THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS
(Canada/France/United Kingdom, 122 minutes, 2009)
Written by: Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Lilly Cole, Andrew Garfield, Vern Troyer, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell
It’s unfortunate—but inevitable--that The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus will forever be known as Heath Ledger’s Last Movie, because it’s much more than that: in this age of ridiculously extended titles, it might not be too much to suggest the additional slug line How Gilliam Got His Groove Back. I hate using moth-ridden critical terminology like “return to form”—Gilliam, if anyone, is a filmmaker who delights in avoiding labels—but after his bewildering Tideland, which allowed him to indulge in exactly the kind of deliberately arty, inaccessible, maddeningly self-indulgent affront to expectations and compromises he obviously needed to get out of his system in order to refuel his creative cylinders, his newest is every bit the sumptuous, sensory delight as his beloved classics Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (no coincidence that the script reunites Gilliam with Charles McKeown after nearly two decades). Considering its troubled production, the film is remarkably sure-footed and near-seamless in its mode shifts, as if the narrative retooling demanded by Ledger’s sudden passing mid-production were part of the already-trippy conceit from its inception.
One thousand year old Doctor Parnassus (a splendidly robust Plummer) presides over his traveling theatre troupe whose stage show tempts the public with the opportunity to enter an imaginary world based upon their own hopes and fears via a magical mirror. Passage is no mere illusion waiting to be debunked by Penn and Teller, no sirree—Parnassus’ powers are real, bestowed upon him by the Devil himself (Waits as “Mr. Nick”, tearing into every line like he’s gargled with fresh brimstone) centuries earlier. A deal was made after an especially high gambling debt: Parnassus would hand over his daughter Valentina (a doll-like Cole, suggesting there was another line of Tyrell Corp. replicants) to the underworld on her sixteenth birthday.
Setting up in contemporary London, Parnassus comes upon Tony (Ledger, who based his take on the role on former British PM Tony Blair, whom he regarded as a “deluded liar”), a charismatic stranger suffering from amnesia. Reluctantly welcomed into the troupe by driver/dwarf Percy (Troyer) and sleight-of-hand magician Anton (Garfield), he devises a plan to dupe five souls into taking Valentina’s place via the mirror to Paranassus’ “imaginirium”. But Mr. Nick is never far behind…
With only limited success in The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam has now embraced digital FX in a major way—those given to the currently-fashionable lament that CG has ruined filmmaking should find their fears challenged by the pizzaz given to his Pythonesque visions by the addition of ray tracing, texture mapping, and the “Z” axis—at times, it’s as if Magritte and Dali have manifested themselves as After Effects plug-ins…
Gilliam was lucky in that he had already shot the majority of Ledger’s “real world” scenes first, with the FX-heavy other-side-of-the-mirror episodes to follow. This allowed him to recast Ledger’s character with other actors for the fantasy bits (a simple tweak in Act One established the change in physiognomy on the part of the traveler once he went through the looking glass, and presto! The rest of the film was set). Ledger’s fellow actor friends Jude Law, Colin Farrell, and Johnny Depp volunteered to each manifest a side of Tony’s malignant personality and it all works delightfully.
It’s hard not to envision a real-life Mr. Nick trying to stop the production: Ledgers’ passing was followed by producer William Vince’s death just one week after shooting wrapped, and during post-production, Gilliam himself was hit by a car and broke his back. But passion prevailed and Dr. Parnassus ends, wonderfully, with a title card crediting the production to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends”.
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS
Sunday, September 20, 2009
DELIVER US FROM EVIL (Fri os fra det onde)
(Contemporary World Cinema)
(Denmark/Sweden/Norway, 2009, 93 minutes)
Written by: Ole Bornedal
Directed by: Ole Bornedal
Cast: Lasse Rimmer, Lene Nystrøm Rasted, Jens Andersen, Pernille Vallentin, Mogens Pedersen
Sort of a Danish “Amores Perros” or “21 Grams”, Ole Bornedal’s “Deliver Us From Evil” tackles some big themes, thankfully without Iñárritu’s lugubrious tone and heavy-handedness, and engages well enough as a snapshot of everyday life in modern Denmark before eventually embracing thriller conventions with a mighty Viking hug. Bornedal is the writer/director of the superb 1994 nordic noir “Nattevagten”, which he remade more or less shot-by-shot as “Nightwatch” (not the Russian fantasy epic by Timur Bekmambetov) for Miramax’s Dimension Films, only to have the Weinsteins bury his original and dump his remake to a few theatres after having shelved it for two years.
Various lives intersect, entwine, and combust when a carnival sets up in a coastal Danish town. Affluent young lawyer Johannes (Lasse Rimmer) and his wife Pernille (Lene Nystrøm Rasted, lead singer of the pop band Aqua!), a teacher, have moved with their two children from Oslo, but the intrusion of Johannes’ dirtbag brother Lars (Jens Andersen) makes his dream of renovating the family home and enjoying a quieter pace of life difficult. Lars aspires to go straight—his junkie girlfriend Scarlett (Pernille Vallentin) is pregnant with his child—but he can’t handle even the simplest responsibilities of maintaining a job as a long-haul trucker and cavorts with his loutish mates after every dollar earned.
Stoned and distracted while driving his rig home, Lars feels a terrifying thump and emerges from his truck to find the body and scooter of an elderly woman strewn across the highway. Scattered about are pages of Christian hymns. Unbenownst to Lars, she’s the wife of his boss Ingvar (Mogans Pederson) a deeply religious man and respected town elder, and was on her way to meet Pernille to update hymn books for the school. To cover his tracks, Lars plants evidence on Alain (Bojan Navojec), a hulking, but mild-mannered, Bosnian refugee whom Johannes’ befriends and pays to help with the repairs.
While the townspeople whoop it up in the carnival beer tent, Ingvar grows concerned at his wife’s uncharacteristic tardiness. When the body is discovered, the old man stops the celebrations and demands the culprit confess. Lars fingers Alain, and the bloody hymn pages slipped into his pockets are discovered. The (largely drunken) locals immediately turn on him, but Johannes, convinced of the man’s innocence, ushers him home for protection until the authorities have been properly notified. But a now broken and bloodthirsty Ingvar will answer only to God’s law…
“There are no evil people, only people without love” is the tag line on the poster, and a line spoken by Pernille to her children (who don’t buy it) in their introductory scene which could set us up for the worst kind of Oprah’s Book Club-endorsed hooey. Thankfully, Bornedal is such a skilled and confident filmmaker that he keeps “Deliver Us From Evil” from crashing into another…well, “Crash” (the Haggis version). Characters that could easily be positioned as “types” are flawed and complex—I can’t remember the last film I saw where my loyalties to an entire ensemble fluctuated throughout. Bleeding heart liberal/family man Johannes castigates his brother and his flunkies as the spawn of the country’s welfare state, and saintly Lutheran Ingvar embodies the worst aspects of the society’s insular nature when he decries Alain as a filthy outsider and thus the only possible suspect in his wife’s death. Even Pernille is too willing to offer up Alain as sacrifice once her sanctuary is threatened. Lars is revealed to possess more empathy and humanity than we’re initially lead to believe, and Bornedal tosses in a last-minute twist (bordering on a cheat, but it’s a good one) that further propels our understanding of events into turmoil.
Not that there aren’t some familiar joys to be had: once the third act resets the tale into serious “Straw Dogs” territory, the uber-liberal Johannes, like Dustin Hoffman’s mathematician, begins to enjoy dishing out comeuppance a little too much--to paraphrase Chekov: “If a nail gun is purchased in hardware store in Act One”…well, you can figure out the rest…
One of TIFF 2009’s best entries and a long-overdue second coming for Bornedal across the pond, “Deliver Us From Evil” has been sold to Evokative Films for distribution in Canada, likely not until next year, though.
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING
(Thailand, 2009, 110 minutes)
Written by: Panna Rittikrai
Directed by: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai
Cast: Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrachang
For those of you who just had to know how orphan Ting came to be a Buddhist-raised Muay Thai master and defender of the village of Nong Pradu, Tony Jaa answers your questions with his directorial debut “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning”--only six years after his international smash “Ong Bak: The Warrior”—but, thankfully, not at the expense time in front of the camera, where he continues to redefine the critical term “here comes da pain” (thanks to Al Pacino and Brian DePalma).
