The Wicker Tree


Brittania Nicol is one hot chick.

Brittania Nicol is one hot chick.

(2011) Horror (Anchor Bay) Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Henry Garrett, Brittania Nicol, Honeysuckle Weeks, Christopher Lee, Clive Russell, Prue Clarke, Lesley Mackie, David Plimmer, Astrid Azurdia, James Mapes, Allidh Mackay, John Paul McGilvray, Bill Murdoch, Keith Warsick, Iain Stuart Robertson, Kristin Murray, Keira McMillan. Directed by Robin Hardy

Some may well remember a movie by the name of The Wicker Man that came out back in 1973. It has become something of a cult classic, well regarded both by film buffs and horror fans alike (a rare occasion indeed) and certainly one of the finest examples of atmospheric horror ever. Then along came 2006 and the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man does its level best to wipe out any good will the original film engendered. So the director of the original decides to make a sequel of sorts based on his own novel Cowboys for Christ. Does it regain that good will?

Born-again Christian pop star Beth Boothby (Nicol) and her boyfriend Steve (Garrett) have been on a mission to Scotland to bring those heathen Scots back to the fold of God. She is performing well-attended concerts, he’s been rockin’ his cowboy hat and sideburns. Ayup.

They arrive in the small town of Tressock, invited by Sir Lachlan Morrison (McTavish) and his wife Lady Della (Leonard). The town has a festival coming up shortly and Beth expects to be performing, although she would never guess how she’s intended to perform.

This is a failure on so many levels. although it at least has more restrained acting performances. Like the 2006 Wicker Man there is a plot that meanders from place to place, stopping to view different scenes which end up being apropos to nothing. They even trot out poor old Christopher Lee for a cameo with some of the most horrible green screen you will ever see on a professional production. I mean c’mon, the guy’s old not daft.

Weeks plays Lolly, a very sexy lady who sleeps with all sorts of people including the frustrated Steve who is tired of waiting for the virtuous Beth to commit to a physical and emotional relationship as well as the spiritual one. Beth, whose history had some sordid sexy music videos (by her standards) though is in no hurry to change things up, particularly while she’s on this mission. Weeks, much more than the somewhat stiff Nicol, is something of a force of nature here and makes the deepest impression of any actor in the movie.

One of the things that made the original Wicker Man so outstanding was the atmosphere that it created that looked bucolic on the surface but from the get go you just felt something wasn’t quite right. You can tell that Hardy went for that feeling again but perhaps it was lightning in a bottle the first time because instead of that just off feeling, you get a sense of a village inhabited by nuts and oddballs being visited by a couple of wing nuts. What makes this especially heinous is that they had the perfect opportunity to make some sort of insight into the religious obsession of Americans but instead boiled it down to caricatures and recycled stereotypes. Absolutely there is plenty of target space on the religious right but I would have expected at least a little bit of a different perspective, particularly from someone whose most famous work examines the difference between Christianity and paganism. Although it might well be said that his view of paganism was a lot more violent and spooky than it actually is. Then again, that would have made for a more boring film.

Self-arguments aside, this is a disappointing work that never comes close to achieving what the original Wicker Man did. What Hardy intended remains unclear, whether to remake his most famous work or update it or merely reference it here but at the end of the day this comes off as a wicker mess.

WHY RENT THIS: Weeks is appropriately sexy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A hot mess. Incoherent script. Lacks atmosphere.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sexuality and nudity, as well as some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lee was originally supposed to play the pivotal role of Sir Lachlan Morrison but was injured while filming The Resident. McTavish, who was originally supposed to play Beame, was then switched to the role of Sir Lachlan and Joan Collins, who was originally playing Lady Morrison was replaced by Leonard whose age was closer to the much younger McTavish than Collins.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Baby Mama

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Molly


Molly

Take me out to the ball game…

(1999) Drama (MGM) Elisabeth Shue, Aaron Eckhart, Thomas Jane, Lucy Liu, Jill Hennessy, D.W. Moffett, Elizabeth Mitchell, Robert Harper, Elaine Hendrix, Michael Paul Chan, Jon Pennell, Sarah Wynter, Lauren Richter, Tanner Lee Prairie, Musetta Vander. Directed by John Dulgan

 

When we look at the disabled, often all we truly see is their disability. The hardest thing for us so-called normal folk is to look beyond and see the person within. This is often true of those who love the disabled, as well.

