Sunday 25 October 2009

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (

Vampires are so hot right now. From Twilight to True Blood to countless cinematic variations on the blood-sucking theme, it seems not a week goes by without another soulful, sexy and oh-so-serious member of the undead appearing to glam up our screens. Even Oscar-winning writer Diablo “Juno” Cody is getting in on the act, with her forthcoming teen-horror Jennifer’s Body, starring the inescapable Megan Fox as a pointy-toothed temptress. And now here’s Cirque du Freak, from American Pie director Paul Weitz, adapted from yet another bestselling teen fiction series, adding yet another vampire to the pile.

But Crepsley, ringmaster of the titular Cirque, is markedly different to the aforementioned hot young things: firstly, he’s played by John C. Reilly, more famous for great character acting than chiselled abs, and secondly, he’s really quite funny. When he deadpans to Darren, the teenager at the centre of this story, that being a vampire is “deeply depressing”, there’s a definite sense of Twilight’s bubble of angst being gleefully burst. “Wanna become a vampire?” he continues, “it’s a lonely life, but there’s lots of it”. Reilly, looking like an undead Bob Dylan with his explosive hairstyle and rock-star wardrobe, has great fun with this character, and Cirque du Freak is very entertaining whenever he’s onscreen.

Unfortunately, as the title suggests, this story is not actually about Crepsley, but rather focuses on Darren, the lethargic teen who, through various interminable plot contrivances, becomes a half-vampire so he can be Crespley’s assistant. Darren is played by Chris Massoglia, who put me in mind of a teenage Zach Braff; he exudes none of Braff’s wit and all of his whiney irritability. This would be fine if Cirque du Freak placed Darren in an exciting adventure, but after initially setting up his transformation and introducing a host of interesting support characters, the film becomes very unclear about where it is going or why we should be interested.

Weitz, who did such a great job of transferring Nick Hornby's About A Boy to the screen, here fails to convey the overarching narrative of the Cirque du Freak books. An early brief appearance from Willem Dafoe as an old friend of Reilly’s allows for some suggestion of a great battle between two warring races of vampires, but it’s not clear what bearing this is supposed to have on the ensuing story, or where Darren fits in this bigger picture.

But despite not offering a clear storyline for an audience to hold on to, Weitz handles his cast well and packs in a lot of funny jokes, so Cirque du Freak just about gets by. As well as the excellent Reilly, Patrick Fugit is funny as the guitar-playing Snake Boy, and Salma Hayek is disturbingly attractive as a bearded lady. Weitz and his co-writer Brian Helgeland also deserve commendation for pushing the dialogue about as far into the realms of black comedy as is possible while still aiming primarily at a young audience.


Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is out now. This review first appeared on

Friday 16 October 2009

Radio Scotland Movie Café: Doctor Parnassus review

I was back on The Movie Café with Janice Forsyth this week to review Terry Gilliam's new one, and it was a great fun discussion. It's a movie that would be easy to talk for a good 20 minutes about, so we only managed to skim the surface in the brief time available, but it's still worth a listen!

Listen to the review here:
Review: The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus by paulcgallagher

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (

The prospect of watching a Terry Gilliam film is often more satisfying than actually sitting down to experience it. He has a singular imagination and is able to come up with breathtaking visual concepts, but his films often demonstrate his weakness when it comes to threading these ideas together to produce coherent and meaningful stories. This same weakness is evident in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Gilliam gleefully fills the screen with stunning and original images, but struggles to combine them in a way that makes sense.

While much of the attention around Imaginarium has focused on the fact of Heath Ledger’s untimely death halfway through production, the character he plays is not the central focus of the film. The story opens in contemporary London, where the titular Doctor (Christopher Plummer) is putting on a rather shambolic sideshow for the drunken post-clubbing crowd. Run by Parnassus and a handful of misfits, including his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and young dreamer Anton (Andrew Garfield), the travelling show appears to be little more than an eccentric diversion. That is until an inebriated volunteer accidentally steps through the mirror at the back of the stage, and it becomes clear that Parnassus has more powers than appearances suggest. “Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all immediately”, says Parnassus to a policeman who stops to see what the commotion is about, and he could well be talking to the cinema audience too.

The film trundles along, a bit like Parnassus’s rickety Imaginarium, continuously in danger of falling apart and lacking a clear destination, but curiously fascinating to watch. We discover that Parnassus hides a secret; Valentina’s life is indebted to the shady Mr Nick (Tom Waits), due to a wager Dr. P struck with this devilish figure in the past. But the reappearance of Mr Nick, keen to collect his due, is paralleled by the arrival of another mysterious stranger, Tony (Ledger, whose entrance is goulishly macabre). Gilliam brings each of these characters into the frame before ultimately, through various twists of plot, returning to the world (or worlds) behind the mirror.

Gilliam has always been a visual artist first and a storyteller second, and he conjures up some thrilling treats for the eyes here, not just in the Imaginarium sequences but also in the thousand-year-old Parnassus’s various flashbacks. But visual creativity alone does not a movie make, and often these striking and painstakingly realised images are fleetingly glimpsed and lack a narrative context to make them resonate.

