Burke and Hare


Burke and Hare

Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg find out it’s tuna casserole for lunch again.

(2010) Horror Comedy (IFC) Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Christopher Lee, Ronnie Corbett, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter, Bill Bailey, Jessica Hynes, Stuart McQuarrie, Michael Smiley, David Hayman. Directed by John Landis

 

New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger characterized this movie, loosely based on real life murders committed in Edinburgh in the 19th century, as an American director using English actors to portray Irish immigrants committing murders in Scotland (I’m paraphrasing here) which, as Genzlinger opines, leads to a bit of schizophrenia of tone.

William Burke (Pegg) and his associate William Hare (Serkis) are having a spectacular run of bad luck. Times are hard in 19th century Edinburgh; while the best medical universities in the world are here, most of the city is stuck in squalor as the citizens of Edinburgh try to meet ends meet, most with the same lack of success that Burke and Hare are experiencing.

At the same time there is a rivalry going on in the medical schools. Doctors Robert Knox (Wilkinson) and Alexander Monro (Curry) have been going at it tooth and nail as they use cadavers to teach students the wonders of the human body. However, cadavers aren’t easy to come by and Knox is paying top dollar for fresh corpses and thus Burke and Hare discover a wonderful business opportunity for themselves.

At first they pretty much stick to grave robbing but the problem is that people aren’t dying fast enough to keep Knox properly supplied, so Burke and Hare, being entrepreneurial sorts, decide to help them out a bit. Soon the money is rolling in and Hare’s wife Lucky (Hynes), a sensible sort, helps her husband and his partner out with the business. Burke, in the meantime, has become smitten by actress – or prostitute, which Hare points out isn’t much of a distinction at the time – Ginny Hawkins (Fisher) who yearns to put on an all woman version of Macbeth and Burke is determined to finance the show in order to win the heart of his new beloved.

Still, murdering people for their cadavers is sort of frowned upon and the law is soon on their tails. You can imagine what happened next – or you can look it up in Wikipedia. The movie is kind of close to what actually occurred in the end.

This is the product of Ealing Studios which produced some of the most well-known comedies in the history of British films between 1947 and 1957 (including Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob). This isn’t, strictly speaking, a comedy although it is funny in places (although the movie relies on slapstick a good deal for its humor which is fairly lowbrow for Ealing). It isn’t, strictly speaking, a horror film either although there are some grisly images. Hammer Films has nothing to worry about in other words.

Landis who in his prime directed some classic films like An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers and National Lampoon’s Animal House hasn’t directed a feature since 1998. This isn’t by any means going to be remembered as one of his better efforts but it actually isn’t one of his worst either.

Casting Pegg and Serkis (although at one time Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell were rumored to have been cast in their roles) is a good reason why. The two are perfect for the parts. Their byplay is natural and unforced. It’s what you might expect from a couple of men who have been friends and partners for years; they’re almost like an old married couple in places.

It helps that each of them has a romantic foil that keeps up with them. Fisher, a beautiful woman who has some pretty impressive acting chops, takes a quirky role and makes it believable. Too often these kinds of parts are written to be eccentric for their own sake and I think that to a certain extent that’s the case here (just ask yourself – does having Burke fall for an actress with Ginny’s aspirations add anything to the story that wouldn’t have been there if she was “normal”?) and only Fisher’s performance keeps it from being irritating. Hynes, whose work I hadn’t been familiar with, also does some impressive work here.

There are some mystifying changes to the historical facts which I understand often has to be done for dramatic purposes. However, Burke and Hare were notorious for smothering their victims, which was their preferred modus operandi. I don’t understand why that was glossed over other than to create slapstick opportunities having to do with the murders themselves. Ah well.

I do like the tone of the movie which isn’t overly serious despite its somewhat grisly subject matter. This isn’t a movie people are going to be rushing right out to rent but by the same token it isn’t one that should be ignored either. I would have liked a little more consistency and a few more laughs. However, this is worth a look if you’re out to check something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Pegg and Serkis are fun to watch. Fisher is gorgeous and there’s a certain sly wink about the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks consistency. Plays fast and loose with the real story of the murders, some of which seems unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images as you might imagine. There’s also a little bit of sex and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actors David Schofield, John Woodvine and Agutter all appeared in An American Werewolf in London which was directed by Landis back in 1981.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.4M on an unreported production budget; sounds like it made a tidy profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Sell the Dead

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Out of Africa

The Illusionist (L’illusionniste)


The Illusionist

The Scottish audiences were most pleased when the Illusionist conjured Scotch out of thin air.

