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Posts in: January 2011

Love Streams (1984)

Somewhere around the time the press started calling them “schlockmeisters,” Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus decided to expand their low-budget action empire into new, bizarre realms. They made a series of children’s films based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen, hard-hitting documentaries, and art films. They teamed up with the likes of Robert Altman, Sam Shepard, Jean-Luc Godard, Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski, and Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps the first in this wave of art films was 1984’s Love Streams, based on the play by Canadian writer Ted Allan.

John Cassavetes did not make easy films to watch, and Love Streams is no exception. Like most of Cassavetes’s work, the film has very little in the way of plot and more than enough in the way of brutal, intense character study. Despite a slightly higher budget than he normally worked with (thought not by much—Cannon Films was not known for busting the budget on anything, especially not a challenging art film), it retains the rawness of his earlier, self-financed work. It’s the sort of movie that will make virtually anyone watching it disappointed in humanity, but that’s only because it’s so easy to believe characters like this exist in reality.

Cassavetes plays Robert Harmon, who dresses like a lounge lizard circa 1972: mussed hair, rumpled (possibly stained—hard to tell with VHS) tuxedo, sun-blasted face, and an ever-present cigarette dangling ineffectually from his cracked and craggy lips. Despite the earmarks of the saddest sack in the universe, Robert is a successful author of smutty novels aimed at women he eagerly beds. One of the recurring themes of the film revolves around Robert’s belief only in sex, without any of the romantic notions of love. This philosophy permeates his writing, but women mistake what he writes for romance, which fuels his disbelief in the idea of love. What we’re led to believe are graphic depictions of sex laden with violence and depravity cause fluttering in the hearts of his female readers, and in his mind, anyone who mistakes what he’s writing for romance deserves the drunken one-night stand he gives her.

A funny thing happens when he meets Susan (Diahnne Abbott), a dancer who resists his charms to the point that he literally shoves her into her own car and hops in the driver’s seat. He drives like a drunken maniac, crashes into a parked car, and nearly passes out. Despite this, he refuses to let go of the steering wheel. Even as Susan beats on him and tries to shove the larger, stronger man aside, he simply grips the wheel and laughs. Susan puts up with this abuse with gentle good humor and quickly turns into a codependent pseudo-lover.

Meanwhile, Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) has lost custody of her disdainful daughter (Risa Blewitt) because—well, for lack of a better term, she’s nuts. She explains away her frequent hospitalizations as voluntary vacations from the stresses of the world. She pleads with the judge that she knows when she’s about to have a bout with insanity, so she checks herself into the hospital to take care of it. Somehow, the judge sides with her husband (an almost unrecognizable Seymour Cassel). On the advice of her sleazy lawyer, she travels to Europe, gets lost, and has trouble finding her way back home. Eventually, she ends up moving into the horrendously unattractive estate of Robert—her brother.

Robert’s not ready to take care of his unstable sister. In fact, while she’s off gallivanting in Europe, he gets a weekend with his estranged son (Jakob Shaw), Albie. He hasn’t seen little Albie since infancy, so naturally he drives the eight-year-old to Las Vegas, leaves Albie alone in a cheap hotel room while he goes off to “spend the night” with “a friend,” and is surprised when Albie runs away as soon as they get back to Los Angeles. Lucky for Robert, Sarah isn’t ready to be taken care of. Her signs of increasing instability go ignored by Robert, who cohabitates with her like an unfriendly roommate. Only occasionally do tempers flare.

Like most of Cassavetes’s films, Love Streams remains largely unpleasant to endure for the majority of its runtime—until a riveting third act that combines surrealism, music, and ballet in a powerful dream sequence that puts any individual moment in Black Swan to shame. (Note: I didn’t choose to watch Love Streams this week to crap all over Black Swan again. I’ve never seen the film before and had no idea to expect such a sequence.) As disturbing as it is tragic, it provides a powerful glimpse into Sarah’s fragile psyche before crashing her back to reality, where Robert responds to her elation at having solved her family problems by barking, “Is this real, or did you dream it?!”

The third act contains more surprises, revelations, and general weirdness than perhaps all the previous Cassavetes films combined. It makes Love Streams worth enduring, even (perhaps especially) for non-fans of his work. He fully embraces his passion for music and his tendency toward experimental, surreal imagery while keeping everything grounded in his usual stomach-churning, nihilistic neo-realism. Although worth seeing, it’s not easy to see. It saw a brief DVD release in France, which currently fetches anywhere between $50 and $150 online. VHS copies aren’t much cheaper. Luckily, Chicago’s invaluable Facets Multimedia has it available for rent, which is how I got to see it. If you live in Chicago, check it out, but beware their $200 lost/damaged fine for antique VHS tapes.

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Postal (2007)

When Matt challenged himself to endure the Uwe Boll film Rampage, his revelation that Boll had made yet another awful film didn’t surprise me in the least. However, I felt compelled to defend his one and only decent film—2007’s Postal, a cheerfully offensive, simple-minded but incredibly funny satire of the culture of stupidity and apathy that has slowly overtaken the American populous. Like a lot of gag-a-second comedies, not every joke works, but there’s always one that hits right after a miss. It also demonstrates that Boll’s problems as a filmmaker stem more from his chosen genre (schlocky, horror-action video game adaptations) than a true lack of talent.

True, Postal itself claims to be adapted from a pair of semi-popular first-person shooter games about a postal worker on a rampage. However, Boll throws away pretty much everything but the title and the third-act rampage, likely to the film’s benefit. He mostly uses the concept of an ordinary man driven to a killing spree as a springboard to mercilessly satirize pretty much everything Americans hold sacred. It’s the sort of film that opens with a bizarre, Abbott & Costello-esque bit of comedy involving two airplane hijackers discussing the approximate number of virgins available to them in paradise, whether or not they’ll have to share, how it’s possible that the virgin to martyr ratio could be so high, and what will happen once they’ve deflowered all the virgins. Just when they realize the steaming load of crap they’ve been handed from their leaders and decide to turn around, the passengers burst into the cockpit, the terrorists lose control of the plane, and it slams into Tower One.

If you don’t find any of that funny, you will absolutely hate this movie.

After the opening sequence, the film settles into its actual story. The main character, known only as “Dude” (played by Zack Ward, a gifted comic actor whose career has unfortunately been hampered by his legendary role as Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story), has grown tired of his rotten life. He starts the day optimistic, greeting the day happily as he heads off to a job interview. So desperate for work and happy for the opportunity, he endures unending humiliation from his potential boss, who eventually ridicules him for having no backbone and tosses him out. Dude returns home to his trailer park, expecting sympathy from his morbidly obese wife. Instead, he finds her having loud, unabashed sex with a fellow unemployed trailer park resident.

Distraught, Dude visits his Uncle Dave (a game Dave Foley), a lowlife con artist who has stumbled into financial and sexual success after starting his own doomsday cult. Dude hatches a scheme with his uncle to steal a shipment of Krotchy dolls, the latest Jingle All the Way-esque toy fad. In one of the many lowbrow jokes Boll revels in, Krotchy happens to be shaped like an enormous scrotum. Uncle Dave’s master plan is to sell the Krotchy dolls on eBay at hugely inflated prices.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden (Larry Thomas) has designs on the Krotchy dolls, as well. In Boll’s cracked comic universe, bin Laden runs a thriving chain of convenience stores, speaks impeccable, accentless English, and enjoys all the finer things in life. He has a barren cave soundstage in the stockroom of his flagship store, where he records menacing videos to keep the American citizenry terrified and buying the disgusting, fatty foods his store stocks. Bin Laden wants the Krotchy dolls so he can inject them each with avian flu before reselling them at inflated prices, thus ensuring a plague will wipe out western civilization.

