FlixChatter Review: Neil Jordan’s vampire drama Byzantium (2012)

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Before the vampire craze began started by a certain YA novel, Neil Jordan‘s made an epic vampire drama Interview With The Vampire in 1994. Nearly two decades later, the Irish filmmaker returned to the popular genre with another unconventional tale of the fanged one. Except that the vampires in this story don’t have fangs, instead they have sharp thumb nail that extends when they are ready to feed. The story is based on a play by Moira Buffini, who also wrote the screenplay.

The film begins with a schoolgirl, Eleanor, saying in voice over that ‘my story can never be told.’ She constantly writes in her journal, writing her life story she can’t share with anyone. The melancholy scene is contrasted with that of a sexy prostitute, Clara, tantalizing a client at a dingy club. It’s the oldest profession in the world, one she has held on for more than two centuries. The scene then turns into a big foot chase scene that ends in a bloody, grizzly murder. That incident forces Clara and her daughter Eleanor to move to another town once again. By that point I was hooked and I’m on for the ride to find out just who these two creatures are and why they are constantly on the run.

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At the core of Byzantium is a mother and daughter story, albeit a decidedly-unusual one. Gemma Arterton and Saiorse Ronan made for quite an intriguing pair as mother and daughter. Clara represents the ruthless survivor with a personal vendetta against men preying on vulnerable women. So yeah, there’s a not-too-subtle feminism commentary here. Meanwhile, Eleanor represents innocence and benevolence, preying on those she deems ‘ready’ to die. So they certainly have a very different approach to feeding human blood. The title itself initially refers to a hotel that somehow becomes a place of refuge to them, but the purported ties to the Byzantine Empire is rather forced.

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I’ve been wanting to see it for some time, but crushing on Sam Riley compelled me to rent it straight away and I’m glad I did. Sam’s part isn’t a big one but he played a dual character that plays a key role in Clara’s dark past. His scenes as a naval officer, along with a grimy Jonny Lee Miller, are some of the most compelling aspects of the film. The film takes place mostly on modern day, with extended flashback scenes that explain the origin story of Clara’s vampirism. It takes a bit too long to get to that part however, with hints peppered throughout and one secret is peeled after another in a leisurely manner. Rather indulgent perhaps, but I think the movie rewards your patience and for me, there’s enough going for it to keep me engrossed.

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The two female protagonists are fantastic in this. It’s perhaps my favorite role I’ve seen Arterton’s done so far, and though Ronan’s done superior work since, I still count this as one of her best work. Arterton’s absolutely ravishing as Clara, she uses her sensuality and seductive allure, combined with a convincing motherly love. Meanwhile Ronan’s forlorn demeanor is quietly eerie and she delivers one long monologue about who she really is that gives me quite the chills. A bit of trivia: Ronan did an intense 12-week crash course in piano lessons to be able to play the complicated Beethoven piano sonata in this film. She certainly is a dedicated performer.

I’ve seen this film twice in the past three months, and I must say I find this strangely mesmerizing. But the flaws keep this from being a truly great movie, as it doesn’t quite live up to its original concept. I still applaud it for that though, as originality is such a rarity these days in a world full of sequels and reboots. I could do without some of the scenes, i.e. the odd and pointless classroom scene with an uncredited Tom Hollander. I’m also not too fond of Caleb Landry Jones‘ casting as Eleanor’s love interest, thus their love story isn’t as appealing as it could’ve been.

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As with a mythology story, certain aspects sometimes don’t get explained very well. In this case it’s in regards to Clara’s relentless pursuers, who’s later revealed as part of the so-called Brotherhood. We don’t know much about it, but what we do know is that the ancient organization forbids women to join, and they’re ruthlessly strict about those who’ve broken that rule. It helps that there’s a Byzantium Wiki to devour after watching the movie, and I think the more I read about it, the more I appreciate the story.

Eternal life will only come to those prepared to die.

