his father had dislocated Danny's arm in a drunken rage, and after Danny first visits Room 237, Wendy seems convinced that the marks on his neck are from Jack's hand.  Of course, there are many scenes without Danny, but most still point to his father's damaged mind...

Because  Asher assembled the documentary without the involvement of the Kubrick estate or Warner Bros., visuals are limited and recycled to the point of tedium.  There’s a strange re-use of Tom Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut” entering a restaurant that becomes a shorthand for any discussion of the film’s theatrical run.  Other clips are limited to repeated shots of the "bloody elevator", Danny on the distinctive geometric carpet, and Jack's entrance to the Gold Room.   We see these shots again and again...

What also frustrates is that none of the five theorists, who blather on at great length and with much conviction, are ever shown.  Identified by  an onscreen super only,  it's hard to follow just-who’s-talking-about-whose-bizarre-interpretation, esp. with so many recycled stills and clips.

For me the most memorable element of the film is its driving, synth-and-bass-heavy score that acknowledges the distinctive genre themes of John Carpenter, Alan Howarth, and Fred Mygrove (I detected very little of Walter/Wendy Carlos).

But a subliminal image Kubrick in the clouds during the opening credits? Deliberate continuity errors like the changing colours of typewriters? Danny’s ugly Apollo sweater as a deliberate confession?  Sometimes a skier on a barely glimpsed  skier tourism poster is just a skier, and not a minotaur, right?

The intensity and absolute certainty of each person's conviction is what makes most conspiracy believers so weirdly compelling and yet also repellent--after all, how much free time can one possible have to host screenings where the film is run forward-and-backward? All work and no play…oh, you know…

©Robert J. Lewis 2012

Sunday, September 09, 2012


(United Kingdom/United States/Ireland, 2012)
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Reilly, Daniel Mays, Jonny Lee Miller, Caleb Landry Jones
Written by: Moira Buffini
Directed by: Neil Jordan

The always-surprising Neil Jordan revisits the world of the undead for the first time since his 1994 adaptation of a certain famous Anne Rice novel, but don't mention the "v-word"--no one in the film ever does. 

More than 200 years old but trapped in the image of a teenager,  Eleanor Webb (Ronan) has chronicled her life in a journal, which she disposes of page by page at random locations.  Subsiding on human blood, she shows mercy in her feeding, targeting those who desire the release that death can bring.  She lives with haughty, voluptuous Clara (Arterton, every film should have one...), introduced as her "muse", who is also immortal and seduces her prey in her job as a stripper.  When pursued by a mysterious assassin, Clara beheads him and then hits the road as a fugitive with Eleanor in tow. They hole up in a run down hotel in a coastal town, Byzantium, run by dim Noel (Mays), who honestly believes Clara would select him as her lover for no other reason.  She passes off Eleanor, who has visions of a past life there, as her sister, and turns the hotel into a busy brothel.

Via flashbacks, we learn that Clara violated the rules of the exclusively patriarchal vampire subculture--“The Pointed Nails of Justice” –by converting females to the order, whose agents have been pursuing the duo for centuries (18th century flashbacks with Jonny Lee Miller are more than a bit too broad and hokey, but are essential to the narrative).  The conversion of a human to a new “sucreant” involves a remote island and flocks of blackbirds and gushing waterfalls of blood, and, while not making a link of sense, makes for gloriously baroque viewing.

Meanwhile Eleanor enrols in the local high school and befriends Frank (Jones, also appearing in Brandon Cronenberg's "Antiviral"), a fellow wallflower who wins her trust and brings out the truth about her unique life.  He learns that Clara is, in fact, her mother.  Clara was born in 1804 yet remains forever sixteen.  Transformed, she and her mother must drink human blood to live.  When Eleanor learns Frank has leukemia, she realizes she can grant him life, via death.  But should she...?

Not your traditional "vampire" yarn, the women sport no fangs--instead, an elongated nail that can  sever arteries. They can move about in broad daylight, but still must be invited into a person's home. 
Saoirse Ronan dazzles once again with her lissom, chameleonic quality--alternately naive and worldly, frail and menacing (she's only 18 years old)--which brought her an Oscar nomination for her first role in "Atonement".  She continued to impress in Peter Jackson's underrated "The Lovely Bones", and of course, secured a place in the hearts of action buffs as "Hanna". 

