Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2008

Backtracking to 2007: Bonus reviews

A few films screwed by the studio-release system get their due on IGMS

So maybe you heard about these movies. You read something about them at a film festival. You saw a trailer online. You read a review in some New York or L.A.-based newspaper. You waited and waited and they never came to your town . . . or otherwise you forgot because they never advertised it on TV. They slipped through virtually unnoticed and found a quiet home on DVD. Instead of letting them die there, let me do you a favor and remind you of a few titles I missed - and which you probably did, too.

The Nines
Newmarket Films
Director: John August
Screenplay: John August
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, Melissa McCarthy, David Denman, Octavia Spencer and Elle Fanning
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
(out of four)

If any movie was destined to find a cult following, it's this one. John August's The Nines is the latest in Mind-Bending Reality vs. Fantasy subgenre, and unlike many such attempts, this one can actually wrap its head around itself.

August - a first-time director but veteran screenwriter of Go and Big Fish - shows impressive restraint and precision with a narrative that is fractured in three parts, with all the same actors playing different roles which somehow all seem to exist within the same universe, one way or another. Naturally, we are asked not to implicitly trust what we see, but just to pay attention to the clues along the way.

If we don't understand it, our lead character - who goes by the names of Gary, Gavin and Gabriel, depending on the segment - certainly doesn't, either. He's a star actor who gets depressed, burns down his house and wrecks his car during a drug binge. Or he's a writer struggling to retain the creative integrity of a TV show he's developing, while being followed every step of the way by a reality TV camera crew. Or he's a video-game designer with a simple, loving wife and family.

Or he's all three. Or none of the above.

The co-existence of the various facets of his mind and/or his world(s) makes for a less confusing experience than one might expect (in fact, perhaps a bit more confusion would have served the story even better), but it's a twisted and surreal puzzle nonetheless.

The film brought to mind Vanilla Sky, The Fountain, Donnie Darko and Guy Ritchie's recent Revolver - and like all four of those films, it comes at its material from a few new angles. So even if the ideas might be fairly obvious, August has fun with them, particularly in the way he structures his narratives and images, so that we think about the nature of the character and the world he inhabits - its rules, its twists, its paradoxes.

More than anything, The Nines deals with the nature of creation - both artistic and literal - and our attachment to our own creations. All three versions of Reynolds' character are creators in one way or another - actor, writer, designer. That fact in itself brings its own dilemmas that tie into the confused fusion of reality and fiction. There's an interesting scene in which Gary is going over all the possible "answers" to his situation, as if he's trying to figure out the big twist at the end of the movie. He doesn't figure it out, of course; that's August's way of gauging and challenging our own expectations of what in the world is actually going on.

When all is said and done, what's actually going on comes across with tremendous clarity, and it begs for you to look again. The Nines was a curious oversight on the part of Newmarket Films - especially considering the rabid audiences for other films in the same vein. It wasn't given much of a chance in theatres, but deserves to find an audience on DVD. (Actually, I guess I should get used to saying Blu-ray, hmm?)

Severance
Magnolia Pictures
Director: Christopher Smith
Screenplay: James Moran and Christopher Smith
Starring: Laura Harris, David Dyer, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens, Andy Nyman, Babou Ceesay, Claudie Blakley and David Gilliam
Rated R / 1 hour, 36 minutes
(out of four)

Rarely is the tone of a film so confused and uncertain that it derails the movie's entire purpose, but Severance accomplishes just that. An allegedly satirical horror movie about a group of office employees who get terrorized during a team-building weekend in the country, Severance spends the better part of an hour-and-a-half indecisively figuring out what it's trying to express. When a rendition of "We'll Meet Again" runs over the closing credits - a clear reference to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - you might finally realize, "Oh, so this is a satire! I get it!"

For the most part, Severance goes through the mechanics of a horror movie. Except in the parts here and there when it decides to remind us it's a comedy. Every now and then, the results are inspired - a horrifically funny scene involving a heat-seeking missile, for example.

But the bulk of the film plays like a standard-fare horror flick - writers Christopher Smith and James Moran leave logic at the door, making their characters do stupid things to put them in the exact right position to be terrorized. Because these are military-weapons manufacturers who are getting killed - sometimes by their own toys - it is supposed to be funny. But the execution of the premise doesn't even have the wit of the similarly themed Hostel.

