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

Inception


Inception

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's world is all askew.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Lukas Haas, Tai-Li Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

In perhaps the most famous soliloquy of all time, Hamlet muses “To sleep, perchance to dream.” In this speech, he’s referring to death, wondering what the dead dream of. Perhaps death is a dreaming in a way, the ultimate dream. Maybe life itself is the dream – who’s to know?

Dom Cobb (Di Caprio) is a corporate thief with an unusual technique; he enters the dreams of CEOs and billionaires to extract the secrets that their mind has locked in those dreams. It’s an apparently lucrative profession; he seems to have a fairly extensive bankroll. However, Cobb isn’t a happy man. His wife Mal (Cotillard) died recently, and he was implicated in her death. Their children are being cared for by Mal’s mother, and Cobb hasn’t seen them in awhile, although he longs to.

Getting back to them is problematic, until Japanese billionaire Saito (Watanabe) comes up with an offer. He can take away Dom’s fugitive status if Dom will do one job for him, but instead of stealing an idea, he wants one implanted. This process, called inception, is deemed impossible…by everybody except Dom, who claims to have done it on one occasion.

Dom puts together a team of experts, including his right hand man and researcher Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), con man, impersonator and demolitions expert Eames (Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Rao). The last they need to put the subject into a deep sleep, deep enough so that the dream architecture doesn’t collapse, because in order to make the idea work without his mind removing a foreign idea from itself (similarly in the way antibodies tackle viruses), the idea must be implanted so deeply that the subject thinks that the idea is his own.

The subject is Robert Fischer (Murphy), the son of a billionaire energy mogul whose father (Postlethwaite) is dying and stands to inherit his company. That company, which supplies nearly 80% of all the earth’s energy needs, has become too big to stand against and is in danger of becoming a power rivaling that of nations.

Dom also needs a dream architect and for that, he visits his father-in-law (Caine), who teaches the architecture of dreams and who helped Dom become what he is (although dear old dad-in-law disapproves of how Dom utilizes his gifts). Dom needs one of his students, a particularly gifted one, to create a realistic enough world that will fool Fischer into believing he is awake. That student is Ariadne (Page), who in Greek mythology led Theseus safely through the labyrinth on Crete where he slew the Minotaur.

This Ariadne is required to construct a labyrinth, because once the mind realizes that there are intruders in it, it sends what are called constructs to remove the intruders. The maze serves to keep the constructs off your back, at least for a little while. Not forever, however, and once the constructs arrive they are well armed and willing to shoot first and ask questions not at all. Once you are killed in the dream, you wake up – quite a different take on the usual Hollywood mythology which has dreamers dying in real life when they die in dreams. However, because they are going so deep into the dream, those who die in this dream will be sent to a limbo of the subconscious where they will slowly go mad until they awaken.

There is a time dilation too – while in a normal dream, five minutes of real time equates to an hour of dreamtime, the deeper level you go to, the more pronounced the dreamtime – to the point where five minutes can equal ten years.

There is also another wrinkle. Dom has never really been able to get over the death of his wife, and she is a powerful figure in his subconscious, so powerful that she has been able to manifest in the dreams of others and wreak havoc. This is why Dom needs another architect instead of doing it himself. Her presence in his subconscious is becoming more and more pronounced and only Ariadne, who went into one of Dom’s own dreams to figure out what was going on, knows the truth. Will Dom be able to overcome his own subconscious in order to win him the freedom he so desperately desires?

Nolan began writing this when he was filming Memento (2000), and it took him eight years to complete it. That’s largely because of how densely layered a tale this is; this is one of the most complexly plotted movies you’ll ever see. Pull one thread out and everything collapses.

Fortunately, Nolan is a good enough writer that he can pull it off. First, he has to create a believable dream mythology. Secondly, he has to create characters that the audience can relate to and care about. Thirdly, he has to inject a real sense of jeopardy. Finally, he has to make the plot simple enough for a general audience to keep up with, yet complex enough to make all the elements work.

He succeeds in all these points. The mythology is believable; the science may suffer from a little bit of what I call “mumbo jumbo science” – an overuse of technobabble – but it isn’t so much that you shake your head and feel stupid. The characters aren’t cardboard cutouts; they live and breathe and seem real.

The jeopardy part is accomplished by a series of car chases and shootouts which rankles some critics; “My dreams aren’t about car chases,” grouses A.O. Scott of the New York Times, which apparently means nobody else’s are either; of course, nobody has ever accused Scott of a lack of hubris.