Screenwriter Buffini based her screenplay on her own Young Adult play "A Vampire's Tale".  Otherwise relatively straight-forward chase yarn with some elements of Jordan's self-penned "Mona Lisa", "The Crying Game", and "Ondine", "Byzantium" does offer a unique Gaelic twist on traditional elements, with Sam Bobbitt's cinematography evocatively capturing the story's duelling eras of gritty, contemporary realism and operatic, Hammer-esque Gothic fantasy.

©Robert J. Lewis 2012


(United Kingdom, 2012)
Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Samuel West, Olivia Coleman
Written by:  Richard Nelson
Directed by: Roger Mitchell

Ever since "Stripes" was in first-run I've been telling anyone within earshot that "no film with Bill Murray in it is a waste of time" (and that includes "Loose Shoes" and the remake of "The Razor's Edge"), a sentiment not held by many until well into the late 20th century, when his first collaboration with Wes Anderson changed a lot of sceptics' minds (but really, after Dr. Venkman in "Ghostbusters" and his turn as "Mr. McNulty" on "Square Pegs", how could you not concede?).   Of course, my theory was proven wrong by McG's miserable "Charlie's Angels", and I've felt the sting ever since...

"Hyde Park On The Hudson" isn't an exceptional film, but once again, the presence of Chicago's most indefatigable deadpan satirist makes it worth the sit, if for no other reason than to see him revel in a change from his patented onscreen persona: none other than beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only man to serve more than two terms as U.S. President.

FDR might be most renowned for his New Deals, war heroism, and civil rights  advocacy,  but this low-key episode takes place almost entirely at his country estate in bucolic Hyde Park, New York in the summer of 1939.   Told from the point-of-view of his sixth-cousin and mistress Margaret Suckley (Linney), there is much tension as the president prepares to host a visit from England's King George VI (West)and his wife, the Queen Elizabeth (Coleman).  As war was breaking out in Europe and would inevitably expand, the monarchs hoped to bolster American-British relations, in anticipation of the horrors that would erupt across the globe mere months later...

Murray is that unique actor who can vividly evoke his cool comfort within his own skin, and he brings much of that quality to FDR, who must struggle daily with the potential indignities of his polio braces and having to be hoisted in and out of his chair like an infant.  Despite such hurdles, he's quite a seducer, with Suckley being his latest conquest (Nelson's script is an expansion of his stage play, which was based upon Suckley's recently published post-mortem diaries), not that First Lady Eleanor (Williams) seems to care much...

The rest of the cast is saddled with a well-meaning but ultimately turgid melodrama that is more or less a retelling of "The King's Speech", with George VI (aka "Bertie") and FDR finding agreeable mutual ground in dealing with their respective afflictions while their spouses, family, and friends fret dutifully.

There are nonetheless some nicely observed moments of clashing cultures, especially the epic picnic in which the royals are entertained by natives and tomtoms and their introduction to a unique bit of Americana known as "the hot dog".

Ever-reliable Linney does what she can with the pivotal character of Suckley, who despite her participation is a rather earnest and downright dull character, failing to instil in this viewer the furor of the President's devotion--other than, perhaps, as just another conquest for a man whose mind and libido remains sharp even as his body fails him--but not a terribly beguiling one.

© Robert J. Lewis 2012


(USA, 2012)
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond, Jillian Morgese
Written by: William Shakespeare (adaptation by Joss Whedon)
Directed by: Joss Whedon

This past year I spent two days on the set of an FX-heavy, major studio spectacle (due out next summer--believe me, you'll hear about it) and came away with a newfound admiration for the kind of director who can keep such a crazy collision of departments working on a unified vision, all the while making the money people happy.    How does he keep his sanity, I often marveled? How does one cope when so much is at stake?  When you can get extras to stop staring at the camera, forcing the shoot into overtime? At one point, it was all about making movies with your friends in the back yard, right?

