Saturday, December 30, 2006

BloodRayne (2006)

Films based on video games have a pre-established reputation as very rarely reaching above mediocrity, with the vast majority of them being uncompromisingly bad. Not helping the stereotype is German director Uwe Boll. A "filmmaker" in the loosest sense of the word, Boll has gained some form of infamy for his involvement with two of this decade's most reviled films, House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark. Both were adaptations of video games, both crashed and burned at the box office, both were atrociously bad. I mean, they were so bad that they make those crappy Sci-Fi Channel original movies look good by comparison.

But I assume that poor box office income and horrendous critical reactions don't matter much to Boll, who ventured into the world of video games a third time with his acculturation of BloodRayne. Based on the horror game franchise developed by Terminal Reality and released by Majestic Games, the movie is nothing short of a great big suckburger with a side of suck fries and topped off with a tall glass of Suck Cola.

The story opens in Romania sometime in the eighteenth century, where we are introduced to a trio of vampire hunters that are part of a secret society dubbed the Brimstone Society. The three — Vladimir (Michael Madsen), Sebastian (Matt Davis), and Katarin (Michelle Rodriguez) — stroll into a pub looking for information on a certain someone they believe to be in the area. And apparently, the killing of vampires is quite commonplace, as nobody bothers to even look up when Sebastian stakes a vampire at the bar. Perhaps this particular town is a medieval version of Sunnydale from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. So anyway, there's these three vampire hunters looking for somebody, and they find her location.

Their quarry is the main attraction of the local carnival's freak show, a grossly mistreated young woman named Rayne (Kristanna Loken). Dragged into the freak show by chains, her right arm is sliced up pretty bad, while her left arm is dunked in a barrel of water that badly burns her. One of the carnies kills a goat and pours its blood into a cup, and upon giving Rayne a sip of the red stuff, her injuries immediately heal. She's led back to her cage after the show and locked up tightly.

That evening, she's approached by a fellow carny named Amanda (Madalina Constantin), who tells Rayne that she's formulated a brilliant plan to get them away from their horrible lives with the carnival. And I mean, this plan is absolutely ingenious. It's the most brilliant plan ever conceived by anyone. Not even the A-Team could come up with a plan this amazing and with this much potential for success. Not even The Great Escape had an escape plan this impressive. And because not even a simple summary could do it justice, I must quote the dialogue verbatim:

"My uncle, he's a sailor. And he once told me of a place where people play all day, and the trees grow fruits in every color of the rainbow. And the sunsets set the whole sky on fire. Doesn't that sound wonderful, Rayne? He'll send for us soon, I know it."

Wasn't that the greatest plan you've ever heard? It wasn't? Yeah, okay, it does suck hard. Why don't we point out all the things that are wrong with that plan? What really gets me is that "play all day" thing. Why not just add that after they get done playing all day, they're going to ride unicorns over lollipop rainbows and sleep on bubblegum clouds? I'm going to assume that the character was written for a six-year-old, and Madalina Constantin — who is very much an adult — was all they could get. If they wanted to keep the line like that, couldn't they have just brought in Dakota Fanning or Cameron Bright for a couple of hours to shoot this one scene? Because it would have made more sense coming out of a child.

And another thing: Is that even really a plan at all? It doesn't look like a plan. It looks more like some major wishful thinking. Because if that is a plan, then it's pretty darn flimsy. So anyway, Amanda gets that out, then tosses Rayne a crucifix necklace for good luck before bidding her adieu for the evening.

Even later that night, the carnival's strongman (T.J. Storm) lets himself into her cage and tries to get himself a little lovin' by force. She's in no mood to be raped, so she shatters a bottle over his noggin and cuts him up good. Some of his blood drips onto her face, and as she tastes it, she goes absolutely insane. Rayne starts running around, biting the necks of anybody that gets in her way, and she even bites Amanda before she can realize who she is. And once she does notice who she just bit, what does Rayne do? She just takes the fancy swords Amanda was carrying and runs away. Some friend she is.

Vladimir, Sebastian, and Katarin stumble upon what's left of the carnival the following morning. Knowing what they have to do, they start decapitating and burning every lifeless body they come across, while Amanda manages to explain what happened before they're forced to put her down too. Night falls, and Rayne stops and kills two vampires she catches attacking a caravan, even going as far as to drink their blood. The caravan gives her a ride to the nearest city, which appears to have a rather sizable vampire population. Rayne pulls a vampire hooker aside and sucks her blood for God and everybody to see, and the only people that care are these two thieves that pick the dead vampire's pockets, and a nearby fortune teller (Geraldine Chapman) that watches what happens intently.