Boll (with cowriter Bryan C. Knight) use this needlessly convoluted plot to string together as many horrendous caricatures of American culture as possible: Michael Paré as an entitled bum; J.K. Simmons as a brazenly corrupt politician; Ralf Moeller and Chris Spencer as racist, ultra-violent cops; Rick Hoffman as the obnoxious boss of Gluttco, a mega-corporation that’s sort of a low-budget riff on Metropolis. The film lacks the sophisticated wit and intelligence of something like In the Loop (for one thing, bin Laden and his fellow terrorists frequently refer to themselves as Taliban members), but Boll’s nonpartisan, take-no-prisoners approach to offensiveness make the absurdity of our numerous sacred cows vividly apparent.

Boll doesn’t even let himself off the hook. He has a cameo as himself, the proprietor of a Nazi-themed amusement park who murders the actual creator of the Postal games in front of a cheering audience, before admitting he finances his films with Nazi gold. This sequence also involves a shootout between Uncle Dave’s heist crew, bin Laden’s terrorists, and U.S. government officials, resulting in the graphically portrayed deaths of dozens of children. Boll leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of absolute tastelessness, from Verne Troyer locked in a suitcase filled with sex toys to Uncle Dave taking a noisy (and nude) dump in front of his psychotic disciple, Richard (Chris Coppola).

What rises from this tastelessness, though, is one hell of an absurd, bleakly funny comedy guided by the firm belief that humanity’s stupidity and selfishness has doomed the planet. After gaining some prominence with the parody film German Fried Movie, Boll somehow found himself mired in lame-brained, gravely serious, incredibly low-budget adaptations of moderately popular video games. The combination of the budget restrictions and Boll’s poor handling of anything resembling drama or suspense ruined those movies and led to rumors he runs a Producers-like scam where he makes more money on a flop than a hit by exploiting German tax law. In reality, I think he was just out of his element. (Though, frankly, the big-budget adaptations of video games like Resident Evil and Doom—even going back as far as 1993’s Super Mario Brothers—are equally bad, so I’m not sure how Boll became a critical punching bag.)

Luckily, in a comedy like this, Boll doesn’t need drama or suspense. The central conflict here is Boll’s hatred of all mankind, and he does a better job of portraying this contempt than other misanthropic filmmakers (though Neil LaBute’s Wicker Man is funnier than Postal, it’s not supposed to be). Even the amateurish production values give the film a ramshackle charm that matches the story, and Boll assembled a cast of fearless, hilarious actors. All he has to do is stand back and let them be funny, so whatever limitations he has as a director are easily swept under the rug.

Because of its touchy subject matter, I can easily understand why this movie had trouble securing distribution in the U.S. (It had a very brief, limited theatrical run before getting swept off to DVD.) It’s a shame that Boll should get punished for making such a ballsy, ludicrous film, but the fact remains that it’s a solid, funny film that ought to be seen by even the most hostile Boll haters. It may not change their minds, but at least it’ll be harder for them to argue that he’s utterly devoid of talent.

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King Lear (1987)

As a longtime lover of the underdog, I can appreciate unintentionally bad movies. Incompetence is usually tempered by passion, stupidity is tempered by oddness, and the dearth of drama is tempered by the trainwreck fascination of cinema gone wrong. I’m harder on movies that are bad for more commercial reasons—cashing on a cheesy fad, throwing a handful of mega-stars together and assuming the film will coast on their charms, and so on. Obviously, there’s a difference between a filmmaker thinking he’s made a masterpiece and a filmmaker not caring one way or the other.

And then there’s Jean-Luc Godard, the most overrated of the French New Wave auteurs, who never met a script he couldn’t turn into a navel-gazing portrait of cinemaphilia and the struggle and sacrifice required to bring Art to the screen. I can’t call myself much of a fan of his work; in general, his films have enough bright spots to make me wish the overall product was better, and usually the flaw stems directly from Godard’s apparent self-obsession. His inability to make any movie—from the sci-fi oddity of Alphaville all the way up to this alleged adaptation of King Lear—that isn’t secretly or not-so-secretly about Jean-Luc Godard. There’s nothing inherently wrong with self-absorbed filmmaking—after all, most auteurs infuse their work with their own fascinations and peccadilloes, even if they don’t do it so brazenly or annoyingly as Godard. I have an issue, however, when a filmmaker creates a solipsistic dung heap under the guise of bringing to the screen the greatest dramatic work in human history. Even if Godard hadn’t turned it into a half-assed examination of his artistic fears and flaws, he could have at least made a competent film.

Instead, he made the worst film I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen many, many, many bad movies over the years, but this is the first one I’ve seen that seemed intentional. Usually, bad movies happen on accident—even the notoriously reviled Manos, the Hands of Fate started its production with the hope of making a good movie. Here, Godard simply does whatever the hell he wants, whatever pops into his head at any given time, and trust me when I say the things popping into his head during its production couldn’t fill up a haiku, much less a feature film.

I don’t know what went wrong during production. I know the legends: that producer Menahem Golan wrote a contract on a cocktail napkin at the Cannes Film Festival, signed by Jean-Luc Godard (director) and Norman Mailer (writer). Golan and Yoram Globus financed what was to be a straightforward adaptation of King Lear, to star Mailer as the titular character and his real-life daughter as Cordelia. Woody Allen signed on to play the Fool. It’s unclear if Mailer attempted a Baz Luhrmann-esque modernization using Shakespeare’s language, or if he retained the story but updated everything including the language. All that’s known—because it’s referenced frequently in the tragic final film—is that Mailer’s script set the action in a Mafia family. (Strangely, my study group did the same thing for a humanities project in college.)

But the script Mailer wrote was not the film Godard wanted to make. Because, you see, it was all about King Lear (or “Don Learo”) and not at all about Jean-Luc Godard. Enraged, Mailer and his daughter left the project in a hurry. Godard opens his film by repeating apparently the only scene shot between Mailer and his daughter (and, based on the poor technical quality of these scenes, I speculate they were shot more for some sort of behind-the-scenes documentary than this film). She crosses a hotel room and sits across from him on a balcony overlooking a Swiss lake and, clutching a copy of the script, asks her father why he’s so obsessed with the Mafia. Mailer grumbles a response, then says they’re returning to America the following day. Godard repeats this scene twice, narrating it each time (with different narration) and inserting titles like KING LEAR: A STUDY at random points, because why not, right?

Eventually, some semblance of story begins, and what a story it is! Controversial theatre director Peter Sellars (who I have to imagine does a better job directing for the stage than he does acting here) stars as “William Shakespeare, Jr. the Fifth,” who struggles to preserve his ancestor’s work in the wake of a tragic human apocalypse caused by the Chernobyl incident. Here’s a tip for budding filmmakers out there: the more specific your sci-fi concept, the more dated it becomes. Nothing’s funnier than watching Godard’s film play out as if Chernobyl—which occurred during the making of the film—is literally the end of the world, when it’s become sort of a tragic historical blip. I don’t want to lessen the tragedy of the time, but let’s face it: they have Chernobyl tours now. The end of the world it ain’t.

