MORIARTY Reviews MAY! BUBBA! K-19! BOURNE! REIGN OF FIRE!
Published at: Oct. 10, 2008, 4:43 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Call me Billy Pilgrim, because I have come seriously unstuck in time.
I’ve seen a ton of films over the last two weeks, and I haven’t had a chance to review any of them. Some of them are films that have been out for a while that I just missed for one reason or another, and that I’ve finally had a chance to catch up with. Some are big studio releases that aren’t out yet, but in some cases, I’m still under embargo. Several of them have been art house releases that are either rolling out now or about to. One doesn’t even have a distributor yet. Another was shown as part of a local festival.
That’s how it is for me in any given week, though, and it’s one of the things that I enjoy most. Hype doesn’t really mean anything to me. I have managed to tune it out. Because I see films on such strange timetables, I really don’t pay attention to the “all-important” opening weekend anymore. Removing that conversation from the equation has done something to films for me: it’s made them fun again.
Now when I see a film, I’m not trying to compare it to the other releases that same weekend. I’m not trying to guess how much it will make. I’m not turning it into a widget in some equation. I just take each film for what it is... that two hours in the dark.
If I had to pick one word to describe my reaction to this summer’s films so far, it would be “pleasantly surprised.” Overall, I’m having a very good time at the theater lately. A few true stinkers have snuck in (every one of you who has written me to defend HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION is completely insane), and there are a lot of mixed bags, but if you want to have a good time, there have been any number of strong options.
Lucky McKee’s directorial debut is a strong American horror film, smart and character driven, and it features one of the year’s best lead female performances so far. If Lions Gate sells this as what it is... a serious minded film for adults that should appeal to fans of Argento or classic Cronenberg... then they might be able to turn this into a strong cult hit, especially once it finally hits home video.
There’s an unofficial site for the film that has some great photos and information, and it should also give you an idea of whether or not this is a film for you. I know that as I left the screening, my girlfriend asked me, “Who made that film?” I told her it was Lucky McKee, the guy we met briefly in the lobby before the film. She shook her head and asked, “Why?”
So, obviously, the film doesn’t speak to everyone. I love films like this, though. It’s somewhere between a dark comedy and a sad little character piece and a full-blown gore fest. By carefully straddling several genres, MAY actually manages to be something unique, a fairy tale for the pathologically lonely. Angela Bettis gives a tremendous performance in the lead as a girl who was born with a lazy eye that has led to her being a social misfit from childhood on. Now, finally, as an adult, she has had the eye corrected through the use of special contacts, and she is determined that she isn’t going to be alone anymore. MAY is a film about reaching out... and being terribly, horribly rebuffed.
She works at an animal hospital with a receptionist named Polly (SCARY MOVIE’s Anna Faris) who may or may not be hitting on May. May’s got her mind on someone else, though... the “perfect” Adam (Jeremy Sisto). So aware of how her own single flaw impacted her, May is obsessed with parts of people. She falls in love with someone’s ears, or their lips, or in the case of Adam, his hands. She can’t help but follow him, even going so far as to touch his hands as he sleeps in a restaurant one afternoon. He wakes up and catches her at it, though, and they end up actually going out together as he tries to figure out this odd little bird of a girl.
Adam’s the kind of guy who likes to play at being “dark.” We see a student film of his that is hilariously gory. We see his apartment, decorated with images of death and decay. And then, as he and May actually get close, he learns what real darkness is, and he flinches. He’s not serious about it when it comes to real blood spilled, and that leads to him rejecting May completely as a “freak.” It’s both ironic and deeply sad, since May doesn’t know that she’s extreme. To her, it’s not a convenient pose to strike. She is damaged on some deep level, and all she does is try to share what she sees as intimacy. She simply gives herself over to instinct and acts, and it drives Adam away.