Buck McKay (Eckhart) has a good job, a great loft in trendy Venice (California, not Italy) and a busy social calendar. He’s restoring a vintage sailboat. He is leading a quietly fulfilling, productive life. Then, he gets a letter from the state of California.

The care facility at Bellevue is being shut down due to funding constraints. What does this have to do with McKay? That’s where his sister, Molly (Shue) has been staying for a number of years, ever since both their parents died in a car crash. She’s autistic, with the emotional and mental state of a three-year-old.

Immediately, Buck’s life is thrown into chaos. He loses his job when Molly prances into an important meeting naked because she’s too warm although if Elisabeth Shue pranced into one of my meetings naked, I’d probably give her brother a promotion. Maybe that’s just me, though. In any case, the constant attention that his sister requires has emptied his social calendar. Yes, it’s true: The Buck stopped there.

A lifeline is thrown when Sam (Jane), a learning-disabled orderly who had developed a rapport with Molly at Bellevue, gets a new job at a new clinic. Doctors at this clinic are looking to perform experimental surgery that would activate the portion of her brain that isn’t functioning. Molly is an exceptional candidate for the surgery. The result would be the mental and emotional flowering of a young woman her self-absorbed brother has never taken the trouble to get to know. But what science giveth, capricious fate often taketh away.

If this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for it. The plot is very similar to Daniel Keyes’ classic novella Flowers for Algernon, which later was made into the gripping Cliff Robertson movie Charly. Both of those versions are far superior to this distaff version, but Molly is not without its charm.

Shue, once an Oscar nominee for Leaving Las Vegas, had by this point without much fanfare become an impressive acting talent. In this film she plays a woman buffeted by a world she scarcely understands. Alternately full-of-life joyous and angry and frightened, she displays her emotions vividly and without reservation. The supporting cast was mostly unknown at the time, although many of them have gone on to good careers. Here, most of them are pretty solid.

The problem with the movie is predictability. The story is just too close to Charly for my own personal comfort. While it does raise the important issue of considering the person behind the disability, Molly often flails and wallows in maudlin sentiment, like a pig in a mud hole. During those periods, the movie drags, big time.

Molly didn’t really get a lot of theatrical play in its day and is probably difficult to find although I understand Netflix carries it, but is worth checking out if you either run into it or seek it out, if for no other reason to enjoy Shue’s performance, which is definitely superior.

WHY RENT THIS: An excellent performance by Elizabeth Shue.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of by-the-numbers. Solid but unspectacular performances after Shue.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little bit of sexuality and a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was unusual in that it premiered on airplane flights before its theatrical release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,650 on a $21M production budget; the film was a huge flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Charly

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Last Mistress

The Sessions


The Sessions

Just a little pillow talk.

(2012) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart, Blake Lindsley, Rusty Schwimmer, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

We take things for granted. Walking, seeing, hearing, touching…our senses are a gift that not all of us get to utilize. So too is sex. We tend to take it for granted, especially those of us who have partners who are pretty much willing whenever and wherever, that not everyone gets to have sex. For some it’s lack of that willing partner. For others, there are physical impediments.

Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) is a journalist and poet living in Berkeley. It is 1988 and he is 36 years old. Having dismissed one attendant (Schwimmer) for another named Amanda (Marks) whom he has fallen deeply in love with, he has been afflicted with polio since he was six and must confine himself in an iron lung in order to breathe. He is able to exit his confinement for three hours or so at a time but no more. For that reason, having sex has been problematic. When he confesses his love to Amanda, she bolts; he is sure it’s because he’s a virgin.

He is not strictly paralyzed; he has feeling throughout his body and while he is able to move his limbs somewhat he doesn’t have much control; only his head seems to work properly. His night attendant Rod (Brown) and his new day attendant Vera (Bloodgood) are sometimes confronted with Mark’s sexuality; while being bathed he often gets an erection and occasionally ejaculates, much to his consternation.

After writing an article for a local magazine on the subject of sex and the disabled, Mark begins to feel like he was an amateur writing on a subject he didn’t know anything about. Consulting with his parish priest, Father Brendan (Macy) – Mark was raised and continues to be a devout Catholic, attending confession regularly and Mass whenever he can – Mark decides that he needs to experience sex. For one thing, he knows his time on this Earth is limited and he doesn’t want to die a virgin.

