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

Rashomon


Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

(1950) Drama (RKO) Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Kato. Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the grand masters of cinema and the greatest director to come out of Japan ever, possibly from all of Asia as well. Rashomon is one of his masterpieces, a movie that is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.

It is based on two short stories; one, the titular Rashomon is used as a framing device; a priest (Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Shimura) are taking shelter in the half-ruined Rashomon Gate during a deluge of a rainstorm. A commoner (Ueda) joins them. The first two are feeling a little depressed and mystified after witnessing a trial earlier that day. The commoner asks them to explain what is bothering them.

The second short story, In the Grove (both were written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa by the way) depicts a nobleman (Mori) and his wife (Kyo) set upon by the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Mifune) who lures the nobleman into a trap with the promise of swords he’d discovered, surprising him and tying him up. He then lures the wife to the same grove by telling her that her husband has fallen ill. Once he has her there, he rapes her in front of her husband.

That’s when things get interesting. All we know is that the husband gets murdered but during the course of the trial, the story changes significantly depending on whose telling it. The bandit, who proudly proclaims that he did the nefarious deed, has a reputation as a fearsome killer to uphold. The wife, shamed by her actions but even more so by her husband’s reaction to her dishonor, claims she did it. The husband, speaking through a medium (Honma) has his own version which makes him look truly victimized. And there is a surprise witness at the end who has a completely different story, albeit one possibly tainted by their own self-interest.

This is a story about the human condition and asks the basic question asked by philosophers and theologians from the beginning of time – is man basically good or intrinsically evil? Kurosawa uses an ingenious method of storytelling in order to explore the question and refuses to spoon-feed the audience a definitive answer. You are left to decode the truth for yourself.

The acting is over-the-top in places and is definitely more in the Eastern tradition. Mifune stands out as the arrogant bandit who becomes inflamed by desire for the beautiful young noblewoman. Mifune, one of the most respected actors to ever come out of Japan, was better known for his samurai persona in films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai as well as the American television mini-series Shogun but most experts agree that this is one of his most compelling performances. Mifune modeled the body language and movements of Tajomaru on that of lions, footage of which he studied intently before taking on the part.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer for the film, developed with Kurosawa several lighting techniques that made the forest look incredible with diffused lighting through the trees as well as the pouring rain which was made more visible by adding black ink to the water in the rain machine.

Kurosawa also used different styles of filmmaking for the three distinct portions of the film. For the framing narrative at Rashomon Gate, it’s fairly standard straight-on camera angles. For the trial sequences, the camera is set low, looking up at the actors. For the grove sequences, the camera is often high, looking down on the action and turning the audience into observers.

This is one of my mother’s favorites and one of mine as well. It is a movie that bears up under repeated viewings – it is so rich in detail and so amazingly layered and full of depth that you are constantly discovering new things each time you see it. Rashomon has appeared on a number of best lists, including 22nd on Empire magazine’s top 100 films of World Cinema of all time and has influenced directors from Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. Simply put, it is an amazing achievement that everybody who considers themselves a film buff or even a casual film junkie should see at least once, if not more often.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the great classics of cinema. Is the kind of movie you’ll be thinking about for days after seeing it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You don’t like foreign movies or you don’t like movies period.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes may be a little bit more than the youngsters can handle. There is also a depiction of a rape and a murder.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is often cited as the reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. The category didn’t exist when Rashomon was released so the film was given an honorary award instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The recently released Criterion Collection includes interviews with director Robert Altman on the influence of Kurosawa on his own films as well as with surviving members of the cast and crew talking about the film and it’s impact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outrage (1964)

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Looking for Palladin

The Vicious Kind


Don't you just hate going to the grocery store and forgetting what you went there to buy?

Don’t you just hate going to the grocery store and forgetting what you went there to buy?

