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Damsel stars Robert Pattinson as Samuel, a man in the Old West searching for the girl (Mia Wasikowska) he loves. His intent: Find her and ask for her hand in marriage; he even has a preacher (David Zellner) and a pony in tow.

This film is unorthodox from the get-go, with Robert Forster playing a preacher who paints a dire picture of the Old West in the film’s opening minutes—a scene that might contain the best screen moments of Forster’s career. His depiction of the West as a crazed place of misery sets the stage for what’s to come: a strange, dark and morbidly funny look at a time that cinematic Westerns tend to romanticize.

Pattinson continues to be one of the more adventurous actors out there, while Wasikowska delivers the film’s most dominant performance.

An event around the film’s midway point completely changes the direction of the movie. David and Nathan Zellner, who wrote and directed the film, succeed in giving us something original.

Damsel is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director Guillermo del Toro has long praised Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. He’s now made a startlingly beautiful and creepy ride of his own with, Crimson Peak, a twisted ghost story.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer, must pick up the pieces after a tragic loss. She finds herself swept away by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a strange Englishman who looks a lot like Thor’s jerk brother. They marry and wind up in his family’s home, which rests atop a red clay mine.

The red clay seeps up through the ground and even the floorboards of the house. As Edith spends more time in the house—and gets acquainted with its ghostly inhabitants—she finds out the red stuff isn’t always clay.

Jessica Chastain is memorably psychotic as Thomas’s selfish and conniving sister. However, the visuals are the real star here, including some over-the-top, bloody ghosts that Walt would never allow in his Mansion.

As for the living characters, Hiddleston and Chastain steal the show as siblings who definitely need an extended time out.

Future del Toro projects, like sequels to Pacific Rim and Hellboy, were put on hold before this film’s release. Since this film inexplicably bombed at the box office during its opening weekend, those sequels will probably remain on the studio merry-go-round for a long time. For del Toro fans, this is bad news.

Crimson Peak is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Scanners) takes a blowtorch to Hollywood with Maps to the Stars, a scabrous, scary and darkly funny satire about movie stars, their agents and their crazy kids.

Not since David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. has Hollywood gotten such a severe—and entertaining—skewering. The two films have more than Hollywood satire in common; they also both stand as decent horror/mysteries.

Julianne Moore continues her roll of greatness as Havana Segrand, an aging actress with serious mommy issues. Havana is actually trying to land a role playing her own mother, a cult-film star who died in a fire, when she hires the mysterious, newly arrived Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) to be her assistant.

Elsewhere in Los Angeles, a spoiled child actor, Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), is almost 90 days into sobriety, constantly sipping on sports drinks and plotting his next move. He’s visiting dying girls at the hospital (but getting the disease wrong) and still making youth-oriented films. Unfortunately, younger, cuter child actors are starting to get all the good lines.

Meanwhile, Benjie’s dad, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is treating Havana with a combination of tough, new-age mental and physical therapy to get at the roots of her self-esteem issues. Benjie’s mom, Christina (Olivia Williams), frets over his roles and image concerns, and she harbors a lot of secrets.

As in Predestination, many of these characters are interlocked in strange, and even sick ways. To talk about it any more would be to give too much away.

Maps works in two ways: You can watch it as a straightforward narrative that makes complete sense, or you can watch it as if it were all a dream—in which case, it also makes perfect sense. It’s a great puzzle movie in which all of the pieces fit together nicely. Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner deserve a lot of credit for putting together a story that works in parallel ways.

Contributing to the dreamscape quality is cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, who did the same with Cronenberg’s last film, Cosmopolis. That film had Robert Pattinson being driven around Manhattan in a stretch limo, while this film has Pattinson playing a limo-driver in L.A. It appears that Pattinson is the go-to actor of choice when Cronenberg needs somebody to spend the majority of a character’s time in a limo.

Moore, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for this role last year, approaches Havana as a spoiled brat. She gives her voice just the right amount of whining to make her annoying enough to hate, but still fun to watch. Havana is a Hollywood monster—a pompous, messed-up diva whose every action and emotion is self-directed. Her little song and dance after hearing about a tragic drowning sums up her character perfectly.

It’s great to see Cusack doing some fine work here rather than slumming in Hot Tub Time Machine 2, a piece of crap he managed to avoid. Cusack’s career is all over the place as of late, but this is a nice return to form.

Bird looks like a young Justin Timberlake and gives us a character that reminds of spoiled brat Justin Bieber.

