Movies

Darling Companion and The Moth Diaries

Tired blood

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Darling Companion is a movie that Woody Allen might have made if he had (a) no gift for narrative charm, (b) no knack for tangy banter, and (c) no sense of humor. The cast features a couple of actors who are closely identified with Allen's films, and the characters, like so many in the Woodman's oeuvre, are career white people of the well-to-do variety. But would Allen have assembled these folks at a vacation home in the sun-blighted, fresh-air-infested Rocky Mountains? I think not. And would he have sent them stumbling around in the local woodlands for long stretches of screen time? Again, unlikely. And then there's the dog.

The dog is the hub around which the movie's shaggy plot revolves. He has been rescued from roadside homelessness by suburban matron Beth Winter (Diane Keaton, giving the film's peppiest performance) and her daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss, of Mad Men). They name the mutt "Freeway" and take it home—where it receives a frosty reception from Beth's husband Joseph (Kevin Kline, an oddly wispy presence throughout). Joseph has been looking forward to an uncluttered life after Grace finds a man to marry and finally moves out of the house; a canine interloper is not part of his plan.

Soon we find ourselves wading into the rest of the cast. Joseph is a Denver medico who maintains a surgical practice with his nephew Bryan (blandly amiable Mark Duplass). Bryan is the son of Joseph's dithery sister Penny (Dianne Wiest), who has just found late-life love with a cheery demolition contractor named Russell (Richard Jenkins), who for his part dreams of opening a "real English pub" in his hometown of Omaha. Grace's wedding to a handsome veterinarian (Jay Ali) is the event that draws these characters together—along with the dog—at the Winters' mountain lodge in the leafy environs of Telluride. Here we also meet Joseph's groundskeeper, a young woman named Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), who is not only a Gypsy ("I am of the Romany people"), but a Gypsy psychic (an echo of the Julie Kavner character in Allen's Oedipus Wrecks, his chapter in the 1986 omnibus film New York Stories).

Now the plot—if we can attach that word to a story with no serious conflict among its uncomplicated characters—slips gently into gear. After Joseph loses the dog during a walk in the woods, the family splits up to mount a search. Joseph and Beth, whose marriage has grown stale, re-bond while traipsing through the forest. Russell, initially suspected by the family of hooking up with the wealthy Penny in order to finance his pub, is revealed to be a pretty nice guy. And Bryan naturally falls in love with Carmen, even though her dubious psychic abilities are proving useless in locating the lost mutt.

Only a dimwitted infant could be in any doubt about how this picture must end. Veteran filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, directing his first movie in nine years, from a script he wrote with his wife Meg, is clearly a dog-lover, but he appears to have no feeling for comedy. He should have given the dog some lines. 

The Moth Diaries

Mary Harron's The Moth Diaries is like the Twilight films without the glitter, and without the silly brooding vampire boys. Great. The story is set in a girls' boarding school, and there's a heavy air of Sapphic attraction—which, alas, might have been more fun if fun were what Harron had in mind. Since she has resisted providing any of the cheap horror thrills that might have invigorated this tale, the movie finally does end up resembling the Twilight series in one crucial aspect—it's not in any way scary.

Sarah Bolger plays Rebecca, a student still haunted by her father's suicide some years earlier. She and her friends spend their evenings in cuddly girl talk, much of it devoted to wondering what sex will be like if they ever find a guy to have it with. Rebecca's best friend is a classmate named Lucie (Sarah Gadon), from whom she's inseparable. Then a new student arrives at the school, a girl named Ernessa (Lily Cole). With her raven hair, chalk-white skin, crimson lips, and shivery stare, Ernessa suggests a runaway from an interplanetary roadshow version of The Addams Family, but only Rebecca finds her odd.

Coincidentally, the girls' lit teacher, Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman), has just launched them on an exploration of the gothic novel—starting with Bram Stoker's Dracula, then moving on, counter-chronologically, to Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, the lesbian-vampire classic. (The Rachel Klein novel on which this film is based is essentially a reworking of the Le Fanu story.) As Lucie begins falling under Ernessa's spell (we see them holding hands in assembly at one point), and various characters begin turning up dead, Rebecca starts drawing connections. But despite the fact that Ernessa never seems to eat, and walks around outside at night with bare feet, and is altogether witchy in every regard, the other girls remain oblivious. ("There has to be a rational explanation," one of them insists, with traditional genre idiocy.)

The movie shifts into heavily saturated colors for flashbacks to Rebecca's troubled past, and grows misty for scenes that might—might!—only be fantasies; there's also an ecstatic blood-shower scene that strongly recalls Carrie. But despite the fact that Lucie grows continually weaker and more haggard-looking the closer she becomes with Ernessa, there's never a vulgar flash of fangs; and a flurry of moths is really no match for a single late-night bat in terms of vampiric signifiers. In its determination to avoid genre clichés, the movie drains itself of simple pleasures. It wants to creep us out in a hipper way, but the result is a strangely bloodless exercise.   

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.