May 2008 Archives

To borrow a tagline from another long-in-the-making sequel coming to a theater near you soon:  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to believe that this would turn out to be the ending of the Indy saga that we all looked forward to.  I wanted to believe that they would be able to recapture the spirit and feel of the original.  I wanted to believe that this wouldn't be a repeat of the mis-steps that Lucas took with the Star Wars prequels.  
I really wanted to believe.
But, in the end, I was disappointed.  It's true, perhaps my expectations were too high.  Perhaps one should realize that after 19 years, the magic was gone.  It's not impossible to catch that lightning in a bottle again, but instead we get fireflies.
That's not to say the movie is bad.  It's definitely a fun way to spend two hours, and it has all the trappings of an Indiana Jones film.  To say that it's not as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade is like saying that a painting isn't as good as the Mona Lisa.  And it's definitely not nearly as bad as Temple of Doom, though it suffers from many of the same problems that Temple did.
First, there's very little archaeology involved in Kingdom.  There's a little bit of grave-diving (a la Crusade), but none of the feeling of wonder or excitement that you get as you watch Indy put the pieces of the puzzle together (the series of desert scenes in Raiders is better than the entire movie of Kingdom).  The whole point of Indiana Jones is that he's an archaeologist first, an adventurer second.  When Mutt stammers out "You're a teacher!?", it's no wonder he doesn't believe it - aside from a couple meager scenes, we don't see Indy the archaeologist hardly at all.
The supernatural takes way too big a part in Kingdom, as it did in Temple.  If you pay attention to the first movie, the supernatural nature of the Ark is hinted at, glimpsed only in part until the very end.  Kingdom instead starts off with a demonstration of the supernatural, and continues to break it out (where convenient, mind you) throughout the film.
And lastly, there are just scenes that utterly destroy any suspension of disbelief that you've managed to come up with.  That, I think, is the ultimate disappointment with this movie - what made Raiders and Last Crusade so enjoyable is that they were, for the most part, pretty realistic.  Very little happens in either Raiders or Last Crusade that's at least not plausible (perhaps with the exception of the endings of each, but that's to be expected).  There's a lot, on the other hand, in both Temple and Kingdom that stretches the boundaries of reason until they break.  It's hard to mention these scenes without spoiling some parts of the film, but suffice to say the scenes with the refrigerator, the monkeys, and the rocket sled - while entertaining - had no place in a "true" Indiana Jones film. 
Some of this must have to do with Lucas' thoughts about trying to make Kingdom more of a "B-movie" than an homage to the Republic serials that he grew up with.  And, quite frankly, that makes it not an Indy movie from the get-go.  Indy is a serial hero, finding himself in cliffhanger after cliffhanger and always squeaking out by a nose.  He's not a B-movie scientist or researcher or football-player-cum-hero.  That's just not who Indy is, and by taking him out of his element and trying to force him into a genre that he's not meant for...well, can you imagine trying to take Luke Skywalker and put him in a family sit-com?  The Skywalkers!  Not really - it's just a basic misunderstanding of what made the Indiana Jones movies so successful.
Again, the movie isn't "bad" - it's just disappointingly not true to the original.  Harrison Ford does a great job hopping right back into the old fedora.  He's convincing as an aging, yet still completely capable, Indiana Jones.  Bringing Karen Allen back provides a great deal of closure to one of the outstanding questions in the series, and the repartee between Marian and Indy is just as good in this film as it was in the first.  Shia LaBeouf is...well, passable as Mutt the brash, young, mouthy sidekick (a good turn better than Short Round, at least).  But you definitely feel the loss of the late Denholm Elliott, though Marcus makes an appearance even posthumously that is true to the character.  Also missing is Sallah, and there's not even so much of a mention (particularly odd, considering how much he seemed enamoured with Marian during Raiders) - could they really not convince/afford John Rys-Davies?
As for the other supporting characters, Cate Blanchett is decent, though not nearly menacing enough, as the Russian scientist seeking the Crystal Skulls.  Ray Winstone is okay, but his character seems alternately a replacement for Sallah or just another annoying sidekick.  John Hurt has very little to do as Oxley, but what he does is performed with his usual attention to character detail.
Overall, it's not a bad movie, and it's perhaps one of the better adventure movies that's been released in recent years.  What's unfortunate is that it winds up trodding on some of the same ground that we've already seen in last year's National Treasure 2, which I'm sorry to say did a much better job of providing a pay-off in the lost city of gold.
There's talk of another sequel...with rumors of Shia LaBoeuf taking over the reigns and Harrison Ford taking a role more akin to Sean Connery's in Last Crusade.  And given the numbers that it posted ($300m+ worldwide), it's probably inevitable that Lucas and Spielberg will once again break out the whip and fedora.  And I wish them luck with that - I'll have more fun re-watching Raiders and Last Crusade than seeing anything they're likely to come up with.  Of course, perhaps there's a corollary to the "odd-numbered Trek's suck" rule - perhaps "even numbered Indy's suck" just as badly.  Either way, I'll see whatever they come up with, but it will be with severely lowered expectations the next time around.  While I want to believe, I just can't anymore - Lucas has finally broken me.

