Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant


Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

John C. Reilly can't really explain why the film bombed.

(Universal) John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Michael Cerveris. Directed by Paul Weitz

After the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, the studios are searching for the next young adult cash cow that will fill their coffers and up their bonuses. The results have been a mixed bag, mostly of failures – some of them spectacularly so. The Saga of Darren Shan, a 12-book teen vampire series, gets it’s turn at the plate.

Darren Shan (Massoglia) is a good kid; he loves spiders, gets good grades and never gets in trouble. That is, unless he’s in the company of Steve (Hutcherson) who’s the poster boy for “bad influence.” Steve has a cruel streak in him, prone to fits of vandalism and rage and pushes Darren to do things he would never ordinarily do.

One of those things is to attend a freak show that has taken up residence in a decrepit old theater in town (which appears to be New Orleans, where the movie was filmed – transplanted from the UK where the books are set). They pay their money, get bitten by a small furry creature in the ticket booth (now that spells enticement) and are met by gigantic doorman Mr. Tall (Watanabe) who ushers them inside in a sort of teenage fantasy sequence (no ID needed).

The show is hosted by Larten Crepsley (Reilly), with flaming red hair and a wardrobe that he got at the estate sale of the Strawberry Alarm Clock. The show has some fairly freaky characters, including the truly deformed Alexander Ribs (Jones) and a snake boy (Fugit). However, when Steve convinces Darren to steal a fist-sized spider that looks like a bad LSD trip, complete with garish colors, they discover that Crepsley is actually a vampire. Steve wants very badly to become one, but Crepsley doesn’t think he qualifies; he’s a bit too cruel and vampires, contrary to common belief, are actually quite gentle.

Through a series of misadventures, Steve is driven to death’s door largely due to Darren, who feels much guilt over this. Enough guilt in fact that it leads Darren to Mr. Crepsley’s door, who in exchange for saving Steve’s life turns Darren into a half-vampire, someone who can run Crepsley’s errands during the day (while sunlight doesn’t turn vampires into a plume of smoke, fire and ash , extended exposure can be fatal) as his assistant.

Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly a good time to be a vampire because they are at war with the Vampaneze who are led by the creepy but jovial Mr. Tiny (Cerveris) and the creepy but creepy Murlaugh (Stevenson). Darren is caught in the middle between the two as is the Cirque, much to the dismay of Mr. Tall. Perhaps Darren’s extended lifespan will be a lot briefer than he anticipated.

The movie is based on the first three books of the 12-book saga, which in my opinion is never a good idea. There is so much going on that sometimes you get a feeling of disorientation, like you’ve been on a runaway roller coaster in the dark. The filmmakers might have been better served to take one book and embellish it some, or even combine the first two books. The three-book thing is like trying to cram a 52” waist into 30” jeans.

Director Paul Weitz has some very good films on his resume (including About a Boy and In Good Company) and this one isn’t as bad as I was led to believe it was. Sure, the plot is a bit of a mess and Dafoe’s Gavner Purl character serves to drop in from time to time, snarl out some exposition, and then disappear until further exposition is needed. That’s a criminal waste of talent as far as I’m concerned.

There’s plenty of talent in front of the camera though, starting with Reilly who gives Crepsley a kind of monotonic vocal intonation that seems nearly like a stoner until he goes into kick-ass mode. It’s an outstanding performance, worth a full point all by itself. There is also a good deal of special effects, most of which are pretty fun. I found that the whole movie had a Tim Burton-esque air to it that pays homage to such things as Beetle Juice and The Nightmare Before Christmas and especially The Corpse Bride without seeming derivative.

Unfortunately, the good-hearted Darren is just way too bland to sustain any interest, which I think is more a function of the way the character was written than an indictment of young Chris Massoglia’s acting skills. For my money, most lead characters need a hint of something a little bit dark in order to hold the audience’s interest. Characters that are too good are also not believable, and the audience begins to actually resent them. That may be just me talking, now.

