The Night Out: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampires Assistant (2009), or No, That’s Bullshit

24 10 2009

John C. Reilly is my guy. Anything that guy does is pure gold for me. Whether it’s the pointed drama of Hard Eight or the unrivaled insanity of Step Brothers, he just has such a range of emotions. Recently, he’s been hitting the comedy films, and I’ve yet to see him in anything over the past 5 years that has been anything approaching serious, but if you go back to the late 90s and early 00s, you’ll see he has a lot to offer as a serious performer. The character he plays in today’s film, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, is a step in that serious direction, falling somewhere between serious vampire and tongue-in-cheek pastiche. It’s a better film than I thought it would be, but only because of Reilly’s uncanny ability to make anything impeccably entertaining.

Basically, we’re taken to the land of Anytown, USA, where we meet Darren, a young man in high school who has made it his drive in life to take the path of least resistance. He gets good grades, does what his parents tell him to do, and just has a nominal existence in general. His best friend, Steve, is a little wilder though, with an unstable family past and a slightly more exciting outlook on life. One day the two are walking to class when a weird car rushes by, dropping a flyer to them for a freak show called Cirque du Freak. It sounds like fun, so straight-laced Darren sneaks out the night of the show to go with Steve. What they find is a vivid world of magical circus performers. There’s the man who can eat anything, the woman who can regenerate her own limbs, the boy with snake skin. The real stand-out performer though is a man who one of the boys recognizes as a vampire, named Larten Crepsley. He does a strange act with a one-of-a-kind giant spider that captures both of their imaginations.

When the show ends, Darren, who is revealed to be in love with spiders, concocts a plan to steal the giant spider and take it home for, I dunno, bug stuff. But before he can, Crepsley returns to the dressing room where he kept the spider and entertains two guests. One of them is Gavner, a vampire like himself, and the other is Steve, who busts in and demands in a frenzy for Crepsley to change him into a vampire. Crepsley chides him for bursting in, but tests him to see if he has what it takes to be like him, a test that Steve fails (he tells him his blood is “bad”, although I don’t know what that means). Steve is crestfallen and angered, and he vows vengeance on Crepsley. Crepsley scoffs at the idea, and sends him packing. Darren sees the whole thing before running off with the spider, and confronts Steve about it the next day at school. It all culminates when the giant spider escapes Darren’s bag at school (??) and bites Steve, who wants to kill the spider. He falls into a coma, and it seems there’s nothing to be done. But Darren knows that Crepsley must have an antidote, so he risks the vampire’s wrath to save his friend.

And Crepsley does indeed have an antidote, but the price for it is high; he is to become Crepsley’s assistant, a half-vampire who can do things for him in the daylight that a full vampire couldn’t. For this, he must live with Crepsley in the Cirque du Freak, fake his death to his family and friends, and learn the ways of the vampire. A steep tax, but Darren agrees for the sake of his friend, and he is thrust into a world he never even imagined; a world of magic, intrigue, passion, and murder that will change his outlook on life forever.

WHEW! This is the beginning of another hopeful franchise, so there is a LOT of back-story to tell. What you really need to know is that there’s a kid who has to do stuff for a vampire and learn the ways of the night, like a vampire Star Wars, or the even more relatable idea of a tub of margarine running errands for a stick of Land O’ Lakes. This is your standard first episode film; there’s lots of exposition, lots of explaining, and lots of characters that will (hopefully) become more useful in later installments. It was marketed as a young adult film, a dark and edgy flick for the PG-13 crowd, but it has an attitude that skips most of the niceties and goes for the jugular, something I like in these humdrum first installments. There is definitely a sense of urgency, something in the hearts and minds of the characters that makes all this somehow breezier than I expected it to be. It still could have used a little autonomy, a little reassurance that what we just watched wasn’t a primer for a future, better movie, but it still had its moments.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t respond to teen actors very well. They besmirch my mind and dull my sense of what is good and decent. There’s really not much they can do about it either, other than NOT act like pretty-boy wallpaper. Chris Massoglia and Josh Hutcherson are Darren and Steve, and they surely had no real chance of not annoying me, but at least they didn’t act too obnoxiously, with the whole “teens are smarter than adults” angle that puts holes in my cerebellum whenever I hear that squiggly line of thought.