She retreats into a night with Polly that seems to offer her real connection, the sort of intimacy that she so desperately wants, but Polly’s not to be trusted. She chases anything she wants to fuck, and once she’s had May, she moves on to the preposterously cartoony Ambrosia (Nichole Hiltz). May finds herself stymied, unable to make sense of the way other people do things. She’s spent her whole life alone, and in the end, it is her own private compass that she has to follow to its horrible, tragic, inevitable end. The last ten minutes of this film are about as dark as modern horror gets, and McKee is to be applauded for having the courage to see the thing through.
That’s not to say it’s a perfect film. There are sequences that pad the film out but say nothing, some awkward dark humor that’s not funny, subplots that distract from what does work. Still, McKee and his cast and crew were obviously inspired while they put this together, and big things should be expected from cinematographer Steve Yedlin, composer Jaye-Barnes Luckett, Mariano Diaz (the costume designer here, but the production designer on RULES OF ATTRACTION, and definitely a talent to pay attention to), and, obviously, writer/director McKee himself. It’s not often that horror films today have a serious agenda or actually have something to say, and MAY packs a punch in its best moments because it speaks to something basic and human in each of us. Like Cronenberg’s early work, there’s an almost political agenda here about perfectionism and the way we fetishize our romantic partners. It’s a damn good film, and I hope you get a chance to see it in theaters later this year.
Don Coscarelli is one of those guys who has been making films since I was a kid, and whose movies I’ve always been aware of without ever thinking one of them was really complete. There’s stuff to like about the PHANTASM films, and BEASTMASTER was a fun CONAN riff when I was young, especially considering the Tonya Roberts nudity. But I wouldn’t say I was a “fan” of Coscarelli’s work especially. He’s more like one of those guys you recognize, and who’s always reliable for a few kicks in otherwise standard genre films.
That’s no slam, by the way. It’s damn hard just being able to deliver those few kicks, as evidenced by the sheer volume of unwatchable dreck that gets pumped out by other guys with familiar names each year. Many of them get so used to churning out garbage that they don’t really pay attention anymore. They provide product, and they’re damn happy to be doing it.
So god bless Coscarelli for actually working to find something new and better, something that finally gives him a strong vehicle for his blend of the silly and the supernatural. Ambition finally equals success with this adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s deliciously demented original story, a film that gives Bruce Campbell his best-written lead role to date, something that should drive his fans wild when they finally get a look at it.
It’s no secret that Bruce Campbell is frequently better than the material he does. He works a lot, and that’s great, but it means that a lot of the films he has appeared in are rough going for fans determined to see all of his work. In my opinion, no one has ever made good on the promise of EVIL DEAD 2, the mix of charm and goofball humor and serious action hero chops that made him such a revelation in the movie. No one has ever given Bruce a lead role in a film that’s really worthy of his talents. I’m not being a TalkBacker here, either, suggesting him for every role in every film announced. I’m just saying... he’s been underutilized, and it’s a shame. Now, finally, he’s got something to do, something to dig into, and the results really surprised me. I never expected that more than anything else, his portrayal of an aging Elvis Presley would be moving.
Don’t get me wrong. BUBBA HO-TEP is an abundantly silly film. Elvis Presley, at the height of his popularity, tracked down the top Elvis impersonator and switched lives with him so that he could experience real life again, away from the built-in bullshit of fame. Now, as an old man, he’s living under an assumed name at a Texas nursing home. He’s got a bum hip, a boil on his penis (which hasn’t worked in years), and no one believes him when he says who he really is. After all, another old guy (Larry Pannell) in the home believes he’s the Lone Ranger. And there’s a black guy (Ossie Davis) who claims to be JFK, who believes that the CIA replaced his damanged brain after the failed Dallas assassination attempt. His nurse (Ella Joyce) thinks he’s a hopelessly daffy old man. When his roommate dies, a visit from the man’s estranged daughter (Heidi Marnhout) both arouses his libido and reminds him of just how far he is from where he was.
