Mar 092007
two reels

School Children start talking about the urban-legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman, who walks about wearing a surgical mask and carrying a blade.¬† That’s a bad idea, because she turns up and starts kidnapping kids; some she kills and others she cuts so that they have the same facial wound as she.¬† Kyoko Yamashita (Eriko Sato), a young teacher who has abused her own child, is present when a girl (who has been abused by her mother) is taken.¬† Kyoko teams up with fellow teacher Noboru Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Kato), who was abused as a child and now hears the Slit Mouth Woman’s voice, to find the missing children.

This is an odd little movie.¬† I can’t decide if the makers intended for it to be a comedy (a dark, dark comedy) or if it just turned out that way.¬† There’s plenty to laugh at one way or the other.¬† Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman is about child abuse, particularly from over bearing mothers (always a good topic for a comedy…).¬† The filmmakers have an axe to grind on that score, though it’s hard to pull a message from all the stabbing, besides “Japanese mothers suck.”¬† Perhaps that is the message.¬† Certainly after watching you’ll be glad you weren’t raised in Japan (assuming you weren’t).¬† Kids just keep getting whacked.¬† One mother after another belts her kids, then the title ghost kicks them, over and over.¬† It’s so far over the top, and so mindless, that I couldn’t help snickering.¬† This isn’t an in-depth examination into the plight of beaten children; it’s just the beatings.

Even stranger is the choice of the ghost.¬† The Slit-Mouthed Woman is a character from Japanese urban myth who may, or may not, come from an older ghost story.¬† In the modern variant, she walks the street wearing a surgical mask (common in Japan to stop the spread of disease).¬† She asks strangers if they think she’s pretty.¬† When they say yes (since what shows appears to be), she removes the mask, revealing her slashed face, and asks again.¬† If a person says yes a second time, he’s probably safe, but if he screams or runs, she stabs him to death.¬† If the victim is female, she may slice her, creating another Slit-Mouthed Woman.¬† In the 1970s, rumors spread that a Slit-Mouthed Woman was grabbing children (which doesn’t fit with her modus operand, but who am I to question superstition).¬† The ghost was supposedly created hundreds of years ago, when an insanely jealous samurai cut up his vain wife’s face while saying, “Now, no one will find you pretty.”

The movie keeps the ghost’s looks, and the surgical mask, as well as the focus on children from the ’70s, but drops the rest.¬† Her creation is very different (and highly improbable).¬† She still asks “Do you think I’m pretty” but the answer is irrelevant.¬† The question is as well since she never waits for a response.¬† Nor does she seem to care as nothing indicates this ghost is vain or is upset about her condition.¬† It’s as if the script was written for a generic female ghost, and then at the last minute the Slit-Mouthed Woman was tossed in.

The low budget shows everywhere, from so-so makeup and limited sets to acting that displays a lack of rehearsal, but none of that drags the movie down.¬† Instead, it increases the camp value.¬† A well-made film with a woman robotically kicking a child might have been unpleasant.¬† As is, it’s a hoot.

Back to Ghost Stories

Mar 032007
three reels

Three renegade scientists bring a cryogenic coffin containing a woman infected with a zombie-transforming virus onto a commercial jet liner.¬† Turbulence causes the refrigeration unit to breakdown and the woman is soon running about, turning the crew and passengers into flesh-eaters.¬† A mix-matched group, including a sexy stewardess, an air martial, a golf pro, a cop, a biologist (Erick Avari), and a conman (Kevin J. O’Connor), attempt to hold off the undead and keep the government from shooting down the plane.

Well, it was bound to happen.¬† There’s only so many buildings that hordes of zombies can besiege.¬† It was just a matter of time before the rotting-challenged moved on to public transportation.¬† I’m a little surprised that planes were first.¬† I’d have thought Bus of the Living Dead would have come before the plane.¬† Then there’s Cruise Ship of the Living Dead, Amtrak of the Living Dead, and of course, Taxi Cab of the Living Dead.¬† Funny thing is, you could make a pretty good film out of zombies on a cruise ship or a train.¬† And they’ve made a pretty good one out of “Zombies on a Plane.”¬† Not exceptionally good, but for a theme-less low budget affair, it’s not bad.

The title (changed from Dead Plane) brings to mind the blogger-hyped Snakes on a Plane: “I have had it with these muthafuckin’ zombies on this muthafuckin’ plane!” Both have unlikely critters chomping on a large number of unlikable and/or uninteresting travelers, and both take far too long to get to the meat of the movie.¬† For nearly half it’s running time, Flight of the Living Dead is a lethargic drama, drowsily introducing us to character after character, but never giving us enough development for the few that aren’t instant zombie-chowder.¬† It was clear to me that the scientist nearing a breakdown was going to be important.¬† Why else elaborate on his emotional state and family situation?¬† But he isn’t important, and vanishes early on.¬† Likewise, the twenty-somethings must be leads.¬† We learn all about their relationships, but they too turn out to be filler.¬† Youthful and attractive, they head off twice for the requisite nude mile-high-club scene, but we don’t even get that.¬† Why hint at a sex scene and not include it? ¬†Non-chewed-on skin is hard to find overall.¬† I’m used to more nudity in my zombie flicks, and more gore.¬† We’re in PG-13 territory here; don’t get fooled by the “unrated” label on the DVD.

