It's a Gemma weekend
British actress Gemma Arterton bulleted to fame as one of James Bond's cool women in "Quantum of Solace." (She wound up being painted to death.) Now, two new movies opening this weekend pay homage to the talented actress' versatility and appeal.
• In "Unfinished Song," Arterton goes plain jane in conservative sweaters, no makeup and school marm attitudes as Elizabeth, a rather dowdy volunteer music teacher for a group of British senior citizens, among them Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), suffering from terminal cancer.
The story centers on Marion's crusty, blunt husband Arthur (Terence Stamp), who has burned emotional bridges with his own son (Christopher Eccleston) and seems happy to drive everyone else away just for good measure. The cancer appears to give him reason for it.
Marion's death, early in Paul Andrew Williams' predictable, almost formulaic drama, propels poor Arthur into angry free fall, prompting the caring Elizabeth to reach out with gifts of compassion and music.
Williams wrote "Unfinished Song" based on watching his own grandfather care for his ailing grandmother. I would like to think the essence of that personal experience worked its way into his screenplay, which, on paper (or a computer screen), flirts with overt sentimentality nicely wrapped up in Spielbergian tidiness.
On the silver screen, however, Stamp, Redgrave and Arterton elevate this material to surprising sincerity, pumping new life into old clichés and selling sudden, unexpected twists (an upset Elizabeth shows up at Arthur's flat one night because she has no other friends?) with dramatic credibility.
Redgrave provides a galvanizing portrait of a woman determined to live her last days with dignity by doing the simple things she enjoys: talking with Arthur and singing, singing, singing.
Arterton supplies Elizabeth with a touch of naiveté that thankfully derails any thoughts of impropriety in her relationship with Arthur.
Stamp's Arthur becomes the core of "Unfinished Song." His risky performance takes no emotional prisoners as he dares us to hate an incorrigible old coot who can't see the good things before his own eyes. We can't do that, of course, because Stamp has planted a seed of redemption in this rude, unshaven fellow, and we want to see how it germinates.
This movie believes in the power of people's ability to change for the better, and also in the magical qualities of music to bring about such change, even if it does involve senior citizens rocking out to Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex" for a cheap laugh.
"Unfinished Song" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago. Rated PG-13 for sexual references. 93 minutes. ★ ★ ★
• In "Byzantium," Neil Jordan's dark and sexy ode to mother/daughter vampires, Arterton transforms into curvy, bouncy and quick-on-her-feet Clara, a 200-year-old fanged prostitute who has survived on the money and blood of johns lured into her lethal clutches.
Clara exists as a perpetual twentysomething, but her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), turned at 16, is forever a teenager as the two begin this movie on the run from what appears to be a vampire mob called The Brotherhood.
After escaping pursuing vampires, Clara takes shelter in an abandoned hotel, the Byzantium, owned by a john (Daniel Mays) who turns out to be a pathetically lonely man grieving for his dead mother.
Clara reopens the Byzantium as a brothel while Eleanor befriends Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a young boy stricken with leukemia.
Things go smoothly until Clara decides to be a bit too candid in writing about herself in a class, setting off alarms in authority figures who fear for her grip on reality.
Even with the attributes of Ronan's crystal blue eyes and Arterton's unleashed raw sexuality, "Byzantium" -- Jordan's first foray into vampire tales since 1994's impressive "Interview With the Vampire" -- proves to be tame, lame material based on screenwriter Moira Buffini's own stage play "A Vampire Story."
Buffini's Byzantine story structure drives a stake through this movie's heart. It's a discombobulated tale crammed with so many time-shifts and perspective changes that it's nearly impossible to follow.
Eleanor narrates the story as a first-person account, a mistake in that she recounts many scenes she could not possibly know about.
This results in confusing layers of narrative, such as Eleanor telling us a story about her mother telling her a story about a handsome soldier telling her a story about his friend telling him about a dream he had.
Or something close to that in a stylish vampire movie that confuses complication for complexity.
"Byzantium" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago. Rated R for violence, sexual situations, language. 118 minutes. ★ ★ ½
The neo-noir thriller "Redemption," a bold and impressive directorial debut of screenwriter Steven "Eastern Promises" Knight, requires a leap of faith for Jason Statham fans, for it represents a huge leap for the minimally verbal action star stuck in moronic box-office hits.
Statham plays Joey Jones, an ex-Special Forces soldier now living homeless on the bleak London streets. Realizing that his only skill is brutal violence, he hires out as muscle for a local Asian gangster and he's ruthlessly good at his job.
He wrestles with the immorality of his business but is powerless to escape it. He wants to be a good father to his daughter but can't. He wants to protect a street friend named Isabel (Victoria Bewick) from abuse, but he can't.
His life changes when he falls into a rich man's flat. The owner won't be back in London for several months. It's a godsend second chance for Joey. He takes the owners' home, his cash, his wardrobe (good thing the missing owner wears Joey's size) and sports car.
A reinvented man, Joey befriends a local nun, Sister Cristina (Agata Buzek), and she becomes a conduit for his financial generosity and his new ability to stand up for the defenseless, homeless Londonites.
"Redemption" (formerly titled "Hummingbird" and "Crazy Joe") represents an ardently Catholic, realistic interpretation of superhero mythology, about a damaged soul who tries to rise above the world's moral sewage to find something pure, but failing, strives to do what he can to adjust the moral scales.
It's a dark, tough and unyieldingly violent movie that disdains action movie clichés and gives Statham his most dramatically complex, challenging movie character so far, one executed with surprising compassion, even vulnerability.
When Sister Cristina wants to shoot a photo of Joey for his daughter, he has only one question: "Do I look like a good man?"
Because Joey wants the one good and pure person he knows to think he's the same, even though he knows he's not. Therein lies the tragedy.
"Redemption" opens at only one screen at South Barrington 30 Theaters. Rated R for strong violence, nudity and language. 100 minutes. ★ ★ ★ ½
• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!