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

“Black Pond” Can Be An Eccentric Charmer But Be Warned- It’s “Intensely English”

Black Pond may be one of the polarizing films of this or any other year.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian  calls it: ” …  really good: haunting, melancholy and strange.”

Mary F., one of the Audience reviewers at rottentomatoes.com, says Black Pond  is “Possibly the worst film I’ve ever watched.” 

black-duo
Tom Kingsley (left) and Will Sharpe(right) are the BAFTA-nominated team behind Black Pond. They won the Evening Standard Award for Best Newcomers and last year were named two of Variety magazine’s Top 10 European Directors to Watch.

Will Sharpe co-directed and co-edited Black Pond with music video vet Tom Kingsley. The duo shared a BAFTA nomination with producer Sarah Brocklehurst, in 2012,  for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.  (BAFTA stands for British Academy of Film & Television Arts and is widely regarded as the U.K. equivalent of an Oscar). 

Briefly, the film is about an odd, dysfunctional family who befriend a sad, eccentric loner, Blake (Colin Hurley) with an unexpected result.

black-newspaper

After the “unexpected result” (no spoilers here!) the Brit tabloids label them “a family of killers” and worse. Even though they have not killed (or even hurt) anyone. Chris Langham (who plays the father, Tom Thompson), knows about the power of the press from firsthand experience. His career in his native Britain came to a screeching halt after being booked (and serving some jail time) on rather unsavory charges.(Langham claims he was researching a role.) Obviously, there is  real-life irony in the way Langham as Tom says “Obviously I lost my job because of the publicity.”

Amanda Hadingue, who plays Sophie, the mother of the family, is a wannabe poetess with a thing for  John Clare. (If English poet  John Clare is unfamiliar to North American readers, don’t feel bad. I had to look him up on Wikipedia, too.) It seems that Tom is unwittingly dim about his wife’s avocation. (“You want to throw my poems in the recycling!” Sophie exclaims.)

Anna O’Grady (Katie) and Helen Cripps (Jess) are cast as the two feuding sisters of the family. (“Katie has a thing for the wounded … Jess has a thing for being wounded,” Mom explains to Blake.) Ms. Cripps wears a perpetually bemused expression through much of the film  (I get the feeling Jess has grown up with that expression on her face, surrounded by the weirdness of her family and, well,  life , in general, which can be fairly strange by itself.)

black-helen
Helen Cripps in Black Pond

 The film is a mix of bone-dry and (often) pitch black wit, almost hallucinatory animation, dream sequences and profound philosophizing (“Very deep. Very deep indeed” says one of the characters admiringly.) The humor is very dry. So dry that it may leave some American viewers parched. It is, after all, a film that is, to quote one Brit paper, “intensely English”. Fortunately, I watch a lot of British shows on Netflix and/or PBS but even so I had to watch this eccentric low budget import twice (okay, I don’t have a life) to fully appreciate its quirky charms.

 A three-legged canine named Bonzo plays the family’s three-legged dog, Boy. (Talk about Method acting. Of course, what Bonzo really wants to do is write and direct.) And why is the dog called Boy? (“When I first brought him home, I said,’Here, boy’ and he responded right away,” explains Tom.)

Sharpe (who wrote the screenplay) plays Tim Tanaka, a friend of the family. (“I think he’s just a bloke with too much time on his hands,” says Tom.) British television personality Simon Amstell plays a quack psychiatrist (“I’m not qualified but who are you?,” he states cheerfully in an online ad, ” Treatments are free. My parents are dead.”)

The cast delivers their lines with poker-faced perfection, some of it in ” Office”-style interviews, supposedly filmed after the family’s brush with the law. ( “The Office” was originally a U.K. series before it was adapted for American audiences.)

The film received a limited theatrical release and is not for everyone but I was intrigued enough to keep an eye open for Sharpe and Kingsley’s sophomore release, 2016’s Darkest Universe.

