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» Varia Gate Review - Hard Candy

by Jules Brenner, last updated on Friday, April 6, 2007 22:32:14

This film comes in two parts: the "good" part and the "terrible" part, in that order. I'm talking about the quality of the screenplay. In the second part, the writer (Brian Nelson) loses it. But the first part, which I'll bet is the kernel of his idea, is worth the price of admission.

In the way that a superhero satisfies and thrills us with imposing justice upon criminals, this film will push the same buttons of satisfaction against evil predators in our midst, the murderous pedophile. It wants you to yell, "yeah, yeah!" when the cards are turned on the chat room lurker trolling for fresh meat to feed his sick and twisted needs.

We meet this character first through his words on a computer monitor as spunky 14-year old Hayley Stark (Canadian pistol, Ellen Page) engages him in chat on a typical site where contacts are made. The exchange between them is cute, clever, decidedly sensual and most obviously leading to an in-the-flesh meeting.

It takes place at Nighthawks, a coffee shop they both know. When they see each other for the first time they are each highly impressed by the other's appeal. She's slender and young, energetic and comely, exactly the kind of "hard candy" that entices internet lurkers. Geoff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) is studied and cool about the whole thing, a hip 32 year old photographer and magazine illustrator used to verbal sparring with beautiful hot-shot adolescents.

In fact, they're both smart and aware--she a little more than he ever imagined. The teasing is mostly hers and it comes with a mix of awkwardness and determined confidence, but is this part of a ploy to disarm him? Is this adventurous adolescent a true provocateur or a foolish and vulnerable little girl who has no clue what she's entering into?

The flirtatious banter leads to him driving her to his place with the expectation that she'll pose for him in his home studio. The drive is long and in a remote part of the hills, but qualms or doubts don't seem to part of her makeup, We, the audience, on the other hand, might be screaming at her choices.

He offers her a drink and she makes a little joke about never drinking anything you haven't made yourself. Ha, ha. He invites her into the kitchen to mix new drinks. They drink. And one of them keels over. It isn't her. Before he passes out she admits he's been doped.

When he awakes, the ropes that keep him efficiently bound to a chair tells him and us that a vigilante is at work, and that Hayley is an avenger, planning to ellicit a confession from her captive for the death of a woman who's been in the headlines. She works it for all she's got, down to informing him that her superior intelligence and the medical journal she borrowed from her father is going to guide her in an operation. On him. On a vital part of his body. Unless, of course, he cares to confess.

To this point and a little beyond, the reversal of roles is the stuff of shocking, captivating drama, not least because of Hayley's bright and beautiful presence, her whip-smart sass, and her audacious intent. We, in fact, wonder if this underage demon should ever have been let loose, but can't object too strongly about something we all wish we, or the criminal justice system, could do. The certitude of her purpose, after all, turns gamesmanship into crackling tension.

Kohlver is a properly horrified predator turned into the kind of helpless victim he might have turned his captor into. He brings rage, fear and desperation to a level he's never shown before (in "The Phantom Of the Opera" or as William Travis in "The Alamo").

This is essentially a two-character, one-act play with minor supporting roles. One of them, next-door neighbor Judy Tokuda, is played by Sandra Oh, affording some TV-Q to the marquee but little to the story. The screenplay seems clearly to be a film adaptation of an idea for the stage by playright Brian Nelson who, past the half-way point, just didn't know how to sustain the duel between his two characters for a second act. He tries for a twist ending that turns into feeble nonsense and amateurish trivia with more holes than my kitchen collander. Beyond repetitive and boring, the only fun left to us is picking the non-sequiturs, the illogic, and the meaningless strands of Nelson's concept apart.

But, what's good here is startling, blow-away material because of a smash performance by a formerly unseen actress who is going to set Hollywood back on its heels in the same way it did for the audience at Sundance, 2005. Ellen Page is a wonder, and not only because, as a 17 year-old (when she did this) she can play 14. This babe, a veteran of 17 mostly Canadian movie and TV credits, is a camera-caressing actor we're going to see lots more of! (She's Kitty Pride/Shadowcat in the upcoming "X-Men: The Last Stand.") You read it here.

Besides excellent cinematography by Jo Willems, the technical part of the production is another area of annoying, if not insulting, illogic particularly as it asks us to believe in the 14-year old character's mastery of knots. Not only can't this strong guy break her bonds, but she's even adept at a showy release hitch. Credit the grip or the propman with trucking or sailing experience.

For all its faults, the parts of the candy that is chewable in this psychological thriller is well worth seeing, that "good" part referred to above. The other part will break your teeth. And, I say again, Ellen Page is in the room!. Fans of new talent: beware and be ready.

Source: variagate.com

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