Father Brendan refers him to a therapist (Lindsley) who in turn refers him to a sex surrogate – Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). Mark is given six sessions with which to achieve the intimacy he’s longing to achieve.

Mark is quite nervous at first and confuses Cheryl a little bit with a prostitute (with which she takes great pains to explain the difference). He also requires a great deal of patience as he is prone to…ummm, arrive early. Despite admonitions to the contrary, he begins to develop an emotional bond with his surrogate. And Cheryl, against all odds, begins to feel something for him.

This is based on a true story, chronicled by the real Mark O’Brien in an essay entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which was published in a magazine called The Sun. O’Brien, who would pass away in 1999, was a talented writer who was also the subject of a 1996 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien which would win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

There might be some Oscar consideration for this one as well. Hawkes gives a remarkable performance as O’Brien, capturing the wheezing vocal quality of someone who has respiratory issues as well as the twisted posture that O’Brien possessed. He also captures all of O’Brien’s doubts, his whimsical sense of humor, his sweetness, his passion and his gift for gab. It’s a complex and layered performance and given Hawkes’ recent string of sensational performances, helps establish him as one of the best actors in the world, bar none.

But as brave as Hawkes’ performance is, Hunt’s is braver. She spends a good deal of the movie fully naked. She makes little or no attempt to hide her 49 years; she is comfortable in her own skin and to show her body this way is probably more than most Oscar winners would agree to (and she is a member of that prestigious club). Cheryl is on one hand the competent professional, on the other a woman whose marriage isn’t what she thought it would be and whose own spirituality is very much in flux; she is converting to Judaism on the request of her husband but like Mark was raised Catholic in Massachusetts.

Macy’s Father Brendan reminds me of some of the Jesuit priests I knew at Loyola; certainly well aware of their duties to the Church but equally aware of the needs of men (and women) and who owed more allegiance to common sense than to dogma. He’s the kind of priest you would feel comfortable opening up to in the confessional and out, one whose advice you would consider seriously and one who you wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with after the game. Like I said, a Jesuit in spirit if not in reality.

This is a movie that might sound on the surface that it is about sex (and yes there is some graphic nudity although nothing that I would consider pornographic) but it really isn’t. It’s about kindness. It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit. And it’s about spirituality. Sex is just a component of this multi-layered film. Sure there are some who might be offended by the rather frank discussions of sex, arousal and intercourse. In some ways this is a 95 minute sex education film but it isn’t a how-to. What it really is about is how beautiful life is and that anything is possible. This is a movie that genuinely uplifts without having to resort to emotional manipulation and if you aren’t moved by it, you may need to check your pulse.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances from Hawkes and Hunt. Deeply affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Very matter-of-fact and somewhat clinical at times about sex; those who are offended about such things might be troubled by the movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie contains a lot of frank representations of sex, both verbally and physically. There is a good deal of nudity as well as some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hawkes used a foam ball laid on his spine to get the curvature of his body correct. The process was painful but Hawkes said in an interview that compared to what similarly disabled people go through it was bearable and worth enduring to get the part right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything

IRON LUNG LOVERS: The production designers were loaned an old iron lung for the filming. The device was era specific.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Am Legend

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen)


Turn Me On, Dammit

Just because a teen girl is in bed doesn't mean she's thinking about sleep.

(2011) Teen Sex Comedy (New Yorker) Helene Bergsholm, Malin Bjorhovde, Henriette Steenstrup, Beate Stofring, Matias Myren, Lars Nordtveit Listau, Jon Bleiklie Devik, Julia Bache-Wiig, Julia Elise Schacht, Arthur Berning, Hilde-Gunn Ommedal. Directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen

 

Hollywood has explored teen sexuality with a bit of a vengeance. Teens losing their virginity, teens frustrated by their raging hormones and teens just generally looking to get laid are all common themes – but always from the male perspective. Sex for teen girls has always been relegated to either a search for Mr. Right or as objects for teen boys.

