Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Greenwood’

Well, whaddya know : Stephen King seems to be experiencing one of those mini-resurgences in the overall pop culture zeitgeist that happens for/to him every now and then (the last probably being in 2007 with the box-office success of both The Mist and 1408), usually just at the point where it looks as though all the material that the prolific (to the point of being ubiquitous) horror scribe has cranked forth from his apparently-bottomless imagination has been mined for all it’s worth.  Granted, new King adaptations are almost always debuting somewhere on TV, the silver screen, or various streaming services, but their sheer and constant volume pretty much guarantees that few, if any, will have much impact beyond the author’s admittedly-large fan base — which is usually more than enough to ensure that they make at least a nice, tidy profit, I’m sure, but I doubt that most Hollywood observers would have predicted that It would become the highest-grossing horror film of all time, or that its runaway success would have a “coat-tail effect” that would elevate the movie we’re here to discuss today, Gerald’s Game, well above the rest of Netflix’s  direct-to-streaming offerings in the public consciousness. And yet here we are — and I have to say, it’s not such a bad place to be.

But why are we here? That’s a good question, but on the whole I think the simple explanation is that when good directors get ahold of King-related projects, good things happen, and when mediocre or lousy directors get ahold of them, mediocre or lousy things happen — and both It and Gerald’s Game are very well-directed indeed.

In regards to Gerald’s Game in particular, though, what else would we expect from Mike Flanagan? I’ve gushed over a number of his previous offerings on this very site, and I’m firmly among the throng of thousands (if not more) who have struck him with the label, wanted or not, of “one of the most promising horror film auteurs to emerge on the scene in quite some time.” Hush, especially, seems like a perfect “dry-run” for a production of this nature that revolves around a small and insular cast and takes place in an equally small and insular location, so yeah — I had full confidence that he was the “man for the job” from the moment I heard that he’d landed it, and geez, it sure feels good to be right for a change.

Here’s the run-down : vaguely dissatisfied housewife Jessie Burlingame (played by Carla Gugino, and yes, everything you’ve heard is true — this is a career-defining performance for her) and her successful but sorta-asssholeish husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, who gets more from a part that requires him to spend pretty much the entire film in his underwear than most other actors could manage) are headed for a weekend country-house getaway that’s intended to “spice up” their flailing love life when things, as they have a wont to do in flicks of this nature, go horribly awry. After handcuffing Jessie to the bed (now you know the “game” in question) and refusing to release her despite her protestations, Gerald sucks down one Viagra too many and drops dead of a heart attack. The keys are out of reach, so Jessie can’t free herself, but that might be the least of her worries when a hungry wild dog that she’d earlier taken pity on (and fed a raw $200 steak to) makes his way into the house and starts snacking on hubby’s still-warm corpse. And all this before the hallucinatory flashbacks start kicking in.

In her mind’s eye (one little boy, one little man — funny how tiiiiiime flieeees), Jessie is visited/confronted by not only a reanimated Gerald, but also by an idealized, more confident and liberated version of herself, and they both take her on a less-than-sentimental journey through her own troubled past that shows how the compromises she’s made with others and, most crucially, with herself led her to the predicament she finds herself in today. Her troubled mother (Hush star and Flanagan spouse Kate Siegel) and troubled and troubling father (holy shit! That’s Henry Thomas!) loom large here, and there’s some seriously disturbing shit that goes down, but rest assured, as we cut back and forth to current events, there’s no let-up — the emotional and psychological horrors of the past meet their counterpart in the visceral physical horrors of the present and if you feel the need to take a breather or two from the quiet-but-palpable relentlessness of the proceedings you’re sure to be in plenty good company : I’ll bet you anything that the only “button” on Netflix getting more action that “play” on Gerald’s Game  is “pause” on Gerald’s Game.

Gugino, as I believe I may have already mentioned, absolutely kills it here, and straight-up carries the entire film. She has to. And while she only bares, oh, about half her body, goddamn if her entire heart and soul aren’t on display throughout. It’s a nuanced performance that touches a lot of raw nerves, and the whole damn thing could probably use a “trigger warning” or whatever, but good God almighty can we loosen up the Academy’s rules finally and get streaming films some Oscar consideration? If so, she’d have “Best Actress” in the bag. The old “harrowing personal journey” has seldom been either this harrowing or this personal.