Arguably even more numbskull’d and arbitrarily plotted than the original, “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning” makes for a satisfying experience to forgiving fans willing to gnash their teeth and play along precisely for those qualities. Character arcs? Structural beams? “Indoor bullstuff”, as Joe Bob Briggs would so aptly put it. The chief draw here is Jaa’s creation of “Natayuth”, a “dancing art” that fuses various fighting styles from around the world. And lots of elephants…
The story begins in 15th century Thailand (talk about a prequel!), where Tien (Natdanai Kongthong), the 10-year old son of Lord Sihadecho, survives the massacre of his village by Lord Rajasena (Sarunyu Wongkrachang), who has assumed control of Asia and has ordered all subversives executed, and that includes Thien’s parents. Within seconds of being captured by slavers (snaggle-toothed natives of standard ooga-booga issue), Tien is dowsed with blood and forced into pit-fighting a crocodile. But the guerilla group Garuda Wing Cliff has already infiltrated the camp and one of its soldiers, Cher Nung (Sorapong Chatree), helps Tien escape (but not before he dispatches the croc). The boy is then taken to the requisite blind mystic (Cher Nung), who declares that the boy will grow to become the greatest warrior that ever lived. After a series of tournaments bouts, where he successfully spars with warriors from Thailand, China, Japan, and Indonesia, the stoic, adult Tien (Jaa, taking over) is the youngest warrior ever to master the art of Muay Thai, seeks revenge on Rajasena and free his childhood sweetheart Pim (Primata Dej-Udom) from his control…
This is a much more lavish production than its predessor, and the bucks are on the screen, from the period costumes and weaponry to the epic massacre—a flurry of rampaging horses, swordplay, and exploding gunpower bombs worthy of Ridley Scott--that opens the film. But Jaa, as a director, doesn’t seem to trust his own abilities enough to let them play out in all their breathtaking natural glory, and relies too much on image saturation tricks and, more intrusively, varying film speeds that undermine his consistently inventive stunt work and gravity-defying moves.
Thankfully, he’s wise enough to let the camera sit still for awhile, esp. in the jaw-dropping extended set piece where Tien navigates a herd of rampaging elephants in what plays as an ode (intentional or not) to Yakima Cannutt’s famous “drop” in John Ford’s “Stagecoach” without somuch as a pixel of CG enhancement. Jaa almost tops it with a dizzing skirmish in which Tien battles an opponent atop, below, and around his trusty elephant sidekick “Black Tusk” like a sinewy Tasmanian Devil.
The climactic fight is equally thrilling—the best “Boss Level” in a film that’s a series of nothing but--and reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s “Game Of Death”, with Tien dispatching various masked assassins as he works his way up the successive levels of a temple for a final face-off with Rajasena.
Subtitles for foreign language productions vary in even the best instances, but I found some of the translations here to be spectacularly absurd, esp. the need to spell out “Hurray!” when the onscreen crowd so clearly utters it at top volume.
Unfortunately, “Ong Bak 2”takes a frustrating “Matrix Reloaded”/”Kill Bill Vol. 1” turn by ending just as Tien is captured by Rajasena’s soldiers and ordered to be tortured. A narrator informs us of Tien’s possible reincarnation and the final image of that of Ting standing before the head of Buddha that serves as the McGuffin for the original film.
No surprise, then, that “Ong Bak 3” is on the way. “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning” hits North American theatres on October 23, or you could wait it out for the eventual DVD triple-bill and get it over with all in one shot…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
(Ireland/USA, 2009, 111 minutes)
Written by: Neil Jordan
Directed by: Neil Jordan
Cast: Colin Farrell, Alison Barry, Alicja Bachelda, Tony Curran, Stephen Rea
It would be a bit too glib to say this was a great film the first time around when it was called “The Secret Of Roan Inish”, but while it certainly can’t be ignored that Neil Jordan’s newest bears more than a passing similarity to John Sayles’1994 fable, “Ondine” is a unique and highly personal effort from the versatile filmmaker, who returned to his roots in Irish history and literature out of boredom and frustration with the 2007 WGA strike. If there can be two movies about 19th century magicians, why not a pair about Gaelic seal people?
When loner fisherman Syraceuse, (Colin Farrell) finds that his catch of the day is a young woman (Alicja Bachelda) who has miraculously survived some extended time unconscious in the water, his first impulse is to take her to a hospital in the village of Castletownbere. But she pleads for anonymity, so, suspecting she may be a refugee, agrees to let her hide out in his deceased mother’s home until she’s recuperated. Syraceuse incorporates this remarkable turn of events into an off-the-cuff story to entertain his daughter Annie (Alison Barry) during one of her dialysis treatments for a kidney ailment that keeps her wheelchair-bound. Annie is convinced that the woman, who says her name is “Ondine”, is a selkie, which, if you remember Sayles’ film, is a seal that can shed its skin to become human. One of the perks of rescuing a selkie, according to the folklore into which Annie immerses herself, is seven years of good luck. Syraceuse begins to believe the legends when Ondine’s presence seems to cause fish to miraculously fill his nets and lobsters his traps in outrageous quantities, much to the suspicion of the local fishing authorities and townspeople, including his ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan) and her loutish boyfriend (Tony Curran). Egged on by Annie’s conviction, Syraceuse becomes bewitched by Ondine’s apparent powers and obvious beauty (no surprise, then, that Farrell and Bachelda are currently a couple off-screen), confessing his impulses to the local priest (another wry turn from Jordan regular Stephen Rea) whom he regards more as an AA sponsor than spiritual advisor. Soon, Ondine becomes a very public presence around Castletownbere as Annie’s constant companion (and savior), attracting the attention of a mysterious visitor whose ominous presence may tip some viewers off to the third act revelation a bit earlier than Jordan intended.
The need for fantasy in the lives of adults as well as children is a theme that runs through many of Jordan’s features from the self-penned “The Company Of Wolves”, “Mona Lisa”, and “The Crying Game”, and the Patrick McCabe adaptations “The Butcher Boy” and “Breakfast On Pluto” (and very much part of Jordan’s next project, Neil Gaiman’s children’s novel “The Graveyard Book”). His characters have found enchantment—used and often abused—via religion, politics, sexual experimentation, folklore, and self-delusion. Fantasy, Jordan has said, looks at the world through an “idealized prism”, but “the world resists that point of view”.
Farrell brings an authenticity to the role beyond his accent—his battle with alcoholism is well known, and he invests Syraceuse with a ragged nobility and palpable love for his daughter. With this following fine work in “In Bruges”, Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream” and Michael Mann’s woefully underappreciated “Miami Vice”, Farrell’s reputation as Joel Schumacher’s “It Boy” and Hollywood’s most eligible hellraiser should be behind him (“Ondine” is one of three eclectic films he’s appearing in at TIFF this year, the others being Danis Tanovic’s “Triage” and Terry Gilliam’s “The Imagination Of Dr. Parnassus”).
On the production side, Kjartan Sveinsson’s spare, hypnotic score (his band, Sigur Ros, also contributes a song that features prominently into the plot) and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s expert lens work make the rugged Irish terrain (and faces) of this bittersweet fairy tale all the more immersive…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS
(USA, 2009, 122 minutes)
Written by: William Finkelstein
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Cast: Nicholas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge, Xzibit
When it was announced that Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” would not only be remade, but would star Nicholas Cage in the Harvey Keitel role, the message boards ignited with usual AICN-led charge of Hollywood’s creative dearth, Cage-as-box-office-poison, and various misspellings of the word lieutenant. But Ferrara’s own reaction was the most incendiary: “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up”. (I somehow doubt Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman forwarded similar sentiments when he offered his own take on “Body Snatchers”).
