The 9th Life of Louis Drax

For F*** Magazine

THE 9th LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX 

Director : Alexandre Aja
Cast : Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Molly Parker, Aaron Paul, Julian Wadham, Barbara Hershey
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 48 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-posterDirector Alexandre Aja takes us past the plane of consciousness in this supernatural mystery thriller. Louis Drax (Longworth) is a peculiar, disturbed and highly accident-prone boy who is rescued after a fall from a cliff on his 9th birthday. Louis remains comatose, and Dr. Allan Pascal (Dornan), a paediatric coma specialist, is brought on to see if Louis can be revived. Louis was with his mother Natalie (Gadon) and his father Peter (Paul) at a picnic atop a cliff. The police try to ascertain whether it was an accident or Louis was deliberately pushed, with suspicion falling on Peter, who has vanished after the incident. Dr. Pascal contacts Dr. Perez (Platt), a psychiatrist who was treating Louis, to gain insight into the way Louis’ mind works. In the meantime, temptation rears its head, as Natalie and the married Dr. Pascal find themselves drawn to each other. Trapped in an otherworldly realm, Louis befriends a mysterious entity known only as ‘the sea monster’, attempting to reach back out to our world.

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The 9th Life of Louis Drax is adapted from the 2004 novel of the same name by Liz Jensen. Director Aja is part of the ‘splat pack’, and is known for gory, shocking horror films like Haute Tension and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. The 9th Life of Louis Drax has elements of horror, but can’t quite be classified as that. In fact, it can’t quite be classified as much else – “supernatural mystery thriller” is as close as we got. This film is at once a whodunit, a relationship soap opera, a philosophical musing on the nature of the subconscious, a fantasy adventure and a noir mystery. Somewhere in there, a barnacle-encrusted creature reminiscent of the DC character Swamp Thing stalks about. Screenwriter Max Minghella appears to struggle with stitching these disparate components into a concinnate whole. The tone is difficult to place: it’s sometimes quirky, sometimes cynical, and sometimes sentimental.

‘Weird’ doesn’t have to be a pejorative – we can think of many films that are enjoyable by dint of their weirdness. The quality of being strange and surreal can be compelling and pull the audience in, but it can also be alienating and hold the audience at bay. Much of The 9th Life of Louis Drax falls into the latter category. There’s a mannered archness to the film, with nearly all of the acting coming off as exceptionally stiff. It’s one of those movies that makes us wonder, “how much of a bad performance is the actor’s fault, and how much is the director’s?” The dialogue is clunky and peppered with unsubtle lines like “men always act like fools around pretty girls”. Aja makes several stylistic choices that help the film become more engaging than it would be otherwise, but they aren’t sufficiently inventive. Perhaps it’s just bad luck that the Netflix series Stranger Things, which features similar motifs including a creature who lurks about a parallel plane, was recently released.

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Another factor that kept this reviewer from getting fully involved in the story was that the main characters are all difficult to sympathise with. Louis is supposed to be more than the textbook troubled kid. He’s precocious and confrontational, exhibiting sinister proclivities. Longworth is unable to parse the ambiguity of the character, and as such Louis generally comes across as a budding serial killer instead of a brilliant but mal-adjusted child who needs guidance and bespoke care. There are several sequences in which Louis narrates the film, and while we understand the storytelling reasons behind perspective shifts, these seem twee and out of place.

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The smouldering, not especially charismatic Dornan plays Dr. Pascal as if he were a sexy doctor in Grey’s Anatomy. It’s extremely difficult to buy Dornan’s Pascal as an expert in his field, and all of the ‘forbidden romance’ intrigue feels terribly mundane when juxtaposed against the supernatural and psychological aspects of the story. And yes, he’s still audibly wrestling to suppress his Irish brogue.

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Gadon may not be an A-lister yet, but she has more or less established a niche for herself as a modern Hitchcock Blonde. She plays this to the hilt here: is Natalie a misunderstood and loving mother who is the victim of her husband’s abuse, or is she a malicious black widow who knows more than she’s letting on? The character isn’t quite one-dimensional, but is still very much a caricature. Natalie never feels like an actual person, which is another hindrance in The 9th Life of Louis Drax being genuinely absorbing.

Paul has comparatively little screen time, since much of the mystery revolves around the true nature of Peter Drax. He’s an inherently likeable actor but he’s also adept atplaying roles with a dark side, which serves him well here. Platt might be the best thing about The 9th Life of Louis Drax. We’ve been conditioned to be wary of psychiatrists and psychologists in suspense thrillers, but Platt manages to be a calm, comforting presence. Despite being treated with hostility by his patient Louis, Dr. Perez remains invested in his mental well-being.

