Posts in Category: The Parallax Review

Rabbit Hole (2010)

Finally! An independent film about grief with a sense of humor! And an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play that isn’t just a bunch of talking-head monologues! The gods have finally smiled upon not just me but moviegoers in general.

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as, respectively, Becca and Howie, a married couple trying to overcome the supreme challenge of making their marriage work in the wake of true tragedy. Eight months ago, their four-year-old son was struck and killed by a teen driver, who swerved to avoid the dog the son chased into the street. They attend a grief support group that neither is enthusiastic about, which causes Becca to lash out at “the god-freaks” before abandoning the group altogether.

Becca feels like she’s wallowing in her son’s death. She chose to be a stay-at-home mom and isn’t emotionally ready to return to work. (In one devastating scene, she returns to her old stomping grounds at Sotheby’s, only to learn that everybody she worked with has left the company and the former gofer is in her old boss’s position.) As such, she has nothing to do all day but look at a house full of memories. Howie accuses her of trying to erase their son’s existence, while Becca complains that his workplace provides an escape from the pain she has to suffer all day long.

I know this subject matter sounds particularly dour, but it’s not. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his play for the screen, has a flair for screwball banter. Ultimately, it’s a drama, and Lindsay-Abaire is not afraid of digging into the sorrow felt by both Becca and Howie, but he does so with a light touch and a sense of the absurd. Among other things, Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest, who needs more roles like this) drunkenly rambling about the Kennedys (“They’d all still be alive if they lived like normal people!”) during a painfully awkward bowling-alley birthday party demonstrates his skill at mining comedy from dark circumstances. The script is rife with funny moments and odd asides, but Lindsay-Abaire never undermines the drama.

Early in the film, Becca complains that another couple at their grief support group are “professional wallowers.” Too often, films tackling subjects of grief and loss would focus on that couple—the professional wallowers—instead of a pair who are deeply hurting but have a sense of humor and understanding. When grief threatens to consume Becca and Howie, they refuse to let it. It’s a refreshing change of pace that’s more reflective of the human spirit than more histrionic films of this ilk.

This is thanks, at least in part, to director John Cameron Mitchell’s sensitive handling of the material. Mitchell is a director not known for subtlety, but here he gets absolutely every moment right in a challenging script that’s more about nuance than grand gesture.

I don’t want to divulge much of the plot, because part of the pleasure of watching the film is its surprises. I will say that the way the relationships develop and deepen throughout feels more genuine and affecting than the majority of the films I’ve seen this year. Lindsay-Abaire has created wonderful, vivid characters and planted them in a story that’s more about them learning from and about one another than any grand, convoluted plot. They’re well-acted across the board, particularly by the leads (and I’m not ordinarily a fan of Kidman, but her work here is great).

Rabbit Hole runs the emotional gamut and had me feeling better about life by the end instead of worse. That’s probably the best thing I can say about any film, so take it in the spirit in which it’s intended. If it’s playing in your area, go see it immediately. Forget about Little Fockers.

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Helena from the Wedding (2010)

If Woody Allen had let John Cassavetes take over September, it might have turned out a lot like Helena from the Wedding. (I admit, though, that throwing out those two names might give the impression that this film is better than it is—it’s good, but nothing revelatory.) At once raw yet theatrical, insightful yet mundane, and cynical yet romantic, the film’s jumbled yet effective stylistic choices sort of match the characters’ mixed feelings about life, the universe, and everything.

Delivering finely understated performances, Lee Tergesen and Melanie Lynskey play seemingly happy newlyweds Alex and Alice. We first see them traveling into the mountains on the way to a cabin (owned by Alex’s parents), where they intend to host a New Year’s Eve party for their friends. As they prepare for the friends’ arrival, Alex and Alice focus most of their attention on the worry and confusion bringing these friends together might yield.