Well, if you’re Joss Whedon and you’re in the midst of making one of the most anticipated comic book adaptations of all time,  you use your downtime to shoot a Shakespearean classic with your actor friends.  In the back yard. Yours.

Shot in secret in just twelve days at his own home in Santa Monica, CA with alumni from Whedon's "Firefly", "Dollhouse", "Buffy", "Angel", and "The Avengers", “Much Ado About Nothing” is the unlikely product of the geek guru's frustration with the hurry-up-and-wait dynamic of mega-buck productions.

For those of you who ended their relationship with The Bard after high school English class, or missed Kenneth Branagh’s excellent period version from 1993, here’s the Coles’ Note version (which would be “Cliff’s Notes”, in Canada):
Black escalades pull up in front of the estate of Messina as prince Don Pedro (Diamond), Claudio (Kranz), and Benedick (Denisof), have returned from battle. Leonato (Gregg), the governor, invites them to stay at his home for the month, which ignites the "merry war" between Beatrice (Acker), Leonato's niece and Benedick, long-time adversaries.

Claudio’s romantic longing for Hero (Morgese), Leonato's only daughter, are reignited, and he pursues a courtship. He is dissuaded by bitter Benedick, who declares he will never be married.  But Don Pedro encourages Claudio's campaign and assures Benedick that the right woman will change his mind.

At a celebratory masquerade ball, Don Pedro, sporting a disguise, woos Hero on Claudio's behalf. Cue Don John (Maher),  Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, who seeks to settle an old grievance and lies to Claudio that his brother is pursuing Hero for himself. But after confronting Don Pedro, the conflict is resolved and Hero agrees to marry Claudio.

Now a bored Don Pedro and his fellow soldier agree to engineer a truce between Beatrice and Benedick. Knowing Benedick is listening in, Don Pedro discuss Beatrice's feelings for Benedick.  The conspiring bridesmaids so the same with Hero.

Their respective egos punctured, Beatrice and Benedick surrender to each other.
But Don John isn't finished.  He ups the ante to ruin Claudio and Hero's wedding, but staging a new opportunity for Claudio to doubt his betrothed's fidelity...

Shot in black and white by Jay Hunter (a second unit DOP on Whedon’s “Dollhouse” series), the film, despite its practical locations and hand-held, fly-on-the wall quality, manages to exude a beguiling, never-never land vibe especially in the mid-section’s lengthy, booze-soaked bacchanal (incidentally, I don’t they drank more booze in an entire season of “Mad Men” than is consumed in this one household) which crackles as part Cassavettes, part Fellini, and part “Obsession” ad.

And while the entire cast is uniformly excellent--esp. Acker and Denisof's delightfully barbed timing--and the sense of mutual fun and camaraderie infectious, it must be mentioned that that fan favorite Nathan Fillion steals the show as the bumbling constable Dogbert, and Michael Keaton’s portrayal in the Branaugh version casts a pretty long shadow...

It should come as no surprise that “Much Ado About Nothing” had no trouble finding a distributor, but unfortunately you’ll have to wait as Lionsgate, in association with Roadshow Attractions, won’t be releasing the film in North America until June of next year…

©Robert J. Lewis 2012


A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON'S GRAHAM CHAPMAN                                                                                                                            
(United Kingdom/United States, 2012)
Cast:  Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Cameron Diaz
Written by: Graham Chapman, David Sherlock (original text)
Directed by: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett

This gleefully scattershot and raunchy 3D (!) visualization of the late Graham Chapman's autobiography will appeal to most as a reunion of his fellow Monty Python Flying Circus cohorts (well, most, but more about that later).

The faux-doc's overall indifferent reviews since the screening are surprising, given the lively spirit of the work, the variety of inventive animation styles (14 different studios), the arch first- person delivery of Chapman himself (who was working on an audiobook version of his 1980 autobiography before he died), and the whirlwind tour offered through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, when Western culture wasn't quite so accommodating of a personality as flamboyantly hedonistic as Chapman, who died too young at the age of 48 in 1989.