Reception softened (somewhat) when Werner Herzog signed to direct. The very idea that the iconoclastic German director would take on a remake with a big-name Hollywood actor wasn’t such of a reach, really: he’d already done the straight-up Vietnam drama “Rescue Dawn” with Christian Bale, which was a fictionalized revisit to a subject from one of his own documentaries.
Turns out that his “Bad Lieutenant” is not a remake after all. It’s certainly not a sequel. Nor is it the audience-friendly police yarn the advance advertising would have you believe.
Terrence McDonagh (Cage) is a hard-wired police sergeant in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. When he risks drowning to save an inmate trapped in a literal watery prison, despite the protests of his partner Pruit (Kilmer), his heroic act gets earns a promotion to lieutenant, and with it a back injury that gets him hooked on prescription pain medication.
When not investigating the murder of a family of Senegalese drug dealers, McDonagh idles away afternoons with his hooker girlfriend Franke (Mendes), who has access to some deep pockets, which is just the thing he needs to pay off his gambling debts to his bookie (Dourif).
So far, sounds like pretty standard cop fare, right? The cheap titles, dinky synth score, and murky, grainy stock (no offense to DOP Peter Zeitlinger) would almost have you believe the management had mistakenly threaded up a lost Golan-Globus/Cannon-Films potboiler circa the Reagan-era...
Weeeeell, Herzog has other plans, letting Act One play out according to the Robert McKee playbook (the screenplay is credited to William Finkelstein, Emmy-winner for such episodic TV procedurals like “L.A. Law” and “Law And Order”) before chucking convention and shifting modes into a chain of increasingly baroque sequences that will either send you pounding the manager’s desk for a refund or glued to your seat giddily anticipating the next demented turn.
As we move into Act Two, the capture of prime suspect Big Fate (Xzibit) takes a back seat as McDonagh falls further down the addiction rabbit hole—prompting him to steal from the evidence locker, shake down locals for drugs, and threaten a college football prodigy to take a dive. And then the iguanas make the first of their appearances, to the strains of Ray Charles’ “Please Release Me”, which may or may not be a hallucination…ditto the break dancing spirit of a slain drug dealer.
Suffice to say, this is one batshit insane experience--either a post-modern stunt secretly co-conspired with Ferrara to deliver the biggest “screw you” to anyone who would dare suggest art-house-royalty would even consider slumming in a potential franchise; or, an operatic indictment of corrupt American authority post-Katrina (evidence tampering, the denial of civil rights, forced confessions); or dare-I-suggest something entirely new...?
McDonagh is the child of an alcoholic—his ex-cop father and new wife (Coolidge) are losing their battle with the bottle—offering a glimmer of insight as to his fall from grace. But Herzog doesn’t sentimentalize or judge his behavior—the tone is oddly celebratory of McDonagh’s unbridled indulgence, as if the director sees him as a force of masculine bravado ala the late Klaus Kinski's Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre all-but-extinct from modern movie screens (but living well on cable, thankyouverymuch, thanks to series like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad"). Perversely, Cage’s “out there” performance manages to anchor the film in “unreliable narrator” territory, and one could make the case that he’s channeling Kinski at every turn out of reverence for his director—if we weren’t already familiar with the bop-eyed/cackling/lurching-around-like-Dwight-Fry-in-a-Kabuki-Theatre-production shtick he’s been peddling since “Vampire’s Kiss”.
By all accounts, "Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans" marked a successful collaboration between the mad-German-visionary and the fallen-A-lister-in-need-of-redemption, one that bodes well for future partnerships. Unlike the director's former favorite leading man, Cage kept his tantrums onscreen, and Herzog wasn't moved to pull a gun.
Some moviegoers, on the other hand, might feel otherwise…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
UP IN THE AIR
(USA, 2009, 108 minutes)
Written by: Sheldon Turner and Jason Reitman
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride, J.K. Simmons
George Clooney’s easy, unforced charm and Jason Reitman’s confident direction propel this breezy but unexpectedly astringent comedy/drama about lives adrift across America circa today--some cruelly jettisoned by the realities of the workplace, others hovering noncommittally by conscious choice. Likely to be promoted as a feel-good date flick, “Up In The Air” is a remarkably astute film considering its director is barely past thirty.
Ryan Bingham (Clooney, never better) has been getting a lot of work lately, flying about the U.S. first-class with a single purpose: to fire people. Hardly a cold-blooded corporate axe-man, he feels genuine compassion for his clients, and has even convinced himself that his dismantling of their predictable careers is a gift of liberation; a kick-start to a worthier life path. For fun, he embraces the finest hotel pampering and the anticipation of finally acquiring ten million frequent flyer miles. During a stay in Atlanta, he enjoys a tryst with fellow, but oh-so-feminine free spirit Alex (Farmiga)--“think of me as you with a vagina” she purrs--who seems to share Bingham’s mantra best summed up in his popular motivational speech: “The slower we move the faster we die…moving is living…We are not swans. We are sharks.”
Summoned back to headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska (where he maintains an apartment for the whole seventy days of the year he stays put), Bingham meets Natalie (Kendrick), a pompous young Ivy Leaguer who has convinced his boss (Bateman) that video conferencing is a more tactful and, of course, cost-saving way to terminate employees. Bingham counters that her solution is ineffective and inhumane, and to prove it, takes her on the road with him, arranging to meet Alex again along the way. Having to face the tears and desperation of those made “redundant” without the safety of a monitor, Natalie struggles with the moral consequences of her profession, and Bingham with those of his chosen lifestyle, once Alex reveals herself to be too perfect a fantasy…
Based on Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, “Up In The Air” emanates rare intelligence and humanity without being twee or self-consciously arty. At first, it seems as if we’re being set up for the dreaded Everyone Learns A Valuable Lesson parable, and for the most part, they do—as do we, at least, those of us who’ve come to dread the star-powered romantic comedy. Reitman and co. delight in setting up potentially hackneyed developments and then skewing expectations--in many ways, I couldn’t help but think of Michael Clayton, in which Clooney assayed a similar role as a world-weary “bagman” for corporations, which had the veneer and structure of a Grisham-issue legal thriller but ultimately proved to be something much more complex and reflective.
Clooney’s unique gift is his ability to show vulnerability without resorting to histrionics. He seems at home in the antiseptic airports, lounges, and hotel rooms, which had me thinking of his role as Chris Kelvin in “Solaris”, another role in which you could see the cracks forming in his roguish facade. In a fun running gag, he accepts the challenge to photograph a cardboard cutout of his betrothed sister and her fiancee (McBride) against various landmarks as a wedding gift.
Kendrick steps out of her leading man’s shadow as Natalie—no small feat, that--who could’ve been the film’s one false note. Initially, she seems to have stepped out of the supporting cast of “The Office” as a cold-blooded corporate drone, but gradually, her buttoned-up automaton is worn down by the fall-out of her career’s demands, and a nuanced, fragile person emerges, one whose Prince Charming fantasy of marriage and family is a defense mechanism and a blinder to the real world around her.
“Up In The Air” is also a remarkably ballsy film, daring to risk alienating a large part of the potential audience by seeking laughs from the all-too-serious subject of workplace downsizing (at the time of this writing, the U.S. unemployment rate is hovering just below a depressing 10%).Whereas in the last Great Depression most comedies aimed to be distractions from the problems of the world, this one confronts the realities of our age head on. It’s in these sequences where the film is most affecting. Reitman shot scenes with real people talking about what how being fired has affected their lives and self-esteem, and he’s interspersed these bits ala “Reds” and “When Harry Met Sally” with scripted moments, including two particularly powerful scenes with a combative Zach Galifianakis and a broken J.K. Simmons (his second memorable cameo of TIFF 2009, following his turn as a war-vet science teacher in “Jennifer’s Body”), respectively.
Reitman’s now three-for-three, an impressive track record for someone so young, and who obviously had to overcome suspicions of nepotism, which should now be extinguished once and for all. The term “Reitmanesque” is well on its way to entering the lexicon of film terminology--with apologies to his father, who was on his way to claiming the term for himself until he decided a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger was a sure-fire idea...