Don and Lynn (Dominic Fumusa and Jessica Hecht) have been married the longest, have kids, and seem to hate each other. She drinks staggering quantities of wine while henpecking him; he kowtows to her every whim, no matter how absurd. Nick (Paul Fitzgerald) has recently gotten divorced and isn’t terribly thrilled to be among a bunch of marrieds. Steven and Eve (Corey Stoll and Dagmara Dominiczyk) decide to bring a friend not well-known to the rest of the group, the titular Helena (Gillian Jacobs, sporting an awful English accent for no apparent reason, other than possibly wanting to seem more exotic). On some level, Helena serves as a catalyst to bring everyone’s problems to the boiling point, but there’s a strong probability that the amount of wine and cocaine consumed might have led to the party playing out the same way even if she hadn’t tagged along.

As the characters splinter, real feelings emerge. The happy façade maintained by Alex and Alice dissolves over the course of the 36 hours or so the film covers. She bitterly complains to Eve that Alex has jeopardized their future by unsuccessfully pursuing his passion (writing, in the form of a play that opened and closed in two weeks) instead of a more practical career choice. Alex, meanwhile, finds himself deeply uncomfortable around Helena. Before he and Alice got married (but while they were engaged), Alex spent the better part of a wedding reception trying to get into Helena’s pants. She knows this, and he knows this, and Nick figures it out quickly, but Alice remains in the dark.

On some level, Helena has the There’s Something About Mary curse, causing men to lust after her simply by existing. Alex, desperately trying to hide his lust, fumbles around her like a schoolboy. He humiliates himself in front of her with some regularity, though luckily nobody catches him sneak outside (in full hunting gear) with a set of binoculars to watch her shower from a distance. Don, meanwhile, starts to see Helena as an avenue of escape from his worthless marriage. Of the men, Steven is the only one whose jaw doesn’t hang on the floor whenever she enters a room (possibly because he knows her better than the others), though ironically Eve suspects him of cheating.

Writer/director Joseph Infantolino crafts this story in such a way that Helena’s bewitching qualities are not a product of anything she says or does. She’s probably the most underused character in the film, which focuses more on the effects of her presence than her presence itself. She’s not an engaging conversationalist, she doesn’t flirt—she just has that elusive magnetism about her. Or maybe she doesn’t—maybe the men are just so unhappy in their marriages, they’ll flock to any single woman.

Infantolino mines both comedy and drama from the idea of a group of people—not all friends, but all connected through one half of the central couple—coming together awkwardly and, in some cases, unwillingly. Sometimes, he forces the awkwardness a bit too much, but the story of Alex and Alice pulling apart and then coming back together allows the film to overcome its occasional missteps. The film boasts great performances (aside from Jacobs’s misguided accent choice—she’s a fine actress, but it adds nothing and detracts quite a bit from her otherwise good performance) from actors often mired in bland supporting roles instead of the meaty characters they’re more than capable of playing.

Helena from the Wedding may not transform audience perceptions in the same way its characters transform, but it’s an alternately funny, thoughtful, and occasionally touching look at thirty-somethings in crisis. It’s worth a look.

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Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

I’ve never read an angrier novel than Gulliver’s Travels, which has become inexplicably regarded as a children’s fairy tale despite not containing a single sentence appropriate (or, for the most part, readable) for anyone under the age of 15. People make a big deal about the disturbing content found in the stories of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—and they’re not wrong, but the key difference here is that Gulliver’s Travels was never intended for children. It used the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, and Laputans to reflect the overarching views of contemporary English politicos, ending in the misanthropic notion that Gulliver lives out the rest of his years in his horse stables, because humans are intolerable but his beloved, horse-like Houyhnhnms are an intelligent, advanced race far superior to our own.

It’s insane to think an innocuous Jack Black comedy aimed at the same kids who fell for him in the infinitely better School of Rock would retain the satirical edge of Jonathan Swift’s novel. The Jack Black of Tenacious D and High Fidelity might have made that movie, updating the satirical targets in the same way this film updates the character of Lemuel Gulliver into a sad-sack loser of a writer. But this is a big-budget studio film designed to appeal to a broader base via fart- and urine-based humor. (To the film’s credit, though, the pissing-out-a-fire gag does come directly from the novel, which sort of pulled off The Simpsons‘ trick of combining lowbrow, groundling humor and highbrow social commentary.)

