Novitiate


Melissa Leo looks ready to rap someone on the knuckles with a ruler.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo, Denis O’Hare, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Chris Zylka, Ashley Bell, Rebecca Dayan, Chelsea Lopez, Marco St. John, Joseph Wilson, Jordan Price, Kamryn Boyd, Lucie Carroll, Lucy Hartselle, Carlee James, Adele Marie Pomerenke, Lisa Stewart. Directed by Maggie Betts

 

“Get thee to a nunnery” doesn’t have quite the same punch it once did. These days, Catholic nuns are women who feel a calling to serve God but minus the brutal discipline and somewhat arcane rules that once governed convents around the globe. One of the turning points in this evolution was the ecumenical council known as Vatican II which in its day revolutionized the Catholic church virtually overnight. Not everyone welcomed the changes that it brought, however.

Cathleen (Qualley) is a young woman who has been raised by her mother Nora (Nicholson) after her booze addled dad (Zylka) left which, in the 1950s and early 1960s was a much more unusual situation than it is now. She is not Catholic but when free schooling at a private Catholic school is offered, Nora – who is not religious in the least – takes it, hoping that it will give Cathleen a better education.

However, Cathleen finds the Catholic religion intriguing and feels that joining the novitiate is where her future lies – to become a bride of Christ. She joins the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, the convent headed up by a conservative old school Mother Superior (Leo) who takes her vows very seriously and expects her charges to do the same. All of their devotion is to be channeled towards God and Cathleen and her fellow postulates – the first stage of becoming a nun – are only too glad to comply.

The 18 fresh-faced dewy-eyed charges who are preparing to be symbolically married to Christ are trained by the flinty Mother Superior and the softer Sister Mary Grace (Agron) to be perfect wives to their husband-to-be because Christ deserves no less than perfection. This leads to terrifying sessions where the Mother Superior gathers the novitiates – who have graduated from the postulate rank to the second stage of becoming a full-fledged Sister – in a circle and orders them to confess their flaws that keep them from being perfect, reducing most of the girls to sobbing wrecks. Mary Grace is troubled by the brutal tactics of her Mother Superior and the two clash on a regular basis.

However, despite her mother’s disapproval Cathleen is determined to be the perfect bride of Christ and while that wins her the admiration of the Mother Superior, the discipline and self-starvation that Cathleen puts herself through begins to worry her fellow novitiates as she becomes dangerously thin.

To the film’s credit, it dispenses of the usual nun stereotypes that Hollywood generally utilizes; the Sister Mary Discipline knuckle rapping (although the Mother Superior at times comes close) or the singing nuns of The Sound of Music and The Singing Nun. Betts is cognizant that these postulates (and later, novitiates) are mostly teenage girls with all that implies; the girls are emotional ranging from ecstasy (celebrating like giddy brides after the ceremony that elevates them to novitiate status) to agony (falling apart when the stern Mother Superior gets in their face about minor rule infractions). These scenes tend to be the most memorable in the movie.

Much of the praise has to go to Leo, an Oscar winner who has a good shot at another nomination here for Best Supporting Actress; certainly this is one of the finest performances in a career chock full of them. When she reads the changes affecting her order wrought by Vatican II – including one that essentially demotes nuns to the same status as regular parishioners, giving them no standing within the church which, as the film notes at the end, would lead to more than 90,000 nuns renouncing their vows. Qualley, who most will know from her HBO series The Leftovers is also very strong and shows some confident screen presence. Agron from Glee also is impressive in a smaller role, but this even though the movie is about Sister Cathleen it is very much Leo’s performance that drives it.

The movie, a scoosh over two hours long, does drag in places, particularly during the middle. There is also a scene where Cathleen, desperate for intimacy and human contact, demands comfort from a fellow novitiate which leads to what feels like a prurient and unnecessary make-out session which felt like it didn’t need to be there.

The Catholic Legion of Decency has condemned the movie and I can understand why; the Roman Catholic church is portrayed as almost cult-like in places and devout Catholics may be uneasy watching this, although it should be kept in mind that the film takes place more than 50 years ago and things were a lot different in the Church and in her convents then than they are now.

Nonetheless this is a strong feature film debut for Betts and even though there are a couple of missteps and could have benefited from a little more trimming, she shows herself to be an exciting new voice in filmmaking at a time when Hollywood can use more powerful female directors – well, it always can but now more than ever.

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances here, particularly from Leo who takes it to the next level. Some of the scenes are extremely powerful. The filmmakers generally refrain from using stereotypes of nuns.
REASONS TO STAY: Some Catholics may have some issues with the film. The film runs a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, discussions of sexuality as well as brief nudity and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Doubt
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

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Ida


I say a little prayer for you.

I say a little prayer for you.

(2014) Drama (Music Box) Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Natalia Lagiewczyk, Afrodyta Weselek, Mariusz Jakus, Izabela Dabrowska, Artur Janusiak, Anna Grzeszczak, Jan Wociech Poradowski, Konstanty Szwemberg, Pawel Burczyk. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

Most of us have a handle on who we are mainly because we know with confidence who we were and where we come from. Not everyone has that luxury however.

Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a teenage novitiate getting ready to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun in communist Poland in 1962. She knew no other life but the nunnery; she had been orphaned as a baby during World War II and brought there to be raised. Shortly before the ceremony is to take place, the mother superior of her order (Skoczynska) summons her to her office and informs Anna that a relative of hers has been located. She strongly suggests that Anna go and spend some time with her aunt before the ceremony. Anna is reluctant but does so obediently.

Her Aunt Wanda (Kulesza) is different than any other woman Anna has known; a chain smoker and borderline alcoholic, Wanda lives hard and plays hard with a succession of men. However, the most startling revelation is about Anna herself.

Wanda informs her that her birth name wasn’t Anna at all but Ida – Ida Lebenstern. Her parents and siblings were all killed during the Nazi occupation. Anna, or Ida as she’s now known, decides to go with Wanda to the village where she was born and where her family died. She wants to know what happened, so Wanda and her set out in their broken down little Wartburg (an Eastern European vehicle) to the hinterlands of Poland. On the way they meet Lis (Ogrodnik), a saxophone player heading to a gig in the hotel they’ll be staying at.

It is not just her family that Ida will discover the truth about, but as she allows her sexual side to open up, she finds Lis to be very interesting indeed. And her Aunt, once a Stalinist prosecutor for the state whose many death sentences merited the nickname Red Wanda, is not nearly as strong as she seems. How can Ida go back to being Anna the nun when she’s discovered so much?

Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland and emigrated to Western Europe when he was 14, has based his entire career in England. This is his first film in his native Poland and he chose to film it in black and white which turns out to be a brilliant decision and not just because it captures the era so perfectly, but also it sets a mood that is often bleak and colorless.

Trzebuchowska is a real find. She’s not an actress nor does she intend from all reports to pursue that as a career, but she is perfect for this role. Wide, gamine eyes and a pretty triangular face, she is both innocent and worldly. There is almost a saintly quality to her in some ways, the way she clings to her faith in a world which has grown cynical and cold. She has largely been untouched by it but as the movie progresses and she becomes exposed to the world that innocence wavers but something new and extraordinary emerges.

Kulesza is one of Poland’s most decorated actresses and she turns in a fine performance here. On the surface Wanda is strong and self-confident, a pillar of strength and secure in her knowledge that she has been a good servant of the state. Now, she’s not so sure and the more she finds out about the fate of Anna’s family, the more she realizes that she is no different than those who so cruelly orphaned her niece. It’s a subtle but powerful realization that leads to one of the movie’s most shocking scenes.

The movie is gorgeously shot from the wintery countryside, the dingy interior of the farmhouse where Anna was born, the hotel lounge where the band is playing, the convent and Wanda’s elegant apartment. While some might discriminate against the film due to its lack of color, those folks are missing out – it’s beautiful in its spare atmosphere.

This is a haunting film and not just because the nuns look like ghosts from another time, well before when this film is set. You will be caught in Ida’s story and as her journey continues, you won’t be able to help wanting to see where it leads. It doesn’t always go where you might expect it to go, but then again, whose journey does?

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Kulesza and Trzebuchowska. Gorgeous black and white cinematography. Compelling story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwhelmingly bleak and austere.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult and there is some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original cinematographer had to withdraw from the film after ten days of shooting due to illness. He was replaced by Lukasz Zal who completed the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aftermath

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Bears

Philomena


Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan's delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan’s delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare WInningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Wummi Mosaku, Amy McAllister, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Kate Fleetwood, Charissa Shearer, Nika McGuigan. Directed by Stephen Frears

A mother’s love cannot be broken. Not even separation can diminish it – tear a mother and a child away from each other and she’ll move heaven and earth to find her baby. While any woman can have a baby, not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Some however are not given the choice.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is at a crossroads, trying to re-assess and reinvent his life. Sacked as the communications director for the Labour Government’s Minister of Transport, Local Governments and Regions, he is unsure whether he is going to write a book about Russian history or take up running.

At a party he meets a waitress named Jane (Martin) who overhears a conversation between Martin and editor Sally Mitchell (Fairley) about human interest stories. She figures she has a whopper but Martin politely declines. He doesn’t do human interest stories. However, as he comes to realize that he really has no other prospects and Mitchell is willing to publish, he decides to take it on.

Jane’s mother, Philomena Lee (Dench) as a young woman (Clark) had a baby out of wedlock. In 1950s Ireland, this was a major no-no. Her shamed family sent her to a convent where she had the baby (which was born in the breech position) without painkillers of any kind as penance for her sin. But did her penance end there? No. At three years old her son Anthony along with Mary, the daughter of her friend Kathleen (Murphy) are taken away and given up for adoption by the church to a wealthy American family. Anthony and Mary are driven away, Philomena screaming and sobbing behind them.

Over the course of the rest of her life she kept quiet about the incident. A devout Catholic, she was sure that this was nothing less than she deserved for breaking the laws of God. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years had passed that she confessed to her daughter Jane, who didn’t know before that moment that she had a brother.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent where she had given up her Anthony years before and found it a different place entirely. Sister Claire (Belton) is understanding but can offer no help – apparently the records of adoptions had been destroyed in a fire years before. It appears that Philomena’s quest has ended before it has begun, but while having a beer in the local pub Martin discovers that the records may have been burned intentionally and that most of the babies that had been given up for adoption by the convent had gone to America.

As it turns out, Martin had been a BBC correspondent once upon a time in the United States. With his contacts, there’s a good chance they might be able to find records on that side of the Atlantic. Philomena accompanies Martin across the pond and finds the whole experience delightful; business class, a posh hotel, breakfast buffets – all are new and wonderful to her. However, what they discover in America will turn things on their ear and change the very nature of Philomena’s quest.

Frears is one of the best directors working out there and he’s delivered another gem. Dench is a treasure in the title role. Philomena isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but what she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in wisdom and compassion. When Philomena describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin while in an airport, it is absolutely delightful, punctuated by “I didn’t see that one coming!” She also praises at least a dozen hotel workers as “one in a million.” Dench gives Philomena a certain amount of gravitas but not so much that the character becomes caricature. Instead, Philomena is chatty and a bit batty but at every moment we’re aware she’s on serious business and that her heart is just aching. Dench has a good shot at an Oscar nomination although Sandra Bullock may have a lock on the statue this February.

Coogan, best known for his comic turns, has been trying to take on some serious roles of late and this one is tailor made for his talents. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the co-writer and producer of the film but certainly he also makes Martin a study in contradictions – he has a sense of humor that he uses sometimes inappropriately and his people skills are a bit raw, particularly in that Martin can be condescending in places. However, he is also doggedly determined to see this thing through and is fiercely protective of Philomena by the movie’s end. He and Dench make a formidable pair.

In fact, it is their differences that make this movie so compelling. Martin is an atheist, Philomena a devout believer. Martin is angry, Philomena forgiving. There is a scene near the end of the film when Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde (Jefford), a nun who was in the convent at the time Anthony was given away. Martin’s anger boils over; Sister Hildegarde is unrepentant and essentially says that Philomena and the other girls like her deserved what they got for the premarital sexuality. It is Philomena who turns out to be the most Christ-like, forgiving Sister Hildegarde and the convent for their misdeeds. When Martin turns to her in amazement and says it’s easy to forgive, Philomena snaps that it isn’t easy at all. It’s bloody hard. But she does it because it is what Christ would want her to do. In her mind, she is remaining true to her faith – even if the church itself has not. It’s a powerful moment.

This is one that might get by even film buffs. With all the big Holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders coming out, this might slip below your radar. Don’t let it. This is an amazing film that hits all the right notes. Even though occasionally it does twist the knife a little bit, it still manages to cover a difficult and painful subject compassionately, perhaps more so than I, a Catholic, would have in the same situation.