Variety magazine says Black Pond could become a cult item.” Judging from the young hipsters on Tumblr, it is already a cult film.

One could wish that Sharpe and Kingsley’s third film would be more accessible for a global audience but I can hear the pair snickering at such a comment: “Accessible? We thought Black Pond was accessible. You should see some of the scenes we left out!”

black-poster

 

 

 

 

“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)

Hartley Worth It? The “Henry Fool” Trilogy

I don’t get Hal Hartley.

There! I’ve said it.

But I like his casting choices. 

Filmmaker HAL HARTLEY - Critics love him but to the average moviegoer he is still
Filmmaker HAL HARTLEY –
Critics love him but to the average moviegoer he is still “Hal Who?”

In case you are not familiar with Hartley’s work (heresy for any self-respecting  cinephile back in the nineties) he was a name to know in the burgeoning independent film movement.

I even rented The Unbelievable Truth starring the late (and, in my opinion, great) Adrienne Shelley just to see what all the fuss was about.  

A check on the Net reveals Hartley is still a critics’ favorite, judging from the response to Ned Rifle (released earlier this year and scoring 81% on the rottentomatoes.com website.)

Speaking of that recent Hartley effort, it is apparently part of a trilogy by the film-maker that began with Henry Fool (1998) and continued with 2007’s Fay Grim.

Hal Hartley - Henry Fool poster 2

I vaguely remember renting Henry Fool  at my local video store.  I seem to recall it is about the relationship between an unassuming garbage collector, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), who lives with his mother and highly libidinal sister, Fay (Parker Posey) , and a scruffy, egotistical wannabe poet named (you guessed it) Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan). Turns out Simon is the one who becomes a world famous poet. I can empathize with the late Roger Ebert who, in a 1998 review of the film. wrote “I wonder if the fault is in myself. I don’t think this is a bad film, but after seeing it twice I’m unable to respond to it in any clear way. Things happen, and I don’t know what they mean, and I have a feeling that in Hartley’s view, they need not mean anything.” Frankly, I rented it because Parker Posey (her real name) is in it. I have had a film lovers’ crush on Ms. Posey ever since I saw  her breakthrough role in 1995’s Party Girl. She has 92 TV and film credits on her resume, according to imdb, so I won’t list all of them but my favorites include The Anniversary Party, The Daytrippers, all the films she has made with satiric mastermind Christopher Guest (like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, for example) and her arc as Eli Gold’s ex on TV’s The Good Wife. She occasionally goes mainstream (Superman Returns, the failed TV series The Return of Jezebel James) but her best work (in my opinion) is in indie films.

hAL Hartley - FAY gRIM POSTER

Anyway, Henry Fool climaxes with Henry and Fay hooking up and Fay Grim (currently on Netflix) opens with Fay talking to a teacher who has busted Fay’s 14 year old son, Ned  (Liam Aiken) for possession of a pornographic movieola (which he has received anonymously in the mail.) Hartley has had almost a decade to come up with a backstory for Henry so now he is a former government agent who has travelled all over Europe, Latin America and the Middle East with dogged CIA agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum, indulging in every quirky mannerism in his playbook) in hot pursuit. Fay hasn’t seen Henry in seven years and, with Simon (Urbaniuk) in jail for aiding and abetting Henry in his escape, Fay worries that Ned doesn’t have a proper male role model.  This leads to a very convoluted plot which may be a satire of  espionage movies. Writer/director Hartley seems to take his plot machinations seriously at some point and the ending is rather sobering (to say the least).

Ned Rifle, the third film in the trilogy (also on Netflix), starts in a lighter vein and ends on a somber note as well. In the process. Hartley adds a new player, Aubrey Plaza, to his ensemble ( another of my favorite  performers. Don’t get me started). Strangely enough, I didn’t become a fan via her best-known role (TV’s Parks and Recreation.) It was an odd little indie film, 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed, that made me a believer. I even watched Life After Beth and part of The To-Do List (although that movie was too much even for a newly minted Aubrey apostle to watch all the way through.) At any rate, Ms. Plaza, with her trademark deadpan delivery, seems tailormade made for the dry wit and eccentric dialogue that is part of Hartley’s signature style.

