The rest of the month’s viewing.
Stonehearst Asylum (aka Eliza Graves, 2014) Adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” It strains to stretch a short to fit a feature, and tries to fill the gaps with some twisted madhouse humour, comments on the insane psychology methods of the day, and plenty of creepy props and some very effective, old dark hospital atmosphere. Conscientious young alienist Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at a remote institution for a job with Dr. Lamb (Ben Kingsley). He soon finds the inmates run the asylum while the real doctors (including Michael Caine) are imprisoned in the dungeon. Newgate falls in love with patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) and tries to break her out, which involves getting past sadistic groundskeeper David Thewlis. Fun to see these actors chewing scenery but it misses every target it’s aiming for, and ends up unsatisfying as a romance, thriller or social commentary. Director Brad Anderson made a much better thriller with Session 9, and whenever I see this era of psychology I think back to Caleb Carr’s great novel The Alienist.
Foxcatcher (2014) Steve Carell plays John du Pont, who murdered Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). That murder is a tiny part at the end of the movie, which doesn’t try to explain or really even set up the crime other than in leading us down a long, bleak path to that moment of tragedy. Instead the film focuses on du Pont’s quest to attract Schultz’s brother Mark (Channing Tatum), a gold-medalist himself, and then a whole team with Dave as coach, to live and train at a facility on his estate. Carell is heavily made up, adopting strange posture, mannerisms and speech patterns, and just plain “off” in every possible way. Du Pont is a time bomb, a dangerously inadequate man-child yearning to impress and show up his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and presents himself as a mentor in a sport he knows nothing about. The insecure and naive Mark, who struggles to express himself and always feels stuck in Dave’s shadow, initially welcomes du Pont as a father figure but falls into depression and resentment after realizing he was used to pull Dave on board. The du Pont family dysfunction as depicted here, hammers the shallow message that rich people are weird and evil, and that too much money and patriotism are necessarily false, corrupting or dangerous. But the acting is impressive, especially Tatum’s as the decent guy whose weakness is exploited by the needy man who has everything.
Limitless (2011) Now that Limitless is a TV series I caught up with the movie. Bradley Cooper plays Eddie, a writer with a serious block on paper and in life. His cure for feeling like a loser comes through a chance meeting with his ex-brother-in-law, who gives him a miracle drug that unlocks the brain’s full potential. In short order Eddie finishes his novel, cooks up genius corporate takeovers for business mogul Van Loon (Robert De Niro) and runs for office. There’s nothing he can’t achieve while high, but the crash comes when he’s cut off from both dealer and drug, he learns that going cold turkey leads to a miserable death, and he gets mixed up in a murder due to the memory loss that’s a side effect. Based on the novella The Dark Fields, this story raises questions about who should get this kind of power, and how to use it. Eddie secretly hires a chemist to reverse-engineer the pill formula, and you can understand why this stuff shouldn’t be shared with the world; the loan shark who tries some predictably applies his newfound genius to crime and murder. To a man like Van Loon, who puts value in his hard earned success and ability to reason, Eddie’s meteoric rise is nothing more than temporary access to encyclopedic knowledge, entitlement and instant gratification. And other than brain capacity, Eddie really doesn’t change much over the course of the movie, but it’s fun to watch him outthink everyone and wonder how long he can keep it up.
47 Ronin (2013) Keanu Reeves is a half-breed with a demon heritage who joins the legendary 47 masterless Samurai when they set out to regain their honour and avenge their disgraced lord’s death. Battles are well-staged and feel like classic swashbuckler set pieces. Visuals are fantastic: skeleton-tattooed or lizard-faced fighters and a shapeshifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi) that becomes a dragon or white fox, and wisps through impossible spaces trailing long flowing robes. Lifeless dialogue and a main character that feels gratuitous and in the way, among a group of great actors that should be the focus (including the real lead here, Hiroyuki Sanada).
A Most Wanted Man (2014) In Anton Corbijn’s film of John le Carre’s 2008 bestseller, the war on terror is viewed through the eyes of weary, disenchanted German spy Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final leading role). His unit is currently watching a Chechen immigrant whose huge inheritance might draw the attention of a suspected terrorist financier. Gunther struggles to keep the case evolving at his preferred speed, and information flowing from his players and informants, free from interference by heavy handed domestic officials and American agencies intent on storming in and undoing all his work. He trusts no promises, with good reason, and even when he secures cooperation, suspense comes from the constant threat of a clumsy move or betrayal. Low-key, but the careful pacing, intricate deal making and character development make it thrilling. Also stars Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe.
…plus one TV series that has me hooked:
Penny Dreadful seasons 1 & 2 (2014) This addictive and gorgeous macabre mashup of Hammer horror, Gothic monster lit and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is not for the faint of heart. It’s an erotic, gory and scary world named after pulpy Victorian periodicals, but is beautifully, convincingly brought to life through elaborate sets and costumes, evocative music, brilliant writing and top notch acting. The characters: Vanessa Ives, a powerful medium/the devil’s bride desperate to atone, do good and please God (Eva Green), American gunslinger and werewolf Ethan (Josh Hartnett), explorer Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his creature (Rory Kinnear), the Bride of Frankenstein (Billie Piper), Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and a witch (Helen McCrory). The first season was dominated by Malcolm’s search for his daughter Mina, lost, as in Stoker’s novel, to a vampire’s thrall. Season 2 picks up steam with a witches’ coven, sins that catch up with Ethan (whose real name is revealed to be Larry Talbot, nice touch) and a deeper look at Vanessa’s past and destiny. Season 3 will see Patti LuPone return as Vanessa’s witch mentor, and add Dr. Jekyll to the mix, which means it’s not unreasonable to expect Sherlock Holmes someday.
This series’ look and atmosphere are miles ahead of most feature films I’ve seen lately, and they’re faithful to the source novels in tone, plot and spirit, while also pushing into directions more acceptable by modern standards, especially where Dorian’s decadence and experimentation are concerned. The characters live in a society obsessed with lurid entertainment, so Frankenstein’s monster finds employment first as a stagehand at the grand guignol, then at a waxworks where the evil proprietor plans to cage him as the main attraction. The bride created for him rejects him and is drawn to Dorian Gray (and murder) and so on until all paths have crossed, including a brief stint by David Warner as Van Helsing. Eva Green deserves special praise, she’s pure steel and dynamite whether in an eye-rolling state of possession, staring daggers at enemies, or facing down the Devil himself, leading one reviewer to measure intensity from 1 to Eva Green. Both character and actress are defined by one of my favourite quotes, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “Beware, for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” The series’ creator and sole writer is John Logan (writer of Gladiator, Skyfall, Hugo).
September full review posts: