Appellate Judge Dave Ryan turns advocate, and makes his best case as to why you should—or shouldn't—watch this ambitious but flawed psychological horror film.
Our review of Sublime (Blu-Ray), published May 15th, 2008, is also available.
"When what you fear becomes real."
Sublime is the debut film from agent-turned-producer-turned-director Tony Krantz, who is one of the executive producers of Fox's mega-hit 24. If one of the guys behind 24 is involved, it must be a non-stop thrill ride of action-packed horror and terror, right? Shockingly, no. Sublime is the polar opposite of 24. It's intellectual (thanks to screenwriter Erik Jendresen (Band of Brothers)) where 24 is mindless (but mindless in a good way…). While 24 is an adrenaline rush, Sublime is languidly paced—actually, too languidly paced. On the other hand, both works do have African-American authority figures involved…
Facts of the Case
George Grieves (Tom Cavanagh, Ed, How To Eat Fried Worms) has just turned 40 years old. He's got a loving wife, Jenny (Kathleen York, Crash, The West Wing), and two loving kids, Chloe (Shanna Collins) and Ned (Kyle Gallner, Veronica Mars). He's heading into the hospital for a routine colonoscopy, common for men his age.
When he awakens from the anesthesia, Tom realizes that things aren't right. There's been some kind of "mistake," and he "accidentally" received an endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy—a procedure mainly used to cure sweaty palms. Tom suspects he's been given an unnecessary procedure as part of an insurance fraud scheme, but things begin to appear much darker. A heavily bandaged roommate—who appears out of nowhere—warns him of dark things going on in the hospital's East Ward. His wife may be having an affair with his Iranian-born doctor (Cas Anvar, Shattered Glass). His daughter might be having a lesbian affair with a Suicide Girl-wannabe. The only person who seems to care about his predicament is a pretty and kind nurse, Zoe (Katherine Cunningham-Eves, Slingshot). And a mysterious black orderly, Mandingo (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs—Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs!!!!), might be drugging him into a stupor. Things look bad…but George's nightmares have only just begun.
Sublime is being marketed by Warner Bros., through its relatively new horror marque Raw Feed, as a horror film. But it's really not a horror film—it's an extended, detailed allegory, with some social commentary mixed in for good measure. It's a more intellectual film than the typical horror film—it's really trying to be the horror/suspense version of Memento. Ultimately, it fails in that goal, for two main reasons.
First, while the allegory is complex and deep, a lot of it is immediately obvious thanks to the film's flashbacks. That defeats the purpose of telling a story allegorically. It deprives the viewer of that "Oh my God! I get it!" moment when they finally put two and two together and figure out what the film/story is really about, giving them deeper insight into the issue/theme/whatever involved. I don't want to spoil the story by discussing the specific allegories and metaphors involved here in Sublime, but let me use concrete examples from past cinema. The Day the Earth Stood Still was an allegoric story—Klaatu and Gort weren't really alien, they were stand-ins for the "Red Menace" that was deemed to be the greatest threat to the U.S. in the early 50s. Good allegory. If Klaatu had been named "Joseph Stalin X-93" from the planet "Communipluto?" Bad allegory.
Sublime's annoying habit is to set up an interesting allegoric/metaphoric situation, then hammer us over the head with the allegory by giving the whole thing away (if you're paying attention) in a flashback. Frankly, I had figured out what was really going on fairly quickly (and I expect most people would have as well)—virtually spelling it out for me is just insulting my intelligence. The film out-clevers itself, which I found off-putting.
The other significant problem with Sublime is its pacing. The film is almost two hours long; it probably should have been closer to 90 minutes. It's not just certain parts of the film, either—it seems that almost every scene runs a bit too long, which adds up over the course of the film. I think this problem links to the overly-explained allegory problem, too—if the film had just cut out a lot of that unnecessary explanation, it would have been a peppier and better-paced film. As is, the film just seems to drag, especially in the middle act. Once you've figured out the "twist"—and the film does everything it can to practically tattoo the twist on your forehead well in advance—you just want the picture to get on with the damn thing. I sincerely doubt that "impatience" is the emotion that the filmmakers wished to instill in their audience.
But here's the rub: Sublime isn't trying to be good; it's trying desperately to be great. That effort really should count for something. Yes, the filmmakers made mistakes here; mistakes that arguably undermine the film's overall quality. But they tried. So many filmmakers seem to just not care anymore, and are content to poop out mindless, facile films that cater to the lowest common denominator. Sublime may not be perfect, but "mindless" and "facile" conclusively don't apply here. Sublime is absolutely worth watching, if you're into psychological horror(ish) films.
First, the cast is spot-on. Tom Cavanagh made his bones playing an everyman character on Ed; hence, he is now very good at it. As George's life begins to spiral out of control, he does an excellent job at keeping us anchored to, and caring about, his character. Cavanagh is a stealthy-good actor—if you sit back and think about the roles he plays, you realize that there is a lot to his roles, but his effortless and unobtrusive skill at executing them disguises how well he performs. Kathleen York—who also provides several of the film's songs (she was actually nominated for an Oscar for composing and performing the theme from Crash)—is seen mainly in flashback, which makes it challenging for her to really develop Jenny much. However, this is partly intentional, since all we're supposed to know of Jenny is George's view of her. Regardless, she's lovely and clearly talented. Two actors, though, really deserve to be singled out here.