(2009) Drama (72nd Street) Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, Alex Frost, J.K. Simmons, Vittorio Brahm, Bill Buell, Alysia Reiner, Kate Krieger, Jordan Reid Berkow, Anne Gill, Emily Oehler, Jim Ford, Kevin Rogers, Robert Bizik, Rebecca Bond Nikeas. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Every so often you’ll run into someone who’s a real asshole. They say cruel things, express opinions that are deplorable, and their actions tell you that they are nothing more than self-centered misogynistic jerks.

Did I say misogynistic? Well, that’s because we’re talking about Caleb Sinclaire (Scott), a construction worker in Connecticut. He is estranged from his father (Simmons) and a bit overly protective of his virginal younger brother Peter (Frost) who is just back from college for Thanksgiving. He’s also brought his new girlfriend Emma Gainsborough (Snow), a sweetie whom Peter is over the moon for.

Caleb, not so much. He is deeply suspicious of her and when he hears the story of how they met (at a party she went to with a group of fraternity boys) he’s quite sure she slept with the lot of them, despite her denials that she slept with any of them. To Caleb, all women are cheating whores. His girlfriend Hannah (Berkow), to whom Emma bears a strong resemblance, was just kicked to the curb for that very thing.

Due to his strained relationship with Dad, Caleb excuses himself from the holiday but continues to run into Emma in odd places, mainly because both of them smoke and go outside to the same places for smoke breaks. An odd friendship begins to form…and an attraction that is a little disquieting to Caleb because he’d never hurt his brother, one of the few people on Earth that Caleb gives a damn about but he can’t deny what he’s feeling for Emma.

And Emma can’t deny Peter’s tender feelings for her as well. Peter is willing to give Emma his virginity which is no small thing – and yet she is beginning to be attracted to bad boy Caleb. As their encounters grow more and more erotically charged, Caleb embarks on an emotional rollercoaster that ranges from violent and threatening to weeping and helpless. Emma realizes that she is soon going to have to choose between the two brothers – the sweet but kind of bland Peter or the complex and unpredictable Caleb.

This is one of those movies that is out there with the very best of intentions but doesn’t quite hit the mark for one reason or another. It’s not for lack of trying however. Adam Scott, who’s been around and done a few fairly well-known roles (as his one in Step Brothers) shines here as Caleb. The character is a pretty tough nut to crack and as the movie goes on we do get some insight as to why Caleb behaves the way he does. That still doesn’t excuse him from assault, attempted rape, cruelty and yes – viciousness. It makes it hard to root for him even when he does start showing signs of becoming a new man.

Snow isn’t half-bad either although her performance tends to get ignored by a lot of critics who seem to be zeroing in on Scott – although I can’t blame them to be truthful. Still, Snow’s Emma is not everything she appears to be; she has a dark side which manifests first in the smoking habit she keeps from her boyfriend to her lust for Caleb and then finally in…well, that one you’ll have to find out for yourself.

The trouble here is that the filmmakers seem to think that nearly everybody cheats on their partners (nearly everybody in the movie does). The movie has a kind of cynical world view in which it’s okay to be a bitch/bastard to others because sooner or later they’re going to screw you over if you don’t do it to them first. I’m not sure I agree with that – while there are certainly people who don’t mind sticking it to other people, not everyone is that way in my experience – and thus I find a hard time relating to the film, which might contribute to my lower score for it. So that’s something to take into account.

Otherwise the filmmaking itself is pretty good from a technical standpoint. This is a pretty good looking film. It just didn’t reach out and grab me the way it should have with this kind of subject matter. Maybe the problem was that Scott gave too good a performance and the script was too vicious. Or maybe I’m one of those vicious critics who don’t get it. Golly, I hope not. So I’ll just leave it at this wasn’t my cup of tea but it just might be yours.

WHY RENT THIS: Snow and Scott deliver some pretty powerful performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script seems to have a pretty low opinion of people. Caleb is such a douche sometimes you finally give up on him.

FAMILY VALUES: The sexuality is a bit in your face as is the bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie received two Independent Spirit award nominations (Adam Scott for Best Actor and Lee Toland Krieger for Best Screenplay) in 2010.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Stone

FINAL RATING:4.5/10

NEXT: Playing For Keeps

Solitary Man


Solitary Man

Michael Douglas - alone again, naturally.

