A Dark Twist on an Old Story? Not Even Close

Okay, I know how I started writing about a 2010 movie based on a 2001 novel but I am not sure why I am posting an entry in my blog about them.

I guess it all started when I watched the Brit TV series based on the Jack Taylor novels by Irish writer Ken Bruen (an appreciation of Mr. Bruen’s unique – to me – prose style appears elsewhere in this blog.)

London - book

I noticed a second hand copy of London Boulevard at a book sale and since I had become an aficionado of Mr. Bruen’s works I picked it up. Okay, it wasn’t a Jack Taylor novel but the protagonist, a wary, volatile ex-con named Mitchell, his run-ins with former criminal associates, his relationship with mentally unstable sister, Briony, his reluctant affair with the aging but still alluring  reclusive actress Lillian Palmer and her enigmatic butler, Jordan. held my attention.

Then I became aware of a movie adapted from the novel.  Since it was written by William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who adapted the Asian box office hit Infernal Affairs for the Martin Scorsese-directed North American cinematic success The Departed (one of my favorite films) I had high hopes when the acclaimed screenwriter chose London Boulevard as his directorial debut. 

London - movie

Imagine my surprise when I looked closer at the back of the DVD dust cover and saw that Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley had been cast in leading roles. While reading the novel I kept picturing Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren or Charlotte Rampling in the roles. (On the other hand, the casting of Anna Friel as Briony and Ray Winstone as Mitchell’s criminal nemesis, Gant, was spot-on.)

I understand the need to attract “name” stars to secure investors. However, the casting – and rewriting – completely destroys Mr. Bruen’s original intent: to write a British version of Sunset Boulevard, or, as it says on the front cover of the novel, “a dark twist on a classic story.” Imagine a version geared to a youthful demographic directed by Zack Snyder and starring, say, Scarlett Johansson as Ms. Palmer (renamed “Lily”) and one of the Hemsworth boys as Mitchell (MC Mitch?)  

Mr. Monahan’s second attempt at directing, the dismal Mojave. didn’t fare much better (24% Audience Rating). Perhaps Peter Howell of Toronto’s Globe & Mail (quoted on RT) says it best:  “Writer/director William Monahan won an Oscar for penning The Departed and he obviously needs the discipline Martin Scorsese brought to that picture.”

London - sign

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“Forbidden” Viewing

Room - poster

Even seasoned film critic Sean Axmaker doesn’t know quite what to make of Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) based filmmaker Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room.

All he knows is that on an instinctual and aesthetic (I’ve always wanted to use that word in a sentence) level,  he likes it (I think): “Maddin makes no effort to make sense of any of it, or even worry about any kind of dramatic closure. It’s all about the texture, the weirdness, the quality of the cinematic moment. This is not for audiences who demand story and character and narrative logic.” 

Predictably some of the audience critics at rottentomatoes.com did not share his, uh, enthusiasm. A  “reviewer” who calls himself  K Nife Churchkey wrote: “I feel I should review this simply to counteract the acclaim this film has received thus far. This film is an annoying mess …” (The film scored a 95% critical approval rating – 54 critics rated it Fresh, 3 critics went for Rotten) 

Another audience reviewer (Kristi Moore, who gave the film two and a half stars) opined:  ‘I’ve never done acid but Forbidden Room is what I think it would be like if I ever did” 

The thought of viewing it on drugs crossed my mind. I haven’t taken anything stronger than Aspirin  for several decades now but Ms. Moore’s comment does  remind me of a friend of mine back in the day who claimed he would go to see a movie twice – once to see it stoned and again to see it straight. (He would have loved this film, although whether he would have to see it twice is debatable.)

Room - Dupuis
Heavy, man!

There is something hallucinatory about the film –  a series of unresolved stories flash across the screen – a submarine crew fights to stay alive; a lumberjack attempts to rescue a kidnapped woman; a man murders a servant because he forgot his wife’s birthday (Men! Do not try this at home) – over a dozen tales and all served up like a series of lost silent films so badly scratched and degraded that even the Criterion Collection wouldn’t touch them.

Shot in Montreal and Paris, the film features the cream of French-Canadian (Roy Dupuis, Sophie Desmarais, Caroline Dhavernas) and European talent (filmmaker/actor Mathieu Amalric, the terminally weird Udo Kier, the always intriguing Charlotte Rampling, the enigmatic Maria de Medeiros). all of whom enter the esoteric spirit of the project with freak flags flying. 

David Lynch may be an auteur – they would have to think of a whole new five-dollar term to describe  Guy Maddin.