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In an interview with ScreenwritingU magazine, Minghella explained that he deliberately set the film “in the heightened reality of movies…where the characters are all somewhat archetypal so then we can process these wild and abstract ideas more comfortably.” This makes sense, but there’s also the danger of the audience being painfully aware that they are watching a movie and thus being unable to dive into the story headfirst. With so many moving parts, this reviewer was distracted by the turning gears and thus couldn’t get lost in the mystery itself.

Summary: The 9th Life of Louis Drax is an interesting type of bad. Fascinating ideas and potentially moving moments are done a disservice by the stilted approach; its weirdness off-putting rather than beguiling.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Indignation

For F*** Magazine

INDIGNATION 

Director : James Schamus
Cast : Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Danny Burstein, Linda Emond, Sonny Cottler, Ben Rosenfield, Phillip Ettinger
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 hr 51 mins
Opens : 18 August 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Some Sexual Scenes)

Indignation posterPhilip Roth is considered a pre-eminent American writer, whose work centres around the Jewish-American experience. Indignation, adapted from Roth’s novel of the same name, revolves around Marcus Messner (Lerman), a Jewish college student. The son of kosher butcher Max (Burstein) and Esther (Emond), Marcus is exempted from being drafted to serve in the Korean War because he is going to college. Leaving his hometown of Newark, New Jersey for Winesburg College in Ohio, he is immediately smitten with the beguiling Olivia Hutton (Gadon), who comes from a wealthy family but who has had a troubled upbringing. After a disagreement with his roommates Bertram Flusser (Rosenfield) and Ron Foxman (Ettinger), Marcus requests a transfer to a different dorm room. When the school’s dean Hawes Caudwell (Letts) requests to see Marcus, the two butt heads, Marcus taking issue with the mandatory chapel attendance. Departing from his Jewish roots and embracing atheism, Marcus must come to terms with his own religious views as he experiences a sexual awakening.

Indignation Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman 1

Indignation marks the directorial debut of James Schamus, a veteran producer and screenwriter who is an oft-collaborator of Ang Lee. Roth himself hails from Newark and attended college in the 50s, Indignation’s semi-autobiographical elements making it a personal project for the author. As a coming-of-age period piece, Indignation approaches the fairly common themes of falling in love and questioning the beliefs with which one was brought up with considerable poise. Indignation is measured in its pace and many of the shots are symmetrically framed, visually reinforcing the juxtaposition of the fictional college’s stuffy atmosphere and the frank sexuality that is displayed. There’s a sprinkling of drol humour in just the right doses throughout the predominantly sombre piece. However, the film does often come off as distant, and the use of voiceovers in an effort to preserve some of Roth’s prose is occasionally awkward.

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Lerman leverages his boy-next-door charm for all it’s worth in Indignation, getting to bust some heretofore unseen dramatic chops. It’s a mostly quiet performance, and Lerman is able to find the core of a character who is intelligent, but doesn’t have everything figured out. The character of Marcus isn’t one who questions authority because it’s cool to rebel, and the scenes between Lerman and Letts are masterfully acted. Letts can play the prickly, unlikeable authority figure in his sleep, yet Dean Caudwell isn’t a cartoon villain, and it is entertaining to see how the confrontation starts out relatively polite, and becomes heated while stopping short of being wildly uncivil.

Indignation Tracy Letts

While Gadon’s delivery is a little stilted, she’s still able to create a compelling, magnetic figure in the form of Olivia. Here impeccably put-together exterior, comprising 50s frocks and topped with soft blonde curls, belie a damaged soul. Yet, Olivia doesn’t function as a broken woman whom the protagonist feels is duty-bound to put back together. In all the interactions between Marcus and Olivia, one gets the sense that there’s raw passion lurking beneath a façade of politeness and conformity. Gadon has yet to hit to big time, but a few more roles like this one might be just what it takes.

Indignation Sarah Gadon
Both Burstein and Emond fit the expectations of Jewish parents of that era, and it’s easy to see why Marcus longs to get out from under their thumbs, even if all the haranguing ultimately comes from a place of love. While there are impactful moments in Indignation, this reviewer felt like he couldn’t leap all the way in. The handsomeness of the piece sometimes works against it, making the story seem stodgier than it really is. Its abrupt conclusion is also as frustrating as it is intriguing.

