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Films I Neglected To Review: She's Not Quite Dead--Or Is She?
by Peter Sobczynski

Christina Ricci on a slab, Thomas Haden Church in a cab and another wild genre deconstruction from one of the cinema's true free spirits--these are the things on display in this latest roundup of films that I didn't get a chance to review at length.

If you took “Carnival of Souls,” “The Sixth Sense,” the Joe Estevez masterpiece “Soultaker,” one of the lesser “Phantasm” sequels and an exceptionally pretentious off-Broadway (think Secaucus) play about the meaning of life and threw them into a blender, the resulting cinematic frappe might resemble “After.life.” Actually, that isn’t entirely true because that particular combination at least sounds somewhat intriguing on paper and while there are plenty of words one might use to describe the film--“silly,” “incoherent” and “somnambulistic” would probably top most lists--I can assure you that “intriguing is not one of them. Christina Ricci stars as a young schoolteacher wakes up from a car crash to find herself in a morgue with a funeral director (Liam Neeson) who either has the power to communicate with the dead as a way of helping them make the transition to the next world or is a creepy psychotic intent of psychologically torturing her before burying her alive. While Ricci bounces back and forth between trying to escape his clutches and reflecting on her life to determine whether she truly lived, her dim-bulb fiancé (Justin Long) suspects that something is amiss and tries to get to the bottom of what is going on and a weird little boy (Chandler Canterbury) wanders around the proceedings doing his Haley Joel Osment impression. As you can probably guess, this is one strange movie and while I usually applaud such things, this one doesn’t work at all because it never seems as if debuting director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo has a firm grasp on the material--it keeps veering in tone from horror to black comedy to chamber drama without demonstrating a facility for any of them, the story contains far too many loose ends and unanswered questions for its own good (and no, this isn’t just a case of a director trying to be ambiguous) and the whole thing is staged at a pace that gives new meaning to the word “funereal.” Considering the weakness of the material that she has been given to work with, Ricci does what she can but the only person likely to cherish this particular performance is Mr. Skin. On the other hand, she comes off much better than Liam Neeson, who stumbles through his part with all the awkwardness of an actor who has already appeared in three of the dumbest movies of the year and still has “The A-Team” waiting in the wings. “After.life” is a film that wants to contemplate the mysteries and meaning of life and death but goes about it so badly that by the time it ends, the biggest question on the minds of most viewers will revolve around the meaning of the period in the title.

Proving once again that looking up a blonde that you went to high school with two decades ago is almost always a bad idea, “Don McKay” kicks off as sad-sack janitor Thomas Haden Church returns to his hometown 25 years after a tragic incident from his past after receiving a letter from old flame Elisabeth Shue. Almost immediately upon arriving, she informs him that she is dying and that her greatest wish for her remaining days is for the two of them to get married. Of course, there is a lot more to it and our hero finds himself caught in a bizarre web that involves a vaguely sinister caretaker (Melissa Leo), a seemingly friendly local doctor (James Rebhorn), an avuncular cabbie (M. Emmet Walsh), a suspicious old friend (Keith David), double-crosses, shocking secrets, disappearing corpses and bee allergies. Right from the start, it is clear that debuting writer-director Jake Goldberger is attempting to emulate the spirit of the Coen Brothers, specifically their neo-noir debut “Blood Simple,” by telling a story filled with random violence, bizarre plot developments and deadpan black humor but while he has all the ingredients in place, he doesn’t quite know how to deploy them--the tone and the pacing always seem a little off and as a result, we become all too aware of mechanics of the screenplay grinding along towards a finale that is simply too complicated and unbelievable for its own good. Goldberger does get some good performances from his cast--Church is quietly effective as the increasingly hapless anti-hero and it is always fun to see Elisabeth Shue playing something other than a straightforward good girl role--and while he hasn’t made an especially good film this time around, he demonstrates enough talent behind the camera to suggest that he may have one in him. Beyond that, “Don McKay” is the kind of film that is probably best experienced at home than in the multiplex--its modest charms will look better on the small screen and you won’t feel quite as burned afterwards when it turns out that it doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.

A man wakes up one morning, inexplicably kills his mother and barricades himself inside his house with a couple of hostages. A veteran cop arrives on the scene and finds himself trying negotiate with the man and keep things calm and orderly while the street fills with cops, media and other onlookers. As time goes by, the cop interviews a couple of people who know the man and through flashbacks to what they tell him, he begins to piece together a picture of who the guy is and why he commit such a seemingly unthinkable act. This is a scenario that has been enacted so many times in TV shows and movies that it seems impossible that anyone could bring anything fresh to it. And yet, that is exactly what maverick filmmaker Werner Herzog has done with his latest effort, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?,” and the result is easily the most fascinatingly freaky film to come along since “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” Herzog’s previous bizarro take on the cop movie genre. As with that earlier film, it quickly becomes clear that Herzog has no interest in following the rules of the game and is more interested in using the familiar framework as a jumping-off point for one of his patented meditations on the mysteries of madness and the myriad ways that it affects the affected. This is why he skips over all the expected action beats and moments of conventional tension that one might find in a hostage drama set in a suburb of San Diego in order to present sequences that takes us from such far-flung locales as Peru, Mexico, Calgary and an ostrich farm where, in one unforgettable moment, a pair of eyeglasses make a journey from a character’s jacket pocket to the throat of an ostrich and back again--none of these scenes may have much to do with the central story but I cannot imagine the movie without them. As the hostage taker, Michael Shannon creates an indelible portrait of a man walking the tightrope between lunacy and enlightenment and is ably supported by an eclectic supporting cast that features Willem Dafoe as the lead cop, Chloe Sevigny as the fiancée, Udo Kier as a theater director who had to let our hero go for behaving too weirdly to star in a production of “Elektra” and whose eyeglasses make that aforementioned trip, Michael Pena as a younger cop who has seen too many of the movies and TV shows that Herzog is rejecting here, Brad Dourif as a racist ostrich farmer, Verne Troyer as a midget and Grace Zabriskie as the overly coddling mother who winds up getting run through with a sword for her troubles. In a time when movies are becoming more homogenized than ever, Werner Herzog is one of those increasingly rare individuals who live to supply his audiences with sights that they have never before seen or even contemplated and whether you love or hate “My Son, My Son, What Have You Done?,” no one who sees this extraordinary (as opposed to extra-ordinary) work can deny that he has done just that once again.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3007
originally posted: 04/09/10 13:50:51
last updated: 04/09/10 14:46:24
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