Like most of the adaptations to come before it, this film only adapts the Lilliput section of the novel. Black plays his usual slacker self, though a bit sadder, who washes up on a hidden island of miniature people after going through some sort of portal while traveling in the Bermuda Triangle (no, really). Seen as a giant and a threat by the citizens of Lilliput, they try to hold him captive. They fail, of course, but when he uses his size to (sometimes inadvertently) heroically save Lilliputians from disasters like the aforementioned fire, he’s regarded as a hero and ingratiates himself to the Lilliputian royalty.

In addition to operating as a Jack Black vehicle, the film tries to mine some A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court-type humor by making Lilliput resemble a 17th-century kingdom. A king and queen (Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate) reign somewhat ineptly, and Gulliver ends up in a somewhat demented but rarely funny love triangle with Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) and stuffy soldier Edward (Chris O’Dowd).

Really, there’s not much plot here. The film exists primarily as a showcase for cartoonish comedy and special effects—to the degree that it probably should have been a cartoon—and it surrounds the usually reliable Black with ringers like Jason Segel, Romany Malco, T.J. Miller, and the aforementioned Connolly and Tate. Unfortunately, the script by Joe Stillman (who co-wrote the first two Shrek films and the unwatchable Planet 51) and Nicholas Stoller (who directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but also wrote and directed Get Him to the Greek) lets them down. Never using Black to his full potential, the film mainly combines stale fish-out-of-water comedy with never-funny gross-out gags.

Desperately trying to salvage something from the lackluster script, director Rob Letterman (a veteran of DreamWorks Animation films, yet another sign that perhaps this should have been a cartoon) focuses more energy on the special effects than on the comedic pacing and what little story exists to string everything together. Some of the special effects are quite good, but they lack the immersive quality of Lord of the Rings, which it draws immediate comparisons to by simple virtue of the fact that it draws so much attention to the ability to combine giants and tiny people on the same screen at the same time, seeming to fully interact.

Whereas the Lord of the Rings films rarely drew attention to their effects, using them only to enhance a rich fantasy universe populated by well-developed characters and a complex (some might say convoluted) plot, Gulliver’s Travels really wants us to be impressed, trying too hard to look like it’s not trying too hard. It walks the precarious line between parodying recent blockbusters (like Transformers, an obvious choice for a film about a giant) and outright stealing from them. (Full disclosure: I did not see this movie in 3-D, so there’s the slim possibility that three dimensions will make the film more immersive. Unfortunately, it won’t make the film’s flaws any less apparent.)

Sadly, much as I usually enjoy Jack Black, this film tries hard to please everyone but ends up not providing much of anything for any member of the audience. I can’t say that surprises me, but it certainly disappoints me.

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Braddock: Missing in Action III (1988)

Completely divorced from the already thin continuity of the first two films, Braddock: Missing in Action III forgets its titular character (played, as always, by Chuck Norris) was missing in action from 1972 to 1984. Instead, it opens with a surprisingly well-rendered recreation of the fall of Saigon in 1975. While Braddock manages to get to the Embassy and flee with the other American soldiers (apparently never ending up missing at all), his Vietnamese wife, Lin (Miki Kim), is left behind. Thirteen years later, Braddock finds out she’s still alive, has a son, and faces the possibility of death at the hands of the brutal Vietnamese dictatorship. He has no choice but to mount a rescue mission.

The similarities between the three Missing in Action films made me feel like I’d witnessed the evolution of art (if one can call a Chuck Norris trilogy art). Remember that the production sequence went two, one, three. In that order, each film gets successively better as it moves away from wanton, meaningless violence and closer to something like a resonant emotional core. In Missing in Action (the “second” film made), Braddock’s guilt fuels his vengeance. In Braddock…, screenwriter Norris and longtime collaborator James Bruner give him a wife and child—something worth fighting for.