Alma (Bergsholm) is different, at least as far as Hollywood perceptions of teen girls go. Sure, she’s sweet on a specific guy – hunky Arthur (Myren) – but she has urges and I mean all the time. She puts teen boys to shame. She is constantly getting herself off (forcing her mother (Steenstrup) to don earplugs at night so she doesn’t hear her daughter’s moans), looks at porn magazines and spends well over six thousand kroner (about $1,000 US) on phone sex. In fact, the phone sex operator she usually chats with has gotten to know her well enough that he knows about her fascination with Arthur and about the tiny little town in Norway that she lives in.

Skoddeheimen is bucolic, nestled in the mountains and fjords of Norway but far from any semblance of anything that would keep a teen from getting bored. Alma hangs out with her friends Sara (Bjorhovde) and Ingrid (Stofring). The former smokes like a chimney and dreams of moving to Texas where she would become an anti-death penalty activist (good luck with that one) while the latter is a bit on the empty-headed bitchy side and is constantly applying layer after layer of lip gloss, making Snooki look positively hippie-like.

The girls take the bus to and from school, talk about boys, get adult men to buy beer for them and smoke disconsolately in a bus stop shelter on the edge of town which is kind of a clubhouse for them. They go to school and party – that’s life in Skoddeheimen. At a party at the Youth Center one night, Alma steps outside to sneak a beer. Arthur joins her there and suddenly without any apparent reason, whips out his member and rubs it against her leg.

Alma is suitably surprised and runs inside to tell all her friends. Ingrid, who has a big crush on Arthur, refuses to believe it happened and when confronted Arthur denies it as well. Alma soon finds herself completely ostracized, shunned like she has a scarlet letter embroidered on her chest. Ingrid spews venom at her every chance she gets and even Sara finds it impossible to be seen with her at school. The kids start calling her “Dick-Alma” and the nickname follows her everywhere except to her home where her mother is completely oblivious to the hell her daughter is going through.

And hell is exactly what it is; shunned, no longer invited to parties, the guy she has had a crush on for a long time refuses to speak to her. Alma gets a job at the co-op market working for the genial Sebjorn (Devik) who happens to be Sara and Ingrid’s dad (did I mention they’re sisters) but when he discovers Alma’s out of control sexuality and Alma discovers the reason for Arthur’s distance and denial, she gets fed up and runs away to Oslo to visit Maria (Bache-Wiig), the older sister of Sara and Ingrid who is attending university there. Desperately lonely, Alma opens up to Maria and her roommates and for the first time in quite awhile finds acceptance.

Eventually her break in the city must end and she must return home to Skoddeheimen. Can she get past the small village’s perceptions of her or even change them, or is she doomed to be an outcast for the rest of her life (or at least until she graduates).

This is a heartwarming movie with a wry sense of humor. The teens here act like teens (flipping the bird to the road sign with the town’s name on it every time they pass it) and don’t have all the answers. They can be petty and vindictive but also enormously loyal and caring as well.

The fact that almost none of these actors had any professional experience before this movie is amazing. Bergsholm in particular had a role that can’t have been easy; it calls for some displays of sexuality that would make adult actresses uneasy and she is in nearly every scene in the movie. She’s quite beautiful with a shy but charming smile and an attitude that shows the kind of strength a lot of adults don’t possess. Sure Alma is a horndog, but she’s admirable just the same. She doesn’t always deal with her sexuality well, but what teenager does? I don’t think she is a role model precisely but she isn’t far from one.

Steenstrup is one of the few adults in the movie and she gives the single mom in the movie (Alma’s dad is never in the picture) the kind of frustration and confusion that every parent of a teen daughter can relate to (and it’s not by accident that the mother is never given a name). The mom doesn’t always handle her daughter’s situation gracefully and she is sometimes caught up in her own problems to really take enough notice of her daughter’s and her reactions tend to be on the knee-jerk side. Like every parent she has no manual to consult and so she just wings it, sometimes doing or saying the perfect thing, other times stumbling into disaster. As parenting goes, that’s pretty much universal.

As I said at the top of the review this is an unusual film for its female perspective. Some will find the opening scene with Alma lying on the kitchen floor with her hand down her panties masturbating while listening to her favorite phone sex operator describe what he’s doing to her shocking; others will have their feathers ruffled at the nudity displayed here. If you tend to be on the prudish side, this might not be your cup of Aquavit. However, while teen sexuality is at the center of the movie, it isn’t about teen sex but more about our attitudes towards female sexuality. Why aren’t girls allowed to enjoy sex or want it? When boys/men are horny, we snigger and shrug it off as “boys will be boys” but when girls/women do it, they’re sluts. I guess I just don’t understand why we have to look at both cases differently.