It’s all about Reilly anyway. Reilly plays Crepsley with a mix of Dr. Caligari, John C. Reilly, and Robert Mitchum that I can’t stop thinking about. I don’t know how serious he was during the filming of this, but he gives off some signals every now and then that this might all be some huge joke that I wasn’t aware of. He IS serious, for the most part, though, and he lends a lot to all the many long exposition scenes that wouldn’t have been there with anyone else helming the character. And with lines like, “Your lips say ‘no’, but your beard says ‘yes'” in the film, you might as weill sign me up for any future installments. All the other adult actors make what amount to cameo appearances, and they could have all been aliens or sock puppets for all I cared. Ken Watanabe plays an abnormally large guy who grimaces a lot; no big loss there. Willem Dafoe plays Gavner, a character that is somewhere between John Waters and Walt Disney that I’m not too comfortable with, let alone interested in. Selma Hayek is a bearded lay. ‘Nuff said. One standout though was Michael Cerveris, who plays Mr. Tiny, a mysterious character we’ll learn about more in some other movie. He’s really freaky, and when you’re dealing with a movie like this, that’s a great characteristic to have.

There are some good effects here, a few key moments on the score, and some sequences that really work. Billy Wilder would have already called this a good one by now, in his book. CdF:TVA is a good first installment to a saga that probably has some legs to it. Only time will tell whether this one will get a sequel greenlighted, but if it was up to me, today, I would give it a thumbs-up, provided the sequel actually advanced the plot in some way and didn’t keep adding more and more exposition to the pile. And the condition that I could play wall-ball with John C. Reilly. It’s not for your younger kids, but if you have any mid to older teens who need to get out of the gouse for 100 minutes while you fuck your spouse, this is the movie that wouldn’t bore them, out of all the new releases. I give this movie 7 1/2 future installments out of 10. Give it a shot if you trust me enough!

Tomorrow is another day, and another movie! I’ll be sure to surprise you guys with something good!




2 responses

29 10 2009
Liz Bear

Number one: Movie tavern’s inability to be remotely appealing may have discolored this movie for me, but Number Two: not really worth paying to see in a theater. Once again, Movie Tavern pricing and general crappiness may have had something to do with my impression. This movie and I had problems. I had a REALLY hard time with the two teenage actors. Seriously? They could get all these big name actors in the film but couldn’t even cast decent actors for our two main characters? The bad guy could have been a lot more… bad. Instead he looked and acted like an extra from Saved by the Bell. And our good guy? He needed acting lessons. A lot of times the lines slipped out of his mouth without inflection or expression, and often it appeared he was being lectured by his dad, rather than the talented and brilliant John C. Reilly.

Reilly is absolutely the only reason to see this movie, but a lot of times the scenes appeared to have one or two more sentences to them that the audience was never allowed to see. Even with Reilly’s powerful presence the movie was missing a lot in terms of plot and bringing the audience along for the ride.

Good Grief, it was a disaster! I couldn’t help thinking as I left that if they’d spent less of the budget on the CG spider chase (which we never quite understand, do we?) and more of it on careful editing and taking the time to make better choices about execution I would have seen a much improved movie… Oh well. I think you were a bit too kind to this movie, mi amigo.

29 10 2009

SPOILER ALERT!!!! Make the main bad guy more evil? He caused the deaths of a number of people! Not only that, but he coaxes Steve into KILLING his annoying-but-undeserving-of-a-grisly-death teacher! Sure, Mr. Tiny is a little fruity, to be sure, but I think he’s an appropriate kind of evil because he represents a nominal evil an evil-by-coercion that’s reminiscent of Randall Flagg from The Dark Tower or ol’ Lucifer himself.

And I didn’t have a problem with the editing or the execution; it looked to be crafted by the same frantic/serene/frantic energy that teen comedies like American Pie spring from (ironically, director Paul Weitz IS also the director of American Pie, for all you lovers of pastry sex). I think the problem might have been that you want the young characters and the young actors playing them to be a little less dumb, but they’re not at that point in the series where they can be. I feel the same way about the first Star Wars; Luke and his incessant whining about power converters and joining the Rebel Alliance really grinds on me, and by the end I can’t wait for the masculine scene in RotJ where he’s slicing Vader’s hand off to a muffled scream! I bet you would actually LIKE the second installment, if it indeed comes out. By then, the characters will be more intelligent, the actors will have done some growing and have more of a chance of not pissing you off, and there is usually more at stake. Look at the first Harry Potters of the first Hellboy compared to the second; they’re always improving, little by little. That’s what I’m hoping for in this next Twilight movie, because now I’m obligated to see it…

So while I can see your argument, I also think you might have been blinded by your hatred of Movie Tavern to give this film a chance. Believe me, though, I know where you’re coming from; those prices are OUTRAGEOUS and those seats are only so-so!

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