During the fall of Saigon, Lin packs for her trip to the U.S. She works as a translator for the American embassy and has married an American, so she leads a life of relative luxury. As Lin packs, her servant steals jewelry and greedily accepts Lin’s offer to take any clothes she can’t fit in her suitcase. Braddock, meanwhile, fights his way through the mobbed streets to get back to his new wife. He arrives at their apartment shortly after it gets bombed. He looks at the charred, unrecognizable remains of his servant, dressed in his wife’s recognizable clothes and jewels. Believing she’s dead, he returns to the embassy to help the Army get everyone out of Saigon. Lin arrives at the gates of the embassy, but just when a soldier (a cameo from Keith David) recognizes her, desperate Vietnamese finally scale the huge concrete walls surrounding the embassy. The soldier disappears, and Lin is lost in the crush of people.

In 1988, Braddock has abandoned government work. He doesn’t believe it when a kindly old reverend (Yehuda Efroni) tells him that not only is Lin alive, but she gave birth to a son six months after the fall of Saigon. However, when CIA goon Littlejohn (Jack Rader) shows up hours later, asks if a reverend visited him, and then tells him anything the reverend said was a lie, Braddock believes it. Against Littlejohn’s orders, he heads over to Thailand, connects with an Australian pilot, and finds himself parachuting into Vietnam.

Unfortunately, his daring entrance gets him literally on the radar of General Quoc (Aki Aleong). After reuniting at the reverend’s mission, Braddock manages to flee with Lin and Van (Roland Harrah III), his 12-year-old son, but their escape is short-lived. Quoc kills Lin to show his power, then imprisons Braddock and Van, torturing them for the fun of it. Braddock escapes and returns to the mission to free the children, but Quoc raids the boarding house first and takes all the children hostage. Braddock spends the rest of the movie killing people and attempting to lead the children across the border into Thailand.

I normally balk when a film uses children as a sympathetic crutch. Braddock… managers to overcome that by continually putting Braddock into more jeopardy than Van. Van mostly looks on, wide-eyed, as his father is shot, beaten, maimed, and bombed. Braddock willingly puts himself in harm’s way to protect his son, instead of allowing Van to fall prey to Quoc. That’s really the key difference between this film and the usual portrayal of the hero’s children in action films.

It helps that director Aaron Norris manages to wring a bit of emotion out of his taciturn brother. As in Missing in Action, Norris gives the character a visceral quality by making his emotional pain plain and palpable. Most action films involve some sort of personal stakes, often the death of someone very close to the hero, but it always rings hollow when the hero in question continues to wisecrack and wander into each action sequence with a sarcastic smile on his face. Braddock doesn’t wisecrack. His life is nothing but misery—is it any wonder he never developed a sense of humor?

As with the recreation of the fall of Saigon, the production values for this film’s climactic action sequences are much higher than in the previous two films. The fact that the stunts aren’t cheesy or poorly staged helps to create an air of excitement and suspense entirely lacking in Missing in Action 2: The Beginning. (Of course, the action sequences do have their hilariously over-the-top moments, as when Braddock bayonets a Quoc disciple with a combination machine gun/grenade launcher/bayonet, then fires a grenade at him with enough force to send him flying out of his rickety shack, only to have the disciple explode a few seconds after hitting the ground.) It’s the combination of Braddock’s real stakes and surprising professionalism behind the scenes that make this movie easily the best in a so-so series.

Braddock: Missing in Action III has so little to do with its predecessors, and is so much better, you might as well not bother with the previous films. They’re just rough drafts leading up to this, the quintessential Chuck Norris action flick. Accept no substitutes.

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Save the Last Dance 2 (2006)

The first Save the Last Dance may not have been a masterpiece, but it did two things exceptionally well. It took the tropes of a stale, cliché-ridden genre and turned it into a thoughtful, character-driven drama. It also allowed the characters to learn from each other, rather than having one character serve as the driving force for change. When Derek abandons his gangsta thug friends to arrive at Lucy’s Juilliard audition at just the right moment, audiences could breathe a sigh of relief. It seemed like these two crazy kids were going to make it, and what’s more—we wanted them to make it.

Save the Last Dance 2 starts off on the absolute wrong foot. In an opening sequence that combines a weird documentary-style interview with our new Lucy (Izabella Miko) with even weirder (and strangely inept) chromakey to show Lucy dancing over colorful yet silly imagery matching whatever topic she’s discussing in the interview, she announces that she and Derek split up almost immediately after the events of the last film, because of the long-distance relationship problems (and because she needs to meet a new love interest at Juilliard).