Aubrey Plaza
Aubrey PlazaA

In Ned Rifle‘s opening scenes, we learn Ned is now 18 (and still played by Liam Aiken) and planning to leave the Witness Protection Program where he has been living with Rev. Gardner (longtime Hartley vet Martin Donovan) and his family since his mom (Parker Posey, remarkably cheerful, considering Fay is serving a life sentence) was busted as an international terrorist.  Ned’s first move: kill the man who ruined his mom’s life i.e. Henry.  He first calls on his Uncle Simon (again played by Urbaniuk) who has discarded a career in serious literature to become a stand-up comic (“Only now,after all this heartbreak and controversy, am I able to confront my inner clown.”) Ms. Plaza, portraying a troubled, possibly psychotic young woman named Susan, keeps popping up along the way until Ned reluctantly takes her along on the journey to find his father (Henry, still depicted by Thomas Jay Ryan) . Ned wants to murder him. Susan has her own agenda.

hal HARTLEY - nED rIFLE poster

Ironically, this may be Hartley’s most accessible film to date. FITZROY on rottentomatoes.com wrote of Hartley’s Ned Rifle :  “…. Not really sure what it is. I just liked all of it ….” and that typifies my reaction as well. As long as there are well-heeled fans and investors to fund his films ( Ned Rifle appears to be crowdsourced) it seems apparent that Hartley will continue to make  his idiosyncratic little flicks. Like Simon in Ned Rifle he doesn’t seem to care whether he is popular or not.

I RENTED IT ON VIDEO: “Clouds of Sils Maria” (cloudy) and I GOT IT AT THE LIBRARY: “The Guest”

If the words “ambiguous” or “arthouse hit” leave you scanning for an exit than you’ll probably want to skip this in favor of something a bit more accessible. The average DVD viewer may well agree with Ty Landis (on the website “Sound on Sight”) who describes Clouds of Sils Maria as a half-realized and muddled head-scratcher.”

clouds- DVD coverHowever, if one attended film school and/or is a “Rolling Stone English major” (to borrow a phrase) you may agree with Hannah Landers in “The Daily Free Press” who hails this film as “a character-driven masterpiece.

clouds - coverBriefly, the plot deals with internationally famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), who rose to fame in a play in which she portrayed a young seductress named Sigrid involved in a relationship with her employer, Helena, an older woman who becomes obsessed with Sigrid and eventually commits suicide.

Ms. Enders is in the Swiss Alps when she hears that her mentor, who wrote the play, has died.

She is also informed by her faithful assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart) of a remake of the now 20 year old play to be directed for the London stage by a young wunderkind, Klaus Diesterweig (played by German actor Lars Eidinger). Klaus wants Maria to star in the new version … only this time she is to be cast as Helena. The director wants Jo-Anne Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Young Hollywood wild child (comparisons to Lindsay Lohan  are inevitable) to play the role of Sigrid.

Maria views a sci-fi film starring Ms. Ellis and is unimpressed. Val, however sees something more profound in Ms. Ellis’ portrayal. (“She goes deep into the darker side of her character.”) 

CGM as Jo-Anne Ellis in costume for a sci-fi film in Clouds of Sils Maria
CGM as Jo-Anne Ellis in costume for a sci-fi film in Clouds of Sils Maria

I am informed that writer/director Olivier Assayas based his play loosely on Ms. Binoche’s real career. (He directed Ms. Binoche, still in her early 20s, in her first starring role, the 1985 French film Rendez-Vous.) Just as Maria is struggling with the idea that she is now too old to play Sigrid, Ms. Binoche may be coming to terms with her age and the range of roles available to her.  And some reviewers have interpreted Ms. Stewart’s dialogue as Val as the actress’ defence of films in which she has starred like The Twilight Saga and its sequels and Snow White and the Huntsman.

