Monday, December 19, 2005

Walk the Line (2005)

"Every man knows that he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash."
—Bono

Aside from remakes, the most recent big thing in Hollywood has been to make movies based on or inspired by true stories. From horror movies (The Amityville Horror, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to sports movies (Miracle, Glory Road) to action movies (Saving Private Ryan, Walking Tall) to dramas (Apollo 13), movies based on true stories have proven to be rather prevalent in filmmaking. Among these true stories are biographical movies.

Of course, these are nothing new. Dozens have been made about a wide range of subjects, ranging from music legends like Jim Morrison and Loretta Lynn to people like comedian Andy Kaufman, serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, and Scottish revolutionary William Wallace. With the exception of Braveheart, perhaps the most notable in recent memory is 2004's Ray. The cinematic biography of Ray Charles, Ray garnered high critical acclaim and numerous awards (including a Best Actor Oscar for star Jamie Foxx), proving it to be one of the biggest movies of the year.

The tale of another drug-addicted singer was told to moviegoers just over one year later in the form of Walk the Line, the story of Johnny Cash. One of country music's first true outlaws, his distinctive sound and dark clothing made him one of music's most enduring icons. Many are quick to pigeonhole Cash as just a country star, yet he has transcended nearly every possible boundary in the fifty years since his first album was released.

His influence as a musician can be seen in almost every popular genre, from country music to rock and roll, to even rap. (Famed film director Quentin Tarantino once mused, "I've often wondered if gangsta rappers know how little separates their tales of ghetto thug life from Johnny Cash's tales of backwoods thug life.") Cash's tumultuous life story is the kind of tale that Hollywood scriptwriters can only dream of thinking up, so it only made sense for Walk the Line to enter production. Let's get to the review, shall we?

Following a brief prologue, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Johnny Cash (Ridge Canipe) and his brother Jack (Lucas Till) at their family's Arkansas cotton farm circa 1944. The brothers are an extremely close-knit pair, so when Jack is killed in an accident involving a table saw, young Johnny is devastated. His sorrow is exacerbated by his insufferable father Ray (Robert Patrick), who places the blame squarely on Johnny's shoulders by proclaiming that "God took the wrong son."

From there, we take a quick glimpse of his stay in Germany while serving in the Air Force, then move to Memphis circa 1955, where the adult Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a family man and struggling traveling salesman. During a particularly bad day at work, he stumbles upon the Memphis Recording Service, the home of Sun Records. A "closed" sign hangs in the front, but when he hears music coming from the nearby alley, he sneaks around and watches some musicians recording an album before the soundman shoos him away.

Sometime later, Johnny and two friends, bassist Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby) and guitarist Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller), practice playing a gospel song on Johnny's front porch. They sound like they could use a lot more practice than what they're getting, which prompts Johnny's wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) to get upset and throw a tantrum. When Johnny attempts to check on her, Vivian screams at him, telling him that she's sick of him wasting his time with a couple of no-talent mechanics, hammering the point home by throwing an eviction notice in his face.

The next day, Johnny catches up with the recording studio's soundman, famed record producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts). Though doubtful of another wannabe, Phillips is taken by Johnny's enthusiasm and offers him an audition. Showing up at the studio dressed in black ("You look like you're going to a funeral," Vivian tells him. Johnny's reply: "Maybe I am."), Johnny and his band start into the same hokey gospel song they rehearsed earlier.

Sam is clearly unimpressed, to the point that he stops the trio and tells them to leave because it's nothing he hasn't heard before. Johnny takes offense, thinking that the complaints are instead questioning his religious faith, but Sam says that he merely thinks that Johnny just has a mediocre way of showing it. He asks them what they would sing if they were hit by a truck and had one song to perform for God before they died, and after a few moments, Johnny comes up with a song. He launches into a song that will one day gain fame as "Folsom Prison Blues," and despite Marshall and Luther being concerned because they hadn't practiced the song, Sam is impressed and signs them to a contract.

Billed as "Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two," the trio of musicians go on tour with other Sun Records artists like Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), and Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice). But of all the performers on the tour, perhaps the most notable is June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), whom Johnny has had a crush on his entire life. Stardom and life on the road soon becomes too stressful for Johnny, leading him to alcoholism and an addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates.

As his addictions escalate, so does his affection for June. Despite her initial refusal to even consider a relationship with him because he's married with children and she's recently divorced, Johnny still carries a torch for her, to the point that he hangs pictures of them together in his den. Already jealous of his popularity with the ladies, Vivian decides this is the straw that broke the camel's back and puts a kibosh on their crumbling marriage.

His unrequited love for June pushes Johnny deeper into addiction, and he finally hits rock bottom when he ends up sharing a ratty apartment with fellow drug-addicted musician Waylon Jennings (Shooter Jennings). Desperate to speak to June despite having his phone disconnected, the very wasted Johnny walks on foot to her house, a good twenty miles away. June refuses to talk to him while he's hopped up, not letting him anywhere past the front yard before making him go home. He eventually leaves, stumbling home in the rain before passing out by the side of the road. When he wakes up the following morning, he discovers himself outside a beautiful lakefront mansion, immediately asking if it's for sale.

He buys the house, bringing his family and the Carter family together for Thanksgiving shortly thereafter. Johnny's father is less than impressed, commenting that his son probably shouldn't be leaving his expensive tractor stuck in the mud outside. That comment is the straw that broke the camel's back and the very high Johnny flips out, venting the pent-up anger towards his father that had been building since Jack died.

Ray quickly retorts that being rich and famous doesn't change the fact that Johnny is an alcoholic and a junkie, and Johnny storms out. He heads straight for the tractor stuck outside. While he succeeds in getting it out of the mud, he ends up crashing it into the lake. June rushes to his side, diving in and pulling him to shore, starting a chain of events that leads to his recovery. The movie concludes in 1968, as the clean and sober Johnny performs his legendary concert at Folsom State Prison, and June accepts his marriage proposal.

I'll admit that although I had a great respect for him and his body of work, I wasn't exactly a Johnny Cash devotee prior to seeing Walk the Line. But the thing is, you don't need to be a fan of Cash (or of country music, for that matter) to appreciate the movie. Director James Mangold has crafted a wonderful movie that very rarely dips into the realm of hero worship, instead wisely focusing on the music and the love story. Co-scripted by Mangold and Gill Dennis, the movie seems to gloss over certain parts of Cash's life, yet still tells a compelling, engaging story.

Cash is depicted not as a heroic figure, but as a flawed yet noble human being stuck in the mire of substance abuse. His alcoholism and drug use are a focal point in developing the love story, as he is ultimately saved not a desire to overcome his demons, but by the love of his soulmate. This is most evidenced in the scene where a wasted Johnny tries to pull the tractor out of the mud and falls into the lake. He didn't look like he was in any hurry to save himself, but it was June that pulled him out. I'm of the opinion that the scene is symbolic of the couple's entire relationship. Johnny was drowning in his addictions, until June pulled him out.

In a movie about a legendary musician, the music can make or break it. That said, I loved every bit of the music in Walk the Line. From T-Bone Burnett's twangy, country-infused score to the numerous songs, the soundtrack is just as entertaining as the movie itself. The stars lend their own singing voices to the movie, and sound uncannily like the musicians they're portraying.

Speaking of the cast, both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are nothing short of astonishing. The two have a great chemistry that is needed for a movie such as this, and their performances were amazing. While I immensely enjoyed Phoenix's cocky yet sympathetic performance, I enjoyed Witherspoon's a lot more. Given that her recent movies have mostly been fluff (would you expect to be taken seriously when you're doing movies like Legally Blonde 2 and Just Like Heaven?), it's my belief that this just may be the best performance of her career. Thanks to Witherspoon, it's not hard to understand why Johnny fell in love with June in the first place. She is engaging and incredibly likable, and very deserving of all the praise she gets. The rest of the cast is nothing to sneeze at either, especially Robert Patrick as Johnny's harshly critical father.

Johnny Cash's voice was often described as being "steady like a train, sharp like a razor." That's the best description I can give Walk the Line. The movie never drags, and manages to tell a consistent story without coming off as just a series of moments strung together. It is my sincere hope that Walk the Line will add to the legacy of Johnny Cash, as Mangold, Phoenix, and Witherspoon have made a film that is absolutely stunning on all fronts. The movie is a fitting tribute to the Man In Black and the woman in his heart, and as a well-acted, well-made film, I'll give Walk the Line the full five stars.

Final Rating: *****

Sunday, December 18, 2005

War of the Worlds (2005)

In 1898, H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds, a novel that would eventually become one of the most influential science fiction novels of the century that followed. In the hundred years since its first publication, Wells's tale of an insurmountable alien invasion has inspired movies like Independence Day and Mars Attacks!, and has been adapted into a syndicated television series that ran from 1988 to 1990, an Oscar-winning movie directed in 1953 by George Pál that drew a parallel between the alien invasion and the Red Menace, and Orson Welles's infamous 1938 radio play invoking World War II.

No stranger to huge summer blockbusters or movies about aliens visiting Earth, Steven Spielberg teamed up with his Minority Report star Tom Cruise in 2005 for his own adaptation of the novel. With fifty years of technological improvement over the 1953 version and the aftershocks of the World Trade Center attacks still lingering, does Spielberg's version of the alien incursion story hold up to Pál's movie and Welles's radio play?

Spielberg's version of the story centers around Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a blue-collar crane operator that can barely making ends meet. Well, he doesn't exactly make ends meet, but he gets the ends really close to each other and calls it a day. He does have an awesome car, I'll give him that. Anyway, Ray arrives home from work one morning to babysit his two children while his pregnant ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and her new husband Tim (David Alan Basche) go to Boston to spend the weekend with her parents.