This is a movie with a gentle sense of humor that has a certain amount of sex, but I never found it raunchy like a Porky’s type of movie or even like an American Pie sort of thing. Rather, it looks at teen female sexuality with level head and open eyes. That seems to me to be a more sensible way of promoting understanding.

REASONS TO GO: An unusual look at teen sexuality from the female perspective. Well-acted and funny from a realism standpoint.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s a lot of emphasis on female masturbation and fantasizing which might put conservative folks out of sorts.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and nudity, as well as several scenes of female masturbation. There are rude words and gestures and plenty of teen smoking, drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers tried to make most of the cast local to the Sogn og Fjordane district where the film was set so that the dialects would be accurate. 450 teenagers were seen which isn’t a large amount for this kind of film but is a significant percentage of the overall population of 10,000 for the district.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100. Early reviews are highly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The First Time

FJORD LOVERS: The area the movie was filmed in has its share of fjords and they are beautifully captured here.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Bully

Melancholia


 

Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst is sinking fast.

(2011) Science Fiction (Magnolia) Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Brady Corbet, Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr. Directed by Lars von Trier

It is not often you root for the end of the world at a movie.

Lars von Trier is a Danish director of some renown who is known for movies with remarkable imagery and an artistic aesthetic. His films sharply divide audiences; some proclaim that he is a genius, others a charlatan. Critics tends to moon over him like a lovesick teenager.

I try to take each film as it comes to me, and not review the filmmaker so much as his work. I will say this; I’m not the sort of person Lars von Trier makes movies for. It’s not that I have a problem with trying to make something that is art; I respect any attempt to do so and encourage it. There is room in the world for all sorts of palettes.

But then there is Art. The kind of thing that is created by people who think Art is above everything, who deliberately try to shock and disturb not so much to make a point or even force the viewer to confront their own viewpoints but simply to grab attention. I view this with the same affection I have for a child screaming at the top of their lungs in an inappropriate setting; the message that is being sent is “Look at me! Look at me!”

The film here is divided into two parts, preceded by a prologue of images that essentially tell you the story in a series of slow-moving interactive pictures many of which appear on the trailer. The first part is entitled Justine and is about the character of the same name. Justine (Dunst) is a brand new bride who is at her wedding reception at the home of her super-wealthy brother-in-law John (Sutherland) who is married to her sister Claire (Gainsbourg).

Among the wedding guests are Justine’s parents, Dexter (Hurt) and Gaby (Rampling) – who along with Claire have British accents, something Justine doesn’t have – and who don’t get along at all. Dexter is a bit of a womanizer and Gaby somewhat bitchy. Also there is Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) who is also her husband Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgard) best man. Jack is tightly focused on getting a tag-line for an advertisement Justine has been working on and sends Tim (Corbet) to get it.

It turns out Justine has some psychological problems, ranging from clinical depression to possibly bipolar disorder and like her mom she’s also a bit of a bitch. She manages to alienate nearly everyone at the wedding. For the viewer, it’s like being at a party that gets more and more awkward to attend. Da Queen was urging me to leave the party but like witnessing a train wreck, I felt compelled to see what the damage would wind up being.

The second part is entitled Claire and shows her, John and their son Leo (Spurr) coping with the sudden appearance of Justine some time after the wedding. She is pale, nearly inert and looked for all the world like an addict coming down from a major bender. The atmosphere is tense with John fed up with Justine’s antics and Claire trying to appeal to her sister in some way.

Hanging over all of this, literally, is planet Melancholia, a gigantic rock that suddenly appeared from behind the sun and is threatening to collide with Earth. While John insists that Melancholia will merely pass by, Justine seems convinced that the Earth is doomed. She knows things, after all.

Having a character “know things” is a bit of a cop out. It’s lazy writing. I will grant you that Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work here, gives a brave performance, having to urinate in her bridal gown on a golf course, portray a character who isn’t very likable at times and turns up stark naked and sexually aroused at the sight of the approaching planet.

