Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
February 2007

Missing ink: The ones I missed

A look back at a few as-yet-unreviewed picks and pans from 2006

Look, I won't make any excuses. Over the course of the year, there were a few reviews that I just never got around to writing. To be clear, there were a few that I just avoided - the new prequel, to the remake, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for one. The Grudge 2, The Return, The Covenant, Stay Alive and Zoom for others. Most everything else I saw, so here, in capsule form, are a few of the rest:

Night at the Museum
20th Century Fox
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenplay: Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, based on the book by Milan Trenc
Starring: Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs, Mickey Rooney, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais and Robin Williams
Rated PG / 1 hour, 48 minutes
Opened Dec. 22, 2006
(out of four)

Maybe it's not fair to Ben Stiller that he's surrounded by actors - and sets . . . and special effects - that are much more interesting than he is. There's great old-school actors like Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney. There's one of the great comic geniuses of our time in Ricky Gervas (The Office), providing most of the film's funniest moments as an apprehensive museum curator. There's the vastly underused British actor Steve Coogan. Stiller's friend Owen Wilson is along for the ride. And there's a really nice dinosaur-skeleton special effect.

But at the center of it is Stiller, as a helpless man who gets more than he bargained for after taking a job as a night guard at the Natural History Museum. Never mind that Stiller has never been a particularly strong leading man; he's mailing it in throughout Night at the Museum, a kinda-fun family movie that could've been better if it had made a semi-interesting character out of the "single dad trying to make good" prototype, and if it had not tried so hard for easy laughs (for kids, I mean).

There is one nice twist to the plot and the movie as a whole is a harmless time-killer. But really . . . what is it gonna take for people to stop hiring Shawn Levy? The Pink Panther remake, Cheaper By the Dozen and Just Married weren't enough to do the trick?

The Science of Sleep
Warner Independent Pictures
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenplay: Michel Gondry
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Miou-Miou, Alain Chabat, Emma de Caunes and Pierre Vaneck
Rated R / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Out on DVD Feb. 6, 2007
(out of four)

There are reasons to hate The Science of Sleep, director Michel Gondry's follow-up to his flawless Charlie Kaufman collaboration, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." A good friend of mine is, in my opinion, one of the best professional film critics around, and he had very strong feelings against the movie. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I think he pretty much hated it. I completely understand where he's coming from.

Upon seeing it at last year's Sundance Film Festival, both of us expressed disappointment at it. It's not that it wasn't what we "expected," per se - it's that, for all Gondry's talent and creativity, he had created a film that was strangely stagnant, and offered no reason for its 105-minute running time. As a 30-minute short, it might have been great. At feature length, it's merely exhausting. Gondry has so much to offer, but doesn't seem to see the bigger picture this time around. Because The Science of Sleep is really nothing more than a two-hour Michel Gondry music video. If you've ever seen a Michel Gondry music video, you know exactly what that means.

There's a reason music videos are only four minutes long.

And yet I find myself recommending the film anyway. We film critics complain so often when filmmakers refuse to take risks, or at a general lack of creativity that comes out of Hollywood. Neither of those things could be further from the truth with The Science of Sleep. On its surface, it may be a very simple, boy-falls-in-love-with-girl-next-door formula (with Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane, an idealistic dreamer, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Stephanie, his love interest). But Gondry does a nice job blending reality with fantasies of Stephane's everyday life.

What also comes across is Gondry's frequently jarring sense of humor, which repeatedly takes you off guard. Consider the interplay of the various languages on Stephane's first day at his new job. Or the nude sleepwalking scene.

The Science of Sleep is nowhere near perfect, yet impossible to ignore. It may be best enjoyed simply as a showcase for Gondry's many talents. Now if only he could develop more underneath all his flight of fancy, he might really have something.

Stranger than Fiction
Sony Pictures
Director: Marc Forster
Screenplay: Zach Helm
Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Tony Hale and Queen Latifah
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 53 minutes
Out on DVD Feb. 27, 2007
(out of four)

I had no idea Stranger than Fiction could be classified as fantasy. But it can . . . and can't, at the same time, because it is an utterly unclassifiable movie. That is an extreme compliment.

Transcending genre limitations is impressive enough in and of itself - but seamlessly transcending the limitations of a few different genres at once? That's a bit more challenging. But Stranger than Fiction pulls it off effortlessly. It has the idiosyncratic charm of a Woody Allen romantic comedy, combined with the tragicomic edge of a dark, postmodern satire and a character study about one man's self-discovery.

All archetypes we've seen. All brought to new life by director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) and star Will Ferrell (finally being allowed to display some of the dramatic range many of us believe he's long been capable of). Ferrell is Harold Crick, the boring tax accountant forced into taking an active interest in his own life when he begins being followed by his own narrator. That narrator is Kay Eiffel, a world-famous author (known for her tragedies) who has writer's block because she doesn't know how to kill Harold off.

Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) is a literary scholar and English professor who counsels Harold on his own life, as if it were a piece of literature (which, in fact, it is). Hilbert might be the film's best character, arriving at the film's saddest and funniest conclusions and singlehandedly taking the film's satire in its darkest and most brilliant direction.

And finally, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the love interest - the polar opposite of Harold: a tattooed, liberal and aggressive small-business owner who refuses to pay all of her taxes because . . . well, for personal reasons, let's say.

The way Harold and Ana's relationship progresses - complete with Kay's narration forcing Harold to second-guess his every move - makes Stranger than Fiction a loveable and even sentimental character-driven story while retaining all the bite of its comic intentions.

Many of us have been longing to see Ferrell (who was great in Anchorman and Elf but had gotten too comfortable in forgettable movies like Bewitched and Kicking & Screaming) in a role like this. We knew he could do it, just like we knew Jim Carrey could do it before The Truman Show finally proved it.

This was an unfortunate box-office disappointment, only raking in around $40 million. Maybe it wasn't an easy enough sell. Maybe it crossed too many genres to cross over into the mainstream public used to seeing Ferrell in sophomoric comedies. But hopefully that won't deter him from making a lot more movies like this - instead of, say, Old School 2.

District B13
Magnolia Pictures
Director: Pierre Morel
Screenplay: Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri
Starring: David Belle, Cyril Raffaelli, Bibi Naceri, Dany Verissimo and Tony D'Amario
Rated R / 1 hour, 25 minutes
Available now on DVD
(out of four)

It's almost not even worth getting into the plot and social commentary of District B13. When it comes down to it, none of that really matters. What matters is the action, the stunts, the gunfights, the "wait a second, I've got to rewind to make sure I saw that right" moments. We enjoy it for the same reasons some of us enjoyed Equilibrium or Unleashed. The plots are merely there to hang elaborate action sequences and special effects.

District B13 is set in a futuristic Paris in which the poorest slums are walled off from the rest of the country, ignored by the affluent government and left to rot. No schools, no police, no nothing. People are left to their own devices; presumably, to kill each other off.

The film takes the time to comment on this, but it's only peripheral to Pierre Morel's considerable skill as an action director - which, really, is why we all bought our tickets in the first place. The film uses the mismatched buddy formula - Leito is a resident of District B13 who does all he can to fight back against his district's resident crime kingpin; Damien is a government police captain who is handed an urgent mission to recover a neutron bomb that has been hijacked, accidentally, by gangsters in B13. Together, of course, they must work together, and fight together, to fight for justice.

Naturally, B13 is a natural setting for lots of street warfare and gunfire - but oh, how those guns do fire. And oh, how learned Leito and Damien are in the fine art of, um, kung fu. Which apparently is popular in the slums of Paris. Whatever - it looks good when they do it, and every guy in the audience wants to be one of them.

The Wicker Man
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Neil LaBute
Screenplay: Neil LaBute, based on a 1973 screenplay by Anthony Shaffer
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker and Leelee Sobieski
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 42 minutes
Available now on DVD
(out of four)

Let's get rid of one myth right here and now: There isn't nearly as much of a difference between the original The Wicker Man and Neil LaBute's recent re-make as the former's defenders so passionately claim. There really isn't.

Forget about the details that have been changed. It's only natural, when remaking a decades-old movie in another country (the original was a British production) to take the kinds of liberties that LaBute does. The fact remains that the plot structure of both incarnations, from beginning to end, remains mostly the same.

Robin Hardy's original version was about a police officer called to an anonymous island about the kidnapping of a young girl, only to be shunned by a mysterious and threatening pseudo-pagan community. The modern American update follows the same storyline.

LaBute's version is silly and uneven. So was its predecessor.

Some have scorned the new version for the "laughable" scenes in which Nicolas Cage disguises himself by running around in a bear costume. Yet in the original, Edward Woodward had to don just as silly a costume, and looked just as silly running around in it, and the scene served the exact same purpose then as it does now.

An objective observer cannot possibly look at the two films side by side and find all that much difference in terms of dramatic effectiveness or entertainment value. Now . . . I don't mean to imply that LaBute's The Wicker Man is equal to the original. Far from it. But it's a lot closer than some may care to admit.

Where the remake falls short is both in its thematic depth and its direction. (It was odd that LaBute, the talented writer/director of indie films such as In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things, Your Friends and Neighbors and Nurse Betty, came aboard, and he seems as uninspired as Nicolas Cage's strangely lifeless performance.)

Those two areas were the original's greatest strengths. From the first scene, we felt an underlying, sinister mood once Woodward stepped foot on the island of Summersisle. The foreboding atmosphere was reminiscent of the eerie disquiet of the first half of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. LaBute has no such feel for the dramatic presence of the island itself. Nor does he delve much into the religious angles that, ultimately, are the real point of the story. To its benefit, the 1973 version was able to create a chilling parable rather than a traditional horror film, utilizing its main character's dogmatic Catholic beliefs (and sexual repression) to parallel and contrast the pagan beliefs and traditions of the island that he finds so strange and foreign.