Other stuff worth a mention : Chiara Aurelia delivers a breakout performance as Jessie’s 12-year-old self; Flanagan himself both wrote the screenplay and did the editing; gore-hounds won’t walk away disappointed; oh, and Twin Peaks fans? Carel Struycken’s in here, too. And is, of course, cryptically awesome.

Are you sold on giving this a go yet? Because, really, you should be. Gerald’s Game is a film that takes you places — specifically, to places you don’t want to go. To places where you wish Jessie had never been forced to go herself. And it offers no easy answers as to her continued pattern of victimization. You’ll be wishing for her to get out of her handcuffs, of course, but she’s shackled by so much more — and the question of whether or not she can break those unseen bonds, reclaim her own identity, and redeem her existence is the real central conflict that Flanagan and Gugino are liming throughout the film. It hurts to watch, it really does — but you’re never gonna forget it.

 

 

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Talk about going from bad to worse —

As my last review no doubt made crystal clear, I was in no way enamored with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 cinematic adaptation of Scott Spencer’s Harlequin-novel-on-bad-acid Endless Love, but measured against what director Shana Feste did with (essentially) the same story in 2014, it’s fucking Citizen Kane. Sure, much of the book’s subject matter had either been neutered or twisted into new and unrecognizable (yet somehow decidedly less interesting) shapes, but damn — giving it the Nicholas Sparks treatment is just beyond the pale, and that’s exactly what this hollow, insipid, worthless remake does.

Probably to reduce confusion with (or an injunction from) President Obama’s political adviser of the same name, our David this time out hails from the Elliot rather than the Axelrod family tree, and while the actor who plays him, an empty shell named Alex Pettyfer,  certainly looks a good few years older than the “new” version of Jade Butterfield ( played by the equally-vacuous Gabriella Wilde), the whole “age difference” thing isn’t really at the fore of why her parents, Hugh (the always-underrated Bruce Greenwood, who is at his scenery-chewing best here and represents the only real reason to see the film) and Anne (an uncharacteristically detached Joely Richardson) despise him so — still,  it’s fun to read that concern into the proceedings simply because their real  reasons are overly- oblique  to the point of being well and truly dull. Mom, at it turns out, is just envious of their “true love” at the end of the day, while dad is reeling from his inability to somehow save his dying son and the guilt he feels at carrying on an affair behind his old lady’s back and is just taking it out on this poor let’s-not-call-him-a-kid because he doesn’t want to “lose” his daughter on top of everything else.

Bored yet? You should be. Because any elements of “danger” that may have been lost in translation between the book and the first film are paved over altogether this time around, and what we’re left with is a story about a flawed-but-nice girl who meets a flawed-but-nice guy and if daddy would just learn to let his little girl be happy with the man she loves — well, she’d go off and be happy with the man she loves. But she’d still love her family, too. Why can’t grown-ups ever seem to understand that?

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Feste’s directorial “style” can best be summed up as “Lifetime TV movie of the week with too many damn ‘soft-focus’ shots,” and while I’ve never subjected myself to pablum like The Notebook or Safe Haven, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that sort of dreck was the main influence on this thing. Feste co-wrote the screenplay for this rehash with Joshua Safran, and while the two of them try to “flesh out” Jade’s character a bit more by giving her a bit of a “past,” and go for a more slow-burn effect in terms of spacing out the so-called “revelations” about David, none of it is in any way involving simply because Pettyfer and Wilde are both such flat, wooden performers. When you hire on the basis of looks and looks alone, folks, this is what you get, and while throwing in a little bit of internal “can I really trust this person?” relationship tension I guess makes this version of the story more “realistic” to modern audiences — at least that’s the intention — you still have to give a damn about the characters in the first place before you can give a damn about what happens to them, and that’s something that Endless Love circa 2014, to an even greater degree than its predecessor, never figures out.

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I’ll give the “creators” of this film credit for engineering a somewhat more believable means of introducing our two leads in the first place, I guess,  but that’s about it — beyond that 2014’s updating of Endless Love feels almost like a modern-day romance flick produced by Harry “NyQuil” Novak, only Harry would throw out a threadbare “plot” in order to string together some sort of logical reason for why his performers would go from one dull, “point-and-shoot” sex scene to another, while here the “story” exists for the sole purpose of moving the lead models (it’s really not even fair to call them “actors”) from one Calvin Klein fragrance commercial to another.

