Embracing the Melodrama #54: Where the Truth Lies (dir by Atom Egoyan)


Atom Egoyan’s 2005 showbiz melodrama Where The Truth Lies is a historic film for me.

First off, it’s the first film that I ever saw at the wonderful Dallas Angelika theater, which would quickly become my favorite place to watch movies in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex.  And I have to say that, as much as I love the Alamo Drafthouse that opened up last year, the Angelika will always hold a special place in my heart.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Where The Truth Lies was the first NC-17 film that I ever actually watched in a theater.  In fact, I went into Where The Truth Lies knowing next to nothing about it.  I just saw that it was an NC-17 film that was playing in a “real” theater and that was pretty much all I needed to call up some friends and head down to Dallas.

I felt terrifically grown up until I tried to buy the ticket and I was asked to show ID.  I handed over my driver’s license.  The ticket seller stared down at it for what seemed like an eternity.  She looked up at me and then back down at the license a few times.  Finally, she said, “Are you sure you’re 19?”

“I’m going to be 20 in November,” I replied.

She squinted at me for a few minutes and then said, “If you say so,” before handing me my license and a ticket.

And so, on that day, I managed to cross one goal off my list (See an NC-17 movie in a theater) and replaced it with another (Buy a ticket for an R-rated or NC-17 movie without being asked for ID).  I’m still working on that 2nd goal but I have to admit that I’m starting to dread the idea that one day, I’ll be able to pass for an adult.

But what about Where The Truth Lies?

Well, the main question that I had, in 2005, as I sat down to watch this movie was why exactly was it rated NC-17.  Having watched the movie in the theater and then on cable a few times after, I still honestly have no idea why the rating was as harsh as it was.  Yes, there’s a lot of sex in the movies.  You see a lot of boobs and you see a lot of bare asses but — well, so what?  It’s really nothing wore than what you have seen in countless red band trailers for various R-rated comedies.  Add to that, in Where The Truth Lies, all of that skin is on display for a reason.  The film may be explicit but it’s never gratuitous.

As for the film itself, it’s technically a murder mystery but the mystery is really only an excuse for Egoyan to take a look at the seamier side of show business.  In the 1950s, entertainers Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth) are the nation’s top comedy team.  However, after co-hosting a 39-hour polio telethon in Miami, Lanny and Vince fly to New Jersey to do a few shows at a hotel owned by a local mobster.  When the naked body of Maureen O’Flaherty (Rachel Blanchard) is found in their room, the scandal destroys both of their careers.

Fifteen years later, in the early 1970s, Lanny Morris has written a book about his life and career.  Vince decides to retaliate by writing his own book.  Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman) is hired to be his ghostwriter.  Karen, however, has her reasons for being obsessed with Lanny and Vince and she is also determined to discover whether Maureen truly did die of a drug overdose or if she was murdered.

Where The Truth Lies is, in many ways, an uneven film but I like it.  The mystery of who killed Maureen is intriguing and, unlike a lot of viewers (check out the film’s entry at the imdb if you really need to know how much some people hate this film), I actually appreciated Egoyan’s hallucinatory and disjointed approach to telling his story.  Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth both give excellent performances, both cast in the type of roles that you might not normally expect to see them playing.  As a character, Karen is frustratingly inconsistent but Alison Lohman does the best that she can with the role.

Finally, Where The Truth Lies does contain one undeniably brilliant scene, in which a drugged Karen watches as an actress dressed to look like Alice in Wonderland sings White Rabbit.  It’s a wonderfully strange scene, all the more so become it comes almost out of nowhere.

Where The Truth Lies is not a perfect film but, for my first experience seeing an NC-17 film in a theater, it wasn’t bad at all.

Where The Truth Lies


Review: Gamer (dir. by Neveldine/Taylor)

No one will ever mistake the writer-director duo of Neveldine/Taylor (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) as the next Coen Brothers, but they definitely have made their mark in creating entertaining films which some have called exploitative, pandering to the lowest common denominator and exercises in excess. Maybe these critics are right, but they also seem to view the films by these two filmmakers through the narrow-minded lens of their elistist and so-called cineaste sensibilities. They won’t be the next Coen Brothers but they’re way ahead of other so-called filmmaker duos such as The Spierig Brothers (Undead and the pretentious and awful Daybreakers) or The Strause Brothers (AvP: Requiem and the awful Skyline). They came onto the scene with their cult classic action thrillers Crank and it’s sequel, Crank: High Voltage.

Their third film took the gaming influences so inherent in their first two films (which for all intents and purpose were video games that happened to be film) and went the next step. Gamer is all about a near-future world where two games with on-line social media foundations have become the rage of the entertainment world. One is a game called “Society” that looks to be the nightmare evolution of privacy advocates everywhere to the on-line virtual world Second Life and The Sims. It is the other game in this film which makes up the foundation of the film’s plot. “Slayers” takes the ultra-popular multiplayer on-line experiences of games such as Call of Duty and HALO to the next level by allowing gamers to actually control real people (inmates sentenced to death) to act as their avatars in a real-life battlefield arena with real weapons and real deaths.