REASONS TO GO: Marvelous performances by Coogan and especially Dench. Gripping story.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally manipulative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly strong language at times, mature thematic material and some sexual situations and dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Home movies are used as a flashback device throughout the film. While some of these were created specifically for the movie, some are actual home movies of the real Philomena Lee’s son.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magdalene Sisters

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: In Darkness

Contagion


Contagion

How is it that Marion Cotillard can still look so hot while trying to appear concerned?

(2011) Medical Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demitri Martin, Brian J. O’Connor, Chin Han. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

From time to time, the human population of this planet has been culled from everything from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu. It has been almost a century since our last plague; we’re about due for the next.

It takes just one person to start a plague. In this case, it’s Beth Emhoff (Paltrow). She has just returned home to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong with a case of the flu. At first it’s just chalked up to jet lag, but she suddenly has a violent seizure and is rushed to the hospital. Within hours she is dead. On his way home from the hospital, her husband Mitch (Damon) is told his son is having a seizure. By the time he gets home, his son is already gone.

In the meantime, cases of the disease are sprouting up all over the place, from a bus in Tokyo to a small village in China to a home in Chicago. It seems that a pandemic is about to break out.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, personified by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) are mobilizing their forces, sending Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to co-ordinate with Minnesota health officials while the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) to Hong Kong which is apparently ground zero. Both women soon find themselves in unexpected situations with potentially deadly consequences.

As more and more people get sick, things begin to break down. There is looting and riots as people demand answers and a cure. Doctors Ally Hextall (Ehle), David Eisenberg (Martin) and Ian Sussman (Gould) work feverishly to find the cure for this insidious disease which is so far resisting all known treatment. Meanwhile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) seeks to manipulate the crisis to his own advantage, fueling the panic that is already just below the surface. Mitch Emhoff is holed up in his home with his daughter Jory (Jacoby-Heron), watching supplies dwindle and terrified that he will lose his only surviving family member to the disease as her persistent boyfriend Andrew (O’Connor) repeatedly tries to get together with her physically. Will a cure be found before civilization completely collapses?

Soderbergh has shown a deft hand with ensemble casts in the Oceans trilogy but here he winds up with too many characters. Too many plotlines to really keep straight, so some his stars (not all of whom survive the movie by the way) are given extremely short shrift while other plotlines seem to go nowhere.

What he does do well is capture the realism of the situation. The movie was made with the co-operation of the CDC and while I’m not sure what, if any, of the film was actually filmed in CDC facilities, you get the sense that if they weren’t the filmmakers at least were granted access so they could find reasonable facsimiles.

You also get a sense that this is the way things would really go down, with lots of conflicting information going out, political in-fighting and finger-pointing as well as heroics by front line personnel who are trying to care for the sick and protect the healthy, not to mention a shady few who stand to profit by the misery of millions (I’m sure insurance companies will make out like bandits and the right will blame it all on Obamacare).

The stars deliver for the most part, particularly Damon who has to run through a gauntlet of emotions from disbelief to grief to anger to fear throughout the course of this movie. He rarely gets the kudos he deserves, but he’s a much better actor than he is often given credit for and for those who need proof of that, they need go no farther than his performance here.

Cotillard is given little to do but look concerned and beautiful and does both beautifully. Winslet does well in her role as a field representative of the CDC who is well and truly over her head to a crazy extent. Law is nefarious and snake-smooth as the blogger with ulterior motives.

The plot here follows standard medical thriller format; the difference here is that there is more emphasis placed on the procedures than on the patients. That’s a double-edged sword in that it gives us a unique viewpoint, but we rarely get to connect to the suffering of those affected by the disease in one way or another.

The scenes that show the rapid breakdown of society are the ones that held my attention the most. Sure, the scenes of scientific research had their fascination as well but I tend to swing my attention more towards the human than the technological or the bureaucratic. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of those sorts of scenes as I would have liked so the movie scored fewer points than it might have, but still plenty to recommend it to most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: All-star cast and a good sense of realism. Fascinating look at the breakdown of society as social services become impossible.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and not enough plot.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is rather disturbing and there are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon, Paltrow and Law last worked in the same film together in 1999 for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Law has no scenes with either Damon or Paltrow this time, however.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this at home; trust me, once you see this you won’t want to be within miles of another human being.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: I Don’t Know How She Does It

Mirrors


Mirrors

You should see what Jack Bauer does with more than 24 hours...

