Drive-in Delights: Skeletons and virgins are even better outdoors.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Aug. 29 2005 3:14 PM

Drive-in Delights

Skeletons and virgins are even better outdoors.

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The key to creepiness

Truro, Mass.—It's hard to ignore the siren song of one of the last great drive-ins, down the road from us in Wellfleet. We're off to see a double-bill of Skeleton Key (Universal) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Universal)—a delightful evening among our fellow gas-guzzlers, even allowing for the soggy, artificial-tasting popcorn (some of the worst I've ever wolfed down—I could actually feel the trans-fats congealing in my valves).

Only my colleagues Stephanie Zacharek and Charlie Taylor had kind words to say about Skeleton, and they turn out to be spot-on. It's a prodigiously creepy black-magic spook show, set in a New Orleans and Iberia that I hope is not, as I write this, consigned by Katrina to the briny depths. The New Jersey-bred heroine, played by Kate Hudson, takes a job caring for an elderly stroke victim (John Hurt) in an old manse amid the swamps. A woman with boiled-egg eyes at the local gas station ought to be a tip-off that no good can come of this enterprise. Further evidence is provided by the lack of mirrors in the house, the preserved fetuses and shrunken heads in the attic, and the supposed stroke victim who intermittently crawls through storm-drenched gutters and rasps, "Get out!"

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The director, Ian Softely, has a masterly touch with Gothic horror tropes (skeleton-key-holes, squeaky doors, gloomy passageways) the sheer density of which are enough break down one's well-fortified defenses. Gena Rowlands, in a performance that brilliantly teeters on the threshold between neurosis and malevolence, seals the deal. And Kate Hudson anchors it all. She is every inch a movie star—soft-faced yet shrewdly intelligent, her body—and flesh tones—conforming to her character's escalating dread.

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More painful than it looks, evidently

The hate mail I've gotten for my "eh" review of Virgin impelled me to remain parked for the second feature. OK, I'm a big enough man to say I was too hard on it. The many gags that clunk are offset by the movie's sweetness and emotional complexity. What's distinctive about this male sex comedy is that it's sort of a woman's picture. It might even have been written and directed by women—or at least by girly-men, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It maintains a marvelous satirical distance on what men talk about in the company of other men, from their kinkiest sexual experiences to their fears of turning gay. ("You're so gay that ...") Even the movie's big gross-out set piece seems informed by a woman's experiences of having her legs waxed. (The very-male ejaculatory expletives of Steve Carell's Andy are not quite as amusing as they're meant to be.) More important, this is a woman's fantasy of meeting a cute but nonaggressive guy—a guy with a richly developed interior life who still needs emotional breaking-in, a guy who can save a gal as she saves him.

How am I a sensitive enough male to discern all this? Well, my wife provided a running commentary as we watched—another benefit of the drive-in experience, at least if you've already seen the picture and don't mind the irritating female chatter.

The bad stuff: The Indian characters who are supposed to get big laughs by talking dirty. My hunch is that the director and cowriter, Judd Apatow, shot these bits, realized how bad they were, but didn't have the heart to cut the actors' big scenes. Also, the movie is overlong and has one of those moronic climaxes that seem to befall all multiplex romantic comedies these days. (One of my smartest readers cites Wedding Crashers as another example of a good movie loused up in the last 20 minutes by the demands of the genre.)

Catherine Keener was the cat's pajamas on first viewing, but a secondconfirms that she's also the bee's knees. Her combination of womanly earthiness and ethereal loopiness is unique in modern American cinema--and super-sexy. As far as I'm concerned, she could break in every soulful cinematic virgin for years to come ... 12:13 P.M. PT 

TRURO, Mass.—One of the advantages (and, for that matter, one of the huge problems) with our modern digital/video/Internet culture—with our 24/seven-office culture in general—is that you can haul your work along to the beach.

If you're a movie critic, you can spend a day frolicking in the surf, kiss the wife and kids good night, and retire to watch videos supplied by obliging publicists in your own private screening room—in my case, a glorified broom closet with a TV, DVD player, and VCR. Then you can post your reviews right to the Web, nod off over a lonely drink on the deck in the moonlight, and wake up covered in insect bites. Paradise.

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Reel simple

First in the Box o' Movies, appropriately, is Reel Paradise (Wellspring), a diverting, shot-on-video documentary by Steve James about a guy who brings his family to the remotest island in Fiji to show free films (commercial Hollywood ones) to the North-American-popular-culture-starved indigenous population.

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: Miranda Richardson. Do you need more? 
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Asylum: Miranda Richardson. Do you need more?

  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.

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Les Flamands ça n'est pas frémissant

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.

Valiant: not all kid stuff 
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Valiant: not all kid stuff

My August video orgy is interrupted for a trip to the Wellfleet Drive-In with my 7-year-old daughter, Lucy, to see two recent Disney efforts, Valiant and Sky High. The first movie I saw (Pinocchio) was at a drive-in, and it moves me so much to be able to share the experience (at the last outdoor theater on my regular circuit) that I feel like sobbing as I struggle to mount the speaker without breaking the window. I want to tell her about how it used to be, about all the great drive-in experiences in my youth. ... And then I realize that in 10 years I'll hunt down and kill anyone who tries some of the stuff with her in drive-ins that I got away with.

Valiant, the animated tale of Royal Air Force pigeons versus Nazi pigeons, is elegantly designed and very weird. Lucy seems to love it, but this two-tiered approach to kids' pictures (in the industry this makes them "hand-hold movies," meaning you don't just drop the children off but stay and buy popcorn and sell the film to other parents) gets increasingly inexplicable. Where are the real fairy tales—the ones without the relentless number of jokes aimed at grown-ups? Given all its World War II references and parodies, the best audience for Valiant would be addled, octogenarian ex-RAF pilots in the old folks' home. I try to keep Lucy up to speed but it doesn't work out so well. "That female French pigeon—Charles De Girl. See, that's funny because there was this French general in World War II named Charles De Gaulle, and ..." "Daddy, shut up, I'm trying to watch the movie." Lucy likes Sky High even better. It's an anti-caste-system plea on behalf of superhero sidekicks, whom we come to realize are important, too. With Harry Potter sensitizing us all to the plight of mudbloods, it seems as if tolerance and liberal humanism are not in as much danger as I feared—and least for people with marginal superpowers.

Matt Damon and Heath Ledger get Grimm
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Heath Ledger and Matt Damon get Grimm

Finally, it's out by my lonesome to the Wellfleet multiplex on a 78-degree Perfect Day for an 11:05 screening of The Brothers Grimm (Miramax), directed by Terry Gilliam. It's not as bad as I'd heard, but like a lot of Gilliam's movies it's too overloaded—antic, indulgent, overdesigned—to get off the ground for more than a minute or two at a stretch. I know that clutter and intricate contraptions are Gilliam's métier, but my preference in thrillers—and this is a supernatural thriller-comedy masquerading as a fairy tale—is for a cleaner, sharper frame and less extraneous busy-ness.

Matt Damon and Heath Ledger (under facial hair that renders him virtually anonymous) are the titular German brothers, who are not only the famous authors but also theatrical con men who snooker superstitious villagers. Captured by the conquering French (led by that ham bone Jonathan Pryce), they're given a chance to earn their freedom by solving the mystery of disappearing children in a small German village. The mystery, of course, turns out to involve real supernatural forces, engendering a crisis of (non)faith. The brothers—and the audience—are saddled with scenery-chewer Peter Stormare and another of his Not-of-This-Earth accents (he's supposed to be Italian). His character keeps dragging them back before the saucy French autocrat to be tortured: Gilliam loves the theme of fascist governments breaking the spirit of romantic dreamers so much that he extends the movie a half hour longer than it needs to be.

He also loves contraptions—wheels, pulleys, catapults, and all the intricate and clackety machinery of theaters 200 years ago. Perhaps he was born in the wrong century. The actors try to get a joshing Hope and Crosby rhythm going (they even have a Dorothy Lamour, a statuesque German demon-huntress played by Lena Headey), but The Brothers Grimm plays more like an overstuffed Ishtar. (The actors are so upstaged I didn't even realize that MacKenzie Crook of The Office was in the movie until he got finished off.) Mixing up motifs from familiar Brothers Grimm tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Gingerbread Man), The Brothers Grimm has enough haunting, fairy-tale imagery for 10 movies, but no emotional kick to drive those images home. Even the Fiji-ans would be impatient.
... 3:00 p.m. PT

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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