All right, enough snark. Shakespeare mostly sits around trying to remember the plays, so he can write them down. He doesn’t seem to realize that, staying at the same Swiss hotel (apparently the only safe haven left), is Don Learo (now played by Burgess Meredith) and Cordelia (Molly Ringwald), who in the periphery go through the motions of King Lear while Shakespeare struggles to remember things like the title of As You Like It. The film around him quickly grows more and more insane, as Godard blurs the line between reality and fantasy, bluntly stating King Lear‘s actual themes in treacly dialogue and voiceover narration while operating more subtly on Godard’s own thematic preoccupations.

The film is willfully, almost gleefully nonsensical, but the absurdity and surreality come across as a distinct lack of dramatic and artistic thrust. Godard edited the film himself, making it as as incoherent as possible, inserting pointless, rambling narration and non sequitur scenes in order to reinforce ideas he clearly dreamed up in post-production, desperately trying to salvage a disaster. The entire film looks, sounds, and feels adrift in every conceivable way. Its slapped-together nature has an improvised feel, as if Godard and Sellars wrote and shot scenes based on whatever drug-induced whim struck them in the morning. (I don’t usually speculate on the pharmaceutical enhancement of a film or its makers, but we’re better off assuming both Godard and Sellars were high out of their minds than having the notion that they came up with these terrible, unfilmable ideas while stone cold sober.)

Maybe Godard had some sort of impenetrable artistic purpose for these choices, but it feels more like the work of a man paid an absurd amount of money to make whatever he wants, and the joke’s on a pair of producers desperate to make high-fallutin’ art alongside Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. Instead of making a film with even a small amount of merit, Godard manages to deliver the unthinkable: a film worse than Roman Polanski’s Pirates.

This is the only film I’ve ever seen that doesn’t have a single redeeming moment, be it an undercurrent of good intentions gone awry or a luminous performance amid a sea of crap. I consider it shameful and personally offensive that a handful of people defend this film as a masterpiece, when the loathed-by-all-but-me The Postman treats Shakespeare’s work with more dignity and respect. Godard’s King Lear is unwatchable from the first frame to the last and has been justifiably forgotten.

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Script to Screen: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) by Brian Helgeland

Let’s talk about franchises.

Several years ago, I read scripts for a semi-shady literary manager who firmly believed his ticket to the big time revolved around bringing to the big screen an adaptation of a moderately popular but largely forgotten 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. (That cartoon shall remain nameless.) He somehow got the ear of Warner Brothers president Alan Horn and pitched it as a live-action trilogy. The manager co-wrote treatments for this trilogy with a client who still has the dubious distinction of writing the worst script I’ve ever read (not to be confused with the stupidest).

He urgently e-mailed me one morning before a meeting, hoping I could rush feedback on the treatment for the first installation of the trilogy. Since it was a scant eight pages, I figured it’d be easy enough to give him my thoughts. Keep in mind, I had fuzzy memories of enjoying this particular cartoon as a child, so when I started reading and didn’t recognize a single thing from my memory, I was a little concerned. I thought maybe I’d misremembered and was thinking of a different cartoon, until I got to the last page, in which the main character of the cartoon is born. Prior to that, the treatment focused on the tedious, obsessively detailed political minutiae of a fictitious race on a fictitious planet, with a tacked-on love story involving the parents of the cartoon’s main character.

In other words, every single second of the proposed first film in a trilogy was devoted to backstory. In the cartoon, the main character is a fully-grown adult. At the end of the first film, he’s a newborn. That’s a tad different from something like Batman Begins. It’s more like stretching the story of Bruce Wayne’s parents out to feature length and ending with their deaths. I compared it to the opening of the 1978 Superman film, noting that it may be important to include the backstory of the parents, but it should be limited to the equivalent of a prologue in the first film. How disappointed would Superman fans be with a movie that ends with baby Kal-El getting shot into space as a baby? Even the Star Wars prequels, for all their faults, had enough sense to start with Anakin Skywalker instead of chronicling the misadventures of his mother.

The point is, a franchise-starting film has to be relatively self-contained. You can’t stack the narrative deck with backstory that will pay off in later parts of the series, because if you produce a movie without an actual story of its own, nobody will want to see it. Even if marketing tricks them into seeing it, they’re not going to like it. The fine line between backstory and story story is difficult for a big franchise because, like a TV show pilot, filmmakers seem to feel they have to cram in as much information as possible to keep audiences enticed to come back. But audiences have grown accustomed to a semi-satisfying beginning, middle, and end to the story, not just a whole lot of beginning.

If you’ve never heard of Darren Shan’s series of Cirque du Freak books, you’re probably not alone. When I got the script, it simply had a title and Brian Helgeland’s name. I didn’t know it was an adaptation and a potential franchise-starter until long after I read it. I only knew that the script was the longest first act I’d ever read—all setup, no payoff.

I’ve never felt so energized or so betrayed by a screenplay before. In the first 30 or 40 pages, Helgeland perfectly captures a tone I’m not convinced I’ve ever seen done properly in a movie. I spent far too much of my youth reading crappy R.L. Stine books and really great Ray Bradbury stories, and Helgeland manages to make the opening of Cirque du Freak feel a great deal like those eerie-yet-appropriate-for-children stories I used to eat up. Unfortunately, the script blows its wad early and spends the remainder setting up things that will undoubtedly pay off in the next movie—except there won’t be one, because nobody likes a 90-minute prologue where not much really happens.

The first chunk of the script focuses on middle-schoolers Darren (played in the film by annoyingly mush-mouthed Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Helgeland describes Darren as a friendly, well-liked kid; Steve, he describes as a bad seed and a bad influence. They’ve been best friends forever, but they’re on diverging paths, and Darren is sort of at a crossroads. His parents see this and, after Darren’s mother witnesses Steve stealing $60 from her purse, she says nothing to Steve but forbids Darren from being his friend. This strikes a rebellious chord in Darren, who decides to take Steve up on his offer to sneak out and see Cirque du Freak.

Steve has developed a disturbing obsession with Cirque du Freak—a traveling freak show that has taken over a rundown theatre in their small suburb—ever since he identified its emcee, Crepsley (John C. Reilly), as a vampire. He found advertisements for the show dating back to the 1920s, all of which feature Crepsley lookalikes. Dubious, Darren goes along with Steve for the fun of it, but there’s a dark undercurrent to the way Steve talks about Crepsley. The freak show itself boasts an alarming number of real oddities, including an actual wolfman, a beautiful woman who can grow a beard with the snap of her fingers, and an exotic spider that can do tricks. And then there’s Crepsley, whose pale skin, frightening demeanor, and apparent ease with mind control and hypnosis make Darren start to wonder about Steve’s assertion. Maybe he is a vampire.

After the show, Steve tries to ditch Darren to hang around afterward. Darren argues at first, but Steve insists. He protests too much, however, and Darren’s fear and suspicion mounts. He pretends to go but instead silently follows Steve, who sneaks backstage and finds Crepsley’s coffin. To Darren’s dismay, Steve begs Crepsley to turn him into a vampire. Crepsley obliges by biting him immediately, but he spits out Steve’s blood like poison and tells him he’s tainted. Terrified, Steve runs away. So does Darren, but not before stealing the aforementioned exotic spider.

Over the next few days, Darren hides the spider in his bedroom, but his intrusive sister causes the spider to get loose. It bites Steve—who has defied Darren’s parents by sneaking over—and its venom causes him to immediately go into anaphylactic shock. The hospital’s entomology experts believe Darren’s photos of the spider have been doctored, so they can’t find an antivenom to save Steve. Once the doctors leave, Crepsley appears to Darren and makes a deal: he’ll cure Steve’s poison and save his life—in exchange for Darren’s. He needs an assistant, and he also believes it’s Darren’s destiny to become a vampire. Reluctantly, Darren agrees.