I suppose there are metaphors here and I suppose that I’m not getting them. For me, this was an excruciating two hours that seemed a pointless exercise in making pretty images, which I grant you were in some cases breathtaking, gallery worthy. However, the movie did nothing for me but leave me with an angry wife who demanded an explanation as to why I’d dragged her to the Enzian to see this.

Again, I don’t have a beef with trying to create a work of art. But there’s art and then there’s Art. The difference is that the former is a communication between the artist and the audience, a point that is being made or some insight imparted. The latter is an exercise in self-indulgence.

I have written a review that could easily have been condensed to two words, but I’m making a point. All of these words I’m putting to page are extraneous and ultimately superfluous. They are unnecessary wastes of time for you, the reader for which I apologize. All of the review you need to read is this: Fuck Art.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty images and Dunst makes a brave effort.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Pretentious, overbearing, badly written, aggravating, awkward – it’s just a mess masquerading as art.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, sex and implied masturbation, as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The above image, used in the movie’s poster and briefly seen in the prologue, is based on John Everett Millais’s 1852 painting Ophelia.

HOME OR THEATER: Don’t do it. For the love of God, don’t do it.

FINAL RATING: 1/10

TOMORROW: Winnie the Pooh

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

Love and Other Drugs


Love and Other Drugs

Jake Gyllenhaal and Oliver Platt practice their Blues Brothers routine.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Josh Gad, Hank Azaria, Gabriel Macht, Judy Geer, George Segal, Jill Clayburgh, Katheryn Winnick, Kate Jennings Grant, Kimberly Scott, Nikki Deloach, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold. Directed by Edward Zwick

We’re obsessed by love and its close physical cousin, sex. We write songs about it, make movies about it, write reams of poems and self-help books about it, and pray for it in our most fervent nights of loneliness. We’ve even tried to make drugs that will improve it, but in the end the human heart cannot be saved by any pills or salve.

Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is the kind of guy that can sell anything. He is suave, sure of himself, charming and handsome. He can sell stereo equipment – or himself as a bed partner, and does both with equal success. Well, one more than the other to be sure.

After being fired from his latest job for sleeping with the manager’s girlfriend (in the storage room in the back to make things worse), he has to face his parents (Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh). His dad is a successful doctor in Chicago as is his sister (Gold). His brother Josh (Gad) is a software geek whose IPO has made him wealthy and whose trophy wife has made him crazy. Jamie, a chronic underachiever who dropped out of med school, is a disappointment.

Josh gets him an interview at Pfizer and Jamie does well enough to get a job in the heartland (I hear Ohio although the movie is filmed mostly in Pittsburgh and environs) pimping Zoloft for Bruce Winston (Platt), who dreams of a promotion to Chicago where he may spend more time with his family. He recognizes that Jamie might just be the guy to get him there.

The tough nut to crack here is Dr. Stan Knight (Azaria), a dedicated Prozac guy who is tight with Trey (Macht), the matinee idol ex-Marine rep who sells it. After being rebuffed time and time again about placing free samples in the doctor’s pharmacy, he at last wins Dr. Knight with a thousand dollar check that allows Jamie to “shadow” Dr. Knight for a day. It is then that he meets Maggie Murdoch (Hathaway), a 26-year-old Parkinson’s patient who needs her meds replaced. She also has a blotch on her breast, which she shows to the good doctor – and Jamie, who is introduced to her as an intern. When she later finds out he is a pharmaceutical rep, she hits the roof. However, the charming Jamie is taken by her and manages to sooth her enough to get an invite for coffee. This leads to frenzied sex on her living room floor.

Thus begins a strange courtship that both agree will be strictly physical. Jamie is perfectly all right with that – Maggie is a tiger in the bedroom (or any other place the urge to fornicate takes them) and a no strings attached situation is perfect for him. Maggie has her own reasons – she doesn’t want to get close to someone only to have them leave once they figure out how exactly what being in love with a Parkinson’s patient entails. It’s happened to her before, after all.

Jamie is struggling as a rep until Pfizer comes out with a new wonder drug – a little blue pill called Viagra. Once that comes out, Jamie’s career is blazing. He is writing more prescriptions than the company can keep up with, which is just fine with them. He is certainly on the fast track for Chicago, and he has an in with Dr. Knight who is a wannabe ladies man which Jamie can certainly relate to – and assist with.