Once the zombies get going and the humans get whittled down, the movie comes…well…alive.¬† All the running, falling, and dying I’ve come to expect from an adventure flick wrapped in horror-film clothing is here in abundance.¬† The last half hour is jam-packed with squishy goodness.¬† There’s blazing gunfire, screeching zombies, and innovative ways to destroy the undead, one involving an umbrella.¬† Kevin J. O’Connor even adds some real laughs (OK, every other joke sucks, but 50% isn’t bad for comedy).¬† He repeats his routines from The Mummy and Deep Rising; if it works why not give it another shot?

Flight of the Living Dead did strain my suspension of disbelief.¬† I was willing to accept zombies, but the labyrinthine duct system on the plane is a bit too much.¬† It isn’t so much a 747 as a huge habitrail for humans.

The average movie-goer with nothing against walking corpses will be passably entertained by Flight of the Living Dead.  Horror fans should find more of interest, and for zombie aficionados, buy it now.

Back to Zombies

 Reviews, Zombies Tagged with:
Oct 112006
three reels

Mattie (Kristen Bell) finds her boyfriend, Josh (Jonathan Tucker), hanging from a telephone cable.¬† Soon other friends and strangers are committing suicide or disappearing and ghostly images are popping up on the internet.¬† Teaming up with Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), who purchased Josh’s computer, Mattie tries to discover what is happening and if the code that Josh was working on can stop it.

The opaque Japanese apocalyptic ghost story was hardly an obvious choice for an Occidental remake.¬† 2001’s Pulse (also known as¬†Kairo) has all the clarity of an unfinished David Lynch film, but with Japanese sensibilities.¬† Perhaps someone thought it would be an exciting challenge to attempt to make an accessible version for American teens.

The filmmakers started well.¬† Kristen Bell (TV’s Veronica Mars) was ready for a starring film role.¬† She’s more compelling than anyone in the original.¬† Making some sense of the plot and tying up the loose ends left frayed in Pulse ’01 was also a good idea.¬† So much of that film lacked focus because there was no reason for things to be taking place.¬† Here, there are rules and we know them.¬† Sure, they violate science, logic, and the nature of thought, but at least everything fits together.¬† The ghosts are appearing now for a specific (and sci-fi reason).¬† Their actions cause people to die, and they have a mode of operation.¬† Even minor items, like the red tape so prevalent in the original, are explained.¬† Perhaps the biggest change is that the characters do something.¬† Mattie and Dexter are striving to find a way to stop the ghosts and save the world, instead of simply dwelling on the isolated nature of existence.

Pulse ’06 is also more of a horror movie with significantly more excitement.¬† Jump scares and chases are common, along with some actual tension.¬† Mattie does play detective, but as the film progresses, she spends most of her time trying to survive.

With all these intelligently chosen changes, this should be a great picture.¬† After all, I said Kairo “was straining to be great,” so fixing the problems should do the trick.¬† But it doesn’t.¬† Pulse may be slightly more fun, but it comes off as trivial.¬† There’s lip service paid to the alienation caused by modern technology, with multiple shots of people poking at their laptops and cell phones, but there’s no meat.¬† Outside of learning that it’s smarter to ask a girl to dance than to text her the same question, there’s not much to think about.¬† It’s lightweight, action, teen horror and the filmmakers weren’t aiming any higher than that.¬† Music video director Jim Sonzero is out of his league with the material (well, not once its all been brought down to that simpler, teen horror level; then he’s in the right place).¬† His style is a mixture of those music videos and any clich√© he could swipe from other simplistic, low-budget horror flicks.¬† The flashback pastiche of Mattie and Josh’s relationship is painful and many other moments that should be intense or moving end up flat.

We end up with is a fun little horror pic.¬† It’s empty entertainment, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Oct 092006
one reel

Peter (Brian Greer), an underachiever with no goals or future, takes a job at a local convenience store in order to help with his sickly parents’ substantial medical bills.¬† There he is befriended by Danny (Sarah Ingraham), an attractive young clerk about to be married.¬† Unbeknownst to both of them, Danny has been bitten by a vagabond vampire who still roams the local¬†streets.

Moonshine is the story of a drab, unappealing young man, who lives in a drab, unappealing small town, which is populated by drab, unappealing people.¬† It shouldn’t be a shock that this makes for a drab, unappealing film.¬† Yes, there is a vampire in it, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a horror film.¬† Or an action film.¬† Or even an interesting film.¬† Primarily, this is a movie about two people chatting in a rundown convenience store, and they don’t have much to say.

