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

New Releases for the Week of October 23, 2009


Sadly, despite all the hoopla the Airstream with wings never really took off.

Sadly, despite all the hoopla the Airstream with wings never really took off.

AMELIA

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska, Joe Anderson. Directed by Mira Nair

One of the most iconic figures of the 20th century was aviatrix Amelia Earhart. She blazed a trail for women back in the Depression for women to follow; she was fearless, confident and just as competent as any man in her chosen field. Sadly, that’s not what she is mostly remembered for today – not how she lived but rather, the mystery around how she (presumably) died. Acclaimed director Mira Nair intends to change that. While there have been biographical films about Earhart in the past, Nair seems to be out to show the human side of the hero and present her many accomplishments, many of which have been overshadowed by her mysterious disappearance during an attempted flight around the globe in 1937. This may very well be the first major entry in the Oscar sweepstakes for 2009.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some sexuality, language, thematic elements and smoking)

A Serious Man

(Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin. This is the latest from the Coen Brothers; that should be all you need to know to want to go see it right away. However, if you need a little more to get you into the theater, this is about a very neurotic Jewish professor at a small university in Minnesota during the 1960s who finds his life falling apart. His wife wants to leave him for an overbearing colleague; his feckless brother seems destined to spend the rest of his life on the couch in his living room, his children seem to be deliberately going out of their way to make him miserable and a mysterious letter-writer is trying to undermine his quest for tenure. He has come to realize he is a nebbish and needs advice on how to be a mensch – a serious man. However, the rabbis he consult cloud up the issue even further.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)

Astro Boy

(Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Charlize Theron. Based on one of the very first Japanese animes, this sci-fi animated feature is about a young robot with amazing powers that has been given a more or less human face and form. However, the boy robot is isolated because he is different. He goes on a journey to find acceptance, battling killer robots and aliens on the way.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some action and peril, and brief mild language)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

(Universal) John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Chris Massoglia, Salma Hayek. Based on a popular series of young adult fantasy novels, Universal is hoping this will kick off a new franchise for them. A bored young teen, feeling his wife is being mapped out and ultimately wasted in his dreary suburban existence, is drawn to a strange sideshow full of creatures as misunderstood as he feels himself to be. In a moment of clarity, he realizes he belongs with the Cirque and becomes one of the undead. However, his inexperience at being a vampire inadvertently breaks a 200-year-old truce between warring factions and threatens his new found home. Perhaps he should have read the Twilight series first.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language)

Good Hair

(Roadside Attractions) Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Nia Long, Kerry Washington. Hair is not merely what covers our head; it is our own personal signature. In the African-American community, hair can go even further, as a symbol of individual identity and often a tribute to African heritage. Comedian Chris Rock take an occasionally poignant and often hilarious look at the role of hair in African-American culture and tries to determine, once and for all, just what determines how hair can be “good.”

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity)

Saw VI

(Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Shawnee Smith. The most successful horror franchise of the 21st century returns with more diabolical traps, more gruesome murders, more elaborate games and, well, just more.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language)