"A Liar's Biography" chronicles Chapman's difficult childhood in Leicester, Englan, his years studying medicine at Cambridge, his eventual acceptance and admission of his homosexuality, his decent into alcoholism, and his involvement with the legendary troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Co-director Bill Jones is the son of Terry Jones--yes, that Terry Jones--both of whom were present for the screening and Q&A.

And yes, you read that right: Cameron Diaz is involved, although you'll have to buy a ticket to find out how...

The filmmakers were able to solicit the participation of all surviving Pythons, except Eric Idle, a fact not addressed in any of the publicity or during the post-screening Q&A (I was going to ask the question myself, but just assumed from the flurry of hands around me that someone else had thought of it first. No one did, apparently...).  As of this writing, the subject remains unanswered, and odd, because of all of the ex-Pythons, Idle is the one most committed to keeping their legacy in the public eye, in virtually any medium (he didn't call it "The Greedy Bastard Tour" for nothing).

It made for a riotous communal evening after an exhausting week of Malickian tone poems and auteur-letdowns (I'm pointing at you, Mr. DePalma), affording those who possessed the sold-out ticket the unique opportunity to engage in a sing-a-long rendition of "Sit On My Face (And Tell Me That You Love Me"), something I've somehow managed to heretofore miss...

© Robert J. Lewis 2012

Saturday, September 08, 2012


(Special Presentations)
(France/Canada/Belgium, 2012)
Cast (voices): Bernarde Alane, Isabelle Spade, Kacey Mottet Klein,  Isabelle Giami
Written by: Patrice Leconte, based on the novel by Jean Teule
Directed by: Patrice Leconte

Many elements are curious about the ambitious but uneven "The Suicide Shop" --an adaptation the acclaimed Jean Teulé novel--but that fact it was directed by Patrice Leconte, best known for live-action art house hits like Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband and Girl on the Bridge, might be the most surprising of all...

It tempts with a wonderfully wicked premise: In what could be modern-day Paris, the suicide rate has increased so much that death-at-one's-own-hand is more or less accepted as a legitimate solution to life's woes.  The government has declared the act illegal to commit in public, but that's where private enterprise comes in:  since 1854, the Tuvache family has offered citizens the services of their Le Magasin des suicides (The Suicide Shop), sort of a convenience store/boutique for those for who wish to shuffle off the mortal coil but lack the nerve or the proper accouterments. Well-stocked with razors, nooses, swords and knives, poisons (more than 200), deadly insects, and even simple plastic bags and tape for those on a budget--the Tuvaches feel your pain, and will gleefully sell it back to your for a substantial profit...

A family owned-and-operated business in every sense of the word, the Tuvaches--comprised of patriarch Mishima, his wife Lucrece, and teenaged siblings Matilyn and Vincent--don't quite know to deal with newborn sweet Alan, who soon grows to unwittingly disgrace the shop's mission statement which his sunny disposition and infuriating optimism.

At first Leconte might seem the unlikely candidate to direct,  but he was a professional cartoonist before he became a filmmaker, and the style of the CG-lite film is wonderful--a little bit of Gilliam, a little bit of Burton, with a healthy dollop of Charles Adams--with some immersive use of the Z axis (the film is presented in 3D).    

The upbeat ending--a variation from the novel apparently--is a bit at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, but suitably lets the defiantly sweet Alain prevail, despite his own family's homicidal fantasies...
A hand-drawn French-language animated feature will be a tough sell under most circumstances, but this one is so macabre it's unlikely to be embraced as a family-afternoon-out, and the forgettable song score might turn off teens and twentysomethings who are used to a few more power chords with their odes to death and nihilism.

However, patient viewers with a jones for the macabre (and a patience for subtitles) will appreciate the many deliciously twisted moments throughout:  Mishima nevertheless endeavours to strike the appropriate parental model, offering Alan his first cigarette with the promise of further cartons to come.   His mother suggests a larger, sharper knife to play with. And in one of the many twisted musical numbers, older sister Matilyn dances nude in her bedroom to the youngster's appreciative gaze as he encourages her to pursue love.