Exciting and innovated directing might have been able to partly offset the torpid screenplay, but the heavy hand of Roger Ingraham (who also co-wrote) only emphasizes the tedious story.¬† Every scene is too long and too slow.¬† The camera lingers on the unimportant and unimaginative.¬† If something has no relevance to the plot, it is certain to be lovingly and sluggishly presented.¬† It would be tiresome under any circumstances to watch Peter’s father get into bed, but Ingraham doesn’t know enough to yell cut (or edit out repetitious movements).¬† We are given every second.

In a speech at the Sundance film festival (which played Moonshine as one of its “Park City at Midnight” features), Ingraham attempted to explain the dreary nature of the picture by stating that it was about the boxes that we are stuck in, and about breaking free of them.¬† But no one in this movie comes to any great realization.¬† No one rises up and casts off the chains of mundane existence.¬† A few people do change their behavior, but only because they are compelled to by a disease (vampirism).¬† I suppose getting a bad case of meningitis (or accidentally getting a high dose of heroin) would pull you out of your typical life, but that’s hardly a deep philosophical statement.¬† Dropping the pretense at meaning, at least there are a few nice shots of the vampires at the end of the movie.¬† Too bad there weren’t a lot more of those, and a lot less of the routine.

Moonshine’s buzz around Sundance focused on the youth of the director (he’s twenty) and the film’s tiny budget ($9200, not counting substantial donations of time, equipment, sets, etc.).¬† Well, there’s no question that Ingraham is young, and that he demonstrated an impressive grasp of financial management, but that doesn’t make the picture worth watching.¬† His inexperience might explain his poor use of color and lighting, excessively long cuts, uninspired camera movements, and the spiritless acting of his star, but not excuse it.¬† Boring is boring, no matter what it costs.

 Reviews, Vampires Tagged with:
Oct 082006
one reel

Hot, bikini-clad, marine archeologist Nicole (Victoria Pratt) and her team of hot babe Jenny (Kristi Angus) and traitorous Michael (Cory Monteith) search for an ancient Greek Opal.¬† She’s apposed by Greek gangster¬†Maxwell Odemus (Jack Scalia) and a giant squid.¬† Luckily, she’s joined by a squid-hunter with a score to settle¬† (Charlie O’Connell).

I hate it when CGI squids attack.¬† I really hate it when they don’t immediately kill the incredibly stupid people who insist on jumping in the water wherever it might be.¬† And Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep has some of the stupidest people you’ll see in any film.

You know you’re in for quality as soon as the “A Sci-Fi Channel Production” credit pops on the screen.¬† Low, low quality.¬† Why can’t these folks make a watchable film?¬† I’m sure someone working for the station has read some good science fiction once or twice.¬† It shouldn’t be that hard to find a story that doesn’t suck.

No Luck here.

Let’s simplify this review by looking at a representative scene.¬† Nicole knows that Max and company are killers and armed with guns and explosives.¬† She also knows that Max will do anything to stop anyone else from beating him to the opal.¬† Finally, she knows that a giant, killer-squid is waiting for anyone who goes swimming.¬† So, when she sees Max’s boat (filled with killers) anchored near to where she knows the opal to be, what does she do?¬† She anchors her boat in plain sight, not more than a few hundred yards from his, then goes scuba diving.¬† Her two remaining crewman go below deck, and completely ignore anything Max and his men are doing.¬† Do you think Max might come to the boat ready to kill?¬† Do you think maybe that squid might grab some divers?

This is a horror/action film, not a fast paced comedy.¬† Maybe as the latter it could have worked.¬† Probably not, but it would have been easier to excuse ludicrous characters.¬† In this form, we’re suppose to take these people seriously.¬† It can’t be done.

Victoria Pratt is quite attractive in her bikini, but no one is sexy enough to make watching Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep worth your time.  If you want to drool over her, rent some episodes of Cleopatra 2525; your brain cells will thank you.

 Giant Monsters, Reviews Tagged with:
Oct 082006
four reels

Gang-Du is a lazy, dim-wit that works, occasionally, at his father’s riverside snack bar.¬† His younger brother is an angry alcoholic and his sister is a weak-willed archery champion.¬† The one success of the family is Gang-Du’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Hyun-Seo.¬† On a day like any other, a giant mutated fish-salamander rises out of the river, killing and mutilating as it runs through trailers and over anyone who can’t get out of its way.¬† Its last act is to grab Hyun-Seo before it submerges.¬† Crushed by the girl’s death, the family’s misfortune continues when the U.S. military announces that the monster must have been carrying a plague, and they are quarantined.¬† But that night, Gang-Du receives a phone call from Hyun-Seo.¬† She is still alive, trapped by the beast in a sewer.¬† Now the four must escape from the hospital, evade both American and Korean officials, kill the creature, and rescue Hyun-Seo.

An hour after seeing the Korean monster movie,¬†The Host (Gwoemul), I was driving down the interstate trying to figure out what I thought of it, and that’s when it occurred to me that this is one of the few films that involves a gigantic creature stomping on fleeing citizens that is worth thinking about for an hour.¬† Partly, that is due to its multiple layers, but mainly it’s due to the twisting nature of its story and tone.¬† Things happen that I, and the rest of the audience, was sure was not going to happen.¬† A character died, that I knew was not going to die, and that death bothers me.¬† Which also means that I care enough about that character, now three hours later, to be effected.¬† Hey, now that’s movie-making.

