After.Life


After.Life

Who knew the dead could be so hot?

(2009) Horror (Anchor Bay) Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long, Josh Charles, Chandler Canterbury, Celia Watson, Luz Ramos, Rosemary Murphy, Malachy McCourt, Shuler Hensley, Alice Drummond, Sam Kressner, Erin Ward. Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Dead is dead, or so conventional wisdom would have it. Once we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, the party’s over. What happens then is highly up to speculation.

Anna Taylor (Ricci) is a beautiful young teacher who has the world opening up to her on the horizon. Her boyfriend Paul (Long) is about to propose when they go out to dinner but they get into an argument. Anna storms out of the restaurant and drives off, angry and emotional, the rain falling in sheets. Inevitably, she gets into a nasty accident.

When she wakes up, she’s in the morgue, attended to by Deacon (Neeson) who informs her that she’s dead. Deacon has the special gift of being able to communicate with the dead under his care, able to help transition them from this life to the afterlife. Anna finds this difficult to accept. Deacon counters that most of the newly dead find their new situation hard to accept. They always whine that they have so much left to do, so much unfinished business.

Anna feels alive though and nothing Deacon can say or do will dissuade her. She wants to call her  boyfriend to rescue her from this maniac keeping her against her will in this terrible place; but from his point of view he’s trying to help her accept her fate and move on to her final rest. But is she alive as she asserts that she is, or dead as Deacon maintains that she is?

This is an intriguing concept that has a “Twilight Zone”-esque quality to it. First-time director Wojtowicz-Vosloo doesn’t always know what to do with it. Her job, as I see it, is to keep audiences off-balance without giving away the answer to the question “is she or isn’t she” and for the most part, she succeeds. Occasionally though she stumbles, sometimes failing to maintain the inner logic of the situation. Of course, that’s more the fault of the script than the direction but as she also co-wrote the script, she doesn’t really have that out.

Ricci is lustrous here, spending a good chunk of the movie nude (and also a bluish shade which kind of increases the allure) and her trademark gothic waif look is perfect for the role. Her physical charms notwithstanding, she also gives the part a certain amount of emotional wallop, going through stages of grief (denial, anger, fear) while never becoming shrill.

She has some great chemistry with Neeson, who is such a great actor that even a role like this which doesn’t really push him all that much he still manages to imbue with his charisma and invite the audience to get invested. The movie’s main selling point is to make it ambiguous as to whether Deacon is a kindly guide or an evil monster. Neeson pulls it off so that either option is possible.

I’ve mentioned “The Twilight Zone” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but the movie here, rather than paying homage to the show tries to emulate it a bit too much. There is not so much a Rod Serling influence rather than an attempt to bring him back from the dead and the corpse doesn’t smell too good to be honest.

That aside, the concept is good and the acting solid enough so that it gets a pass for all its flaws. Sometimes critics such as myself just have to get past what a movie could have been and accept it for  what it is. No doubt this could have been a whole lot better – but it is as is good enough for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Spooky and atmospheric. Ricci and Neeson have some great exchanges.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script should be more ambiguous and let the audience figure out whether or not Anna is dead. Too much Rod Serling here.

FAMILY VALUES: The whole theme is pretty disturbing; there’s also some nudity and sexuality as well as a buttload of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The prop knife used by Ricci during the film is the same one Glenn Close used in Fatal Attraction.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood this lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Ides of March

I Served the King of England


I Served the King of England

Julia Jentsch prepares to lick Ivan Bartev clean.

(Sony Classics) Ivan Barnev, Julia Jentsch, Oldrich Kaiser, Martin Huba, Marian Labuda, Milan Lasica, Jaromir Dulava, Tonya Graves. Directed by Jiri Menzel

It is part of the human condition to want more than what we have. Some of us have absolutely no idea how to get it while others have detailed plans on how to attain what we want. Still others will do absolutely anything to get it.

Jan Dite (Kaiser) has been released from a Czech prison (he was set free after serving only 14 years and 9 months of a 15 year sentence) and has been repatriated to a place near the border with the expectation that he will flee over it. However, Dite finds himself a small pub that has been abandoned and decides to restore it and open it for business.

As a young man (Barnev), he had been something of a con artist who amuses himself by scattering coins on the ground and watching wealthy men bend down to pick them up. He dreams of being a millionaire and becomes taken by a vision of a grand hotel in prewar Prague, bull of tuxedo-wearing, white gloved waiters, crystal chandeliers and enough snootiness to put the House of Lords to shame.

He gets a job in one as a waiter and becomes the protégé of the headwaiter (Huba) of the restaurant who is the essence of impeccable service, manners and haughtiness. When asked the secret to his demeanor, he replies “I served the King of England.” It’s the only appearance the King of England makes in the film.

Barnev moves from hotel to hotel, each more prestigious than the last, learning everything that he can so that one day he might own a hotel of his own. He may be small in stature (a running gag through the movie) but that doesn’t diminish his ability to be in control of any situation that comes his way. He also has a taste for beautiful women that he exercises as often as he can.

That is, until the Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia and then, pragmatist that he is, supports the Nazi regime in order to further his ambitions. He even marries a fervent German teacher who forces him to prove his Aryan lineage before she’ll consent to wed him and bear purebred Aryan babies. The marriage is short-lived, however as she is killed trying to retrieve a box of valuable rare stamps she had looted from Jewish homes while she was working in Russia. Dite finds her body and gently removes the box; no sense in wealth going to waste.

And it doesn’t. Dite uses the money from the sale of the stamps to buy one of the magnificent hotels he was formally employed by and becomes a millionaire – until the communists throw him in jail as they did with all the millionaires. As Dite says in voiceover narration at the onset of the film, it is always his luck to find bad luck.

Director Menzel is a veteran of the Czech film industry, having directed the much-revered 1967 Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains. He suffuses an odd mix of style here, making a kind of silent slapstick screwball softcore sex comedy of manners. The movie was the most popular Czech release of 2007 mainly because Menzel knows what two things are most dear to the Czech man’s heart – beautiful naked women and beer, and there’s a cornucopia of both here.

Barnev moves through the movie with an expression of smug insolence much like a naughty boy who knows he can get away with murder because he isn’t going to get caught and even if he is, he certainly won’t be punished. He is a major component as to why the movie works; while the scenes alternate with Kaiser playing the older version of him narrating the tale and preparing his pub, it is Barnev who captures the attention.

Menzel understand what makes a comedy effective. He examines some of the baser aspects of human nature and allows us to see those flaws in ourselves and shake our heads and laugh ruefully at them. There are some broad slapstick moments to be sure, but there is also a good deal of subtle, gentle humor that is actually quite refreshing. There is a good blend of laughter and pathos; Menzel is wise enough to understand the proper measurements of each to make a compelling brew.

WHY RENT THIS: A gentle sense of humor about class, ambition and lust in pre-war Europe allows us, like all good comedies, to laugh at these elements in ourselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This may be a little too low-key for some who prefer the comedies broad and raunchy, although there is plenty of the latter. It is also subtitled, which turns off some viewers.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of nudity and sexuality in the movie, but much of it is done in a humorous manner; shouldn’t be too offensive although I’d think twice before letting the kids watch this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name “dite” in Czech means “child.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Push