So it’s another swing and a miss for a potential film franchise. It’s a shame too – I’m all for big franchises like Harry Potter. This might have made a good one too if they didn’t try so hard to turn it into a franchise, even giving it a bit of a cliffhanger ending that obviously sets up the next film which, judging on the anemic box office receipts and DVD sales, is never going to be made. It will be relegated to the Island of Failed Franchises where it will be greeted by The Golden Compass which was coincidentally directed by Paul’s brother Chris, and other films like Eragon, The Dark is Rising: The Seeker, The Spiderwick Chronicles and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief among many, many others. There is a lesson to be learned here; if you want to establish a profitable franchise, start by making an extraordinary movie that will excite the imagination of not just the target audience but of every audience. That’s what makes Harry Potter so commercially viable. On the other hand the Twilight series taps into a large predominantly female audience that is absolutely rabid; but that’s the exception, not the rule.

WHY RENT THIS: Reilly is a hoot as Crepsley. The effects are pretty nifty. A good deal of Tim Burton-like quirkiness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Yet another attempt at young adult fantasy fiction franchise that falls flat. While not an epic fail, is still a fail – the filmmakers should have stuck to one or maybe two books for source material instead of taking on three; they tried to cram too much in.

FAMILY VALUES: Due to the violence and thematic issues, I’d think twice before letting younger children see this. Otherwise, it should be okay for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Stephen Trask, better known as the composer/lyricist behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39M in total box office on a $40M production budget; the film flopped.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Planet 51

Jennifer’s Body


Jennifer's Body

Besties belly up to the bar before the barroom gets baked.

(Rogue) Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Adam Brody, J.K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris, Kyle Gallner, Aman Johal, Lance Henriksen. Directed by Karyn Kusama

Diablo Cody, a former exotic dancer, bagged Oscar gold with her screenplay for Juno and became something of a mini-celebrity in her own right, a status rarely accorded screenwriters. The problem with being a flavor of the week, unfortunately, is that sooner or later the week comes to an end and your cooking is judged on its own merits.

Jennifer Check (Fox) is the girl next door in sleepy Devil’s Kettle (so named for a waterfall that disappears down a glacial pothole) if you happen to live next door to the head cheerleader, homecoming queen and town hottie all rolled into one. Jennifer’s best friend is “Needy” Lesnicky (one presumes her parents didn’t put that first name on the birth certificate) who wears unattractive glasses, has a perpetually concerned expression on her face and actually does well in school. Needy (Seyfried) isn’t a goody two-shoes by any stretch of the imagination but there is something in her that Jennifer bonds with.

The two head to a local roadhouse to see an indie rock band called Low Shoulder play. During the show, the roadhouse catches fire and burns to the ground. The band, Jennifer and Needy are among the survivors, but the body count is pretty severe for a small town. All Needy wants to do is go home, crawl under the covers and stay there but Jennifer inexplicably decides to hook up with Low Shoulder frontman Nikolai Wolf (Brody) much to Needy’s concern.

When she doesn’t hear from Jennifer for hours, Needy starts getting frantic, even calling her boyfriend Chip Dove (Simmons) in a tizzy. Eventually Jennifer shows up, but there’s something strange about her. She has a hunger for raw meat – and she vomits up a respectable stream of black goo.

The next day at school, Jennifer acts as if nothing has happened but soon afterwards a local jock turns up horribly murdered, eviscerated and partially eaten. Police are thinking wild animal, but Needy knows better. She confronts Jennifer who tells her the horrible truth; Low Shoulder had driven her to the Devil’s Kettle where they sacrificed her to the devil in exchange for success (and sure enough they got it with a hit record released after the fire). However, the dimwitted musicians had messed up – they were supposed to sacrifice a virgin which Jennifer was most decidedly not, so she wound up possessed by a demon. When she feeds on the blood of a living human, she becomes super powered; strong, nearly invulnerable and able to fart a long stream of flame. Okay, so I was lying about the last one, but that would have been really cool.

Needy is torn. On the one hand, her friend is murdering local boys and eating them, but she’s still her BFF so she can’t betray her. All bets are off, however, when Jennifer turns her carnivorous attentions onto Chip at the prom.