Elvis and “JFK” bond over a mystery that begins to unfold as residents of the home die particularly sad and horrible deaths at the hands of a mysterious spectral figure. Eventually, the two of them figure out that it is a lost Egyptian mummy (Bob Ivy) that is stalking them, and they decide to fight back.
It’s about at this point when I’m describing the film to someone that they shake their head and say, “Bullshit. You’re making that up.”
It is indeed as bizarre as it sounds. It’s also very, very funny and well-acted on every count. The only times Coscarelli tips his hand too much with the silly is with the recurring gag about the hearse drivers (Daniel Roebuck and Daniel Schweiger), but the two guys are such geek culture stalwarts that it’d be a shame to lose it.
Right now, I don’t think the film has a distributor. I saw it at a screening for one of the distributors in town, and I caught it with a good group of people. They got it. They got Bruce’s performance, which is actually quite detailed. He’s sad, he’s bitterly funny, and the flashbacks to Bruce meeting Bruce, the real Elvis and his imposter, is one of a kind. Ossie Davis does nice supporting work, and he’s got one of the funniest lines in the movie, much too dirty to repeat here. It’s the duet between these two performers that makes it worth picking up for someone with the brains to sell it properly.
This is the first of two films in this column where, before I even discuss the film, I want to discuss the marketing of that film.
Paramount, you guys are insane. Whose idea was that 20 year old picture of Harrison Ford on the poster? And your tagline: “Fate Has A Hero.” What? What are you talking about? Did you watch the movie? More importantly, did ANYONE associated with cutting the trailer or the TV spots actually see the film? Because it doesn’t show. You couldn’t tell just from looking at the campaign which tries to sell an action movie about a sub that heads for the coast of America and has an exciting showdown with the Americans. It’s a souped up summer movie trailer, complete with the line “Sir, their torpedo is heading right for us!” and a shot of a torpedo, something that never happens at any point in the film.
And shame on you for selling it that way, because people are going to walk out disappointed. Instead, you should have sold it as what it really is... a story about a doomed ship. Your title is terrible, anyway. It doesn’t convey anything about the story unless you already know the story. Yes... once you’ve seen the film, the term “The Widowmaker” has a certain resonance. But no one has seen the film yet, so to them, it doesn’t make any sense. It evokes nothing.
I know that I hated your campaign on the movie. One of our chief spies here at AICN told me months ago that he liked K-19 a lot. Watching how you sold the film, I thought for sure he was just demented and not to be trusted. Turns out, he’s right. K-19 is a solid, respectable drama about what happens when national pride gets in the way of safety, and what happens when personal pride gets in the way of performance. From the very beginning of the film, there’s a sense of almost palpable dread that Kathryn Bigelow brings to the piece.
Look... no one is more shocked than I am that I like this film. I’m startled. It’s Kathryn Bigelow. I like NEAR DARK. That’s it. The rest of her output just leaves me cold. I actively dislike a few films, like POINT BREAK and STRANGE DAYS.
And I get regular hate mail because I’ve expressed the opinion on this site before that Harrison Ford is a very good actor who does not always make good choices. In fact, I think he’s made a series of rotten choices that have resulted in films like RANDOM HEARTS and SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS and WHAT LIES BENEATH and THE DEVIL’S OWN. I have dared to opine that it was unfortunate he left TRAFFIC, especially after the rewrites he suggested actually helped improve the script. I’ve never disputed that Ford is a smart man or a strong collaborator. I find myself constantly having to defend my right to expect more from someone. I like Ford. I grew up at just the right time. I watched him develop from a flash in the pan sensation the summer of STAR WARS to a real movie star with the back-to-back punch of EMPIRE and RAIDERS, and then I saw him stretch and grow in films like BLADE RUNNER and WITNESS and THE MOSQUITO COAST. I thought he got robbed that year. He should have been Oscar nominated for the role of Allie Fox. It’s remarkable work.