(2008) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox) Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Amy Smart, Mary Beth Peil, John Shrapnel, Jason Flemyng, Julian Glover, Tim Ahern, Josh Cole, Ezra Buzzington.  Directed by Alexandre Aja

There are questions in the universe that bear asking – some of them are not what you’d call obvious. For example, if eyes are the mirrors of the soul, does that mean that mirrors are the eyes for the soul too?

Ben Carson (Sutherland) has taken a few hits to the soul lately. A recovering alcoholic – not a good place to be if you’re a cop – he was involved in a shooting that left an undercover cop dead. His antics have alienated his wife Amy (Patton) to the point where she’s kicked him out of the house, severely limiting his contact with son Michael (Boyce) and daughter Daisy (Gluck). He’s been suspended from the force and is reduced to sleeping on his sister Angela’s (Smart) couch.

He gets a job as a night watchman at the Mayflower Department Store. A burned-out husk that is awaiting resolution of an insurance company squabble, it was the site of a fatal fire years ago. Soot coats nearly every square inch except for the many pristine mirrors, oddly looking polished and untouched.

He begins seeing strange images in the mirrors, horrible murders that come to pass. He has terrifying, realistic hallucinations of burning alive. The mirrors begin to communicate tasks that he is expected to do, and when Ben resists, family members are threatened and even killed. Soon, Ben is in a fight of his life against an enemy that is supernatural – one that can travel to any mirror or in fact, any reflective surface – and can kill with its reflection. His only salvation may lie with a cloistered nun who is not exactly jumping at the chance to help.

Aja is one of the most promising up-and-coming directors in the horror genre. His French films – particularly High Tension and his remake of The Hills Have Eyes are strong from a visual standpoint, and he knows how to make characters relatable. The visual sense of Mirrors is pretty dark, which you would expect in a deserted, burned-out department store. Sometimes underlit is a good thing, and it adds to the creepy element.

The effects are a little on the chintzy side – the mirrors use a kind of television static ripple effect that looks a little bit like a low-rent Ring. However, there are some pretty successful moments, such as a death scene in which a naked woman in a bathtub is killed by her reflection pulling off her mandible. It’s one of the highlights of the movie.

Most people know Kiefer Sutherland through his TV show “24” and this role isn’t too different than Jack Bauer. Ben is a little more damaged than Jack (I know, I know, Jack is plenty damaged) but they’re both men of action who when backed up to the wall. He has demonstrated a terrific action hero persona and there’s no doubt in my mind that if he continues to pursue parts like this, he’ll continue to be successful. This is the perfect role for him.

Smart is one of those actresses who just does a good job every time out. She doesn’t get big time leading roles but whenever she gets a part, she runs with it. Patton is a beautiful actress who has little else to do but look beautiful. I would have loved to see more motherly instincts from her when her kids are threatened; she doesn’t seem anxious enough.

The movie is a bit on the talky side; too many conversations between Patton and Sutherland about how they really should be together but she just can’t get past his actions and he needs to get his act together…okay, we get it. Other than that, this is a competent horror film that while a bit pedestrian about the whole mirror conceit, has plenty of scares, enough to recommend it.

WHY RENT THIS: Aja is one of horror’s most promising visual stylists. Sutherland has plenty of charisma in the lead role; Smart has a memorable supporting role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Could have been a little less talky.

FAMILY VALUES: There are lots of images that may be too intense for youngsters, plenty of violence and bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The unfinished Academy of Sciences building in Bucharest, Romania doubled for the nearly-demolished Mayflower Department Store.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a vignette showing Anna Esseker’s none-too-cheerful childhood, and there is also a featurette on the role of mirrors in urban legends and myth that may well be more informative and interesting than the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie was undoubtedly a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Rocket

Babylon A.D.


Babylon A.D.

Despite the indicator on her cap, Vin Diesel still has trouble spotting Melanie Thierry.

(20th Century Fox) Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Gerard Depardieu, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Strong, Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Jerome Le Banner. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

In a world where survival is achieved only by the most ruthless and compassion is as extinct as dinosaurs, is it possible that someone could learn the meaning of sacrifice for the greater good?