The fortune teller captures Rayne's attention, telling Rayne her purpose and future through her deck of tarot cards. Y'see, Rayne is a dhampir, the result of her human mother (Daniela Nane) being raped and impregnated by Kagan (Ben Kingsley), the most powerful vampire on Earth. Due to her mixed heritage, she retains all of their strengths and their unfavorable reaction to water of any kind, while possessing none of their other weaknesses. So that explains why the crucifix around her neck doesn't bug her.

The fortune teller knows of Rayne's quest to avenge her mother's murder at the hands of Kagan (which the five-year-old Rayne witnessed), and tells her of a magical eye that, if she can possess it, will gain her an audience with Kagan so she may fulfill her quest. The entire conversation is overheard by a vampire, who relays the message to Kagan. So what does Kagan do? He sends his chief lieutenant Domastir (Will Sanderson) to lead an army after the eye as well.

Rayne leaves, eventually arriving at a monastery seeking food and shelter. The monks gladly let her in, and not too long afterwards, she sneaks into the monastery's basement to retrieve the eye. How she knew where in the monastery it was, I have no idea. But regardless, getting the eye is not going to be a cakewalk for Rayne. Once she gets down into the basement, she discovers a sleeping ogre holding the key to the chamber the eye is in. She dispatches the ogre in a relatively easy fight, but there's one more step in her way: the large whirring blades that pop out of the chamber's floor on a regular interval. But it's not so bad; a simple cartwheel across the room gets Rayne past them. She goes for the box containing the eye, at which point a torrent of water starts flooding the room.

Since Rayne would rather not be burned, she jumps and hangs from one of her swords that she had previously embedded in the ceiling. The box opens and the eye starts to fall out, but when Rayne catches it with a free hand, she gets a really good look at it and somehow absorbs it. She loses her grip on the sword and falls into the ankle-deep pool of water beneath her, and when a few drops of water splash onto her arm... nothing happens. I guess they really weren't kidding about it being a magical eye after all.

Just as she realizes that the water hasn't affected her, some priests bust in and start reading her the riot act. Okay, that's probably an exaggeration, since the main priest (Udo Kier) doesn't seem too angry or upset that Rayne just killed their ogre and stole the eye. I mean, good ogre guards and disembodied magical eyes are pretty hard to come by. Believe me, I've tried to track some down, and I haven't had any luck yet. The priest's main concern seems to be if Rayne is in the employment of Kagan. She assures him that she's not working for him, as the priest explains just why that eye is so special.

Turns out there was this ancient vampire named Beliar that had figured out a way to overcome the three main vampire weaknesses. When he was finally defeated, three body parts — one of his eyes, one of his ribs, and his heart — were separated and divided among three remote locations to prevent other vampires from using them for their own gain. So the priest doesn't trust even a half-vampire with the eye, so he's kinda gonna need it back just to be on the safe side. But as always, things just aren't that easy.

Domastir and his crew arrive at the monastery, the Brimstone Society hot on their heels. A bloody battle ensues between Domastir's guys, the Society, and the monks, and in the chaos, Domastir knocks out Rayne and leaves with her. Vladimir and Sebastian trail him, catching up to him that morning at a castle called home by hedonistic vampire Leonid (Meat Loaf). Domastir is just looking for a place to crash for the afternoon, but his host is more interested in making Rayne part of his harem. Leonid is so into Rayne that he just has Domastir thrown out when he tries to warn him of Rayne's toughness. Before he can start putting the moves on the unconscious dhampir, Vladimir and Sebastian bust in and slay Leonid.

They take Rayne back to their hidden lair, where they train her in proper vamp-killing methods before Domastir and a bunch more goons find them and start raising some hell. And I know I said it was a hidden lair, but it doesn't really stay hidden if a certain someone would have kept her mouth shut. Turns out the newly-vampired Katarin sold them out with the intention of giving the three vampire parts to her father (Billy Zane), who seeks to overthrow Kagan (who has already obtained the rib through unseen, untold means). Rayne takes out Katarin and obtains the heart, and with Vladimir and Sebastian in tow, she heads for Kagan's castle to obtain her revenge.

