Thanks to a slow start and faithfulness to the navel-gazing source material, Stephenie Meyer and the film adaptations of her Twilight series became a whipping boy for self-respecting moviegoers. It's too bad — anyone who turned their noses at the later entries of the mega-succesful franchise missed some of the craziest camp since John Waters. That gave us hope when it came to the first non-Twilight Meyer adaptation: The Host, a romantic twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hope is quickly dashed only minutes into the latest from director Andrew Niccols (GATTACA, In Time), as The Host struggles with the same on-the-nose, emotional dizziness that plagued the pre-Breaking Dawn movies in the vampire saga.
Actually, it might be worse.
Whereas Twilight relied on dead-eyed gazing to convey the courtship between Bella and Edward, The Host actively works to externalize the inner monologue, spending most of the movie inside the head of its split-personality main character. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) was a regular Southern belle before Earth was invaded by a parasitic race of aliens known as "Souls." The planet is quickly taken over by the amoeba-like critters, who inhabit the bodies of humans in hopes of correcting their imperfect tendencies. No luck, though — when Melanie is eventually captured by "Seekers," a jumpsuit-wearing police force who help new arrivals find host bodies and crack down on the rebellious few without aliens in their skulls, she goes down fighting. A Soul known as "Wanderer" is placed inside of her, but against all odds, Melanie's consciousness remains.
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The two get off to a bumpy start, but before too long, Melanie has Wanderer empathizing with the human Resistance. She also feels guilty for taking over her host's life, and decides to right the wrong by trekking out into the desert to reunite Melanie with the ones she loves. Like his past films, Niccols intricately builds the world of The Host. As Melanie and Wanderer hit the road like a Jekkyl and Hyde version of Thelma & Louise, we get a taste for the new Earth designed by the Souls. It's basically communism: everything is shared, everything is free, and everyone lives in harmony (minus the pesky humans who refuse to share their headspace with a glowing amoeba from outer space). The world of the Souls is perfect, and Wanderer's awakening to the idea that even utopias have their downsides is an intriguing arc.
But as Niccols and Meyer are both familiar with, a well-constructed setting and concept only goes so far. Ronan is an actress with broad range (see: Hanna) and elegant delivery. Here, her subtle work is bogged down by grating voiceover and a demand to react like a deer in headlights. The two personalities spend most of the film bickering at one another, Ronan's rage-filled Southern twang blaring over her wide-eyed, observational approach to Wanderer. When they arrive at the desert cave retreat of the Resistance, The Host's voiceover problem reaches crippling levels. Turns out, Melanie had a boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons), before being captured by Seekers. He's hanging with her uncle Jeb (William Hurt) in the caves, and less than enthused by Melanie's extraterrestrial companion. Wanderer — renamed "Wanda" to fit in with the normals — is chastised by Melanie for even speaking to Jared, so she retreats into the arms of Ian (Jake Abel). Yes, when Earth is overrun with alien beings and the last of the human race struggles to stay hidden from Seekers, there is still room for a romantic quadrangle... between two interchangeable hunks, an alien impersonating a human, and a disconnected voice.
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The movie is littered with missed opportunities, seemingly uninterested in diving into the character-driven side of the elaborate science fiction ideas it is built upon. Hurt does an impressive job turning the leader of the Resistance into a broken down survivor of the massacre, but his willingness to accept Wanderer into his society is just lazy storytelling. Likewise, the Seekers have their own conflicted figurehead: Diane Kruger's nameless hunter. Unlike her Soul coworkers, she has a thirst for human blood. She wants to wipe them out instead of aid them. It's a lively twist that's only addressed two-thirds into the movie, after Kruger has spent most of her screentime driving a shiny sports car and scanning mouton vistas with her bright blue Seeker eyes.
There are moments that impress. Niccols briefly opens up the scope of the movie by throwing in an adeptly shot car chase. The designs of the Resistance's hideout and the Seeker technology are all precise and culled from logic. An intricate mirror system that directs sunlight down to an underground field of wheat — brilliant! But in the end, The Host is like its central character: a vacant husk, completely bewildered inside and out, with the faint sound of a good idea trying to scream its way through. Niccols and Meyer's team up isn't a terrible movie, it's a meandering one. The Souls might be right to invade us — we could use a bit of direction.
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
[Photo Credit: Open Roads Films]
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On the eve of his first novel's publication San Francisco writer Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is called back to the Middle East for a chance to make childhood wrongs right. An extended flashback set in late-'70s Kabul Afghanistan introduces young Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) the bookish son of a forceful respected businessman (Homayoun Ershadi) who despairs over his son's tendency to let his loyal friend/servant Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) fight his battles for him. On the fateful day of the citywide kite-fighting tournament Amir's inability to stand up to bullies has heartbreaking consequences for both him and Hassan. Soon after Amir and his father flee the invading communists eventually ending up in California. Time passes but Amir's guilt doesn't fade--so when a long-lost family friend offers him the chance to redeem himself he returns to the city of his birth to face many difficult truths. One of the best things The Kite Runner has going for it is its cast of virtual unknowns; since none of them are familiar faces to American audiences it's much easier to become wholly absorbed in their story. Abdalla is earnest and solemn as grown-up Amir. Both haunted by and determined to forget about his terrible betrayal he's often hesitant and unsure of himself (except when he meets the woman who will become his wife and courts her in a series of charming scenes). More charismatic is Ershadi who imbues Amir's father with the perfect mix of honor ferocity and sentiment. And top honors go to the boys who play young Amir and Hassan. Making their screen debut (along with co-star Elham Ehsas who's coldly menacing as bully Assef) Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada are natural genuine performers who make their characters' complicated friendship both believable and heart-wrenching. With a resume that includes the tragic (Monster's Ball) the sentimental (Finding Neverland) and the surreal (Stranger Than Fiction) it's clear that Marc Forster isn't wedded to any particular style or genre. Which is fitting since The Kite Runner is so many things at once: a coming-of-age story a sweet romance a gripping war drama. Forster does a good job of balancing the story's many needs staying faithful to Khaled Hosseini's novel while also streamlining it to keep things moving. As in the book the movie's glimpses of a (relatively) liberal prosperous '70s Afghanistan are particularly compelling; audiences who only think of the country in the context of the ultra-conservative Taliban rule (and subsequent U.S. occupation) will be entranced. Later when Amir returns home to find fear despair and dusty emptiness it's impossible not to mourn right along with him.
