I Signed It Out at the Library: SLEEPLESS

Recently I read a glowing article about actor/musician Jamie Foxx in the paper. (Yes, I still read newspapers in the coffeeshop.) The article mentioned a Grammy-nominated album, a new movie and even a game show he is hosting. 

But nowhere does it mention a movie called Sleepless. That’s not surprising. 

Frankly, I hadn’t even heard of the movie until I spotted it in the DVD section of the library.

sleepless - movie poster

Adapted from a French thriller called Nuit Blanche by Andrea Berloff (one of the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Straight Outta Compton), Sleepless features Jamie as Vincent Downs, a Las Vegas cop with connections.(I refer to the performer by his first name because calling him Mr. Foxx sounds like an X-rated version of a Wes Anderson film). 

He and his partner (played by rap star T.I.) are in possession of  cocaine originally belonging to club owner/crook Stanley Rubino (played by an almost unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney – hey, I said almost unrecognizable.) Mr. Rubino is under pressure to recover the shipment since he promised to sell the drugs to a mobster named Novak (Scoot McNairy, who usually plays a good guy, so he is taking liberal advantage of the opportunity to play an especially nasty villain.)

With so much on the line (no pun intended) Mr. Rubino kidnaps Jamie’s, I mean, Vincent’s teen-age son (Octavius J. Johnson) to make sure that Vincent returns his cocaine. Plucky young Internal Affairs officer Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan) is convinced Jamie’s character is dirty and is determined to get the goods on him. Meanwhile, Vincent’s ex (Gabrielle Union) keeps phoning from the hospital, where she works as a nurse, wondering where Junior is, because Jamie, I mean Vincent, doesn’t want to admit her son has been kidnapped.

The critical collective at the rottentomatoes.com gave this movie a wan 2i%. Audience “reviewers” scored it slightly higher at 36%. Obviously, they were not impressed either.

I blush to admit I actually liked the first 2/3 of the movie. Swiss/German director Baram bo Odar keeps putting the screws on our anti-hero to see which way he’ll jump. It reminded me of the final scenes of (the much better rated) 1995 flick Get Shorty when all the pieces of Elmore Leonard’s jigsaw puzzle plot start to come together. 

Unfortunately, something happens in Sleepless and I blame suits-in-the-editing-room or one of the performers using their clout to change the screenplay because at some point, this wannabe thriller falls as flat as a gateau in the oven. (I can almost hear the conversation now,”That may be what they do in Europe, Bo, but in America, audiences want action – y’know, fistfights, car chases, lots of guns …. “)

Y’think movie producers would learn something after the box office fails of American remakes of European hits like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Let The Right One In or even the U.K. TV hit Broadchurch but judging from the fate of this pic apparently not.

sleepless - french 3

“Blackway” Loses Something In the Translation

How can one of our finest living actors go from prestige pics like Howard’s End,  Remains of the Day and Silence of the Lambs to straight to video (or,in this case, Netflix) dreck like Blackway in a few years?

blackway - dvd

That is the thought running through my mind as I watched Anthony Hopkins in Blackway as an aging sawmill worker (no, I don’t make this stuff up) who  teams up with a young woman played by Julia Styles and a mentally slow but physically fiery young man (rising star Alexander Ludwig) to take down the town bully (Ray Liotta, who should be accustomed to playing villains in B-movies by now.)

 

blackway- photos
Anthony Hopkins (with Alexander Ludwig) in Blackway: “Maybe I shouldn’t have  listed myself as a producer.”

What makes it even worse is that director Daniel Alfredson helmed Parts 2 & 3 of the original Swedish Lisbeth Salander trilogy (The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.)

So who is to blame for this almost lifeless wannabe thriller? Well, I could single out screenwriters Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs who based their script on a novel called Go With Me ( by an author named Castle Freeman Jr.) and, according to website the playlist.net “we get all the plot beats of the novel, and none of the texture.” ( I haven’t read the book myself so I don’t wanna pretend I did.)

blackway - novel

I could even assign part of the blame on Mr. Hopkins himself. He is listed as one of the producers, after all. and after working with Mr. Alfredson on the equally dismal The Kidnapping of Mr. Heineken he must have known what he was getting into. But I think the majority of the responsibility probably lies with the director.