I'm not going to lie: I really don't want to write this review. The quicker I can wipe my hands of BloodRayne, the better. It's so awful, I think it gave me cancer. And as you can probably guess, the movie was a financial disaster. It played in only 985 American theaters, pulling in a paltry 2.4 million dollars during a remarkably short seventeen-day theatrical run. So if the movie was meant to be a flop, it certainly succeeded.

But even if BloodRayne played in every single theater in the United States for six months, it still would have been a bomb. And why is that? Because everything about it is horrendously bad. The direction, the script, the acting, the music, the effects, the set design, the props, everything. And I'm going to come right out and say that everyone involved with this cinematic bowel movement should be ashamed of themselves for participating in this crime against humanity.

First up, the screenplay penned by Guinevere Turner. How she went from writing the brilliant movie adaptation of American Psycho to writing this, I have no idea. Turner's screenplay could not make less sense. It's so convoluted, so confusing, so absurd that it took me three days to figure out how to properly write that synopsis up there. It's like they stuck a bunch of chimpanzees in a room with a typewriter for six hours, then slapped Turner's name on what the monkeys churned out.

But let's get to some specific complaints. There's that silly "play all day" bit, along with all the other hackneyed dialogue. There's also the out-of-place Billy Zane subplot that accomplishes nothing and ultimately goes nowhere. If it had been properly written and fleshed out, then it could have made for something interesting. But no, we can't let a Uwe Boll movie be any good, so this subplot only leads to a twist that offends the intelligence of everyone who sees it.

I also wonder about that whole pointless thing with the eye, rib, and heart. To my understanding, it was inspired by the first BloodRayne game, but it had a logical conclusion there. And as we all know, we can't have logic or even common sense in a Uwe Boll movie. Couldn't they have just made it a simple quest for revenge, as opposed to a quest for these silly little things that ends up weighing the whole movie down?

Going back to the topic of insulting the intelligence of the viewers, why is just plain ol' everyday water such a big deal with vampires? Holy water, I would believe. But vampires not exactly enjoying regular water is absurd. The legion of the undead could be wiped out by a freak rainstorm or blizzard, or even a thick fog. And last I checked, blood is at least ninety percent water, so why isn't that a drawback? If this is another one of those things that are drawn from the games, then it just makes the games look stupid too.

And then there's the lame effects. Yes, I know that geysers of blood shoot out of every victim in the BloodRayne games, but it looks corny and derivative in here. Besides, the effects look awfully cheap too. Rayne's vampire teeth look like oversized plastic dentures at times, and you could probably see better blood and gore effects in a middle-school production of Sweeney Todd. The music composed by Henning Lohner is also disappointing, as I got the feeling that it was attempting to make up for the complete and total lack of emotion in the acting and the direction. Lohner's score wouldn't have been so bad had it not been trying so hard, but due to that, it suffers.

While we're at it, how about that cast? I pity every person forced to be in front of the camera, even the cheap Romanian prostitutes in Meat Loaf's scene. It appears that Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Billy Zane, Udo Kier, and Meat Loaf all realized how awful the movie is. I say this because Madsen's performance alternates between exhibiting boredom and exhibiting total apathy toward the entire production, while the others completely ham it up and do what they can to make the horrible material look worthwhile.

I've read that Madsen may or may not have been drunk during nearly all of his scenes, and I can't really say as I blame him. I don't drink, but I'd chug a whole brewery if I had the unfortunate luck of starring in a Uwe Boll movie. And if I were Madsen, I would have myself surgically attached to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, just so to avoid doing any more horrible movies like this one.

The rest of the cast, though, appear to be taking the whole thing seriously. And to that, I ask why. If the entire cast had treated the whole thing like it was an episode of the old Batman TV show from the '60s, then BloodRayne might have treaded into "so bad, it's good" territory. But unfortunately, we're stuck with this crap.

Seriously, the performances contributed by Kristanna Loken and Michelle Rodriguez might not have been so bad had the material been better and if there had been a talented director to motivate them. But the fact that they treat this stuff as if it were Shakespeare really makes them look bad. I should also note that I like Rodriguez, I really do, but she doesn't exactly strike me as being the right person for the role. Her character is supposed to be Zane's daughter, but it's odd when you consider that Zane's only twelve years older than her. Add to the fact that they look absolutely nothing alike, and having them play father and daughter doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But nothing about the plot makes any sense, so why should the casting make any sense either?

