Dead Ringers (1988), or My Dearest Brother…

10 12 2009

I know I’ve probably seen too many Cronenberg movies on this website for you to care anymore, but I really could not resist this time. Dead Ringers is a force of nature, a psychological descent into the lives of two codependent twins. From the first five minutes, you are completely absorbed by the setting of it all. Cronenberg, yet again, breaks all pre-conceived notions of what reality is and throws it away, opting for something more surreal, more visceral, more subversive. And this time he even pushes the envelope against himself by pinning his hopes on an actor, rather than his own genius. Luckily, Jeremy Irons is the kind of actor you can pin a movie on (usually), and this film is the better because of it.

It follows the lives of twin gynecologists (!!!) Beverly and Elliot Mantle. They are two seriously codependent brothers who have a slightly disturbing relationship with one another. Elliot is the ambitious, fiery brother, and he has a huge appetite for women. Beverly happens to be a bit more reserved, which cramps his brother’s style a lot. The two have a good business going together, as well as a good formula to get them both laid. Elliot will get the mood going with his go-getter attitude, wooing the ladies as fast as he can to get what he wants. When he tires of them, he hands them off to twin Beverly, where the women are none the wiser. One of the women they examine as a patient though, named Claire, entices Beverly, and he finds himself in love with her. She has a rare gynecological condition, a trifurcation, that makes it nearly impossible to have children. Elliot thinks it’s all silly, and that he should move on, but Beverly genuinely likes her and wants to be with her. But when he thinks she might be cheating on him, it brings out the worst in him, and he begins to have psychotic delusions about weird genitals and evil women. Can he snap out of it before it’s too late? Or will this jealousy consume him and his secretly codependent brother?

Cronenberg makes Dead Ringers in his world of bizarre, surreal psychological world where the physical and the emotional become one, the ethereal flesh of nightmares encroaching on our living existence. This time, the setting is the glitz and materialism of the late 80s in the big city. Elliot Mantle is the poster child for excess and blatant materialism during the ME generation. The city is oppressive in its posh luxury, and we only sense it when Beverly cuts through reality and into his delusions. Cronenberg always enjoys the cleverest of shots, and it just goes to show you that the power of the auteur is nothing to scoff at. Nobody can work with this material like Cronenberg can because he wrote the damn thing and knows just what needs to be done to visualize it. Where the movie really surprises me is not the amazing phantasmagorical dream sequences, but how engaging the movie is when it is just Beverly and Elliot. It’s about as normal as this director gets, just relaying the relationship between family members who could not be more opposite, even though they’re twins.

And, damn it, Jeremy Irons scores as the dual character of Beverly and Elliot. He deserves a little double time for al the work he put in. His crass and selfish Elliot is very true to what I think a lot of people were buying into as the 80s ended, a dark and unhealthy dream of excess and endless drugs and women that is seemingly destined to vanish. Elliot’s depth is found though when we see how much he really loves his brother. Beverly is also fond of his brother, but in a much more overt, obvious way. Irons’s real achievement is making multiple layers of Beverly’s character by fleshing out his unbalanced nature. He is doomed to spill over the edge, and it seems that love will be the thing that pushes him over. Genevieve Bujold plays Beverly’s love interest, Claire. She is very mysterious at first, but I like how much she warms up to Irons. They have such a good chemistry together here! It’s a very nice performance that makes for great drama later on in the story as Beverly deteriorates.

I think Dead Ringers is a great movie with a unique sense of self that plays like a horror movie but feels like a psychological drama. Cronenberg audiences know what they want to see, so this will certainly not disappoint, and new folks to Cronenberg’s works need to know only that there is significantly less freakiness than he is famed for. I think Jeremy Irons did a top-notch job here, and he seemed to be a good candidate for Cronenberg to place his trust in, when one considers how much the twins had to carry the film and how much combined time they get. I think you’ll like it a lot, weirdness and all. I give Dead Ringers 9 twin gynecologists out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I don’t have a clue what I’ll be watching! We shall see soon! Until then!

PSA: Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), or And Peace Be With You

21 11 2009

One of my favorite films of the new millennium, Kingdom of Heaven is an under-appreciated classic, a treasure of a film that was shunned in many circles at the time of its release because of its incongruity and certain character flaws. It faded quickly into the realms of the forgotten, but I always held a flame aloft for the historical epic. I admitted to most of the flaws, albeit begrudgingly, but I still had a weird attraction to it, and until about a year ago, I couldn’t really explain it. Now, before about a year ago, I would have bowed to conventional wisdom that if I could not put my pro-KoH argument in words, than it obviously was not that good of an argument. But, last April or so, I discovered the reason that the movie seemed so off to me, and the source of a lot of anti-KoH arguments, is that the studio edited almost an HOUR out of the theatrical cut! AN HOUR! That’s a lot of info to leave out! Now, with a lot more backing this time compared to March of last year, I can safely say that Kingdom of Heaven IS a good movie, a great movie even. It’s not a perfect movie, but it skirts very flirtatiously with immortality, something I admire in a work of art.

We’re taken to the 12th century, between the Second and Third Crusades. Balian, a lonely blacksmith in France, grieving over the suicide of his wife, finds no solace in his work or his life doomed to obscurity. As fate would have it, however, a knight traveling through the area pops into his life. He claims to be his father, and offers him a choice; he can stay in the sad, empty husk of France during the Middle Ages and continue his life as if nothing had happened, or he can come with him to Jerusalem, where the knight holds court with King Baldwin IV. At first hesitant, Balian joins the group of Crusaders after hearing that perhaps his wife’s soul can be saved from Hell if he absolves her sins in the Holy Land (people believed that suicides were instant fodder for Hell back then, although some STILL do). Thus begins a journey of the self through the world of the Dark Ages as Balian travels from his tiny, myopic Medieval world all the way to the center of the world’s tumult, Jerusalem, where a new dispute is broiling beneath the surface of the Second Crusade’s short-lived peace. King Baldwin IV is dying painfully from his crippling leprosy, the Knights Templar are restlessly itching for a battle with the Muslims, their sworn enemy, and on the other side of the wall, a new Muslim assault is being only barely kept at bay by the efforts of their sultan, Saladin. The truce will not last much longer, and Balian’s part in this is larger than he yet knows. It will be a long, unforgiving road ahead for him, but with his wife’s eternal soul in the balance, he is willing to do anything to unchain her from the fiery pits below.

Let me start with the big flaw before I start gushing. Before it gets any farther, I have to comment on the fact that Balian is a total Harry Stu. In internet lingo, for those not in on the jive, that means that his character is just a LITTLE too perfect. He just happens to know a lot of things about a lot of things that would be helpful in the Holy Land, including the construction of siege engines, leading large groups of men, and considering he’s played by Orlando Bloom, professional heart-throb, he looks damn good while he does it. It all gets to be a little much sometimes, and by the end, I felt more than a little tinge of disgust for him and his implausible perfection. You know how awesome and perfect Balian is? During a boat trip to Jerusalem, his boat capsizes and sinks in a storm; he wakes up the next morning on the beach with no fellow survivors and a saddled horse ready to give him a lift! How serendipitous!

But when I say that that’s really the only thing I think is wrong with it, I mean it. Director Ridley Scott is so good he can make any subject come alive, and it just so happens that he also found one of my favorite historical periods fascinating. Every detail, with the exception of ultra-perfect Balian, is down to the T. Scott has recreated the Middle Ages with such a realism that they speak to us through the ages in the very subtext of his work. From the weaponry, the architecture, the interactions between people, to even the battle formations and times of day that Muslims and Christians fought during the 12th century, this is all genuine. there are so many stories to be told here, during the reconstruction of Europe from its massive, tragic downfall in the 6th century, I’m so glad someone used this period. And not only that, but I really appreciate the use of the different faiths fighting it out as sort of an allegory for today. It’s the same fight going on with different weapons and words, which Scott cleverly alludes to at one point, making the emotional ties to this ancient era all the more indelible.