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
THE BOYS ARE BACK
(Australia/United Kingdom, 2009. 104 minutes)
Written by: Allan Cubitt
Directed by: Scott Hicks
Cast: Clive Owen, Nicholas MacNulty, George MacKay, Laura Fraser, Emma Booth, Alexandra Shepisi
I made room for this one in my screening schedule because after a full week of near dawn-‘til-dusk angst and allegory, I craved a film I could connect with on an emotional, balls-to-the-wall sentimental level, cynics be damned. This year was my first TIFF as a new parent, you see, and a film about fatherhood was just the thing to assuage my guilt for being at the movies all day and NOT at home with my beautiful twin boys.
Prestige-picture stalwart Scott Hicks helms this heavily fictionalized adaptation of Simon Carr’s 2000 memoir, which imposes a fairly standard structure on the reporter’s anecdotal chronicle and strives admirably (and somewhat achingly in parts) to avoid TV movie clichés (which ultimately proves to be a vain pursuit).
Here, Carr becomes Joe Warr, a sports writer who has lost his wife, once a promising jockey, and struggles to raise their six year old son Artie, who still hasn’t full comprehended his mother’s passing. When Harry, his teenaged son from a previous marriage, comes to visit from England and decides he wants to stay, Joe finds his “free range” style challenged by the older boy who was raised in a more traditional, structured environment. Almost immediately after arriving, Harry reluctantly assumes the parental role that his father falls short of amidst the meddling of his in-laws and the growing pressures of his publisher.
Clive Owen, normally cast as the hard-wired laconic type, gets to loosen up as the befuddled widower whose motto “Just say yes” raises a few eyebrows from helicopter-parent-types (as well as the requisite comely single mom) who don’t respond warmly to poppa’s permissive nature. So while the youngest boy sits on the car hood as Joe speeds along the beach (dad’s probably not wearing a seat belt, either) and the house resembles a fetid trash dump, everyone learns an important lessen about individual responsibility—arguably, the result of Joe’s own extended-adolescence as it is a carefully honed manifesto. Thankfully, isn’t played for sitcom-y laughs: when Joe leaves town to cover the Australian open for his newspaper, the boys are left to their own devices (guess what can go wrong with that plan?) and the house is nearly destroyed by a teen house party that goes dingo.
Owen is aided immensely by two terrific young actors who are far removed from the cloying moppets of who tend to populate these sorts of undertakings and spend most of their screen time dropping would-be clever zingers from writers several times their age. As Artie, Nicholas McAnulty is largely required to be cute and precocious but reveals conflicted emotions behind all that unbridled, alpha-male energy. George MacKay (who might remind some viewers a little of “Harry Potter”s Rupert Grint), as the older and sensitive Harry, struggles to fit in with his new family and takes his missteps and perceived disappointments harder than his father does.
In the film’s second half, Harry returns home to his mother, prompting Joe to own up to his responsibilities and attempt to woo him back, with Artie in tow. It all builds to a climactic reunion on a London subway platform that relies a bit too much on coincidence (doesn’t anyone ever get stuck in traffic jams or have trouble hailing a cab?) and isn’t the only irksome contrivance in an otherwise well-meaning and potent romp.
Obvious and unnecessary are the visitations of his late wife’s ghost, in the Jiminy Cricket role as Joe’s troubled conscience. The initial flashback scenes with Joe and Katy (Laura Fraser) coping with the messy realities of her debilitating condition and planning for Artie’s life without her are sufficiently raw and heart-wrenching without the inclusion of a now overused convention that even “Rescue Me” dropped after a few seasons. Also, Joe’s fledging relationship with a classmate’s mother begins to crackle (after the initial meet-cute dialogue) before this turn is drop-kicked from the narrative entirely once the events leave Australia.
Mind you, very few “dads”—single or otherwise—are fortunate enough to eke out a living at a financial level where one can just fly halfway around the world to make amends with estranged lovers and children. I wasn’t expecting Ken Loach or Roberto Rossellini kitchen sink realism here, but more than once I found myself mentally quoting Elaine from “Seinfeld”: “Give me something I can use.”
The film is best taken on an episodic level, with most of its virtues found in the performances and gorgeously photographed Southern Australia scenery (further idealized by the accompaniment of Sigur Rós’ dreamy score), pamphlets for which should be handed out to grief counselors the world over.
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009
(USA, 2009, 119 minutes)
Written by: Joe Penhall
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Cast: Viggo Mortenson, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Garrett Dillahunt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Guy Pearce
This long-awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel demanded a careful touch, given that without the author’s precise--and for some impenetrable--literary voice, this simply-plotted parable of “borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it” could’ve ended up as little more than an art house version of “The Road Warrior”.
It was unlikely that the Coen brothers would be available, or even willing, to take another swing so soon after their definitive screen translation of McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men”. Thankfully, the cinematically-robust material —which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and have its reclusive creator break his publicity silence via Oprah’s Book Club of all things--found its way to John Hillcoat, who gave us “The Proposition”. An Australian riff on “Heart Of Darkness”, its unflinching portrayal of betrayal and bloodshed, played out through ravaged faces and landscapes, bore an uncanny kinship to McCarthy’s anti-westerns “The Border Trilogy” and “Blood Meridian”, declaring the Hamilton, Ontario-born director a perfect fit.
Set a decade after an unnamed apocalypse has turned the world into a wasteland where the sky constantly rains ash (the obvious assumption is a nuclear catastrophe) and only insects and humans have survived, “The Road” refers literally and metaphorically to the perilous route The Man (Mortenson) and his son (Smit-McPhee) navigates to the coast, which the father believes to be a sanctuary. He is haunted by memories of his wife (Theron) who chose suicide over having to face, as McCarthy puts it, “the crushing black vacuum of the universe”. Her idealistic husband (a former doctor) fled their home to forge a more hopeful future. At night he reads to his son to instill a moral code, by teaches him survival skills so that he will “carry the fire”. Other than a cart of crude supplies, The Man’s only possession is a pistol containing two bullets, one for each of them, should they fall prey to the roaming mobs of interlopers who have succumbed to cannibalism as the last desperate act of survival.
While some moviegoers will be attracted by the obvious genre elements—bombed-out cities, some brief gunplay and chases, posses of flesh-eating, white trash goons—“The Road” is the farthest thing from an adventure film (although parts of it are thrilling) and much closer in sensibility and tone to Cornel Wilde’s “No Blade Of Grass” or the British television serial “The Survivors”. Playwright Joe Penhall’s screenplay expands the wife’s role in flashbacks and eliminates some of the novel’s more extreme imagery (esp. the grisly fate of a pregnant woman and her unborn child) but otherwise adheres to McCarthy’s prose beat for beat. Mortenson’s voice-overs are verbatim from the text, but wisely not overused.
Two pivotal set pieces from the book are memorably realized: the pair’s armrest-ripping escape from a house of all-too-human horrors, and a lyrical interlude in a fallout shelter, where the boy giddily enjoys the pleasures of a safe bed, canned fruit, and Coca-Cola.
A mangy, emaciated Mortenson is perfectly cast as The Man, haunted by ghosts and anticipating menace at every turn and yet who must maintain the illusion of “hope” his son needs to move on. Smit-McPhee is a bit older and better fed than the child in the novel, but brings a resemblance to Theron and the appropriate innocence to the role. Also worth noting are memorable cameos from a heartbreaking Robert Duvall, the ever-reliable Garrett Dillahunt (shaping up as this generation’s Bruce Dern), “The Wire”s Michael Kenneth Williams, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Guy Pearce (who starred in “The Proposition”)as fellow wanderers.
