Tuesday, February 7, 2012


(US - 2011)
These days, with the changing ways of theatrical distribution and the sheer number of movies being made, some films get unexpectedly spotty, limited releases or just get shelved for years before getting dumped on DVD/Blu-ray or VOD.  Having a bankable name no longer matters when it comes to getting a movie in theaters. Recently, we've seen it happen to the likes of Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, and Richard Gere, just to name a few. Not even Julia Roberts is immune to this phenomenon, as demonstrated in the long-shelved FIREFLIES IN THE GARDEN, shot way back in 2007 but unreleased in the US until it opened on five screens in October 2011.  It's not a bad movie and at times, it's a very good one.  Its problems lie more in the significant evidence of post-production re-editing and general indecisiveness:  it ran 120 minutes at the Berlin Film Fest in 2008 and in its initial theatrical releases throughout the rest of the world in 2008 and 2009.  The German theatrical cut ran 99 minutes.  It ran 98 minutes in its US theatrical cut, and now, on DVD, it's been whittled down to just 89 minutes. A 94-minute version also exists.  There's no extras on the DVD and no one involved seems too keen on talking about it, so now, losing just over 1/4 of its original running time and presented in no less than five different versions since the 2008 Berlin screening, FIREFLIES IN THE GARDEN has been discarded rather than released.  It's hard to tell what director Dennis Lee's intended version looked like, but it certainly can't be what's here on the DVD release.

I've defended Ryan Reynolds in the past, and continue to do so here.  FIREFLIES is probably his best work as an actor, but again, his performance is one of many things severely compromised in this mangled version.  Returning home to attend the college graduation of his stay-at-home mom (Roberts), Reynolds is immediately greeted with tragedy when she's killed in a car accident.  What follows is sort-of a pruned-down TREE OF LIFE (minus dinosaur interludes) as Reynolds remembers his often-traumatic childhood with the loving Roberts (seen mostly in these flashbacks) and his cruel, demanding college prof father (Willem Dafoe), and how it's shaped him as an adult.  For about an hour, this is a well-acted, compelling drama, but at some point, it's obvious that a chunk of story has been cut out because there's a woefully underdeveloped subplot involving Reynolds' young cousin and his guilt over the car accident (the speeding Dafoe swerved to avoid hitting him, and drove into a tree, and Roberts wasn't wearing her seat belt), and everyone's suddenly upset with Reynolds, blaming him for all the turmoil with still-abusive Dafoe.  There's no consistency in many of these later scenes.  Dafoe has a total meltdown at the dinner table, but everyone's pissed at Reynolds two scenes later.   This is a case where there's chunks and pieces of a really good film, but it's just been cut down to the bone as it plows through the story, leaving entire subplots in the dust, racing to an abrupt conclusion that rings completely false.  The characters at the end of this film have almost no connection to what they were in the preceding 80-odd minutes.  I guess that's an inherent risk when 25% of the film has been cut, seemingly at random.  A fine cast gets lost in the shuffle: Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hayden Panettiere, George Newbern, and Ioan Gruffudd.  (R, 89 mins).

(Spain/US - 2011)

Roland Joffe directing 2007's universally-reviled post-SAW torture-porn travesty CAPTIVITY was one of the more shocking career turns for an established director in recent memory.  But even before his mind-boggling decision to direct that film (imagine, say, Michael Cimino coming out of exile to make HOSTEL IV or something), Joffe's never quite been able to recapture the magic of his two most renowned films: THE KILLING FIELDS (1984) and THE MISSION (1986), though 1999's underseen noir GOODBYE LOVER is worth a look if you happen upon it while channel-surfing.  For his first film since the CAPTIVITY fiasco, Joffe is back on somewhat familiar turf with THERE BE DRAGONS, which looks great but is an otherwise turgid religious epic filled with Cliffs Notes storytelling, whitewashed history, and miscast actors with unconvincing accents.  Ostensibly a biopic of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva (played here by Charlie Cox), Joffe gets sidetracked with both a 1982 framing device involving fictional London-based Spanish journalist and aspiring Escriva biographer Torres (Dougray Scott) and his estranged, ailing father Manolo (Wes Bentley), who knew Josemaria when they were children and later became a Franco spy infiltrating rebel forces in 1930s Spanish Civil War.  Joffe has Josemaria being sympathetic to those against Franco, which doesn't really gel with most historical opinion that he, while not an outright fascist, was almost certainly a Franco sympathizer. 

No one in this film is properly cast, but the worst is Bentley, especially when he's in old-age makeup. Joffe even manages to embarrass the great Derek Jacobi, ill-used in a two-scene cameo as Josemaria's father's kindly boss, Honorio.  Derek Jacobi can do almost anything, except play a Spanish candy shop owner named Honorio, getting a deathbed visit from Josemaria, where Jacobi gasps, "Do you remember the chocolate bean?"  I don't even think Joffe knew what film he wanted to make: a reverent hagiography of Josemaria Escriva (who died in 1975 and was canonized in 2002) or an overbaked telenovela involving fictional characters who have little to do with the Escriva plot.  Also with Charles Dance, Olga Kurylenko, Jordi Molla, Ana Torrent, Golshifteh Farahani, and Geraldine Chaplin, THERE BE DRAGONS is all over the place and can't overcome so much crucial miscasting and lack of focus on Joffe's part.  It's a dull, endless, meandering misfire, and the wait for Roland Joffe's triumphant comeback stumbles into its 25th year.  (PG-13, 122 mins)

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