#63 - A Swiftly Tilting Planet
1918 - 2007
Bonjour, cineastes. Welcome to a very high-falutin’ and artsy installment of your Electric Theatre. Yes, all the big directorial names are here this week. Cronenberg. Jordan. Taymor. Zombie. And some Korean dude with a bunch of dragons. Hmm, maybe it isn’t quite as high-brow this week as I thought.
NOW IN THEATRES
The A-Picture - Eastern Promises
I’ve said this many times before but in case you missed it, David Cronenberg is one of my very favorite filmmakers and has been for a long time. We’re talking top 5 here. So the fact that I loved his new movie, Eastern Promises, shouldn’t be much of a surprise, should it? Actually, it is. I purposefully kept myself in the dark about the plot of Eastern Promises and when I first saw the trailer awhile back, I was less than enthused. Viggo Mortensen’s back, reteaming with Cronenberg after the brilliant A History of Violence, so that was good news. Naomi Watts, no problem there. Armin Mueller-Stahl, cool, I like him a lot. But it’s a mob movie. Oh. OK, Russian mob in London, that’s interesting and different. But still...do we really need another movie about organized crime? Really?
If it’s this one, yeah, we sure do. Watts plays a mid-wife in a London hospital who takes possession of a diary belonging to a 14-year-old girl who dies giving birth to a daughter. The diary is in Russian so she looks for a translator, hoping to find clues to the dead girl’s identity. The only other lead is a business card for a restaurant owned by Mueller-Stahl, who volunteers to translate. Mortensen plays the driver and confidante of Mueller-Stahl’s son, a conflicted, too-eager-to-please screw-up played brilliantly by Vincent Cassel. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because to do so would be to take away from the discovery of what is first and foremost a great story, well written by Steven Knight. Cronenberg brings out the best from the screenplay, crafting a movie with absolutely no fat and brimming with thoughtful, well-developed characters. The movie’s violence is brutal and horrific, shocking in a way violence rarely is on screen but always is in real life. As for the cast, Mortensen is magnetic here, seductive, intimidating and soulful. You can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s on screen. Watts makes the most of one of her best roles since Mulholland Drive, reminding us what a capable actress she is. Mueller-Stahl is quietly terrifying as the patriarch and Cassel delivers what may be his best performance to date. And although it’s rarely noted, a major part of what makes Cronenberg’s body of work so cohesive is his loyalty to a core group of behind-the-scenes players including composer Howard Shore, production designer Carol Spier, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, and editor Ronald Sanders. Their contributions to each of Cronenberg’s films cannot be underestimated.
David Cronenberg has been working at the top of his game for several years now and for long-time fans like me, it’s thrilling to see him continue to explore new ideas and themes with each new picture. Eastern Promises is right up there with his best work. If for no other reason, the simple fact that he is able to surprise me after all these years of avidly following his work earns him a place in the upper echelon of filmmakers. (* * * ½)
Across The Universe
When I was a kid, I played my mom’s copy of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album to death. I was also a big Steve Martin fan. So in 1978, when a movie called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with Steve Martin as Maxwell Edison was released, I was genuinely excited and couldn’t wait to see it. I learned the meaning of disappointment that day. Even at the tender age of 9, I knew Sgt. Pepper sucked big time. Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe, sort of a Sgt. Pepper for the 21st century, isn’t nearly as bad as all that. But it has its own problems to contend with.
Jim Sturgess stars as Jude, a Liverpudlian who comes across the pond to find his father. Turns out he’s a janitor at an Ivy League school and not the professor Jude had hoped for. But he becomes friends with Max (Joe Anderson), falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and moves to New York where they all move in with a sexy singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs), her guitarist JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), and dear Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam evidently refused to participate. Together, this rag-tag group navigates their way through the tumultuous landscape of the 1960s, pausing every so often to croon some familiar Lennon-McCartney tunes. George Harrison gets thrown a bone or two while Ringo, as usual, gets the short end of the stick. Would it have killed them to name a character after the poor guy?
There’s about a thousand different ways Across The Universe could have gone wrong and Taymor thankfully avoids most of those pitfalls. The highlights here are extremely effective. Carpio performs a plaintive rendition of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” that’s genuinely moving. Joe Cocker turns up to belt out a commanding “Come Together”. But the problem with any project like this is that it isn’t so much an organic story as a gigantic puzzle. How are they going to take this catalogue of unconnected songs and turn them into lyrics that drive the story forward? Some choices are obvious and work pretty well. But the more esoteric and psychedelic Taymor gets, the farther astray the movie goes. Bono’s rendition of “I Am The Walrus” (as Doctor Robert, naturally) and Eddie Izzard’s “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” are nice set-pieces but they have nothing to do with the story, really. And it’s moments like this that stop Across The Universe dead in its tracks just when it should be building up a head of steam. As the movie drags on and on, you begin to wonder if they’re going to cram every single Beatles song ever recorded into the plot. At one point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Sturgess break into “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”.