Already released in France, "The Suicide Shop" is scheduled to play TIFF's Bell Lightbox Cinema later this year.

© Robert J. Lewis 2012

Friday, September 07, 2012


(Midnight Madness)
(United Kingdom/South Africa, 2012)
Cast: Karl Urban, Lena Headey, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris
Written by: Alex Garland
Directed by:  Pete Travis

My second screening of TIFF 2012 was also in 3D--if this keeps up, I may have to opt for prescription polarized lenses.  Thankfully, the film' subject warranted the technique: who wouldn't embrace the chance to immerse oneself in the hell that is Mega-City One?

Well, maybe not a lot of us.  Truth is, I was never a devotee of the Dredd saga, a hyper-violent satire created by created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra which began publication in the UK comics anthology "2000 AD"  in 1977 and has run continuously since.  I came to it too late, well after dystopian yarns like the "Terminator" saga and "Robocop", and while Dredd was first, some of his thunder had already been stolen.

Then, of course, there was the ill-fated 1995 film adaptation, which cast Sly Stallone as the Judge sans helmet, with disturbing blue contact lenses, Rob Schneider as his sidekick, and enough (reported) on-set primadonna-ism to lay the blame for its utter failure on first time director Danny Cannon...

Any new "Dredd" film wouldn't have to work all that hard to be better--because,  really, what wouldn't be?--but the early hour and awkward glasses didn't obscure my enjoyment of what won me over as an infectious, gore-soaked, near-real-time pageant of carnage, property destruction, and pathological disregard for innocent human life, all in the service of a fairly rote siege melodrama.  In other words, don't miss it!
Our tale unfolds in Mega-City One,  one of the few surviving cities in The Cursed Earth (the former U.S.), houses 800 million citizens and more than 17,000 crimes occur daily.  Law is enforced by the armoured Judges, who act as judge, jury, and executioner , and are equipped with personalized weapons that respond to each Judge's voice command and unique DNA print.
In the slum tower Peach Trees, ruthless drug baroness Madeline Madrigal (Heady) deals the new street drug "Slo Mo", which expands and extends one high by a bazillion frames per second.   When she executes three rivals dealers, Judge Dredd (Urban) and new recruit, the psychic Anderson (Thirlby) are called in to investigate.

Raiding a lower-level drug den, they arrest Kay (Harris), who Anderson's probe reveals to be the executioner of the competition.  This prompts Ma-Ma's army to take control of the tower's security system, and they lock the building down before Dredd can take his prisoner in for questioning.  
Ma-Ma orders Dredd and Anderson killed, and the Judges have no choice but to navigate the 200-floor tower, floor by floor, with their prisoner in tow. On 76th floor, Ma-Ma and her thugs unleash a storm of artillery with powerful gattling guns that literally tear through the concrete walls, utterly devastating the apartments of innocent bystanders. But with the walls breached, Dredd and Anderson are able to contact headquarters and request backup.

The backup Judges respond to Dredd's call, but they are fooled into thinking it's all part of the complex's routine security test. Instead, Ma-Ma calls in her corrupt Judges on the force, but Dredd suspects them and blows their cover.  Dredd obtains the code to Ma-Ma's lair from her computer hacker, but when they arrive, they find that she's wired the top floor for detonation, the trigger just a click away on her wrist...
Budgeted at a relatively low $45 million, "Dredd 3D" was shot in Cape Town, South Africa, using RED MX 3D technology.  "Slo-Mo" drug trips were shot with the amazing Phantom Flex camera, which can capture movement at up to 500,000 frames per second ("normal" frame rate is 24 f.p.s.).

Urban, who admirably never removes his helmet, emotes (such as is required) laconically from beneath his visor like he's gargled with fresh buckshot, acknowledging latter-day Eastwood with a touch of Snake Plissken.  But the star performance goes to Headey as "Ma-Ma"--never has "wasted" seem so alluring and menacing, as she brandishes her facial scar like a fashion accessory...

The film's overall concept and structure can't help but remind one of Gareth Evans' Indonesian action epic "The Raid", but given the fact that "Dredd" was shot earlier and sat on the shelf, the subject seems moot...

