A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness has many layers and is definitely not for everyone. It isn’t a great movie, but it is worth seeing.

It is, at its core, a suspense/horror film very much in the vein of Frankenstein and Dracula, even a dash of Phantom of the Opera. But it isn’t a B-grade flick nor is it histrionic or intended to get you with cheap scares.

Balancing the classic influences, there are also nods to Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut. For the former, it is the thin veneer of reality and matter-of-fact absurdity of what is going on, as well as some of the sense of the imagery. From the latter, it is the use of a simple, repeating musical theme and, particularly near the end, a sequence that echos Eyes and a load of Argento and other films from the 70s including Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and others.

Visually, the film is full of gorgeous cinematography by Bazelli. The composition and clarity of the shots will make you want to pause every few moments to really examine the detail and relationship of the various objects. It is painterly in its execution, but always in support of the story.

The story itself is somewhat obvious, but what is reality is somewhat not. There are clues, but it is ultimately contradictory, and the ending is nebulous at best. And yet, somehow this gorgeous, Gothic, mental trip to the Swiss Alps is mesmerizing, even with a 2.5 hour run. The whole is, somehow, more than its parts.

There are several nice, small performances, but are only three main roles that form the framework of the movie. Dean DeHaan (Valerian) as the lead isn’t any more likable than he is in other roles, but he has a bit more energy. Generally, I’m finding DeHaan to always have a cool distance; an odd disconnect between his voice and his physical movement that removes you from caring about him. It can be very effective when you aren’t intended to like him, but it makes it hard to even care about what happens to him.

On the other hand, Jason Isaacs (The OA) is wonderfully creepy. He rides the line between care and conspiring beautifully. And Mia Goth (Everest) is practically ephemeral, going through her inevitable changes in a controlled and believable progression. You can see why DeHaan is drawn to her, why anyone would be. And yet she also manages to have a layer of both innocence and poisonousness lurking beneath her surface, like a toxic flower.

As I suggested, the end feels like it could be read in many ways. It is a strong choice, but not a clear one. And I say this despite one of the characters providing an explicit meaning to the title and their philosophy…I just don’t think it covered all that was going on nor the last image. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I think the entire intent was, and that’s somewhat OK because I’ve plenty to chew on.

Director Gore Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe reteamed for this production after their somewhat confused and misfire of The Lone Ranger. Bazelli returned behind the camera again as well. Seeing their efforts in an unfettered venue, absent any expectations, gives me a much better sense of their creative scope. While the end-result is a little baffling, it is a ride I willingly took and continue to think about. Make time for this when you’re in a mood for something darkly beautiful but very different.

A Cure for Wellness

Alien Arrival (aka Arrowhead)

There is an interesting story somewhere in this script (and probably on the cutting room floor), but it doesn’t really come together on screen. The largely unknown cast is led by Dan Mor as a brooding rebel with mixed and muddled motivations. Pretty to look at, he doesn’t create a character we can invest in or root for because we never understand him or what he wants and needs to do.

Writer/director Jesse O’Brien really attempts to tackle the difficulty of bringing hard science fiction to the screen…with a healthy does of science fantasy on many points. I applaud him for not treating the audience like idiots, and for some interesting moments and storytelling. But, he needed a few more “connect the dots” revelations to help us put together the story he intended to tell. What we end up with is a nihilistic opening chapter in a larger tale about some kind of galactic war that never quite makes any sense. 

I did watch the whole film, because there was just enough to keep teasing me along that there would be answers. Frankly, I’d skip this. But if you are a real fan of Australian science fiction or want to sample a new director and see what he may be capable of down the road, it isn’t entirely unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying.

Alien Arrival

New Tale to Tell in 140 Characters

My latest sold story is up on Story Seed Vault today. They can better explain  their mission and raison d’être.

The challenge for this market was to tell a whole story in 140 characters or less; essentially no more than one Tweet’s worth. And the story has to be based on some new bit of science. I can’t resist a challenge…

You can find it at: https://storyseedvault.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/40/

I hope to be adding more to the vault over time as well. If I’m going to read science news all the time, I should also find more ways to make it pay!

The Calling

Navigating a dark world of pain and murder in the Great White North, Susan Sarandon (3 Generations) leads a solid suspense story (if a bit flawed in the police procedure). Of course, I am partial to good serial killer tales, if you hadn’t noticed, so I’m in the target audience for this one.

Sarandon is supported by a surprisingly well-heeled cast: Gil Bellows (Ascension), Topher Grace (The Big Wedding), Ellen Burstyn (The Age of Adaline), Donald Sutherland (Hunger Games), and Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels). Their abilities and experience keep it all fresh and intriguing. 

What makes this particular story a bit different is the efforts by director, Jason Stone and writer, Scott Abramovitch; both having their first time at bat for a feature. In the script and the direction, the characters all act just a bit different than you expect. The plot, even when obvious, still has some very nice reveals. I will admit that the final moment, probably from the original material, is a tad eye-rolling, but not unanticipated, and it doesn’t diminish all that came before. It simply is a bit too, for lack of a better word, cutesy. 

If you like good suspense tales (and this is more suspense than mystery), it is worth your time investment. The driving purpose and the path to the resolution are really very clever. It would have made a great mini-series, but it manages not to feel too rushed, even in a two hour format.

The Calling

I Am Heath Ledger

Sometimes a disc just jumps to the top of your Netflix queue for unknown reasons. This one was way down my list, but appeared unexpectedly in my box the other day. It offers a 90 min docu which is part of Derik Murray’s “I am…” series of biographies; a genre he is drawn to. I’ve not seen the others, but while interesting, I can’t say this was a particularly insightful piece of biography or strong enough for me to search out the others.

Certainly, the loss of Ledger was a blow to many. I can honestly say I spotted him in Roar and followed him up through his triumphant Joker in The Dark Knight. He had amazing charisma and significant talent.

But a biography should be intended to provide insight and a balanced view of its subject, warts and all. That is what gives you a true appreciation for the person and context for their lives. The result of this film is purely a love letter to Heath. In fact, I left it feeling that if anyone had stood up to Ledger, rather than just idolizing or following him, he might still be alive; surely not the intended message. Heath was a manic and creative soul that seemed to just run rampant. Though there are indications of struggles, none are really explored, only hinted at. 

And this is part of the root of the problem with the film, the lack of any sense of real struggle on his part. Also, the structure of the piece is odd. For example, the revelation that he was a chess fiend, and pushing to be a Grand Master, comes very near the end of the story, but was clearly an important part of his personality and life from the time he was small. Yet that aspect of his daily routine and life is utterly absent till we are forced to re-evaluate him with that revelation near the end. 

Basically, if you want a nice, relatively light review of Ledger’s life and art, with some intriguing glances behind the curtain of his other pursuits, this will do. If you’re hoping for a real look at his life, who he was, and what really drove him, you’ll probably have to wait another 10 years for someone with distance to tackle the subject again.

I Am Heath Ledger

Paterson

Paterson is a quiet musing of the mundane, a perusal of poetry in the present. It is simple and absurd, much like life, and without a real plot, unless you consider the plot the exposure of how one man sees the world and how he copes with being in it.

Adam Driver’s (Silence) performance is compelling and quietly intense. He is an observer of life who is infrequently drawn into it to act. Mostly, he just captures it all in his notebook while the world happens around him. Opposite him, Golshifteh Farahani (The Patience Stone) is a loving cyclone of energy and unfocused ideas who gets a lot done, but accomplishes little. The two make a perfect yin-yang pairing, much like the black & white production design.

Jim Jarmusch (Gimme Danger) has very consciously created the visual equivalent of a bastard child between William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. It has the beauty in the small aspects of life, but from the perspective of a person without much of one and who is howling inside, quietly. His point is probably pounded home a bit too painfully in the final few scenes with Masatoshi Nagase, but it remains lyrical and thought provoking till the credits. 

As a poem of life and love, Paterson is about the city, the people, the person, and life, as well as a reminder to live it and appreciate it. It is more art than movie, but it manages to pull you along if you let it. Honestly, I’m still more partial to Only Lovers Left Alive, but they each have their charms, and each effectively obsess on the concept of “meaning.”

Paterson

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.

The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.

The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.

No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.

Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.

All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Authors Anonymous

It isn’t that there aren’t some good moments in this Chris Guest wannabe about a writing group, but it is too uneven and unsatisfying to outright recommend. That said, if you are in a writing group, you will probably find a lot that is familiar.

Delivering the comedy is a host of recognizable faces. Kaley Cuoco (Why Him?), Chris Klein (Wilfred), Teri Polo (The Hole), Dylan Walsh (Unforgettable), Tricia Helfer (Lucifer), Meagen Foy (La La Land), among them. And, in one of his last performances, Dennis Farina provides his trademark bruised, tough guy.

Director Ellie Kanner is better known for her casting prowess than she is her directing. I can’t honestly say that either aspect shows itself well in this movie. While the individual roles are cast well, the chemistry of the group is off. You don’t really believe these individuals would associate with one another for a long time. That is as much on first-time writer David Congalton as it is on Kanner. The understanding of the current state of publishing just isn’t there. This feels like it was written more than ten years ago, though it was only completed in 2013.

Part of my problem with this flick the use of improvisation for dialogue. The movie bounces between mockumentary-style interviews and long, fly-on-the-wall moments. As I’ve mentioned before, I often find this mixed approach forced and unsatisfying. Authors was no exception.

It isn’t an unwatchable film, but it just doesn’t really connect for me. Even with the two codas during the credits, I’m left feeling a general wondering at why I spent 90 minutes getting to that point. You may find the humor and situation more engaging than I did, but I can’t recommend it.

Authors Anonymous

Love Affair (to Remember)

Ever been watching a film and thought, “I’ve seen this before?”

I recently caught a presentation of Love Affair (1939) with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, directed by Leo McCrarey. About 10 minutes in I realized it was reminding me of something else I’d seen not too long ago: An Affair to Remember (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, also directed by Leo McCrarey.

You aren’t misreading, McCrarey directed both. It is an incredible example of a director getting a complete do-over later in his life with (almost) the same script, but an entirely different life view and technology advantage. The result is, in many ways, two entirely different films with almost the same plot and words. I don’t know of any other film pairing that could whet the appetite of a film lover more than the chance to see that in action, especially with such big names attached.

I recommend both movies for different reasons. Love Affair has the energy and sensibility of The Thin Man pairing of Powell and Loy. An Affair to Remember is quite a bit more serious and emotional. Both are gorgeously filmed and well executed. And, as dated as both are in some ways, they stand the test of time rather well because they focus more on the emotions than the culture of the era.  Make time for both of these at some point. Together, they are fascinating nuggets of film history; on their own, they are just good films as well.

I could spend an exhaustive amount of effort going through the comparisons, but the folks at Spectrum Culture have already done so, and it is an excellent, if spoiler-ridden, read. So if you want detail before or after you dig these films up, here is a link to the article:

Re-Make/Re-Model: Love Affair (1939) vs. An Affair to Remember (1957)

Love Affair An Affair to Remember

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…