Cronenberg and Wagner take some fun, nasty little shots at Hollywood practices like name-dropping, sleeping with somebody for a part and even trying to kill co-stars. They pull no punches—and they’ve probably brought a few Hollywood types to tears.

Maps to the Stars is available on demand and via online sources such as iTunes and Amazon.com starting on Friday, Feb. 27. It also opens on Friday, Feb. 27, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch has not only delivered his best film in years; with Only Lovers Left Alive, he’s delivered the best vampire movie in decades.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are astonishingly good as Eve and Adam, married vampires temporarily living apart in Tangier and Detroit. They live off purchased blood rather than killing people, and years pass for them like days pass for us mortals. After a long stretch apart, Eve comes to Detroit for a visit, and needs to search for room to sleep among Adam’s antiquated stereo equipment and guitars. He dabbles in music writing when not contemplating suicide.

Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) unexpectedly shows up—and she brings trouble. Adam and Eve must hit the road, but their blood supply is dwindling—so they need to make big decisions about their next feed.

Jarmusch has a lot of fun with the format, even casting John Hurt as writer and supposed vampire Christopher Marlowe, who claims in this film to have written Hamlet. Adam and Eve have a sort of bemused nonchalance while coasting through eternity, although their behavior is decidedly human.

The film is also very funny and shot beautifully. It’s perhaps Jarmusch’s best since Dead Man.

Special Features: There’s a documentary about Jarmusch, deleted and extended scenes and a music video.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director Richard Ayoade pays nice visual homage to the likes of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam with The Double, an adaptation of the 1846 novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, an employee at a bleak office (that reminds of Gilliam’s Brazil) where he is unnoticed by co-workers, and hapless in his pursuit of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in the copy room. When his exact double—a new employee named James—shows up, he’s everything Simon wants to be: brash, confident and great with the ladies. James mentors Simon for a while, but things go bad quickly.

Eisenberg is given the task of creating two genuinely different personalities that look exactly alike, even down to their bland choice of tan clothing. He isn’t even given the benefit of a pencil mustache or a top hat for the evil twin. However, he accomplishes the feat, mainly in the cadence of his voice: James rolls off sentences with no hesitations, while Simon is prone to stammering.

Wasikowska, who can be rather drab, is good here, as she was in some of her better efforts like Stoker and The Kids Are All Right.

The Double stands as proof that Ayoade (perhaps best known to American audiences as the horny British fellow in The Watch) is a formidable director; he develops a distinct vision even when he’s taking bits and pieces from other directors. He doesn’t have a follow-up to this on his slate as of yet; I hope that changes soon. It also stands as proof that Eisenberg being cast as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman might wind up being a very cool move.

This is available via online sources including Amazon.com and iTunes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

If you have seen any of director Chan-wook Park’s films (Oldboy, Thirst), you know he is one creative and tremendously sick bastard. Stoker is his English-language debut, and it’s just as deranged and disturbing as his prior offerings.

Mopey-faced Mia Wasikowska plays India, a girl just turned 18 who has lost her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a mysterious accident. Her mother (an excellent Nicole Kidman) invites India’s strange uncle (Matthew Goode) to stay at the house—and it slowly becomes apparent that he has a few “problems.”

The filmmaking is visually impeccable (some of the dissolves are mind-blowing), and the performances are solid. The story is a little too sleepy at times for me to rank this among Park’s best works, but this twisty film still has many memorable moments; here’s hoping Park has many more films to come.

Kidman reminds us why she’s an Oscar-winning actress with her work here. She hasn’t been this powerful in years, and I’m hoping this gets her back into the swing of things.

Special Features: There are plenty of making-of and behind-the-scenes docs to keep fans of the film busy. You also get deleted scenes and red-carpet footage.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

If you have seen any of director Chan-wook Park’s films (like Oldboy or Thirst), you know that he is a creative, tremendously sick bastard. Stoker is his English-language debut, and it’s just as deranged and disturbing as his prior offerings.

Mopey-faced Mia Wasikowska plays India, a girl, just turned 18, who has lost her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a mysterious accident. Her mother (an excellent Nicole Kidman) invites India’s strange uncle (Matthew Goode) to stay at the house, and it’s slowly revealed that he has a few … problems.

The filmmaking here is visually impeccable (some of the dissolves are mind-blowing), and the performances are solid. The story itself, however, is a little too sleepy at times. Still, this twisty film has many memorable moments, and I’m hoping Park has many more films to come.

Stoker is now playing at the Cinema Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111 in Palm Desert; 779-0730; www.thepalme.com.

Published in Reviews