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Column Fri Feb 04 2011
It was right there. The makings of a fairly solid, beautifully photographed, suspenseful 3D movie were within their grasp, and they blew it. Spectacularly. On multiple levels. Sanctum is being advertised as being producer James Cameron's post-Avatar 3D adventure story, and I'm sure that director Alister Grierson (who made the Australian war film Kokoda a few years back) is quite alright with that. Maybe some people will mistakenly think that Cameron directed the film and take some of the heat off of Grierson for this horribly written and acted mess of a story, which follows a group of underwater cave diver-explorers who get trapped underground and must seek out an escape route via miles of unexplored tunnels, caverns, and waterways.
Now that sounds badass, right? And actually, if you turn the volume all the way down, Sanctum might be a very good movie. But with the sound at its required levels, what we're left with is some of the most laughable, cliche tough-guy dialogue in the history of screenwriting. This fact is all the more tragic when you consider that the script is co-written by Andrew Wight, who actually went through some of the harrowing events shown in this movie (except in his real-life story, nobody died and everyone was rescued). Adding to the ear-splitting words is some of the worst acting I've ever seen in a movie that cost this much. The chief offender is Ioan (Mr. Fantastic) Gruffudd as Carl, the American financier of this expedition to find a route through this largely unexplored cave in the South Pacific that leads out the other side...because that teaches us...nothing. Gruffudd may not be the greatest actor the world has ever seen, but he's better than this in the Fantastic Four movies.
The other most hate-inspiring performance goes to newcomer (to me he was) Rhys Wakefield as Josh, the son of team leader and expert diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh of Moulin Rouge and Van Helsing fame). Josh is your typical snot-nosed rebellious emo kid, who cries about a dozen times in this movie and whose every action and reaction was so astoundingly predictable, it was shocking. Roxburgh comes across a little better, but not much, as the dad who thinks tough love is the only kind of love he can show his pussy-ass son. I think he should have beat his kid more growing up.
But the interesting thing about Sanctum is that there is no denying that a certain level of expertise was involved in making it. The chest-crunching claustrophobic sequence of divers going through the narrowest of passages made me very tense. And guess what isn't happening during any of the great diving sequences: talking. For those expended moments my brain wasn't bleeding from the pedestrian screenplay or the sour-note acting. The swearing and sometimes-jarring moments of violence earned this movie a mild R rating, but so much of the language and violence feels forced, and it certainly doesn't feel like real human speaking or dying. Without anything resembling an emotional bond to any of these characters, I found it increasingly difficult to care when any character was hurt or killed. You see, you're supposed to care more as the film goes on, but not in Sanctum.
In the end, the dismal acting and bone-dry writing crushes the soul and power out of any potentially decent moments the climbing, diving, and exploring sequences give us. I could literally feel my patience lessen, my mood turn ugly, and my eagerness for Sanctum to end accelerate with each passing moment. I happened to see this movie in Chicago while a blizzard was just beginning its rage outside. Yet, I welcomed the shards of frozen rain piercing my face vs. spending another second with these miserably unlikeable characters. There are a few elements worth liking in Sanctum, but good luck finding them or surviving the rest of this bad, bad movie.
I've never seen the original 1960 version of the South Korean classic The Housemaid, but from what people who have seen it have told me, the relationship between a young nanny and the rich family that hires her to care for their young daughter and incoming twins has shifted. However, I'm told that it's just as screwy and inappropriate as the source material at points.
Unlike the original, the nanny isn't crazy in this new version from director Sang-soo Im (A Good Lawyer's Wife); no one is, actually. The film is far too subtle and classy to be that obvious. Do-yeon Jeon plays the young, pretty nanny Eun-yi, and she immediately becomes an invaluable asset to the household, which includes an older female servant who initially resents the way the family takes to Eun-yi. Without much seduction or effort, the husband beds Eun-yi, and she immediately starts to fall for him. It doesn't take long for the older servant to catch on to the affair or the fact that Eun-yi has become pregnant, and she rats out the poor girl to the wife's mother (apparently her former employer), who quickly goes to her (also) very pregnant daughter. Revenge plans commence.
But let me just add at this juncture that the sex scenes between Eun-yi and her employer are damn hot, and the language the two share during the act is incredibly explicit. Nothing wrong with that, and I thought it helped to enhance the affair's eroticism immensely. In terms of the impact of the affair on the plot, Eun-yi gets a bit of glide in her stride after realizing that the husband is slightly addicted to having sex with her while his very pregnant wife in busy being, you know, pregnant and generally unappealing to him. Of course, he's a pig, but it's clear that Eun-yi has never felt desired in her life, and it's a huge turn on for her.
The film goes from sexy to creepy at lightning speed when Eun-yi decides she wants to keep her baby despite a six-figure offer from her the wife's mother to leave her job and get an abortion. Knowing this baby can never be born, the family (minus the husband, who is kept unaware of the pregnancy or what comes after) essentially holds Eun-yi hostage and forces her to deal with the baby issue. This section of the movie is relentless, as it gives us a crystal clear look at just how low the human condition can take us at times. Late in the movie, things get, well, weirder, with Eun-yi. Although she's been fired, she continues to find time to talk to the couple's daughter, and we begin to think that her motivation is rooted in protecting her unborn child. But with money comes the ability to bribe anybody, including a doctor. The will-she/won't-she debate provides an energy that keeps The Housemaid afloat.
Despite its dark-and-getting-darker approach, The Housemaid doesn't forget to allow room for levity. But what the film really doesn't forget is casting and great performances. I was so impressed with all of the leads and supporting players that I immediately went online after the screening to find out what other movies they've been in. There's not much more to say without ruining some of the final act's truly bizarre closing images, but you should feel free to absolutely love and absorb this film in all of its grim glory. The Housemaid film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Louder Than A Bomb
I sadly managed to miss this exceptional documentary about a school-sponsored teen poetry slam contest in Chicago at last year's Chicago Film Festival, but I made sure to make up for it for its official release in Chicago this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The competition encompasses more than 60 high schools in and around the city, and filmmakers Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel followed three school teams (all of which placed rather high the previous year). Within these schools, the co-directors zero in on three or four particularly gifted students whose rhythmic and soul-baring poems tend to leave audiences in hysterics.
Despite the obvious connections to hip-hop, these poems are not all about boasting or calls for black pride, although many of them are. What's going on with these kids is often more subtle and commanding. Much of this poetry would garner as much of an emotional response on the printed page as it does in front of a crowd, but it's in watching the precise delivery on stage where breath and blood are injected into the words. Many of these teens might have great careers as actors, with their raw yet wise oratory skills.
Louder Than A Bomb is edited much like a sports documentary. We see the best of the best, a few key moments when someone either saves the day or slips up and costs themselves or their team the chance to move to the next round. But there is no denying that this film is a rousing crowd pleaser of the highest order. I was also impressed with the variety of students Jacobs and Siskel follow--black, white, Jewish and one extraordinary young woman who I believe is at least part Indian.
It heartens me to watch the early stages of these young writers, who are still discovering words and how to manipulate and have fun with them. The kids that are singled out in this film have a real gift that I hope they are able to exploit and do something with. A couple of them specifically say they want to be teachers when they get out of college (and, yes, according to the post-script title cards, all of them are in college). You don't have to like rap music or kids or poetry to come away from Louder Than A Bomb with a great feeling. You just have to have a working heart and a love of words.