Toorop (Diesel) is a mercenary/assassin living in a squalid flat in the remains of a former Soviet Bloc city that has fallen into disrepair and decay. Guns are sold on street corners like pretzels and dinner is whatever game you can kill or steal. Toorop has lived by his principles, his wits and his ability to come out ahead whenever violence is necessary.

His flat is invaded by a bunch of goons who interrupt Toorop’s dinner to take him outside to a high-tech armored limo wherein resides Gorsky (Depardieu), a powerful ruthless Russian crimelord who Toorop owes a debt to. Gorsky tells Toorop if he can smuggle a girl to America – New York to be specific – in six days, his debt will be wiped out and Toorop, who is wanted for terrorism in the good ol’ U.S. of A. can get a new passport, the key to a new life.

The girl turns out to be Aurora (Thierry), a curiously naïve young woman living in a convent run by the Noelites, a somewhat recent addition to the religious scene. She will be accompanied by Sister Rebeka, a rather serene nun who can kick booty when the occasion calls for it. The two of them will have to make it to a train that will take them to Siberia, where they can cross the Bering Sea in a commandeered submarine. It becomes reasonably obvious that someone doesn’t want Aurora to get to where she’s going, but Toorop and Aurora herself manage to avoid bombs, traps and cage fighters in order to get across the ocean with the aid of Toorop’s friend Finn (Strong).

Crossing the automated drone-patrolled frontier of Alaska and Canada into the States proves to be a difficult, although not insurmountable problem. Once the trio makes it to New York, they discover their problems are really starting.

Kassovitz, the director of such excellent films as Metisse and The Crimson Rivers, has publically disowned the movie, complaining loudly about studio interference from the beginning and quite frankly, it’s clear that this is the work of many hands. There are nonsensical action sequences that do nothing to advance the plot, and whole chunks of exposition missing that might make the actions of the lead characters a bit clearer.

Kassovitz has a wonderful dystopian vision here; the Eastern European sequences (mainly filmed in the Czech Republic) are dreary and muddy, speaking of a society in major decay where the infrastructure has all but fallen apart. By contrasts, New York is glittering and gaudy, the very model of a futuristic city. Toorop moves through both of them with the same panther-like grace, his very muscles radiating the tension of an animal that can rip your face off at any moment without any provocation.

However, all those beautiful images are submarined (no pun intended) by a plot that is at equal turns ludicrous and muddy, hard to follow and hard to believe when you can figure it out. The appearances of Rampling as a kind of homicidal Pope and Wilson as a scientist on life support who essentially has all the answers to all the questions about who Aurora is and why she’s so damned important. Worth dying for? Apparently yes….twice.

Although critics are fond of taking shots at Vin Diesel, he is far from the reason this movie doesn’t work. His Toorop is the closest thing he’s played to his signature character of Riddick yet; he’s a little less sociopathic than Riddick but still clearly a survivor that will trample over anything getting in the way of his survival. Not particularly new territory for Diesel but he knows it well and covers it adequately.

Yeoh is also a gamer, and she is given even less to work with than Diesel, but still manages to make her character memorable and believable. Yeoh has been one of my favorite actresses for the past decade and I’ll walk many miles over broken glass to see one of her movies…well, almost. Still, I will go out of my way to check out any movie that’s she’s in, even this one.

There are some good solid concepts in here somewhere and there might have been a decent movie made if the studio had left it alone, and if the writers had made the last third a little better. Kassovitz is a very talented director who deserved better material than this which, unfortunately he had a hand in. Still, something tells me he’ll think twice before working for a big Hollywood studio again and that’s a shame; he’s got some really great movies in him that might benefit from those kinds of budgets.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the visuals are spectacular. Yeoh and Diesel give it the old college try but really don’t have enough to sink their teeth into.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a real mess. It feels like too many hands were stirring this soup; it’s the poster child for studio interference and overly ambitious directors clashing with the final film being the ultimate loser.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and foul language, as well as some implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The round Sigil Tattoo on Toorop’s neck is meant to be a protective ward and is known as The Gate of the Necronomicon, symbolizing Man, The Creator and The Watchers.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are full versions of the commercials playing in the background, as well as an animated “prequel” that explains some of Aurora’s backstory.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 13 Tzameti