Seven months after The Host broke attendance records in Korea, it has finally made it to the U.S.¬† You can already buy it on import DVD, but this is a film that you’ll want to see in the theater. The creature is a stunning CGI creation.¬† Original, yet based in reality, it swings by its tale and gobbles victims with gusto.¬† Its first appearance will go down with Kong’s as one of the greatest over-sized monster introductions.¬† If you’re a fan of action-oriented monster flicks, you’ll be pleased.

There are plenty of gags as well, but this isn’t just a light-hearted monster romp. It is a heavy character drama.¬† The near slapstick introduction of the family members didn’t give me much hope that these would be anything more than one-dimensional jokes, but with some first-rate acting turns and a few surprises, they, almost subversively, became something more: not quite real people, but sympathetic reflections of ones you’d like to know.

However, a special effects extravaganza with human drama wasn’t enough for director and co-writer Joon-ho Bong.¬† He had his sights set higher.¬† The best films have important themes, and the finest monster movies take advantage of the audience’s assumption that it’s all fun and games to stab home their meaning. ¬†Gojira/Godzilla and Jurassic Park were about a lot more than big lizards, and so is The Host.¬† Its target is politics and its statement is clear: The United States has grown so arrogant that it is a danger around the world and in Korea, and the South Korean government is weak and subservient; its fear of big beasts (and I’m not talking about the mutation) has made it impotent, unable to help its people.¬† There’re references to SARS, 9/11, and the irrational reactions to both, as well as commentary on Iraq.¬† If you somehow manage to miss the substantial swings at the Korean government and think it’s all America-bashing, then it might be good to know that the jabs don’t sway much from fact.¬† In a prolog, we’re shown that the monster was created because an American officer orders his Korean assistant to pour toxic chemicals into the water supply.¬† A fiction aimed at an innocent U.S.?¬† Nope.¬† It’s based on an actual case. When the Korean courts attempted to prosecute the offender, the U.S. government refused to hand over the man, ignoring Korean law.¬† The message gives this monster teeth.

While the shifts from lightness and froth to serious melodrama kept me both engaged and off guard, the alternating temperament of the picture became problematic when things turn tragic.¬† The emotional rollercoaster is derailed by too broad a change, as if The Three Stooges suddenly began performing Hamlet.¬† With fewer over-the-top antics, and a tighter focus on the darkness of the tale, The Host could have joined Gojira and King Kong as great films.¬† With less pain and more humor, it could have been one of the most entertaining popcorn films of the decade.¬† As is, it’s unsettling, but well worth a visit to the metroplex.

Oct 062006
three reels

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), born in the slums of 18th century France, has a super-human ability to detect and distinguish scents. His accidental killing of a maiden leads him on a quest to preserve all smells. After studying with an out-of-vogue perfume maker (Dustin Hoffman), Grenouille attempts to make the perfect perfume from the essences of thirteen young girls. With the body count rising, Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman) believes that his extraordinarily beautiful daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) must be the final victim of the unseen madman. He is correct.

A marketing executive’s nightmare, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a character study of an obsessed sociopath, a brooding drama, a satire on politics and religion, a dark comedy, a beautiful fantasy, and a slasher wrapped with an art house ribbon.¬†How do you sell that?¬† The ad campaign has focused on the horror aspect, which will leave a lot of gore-hounds feeling cheated.¬†The murders are mostly off-screen and bloodless, and don’t take over the plot until nearly two hours have passed.¬†But it wouldn’t help to play up the fantasy, which is almost completely confined to the climax, or the comedy, which comes and goes.¬†Poor ad agencies. This isn’t going to play in Peoria.

Whatever audience does make it in the doors is going to see a beautiful, though gritty movie, that will instigate water cooler discussions whenever two viewers meet, provided they meet by a water cooler.¬†As for the beauty: sometimes, beauty includes maggots, filth, and naked corpses. Director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) films what was claimed to be unfilmable, Patrick S√ľskind’s bestselling novel, having little trouble bringing the stench of Paris to the audio/visual medium. Through faded smoke wisps, focused beams of light, close-ups of nostrils, and an over abundance of things you’d never want to inhale, Tykwer creates an olfactory flick, minus the scratch-and-sniff cards.

The first two-thirds of the film is an examination of a killer, broken into two major sections, his formative years and his time at the perfumery.¬†We see Grenouille’s birth (that’s not a turn of phrase; we see him drop from his mother as she pauses from her work at an outdoor fish market), and follow him through his childhood and years in the tannery.¬†This is the most brutal portion of the film, though lightened by the semi-comic deaths of everyone Grenouille touches.¬†If you can’t find death funny, this film isn’t for you.¬†It’s easy to sympathize with him during this segment.¬†The world is horrible, as are the people in it.¬†He is only odd. It makes his first murder easy to excuse, although I would have preferred him to be even stranger, to make it clear that he has no understanding of society’s morals.¬†John Hurt (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Frankenstein Unbound) narrates as if this is an epic religious work, or possibly Lemony Snicket.¬†It is effective in characterizing Grenouille, but it also feels like a cheat.¬†It’s easy to adapt a book for the screen if you are just going to read it.¬†But Hurt is silenced after twenty minutes, and is only heard briefly on two latter occasions.

