Archive for October, 2013


Blade (1998): Grade: B+

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Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Blade is not available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, but it is available for rent on the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Stephen Norrington

Written by: David S. Goyer

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, N’Bushe Wright, Stephen Dorff, Donal Logue, Udo Kier, Sanaa Lathan

“You’re nothing to me but another dead vampire.”

Unofficially, Blade marks the beginning of the Marvel movie franchise. I say ‘unofficially’ because when New Line Cinema greenlit Blade in the late 90’s, nobody envisioned this film to be the financial success it would become, let alone give anyone the idea that audiences were hungry to see the Marvel comic book universe translated onto the big screen. In fact, New Line executives wanted Blade to be a comedic spoof, but writer and self-professed comic book fan, David Goyer (Man of Steel), insisted that the film remain true to its dark and serious comic book origins. With a B-list action star, average production budget, third-string superhero, and low box office expectations, Blade was released during the doldrum months of August (of 1998), when studios release their leftover summer films. To everyone’s surprise, Blade turned out to be a huge box office hit that spawned two more sequels, a TV series, and an anime series. It also gave studio executives and Marvel the idea that despite the box office failure of Batman and Robin (and Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel), which had come out 1 year prior to Blade, and further inspired by the massive box office success of The Matrix, which came out less than 1 year after Blade, a gold mine of Marvel’s properties was waiting to be tapped. Let me put it this way – without Blade, The Avengers may have never happened. The film’s unexpected success led Marvel to greenlight both X-Men and Spider-Man.

Besides injecting new life into the comic book genre, Blade reinvigorated the vampire genre as well, and gave this genre a much-needed contemporary vibe. It is difficult to imagine this now, but before Blade, the idea of a vampire nightclub inside a meatpacking warehouse filled with young vampire ravers was something not yet seen in a vampire film. Blade sparked the imagination behind later films and shows such as Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and True Blood.

Blade was created by comic book legends Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. Introduced in Tomb of Dracula #10 in 1973, Blade is a superhero and vampire hunter. He was born a vampire when his mother was bitten by a vampire while she was still pregnant with him. However, due to his unique DNA, Blade (Wesley Snipes) has all of the vampire’s strengths, but none of their weaknesses except for their thirst for blood. Blade is able to suppress his blood thirst with a serum, but in the film his body is becoming increasingly immune to the serum. Assisting him in his mission to vanquish all vampires is Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), a regular human who designs and builds Blade’s arsenal of weapons and also serves as a father figure to Blade. In this film, Blade is faced with a new vampire threat – Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a bitten vampire (as opposed to a pure blood vampire) who seeks to translate ancient vampire texts in order to awaken La Magra (the god of blood) so that Frost can gain godlike powers. With his minions (who include Donal Logue), Frost kidnaps the counsel of vampire elders (who are all pure bloods) in his quest to resurrect La Magra. Blade obviously has issues with this and seeks to put a stop to all these shenanigans.

Sometimes, film adaptations of comic book properties can become successful and influential enough to impact future portrayals of that property in the comic books. This happened with Blade. Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s version of the vampire hunter is very loosely similar to David Goyer’s script. The comic book Blade was not super-powered at all – he was just some guy who was immune to vampirism and who threw wooden knives to kill vampires. The character wasn’t even that popular in the comic books. In Tomb of Dracula, Blade was a supporting character and the main focus in that series was Dracula. In later years, Marvel tried to revive him during the 1990’s, but he never caught on with readers. Once the film was released and became a big success, Marvel pretty much adopted Goyer’s version for the comic book version. Ironically, despite the success of the Blade trilogy of films, Blade has remained unpopular in the comics.

If you are familiar with 70’s blaxploitation films, you will probably recognize Blade as a modern blaxploitation movie. In fact, the comic book Blade was intended to be a blaxploitation character. Like his 70’s predecessors, Blade is a black man who can chop your ass up with his martial arts skills. Deacon Frost and his gang are like The Man in that they control the cops and politicians and they have the money, the power, and the rules on their side.