In the meantime, his relationship with Maggie has taken a strange turn – he’s fallen in love with her. It’s never happened to him before, a man who has committed to nothing or nobody before in his life. Now that he has, he doesn’t know what to do. For Maggie’s part, every instinct in her is screaming to get out of this relationship but against her better judgment she is falling for him too. She has to wonder what is going to get in between them first – her illness or Jamie’s career.

This has all the elements of a Hollywood romantic comedy; boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, things go great until either a misunderstanding, a pre-arranged event or a lie get in between them, boy wins back girl in the final reel. However, this isn’t a romantic comedy per se. What it really is about dealing with obstacles.

Director Zwick has some pretty big canvas films on his resume (Glory, The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall) all of which are among my favorite films of the past two decades. He is also one of the creators of the TV series “Thirtysomething” which I think is closer in tone to this movie which is kind of odd because I really didn’t like “Thirtysomething” – I found it whiny. So why did I like this movie?

There are a number of reasons. First and foremost are the performances of the leads. Gyllenhaal has made a number of really good movies (Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko, October Sky) but really hasn’t gotten a multi-layered role that he can truly sink his teeth into until now and he does very well with it. Jamie is basically a good guy wrapped up in layers of self-loathing and oversexed frat boy marked by an ambition to prove his father wrong and a willingness to go through people instead of around them to get what he wants.

As marvelous as Gyllenhaal is, he takes a backseat to Hathaway here. This is her coming out party as a serious actress after years of Disney Channel-esque roles. The potential she hints at in Rachel Getting Married is realized here. She is a scared and lonely woman who desperately wants to reach out and be held but realizes that nobody will want the baggage that comes with her. The pain is palpable and so is the compassion, and at every turn you are simply taken by her. It’s easy to see why Jamie falls in love with her; half the men in the audience would be too.

There is a good deal of sexuality in this movie; in that sense it is honest and true to its own convictions. While the kind of nudity and sex that is shown in this movie was common in the 70s, it is relatively unusual in 21st century Hollywood. Of particular note is that the sex and nudity are germane to the story and the characters, not merely inserted for titillation purposes (forgive the pun). I admire Zwick for having the courage to stick to his guns for the movie; it couldn’t have been easy to convince the studio to allow it and it certainly must have been difficult to get it past the MPAA who are notoriously rough on sex scenes as opposed to violence lately.

Ambition and tenderness can be opposing forces, but one can be a great motivator for the other as well. This is a movie about a real relationship, one that doesn’t go smoothly but could be the salvation of both parties involved. Yes, there is a bit of Hollywood in the mix – too good to be true syndrome – but nonetheless the relationship at the heart of the movie rings true. That’s more than I can say for the great majority of movie romances today, so when you find a good one, you mark it as precious. This isn’t mindless entertainment by any means – a wrenching scene when Jamie meets the husband (Friedman) of a Parkinson’s patient in the advanced stages will cure you of that notion. He details to Jamie what he can expect and tells him in no uncertain terms that his advice to him is to get out of the relationship while he still can. It’s the best scene in the film that doesn’t involve Hathaway.  This is a very good movie that is a little bit flawed to be great but nonetheless it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Hathaway that is worth seeing on its own. You might miss this one among the more hyped films like Burlesque and Little Fockers but this one might be the one you should see.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, as well as fine supporting performances by Platt, Gad and Azaria. Takes a good hard look at the cost of loving someone with a degenerative illness.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really the hard-hitting look at the pharmaceutical industry that the book is. Swings wildly between the romantic elements, the drama and the comedy and never really takes a stab at any of them.

FAMILY VALUES: You will see a lot of female breasts and most of them are Anne Hathaway’s. There is also Jake Gyllenhaal’s tush for those keeping track of celebrity flesh. There are also a whole lot of bad words as well as plenty of sexual innuendo not to mention actual sex. In short, probably okay for raging teen hormones but not for those who might not understand the ramifications of sex quite yet.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” by Jamie Reidy. His book is a non-fiction account of his time as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer. After the book came out, Reidy – who was then working as a salesman for a different pharmaceutical firm – was fired from his job.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of intimate movie that might make for a peculiar date night, but it also could be enjoyed just as easily at home.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men