Review: Fido (2006)

D: Andrew Currie
S: K'Sun Ray, Carrie-Anne Moss, Dylan Baker, Billy Connolly, Henry Czerny
Fido is an odd movie.  I suppose that's really an understatement, but ultimately it's the best description that I can come up with.  In part, it's exactly what you would expect from a comedy(?) that is based on the premise of domesticated zombies and what happens when the technology controlling them goes wrong.  Of course, it's also a variation on the classic "boy and his dog" genre...with the zombie taking the place of the dog.
The Robinson family is just like any other 50s-era family, however in this universe rather than recovering from World War 2, the 50s revolve around the recovery from a world-wide "zombie war".  At the end of the war, a company designed technology that allowed the zombie hordes to be "domesticated" through the use of an electronic collar that removes the zombie's bloodlust and makes them docile and trainable.  In this world, everyone has a zombie-pet, and the more zombies one has, the more prestigious they must be!
But it is here that the Robinsons are not like everyone else.  Bill Robinson (Dylan Baker) hides a secret - he's afraid of zombies.  Petrified, in fact.  Stemming from a childhood trauma, he dodges every attempt made to convince him that they're safe, that they're controlled, and that they're useful.  This, of course, makes his son Timmy (K'Sun Ray) the target of derision and ridicule in school, since they're the only family without a zombie.  Well, until the day that his wife Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) decides to take it upon herself to obtain one for the household.  And this is where the fun really begins.
You see, Bill isn't the best father - in fact he's pretty much non-existent in his child's life - not to mention his wife's.  He's all but a weekend dad, at best, going out to golf with his work buddies and leaving all of the chores to Helen and relegating his son to the role of a pet at best.  So when the zombie arrives, and both Helen and Timmy realize that he can do more than simple menial tasks (including playiing catch with Timmy, learning to dance with Helen, and other not-exactly-typical zombie actions), "Fido" as he becomes known begins to slowly wean the family away from Bill.
But that's not really the thrust of the movie (which at this point sounds more like a weird zombie-drama than a comedy).  You see, while taking Fido on an unauthorized walk to the park, and playing catch with him, some bullies start throwing rocks at Billy - and Fido protects him, scaring off the bullies.  Unfortunately, one of the rocks also strikes Fido's collar, turning it off just long enough for him to wander into the bushes and bite an old lady neighbor of Timmy's, re-starting a zombie infestation in the town.
It is at this point that things start to get really odd - Helen works with Timmy to hide the fact that Fido is the source of the outbreak, while their new neighbor - the head of "ZomCom's" security division - slowly tracks him down.  Bill begins to resent Fido more and more, and eventually Fido is found out, captured, and sent to ZomCom's facility, where they are using zombies that have been supposedly liquidated as slave labor. 
Anyone who has seen a "boy and his dog" movie knows what comes next, but there's no reason to spoil it all.  While not nearly as clever as Shaun of the Dead, Fido is definitely one of the better horror comedies created in recent memory.  Billy Connolly is unrecognizable as Fido, Carrie-Anne Moss is in fine form, and both Dylan Baker and Henry Czerny play up their respective roles almost to parody, but stopping at just the right balance.  Overall, a strong, funny movie - if you can get over it's basic oddness.

Review: Iron Man (2008)

Wow.  One word, and that could be my complete review of this movie.  I've been a comic-book fan since the mid-80s, and aside from the X-Men, Iron Man was always one of my favorite comics.  Partly because it was just an "ordinary" guy (who happened to be a billionaire super-genius) who got his "power" from a suit of armor, but also partly because the character of Tony Stark was perhaps the most "real" of any of the comic book characters of the time.  Long before the 90s trend of "darkness" and "stark reality" in comics, Tony Stark was a philandering, unapologetic alcoholic.  But he got the job done.  And it was in the battles with his personal demons that the character grew the most.
Fortunately, there aren't a lot of personal demons explored in this first outing, but a lot of the foreshadowing is there (how many scenes did you see where there wasn't a bottle or glass of whisky within arm's reach?).  No, this is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall origin story.  And if nothing else, it shows just how much Jon Favreau loves the characters.
Looking back at the X-Men or Spider-Man movies, you can see the tweaks that were made in order to "market" the characters.  No bright-colored spandex suits for the mutants (black leather only, really?)..."organic" web-shooters for Spidey.  All of these were unnecessary changes that someone in the back room thought would be a good idea, comic-book legacy be damned.  There's none of that here - the suit looks exactly like the suit in the comics in all it's red and gold glory.  And it's a beautiful thing - both in practical effects as well as CG (and the fact that you can't tell where the practicals stop and the CG starts makes it all that much better!).
Everything else falls in line from there - this is 100% an Iron Man story.  And the writing, direction, and acting all draw from that.  I defy anyone to come up with a better person to play Tony Stark than Robert Downey, Jr.  The man, for all intents and purposes, is Tony Stark.  The same demons, the same personality...just no red and gold flying suit.  RDJ takes this role and runs with it - you can tell from the performance on-screen that this is a character he understands and embraces.  There's a perfect balance of humor, commitment, and uncertainty in the character, all of which captrues the spirit of Tony Stark without being ham-handed over any of it.
The supporting cast is just as good. Gwyneth makes Pepper Potts shine more than I recall from the comic books, striking that perfect Moneypenny-esque balance between Stark's right-hand and a romantic interest.  Terrence Howard nails Jim Rhodes perfectly, capturing the commitment to duty and country.  And Jeff Bridges takes a very different version of Obediah Stane and runs with it in a surprisingly un-Jeff Bridges look.
I'm eagerly anticipating the inevitable sequel, hoping to see Jon Favreau's take on War Machine, the Mandarin, or any other the other big bads that Iron Man has taken on in his long and storied history.  And the hints dropped at Marvel's attempt to put together an Avengers movie, as an event culminating from four major-release films, has me drooling at the thought, particularly if they're smart enough to keep Favreau around and not change the tone from an outright embrace of the history and stories to something trying to feed the mass audience (Spider-Man 3, anyone?).  Done right, these movies could set Marvel and Paramount up for a good decade of solid, strong summer blockbusters.  Done wrong, we could see the death of good comic book movies for awhile, which would truly be a shame.

Review: Wicked Little Things (2006)

Rarely is a movie both completely predictable, yet still fun and entertaining.  This movie manages to strike that fine balance, and because of that, it moves way up the list for my picks from the first set of Horrorfest films.  I'd probably put it in the #3 or #4 slot, behind Unrest and Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horror.
The set-up is simple - back in the early 1900s, children were used by a greedy mine operator to drag dynamite into places that adults couldn't reach.  Of course, things go wrong, and an explosion traps a group of the children alive in a collapsed shaft, resulting in an investigation that ultimately closes the mine - but leaves the owner off the hook for his blatant safety and labor violations.  Needless to say, the souls of these children don't rest well, knowing the man who caused their deaths escaped justice.  So they somehow return, wandering the woods around the mine and feasting on the flesh of animals (or the occasional human) unlucky enough to cross their path.
Fast-forward to the present, and we have a newly-widowed mother of two - a young girl and a teenager - down on her luck after the death of her husband.  The family literally has almost nothing, except for the deed to a house out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods.  As it turns out, her husband's family were miners back in the day, and the house was "worker's quarters", provided by the mining company.
Of course, the typical "ghost story" aspects are foreshadowed by the townsfolk, particularly the high-school crowd that the teenage daughter immediately clicks with.  And, as I completely expected, the youngest daughter finds a doll, which she tells her mom belongs to "Mary", who "lives in the woods".  Yep, Mary is one of the flesh-devouring ghouls, but due to the particulars of her condition won't eat the flesh of family of the miners killed.
There's also the requisite recluse, played perfectly by Ben Cross (whom I have loved as an actor since his role as Barnabus Collins on the revival of Dark Shadows).  He tosses blood onto the doors of the family's new home, and places rabbits and other small critters on spikes throughout the woods, keeping the ghoulish children at bay.
And, soon enough, the human antagonist arrives - the grandson of the mine owner, who intends to clear all of the land owned by the mining company and start anew...including all of the homes on the property, forcing Karen and her girls onto the streets.  Of course, the ghouls have other ideas for him.
Overall, there's nothing shockingly great about this movie, but at the same time there's nothing shockingly bad.  The special effects are decent for the most part, and the children look appropriately cute and creepy, simultaneously.  It's not the best, but far from the worst, and if you're interested in some mindless horror fun, this movie will definitely satisfy that need.