Ray is extremely lacking in parenting skills, and is so wrapped up with his own life that he hardly even knows who his kids are. He finds himself ignored when he tries to say hello to his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who has adopted the "rebellious teenager" outlook. Ray later tries to start up a game of catch, only to get met with the line, "baseball season's over." Robbie is so dead set against spending time with his father that he calls him by his first name instead of "Dad," even starts wearing a Red Sox hat, a cardinal sin to a Yankees fan like Ray. On the other hand, his preadolescent daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is a bit more willing to spend time with Ray, but still shows more affection towards her new stepfather.

After attempting to find solace in an afternoon nap, he awakens to find both Robbie and his car gone. And perhaps worse than that, a strange, powerful lightning storm arrives, prompting everyone in Ray's neighborhood to step out into the streets and their backyards to watch. But once it gets out of hand, everyone retreats back to their houses until it apparently subsides, but they're quick to discover that the storm has rendered every piece of electronic equipment in the house inoperable. Ray steps out into the sidewalk and bumps into Robbie, who is on his way after Ray's car stalled along with every other car in the street. Robbie tells him about how twenty-six bolts of lightning hit a spot a block over, and Ray sends him home while he goes off to investigate.

He soon arrives at the small crater left by the lightning, and as a crowd starts to grow around it, the ground beneath them begins to shake. The shaking is only the tip of the iceberg, as an enormous three-legged machine breaks through the ground, leveling buildings and reducing every human it sees to dust with its laser beams. Narrowly avoiding getting zapped on numerous occasions, Ray rushes home, packs the kids into a recently-repaired minivan, and hits the road through the New England countryside to find safety, wherever it may be.

It may not hold up as one of the smartest science fiction movies ever, but War of the Worlds is an exciting, intense thrill ride. The movie very rarely lets up, only occasionally letting we the viewer catch our breath before moving to another terrifying situation. While a movie about an alien invasion may be science fiction by design, It may not hold up as one of the smartest science fiction movies ever, but War of the Worlds is a hybrid of disaster movies and old-school monster movies. So imagine if Godzilla was one of the aliens from Independence Day, and you're set. The movie is also very much a part of post-9/11 culture, as evidenced by the two children asking if terrorists are behind the invasion.

Fellow online reviewer James Berardinelli theorized that this movie evidences that a great director can overcome a mediocre script, and I'm inclined to agree. Steven Spielberg (with the assistance of the amazing camerawork of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer extraordinaire John Williams's dark, subdued score) shows why he's one of the best directors in Hollywood with this movie, which boasts numerous impressive visuals, such as a flaming locomotive rocketing past a group of survivors or the revelation of the first alien tripod. Spielberg has peppered his film with allusions to numerous sci-fi classics, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to The Day The Earth Stood Still and British TV miniseries Quartermass and the Pit. There's even an extremely subtle nod to The Blob, though that one may be more of a coincidence than anything.

But where the direction truly succeeds is the little moments, like a scene in which Dakota Fanning's character discovers a quiet river in the middle of the woods. Everything is calm and serene, but that is quickly dashed away by a mass deluge of corpses floating downstream. The peacefulness of the scene is transformed into horror, and serves as perhaps the movie's most truly disturbing moment.

However, no one will accuse Josh Friedman and David Koepp of having written a screenplay worthy of any awards. Many of the characters find themselves either unlikable or poorly written, and outside of what they've taken verbatim from Wells's original novel, not a lot of their dialogue is very outstanding or noteworthy. To call the script "mediocre" is the biggest compliment I can give it. The movie also suffers from an unbearably weak ending, but in all fairness, the aliens are brought down in the same fashion they were in the novel. Then again, as lame as it is, I guess it's a good thing that humans never found a cure for the common cold, otherwise we'd have been conquered by our new alien overlords.

Speaking of lame endings, let's not forget the idiocy of the film's coda, a "happily ever after" moment that makes no sense within the context of scenes earlier in the movie. It's such an enormous leap in logic, it's insulting. How are we the viewer supposed to believe this when common sense dictates otherwise? Maybe Spielberg should make a movie about the coda, as a twist on the Hamlet spinoff Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. However, in defense of the script, Friedman and Koepp manage to throw in a few scenes that resemble a social commentary, how humans would react when faced with the end of the world and the possible extinction of our species. Would we be unselfishly brave in the face of adversity, or would the mob mentality take over as society devolved into sheer insanity?

The acting, as well, is a mixed bag. Tom Cruise is great like always, but his character is a selfish jerk, who at first only rushes his kids to Boston so he can dump them off on their mother. He spends so much time as an unlikable character than when he begins his evolution into a good father and person, we don't really believe it. You know, in retrospect, the idea of Cruise starring in a movie about aliens is kinda funny, what with his religion being founded by aliens and all. Yeah, I think it's crazy too, but Hollywood makes people stupid. Anyway, Justin Chatwin is rather boring and uninspiring as the typical moody, rebellious teenager. He comes off as being just plain irritating at times, like he's going out of his way to start arguments with Cruise's character.

And folks, Dakota Fanning is absolutely wretched in the movie. The audience is supposed to feel sympathy for her, but she achieved quite the opposite. She's just an annoying little rat for the whole thing. By the end of the movie, I was rooting for the aliens to zap her with one of those heat rays, but sadly, it never happened. Fanning serves no purpose in the movie, outside of screaming, crying, and doing something stupid to let the aliens know where she's hiding. The girl even screams and cries when she's happy. If I never see another character like this one in a movie, I'll be the happiest boy alive.

It's funny that Fanning and Morgan Freeman (the movie's narrator) are both in War of the Worlds, because it seems like they're both in every movie that comes out nowadays. She's only eleven years old, and has been in as many movies as actors three times her age. I'm sure Fanning is a sweet little girl, but maybe she should try being a kid for a while, and see how that works.

The only other cast member whose performance I thought stood out was Tim Robbins as an unhinged survivalist that offers Ray and Rachel temporary shelter. He's only in one scene and has a relatively minor role, but Robbins makes his character both believable and entertaining, if not a little sleazy.

A review posted on IMDB.com says that War of the Worlds was the best alien invasion movie ever made until the third act, at which point the movie tries to shoehorn itself into various summer action movie clichés. I don't know if I'd call it the best ever, but I'll generally agree with that statement. The movie's vibe changes significantly once Cruise stops acting like the aliens are intergalactic exterminators and starts acting like he's going to conquer them one tripod death machine at a time.

But the movie does have exciting action sequences and simmering tension, as evidenced by the lengthy scene where the alien probe searches for human survivors (recalling the "spider search" scene in Minority Report). And while showing the destruction of cities around the globe may have been more spectacular, it would have undermined the idea of showing how the family unit would survive. In spite of its glaring flaws, War of the Worlds still manages to be an entertaining. And for that, I'll give it three and a half stars. Check it out.

Final Rating: ***½

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Alien vs. Predator (2004)

Fictional characters crossing over to either team up or do battle is nothing new. It happens in comic books all the time, and can be seen in movies like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, King Kong vs. Godzilla, and Freddy vs. Jason. While many are intended to be one-time-only ideas, one crossover has become a full-fledged media enterprise. Following the first publication of Dark Horse's Alien vs. Predator comics in November 1989, the clash between the two extraterrestrial beasts went on to spawn novels and numerous video games, along with its own comic spinoff featuring another cinematic killing machine from the '80s, Alien vs. Predator vs. The Terminator.

After New Line Cinema scored big business with the release of Freddy vs. Jason in 2003, Twentieth Century Fox unleashed its murderous monsters onto the big screen the following year. There was much rejoicing in the fanboy community, but Fox ultimately decided to anger those fanboys by hiring relatively unpopular director Paul W.S. Anderson and released it with an unimaginable PG-13 rating. But does it manage to be good as its R-rated predecessors, or is it just a great big letdown?

Our story takes place in Antarctica, where a satellite owned by the Weyland Corporation has discovered an unusual heat signature on Bouvet Island, a remote island off the coast of Antarctica. Upon further investigation, the Corporation discovers what appears to be an immense ancient pyramid buried two thousand feet beneath the island's surface. The pyramid apparently has characteristics of Egyptian, Aztec, and Cambodian pyramids, which is pretty amazing considering that it predates each of those civilizations. But the thing is, they never really make a credible attempt to explain the how's or why's of it. If you're not going to explain it, why bother even bringing it up in the first place?

Anyway, corporation founder Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriken) and his assistant Maxwell Stafford (Colin Salmon) assemble a team of scientists and archaeologists to check the place out. The team is mostly comprised of faceless nobodies, with three exceptions: Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), who is drafted as the team's guide for some reason known only to the filmmakers; Sebastian de Rosa (Raoul Bova), an Italian archaeologist who can read hieroglyphics; and Graeme Miller (Ewen Bremner), a naïve archaeologist with a penchant for photography. (And truth be told, Bremner's character only stands out because of his thick Scottish accent.)

Weyland and Stafford inform the team at a briefing that the expedition will be getting underway as soon as possible, but Alexa objects. Turns out that the team will need at least three weeks of training because they don't exactly have the proper survival skills to survive the kind of environment they'll be up against. Yeah, essentially calling the crew a bunch of pansies is a really nice way to endear yourselves to everybody.

Weyland informs Alexa that time is a luxury not afforded to them, so she quits. So what does Weyland do? He threatens to hire her closest competition if she doesn't accompany them on their fantastic voyage. A harsh businessman, Weyland is. Alexa knows that nobody can do the job as well as her and really isn't in the mood to lose out to a rival, so she reluctantly rejoins the team as they set sail.

The team arrives at an abandoned whaling station and prepare to drill down into the pyramid, but they soon learn that a passage has been neatly carved out at a perfect 30-degree angle. The passage wasn't there the day before and nothing on Earth could have carved it that quickly, but nobody in the team questions it. The team ventures down the tunnel and enter the pyramid, but a few rash decision on their parts unleash the bloodthirsty Aliens from their crypt in the pyramid's basement. And to make matters worse, the scientists are also intercepted by three interstellar hunters we know as the Predators.