And last but most certainly least is the captain of this sinking ship, the one and only Uwe Boll. No matter how bad any director may be, he or she can at least take comfort in the knowledge that they're not Uwe Boll. He obviously cannot get decent performances out of his cast, no matter what kind of talent they may have, and anything decent about BloodRayne's look could only be attributed to decent camerawork from cinematographer Mathias Neumann. Boll's dramatic scenes are laughable, his humorous scenes are lame, his action scenes look really bad, and the sex scene is awkward and out of place.

Let's talk about that sex scene for a second. If Boll is anything, he's the king of the badly-done sex scene. I thought Christian Slater and Tara Reid's romantic interlude in Alone in the Dark was bad, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. Loken and Davis have no romantic chemistry whatsoever; they didn't even seem like there's any sort of feelings between them at all. But then, out of nowhere, she's got him pinned up against a jail cell door screwing his brains out. The scene lacks any kind of passion, and since we don't care about the characters, we don't care about the scene.

I have two theories about this, actually. One is that all of the "budding romance" scenes were left on the cutting room floor. The other is that Boll simply wanted a reason to see Loken topless. As a red-blooded heterosexual male, I can't say I fault him for that one if that's true. Either way, Boll's managed to craft one of the least-sexy sex scenes ever, and how he did it is beyond me.

Boll's action scenes are also pretty bad. The swords look like cheap plastic at times, and like cardboard covered in tinfoil at other times. The scenes are poorly edited as well, and the choreography could have been a lot better. The majority of the fights had the appearance of either being improvised on the spot, or that the participants had simply been told to just walk around and swing at one another.

And in one of the most bizarre mistakes with the movie, there's this completely pointless montage at the end of the movie. It's just a bunch of random shots thrown together for no good reason, and it causes the credits to roll three minutes later than they should have. It's like Boll said, "Okay, guys, we're going to cobble together a bunch of stuff that the viewers have already seen and hated the first time, but I'm sure they'll love it when they see it a second time." Screw that. And screw this entire movie too.

In my review of House of the Dead, I compared Boll's movies to those of Ed Wood. But in retrospect, I probably shouldn't insult Wood like that. He might not have made the best movies ever, but at least he was passionate about filmmaking. Wood's films are far more entertaining than they have any right to be, and you can tell simply by watching them that he loved making movies no matter what. And for that, I have the utmost respect for Wood and his body of work. Boll's work has no passion, no self-enthusiasm, and they just make him look like he's out to make a few bucks by exploiting a German tax shelter that rewards those who invest in poorly-performing movies.

The thing that gets me is that instead of admitting that these horrible films are his own fault, he blames everything on reviewers and audiences that are supposedly too stupid to understand that his movies are awe-inspiring classics along the lines of Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. It's that kind of bloated egotism that makes me long for the day that Uwe Boll and his horrible, offensively bad movies fall off the face of the earth forever and make the cinematic world a far better place.

Final Rating: *

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Story (1983)

Christmas movies are a dime a dozen. By my count, there's somewhere around ninety movies that involve the holiday season in some fashion. And everyone has their favorite, too. Some choose the traditional classics like It's A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, while others go for one of the million versions of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. But more than a few people go for Christmas movies that are a little more off-kilter like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, or even Die Hard and Gremlins. But one Christmas movie that I believe just about everybody can agree on is A Christmas Story.

A Christmas Story is one of those rare films that holds both a devoted cult following as well as a spot on the colorful list of timeless movies that everyone can enjoy. Watching it has become something of an annual Christmas tradition for this reviewer, so let's see what makes A Christmas Story so special.

It's Christmastime in Indiana circa the pre-WW2 1940s, and all Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wants to find under the tree on the big day is a BB gun. Not just any BB gun, but — as he describes it — "an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time." This weapon of choice is the center of Ralphie's world, and despite every adult in his life being absolutely convinced that he'll shoot his eye out, Ralphie will go to any lengths to acquire it. He'll hide newspaper advertisements where his parents are sure to see them, make up wild stories about grizzly bears being spotted in the area, write an essay about it in school, blatantly state his desire for it to anyone who will listen, and as a last ditch effort, stand in line for hours just to ask an impatient department store Santa Claus for the BB gun.