Across The Universe is actually worth seeing solely for those moments that do come together. But in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. No, wait…that isn’t what I was trying to say at all. Damn you, Julie Taymor! Your project is infectious! Bottom line: Across The Universe is an interesting but failed experiment. It’s Hair with a Beatles upgrade and despite the best efforts of Sturgess and especially Evan Rachel Wood, who is genuinely affecting as Lucy, it’s not quite good enough that you’ve got to get it into your life. Dammit! (* * ½)
From where I sit right now writing these words, I have a pretty nice view of downtown Los Angeles. On a clear day, it’s kind of beautiful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked out this window and thought to myself how awesome it would be to see that skyline completely wiped out by armies of angry dragons. Now, thanks to this bizarro Korean flick directed by Hyung-rae Shim, I can die a happy man. The plot has something to do with an old Korean legend involving a good dragon and a bad dragon and some dude who looks kind of like Jim Carrey who’s the reincarnation of the protector of the chick who’s going to do something that either makes the good dragon the savior of the universe or the bad dragon destroy the world…but who cares, right? Dragon Wars is so far away from being a good movie it would need an atlas to find its way back to where the good movies live. We’re talking direct-to-video bad here. Even so, I kind of dug it. It’s a throwback to the glory days of the Godzilla series, when logic took a much-needed holiday and all you needed for a good time was a big monster wiping out a major metropolitan area. Dragon Wars delivers that, and much more effectively and entertainingly than the bombastic and overlong Transformers could. The movie makes no sense whatsoever and the finale, which takes place in some weird fantasy realm that seems to have popped up out of nowhere, is ridiculous in the extreme. There are two ways to watch Dragon Wars. One is with a big bottle of aspirin and a tall glass of water close at hand. The other is with your jaw dropped in disbelief that you’re witnessing something so utterly stupid that there is no reason it should even exist in the first place. I chose option B. I left the theatre with a big, dumb grin on my face that didn’t evaporate for several minutes. Is it a good movie? Nope, not at all. Did I have fun watching it? You betcha! I may be an idiot but for 90 minutes or so, I had a better time than all the smart folks. (* * ½)
I have extremely mixed feelings about remakes. I can’t condemn them completely, since doing so would mean we’d never have seen Cronenberg’s The Fly or Carpenter’s The Thing. But nine times out of ten, I wish they’d have just left well enough alone. My feelings were even more conflicted regarding Halloween. I like John Carpenter’s original movie quite a bit but it’s hard for me to get too upset about remaking a movie that’s been sequelized so often that even I lost interest after part four. Whatever legacy Carpenter’s Halloween had was tarnished a long time ago. Rob Zombie’s “re-imagining” announces its intentions from the get-go, abandoning any pretense of subtlety or suspense for whack-you-over-the-head-with-a-sledgehammer thrills. Things start off kind of promisingly with a lengthy look back at the twisted childhood of Michael Myers, played as a tyke by Daeg Faerch. None of it is revelatory or needed but it’s executed with panache, so you can overlook the fact that all it’s doing is making explicit what was implicit in the original. It drags on too long, though, and eventually we work our way up to the present day and babysitter Laurie Strode’s harrowing encounter with the grownup and recently escaped Michael…y’know, the stuff the original movie was about. It’s here where the movie lost me. Scout Taylor-Compton is a fine substitute for Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie but Rob Zombie is more interested in Michael than her, so there’s zero suspense in his attacks. It’s just killing after killing after killing and while each is soaked in several gallons of stage blood, none of it has any impact. Malcolm McDowell is kind of fun as Dr. Loomis but the endless parade of appearances from The Rob Zombie Players (Hey, it’s Sid Haig! Whoa, there’s Danny Trejo! Check it out, there’s Udo Kier!) gets distracting. The best, most effective thing about Rob Zombie’s Halloween is Michael Myers’ obsession with making his own masks while he’s locked up. That’s kind of creepy and interesting. But when the best thing a remake has to offer over the original is a wall full of paper mache masks, you may as well stick with the real thing. (* *)
Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - The Brave One
First off, nobody could be more surprised than me that Halloween was not the worst movie I saw this week. But Neil Jordan’s The Brave One trumps it, hands down. At least Halloween knows it’s just a slasher movie. The Brave One is actually pretentious enough to think it’s about something. Jodie Foster stars as Erica Bain, a radio personality for an NPR-like station who survives a brutal mugging in a New York park. Her fiancé (Naveen Andrews from Lost) isn’t as lucky…he’s beaten to death. Traumatized by the experience, Erica buys an illegal handgun and, despite the fact that she’s apparently lived in the city peacefully her entire life, now sees crime EVERYWHERE. She goes into a convenience store as a guy comes in to shoot the cashier to death. She encounters thugs on the subway. Back in the park, she comes across a pervert holding a young hooker captive. It’s that kind of movie. Terrence Howard is the police detective assigned to the case. Naturally, he’s a fan of Erica’s show. The plot contortions that The Brave One goes through are howlingly ridiculous and if that were the movie’s biggest problem, it would be enough. But director Neil Jordan seems to be trying to make some vague statement about vigilantism and revenge. What that statement is isn’t exactly clear. Foster does the best she can, delivering a tight-lipped performance in the middle of a movie that has no idea what to do with her. By the time the ludicrously contrived finale rolls around, Jordan seems to have given up trying to figure out what the movie’s about and just panders to the action-movie audience. If The Brave One has a saving grace, it’s Nicky Katt’s relaxed and amusing performance as Howard’s partner…but he isn’t on screen nearly enough to rescue this. The Brave One has been compared quite a bit to Death Wish, which is certainly a fair and accurate comparison, but it isn’t nearly as entertaining. I would rather sit through Death Wish 4: The Crackdown than have to try and figure out what The Brave One is trying to say again. This is one confused mess of a movie. (* ½)