It’s appropriate that the film was shot on real American locations laid waste by disasters both natural and man-made. Production designer Chris Kennedy and DOP Javier Aguirresarobe masterfully paint a portrait of a dead world (“streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor” to intrude with another of my favorite passages) from the worst areas of Pittsburgh and the derelict Pennsylvania Turnpike, to post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana, and the still-petrified Mount St. Helen’s in Washington. They’re complimented by a spare score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that might be a tad too winsome for such bleak dramatics, but is perhaps intended to be representative of the Man’s undaunted spirit. It all works, even though there’ll be many-a-moment where you’ll wish it didn’t…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
(United Kingdom, 2009, 97 minutes)
Written by: Gary Young
Directed by: Daniel Barber
Cast: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley
Director Daniel Barber defines his debut feature “Harry Brown” as a story that “needed to be told”. Star Sir Michael Caine related to the character, an ex-soldier with working class roots appalled by the current state of England’s youth, and did the film as a “warning to British society”. But for all of its supposed urgency, it’s just another tale of a good man Who Can’t Take It Anymore--“Death Wish” with hoodies and chavs…
Ex-marine Harry Brown (Caine) idles away his days in a tenement flat studying chess masters like Bobby Fisher, exiting only to console his dying wife in the hospital. Outside, the grounds are overrun with angry punks of all ages who resort to violence as much for sport as urban survival. After his wife passes way, Harry finds some comfort with his veteran friend Leonard (David Bradley) at the neighborhood pub, where they witness a brazen public drug deal, prompting Len to admit that he carries a bayonet as protection from the crime that’s overrun the city.
When detectives Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) arrive to inform him of Len’s death from a brutal beating, Harry fears he could well be next and craves justice. He follows dealer Kenny (Joseph Gilgun) to his grow-op under the auspices of purchasing an illegal gun, where he’s introduced to paranoid mastermind Sid (Liam Cunningham), who keeps his girlfriend stoned and becomes increasingly suspicious of Harry’s queries. A gunfight erupts, in which Harry kills them both. He drives the girl to the hospital and drops the drug money in a church donation box.
News of a vigilante panics the authorities, who are plotting a massive raid on the complex. Frampton and Hicock question several young suspects, all of whom are turned loose for lack of evidence, which prompts Harry to even more extreme measures…until things go off the rails with a third act plot twist hardly worthy of your average TV cop show…
Screenwriter Gary Young may have aspired to splash about in the minimalist kitchen sink realism of a filmmaker like Shane Meadows, but this thin, button-pushing scenario doesn’t add a damn thing to what Michael Winner’s “Death Wish” and Phil Karlson’s “Walking Tall” (both 1974) and their respective sequels, rip-offs, and remakes (Lewis Teague’s “Fighting Back”, James Glickenhaus’ “Exterminator” series) explored (and exploited) decades ago. The major twist here is that Harry is nearly an octogenarian, but Charles Bronson was well into his 70s when he starred in the last two “Death Wish” entries, and in last year’s surprise hit “Grand Torino”, 78-year old Clint Eastwood also played a senior war vet driven to vigilantism to protect his dwindling middle-class neighborhood.
But that film at least attempted to give some depth and personalities to its troubled youths, even if it wallowed in caricatures and fell short of “The Wire”. In “Harry Brown”, goons Kenny and Sid are such ridiculously loathsome caricatures--all multiple-piercing, tattoos, rotting teeth, and jaundiced flesh--that they look like they stepped out the casting lineup for the remake of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser”. Others are typically foul-mouthed rotters who dash about in the dark like Street Thunder from John Carpenter’s original “Assault On Precinct 13”, a film that made no attempt to humanize crime but deliberately presented its gang members as relentless phantoms. There are some tense scenes here and there and the climactic drug raid, which erupts into a fiery tempest of police vs. civilian violence, is well-staged.
Caine, of course, brings more poignancy to material than it deserves. While the actor insists in the press notes that the film doesn’t “glamorize violence”, he contradicts himself in another statement by regarding “Harry Brown” an “urban western”, and he’s not far off. The deck is so heavily stacked in Harry’s favor that to doubt this decrepit good citizen’s crusade for even a second suggests a lack of human blood in one’s veins—there’s about as much moral gray area here as in a Tom Mix two-reeler (the final showdown is in the local saloon), but at only 97 minutes, it’s thankfully not much longer…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
GEORGE A. ROMERO’S SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD
(Canada, 2009, 88 minutes)
Written by: George A. Romero
Directed by: George A. Romero
Cast: Alan van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Barry Fitzgerald, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostwick, Athena Karakanis
George A. Romero returns to a more conventional narrative approach in “Survival Of The Dead”, which should win back some of the purists put off by “Diary Of The Dead”s foray into “new media” experimentation as he rebooted his four-decade-old franchise for a new century (and new home, since he relocated to Toronto). His second Canadian-produced feature (and fourth-shot, after "Bruiser", “Land Of The Dead” and “Diary”) finds the former Pittsburgh native taking advantage of rural Ontario’s bucolic landscapes and regional colour to stage his latest zombie allegory as a modern-day “western”—specifically, a tribute to William Wyler’s “The Big Country”, as he slyly quipped in his introduction.
Turns out he wasn’t kidding: When Colonel “Nicotine” Crockett (van Sprang), whom we first met in “Diary”, fights through the zombie hordes (“Deadheads”, as they’ve been nicknamed) to escape to the promised safety of Plum Island, he and his dwindling troupe, which includes a few surviving Delaware National Guardsmen and a nameless teen (Bostwick) who’s a crack shot, find themselves unwilling participants in an ongoing feud between two combustible Irish families. Only six days in, the outbreak has already spread to this remote haven, and the hot-tempered xenophobe Patrick O’Flynn (Welsh) believes the only way to deal with the problem is to shoot ‘em in the head--family, friend, or otherwise. Across the island, Seamus Muldoon (Fitzpatrick) insists a cure will be found, so he orders the newly-resurrected rounded up and contained on his ranch. When O’Flynn’s daughter Janet (Munroe) becomes infected, O’Flynn’s extreme stance is tested, but not at the expense of his hatred for his lifelong rival…
“Survival” is a unique entry in the saga in that it features returning characters from the previous installment, and the passage of time between films is only a few days (as opposed to an entirely new decade, as has been the tradition since “Night”). It’s also only the second to be shot widescreen, using the much-heralded Red Camera HD system.
A brisk 90 minutes, “Survival” is Romero’s shortest chapter yet and is the most jovial, aided immensely by Canadian character pros Welsh and Fitzpatrick, who are clearly having a blast (literally) as trigger-happy foes who’ve carried their mutual loathing into their autumnal years, for reasons never really explained.
He provides plenty of opportunities to showcase Spin FX's computer-generated gore, and while the pageant of seemingly infinite zombie splatter is more convincing (and, as Romero defends to the anti-CG brigade, easier and less expensive from a filmmaking perspective), it lacks the homespun charm and genuine awe factor of Tom Savini’s latex and karo syrup practical gags (which, because they were shot live on location, always seemed more integral to the narrative).
The creator of the most potent supernatural allegory since the vampire has seen his concepts pillaged, and some would say even eclipsed, by countless rip-offs, remakes, and tributes since Bill Hinzman first lurched at Judith O’Dea in the Evans City Cemetery in 1968. While clearly there’s a statement being made here about the futility of revenge and bred-in-the-bone prejudice, Romero seems to just want to have fun this time out, serving up plenty of gunplay and slapstick, incorporating a goofy plot twist involving a twin, and a recurring riff on whether the ghouls can be conditioned into eating something other than human flesh (the answer is "yes", btw, in the series' most bizarre plot turn since Bub dispatched Rhodes with a salute in "Day Of The Dead").
Artfire Films has secured distribution rights to "Survival Of The Dead" for Canada, the UK, Japan, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia, but curiously, a release date has yet to be determined for the U.S. at the time of this writing.
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
(United Kingdom, 2009, 108 minutes)
Written by: John Collee
Based upon “Annie’s Box” by Randal Keynes
Directed by: John Amiel
Cast: Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Martha West, Jeremy Northram, Timothy Spall,
The ordinarily staid Toronto International Film Festival kicked off with a healthy dose of controversy this year with Naomi Klein-and-company’s organized protest against its "Spotlight On Tel Aviv", and by eschewing CanCon tradition in awarding the Opening Night Gala slot to the kind of earnest, big-themed actor-ly piece seemingly engineered exclusively for festivals. It’s not bad in and of its type, but with a title like “Creation”, the average viewer should expect something more grandiose than this dour, housebound melodrama which consists largely of people squabbling in period garb. And when one of the squabblers is none other than Charles Darwin, author of what has rightly been called the most important idea ever conceived outside of the Big Bang Theory, a tale of procrastination and writer’s block comes off as a bit of a let down, especially without the Charlie Kaufman touch.