(2010) Animated Feature (Sony Classics) Starring the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil, Raymond Mearns, James T. Muir, Tom Urie, Paul Bandey. Directed by Sylvain Chomet

 

There comes a time in life when we realize that the world has moved on without us. Very few of us can keep up with progress, particularly when the careers we’ve labored at all our lives have been rendered obsolete, either through technology or simply through changing tastes. It is bittersweet; the sadness that which we have labored at no longer matters, but there is also a freedom in it as well.

Monsieur Jacques Tatischeff (Donda) is a stage musician and a good one. He has played all the finest music halls and vaudeville theaters in Europe. Now, it is the 1950s and the 1960s are right around the corner and the audience for his kind of entertainment is shrinking. Once a headliner, he is reduced to taking whatever bookings he can and has found himself in Edinburgh.

He has caught the attention of Alice (Rankin), the young chambermaid at the hotel he is staying in. She is dewy-eyed and innocent, her eyes wide and open, amazed by the illusions Monsieur Tatischeff conjures. His act has convinced her that there is real magic in the world and that Monsieur Tatischeff has access to it.

For his part, Monsieur Tatischeff is touched at the attention he is receiving – one last true fan. He looks upon Alice as the daughter he never had and showers her were gifts – new shoes, new dresses. He can’t afford them on the meager pay of his bookings, so he works odd jobs when he’s not onstage so that he can buy these things for Alice, who thinks he has conjured these fine things out of air. He wants her to continue thinking that.

But this is one illusion even a master Illusionist like Monsieur Tatischeff can maintain indefinitely and soon he is faced with the wrenching choice of revealing the truth to Alice or continuing the lie. Reality is fast catching up to him as it does with us all.

Chomet was the auteur behind the much-acclaimed The Triplets of Belleville. The script he’s working off of here was written by the great French comedian and actor Jacques Tati, who wrote this back in 1959 but for some reason never got around to filming it as a live-action film although there is evidence that he intended to. This is said to be a highly personal work for him; the Alice character may represent a daughter that he abandoned, although Chomet has said that Alice was really Sophie, the younger daughter who first gave Chomet the script to produce as an animated feature.

The movie is hand-drawn rather than computer generated. This process is tedious and labor-intensive and rarely used since Pixar took over the animation market. It also renders the movie more beautifully, resembling paintings more than anything else. This is animated art folks and is as beautiful looking (even in its tedious Edinburgh scenes) as you’re likely to see.

There is almost no dialogue – Chomet prefers to make his work more universal, so most of the sounds you hear are wordless, like acrobats exclaiming “Hep! Hep! Hep!” as they bounce around the screen. There are sighs and cries, but few words. In many ways this is like a silent movie, relying on the characters to tell the story without using extraneous words.

Tati was inspired by Charlie Chaplin (and there are those who consider him France’s Chaplin) and in a sense, this is a movie that Chaplin would likely have approved of. There is some pathos and the comedy is quirky and well choreographed. There is a definite melancholic air however that might be off-putting for some; after all, this is supposed to be at its heart about a father-daughter relationship. However, it is also about the end of an era, about a man having to accept that what he had done for a living all his life was no longer meaningful. There is nothing funny about be rendered obsolete, but there can be a catharsis in it and Chomet finds it.