All right, that was a bit of a below-the-belt shot at a fellow critic. Still, when one is discussing dreams, it’s a given there are no rules. Perhaps the dreamscapes that Nolan invents for Inception aren’t as outside the box in some ways as What Dreams May Come, that doesn’t mean there isn’t invention here. The sequences wherein Ariadne folds Paris onto itself (having cars driving Escher-like down vertical streets), or when Arthur fights a construct in a corridor that is revolving (the reason for which is explained nicely in the movie) are as breathtaking as anything you’ll see this summer.

I have a soft spot for movies that make you consider the nature of reality and leave you to form your own conclusions about what just happened. Roger Ebert says correctly that this is a movie about the process more than the plot; I can give you spoilers about plot points but the full effect isn’t as bad because those spoilers lose their effect because it’s more about how we reached that point, not about the point itself. Is this a dream? Is it a memory? Is it reality? Is there a reality? There are no easy answers to that, and Nolan wisely allows the audience to reach their own conclusions. If he has his own ideas, he keeps them to himself.

Di Caprio has never been my favorite actor – he’s a bit too angst-suffused for my taste – but this is surely one of his best performances ever. He plays Dom as a man who appears to be emotional on the surface, but the deeper we delve into the character the more we realize he represses his emotions to the extent that most psychiatrists would probably see him as borderline disturbed.

This is the kind of movie you can spend hours in discussion about. Is it a masterpiece or a conversation piece? The answer is it’s a little bit of both. Certainly people will be talking about the ending and its meaning for quite awhile. Movies that can satisfy the need for visceral action sequences and stimulate the mind simultaneously are rare indeed, and Inception does both. In a summer plagued by weak box office and mediocre movies, Inception easily shines as the best movie of the summer season.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking science fiction with some amazing visuals. Di Caprio gives one of the better performances of his career and his terrific supporting cast doesn’t disappoint.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is hard to follow along with in places, and there is a high degree of mumbo jumbo science going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of action and some violence (a lot of shooting). The themes are sufficiently adult enough that I might think twice before bringing very young children who might have trouble following the plot; otherwise, this is suitable for mature pre-teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Dom Cobb, was also the name of a main character in Nolan’s first movie, Following (1998) – furthermore, both characters are thieves.

HOME OR THEATER: The amazing visuals in the movie are best experienced in a movie theater and are even better in the IMAX format if you have an IMAX screen nearby.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Five Minutes of Heaven

New Releases for the Week of July 16, 2010


July 16, 2010

Paris is beginning to look more and more like San Francisco.

INCEPTION

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger. Directed by Christopher Nolan

In the future, Dom Cobb is a thief who specializes in extracting the secrets of others through their dreams. He is very skilled at what he does and has made a lucrative living, but he has paid a heavy price. A fugitive, his skills have cost him everything he holds dear. One last job will give him a chance to redeem himself; but rather than taking secrets, he is going to implant an idea instead. However, standing in the way of him and his team is a hidden enemy who seems to know every move they make before they do. Is this the perfect crime or the perfect set-up?

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard and IMAX

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout)

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

(IFC) Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Melissa Rivers, Don Rickles. The iconic comedienne is the subject of this surprising documentary that shows her struggles in maintaining her career in a culture that worships youth and discards the elderly. Through the words of her friends, family and the legendary performer herself, we revisit the tragedies and triumphs of a groundbreaking female comic who became a household name in an era when the stand-up world was dominated by men.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language and some sexual material)

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

(Disney) Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer. An ancient sorcerer has been protecting Manhattan against his evil nemesis, but it is becoming apparent that the sorcerer needs help. He takes on a reluctant apprentice and gives him a crash course in the ways of magic. The new sorcerer will need to learn quickly and work with his mentor perfectly or risk losing everything to an evil beyond measure.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for fantasy action violence, some mild rude humor and brief language)

The Square

(Apparition) David Roberts, Claire van der Bloom, Anthony Hayes, Joel Edgerton. In the grand tradition of Double Indemnity and Body Heat, this Aussie-set suspense movie sees an affair between a married man and a married woman. When her criminal husband hides his illicit loot in plain sight, she hatches a plot with her lover to steal the money and utilize a professional arsonist to hide their tracks. The plan backfires and things go from bad to worse in this acclaimed thriller.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for violence and language)

Standing Ovation

(Rocky Mountain) The 5 Ovations, The Wiggses, Alanna Palumbo, Joei DeCarlo. A national tween music video contest pits two groups of friends against each other. They will leave everything on the stage as they set outdo each other in music, choreography and costuming while enduring the wackiness of modern tween life. Someone pass me the insulin.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for some rude behavior)