LaBute presents all of these elements and follows the story through to the same conclusion. But by the end, this version of the tale lacks the same potency it did the first time - not because we've seen it before, but because the film doesn't really understand why it gets there, or why it comes to the conclusions it does. The effective original may not quite deserve its lofty reputation, but at least it understood what it was about.

The Lake House
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Alejandro Agresti
Screenplay: David Auburn, based on a 2000 screenplay by Eun-Jeong Kim and Ji-na Yeo
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves, Christopher Plummer, Shoreh Aghdashloo, Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Dylan Walsh
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Available now on DVD
(out of four)

Another remake . . . only this time I have nothing to compare it to. I haven't seen the Korean film Il Mare, upon which The Lake House is based, but once Netflix (or Blockbuster) gets a proper DVD version in its original language, I'll be sure to check it out.

And then maybe, just maybe, I'll have some semblance of an explanation to the film's glaring and frustrating plot holes. I know, I know - surely I must be nitpicking if I'm poking holes in a plot that relies on the potential for two people in two different time periods to communicate with each other. But even with that premise in place, too many things just don't make any sense. Even within the time-warp framework. Even the film's director, Alejandro Agresti, seems confused by his story.

The time warp involves a lake house formerly owned by Kate (Sandra Bullock), a former doctor who was now moved out and has begun a correspondence with the "new" tenant, Alex (Keanu Reeves), an architect . . . only he happens to be living in 2004, and she in 2006. It starts off as a rather nice story, and it's certainly an interesting and original way to tell a love story. But as revelations about their lives begin to come to light, the film seems to be saying, in effect, that both Kate and Alex are complete idiots. Or perhaps they suffer from some form of Guy Pearce's ailment from Memento. Or else they're just too dense to figure out what the audience can see coming a mile away.

But maybe that's not the point...

The Lake House is more enjoyable than I've made it sound. It tells a nice story, it's well-made and fairly well-acted. But for those who question what we see, even a little bit, it's hard to get past all those nagging questions marks. And no, it's not our fault - the filmmakers should be as smart or smarter than us. They should be able to figure their own movies out before we point out all these gaping holes.

An American Haunting
Lionsgate Films
Director: Courtney Solomon
Screenplay: Brent Monahan and Courtney Solomon
Starring: Rachel Hurd-Wood, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, James D'Arcy and Thom Fell
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Available now on DVD
(out of four)

Star rating notwithstanding, I might be doing An AmericanHaunting a service simply by acknowledging it here, because most people probably have no idea it exists. It came and went so fast, it was almost impossible to notice.

I was one of the unlucky few. So here I am . . . mentioning it. An American Haunting is one of those "true life" possession stories, set in 19th Century Tennessee and starring such accomplished actors as Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek. But it's a completely lifeless exercise with a lack of understanding for anything that make this type of movie work. Sure, it may be nicely photographed, but when it has nothing to say, who cares?

Slither
Universal Pictures
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn
Starring: Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Don Thompson and Jenna Fischer
Rated R / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Available now on DVD
(out of four)

In the tradition of cult favorites like Peter Jackson's brilliant Dead Alive and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, Slither offers the kind of delightfully macabre sensibility in which a man can be turned into a horrifyingly slimy, tentacled giant slug and his wife can react by proclaiming the sanctity of marriage and, yes, even trying to slip her beast of a husband a little tongue.

The man in question is Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), and his lovely wife is Starla (Elizabeth Banks), an innocent and unassuming southern gal who married Grant for money but is still in love with her childhood sweetheart, the sheriff Bill Pardy, played by Nathan Fillion (Firefly).

Starla notices her husband has begun to act a bit strange lately and has developed a rash on his chest. Unbeknownst to her, he has recently been attacked by a slug from outer space, which has taken over his entire body and means to populate the Earth with his gastropodan seed.

With the help of a dedicated army of pink slugs, "Grant" goes along trying to take over as many human bodies as possible and impregnating all the women in the small town of Wheelsy. With the help of Starla, the police force and the town mayor (Gregg Henry), Bill makes it his mission to stop Grant in his tracks!

Of course, the plot details simply exist to make way for a gloriously campy gorefest, and one to which anyone who has ever encountered a flesh-eating alien zombie slug person can relate.

Gunn has a wicked sense of humor, which should be a prerequisite for anyone making a horror film, comedic or otherwise. Even in the absence of exploding slugs and decapitations (which are fun in their own right), Gunn is working with such talented comic actors that his deadpan dialogue works perfectly. Banks (the crazy chick from The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the love interest in Invincible) is a great comic actress and plays perfectly off the typically stoic Nathan Fillion. The macabre sense of humor on display especially in scenes between Grant and Starla - including the delicious climax - is perfectly suited. Slither may not have the staying power of The Evil Dead, but for what it is, it's a welcome alternative to the norm.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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