Thanks to Sebastian's skill at reading hieroglyphics, we learn that the pyramid is a hunting ground for Predators, where they bred Aliens every hundred years so young Predators could engage in a ritual rite of passage. And just their luck, the humans are the bait. The squadron of Aliens soon wipes out pretty much everyone, leaving only Alexa and one Predator (Ian Whyte) to band together and fight there way to safety.

What a sad, sad, sad state of affairs Alien vs. Predator is. The movie is one of the most disappointing sequels I've ever seen, and everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves for ruining a movie that had such wonderful potential. There's something going on all the time while nothing really happens, resulting in a film that's all effort with no results. Not once during the course of the movie is any sort of coherent story told, the movie is too poorly shot and too tightly edited to make any sort of sense on a visual level, and the cast brings nothing to the table. Not even the effects can save the movie, because everything has been reduced to get a PG-13 rating. Instead of the straightforward violence we're used to in the Alien and Predator movies, the violence here is broken into three parts...

  1. Show the monster swinging a sharp object.
  2. Show the victim anticipating the death blow (and screaming, if the victim is human).
  3. Show blood splattering nearby.
Simple as that. Oddly enough, the movie is rated PG-13 for violence, language, horror images, slime, and gore. Slime?! If the MPAA can give a movie a PG-13 rating for slime, then I'm surprised Ghostbusters 2 didn't get an R. That movie is about slime. Just add that to the list of things that made absolutely no sense at all in this movie.

Speaking of confusing things, we don't see the Aliens and Predators onscreen together until 53 minutes into the movie. When you see a movie called Alien vs. Predator, you expect to see monsters fighting each other, not occasional monster fighting interspersed with a bunch of worthless cannon fodder people walking around like a bunch of morons. I can understand wanting a human element in the film, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the title characters. The two species of extraterrestrial killers do square off, yes, but by the time they get around to fighting, the poor direction and paper-thin characters will have probably bored you to death.

Seriously, what kind of idiot thought it was a good idea to give the quite inconsequential research team more screen time than the Aliens and Predators combined? Oh yeah, I know who that idiot is: writer and director Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson's screenplay is ungodly bad, immediately evidenced by the fact that the movie was set on Earth circa October 2004. That's about as lazy as Anakin Skywalker living on Tatooine in The Phantom Menace. Why not just set it in space in the year 3000, or something like that?

The movie just plods along, not really bothering to explain what's going on at any given time. How do the little Chestburster Alien guys grow so fast, when it took days in the previous four Alien movies? I guess the Predators had the Alien Queen hopped up on steroids in order to speed up their hunt, but since they never say one way or the other, all I can do is make assumptions. It's one thing for a movie to make the audience think about it, but it's another to force the audience to guess what's happening at any given time. Sometimes even the brightest viewer needs to have things spelled out for the movie to make any sense. And then there's the "surprise" coda that was so expected, it wasn't even a surprise at all. I'll admit that it was cool, yes, but it could be seen coming from a mile away.

And am I the only one who noticed a few large jumps in logic? Take, for example, the scene in which we are introduced to Sanaa Latham's character. She's hanging from the side of a cliff on a clear day with nobody and nothing around, yet is surprised when she discovers a helicopter at the top. I may be jumping to conclusions here, but wouldn't she have, you know, heard it flying overhead? I could understand if she was so focused on scaling the cliff that she didn't notice, but how do you not notice a helicopter landing right above you? They aren't exactly a stealthy type of transportation.

Another bizarre moment sees Latham's character telling everyone that the first rule of business was that everyone should stick together. So what does everyone do? They split up and go off by themselves. And then Latham goes off by herself to yell at everyone for going off by themselves. The insanity of the movie's screenplay culminates in a scene where we learn about the ancient civilization that populated the pyramid getting decimated by one of the Predator wrist-mounted nuclear bombs. If the entire civilization was wiped out, how could they write hieroglyphics about it? Were they doing it from beyond the grave? And what was with the pyramid walls intermittently moving around? There's no real rhyme or reason to anything. The whole movie is a vicious cycle of stupidity.

And let's not forget about Anderson's trite, hackneyed direction. With Alien vs. Predator, Anderson appears to have no grasp on what made the first two Alien movies and the first Predator so enthralling. The movie suffers from uneven pacing and lighting that's too dark to really get a grasp on what we're seeing. Alien vs. Predator also suffers from the same problem plaguing many action movies nowadays: lightning fast editing and shaky camera work. During many of the one-on-one fight scenes involving the Aliens and Predators, the camera is all over the place and each cut lasts only a few seconds. What ever happened to the good old days, where filmmakers would just film a fight scene from two or three angles and let that be that?

While I have no doubt that Anderson can make a movie that is visually stimulating, he seems to forget all the important stuff like story, decent scripting, good characters, good actors, that sort of thing. He is very much a director that favors style over substance, and while a "style over substance" type of film can be good in the hands of a competent director (e.g. John McTiernan's work on the original Predator), Anderson has yet to prove himself as either a credible writer or director. I don't hate Anderson with the same vitriol of others online, and I do think he has a good movie in him somewhere, but he needs to realize that just because you make a movie with style doesn't mean you've made a good movie. Even the musical score, composed by Harold Kloser, is unremarkable. It's just way too generic to make any sort of mark on the movie.

I also found the cast to be a tad lackluster. It seems like almost every character has an overstated foreign accent, but the funny part is their accents are all real. With the exceptions of Sanaa Latham and Lance Henriksen, just about everyone in the main cast is from Europe. The cast reads like a who's who of European countries; England, Scotland, France, Italy, Denmark, and the Czech Republic are all represented. Maybe the movie's very British director wanted a cast full of Europeans because he didn't want to feel lonely, I don't know. I don't have anything against Europe, but hearing almost every character speak with an accent threw me off.

But in any event, Sanaa Latham has nothing resembling the screen presence or strength as Sigourney Weaver would have. Latham has all the charisma of a brick wall, and for the majority of the movie, she's an annoying harpy that just bogs the movie down. There's absolutely no reasoning given to make we the viewer want to see her survive. The rest of the cast is nothing but fluff and filler, with only Lance Henriksen being of note because he rules no matter what project he's working on.

The movie's tagline is "whoever wins, we lose," and I don't believe they could have picked one that was any more fitting. Alien vs. Predator is stupendously bad, a disappointment on the grandest scale. It's one thing to not live up to Predator and the first two Alien movies, because those three movies are classics no matter how you slice it. But when your movie makes people pine for Predator 2 and Alien: Resurrection, you may want to rethink your career. I honestly can't justify giving Alien vs. Predator anything higher than two stars. It's a sad, depressing waste of potential, and it's a shame that it couldn't even achieve mediocre status as a film.

Final Rating: **

Friday, November 25, 2005

Alien (1979)

Following the unexpected box office success of Star Wars in 1977, movies featuring aliens became all the rage. That trend brought us movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the idea of peaceful extraterrestrial life wasn't what Ridley Scott was aiming for when he directed Alien in 1979.

While most of the science fiction movies released in the wake of Star Wars featured a mixture of aliens that were both good and bad, Alien featured nothing but evil. There's no Wookies or Vulcans in sight, only a gigantic monster whose sole purpose is to kill, maim, and lay waste to everything around it. While Alien may have a nice glossy coating of science fiction on the exterior, inside is nothing short of a horror movie. It wasn't the first movie to have a seemingly unstoppable monster picking off each member of the cast one by one, but it has earned a reputation as being one of the best in the thirty years since it was first released.

Our tale of terror begins in the year 2122 aboard the Nostromo, a commercial towing vessel hauling an enormous ore refinery and twenty million tons of mineral ore behind it on its return course to Earth. Their journey home, however, is interrupted when the ship's computer intercepts what appears to be a foreign distress beacon originating from a tiny, uninhabitable planet named "LV-426." The computer awakens the seven-person crew from suspended animation to investigate the transmission. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and executive officer Kane (John Hurt) venture to the surface of LV-426, quickly discovering the remnants of a derelict spacecraft hiding thousands of bizarre eggs within it.

Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us, the viewer), the crew of the Nostromo made a very bad decision in examining the eggs. One of the eggs opens and a giant parasitic creature leaps out, cracking through Kane's protective helmet and latching itself onto his face.

Dallas and Lambert carry their unconscious crewmate back to the ship, where warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to let them in due to quarantine regulations. However, science officer Ash (Ian Holm) turns a deaf ear to Ripley's protests and opens a hatch to let them in. Kane is taken to the Nostromo's medical ward, where Ash deduces that removing the thing from his face poses too great a threat, especially since it's forced a proboscis down his throat. But eventually, the thing ends up falling off on its own, seemingly dead Kane wakes back up, and everything is hunky-dory. He's better! The movie's over, let's go home! Oh wait, it hasn't ended yet, after all. Oops.

Anyway, the seven crew members sit down for a meal, but the normal dinnertime chitchat is interrupted when Kane begins gagging. His choking develops into a full-blown seizure, but before anyone can help him a lizard-like creature bores its way through his chests and scurries away, leaving Kane's bloody corpse lying on the dinner table. The remaining crew begins a search for it through the Nostromo's dark, narrow corridors, but soon find themselves at the mercy of a beast growing larger and more terrifying with each victim.