And what is this fascination with flapjacks

Room- Maddin & Johnson
Guy Maddin with youthful protege Evan Johnson (who co-wrote and co-directed Forbidden Room with Mr. Maddin)

DVDs I Rent So U Don’t Hafta … “Life During Wartime”

Happiness Is ... A Sequel?

WHY I RENTED IT: Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Reubens, Ciaran Hinds and Michael Kenneth Williams  to mention just a few of my favorite players – all in one movie. Plus I saw Happiness back when it was released in 1998 and when writer/director Todd Solondz said he was curious to see what the characters in that movie were up to 12 years later and decided to write a sort of sequel, I guess I was curious, too.

PICTURE THIS:

Imagine if Woody Allen had a son who followed him into the filmmaking biz.

He probably would have inherited some of his dad’s flair for wry humor and quirky characterizations.

‘Course, you know how sons of famous creative fathers can be.

If their dads were edgy they want to be edgier. If their dads pushed the envelope, they want to rip it to shreds. (You only have to listen to Hank Williams III to know the name of that tune)

"Whaddya mean I look like my Dad? I resemble that remark!"

Anyway, Solondz isn’t related to the Woodman. But those were the thoughts that were going through my mind when I watched Life During Wartime.

FULL DISCLOSURE:

Critics loved Happiness.  (Newsweek called it “the film of the year”)

 I was writing DVD reviews for a weekly community newspaper when the film came out on disc. Yes,  I appreciated what Solondz was trying to do and I admired the cast for memorable performances in roles that were downright challenging.  For example, Dylan Baker plays a troubled shrink named  Bill Maplewood who has an unhealthy fascination with his 11 year old son’s friends. Phillip Seymour Hoffman does his usual convincing job as Allen, a computer nerd who gets his jollies making obscene phone calls. 

"Hi, I'd like to order a pizza ... What? ... No, I'm not that guy."

Every character in the cast – Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson and Lara Flynn Boyle play three mixed up, shook up sisters – is looking in his or her own way for happiness yet it continues to elude all of them (hence the ironic title.)

I tackled some challenging films  in my column but after watching Happiness on DVD I knew there was no way I could review this puppy  for a family newspaper and still keep my job.

Even  James Bernadelli called Happiness “one of the most difficult films I have ever reviewed“. I guess it’s the kind of movie you either love, tolerate or hate.

According to Bernadelli, renegade filmmaker John Waters loved it and the Farrelly Brothers called it “sick”

http://www.reelviews.net/movies/h/happiness.html

Wait a minute! The Farrelly Brothers? Aren’t those the same guys who made There’s Something About Mary.

ANYWAY ….

12 years later the “quasi-sequel” comes out on DVD and, yes, the movie features a lot of the same characters but – ever the contrarian (no, that’s not a service club) – Solondz has  hired a completely different cast to play them. 

Don’t get me wrong. MKW is still my favorite small screen badass (he played Omar on HBO’s The Wire) and kudos to him for trying to break out of typecasting but he just ain’t no match for PSH in the role.

I applaud  the highly esteemed and pressed British character actor Ciaran Hinds for his flinty yet deeply humane performance as Maplewood (just out of prison and tentatively trying to  reconnect with his family) but I couldn’t help but wish that Baker had reprised the role.

And, sorry, waif-like Scottish actress Shirley Henderson has none of Adams’ kooky brilliance in the original.

 Of course, it’s not all bad news. Long after her co-stars Lynn Redgrave and Alan Bates in her 1966 breakthrough film, Georgy Girl,  have met their reward Ms. Rampling continues to cast an alluring spell in every film she is in and Life During Wartime is no exception.

"That's nice of you to say that, darling. But I still think you're a loser!"

(Ms. Rampling plays a deeply unhappy married woman who picks up Maplewood in a bar, unaware of his history.)

14 year old Dylan Riley Snyder is a real discovery as Timmy. With his forest of freckles and eager boyish manner he reminds me of  a kid out of a 1950s TV sitcom but, believe me, Beaver Cleaver never had dialogue like this.


"Wash your mouth with detergent! Soap is too good for you"

I also liked Allison Janney (pictured above) as Timmy’s mom i.e. Mrs. Maplewood. (She’s told Timmy and his little sister that their father is dead but somehow the message doesn’t register with Billy, now attending college and played by Chris Marquette.)

It’s not just performances that fail to measure up. The film as a whole lacks the sharp bite and focus of the original.

Bottom Line:  You shoulda quit while you were ahead, Todd!