This is a beautiful movie, if you can find beauty in sadness. There is some joy here as well, but I walked away from it feeling like you do after you’ve had a good cry although I shed no tears while I watched. It is certainly different than the offerings of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, the two leaders in modern animation. It didn’t connect with the audience sadly, although it did get an Oscar nomination. It’s one of those movies that a lot of people kind of turned their noses up at, but it is also one of those films that if you give it half a chance you are likely to fall under it’s spell.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully hand drawn with a marvelously bittersweet story on aging and growing irrelevant.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Almost no dialogue and a melancholic feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes here might be a bit difficult for smaller children to work through. There are also numerous depictions of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Illusionist’s stage name, Jacques Tatischeff, is the real name of Jacques Tati who wrote the script.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting feature that shows a scene being animated from storyboard to finished product.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.6M on a $17M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Attack the Block

One Day


One Day

Jim Sturgess finds that when he closes his eyes he really can't find Anne Hathaway's mouth.

(2011) Romance (Focus) Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarkson, Ken Stott, Romola Garai, Rafe Spall, Jodie Whittaker, Tom Mison, Heida Reed, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Georgia King, Emelia Jones. Directed by Lone Scherfig

Our lives are a series of 24 hour periods, stretching from birth to death. Taken as a whole, they form our life. Individually they may not have the same meaning, but it only takes a single day to change our lives forever.

Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess) meet on July 15, 1988 – the date of their college graduation in Edinburgh. They hit it off and almost have sex but it doesn’t quite work out so they decide to stay friends. Their friendship takes them through diverging paths in life; Dexter becomes a TV presenter whose mother (Clarkson) is ill and whose father (Stott) can’t stand him. Emma’s bright-eyed idealism gives way to world-weary cynicism as she gets stuck in a job she can’t stand. Emma and Dexter drift further apart as she struggles to find herself and he becomes lost in stardom.

They seem to be moving on into different relationships; Emma with Ian (Spall), a failed stand-up comic and Dexter with Sylvie (Garai), with whom he has a daughter Jasmine (Jones). Emma’s career begins to take off as a teacher; Dexter’s declines after a series of woeful teen countdown programs in which his growing addiction to alcohol and drugs begins to affect his work, while his age begins to slam doors in his face.

Soon it becomes evident to both of them that they are far better together than they are separately – the sum greater than the parts. Has too much water flown beneath the bridge for them ever to get together?

This is based on a book by David Nicholls (who also wrote the screenplay) and is directed by Scherfig, the Swedish director who in 2009 won acclaim for his movie An Education. This is a disappointment of a movie; one which has two of the most appealing actors in Hollywood and squanders them. It’s quite a shame too; if this had been executed better it might have been a solid movie.

The problem with the movie is the problem that comes from the novel it’s based on – the two main characters spend nearly the entire movie apart. The whole conceit of the movie is that we are encountering the two main characters on July 15th every year (or in some cases every second year) from the day they first meet. Because we don’t see the characters together as much, there is no time for them to develop chemistry together.

One gets the feeling that Hathaway has moved on from roles like this. She has Oscar-caliber talent, evidenced in movies like Love and Other Drugs. Emma is not a role really suited for her. For one thing it forces her to adopt both a Scottish and a Yorkshire accent, which drifts during the course of the movie. It never sounds convincing to my ear; quite frankly I think the movie would have been better served to have cast a British actress in the role (and there are a lot of good ones).

Sturgess has to play an absolute rotter at times and he pulls it off; his disarming grin and boyish good looks aiding him in his portrayal. I hope he continues to get romantic leads because he is uncommonly good at them. Clarkson, like Hathaway, is a very fine actress who again is saddled with an unconvincing British accent. She’s a fine actress but couldn’t she and Hathaway just have been re-written to be Americans? Or have British actresses cast in those roles?

A bit of a spoiler follows here although to any sensible moviegoer it won’t come as much of a surprise. One of the central moments of the movie is the moment when Emma decides that her feelings for Dexter are stronger than she admitted they were and that she truly loves him and needs him. It’s a moment that comes off abrupt and schmaltzy, going from “We’re friends and I don’t have any interest in you romantically in the least” to “You’re the love of my life” in a matter of moments. It’s like a car with bad brakes trying to stop on a dime.

Curiously, the movie gets better in a lot of ways from there, even if it descends into general romantic grab a box of Kleenex territory. Once Hathaway and Sturgess get more time together, the movie really elevates. It’s too bad for most of the first hour or so they’re too busy denying their feelings and saying to all and sundry that they’re just friends. Too much time hitting us over the head with the idea that they’re better together than apart – and then they don’t have enough time together to seal the deal. You never fully get the sense that there’s chemistry between the two.

I really wanted to like this movie because it has not only two of my favorite actors in it but also a director who has an exciting future ahead of him and a high-concept way of looking at a 20-year-romance. It should have come together but unfortunately for a variety of reasons it didn’t. All the beautiful Scottish scenery and longing wistful looks from a pair of attractive actors can’t save a movie from its own shortcomings.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful scenery of Edinburgh and the north of England looks beautiful onscreen.

REASONS TO STAY: Never get a sense that the couple is actually good for each other. Relationship moves abruptly, a very jarring feeling for the audience.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and a bit of nudity. There’s also a bit of violence, and a smattering of bad language. There is also some depiction of substance abuse, drugs and alcohol.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to set the mood for the skinny dipping scene, Hathaway mooned Sturgess, unaware that there was an apartment complex behind her with many of the residents filming the shoot with mobile phone cams. To date, the footage hasn’t surfaced on the Internet which Hathaway has expressed gratitude to the complex residents whom she expressed had “class”.

HOME OR THEATER: A definite cuddling on the couch movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Takers

Mister Foe (Hallam Foe)


Mister Foe

Hallam Foe likes to watch.

(Magnolia) Jamie Bell, Ciaran Hines, Claire Forlani, Ruthie Milne, John Paul Lawler, Lucy Holt, Sophia Myles, Jamie Sives, Maurice Roeves. Directed by David Mackenzie

Sometimes a lead character can be someone you wouldn’t want to spend time with ordinarily, at least on the surface. The mark of a good movie, though, is that you are still enthralled by that character despite not liking them much.

That’s what happened to me in this movie. Scottish youth Hallam Foe (Bell) is still mourning his mum, drowned in the local loch. His dad (Hines) has married Verity (Forlani) who was once his secretary. All three of them live in a large house in the Scottish borders along with Hallam’s sister Lucy (Holt). While mum’s death was ruled an accident, Hallam remains convinced that she was murdered by Verity, whose marriage to his dad seemed a bit too convenient by half.

The shock of his mum’s death has made Hallam, well, a little bit weird. When he feels stressed he puts on a badger hat and paints his face with lipstick, eyeliner and eye shadow in a kind of war paint and when he’s really stressed he puts on one of his mum’s old dresses. He also has a habit to spy on his neighbors and family, particularly when they are having sex. Yes, he’s a Peeping Tom.

After Verity and Hallam have sex in the treehouse Hallam’s architect dad built for him, Verity forces Hallam to leave so that dad doesn’t find out. Hallam runs away to Edinburgh where he finds a peeper’s paradise. He finds a home in a rooftop clock, menial work in a hotel where he is stunned to find that the human resources manager Kate (Myles) is the spittin’ image of his dear departed mum. So he watches her sleep and have sex with a brutal married manager (Sives), eventually taking up a relationship with her himself.

However, he is full of problems and his rage towards his father for marrying whom he considers to be the murderer of his mother needs an outlet. Soon Hallam’s world begins to come crashing down around his ears.

This was a movie that could easily have been as unlikable as the lead character seemed to be on paper, but as it turns out it wasn’t. That’s a credit both to director Mackenzie, whose light touch kept the movie from spiraling into indie angst, and to actor Bell who delivers a nuanced performance that keeps Hallam sympathetic even as he’s doing unsympathetic things. Bell, who first gained notice in Billy Elliott, is growing as an actor by leaps and bounds. This is a role that he may not be necessarily remembered for, but one that will build his reputation among those who can take his career further. That’s not a bad thing to say.

The supporting cast doesn’t let him down either. Myles, who has quite the baby face, delivers a performance of great depth, bringing a very complicated character to life in a believable way. Hinds, one of the most dependable character actors out there, gets to stretch a little bit as a man who is very cold on the outside that is hiding a great deal of pain on the inside, while Forlani gives “cast iron bitch” a whole new spin.

The soundtrack contains a goodly number of Scottish indie bands, from the Orange Juice on up to more contemporary bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Four Tet. Still, the band has that kind of indie smugness in places, getting a little too clever in its presentation for its own good.