Slipstream
Strand Releasing
Director: Anthony Hopkins
Screenplay: Anthony Hopkins
Starring: Christian Slater, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jeffrey Tambor, Christopher Lawford, John Turturro, Camryn Manheim and Gavin Grazer
Rated R / 1 hour, 36 minutes
(out of four)

Anthony Hopkins at least deserves credit for shaking things up a bit. I'm sure no one could have or would have predicted that his writing and directing debut would be one of the most bizarre and experimental films of the year. We would have expected a proper English drama involving polite upper-class types named Nigel and Margaret.

Certainly not a time- and space-bending, dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness sci-fi film about an old man who "remembers his own death," as Hopkins put it. So bravo for doing the opposite of what any of us expected.

Now as for the film itself, Slipstream comes alive in fits and starts, but its steady stream of fractured scenes and images never connects on any visceral or stylistic level. Now, when I say "connects," I don't mean that the film is supposed to make sense. Certainly not. But the film's fractured narrative - which goes from the set of a troubled movie production, to the moment of Hopkins' character's death in the middle of the highway, to the inside of the character's mind - flounders to make an experience out of it all. Mostly, the film features lots of scenes (often with funny premises or visual gags) that don't seem to know where they want to go. And worst of all, Hopkins relies far too heavily on the rapid, herky-jerky editing techniques that film-school nerds and music-video directors thought was chic in the 1990s.

Slipstream is nothing if not surprising, but the novelty factor wears off when we realize there's nothing there.

The Ten
THINKFilm
Director: David Wain
Screenplay: Ken Marino and David Wain
Starring: Paul Rudd, Winona Ryder, Ken Marino, Gretchen Mol, Justin Theroux, Liev Schreiber, Adam Brody, Oliver Platt, Rob Corddry, A.D. Miles and Jessica Alba
Rated R / 1 hour, 36 minutes
(out of four)

OK, Kieslowski it's not. But David Wain's The Ten - which premiered at Sundance to a lot of hype but failed to even break a million at the box office - is nothing if not committed to its own twisted sensibilities.

This is a series of absurd, fantastical vignettes, each applying to one of the Ten Commandments. Paul Rudd - playing a character caught in a crisis deciding between his loyal wife (Famke Janssen) and his hot, young mistress (Jessica Alba) - is our host, introducing each segment and trying to explain its moral.

Though Rudd does what he can on a mostly empty stage, his interludes seem to be there simply to pad the film's running time. The film only really comes to life during the vignettes themselves - which run the gamut from absolutely brilliant to absolutely dull.

If writers Ken Marino and David Wain deserve credit for anything, it's in insisting on taking an obscure road around each commandment rather than going for any obvious angles. Thou Shalt Not Covet His Neighbor's Wife, for example, takes place in a prison, and I'll just leave it at that. (Although I will say that Rob Corddry's gentle delivery of very unsavory things is pitch-perfect.)

The result, not surprisingly, is that some of the sketches are so out-of-left-field that they fall flat; in short, some of the ideas, no matter how creative, simply aren't funny.

But when The Ten does work, it's brilliant. It just so happens that the movie as a whole is a mixed bag. The best of the lot are Thou Shalt Not Murder, in which a doctor (Ken Marino) purposely leaves a pair of scissors in a woman's stomach, causing her death, but insists he's innocent because he only did it "as a goof"; Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Goods, in which a man (Liev Schreiber) gets insanely jealous of his neighbor's CAT scan machine, setting off a sequence of constant one-upmanship in which the two men fill their houses with more CAT scan machines than can possibly fit; and Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord's Name in Vain, which features a pivotal appearance by the Lord himself (played by Justin Theroux).

The minds behind The Ten are part of a comedy troupe that most recently worked on the great, but short-lived series Stella, as well as the MTV series The State. Their talent for finding the absurd is obvious - especially if you've seen any of their previous work, including their online shorts; perhaps if one or two other members of the troupe had contributed to the script, instead of just Wain and Marino, they could have weeded out the less-funny segments. But as uneven as the final product is, the scenes that work make it more than worth the rest.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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