Review: The Invasion (2007)

It's rare that I watch a movie and actually want the time, energy, and thought invested in it not only returned, but returned with interest.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the most timeless movies ever created, not because of its quality or acting, but because of its flexibility.  There have been numerous remakes over the years, each taking a completely different spin on the original, which was based on Cold War tensions and the fear of Communism.  The 1978 remake focused on distrust of government in a large city, a reflection of the post-Vietnam perspective on the world.  The 1993 and 1994 versions (Body Snatchers and The Puppet Masters - technically a version of Robert A. Heinlein's short story of the same name, but for all intents and purposes the same story) evoked the fear of the growing and powerful military-industrial complex, in the wake of the first Gulf War.  This version...well, I suppose it's meant to invoke the fears of an increasingly drug-addled and pacified existence? 
This is a movie that had a huge amount of potential, and not only fails to live up to that potential, but capsizes under its weight.  Even after reading review after review telling me how bad the movie was, it failed to live up to even those very low expectations.  The acting is wooden (was George Lucas the acting coach on set?), the direction is boring, and the cinematography is bland.  How anyone could take a story so expansive as this and come out with something this dull, bland, and uninteresting is just absolutely astounding.
I really can't stress enough how bad this movie really is (yet, surprisingly, it's no Haunted Highway still).  Even if you're just curious to find out, I would recommend against it.  It will ruin any thoughts you have of the acting abilties of any of its cast members.  Do NOT see this movie.  Ever.  You will regret it.

Review: The Sentinel (1977)

It's somewhat ironic when a movie that is all but a carbon-copy of a previous film winds up standing up to the rigors of time better than the movie that inspired it.  And that's the case with The Sentinel, which owes about 90% of its plot, devices, and characters to Rosemary's Baby, almost 10 years its senior.
As I said in my review of it, Rosemary's Baby suffers greatly from time - it's really not as scary as it was when first released, but it's an interesting glimpse into the world of the late 1960s from an escapist viewpoint.  The Sentinel takes a lot of what made Rosemary's Baby work initially, but presents it in a different light, one that's less affected by time.  I had originally tried writing this review without comparing the two, but three drafts in I realized that's a losing effort.  In comparison to each other, you can really see some of what makes The Sentinal more lasting, and Rosemary's Baby more of a snapshot in time. 
First and foremost are the lead characters.  Rosemary seems more of a 50s romantic archetype of a woman, wife, and mother.  She's very dependent on those around her, and doesn't question authority, her husband, or her elders.  As the baby develops and she has odd cravings and constant pain, she doesn't question any of what she is told, she diligently follows the orders of her doctor and neighbors, ignoring the concerns of her close friends.  Alison, on the other hand, is a successful yet troubled mostly-independent woman.  In the first scenes of the movie, she is shopping for an apartment for herself, so that she can have a place of her own, rather than spend all her time with her boyfriend, who wants to tie her down and marry her.
Another key difference is the use of the city - both movies take place in New York, but Rosemary's Baby feels very claustrophobic.  Aside from the one scene where she walks right into the middle of traffic on a busy street, most of the scenes take place inside.  The Sentinel centers around a building, but uses the outdoors to far greater effect.  If a movie is set in New York City, you really expect to see some of the city - The Sentinel delivers on this far more than Rosemary's Baby.
I would have to say that the only place that Rosemary's Baby excels above The Sentinel is in its antagonists.  Burgess Meredith's "Charles Chazen" is far more over the top and obviously troubled than Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer's "Minnie & Roman Castevets" were.  Although the Castevets seem "off" somehow, they seem from the outset to just be a lonely, friendly older couple - genuinely interested in meeting the new tenants.
I'm sure there could be a lot said about the post-feminist implications of The Sentinal versus Rosemary's Baby, but I'm not really interested in the pseudo-political aspects of these films.  It's there, I'm sure it's been discussed before, but I'm just not going there.
Moving back to focus on The Sentinel, it truly is a good, well-paced, traditional haunted house story, with a slight twist.  There are two scenes that make this movie noteworthy, and if for no reason other than these I highly recommend it.  The first is #46 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments - a scene in which Alison's dead father appears while she is exploring the building, walking quickly behind her almost imperceptibly to her.  Words can't give this scene justice - it is one of the most truly creepy scenes I think I've ever seen.  The other scene is near the end, and involves a HUGE cast of deformed actors representing the demons attempting to break through onto the Earth.  There is simply no way imaginable that this scene could make it to the screen today, with all the politically-correct watchdog groups that would cry foul.  But there is a definitive effect that is provided (similar to seeing the sideshow players in Freaks) that sticks with you even after the movie has ended.  Reality often has a far greater impact than any SFX house can create.
And finally, if none of that is enough, the film is simply awesome for seeing so many current big-name stars in roles that seem so far beneath them it's almost amusing.  In addition to the lead roles - Chris Sarandon, Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith - you also get to see some early glimpses of Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger, Beverly D'Angelo (naked, no less!), Christopher Walken, and more.  If for no other reason than checking out this glimpse back in time for these folks, you must check out this movie!