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So despite the flaws, I’d say this movie is well worth a watch. I always appreciate an unorthodox vampire story, be it comedic (What We Do in the Shadows) or what Neil Jordan‘s created so far. I’d say this film is more of a drama than a full-on horror film, which is just the way I like it. There are gory and bloody scenes, but it’s few and far between.

Stylistically, the film is wonderful to look at. Set in rundown coastal setting in the UK and Ireland, it’s an appropriately atmospheric and broodingly-mysterious for a vampire tale. Acclaimed cinematographer Sean Bobbitt added an occasional jolts of color, so it’s not all doom and gloom. It has an eerie, ethereal and mysteriously romantic feel to it, but not grotesque. The scene in the spooky island with its blood waterfall is especially striking. I also like the classically-tinged, serene-sounding score by Javier Navarrete that perfectly complements the tone of the film.

I like the ending as well, which actually is surprisingly hopeful. This is the kind of film that lingers long after the end credits. It certainly make me think about the concept and these bloodsuckers *ethics* if you will, that I never thought about before. Any good stories about monsters and mythical creatures ought to have humanistic elements and this one certainly does. Just like Jordan’s previous film Ondine, there’s more than meets the eye and has deeper significance than what the trailer suggests. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s quite mesmerizing and I now count this as one of my favorite vampire films.

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Have you seen ‘Byzanthium’? Either way, I’d love to hear what you think!

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Hollywood Movie Draft Pitch IV: A Crime Drama by Kenneth Branagh

The 2012 Hollywood Fantasy League is now upon us! This extremely fun and addictive blogathon is created by none other than my friend Castor (who sadly has now disappeared from the blogosphere). This is my fourth time I’m participating  in this blog-a-thon, you can find links to my previous three pitches in this post.

I have drafted my director and actors last December, so you can read the rules and rationale on this post. Just to reiterate, this time around there’s a bit of a twist beyond simply assembling our favorite set of thespians. Besides limiting the cast to 3 actors and 3 actresses, there is also a competitive component to the HFL game where each player’s score is measured by the events affecting the filmmakers/actors of their choice. So if an actor I pick is cast in a mega-blockbuster or end up getting thrown in jail for a DWI, I may gain or lose points based on those events. Anyway, without further ado, let’s just get on the pitch, shall we?

LOGLINE:

A crime drama about a former gangster turned crime novelist who’s dragged into his dark past by his former aide looking to avenge the death of his brother. This is not an action film but more cerebral and suspenseful in nature, set with moody music and beautiful cinematography. My inspiration is Road to Perdition.

BACKGROUND:

Story is set in Boston in the mid 60s. I’ve always liked a period film with all the retro set pieces, cars, clothes, etc. and the characters will be mostly Irish-Americans. The protagonist is Vincent Moran, a crime novelist under a pseudonym Connor McEarleane (combining the last names of his grandparents) who’s given up his criminal lifestyle for 15 years. What starts out as an innocuous way to alleviate his writer’s block ends up being much bigger than any of the players had originally anticipated.

DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh

Originally I drafted Branagh as I wanted the story to be set in Ireland, but I think he’s still going to be a good fit for this film as the characters are mostly Irish-American and Branagh’s done a noir film before, Dead Again. I’m thinking he could work with someone like The Departed screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) to create a compelling noir drama that’s heavy in character development. Branagh would also go well with a lot of actors with theatrical background like Gabriel Byrne, Tom Hiddleston and Rebecca Hall.

The Irish thespian would also have a cameo as Moran’s editor in the film.