Cody has a great ear for dialogue, particularly in the high school vernacular. In other words, she speaks the language of the teenager, with all the slang, jargon and craptacular turns of phrase popular among Generation RFNGDI. Unfortunately, like most teenaged slang, you get the sense that the characters, and through them the filmmakers, are talking down to the audience. “Hey, we’re hipper than you and more in the know. If you don’t speak our language, you don’t deserve to watch our movie.” It’s an elitist conceit and unfortunately it instantly dates the movie, which will lose its relevance within four or five years simply because teenaged dialogue changes almost yearly.

So as a touchpoint for teenaged culture it is, like all such touchpoints, very temporary. Will the rest of the movie stand on its own merits? To put it frankly, probably not; it’s essentially at its heart a pretty standard horror movie with a slightly elevated ambition. Kusama directs it well enough, but playing the movie as an extended flashback takes away a lot of the suspense at the end – you know that Needy is going to survive the prom. The only question is whether Chip and/or Jennifer are.

There is some gore, some of it pretty gooey, but the gore is really played off to the side. There is also sexuality, but no nudity, so the movie in some ways doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions from that standpoint. There is a make-out scene between Needy and Jennifer that’s plenty hot, but besides that the sexuality is pretty tame. I would have liked the movie to allow itself to go to extremes in both areas; if you’re going to be an R-rated horror movie, you might as well push the envelope.

Fox is surprisingly good in her role of Jennifer, or at least better than her work in the two Transformers movies. She’s not yet at the point where I look to see her movies for her performances rather than her looks, but this is a step in the right direction. Seyfried is even better as the plucky heroine Needy; yes, the character does some incredibly stupid horror heroine cliché things during the course of the movie that no sane, rational person would EVER do but Seyfried still imbues the character with personality. Ever since breaking out in Mamma Mia she has improved each time I’ve seen her onscreen; she is certainly on the road to being an actress that I go to a movie just because she’s in it.

Cody is a clever writer, perhaps too clever for her own good. I would like to see her apply her talents to a movie that isn’t trying to be hip in a specific time and place, but one that is timeless and will stand long beyond its shelf life. I don’t know where she stands on horror movies per se, but I get the sense that she has a fondness for them – even while she pokes fun at some of the conventions as she does here. There’s nothing wrong with that – Scream and it’s successors made bank doing just that – but if you’re going to relate to a single target audience, well, be well-assured that you are subject to the whims of that target audience and when it’s as fickle as the teen audience is, you’re already treading water before the movie makes it to the video store shelves. For the record, I really wanted to like the movie much more than I ended up doing. Still, it’s not a bad movie, it just could have – and should have – been way better. That’s just freaktarded.

WHY RENT THIS: Seyfried does a pretty good job as the plucky heroine. Some pretty neat shocks and terror sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a bit too hip for its own good; it comes off as talking down to people, which is never a good thing. Essentially this is a standard horror movie with contemporary dialogue.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of gore, although not as much as other horror movies. There is also a lot of sexuality although no nudity. There’s a crapload of foul language and a couple of scenes of drug use; in short, it’s rated “R” for a reason.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie title derives from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a series of video diaries from the various stars and filmmakers; there is also a montage of Megan Fox being, well, Megan Fox. Diablo Cody gets the spotlight on a “Life After Film School” segment from the Fox Movie Channel.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Flipped

Made of Honor


Made of Honor

Monaghan and Dempsey dance cheek to cheek.

(Columbia) Patrick Dempsey, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin McKidd, Kathleen Quinlan, Sydney Pollack, Kadeem Hardison, James Sikking, Busy Philipps, Whitney Cummings. Directed by Paul Weiland

The secret to a successful romantic relationship is to marry your best friend. Sometimes, that logic escapes even the brightest of us.

Tom (Dempsey) is a serial lady-killer who operates on a complicated but nonetheless rigid set of rules guaranteed to prevent a serious relationship from sprouting up from the sex. At a collegiate Halloween party during the Clinton era he accidentally climbs into the bed of Hannah (Moynahan), a bookish co-ed when he meant to get busy with her cousin Melissa (Philipps). He gets sprayed in the eyes for his trouble and Moynahan, finding him curiously fascinating despite his male chauvinist pig attitudes, nurses him back to sight and points him in the direction of her cousin, who doesn’t handle liquor very well.

