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Iben Hjejle

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Ghosts, Writers.

Much as the lousiness of Alice in Wonderland drove me right into Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest last month, I quickly tried to wash out the bad taste of Clash of the Titans this past Sunday with a showing of Conor MacPherson’s moody Irish ghost story The Eclipse. And I’ll give it this — It’s a right strange little movie.

I haven’t seen any of McPherson’s previous films, although my sis and I did catch his play The Seafarer on Broadway a few years ago, about an Irishman (David Morse), his blind older brother (Joe Norton), and their friends (Conleth Hill, Sean Mahon) visited by the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) one gloomy Christmas eve in Dublin. This film — broader and better executed than that rather larky evening of theater, although also somewhat aggravatingly open-ended — carries over some of the same cast (Hinds, Norton), as well as the supernatural goings-on in the Old Country.

And like Seafarer (and, from what I’ve heard of McPherson’s other works, like The Weir), it’s a bit of a strange genre mishmash — part horror flick, part adult romance, part relationship thriller. I can’t say the movie successfully coalesces into anything more than the sum of its parts, but it has the benefit of some likable actors — not only Hinds and Norton but also Iben Hjejle of High Fidelity and Aidan Quinn — and it makes for a decently compelling character piece and Gaelic travelogue for a few hours. Its pleasures may be mostly ephemeral, sure, but I’ve sat through worse ghost stories in my day.

As the film begins, the year is 2008, and in the scenic Irish seaport of Cobh, the locals are preparing for their yearly writing festival, where authors come by to hobnob, do readings, and discuss their latest works. Among the volunteers hosting this event is one Michael Farr (Hinds) a recent widower, shop teacher, and father of two who, late one night, seems to encounter a ghostly intruder in his house. The trick is, the person he thinks he saw — his father-in-law Malachy (Norton) — is still among the living, although he’s definitely withering on the vine in a nearby rest home. Can you see the ghost of someone who isn’t even dead yet?

Before Michael can wrap his mind around this quandary, events at the festival start to consume his attention. Namely, the visit by two authors who happen to share a brief, awkward history: The popular but exceedingly abrasive American writer Nicholas Holden (Quinn), and a lovely but distracted writer of ghost stories, Lena Morelle (Hjejle). Despite his continued grieving for his lost wife — or perhaps because of it, given their mutual interest in apparitions — Michael finds himself drawn to Lena, causing much consternation for Holden, who’s nursing the volatile combination of a giant-sized ego, a drinking problem, and a broken heart. But, quite frankly, angry writers are the least of Michael’s worries — Did I mention this widower has a ghost problem? And they are not going gently into the good night.

To its credit, The Eclipse gets a lot of little things right. The burgeoning romance between Lena and Michael seems natural and unaffected. McPherson subtly underlines the themes of ghosts, memory, and loss by emphasizing empty rooms, empty chairs, and the timelessness of life in Cobh. (The staff at the hotel hosting the festival dress in nineteenth century garb, helping to convey the sense that the spirits of centuries past still inhabit these climes.) And Hinds in particular is compelling throughout, even when the story he’s a part of is not altogether believable.

All that being said, The Eclipse has some problems with tone. It’s not just the sudden lurches from haunted house malevolence to 2nd-chance-at-love-type-stuff back over to unabashed Raimi-esque horror that throw everything off, although they don’t really help that much. (They do keep you on your toes, tho’.) The other issue is Nicholas, who’s written far too broadly compared to everyone else on hand. Michael and Lena seems like real, multi-faceted , and plausible adults, while Nicholas — the best efforts of Aidan Quinn notwithstanding — is basically just an one-dimensional ambassador from the planet Douche, and the movie loses a step whenever it tries to get us to take him seriously.

I also have some quibbles with the ending of the movie, in that the initial haunting aspect is sorta just dropped without explanation. (But, then again, how can you explain ghosts anyway? Maybe this was the best way to go about it.) Still, for all its bizarre shifts in tone, The Eclipse at least has the virtue of originality in its quiver. The Sixth Sense meets Terms of Endearment meets Something Wild in coastal Ireland? I can’t say I’ve ever seen that before.

The Oughts in Film: Part IV (25-11).

Hello again, and a happy New Year’s Eve to you and yours. Well, I thought this Best of the Decade would end up being four parts, but now it’s looking like five. The recaps for this last twenty-five got so long that MT seems to be consuming the bottom of the entry as I write.