Controversy should have followed this well-intentioned, handsomely-mounted BBC Films/UK Film Council production, given the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design imbroglio still raging in America’s schools and churches (six months into President Obama’s first term, the fringe crackpots only seem to be gaining momentum, so don’t expect to see that saddled dinosaur robot on eBay any time soon…). Early accusations of it being an atheistic screed are laughably overstated--John Collee’s script is rather toothless this respect, focusing on the years before Darwin published his incendiary “On Origin Of The Species”...
Based on the novel Annie's Box, by Randal Keynes (Darwin's great-great-grandson!), “Creation” follows an ailing, grief-stricken Darwin (Bettany) at his country house in Kent, as he aches over the loss of his ten-year old daughter Annie (Martha West, daughter of “The Wire”s Dominic West) and struggles to find the courage to complete the 200-plus pages of what will ultimately become his defining work. His heretical theories are well-known to the locals, especially to the church, much to the distress of his religious wife Emma (Connelly), who dreads the repurcussions on their social standing and their children. When he learns that a colleague and fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, has already published an essay proposing virtually identical evolutionary theories, he becomes even more despondent...
John Amiel’s workmanlike direction only comes alive in the fleeting glimpses of Darwin’s seminal voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S. Beagle, where he was inspired to devise the theory of natural selection, and in an extended subplot recounting his heartbreaking relationship with Jenny, a young orangutan at the London Zoo from whose behavior he concluded that so-called ‘human’ qualities as altruism, empathy, and morality were part of nature.
There’s a little “Inherit the Wind”-type debating between Darwin and Reverend Inness (Northram), a hiss-able pious prick who once made Annie kneel in rock salt for questioning a Bible lesson. And a team of supportive scientists (Jones and Spall) credit him for “killing God”. And of course, Annie appears throughout in spectral form to act as her father’s conscience, not unlike Clive Owen’s dead wife in “The Boys Are Back”—something of a through-line I saw in a handful of films at this year’s TIFF.
As Darwin’s conflicted, religious wife Connelly affects a convincing British accent but otherwise isn’t given much to do but fret prettily as the wife/mother beyond the requisite “you care more about—insert subject of film here—than you do about me/us/our children” scenes--pretty much the same role for which she won the Oscar in “A Beautiful Mind”.
Bettany invests his all, though--paler than usual and sporting a bad comb over and even worse sideburns—while on familiar ground as well, having already played a fictionalized version of Darwin in the far more awe-inspiring “Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World”.
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
(USA, 2009, 98 minutes)
Written by: Mark L. Smith
Directed by: Joe Dante
Cast: Chris Massoglia, Nathan Gamble, Haley Bennett, Quinn Lord, Teri Polo, Bruce Dern
Any new film by Joe Dante is a cause for celebration in this reviewer’s wholly biased opinion—sorry, QT, but the Corman-mentored/former “Castle Of Frankenstein” movie critic-turned-trailer-cutter-turned director was the pioneer of ebullient nerdfests overstuffed with high-and-lowbrow references and a giddy celebration of “movie reality” at its most spectacular and craptacular. But this truncated encounter will have to do for now, because my viewing of “The Hole” is an unfinished one. Fifteen minutes before the already-brief film would have ended, the fire alarm at the Ryerson Theatre wailed like a banshee from the bottom of the titular chasm and forced evacuation, delaying the climactic showdown with the ultimate Deadbeat Dad for another day (as yet undetermined, but hopefully soon)…
Up until then, it was certainly an engaging, PG-spook fest: when seventeen-year old Dane (Massoglia) and his younger brother Lucas (Gamble) relocate from Manhattan to the cozy hamlet of Bensonville with their mother (Polo), they find some excitement in the form of Julie (Bennett), the precocious teen beauty next door who not only reads heady tomes by Plath and Dante (cute) but is popular enough to throw the most awesome townie pool parties.
Exploring the basement of their modest bungalow, the boys uncover a padlocked trap door that leads to…well…nothing. After a series of tests and experiments, including lowering a camcorder into the seemingly limitless abyss (punctuated by one hell of a delicious big boo), it’s clear they’ve unleashed something as varying forms of supernatural mayhem begin to manifest themselves, including a ghostly little girl, the most frightening clown puppet since “Poltergeist” (but don’t tell Charles Band), and the boys’ absentee father, an abusive thug who has lived on in their frightened consciences through bad memories and letters from jail, but who has found a direct line back into their lives via The Hole…
Hardly sporting the most original hook—isn’t this essentially the plot of every other book ever written by R.L. Stine? (it also shares a title with a recent British thriller starring Thora Birch and Kiera Knightly)—“The Hole” could be cynically dismissed as another attempt to woo the tween/”Twilight” demographic. Writer Mark L. Smith, who gave us the nifty “Vacancy”, is obviously a student of the genre, having shamelessly pillaged from Tibor Takacs’ “The Gate” to Bernard Rose’s “Paperhouse” to Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu”, but keeps his paranormal shenanigans strictly on the family-friendly level. This poses no problem whatsoever for the consistently-inventive Dante, who infuses the material with the same demented wit he brought to his breakthrough hit “Gremlins”, and palpable affection for his young cast.
Otherwise, he plays it mostly straight here, with fewer genre samples and cameos than usual—but Bruce Dern is back from “The ‘Burbs” in full-throttle Crazy Ralph mode as the local kook who knows a thing or two about the town’s history (his H.Q. is the Orlac Glove Factory), and yes, that’s Dick Miller as the baffled pizza guy.
Despite his obvious jones for notorious cinematic hucksters like Corman and gimmick king William Castle, Dante shows surprising restraint with the stereoscopic technology, which certainly improves with each successive release (and there will be more—so many in fact, that “The Hole” won a Best 3D Film Of The Year (!) award at this year’s Venice Film Festival). Sure, a few things come popping out of frame and are tossed directly into the lens ala Dr. Tongue to elicit a cheap and easy “whoa!” from the viewer—hey, it works—but “The Hole” is one of the most immersive 3D experiences I’ve yet seen, with the creepy confines of the house nicely augmented by the additional spatial distance (and some bone-rattling audio work), and climb up a rickety derelict rollercoaster guaranteed to induce vertigo…
Even with its rich atmosphere, charming chemistry of its cast, and admirable respect for the viewer’s intelligence and patience, “The Hole” could have a tough time finding an audience. Gen Y-ers seeking scares can and likely have witnessed much more extreme exercises in terror with the click of a Torrent, and fans of Dante’s early work might find a cast of teens only slightly less appealing than Brendan Fraser and the major stars of Looney Tunes.
But Bruce Dern and Dick Miller in 3D—as if you need another reason to go…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
(Australia/USA, 2009, 98 minutes)
Written by: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Directed by: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Vincent Colosimo
As anyone who’s slogged through the “Underworld” series can attest, a nifty take on the established lore, state-of-the-art CG, and that de rigueur steely blue sheen do not necessarily guarantee a great vampire movie. In a reversal on the “Blade” series’ notion of a secret vampire society with its own economy, code, and caste system, Michael and Peter Spierig’s “Daybreakers” proposes an intriguing expansion on Richard Matheson’s original hook for “I Am Legend”: what if the world was not only overrun by bloodsuckers, but what if the conditions of the mutation had been naturally assimilated into civilization? Ten years after the outbreak, in the year 2019, cars are now manufactured with an option for daylight driving (shuttered windshields, interior video assist), cities offer an underground “Subwalk” galleria for AM coming-and-going, gated communities afford properties that can protect from UV rays, coffee shops offer hemoglobin as a flavour shot, billboards champion fang whiteners, and Uncle Sam points out from recruitment posters to join the good fight against the human resistance.
Some vampires, like hematologist Edward Dalton (Hawke) refuse to consume human blood (pigs will do) and toil to invent a blood substitute. Others merrily hunt them for sport or patriotic duty. While humans are outnumbered, their extinction is not to the vampires’ gain: with only 5% of the human population left, the world is faced with a blood shortage which is already inspiring riots and public executions of disfigured, bat-like vamps—“subsiders”--who dare to feed on their own kind out of desperate hunger.
While the Spierigs have certainly thought about their premise from the inside-out and have fun painting in the margins, what constitutes a surface plot takes its cues from the Syd Field playbook with disappointing blandness, considering the potential for a truly unique entry amidst the current glut of vampire revisionism. The script is occasionally witty (on his birthday, Dalton quips “I’ve turned 35 ten times already” and “life’s a bitch, then you don’t die”) and the cast (mostly) has fun with the concept. Sam Neill lets ‘er rip at the evil corporate head of Bromley-Marks who’s not above turning his own daughter into a bloodsucker, while Willem Dafoe channels Levon Helm as a human-turned vampire-turned back to human “Che” of the human resistance (nicknamed “Elvis”). Unfortunately, our lead is Ethan Hawke as Dalton, the vampire scientist who spends most of the movie with his usual disaffected facial expression, like he’s still irked that nobody liked his novel “The Hottest State”. When he ultimately conceives of a cure for the entire vampire plague, his commitment to the cause seems dutiful more than impassioned.
Conveniently, the human underground have set up their base camp in a former vineyard, which provides Dalton—now a fugitive for his human sympathizing, and hunted by his soldier brother--with the inspiration to cure human blood of its unnatural, transformative impurities through a unique take on wine fermentation (actually, he’s inspired by Dafoe’s account of his reverting back to a human state after a nasty car accident that set him on fire…I spent a bit of time researching fanboy comments on the internet and frankly still don’t get it).
The Spierigs made an impressive debut with 2003’s “Undead”, which basically was about alien-inspired zombies, and will forever be known to local audiences as the last film ever to be screened at the Uptown Cinema. They’ve got a great collective eye for composition and ideas to burn, obviously, but considering the six years it took to finally produce a followup, it’s a shame that “Daybreakers”s wild concepts and clever details are burdened by a convoluted, logy screenplay that relies on exploding bodies and one too many car chases…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
(Contemporary World Cinema)
(Canada, 2009, 90 minutes)
Written by: Rob Stefaniuk
Directed by: Rob Stefaniuk
Cast: Rob Stefaniuk , Jessica Pare, Malcolm McDowell, Alice Cooper,
"Suck"…doesn’t…so let’s move on…
Just when it seemed like the last thing the world needed was another musical-horror-comedy-cult-flick-wannabe (a moment of silence for “Repo! The Genetic Opera” and Troma’s “Poultreygeist”) along comes this off-the-radar charmer from Canada that successfully dishes out all three with enthusiasm and aplomb while mining some pretty well-worn terrain (Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, and Freddie Francis beat ‘em to it). Prospects for a “Rocky Horror”-caliber future are unlikely given today’s short-attention-span climate, but “Suck” is nonetheless a damn funny movie.
Rob Stefaniuk, whose 2004 debut “Phil The Alien” left no impression this reviewer whatsoever, wrote and directed this rollicking road movie that follows the unexceptional bar band The Winners (named after lead singer Joel Winner, also played by Stefaniuk) from the dingiest rock clubs of Montreal to Toronto to Buffalo to Manhattan as they hope to score a shot at the big time, despite advice from their manager (Dave Foley) that they should give up. The night before they embark (in their hearse) to a gig in Toronto, group bassist Jennifer (Jessica Pare—leading one to ask, Megan Fox Who?) returns from an overnight tryst with a ghoulish admirer and begins to exhibit some strange qualities: pale skin, an aversion to daylight, and a thirst for blood. While their hapless French-Canadian roadie Hugo gets stuck with the dirty work of cleaning up after a vampire, the band begins to experience unheard of success as Jennifer’s unique stage presence becomes a huge draw. Pursuing them is the combustible, eye-patched “Eddy” Van Helsing (Malcolm McDowell, who left “subtlety” back at Heathrow a long time ago), a descendent of the infamous vampire hunting family who’s afraid of the dark and seeks vengeance against uber-vamp The Queen (Dimitri Coates of the Philadelphia-based Burning Brides) for taking the life of his lounge-singer girlfriend back in the 70s.
Stefaniuk’s directorial skills have improved immensely since his debut: the road structure provides an effective hook so what we’re left with is not just another rudderless gag-fest ala the “Scary Movie” franchise. There’s a group dynamic amongst the band members—who one-by-one line up to volunteer to be Jennifer’s dinner—that rings true. Hipster cameo king Iggy Pop appears briefly as a reclusive producer, as do Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, and most memorably, Moby as a G.G. Allin-type punk rocker (a non-vegan, too!), and Rush guitar Alex Lifeson in a hilarious deadpan turn as a U.S. border guard (he just might have a future in acting if the whole music thing doesn’t work out).
For Van Helsing’s flashback scenes to his 70s love-affair with a lounge singer (Barbara Mamabolo), snippets of a young Malcolm McDowell smoking and drinking from the orgy sequence in Lindsay Anderson’s classic “O Lucky Man!” are cleverly employed and rerun to hilarious effect, as if to acknowledge that the production could only afford to license a few seconds of a major studio release.
Inspired graphic flourishes include animated maps and stop-motion travel shots that suggest equal parts Ralph Steadman and Tim Burton, sly visual nods to genre founding fathers Murnau and Browning, and some winks to iconic music images like the cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road (duh!) and T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior” (beautifully done).
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
ENTER THE VOID
(France, 2009, 155 minutes)
Written by: Gaspar Noé
Directed by: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy
Gaspar Noé has produced only three features in eleven years, but he certainly labours to make each one memorable. His films don’t so much aspire to entertain the viewer as they do to pummel him/her into feeling something—anything--usually revulsion...
Considering the steady dump of impersonal hackwork in theatres on any given weekend, this commands a certain amount of respect. But I’ve long suspected that his fly-on-the-wall nihilism is a bit of a stunt, evidenced by the countdown clock to an impending bit of nauseating incestuous businesses in “I Stand Alone”, to the excruciating, single-take, nine-minute long rape of Monica Belluci in “Irreversible”. The Buenos Aries-born provocateur seems to be the answer to John Water’s lament for the lack of “showmanship” on the art house circuit. Think William Castle with indie cred.
With “Enter The Void”, Noé moves into Roger Corman territory circa “The Trip” by painstakingly simulating a drug experience (presumably one of his own) via one of the more avant-garde applications of CG. He opens with a neon sign flashing “Enter”, and then pulls back to the POV of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown—heard more than seen), a 20-something loser holed up in a Tokyo flat, bidding goodbye to his younger sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) and then kicking back with a pipe and some primo DMT. From his POV, lights dim, colours swirl, and ceiling becomes alive with flowering fractals and writhing tentacles of light. It’s a long way from stock footage from AIP’s “The Terror” and “The Unearthly”. It also goes on for a very long time I must say—and got me wondering, as a non-drug user: wouldn’t it be something if cinema could evolve to simulate the sensory stimulation of chemical substances without the risk to one’s body and mind? And then I thought: why bother? Getting high looks an awful lot like the trip through V’Ger in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, and I’ve got that on DVD.
Oscar’s reverie is interrupted for a drug deal which takes him to the nearby sh*thole bar “The Void”. His bohemian painter pal Alex (Cyril Roy) warns that narcotics are dangerous (he’s not above using them, just not selling them) and remains outside. Inside, Oscar is double-crossed by his client Victor (because Oscar’s been sleeping with his cougar mom), and a sudden police raid climaxes in his being shot to death in the washroom. Oskar’s consciousness lives on, however, and his spirit floats from his body, taking in the crime scene, Alex’s panic, and flies to the sleazy club where Linda slums as a dancer (and a bit more).