Fast-forward a decade and the two have become best buddies. His collegiate tendencies have blossomed into a full-blown lifestyle; he is able to afford this because he invented the coffee cup holder, which has made him rich. She works as an art buyer and is heading for Scotland on business. Tom still has the company of his buddies, including pal Felix (Hardison), and boasts that he has the best of all worlds; a different woman in his bed every night and Hannah during the day to hang out with. However, Tom realizes the longer that she’s gone that he really likes hanging out with Hannah and that he wants more than a platonic buddy relationship with her. He resolves to tell her so, but unfortunately for him, she returns with Colin (McKidd) in tow, the near-perfect man – a Scottish noble with medals for valor and achievement on his perfect manly chest, and a nice guy to boot. She informs a shocked Tom that the two have set a date to be married and she wants him – Tom – to be her maid of honor. Tom does what all men in that situation should do; knock over a waiter with a full tray of food. Ah, hilarity.

Tom is reluctant to go to Scotland to watch the woman he now knows he loves wed another man but Felix convinces him that the best way to subvert her nuptials is from the inside. He decides to go ahead with the plan, not realizing that among the bridesmaids is grown-up cousin Melissa who has an absolute hate on for Tom, and who secretly thinks she should be the maid of honor.

Tom tries to prove himself the best man for Hannah by being as perfect at everything as Colin is but as is usually the case in romantic comedies, events (and the very vindictive Melissa) conspire against him. Will true love triumph in the end?

Romantic comedies are a kind of fantasy, particularly as practiced by Hollywood. The formula is pretty much the same; an unlikely couple gets together and discovers a growing feeling for one another. Things go well until one of them makes a critical error and the two are separated. Usually a third party becomes involved and one of them looks headed for a lifetime relationship with the wrong person until the one he/she should be with saves the day.

That’s all fine and good for the movies but it doesn’t really work that way in real life. Now, I’m all for escapism but I just wish that Hollywood rom-com writers could put some variation in the formula to make these just a tad more interesting. After all, the plot here sounds suspiciously like My Best Friend’s Wedding, except that movie had Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney as a couple and there was more chemistry between those two than Dempsey and Monaghan any day of the week.

There really isn’t much here that makes this movie worth seeing, other than a pretty good-looking cast and the beautiful scenery of Scotland. One notable exception is director Sydney Pollack in his last acting role before his death in 2008 from stomach cancer. He plays Tom’s oft-married dad (undergoing wedding number six to American Idol Kelly Clarkson) who is negotiating a pre-nuptial agreement that is essentially a license for prostitution. It’s one of the few sequences that really stand out.

It’s hard to buy why the allegedly bright Hannah would find anything remotely in common with the terminally shallow Tom, who seems to represent everything in life she is against. I guess that the odd couple formula had to be filled out one way or another.

I will be the first to admit I have a great deal of fondness for a good romantic comedy. Some of my favorite movies of all time – Love, Actually comes to mind right off the top of my head – fall into that genre. However, the sad truth is that the studios seem incapable of making a good one and it’s been a bloody long time since I saw anything better than average come out in the genre from a Hollywood studio. It seems that Hollywood can churn out the special effects to make you believe an alien planet is real but can’t find a writer that will make you believe a romance is real. How sad is that?

WHY RENT THIS: Another harmless rom-com without ambition to be much more than that. The fine-looking cast is easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If your expectations are slightly higher, there are movies with similar themes done far better.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild sexuality and a bit of harsh language but otherwise suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming was done at Dunvegan Castle on the Island of Skye, the oldest continuously-inhabited castle in Scotland and the ancient home of the chiefs of Clan MacLeod. The Highland Games sequence was filmed here, as well as a sentimental scene between Hannah and Tom.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Gigantic

The Great New Wonderful


The Great New Wonderful

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco share a tense lunch.