While I'm probably more partial to its 1986 sequel Aliens, I still love Alien. As I said above, it isn't the first movie to feature an monstrous killer (in space or on land) nor is it the first sci-fi thriller, but it manages to seamlessly blend the genres into a "haunted house in space" that is quite scary once it gets rolling. Truth be told, Alien has more in common with Halloween than with the other zillion sci-fi movies released in the late '70s and early '80s. The movie even has the stereotypical "cat jumps out and scares the crap out of someone" horror movie moment. Alien even features a spin on the "Final Girl" idea, with Sigourney Weaver as a strong heroine. Most people were expecting Tom Skerritt to be the last person standing because not only did he have top billing, but because he was a man.

Despite only being Ridley Scott's second feature film (the first being The Duellists in 1977), his genius as a director is evident. Alien rooted Scott as a true visionary, and even after seeing its premiere twenty-five years ago, both Alien and his 1982 effort Blade Runner are ultimately mentioned by reviewers whenever Scott makes a new movie. Admittedly, the movie moves awfully slow for the first hour or so, but any conception that it's boring is quickly dashed by the shock and awe of the Alien's wrath. The slow, almost lethargic pace at the beginning is just the calm before the storm. Once we get to the dinner scene, everything starts going to Hell in a big way. Scott's direction is flawless here, and his talent can be seen in numerous moments throughout the movie.

Take, for example, a scene in which the character Brett (played by Harry Dean Stanton) is hunting for the crew's pet cat. Making stellar use of an uneasy environment, Scott makes sure the audience is as freaked out as possible. When the Alien attacks, we cut away to see the cat watching a horror we can only hear. He shows just enough to send the viewer's imagination into overdrive, and the imagination is always much more terrifying that we could be shown. Scott's use of frantic handheld camera movement is unsettling, not letting us really know what's happening and putting us into the universe of the characters we're watching.

His work is complimented by Jerry Goldsmith's musical score, which wonderfully captures the tension and the mystery of the movie. His use of a subtle heartbeat thumping during the slower, more atmospheric scenes is incredibly effective, and effectiveness goes a long way in movies like this. Goldsmith won a Grammy and a Golden Globe for his score, so it can't be all bad, can it?

Most movies live and die by the quality of their cast, and Alien has a cast that's up to task. The cast is comprised of actors who were relatively unknown at the time (though a number of them would go on to greater fame in the future), and while we don't really get to know their characters that well, the seven do have a very engaging chemistry. We can believe each of them are normal, frightened people, and perhaps the most realistic is Veronica Cartwright. Her character represents what how most of us would act if we were confronted with an extraterrestrial hellspawn that intends to kill us and use our bodies to propagate its species. Cartwright's character is a hysterical, blubbering wuss that's scared to the point of emotional exhaustion, and though some may find her annoying, her character is us.

Each member of the cast is entertaining in their own right, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. Weaver would go on to greater success with movies like Ghostbusters, Gorillas in the Mist, and Aliens, but the original Alien film is her breakout role and she shines. A lesser actress wouldn't have the strength Weaver conveys, and it is her performance that makes her character such a lasting icon in sci-fi. Even today, in the rare occasion where we have a female hero in an action movie, she commonly finds herself being weighed against Ripley. While she essentially is the typical Final Girl here and didn't truly cement her reputation until the release of Aliens seven years later, Ripley is in rare company with Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor from The Terminator as the patron saints of heroines in action movies.

However, Alien's true stars not the seven human actors, but the production design of Michael Seymour and the Oscar-winning creature design of H.R. Giger. Seymour's work is an absolutely perfect parallel for what the movie is depicting, and Seymour presents us with a maze of dark, tight passages that amp up the claustrophobia and tension.

Assisting this is Giger, who has crafted one of the ugliest, most horrific sci-fi villains ever. From its mouth of razor-sharp teeth to the slimy reptilian body, few movie monsters can equal the fright the Alien instigates. While the look of the Alien would improve in the sequels thanks to advancements in special effects, Giger's design is still frightening. His work serves as a reminder that before filmmakers resorted to CGI, monsters could be just as scary using practical effects.

And a quick thought about the movie: Did anybody else notice the Purina logo in certain places? Are we to assume that 100 years from now, a dog food company can specialize in interstellar travel? With all the recent advances in technology, I don't doubt it. But that does make me wonder if Purina would have any ties with the malfeasant Weyland-Yutani corporation depicted in the Alien franchise.

Despite twenty-five years having passed since it was first released, Alien has withstood the test of time as one of the true classics of both horror and science fiction. One could even argue that Alien was as influential as Star Wars, demonstrating that you don't have to set your movie a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away to make a good sci-fi movie. It may have not been the first movie of its kind, but it is without a doubt one of the best. Alien gets four stars and a hearty recommendation, so go check it out already.

Final Rating: ****

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Predator (1987)

In the aftermath of his breakthrough appearance as the titular character in 1982's Conan the Barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger became a mega-star in the world of big-budget Hollywood action movies. Though I doubt you'll ever see him winning an Oscar, he's amassed a résumé of some of the biggest action movies ever made. With movies like the The Terminator, The Running Man, and Commando, Schwarzenegger had become perhaps the most recognizable action star ever by the late '80s.

By the time 1987 rolled around, Arnold found himself cast in a movie that, like The Terminator, would serve as a benchmark in both the action and science fiction genres. Helmed by Die Hard director John McTiernan, Predator has the same kind of recipe for action and sci-fi that Alien had for sci-fi and horror. I mean, take a look at what it has: Arnold Schwarzenegger, explosions, gunfire, angry commandos (which I guess ties into the gunfire), a jungle, and a seven-foot-tall intergalactic killing machine. With a blueprint like that, I'm not surprised that its earned a reputation as one of the premier "Guy Movies" of the '80s. Now let's see what all the hubbub is about, shall we?

Our story centers around Major Dutch Shaeffer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team of commandos, comprised of stoic Mac (Bill Duke), grizzled Native American Billy (Sonny Landham), tobacco-chewing cowboy Blain (Jesse Ventura), foul-mouthed comedian Hawkins (Shane Black), and irritable translator Poncho (Richard Chaves). The CIA has drafted Dutch and his team to rescue a group of stranded CIA airmen being held captive by terrorists in a Central American jungle, with CIA operative Major Dillon (Carl Weathers) tagging along. The team arrive in the jungle but by the time they find the terrorist base camp, it's too late. The airmen have met a horrible demise, having been killed, skinned, and strung up from trees. Of course, you know this means war.

The commandos retaliate in the grandest of fashions: Lots of gunfire, lots of explosions, corny one-liners from Arnold, the whole shebang. Of course, the whole terrorist thing proves to be a gigantic red herring. As the commandos wait for their helicopter pickup, a chameleon-like entity we know as the Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) begins to hunt down and kill them one by one. The chameleon violently thins out the ranks until the only ones left alive are Dutch and a girl from the camp, Anna (Elpidia Carrillo). Soon thereafter we learn the true nature of their adversary: the Predator is an intergalactic big game hunter that's named humans as its big game of choice.

In his review for the movie, Roger Ebert labeled Predator an amalgamation of Alien and a Rambo movie, and I find that description to be somewhat accurate. That's not a bad thing, though. Predator is one rockin' movie, and everything good you've heard about it is probably true. In the same vein as the Alien quartet and Terminator trilogy, Predator is a sci-fi movie that action fans love, and it's an action movie that sci-fi fans love. Besides, how many movies can boast that it had three gubernatorial candidates in it? "But wait," you're probably asking, "weren't there just two?" Everyone knows that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura have occupied the governor's office in California and Minnesota, but what isn't as well known is that Sonny Landham was a candidate in the 2003 race to elect the governor of Kentucky before eventually dropping out. (Fun fact: Schwarzenegger and Ventura were both the thirty-eighth governors of their respective states.)

Since I don't really have any complaints about the movie, let's get to the good stuff. First off, I'm gonna hit the acting. Schwarzenegger's role here further solidified his reputation as one of action's biggest stars and he shines brightly here, but he's still playing the same tough-as-nails military guy that he plays in most of his movies. I bet you could swap the Arnold from Predator with the Arnold from Commando, and you probably couldn't tell any difference. But he's rockin' here, so no nay-saying from me. I also really enjoyed Jesse Ventura as Blain, who provided some good campy fun stuff. I bet his Navy SEAL experience helped him with the role, too. Also noteworthy were Carl Weathers and Bill Duke, both of whom I thought did a great job.

John McTiernan's direction is excellent, as well. The jungle is a creative setting to begin with, and McTiernan, who would go on to greater fame as the director of Die Hard, utilizes it for many great scenes (with a little assistance from scriptwriters Jim and John Thomas and cinematographer Donald McAlpine). While Die Hard would not be released until 1988, his talent as an action movie director is evidenced here. On the music side of things, Alan Silvestri's score is absolutely tremendous. The bongo drums blended with the orchestra are really cool, what with the jungle setting and all, and parts of the score gave a strong military feel to go with the commando team.

Stan Winston's effects are also superb, right up there with his work on the Terminator movies. The Predator's facial features are awesome, and that clicking growl is intimidating as all hell. The makeup was helped by the actor wearing it, Kevin Peter Hall. He's an frightening figure, and the fact that he's 7'2" helps. And to think, the Predator was almost played by Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Predator is one of those movies that any casual action/sci-fi fan should see at least once, if they haven't already. Granted, there's not much in the way of plot or character development, but come on. The movie is almost non-stop manliness for an hour and forty-seven minutes, and with that kind of groundwork, I'm not surprised that the plot is threadbare. But no matter, because the movie still manages to be unequivocally astounding. As one of the best action movies of all time and a fine sci-fi movie as well, Predator gets the full five stars and a hearty Sutton At The Movies seal of approval.

Final Rating: *****

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Devil's Rejects (2005)

Movies oftentimes straddle the line between good taste and moral reprehensibility. Others obliterate that line, unapologetically showing us how horrific the human imagination can be. If you're a fan of low-budget horror movies from the 1970s, you saw a lot of movies like that. Ultra-violent movies like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes are oft-cited benchmarks in exploitative grindhouse cinema, but today serve only as relics of a bygone era of filmmaking that was wiped out by a combination of political correctness, the desire to make more money, and a general drop in interest by moviegoers.

But the style was far from forgotten, as proved when heavy metal star and horror movie enthusiast Rob Zombie ventured into filmmaking with his Texas Chainsaw Massacre homage House of 1000 Corpses. Though critical reaction was mixed and the box office returns were modest at best, that didn't stop Zombie from making a sequel titled The Devil's Rejects. Rather than return to the same style of film, Zombie instead takes us in a new direction for a movie that can be seen as a wild combination of Natural Born Killers and Bonnie and Clyde, with dashes of Taxi Driver and Thelma and Louise for flavor. Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gave it two thumbs up, but what exactly do I think?

Like any good sequel, the movie begins somewhere in the neighborhood of six months after the events of House of 1000 Corpses. Via an opening narration, we learn that the murderous Firefly clan has been dubbed "the Devil's Rejects" by the press, and are wanted in connection with seventy-five murders. We waste no time getting into the action after the monologue, as the dilapidated farmhouse that the Devil's Rejects call home has been surrounded by a heavily-armed squadron of police officers led by pragmatic Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe).

Obsessed with bringing down the Devil's Rejects because they murdered his brother in House of 1000 Corpses, Sheriff Wydell announces to his deputy that they are about to dole out an "Alabama ass-whoopin'" of epic scope. The police launch their attack on the house, and by the time it's all said and done, one is missing in action, one is killed, and matriarch Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is taken into police custody. But never fear, fans of violence and lovers of gore, because family alpha male Otis (Bill Moseley) and his slutty half-sister Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) have escaped through a hidden tunnel beneath the house.

The duo soon arrive at a seedy motel in the middle of nowhere, where they cross paths with a country band called "Banjo & Sullivan." And as you can probably surmise, the members of Banjo & Sullivan won't be appearing in House of 1000 Corpses 3, as they soon find themselves both sexually and mentally assaulted before they're gruesomely dispatched. Baby's father, the repellent clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), arrives shortly thereafter, and the terrible trio hit the road.

They head straight for "Charlie's Frontier Fun Town," an Old West-themed whorehouse owned and operated by Spaulding's "brother from another mother," Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree). The Old West theme is fitting, as the area seems like a ghost town, populated only by Charlie, his assistant Clevon (Michael Berryman), a bouncer, and only two prostitutes. While the Devil's Rejects party in their safe house, Sheriff Wydell has hired ruthless bounty hunters Rondo (Danny Trejo) and Billy Ray Snapper ("Diamond" Dallas Page) to help hunt down his prey. The "Unholy Two," as they're called, succeed, and we segue into the film's finale. Sheriff Wydell captures the Devil's Rejects, leading us down a path of violence that culminates in a bloody final confrontation at the house of a thousand corpses.

The Devil's Rejects is an unabashed exorcise in viciousness and brutality. The movie isn't meant to be "entertaining" or "enjoyable," it's meant to be shocking and intense. If that was truly its intention, I believe it succeeds. The Devil's Rejects may be considered a sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, but it's not so much a continuance of a story as it is a standalone movie with a lot of the same characters. There are only a few fleeting references to House of 1000 Corpses, and The Devil's Rejects has much more in common with Natural Born Killers than its predecessor.

And just like Natural Born Killers, the movie's sympathies lie with the killers, almost leading the viewer to want to cheer for them. While they're definitely a charismatic trio, cheering for them is in essence the same as cheering for the Manson Family. Just because the story is about them doesn't make them the heroes. It doesn't even make them the antiheroes. All three are depraved, sadistic, brutal murderers, and with the exception of Baby being a smoking hot lady-type person, they really don't have any redeemable qualities.

But no matter, because the three characters are disgusting yet compelling, repulsive yet intriguing. It's like a car wreck; no matter how nasty it is, you can't help but stare in amazement. There are a handful of scenes where the movie attempts to cast a more humane light on our three murderers, almost as if we the viewer are wanted to believe that the killers wouldn't be so bad if they weren't completely insane. While I understand the scenes are included in the movie to add a little levity to the movie and give its viewers a break, it seems like we are supposed to root for either the lovable psychos or the unlikable cop that wants to exact justice by lowering himself to the level of the criminals he's chasing.

Writer/director Rob Zombie had all the room in the world to improve after making his directing debut with House of 1000 Corpses, and I think he has. While I liked his work on House of 1000 Corpses, I'll be the first to admit that his inexperience as a movie director was obvious. It's my belief that Zombie began coming into his own as a director with The Devil's Rejects. I think he could end up becoming the Quentin Tarantino of the horror genre over time. He's already taken a cue from Tarantino and has cast numerous forgotten B-list actors from the '70s. There's Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead, Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes, Geoffrey Lewis from High Plains Drifter and Priscilla Barnes from Three's Company as members of Banjo & Sullivan, and cameos from porn star Ginger Lynn Allen and P.J. Soles of Halloween and Carrie fame. And oddly enough, one of Charlie's prostitutes is played by E.G. Daily, who you may recognize as either voice talent on Nickelodeon's Rugrats and Powerpuff Girls or as Dottie from Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

If a movie is a peek into the mind of its creator, then Zombie's brain has been saturated by watching Sam Peckinpah movies and late-night Creature Features. The Devil's Rejects has a very kinetic energy, and if the movie can be given any compliment, it would be that it's never boring. The majority of the movie is filmed with a handheld camera, and when combined with the grainy look of many scenes, it evokes memories of the '70s horror movies that Zombie is very obviously enthralled with. Zombie makes use of clever scene transitions, freeze framing, and odd camera angles to create a movie that gives it a stylistic flair not seen nowadays. Say what you will about Rob Zombie, but his movies definitely look creative.

Going back to my Tarantino remark earlier, Zombie's script features dialogue that seems like it came from the Quentin Tarantino School of Screenwriting. Zombie's dialogue may not be as witty as Tarantino's, but it manages to be as frenetic and fast-paced as anything Tarantino has written. He has no qualms over making his audience as uncomfortable as possible, reveling in the sadistic glee of its main characters. What makes his characters work is that each one earnestly believes that what they are doing is justified. From the three killers who torture and mutilate innocent victims for their own sick pleasure, to the redneck sheriff who hunts down the guilty like animals in the name of vigilante justice.

However, Zombie also throws in humor at odd times so we can catch our breath. I point to a throwaway scene where an obnoxious film critic (played by Robert Trebor) rambles on and on with useless Marx Brothers trivia before Sheriff Wydell has him thrown out of the building for daring to insinuate that Elvis Presley was a glory hog because he died three days before Groucho. The scene is utterly hilarious, simply because it comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere.

Like House of 1000 Corpses, the movie boasts numerous quotable lines, but unlike House of 1000 Corpses, there is nary a reference to Doctor Satan. Zombie said in an interview that using Doctor Satan in The Devil's Rejects would be the same as putting Chewbacca in Bonnie and Clyde, and I'm inclined to agree. As I said above, the references to House of 1000 Corpses are few and far between, and Doctor Satan would have just muddled things up. He really wouldn't have fit within the context of the movie, so the Doctor Satan scenes being left on the cutting room floor makes sense. It would have been neat to see Doctor Satan in the movie, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

And now to the acting. Once again, Sid Haig is absolutely hilarious as Captain Spaulding, proving why many fans of House of 1000 Corpses said he was their favorite character. He's still absolutely filthy and repellent, but still has a bizarre charm about him. I also thought Bill Moseley was great, coming off with that creepy Charles Manson vibe and sporting that Grizzly Adams beard like a champ. Sheri Moon Zombie did fine as Baby, but the change in character from bubbly yet murderous kook in House of 1000 Corpses to bloodthirsty queen bitch in The Devil's Rejects threw me off. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, I just didn't see it coming. Either way, Mrs. Zombie is great, and hopefully she'll start appearing in movies not directed by her husband. William Forsythe is also awesome, and though his character is seemingly portrayed as unlikable, Forsythe plays the role with an intensity needed to make him believable. If someone decides to make a movie about The Punisher as a middle-aged man, they should give William Forsythe a call.

Ken Foree and Michael Berryman were a lot of fun, and Leslie Easterbrook did an admirable job replacing Karen Black as Mother Firefly. She may have been a wee bit over the top in her performance, but I still found it enjoyable. The late Matthew McGrory (who sadly passed away shortly after the release of the movie) reprised his role as Tiny, which is a fitting name because that's how much screen time he got. He's not on screen very long at all, and he might as well not have even been in it at all. It seems like the only reason he was there was to serve as some kind of deus ex machina at the end of the movie. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Danny Trejo and pro wrestler "Diamond" Dallas Page as the Unholy Two. Despite their screen time being rather modest, I really liked them a lot, and would love to see a spin-off starring them.

Moving on, the movie boasts one of the most entertaining soundtracks I've every heard. From rockers like Three Dog Night, Steely Dan, and the Allman Brothers to blues singers Otis Rush and Muddy Waters and country musicians like Buck Owens, the movie uses an arrangement of songs that is perhaps more engaging than the movie itself. And I dare you to tell me that the use of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" at the end doesn't make the final scene that much better. We also get fantastic music from composer Tyler Bates, who has assembled a score that combines pounding industrial music with chilling ambient noises.

If I may, I'd like to borrow a quote from the review written by Roger Ebert: "I don't want to get any e-mail messages from readers complaining that I gave the movie [a good review], and so they went to it expecting to have a good time, and it was the sickest and most disgusting movie they've ever seen. My review has accurately described the movie and explained why some of you might appreciate it and most of you will not, and if you decide to go, please don't claim you were uninformed." I don't know if I accurately described the movie itself, but I know that I've accurately described how I feel about it.