Oscar watches passively from the afterlife for the remainder of the film’s ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY FIVE MINUTE running time, as the fallout of his death accelerates Linda’s and Alex’s respective downward spirals. The film’s second act, if there indeed is such a structure, shifts the focus to the third person, from just behind Oscar’s head and right shoulder, as he revisits his sister’s birth, his parent’s amorous activities and his Primal Scene moment, and the truly horrifying collision with an 18-wheeler that turns mom and dad into hamburger meat and leaves the children orphaned, and eventually, separated into foster homes.
With the third act, Noé returns to Oscar’s disembodied POV and the visuals get even more surreal: a model city of Tokyo becomes a dream palace where past, present, and presumably future converge, Oscar bears witness to Alex’s degeneration into homelessness, and watches his sister’s abortion of her boss’s love child (and in case you weren’t sickened enough, floats closer to an eyeball-searing inspection of the bloody fetus—take that Mr. Castle, with your Percept-O and Coward’s Corner!). Gradually, Linda and Alex overcome their poor lifestyle decisions and come together as lovers, unknowingly presenting Oscar a chance at potential rebirth…
Initially, Oscar has to physically fly from location to location, but eventually, discovers a way to travel via light sources (into the light bulb in his apartment, out the table lamp in Linda’s strip bar), but towards the end of the film, he seems to be able to travel at random (and absurdly so—he flies into a burning stove element in Linda’s apartment and then out of her navel in the abortion clinic!).
And Oscar is certainly a randy bit of ectoplasm, stopping to linger whenever possible on sexual acts from both internal and external POVs, occasionally entering the heads of various persons in the throes of eros to experience their sensation (including what it’s like to do his own sister…eww…) and into that same sister’s private parts to witness… well, you fill in the blank here.
Buddy Alex is a disciple of the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, which Oscar had only perused before his death, and this writer has not read at all (I’ve got a copy that came in a gift pack with some hot sauce). Presumably, there are parallels between the book and Noé’s structure and imagery that might resonate to those in-the-know.
Sure, it’s easy to be blithe towards a film like this, given its excessive running time and epic forays into the worst examples of directorial self-indulgence. But Noé is clearly a talented filmmaker with a desire to push and expand his chosen medium, and the choreography of camera, cast, locations, and post-production enhancements required to pull of such an illusion is nothing short of masterful. For all its in-your-face horror, “Irreversible”s structure worked backwards, cleverly, so that the final scenes of marital bliss were emotionally devastating given the viewer’s advance knowledge of the leads’ doomed fates. I felt nothing with Oscar’s possible reincarnation…only the fear of what I might see should his spirit become disembodied again and follow someone into the bathroom. Maybe tonight I’ll finally open The Tibetan Book Of The Dead and see if it all connects—if not, I’ll pass on the DMT, thanks, and take my chances with the hot sauce…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
(USA, 2009, 103 minutes)
Written by: Diablo Cody
Directed by: Karyn Kasuma
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Megan Fox, Adam Brody, JK Simmons
Diablo Cody’s much-anticipated follow-up to her Oscar-winning indie hit “Juno” has been salaciously previewed as homage to 80s horror films with the bodacious “It” girl Megan Fox as a succubae Freddy Krueger, but it turns out that “Jennifer’s Body” is not particularly effective or interesting as a horror film per se.
Directed with bland efficiency by Karyn Kasuma (whom no one will confuse with the second coming of John Carpenter or Wes Craven…or even Fran Rubel Kuzui for that matter), it works best when it plays up Cody’s mojo as the nought-generation’s heir to the throne of the late, great John Hughes, whose distinctive 80s works bestowed his teenage characters with a depth and dignity rarely seen in commercial cinema and whose influence has been openly acknowledged.
In truth, it may be “Jennifer’s Body” but it’s “Needy’s Movie”, Needy being the equally fetching Amanda Seyfried’s combination Molly Ringwald/Final Girl who unearths the secret behind her hottie BFF’s sudden change in behavior and diet. There are some standout moments—the fire that destroys the local roadhouse and claims the lives of several students and teachers echoes DePalma’s “Carrie” and the tragic 2003 Great White concert in Rhode Island, the fallout of trauma and mourning for students and staff is nicely observed, and the flashback to Fox’s brutal sacrifice at the hands of a vacuous, demonology-obsessed emo band is truly chilling, esp. with Adam Brody and his mates merrily crooning Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”.
JK Simmons, Amy Sedaris, and Lance Henriksen turn in welcome cameos. True to modern day genre form, there’s plenty of gore and R-rated sex chat, but no nudity whatsoever, and I was at times irked by Cody’s brand of teenspeak jargon, which some viewers past “a certain age” will find only slightly more intelligible than Alex DeLarge’s narration in “A Clockwork Orange” (turns out if you’re “salty”, then you’re da bomb…sorry, wrong decade).
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
(USA, 2009, 120 minutes)
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, Joe McHale, Thomas F. Wilson
Since his last release was the polarizing HD-shot Godard-riff “The Girlfriend Experience”, it’s no surprise that Soderbergh’s followup is a more commercial effort, given his usual pattern of one-for-me/one-for-them post-“The Limey” (for what it’s worth, still my favorite Soderbergh film). Thankfully, whenever Soderbergh “slums” in the Hollywood sandbox, the results are still interesting (I still might be the world’s only passionate supporter of his “Criss Cross” remake “The Underneath” which he’s more or less disowned). While the premise of “The Informant!” doesn’t exactly smack of “box office”, it is a rollicking, uber-accessible work—at first glance another of those “inspired by a true story” prestige-wannabees just in time for Oscar season--headlined by Matt Damon, who clearly relished the opportunity to hide his pungacious, All-American looks behind a layer of paunch threatening to burst through the off-the-rack office attire, and a Sy Sperling hairpiece perched precariously atop a palour baked by flourescents.
But “The Informant!” is more reminiscent of the Coen Bros. downright misanthropic farce “Burn After Reading” than “Erin Brokovich” or that windshield wiper drama with Greg Kinnear. That’s because the title character is hardly a noble, destined-to-be-martyred whistle blower—Damon’s propensity for lying and inability to admit to any personal error defines the term “pathological”, although his later attempts to whitewash his behavior via medical and psychiatric means yield nothing to keep him (justly) out of the slammer (it’s that rare movie where you’re on the side of the Feds for a change…). I don’t know how much of this is actually “true”, but even if a sliver of the screenplay is based upon confirmed facts, then the recent collapse of America’s corporate culture makes a helluva lot more sense.
The incredible whirlwind of events begins when Michael Whitacre (Damon), an executive on the chain at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, an Illinois agricultural conglomerate ) pulling down six figures despite no real skill or aptitude for business (he defines himself repeatedly as a “chemist”), approaches the FBI with confidential information regarding a global conspiracy in lysine price-fixing allegedly ordered from on high. The tenacious agents—played with winning chemistry and humanity by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale--initially believe Whitacre’s outrageous claims that at first seem noble, moral, and selfless, if at the expense of any common sense and personal gain. Of course, the entire conspiracy has been manufactured by Whitacre, initially because he’s vengeful and bored, but later to provide a smokescreen so he can embezzel tens of millions from the company. Whitacre is such a clueless dolt, the kind of middlebrow salaryman who finds inspirational quotes from in-flight magazines and regards Grisham as literature (even though he doesn’t really read the books, he just watches the movies), that it’s amazing that much more astute individuals—his bosses, the FBI, federal prosecutors, didn’t smell a rat earlier. But he’s an endearing doofus, and his ruse utterly defies logic, that it’s not hard to see why anyone wouldn’t play along…
Visually, Soderbergh (also acting as his own DOP) takes his cues from the Martin Ritt/Mike Nichols playbook and lets his stellar cast and authentic locations (AMD in Decateur, Illinois, and the original Whitacre mansion) bring Scott Burns’ superbly modulated screenplay (equal parts farce and blistering tragedy, adapted from what I gather is fairly straightforward non-fiction account by Kurt Eichenwald). The cast is uniformly excellent, with outstanding supporting turns by Clancy Brown, Patton Oswalt, Thomas F. Wilson, and both Tommy AND Dick Smothers (but not as brothers). It was surprised by the music credit to Marvin Hamlisch, whose last score that I was aware of was 1980’s “Ordinary People”.
©Robert J. Lewis 2009