It was also, short of PRESUMED INNOCENT, the last really good work he ever did.
Part of the reason for the particular venom in the mail I get about Ford is that I’ve pointed out certain habits... certain tricks he falls back on as a performer when he sleepwalks through some of these movies. I’m pleased to report that the Finger Of Doom makes not one single appearance in the film. At one point, he almost starts to do it, and someone interrupts him. He never goes back to it.
What Harrison Ford does in this film, more than anything else, is he gives me hope. There is a pulse. There is still an aware, capable actor there. He is wonderful as Captain Alexi Vostrikov. It’s a performance where he embraces his age and plays a man of experience and rigid opinion, a man who is not willing to have his ideas challenged. He has personal baggage, a father in a Gulag, disgrace serving as a potent fuel for him in his desire to make this maiden voyage of the K-19 a successful one. Vostrikov is a good leader, smart and fair, and he doesn’t tolerate failure or weakness. He’s aware enough to listen closely to the counsel of Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), the former captain of the K-19, demoted after failing in the preparation phase.
The boat’s loyalties lie with Polenin, and even though Vostrikov is fair, the crew doesn’t see that. All they see are the ways in which he pushes them harder than Polenin ever did. Polenin knows that, in his way, Vostrikov is a better captain for the men. Harry complained in his review about the number of drills in the film, saying he felt like they were supposed to substitute for action. Not at all. The repetition here drives these men mad, and we have to understand that when real disaster strikes, they were worn out, past the point of caring. Half of them believed it was just another drill. Ford pushes them to make them ready, and it fails because they never believe in him as their captain. They remain fiercely loyal to Polenin.
Bigelow’s work is professional, workmanlike. She is not a particularly vivid stylist, something that surprises me. NEAR DARK and THE LOVELESS were both striking, painterly films, as consumed with image as idea. Somewhere along the way, though, she became a testosterone junkie and started actively trying to make movies with balls. It led her down a dead-end road that ended for me with the impossibly ugly and misogynistic STRANGE DAYS.
As you hear people complain about K-19, keep this in mind: if this were in Russian, with a Russian cast, and were playing arthouses in the U.S. instead of mainstream screens this weekend, critics would be bending over backwards to sing its praises. Same film, same exact script, but with Russians instead of these actors. They’d be talking about how effectively it etches the relationship between captain and fallen captain, and how beautifully that relationship resolves. The work by both Ford and Neeson is powerful, and worth seeing. Just remember what type of film you’re really going to see, and you may find yourself as pleasantly surprised as I was. I hope so.
THE BOURNE IDENTITY
Matt Damon’s a freakin’ action star! Who knew?!
This guy keeps surprising me. I first really noticed him in COURAGE UNDER FIRE. He does great work in a small role in that film, and I remember actively figuring out who he was in the credits and making note of his name. Obviously, GOOD WILL HUNTING took him to a different level of awareness, and one of the very first articles of mine still archived on this site is a review of that movie.
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is a film that I think grows with repeat viewings, and one of the things that seems more impressive each time I see it is Damon’s dedication to the role. He’s a twisted little man in that film. He’s tied in knots, and there’s no confidence, no sense of charisma like in HUNTING. I thought it was brave that he didn’t shy away from any of the subtext of the piece, that if anything, he played it more as text. Since then, he’s made a lot of films that didn’t work for one reason or another, like ALL THE PRETTY HORSES and THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, and it was getting easy to dismiss Damon.
I’m glad, then, that he and director Doug Liman worked so hard with Tony Gilroy to make THE BOURNE IDENTITY something more than your average spy thriller. It’s a sleek piece of business, cold around the edges, with a hard heart. It’s also better than 99% of the crap that clutters the genre these days, and one of the best pieces of pure entertainment I saw in a theater all year.