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

Gabriel Byrne is Vincent Moran, a 53-year-old chain-smoking, fedora-wearing Irish-American who’s left his life as a gangster 15 years ago. He’s penned several best-seller crime novels under a pseudonym Connor McEarleane (combining the last names of his grandparents), but is currently suffering from a massive writer’s block.
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Tom Hiddleston is Eddie Stokes, 37-year-old railroad engineer who was one of Vincent’s men. His brother Mike was Vincent’s former aide who’s killed by Vincent’s former rival, Liam Winter. Eddie’s been trying to get away from the crime business for years, but he just couldn’t let go of his brother’s death.
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Rebecca Hall is Evelyn Dillon, 34-year-old aspiring actress who works part time at Emerson College as an associate drama teacher. She’s Eddie’s girlfriend, but also caught in an affair with the charming and persistent Danny. Evelyn’s also a victim of the Mob as her dad was accidentally killed during a shootout at his factory.
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Richard Armitage is Daniel ‘Danny’ McGrath, 38-year-old childhood friend of Eddie who’s an undercover cop investigating a corruption involving the Irish-American Mob. As a youngster, he watched his family members rise and fall under them so this mission is a personal one.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Vincent’s loyal wife Sylvia, who has chronic heart disease. When she almost died of heart failure 15 years ago, she pleaded with Vincent to leave the Mob and live peacefully for the sake of their family. She’s now serves at the board of a local Heart Foundation.

Saiorse Ronan is Claire Moran, Vincent’s only child who’s the apple of her dad’s eye. She’s 19 and is a drama major at Emerson College. She was rebellious in her early teen years, hanging out with the wrong crowd and had bouts of drug addiction. But ever since Evelyn befriends her, she’s much calmer and has become closer to her parents.

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Special thanks to my friend Stella K. @ Byrneholics.com for helping me with some of the plot points.

PROLOGUE:

Flashback of a disheveled and swollen-eyed Vincent at the hospital next to his ill wife Sylvia after an open heart surgery. Vincent tells her to keep his promise if she lives this time, that is he’d leave the Mob business, something Sylvia has pleaded with him repeatedly. The scene then changes to Vincent smoking profusely in his study, surrounded by crumpled paper all around him and cigarette butts piling up on his ashtray. He’s having a major writer’s block for months and he thinks being away from the crime underworld is making him dull.

THE SET UP:

ACT I

It’s a crisp late Autumn evening, suddenly Vincent receives a call from his former employer Eddie who demands to see him at once. Eddie has been trying to track him down for the past two years for he wants Vincent to help him bring down his former rival Liam Winter [I’m thinking someone like Terrence Stamp in this role] to avenge his brother’s death. Eddie’s brother Mike was Vincent’s former aide.

At first Vincent was reluctant to get back into the criminal underworld he’s left behind so long ago, but Mike was a loyal employer to him, plus this might help him get his creative juice back. But Vincent makes Eddie promise that he’d be patient with this plan as they have to be very careful to bring down someone like Liam.

Meanwhile, Danny’s mission to infiltrate Liam’s fast-growing empire is made even trickier as Eddie constantly pesters him for information. Danny insists that he’d help Eddie bring Liam to justice but his mission is to bring the Mob boss alive so the force could use him to arrest the others, but of course Eddie just wants Liam dead. Eddie’s always got a complicated relationship with Danny as there’s always a trace of rivalry between them, and to make things worse, they both fall for the same woman when both of them met Evelyn as she’s waiting tables at a local bar.

ACT II

The Eddie + Vincent’s collaboration is far from smooth. They’re always at each other’s throats whenever they meet to go over their plans of attack. Before long, Vincent realizes that Eddie’s so consumed with his vengeance that he’s become reckless and impulsive that his behavior puts both of them in danger. This plan also puts a strain on Eddie’s relationship with Evelyn as he’s become volatile. One minute he’s sweet as can be, taking her on the town and showering her with love, but the next he’s irritable and insolent. A few times Evelyn runs into Danny when Eddie’s suddenly gone missing for days and she vents to him. Danny made a promise to Eddie never to reveal any of his plans involving the Mob to Evelyn as they both know that is the one thing Evelyn would never tolerate. Danny tries his best not to be overcome by his jealousy towards Eddie but at the same time he can’t suppress his feelings for Evelyn.