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And on that note, I think I’ve said enough  — hell, more than enough. I want to wish any and all of you valued readers out there a happy and romantic Valentine’s Day, and I implore you to please not spoil the occasion by watching either version of Endless Love — especially not this one.

In closing, let me offer (not that I’m anything like an expert on the subject) these humble words of wisdom when it comes to matters of the heart : true love may be eternal, sure, but it’s definitely not endless — and no, the difference between the two isn’t just a matter of semantics.

 

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Really, on paper,  the whole thing ought to be a slam dunk : the trial of the so-called “West Memphis Three” is prime material for either a gripping, emotionally impacting human drama or a nail-biting courtroom procedural, take your pick. Add in the talents of director extraordinaire (well, okay, Chloe sucked, but we’ll give him a pass on that) Atom Egoyan, probably the best known of the former “Toronto New Wave” filmmakers (no offense to Bruce McDonald or Don McKellar, who also continue to do stellar work), who has shown a deft hand in dealing with material centered on the aftermath of tragedy in the past (most notably in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, the latter of which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomiation), and you’d seem to be in very good hands, indeed. The screenplay is co-authored by up-and-coming horror maestro Scott Derickson (director of SinisterThe Exorcism Of Emily RoseThe Day The Earth Stood Still remake, and the forthcoming Deliver Us From Evil and Doctor Strange) and his frequent collaborator, Paul Harris Boardman, so you can’t go wrong there, either, right?

Then we’ve got the stellar cast : Colin Firth as lead defense investigator Ron Lax, Reese Witherspoon as grieving mother Pam Hobbs, Dane DeHaan as suspect-for-a-second Christopher Morgan, James Hamrick as supposed “Satanic cult ringleader/child killer” Damien Echols, and supporting turns from the likes of Mireile Enos, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Kevin Durand, and Alessandro Nivola. And they all turn in, to a person, strong performances, as do Kristopher Higgins and Seth Meriwether as the other two accused “killers.” Seriously, this is an all-star production from top to bottom.

So why does 2013’s Devil’s Knot leave me feeling so flat, and why didn’t it even manage to score a domestic theatrical release ( fair warning, I caught it on Netflix instant streaming, so no DVD or Blu-Ray specs information will be included in this review)? It’s a fair question, with an unfair answer : pretty much for reasons entirely beyond its control.

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First off, for those of you who don’t know, here are the particulars of the case upon which this film is based : in 1993, the bodies of three young children — Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore — were found in a wooded area known as “Devil’s Knot” (hence the film’s title) behind a typically slow-burn soul-eating suburban subdivision known as Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas. Despite having several leads to pursue in the case (including two of the kids’ stepfathers), the cops more or less immediately circled in on local “bad boy”/junior misanthrope Damien Echols and two of his friends, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley,Jr. Their “evidence”? The fabricated-from-wholecloth testimony of a kid who wasn’t even there (and whose mother bargained for her son to give a statement in exchange for having credit card-fraud charges against her dismissed) and a coerced “confession” (later recanted) from Misskelley, who is mentally retarded. Oh, and the fact that Echols like to dress in black, listen to heavy metal music (of the entirely mainstream variety — we’re talking Metallica and Slayer here, not Burzum or Emperor) and read books by Aleister Crowley. He supposedly had at least a passing interest in Satanism, as well (who wouldn’t, growing up in a dysfunctional family that lived in a run-down trailer court? Spend some time in one of those places and you’ll realize how lucky we are that they haven’t produced a veritable legion of either serial killers, revolutionaries, or both).  Apparently, in the buckle of the Bible belt, that’s more than enough by way of “proof.”

The prosecution was hopelessly fucked, of course, but it worked anyway — Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences and Echols was scheduled to be executed. But then things took a turn : an HBO documentary film titled Paradise Lost showed the glaring holes in the prosecution’s case and its lack of anything even remotely resembling evidence to tie the three then-teenagers to the crime. Appeal after appeal was filed as high-profile supporters with deep pockets kept the wheels of justice turning (slowly). Two sequels to the original documentary followed, keeping the case in the public eye. New evidence with the potential to implicate others came to light. And a lot of volunteers never quit fighting.