After scanning the Internet Movie Database I notice Mr. Alfredson  is back in Sweden filming a new trilogy. That is probably just as well since his adaptation of the Freeman novel, to quote a popular phrase, loses something in the translation.

blackway - stiles
Julia Styles in Blackway: “Wait a minute. This isn’t a new American version of “The Girl Who Played with Fire?

 

 

I Got it at the Library: “By Gaslight”

That Stephen Price is a helluva storyteller.

gaslight - author
Steven Price

At over 700 pages, By Gaslight, the second novel by the Victoria, British Columbia-based poet and fiction writer might have been a doorstopper. But like many of the lengthier films I have enjoyed over the years, I was never bored or visually fatigued thanks to the author’s vividly realized prose and memorable characters.

The novel is set in 1880s London (with flashbacks to the American Civil War and the diamond mines of South Africa) and it is a credit to Mr. Price’s impeccable research and richly detailed narrative that I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was written recently and not penned a number of decades ago. (I haven’t read a novel this rich in period detail which transported me back in time since Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan which was primarily set in 1939 Berlin and Paris – the novel also flashes forward to the early Nineties.) 

gaslight - cover

The story centres around William Pinkerton, son of the crusty, larger-than-life authoritarian who founded the famed investigative organization, and his hunt in foggy London town for an elusive criminal whose very existence is questionable. There is also a gentleman grifter named Adam Foole, his lady love, Charlotte Reckitt, a giant named Fludd and Molly, a ten year old girl who is wise beyond her years (to say the least).  Each of these characters are given humane and believable back stories, scrupulously sculpted by the author. The result is, yes, characters you both know and care about as well as (or better than) members of your own family.

You don’t have to be Fellini, to paraphrase an old George Carlin routine, to see themes of the often thorny relationship between fathers and sons, the futility and tragedy of war (any war) and the Rashomon – like nature of truth interwoven into the narrative.

Perhaps the ancient adage is true that a prophet (or, in this case, an author) is without honor in his own country because, in one of the first Canadian literary websites I logged onto, the highly respected quillandquire.com, while admitting that the novel is “an engrossing read“, the reviewer says  “… nothing carries us beyond the characters to give their stories thematic resonance of the sort that motivates the great 19th-century novels to which By Gaslight is so indebted … “(Perhaps the writer of this review has been hanging around stuffy Ontario academics too long,)

I much prefer the enthusiastic, uncluttered  response of America’s NPR (National Public Radio): ” … Intense …  threaded through with a melancholy brilliance, it is an extravagant novel that takes inspiration from the classics and yet remains wholly itself.”

Perhaps the best description of the novel is on the back cover of the book itself: ” … darkly mesmerizing,” writes author Jacqueline Baker, “worthy of the great Victorian thriller writers, but Steven Price brings to his prose a sensibility and dazzling skill all his own … perfectly grounded in period and rich in incident and image. Haunting and deeply satisfying. “

Come to think of it, Stephen Price and Esi Edugyan are husband and wife. Could they be CanLit’s new Power Couple (even if they are not based in Toronto)?

gaslight - couple
Esi Edugyan and Steven Price: The Canadian Lit Power Couple?

I Got it at the Library: “Certain Women”

Certain - Kelly
Film-maker/Professor Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt refuses to be rushed.

But you already know that if you have seen Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cut-Off. If you are a newcomer to her highly personal and (some might say) idiosyncratic art Certain Women may not be the best introduction. See the two films above first and then see Certain Women and you should feel right at home.

You may have read about the slow food movement. Well, Reichardt’s films are what has been called “slow cinema”. And she determines the pace. (She has edited, written and directed all of the films listed above.)

Certain - Maile

Based on a series of short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy (sister of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, by the way) Certain Women offers low key character studies of  four women (Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone), their humdrum existences,  frustrations and small victories. 