I'll gladly give The Devil's Rejects four stars, but that comes with a warning. The movie's content isn't for everyone. The movie is horrific, demented, obscene, and sadistic, and many may not be able to stomach it, but it is still a well-made movie no matter how you slice it. It's evident that Rob Zombie wants to bring back the exploitative cinema he loved in his youth, and if he continues to make films like The Devil's Rejects, I think he may be able to bring them back on a regular basis.

Final Rating: ****

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Captain America (1990)

In the early days of World War II, one of the most popular varieties of comic book superheroes were the patriotic ones that proudly flew the American flag. Before the United States even entered the war, comic book publishers were giving their readers characters ranging from The Shield and Captain Freedom to Uncle Sam himself. But perhaps the most lasting of these characters is none other than Captain America. The creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, he made his first appearance in 1941, knocking out Adolf Hitler on the cover of Captain America Comics #1. He defended the United States against Nazi and Japanese troops during World War II, but his popularity waned once the war ended. He faded into obscurity, outside of a short-lived reappearance in 1953 to fight the red menace of Communism.

Captain America remained in limbo until 1964, when Marvel Comics resurrected him to be a member of their superhero all-star team, "The Avengers." He's been around ever since, yet despite his long tenure in the comic world, he's never truly achieved the same kind of mainstream recognition as Batman or Superman. Then again, Captain America hasn't really seen much success in other non-comic forms of media anyway.

Believe it or not, there was a time when movies based on Marvel properties were average at best (and horrendous at worst). But prior to movies like Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man, Marvel was tied to less-than-stellar adaptations in the early '90s, and one of them was based on Captain America. It was intended for a theatrical release in America in 1990, but it was instead held back, seeing European releases before being shuffled off straight to American video store shelves in 1992. Maybe the distributors realized just how awful this movie was and tried to keep people from seeing it for as long as possible.

The movie opens in Italy circa 1937, where a young child prodigy named Tadzio de Santis (Massimillo Massimi) is held captive by Nazi soldiers and forced to watch them murder his family. The Nazis have developed a process to create super-soldiers, and their best choice is a psychologically fractured little boy that can play piano like a champ. I guess that makes sense to someone. One of the process's developers, Dr. Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola) objects to using a child as their test subject, and flees to the United States.

The expatriated Nazi scientist sells her super-soldier secrets to the Army, who have developed their own version of the process (named "Project Rebirth") after seven years of work. Project Rebirth's first lucky volunteer is Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger), a gangly all-American young man stricken with polio. The experiment is a success, but Dr. Vaselli is shot and killed immediately thereafter by a Nazi spy. Steve gets shot too, but he isn't gonna stand for that kind of crap, so he electrocutes the spy on some lab equipment.

Two days pass, and the fully healed Steve has adopted the name "Captain America," donning a fireproof costume and wielding an indestructible shield that doubles as a weapon. He's dropped into a Nazi camp just in time to stop them from launching a missile pointed at an unknown target in the United States. He fights his way into the missile command center, where he is immediately confronted by The Red Skull (Scott Paulin), the now-adult subject of Dr. Vaselli's previous experiment with the Nazis. I have no idea why he would pledge loyalty to the Nazis after he watched them murder his family, but hey, I don't write the movies. I just review them.

Getting back on track, Red Skull is a physical and intellectual equal to Captain America, only his face is incredibly deformed (thus earning him his name). The two fight, but Captain America finds himself incapacitated and strapped to the Nazi missile. The Red Skull reveals that the missile is pointed at the White House, so Captain America decides that if he's going down, he's taking the Red Skull with him. He grabs Red Skull by the arm just as the missile begins to take off, so what does the crimson-faced villain do? He doesn't pull his arm away, nor does he shoot Cap to make him let go. Instead, he chooses to cut off his own hand. Brilliant idea, Red. The missile is launched with Captain America still hitching a ride, but as it approaches its target destination of Washington, he manages to throw it off course and sends it flying into the Alaskan tundra. Man, that must have been one hell of a rocket if it made it all the way from Germany to Alaska. Anyway, Captain America ends up getting frozen in suspended animation, and he'll be staying there for quite a while.

Our hero thaws out fifty years later, and a lot has changed since 1944. The Red Skull has gone back to living under his real name, had facial reconstructive surgery (for the most part, anyway), and controls a vast criminal empire responsible for murdering Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers. Already bummed due to a combination of some wicked culture shock and the belief that he failed his country, things don't get much better for ol' Steve Rogers when he discovers that his old girlfriend Bernice (Kim Gillingham) has gotten old and has a family of her own. But to his amazement, he sees the Bernice he knew in her lookalike daughter Sharon (also played by Kim Gillingham). These changes in the world leads him to put away his mask and shield and live life as a simple civilian. But once he learns that the Red Skull has kidnapped the President (Ronny Cox) and killed Bernice while he was at it, Steve must once again adopt his Captain America persona to save the day.

Well... what do I say? Though it probably isn't as bad as its reputation lets on, it's still far from good. The movie does manage to have a very weird charm, but charm does not a good movie make. The directing is uninspired, the writing is lame, and the acting is stiff and wooden. I've heard that director Albert Pyun and screenwriter Stephen Tolkin have done interviews professing a total lack of interest in Captain America, and it shows. The movie's protagonist spends maybe twenty minutes of the movie actually wearing the Captain America costume, which is a total rip-off if you ask me.

I can understand making a mediocre movie due to budget restraints or constant studio interference, but part of me believes that Pyun and Tolkin made a crappy movie just because they didn't respect the source material. And when your tale of a patriotic super-soldier that gets frozen before his triumphant return fifty years later is getting out-shined by direct-to-video obscurities like Matthew Blackheart: Monster Smasher, you're obviously not doing a very good job. And is it just me, or does that costume just look like a star-spangled body condom? People think the costumes in Joel Schumacher's two Batman movies were ugly, but the one worn by Captain America here has them beat. Don't get me started on the fake ears on the sides of the mask, either.

Let's hit the cast really quick, shall we? The son of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, lead actor Matt Salinger has all the appeal of a dirty mop, showing none of the charm or determination that makes his comic book counterpart so engaging. Scott Paulin is also flat and unaffecting as Red Skull, even through pounds of latex makeup. I'd have forgiven him if he'd played Red Skull like a villain on the old Batman TV show, because that would have at least made it fun. But no, we don't get that.

Kim Gillingham is forgettable, and both Ned Beatty (who has a small role as a reporter) and Ronny Cox are just there. I can't blame the cast, though. They need work just like any other actor, and if the director can't motivate them into a good performance, it isn't their fault. Like I've been saying, the only awards Pyun's direction would have won were a couple of Razzies, but then again, we're talking about a guy who has movies like Alien From L.A. and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor on his résumé.

Where the movie's real problems lie are in Tolkin's script. You can use words like "inane" or "banal" to describe the script, and you'd be totally right. I know it's probably not that big of a deal in the long run, but why change Red Skull from a German Nazi to an fascist Italian mob boss? It's not like it was an itty-bitty detail like the white Kingpin being played by a black man in Daredevil or the brunette Daisy Duke being played by a blonde in the Dukes of Hazzard movie. He's a Nazi terror in the comics, and that's what he should be in the movie. And Red Skull is given a pathetic childhood trauma origin story, when we really shouldn't be feeling sympathy for the evil monster.

And the change in Red Skull's home country isn't the only stupid thing in the movie. Once Dr. Vaselli is killed, it is revealed that Captain America is one of a kind because she kept all the info on her super-soldier serum in her head. Couldn't they think of something a little more believable? They could have said the serum was dependant on a rare blood type or some rare gem/element, or there was a fire that destroyed all her notes, or something. But no, she didn't even bother writing it down. And then she goes and puts some important information like Red Skull's real name and the location of his hideout in her diary, of all places. Tolken may not have liked Captain America, but at least he could have tried to write a script that was, y'know, good. If it were me, I'd have set the whole movie during World War II, and had them frozen at the end to set up Captain America 2. But again, that's just me.

Those behind the movie's production really hit the nail on the thumb with their depiction of Captain America. I've definitely seen worse comic book adaptations, but I've definitely seen a lot more that were better. A newer version with a bigger budget (and hopefully, a good cast and a competent director and writer) is in the works at the time of this review, and hopefully it'll turn out a lot better than this steaming turd. Captain America wasn't totally awful, but it didn't make me want to watch it more than once. I'll give the movie one and a half stars, and you shouldn't feel bad if you miss it.

Final Rating:

Thursday, October 27, 2005

House of Wax (2005)

Lately, it seems like Hollywood has been running out of ideas. Everything is based on a true story or seems like it's just reprocessed material from another movie. As such, I'm not exactly surprised when a remake goes into production. Remakes are twelve for ten cents nowadays, but when Dark Castle Entertainment announced its intentions to remake a certain horror classic, I was intrigued. Dark Castle, a company founded by Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, and Gilbert Adair to make horror movies for Warner Brothers, is no stranger to the idea of remaking classic horror movies. After all, their first two movies were remakes of William Castle's House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts.

But the reason I was so intrigued by their third remake is the fact that the source material is a remake itself. Any horror fan worth their salt has heard of the 1953 horror House of Wax, starring the legendary Vincent Price. The movie's one of the highest grossing 3-D movies ever made, but I don't know how many of you readers know that it was a remake too. Yep, the original House of Wax is a remake of the relatively obscure 1933 movie The Mystery of the Wax Museum, which itself was based on a play written by Charles Belden. So what we've got with Dark Castle's House of Wax is a remake of a remake of movie based on a play. Got that? Good.

