Monday, January 11, 2010

Movie Reviews: Youth In Revolt/ Daybreakers/ The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

It has often been said that I see/own too many goddamn movies. This is quite true. This past weekend I saw no less than three new releases in theaters and take into account that this is January, the month where most major studios dump the films that they believe are bound to perform below expectations (hey, at least it's not February). Oddly enough, the weekend of January 8th-10th 2010 contained three movies I really really wanted to see, for better or worse. Now, you too shall experience them, vicariously of course, through my reviews.

First up on the docket is Youth In Revolt, a Michael Cera vehicle based on a book most people considered to be unfilmable. I'm a fairly large Michael Cera fan, I like his schtick and I'll pay to see it, so I saw this one at midnight Thursday. Youth is the story of Nick Twisp, an overly literate and sophisticated teenager, who longs for the love of a beautiful, smart girl and to escape the prison of his home life. Nick lives with his mother (Jean Smart: Martha Logan!) and her latest no account boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis). After mom's beau runs afoul of a trio of disgruntled sailors, the slap-dash family unit has to lay low in a trailer park in Northern California. There, Nick meets the love of his life, Sherri (Portia Doubleday), a gorgeous francophile whose verbosity and interest in Serge Gainsbourg and the works of Jean-Luc Godard match his own. Unfortunately for Nick, Sherri confesses that she normally doesn't go for Michael Cera types, and in order win her heart Nick becomes a willing schizophrenic and creates a "supplementary persona" by the name of Fran├žois Dillinger, an Gauloises-smoking bad boy who is everything Nick is not. Mayhem and tenderness ensue.

There are a lot of things to like about Youth In Revolt, not the least of which is Cera himself. There are two schools of thought regarding Michael Cera: either you find his one note meek and cutely put upon character a charming evocation of your own adolescence or you can't stand the bastard (possibly for possibly preventing the Arrested Development movie from happening). I fall squarely in the former camp but it's totally understandable if you yourself are in the latter, Michael Cera is not for everyone. Whereas most of the teen comedies (well, all of the teen comedies) Cera has starred in over the past three years or so simply throw him out to Michael Cera all over the screen, Youth shakes the formula up a bit by also making Cera play against type as Nick's split-personality Fran├žois, who admittedly is just Michael Cera trying to be a badass, but its pretty amusing to watch. The trailers and TV spots for this one have made it out to be Superbad 2: 2perbad (sorry) but it's not. Youth is far too weird a film to be considered anything like Greg Motolla's 2007 opus, though it does of course share the theme of awkward teenagers desperately trying to get laid. The overqualified supporting cast (Steve Buscemi as Nick's dad, Justin Long as Sherri's brother, Ray Liotta, M. Emmet Walsh(!), and a hilarious turn by Fred Willard as Nick's do-gooder neighbor) is nice to have but probably not necessary given how little they have to do in this film. Portia Doubelday is a particularly wonderful discovery, her performance as Nick's "Sphinx Minx" sent my own heart all a-flutter, she totally justifies all of Cera's bizarre behavior in the name of winning her heart. And for those of you Hangover fans who just discovered Zach Galifianakis and want to see him in everything, you'd best keep searching, his screen time here is something akin to a lean ten to fifteen minutes, despite what the ads have led you to believe. All in all, I would highly recommend Youth In Revolt; go see it.

Next is Daybreakers (which I keep calling "Darksiders"). Charge Shot!!!'s own Jordan was up visiting in the Land of the Ice and Snow this weekend and straight up demanded that we go see this (which is fine because I was probably going to see it anyway). Thusly we ventured to Edina, Minnesota's Southdale 16 theater where the new release had been relegated to Theater 1, one of the four upstairs theaters at Southdale, an area known by frequent suburban Minneapolis moviegoers as "the Film Ghetto"- the place where films go to die, usually reserved for something like G.I. Joe after its been out for three weeks. Taking the location of our showing as a sign of the AMC theater chain's entire lack of faith in the film's box office potential and a reinforcement of its expected crappiness, we were surprised to find the small-ish theater near capacity. This fact served less to disprove the hypothesis regarding the movie's crap factor as it did to reinforce the notion that the movie-watching public has a Dracula-like thirst (haw haw) for crappy vampire movies (Yours Truly included).

