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

Movie Junkie TO

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Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters Review (Kirk Haviland)

Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters banner

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Derek Mears, Thomas Mann, Rainer Bock and Peter Stormare

Written by D.W. Harper and Tommy Wirkola

Directed by Tommy Wirkola

New in theaters this week is the first big budget Hollywood production from the Norwegian director of the horror comedy Dead Snow, Tommy Wirkola: the horror/fairy tale reinvention Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton star as the legendary siblings. In this version of the story the two have become full blown witch hunters after disposing of the witch in the candy house of the original fairy tale.  But can Hansel and Gretel match the absurdly fun Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, from last year, on the enjoyment scale?

After getting a taste for blood as children, Hansel (Renner) and Gretel (Arterton) have devoted their lives on their hell bent retribution against all witches. Now, unbeknownst to them, Hansel and Gretel have become the hunted, and must face a nemesis far greater than the average witch. As the fabled Blood Moon approaches, the siblings encounter a new form of evil that might hold a secret to their past. Along the way the pair must deal with an over bearing Sherriff (Stormare), a pair of determined admirers in Ben (Mann) and Mina (Viitala), and a troll (Mears), named Edward, in league with the evil witch Muriel (Janssen).

Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters 1

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is not a good movie, it’s ludicrous and ridiculous in concept and sadly does not know exactly what to do with it. The film languishes in the middle, not pulling back enough to be taken seriously and not going far enough over-the-top to be considered a full out tongue-in-cheek romp. Unlike last year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Hansel and Gretel lacks charm and the loveable goofiness of the presidential supernatural flick. The script and direction play a major part here, as director Wirkola seems to be afraid to let his cast go completely over the top. You can almost see the reigns being pulled back on the actors steering them directly towards straight line readings on dialogue so perverse in parts it’s practically screaming for an ironic/comedic delivery. In fact, Stormare seems to be the only one getting exactly what he is supposed to be doing here, devilishly smiling and sneering throughout and screaming almost 50% of his dialogue until his admittedly fun demise.

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But that brings us to the biggest issue on display here, the total miscasting of Jeremy Renner. Arterton’s turn as Gretel is actually very satisfying, especially considering the limitations of the script she was presented with. It’s Renner as Hansel that really lets the film down.  Renner seems to lack the ability to just completely cut loose and go comedic, his punch line delivery is uninspired and does not work, and as a result spends the film mainly in a gloomy/moody haze that he hops out of for action sequences then drops right back into. Adding to this is the ‘phoned in’ performance of Famke Janssen as our main villain. Janssen seems disinterested, as if he were under the influence of marijuana, throughout the film and in the end lacks any real gravitas as a foil for Hansel and Gretel.

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The special effects work is one of the highlights here as there are many aspects that impress. The legendary ‘house of candy’ is a visual treat when we first see it, and looks grimy and unkempt when we see it later on.  Hansel and Gretel’s arsenal is quite impressive, including Hansel’s modified shotgun and Gretel’s souped up crossbow, and the weapons cache used in the final showdown is impressive as is the damage it delivers. But the real highlight here is the work done with Edward. Edward looks impressive and immense, but also becomes endearing and a crowd favorite.

Ultimately Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a shiny looking wrapper with an empty center. It lacks the substance at the heart of the film to truly engage for more than moments at a time. With content and aspects of production that do work, the film seems like a rudderless ship that constantly drifts back towards the areas that don’t work. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a non-recommend.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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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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