But little does Ralphie realize that in the midst of his obsessive quest for the holiday Holy Grail, he's having the best Christmas of his young life. His curmudgeonly father (Darren McGavin) engages in battles of epic proportion the family's bothersome furnace, loathes the army of at least 785 smelly hound dogs owned by the family's hillbilly neighbors, and wins what he calls a "major award" — an absolutely hideous lamp shaped like a woman's leg. Ralphie's mother (Melinda Dillon) struggles to get his goofy little brother Randy (Ian Petrella) to eat like a normal kid, while simultaneously trying to hide her extreme mortification with her husband's major award. And over the course of this particular Christmas, Ralphie learns that triple dog dares and the "F-dash-dash-dash" word are nothing to be toyed with, that Ovaltine may be sneaking lame advertisements into Little Orphan Annie broadcasts through secret decoder pins, and that local bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) may not be as tough as he seems.

One of the reasons A Christmas Story is so wonderful is its innocence. It captures a time when Christmas defined everything that was great about childhood. There's also the nostalgia factor, as well. Almost every single one of us has been in Ralphie's shoes on one Christmas or another, wishing upon a star for that one present that would solve all of the world's problems. And there really is a lot of Ralphie in all of us. From his family and friends, to his experiences in school, to his silly, almost outrageous fantasies, we've all been there before. The movie isn't preachy, it isn't heavy-handed, it simply is what it is: a movie for kids and kids at heart.

Director Bob Clark is no stranger to Christmas movies, having previously helmed the 1974 horror classic Black Christmas, and his work here on A Christmas Story is inoffensive. It isn't revolutionary, but Clark's direction does give the movie a certain nostalgic feel necessary to make it work. Meanwhile, the score composed by Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza is fun, bringing the viewers into each moment with a sense of childlike glee. But where the movie really shines, however, is its screenplay and its cast. Drawing inspiration from Jean Shepherd's anecdotal short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the screenplay penned by Shepherd, Clark, and Leigh Brown is hilarious. It never once loses us or insults our intelligence. We can see glimpses into our own lives with these characters. We know people like them, or in some instances, we are people like them.

This is reinforced by the absolutely wonderful cast. Everyone in the movie is on their A-game. Peter Billingsley is engaging and entertaining as Ralphie, a typically impetuous kid that thinks his harebrained schemes can outwit any adult. Everybody's been there before, which makes both Billingsley and the character itself that much more exceptional. Jean Shepherd himself enhances Billingsly's performance, narrating as an adult Ralphie in a style later borrowed by The Wonder Years. (Sadly, there is no Winnie Cooper to be found in A Christmas Story.) Shepherd's sardonic narration adds to the movie's fun, giving it an air of an adult reminiscing over "the good ol' days" while comically making the smallest of events sound as epic as Homer's Odyssey. Ian Petrella is fun as Ralphie's little brother Randy, and the rest of the cast is great in their own ways, but perhaps the best performances in the movie come from Ralphie's parents, Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon.

Their characters are the complete polar opposites of one another, which only serves to make their performances even more amusing to watch. McGavin approaches "the old man" (as the adult Ralphie is wont to call him) as a gruff Mr. Fixit type that earnestly loves his children, but seems more at home changing a tire or working on the house's furnace than he is showing affection. Dillon, however, plays Mrs. Parker as the typical kind of mother that's in charge of the things that don't fall into the father's jurisdiction. Which means that while the old man makes sure there's a roof over their heads, Mom will take care of everything else. Mrs. Parker is a little overprotective — she's the first one to warn Ralphie that he'll shoot his eye out, she bundles up Randy so tightly that he can barely move — but Dillon's performance is full of warmth, which greatly ups the quality of the character. Their performances are charming and hilarious, which I found to be evidenced in one particular moment. After the old man's "major award" is accidentally shattered, he desperately tries to piece it back together by any means he can. While he makes his failed attempt, his wife merely sits in the background, trying to keep from giggling. It's a scene that seems to sum up their entire relationship, and McGavin and Dillon play the scene perfectly.

I've seen A Christmas Story described as "the Seinfeld of Christmas movies," and I like that label. I think that could be the reason why the movie is continually brought up as a prime example of a great Christmas movie. It doesn't seem like there's much of a plot in the conventional sense, but A Christmas Story never once tries to be more than a story about a ten-year-old boy's Christmas. And I believe it did a great job at that. So I'm going to give A Christmas Story four and a half stars and a proud seal of recommendation. And I dare any movie nowadays to try and get away with bits like that Chinese restaurant scene. It just couldn't be done anywhere but the '80s.