This is one of those movies that is solid, entertaining in its own way but more successful as a human study. The insight into a troubled soul can be dark and scary, but Mister Foe makes it a little bit less so; in fact, it makes it downright desirable.

WHY RENT THIS: An affecting performance by Bell with plenty of great support, particularly from Myles, Forlani and Hines. A tremendous soundtrack with plenty of superb Scottish indie bands, too.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes the movie is too clever for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality here including some fairly twisted stuff. Quite frankly this should be for adult audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Peter Jinks.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The End of the Line

Driving Lessons


Driving Lessons

The Weasleys do some muggle slumming.

(Sony Classics) Rupert Grint, Laura Linney, Julia Walters, Nicholas Farrell, Oliver Milburn, Michelle Duncan, Tamsin Eggerton. Directed by Jeremy Brock

Growing up is a painful, nasty business that is best left to professionals. Unfortunately, even amateurs like the rest of us have to figure it out eventually.

Ben Marshall (Grint) is a shy, bookish 17-year-old who is subject to the dictatorial whims of his evangelical Christian mother (Linney) who has her boy bring food to the elderly, participate in the church play and accept whatever charity case his mother brings to live with them, most recently a wild-eyed cross-dressing old man (Norton). She also has her eyes set on a handsome new pastor. His father, the henpecked reverend (Farrell) puts up with all of this with the patience of Job, but Ben’s veneer of British schoolboy civility is beginning to crack.

He is moved to write a poem for the object of his affections (Eggerton) but is met with only a scornful “you’re just too weird.” He also has begun to suspect that his driving lessons with his mother are a front for her to canoodle with the handsome New Age reverend she respects far more than her husband.

Ben responds to all of this by getting rather grumpy, but he winds up getting a job as a…well, I’m not really sure what. I guess a general assistant sort for a loopy actress named Evie Walton (Walters) who has bestowed upon herself the title of “Dame” and refers to her many Shakespearean roles. As Ben eventually discovers, her main claim to fame was as an actress on the equivalent of an evening soap and Dame Evie is perilously close to being dismissed as irrelevant or worse still, forgotten altogether.

Evie and Ben’s mother Laura are polar opposites; Evie high-spirited and anti-authoritarian, Laura rigid and positive that her parental authority stems directly from God. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there will be a clash between the two cultures extolled by these two very strong women and Ben’s heart – his very future – depends on which way he leans now.

Jeremy Brock, who has written some mighty fine screenplays in his day (including Mrs. Brown and The Last King of Scotland) makes his feature directing debut here and it is a solid one. There were some interesting casting decisions made; some worked wonderfully, others are a little questionable. Linney is a fine actress, but her accent is not one of her finest hours. Perhaps Brock might have been better served to allow her to keep her American accent and merely make her the Reverend Marshall’s American wife.

Putting Grint and Walters together on the other hand was inspired. Walters plays Grint’s mother in the Harry Potter series and it comes as no surprise that Grint’s best scenes are the ones he shares with her. Grint essentially plays Ron Weasley without the wand, so he does all right here but he lacks the energy I know he possesses (some of his Potter scenes bear this out). He needed a sure hand from his director I think, or at least a different direction.

Walters, on the other hand needed no such thing. This is the kind of role she excels in, the dotty English eccentric and she plays it to the hilt. It isn’t so much over-acting – which in a way is the hallmark of her character – as simply inhabiting a larger-than-life role. She’s what you’ll remember most about this movie.

Brock based this movie on his own experiences as the son of a vicar spending one summer working for Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and the movie does have an anecdotal feeling to it. The summer in which a young person grows from a child into an adult is a bittersweet season, and Brock captures that aspect of it here. While there are some missteps and things I know I would have done differently, that doesn’t take away from what is a solid, entertaining coming-of-age movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Walters is a much underrated actress who shines when she gets the opportunity to as she does here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is somewhat bland and could have used a little more color from Grint.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexual situations, probably all right for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grint was 16 when this was filmed and under the legal age to drive in England, so all the scenes involving Grint at the wheel were filmed on private roads.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tyson