First, remember this name: Katherine Cunningham-Eves. Someday you will tell your grandchildren about the first time you ever saw Katherine Cunningham-Eves. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating juuuust a little bit…but she really is someone to watch for in the future. Cunningham-Eves, who up until now has toiled in such obscure roles as "Daisy, Nymph #2" and "Servant," makes the nurse Zoe the most memorable character in the film. First, she is gorgeous. But hey, you can't shake a stick in Hollywood without hitting 20 gorgeous actress-wannabes—so what if she is gorgeous? Well, yes—attractiveness isn't a distinguishing characteristic for an actress these days. But Cunningham-Eves has something extra; that ineffable characteristic that turns "pretty" into "I can't take my eyes off this woman." Very few actresses have ever had that sort of effect on me. Isabella Rossellini comes to mind, as do Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, Naomi Watts, and Laura Harring. Yes, all five of those women have something significant in common: they've all been leading ladies for David Lynch. In fact—full disclosure here, lest I be accused of plagiarism—director Krantz actually describes Cunningham-Eves, in his commentary, as someone who would be "perfect as a David Lynch heroine." (To further drive the point home, she kind of looks like Mädchen Amick…)
Okay, she's hot—but can she act? Well, frankly, this single film isn't a big enough sample to determine her acting chops. However, there are a lot of positive signs in her performance as Zoe. The character is really supposed to be a blatant example of the male fantasy of the "naughty nurse," but one who is "good" enough to bring home to Mom. The film would have worked perfectly well if Zoe were mainly an empty shell for George to pour his fantasies into. She doesn't really have to have a character at all. Yet Cunningham-Eves truly humanizes Zoe; by the end of the film, I found myself more concerned with her well-being than with George's. It's not enough to declare her the next Natalie Portman or Keira Knightly (assuming they're not actually the same person)…but it's a damn good start. Keep an eye on her.
Next, a small plea to the film community at large: Please give more work to Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs! And not the "token black guy" crap he's gotten in the past 30 years! You remember LHJ, don't you? What, you don't? Here's a hint: "Hi there." Still not ringing a bell? Okay, here are the four words Hilton-Jacobs probably views as a combination blessing and curse: Freddy. Boom. Boom. Washington. Yes, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs is one of the original Sweathogs from Welcome Back, Kotter. Since then, though, he's had more of a Ron Palillo/Robert Heyges career path, when he arguably deserved a John Travolta-like career. When all is said and done, and we're all in the great Hereafter, I'm sure we'll all look back and realize that Hilton-Jacobs was, by far, the best pure actor on that show. This man was in Roots, for Pete's sake! Here in Sublime, Hilton-Jacobs is outstanding in a role that is very, very difficult to portray without slipping into farce or just plain ridiculousness. Krantz compares him to Samuel L. Jackson—I think the comparison is apt. Hilton-Jacobs is a huge and largely untapped talent, in much the same way Forrest Whitaker was before his Oscar win for The Last King of Scotland. Give him work! Let him earn an Oscar! He's paid his dues—give the man a chance to be great.
Getting back to the bad news—Sublime is somewhat disappointing in the technical department. It's a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, but I noticed a lot of grain in the image. It wasn't until I listened to the commentary track that I got an explanation why. Sublime was shot in Super-16, then matted into the 2.35:1 format. Taking what is already a lower-quality film stock and matting it into widescreen—which essentially means you're zooming in on the middle of the frame—is a recipe for visual disaster in the digital realm. Many films do exactly the same thing—Kevin Smith shot Chasing Amy in Super-16, for example—but it's unusual to see a Super-16 film matted into full widescreen without some sort of digital processing. It doesn't make the picture any better to understand this—but it does absolve Warner/Raw Feed of blame for it. It's not a disc issue; it's a film issue. The surround audio track is perfectly fine, but undistinguished.
There's a small set of extras included here, which is probably all we could expect given that this is a straight-to-video release. The commentary track with Krantz and Jendresen is informative and very engaging; the two point out a number of the more subtle metaphors that weren't hammered on in the film, which is appreciated. There are also two filmed interviews with them included as stand-alone extras. Also included is the complete version of a "surgical exorcism" seen in the film; George's son watches it over the web. (Writer Jendresen plays the globetrotting Dr. Falk, by the way.)
Have you ever been to a play done by non-professionals? If so, have you ever run across a production where the performers clearly have talent, but not quite enough talent to be considered "talented?" Doesn't it make you feel for those performers? You really want to say, "hey, that was terrific!," but you just can't quite say that honestly?
That's the feeling I get about Sublime. I truly want to whole-heartedly recommend this film, which dares to be bold and intellectual and different. But Sublime bites off a little more than it can chew, and it's got rather significant pacing problems. I just can't say that it's a great film—and it really does kill me to say that. Notwithstanding that, I still think Sublime is a good film that has an audience out there who will appreciate it despite its flaws. It's not a horror film for the masses—in fact, I'd say it's really not a horror film at all. Krantz and Jendresen have ambitiously attempted to create something beyond the crappy, stock horror films that pollute the multiplexes these days. I think they've ultimately failed to meet their expectations—but I applaud them for trying.
Released on its own recognizance due to good behavior.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Tony Krantz and Writer Erik Jendresen
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