Final Rating: ****½

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Clerks II (2006)

The 1990s were an important decade in independent filmmaking. Movies like Boys Don't Cry, Natural Born Killers, The Big Lebowski, and the work of Quentin Tarantino brought many little-known actors and directors into the spotlight. Such was the case with Clerks, a low-budget black and white movie from 1994. Directed by first-time filmmaker Kevin Smith, the movie following a day in the life of two convenience store clerks became a cult classic among Gen-Xers and brought much recognition to its director.

Smith and went on to direct four more entries into the fictional universe dubbed "the View Askewniverse" (named for View Askew, Smith's production company), each film each gaining a devoted following among his fans. But when Smith decided to venture outside the View Askewniverse in 2004 with Jersey Girl, it wasn't met with the same reaction as his prior work. In fact, it was crapped on by damn near everybody. Perhaps due to the movie-going public's backlash against movies featuring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in the wake of the Gigli disaster, Jersey Girl barely broke even, was nominated for three Razzie Awards, and was even subjected to playful derision from Smith himself. He returned to what brought him to the dance two years later, writing and directing the first true sequel in the View Askewniverse, Clerks II. And personally, I think it may be some of Smith's best work.

Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) are still living a minimum wage existence as the clerks of the Quick Stop and RST Video. But when their places of business accidentally burn down, you'd think that would be the spark that would get them moving on to bigger and better things. Turns out that they merely went from ten years of convenience store hell to fast food hell when they get jobs at the local Mooby's restaurant.

A year passes, and Dante is preparing for his final day of work at Mooby's. The next morning, he's packing up and leaving New Jersey for Florida, where he plans on wedding his white-collar fiancé Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach). It's unimportant to Dante that his heart truly belongs to his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson); she claims to not believe in romantic love, nor can she promise a way out of Dante's rut like Emma can.

Randal is devastated by the prospect of losing his best friend for good, but hides it under his sarcastic personality while he humorously torments his dorky teenage coworker Elias (Trevor Fehrman). And it's just another day for newly-sober Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), who are only concerned with standing outside and selling drugs.

If Clerks tells the story of slackers at that awkward stage between youth and adulthood, then Clerks II tells the story of slackers that have reached adulthood and aren't sure what to do with their lives. By bringing the View Askewniverse full circle, Kevin Smith shows that he has matured as a filmmaker while staying true to what brought him fame in the first place. Yes, Clerks II is a raunchy affair that will primarily appeal to Smith's devoted fanbase, but that doesn't stop it from being intelligent, fun, and even a little heartwarming.

Smith's maturation over the twelve years between his debut film and its sequel is especially evident in his direction. I'm not for sure if that was due to budgetary restrictions or his relative inexperience, but it seemed that in the original Clerks, Smith was content to just point the camera in one direction and let the action go down. But with Clerks II, we actually see the camera move around a few times. Smith — with a little help from cinematographer Dave Klein — still utilizes the "point and shoot" method for the most part, but he throws in a few crane shots and some handheld stuff. He also uses a simple yet effective move, rotating the camera around Dante and Randal during a particularly dramatic dialogue exchange. Things like that really work to enhance the overall feeling that Smith was trying to go for, and I think he did a great job.

The screenplay penned by Smith is also as wonderful as ever, in spite of a few flaws. We never really believe that Emma is ever a contender for Dante's heart, especially since Smith has chosen to write her as a ball-busting shrew that just doesn't seem to really love Dante for who he is. That sort of thing afflicts most movies with a "torn between two lovers" air, so I guess it should be expected out of Clerks II as well. But no matter, the script is still hilarious, with very few misses. While not as outright vulgar as Clerks, Smith makes this one just as raunchy — and as fanboyish as well. From discussions regarding the difference between Helen Keller and Anne Frank, to debates over the value of a particular sexual act and whether or not the phrase "porch monkey" should be a racial slur, to a rant regarding the quality of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Smith is in rare form. He even throws in a donkey show and a musical number too. The jokes may not fly for everybody, but those that get a laugh out of this sort of thing will enjoy what Smith brings to the table.

I spoke of Smith's evolution as a director, but it should be noted that his cast has evolved as well. As good as they might have been, it was still obvious that the cast of the original Clerks were amateurs, nobodies that could have randomly walked into the Quick Stop on any given day and landed a role in the movie. But with the passing of a dozen years, his returning major players have drastically improved. Brian O'Halloran is still kinda stiff, but he's still quite fun as a character that seems to be perpetually stuck behind the eight-ball of "The Man."