Summary: Logan Lerman gets a platform to shine, but Indignation could use a little more urgency in getting audiences invested in its protagonist’s struggles.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dracula Untold

For F*** Magazine

DRACULA UNTOLD

Director : Gary Shore
Cast : Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Diarmaid Murtagh, Charles Dance, Charlie Cox, Art Parkinson
Genre : Horror/Fantasy/Thriller
Opens : 2 October 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Disturbing Scenes) 
Run time: 93 mins
The title character of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula has reared his fanged head in popular culture, the vampire of vampires a perennially popular subject in every entertainment medium. This origin story takes us back to 1462, when Dracula preferred the taste of coffee to that of blood and was still known as Vlad Tepes III (Evans). The peace that Prince Vlad’s domain of Wallachia, south of Transylvania, has enjoyed for a decade is under threat. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed III (Cooper) demands 1000 boys to serve in his army – including Vlad’s young son Ingeras (Parkinson). Driven by a love for his son, his wife Mirena (Gadon) and a dedication to his people, Vlad makes the proverbial deal with the devil. In this case, that devil is the Master Vampire (Dance) who has waited centuries for someone worthy enough to inherit his powers. Of course, there’s a price: with the superhuman strength, speed and the ability to transform into a colony of bats comes an insatiable thirst for human blood and various specific weaknesses, including to sunlight and silver. Will Dracula bear this curse for all eternity to save his people?

            Your willingness to accept this incarnation of Dracula will be contingent on which version of the character, if any, you hold dear. Distancing itself from Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman’s famous performances, Dracula Untold recasts its protagonist as a tortured antihero not unlike the Crow, Spawn or the Punisher. The character is handled similarly to in the Castlevaniavideogame series and the “perspective flip” is perhaps reminiscent of Maleficent. The medieval fantasy action feel the film is striving for is also clearly influenced by Game of Thrones, with actor Charles Dance and composer Ramin Djawadi involved in both. Unfortunately, this approach makes the film come off as generic. Largely dreary and self-serious, Dracula Untold would have benefitted from just a dash of theatricality and operatic grandeur, elements often associated with Dracula. The film’s production values are decent, the costumes designed by Ngila Dickson (co-designer and Oscar-winner for the Lord of the Rings films) especially praiseworthy – that dragon relief detail on Dracula’s armour sure is cool. Blurry CGI used for set extensions and to create landscapes does let it down somewhat.

            Luke Evans is solid if unremarkable in the lead role. In terms of presence, his Dracula (im)pales in comparison to those of the afore-mentioned three actors, whom every actor to play the role will be measured against. Evans’ Vlad is stoic and strong and there is an attempt on the part of screenwriters Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless to give him character development. You might be left wondering “how can someone who loves his wife and child so much be okay with impaling thousands of villagers?” The morality and inner dilemma of the character is touched upon, sure, but it isn’t given the depth required to be truly compelling. The line “sometimes the world no longer needs a hero. Sometimes what it needs is a monster”, in addition to being something that probably applies more to Hellboy than to Dracula, just isn’t enough.

            Dominic Cooper, who had a brush with vampires in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and who’s memorably portrayed real-life villain Uday Hussein in The Devil’s Doubleand who was the bad guy earlier this year in Need For Speed, is the adversary here as well. In this story, Mehmed III grew up alongside Vlad, when Vlad was forcibly conscripted into the Ottoman army as a child. Cooper does look evil-cool in that ornate gold chest plate and guyliner but doesn’t get a lot to do, the story not playing up the angle of “blood brothers-turned-enemies”. As Mirena, Sarah Gadon is little more than “the wife” and could have done with even just one ass-kicking scene to herself. As the being who turns Vlad into a vampire, Veteran actor Charles Dance steals the show, his naturally menacing mug covered in makeup designed to echo Count Orlok from Nosferatu.

            Dracula Untold is intended to launch a new Universal Monsters cinematic universe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe got its start with Iron Man, and Iron Man this ain’t – even with Howard Stark in it. That said, Dracula Untoldisn’t the mess it could’ve been, considering that this is director Gary Shore’s first feature film. While horror aficionados might thumb their noses at the PG-13 rating, there are still some brutal moments in the film – these vampires don’t sparkle in the sun, they burn, as it should be. There are a few moments of unintentional silliness – when Vlad hurls Ottoman soldiers into the air, they look like they’re victims of a trampoline accident and when he commands swarming bats, it brings to mind Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of Fantasia. As a period fantasy action film, Dracula Untold is a passable diversion, but as a reimagining of one of the most iconic characters in all of fiction, it leaves a good deal to be desired.
Summary: This “untold” story is a familiar one and in place of elegance and mystique we get humdrum fantasy action, but we’ll take these vampires over those from Twilight any day of the week.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong