Byzantium Theatrical Review (Kirk Haviland)

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New in theaters north of the border this week is director Neil Jordan’s newest take on the Vampire mythos, Byzantium. Jordan returns to the genre he took on almost 2 decades ago with the Anne Rice penned Interview with a Vampire, but this time around he has a new take on the entire history of the vampire phenomenon.

Byzantium

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, Caleb Landry Jones and Johnny Lee Miller

Written by Moira Buffini

Directed by Neil Jordan

After fleeing their latest living quarters after an unforeseen attack, two mysterious women seek refuge in a run-down coastal resort. Clara (Arterton) meets lonely Noel who provides shelter for her and her daughter Eleanor (Ronan) in his deserted guesthouse Byzantium. Eleanor, an eternal schoolgirl, befriends Frank (Landry Jones) and tells him their lethal secret. They pair are actually mother and daughter, were born 200 years ago and survive on human blood. As knowledge of their secret spreads, their past catches up on them with deathly consequence.

byzantium ronanByzantium takes a completely different spin on the Vampire story as there is no allergy to sunlight and girls roam free in the bright sun, fangs are never sprouted on screen, instead a protruding fingernail is used to open the victims jugular, and new vampires are not sired through bite and blood transfer. That last point is the biggest, most drastic change from Vampire lore as in Byzanitum it is a cave on an island that transforms humans to vampires. Looking suspiciously like a womb, this vampire transformation has been guarded for decades and only men have been allowed to enter.

Arterton is fantastic here, playing a girl with a terrible teenage encounter that drastically alters her life forever, as she mesmerizes the men in her life and the audience alike with her charm and charisma. Clara has been a hustler all 200 years of her life and this is all old hat for her. Sadly Arterton severely outshines her co-stars as Ronan comes of flat and at times uninterested, Landry Jones seems content to channel an ineffectual Wiley Wiggens from Dazed and Confused and Johnny Lee Miller’s thankfully small role is sloppy overacting at its finest.

byzantium (1)The film has pacing issues as well, keeping a slow methodical pace through the main middle section of the story, yet rushing to tie up all the loose ends and get to its brutal and bloody ending as quick as it can in the last 25 minutes. But the bloody and brutal part is actually one of the shining stars of the film as Jordon utilizes as much practically driven and realized effects as he can in the filming, giving a grounded feel tot the story and distancing itself from the Twilighty inspired CGI packed pretenders that do not work as well.

 

There is a lot that can be said about the feel of misogyny that seemingly drips off the film – cave is like a womb yet women are not allowed to sire vampires and because of what Clara did she is hunted mercilessly, after 200 years of living Clara falls back to making a living off her back as she has always done – but these arguments can be made better by others.  The practical effects are great, and so is Arterton, and that packs just enough appeal and charm to make the film a positive experience in the end.

byzantium (2)Till Next Time

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TIFF 2012 – Antiviral Review (Dustin SanVido)

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Antiviral (2012)

Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, and Malcolm McDowell

Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg

MINOR SPOILERS

Brandon Cronenberg gathered attention for his short film Broken Tulips, which screened at TIFF in the Emerging Artists program a few years back and was successful enough to gain funding and expand the premise into his debut feature. Being his father’s son may have had something to do with it, but to be fair that connection is what interested me enough to add Antiviral to my slate. As a debut film, I found its satire of celebrity obsession interesting, its performances tight and focused, and its Trent Reznor inspired score entertaining. That being said, there are issues in the script and the pacing lags a bit, but Antiviral remains an interesting debut.

Antiviral is the story of a near future in which the obsession of celebrity has reached such a level that obsessive fans are able to share a disturbing biological communion with their idols by commercially purchasing and injecting themselves with viruses and illnesses the celebrities have contracted, sometimes intentionally. Our protagonist Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) works for one of these viral clinics, and is regarded as one of the better sales agents, as we are shown in one of his sales pitches in the opening moments of the film. Sid also is in the business for himself – he quietly smuggles out samples of the viruses he offers the only way he knows how, by injecting the viruses into his own body and extracting them later to sell on the black market. This does come with some inherent risk as Syd is constantly sick and monitoring his temperature at all times and for good reason. Shortly after we are introduced to Syd, he is asked to step in for an employee and collect the latest virus from a willing starlet Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). The extraction is successful and seeing an opportunity, Syd injects a pure blood sample into his body before turning over the rest to his employer. Within hours Syd begins to fall seriously ill and learns that the virus he injected could be fatal. He spends the rest of the film learning of the nature of the virus, its connection to the companies he is employed by, and the conspiracy that he has inadvertently found himself the centre of.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Antiviral is a strong debut feature that benefits from an excellent concept and some fantastic sequences of body horror. The director has stated publicly that he has never seen or been interested in his father’s work, but his film seems to indicate otherwise, as it seems like ideas were directly lifted from the elder Cronenberg’s earlier films. The moments of gore aren’t very gratuitous or terrifying and there is a very subtle art-house beauty present in the design of the practical effects. The idea of the melding of technology and flesh is just as present in Antiviral as it is in Videodrome or Dead Ringers or even Naked Lunch. That being said, Cronenberg does have his own ideas and vision and I laud him for making the film his way. This is very obvious in his decision to shoot the film nearly entirely in front of white backgrounds and images to focus and keep the viewer’s attention on the actors and the effects

I enjoyed all the performances in Antiviral, particularly Caleb Landry Jones. Jones is choosing a variety of work to challenge his skillset and clearly understands his limits and what works for him. I have seen two films with him this year and it appears as though the actor is working to strengthen his weaknesses. The supporting cast is all up to task and don’t seem to be reaching or overacting, including a surprise cameo that strengthened the needed exposition at the halfway point of the film.