The movie follows a group of friends on a road trip from Florida to Louisiana for a huge college football game. We've got good girl Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), her criminally-inclined twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray), her boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki), her best friend Paige (Paris Hilton), Paige's boyfriend Blake (Robert Ri'chard), and camcorder-carrying dork Dalton (Jon Abrahams). They have a confrontation with a trucker while camping, and when they awaken the next morning, they discover that the engine of Wade's car may or may not have been tampered with.

To avoid being stranded, they accept a ride into the secluded ghost town of Ambrose so they can hunt for a new fan belt for the car. Once they arrive in Ambrose, they find themselves drawn to the House of Wax, a museum filled with remarkably lifelike wax figures. However, they soon discover that the House of Wax and the rest of the town has been populated by the wax-coated corpses of unlucky visitors. The five friends must find a way to avoid murderous twin brothers Bo and Vincent (Brian Van Holt in a duel role) and escape Ambrose before they too become permanent exhibits in the House of Wax.

Apparently Dark Castle Entertainment adopted the same idea of remaking a film that the producers of the Dawn of the Dead remake had: to take a famous horror movie and the barest skeleton of its plot, and go in a far different direction than its predecessor. House of Wax bears little resemblance to its source material, with the titular wax museum serving as the only link between them. Dark Castle labeled it a "re-imagining" instead of a "remake," which is essentially their way of saying "we just took the name and basic plot, and made a totally different movie."

The movie also seems to borrow bits and pieces from What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, which they even reference by name in the movie itself. House of Wax owes much more to recent movies like Wrong Turn and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake than to Vincent Price's classic, right down to Elisha Cuthbert wearing an outfit similar to the ones worn by Eliza Dushku and Jessica Biel in said films. The movie is simply your typical backwoods slasher movie, only without cannibal rednecks, the antagonists are demented twins that like to make wax figures with their victims.

The movie, written by twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes, is absolutely chock full of genre clichés. Let's take the characters, for example. There's Final Girl, the boyfriend, the token black guy, the angsty one, the dork nobody really likes, and the slut. How many times have we seen those characters in a horror movie? There's also instances of the characters breaking some of the cardinal rules of horror by splitting up, snooping around strange places, and running up the stairs when the front door is easily accessible. You also never really get a chance to know the characters, or even like them. The handful of brief attempts at making these lame characters seem real are just weak, and the dialogue is stilted and disposable. There's also have a subplot that the Paige character might be pregnant, but it's both badly written and barely even mentioned at all. The script also left me asking how a building made of wax could survive in the very muggy south. And is it even possible to make a building made entirely of wax in the first place?

Moving on, the cast is kind of a mixed bag as well. I liked Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, and Brian Van Holt, but the rest of the cast did nothing to make them stand out. Honestly, the movie could have easily been made without Robert Ri'chard or Jon Abrahams, and neither of them would have been missed. And how about Paris Hilton? Casting her got a lot of heat from critics, who argued that filmmakers really shouldn't be casting someone whose only discernable claim to fame is being an insanely rich floozy who videotaped herself having sex with Shannon Doherty's ex-husband. While I agree that she got famous for doing absolutely nothing, I applaud her for trying to do something with her fame. But the thing is, I've seen more believable acting from brick walls. It seems like she downed a handful of Valium before each take. I know the movie isn't supposed to be Shakespeare, but she could have at least tried harder. But in her favor, at least she can run and scream like a champ.

However, where the movie succeeds is its direction and special effects. Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra makes his motion picture debut with House of Wax, and his experience directing music videos shows. The movie is slick and stylish, with some very inventive camera angles and great jump-scares. He also manages to make quite a few sly references to One Night In Paris, though I don't know if they were intentional or not. If they were, it makes sense. Why not play to what we know Paris is good at?

Anyway, the makeup effects are also great, another brilliant job by KNB EFX Group. Thanks to KNB's work, the movie has its fair share of disturbing moments. From knives to Achilles' tendons and throats, to fingers getting chopped off and lips getting super-glued together, what the movie lacks in characterization is made up for in violent savagery. The wax creations themselves also look absolutely outstanding, and those who worked to put them together get a big thumbs-up from me. We also have an exciting score composed by John Ottman, which made the movie that much more fun to watch.

I know I complained about it a lot, but House of Wax was actually pretty entertaining at times. Unfortunately, the movie seems like there's a "been there, done that" feeling. The lyrics may be different, but the song still sounded the same. I liked Wrong Turn, and I liked the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Did I like House of Wax? I didn't love it, but I certainly didn't hate it either. I'm going to give it two and a half stars, which sounds about right to me.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, October 16, 2005

High Tension (2003)

From cerebral thrillers to ghosts to zombies to monsters, the horror genre can cover a lot of ground. But perhaps the most controversial of all the sub-genres, however, is the slasher film. Closely related to the Italian "giallo" style of literature and filmmaking, slasher movies have often been reviled by critics as trite, formulaic claptrap serving no real purpose other than to show attractive actors getting killed. But horror fans paid critics no mind, rushing into theaters to see the dozens of slasher movies that were released in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th.

As the 1980s progressed, slasher movies became fewer and far-between, sputtering and wheezing to a slow death. However, things changed in 1996, when renowned horror maestro Wes Craven and Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson teamed up for Scream. The movie was a big fat hit, revitalizing the slasher genre with its all-star cast and self-referential nature. But as good as Scream is, it started a new trend of slasher movies that were intended less for people who grew up watching them, and more for the Dawson's Creek demographic.

The amount of blood and gore was reduced and the violence was severely toned down, becoming much more implied (if not totally off-screen). Whether the toned-down violence and gore was due to an attempt to appeal to the "teeny bopper" demographic or due to MPAA restrictions is anybody's guess, but the watering-down of the genre even saw the release of a PG-13 slasher movie (Cry Wolf, for you trivia buffs). I don't have a problem with PG-13 horror movies or movies where the violence is more implied, but you'd figure that a slasher movie by nature would feature lots of blood and violence.

A lot of diehard slasher movie fans pined for a return to the "good ol' days," which is what they were hoping for in Alexandra Aja's High Tension. Released in its native France as Haute Tension ("High Voltage") and in the United Kingdom as Switchblade Romance, the movie spent two years frightening Europe before Lions Gate Films brought it across the Atlantic Ocean for an extremely short-lived limited release in the summer of 2005. Was High Tension the return to the old-school style that fans were hoping for, or should it have stayed in France?

The plot can be described relatively simply, so let's get to it, shall we? College students Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) head into the French countryside so they can spend a peaceful weekend studying at the secluded farmhouse owned by Alex's family. Unfortunately for them, the serenity doesn't last long, as a psychopathic stranger (Philippe Nahon) breaks into the house and brutally slaughters Alex's family. While Marie manages to elude the burly lunatic, Alex finds herself tied up and thrown into the back of the murderer's truck, which, judging from its interior, looks to have claimed numerous victims in the past (while appearing as if it were stolen from the Jeepers Creepers prop department, to boot). Before the night is out, Marie must find a way to rescue Alex and avoid becoming a victim herself, following a bloody path left by a madman with a thirst for carnage.

High Tension is one of those movies where, even if you have absolutely no idea what's going on at any given time, you'll still be blown away. It takes two or three viewings for everything to sink in, but each time, my appreciation for the movie grows. Though its seemingly out-of-nowhere twist ending may not please everyone, High Tension is a well-crafted piece of horror art. And while the movie may be filled with gore and violence, it would still be terrifying without it. True horror doesn't come from showing graphic imagery, it comes from the anticipation, from the atmosphere. High Tension understands this, and though it's unabashedly soaked in blood, it also uses an "oh man, what's the killer going to do next?" mentality that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat. And while it may be a foreign movie, High Tension is true to the genre's American roots. We see homages to horror movies from days gone by, from classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Shining, to lesser-known gems like William Lustig's gritty 1980 flick Maniac. There's even references to non-horror movies, as evidenced a subtle nod to True Romance towards the end of the movie.

The script, penned by Grégory Levasseur and director Alexandre Aja, doesn't rely very heavily on dialogue. Between the first twenty minutes and the last five, there's only one scene with any extensive dialogue. But you know what? It isn't really needed. The movie isn't about what the characters have to say, it's about what happens to them as their whole world falls to pieces around them. In the early moments of the movie, we see a badly scarred Marie telling her story from a hospital room. With this knowledge, we realize that she survives, but where the suspense lies is seeing how she goes from Point A to Point B. We don't expect the characters to sit down and have nice lengthy conversations, we expect them to face dangerous situations. The script isn't a typical film of this ilk, in that we see touches of humanity within. Take, for example, Alex's mother (played by Oana Pellea). After being horrifically brutalized by the killer, she doesn't ask for help, but merely whispers "why me?" with her dying breath. This proves to be both poignant and disturbing, and is a very effective moment indeed.

High Tension is brilliantly directed by Aja, assisted by tight editing and the gorgeous cinematography of Mahime Alexandre. The movie looks absolutely wonderful, from the luscious greens of a forest, to the dark blues of night, to the drab yellows of the farmhouse. A lot of horror directors forget about how scary suspense can be, but Aja doesn't. We only see quickly-paced editing in a few spots, as Aja instead chooses to linger on certain shots. Aja takes his time, making his film dig itself under the viewer's skin.

Aiding this is the very visceral sound design. High Tension benefits from its stellar use of ambient noise to add to the movie's anxiousness, sometimes even dropping into total silence with the exceptions of the killer's shoes squeaking on a hardwood floor. When the sound design isn't enough, François Eudes's intense musical score is brought in. In an American movie, the music would manipulate you with cheap jump scares (usually through loud stingers, which I call my "going deaf is scary" theory). The music could overwhelm the movie like in American horror movies, but High Tension's music underlies everything. When the score and sound design are combined, High Tension is as terrifying audibly as it is visually.