Daybreakers imagines what the world would be like if the vampires won. A plague of vampirism turned most of humanity into the undead sometime circa early 2009 (I blame Obama, although this movie has been in the can and ready to show for well over a year now, a tragic casualty of the 2007 Writer's Strike) and ten years later they're running into all sorts of problems, number one being a shortage of human blood and the possible extinction of the human race. The blood-deprived have also begun mutating into the feral "sub-siders", a Max Schreck-lookin' race of bat people who feast on human and vampire alike (depending on who you ask they're either the Reapers from Blade 2 or the chiropterans from Blood: the Last Vampire). Taking center stage is Ethan Hawke as Edward Dalton, a hematologist for the largest blood supplier in Vampire Land, who is working for obviously evil CEO Sam Neil on finding a blood substitute. Throw in attacks by the batmen, a human resistance, and a cure for vampirism and you've got yourself a movie!

As expected, Daybreakers was a B-picture from the start, however high concept it was its still a January release about vampires. I was attracted to this movie from day one due to its presentation of vampires ruling the world, which is an idea that has always fascinated me. How does a race of creatures who are killed by sunlight and drink the blood of the living run a planet with fifteen hours of daylight and no humans left? Unfortunately, the film often abandons inquiries into vampire sociology for action sequences and melodrama, most involving Hawke, a sympathetic reluctant vampire who doesn't like to drink human blood (though we're never really told what he drinks since he hasn't yet discovered the formula for True Blood or whatever, even Twilight dealt with this problem). Willem Dafoe also shows up as a southern-accented ex-vampire with a crossbow, a part that was probably meant for Woody Harrelson, and his accent and folksy turns of phrase ("I felt like a piece of fried chicken!") leave the audience shaking their heads in befuddlement. A couple good scares get your blood pumping but they don't stay with you after you leave the theater. If you were planning on seeing this one, you probably know what you're in for and that shouldn't deter you, but if you were on the fence, feel free to sit this one out, you aren't missing much.

Last for the weekend is the newest Terry Gilliam movie and the final film of the late great Heath Ledger, the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Parnassus tells the story of the titular doctor (Christopher Plummer), a millennia-old mystic and storyteller with a traveling show. Due to a seeming addiction to making high stakes bets with Satan (Tom Waits), Parnassus has won eternal life at the cost of losing his beloved daughter (Lily Cole) to the Prince of Darkness on her sixteenth birthday and with the fateful day fast approaching, "Parny" is looking for a way out. Things are complicated by the arrival of a charming rogue with a checkered past played by Ledger.

Like most Gilliam features, Parnassus is bizarre and surreal to a fault while also utterly charming and filled with a number of fun and colorful characters, however weird it is to watch. This is but the latest in a long line of movies by Terry Gilliam that have found their production delayed and upset at all steps along the way, the biggest snafu obviously being the death of Heath Ledger in 2008. I'm really quite surprised that no one has presented the conspiracy theory that it was the Terry Gilliam curse that did Ledger in, after all, this is his second Gilliam collaboration. Ledger's untimely passing is covered up by his part being cast with an extra three actors. While his character Tony is in the real world, he is played by Ledger, but when he passes into Parnassus' Imaginarium (a magical mirror that lets your imagination run wild) he is played by pinch hitters Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. As it is with nearly all Gilliam movies, Parnassus is a beautiful mess, but it still serves as a worthy coda to the career of one the greatest actors of his generation.

Final verdicts:
Youth In Revolt: 70 Congos
Daybreakers: 29 Congos
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: 50 Congos