So what then, of Heath Ledger’s final appearance on film? In the best performances of his short career, Ledger displayed an ability to effectively make himself disappear, so all we saw was the character. In Imaginarium this isn’t the case: we are always aware of Ledger playing a role, and his portrayal of Tony seems more like a series of sketches, as if he was still at the stage of trying out different approaches for a character that he was gradually bringing into focus. It’s a performance that is slight in comparison to his screen-burning Joker or his heart-wrenching Ennis Del Mar, but in a sense it fits well in the context of Gilliam’s film. The shifting nature of the character and the film’s fantastical tone mean it feels quite appropriate for Tony to take the form of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in the moments that he passes through the mirror. Those performances vary hugely in quality - Depp is great, Law is forgettable and Farrell disappears under the weight of the swiftly unravelling plot – but the mere fact of their presence in the film stands as a testament to Gilliam’s creative ingenuity in the face of a seemingly insurmountable setback.

It is the director’s ceaseless creativity that stands out in Imaginarium, and makes the film worth watching despite its narrative and logical flaws. The successful completion of this film may be just what Gilliam needed to spur himself on to better things; perhaps the Don Quixote film that has so long eluded him could yet become a reality.


This review originally appeared on

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Zombieland (

Arriving in cinemas this week with little fanfare and no guarantees of quality, Zombieland is a pleasant surprise indeed (that is, if your definition of pleasant allows room for multiple depictions of gruesomely splattered zombies. Mine does). Refreshingly brief at eighty minutes, perfectly cast and funnier than most of the comedies released this year, the only thing keeping Zombieland from classic status is its complete lack of a decent story. Thankfully it’s so consistently funny that it manages to hide its lack of narrative incredibly well.

Debuting director Ruben Fleischer’s first great choice is to begin the film right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. No build-up, no need to explain how the world got in this state, just one throwaway line referring to a mutated form of mad cow disease. The point is, as far as this film is concerned, how we got here doesn’t matter; this is where we are, so let’s enjoy it. And from Zombieland’s super-slo-mo zombie carnage credits sequence onwards, enjoyment is what is on offer here.

Fleischer has clearly taken a leaf from Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright’s big book of filmmaking, as much of Zombieland’s humour comes from speedy cutting combined with an eye for mundane details amidst the horror; elements that Wright used to perfection in his breakthrough hit. Having said this, Zombieland is its own film, thanks to the very funny and inventive script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. They may not be able to come up with more than two plot points between them, but they produce a load of great ideas within each scene.

For example, main character Columbus (Adventureland’s Jesse Eisenberg) tells us in voiceover that he has survived so far thanks to his strict adherence to a firm set of rules; these rules are then restated and adapted as the film progresses, and it’s a very effective and funny way to explore his character. The writers are also unafraid to let their characters take unexpected detours, allowing for a great sequence in which the four leads smash up an abandoned shop just because they can, and incorporating an extended cameo that is as hilarious as it is unpredictable.

Eisenberg is very good as the contented loner making the best of a bad situation, and he commendably holds his own opposite Woody Harrelson, on top form in his best role in years. His turn here as Tallahassee is essentially a dialled-down version of Natural Born Killers’ Mickey, but it’s undeniably what he does best and he is a joy to watch. On the girls’ side, Abigail Breslin plays convincingly against type as a no-nonsense teen, but it is Superbad’s Emma Stone who impresses most; she’s funny and sexy and she handles a gun with a confidence reminiscent of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. The movie world needs more action heroines - perhaps Stone could be a contender.

Towards the end, Zombieland’s weaknesses become more pronounced, and Fleischer’s inability to concoct a concluding set-piece worthy of what has come before is a little disappointing. Still, one of the key lines in the film exhorts us to “enjoy the little things”, and judged purely on enjoyment from moment-to-moment, Zombieland is a must-see.


Zombieland is out now. This review first appeared on

The Love Game

This new short film from writer/director Andrew Hunt (who I recently interviewed here) is confirmation of his growing talent as a filmmaker. Although the film was produced as part of a current competition run by Young Indies and Bloomingdale’s department store, Hunt has worked within these relatively tight confines to make a short that is funny and very inventive. Playing out half in live-action and half in cartoon animation, the film’s set-up is unique and simple: a guy and a girl are flirting while playing a board game (the ‘Love Game’ of the title), while at the same time their playing pieces – little animated guy and girl figures – are going through a romance of their own. It’s a premise that’s ideal for a short, as it is original enough to be immediately compelling, but short enough that we don’t have time to question the inherent silliness of it all.

It is an ambitious decision to tell two stories in live action and animation over such a short space of time, and the live action story is certainly the weaker of the two. But the real heart of the film is in the animated characters, particularly the by-the-book ‘Guy’ playing piece who, thanks to a great vocal delivery and some excellent animation, becomes the most real and entertaining character in the film. Hunt’s flair for visual wit is displayed in the details of the game and the hilarious expressions he gets from his cast, both human and animated. The Love Game can sit alongside Hunt’s previous, excellent short The Accidental Activist as further evidence that he is a filmmaker to expect great things from.

You can watch The Love Game and vote for it in Bloomingdale’s Young Indie competition here.