Grenouille learns the secrets of the perfumer’s arts from Dustin Hoffman, who thinks he’s in a French farce while everyone else is certain he’s in Hamlet.¬† It is the only case of miss-casting.¬† The switch in perspective (we’re now seeing things through the perfumer’s eyes) makes Grenouille a harder character to cuddle up next to.¬† That isn’t necessarily a problem, as most people prefer not to cheer on murderers, but it is a jolt in storytelling.

After some introspective time in the mountains, Grenouille enters the city of Grasse, and the movie the trailers promise begins.¬† The pace increases three times over, and the character study is dropped in favor of action, horror, twisted comedy, and social commentary.¬† We’re introduced to the first sympathetic characters, which makes Grenouille finally appear as an unequivocal villain.

The movie changes gears once more, with a climax that only those who have read the book will expect.  It is this ending that will spark those water cooler debates, and gives the movie a much deeper core.

Yes, it is all good, and none of it fits together.¬† What’s here is four or five movies, a few of them excellent, and the others worthwhile.¬† But it doesn’t pull into a whole.¬† I suspect viewers will either like the portrait of a serial killer stuff, and wonder why the story went out of kilter at the end, or enjoy the magical-realism segment, and shake their head at the over-long character development.¬† I belong to the second camp.¬† Without a down-to-earth wrap-up of the case study material, Grenouille isn’t an interesting enough killer, nor are we given enough access to his feelings, to warrant so much time with so little plot.¬† But the last twenty minutes will stick with you, for good or ill, for a long time, and I’d have liked to get to it sooner, or at least have everything that came before it be relevant.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer will get under your skin, the way art is supposed to.¬† The sets, locations, and music are flawless and several actors, including Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, and Rachel Hurd-Wood should have their names mentioned when awards’ time rolls around.¬† But it is also unsatisfying.¬† It should have been great, but settles for fascinating.

 Miscellaneous, Reviews Tagged with:
Oct 062006
two reels

Biopic of Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit. Miss Potter (Renée Zellweger), an upper-class, thirty-two-year-old spinster, bucks social norms by rejecting unappealing suitors, instead working on her stories and watercolor art of anthropomorphized animals. Although London publishers are uninterested in her book, it is accepted by the Warne brothers, who assign it to their younger brother, Norman (Ewan McGregor), believing that its failure will dissuade him from further work.  Instead, Beatrix and Norman make the book a great success, and fall in love, much to the chagrin of her parents, who don’t want a tradesman in the family.

I can’t deny that Miss Potter is exceedingly well made.¬†Besides Zellweger’s penchant for scrunching up her face, making her look as if her digestion has been “a little off” for a week or two, I can’t find a flaw with it.¬† Neither did I enjoy it. It wasn’t made for me. Not a single moment was intended to make me smile.¬†The proper audience will be mesmerized, but I won’t be a part of that crowd.

Don’t think for a moment that I’m giving up my claim of being the objective judge of what is good in cinema.¬†Oh no. My taste is still the standard, and the world would be a much better place if everyone shared it. But I am a realist, and understand that there are people out there without my refined appetites. While I glanced repeatedly at my metaphoric watch and shook my head as this semi-pastoral, melodramatic, comedy-romance unfurled, those people will be enchanted.

Who are those people?¬† Well, I can only specify a few essential qualities of its members, but that should be enough for you to determine if you belong. These people will be utterly lacking in “Y” chromosomes.¬†They will be at least entering puberty, and probably be a good deal older.¬†They will be strangers to cynicism, or at least be able to shut down the darker aspects of their brains.¬†And finally, they must be able to pronounce phrases like “Oh, how cute,” and “That is just adorable” with utter sincerity.¬†For them,¬†Miss Potter is four star (or should I say four bunny) entertainment.

I respect the skills on display. I’m not simply referring to the directing prowess of Chris Noonan, who hasn’t taken the chair since the justly acclaimed Babe, nor the impeccable cinematography of Andrew Dunn and Chris Seager.¬† Nope, it is the brilliance with which the film manipulates the emotions of the viewer that I bow to. On cue, the audience (that properly chosen audience) will cry, laugh, smile, feel empowered, and clearly enunciate “Oh, how darling.”

The story is pretty standard stuff for a biopic, and relatively true.¬†The focus is on Beatrix Potter’s romance (this is proper Victorian society, so don’t expect anything steamy), her artistry, and on her path toward independence.¬†Her scientific accomplishments are ignored, but then it is hard to build up much emotion about pictures of fungi, no matter how well painted.¬†The one deviation from the norm is the occasional animation of the watercolor animals.¬†It is a clever device to reveal Miss Potter’s imagination, and will certainly produce some of those “how cute” reactions.

Zellweger hides her “American stick insect” figure and obvious assets to dive into her not-too-sexy character.¬†Ewan McGregor is less successful at disguising his natural charm, even under a bushy mustache, but that’s no detriment to the movie, and I suspect the producers intended it that way.¬†Those People (defined above) will be happier with McGregor looking cute as a button, and the makers of this flick know it.¬†Zellweger and McGregor have lost none of the chemistry from their previous pairing, Down With Love.

Might I suggest you get together with ten couples or so, and send half the people off to Miss Potter while the other half stays home to watch Die Hard on DVD.¬†That should please everyone.¬†You’ll have to work out who belongs in each half.

 Miscellaneous, Reviews Tagged with:
Oct 062006
three reels

Confused, single mother Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) reports that she has been carjacked by a black man, and that her four-year-old son was in the back seat.¬†Police lockdown an all-black housing development and officers from the nearby, mainly-white, town, including Brenda’s aggressive brother (Ron Eldard), over-zealously push the residents for information on the child.¬†Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) sees that something isn’t right with the case, and tries to find the child, uncover the truth, and reign in both the oppressive white establishment and the angry black mob.¬†With time running out, he turns to Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), the head of a group of mothers that search for missing children.

Freedomland is a difficult movie to give a simple numeric rating. It has an important message and view, reminding us of something that should be on our minds at all times, but is says nothing new, and is depressing and unpleasant to watch. It engages the heart but not the mind. The acting is four star, and the score is stirring, but the cinematography and editing are weak.  So, where does that put it?

For me, that puts it at 3s, which in this case translates to: See it…once.

Director Joe Roth (who also took the chair for the ill-conceived and executed Christmas With the Kranks) has too much of a fast-cut, MTV sensibility for a serious drama. Luckily much of the film is simple dialog between two people, so he is forced to abandon his frenetic style. However, in the few cases when he can jiggle the camera and dice a scene, he leaps on it. He has also fallen victim to the idea that a grainy pictures lends stature and tension. What it lends is a desire to clean the lens and hire new folks for lighting and color correction. The film looks like it was shot on 16mm.

While Roth is clueless on what to do with Richard Price’s story of racial tension (which Price adapted from his novel), Jackson and Moore have no such problem.¬†Both put in Oscar-worthy performances. Moore’s is the more showy as a lower-class, ignorant, ex drug addict (probably ex) who is caught somewhere between mental collapse and psychosis.¬†This is one of those roles that will cause people to discuss at the water cooler (are there still water coolers out there in corporate America?) how she was willing to toss off her normal glam appearance.¬†It’s not as extreme as Charlize Theron’s transformation in Monster, but this is not the sensual Moore that you’ve seen before.¬†The quality of Moore’s performance ironically leads to another failing of the film. Several of her speeches go on way too long, repeating what we already know, and passing the point of maximum emotional impact to slide into dullness.¬†I can see Roth and company standing in the editing room, saying “Well, we can’t cut that; she’s so good.” A more skilled director and editor would have known that they could.

Carrying the film is the always outstanding Jackson, who gives depth to his noble, but flawed cop.¬† For the movie to work, there has to be someone the viewer can cling to, and just about everyone else displays how rotten humans can be.¬†It isn’t the scripted character of Lorenzo Council who is worth the time, but what Jackson, with a look here, and minor tone change there, makes of him.¬†Jackson is one of our finest living actors, and he continues to prove that in Freedomland.

Edie Falco is also impressive as Karen Collucci, the only other person I didn’t want to poke with a sharp stick. Collucci is a woman damaged by the loss of her own child, who turned that tragedy into a mission.¬†She is the only one, including Council, who can approach the situation without prejudice, and her “interrogation” or Brenda Martin is meticulously staged and profoundly sad.

What Jackson, Moore, and Falco create are real people in a real and horrible situation, and that is both the virtue and flaw of the picture.¬†This isn’t a fantasy, but a minor bit of “what if” in our world.¬†There are no huge moments of relief, no exciting chases, no simple answers, and no tying up of all the loose ends, because that’s not how the real world works.¬†The mystery isn’t all that mysterious (most actual crimes aren’t convoluted affairs like in James Bond flicks).¬†Great sins turn out to be stupid mistakes, and there aren’t distinct lines between the good guys and the bad guys.¬† People live sad lives and are treated unfairly for no good reason.¬†The question is: does any of this make good entertainment?¬† Well, not really. There’s a lot here to admire, and everyone who doesn’t live it needs the refresher on American race relations that Freedomland offers, but it’s hard to come away from a viewing with anything other than despair.

Oct 062006
four reels

In the aftermath of the vampire-lycan war, undead warrior Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and half-breed werewolf Michael (Scott Speedman) are on the run from the newly-risen and mutated vampire Marcus (Tony Curran).¬† To save themselves, and possibly the world, the two must dig into the forbidden history of the vampires and werewolves, as well as find a mysterious man (Derek Jacobi) who has been “cleaning up” after both factions for years.