The film paints in broad strokes, but it isn’t lowest common denominator. The opening is simple, spare, striking. There’s something almost elegant about the way Liman’s put together this essentially pulpy story. He’s got taste as a filmmaker, and he made some excellent choices here with casting. Franka Potente grounds the film with a winning performance as Marie. She takes a role that could easily just be window dressing and turns it into something better, something more memorable. She makes the most of every line, and she’s magnetic. It’s easy to see why she becomes more important to him than just a mere ride to Paris. Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, and Brian Cox all do strong work with standout scenes. Julia Stiles seems almost wasted in her nothing role, but Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (infamous as Adebisi on HBO’s OZ) stands out in a very brief appearance.
There are two moments where I fell in love with this film, and neither one is the slightly overrated car chase. Instead, the moment where I decided I liked the film was when the two cops roust Damon in the park. I have always mourned TOTAL RECALL and what could have been if only they’d cast someone besides Arnold Schwarzeneggar. When he snaps and kills five men barehanded, it’s to be expected. There’s nothing surprising about the moment. Quaid should be freaked out by his ability to kill. In this film, Liman and Damon get that moment right. Damon reacts without thinking, and he hurts those two cops. It scares him, and it also exhilarates him. At least it’s a clue to who he is. Same thing as the moment where he climbs down the wall. It’s not a giant improbable DIE HARD style beat. It’s quiet. It’s very realistic. And it ends with him simply walking away.
The car chase is good, not great, but that’s okay. There’s an exceptional scene with Clive Owen that is as memorable a suspense set piece as any studio release has boasted all year. And the knowledge that they’re really going to try and make a franchise out of this is actually exciting. Jason Bourne, like Tom Ripley, is as unconventional a lead as one could ask for. Damon’s staking a real claim for himself as a movie star worth paying attention to, and I hope he continues to make strong, difficult choices in the years ahead.
REIGN OF FIRE
A few promising pieces hung on a creaky framework almost look like a real movie under the guidance of X-FILES veteran Rob Bowman, but REIGN OF FIRE is not a cohesive whole, and it’s ultimately frustrating.
It’s also the only film I’ve ever seen where the poster is the fucking backstory.
I hate Disney marketing like poison for what they did in advertising this film. When they began their campaign and they put the dragons front and center, I figured they must really have dragons in the movie. Lots of them. The image of dragons and helicopters clashing in the skies over London was striking and memorable. It promised big things, and the way the trailers were cut, it looked like the film just might deliver some B-movie glory.
But this isn’t a film about dragons versus mankind at the end of the world.
Instead, it’s a story of one dragon (basically) versus a very small group of people. It’s self-contained, small-scale. Yes, there are some effective scenes, including that Archangel scene that kicks about nine kinds of ass, but the film’s front-loaded. The ending is way to abrupt, and leaves so many questions unanswered that it fails to satisfy on any level. It’s a disappointing conclusion all the way around. If it was so easy for a person to kill a dragon (an explosive arrow in the mouth does the trick), then why did nuclear weapons fail? Did the dragons eat ash or meat? If this happened around the whole world, there must be more than one male, right? It’s a cool world, and it would be nice to know more about it. It’s like these writers came up with the right mythology, but the wrong story to tell about it.
I’ll say this about the performances: Matthew McConaughey is out there in early Nicolas Cage land with this performance. It’s extreme and dangerously campy and skirts the fringe of being terrible. In the end, I like his work because it’s so extreme. And Christian Bale continues in his quest to find the right vehicle to prove that he’s a goddamn movie star. Rob Bowman also needs to find something really solid on the page that he can bring to life. He’s a good director, and the high points here suggest real greatness from him on the right project.
I’ll be back tomorrow with a column where I’ll review the Inuit epic THE FAST RUNNER, Spain’s provocative SEX & LUCIA, Imamura’s wacked-out WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE, and the much-discussed Israeli film LATE WEDDING. I’ll also be publishing a separate review of AUSTIN POWERS: GOLDMEMBER, as well as a ridealong on my drive-in theater trip to see EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS. See you then.