I would argue that the most rewatched and coolest scene in Blade is the opening rave sequence. It perfectly sets the tone of the entire film (and it is the only time we will ever see ex-porn star Traci Lords prove that her talents may perhaps have gone beyond porn and blowjobs). The opening sequence makes it clear that Blade is not going to be some kid-friendly superhero film like the pre-Chris Nolan Batman films, The Phantom, The Shadow, or Dick Tracy. With this sequence, Blade promised and delivered Sam Raimi-esque buckets of blood, a grim and dark tone, martial arts violence (Wesley Snipes has been a martial artist since the age of 12 and has earned a 5th dan black belt in Shotokan Karate and a 2nd dan black belt in Hapkido), and the superhero even says the word “fuck!”

I have never been too keen on Wesley Snipes. Aside from a few standout roles in Jungle Fever, New Jack City, and White Men Can’t Jump, Snipes has carved himself an uninspired career of starring in play-by-numbers action movies like Passenger 57, Demolition Man, Boiling Point, and Drop Zone. However, I have to give credit where credit is due and credit is certainly due to Snipes’ electrifying presence in Blade. Simply put, Wesley Snipes IS Blade and the first film alone turned that role into Snipes’ signature career character. Marvel Studios has regained ownership of the Blade property and apparently, a new film is in development. However, I cannot begin to even fathom who else can play this character other than Wesley Snipes (LL Cool J was initially attached to star as the vampire hunter…Mama Said Knock You Out). Director Guillermo Del Toro, who directed Blade II, even went so far as to state, “Wesley knows Blade better than David Goyer, better than me, better than anyone else involved in the franchise.” While this role did not require top notch acting skills, it did require a dedication to the role, which Snipes wholeheartedly embraced.

Stephen Dorff (in his only enjoyable role), who plays Deacon Frost, is surprisingly effective in a role that almost went to Jet Li (who opted to instead star in Lethal Weapon IV…good move, Jet, but in all fairness, no one thought that film would be ok and this film would be so good). The actor brings an air of menace and sinister theatricality that although comes off cliché at times, it works for this type of movie. His best moments are with Udo Kier, the German actor who plays one of the head vampires. However, among all the villains, its Donal Logue who chews up the screen as Frost’s right-hand man, Quinn. Its strange to see Logue in this film after seeing him in The Tao of Steve, in which he displays the same mannerisms as his vampire character here. And legendary Kris Kristofferson is a brilliant casting choice as Blade’s mentor, Whistler. He brings gravitas and experience to the piece, and his old grizzled badassery nicely complements Blade’s cool badassery.

Aside from the very 90’s getup that Blade has, Blade remains a remarkably stylish film – it contains slo-mo, time-lapse shots, overcranking and undercranking, and fast-edits using shaky handheld cameras. Much of what this film has predated what we saw in action movies for well over the next decade. However, the one film that everyone compares this film to is The Matrix solely because the Keanu Reeves movie came out less than a year after Blade did and there is much in that film that Blade had already done. Watch both films back to back and you will see a lot of similarities in action choreography, shots, and themes. Blade is also strikingly atmospheric – the score, when not pounding out annoying techno tracks, produces an incessant heartbeat-like John Carpenter percussion. Admittedly, some of the VFX has not aged well, but it doesn’t take you out of the movie and it is compensated by having some satisfying practical work.

Blade is an underrated and underappreciated film that still manages to deliver an entertaining product that clips along at a nice fast-moving pace. As I said before, Marvel now controls this property and based on how insanely successful they have been with their other properties, I have high hopes that they can reboot this franchise to be just as good as it used to be, if not better (let’s not forget how bad Blade: Trinity was).

Carrie (1976): Grade: A+

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Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Carrie is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen

Starring: Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Sydney Lassick

“They’re all going to laugh at you.”

The 1970’s is considered to be one of cinema’s golden ages and, according to film purists, the last decade where art dominated the business end of movie-making. Unlike today, the 70’s marked a time when studio executives respected and trusted the filmmaker’s vision to guide the final product that audiences would see. The decade also witnessed the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers that was film school-educated, counterculture-bred, and young. They were dubbed the New Hollywood and some of the most prominent names in film history belonged to this class: Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, the director of Carrie.

Carrie marked a first in a couple of ways. For one, the film was an adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel (published in 1974), which is still considered among his very best, even by the author himself. The film also marked Brian De Palma’s first big commercial success after he made a series of respected Hitchcock-influenced films (Obsession, Sisters). The unexpected success of Carrie further spawned an endless cascade of Stephen King adaptations to the screen (Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, John Carpenter’s Christine, and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and Misery). Film adaptations of King’s novels continue to this day as we are about to endure Kimberly Pierce’s needless and recent remake of Carrie.

Carrie is Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a lonely high school adolescent who endures daily ridicule and cruelty at the hands of her high school classmates. However, Carrie is special – she possesses powerful telekinetic powers. Unfortunately, her power is viewed as a sign of the devil by her crazy, religious nut of a mother (Piper Laurie), who makes Carrie sit in a closet for hours praying for forgiveness for her sins. After one particularly horrible incident, Carrie’s tormentors are placed under suspension by their P.E. teacher (and Carrie’s protector), Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), feels horrible about what she did to Carrie so she convinces her boyfriend, the popular Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom instead of her. However, another one of the girls, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), is pissed that she has been suspended because of Carrie so she, along with her nimwit boyfriend (John Travolta), plots revenge against Carrie on the night of the prom.

Stephen King’s novel was perfectly matched with Brian De Palma’s bold visual sense. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote of De Palma: “De Palma’s Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that’s the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It’s also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn’t another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she’s a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who’s a lot like kids we once knew.” Carrie opens with what is undoubtedly one of the most memorable and horrific openings in a film – the girl’s locker room scene. The scene is gorgeously shot (see picture below) as steam from the showers softens the image on screen, giving the whole sequence a sexual fantasy feel. The serenity contained in these scenes is wonderfully complemented by Pino Donaggio’s romantic music score. As we pan across the locker room and watch the camaraderie between the young women, the camera finally settles on Carrie, all by herself in the shower, relaxed and at complete peace. That is, until De Palma pulls his well-known bait-and-switch and transforms his scene from one that is full of sexual innocence into one of pure horror. Carrie starts to bleed from her period and, not knowing what is happening to her, she begs and pleads her classmates to help her. However, Carrie is only greeted with ridicule and scorn as her classmates laugh and throw tampons at her.

This opening perfectly sets the tone of the entire movie. Although since Carrie’s release, realistic portrayals of high school and adolescence have become commonplace in movies, Carrie was the first film to portray high school like it really is: a less violent, but no less competitive, harsh, and cruel version of Lord of the Flies. Carrie White is the weak link in this society, and like animals with a sixth sense, the other, stronger kids can sense it and prey upon Carrie. The teachers are generally oblivious to the dynamics of this adolescent society. Even Miss Collins, the P.E. teacher, doesn’t understand that despite all of her good intentions to help and protect Carrie from the bullies, Carrie has been permanently marked an outcast by her peers and Miss Collins’ protection actually hurts more than helps Carrie (by placing Chris Hargensen on detention, Miss Collins’ motivates Chris to eventually dump the pig’s blood on Carrie at the prom).

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Sissy Spacek embodies Carrie White so fully and perfectly, that even with Spacek’s impressive filmography, I still cannot watch Sissy Spacek and not think of her as Carrie White. This role will forever remain Spacek’s defining role (perhaps tied with her Oscar-winning performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter). It is a testament to Spacek’s talents that she was able to effectively portray Carrie as a sweet, innocent, and very sympathetic young woman and at the same time show her to be a rage-filled woman with a frightening supernatural force she uses to kill every person, friend and foe, who has been involved in her life. Carrie does not fall within the category of one-dimensional, evil creations such as Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy Kreuger. Thanks in no small part to Stephen King’s gifted ability to create characters that are so alive that you must think they exist in real life, Carrie White is a complex, fully developed character. Because of this, Carrie transcends the typical tropes of the horror genre to the point that to categorize Carrie as a horror film would be to undermine those qualities that makes this film such a classic.

Equaling Sissy Spacek’s performance in this film is Piper Laurie, who plays Margaret White, Carrie’s unhinged, religious fundamentalist mother (by the way, both actresses were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances). Although Carrie White officially fills the role that Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy Kreuger play in their movies, Margaret White more appropriately represents these singularly evil personas than Carrie does. Margaret views the world (and her daughter) as one giant test from God that continually throws new temptations at her and Carrie to test their faith. No amount of reasoning can shake her beliefs, especially her belief that her daughter is a spawn of the devil. Given how the film was released only a few years after the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, with its attendant hippie communes that gave rise to religious cults, Stephen King and Brian De Palma seem to have taken the folksy, sandal wearing-guitar playing 60’s variant of Christianity and combined it with gothic, Puritanical sensibilities to create Margaret White.

The remaining cast of characters in Carrie pull in solid performances and nicely capture Stephen King’s sensibilities. Nancy Allen’s (Robocop’s female partner) Chris Hargensen is Carrie’s other antagonist, but one that could not be more apart in values from Carrie’s mom than Chris is. Chris reminds me of a mean and less sophisticated version of Lolita. Like Margaret White, Chris is singularly focused on one thing, but rather than religion, she is obsessed with exacting revenge on Carrie. John Travolta has a small part in this movie and he basically plays Chris’ dumb hillbilly boyfriend who goes along with whatever she wants so long as he gets a blowjob at the end of the day. Amy Irving also doesn’t get to do much here, but apparently it was enough to land her a date with Steven Spielberg (she was supposed to have been cast as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but she lost the role after breaking up with Spielberg), who she later married and then divorced.

The most substantive and important supporting role belongs to William Katt (Greatest American Hero TV series, House), who plays Tommy, the most popular guy at school, and the one who takes Carrie to the prom. Sporting the blond perm, Katt looked like the quintessential 1970’s high school heartthrob. Katt’s only job in this movie is to be as cool and likeable as possible in order to set up the horrific nature of Carrie’s final act at the end of the movie. A lingering question remains after the film as to whether or not Tommy genuinely liked Carrie. There is an indication that he does during the prom, but the film never clears up what Tommy really thinks of Carrie. Had he lived, would he have pursued Carrie White, or would he have returned to his real girlfriend?

Speaking of the final act in Carrie, I never believed that any modern remake of the movie would allow Carrie White to kill every person at the prom, especially Miss Collins and Tommy. Sure enough, although I have not seen the recent remake, I know that Miss Collins (or Miss Deskardin in the remake) escapes along with some other students. That is a real shame because it takes away from the horrific nature of Carrie’s action. What makes this final scene so haunting is not the fact that Carrie goes absolute apeshit on the whole prom and burns it to the ground, but that she indiscriminately kills even those who were trying to help her, like Tommy and Miss Collins.

Brian De Palma is well known among cinephiles for his slavish devotion to Alfred Hitchcock. His films, especially his early ones from the 1970’s and 80’s, shared similar themes to Hitckcock’s films (Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out) and he paid generous homage to the master of suspense in many of his movies. In Carrie, Margaret White chases her daughter with a big ass knife that is reminiscent of Psycho. More tribute is paid to Psycho at the beginning of the Carrie, when we see the titular character in the shower, and we see that Carrie’s high school is named Bates High School, after the motel in Psycho. Carrie also features what has become Brian De Palma’s signature technique: the split screen (see picture below).

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Carrie gives a huge middle finger to a society that ultimately does not accept her despite every effort that Carrie White makes to fit in. Rather than end the story on a hopeful note in which Carrie perhaps finds love or new friends, she gets fed up and decides to burn it all to hell. This is what makes Carrie so memorable, haunting, and easily one of the best film adaptations of a Stephen King novel.

Gravity (2013): Grade: A

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Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron

Written by: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron

Starring: Sandra Bullock & George Clooney

James Cameron: “I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.”

Buzz Aldrin: “I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. Going through the space station was done just the way that I’ve seen people do it in reality. The spinning is going to happen — maybe not quite that vigorous — but certainly we’ve been fortunate that people haven’t been in those situations yet. I think it reminds us that there really are hazards in the space business, especially in activities outside the spacecraft.”

Quentin Tarantino has named Gravity one of the top ten best films of 2013 so far.

When a filmmaker spends four years of his life (mainly to invent technology to make his film possible!) defying what has come before to make a bold, impactful statement in cinema, you breathlessly anticipate a generation-defining experience on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Pulp Fiction. With Gravity, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron has done what so precious few filmmakers have ever done: he has crafted a blockbuster type of story and infused it with an art-house sensibility to create an experimental thrill ride that has set a new benchmark of excellence. Its astounding to look back at Alfonso Cuaron’s American career beginning with a little children’s film called A Little Princess, then diving into low-budget foreign fare with Y Tu Mama Tambien, switching to a franchise blockbuster with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and now vying for James Cameron’s crown with a huge sci-fi artsy/commercial studio picture. Filmmaker Ang Lee is the only director I can think of who has displayed an ability to adeptly traverse across an eclectic diversity of genres and styles of cinematic storytelling.

Gravity’s plot is stunningly simplistic and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Unknown actress Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut on her first mission to install a new experimental instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope. Accompanying her on the mission is Matt Kowalski, played by another unknown actor, George Clooney. During the mission, the astronauts receive word that the Russians have fired a missile into a satellite and now the debris from the satellite is heading toward the astronauts at the velocity of a speeding bullet. Unfortunately, the astronauts are unable to avoid the satellite debris in time. Their shuttle is destroyed and the two astronauts are hurled out into space. With depleting oxygen and with more satellite debris headed their way, the astronauts must quickly figure out how to survive and get back to Earth.

The baseline understanding of Gravity is that it is fantastic and groundbreaking. Like with such films as Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, Gravity is designed to be viewed in IMAX and 3D. With that said, this is a film that as spectacular as it is in terms of technology and thrills on the big screen, it is one whose seams will be a lot more apparent if you watch it on the small screen. Furthermore, once you have seen Gravity once, it will have less repeat watchability because you will know what happens and that sense of dreaded anticipation that makes the film so fun to watch will be gone.

Since watching Gravity, I have spent more time defending the casting choices of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney than anything else that pertains to this film. I too have never been a big fan of Sandra Bullock’s performances or her film choices. I cannot say the same for George Clooney, who may not have a wide range when it comes to acting, but the quality of his films cannot be denied (e.g. The Descendants, The Ides of March, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air, Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck). With that said, allow me to dispel any of your reasonable notions that no film featuring these actors can be any good. This may be my first and very last time that I will sing the praises of Sandra Bullock’s performance. Playing the role of a mother who lost her daughter in an accident and now spends her life buried in her work to forget the pain, Bullock does a fine job conveying the pain and loneliness of her character. Mind you, my approval of her performance is less an approval and more of a pleasant surprise that I finally got to see Bullock deliver a performance I could tolerate and respect. As for Clooney, admittedly, he puts forth the same schtick he has done in just about every movie he’s ever done (including Syriana, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). I don’t find anything wrong with that. Just like with other famous actors who have generally delivered the same type of performance, you either respond to it or you don’t.

Putting their performances aside, I was disappointed that Bullock’s character basically amounted to another stereotypical female. Dr. Ryan Stone was prone to emotionality and fear. She was inexperienced. When faced with a problem, her first response was to lock up and panic, and we almost never saw her approach a situation calmly and with intelligence. I wish we could have seen more of a heroine instead of someone who simply pauses, reflects, and waits for the next disaster to strike, and when that disaster comes, she is unprepared. And not surprisingly, when she decides to totally give up and die, the film “resurrects” the male character so that he can push her to move onward.