(First Independent) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tony Shalhoub, Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco, Judy Greer, Will Arnett, Jim Gaffigan, Naseerudin Shah, Stephen Colbert, Sharat Saxena, Tom McCarthy, Billy Donner. Directed by Danny Leiner

New York City is without a doubt one of the greatest cities in the world. It throbs with the vitality of its citizens, and as the song says, never sleeps. One day in 2001 would change the meaning of what it is to be a New Yorker forever.

A year after that day, the citizens of New York are getting on with their lives for the most part. Sandie (Gaffigan) is talking to a somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist (Shalhoub) about anger issues which Sandie doesn’t think he has. With each session, Sandie becomes more and more frustrated and his anger seems to be more directed at the doctor than culled from some internal reservoir.

David (McCarthy) and Allison (Greer) are the young parents of Beelzebub, otherwise known as Charlie (Donner). Their young son has been acting out and these actions have grown exponentially worse as time has gone by. They are beginning to realize that he is becoming beyond their ability to control and as a result, their marriage is suffering. The headmaster (Colbert) of the exclusive private school they have sent him to is expelling him for his behavior and they have no idea what to do with their child.

Emme (Gyllenhaal) is an up-and-coming pastry chef in New York’s cutthroat bakery market and looks to unseat Safarah Polsky (Falco) as the reigning queen of the scene. Her ambition is driving her to use means both fair and foul to reach her goals, and she is unknowing or uncaring of the toll it takes on those who work with her, live with her or purchase her products.

Judy (Dukakis) lives with her husband across the East River in Brighton Beach in the borough of Brooklyn. Each night she fixes him dinner, then after eating makes collages while he smokes out on the balcony. Her re-connection with an old friend will open new doors and awaken new feelings of sensuality in her.

Two Indian-born New York resident security guards – Avi (Shah) and Satish (Saxena) have been given the assignment of watching over a dignitary from their native land while he is in New York to make a speech at the United Nations. Avi is carefree, joyful and humorous; his buddy Satish is dour, grumpy and prone to outbursts of rage. It’s hard to believe these two are neighbors, let alone friends.

All five of these stories carry little in common other than that they are set in New York a year to the month of the World Trade Center attack, and that all ten of the main characters share an elevator near the end of the movie. It is up to us to thread these stories together and quite frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch.

What one notices most is the emotional disconnect prevalent in almost all of the stories. The characters have latched onto some sort of idea or emotion and are holding onto it with a death grip, to the exclusion of all else. The self-absorption needed for this kind of focus is staggering, and yet those familiar with the New York of Woody Allen or The New Yorker magazine will not find it particularly far-fetched.

There is a routine also in each one of the main character’s lives and that routine is either a source of comfort or a fiendish trap. Breaking out of that routine seems to be, at least I’m guessing here, what the filmmakers suggest is the key to finding happiness, solace, call it whatever you want.

This is a very impressive cast for a micro-budget indie drama and they live up to their reputations for the most part. The vignette with the least-known actors in it (at least to those not familiar with Indian cinema), the one regarding Avi and Satish, was my own personal favorite as I found Avi to be the least hung-up of the main characters here.

I admit to having a certain fascination with everyday life in the Big Apple. I fully realize I don’t have the equipment to live there myself – it takes a certain kind of person to handle the pace and the feeling of being alone in a crowd that goes hand-in-hand with the NYC lifestyle. Still, I admire those who have what it takes and certainly New York offers perhaps the most attractive and varied choices for those who live there. I’m not sure if The Great Big Wonderful offers me any further insight into the psyche of New York, nor how it was affected by 9-11, but it does offer a nice visit to that town; I’m just not sure I would want to live there.

WHY RENT THIS: A solid cast gives solid performances. Some of the vignettes are interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the vignettes hold my attention. The linking thread is tenuous at best; this is certainly much more of a New York story than anything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly significant amount of salty language in the movie as well as a small amount of sexuality. Much more suitable for a mature audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Leiner is best known for comedies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude, Where’s My Car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 12