And as he was in the original Clerks, Jeff Anderson is a total scene-stealer. As uncouth as Randal may be, Anderson's performance makes him charming and amiable. And although the roles of Jay and Silent Bob are downplayed, Jason Mewes and Smith are hilarious as always. Their memorable moments are limited, but the presence of Smith's most popular characters are much welcomed.

The new cast members aren't too bad either. Jennifer Schwalbach, who one may recognize as either Mrs. Kevin Smith or pigtailed jewel thief Missy from Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, is entertaining as Emma. Like I said, we can tell from the start that her relationship with Dante isn't going to end well, but Schwalbach has fun in the role and it shows. Also having fun is Trevor Fehrman, who is incredibly amusing as Randal's nerdy and woefully sheltered sidekick Elias. The character isn't very deep, but Fehrman does provide the movie with some of the movie's best scenes ("Pillow Pants," anyone?).

But something that even Smith will readily admit is that the best actor in the entire movie is Rosario Dawson. Adding another entry onto her already colorful résumé, Dawson is nothing short of wonderful. She plays the role with a passion, and does such an impressive job that she nearly makes everyone else in the cast look bad by comparison. Dante and Becky's relationship is one of the film's strongest points, and while O'Halloran is no slouch, Dawson really helps elevate it into something that we the viewer want to see more of.

I don't really know for certain if Clerks II is the absolute final chapter of the View Askewniverse. Smith said the same thing about Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back back in 2001, and look where we are now. Maybe when 2018 rolls around, we'll see Clerks III, where Smith can do a movie about slackers in their forties raising teenage slacker children. But as it stands now, Clerks II makes for a perfect finale for the View Askewniverse. I'm certainly not complaining if it did end here. And I'll gladly give the movie four stars and a hearty recommendation. Go check it out, and see if you can find my name in the MySpace credits at the end.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, December 8, 2006

Superman Returns (2006)

Of the multitude of characters dreamed up by comic book writers and artists since the medium came into prominence in the 1930s, one of the most important and influential has been the one and only Superman. The creation of Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, the last son of Krypton made his first appearance on the cover of DC's Action Comics #1 in 1938 and became a big fat hit. In the decades since his debut, Superman has become the de facto mascot for DC Comics as well as a cultural icon that defined the term "superhero."

And with his popularity, one medium wouldn't be enough for the Man of Steel. The character has popped up on quite a bit of merchandise over the years, along with inspiring radio plays, movie serials, cartoons, and popular television shows. But perhaps the most famous depictions of the character were the four movies starring the late Christopher Reeve. Released between 1978 and 1987, the four movies varied between exceptional and abysmal, but Reeve's charismatic performances in all four cemented him in the minds of many as the definitive real-life face of the beloved hero.

But after the painful box office performance of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace in 1987, it appeared as if there might never be a fifth movie in the franchise. Franchise producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind proposed a movie pitting Superman against his noted foe Brainiac, but when the rights reverted back to DC Comics in 1992, things snowballed from there. Numerous writers, directors, and actors were attached to the project over the course of the next two decades, quite a few of them looking to do an adaptation of DC's famous story arc "The Death and Return of Superman."

Big names like Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Brett Ratner, Lost creator J.J. Abrams, Charlie's Angels director McG, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Keaton, and Nicolas Cage were all connected to the various projects in some capacity, but for one reason or another, the fifth Superman movie would repeatedly be put on the shelf before it could find its way out of pre-production. After three directors, nine writers, and fifty million dollars spent, X-Men director Bryan Singer was hired and the ball finally got rolling on what would be the first Superman film in nineteen years, the boldly-titled Superman Returns.

Upon hearing that astronomers may have discovered the remnants of the planet Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) embarks on a long voyage into space to see the remains of his home for himself. Finding nothing, he returns to Earth and resumes his life in Metropolis as mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. But five years have passed, and the world he knew has changed drastically. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), the woman who'd captured his heart, has moved on with her life. During Superman's half-decade absence, Lois has won a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial titled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman"; gotten engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), the yuppie nephew of the Daily Planet's editor, Perry White (Frank Langella); and given birth to a young son named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). But in spite of Lois's disillusionment in regards to the big blue Boy Scout, Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) theorizes that she still might have some feelings for him after all.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison on a technicality, and he's managed to finagle his way into being the sole beneficiary of a wealthy old woman's money and possessions. Luthor gathers up his henchmen and his female companion Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), and using his newfound financial resources, ventures into the Arctic to the abandoned Fortress of Solitude. He acquires a number of the Fortress's crystals, and through the holographic representation of Superman's father Jor-El (archival footage of Marlon Brando), Luthor learns that the crystals can be used to create anything from Kryptonian architecture to enormous landmasses. He tests this by placing a tiny speck of crystal into some water that was part of a model train set in the basement of his newly acquired mansion. In doing so, it causes a sizeable Kryptonian structure to form in the middle of the room.