A big issue with thrill ride films like Gravity and Jurassic Park is that the technology overtakes the story. Sometimes, as with these two examples, the technology is ground-breaking and exciting enough to dwarf any issues the movie may have, such as the lack of a complex narrative. That is not to say that Gravity’s story is weak. Alfonso Cuaron is known as a visual storyteller and you see that skill displayed here, in which the dialogue is secondary to the visuals in terms of telling the story. By the way, the opening of Gravity is probably the best use of silence I have ever seen – it perfectly sets the tone of the entire film. In addition, it is a testament to the filmmaker’s storytelling skill that despite the fact that 80-90% of Gravity is all CG, you will never once be distracted by the technology or, alternatively, be drawn by it to the detriment of what is narratively going on in the film.

In terms of the technical craft that went into making Gravity, I can’t say much more than what I have already said. Cuaron boldly commits to the idea that what we will see is not a fictionalized/fantasy version of space that we see in every other space movie, but that the outer space our story takes place in is the real thing. Hence, there is no sound other than the voices of our characters. When there is an explosion, you do not hear it. Cuaron accomplishes creating a space that comes off feeling airless, isolated, and hermitic. Supplementing the sound design is Steven Price’s fantastic score, which perfectly marries the silence of space. Furthermore, Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should be credited with creating instantly iconic shots and compositions that will forever be hailed as essential additions to space-set filmmaking. Now not being a fan of 3D, I was also relieved that for once someone was able to make good use of the format. The 3D is never overwhelming. It is used judiciously and sparingly, frequently to heighten the emotional moments rather than serve as a battering ram of laser pyrotechnics.

Gravity may not have the philosophical ambition of 2001, the space adventure to which it is most often being compared to. However, fairness demands that we recognize this film for trying to be something else. With its deliberately archetypal characters and chewy dialogue, Gravity feels a lot like something James Cameron would have made and that is an enormous compliment to make. In short, Gravity is a brilliant, unerringly entertaining thriller that will make you believe in the higher power of movies, of how a giant screen, a darkened room, and a story can take you to places you can’t even imagine. As a fun little tidbit of information, the voice of Mission Control is Ed Harris, who played Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13.

The Perfect Host (2011): Grade: B

the_perfect_host_poster01Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? The Perfect Host is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Nick Tomnay

Written by: Nick Tomnay & Stacey Testro

Starring: David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Helen Reddy

I never watched Frasier because it looked like the most boring TV show ever made (and it still does). So although I knew who David Hyde Pierce was, aside from his voice performance in A Bug’s Life, I was completely deprived of the joy and experience of watching this immensely talented, four-time Emmy award-winning actor perform weekly in my college living room. Since Frasier, David Hyde Pierce (or DHP) has found a second career in theater, earning himself a Tony award to place right next to his four Emmys. The Perfect Host marks his first time back on screen since Frasier ended and it could not be a more appropriate return for the actor.

The Perfect Host is Australian director Nick Tomnay’s first feature film, which prompted me to wonder how he managed to snag a talent like DHP to star in his movie. The Perfect Host actually began as a short film in 2001. The short apparently won some awards and attracted attention. Tomnay then began working on expanding his story to be a feature film, and after a few promising production and distribution deals failed to pan out, Tomnay finally had a chance to realize his vision. Tomnay generated a wish list of actors to play the story’s main role and at the top of that list was DHP. Although I don’t know how Tomnay attracted DHP’s attention and interest, Tomnay’s background in commercials and music videos undoubtedly opened up a few doors for him to reach out to people like DHP.

It is going to be very difficult for me to meaningfully discuss The Perfect Host without getting into its spoilers. To prevent any of you loyal readers from accidentally discovering these spoilers, I have reserved all discussion of the spoilers following the huge alert below. The Perfect Host begins with John Taylor (Clayne Crawford), a fugitive who has just robbed a bank. Thinking he has gotten away free, Taylor instead discovers to his dismay that the authorities have his full identity and he’s now wanted. Taylor begins to frantically seek refuge and finds himself in a quiet L.A. residential neighborhood. He picks a random house to hide out in and he sifts through the house’s mail to create an excuse to be invited inside. The house belongs to Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce), a single man who is preparing a dinner party for his friends. Taylor bullshits his way inside by making Wilson believe that Taylor knows Wilson’s friend. However, Taylor eventually finds out that Wilson is not the naïve and kind stranger who took him in, but is in fact, a deeply disturbed serial killer.