Although the film’s plot and intricacies are completely ludicrous at times, its ideas and the satire on display is spot on with the present day and time. I enjoyed Antiviral wholly because of its introduction of a director who, just like his father, has an original voice. I am looking very forward to seeing what he can present to an audience outside of the body horror sub-genre. I think it’s safe to say that Brandon Cronenberg is a Canadian talent to look out for and Antiviral is a good place to start.

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TIFF 2012 – Byzantium Review (Dustin SanVido)

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Byzantium (2012)

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Warren Brown, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones, Johnnie Lee Miller, and Sam Riley

Written by Moira Buffini

Directed by Neil Jordan

MINOR SPOILERS

There is a moment 20 minutes into Byzantium where a waterfall on an unnamed island begins to flow red, presumably with blood. There really isn’t an explanation for this oddity or how it pertains to the scene or the film itself. There it is, the waterfall running with blood. After thinking about this for a while, I’ve drawn the conclusion that this was meant to symbolize the transition from human to vampire, but I’m still unsure and can’t really tell if it mattered. Sadly, this was the case with Byzantium, the most truest case of style over substance I’ve seen in some time. It’s not to say that overall Byzantium is a bad film by any means. I’m sure that fans of vampire mythology or of the directors past films will find things to enjoy. There’s also something to be said about the look, sound, and performances found within, but in the end this is another tedious outing from a director who is in dire need of better stories.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Byzantium is yet another reinterpretation of the vampire and follows the exploits of two sisters, older Clara (Gemma Arterton) and younger Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who as we come to learn are in fact vampires, but not your normal vampires. These vampires have no fangs or superhuman strength and are unaffected by sunlight. Instead they have a rather large protruding thumbnail that is used to pierce the skin to allow them to feed. In fact, take away the whole immortality curse and all, and you might have trouble telling the difference between these vampires and a few girls experimenting with bath salts. The problem right off the bat is that these changes in the mythology of vampirism take away the most appealing characteristics and at the same time immediately polarize the audience – all within the first five minutes.

As we begin, Eleanor is writing her life story and throwing away the transcript, a ritual she seems to partake in quite regularly. Clara is working as an exotic dancer at a local gentlemen’s club and facing the normal issues one in her line of work would. What is different this night is she’s confronted by a stranger to the audience but certainly not to her: a fellow vampire who is seeking out her sister Eleanor. A chase ensues, ending back at the sister’s place of residence and it becomes clear they must flee the town and continue to move.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Clara is beautiful and sexually charged which makes it easier to take care of her sister and herself. This path leads her to Noel (Daniel Mays), a grieving man whose mother has passed and left him with the family business, a worn down guest house which shares the title of the film. It is here that the sisters take up residence and try to start anew. Soon after Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a strange boy working at a residency she has visited, and the two slowly develop a friendship. Eleanor is torn between her secretive lifestyle and her longing to break free of the loneliness that comes with living in isolation. It is these feelings that dictate the last two acts of the film as her honesty with humans allows the vampires in chase to locate her and Clara.

The vampires in Byzantium are revealed to be a brotherhood of men who don’t take too kindly to having their ritualistic and apparently quite sexist approach to choosing their brethren tampered with by the hands of a female. This is a boys club as it would seem, and obviously things are wrong as our two leads are females. The film is essentially a chase story, filled with lots and lots of exposition and dreams as we slowly learn the true nature of Clara and Eleanor’s relationship.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Again, there are many things to enjoy in Byzantium. The performances are all solid, with Gemma Atherton and Caleb Landry Jones as the two standouts. Johnnie Lee Miller continues a quietly sound career of adroitly making the audience hate the characters he plays, while I will say I am beginning to tire of Soiarse Ronan. The characters she portrays all play to the strengths of her skill set, which she needs to further develop. I began to notice this in Hanna and especially Violet and Daisy, a film from last year’s festival that I found to suffer from the same problems as this film.

Upon learning this was based on a play by Moira Buffini, I found myself surprised in her ability to expand the overall scale of her story, but this may have been all in the director’s hands. Regrettably, it felt as if the plot lacked the same expansion, and was more focused on the relationships and idiosyncrasies of its protagonists.  That’s alright for some, but for a film that relies solely on exposition to progress the narrative, I felt the addition of a few tense or shocking sequences would have benefited the film greatly.

Director Neil Jordan has had such a long career, but it has been muddled by his last few, so much so that it may be hard to recall his last solid outing.  I applaud his visual aesthetic and will continue to watch his films due to his fantastic understanding of the scripts he works with, I just think that he needs to start choosing better scripts. I prefer to give re-imaginings and re-interpretations a chance as opposed to ignoring them completely, and this is just one way it can go. I think fans of the genre will still enjoy Byzantium, but with respect to vampires everywhere, I like me some fangs and coffins!

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