It's an affliction I've suffered for some time now. Historically, vampires are the most over-used cinema monsters, but lately it has only gotten worse. They're everywhere now.
Between Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, my tolerance for the romanticizing of evil, bloodsucking, feral, scary bastards has taken a bombardment of pop culture's ongoing fascination.
So, it's probably to Cirque Du Freak's benefit that it isn't much of a vampire movie. That'll have to wait for the sequel.
Clearly aiming for Harry Potter territory, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is a conglomeration of the first three books of The Saga of Darren Shan, a series of teen-lit vampire novels written, unsurprisingly enough, by Darren Shan. (Full disclosure: I've read none of them.)
The Darren Shan of the film (Chris Massoglia) is a nerdy but generally well-adjusted high school kid who pals around with his troublemaker best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Darren recoils at the college/marriage/family/life-plan his parents have mapped out for him. Steve, however, has been completely alienated by his absent father and alcoholic mother and takes refuge in reading about vampires--when he's not convincing Darren to help him commit random acts of vandalism.
When a flyer for a travelling sideshow called Cirque Du Freak falls into their possession, Darren defies a grounding to sneak out with Steve and see the show. There, they are greeted by the cadaverous Mr. Tall (a scene-stealing Ken Watanabe) and are treated to a cornucopia of sideshow attractions, from werewolves to a Snake Boy with rock-star dreams and culminating in Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a Willy Wonka-esque magician who Steve recognizes as a Vampire.
Steve confronts Crepsley after the show--unknowingly witnessed by Darren--in a bid to have Crepsley turn him into a vampire. When Crepsley refuses, Steve swears an oath of vengeance.
Everything that follows is an origin story made to beget a new franchise, and you are either a newbie or a fan. Aptly directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie) from a script he co-wrote with Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), Cirque Du Freak wears a certain pedigree on its sleeve if only to get the attention of people who have never heard of the books.
Being an origin story for the uninitiated, the film carefully lays out its rules about everything. Vampires are actually fairly benign creatures who drink human blood in the most non-invasive way possible, but there's a splinter faction, the Vampaneze, who are of a much more murderous frame of mind. They live under a shaky truce, which is enforced by the unseen Vampire Council, with the vampires. Even though the vampires would rather keep a low profile, there are those amongst them that are looking for a war. In the middle of it all is Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), a bloated, Sydney Greenstreet type who seems more than a little anxious to recruit Darren for that war after he becomes Crepsley's assistant.
There's nothing inherently bad about Cirque Du Freak. It's actually a playful piece of work that is too good-natured about itself to genuinely dislike. Some of the quirky casting goes a long way.
As Crepsley, John C. Reilly sinks into the role in a way not expected bringing a strange gravitas, even as he's asked to be somewhat of a Willy Wonka knock off. He gamely plays it up with an inherent comedic timing that doesn't overpower the character.
An extended cameo by Willem Dafoe (Wild at Heart) as Gavner Purl, a vampire who wants Crepsley to take up his old mantle as General and go to war with the Vampaneze, is delightfully weird as only Dafoe can be.
Salma Hayek gives a bodice-busting turn as Madame Truska, the Cirque's resident Bearded Lady and Crepsley's love interest. Hayek plays her with a cheekiness that reminds you that this is somewhat a kid's movie, despite her sexy curves. She's clearly having fun with that while cashing a check.
As the protagonist of the piece, Darren Shan, Chris Massogila turns in a convincing, if unremarkable, performance. If this franchise takes off, his nascent skills will develop, not unlike Daniel Radcliffe's. I'm sure that's the plan.
That plan is also Cirque Du Freak's biggest problem. Why is it that films like this come with the promise of a trilogy, by default? It introduces you to the world, but only resolves the most fundamental conflicts. That world is well thought out and looks dense, detailed by a bevy of high dollar special FX (some of them very practical and effective, some just very cheesy CGI). It also has Burton-esque art design and visual creativity to spare, despite that, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant hamstrings itself with its own ambition to be nothing more than a 108-minute teaser for movies that will be green lit if this one does well.