Reichardt’s films, like the slow food movement perhaps, are an acquired taste. The film recived a 92% per cent critical approval on the rottentomatoes.com site but fared less successfully among the audience reviewers (RT Audience Critic Phillip Price wrote in part “…  There is a fine line between being understated and simply being uninteresting …. “

But as Ms. Reichardt told Nigel Smith of “theguardian.com”‘:  “It all just seems everything is getting faster. Faster, faster, faster – we all want things faster. I guess there is a part of me that likes the pull against that … 

Certain - poster

 

More WWTF: “The Duke of Burgundy”

duke -cover

Mainstream websites such as philly.com, the online division of the  “Philadelphia Inquirer” describes The Duke of Burgundy as a straight-faced homage to 1970s European erotica, full of soft-focus nudity and soft-core kink.” Stephen Rea, in his review of UK auteur Peter Strickland’s film goes on to mention Italian soft-core king Jesus Franco and America’s Radley Metzger as influences on Strickland’s art and calls Duke a throwback to “more innocent times, when actresses with exotic names would strip off their costumes while embracing far-fetched scenarios – and one another.” 

Since I nurse tender feelings towards French film-maker Just Jaeckin’s original 1974 Emmanuelle and its leading lady, Sylvia Kristel, I decided to add it to my Netflix list.

duke - knudsen
Sidse Babbette Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy
 Go deeper – to hard-core cinephile sites like cinema-scope.com – and the dedicated viewer will unearth more complex (conservative viewers may call depraved) meanings. Control is a dominant theme – as in Sun  Choke  – but expressed in a much more subtle manner. The narrative revolves around a May- September lesbian couple (Sidse Babbet Knudsen, Chiara d’Anna), their S & M roleplay and lepidoptery. (The film’s title refers to a type of butterfly.)  There are film references and metaphors galore oozing just under the surface  But what a lush and sensual surface it is (cinematography by Nic Knowland).
Since I have not engaged in S & M roleplay personally, some of the references flew by me on the first viewing. (So that’s why the character portrayed by Ms. Knudsen drinks so much water.) Ms. Knudsen’s CV, incidentally, includes TV’s Westworld, Borgen (a Danish political drama in which she plays Denmark’s Prime Minister!) and a small role (opposite Tom Hanks) in the film A Hologram for the King.  Ms. d’Anna (a former geologist, according to “Rolling Stone”, who called the film “the kinkiest arthouse film of the year“) is the younger half of the duo. Both actresses play their roles in refreshingly natural fashion , as writer/director Strickland intended.
duke - chiara
Chiara d’Anna in The Duke of Burgundy
In the interview with cinema-scope. com’s  Jose Teodoro, Mr. Strickland makes the remark ” ….  I’m trying to embrace that disreputable or sleazy impulse, as the film we made clearly started as a Jess Franco tribute, though it ended up as something very different … ”  You’ve been warned (or intrigued).
duke - butterfly

WWTF (Wassup With This Flick): SUN CHOKE

sun - poster

We know Janie (Sarah Hagan) has severe mental health issues, Irma (Barbara Crampton), the housekeeper/stepmother, may be trying to cure her with yoga, holistic exercises and New Age babble and that, in one of her rare forays out of doors (most of the film takes place in a lavish yet sterile Beverly Hills home complete with swimming pool) Janie becomes obsessed with a young woman named Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane) and begins to stalk her. 

Sarah Hagan as Janie

That’s it. The rest may be up to you. Writer/director Ben Cresciman supplies no backstories for any of the characters. He only hints that something very bad happened to Janie (perhaps dating back to her childhood), her mother has died and the father has been largely absent from the scene (in the film he is on an extended trip to Tokyo). Themes of parental neglect, personal control (or the lack of it) and the care and treatment of mental illness are hinted at. But like all works of art, the final interpretation is left up to the individual viewer.

Sara Malakul Lane

All three actresses are committed to Cresciman’s vision. The cinematography (by Matthew Rudenberg) reflects the many moods of the characters and is exquisite and well thought out.

sun- barbara c
Barbara Crampton

The problem, for the viewer, may be that, like Janie, you will have problems separating reality from what is going on in Janie’s feverish imagination. Most of the film seems to be from her deeply disturbed point of view. In literature, Janie’s POV is often referred to as “the unreliable narrator”.

If the idea of a film that entertains while it makes you work and if the concept of a film largely set in one environment and only featuring three main characters makes you as a viewer feel claustrophobic, then you are advised to choose something else.

For me, even though I couldn’t always figure out what was going on, the film held my attention to the bitter end (and the ending may be bitter to most viewers) and images from the film replayed themselves in my mind for several days after viewing, the mark of a film that grips and holds my imagination.

Sun Choke was streaming on Netflix as of May 2017