The Gift (Sam Raimi, 2000) [originally posted 26Nov2001]
Poor Sam Raimi. It doesn't matter what he does to try and avoid being labelled a horror director; every film he makes will be compared to The Evil Dead. But then, in a perfect world, perhaps every review of every film ever made would contain a comparison to The Evil Dead, which is possibly the world's best example of what you can do with fifty grand and a whole lot of beer.
So if you're going to get compared to The Evil Dead for the rest of your life, do what Sam Raimi did: go back to the Evil Tree motif. Gotta love evil trees.
In this case, the evil tree stands in the yard of Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a fortune teller in a small town in Georgia. Wilson has a seemingly-thriving business telling fortunes for local folk, dispensing a kind of half-presaging/half-advice to her clients. When her oldest child gets into trouble in school, she meets the principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), and his fiancee Jessica (Katie Holmes, looking as much like Ashley Judd as cosmetics can make her). Jessica soon goes missing, and Annie, psychic that she is, starts having some rather nasty visions. Imagine the twisted branches of the tree as a cinema screen and away you go.
The plot and characterization are pure Billy Bob Thornton; lots of Southern redneck drawl, lots of mental defectives, lots of people doing incredibly stupid things that they don't think through that come back to haunt them. The film is perfectly cast, including a number of choices that seem odd on the surface (especially Blanchett; hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth as poor white trash, but it works), but that click quite well. The cast is high-caliber from soup to nuts, and they all play their roles to the hilt, including Giovanni Ribisi as an on-the-edge mechanic, Keanu Reeves as the jealous, abusive husband of Hilary Swank, and Gary Cole in his usual slimy role, this time as the town's prosecuting attorney. J. K. Simmons (Dr. Skoda on Law and Order) turns up as the town sheriff and shows us once and for all that he really isn't the open-minded psychiatrist he's typecast as.
This one didn't get nearly enough screen time when it came out. Now that it's available on video, do yourself a favor and rent it. ****
Now this is a Ben Wheatley comedy (viz. Down Terrace review), a movie that skewers the conventions of the rom-com, the road movie, and (the spoiler alerts begin thick and fast?when will you learn to heed that stop sign at the tops of my reviews?) the intelligent serial killer film?by ?intelligent? here I'm talking Kalifornia and Man Bites Dog instead of, say, Final Exam or The Burning, by the by?while still manageing to remain true to every last one of them. Combine that with Wheatley's eye for a script containing bang-up characters and you've got... a movie that's half muddled mess and half brilliant, at least. It is, to date, my favorite Ben Wheatley movie by a whisker.
Plot: Tina (The World's End's Alice Lowe) has recently started dating Chris (Kill List's Steve Oram?also note that Lowe and Oram co-wrote), and the two of them have decided to take a caravan holiday around England to see some of the more offbeat sites. Things start off swimmingly, but take a nasty turn when Chris accidentally backs the caravan over an obnoxious tourist (Down Terrace's Tony Way) who'd been on a tram tour with them just before. From there, Murphy's Law begins to reign, and every stop they make is plagued by weirder, dumber, more obnoxious people.
The reason that stop sign is up there is that it is impossible to even begin to talk about this movie without spoilers, since everything worth talking about occurs once all that gets off the ground. More importantly, these characters really start coming alive once this movie becomes Natural Born Caravaners. Chris is a fun guy, you'd want to go drinking with him, but once you know what's going on there's no elision at all in your thinking; it works perfectly, aside from one scene that is liable to jar if you weren't paying really close attention earlier. But, well, did you ever read Robb White's Up Periscope? (If you didn't, go do it now, I'll wait.) There's a scene early on in the book where a nasty drill sergeant has revenge got upon him by the recruits he's been training when they build a trap inside a trap, and he falls for it but good. Tina is the trap inside Chris' trap, and it is the evolution of Tina's character throughout the film that makes it as absorbing as it is. You may not realize what you're getting until you actually get it. And then comes that final scene, which manages to be both shocking and utterly predictable, and I still don't know how that works. This is good stuff, this; Wheatley really started coming into his own as a filmmaker right about here, methinks. *** ½
Four men walk across a field. One of them carries a pike; the other three are unarmed, which is somewhat odd considering that all four of them are, in various degrees, deserters from a battle taking place on the other side of a hedgerow from where they initially met. (What battle this is, presumably, I have been unable to figure out; the First English Civil War was over by 1648, but Cutler specifically mentions Oliver Cromwell at one point; I think Cromwell at the time was over in Ireland quelling the natives there in 1648.) One of them, Whitehead by name (Shaun of the Dead's Reece Shearsmith), is an educated man, apprentice to an alchemist, and he is on a mission. The others-Jacob (Starred Up's Peter Ferdinando), Friend (Malevolence's Richard Glover), and Cutler (Velvet Goldmine's Ryan Pope)-he's the one with the pike-are all men who had been more directly involved in the combat. But here I'm getting ahead of myself; at this point, the four of them are simply walking across a field. That scene, a long, stationary take about fifteen minutes into the movie, reminded me strongly of a similar scene, coming at roughly a similar time, in Meek's Cutoff, where the three wives are walking in a very composed, very studied diagonal line behind the covered wagon. That sort of deliberate composition pervades A Field in England, as well, more so than any of Wheatley's other films to date. It is a film that revels in its artifice, and because of that, I think, it's going to end up being polarizing; those familiar with Wheatley will find it either his best feature or his worst. I fall on the former side, just as I did with Meek's Cutoff.
As I said, the four of them are no longer a part of the battle. Cutler, the pragmatist of the bunch, recognizes that the four of them are basically deserters, then proposes the four form a band of their own, and cement the bond over a good meal at an alehouse in the area he knows of. They agree and start off across the field. (It is here that the scene described in the opening paragraph takes place.) They cross a line of mushrooms and, with far to go still, stop and work on filling their empty bellies. That, it turns out, may not have been the best idea, both because the mushrooms themselves would seem to be hallucinogenic, and because they are part of what would seem to be the border of England's largest fairy ring. However, during the meal, Whitehead asked the other three to help him on his mission: he is looking for a rogue alchemist, O'Neill (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), who stole some valuable documents from Whitehead's master. If only it were that easy.
It would be simple, though inaccurate, to categorize A Field in England as an exercise in style over substance. There is certainly style to it, and in spades; this is Wheatley's most distinctive feature yet, stylistically, and that's saying something for the guy who came up with the final fifteen minutes of Kill List. But Wheatley has a lot to say here (and not just about indiscriminate ingestion of hallucinogenic substances); his trademark sharp, finely-observed characters, and the friendships that develop between them, lend the movie a weight it would not otherwise have. Wheatley also comes up with some inventive ways to get around what were likely budget limitations; the obvious example here is the delivery of the dialogue in the climactic scene. (I'm not trying to be obtuse, I want to stay on the safe side of spoilery. When you see it, you'll know it.) The main criticism I have seen levelled at the film, that it raises more questions about its plot than it answers, is accurate. I do not see this as a weakness. Your mileage may vary.
As a side note, the trailers for the film have made a pretty big deal of the war aspect. As a service to those who lack an interest in war films, I will note that the battle is a framing aspect that serves to fix the time of the story, at no point do we actually see any of the battle, though guns firing can be heard, and musket-smoke is visible behind the hedgerow, for the first five to ten minutes of the film. Unlike, say, Pan's Labyrinth, which switched back and forth between the reality of the war and the fantasy world, Wheatley gives us a few minutes of character introduction, as it relates to the war, and then spends the rest of the movie in the titular field.
Ben Wheatley has gotten better with every film so far. This made me look forward all the more to his next project (as of this writing, he's in the middle of both the Ideals feature and an adaptation of J. G. Ballard's novel High Rise). But until one of those comes out, hunt this down and give it a look. *** 1/2
Netflix, in their inimitable quest for complete inaccuracy, lists Down Terrace as a comedy. If you can see, say, The Homecoming as a comedy, maybe. (I was going to use Endgame, but there's enough farce in there that it actually does work as a comedy.) I found it one of the bleakest movies I have seen so far this year, a movie so far removed from the comedy world that I'm not even sure they inhabit the same planet. This is a movie about, as another review of the film that I read recently put it so very well, "unlikable people doing unlikable things"; that is as good a summary as anything I could come up with.
While the film is essentially plotless, I'll go with Netflix's summary, since that is at least a subplot here, but with a whole lot of clarification. Bill and Karl (real-life father-and-son team, and Wheatley regulars, Robert and Robin Hill) are small-time gangsters, Bill a drug dealer and Karl a runner, who have just narrowly escaped a long prison sentence. Their mole in the home office, David Berman (The World's End's Mark Kemper), tells them from the first time wee see him that somewhere in their organization is a mole who's been telling the police all about their business, as well as providing the coppers with an extensive list of contacts. The movie takes place over the two weeks after the charges have been dismissed. Ostensibly, it is about Bill, Karl, and Bill's wife Maggie (Shaun of the Dead's Julia Deakin) shaking down their friends and acquaintances in order to find out who the informant is, but so little screen time is spent on the actual mystery of the informant's identity that it is, in essence, a subplot at best. There's also a great deal of stuff about Karl and his girlfriend Valda (Kerry Peacock in her only screen appearance to date), pregnant with Karl's child (or is it? Bill is unconvinced throughout the film), who is trying to convince Karl to ditch the criminal life and go straight; Maggie's brother Eric (Mr. Nobody's David Schaal), the organization's enforcer; Bill's obsession with the blues, and his weekly musical get-togethers; Pringle (Kill List's Michael Smiley), an outside wet-work contractor; and a number of other threads, including the entire clan's taste for getting high on their own supply (while the drug in question is never identified-Eric calls it "double bubble" in an early scene-the most believable speculation I've seen on IMDB is that the entire gang are hooked on Solpadol, which for those of you reading this in America is the British equivalent of Tylenol with codeine).
The good parts about the movie are (a) Wheatley and Hill (Robin, not Robert)'s script, with its strong emphasis on well-drawn and believable characters in almost entirely unrealistic situations and (b) playing spot-the-theme-that-cropped-up-again-in-Kill List. (As if (a) didn't already have you doing so.) Not only is it not a comedy, but after reading that attempt at a synopsis, you might think this is a gangster film in the longstanding British gangster film tradition; not at all, except if you turn your head and squint just right. This is a slice-of-life film that happens to include unsavory characters who occasionally do very violent things. But this is a movie far more interested in the dynamics of this family than it is with the organization to which they all belong. The bad thing about the movie is that almost by definition, any attempt to summarize the movie either by pigeonholing it into a genre or attempting to summarize it in a sentence or two is inevitably going to be a great letdown for people who take those genres and synopses on faith; you are guaranteed to get something very different than you actually got. (Kill List had this same problem, but there it very much felt like subterfuge on Wheatley's part, whereas here it feels far more like Netflix incompetence. (To be fair, every other site on which I've seen a synopsis-IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, Mubi, etc.-all suffer the same attempt to summarize, and I probably shouldn't be picking specifically on Netflix for this one.) It also, by focusing so obsessively on characters that it almost ignores plot, decides to be a little lax about tying up some of (okay, all of) its loose ends; the viewer will have far more questions after the final frame than after the first ten minutes. This is not always a bad thing, but they're not the kind of questions that are going to get you over to the pub afterwards involved in impassioned discussion until closing time, they're more "okay, that scene ended up being irrelevant, let's not follow it up." So all that said-if you liked Kill List (I still haven't seen Wheatley's other two extant films as of this writing, though I will have seen both by next Sunday morning), it's worth going back and checking this one out to see where Wheatley came from. But watch that one first. ** 1/2
Okay, I have to get this out of my system right now. "Castaway" is ONE WORD. Not two. ONE.
And now, on with the review.
It has been a painfully long time since Robert Zemeckis made a good film (Peter Jackson was responsible for The Frighteners, Zemeckis only lent his name); depending on your point of view, that could be Death Becomes Her, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back to the Future, or if you're really a purist, Used Cars. Cast Away was the great white hope, the movie that would bring Robert Zemeckis' career back from the grave he'd dug with such abominable tripe as Forrest Gump and What Lies Beneath.
Sorry. No luck.
In two and a half tortuously long hours, Zemeckis leads Tom Hanks through Christmas dinner, a plane ride, three raft trips, another plane ride, a taxi, and an SUV. And while there are a few other supporting players in the movie (Helen Hunt, a woefully underused Chris Noth, an even more woefully underused Lari White in her first big-screen appearance since the Ben Cross vehicle The Unholy twelve years before), make no mistake-this movie is about Tom Hanks and His Ability to Act. Because of that, the only relationship in the movie that actually makes any sense is that which Hanks forms with his well-known pal Wilson, the volleyball who keeps him company during his stint on the island. (In Zemeckis' favor, the volleyball never does develop a voice. I feared that for about an hour.)
Given that the movie IS about THaHATA, one wonders why we really needed that hour or so of frame time that surrounded THaHATA. What's Helen Hunt doing here? Despite her role as Hanks' wife-to-be at the beginning and the yardstick we are (presumably) supposed to use to judge how the world has gone on without him at the end, her relationship with Hanks is far less convincing than Wilson's. Like Noth and White, a good actor in a bad role.
Trimming forty-five minutes of frame would have made this watchable, at least. As it stands now, rent it if you like Tom Hanks and have a coupon for a ninety-nine cent rental. **