Still, I'd be lying if I said it didn't amuse me a bit.
Prestige picture season is nearly upon us. If you need proof, look no further than Amelia, a film with Oscar bait written all over it. Let's go down the list, shall we?
An inspiring story of a woman driven by obsession who goes on to make an indelible mark on the world? Check. A period piece steeped in the Americana of a romanticized time in our history? Check. A-List cast led by statuette-magnet Hillary Swank portraying the film's namesake? Not to mention her emotional and tragic ending that anyone who made it out of middle school has read about? Check and check. The only thing Amelia is missing is an endearing kid with a speech impediment.
Written for the screen by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (from a pair of books by Susan Butler and Mary S. Lovell) and directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), Amelia tells the story of Amelia Earhart (Hillary Swank). Earhart was the first woman to complete a solo transatlantic flight, and damn near the first to circumnavigate the planet by airplane or any other means.
Almost completely ignoring her earlier life, the film tells Earhart's story in a series of long flashbacks intercut into the highlights of her final voyage. We see her meet and fall in love with future husband and business partner George Putnam (Richard Gere) and do the same with her paramour Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor).
We see her first solo transatlantic flight and other high altitude moments of her life, both literally and figuratively. The resulting film, though, often feels as if the writers adapted Amelia Earhart's Wikipedia entry instead of two biographical novels. The cut and paste script cherry picks the most widely known elements of Earhart's life but really doesn't do much to give her depth outside of those Hallmark moments. The lazy script is complemented by Mira Nair's choppy direction. There were glaringly edited scenes and conspicuous character disappearances that led me to believe a good chunk of Amelia hit the cutting room floor, which makes sense. Probably an attempt to pick up the pace a little, but the film drags rather heavily, particularly in the overlong finale.
Nair knows how to get some gorgeous shots, and she does capture a couple of beautiful flight sequences on film. Despite that, there were precious few moments when I felt like the film was close to hitting on all cylinders.
At its lowest ebbs Amelia is sometimes fairly boring. While it feels like homage to a more vintage style of a big cinematic, Hollywood biography, the mere act of going for that look doesn't make the obtuse script any more exciting.
It's a shame too, because there was some good work being done here. The performances by Hillary Swank, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor are fine across the board, though honestly none of them are really nomination-worthy.
Gere and Swank in particular have an easy chemistry, and they all have on-screen charisma to burn, making it fairly easy to get sucked into their performances even when the film itself has you counting the reel changes.
Swank affects an on-again off-again, steeped Midwestern accent that seemed unnecessary given the detailed make-up work that makes her look the part (though in reality, Earhart looked more like Mia Farrow). Swank captures the character's essence and really doesn't need to resort to mimicry to own the role.
Gere just turns up his natural roguish charm and lets that do most of the work. George Putnam is a character with layers though, and Gere finds them--even when they aren't on the page. Christopher Eccleston turns in a typically genuine performance as Fred Noonan, the navigator on Earhart's final flight; a performance made more impressive by his limited screen time. Eliciting good performances should be considered one of the things Mira Nair got right with Amelia, but given the talent she had to work with, that really shouldn't have been difficult.
Amelia is a pretty film to look at. It certainly looks at home on the silver screen. Stuart Dryburgh's rich cinematography imparts golden warmth to the proceedings, and his painterly compositions go a long way in bringing the period art decoration to life, as well as the vastness of the big blue yonder. But that and the performances alone aren't enough to lift the pedestrian script off the ground.
Make no mistake, the story of Amelia Earhart is an amazing and inspiring one. One that is deserving of more than a paint-by-the-numbers film that comes off as somewhat of a shameless Oscar grab. I hope it is not the last time someone takes a stab at this material because there is certainly a great film in there that, in more imaginative hands, might turn out to be the film I wanted Amelia to be.
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