So, with that in mind, here’s #’s 25-11 for the Oughts, with the top ten of the decade to follow in due course. If you’re new to this overview, be sure to check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 before moving on to the…

Top 100 Films of the Decade: Part IV: 25-11
[The Rest of the List: 100-76 | 75-51 | 50-26 | 25-11 | 10-1]

25. Donnie Darko (2001)

From the original review: “All in all, this is a marvelously genre-bending film with wonderful anchoring performances by the Gyllenhaals. I think I liked this movie much more for not knowing a lot about it going in, so I won’t mention the particulars here. But it’s definitely worth seeing. Extra points for the soundtrack, which with ‘Head over Heels,’ ‘Love will Tear Us Apart,’ and ‘Under the Milky Way’…reminded me more of my own high school experience than any other film I can remember. (The Dukakis era setting helped, since that was my own eighth grade year.)

I almost took this movie out of the top 25 on account of its association with Southland Tales and The Box, and even the director’s cut of this film, which snuffs out a lot of this movie’s weird magic by slathering it in needless Midichlorian-style exposition. As I said in my recent review of The Box, Donnie Darko seems to be a clear and undeniable case where studio intervention saved a movie.

Nevertheless, part Philip K. Dick, part John Hughes, Darko was a touching coming-of-age story (thanks in good part to Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s cranky but loving parents), a decently funny satire about the vagaries of small-town life (think Sparkle Motion, “sleep-golfing,” and the Love-Fear axis), and a trippy sci-fi/psychological thriller. (Was Donnie really talking to a demon-rabbit from the future, or was he just off his meds? The original version muddles this question a lot better than the Kelly cut.)

Whether or not Richard Kelly just got struck by lightning here, everyone else involved clearly brought their A-game to this production. Two Gyllenhaals got on the Hollywood board with this flick, although Maggie would have to wait for Secretary to really break out. The Michael Andrews score contributed mightily to the proceedings, as did the Gary Jules cover of “Mad World,” which got a lot of run in the Oughts, from Gears of War to American Idol. And there are plenty of quality performances in the margins, from the late Patrick Swayze riffing on his image, to Beth Grant typecasting herself for the decade, to Katharine Ross coming back for one more curtain call. Fluke or not, the original version of Donnie Darko was one strange and memorable bunny, alright.

24. High Fidelity (2000)

From the year-end list: “An excellent adaptation of a great book, even if I preferred the Elvis Costello britrock emphasis of Hornby’s tome to the indie Subpop scene of the movie.

Charlie, you f**king b**ch! Let’s work it out!” Arguably John Cusack’s finest hour (although 1999’s Being John Malkovich is right up there, and I know many might cite the Lloyd Dobler of old), Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity has continued to grow on me over the years. If it counts as one of David Denby’s slacker-striver romances (see the discussion of Knocked Up at #40), it’s definitely the one that hits closest to home for me.

The first thing people usually remember about this movie is all the Jack Black/Todd Louiso banter in the record store. (“It’s a Cosssssby sweater!“) And it’s true — All of that stuff is both really funny and all too telling about the elitism and obsessiveness inherent to the fanboy mentality — “Don’t tell anyone you don’t own ‘Blonde on Blonde’! It’s gonna be okay.” Besides, let’s face it, this entire end-of-the-decade list is really just an extended High Fidelity-style Top 5 (and I had a great time back in July organizing my history books chronologically, a la Rob’s record collection.)

Still, as with the book, High Fidelity‘s killer app is really the dispatches filed from Rob’s romantic life, as he ponders what went wrong with his Top 5 Crushes gone awry. (“We were frightened of being left alone for the rest of our lives. Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at the age of 26, and we were of that disposition.“) There’s a lot of truthiness throughout High Fidelity, from Rob’s catastrophic hang-up on Charlie (Catherine Zeta Jones) to his eff-the-world rebound with an equally besotted Sarah (Lili Taylor), to his single-minded infatuation about whether his ex, Laura (Iben Hjejle), has slept with the loathsome new boyfriend, Ian (fellow Tapehead Tim Robbins in a great cameo) yet.

In short, I’d argue High Fidelity gets the inner-male monologue closer to right than any flick this side of Annie Hall. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, it’s funny because it’s true.

23. In the Mood for Love (2000) / 2046 (2004)

From the original review: “Since I spent Friday evening watching In the Mood for Love — a tale of a romance-that-almost-was, told in furtive hallway glances — and 2046 — a broader and more diffuse disquisition on love and heartache — back-to-back, here’s an


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