Though made five years after the first film, the sequel picks up with Lucy arriving at Juilliard for a heaping helping of Fame-like good times and hard work. She meets her wacky roommate, a Texan acting student named Zoe (Aubrey Dollar), who serves no other purpose than comic relief (on the plus side, Dollar actually is pretty funny). She meets her mentor, Katrina (Maria Brooks), a seeming ice princess who actually does look out for Lucy’s best interests—until their patrician ballet teacher (Jacqueline Bisset) starts to take Lucy more seriously than Katrina.

During a weird scene, new love interest Miles (Columbus Short) predicts Lucy is a trombonist and is not pleased when she tells him she dances. This artificial conflict is extended when Lucy learns Miles has taken over her “Introduction to Hip-Hop Theory” class. While not an official instructor, he was hand-picked to teach the class during the absence of the usual professor. If you’re wondering why this revelation angers Lucy, you’re not alone. But, hey, romantic movies need conflict, so let’s roll with it, shall we?

Miles collects sounds like John Travolta in Blow Out in the pursuit of what the movie wants us to believe are riveting aural collages, when in reality they merely sound like generic hip-hop. He talks a lot about music theory and music history, and although it impresses Lucy, it comes off like pretentious posturing in light of the Tesh-esque music he creates. At any rate, when Miles sees Lucy bust her fresh moves at a local club, he becomes entranced. He spends the bulk of the movie trying to convince her to blow off her studies to work with him on goofy performance-art installations, dancing to his undanceable (Lucy’s word) music. Lucy’s torn between the man she’s falling in love with and the opportunity to dance the lead in Giselle. If you can’t predict the breakup and get-back-together, you’ve never seen a teen dance film.

I know part of the problem stems from my enjoyment of the original film, but wouldn’t anyone seeking out Save the Last Dance 2 feel the same way? The film’s central conflict—Lucy having to choose between a boyfriend and the education she’s worked her whole life to get—could have worked just as easily with Derek in tow, moving with Lucy to New York and struggling to do something with his life while he watches the woman he loves get a bunch of opportunities he’d love to have. Our advance knowledge of the way the relationship developed in the first film could only enhance the conflicts in the second. Although played well by Short, the Miles character just doesn’t have the same resonance.

Keep in mind that I gave favorable reviews to both Breakin’ movies. I can appreciate a silly, energetic dance film when I see one and embrace incomprehensible plotting, forced conflict, and all manner of other bad drama if the film keeps a light tone and has good dance sequences. Save the Last Dance 2 has it half-right—veteran TV director David Petrarca captures the right tone, but the dance sequences feature distractingly poor choreography that Petrarca tries to mask with rapid-fire, Michael Bay-style editing. It’s hard to tell the choreography’s no good if you can’t tell what the hell is going on, but that doesn’t make the dancing any more engaging to look at. I could easily forgive the film’s myriad problems if not for this unforgivable sin, a dance film with no dancing worth watching.

Though Miko dances well (bad choreography or not), her acting chops leave a bit to be desired, especially following Julia Stiles. In a situation where nobody in the film can act (as in the aforementioned Breakin’ films), this might be easier to overlook. However, alongside the excellent Short, Bisset, and Brooks, and the funny presence of Dollar and Ian Brennan (as Miles’s DJ friend), Miko doesn’t hold her own anywhere but on the dance floor. Sadly, she doesn’t even look like she’s enjoying herself, focusing too intently on the dancing instead of just having a good time. I don’t disagree with Gene Kelly’s belief that seeing a dancer work his or her ass off will impress the audience more than gliding effortlessly across a ballroom, but Miko’s consternation doesn’t match the genial tone of the film—and even Kelly and the dancers he directed imbued a playful sense of fun on the hard work.

I had some hope that maybe Save the Last Dance 2 would have some of the same nice, character-driven storytelling of the first film. The opening seconds dashed that hope but replaced it with a new hope—that it’d be an absurd heir apparent to the Breakin’ films. It has some goofy moments and fun performances, but I can’t consider it anything but a disappointment.

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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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