Sequels seldom go right; either they copy the first film, or completely forget about what made the original worthy of a sequel.  Underworld: Evolution is the rarity.  It keeps the slam-bam action, sensuality, and beauty of Underworld, and adds in a new and compelling story.  This is how a sequel ought to work.

Once again, we are tossed into the complex and unexplained world of sexy, vinyl-clad, vampire fashion models and hulking, savage werewolves, and it’s a pretty cool place to be.¬† These are pretty, pretty people (add in another “pretty” or two) who dress well and ooze grace.¬† There’s a bit less posing this time around, as everyone is too busy running or fighting for their lives, but even while leaping over dead bodies, the corseted Beckinsale looks like she could be on a gothic catwalk.¬† Speedman can’t compete in the wardrobe department, but as he loses his shirt for half the film, I’m sure his fans won’t feel deprived.

Director Len Wiseman (who happens to be Mr. Kate Beckinsale) makes it clear with a blue-washed pallet and stylized combat, that this isn’t our world.¬† It is a grander, scarier, fairytale land.¬† No one mumbles about their day.¬† When they speak, it is in clipped, bold, heroic tones.¬† But in this fantasy place, romance and emotion are best expressed with an intense gaze followed by a killing spree.¬† Why say “I love you” to that special someone when you can show it by ripping the heart out of your lover’s adversary?

I’ve been listing the merits of Wiseman’s vision (and of screenwriter Danny McBride’s), but that is hardly helpful.¬† If you’ve seen Underworld, you already know all about it.¬† If you liked it there, you’ll like it here (and vice versa).¬† And if you haven’t seen Underworld, go buy it‚ÄĒit is well worth the price.¬† Sure, Evolution spends a few minutes attempting to get viewers up-to-speed, but it is both insufficient for the uninitiated and unnecessary for everyone else.

For those of you who liked the first film, you’ll be happy with this one.¬† The pace is again lightning-fast, the effects improved (and they weren’t exactly lacking in the first outing), and the world has expanded (though don’t think you’ll get too many answers; there is still no explanation of why the Corvinus family became immortal long ago).¬† Almost every character’s motivation is hard to fathom (why did Marcus wait eight hundred years to act?), but such problems are lost in a blaze of machinegun fire.¬† Those gunshots have moved from Underworld’s urban setting to rural roads, frozen forests, ancient monasteries, and ruined castles, and they all look as sharp as the city did.¬† There are new mysteries, new powers, and new ways to slice bodies into tiny pieces.¬† The climactic battles had the preview audience cheering and shouting.¬† (I sat quietly, but only because I’m not the cheering sort.)

Underworld: Evolution is primarily an action flick, but an elegant one that avoids gritty, cops-and-killers clich√©s.¬† It has plenty to please gore-hounds, but nothing that’s too intense to interfere with the fun atmosphere.

Kate Beckinsale also starred in the action-horror romp, Van Helsing (2004) and the ghost story Haunted (1995).  She had supporting roles in the Shakespearian features Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Prince of Jutland (1994).

Oct 052006
four reels

Rose (Radha Mitchell) takes her daughter, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), to the ghost town of Silent Hill in hopes of explaining and overcoming the girl’s nightmares and dangerous sleepwalking.¬† However, the daughter disappears after an accident on the outskirts of town, and Rose must search for her, aided by a motorcycle officer (Laurie Holden).¬† Silent Hill, where it is always raining ash, is far from empty, with demonic creatures attacking from all sides, the buildings themselves changing and moving, and a cult of witch hunters held up in the old church.¬† Worse still, there’s no way to leave.

The videogame-based movie Silent Hill promised to satisfy fans of the game and those new to the franchise with a frightening, twisted tale, and shocking images.¬† What is really shocking is that it succeeded.¬† This is one bizarre movie, that satisfies on almost (almost, we’ll get to that later) every level.

It kicks into high gear immediately, giving just enough plot and character background to explain why a mother and daughter are traveling cross country and then: bam, we’re into Silent Hill and the horror begins.¬† For the next half-hour, this is the best haunted house you’ll ever walk through.¬† Nothing is explained.¬† Nothing is set up.¬† But a lot happens.¬† Creepy monsters of all sorts (and some horrendous victims, such as the man tied up with barbed wire) pop up, and our heroine does the only thing she can‚ÄĒrun.¬† Does it feel like a video game?¬† In structure, yes.¬† But you won’t get that “I’m looking over someone’s shoulder as he plays” feeling.¬† It pulls you in and you’ll be there with Rose, and you won’t want to be.

Things slow down after that, but only to the extent that you get to breathe, and small plot elements show themselves here and there.¬† But plot is secondary.¬† This is an experience, and on that level, it’s a great one.¬† There’s a few things to think about when it is all done, but this isn’t an intellectual film.¬† It’s all for the back-brain.