(2009) Drama (Anchor Bay) Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Ben Shenkman, Richard Schiff, Olivia Thirlby, Jake Richard Siciliano, David Costabile. Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien

As men get older, they see their vitality slipping away from them, their attractiveness. It is the nature of men to seek out sexual validation, particularly from younger, more attractive women. We need it to remind us that the lion still has teeth and can still roar when need be.

Ben Kalmen (Douglas) was once the toast of Manhattan. As Honest Ben Kalmen, he was one of the top car dealers in the Big Apple. He had a great wife in Nancy (Sarandon), a beautiful daughter in Susan (Fischer). However, he lost all of it – his wife because of his numerous and public infidelities, and his business because of his shady bookkeeping practices.

Now, he’s trying to get it back. He has a new girlfriend, Jordan (Parker), who used to be married to a mobster and now is trying to get with someone nice. She sends Ben up to a school near Boston with her daughter Allyson (Poots) to help check out the place, which also happens to be Ben’s alma mater – and he is able to pull a few strings to get her in. He takes a tour of the joint with Daniel (Eisenberg), a kind of socially awkward kid that Ben takes under his wing a little bit and tries to educate in the ways of men, at least the way manhood as Ben sees it. And then, Ben does something incredibly stupid and in the space of a few moments wipes out everything he’s trying to do.

Now Ben is struggling openly, now with serious heart trouble he finds a job at a deli with an old friend (De Vito) and learning humility in ways that he never thought he could – but are those lessons really taking? Or is Ben still the same man he always was, doomed to make the same mistakes?

This is one of those roles Douglas has excelled at. Not a very nice guy, is this Ben Kalmen. Like Gordon Gekko and the heroes of most of Douglas’ movies, there is a real son of a bitch at the core of his character. He isn’t particularly likable but in every instance he’s compelling. You hate what he’s doing but you can’t look away. Here, Douglas is at his best – this is one of his best performances in the past ten years hands down. When his doctor tells him that his heartbeat is irregular, Douglas’ face freezes and you can see his world coming to a stop. It’s a terrific moment, one that can only be accomplished by a great actor and Douglas is most certainly that.

His scenes with De Vito, who worked with him so regularly in the 80s, are masterful, two old pros comfortable together with one another and knowing each other like an old married couple. It doesn’t hurt to have people like Susan Sarandon supporting you either, and in all honesty, all of the actors here do a terrific job, with Eisenberg, on the cusp of stardom as he filmed this, particularly good in a role that on the surface seems a lot like the other roles he does but the more you watch him you realize that Eisenberg has some pretty good range that you never thought about.

It’s too bad the story here didn’t measure up to the acting. Unfortunately, there are a few cliches that get in the way of truly enjoying this. In addition, the movie loses steam near the end and the ending is a bit predictable leading up to the final scene.

In that final scene, Ben is given a shot at redemption but a pretty girl walks in front of him. He stands up, with the option of walking after the girl and into his old self-destructive ways, or towards forgiveness and maybe, a life. The credits roll before he makes his choice, but you honestly don’t know which way he is going to choose. Even though the events leading up to this moment are somewhat cliché, you are still left wondering which way events are going to transpire and for my money, that’s a great ending.

This is a seriously flawed work that is redeemed by the strength of the performances, which are almost to a person worth seeing. Ben Kalmen is not someone you’d probably want to have in your life, but he is incredibly charming and I sure didn’t mind spending a couple of hours with him. You’ll no doubt find yourself feeling the same way.

WHY RENT THIS: Douglas is spectacular and gets some fine support from DeVito, Parker, Eisenberg, Poots and Sarandon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story was a bit cliché and lost steam in the final 20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The college scenes were filmed at Fordham; Douglas’ next movie (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) also was filmed at Fordham and also had Sarandon in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.2M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse