Skeletons and virgins are even better outdoors.
The protagonist is John Pierson, who has been called "the go-to guy to help directors sell their films." His book Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes tells breathless stories of his prescient investments in and high-stakes film festival negotiations over such future hits as She's Gotta Have It, Roger & Me, Go Fish, and Clerks. The book led to a show on the Independent Film Channel, which led to his midlife-crisis decision to uproot his family and play Great White Father Cinema in Fiji.
Although he executive-produced and, never publicity-shy, seems to have initiated this project himself, Pierson turns out to be as much the movie's butt as its hero. Ill-tempered, easily exasperated, unable to relax and forget himself long enough to get to know in any meaningful way the people he has dreamed of giving pleasure to, Pierson grapples with projectionists who've had too much grog to operate the rickety equipment, a teenage daughter who sneaks out at nights with the boys, and villagers who have the ingratitude to use the occasion of his free-movie nights to ransack his rented bungalow. But—but—but, he sputters, he's there to help them.
Between complaints about and paeans to the locals ("I don't want to get into the noble savage thing," he says, before marveling at the villagers' "pure response" to the Three Stooges), he finds time to criticize the missionary church that loathes him right back, without quite seeming to register that he's a missionary himself—albeit a liberal-humanist one. Our sympathies go to his two children and his smart, knowing wife, Janet, for being able to carve out their own destinies in someone else's grand adventure.
I'm making fun of Pierson, but I had friendly dealings with him a few years back, and his hard-nosed negotiations on behalf of indie directors speak for themselves. It's just that making fun of him is the chief pleasure of Reel Paradise—which is overlong at nearly two hours but still a sharp and amusing and subtle piece of filmmaking. Pierson invokes Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, but this movie could be fictionalized—maybe by someone like Jonathan Demme, a movie-lover with a liberal-humanist attraction to indigenous cultures—into something like a 21st-century version of the Jimmy Stewart/Maureen O'Hara beach comedy Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation.
Asylum (Paramount Classics) has a good pedigree. Based on a Patrick McGrath novel ... Sir Ian McKellen ... Natasha Richardson ... hot sex between the repressed spouse (Richardson) of an administrative psychiatrist and a hunky patient, a fiery sculptor (Marton Csokas, who turns out to have been shut away for jealously butchering his wife, is scary in the smoldering, phone-hurling Russell Crowe mode). With the violence-prone sex god at one extreme and the prim, formal Hugh Bonneville at the other, poor Richardson really doesn't have many long-term options. But the geometry is complicated by McKellen, as a shrink who's fixated on Csokas. Is this creepy, desiccated voyeur turned on by the obvious affair between his patient and his (hated) colleague's wife—or does he want Csokas all to himself?
That's the only interesting question in Asylum, in which the nominal bad guy and the actor who embodies him have more stature than anyone else. McKellen's actions are queerly unpredictable (pun intended), but every other plot twist is portentously foreshadowed. The film might have worked better if the director, David McKenzie, had a drop of Grand Guignol in his blue blood. But Asylum is all very formal, detached, and, regrettably, sane.
There's Grand Guignol galore in Eternal (Regent Releasing), which turns out to be semi-enjoyable, semi-tacky retelling/updating of the old Elizabeth Bathory legend. A sadistic noblewoman who attempted to prolong her youth by bathing in the blood of virgins, Bathory is sometimes referred to as Countess Dracula, although she wasn't technically a vampire and she lived more than 300 years before Dracula was a throb in Bram Stoker's jugular. She was the subject of a pretty good Hammer picture—called, natch, Countess Dracula—that signaled the studio's turn to girl-on-girl action.
Eternal has plenty of girl-on-girl stuff, too, although just when it starts to get juicy, the modern Bathory (Caroline Neron) cuts the action short: For the blood to have revivifying properties, she needs to drain it at the height of her victim's arousal. Dividing her time between Montreal and Venice (Is this a Canadian-Italian coproduction?), the buxom countess employs a leather-clad biker chick to prepare her baths, although this young woman is too surly (her own victims die screaming) to qualify for a bloodbath herself. It would just be, you know, sticky.
The directors, Wilhelm Liebenberg and Federico Sanchez, cast a musclebound chrome-dome (Conrad Pla) as Bathory's chief antagonist, a cop whose wandering wife is the movie's first luscious victim; he looks like he lost out on a few roles to Vin Diesel and Frankie G., and his is an oddly down-to-earth presence in such an arty, high-toned film. But then, there are times when Eternal seems like one of those after-hours softcore Showtime pictures—perfect for watching on video on a cool Cape Cod night, but maybe not so arousing in an arthouse for 10 bucks and change.
The Memory of a Killer (Sony Pictures Classics) is the generic retitling of The Alzheimer Case, a gratifyingly slick and fast-moving Flemish thriller, directed by Erik Van Looy, with superb acting. There's this aging hit man (Jan Decleir), see, who starts to lose his grip on reality. A family tradition, apparently. It would be cool if he just started killing people out of some flickering scenario in his degenerating mind, but The Alzheimer Case (I don't want to use that other title) turns out to be fairly conventional vigilante revenge movie. The plot turns on the hit man's inability to murder a 13-year-old girl and his subsequent decision to hunt down his own employers, who've handily put out a contract on him. So, you get tricky, expert assassinations of people you want to see dead: guiltless sadistic fun.
Gray, pallid, closed-down, Decleir has a haunting visage, and he moves with the kind of economy and concentration that makes you believe he could take out a lot of gangsters in ingenious ways. Koen De Bouw and Werner De Smedt are the cops on his trail. I could have done without the ham-handed back story that makes De Bouw so sympathetic to the revenger, but the actor is handsome and magnetic and his slight hesitation (which allows, on one occasion, his prey to escape) adds a much-needed moral wrinkle.
Stills from: Skeleton Key © 2005 Universal Studios; The 40-Year-Old Virgin © 2005 Universal Studios; Reel Paradise by Amy C. Elliott; Asylum by Colm Hogan © Paramount Classics; The Memory of a Killer Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.; Valiant © 2005 Disney/Vanguard Animation UK Limited/UK Film Council; The Brothers Grimm by Francois Duhamel © Miramax Films. All rights reserved.