I loved the script up until this point.

Steve ignores the life-saving aspect of Darren’s sacrifice and focuses on the fact that Darren has what he wants. Crepsley helps Darren fake his death, but Steve knows the truth and becomes a juvenile vampire hunter, hot on the heels of Darren at all times. Crepsley and Darren spend most of the remaining script discussing this world’s variation on vampire lore and occasionally running away from Steve and others trying to hunt Crepsley.

The story’s vampire rules go like this: humans become vampires in stages, starting as assistants and gradually moving up to full vampires. They need to learn the ropes of the vampire underworld before they can be trusted in the sacred brotherhood. Vampires need blood to survive, but they also need real food. They also don’t need to kill their victims. Instead of subsisting on animal blood as the reformed vampires of Buffy and Angel do, Crepsley medicates his victims, draws a few pints of blood, and leaves them in a safe place. Vampires can’t fly, but they can “flit”—moving great distances in short amounts of time, unseen by the naked eye. In this world, vampires also age. They’re not strictly immortal—their aging process has merely slowed, so they age one year for every ten they live. In other words, Crepsley has lived 211 years as a vampire but has only aged 21, so he looks to be in his early 40s. (For unexplained reasons that I assume have to do with taking the long view of a franchise populated by the same actors, it’s explained that assistants age one year for every five they live.)

The vampires have split into rival factions: the “good” vampires like Crepsley, who humanely feed on humans without causing long-term harm, and the “vampaneze,” who believe it’s their sacred duty to rid the world of humans by killing as many as possible in the feeding process. I wanted to like this, because it creates a moral dilemma Helgeland has no interest in actually exploring. The vampires aren’t portrayed as benevolent creatures who stopped killing because they want to peacefully coexist and stick daisies in the gun barrels of their human oppressors. They stopped killing because once the killing starts, so does the vampire hunting. If they lay low and feed without killing, humans don’t take as much of an interest in the vampire underground.

For the majority of what could charitably be called the script’s second act, Darren and Crepsley don’t do much more than hang out, occasionally changing up locations, but mostly just sitting around, talking about this world’s vampire lore. Nothing dramatically compelling or even particularly interesting happens, even though Helgeland lays out a handful of intriguing extensions of the vampire myth. He does it in the least interesting possible way, losing sight of characters and conflicts established early in the script for an extended lesson on lore.

Vampaneze leader Murlough (Ray Stevenson) and his faithful companion, Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), are hot on Crepsley’s trail, so he decides to elude them by rejoining Cirque du Freak in Pennsylvania. I’m no expert on hiding out, but wouldn’t it make more sense to avoid the freak show with which Crepsley has associated himself for the past hundred years if the goal is to hide? Maybe the plan was to hide in plain sight—the script is suspiciously unclear—but whatever the case, Darren gets a warm welcome among the freaks, who can teach him more about the mythology of this universe. Apparently, Murlough wants to start some sort of war between the vampire factions, and even though Darren and Crepsley are the only Cirque du Freak vampires, they’re apparently the leaders of the vampire resistance. Murlough wants Crepsley dead, because he was once a great Vampire General who killed more vampaneze than any known vampire. Murlough needs Crepsley out of the way if he’s to wage his war.

The big twist that Murlough has taken Steve under his wing should come as a surprise to no one, and because he disappears for so much of the script, the conflict between him and Darren is undermined and feels more like a cheap twist than an earned betrayal. At any rate, Darren has grown sick because he refuses to drink blood. When Murlough, Mr. Tiny, and Steve go after Crepsley, he’s forced to drink the blood of Sam (renamed Pete and played by Daniel Newman in the film) to get up to “half-vampire strength” and fight off the vampaneze. He rescues Crepsley, and together they kill Mr. Tiny and fight off Murlough and Steve, naturally without killing them.

Now that Darren has accepted his fate as a vampire, it’s time for Crepsley to take him to the assembly of Vampire Generals so they can plan a way to defeat Murlough and the vampaneze.

That’s the end of the script—an incredible tease of action to come, with only a handful of ineffectual fight scenes and a metric ton of explanation.

I can only imagine better things were to come, because this script managed to lure the likes of Reilly, Stevenson, Cerveris, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Orlando Jones, Patrick Fugit, Colleen Camp, Don McManus, and Frankie Faison. Maybe some of these actors would have signed on, anyway, but considering how little they have to do in the script (one thing that doesn’t much change in the movie), it only makes sense to me that they were promised better things to come with these characters as the franchise went on.

The film’s most significant change is its tone. As I wrote earlier, the start of Helgeland’s script perfectly captures the kid-friendly creep factor of Ray Bradbury, and although the dearth of real conflict and suspense in the rest of the script makes it a huge disappointment, Helgeland never strays too far from that tone. It has its share of funny moments, but I wouldn’t describe it as a comedy. Even when I learned that Reilly would star as Crepsley, I assumed it would retain the same tone—thanks to his participation in Will Ferrell movies, it’s easy to forget that Reilly is one of the best actors working today.

Director Paul Weitz, who is credited on the screenplay for the finished film, gets rid of the few good things present in Helgeland’s script and turns the film into something akin to a wacky, effects-laden vampire comedy. The opening scenes of the script have a nice grounding in reality that contributes to the eerie atmosphere, but Weitz disposes of that, changing virtually everything in favor of wacky but largely unfunny comedy. Darren’s parents forbid him from being Steve’s friend, but the decision seems arbitrary and mean. Steve never steals money from Darren’s mother and doesn’t use the money to finance their admission to the freak show. Darren brings the spider to school, Steve takes it away from him and drops the cage, bringing the spider bite on himself. (It personally offends me when movies try so hard to make the good guys good that nobody can be even remotely culpable in a bad action—the script’s version worked much better and felt much more plausible than Steve getting startled and dropping the cage.)

I’d call it a plus side if it yielded a better film, but the second half is much different in the film than the script. Much of the myth-making remains, but the film introduces much more conflict, peril, and jeopardy. Murlough shows up much earlier, attempting to kidnap Darren and turn him into a vampaneze. Crepsley stops him, and they flee to the freak show, not to hide but for safety. This leads to a romantic subplot involving Rebecca (Jessica Carlson), the “monkey girl” (she has a tail). There’s a similar subplot in the script involving a girl named Debbie, but here there’s a bit more development, especially when Murlough kidnaps her as an attempt to turn the freak show against Darren and have him sent away. Meanwhile, as in the script, Murlough gets his mitts into Steve (who’s surprisingly suicidal, considering how watered-down the film is compared to the script), but he uses Steve’s knowledge to get a handle on Darren’s weakness—his family, whom Murlough, Mr. Tiny, and Steve kidnap to use as leverage to get rid of Darren.

Here’s why using the family wouldn’t have worked in the script and works even less well in the film. Ultimately, the story is about a bond forming between Darren and Crepsley. Darren has to give up his actual family—who, in the film, are portrayed as cartoonishly irredeemable, patently awful people—and get used to the surrogate family of freaks, led by father figure Crepsley. For all its fault, Helgeland’s script wisely puts Crepsley in danger, forcing Darren to embrace his new way of life and do what he has to in order to keep his “family” safe. That’s much more satisfying than needing to save his real family, who don’t contribute much to the story in the first place (other than giving Darren a reason to want to leave, because who would want to stay with them?), and it never allows Darren to really solidify his bond with the freaks. He pretty much aligns with them not because he wants to, not because he feels he’s one of them (despite painfully awful voiceover narration at the end in which Darren says just that), but because he’s been backed into a corner and has no choice but to stop the vampaneze to keep his family safe.

It’s just awful, made all the worse by Weitz’s insistence on comedy above all. Never as funny as it should be or thinks it is, the film creates situations that should repair all the script’s issues with conflict, story, and character—but the wacky tone prevents us from taking anything that happens seriously. People keep getting kidnapped, but there’s no sense of jeopardy, which makes it feel like all the characters are simply going through the motions, play-acting a story they’re all secretly rolling their eyes through.

Credit needs to go to the two standouts in this film, Reilly and Hutcherson. Both of them ignore Weitz’s light comedic tone and play their characters as actual people—haunted, serious, sort of glum, not at all funny. They do great work with underwritten characters mired in a mess of a movie, and they should be commended for their work here. Unfortunately, despite the wide-ranging cast of recognizable ringers, they’re the only ones who deserve kudos. Everyone else seems either faintly amused or acutely bored with everything that’s happening, like they’re waiting out the film until their moments to shine in later parts of the franchise.

Although the film attempts to repair some of the franchise-first, quality-last issues with the screenplay, the end result is worse than the original script. In all cases, it’s a problem with the egregious “franchise-starter” mentality at big studios. Everyone wants a Harry Potter or Twilight or Batman or Iron Man—cash cows that audiences flock to. But, for all the flaws of these franchises, they have one thing in common: their earliest efforts were real movie stories. Even if they were crass attempts to launch a successful franchise, they could have gone one and out and still had a good standalone film. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant never had that, and it suffered both creatively and commercially for it. What a shame.

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High Spirits (1988)

High Spirits is an odd, uneven misfire that, like a handful of movies (most recently, Morning Glory), suffers from a serious identity crisis. At times, it’s a wacky special effects comedy, but it’s not very funny and never seems like it much wants to be, and the special effects are fairly awful for the time. Sometimes, it’s a haunted-house mystery, only it’s not all that mysterious. At other times, it wants to be a raucous sex comedy, but its PG-13 rating prevents it from getting any sexier than silhouettes and innuendo. Some films can handle the balancing act of genre-bending craziness, but this isn’t one of them.

The film opens with Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole) trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage on Plunkett Castle, a coastal Irish relic with leaky ceilings, moldy walls, and all the charm of a cave. He tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a hotel, and now the mortgage holder—a shady American investor—wants to move the entire castle to Malibu. Left with no choice but to hang himself (the only running gag in the film that provides consistent laughs), he’s stopped at the last minute by the realization that marketing the hotel as a haunted castle might lure in dumb tourists.

The first half hour of the film—easily the best part—focuses on Peter’s efforts to convince a demographically diverse (but still lily-white) group of Americans that the hotel is really haunted. Using his disinterested, largely inept staff as ghosts suspended with wires or projected with mirrors, he creates a haunted-house experience surpassed in badness only by the dozens of overpriced haunted houses dotting Wisconsin Dells. The proceedings should get more complicated when it’s revealed that the castle really is haunted, and they do, but only because the film can’t figure out what to do with itself once the revelation occurs.

It tries for romance. When a drunken Jack Crawford (Steve Guttenberg) stumbles into the wrong room and encounters a ghost couple locked in a pattern of endlessly reenacting the murder of Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah), he thinks it’s more silly gags—until he steps in front of Martin Brogan’s (Liam Neeson) knife and breaks the pattern. Quickly, Jack falls in love with Mary, whose sweetness and generosity seems like the perfect antidote to Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo), his shrill ice princess of a wife. Freed as well, Brogan sets his own sights on Sharon, but his involves less romance and more fondling.

There’s more sex comedy, in the form of Brother Tony (Peter Gallagher), studying for the priesthood, and Miranda (Jennifer Tilly), who fills his chaste brain with impure thoughts. The ghosts’ efforts to rid the castle of tourists has the side effect of thrusting (so to speak) these two into sexy situations. Both actors are game and amusing, but the subplot feels more like padding than a worthwhile contribution to the story.

Then there’s the half-hearted mystery, in which disbelieving parapsychologist Malcolm (Martin Ferrero) uses sophisticated equipment to disprove the presence of ghosts, only to repeatedly prove himself wrong and start to wonder who these ghosts are and how they ended up in this castle. Meanwhile, to add some more wacky sex comedy, Malcolm’s high-strung wife, Marge (Connie Booth), just wants him to relax and have sex with her.

Great casting aside, the film never really takes off, and part of the problem may lie in the structure. It opens at a manic clip, with a great deal of (frequently funny) physical comedy, witty banter, off-kilter sight gags, and Peter O’Toole being more hilarious than I ever thought possible. Once the guests arrive and the movie shifts focus and slows down, it also stops being interesting and coasts to a ho-hum ending that’s sort of happy, sort of existentially depressing, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Oft-repeated legend has it that producers literally locked writer/director Neil Jordan out of the editing room after they rejected his cut, which allegedly focused more on the mystery of the ghosts than the wacky comedy. Frankly, I’m not sure that would have helped salvage the movie. Maybe his cut made the film less uneven, but I can’t see how it’d make the overall story work better. Either way, we’re stuck with the movie we have, and that movie just doesn’t succeed.

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Grace Quigley (1984)

I’d love to know how the pitch for Grace Quigley went. It has one of the craziest plots I’ve ever seen in a film, and I sure love seeking out crazy movies. To hear a description of its story is to wonder how the hell such a movie got made. I wish I had an answer, but the film drifted into obscurity (despite being Katharine Hepburn’s last starring role) and thus, not much information is available. Maybe the mere presence of Hepburn and Nick Nolte made it a go picture.

The lunacy of Grace Quigley doesn’t quite compare to transcendent Cannon fodder like Death Wish 3 or Breakin’. Those movies take place in a cartoon universe that invents its own rules for how reality works. Grace Quigley tries, for the most part, to stay grounded in the real world, and that might be its fatal flaw.

Hepburn stars in the title role, as a lonely elderly woman threatened with eviction by her new, greedy landlord. Just when she grumbles that men like the new landlord should be killed, surprise! Seymour Flint (Nolte) kills him, right in front of her eyes. See, Flint is a professional hit man, and somebody hired him to kill the landlord. Grace follows Flint to his apartment and offers him a proposition: she won’t go to the police with what she knows, if he gives her a discount on a hit. Flint initially refuses. Because of the complications that can arise from planning and executing a hit, he can’t lower his price. He’s flummoxed when Grace ambiguously states that she can get the target to cooperate, so he reluctantly agrees to carry out her hit if she can raise $1000 (half his bare-minimum asking price).

Grace raises the money quickly—by bringing a friend (William Duell) in on the deal. She tells the friend it’ll cost $2000 in order to get her half. Who’s the target, though? Well—both of them. Grace mournfully confesses that she’s been suicidal for years, but a series of botched attempts have left her terrified about trying again. It’s time to turn to outside help. Her friend, Mr. Jenkins, wants the same thing. What’s more—Grace has a whole network of suicidal elders who just want to end it. They’re all willing to pay Flint, as long as he’s willing to do all the heavy lifting of planning their deaths and making it look like suicides or accidents.

Initially appalled, Flint realizes this might be the breakthrough he needs. Numbed to the effects of murder-for-hire, he decides he should use his limited skill-set to help rather than hurt people. I’m sure all of this was incredibly shocking in a pre-Kervorkian world, but frankly, it’s still kind of shocking.

The film gets very strange in its second half, insisting on an intrusive, eerily Freudian mother-son relationship between Grace and Flint—to the point that Grace asks him to call her “Mom,” and he actually does. Grace remains alive to help orchestrate her friends’ deaths, but she quickly discovers that having a “son” has given her a reason to live. At the same time, the formerly cool assassin finds himself plagued with guilt for the first time. Even though the old folks want death, he can’t help feeling like they’re all good people who have merely lost sight of what makes life worth living, just like Grace did. At least when he was a contract killer, he knew the target was probably a bad person.

After reading that plot summary, would you imagine this is supposed to be a raucous, broad comedy? In the way it constantly looks on the goofy sunny side of dark subject matter, the film feels a great deal like a Hal Ashby film, which is no coincidence—Ashby was originally attached to direct. Still, right around the point of an interminable scene revolving around making change for a cabbie (about halfway through), I realized Grace Quigley had lost its charms. The film loses sight of its ambitious thematic ideals as it twists the relationship between Grace and Flint into something unrecognizable from what blossomed in the first half of the film.

It was nice to see both characters find a connection through their disconnection and become better people for it. The film takes a quick, unearned left turn, though, and pits Grace and Flint against each other—she wants to rat him out to the police because he doesn’t treat her the way a son should treat a mother, and he wants to keep her quiet. Aside from the jaw-dropping insanity of each consecutive scene, the film loses its already tenuous hold on its characters and devolves into a big, goofy car chase. Granted, said car chase involves multiple hearses for maximum comedy value, but that’s the sort of raucous setpiece that belongs in a better movie—the movie Grace Quigley could have been if it didn’t lose focus in the second half.

After its initial release, screenwriter A. Martin Zweiback reedited the film into a version that received a warm reception with a handful of critics and won an award at the 2006 (yes, 2006) New York International Independent Film & Video Festival. However, this cut is not (yet?) commercially available. I’m interested in seeing it, because I know a good movie is buried somewhere in the weirdness of Grace Quigley—it’s just too scatterbrained to get there.

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The Company Men (2011)

The Company Men shares a number of common problems with another uneven, heavy-handed film about our country’s economic collapse: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It forces us to spend most of our time with a lead character, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), with whom it’s nearly impossible to empathize. It fills out its story with a large, spectacular ensemble of actors with thankless roles representing archetypes—not fully formed characters—to address each facet of What’s Wrong With Corporate America. Then, it limps through a handful of resonant moments (and more than a handful of mediocre moments) toward an unearned happy ending without ever digging deeply enough into What Went Wrong in the first place.

Bobby works as a regional sales manager for GTX, a vast transportation company that started as a tiny shipbuilding firm and steadily grew into one of the largest transportation manufacturers in the world. Then, the economy collapsed, and suddenly layoffs start to happen. Bobby’s head is among the first on the chopping block, because he sells ships, and GTX has decided to get out of the shipbuilding end of the business—not because it’s unprofitable, but because it’s not profitable enough.

The bulk of the story focuses on Bobby’s efforts to find a new job, and the effects of his unemployment on his lifestyle and marriage to working-class, salt-of-the-earth Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt). Unfortunately, Bobby’s an infuriating character. Our introduction to him comes as he strolls, smiling, through his office, not noticing the grim tone or empty desks, and enters a boardroom bragging about the golf game he shot at the country club earlier that morning. Later, he strolls confidently into an executive employment agency, refusing to participate in meetings and seminars, insisting it’ll only take him a few days to find a job.

It gets us off on the wrong foot, because Bobby seems like kind of a jackass, but it’d feel a whole lot better to watch him transform into a better person over time. He doesn’t, though. He adjusts to the unemployed life, but his refusal to give up the country club membership, Porsche, or $1.5 million McMansion leads to numerous arguments with his wife, and we’re supposed to sympathize with Bobby’s stubborn refusal to give up his lifestyle or settle for anything less than what he used to earn. As the lifestyle is taken from him by force—Porsche repossessed, house foreclosed on, club membership revoked—he finally swallows his pride and takes a demeaning job putting up drywall with Maggie’s brother, Jack (Kevin Costner, sporting the same awful Boston accent he had in Thirteen Days).

I give producer/writer/director John Wells (best known for his TV work, including ER and The West Wing) some credit for not giving The Company Men a treacly message about grueling manual labor and a union card being the key to happiness, but that credit is undermined by the fact that he never really digs in to the Bobby character—without a clear understanding of what’s motivating his obsession with material wealth and his confused notions of “success,” it’s hard to rally behind him, and the film flatlines. He always seems to be on the losing end of arguments with Maggie, because she’s practical and reasonable, and he’s absurdly unrealistic. Bobby does have one great scene, though. After months of failure, a headhunter offers him a job opportunity. He immediately flies out to Chicago for the interview—only to discover he came on the wrong day, and the headhunter is out of town. The surge of hopefulness followed by crushing defeat are palpable and well-played by Affleck, giving Bobby the only moment where he feels genuinely, poignantly human.

Hey, isn’t this supposed to be a big ensemble picture? What about Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), and Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello)? The sad truth is, they don’t figure into the story much, except as chess pieces to move the plot toward its happy ending. Gene spends the first half of the film as GTX’s moral voice of reason. As company founder James Salinger’s (Craig T. Nelson) right-hand man and best friend, Gene has no fears about speaking his mind in the face of bad decisions. Instead of laying people off, he suggests selling their shipbuilding division. Salinger refuses. Instead of building a new, expensive office building for executives, why not sell the building and keep the employees? Salinger refuses. Gene pines for days of yore, when Salinger risked everything on a company he hoped would succeed, and Gene worked for him because he believed in the company Salinger wanted to build. Greed and stockholders have overtaken Salinger, though, and the company bears no resemblance to its original incarnation.

What are we to make of the fact that ethically righteous Gene leaves his wife to sleep with Sally, the HR shark who coldly chooses who will stay and who will go (including, eventually, Gene)? Is this shading to the character, or is it a reason to give Sally more of a role in the film, so we can get a glimpse of the HR decisions at play? Unfortunately, it feels more like the latter. Gene and Sally have no common ground, Jones and Bello have no chemistry, so the whole thing is just sort off-putting, weird, and unnecessary.

Phil is Gene’s friend and most prominent ass-kisser, so it’s not a surprise that Gene and Phil get laid off on the same day—in the midst of a company Christmas party, because GTX (and Sally) is that dastardly. Unlike Gene (who made a lot more and saved well), Phil needs to keep working. In an awkward but effective scene, Phil sits down with an employment counselor who does everything short of saying, “Be 30 years younger”—dye his hair, don’t put anything on his resume more than 10 years old, and don’t list how long he spent at each company. Anything that gives away his true age is a killer, because nobody wants to hire a guy in his early 60s.

Again, though, Phil’s not a character. He’s there merely to show how the cold corporate world treats the elder statesmen of the working class. Phil doesn’t get a retirement, and he doesn’t get a new job. He gets screwed. That’s the movie’s primary theme—how corporations screw employees to appease an already wealthy board of directors looking to increase their profits by trimming “dead weight”—and it tries to take a complex look at that theme, but it falls short. It’s a Frank Capra world where corporations are pure, malevolent evil and even the most repugnant of the unemployed is a hero by virtue of the fact that he loved making a lot of money to do something ambiguous that he may or may not have enjoyed.