I think it is fair to say that Niles ended up being the most popular character on Frasier and even for those, like me, who were not fans of the show, DHP’s performance as Niles was respected. The character of Warwick Wilson is essentially a disturbed, maniacal version of Niles. Like Niles, Wilson is highly educated, cultured, and he appreciates the finer things in life. This character starts off being just like Niles, but once we are introduced to the crazy side of him, you will never see DHP in the same way again. There are moments of humor and creepiness that displays the full range of acting DHP is so wonderfully capable of handling. Every actor has what can be described as a ‘calling card’ performance and so far, The Perfect Host is it for DHP.

It is very easy to write off Clayne Crawford as another pretty boy actor who merely plays second fiddle to DHP. However, such a dismissal would be a huge disservice to Crawford’s impressive performance. He certainly has the less flashy role, but he brings an intensity to his role that is fitting for the roughneck criminal that he is supposed to be at the beginning of the movie. Crawford reminds me very much of Ray Liotta in both appearance and acting style, and he needs just that one breakout performance to really put him in the public sphere.

SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS AHEAD

Some filmmakers have made a career out of telling stories with plot twists in them. Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) and M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village) are prime examples. Nonetheless, it is very difficult these days to surprise an audience. They have seen every trick in the book when it comes to plot twists and even for those they have not seen, they can usually figure out what the twist is going to be halfway through the film. To make a filmmaker’s job even harder, you cannot have your plot twist occur without giving a few clues to the audience before the twist. Otherwise, audiences will call bullshit and say you are cheating. Put simply, the American audience is a sophisticated son of a bitch.

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 9.20.26 PMLike any first time filmmaker, Nick Tomnay is not afraid to throw caution to the wind and risk falling flat on his face. Despite what I just described about the finicky U.S. audience, Tomnay takes every character and the entire plot of the movie and up ends it in a bizarrely unexpected and delightful way. For one, we learn that John Taylor did not simply rob a bank to get rich. He did it to pay for the medical attention his girlfriend apparently needs. We discover that even that is not true – the girlfriend lied to Taylor about being sick to use him to rob the bank and get rich!

As for Warwick Wilson, he is still maniacal, but he is not a murderous one. Throughout John Taylor’s ordeal inside Wilson’s home, Taylor is beaten (true), drugged (true), and sliced up (not true). Wilson makes it clear that by 3:00 A.M., he will finally slice Taylor’s throat and leave him out in the alleyway. He does so…sort of. Taylor awakens the next morning in the alleyway wondering why he isn’t dead and finds out that all the “bruises and cuts” on his body are theater makeup! Wilson also turns out to be a police detective who…drum roll…is assigned to investigate the recent bank robbery that Taylor committed.

Critics have dismissed The Perfect Host for its implausibility and twist overkill. I can certainly understand those sentiments – the filmmaker is asking us to suspend any notions of logic and plausibility when he finally leads us through all the twists and turns contained in the second half of his film. However, such a critique can only be held against this film if you expected The Perfect Host to somehow be a realistic portrayal of what it would be like for a bank robber to be held hostage by a crazy person. The filmmaker obviously did not intend his story to be realistic and you can tell that simply from his outlandish setup.

If there is anything worthy of criticizing in The Perfect Host, I wish we saw less of Warwick Wilson’s delusional imaginary dinner party friends. I did not so much mind a few such scenes (e.g. the dance sequence), but too much of Wilson and Taylor’s interaction was seen through Wilson’s perspective. The film also suffers from a poor supporting cast of actors whose characters are underdeveloped and totally forgettable. This is especially noticeable with Wilson’s imaginary friends.

The Perfect Host is a wildly entertaining comic thriller (that also contains a nice music score by John Swihart – the complete score can be heard here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nyLdYAhM_M) that marks a strong start for first time feature director Nick Tomnay. Although this film depends very heavily on the talents of its two lead actors, especially DHP, I would be curious to watch Tomnay’s next film to see whether he truly has any writing and directing talents that do not depend on a single strong performance.