Asylum (2005)


Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

(2005) Thriller (Paramount Classics) Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Joss Ackland, Gus Lewis, Judy Parfitt, Sean Harris, Hazel Douglas, Wanda Ventham, Sarah Thurstan, Alwyne Taylor, Maria Aitken, Andy de la Tour, Anna Keaveney, Robert Willox, Roy Boyd, Rhydian Jones, Nick Chadwin, Veronica Fairhurst. Directed by David MacKenzie

Boredom can lead us to do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. As a species, we are particularly irritated by having nothing to do. We need stimulation and we will go to great lengths in order to get it.

Dr. Max Raphael (Bonneville) has just been appointed superintendent at a maximum-security insane asylum outside of London as the 1950s draw to a close. The facility, built in the Victorian era, is crumbling into ruin, but I daresay not nearly as much as Raphael’s marriage to Stella (Richardson), who is suffering from terminal boredom to her workaholic husband to the point of a kind of misery-induced trance, much to the dismay of her son Charlie (Lewis) and disgust of her mother-in-law (Parfitt). Dr. Raphael himself has to deal with the acid barbs of Dr. Peter Cleave (McKellan) who was passed over for Raphael’s job by the director of the asylum, Dr. Straffen (Ackland) and Cleave is not letting people know that this is a terrible mistake.

Maybe, but not as massive as the mistake Stella is about to make. A garden house a few steps from her on-site home is literally a standing ruin; keen on gardening, she wants to turn it into a rookery. Inmate Edgar Stark (Csokas) is assigned to do the grunt work. Charlie, who has been ignored pretty much by both parents, latches onto Stark as a buddy/father figure which disquiets Stella at first. After being assured by both Dr. Cleave and her husband that the man is perfectly safe, she begins to accept him.

Her acceptance is a godsend to Edgar, who treats her like a princess. Not used to being treated well, Stella slowly begins to fall for the handsome Stark, which leads to sex, lots of it and in all sorts of places. It isn’t long before their transgressions are being noticed, and Edgar’s yearning for freedom begins to match his passion for the psychiatrist’s wife. Stella has started a journey on a train that is very likely to run away on her; what will her passion eventually cost her and those she loves?

The cast, with the exception of McKellen, was not particularly well-known when this was made (although Csokas appeared with McKellan in The Lord of the Rings as Celeborn). Richardson is required to be sexy and passionate and her sex scenes are unusually graphic. Csokas is solid as the brooding inmate with the horrors burning just below the surface. McKellan has to play a conniving man with little or no scruples and he plays him with the kind of polite front you might expect from such a man – this is the kind of reminder that the man is so much more than Magneto and Gandalf. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, but unspectacular. I was tickled to see Ackland, a character actor best known for such movies as The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 2, working; he is a fine character actor who classes up a production whether he’s playing a villain, a hero or a supporting cast member. McKellen gives a very nice performance of a complicated and not very nice character. The brooding hospital is almost a separate character within the film, creating an atmosphere well-suited to the downbeat nature of the movie.

Much of the action takes place in the titular Asylum; production designer Lawrence Dorman makes sure that the hospital has that look of an older building gone to seed but like many old buildings used for that purpose, you can almost feel the decades of anguish and insanity breathing within its walls. The filmmakers also capture the period nicely with Consolata Boyle’s costumes, the period magazines and the abundance of cigarette smoking that goes on; in some instances, the cigarettes are almost like weapons used to convey the disdain of the smoker.

The story is actually preposterous. Richardson’s Stella doesn’t act like a normal, rational human being would act. Especially in the middle and final acts of the movie, her behavior leaves you clutching your head to keep it from spinning around on your neck. Given that there are no characters within the movie that you can really relate to or even root for in any way shape or form (except maybe for Charlie and even he is something of a caricature whose sole purpose in the film is to introduce his mother to her lover, and then serve as the means for driving the final denouement of the story. This really is hideously written.