“The Assayas faithful will no doubt find pleasure in unearthing the supposed layers on display here …”, writes Mr. Landis.  Indeed, the reviewers and commenters on various websites have come up with a head-spinning number of theories. Some commenters have even suggested that the character of Val is imaginary and exists only in Maria’s head.

Ms. Landers says in her review that “writer and director Olivier Assayas used to be a film critic, and this is undoubtedly a film critic’s movie.”  (That may explain why Clouds of Sils Maria earned an 89% Critical Rating but only a 67% Audience Score on rottentomatoes.com.)

For my part, I rented the DVD because I kept reading all the positive buzz  the film received at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), Cannes (where M. Assayas was nominated for the Palme d’Or) and the Cesar Awards (where Ms. Stewart won the French equivalent of a Best Supporting Actress  Oscar).

Yes, it was talky (but what thought-provoking dialogue!) and I didn’t always understand what was going on (“Assayas summons an air of unmistakable mystery, leaving much unexplained … writes Anthony Lane in The New Yorker) but I liked the verbal duels between Mme. Binoche and  Ms. Stewart. Many critics professed surprise at the sophistication of Kristen Stewart’s acting in this film. 

Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart

To this blogger Ms. Stewart has always seemed to be a performer who took her craft seriously, signed on for a role in a movie and found herself at the center of a pop cultural phenomenon. (Perhaps that explains her dour expression in those infamous photo ops for The Twilight Saga.) Anyone who doubts Ms. Stewart’s acting chops should see 2008’s What Just Happened. Her performance as Robert de Niro’s enigmatic daughter still haunts me.

As for Chloe Grace Moretz I have been a fan in all of her various incarnations and in this film she finally gets \n opportunity to play the kind of mature role I sense she has always wanted.

Inspired by each other, all three actresses are at the top of the game (even if I didn’t pick up on all the nuances of their performances.
Guest -posterDan Stevens very wisely chose the role of a remorseless killer in the indie production THE GUEST for his first starring role in an American film following his move from UK to USA.  The way I interpret this is that he wanted to distance himself from the role of Matthew Crawley in PBS-TV’s Downton Abbey (his breakthrough role). I gotta say he is very convincing as a murderous man of action although, strictly speaking, it is not the fault of the character he plays. To figure that one out you’ll have to see the DVD.  (Not surprisingly, the film did better at the box office outside the U.S.) The film also features Sheila Kelley (remember her from TV’s L.A. Law?) and young Maika Monroe, who achieved instant fame in the horror thriller It Follows.

Maika Monroe in The Guest
Maika Monroe in The Guest

I Rented It at the Video Store: JOHN WICK

The Russians are always the bad guys in Hollywood movies. During the Cold War they were unsmiling Commies. Now they are ruthless mobsters operating out of NYC (and other major American cities.)

In this case the spoiled young son (Alfie Allan, TV’s Game of Thrones) of an unsmiling ruthless mobster named Viggo Tsarov (Michael Nyquist, who portrayed Mikael Blomkvist in the original Swedish version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has killed a dog given to John Wick (Keanu Reeves) by his late wife (Bridget Moynihan of TV’s Blue Bloods, glimpsed briefly in flashbacks) and stolen his vintage ’69 Mustang.

John Wick - DVD

He once was an associate of ours,” Tsarov explains to his son in a sinister Russian accent (Russian accents are always sinister.) “They call him Baba Yaga.” (Seriously?)

The boogeyman?” 

He was the one we sent to kill the (bleep) boogeyman …. I once saw him kill three men in a bar with a pencil” (Honestly, I don’t make up this dialogue.)

Viggo rings up his former associate. (They still use land lines in this movie): “Let us not resort to our baser instincts. Let us handle this like civilized men.”

John doesn’t say a word. He listens and hangs up.

What did he say?” asks his right hand man (Dean Winters, you may remember him from hard-bitten TV shows like Oz and Law and Order:SVU)

Enough” says the mob boss grimly.