Review: 30 Days of Night (2007)

There's something to be said about a movie that is based almost entirely on blood, gore, and death.  There's something more to be said about a movie that doesn't take the cheap way out and holds back that same blood, gore, and death so that your imagination creates a picture of the action that's far worse than anything a Photoshop artist could create.  And that's a very fine line to walk - showing enough to satisfy the horror fans' bloodlust, but not so much that you destroy the workings of the audience's imagination.  It is this very line that David Slade and his cast walk with 30 Days of Night, and suprisingly it's a balance that is maintained quite well in this movie. 

The plot is pretty straightforward - in the first five minutes or so we're introduced to Barrow, Alaska, a town that experiences 30 days of night every year, because it's the northern-most city in the United States.  Barrow's population drops from a max of about 500 to somewhere around 150, and those who stay take pride in the fact that they can withstand the rigors of 30 straight days of darkness.  There's a strong sense of community that's communicated quickly and effectively, and the basic relationships are well laid out.  Not a lot of time is spent in developing all the characters, but at the same time they never really feel like stereotypes.
Unfortunately, this year brings a stranger to Barrow, who we watch through the opening credits walking across the snow and ice from an ice-locked freighter nearby.  The town sheriff finds some odd occurrences before darkness falls - a large group of cell phones is burned, all of the town's sled dogs are massacred.  He knows something is happening, but has no idea how badly this will all really turn out.  The stranger makes a scene in the local bar, after being refused alcohol (town law places a prohibition on alcohol during the 30 days of darkness), and winds up in the pokey after attacking the sheriff (and getting a gun placed to the back of his head by the sheriff's estranged wife in the process).
The human drama is light, but very believable - something happened between the sheriff and his wife, who is a fire marshall, and they've decided to part ways.  She comes to town on assignment, unbeknownst to him, and is forced to call him for help when she misses the plane out of Barrow.  It's an adult situation, and it's treated like adults would approach it - there's no overblown drama here, just people trying to make do with the hand that fate has dealt them.
However, what fate has handed them up to this point is nothing compared to what's coming.  As more odd things begin to happen - the town's communications systems go down, followed by the power going out - the stranger begins to predict dire consequences for the townspeople: "They're coming for me..."
And sure enough, "they" are - a group of vampires that has less resemblance to the Anne Rice world and more resemblance to the Animal Kingdom world.  These vampires are predators; they are old, smart, and determined.  They don't hesitate to use humans as bait, and they strike quickly, decisively, and without mercy.  In the first day, the ranks of Barrow's residents is cut by 90%, with blood on the snow showing the location of their victims' last stands.
From there, the movie goes into survival-horror territory.  The remaining members of the Barrow population hole up in different locations, hoping that they will be able to wait out the darkness - all the while being slowly picked off one-by-one by the vampires roaming the streets.
As with any horror movie of this type, a sacrifice must be made in order to save the town.  I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the film yet, but the climax and denouement are very satisfying and fit perfectly with the tone of the film as well as the characters that we have watched develop.
David Slade has taken a challenge set by many recent comic book adaptations and met it handily, which is all the more impressive considering the combination of comic books and horror hasn't exactly been the most successful in its transition to the big screen.  But this movie definitely exceeded the expectations I had for it, and is a solid addition to the world of survival horror.