"Dredd 3D", like Nolan's take on "Batman", will surely appeal to newcomers as well as long-time fans.

©Robert J. Lewis


(USA, 2012)
Cast: Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Adam Samberg, Seth Rogan, CeeLo Green, Steve Buscemi, John Lovitz, Fran Drescher
Written by: Peter Baynham & Robert Smigel
Directed by:  Genndy Tartakovsky

My first screening of TIFF 2013 was also my first of six 3D features(and the first of three in a single day) throughout the ten-day event.  I arrived too late for the 8:30 am "Pusher" remake, so my only other option was the decidedly-different "Hotel Transylvania" (not based on the little-known 1978 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro novel), intriguing because it marks the feature debut of the wonderfully iconoclastic Russian animator Genndy Tartakovsky, whose television efforts "Dexter's Lab", "Samurai Jack", and "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" are better than the medium regularly offers, or deserves...

As a "monster kid" of the 70s (Aurora kits, Uncle Forry, Frankenberry cereal, and all that) I was immediately sold on the inventive premise:  Count Dracula (Sandler), eschewing bloodsucking for the life of a single  and overprotective "helicopter" dad after the early death of his wife at the hands of mortals, decides the safest bet for his daughter Mavis (Gomez) is to build a refuge.  He does so in the form of a massive, opulent hotel--a retreat for monsters of all shapes and sizes--and on the eve of Mavis' 118th birthday, his many friends--including loose-limbed Frank N. Stine (James) and his bride (Drescher), The Invisible Man (Spade), The Blob, The Mummy (Green), Quasimodo (Lovitz) and a beaten-down salarywolfman (Buscemi) and his ever-expanding litter of ankle-biting lycantots (real scene-stealers)--check in to enjoy some quality time away from the perils of the human world. 

But a clueless backpacker, Jonathon (Samberg) accidentally stumbles on the premises and immediately catches the eye of Mavis, who has never seen a human.   She  agrees to disguise him as a monster—specifically, a cousin of one of Frank’s limbs—and for the most part, they get away with it.  While inside, Jonathon enjoys the company of zombie bell hops and talking shriveled-head door knockers--but when Mavis boldly ventures into the outside world, Jonathon must maintain his disguise to protect her from the perils of sunrises, pitchforks, and torches, and get her back before her father finds out...

It should come as no surprise that there are plenty of flatulence jokes, because, you know, it’s what Stoker and Shelly would have wanted if they hadn’t been writing in such conservative times…

And oh, those celebrity voices!   Ever since "A Shark's Tale" I've had a nagging tick about the impulse to cast "familiar" voices in richly dimensional and textured animated worlds within which I prefer to completely disappear.   Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Selina Gomez, CeeLo Green...none of them particularly terribly, really, remember when Phil Harris--hardly a teen idol in his day--was good enough for Baloo?

As a computer-generated feature, of course it looks different than Tartakovsky's signature works,, but it offers inspired twists on classic horror characters,  although nothing on par with MAD Magazine genius Harvey Kurtzman's designs for Rankin-Bass’ stop-motion “Mad Monster Party”. 

There are several inspired moments--most notably, when Dracula and Jonathon enjoy an airborne race around the spacious dining room atop floating tables.  There's also a very funny, unexpected, and entirely welcome "Twilight" joke that more than makes up for many of the corny one-liners and sitcom sentiment. 

Unfortunately, the film falls victim to the plight of every other CG-animated feature NOT produced by Pixar: overstuff with celebrity voices, and when in doubt, end the damn thing with a grating, forgettable sing-a-long, while the characters revel in having learned a valuable lesson in "tolerance", hug and champion “the importance of family” etc. etc.   Noble sentiments, sure, but can’t the writers of SNL's "TV Funhouse" and "Borat" come up with anything better than a crappy rap number (hell, I would've welcomed a hip-hop remix of Bobby Pickett's "Monster Mash"...well, maybe not...)?  To paraphrase another famous Russian: If in the first act you introduce Selena Gomez, does she HAVE to warble a song in the last act?

©Robert J. Lewis 2012