This was a Netflix rental for me; it played in Orlando for only a week or two and even then only in a few theaters (maybe only one – I’m not completely sure on that instance). I can’t say as I can recommend it even on that level for anyone. Those who enjoy explicit sex scenes will probably find this irresistible, but you’re probably better served watching a porno for that. Those who like period psychological dramas would be better served renting the very long list of better movies in the genre. I suppose if you’re a big Ian McKellen fan, this might be worthwhile for his fine performance but there honestly isn’t very much else worth seeing here.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling performance by McKellen. Captures the period nicely. Some very erotic sex scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written and preposterously plotted. Lacks relatable characters. May have too much sex for those who are sensitive to that sort of content.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very strong sexual element to the story and much nudity. There are also instances of wife beating, infidelity and child endangerment.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paramount bought the rights to the Patrick McGrath novel this is based on with the intention of having Stephen King write the screenplay and Jonathan Demme directing. When both of them were unable to work the movie into their schedule, Paramount shifted the property to their boutique/art house Classics label (which has since become Paramount Vantage) and appropriately reduced the budget.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on an unknown production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: I, Robot

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Wild Girl Waltz


Nobody puts baby in a corner.

Nobody puts baby in a corner.

(2012) Comedy (Levrock) Christina Shipp, Samantha Steinmetz, Jared Stern, Brad Hemesath, Scott Lewis, Kim Barlow, Kim Gordon, Alexander Cook, Julian Lowenthal, Sean McDonald. Directed by Mark Lewis   

 

Ah, the small rural town. Peace. Quiet. Boredom. Nothing on TV but crap. The bars aren’t open yet. Bored with the Internet. What to do?

Angie (Shipp) is already having a bad day. Minding her own business walking on the side of the road, she’s pelted with a milkshake by two young men in a pick-up truck who call her a whore and drive off, whooping and hollering. She’s angry and humiliated and sticky, so she calls her friend Tara (Steinmetz) who in addition to being her BFF is also her brother Brian’s (Stern) girlfriend. Tara is a little bit amused but agrees to go get her.

Brother Brian can’t do it; he’s too busy tracking down Ernie (S. Lewis) who owes him money. After a bit of a blow-up, Brian takes the $15 Ernie offers him and tells him $20 a week until he pays off the $300 that he expected today and was banking on. This puts Brian into a pissy mood.

After Angie gets cleaned up and changed, Tara offers her something that will make her day better. She has two pills that she got from a co-worker; she’s unsure as to what they do other than they’ll “kick your ass.” Forget Iron Man and Superman, Tara’s my superhero. Angie figures the day’s effed up already so with a “why not?” shrug she takes her pill while Tara takes one of her own.

The pills are starting to kick in just as Brian gets home. His day is definitely going to be stressful now as he realizes that it will be up to him to babysit the two righteously high ladies. Angie is having a psychedelic reaction, seeing color trails at the end of her fingers (flesh-colored; in this town, even the drugs are colorless) while Tara gets horny as all get-out and offers to initiate a threesome with Brian and his sister (eww). Before the day is out, they’ll hit a local bar, attempt to get revenge on the shake throwers with a pie and spend a day figuring out that the most exciting thing of all is the bond between people.

While this is ostensibly a comedy, it’s not like the sort that are all the rage these days, the kind that throw as many jokes at the audience and hope one or two stick, nor are they the sort that build up outrageous bits and use shock as a weapon  (while the movie doesn’t shy away from frank sexual discussion, there’s no real raunchiness here and no nudity – sorry fellas). This is a more quiet kind of humor, one which allows you to see something of your own life and situation in the one onscreen.

Lewis was obviously operating on the kind of budget that doesn’t pay for toilet paper on a big Hollywood film but he makes the best of what he has. The movie has an organic feeling; he chooses his locations wisely and you get a sense of the rhythms of life outside of the big cities. The dialogue is pretty realistic too – the people in Wild Girl Waltz talk like people actually talk in the Year of Our Lord 2013. Like most people, the characters in WGW think they are far funnier than they are and when they joke around, they aren’t making zingers that pro comics would level at you but the kind of jokes you’d hear from your friend Jillian at work or your neighbor Kevin down the road. Assuming you know people named Jillian and Kevin, of course.