In a movie such as this, casting can make or break a movie. If you can't feel some kind of connection to the lead hero or heroine, then it will be harder to draw you in. I thought Cécile De France did a wonderful job as Marie, showing us a tough heroine in the same vein as Linda Hamilton in The Terminator or Sigourney Weaver in Alien. The physicality of her role demands a lot from her, and she's up to task, running the gamut of emotions of anyone who would be in her situation. And when the final twist is revealed, it adds a disturbing subtext to her performance upon repeat viewings that really boosts the movie.

Phillipe Nahon, credited simply as "le tueur" (translation: "the killer"), is given nearly no character development at all. We don't get inside his head, we don't see what makes him tick. He's just a malevolent force of nature driven only by his insatiable bloodlust, reinforced by Nahon's disturbing performance. I'll admit I'm not familiar with Nahon's work, but if he's anything like "le tueur" in any of his other movies, I'll have to check them out. Maïwenn Le Besco doesn't get a lot of screen time (nor does any other member of the limited cast, outside of De France and Nahon), but as far as acting really scared goes, Le Besco nails it.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the outstanding special makeup effects supervised by Gianetto De Rossi. A frequent collaborator with the late horror legend Lucio Fulci, De Rossi's effects look realistic and believable, and I give it a thumbs up. And big props to De Rossi's makeup department for making Nahon look like a nasty monster that would rape you, kill you, then rape you again. Nahon is a handsome guy in real life, but with a combination of makeup, wardrobe, and performance, he comes off as someone who'd make you cross the street just so you wouldn't have to pass him on the sidewalk. According to those behind the scenes, Nahon in full makeup bears a resemblance to notorious French serial murderer Émile Louis, and if that's the case, then perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that Nahon is famous for playing loonies and nutjobs in various French movies.

A review of High Tension isn't complete without mentioning its infamous twist. The subject of heated debate across the Internet, many complain that its ending came out of nowhere, believing that it made The Village's much-maligned twist ending look good. Others, on the other hand, didn't mind so much. I really didn't know what to think of the twist at first, but it's grown on me. The movie is a kindred spirit to The Sixth Sense, so to speak. There are a few clues hinting at the twist, but many of them are so subtle that you don't even recognize them until you see the movie a second or even third time. And it didn't help that people got so worked up denouncing the twist that they didn't even stop and think that it may have worked better had Aja simply revealed it differently. Going back to online complaints, some claim that High Tension is heavily inspired by Dean Koontz's novel Intensity (while others claim it's a case of outright plagiarism). I have yet to read the book at the time of this review, so screw Dean Koontz. Rip-off or not, I still liked the movie.

High Tension may be indicative of the stark differences between American horror and non-American horror. Foreign horror is so far removed from its American counterpart, usually shying away from jokes, pop culture references, or even compassion. Foreign horror is dark, moody, and delves deep into the shadows of the human heart, something most Americans don't usually appreciate or yearn to see. There aren't any postmodern wisecracks or anything like that, but unbridled insanity. Aja says on the DVD audio commentary that he wanted the movie to be as tense and suspenseful as possible, and I think he succeeded. The movie, in my opinion, is a nightmare caught on celluloid. I might be overrating it some, but I'd be willing to bet that High Tension is one of the best slasher films since Scream. And for that, it deserves every bit of praise that one can give it.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Let's fire up the Wayback Machine and head to December 26, 1973, a date that saw the release of one of the most influential and important horror films ever made: The Exorcist. Adapted from William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel, The Exorcist prompted stories of exorcisms to become more and more prevalent following its release. One such story that came to light around that time occurred in Germany, the incidents surrounding a young Bavarian girl named Anneliese Michel. Not long after beginning her first semester at the University of Würzburg in 1973, she began seeing evil visions and hearing demonic voices during her daily prayers, along with suffering violent seizures and convulsions.

A neurologist at Würzburg's psychiatric clinic diagnosed her with "Grand Mal" epilepsy, but Anneliese and her devout Catholic family began to suspect her troubles may be of a spiritual nature. The symptoms of Anneliese's "possession" grew much worse as the years progressed, as she began to eat insects, physically and verbally attack her family, urinate on the floor, engage in self-mutilation, and destroy any religious iconography she could get her hands on.

After keeping an eye on her for several months, Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt were assigned to perform an exorcism. The duo began the procedure in September 1975, performing at least two sessions a week until the end of the following June, a period during which Anneliese often refused to eat (claiming the demons inside her wouldn't let her). Totally emaciated and suffering from both pneumonia and severe exhaustion, Anneliese tragically died from starvation on July 1, 1976. The two priests and her parents (who truly believed their daughter was possessed) were accused of negligent homicide and found guilty of manslaughter, and the case has gone on to become an oft-cited case in the "science vs. religion" debate.

But the discussion has gone on for years. Was Anneliese Michel possessed? Or did she simply suffer from an extremely volatile combination of schizophrenia and epilepsy? Nearly thirty years after the tragic circumstances that ended her life, Anneliese's story was brought to a wider audience with Scott Derrickson's film The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Described by its director as "possibly the first courtroom horror movie," the movie can be also described as an episode of Law & Order centered around the events of The Exorcist, as well as one of the most thought-provoking movies of 2005.

Much of the story is told via flashbacks from a courtroom, where hotshot defense lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) reluctantly agrees to represent Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) against charges of negligent homicide following an exorcism that went bad. Up against Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a tough-as-nails prosecuting attorney who's more rattlesnake than man in the courtroom, Father Moore refuses to accept any kind of plea agreement despite the archdiocese pressuring him to do so.

The padre doesn't care if he goes to jail for a million lifetimes, because his sole desire is to tell the story of what happened. As he tells his tale to his defender throughout the course of the movie, we are introduced to young Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) as she leaves her sheltered rural home to attend college. Things start out well at first, but that's shattered when she has the first in a series of terrifying "incidents," for lack of a better word. She sees bizarre grimaces on the faces of passersby, and much worse, begins suffering from increasingly violent seizures and tremors. Father Moore was called in to exorcise her, and as you can guess from the trial, it wasn't exactly a success. As said trial progresses, Erin finds her cynicism and agnosticism challenged as Father Moore leads her deeper into the horrors faced by Emily Rose before her untimely demise.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one of those movies that has to be experienced to be believed. While the movie was marketed as a horror film, there's really more going on. As I said at the top of the review, the movie is what you'd get if you lumped The Exorcist and Law & Order into a blender, and it's handled quite well. Scott Derrickson (who, coincidentally, also wrote and directed the direct-to-video demon tale Hellraiser: Inferno in 2000) proves himself to be a credible director, especially during the very stylish flashback scenes. The movie has a very creepy leitmotif where the especially tense moments in the flashbacks are bathed in an odd orange/pink light, which I found to be very effective in setting up a necessary atmosphere, an atmosphere enhanced by Christopher Young's tense, chilling score.

However, I thought Derrickson's direction during the courtroom scenes was almost too simplistic. It was just wide shot, medium shot, and close-up over and over, with maybe a couple of dolly moves across the room to change things up a little bit. I have no problem with simplicity, but it just seemed like he directly avoided doing anything out of the ordinary. On second thought, maybe that was the point. The flashbacks were all about kinetic filmmaking, while the courtroom scenes took a more straightforward approach. But still, the scenes just seemed flat when compared with the rest of the film.

Whatever flaws the movie may have, the acting isn't one of them. Jennifer Carpenter is absolutely amazing as the film's title character. Anyone with even the slightest desire to see this movie should check it out just for her. While it seems she has limited screen time, she leaves a lasting presence with her convincing, physical performance. The terrors Emily lived through are never far from the film's surface, and it's a testament to Carpenter's ability. She draws the viewer in with her incredibly vulnerable demeanor, then proceeds to scare the snot out of them. If you can watch the scene where Emily's boyfriend (played by Joshua Close) wakes up in her dorm room without jumping out of your skin, you're a far tougher person than I.

The other main members of the cast are great as well. Tom Wilkinson brought a sense of humanity and well-received depth to the all-important role of Father Moore (despite some cheesy dialogue at times), while Laura Linney is equally engrossing. And let's not forget Campbell Scott, whose turn as an extraordinarily mean prosecutor makes him thoroughly unlikable but still fun to watch.

However, I do have a complaint. Chiefly, it's the screenplay, written by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman. Take that "the game is on" line during Father Thomas's testimony, for example. I'm sure that line looked good on paper during the writing process, but when Wilkinson says it, it struck me as just being banal and silly. Another, less groan-inducing line wouldn't have been so bad, but they stuck "the game is on" in there and just made me giggle instead.

And I did find it odd that Father Moore was the only one on trial. Even if the exorcism failed, Father Moore at least tried to help Emily, which is more than I can say for her parents. They're the ones who agreed to cease feeding her. They're the ones who didn't take her to the hospital and get her hopped up on sedatives so they could not only keep her from hurting herself or others, but so they could get some food in her system. All they did was sit there and watch their daughter die. I'm not saying if Emily was or wasn't possessed, I'm just saying that those two yokels were probably more at fault for their daughter dying than Father Moore was. Call me crazy, but that's just how I see it. I don't want to sound like I'm dogging them because they believed God would cure her of her problems, but I'd like to think God could use science to help out if He wanted to. It's like the old "I sent two boats and a helicopter" joke. In any event, I really don't have any other complaints with the script, so that's enough of that.

Though the movie seems to lean more toward the idea of Emily being possessed, it delicately handles both sides of the coin, treating each argument with respect while letting the viewer themselves decide what really happened. Whether you believe Emily (and by proxy, Annaliese Michel) was possessed or if she was a psychotic epileptic, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a well-crafted movie no matter how you slice it. You can tell a movie's effectiveness by how much you think about it afterwards, and if you get absorbed into The Exorcism of Emily Rose like I did, you'll find it stuck in your brain for a while. I'll give it a solid four stars and a definite thumbs-up.

Final Rating: ****