I was surprised at how good every frame looks.¬† I’ve grown to expect little from video game films, but this one is beautiful.¬† The city, with its non-stop rain of white ash, is a Norman Rockwell masterpiece with a severe disease.¬† The effects are more than realistic; they are a joy to watch (provided you take joy in the deeply odd).¬† And the camera sweeps you into the action.¬† I’ve seen many renditions of Hell onscreen.¬† This is the first that made be nod and think “yes, that’s what it would be like.”¬† I can’t imagine anything worse.

Radha Mitchell carries the film effortlessly.¬† She is given quite a challenge, as we’re thrown into the middle of the action before we’re given a chance to know Rose, but you’ll find yourself cheering for her long before the end.¬† Jodell Ferland manages the two essentials of a child in a horror film: she’s adorable and eerie.¬† And the lovely Alice Krige (Ghost Story, Sleepwalkers), who has made it her cinematic mission to out-weird Christopher Walken, creates yet another memorable whack-job.¬† There was palpable hatred in the theater whenever she appeared.

Silent Hill only stumbles twice, but they are “trip over the couch and catch your leg on the priceless vase as your head slams into the only uncarpeted section of floor”-type stumbles.¬† The first involves the outside world segments.¬† There shouldn’t be any.¬† The word on the internet is that a studio executive sent the script back noting there were no men in it, so, Sean Bean’s character of the husband was tacked on.¬† And tacked on is the proper expression.¬† If this is true, that executive needs to be out on his ear.¬† Once Rose reaches the town of Silent Hill, there is no reason to leave it till the end.¬† We gain no new information and no insight.¬† The only thing it accomplishes is breaking the tension, and that isn’t a good thing.¬† And several of the events in the nearby town are never properly explained.¬† As all of the husband-and-local-cops material is disconnected from the heart of the film, even now they could be chopped out with zero changes to the rest of the movie.

The second problem is the explanation of why Silent Hill is a ghost town.¬† Yes, it is a bit hard to take, but that’s not really the difficulty.¬† What’s wrong is the way the information is delivered.¬† We are told almost nothing for an hour and a half.¬† Rose finds out little.¬† And then it is all just dumped in our laps.¬† This needed to have been integrated into the story.

A few errors stop Silent Hill from being a horror flick that you’ll be reliving in twenty years (and I still have hope for a changed version on the DVD), but it is well worth your pennies.

Back to Demons

Oct 052006
three reels

Sarah (Mika Boorem), a strong and hot chick with a past of accidentally tossing things around with her mind, and her sister Lindsey (Summer Glau), who lacks the depth of a dried up riverbank, arrive at college and the world of good verses evil sororities.  Evil, represented by Chorine (Joanna Garcia) and Alpha Nu, needs Sarah as a sacrifice to their eternal flame.  Good, represented by Dr. Hunter (Jennifer Tilly) and PED, wants Sarah to use her powers to rid the Earth of demonic sororities.  Sounds like Greek life to me.

An old made-for-TV movie gets a ’90s makeover, and leaves the old tone and the angst at a pre-production meeting.¬† In the post-Buffy TV world, females are smart, sexy, and kick butt.¬† And filling all those requirements are Mika Boorem and Joanna Garcia as the battling witches.¬† But delectability (and butt kicking) is not restricted to the near twenty-year-olds.¬† Jennifer Tilly is always a delight, and gives all the beauties a run for the money both in sensuality and humorous delivery.¬† That girl’s got talent.¬† Then there is Morgan Fairchild, playing the mother.¬† Ah, if more shows had mothers like that.¬† I’m reasonably certain she’s bathing in the blood of virgins.¬† It’s the only explanation.¬† This is a film that tries to get away with casting fan favorite Summer Glau (Serenity) as the plain girl.¬† Right.

The story is nothing new, but is just entertaining enough not to distract from the characters and the very engaging actresses.  Luckily those actresses are given something worthwhile to say.  The dialog is witty, 90s-style:

“Trust me, If you’re a goat or a virgin, I’d avoid that side of campus altogether”

“How do you remain so calm?”
“Yoga.¬† And not having a soul helps.”

“My sister is tongue-kissing the devil while I’m learning to pull a rabbit out of a hat”
“If you could do that I wouldn’t be so worried.”

“Without my so-called powers, their pit-of-eternal badness will just go out.”

“One thing I do know: taunting the demonic priestess, not a good idea.”

It doesn’t get more Buffy than that (and for those of you who’ve never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 1‚ÄĒIt’s a good thing for the lines to sound like those in Buffy, and 2‚ÄĒRent the first four seasons tonight).

With catchy dialog, a great cast, and a not-too-silly plot, it all sounds pretty good, and it is, except (damn there’s always an “except”) Lindsey.¬† She is mean, petty, stupid, and shallow as only a sitcom character can be.¬† Summer Glau’s innate cuteness can only do so much.¬† You really need to like the character, but not only did I want her to die, I couldn’t accept that Sarah wouldn’t want her six feet under.¬† Sisters be damned, some people just suck.¬† Since much of the story revolves around keeping her safe, it was hard to get concerned with the action.¬† If you watch this at a party, expect to hear chants of, “Let her die” and, “No, don’t save her” every few minutes.

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