In Red Riding Hood the age-old fairytale of a little girl who learns the perils of talking to strangers has been turned into a sort of supernatural harlequin murder mystery by Catherine Hardwicke director of the 2008 teen vampire flick Twilight. Though nominally a horror film its dearth of scares and potent strain of adolescent melodrama will inspire more comparisons to Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling saga than its director would probably care to acknowledge.
In this version the titular red-cloaked heroine played by doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried is given a name – Valerie – and cast not as the disobedient naïf we remember from the original fable but a headstrong and independent-minded young lady who would never fall for the tricks of some hairy beast masquerading as her grandmother. Although betrothed by parental arrangement to Henry (Max Irons) the respectable scion of a wealthy blacksmithing family her heart really belongs to Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) the darkly handsome town badboy whose chosen occupation woodworker apparently ranks far below blacksmith in the social hierarchy.
Valerie is inclined to run off with Peter but soon such inclinations must be shelved when her sister turns up dead the apparent victim of a wolf that has terrorized the residents of Daggerhorn the rustic medieval-ish mountain village in which the film is set (the exact setting and time period are kept weirdly indeterminate) for decades. The men of Daggerhorn resolve to avenge the girl’s death and slay the murderous animal once and for all but they appear hopelessly outmatched until Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) a blustery hunter/inquisitor with dubious religious credentials arrives on the scene. Solomon informs the beleaguered Daggerhornians that the wolf they are dealing with is no mere wolf but a shape-shifting werewolf with powers far greater than any of them had anticipated.
Even worse when the moon isn’t full he (or she) walks among them unnoticed in human form. Everyone is a suspect Solomon declares and soon Red Riding Hood evolves into a hokey whodunit filled with all sorts of unconvincing feints and red herrings. At the center of the mystery is poor Valerie in whom the werewolf seems inordinately interested. “Ohmigod you can talk!” she gasps when the werewolf first speaks to her telepathically – a line that got some of the loudest laughs in a film that is far too often inadvertently comedic.
Such is the danger of a film that treats such a subject as ridiculous as Red Riding Hood’s with such unrelenting gravity – melodrama curdles into gooey processed cheese. And this film is slathered with it. Which wouldn't be so bad if the subject matters were at least a little suspenseful but Hardwicke is unable to exact much terror or fright out of David Leslie Johnson’s too-tame script. (The film’s PG-13 rating doesn’t help.) What we’re left with is a gauzy romance that might have even ardent Twi-hard types rolling their eyes.
On the outside Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) couldn’t be further from the mold of a “normal teenager.” He wears a suit everywhere he is precocious and he has a spring in his step that suggests oblivion to his high school surroundings. Of course Charlie isn’t really at all oblivious and at his core is very much that “normal teenager”: He wants only to be popular. After starting anew at a public school--because he got kicked out of yet another private school for distributing fake IDs--Charlie is promptly pummeled for the way he dresses by the school’s bully (Tyler Hilton). He complains to his psychiatrist whom his mother (Hope Davis) keeps on retainer. The shrink decides to put Charlie on Ritalin. Ever the entrepreneur Charlie tries to parlay his easy access to drugs into popularity and it works like gangbusters. Before long “Dr. Charlie” is listening diagnosing and prescribing drugs to the entire student faculty. He’s got the popularity the trust and the girl (Kat Dennings) the latter of which just happens to be the principal’s (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And that relationship--not to mention the slight legality issue of prescribing controlled substances to minors--threatens to ruin his whole operation. Yelchin (Alpha Dog) is a Hollywood rarity: He’s an ‘it’ boy because of his acting not his looks (sorry Anton). Rarer still is the fact that Yelchin’s actual age is near that of Charlie Bartlett and not since the days of Freaks and Geeks has that industry taboo been broken so successfully. It’s all a credit to the young actor who in the span of Bartlett oozes everything from vulnerability and precociousness to Ritalin-induced mania and the theatricality of a much older actor. There’s nothing he can’t do in this movie; the same goes for his acting future. And the same goes for his adversary in Bartlett Downey Jr. although that’s been abundantly clear for decades now. Downey Jr. is famous for making seemingly effortless work of a complex character which is precisely what he does with Principal Gardner--a concerned parent recovering alcoholic and dutiful high school enforcer/villain. He’s a force to be reckoned with on screen and when Yelchin’s Charlie finally squares off with him the scene is a thing of beauty. As an essential link between those two characters Dennings (40-Year-Old Virgin) is a credible charmer and refreshingly the rare non-ditzy non-clichéd high school-portrayed girl we’re used to seeing. Rounding out the cast is Davis (American Splendor) aka Laura Linney-in-waiting. Her clueless alcoholic mom is a source of laughs and ultimately sobriety--for the character and us. For the first time in his decades-long career Jon Poll trades the editing room for the director’s chair. And after seeing Bartlett it makes sense that Poll who has edited movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember and Meet the Parents/Fockers is a behind-the-scenes veteran but a rookie helmer. His debut is fresh and loose but also very sure-handed. The movie is constantly a pleasant unclassifiable surprise spurning both the raunchiness of teen comedies and the pretention of psychology dramedies. The result is something far less precious and opaque than Wes Anderson’s Rushmore--to which Bartlett bears a broad thematic resemblance--yet a sharp commentary nonetheless. To that end Gustin Nash’s debut screenplay is just as impressive as his director’s rookie effort. His writing is clearly steeped in satire namely how loose today’s doctors are with the prescription pads--especially when it comes to our children--but it’s also able to be sweet and real when necessary. It’s the most impressive screenplay debut we’ve seen in a while--gold standard Juno notwithstanding--and the directorial one isn’t too shabby itself.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.