After starting what he thinks is just another day by methodically brushing his teeth the way he always does IRS Agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) gets a visit from an uninvited auditory guest--Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) the author of his life. Little does she know while writing a book about a character named Harold Crick that the real Harold can hear her narrations loud and clear; little does Harold know that her novels don't have happy endings--that is until he hears it in her narration which states that he is to die. Luckily she's in the midst of writer's block so he has some time to find out well how much time he has to live. He immediately consults a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) who instructs Harold to further pursue a relationship with an anarchistic baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he is currently auditing in order to learn more about the course the novel will take. The relationship flourishes and he’s happy for the first time in a long time but will art imitate--or end--his life? Ferrell seems to be mimicking the exact path of his direct comedic-superstar predecessor Jim Carrey even down to his first serious-ish role: Carrey’s first dramatic foray was the equally quasi-existential though much better Truman Show. Ferrell has no problem whatsoever making the transition--that’s just what abundant natural talent affords certain actors. But his crossover attempt should’ve been more subtle since audiences have come to expect at least one “streaking” scene per Ferrell film. As Ferrell’s heavily tattooed love interest the ubiquitous Gyllenhaal scores again. Fresh off roles as a stripper single mom (Sherrybaby) and a frantic pregnant 9/11 wife (World Trade Center) she proves that no matter her character’s physical appearance or mindset she can do no wrong. Ditto for Thompson who spends much of the film in pajamas and the throes of writer’s block--the "writer" prototype--much to the dismay of her publisher-appointed assistant played well by Queen Latifah. Rounding out the cast is Hoffman whose professor isn't totally unlike his answer provider in like-minded I Heart Huckabees. His character’s quirky humor is child’s play at this point for the veteran but a select few scenes between him and Ferrell are extremely satisfying. To liken Stranger Than Fiction to a Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Adaptation et al) script/movie is not totally without merit. Fiction captures the “vivid yet distant” essence that is common with Kaufman’s stories and subsequent movies. But whereas Kaufman doesn’t go out of his way to coddle audiences’ minds amidst his often obtuse movies writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster seem to have audience appreciation (read: box office) on the brain. Helm’s idea is nothing short of genius in a way that’s different from the oft-mentioned screenwriters he’s compared to but somewhere en route he and/or Forster (Finding Neverland) compromised the vision. Because what starts out as a complex intriguing movie turns stale quickly especially given the inexplicable ease with which it transitions from a metaphysical story into a straightforward one. And Forster's tendency in the movie to undercomplicate is just as detrimental as the opposite extreme. The dialogue also falls somewhat flat often neither funny nor off-kilter enough buoyed only slightly by superb cinematography set direction and indie music featuring Spoon (whose frontman Britt Daniel reworked some of their best songs for the movie)--but we’ve come to expect that trifecta from similar movies.
On the surface Stay seems to be a straightforward psychological drama about a psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to keep a mysterious patient Henry (Ryan Gosling) from killing himself. But the deeper we get into it the decidedly weirder it gets. And not necessarily in a good way. Sam and Henry seemed to be inexplicably connected. While his girlfriend and former patient Lila (Naomi Watts) looks haplessly on Sam’s lightly held grip on the rational world begins to melt away. He can no longer figure out what is true and what is happening only in his head--all climaxing in a titular confrontation between life and death. Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling would have loved this one. Although he was surprisingly good as the romantic lead in The Notebook the usually somber Gosling is best known for playing quiet psychotics in such films as The United States of Leland and Murder By Numbers. In Stay he’s back to his old tricks as the suicidal Henry. Pale with mournful eyes and a perpetual cigarette in his mouth Henry is certainly a tortured soul looking for some relief. On the flip side Watts brightens the otherwise dismal surroundings as Lila but there’s also a tinge of sadness about her. The only weak link is McGregor. He can’t quite pull off playing the dedicated psychiatrist slowly losing his mind--but the Scottish actor sure has mastered the American accent (ditto for the Australian Watts). Director Marc Forster (Monsters Ball Finding Neverland) seems a bit out of his league with this jumbled-up hard-to-understand psychological fare. Granted the visuals are arresting. Forster strives to create a world which at first seems real but then little by little turns into a wildly shifting dreamscape in which scenes blend into one another seamlessly. The real problem here is the script by David Benioff (25th Hour). It tries to say “Look how clever!” by throwing you for loop after loop--except the loops don’t make much sense. You eventually stop saying “What the hell?” and start to get a pretty good idea how Stay is going to end up. And when the final twist is handed down it’s surprisingly not all that disappointing.