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Column Fri Jan 08 2010

Daybreakers, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Leap Year, and The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond


It's no secret that the world is being bombarded with vampire movies and TV shows. The best of the recent crop is Sweden's Let the Right One In; there's no debating that. It's a fact, so shut up. But I put to you that coming in at a close second is this week's Daybreakers, a science-fiction terror film with a deep subtext about exploiting natural resources and human greed. Rightfully and blessedly so, the film also features nasty monsters, gore galore (both thanks to WETA Workshop), and an exceptional cast of actors, led by Ethan Hawke as a blood researcher and reluctant vampire (he refuses to drink human blood) determined to find a blood substitute before the human blood supply runs out in a world dominated by vampires.

Written and directed by The Spierig Brothers (Undead), the movie has a style, look, and sense of future place that is so complete and well thought out, my only complaint about Daybreakers is that it's too short; I wanted more of this fascinating world that functions almost exclusively at night. During the day, small pockets of free humans roam the earth essentially doing nothing more than finding new and better places to hide from the military, whose sole purpose in this time of diminishing natural resources (i.e., human blood) is to track down humans and turn them over to companies like the one owned by Hawke's boss, played with eccentric menace by Sam Neill, to farm their blood for as long as they can be kept alive. Some less than scrupulous vamps have taken to feeding on each other, which leads to some truly nasty, primal consequences. What I love about the film is that it makes it clear that just because we have all become vampires doesn't make us any smarter or less greedy; it just makes us immortal.

Much like works such as Dark City, the retro atmosphere of Daybreakers makes the steely gray world of vampires all the more timeless and noir-ish, especially in contrast to the daylight human world full of color and warmth. Hawke's stance on drinking human blood and the fact that he was "turned" against his will by his soldier brother make him a prime target of the humans to help them with a little experiment that their leader Elvis (a swaggering Willem Dafoe) devised to solve everybody's problems. But many of the upper-echelon vampires (including Neill) who have access to the remaining blood supply don't see the need for a cure for their condition, and it doesn't take long for Hawke to realize what his true mission in life needs to be.

Daybreakers never stopped impressing me with its fully realized alternate reality, everything from coffee served with blood instead of milk to the customized cars that vampires can drive during the day to the truly gruesome glimpses of what exactly a human-blood farm would look like. The scenes with the humans aren't quite as interesting, and maybe seem a bit too cookie-cutter renegade/living-underground outcast that we've seen in other movies. Thankfully, Dafoe is on hand to erase all of our concerns and give us yet another studied, badass performance--the perfect blending of stone-cold warrior and easy-going charmer. He's a great counterpoint to Hawke's somber, reflective character, who may be one of the few vampires who truly sees the world for what it is and understands that human nature hasn't changed just because the world's inhabitants now have fangs.

The carefully constructed environments that are both very much like our world (this film is only set 10 years in the future) and vampire world reminded me a lot of what writer-director Andrew Niccol did 12 years ago with Gattaca, also featuring Hawke. If I could flaw the film for anything, it's being too short in its running time (under 100 minutes). I wanted to see more of this other vamp-centric world, but the fact that I was so engrossed in Daybreakers to the point where I wanted an extra 20 minutes in the middle somewhere speaks volume as to its power and ability to draw me in and make me invested in their characters and their way of living/unliving. I also passionately love that this is an original screenplay from The Spierig Brothers; the world needs more original horror, end of story. They manage to incorporate a good deal of traditional vampire lore in a story that stays far away from the Gothic, dreamy, romantic type storytelling that his poisoned the vampire well of late. I'm sorry, but I like my vampire with fangs, ripping throats, and transforming into giant bat-like creatures. And no fucking sparkling. Support Daybreakers as quality horror and forget that it's a vampire movie; it's actually much more than just a vampire film, and I love it for everything it accomplishes in furthering the genre.

To read my exclusive interview with Daybreakers star Ethan Hawke, go to Ain't It Cool News

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Sometimes a work of art isn't a pretty, serene, neatly packaged thing. Sometimes it's a controlled mess-- chaotic, with touches of the grotesque and very few shiny corners. The latest work from director and co-writer (along with Charles McKeown) Terry Gilliam is an uproarious celebration of the way our minds work and the ways they are constantly conflicted, challenged, and tempted to follow the path to instant gratification rather than spiritual fulfillment. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is also a certified riot, a carnival ride, a love story, and a biblical epic co-starring the devil himself (played by the only man with the pipes or balls to play Satan the way he should be played, Tom Waits).