It’s too bad, because everyone in this movie gives it their all. They’re much more committed to the characters than Wells is. His script never overcomes its plot-first mentality, so none of the characters—not even Bobby, with whom we spend the majority of our time—come into their own, no matter how much life the actors breathe into them. They’re all just chess pieces—really good, handcrafted ones, though—making the expected moves on a well-worn board. I’m sure a great movie about the economic collapse will be made, but it hasn’t yet.

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Messages Deleted (2009)

With more ambition, Messages Deleted could have been a great thriller variation on the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaboration Adaptation. The title and DVD box art give the impression that this will be a thriller in the vein of two other Larry Cohen scripts: Phone Booth and Cellular. It’s actually a thriller about a failed screenwriter embroiled in a murder mystery whose victims are right out of his only sold (but unproduced) screenplay, and it spends a lot of time talking about the conventions of movies without really twisting or defying them. Merely acknowledging clichés doesn’t automatically overcome them.

Matthew Lillard plays the screenwriter, Joel Brandt, as sort of an angry Woody Allen. He works as a screenwriting professor at an urban art school, where he’s highly critical of his students despite his own lack of success. One day, he comes home from work to discover a message on his answering machine—a haggard, fearful voice imploring him to help, saying he doesn’t know Joel, but his captor told him to call. Joel thinks it’s a prank from his best buddy, Adam (Michael Eklund), but Adam has no idea what he’s talking about. Joel shrugs it off, until he learns of the caller’s murder. He comes forward about the message to the two detectives on the case, Lavery (Deborah Kara Unger) and Breedlove (Serge Houde), but he realizes he erased his answering machine, thinking it was a prank.

The detectives are immediately suspicious, and their suspicions seem confirmed when Joel gets another message from another victim. Innocently trying to help, it never occurs to him that Lavery and Breedlove think of him as a suspect—until they drag him in for questioning. Left with no choice but to clear his name, Joel starts investigating on his own. He realizes the choice of victims has come from his script, Senseless Killings, but that doesn’t limit the suspects—it was read all over Hollywood. For reasons unknown to him, someone’s reenacting the script and trying to pin it on Joel.

The idea of a writer whose work seemingly comes to life is nothing new, but if exploited properly, Messages Deleted could have been a fun, effective deconstruction of not just thrillers but cinematic conventions in general—something akin to Scream, the franchise that briefly catapulted Lillard into stardom, but a little more cerebral and strange. At times, it seems like producer/director Rob Cowan wants to toe the line between fantasy and reality—is Joel a screenwriter, or a character in someone’s screenplay?—but he never goes all the way with the idea, forcing the film into standard thriller territory. Every twist and turn—from the decoy suspect to the actual killer to the detectives’ bordering-on-comical distrust of Joel—is conventional in every conceivable way.

Some entertainment value can be derived from the detectives’ misanthropic view of a failed screenwriter-turned-killer. Breedlove speculates on Joel’s obvious motive: “Another psychotic screenwriter who got rejected.” Unfortunately, the comedy value of Lavery and Breedlove is purely unintentional, so they don’t enliven the film as much as they should. Much of it boils down to the relationship between Joel and his kiss-ass student, Millie (Gina Holden). Before long, Millie is the only person left to turn to, but if you think she’s trustworthy—well, then, maybe this movie will surprise you.

I don’t know what I expected out of Messages Deleted, but I wanted more than a substandard thriller with a usually decent cast putting forth only enough effort to earn their paychecks. Cowan and Cohen waste a great premise on a ho-hum film.

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The House on Skull Mountain (1974)

The House on Skull Mountain is a relic from a time when checked bell-bottoms and powder-blue cowboy shirts weren’t fashion no-nos, when people drove cars the size of houseboats and thought of them as compact, when the guy with the handlebar mustache wasn’t a villain and/or a pedophile. Its very ’70s-ness is perhaps its most dominant feature, and it threatens to overwhelm and destroy an otherwise solid (if slightly goofy) horror film. Look past the surface, and you might find something resembling actual suspense, and occasional shock moments that actually shock.

What we have here is little more than a Blaxploitation haunted-house film. Like many films of the genre, it adds a supernatural twist to a fairly straightforward locked-room mystery. As the film opens, inexplicably wealthy voodoo priestess Pauline Christophe (Mary J. Todd McKenzie) lies on her death bed, a shriveled husk. She recites an incantation, then digs through a box of treasured mementoes, pushing past a handful of pin-filled voodoo dolls until she finds a group of letters. She tells her faithful manservant, Thomas (Jean Durand), to mail a handful of the letters bearing old-fashioned wax seals. Then, she passes from this mortal coil.

A group of disparate strangers gather at the titular house, a mansion on the outskirts of Atlanta that sits atop a matte painting of a mountain resembling a skull. First comes Lorena Christophe (Janee Michelle), a fetching direct descendent of Pauline. Well, technically, Phillippe Wilette (Mike Evans) shows up first, after nearly running Lorena off a treacherous mountain road. He’s the token jive-talking turkey, so indoctrinated in the slang and fashion of ’70s Black culture that it takes him awhile to remember the word “house.” Then comes Harriet Johnson (Xernona Clayton), the first to see the shadowy, robed figure who will eventually come after all of them.

They all arrive with the knowledge that they’re related, however distantly, to Pauline, and to each other. Phillippe doesn’t care—he just wants Thomas to read the will. Thomas ominously says they’re waiting for a fourth person, before leaving for a full week to let the fourth person arrive. He does, and to everyone’s surprise—he’s a white guy, and an anthropology professor, Dr. Andrew Cunningham (Victor French, best known as Mr. Edwards from Little House on the Prairie and Michael Landon’s human sidekick on Highway to Heaven). In addition to wanting to learn more about his roots, he’s fascinated by the history and artifacts of Pauline’s voodoo culture.

Over the course of their week together, the foursome starts to get picked off by supernatural forces, accomplished with the use of sometimes effective but frequently awful (and unnecessary) special effects. Left alone after Harriet and Phillippe bite the dust, Cunningham and Lorena find the time to fall in love—they assume, rather safely, that their familial relationship is distant enough for a romance to not be terribly creepy—but all is not well in the house on skull mountain. One night, Lorena disappears without a trace, and Cunningham must search for her before she dies, too.

The film approaches its voodoo sequences with painstaking—sometimes painfully dull—attention to detail. Long sequences involving bongo drums, gyrating, and colorful clothing give way to bizarre (one assumes fictitious, but who knows?) ritualistic killings. It all builds to a trippy ending that’s happy in a general sense, but only satisfying in the context of the ennui and cynicism plaguing those burned by the peaceniks and free love movement.

One of The House on Skull Mountain‘s major strengths is the direction by Ron Honthaner. This makes some sense; although this is his only directorial effort (a shame, I have to say), he spent years alternating between film editing and television writing (for four seasons of Gunsmoke, among other things). Despite the shaky special effects, Honthaner knows how to cut (or not cut) to maximize suspense and potential scares. Any campiness to be found here is on the surface—the goofy clothes, the jive talk, the sometimes hilarious romantic storyline—because Honthaner is making a serious, well-intentioned horror film. It doesn’t always work, but it works more often than not.

In most cases, the acting helps, too. Michelle has one of the most beautiful faces I’ve ever laid my eyes on, but she was clearly hired more for her abundant beauty than her acting ability. Her large, expressive eyes nearly overcome the flat line readings, but they don’t quite make it. Fortunately, she has a pair of anchors in the form of the surprisingly terrific French (only surprising because the character is so different from his more famous roles, and he does a great job) and Durand. The former’s charming bashfulness and studious demeanor make a borderline incestuous romance founded on the corpses of distant relatives more plausible than it has any right to be. Durand’s glowering intensity make him an early favorite for the secret villain, so it’s no surprise (or spoiler) when it’s true, but he turns that intensity up to eleven after the reveal. It’s one of the all-time great crazy-villain roles in B-movie history. The supporting roles are padded with other solid players, notably Evans as Phillippe and Ella Woods as Thomas’s somewhat dopey wife.