Weeks go by and Vincent’s getting restless that his dark past is creeping up on him and he suspects that Eddie has something to do with it. Vincent’s editor Gus Foshay (possibly Branagh doing a cameo in this role) has been pestering him about Vincent missing the deadline for his next novel and he comments about a rumor that Vincent was involved in some shady stuff in the past, and whether the publishing company need to be worried about that. Vincent assures Gus it’s all just hearsay, but he realizes that in this business, one can never be too trusting or too careful, which means that everyone who knew about his past ought to be silenced. Talking to Sylvia that night, not only does she concur that idea, but that she urges her husband to do whatever it takes to ensure their family’s well-being.

ACT III

Claire comes home for Christmas and brings along her drama teacher Evelyn who’ve become good friends ever since Claire takes her classes. Evelyn’s supposed to spend Christmas with Eddie but he cancels at the last minute, saying he gets call off to work. As Evelyn has no clue who Vincent is nor his scheme with Eddie, she casually mentions about how spending time with the Morans helps her get over her disappointment of not spending Christmas with her boyfriend. Vincent eventually figures out that her boyfriend is Eddie and this makes him even more convinced that getting rid of Eddie would also mean protecting Evelyn from such a reckless personality who might also endanger Claire’s life if Evelyn ends up marrying him.

Before returning home that evening, Evelyn drops by Eddie’s house to grab something she had left there but finds Eddie lying on the floor with blood all over. It turns out that he’s got a tip that Liam was going to be at some Christmas dinner and decides he’s going to take him out on his own instead of waiting for Vincent. But he ends up in a shootout with some of Liam’s men and got shot in the upper arm.

Evelyn confronts him and so he has no choice but to tell her everything. Evelyn’s furious that Eddie’s been lying to her and so after treating his wounds, she leaves the house. Danny’s heard about the shootout and is on his way to Eddie’s when he runs into Evelyn. Danny takes the distraught Evelyn home and she tells him she’s breaking up with Eddie. Danny tells her he’s been in love with her for years and they end up sleeping together.

Early in the morning Liam and three of his men find out where Eddie lives and enter the house to kill him but Eddie’s already on the way to Vincent’s. They ransack the house and found an address written taped on a piece of paper. That address turns out to be Vincent’s home.

ACT IV

Eddie tells Vincent what happens so before Liam gets to his house, Vincent promptly takes Sylvia, Claire and Eddie into his 1963 Cadillac DeVille to his safe house in the country. Once he drops his wife and daughter there, he and Eddie heads back to the city that same night. Unbeknownst to Eddie, Vincent has made a call to Liam and told him that it’s Eddie who wants him dead. He made up a story that Vincent has no choice but to help Eddie because he threatens to kill his daughter. Vincent offered to personally deliver Eddie himself if Liam promises to leave him and his family alone. Liam sees no reason not to believe Vincent as he has been away for so long.

Back in the city – When Evelyn wakes up in the morning, she tells Danny she’s worried about Eddie. So the two heads over to Eddie’s and find the house torn to pieces. They immediately presume that Eddie’s been kidnapped by Liam. Danny calls for backup to Liam’s compound and then takes Evelyn to one of his trusted colleagues.

By the time Danny and the police get there, Liam and two of his men had been shot point blank in the head. They also find Eddie’s dead body in the same room with a gunshot to his head and a .22 cal pistol in his hand.

EPILOGUE:

Vincent drives back to his safe-house to be with his family. A brief flashback to Vincent and Eddie taking out Liam and his men, which ends with Vincent taking Liam’s pistol and aiming it at Eddie, saying “I’m sorry Eddie, but you did get your vengeance. Liam won’t ever kill again,” and pulls the trigger.

Soul jazz music blares from his stereo as the scene of Vincent driving fades into a montage of him typing away at his typewriter, inter-cut with scenes at a rainy funeral of Eddie, and ends with a close up of teary-eyed Evelyn in Danny’s arms.