Eventually, after 18 years in prison. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were all able to arrange a very rare — but perfectly legal — Alford plea, the terms of which dictated that they remained listed as convicted felons but admitted no guilt for the crime they’d been accused and convicted of. Today, they’re all free men. Hail Satan, right?

Here’s the rub, though, when it comes to this film : unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know all this shit already. Besides the three aforementioned Paradise Lost flicks, there’s also been another documentary, West Of Memphis, that covers pretty much the same ground. They’re all good movies. And so is this, on both an artistic and technical level. But it doesn’t add anything new to what’s already known, and maybe that’s just because it can’t.

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All of which puts Egoyan, his fine screenwriters, and his fine cast in a tough spot : getting blood from a rock. Water from a dry well. A charitable donation from a cheapskate. An ounce of sense from a Tea Party member. It just ain’t possible. I give the folks involved in Devil’s Knot all the credit in the world for trying — they never stoop to Lifetime movie-of-the-week melodrama and consistently handle this touchy subject matter with the respect and care it deserves. This is a quality piece of work. But it’s also a complete re-hash, and by its very nature can do nothing but give short shrift to a story that’s been covered in much greater detail elsewhere. You honestly have to wonder, when watching Devil’s Knot, why they even made the thing in the first place.

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Which, mind you, is not the same thing as me saying they shouldn’t have made it. There’s seriously nothing wrong with this flick.  But there’s no real point to it, either, unless you’re completely unaware of the four other films that preceded it, in which case I guess this would serve as a very good “primer” on the case. Beyond that, though, well — there’s just nothing new under the sun, is there?

I opened this review by saying that Devi’s Knot looks like a “can’t-miss” deal on paper, But in reality it’s a” can’t-win” situation any way you slice it.

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If you’ve not been keeping up with DC comics on a month-to-month basis lately — and I can’t say I’d blame anyone for that given the hopelessly derivative, editorially-fucked-with-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life state of most of their output — you may not be aware that Robin recently died. Again.

I know, I know — it’s getting to be old hat by now, isn’t it? At least the Batman of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight had the decency to put his cowl in mothballs for awhile after getting one of his teen sidekicks killed, but in the DC universe proper, he just seems to keep on going no matter how often he reverses the typical “worms are food for robins” course of nature. To make matters even more grim/depressing/tasteless, the latest Robin to be violently ushered out the side door was Bruce Wayne’s own son, Damian, and he was killed by his mother, Talia al Ghul. Couldn’t they have all just gone on Jerry Springer and tried to work out their differences in at least a somewhat less deadly or embarrassing fashion?

Obviously, as is usually the case in comics these days, this latest Robin death is, blatantly and on its surface, little more than a crass ploy to generate extra sales for the army of Bat-books cluttering up the racks — but believe it or not, in that regard it still has a long way to go to match the brazen commercial pandering and expiloitive, “we’ll kill any character for a buck” crudeness of the first  Robin death, back in 1988.  Ya see, that was the time,  as you may have heard (if you weren’t following along yourself), when DC decided to bump him off based on the results of a fucking telephone survey.

You only think I’m kidding, but I’m not — The Joker rigged a an bomb at a warehouse with Robin bound and gagged inside, the building went “boom!,’ and readers were instructed to call one of two 1-800 numbers (at a cost of 75 cents a pop) to register their “Live or die” choice, then come back next month and find out which option won out (this morbid trope was wonderfully spoofed by Rick Veitch in his seminal deconstruction of the entire “teen sidekick” phenomenon, Brat Pack).

Without lingering too long on the disturbing implications of a bound-and-gagged teenage boy in tights being abused by a man with a face full of makeup (all this is a Code-approved book, no less), let’s just consider what it says about a comic book publisher that they’re willing to kill kids in their stories to bump up sales, and what it says about comic book fans that more of us voted to see Robin get bumped off than have Batman save the day. I’d say the message is clear : publishers are cynical, manipulative, and utterly without conscience, and readers are sadistic bastards. No wonder mainstream comics are in what basically amounts to a two-decade-old death spiral.

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Still, if you know DC and Marvel, you know that no death lasts forever, and it was only going to be a matter of time before Jason Todd (who was, in actuality, the second Robin, the first being Dick Grayson, who miraculously-in-retrospect survived the job and went on to be a proper superhero in his own right, operating under the handle of Nightwing) somehow turned up again — the only surprise is that it took almost 20 years for his “resurrection” to happen.

For the better part of 2005, and a pretty good chunk of 2006, several of the monthly Bat-titles were consumed with a seemingly endless storyline by writer (and former contest on MTV’s The Real World) Judd Winick, and illustrated by a bevy of artists (most notably Doug Mahnke, co-creator of Dark Horse’s The Mask) that detailed the apparent return of a one-time super-criminal named The Red Hood (who was actually, in his former incarnations, a collection of several different hoodlums, one of whom was none other than The Joker himself back when he was, relatively speaking, “more human” — but that’s another story for another time), who was keeping himself busy by screwing up the operations of a Gotham City crime boss known as The Black Mack (so called because, well — he wears a black mask).

This wasn’t a bad story, even if it dragged on for waaaaaay too long, but it was hardly an all-time classic, either. Most of the investigations into Red Hood’s “secret identity” undertaken by Batman and Nightwing (who plays a big part in the proceedings) were go-nowhere run-arounds and it was fairly evident fairly early on that this latest Red Hood was, in fact, Jason Todd.  The only question was — how the hell did he survive? The answer was pretty uninspired — Ra’s al Ghul utilized one of the infamous “Lazarus Pits” that give him immortality (or close enough to it) to resurrect the freshly-dead youngster, and Jason ends up going on to form his own sorta-super-team called, blandly enough, The Outlaws. Which, I guess means that the second Robin is now a zombie. At least technically speaking, But whatever.

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When Warner Premiere released its direct-to-video animated version of Batman : Under The Red Hood in 2010, it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting much beyond a reasonably competent little run-around, but truth be told, truncating this tale down to a manageable 75 minutes actually makes it a much stronger and more effective story, and while any “surprise” as to who is, indeed, “under the red hood” is lost, it’s really no big deal since, as mentioned, it was never that “shocking” a “revelation” anyway. Perfect voice casting helps — Bruce Greenwood is one of the better actors to give Batman’s vocal cords a go, Jensen Ackles is flat-out superb as Red Hood/Jason Todd, John DiMaggio is a terrific Joker, Jason Isaccs is suitably dour as Ra’s al Ghul, Wade Williams is obviously having a blast as Black Mask, and Neil Patrick Harris is a more or less perfect choice to deliver Nightwing’s lines — but all in all it’s the smart work done by director Brandon Vietti and Winick, who adapts his own story for the (small) screen here, that turns a decent multi-part comics story into an excellent (and concise) animated adventure yarn.

Going in with suitably low expectations probably leaves me feeling more generous about the quality of the finished product here as well, I suppose, but honestly, this is pretty good stuff, and while the more grim aspects of the story aren’t glossed over, they’re not celebrated in agonizing detail, either, as is too often the case with many of Batman’s “darker” storylines of recent vintage.

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As is the case with Batman : Year One, there are no less than three different home viewing options out there for the discerning viewer who wants to give Under The Red Hood a go : standard, single-disc DVD; single-disc Blu-Ray; and two-disc “special edition” DVD. All three feature extremely-well-done widescreen picture and 5.1 sound and come with a rather uninspiring Jonah Hex short (remember when it looked like he might be DC’s next “hot property”?) as well as some promo spots for other DC Universe titles, while the Blu-Ray and “special edition” DVD packages also include a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of this story in both its print and animated versions and a selection of four cartoons from various iterations of the Batman animated TV series that have at least some bearing on the lead feature here.

At the end of the day, then,  Batman : Under The Red Hood is far from the out-and-out classic that either Year One or The Dark Knight Returns are, but it’s a solid-enough little piece of modern superhero storytelling that treads the fine line between being “heavy” and “too heavy for its own good” more or less successfully, and greatly benefits from having a lot of its fat cut for this abridged animated retelling. I got a kick out of it, and if you have any love for/interest in these characters, chances are that you will, too.