The fact that they don’t make ’em like this anymore might cause a particular segment of the population to jump for joy. Really, though, I enjoyed The House on Skull Mountain. If you know what to expect and embrace it, it’ll be more of a pleasant surprise than a dated, eye-rolling trainwreck.

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The Best Films of 2010

  1. Lebanon
  2. Try as I might, I did not see a better film this year than Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon. A cinematic gut-punch depicting the atrocities of war through the perspective of four terrified young soldiers, the film says more about the nature of modern warfare—and the people fighting them—than most films, and it does it in a way that’s never preachy. From the claustrophobic atmosphere to the tense performances to the harrowing conclusion, Lebanon makes war look like the worst thing anyone could ever be involved in.

  3. Toy Story 3
  4. Easily the darkest kids’ movie since Babe: Pig in the City (certainly as dark but not quite as depraved), Toy Story 3 pushes Pixar’s increasingly challenging story to the next level, using the familiar Toy Story menagerie to tell an incredibly sad story that’s simultaneously about growing up, losing innocence, and realizing a once passionate relationship has ended. It’s also extraordinarily funny, but the dark undercurrent permeating the film grows steadily as the story moves toward an ending simultaneously happy and upsetting. Seriously, it’ll make you cry, which I consider the hallmark of a great film.

  5. Norman
  6. It might be a cheat to include a film that’s still on the festival circuit in search of distribution, but I consider Norman an opportunity to look ahead at 2011 as much as look back at 2010. You might notice a pattern in my top three when I say this film starts out seeming like a relatively innocuous teen comedy but heads into dark, unexpected territory. It could have easily relied on lazy genre clichés, but the script by Talton Wingate and direction by Jonathan Segal refuse to make anything easy for Norman or the audience.

  7. The Winning Season
  8. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release followed by a quiet DVD exile is no way to treat one of the year’s best comedies. I can’t explain the baffling marketing decisions that led to the burial of The Winning Season, but I can tell that few things in life are better than watching Sam Rockwell play an alcoholic, verbally abusive girls’ basketball coach. The film has some superficial similarities to The Bad News Bears and Hoosiers, among other sports movies. Like those films, it tweaks the genre conventions and takes its characters seriously enough to transcend the genre and feel like real people living real lives that just happen to fit the beats of a sports movie. A perfectly cast (in addition to Rockwell, Margo Martindale and Rob Corddry play supporting roles, and the players include Emma Roberts, Rooney Mara, and Emily Rios), richly observed comedy that’s ultimately about a cranky drunk learning how to deal with women (after failing miserably as a husband and a father).

  9. Rabbit Hole
  10. A tremendous achievement, Rabbit Hole manages to make a film about grief that doesn’t rely on eye-rolling histrionics or relentless darkness. Rabbit Hole actually has a sense of humor, allowing its suffering central couple to trade barbed quips without diminishing the sense of deep loss they both feel. It lets the audience understand grief without annoying or alienating them, and as the characters grow and leave us with some hope that they can move forward with their lives, we’re allowed to feel something we rarely get the chance to in a grief-stricken downer: hope.

  11. The Social Network
  12. A perfect storm of talent combined to create a phenomenally compelling film about a presumably dull subject: the founding of Facebook. The combination of Aaron Sorkin’s tremendous screenplay, David Fincher’s subtly stylish direction, and terrific performances (notably Jesse Eisenberg, Armie Hammer, and Andrew Garfield, but there’s not a false note in the film’s huge cast of characters) allow The Social Network to rise above the problems endemic to docudramas.

  13. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  14. I loved this movie, but I can absolutely see why I’d be a minority there. I find it hard to recommend, and I struggled with whether or not to put it on the list. Ultimately, the fact that it was kind of hard to find ten great movies this year led to me to take the gamble. Here, Edgar Wright takes his wild visual sensibilities to the big-budget level, making a painful comedy about early-20s romances so packed with information, it requires at least a dozen viewings to catch every joke in a given shot.

    Even though I loved it, it strikes me as a bit esoteric and of-its-time. For me, the film felt like a trip down the uncomfortable Memory Lane of my hazy college years, but Wright doesn’t make Scott or his problems easily relatable to anyone who hasn’t shared similar experiences. I can easily imagine viewers who aren’t males who hung out with a bunch of weird artsy types neither understanding nor enjoying the movie. I can also imagine future audiences feeling a bit alienated by the numerous pop-culture references, which are very much of my generation and may not translate to the next.

  15. Winter’s Bone
  16. A grim neo-noir about tough-as-nails, overly parentalized teenager Ree (Jennifer Lawrence in one of the year’s best performances) wandering her small, southern Missouri town in search of her missing father. Ostensibly, that’s the plot, but the story’s really about a girl uncovering dark family secrets, inadvertently forcing herself to make choices that will likely define the rest of her life. The fact that the film feels so real—so rich with production detail and so intimately familiar with the rhythms of ordinary life—makes it even more difficult to stomach as Ree heads down the dark road, but it’s well worth taking the journey with her.

  17. Exit Through the Gift Shop
  18. I never would have expected a documentary about street art made by Banksy would have the charm or entertainment value of Exit Through the Gift Shop. Forget the elaborate hoax conspiracy theories floating around—this is a film that operates on a half-dozen levels and accomplishes numerous goals. If it is indeed another Banksy conceptual-art hoax, it doesn’t matter, because he achieved the impossible: He made me respect and appreciate street art. On top of that, he made me care about hapless documentarian and wannabe-artist Thierry Guetta, the most fascinating subject since R. Crumb. As interesting as it is laugh-out-loud funny, this is a monumental achievement in both documentary filmmaking and filmmaking in general.

  19. Mother and Child
  20. Mother and Child has some tonal similarities with Rabbit Hole. It’s a drama that could have easily slipped into over-the-top melodrama, and although it comes much closer to teetering off the cliff than Rabbit Hole, the film has enough restraint to remain consistently wonderful throughout.

    It’s an exploration of how the lives of three women are affected by the grueling process of adoption. Annette Bening, in a performance that I’ll argue is better than her lauded acting in The Kids Are All Right, plays a woman who gave up a child for adoption because she was 16 and couldn’t raise a kid. It has left her brittle and lonely, and pathologically terrified of men. Naomi Watts plays an adopted child (now an adult, obviously), a driven career woman with a sort of depraved obsession with winning the approval of older men and destroying marriages. Finally, Kerry Washington plays a barren woman hellbent on adopting a child. The lives of the three women weave in and out of each other, often thanks to coincidences that even Charles Dickens wouldn’t buy, but Rodrigo García’s script and direction has enough detail and richness to overcome its occasional problems. All of this is aided by a supporting cast of ringers like Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, Marc Blucas, David Morse, Amy Brenneman, Carla Gallo, Brittany Robertson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and Cherry Jones, most of them giving career-best performances.

Movies I Undervalued:

This isn’t really an “honorable mention.” Each year, I’ll see a movie I mostly like, and then I discover it sticks with me. In the long term, I find myself thinking about it more and recommending it more often than movies I initially thought I liked more. This year, those films are as follows: Knight and Day, Going the Distance, Monsters, and Golden Slumber.

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