The main cast is equally proportionate to the supporting cast here. Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, and other power players make short but memorable appearances that resonate throughout the movie. My favorite of these is Ghassan Massoud, who plays Saladin. While we never see hm that often, his character is similar to Baldwin in that he doesn’t want war, but political and religious pressures are pushing him into a battle that will cost many, many lives. He is excellent, and most importantly he’s a Muslim character that doesn’t give way into stereotypes that so many other films would have. As for the main cast, I’ve said my peace on Balian, but it must be noted that not everyone’s like that. There are some real winners, like Eva Green, who plays Sibylla, Baldwin’s sister. Her scenes suffer the most cutting, and it felt so vindicating to see the Special Director’s Cut edition and piece together what happens to her. She is a force to be reckoned with for me, especially now that the cut has been restored. She is given whole new sets of scenes that add to the emotional complexities, especially the ones involving her son. Without these scenes, her character is very confusing and inconsistent, and it is a definite boon to the film that she not go from one emotional state to the next without any coercing. Jeremy Irons electrifies as Tiberius, the Marshall of Jerusalem and Balian’s moral compass in the Holy Land. His scenes are few, but they are key, and Irons shows his expertise in authoritative but sympathetic words of wisdom as he tries to keep Christian Jerusalem from going into all-out war with the Muslims and Balian from falling off the righteous path. Edward Norton is the emotional heart of the first half of the film as King Baldwin IV. Underneath a silver mask to hide the hideous deformities left by his leprosy, he is trying extremely hard to keep peace in his time by keeping both the Templars at bay and his court satisfied with the truce. But his frail condition has many worried that the Muslims will attack and he will be unable to lead, or, worse, that he is lying down and making too many concessions to their heathen demands. He has so much weight on his slender shoulders, and watching Norton valiantly struggle to keep lives from being lost is heartbreaking and wondrously inspiring.

Sweeping cinematography, an immersive score by Harry-Gregson Williams, an extremely able cast, and a rich realistic tone make Kingdom of Heaven a sweeping film that should be remembered with the ranks of Spartacus and Gladiator in the realm of great historical epics. It’s a whopping three hours for the director’s cut, the only cut there should be, as far as I’m concerned, so there’s a lot going on. Luckily, it’s all great, and with the exception of one or two faults, I would be extremely tempted to call this a perfect film. To get swept away in this historical fervor is a joy and a pleasure that I plan to relish more and more often. Ridley Scott strikes gold again, and the Holy Land is done justice by his beautiful eye and his great cast. I give Kingdom of Heaven 9 1/2 leper kings out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I don’t know what I’ll watch! It’ll make for a good review, though, I think! Until then!

PSA: Eragon (2006), or Beyond Your Wildest Dreams Lies A World Where Nothing Really Happens…

17 08 2009

In what is quickly turning into a theme this week, I have decided to devote this week to those films that were to be foundations for future franchises, but fell short somewhere along the line and ended up either stalling or stopping the series entirely from being made. I’m unofficially calling it Failed Franchises Week! I would make it official, but the last time I made a Week specifically for a genre and asked people to vote, my readership dropped so fast I thought I had actually died and my blog was the first person to know. So TECHNICALLY this is just another week, so don’t get all fickle on me, you lovely, lovely people, but I will be trying to dig up a couple of these throughout the week. Today we have a movie that almost went the distance, but couldn’t quite reach the station before it ran out of steam. Magical, mystical steam. Eragon came out in 2006; it had a $130 million budget, a mighty, mighty cast, and source material that, at the time, was a serious contender for J.K. Rowling’s jewel-encrusted crown made out of children’s bones. There was a massive amount of buzz around this movie, and how it would be the Next Big Thing (patent pending). Hell, even I saw this thing in theaters thinking there might be something to it. But I was also going to see a potential train-wreck, because by the time the movie had come out, there was so much negative buzz from the media and even some of the cast (Jeremy Irons admitted that the book wasn’t very well-written!) that it became the big talk of the town. I, being a man of science, decided to go out and verify its quality with impunity, and after innumerable tests in my mental laboratory, I quickly came to the realization that not only was I NOT a scientist, but Eragon was kinda bland and generic, the ultimate crime of a fantasy movie. Three years later, and not much has changed in my taste, but I have a tad more skill in expressing my displeasure than I did when I was 20, so allow me to elucidate.

As with Harry Potter’s extensive mythology, I won’t be covering all of this in my own words. I don’t feel like recanting the entire concept of Alagaesia (there’s an umlaut on that E, but it’s superfluous so I’m not using it), so I’ll just inform you that there is a young hero named Eragon who comes from humble origins, and his quest is to end the oppression of the people of Alagaesia under the hand of evil Emperor John Malkovich. With the power of a dragon named Saphira that he raised from an egg, he and his wizened old master named Jeremy Irons travel the nation from the quaint village hamlet he was born in to the great cities in search of the Varden, a group that he wishes to aid in overthrowing evil Emperor Malkovich. Some other stuff happens, including a guest spot by allegedly good R&B artist Joss Stone! And let’s not forget class-act Djimon Hounsou, who always reminds us, no matter what role he plays, to NEVER BACK DOWN!!!!!!!!!

Now, as I saw it, there were three basic problems with Eragon:

1. Too much exposition for a 100 minute long movie.

2. Not enough cool stuff happening for both an action-adventure movie and a 100 minute long movie.

3. Wasted potential with the cast and source material.

I could be cheeky, and write:

4. This movie sucks major dragon ass!

But I’m not so cheap as to go that route. It’s really a matter of setup and delivery. Eragon sets up so much stuff for not only its own movie, but for the movies that were supposed to follow. It’s like a lonely lady making food for a party; this movie made WAY too much!!! And when all the main character does is take a bite of a sandwich, drink half a Diet Coke, and jets after what seems like only a minute or two, it just seems like a huge waste to we, the filmgoers! This creates the current set of problems I have with it, in one form or another, and it could have easily been remedied with a little less CG and a little more film.

Eragon is also incredibly dull, for some reason. It has dragons, magic, and eccentric characters out the fucking wazoo, but it can’t seem to corral all of it together and cobble a decent sequence out of it. Instead, we get a lot of talking. Talking about things we don’t see, talking about things we don’t need to know. Why should I care about the poor, beleaguered Dragon Riders if I am not allowed to see them or witness their value to the story? Why should things not put up on screen in either subtext or imagery mean anything to me? But at least we can talk about them, so I guess that’s nice. If only we could’ve had a visual aid…

Oh, and Eragon also suffers from the deadly Dragonheart syndrome; instead of seeing healthy doses of dragon action, we’re tied up and forced to watch the noble dragon TALKING endlessly! Why would you EVER make such a fabulous and fantastical creature just so you could gab and expound? Not that I don’t appreciate Rachel Weisz stopping by and making an assload of money without even doing a proper voice for the dragon (not a voice that sounds like her normal voice, that is…), but Saphira ends up being a $50 million storytelling device that quickly becomes a nuisance the more she talks and the less she actually does cool dragon stuff.

I hate fantasy movie casts; this one is no different than any other. Can anybody in the acting industry do me a favor and pretend like you care about a project long enough for us to actually try immersing ourselves in the movie? It seems like the serious actors that are sucked into fantasy movies are giving up earlier and earlier now in their attempts to get over their shame and ignominy. Jeremy Irons actually gives up mid-movie here!!! He must have been so disgusted with himself that he had to get away ASAP, because Irons phones it in so much here that I was almost certain that by the end all I would see on-screen of him would be a cardboard cutout of him in a weary, heroic pose with his lines stripped from Die Hard With A Vengeance and superimposed onto a motionless mouth. Emperor Malkovich also disappoints, but that’s hardly a surprise in 2009 when Malkovich is so famous that he only REALLY comes to work for good directors like the Coens. First-time director Stefen Fangmeier didn’t have a chance getting this guy to act, so he had to relegate the main bad guy to only about three minutes of actual screen time, if that.

And what about first-time actor Ed Speleers as the main character, Eragon? Well, honestly, he didn’t do bad. I appreciated his charisma and his dedication to a script that was beyond saving. His character was, fittingly, the one ray of hope for a weakened, debilitated movie about a young man who was the one ray of hope for a weakened, debilitated world. Life imitating art, no?

Eragon will not have its desired sequel, most likely. Too little, too late. The third book in the series really didn’t meet expectations, the stars have all moved onto other projects, and it doesn’t seem like the interest is even there for the fans. It’s a grim outlook, to say the least. But be comforted in knowing that all the stars who appeared in this film were paid very well for all the grueling hard work they did as actors on this set. It helps me sleep better at night knowing that Alagaesia was populated with actors who weren’t just out to make a quick buck, but ones who really cared about the implications of Christopher Paolini’s meaningful literary gem about the fight between good and evil that exists within all of us. And dragons. *snicker* But I digress. This franchise is toast, and to send it off, I give it a firm but fair 3 1/2 cool off-screen events out of 10.

Tomorrow we continue with our failed franchises as we check out The Golden Compass!