These games which have become the obsession of hundreds of millions of people worldwide are the brainchild of the film’s antagonist. Michael C. Hall plays the creator of these games and his performance looks to combine the sociopathic charm of his Dexter character with that of Steve Jobs is the latter was openly honest about his douchebag tendencies. Playing his opposite is the character of Kable who happens to be the reigning champion of the game Slayers and who knows a secret that could tear down the billion-dollar empire created by Castle. Gerard Butler plays the desperate but very capable inmate Kable who just wants to survive past the final match and earn his freedom thus return to his wife and young daughter on the outside.

Gamer posits the question of how far are we willing to go to experience realism in our games and entertainment. With the game Society people pay to be able to control other people in a social setting (albeit in a controlled area). These so-called avatars will do anything and everything their real-life controllers tell them to do. In the film these avatars get paid to become virtual slaves and with most people signing up for the job being the socially desperate. Their situation is not so dissimilar from the condemned inmates who populate the game Slayers. The film hits the audience with a sledgehammer that these virtual entertainments have become popular worldwide because people have stopped looking at these “volunteers” as real people. Morality has been replaced by the need for instant gratification by way of these virtual on-line systems.

The film doesn’t make any apologies for the heavyhanded delivery of it’s message and also doesn’t skimp on the entertainment side of the equation. Neveldine/Taylor have shown that they have a certain flair for creating visual chaos and action on the screen. Their unique visual style does look like something out of a video game especially those from hyperrealistic shooters such as Call of Duty and its ilk. The filmmakers have always accomplished the high-quality visual look of their films despite the low to modest budget given to them by the studios they’re working for. Gamer is no exception and the film benefits from the decision by these two filmmakers to continue working with the Red One digital cameras thus allowing them to add in the visual effects right into the shot scenes the very same day of shooting.

It’s this very style of hi-tech guerrilla filmmaking which makes Neveldine/Taylor this current era’s Cormans. Unlike most low-budget filmmakers they don’t use the size of their budget to dictate how their films turn out visually, aurally and narratively. The first two this film succeeds in ways that makes an audience think the film was higher budgeted than it really was. The third would depend on the viewer whether the film succeeds or not. For those who seem intent on viewing every film as if they were made to be worthy of high awards and accolades would probably dismiss and hate this piece of exploitation cinema. Gamer succeeds in a narrative sense because it delivers on the promise of telling a story about a world where free will has been seconded to control in the need of a population in search of a the next virtual playground. It’s a heady premise that has been explored in past films such as the Matrix Trilogy and another film similar to this one which came out weeks later in Surrogates.

Gamer doesn’t have the philosophical and existential sermoning in combination with futuristic action sequences as the Wachowski Brothers’ trilogy, but it does have the same visceral action DNa as those three films and also more entertaining than the Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates. This film will appeal to the very people who it condemns as sheep to the rising tide of on-line control in entertainment, but then that’s what all exploitation films tend to do best. Cater to the very people it uses as examples of what’s wrong in society and build an entertaining film around them and what they represent.

The film’s cast revolves around Gerard Butler and Michael C. Hall and the roles they play. Whether its Amber Valletta playing Kable’s desperate wife who has sold herself to become a controllable avatar in Society to try and earn enough to get her young daughter back or to Logan Lerman playing the role of Simon the gamer who controls Kable during the Slayer matches. They all do enough with their roles to keep their characters from becoming less than one-notes. Again, for some having a film with characters that are quite basic and one-note might make for a bad film, but when put into context of the story being told they’re quite good and needed to become motivators for Butler’s character.

In the end, Neveldine/Taylor have made a modern day exploitation and grindhouse film in Gamer without having to resort to the visual tricks used in the Rodriguez/Tarantino grindhouse homage film Grindhouse. A film doesn’t need to have film scratches, overexposed film stock, scratchy audio track or missing film reels to be grindhouse. It just have to espouse the very nature of the films which made up the kind of films which became prime example of grindhouse/exploitation cinema. Gamer won’t win any awards, but I suspect that more people who saw it were entertained by it’s blatant, in-your-face entertainment than would normally admit to it. It’s a film that has cult status and guilty pleasure written all over it.

Plus, this film is definitely worth at least a curiosity viewing if just to see the musical number performed by Michael C. Hall at the climactic sequence near the end of the film. I don’t think any film has ever combined gratuitous violence, musical dance numbers using bloodied death row inmates and Michael C. Hall singing Frank Sinatra’s “Ive Got You Under My Skin“. That sequence alone is worth a rental or Netflix Instant streaming.

Film Review: Drag Me To Hell (directed by Sam Raimi)

There are exactly two things that keep Sam Raimi’s otherwise entertaining 2009 horror romp Drag Me To Hell from being a classic.

The first is that, about halfway through the movie, Alison Lohman murders her pet kitten.  Admittedly, Lohman’s character is trying to thwart a gypsy curse at the time and the action does show just how terrified she’s become.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a cute kitten and quite frankly, I’m getting sick of seeing cats being killed in horror films.  There’s something truly hypocritical about how far most filmmakers are willing to go to assure an audience that a dog has somehow survived the end of the world while cats are continually killed on-screen without a second thought.

Am I saying that the film would have been better is Lohman had murdered a cute puppy instead?  Yes, I am.  At least that would have been unexpected.  That would have let the audience know that all the rules no longer applied.  Quite frankly, whenever you see a cat in a horror film, you know that cat is going to end up either pinned to a door or hanging in the closet.  Dogs, however, always make it to the end.

I imagine this is because there’s more “dog people” than “cat people” in the world.  People — especially men of a certain age — just love dogs and I’ve never really understood why.  I guess there’s a charm to a loud, smelly, slobbering beast eating its own fecal matter that I’ve never been able to pick up on.

The second thing that keeps Drag Me To Hell from reaching classic status is the fact that Bruce Campbell is nowhere to be found, making this the 1st Raimi film not to feature Bruce in at least a cameo.  Regardless of how well-made or entertaining the movie may have been, I sat through the entire thing waiting for Bruce to show up and, when he didn’t, it was hard not to feel as if perhaps an era in filmmaking had come to an end.

However, despite these two issues, Drag Me To Hell is probably one of the best horror movies to have been released in the past few years.  If nothing else, it proves that, even after directing three Spiderman films, Raimi is still a B-movie director at heart and a brilliant one at that.

In Drag Me To Hell, Alison Lohman plays Christine, a young bank loan officer who, attempting to impress her boss and win a promotion, refuses to give a loan to a decrepit old gypsy woman (played, wonderfully, by Lorna Raver as the type of grotesque character who could only appear in a Raimi film).  The gypsy woman responds by promptly dying but before doing so, she puts a curse on Christine.  In three days, Christine will be dragged to Hell.

What makes this is so effective is that Raimi, as opposed to a less adventurous director, sets the film up to suggest that perhaps Christine deserves to be dragged to Hell.  As disgusting as the old woman is, she clearly doesn’t deserve to be treated as badly as she is by Christine and Christine herself (even before she kills that poor kitten) is a bit of a fake, a former “fat girl” who, when she lets her guard down, reverts back to a country hick accent that she’s obviously spent a lot of time trying to lose. 

Lohman does an excellent job in the lead role, giving a likeable performance as an unlikeable character.  Speaking as a former country girl who still occasionally feels a twinge of shame when I hear myself say “git” instead of “get,” one of my pet peeves is when an actor or actress trots out an unconvincing, patronizing attempt at a rural accent.  However, Lohman captures the accent perfectly and, unlike most actors who try to play country, never allows her performance to just be about doing dialect.  Instead, both she and Raimi show how Christine’s insecurities lead to her actions without ever suggesting that they excuse them.

Though absence of Bruce Campbell is painfully obvious, Raimi still surrounds Lohman with a very strong supporting cast who all bring just the right amount of B-movie seriousness to their roles.  As Raver’s daughter, Bojana Novakovic appears in one the film’s best scenes in which she tauntingly explains the cure to Lohman.  Dileep Rao (who would be wasted later that year in Avatar) steals almost every scene he’s in as a friendly psychic who tries to help Lohman.  Lohman’s boyfriend is played by Justin Long (of the “I’m a Mac” fame) and he’s perfect as a somewhat nerdy guy who, quite frankly, seems like he might be a little bit too nice for his own good.  Plus, the film’s final scene proves that Long can shed a tear with the best of them.  Bruce Campbell would have been ideally cast as Lohman’s boss but, in Campbell’s absence, David Paymer fills the role well enough.

When Drag Me To Hell was first released in 2009, the majority of reviews described it as being an entertaining throwback to the old school horror films of the 50s and 60s.  And, in many ways, this is a totally correct assessment.  What wasn’t often mentioned was that Drag Me To Hell is one of the very few Hollywood horror films to capture the chaotic spirit of H.P. Lovecraft.  Countless filmmakers have attempted to bring Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to the screen and they’ve failed because they could never translate to the screen Lovecraft’s theme of mankind as a bunch of powerless pawns, existing and dying at the whims of a bunch of “demons” whose motivations could never be understood or questioned.  Though Drag Me To Hell is not based on Lovecraft’s work, it perfectly captures the feeling of helplessness in the face of metaphysical chaos that runs through Lovecraft’s best stories.  As the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that Christine isn’t going to be dragged to Hell so much because of the gypsy curse as much as just because the movie’s demon has decided to drag her to Hell.  It’s this theme (and the way that Raimi relentlessly develops it) that takes Drag Me To Hell to a whole other level and which makes its final scene so powerful and effective.

When first released, Drag Me To Hell’s special effects were criticized by some and it is true that the film’s demon, when he does show up, is an obvious CGI creation but who cares?  If anything, the obvious fakeness of the demon adds to the film’s exploitation charm (though the demon is probably another role that Bruce Campbell could have done wonders with).  If you want perfect CGI devoid of subtext or originality, Avatar’s out on DVD.  Me, I’ll take Drag Me To Hell any day.