And it’s on.

What happened, John? We were professionals. Civilized,” asks Viggo during a fight scene.

Do I look civilized to you?” Wick replies as the rain continues to pour down. (It’s that kind of movie.)

John Wick - DVD cover

The body count is only slightly lower than a World War II movie ( Fury, for example.)

But then John doesn’t have to worry. He knows a body disposal expert. an underground doctor and the neighbourhood patrolman on a first name basis

You workin’ again?” asks a cop, noting a body in the hallway of John’s house.

No, just sortin’ some stuff out,” Wick replies.

Good night, John.”

Good night, Jimmy.”

The cast includes Willem Dafoe as Marcus, a fellow hit man and close personal friend of John Wick;

Yeah, that Willem Dafoe
Yeah, that Willem Dafoe

Adrienne Palicki (TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as a shapely assassin who tries to pick up a four million dollar bounty Viggo has placed on Wick’s hide and a weathered-looking Ian McShane (TV’s Deadwood ), as Jonathan the proprietor of an underground club catering to the criminal classes. “You know the rules. No business can be conducted on these premises,” Jonathan tells Wick,lest incurring heavy penalties.”

Viewers are meant to get the impression John Wick was a respected and feared contract killer before his retirement. But in case there is any doubt Mr. Reeves shows off some fancy moves in the role, no doubt picked up partly from flicks like 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi (which he directed) and partly from veteran stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Stahelski is credited with the direction. Leitch is uncredited but listed on The Internet Database anyway. (When in doubt, check imdb.)

What an inspired idea! Getting stuntmen to direct an action movie!

Reeves radiates a cool authority in the role, the film has even gotten good reviews (83% critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes -if still in doubt check RT) and with $78 million in world wide box office (figures courtesy of boxofficemojo.com – there’s never any doubt in Hollywood when it comes to the bottom line ) it is not surprising they are already talking about a follow-up.

John Wick - action

Sure, I enjoyed the movie. But then I am an action flick fan. (I was also entertained by 47 Ronin –  which received a 14% critical rating on RT).

My opinion on this pic could best be summed up by Jim Lane of the lowly Sacramento  News & Review:

“The mordant humor of Derek Kolstad’s script quickly dries up, the movie starts taking itself seriously, and the pleasure gives way to the guilt.”

John Wick - DVD 3

P.S. The flick was produced by (among others) Eva Longoria. With movies like The Baytown Outlaws and Over Her Dead Body on her resume it is probably a smart move to get behind the camera more often.

MOVIES I SAW AT MY SISTER’S HOUSE (Part 2)

NEED FOR SPEED

(Video on Demand)

<p>Aaron Paul (TV’s Breaking Bad) and Imogen Poots (The Look of Love) are the nominal leads but the real stars in this post-millennial drive-in movie are the cars.

Need - Car ONE Need- Car 2

Yes, I know the flick received only 22% critical approval on rottentomatoes.com (although it did score significantly higher with audiences.) my brother-in-law (who is an undiscriminating action fan) and my sister (who is definitely not) watched this along with myself and were both engaged and amused by turns.

Perhaps the movie was trying to eat some of the gold dust of theFast and Furious franchise or maybe the producers were hoping that Mr. Paul’s small screen success (three Emmy awards for Breaking Bad) would translate into box office bucks.

International ticket sales were huge but the fact the flick stalled at the North American box office may not bode well for Mr. Paul’s leading man status on his home turf.

Aaron Paul - In the Driver's Seat in Need for Speed
Aaron Paul – In the Driver’s Seat in Need for Speed

At any rate, those critics/viewers who are looking for a little more depth are advised to look elsewhere. The flick (directed by Scott Waugh from a screenplay by George Gatins) is based on a videogame.

Wake up and smell the popcorn!

Imogen Poots - As Cute As Her Name in Need for Speed
Imogen Poots – As Cute As Her Name in Need for Speed