Well, what do you think? Would you be interested to see a movie with this kind of story and cast? I welcome your feedback.

AM’s Hollywood Fantasy League IV – My Dream Cast

The annual Hollywood Fantasy League (HFL) is upon us again! This extremely fun and addictive blogathon is created by none other than Castor from Anomalous Material. You can see who others pick on the latest round.

I’ve participated three times before, but this time there’s a bit of a twist beyond simply assembling our favorite set of thespians. Besides limiting the cast to 3 actors and 3 actresses, there is also a competitive component to the HFL game.

Was your actor selected for a starring role in the next Christopher Nolan mega-blockbuster? Did your director receive a Golden Globe for his latest film? Did one of your actresses get thrown in jail with a DWI? You will score and/or lose points for each of these events and many more.

Well, for sure I won’t be winning this league as I’ve got a specific set in mind for my story, so I didn’t really draft them based on their ‘star-meter’ if you will, but of course they are a talented bunch who’d make any film instantly watchable. I think my cast would appeal to the International moviegoers and the indie-crowd, but not necessarily mainstream US audiences.

I will blog about the story concept sometime next year, as I’m still mulling over some ideas. But for now I can tell you that the story will take place in the UK and Ireland, primarily in Dublin and the genre is crime drama/thriller with a love story at the heart of it.

So here’s my team so far:

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Being an Irish native (Belfast-born to be exact), I think Branagh would have the advantage in knowing the history/custom of the area, and his stage background would also help in creating a compelling script (possibly working with The Departed screenwriter William Monahan). I respect him as a director after seeing Hamlet and of course Thor, and he’s recently selected by the British Indie Film Award to receive the Variety award for bringing international attention to the British film industry (per The Wrap). This project will also reunite him with Tom Hiddleston who collaborated with him on Thor and the theatrical play Ivanov.

The All-Brit Cast (in order of the draft pick)

  • Gabriel Byrne
    I need a dashing but mysterious mature actor to play the role of a powerful tycoon. He’s a mafia-like figure whose criminal business dealings are camouflaged by philanthropy and charity work. He’s a well-dressed gent with custom-made suits and fedora and with a charming personality women of all ages would flock to. He’s married to Kristin’s character and has a young daughter (Saiorse) who resents him.

  • Tom Hiddleston
    Though I’ve only seen Tom in one film, I knew right away he’s such a versatile actor. He’s quite popular with the ladies judging from the reaction at Comic-Con during The Avengers panel so I think he’d make a compelling romantic leading man with a dark side.

  • Rebecca Hall
    I’ve seen her in three different films so far and I took an immediate liking to her. She’s unusually beautiful with a certain elegance and grace about her that I find appealing. She’ll play a drama teacher and Tom’s love interest, and there is some kind of ties between her family and Gabriel that’ll be revealed in due course.
  • Richard Armitage
    He first swept me off my feet with his sensitive portrayal of Mr. Thornton in BBC’s North & South, but it’s his role in the espionage series Spooks that made me think he’s perfect for this part I have in mind. Fans of Richard will see his sexy, brooding good looks put to good use 😉

  • Kristin Scott Thomas
    This is a small but important supporting role but with someone of her caliber, she’ll definitely make a lasting impression on the viewer. She’ll play Gabriel’s loyal but conflicted wife who will have to make a drastic decision towards the end of the film.

  • Saiorse Ronan
    This massively talented 17 year-old has impressed me in Atonement and Hanna. This role I have in mind for her is a feisty, wise-beyond-her-years college freshman who resents her father and angry at her mother for not standing up to her husband. She is close to Rebecca Hall’s character as the only person she can confide in, whilst Rebecca keeps her connection to her father a secret.


So, what do you think? Would you watch a British crime drama with this kind of cast?