My favorite Gilliam films are those with which he is able to truly cut loose and let us peak behind his eyes into that wonderfully complicated brain of his. Dr. Parnassus is such a film and then some, with a small squadron of gifted actors guiding us through a visual landscape that barely makes sense after a second viewing of the film. In fact, it's difficult for me to imagine that anyone could really process everything that's going on in this movie after only one sitting. I've seen it twice and I'm ready to experience it again just to make sure I didn't miss anything. The first time, you watch it to get to know the characters and learn the basic plot; the second time, you take in the ideas behind the Imaginarium itself-- a world literally behind the mirror where your soul is up for grabs. Just thinking about it again makes me ready to see it one more time.

Of course Dr. Parnassus will be remembered as the last filmed performance of Heath Ledger, who plays Tony, a man found hanging by his neck from a bridge by a group of traveling performers and conjurers. They save him, and he uses his skills as a salesman to help bring much-needed customers to their little buggy of wonders. It's actually kind of remarkable and, in a weird way, fortuitous what Ledger was able to complete for this film and what he wasn't. If what is on screen is the only indication, he shot everything except what I assume would have been largely green screen work for scenes that take place on the other side of the Imaginarium's mirror. In an effort that I think makes for a better film, Tony transforms into a different-looking person (played by different actors) each time he enters the other side. Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law take their turn attempting to capture the spirited performance that Ledger brought to this role. It's great to see that, much like he did in The Dark Knight, Ledger was interested in cutting loose and having fun with this part. And if you watch carefully, tucked away in the middle of Depp's appearance as Tony, you'll get a fitting and lovely tribute to those who pass away too young.

I've somehow managed to make it this far in my review without even mentioning the rest of this memorable cast. Andrew Garfield (Lions for Lambs; the Red Riding trilogy) plays Anton, the act's barker who is charged with bring customers to the world of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, whose look for this part is remarkably similar to that of his portrait of Leo Tolstoy in the upcoming The Last Station). Unbeknownst to his co-workers, Parnassus is actively attempting to protect souls from being captured by Mr. Nick (Waits). The prize for the most souls is the good doctor's daughter Valentina (model Lily Cole, giving a solid performance here that is part innocent, part temptress). Verne (Mini Me) Troyer is also on hand as Percy, and I was really pleased to see him get a role that wasn't just about having him around for comic visual relief. Percy is the voice of reason in this pack of freaks, and while Troyer isn't the greatest actor, he's a genuine standout. When Tony gets wind of Parnassus' plight to save his daughter from the devil, he dives head first into actively working to improve the customer count and save a few souls.

While being a work of fantastical genius, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus isn't always a pretty thing. These characters exist in the gritty, grimy streets of London. And while the world on the other side of the mirror is certainly more pristine at times, it too can turn pretty nasty, especially when Nick infiltrates and attempts to steal souls. But it's in this world where we see Gilliam shine as the visual artist he has been since his Monty Python days. My favorite Gilliam film remains Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and there are some very similar visual themes happening in Dr. Parnassus. He doesn't create fantasy worlds to loose yourself in; he wants you tense, even scared about what's around the corner or just off frame. His images are, at times, disturbing, if only because you can't believe a single person could envision such things. For all these reasons, I implore you to check this film out. If you see it more than once, I guarantee you'll see very different films with each viewing. It's worth watching on the strength of Ledger's work alone, but it's everything else that's going on that's going to keep you enraptured. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Youth in Revolt

Sometimes when you jam pack a movie full of well-known and long-reliable character actors, you get a big sloppy mess, and sometimes you get a film that's kind of special. So many friends of mine are mildly obsessed with the C.D. Payne novel Youth in Revolt, and their expectations are perhaps a bit too high for a successful adaptation by screenwriter Miguel Gustin Nash and director Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, as well as episodes of "Freaks and Geeks," "Six Feet Under," and "The Office"). The good news is that the movie is exceedingly funny thanks to its great cast and a slightly different take on the coming-of-age film of a classic film nerd in the guise of Nick Twisp (Michael Cera).

If there is such a thing as the "Michael Cera type," I haven't grown weary of it yet. He delivers his funniest lines under his breath, almost daring us to lean in and listen quite closely to every sardonic remark. But when the charmingly dorky Nick can't quite pull himself together enough to get the serious attention of the woman of his dreams, Sheeni Saunders (newcomer Portia Doubleday), he creates an alter ego named Francois, a sociopath whose destructive leanings get Nick in a shitload of trouble, but also get him a lot closer to his relationship goals than he's ever dreamed possible. Nick first meets Sheeni in a trailer park where he, his mother (the cougarific Jean Smart) and her boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) are hiding out for a time.

After immediately falling for Sheeni, Nick (or more precisely Francois) arranges for a bit of destruction that lands him living with his father (Steve Buscemi), who just happens to reside very close to where Sheeni and her very religious parents (Mary Kay Place and M. Emmet Walsh) live. What's fascinating about the character of Sheeni is that she is not portrayed like a typical pretty high school girl leading boys on to get what she wants. We suspect that she may be exactly that, but when we see her around her parents, we get a better sense of the kind of personal hell she's living everyday and how lying to them is her knee-jerk response to any question they have for her. It's her survival mechanism, and the more of this behind-the-curtain part of her that Nick sees, the more he falls in love with her and wants to help her escape. The film is undoubtedly a comedy, but in these more revealing moments, I was moved.

As the film progresses, we meet even more fantastic players, including mom's other boyfriend, a local cop played by the suitably insane Ray Liotta; a bleeding-heart-liberal neighbor (Fred Willard); Buscemi's girlfriend (the adorable Ari Graynor); Rooney Mara as a depressive classmate of Sheeni's; Justin Long as Sheeni's fully baked brother; and the colossally funny Adhir Kalyan ("Aliens In America"; Fired Up!) as Nick's new best friend who drives him to Sheeni's private school where he hopes to convince her to run away with him.

But the film's real scene-stealer is Francois, with his John Waters mustache, ridiculous ascot, slicked-to-the-side hair, too-tight slacks, and delicately handled cigarette. Francois is a side to Michael Cera that we simply haven't seen before, and it's a beacon of hope that whatever he gives us in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World will be extraordinary. There's no stammering, no averted gaze. He's a man so confident in his piggish nature the he knows without a doubt that women will find him repulsive and attractive at the same time. I know I did. He's the kind of guy that isn't afraid to pick a fight with Ray Liotta. For Francois and his cast of supporting thousands of funny folks, Youth In Revolt hits on the anger, desperation, emotional violence, and hilarity of those awkward teenage years. I can't tell you how it compares to the book, but I know how it stacks up to a lot of other films of its ilk, and it's far stronger than any of them.

Visit Ain't it Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Youth In Revolt stars Michael Cera and Portia Doubleday.

Leap Year

The only thing more frustrating than a shitty romantic comedy is one that actually features actors that I genuinely like in just about everything else they do. Which immediately begs the questions, what the hell are Amy Adams (Junebug, Sunshine Cleaning, Julie & Julia, Enchanted, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Charlie Wilson's War, Doubt) and Matthew Goode (The Lookout, Watchmen, Brideshead Revisited, A Single Man) doing in this dumpy, ill-paced, hemorrhoid of a movie? If your only ambition for your child's life is to write crap rom-coms, take them to this paint-by-numbers example of one. Is our heroine's entire life summed up in a nice little speech at some point in the first 10 minutes of the movies? You bet. Anna is an apartment stager, who arranges hard-to-sell condos and homes for real estate agents' open houses. She's the best at what she does because she's very organized and segmented in both her work and her life. Her longtime boyfriend is Jeremy, a doctor whose greatest eccentricity is receiving surgery photos on his cell phone while he and Anna eat dinner. Yum.

Anna thinks she and Jeremy have been dating long enough to get married, and when the moment looks as though it is approaching, he gives her diamond earrings instead of a ring. We learn in the single scene featuring her father (John Lithgow, literally brought in for one scene to provide exposition and then never heard from again) that it is a family tradition that the women can ask their husbands to marry them only on Feb. 29 of a leap year...thus the title...Leap Year...never mind. It just so happens that the birthplace of this legend is Ireland, which is where Jeremy is going to a "medical conference" in Dublin. So Anna decides to surprise him and pop the question.

Naturally, her travels are waylaid and she ends up far away from Dublin and must hire a driver (Goode) to take her to Dublin. In a surprise twist of events that I'll admit I didn't see coming, their car is blown up by a long-dormant roadside bomb left over from "the troubles" and the movie ends with their bloodied body parts mixed in with the wreckage of the car. Oh, no wait. That was the movie that I came up with in my head as I endured what has the be scene-for-scene the single most predictable movie ever made. Contrivance after contrivance practically fall over each other lining up to be the next obvious obstacle or romantic moment between Adams and Goode. Adams wears the wrong shoes for all the walking she must do, they get rained on, she gets muddy, they are forced to share a room, he's a great cook, she's pretty, he wears bulky cozy sweaters, the list goes on and on and on. In fact, if you've seen the trailer for Leap Year, the only part of the film that will be any surprise to you is the last 10 minutes or so, and even that doesn't require a great imagination to figure out where things end up.

The fact that this film was made by two strong actors who actually rise above this pedestrian material makes it all the more frustrating. And in the hands of a capable director like Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie, Shopgirl, and one of the three films in the upcoming Red Riding trilogy), the film certainly looks presentable and as green and stony as the Irish countryside is known to be on occasion. But dressing this pig up like the Queen of England doesn't make it smell any better. And yes there is a moment of great public embarrassment for both of our heroes, just like every other goddamn romantic comedy every fucking made. Watching Leap Year kinda-sorta reminded me of seeing the dead husks of two people I used to really like do something really awful with the last minute of their lives (sorry, that metaphor got lost in a sea of my rage). Please don't encourage this kind of behavior in actors who can actually act and excel at creating interesting characters most days of the week. Leap Year is junk, and if you go and see it you'll shorten your life span by about 95 minutes; you'll actually feel the lifeforce exiting your body. Just don't.

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Based on a lost, unproduced Tennessee Williams screenplay written during a period in film history where so many of his great works were made into movies (including Suddenly Last Summer, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is actually better in concept than in execution. But its execution isn't too bad either. In her feature directing debut, Jodie Markell introduces us to Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard, never looking more lovely), a rich young heiress who lives outside the unwritten rules of high society and attempts to seduce the son of her father's estate's caretaker (Chris Evans plays the son; Will Patton the drunken father). When Fisher invites young, handsome Jimmy to escort her to a local function hosted by Julie (Mamie Gummer), a series of events take place at the party that alter the lives and friendships of most of the major players.

The goings on are pure and classic Southern gothic, but there are also a few scenes that probably wouldn't have played quite as explicitly as they do in this modern adaptation. Howard is better than I've ever seen her here, as a belle who both embraces and rejects the conventions thrust upon her. She believes in the power of a romantic, moonlit kiss, but she also seems eager to behave in the most unladylike ways she can invent. She's absolutely on fire here, and I dug the subtleties that Howard places in her performance. I'm also a big fan of Evans' non-Fantastic Four work. The guy is actually a quality actor, as we've seen him prove in Sunshine, London, Fierce People, The Nanny Diaries, and Push. These weren't all great movies, but he was strong in each. He's a confused young man out of his element and excited about grabbing whatever flesh-and-blood bauble comes his way.

The story and characterizations are filled with the double-talk, innuendo, and barely suppressed lust that Williams practically invented on this scale. The problem with the film is that it seems to drag out its messages, and scenes feel like they go on too long. A subplot involving Fisher helping Julie's bedridden grandmother (Ann-Margret) commit suicide never really amounts to anything, even though it feels like it's supposed to hold some deeper meaning. In the 1950s, that storyline probably would have been shocking; today it feels like a necessary evil/mercy. Teardrop Diamond is a beautiful film to look at, with many attractive and talented people doing admirable work. And as much as I enjoyed watching these young screw ups go through the paces of messing up their lives, I never really found it possible to connect with any one of these folks in a way that drew me into this story and made me care about the outcome. If someone had been the victim of a surprise bear attack, I might have shrugged my shoulders and said, "Well, that was something." Come to think of it, that's basically what I felt about this whole movie. Not a blazing recommendation, but there are worse ways to spend a lazy afternoon. The film opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley theaters, for which I apologize in advance.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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