Steinmetz is a real find here. She reminded me of a young Helen Hunt who captured all our hearts in the 90s sitcom Mad About You. So too does Steinmetz, although I suspect she’s a bit more wild than the character Hunt played on TV – I just don’t see Jamie Buchman taking strange pills from someone she barely knew. Tara does so almost without a second thought; perhaps the difference comes from living in a small western Massachusetts town opposed to living in New York City.

There’s something magical about summer, even when things are boring. Some of our best memories come out of boredom – just hanging out with our friends, drinking a cold beer on a hot day, sneaking glances at the girls in their shorts, their legs summer-brown and their smiles promising wild summer nights. Movies that capture that are the kind that tend to remain in memory much longer than other movies and I suspect that my rating for this movie will creep up over the years.

This isn’t the fastest-paced movie you’re going to see, and there are a few filler shots of countryside passing by a moving vehicle. Montages are useful as a device linking one scene with another but should be used sparingly. That’s just quibbling though; considering the budget, this is a pretty impressive achievement. I mean, there’s enough here to warrant a look if it should ever make it out to your town, or if it makes it out on home video. It would certainly have been a fine representation in my annual American Experience review mini-festival which discusses movies that capture the essence of American life – as this one does here.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the boredom of a small town summer day perfectly. Steinmetz is terrific.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the “high” shenanigans are a bit forced.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of bad language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lewis’ previous film was Bay State Blues.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; outside of a few one-off screenings hasn’t received a limited or wide release yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adventureland

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Skateland

Brothers at War


Brothers at War

The Rademacher Family

(Goldwyn) Jake Rademacher, Isaac Rademacher, Jenny Rademacher, Claus Rademacher, Robert Smallwood, Edward Allier. Directed by Jake Rademacher

One of the defining events of the first part of this century is the Iraq War. The effect of it on our national psyche, our economy and the way America is perceived in the world has been examined in many different documentaries, but few have chosen to directly examine its effect on a single family.

Jake Rademacher is an actor and filmmaker who at one time wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and his brothers and join the military. While he was unable to fulfill that dream, he undertook a lifestyle very much different than that of the rest of his family. Like them, when his brothers Joe and Isaac were deployed to Iraq, he worried about them. When they returned, he sensed a gulf growing between them.

Jake began to suspect that he could not possibly understand his brothers because he hadn’t walked in their shoes. The only way he could do that was to accompany them back on their next tour of duty, and he did just that. The Pentagon co-operated fully and the result here is a documentary that captures the points of view of individual soldiers, and of those they leave waiting and worrying back home.

Yes, there are some scenes of combat, but mostly you get a sense of what makes up the average soldier’s life; boredom and loneliness followed by brief flurries of adrenalin rush. Mostly the soldiers here joke around, reminisce and find ways to pass the time, whether it is in arguing the relative merits of hotties from the O.C. to listening to iPods.

Rademacher talks to soldiers who have returned home from tour and feeling the surrealness of overhearing shoppers in a local grocery store complain about their phone bills, whereas weeks and sometimes days before they were risking their lives in combat. There is some poignancy in listening to Jenny Rademacher (wife of Isaac) who was herself a West Point graduate who had left the military after having their child, feeling the pain of her husband who was away during his daughter’s birth and missing so much of her childhood.

At times, this feels more like a chronicle of Jake’s personal journey to win the approval of his father and brothers rather than a real attempt to understand what they’re going through. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jake agreed with me on that score but nonetheless the filmmaker’s ego is occasionally intrusive, which does not serve the film – or its audience – well.

Some have criticized this movie for not having a political point of view, either pro or con. Quite frankly, that’s not what I think Jake had in mind when he made this film, to express his opinion of the war. I think in fact the movie is stronger for staying away from that particular debate.

In fact, this isn’t really a war documentary, although that is the setting for the film. What I think it is really is a slice of life albeit one that is life in the military. On that level, the movie does justice to those who do serve and to those who await their safe return home. Whether or not you believe that we should have been there, the fact is that we were there and the effect that being there had on families and the men who served deserves to be chronicled.

WHY RENT THIS: A slice-of-life documentary disguised as a documentary on the war.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times you get a sense this is more about Jake Rademacher’s attempt to attract attention from his family rather than to genuinely understand his brothers.

