Making an earnest cinematic argument for the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife without delving into mushy sentimentality is a difficult task for even the most gifted and “serious” of filmmakers. Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson discovered as much last year when his sappy grandiose adaptation of the ethereal bestseller The Lovely Bones opened to scathing reviews. Critics by and large tend to bristle at movie renderings of what may or may not await them in that Great Arthouse in the Sky.
And yet filmmakers seem determined to keep trying. The latest to make the attempt is Clint Eastwood who throughout his celebrated directorial career has certainly demonstrated a firm grasp of the death part of the equation. His filmography with a few notable exceptions practically revels in it: of his recent oeuvre Invictus is the only work that doesn’t deal with mortality in some significant manner. With his new film Hereafter Eastwood hopes to add immortality to his thematic resume.
The film's narrative centers on three characters each of whom has intimate experience with death and loss. Their stories in true Eastwood fashion can ostensibly be labeled Sad Sadder and Saddest: Marie (Cecile de France) is a French TV news anchor who’s haunted by disturbing flashbacks after she loses consciousness — and briefly her life — during a natural disaster; George (Matt Damon looking credibly schlubby) is a former psychic whose skills as a medium are so potent (the slightest touch from another human being triggers an instant powerful psychic connection a la Rogue from X-Men) they’ve left him isolated and alone; Marcus is a London schoolboy who retreats into a somber shell after losing his twin brother in a tragic car accident (both brothers are played rather impressibly by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren).
Humanity offers little help to these troubled souls surrounding them with skeptics charlatans users and deadbeats none of whom are particularly helpful with crises of an existential nature. Luckily there are otherworldly options. Peter Morgan's script assumes psychics out-of-body experiences and other such phenomena to be real and legitimate but in a non-denominational Coast-to-Coast AM kind of way. Unlike Jackson’s syrupy CGI-drenched glimpses of the afterlife Eastwood’s visions of the Other Side are vague and eery — dark fuzzy silhouettes of the departed set against a white background. Only Damon’s character George seems capable of drawing meaning from them which is why he’s constantly sought out by grief-stricken folks desperate to make contact with loved ones who’ve recently passed on. He’s John Edward only real (and not a douche).
Marie and Marcus appear destined to find him as well but only as the last stop on wearisome circuitous and often heartbreaking spiritual journeys that together with George’s hapless pursuit of a more temporal connection (psychic ability it turns out can be a wicked cock-blocker) consume the bulk of Hereafter’s running time. We know the three characters’ paths must inevitably intersect but Morgan’s script stubbornly forestalls this eventuality testing our patience for nearly two ponderous and maudlin hours and ultimately building up expectations for a climax Eastwood can’t deliver at least not without sacrificing any hope of credulity.
It should be noted that Hereafter features a handful of genuinely touching moments thanks in great part to the film's tremendous cast. And its finale is refreshingly upbeat. Unfortunately it also feels forced and terribly unsatisfying. Eastwood an established master of all things tragic and forlorn struggles mightily to mount a happy ending. (Which in my opinion is much more challenging than a sad or ambiguous one.) After prompting us to seriously ponder life’s ultimate question Eastwood’s final answer seems to be: Don’t worry about it.
Based on an award winning book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson Savage Grace is a true story of a societal poseur Barbara Daly (Julianne Moore) who climbs her way into a different class by marrying Brookes Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) heir to a plastics fortune. Soon the birth of their only child Tony turns their union upside down as the boy becomes uncommonly close with his mother and remains a failure in his father’s eyes. As the story spans years ranging from 1946 to 1972 dad disappears into his own world of work and affairs while Barbara becomes increasingly lonely desperate and clingy--entering into an incestuous tryst with her now grown son (Eddie Redmayne) a homosexual. The film details her pathetic attempts at presenting herself as something she’s not as she carries on the unnatural relationship-- which eventually leads to tragic consequences. There is no question Julianne Moore is perhaps the most courageous certainly most daring actress of her generation. Again in Savage Grace she proves herself willing to do anything and go further than most. Unfortunately the stilted dialogue and tone of the piece don’t do her any favors. We never get the feeling we’re watching real life unfold as most of these characters speak like they are in a stage production. Nevertheless Moore--with her flaming red hair and open sexuality--is still a treat to watch. Her Barbara is sensual dangerous and unpredictable. British thesp Dillane (HBO’s John Adams) proves again he can do just about anything and rises above the melodramatic script--mostly in the film’s first half. Redmayne’s Tony--a twisted mama’s boy trying to carve out his own identity--is rather hopeless and the actor struggles to make us empathize with him. Hugh Dancy turns up as Simon a gay friend of the family who winds up in a threesome with mother and son. Director Tom Kalin does no favors for his actors by creating a fake atmosphere around them. Even though Savage Grace is shot on a number of glamorous worldwide locations it feels small and claustrophobic. Kalin--like his talented cast--seems a little defeated by screenwriter Howard A. Rodman’s dreary and soapy script heavy with bloated dialogue and far-fetched situations. Writer and director seem to have taken a number of liberties with the real life story and the book the film is based on instead “interpreting” the characters actions from photographs taken at the time. Unfortunately their technique leaves the audience out of the loop. Rarely has a movie particularly one with the gifted Moore seemed so distant and uninvolving. Graphic sexual scenes in the unrated film seem only there to shock not enlighten and by the end we know little more about the Baekeland saga than we did going in.
It’s 1585 and Elizabeth Tudor (Blanchett) is well into her third decade as Queen of England slightly older but just as exquisite—and just as wary of the enemies at her gate. Led by Spain’s Philip II (Jordi Molla) a fundamentalist Catholic movement is sweeping 16th century Europe and they view Elizabeth as a Protestant heretic. Philip and his supporters have rallied round Elizabeth’s exiled Catholic cousin Mary Stuart Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) waiting for their chance to usurp the Virgin Queen’s throne and restore Catholicism in England. The queen’s trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) keeps the wolves at bay but Elizabeth is in constant danger. She finds some comfort in the company of her favorite lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish) as well as the dashing explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) whom Elizabeth sees not only as an intellectual and spirited equal but also as a way to glimpse into the unexplored globe’s infinite freedom—something the Queen can never have. But when an assassination plot goes awry Elizabeth shifts her energies back to her country setting off a chain of events that will change the course of history. Just like the Queen Elizabeth herself Blanchett is also slightly older but wiser and even more poised and beautiful than she was playing the Virgin Queen the first time in the 1998 Elizabeth. That film helped put the actress on the map and gave her her first Oscar nomination—and a second nomination for playing the same character shouldn’t be far behind. Blanchett gives this enigmatic queen such flawed humanity. She’s all at once regal sarcastic knowing jealous and loving—and above all a true queen to her people. Although The Golden Age is clearly Blanchett’s movie the supporting cast is also superb especially Rush whose aging Walshingham isn’t nearly as aggressive as he was in Elizabeth but still formidable and Owen as the charismatic Raleigh who clicks in more ways than one with Blanchett. By God Queen Elizabeth needed a real man and if Raleigh had had any royal lineage she may have married him. Instead she has to pawn him off on Bess--played sweetly but blandly by Cornish (A Good Year)--and live vicariously through them until their union gets the better of her and she banishes them. Elizabeth is a woman after all. Morton too does an admirable job as the doomed Queen Mary heaving breasts and stoic resolve to her ultimate demise. As with his original Oscar-winning Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur clearly loves the splendor and pageantry of the 16th century royal court and serves up another visual treat with The Golden Age. The costumes are once again spectacular as are the sets. The battle between the British navy and the Spanish Armada is particularly stunning especially as a victorious Elizabeth stands on a high bluff wind blowing looking into the horizon at a sea of burning Spanish ships. Highly effective. Kapur isn’t very subtle in his depiction of the bad guys either. King Philip is almost Golum-like walking in a weird way mumbling and constantly rubbing his rosary beads. At any moment you expect him to hiss “My precioussssssss.” Creepy. But where Kapur’s Golden Age fails is in its pacing. While the first Elizabeth was intriguing in the making of a queen Golden Age plods through Elizabeth’s anxieties and insecurities even if Cate Blanchett is riveting in almost every frame. Things only really get going when Elizabeth forgets about being a lonely woman and gets her head in the war game. There’s also the fact that the masses may have had their fill of historical movies about this time period—from HBO’s excellent Elizabeth I (which is in essence the same story) to even Showtime’s The Tudors. Chalk this Golden Age up to bad timing.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.
The animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas has all the great adventure of the story wrapped up in a sappy little package for the kiddies. Taken from the ancient tales of the Arabian Nights Sinbad is a rogue who cares only about what is in his and his crew's best interest--and little else. As the film begins he unsuccessfully tries to steal the Book of Peace--which keeps order in the world--from his childhood best friend Proteus the Prince of Syracuse who is sailing to the city to return the sacred book. Although the two are estranged it's clear they still have a kinship. When the Book of Peace is actually stolen by Eris the goddess of chaos she frames Sinbad for the theft. Proteus stands up for his friend and makes the council give Sinbad one chance to find and return the precious book or Proteus will die on his behalf. Disbelieving the threat the pirate decides to blow the whole thing off but Proteus' beautiful betrothed Marina who has stowed away on Sinbad's ship has other plans. Marina has Sinbad's crew on her side and it could turn mutinous if the guy doesn't fulfill the mission. OK so he'll go get the book. Eris doesn't make it easy for our reluctant hero--dispatching both monstrous creatures and the elements to do battle along the way. But ultimately the brave Sinbad learns a few life lessons falls in love and wins out by following his heart. Aww!
See what a little success in the animated world can get you? These days an animated film can demand the attention of any A-list actor to provide the voices not just your occasional Robin Williams. We have Finding Nemo with the voices of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres and now Sinbad which attracted huge names such as Brad Pitt (Sinbad) Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marina) Michelle Pfeiffer (Eris) and Joseph Fiennes (Proteus). It could also be the fact DreamWorks' animation king Jeffrey Katzenberg has the clout to rope them all in. Pitt as Sinbad is roguishly clever infusing the pirate with the requisite amount mischievousness and rebellion while Zeta-Jones provides the adventurous Marina with the right amount of bravado and vulnerability. Fiennes as the stiff but honorable Proteus is fine but you can tell right away who has the most fun with her character; Pfeiffer's Eris is a pure delight in sound as well as sight. She is able to take her Catwoman persona from Batman Returns and elevate it to a well celestial level. In the supporting roles Dennis Haysbert does a nice job as Sinbad's right-hand man Kale as does Adriano Giannini the son of legendary actor Giancarlo Giannini as the ship's lookout Rat. Kudos all around for a job well done.
As a self-proclaimed fan of those cheesy 1970s Sinbad movies including The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger--where the stop-motion special effects of wizard Ray Harryhausen made it all worthwhile--the idea of an animated version of Sinbad seems perfectly fitted for the genre. Now the mythical creatures could be fully realized in vivid Technicolor where the DreamWorks' animators spare no expense in providing their own visions of things such as sirens sea monsters and giant birds of prey. The artwork for Eris is a particular stroke of genius with the flowing black hair and beautifully evil features; the film definitely comes alive when she is onscreen. As well the action sequences are as exciting as any car chase or gun battle you'll see in a live-action film. The drawback for the adults is the film's slightly schmaltzy story about friendship and of course true love. It's not entirely clear why computer-animated films such as Shrek and Finding Nemo are now becoming the only animated films that appeal to everyone adults and kids alike. It used to be traditional hand-drawn classics such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King did the trick but now it seems animated films need only provide spectacular visuals--without a great story and snappy dialogue to back them up.
The vampire Lestat de Lioncourt (Stuart Townsend) wakes from a hundred-year sleep to the rock 'n' roll present day and likes what he sees and hears. Tired of the vampire's solitary life he becomes the frontman for an unknown rock band and transforms it into the latest greatest thing gaining the adulation of millions. He also decides to disregard the unspoken rule that vampires must hide away from the rest of world and writes songs encoded with specifics of the secret life of vampires. As expected Lestat's lyrics draw the attention of both the bloodsuckers who want to destroy him and the human vampire scholars (called the Talamasca) who want to study him. One young Talamascan student Jesse Reeves (Marguerite Moreau) becomes obsessed with Lestat after reading his journal from the 1800s. She learns that Lestat had a brief encounter with Queen Akasha (Aaliyah) the most ancient and dangerous vampire to ever exist and the mother of all who walk the Earth in search of blood. He gets his chance to meet Akasha again when his music awakens her from an ancient slumber. She rises and seeks out Lestat to become her king and join her in ruling the world.
The film truly belongs to Townsend and fans of the Anne Rice's novels will be happy to know he completely embodies the charismatic vampire Lestat. The little-known Irish actor who starred in last year's indie About Adam with Kate Hudson rules the screen whenever he is on it and luckily he's on it quite a lot. He's especially powerful when he is in rock star mode. Although Moreau's Jesse is fairly one dimensional she comes alive in her scenes with Townsend. Let's hope they keep asking him to play Lestat (when and if they make any more films from Rice's vampire novels) and next time give him an actress he can have some real chemistry with. The late R&B singer Aaliyah made her second film appearance in Damned as the queen. Even though she is only in the film a short time she possesses a certain charm as the ancient and evil Queen Akasha and makes a great first impression by destroying a vampire coven. Yet her acting skills are just not up to par with the rest of the cast including the charismatic Vincent Perez as the vampire Marius and Lena Olin as the kind-hearted vampire Maharet.
Damned was set to be released in the fall of last year but word of mouth had the film destined for the video shelf before it even made it to the big screen. Then tragedy struck and as the news of Aaliyah's untimely death echoed throughout the world of entertainment Warner Bros. wisely decided to hold onto it and release it in theaters at a more favorable time knowing there would be an audience who'd want to see the singer's last film. Yet for all the bad press surrounding it Damned actually pleasantly surprises you due largely in part to Townsend's mesmerizing performance. Michael Rymer's direction is not a masterpiece of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it has a certain MTV quality about it which makes it appealing. That same quality however also makes it too slick glossing over the meatier parts of Rice's novel making the dialogue and action trite and sometimes downright silly. Come to think of it the 1994 Interview With the Vampire also suffered from the same thing. Maybe translating Rice's words is harder than it looks.