Flix Poster of the Week: Peter Weir’s The Way Back

From acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir comes a fact-based story centered on soldiers who escaped from a Siberian prison camp in 1940. The story was inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’s acclaimed novel, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, as well as other real life accounts and tells the adventure story chronicling the escape of a small group of multi-national prisoners of the Siberian gulag and their epic life-affirming journey over thousands of miles across five hostile countries. The cast looks pretty good: Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan and Mark Strong. Nice to see Ed Harris, haven’t seen him in quite a while. Apparently he’s just been cast in thriller Man on A Ledge which stars Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie and Edward Burns (per Deadline).

Weir, whose last movie Master and Commander was released seven years ago in 2003. I haven’t seen that one (which was highly recommended by Sam who list that as one of her top 5 Russell Crowe movies), but I love Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show. He also did another based-on-true-story drama set in my homeland Indonesia (set in the Sukarno era, our first president) called The Year of Living Dangerously, starring a young Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt.

Dez at Hollywood Spy posted the trailer last Monday, but now we’ve also got hi-res stills you can view @ Rope of Silicon.

Moviefone posted a full review from the Telluride Film Festival screening and had some great things to say about this movie:

The first half of The Way Back is Peter Weir at his hypnotic best. Always adept at breathing life into landscapes – see the frightening outback vistas of Gallipoli, the mythic Central American jungle of The Mosquito Coast, and even the idyllic false suburbia of The Truman Show – Weir all but personifies Siberia and (later) the Mongolian desert. They seem threateningly to keep pace with our human protagonists. The snow-covered trees and scorching sand dunes become the terrain of an alien planet. The mines of the gulag are a steam-spitting horrorshow scarier than anything in The Lord of the Rings. The film is extraordinary at seeing these places as its characters would; even the sweeping bird’s-eye views seem like an expression of their fear.

Looks like this is definitely one to watch come January of next year. Now, what’s your favorite Peter Weir film(s)?

Upcoming Flix Spotlight: HANNA

Saiorse Ronan as Hanna

Please, please, don’t ever confuse this with Hannah Montana [shudders], which is what you’ll get when you google this title. No, not even close. This is an upcoming thriller from Joe Wright, the director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, tackling yet another genre after last year’s music-themed biopic drama The Soloist. When I first heard about this a few months ago, only Saiorse Ronan and Eric Bana had been cast, but now I learned that my favorite actress Cate Blanchett is also involved, yay!

Here’s the gist of the story from Collider: Hanna (Ronan) is a teenage girl. Uniquely, she has the strength, the stamina, and the smarts of a solider; these come from being raised by her father (Bana), an ex-CIA man, in the wilds of Finland. Living a life unlike any other teenager, her upbringing and training have been one and the same, all geared to making her the perfect assassin. The turning point in her adolescence is a sharp one; sent into the world by her father on a mission, Hanna journeys stealthily across Europe while eluding agents dispatched after her by a ruthless intelligence operative with secrets of her own (Blanchett). As she nears her ultimate target, Hanna faces startling revelations about her existence and unexpected questions about her humanity.

Blanchett & Bana, what a duo!

The La Femme Nikita-esque plot is intriguing and the cast certainly appeals to me. Bana and Blanchett are on my Top Ten Aussie Actors list, and Ronan really impressed me in Atonement. In fact, I often think that she has the potential to have Blanchett’s career, as she’s no doubt one of the most talented young actors working today. Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, and Olivia Williams rounded up the excellent cast.

Apparently this movie was one of the significant deal at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. According to Deadline.com, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group (SPWAG) bought most key territories of the foreign distribution of Hanna, while Focus Features will handle the domestic US distribution. Sony did that based on 1 minute and a half of footage and a look at the script. SPWAG was the same studio that took a chance in Neill Blomkamp’s debut District 9, and will distribute Terrence Malik’s upcoming fantasy drama The Tree of Life.

Below is the theatrical trailer. It’s due out 8 April 2011.


What do you think folks, would you watch it?