FAMILY VALUES: These are real soldiers in really stressful conditions; their language is accordingly salty. In all honesty, I think most teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Gary Sinese, a friend of Jake Rademacher, was one of the producers for the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An update on the status of the Rademacher brothers is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $153,000 on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Snakes on a Plane

Coraline


Coraline

Not every crawlspace should be explored.

(Focus) With the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Jennifer Saunders, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr.. Directed by Henry Selick

Do our parents ever pay as much attention to us as we want them to? We get so wrapped up in providing the necessities we forget about the most basic necessity of all.

Coraline Jones (Fanning) is one pissed off little girl. Not only have her parents moved away from everything she knows and away from all her friends, they’ve moved into an apartment building in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and it always rains. Her mother (Hatcher) can’t cook to save her life, is irritable and always busy. Her father (Hodgman) works incessantly and has nothing resembling a backbone. The two bicker and sit hunched over computer screens, all but ignoring their daughter and not listening to a word she says.

For her part, Coraline is not exactly Pollyanna. She whines, complains and is somewhat mean to the only young man her age in the neighborhood, the awkward and ungainly Wyborne (Bailey) who hides his own loneliness with nervous chatter and prefers to be known as “Wybie”. Admonished to explore their strange, drafty old house, Coraline discovers a tiny door that has been covered with wallpaper. After coercing her mother to open the door with a skeleton key, Coraline is disappointed to find the doorway bricked over. It isn’t until darkness falls that the doorway opens into a parallel world that is strangely like her own…only better.

In this world, food tastes better, the garden is more colorful and life is just the way she wants it to be. Replacing her parents are two look-alikes who hang on her every word, give her everything they want and love her much more than her real parents ever have. There are wonderful things to do and Wybie cannot speak. This world is in every way better than the one she’s used to. The only unsettling thing is that everyone in the other world has buttons sown over their eye sockets – that and their constant wheedling for her to stay in this perfect world forever. Coraline soon learns that the most terrible trap is everything you’ve ever wanted.

Director Henry Selick is best known for directing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and while the styles are similar, they aren’t quite the same. This film is based on a Neil Gaiman story and the combination of Gaiman and Selick is a winner just as Burton and Selick were. The visuals here are inventive and memorable. As with his previous film, Selick works in the medium known as stop motion animation, in which actual live objects are manipulated frame by frame to give the illusion of movement and life.

While this is a great movie to look at, it might be a little bit too intense and too frightening for the smaller kids. While this is ostensibly an animated feature that doesn’t mean it’s for kids. Parents should think twice about whether they want their younger kids to view this.

That said, one of the drawbacks to the movie is Coraline herself. She is so nasty, so petulant and so self-pitying that you can’t help but feel that she deserves to find herself in an alternate dimension in terrible peril. It’s not that Fanning does a bad job voicing her; it’s just the character as written is pretty unlikable. That makes it difficult to really care what happens to her after awhile.

Still, although the movie overdoses on the eccentricity from time to time, it’s still so visually impressive and the story so clever you can forgive the occasional excesses and even the excesses of Coraline herself. While this is more of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale in the darkest sense of the genre, it retains a certain modern edge which gives it a distinct flair.

Coraline is a beautiful, strange movie that celebrates its own uniqueness and dares you to accept it as it is. It isn’t always easy to love, but love it you will. I know I did. The Academy did as well – it is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for next month’s Oscars, although it will have an uphill battle to beat Up. Still in all Coraline has all the goods, and as dark a fairy tale as it is, it’s still the kind that will bear repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly imaginative, this is a movie that rediscovers the painstaking art of stop motion animation and elevates it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little quirkiness goes a long way; a lot of quirkiness doesn’t. How can I root for a character I just want to shake some sense into?

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images may be a little too horrific for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest stop-motion movie ever made, and also the first one filmed entirely in 3D.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray uses the U-Control system to integrate features, animatics and commentary into the film, allowing viewers to get in-depth information about how difficult this film was to make. There’s also a brief 6-minute interview with author Neil Gaiman discussing the differences between the book and the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The White Ribbon