Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Armistead Maupin this haunting albeit slow moving mystery follows the disturbingly eerie twists and turns that unfold in the relationship between a popular late-night radio host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) who is in the throes of his own personal crisis and a devoted 14 year-old listener named Pete (Rory Culkin) who has written a memoir describing a terrifying childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse. What begins as a long-distance phone relationship the wounded Gabriel soon bonds with the precocious boy as a surrogate father. But things start to get dicey when Gabriel grows more and more suspicious of Pete’s overprotective adopted mother (Toni Collette). Suddenly Gabriel finds himself on a desperate quest to uncover the elusive truth on whether Pete’s stories are for real or more importantly if Pete even exists at all. Many may forget that Williams is a Julliard-trained actor. He can handle emotional range and has done so in films such as Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting which won him his Oscar. Of course we still love it when he acts like a nut. In fact during certain moments in Listener when Williams is on the radio you half expect the funnyman to yell “Good Morning Vietnam!” But of course the 55 year-old Williams has obviously matured and is easily convincing as the low-key Gabriel dealing with the demise of his 10 year relationship with his lover played nicely by Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) as well as trying to unravel this strange mystery which grows more macabre by the minute. Matching Williams' intensity is Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) as Pete’s enigmatic mom Donna who is pretty much the center of all the creepiness. The underrated actress is one of those performers who generally throws vanity aside to dig deep and give honest portrayals no matter how twisted they are. It’s evident The Night Listener is something close to Maupin’s heart having had a similar real-life experience with his ex-partner Terry Anderson and a young devoted fan. The screenplay was adapted by the acclaimed author along with Anderson and Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers)—who takes the helm on this psychological thriller—so it’s no surprise how well they tap into the same nightmarish journey the bestselling page-turner takes you on. Listener explores the nature of lies and how much we are willing to believe them when in an emotional crisis. And much like a great Hitchcock thriller Stettner also keeps you on your toes by peeling away each layer the deeper Gabriel gets involved. After flying to the where Pete is suppose to live things really start to get weird until Gabriel finally asks “What the hell am I doing here?” It’s a very valid question. But that’s sort of the beauty of the film. You’re expecting any manner of bad things to happen but are surprised by the outcome nonetheless.
While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross) a collector of rare antiquities to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish) the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1 000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.
Poor Skarsgard. To his credit the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching) Merrin is practically transformed into sexy religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. "If everyone died who buried them?" Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire) meanwhile doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist however pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch) who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.
The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too including his inane man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier though is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley is so vague it's irritating.
How To Write a Victorian Novel 101. First introduce a perfect family like the Nicklebys and place them in an idyllic country setting. Shortly thereafter the father/provider must lose the family fortune and swiftly die of grief leaving his family reliant on the charity of a cruel yet wealthy relative like Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer) who should break up the happy family sending the eldest son--in the case of Nicholas Nickleby 19-year-old Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam)--to teach at a horrifying boys' school called Dotheboys while forcing his mother (Stella Gonet) and his sister (Romola Garai) to live in the dark miserable city of London. During this period of separation the title character should prove himself an upstanding and honorable gentleman rescue the unfortunate show mercy to his enemies fall in love and attempt to reunite his family and avenge the wrongs done to them. If the story is a comedy he will succeed and we will proceed--to the denouement in which loose ends are tied up a happy couple weds and the cast takes its bows.
Victorian Drama 201. A rule of thumb: the villains and the minor players are always more interesting characters than the ingénues and they will always receive the greatest ovation. Nicholas Nickleby is no exception to this rule. The soft-hearted good guys--Hunnam (Abandon) as Nicholas newcomer Garai as his sister Kate Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) as Nicholas' love interest Madeline Bray and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as the broken child Smike whom Nicholas rescues from the boys' school--humbly accept their plight and it's enough to make you want to shake their genteel little shoulders to force them into action. Mercifully Hunnam at least occasionally gets to fight back exchanging some heated words and even coming to blows with his enemies especially the utterly nasty Jim Broadbent (Iris) and Juliet Stevenson (Emma) as Mr. and Mrs. Squeers who run the ghastly boys' school with finely honed cruelty. Even Plummer (Ararat A Beautiful Mind) for all he's the big villain of the piece doesn't come off as evilly as these two. There are also notable performances on the comedic side particularly among the perfectly cast merry band of melodramatic theatrical players (Nathan Lane Dame Edna Everage and Alan Cumming) that Nicholas and Smike join on their journey home.
Making Victorian Movies 301. With its fairy-tale look fantastic sets and theatrical bent Nickleby hearkens back to the flamboyant dramas of the Victorian period (think Oscar Wilde)--its opening credits in fact are displayed on the stage of a Victorian toy theater. But stories based on novels like Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby obviously take a lot longer to tell than plays--and in their time they reached their audience in a different way. It often took weeks even months to read a full novel (or a serialized one) in Victorian Britain; families would gather 'round the fire for a few pages a night savoring the story making it last. Director/screenwriter Doug McGrath's (Emma) rendition of Nicholas Nickleby reconciles these two modes of entertainment admirably allowing modern moviegoers a chance to revel in the assured pace of the twists and turns Dickens chose to place in the narrative's path but abridging them in such a way as to make good theater. Despite the relative brevity of the narrative however McGrath doesn't rush us to the end; he seems to recognize that the best stories are all about the journey not about the resolution.