But Luthor's little experiment also causes an electromagnetic pulse that briefly knocks out all of the electricity on the east coast. This temporary blackout also causes a serious malfunction on a space shuttle and the jetliner hauling it, and the shuttle threatens to drag the jet and everyone on it — including Lois — into outer space. Forced into action, Clark quickly changes into Superman and rescues the plane. He safely deposits the plane in the middle of a baseball stadium during a game, revealing Superman's return to the world. You know, the scene is cool and all, but afterwards, it left me wondering what happened to the wings of the plane. They came right off the plane, so they had to go somewhere, right? It's probably safe to say that they landed safely in the ocean, but what if they crashed onto an orphanage or the Special Olympics or a box full of kittens? Am I the only person that thinks about things like this?

You'd think the return of Superman would put a wrench in the gears of Luthor's grand scheme, but nope, he's got that taken care of. After robbing a museum of a chunk of Kryptonite, he sets his plan into motion. His scheme: to use one of the stolen crystals to create a brand new continent. The continent's growth is projected to wipe out most of North America and kill millions (if not billions) of people in the process. High body count or not, Luthor anticipates scores of people paying boatloads of cash for prime real estate and possible access to alien technology. And just to be on the safe side, he's managed to lace the new landmass with his stolen Kryptonite, just so Superman doesn't get any wise ideas. Kryptonite or not, Superman rushes to stop Luthor and rescue Lois, Jason, and Richard, who have gotten caught in the middle.

Although Superman Returns isn't a flawless movie, it's certainly very good. It has and will probably continue to draw comparisons to Christopher Reeve's films, but I think the movie holds up quite well on its own. It boasts superb direction, writing, and effects, as well as a cast that brings a lot of substance to the movie. While some have argued that perhaps the movie could have gone the way of Batman Begins and restarted the franchise with a clean slate, that wasn't really necessary. Because unlike Batman, Superman already had a perfectly good movie that told his origin story. Besides, making Superman Returns a vague sequel to the first two Reeve movies (while ignoring the existence of the third and fourth ones) brings a strong sense of familiarity to the movie that I feel that it benefits from.

Let's start with the screenplay first. Penned by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, the screenplay is solid in spite of a few plot holes and subplots that are left unresolved. The screenplay also hearkens back to the Reeve movies on numerous occasions with various dialogue cues and little moments, which I thought was really entertaining and brought a sort of continuity and familiarity that bridged the old and the new. Dougherty and Harris also crafted characters I thought to be extremely well-written, with the exception of one. I'm going to come right out and say it: This iteration of Lois Lane has absolutely nothing on the one portrayed by Margot Kidder. When Kidder played the role, Lois was strong, spunky, and fun. But instead of that, Lois is to Superman Returns what Kristin Kreuk's Lana Lang is to the Smallville television show.

This movie's Lois is kinda dull and whiny. She treats Superman like dirt for not living up to whatever unobtainable standards she holds him to; she completely disregards Perry's requests to actually do her job; she has no problem with bringing her five-year-old son along as she breaks into a supervillain's private property to get a scoop; she gets upset when anyone dares question her motives; and she generally doesn't serve a whole lot of purpose outside of being a damsel in distress. While Lois isn't as utterly useless and annoying as Lana from Smallville, she's pushing it. But despite her cocky "how dare Superman save me from certain death?" attitude while blowing off Clark like he's some kind of second-class citizen, it's only made funnier when she has to keep being saved over and over by the men in her life — whether it be Superman, Richard, or in one instance, Jason — because she was too stubborn to swallow her pride and admit that she's just not all that.

Moving along, I found the acting the acting to be quite well done. Though the cast seems as if they were all trying to fit themselves into the molds created their predecessors, I must admit that I didn't find any particular performance standing out as anything less than good. Brandon Routh, only really known prior to Superman Returns for his year-long stint on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live, fills Christopher Reeve's shoes well. In spite of the many talented big-name actors that were up for the role during all those years of pre-production, I'm of the opinion that, in retrospect, Routh was the best one for the part. I believe it was a wise decision to follow in the footsteps of the 1978 movie and cast a virtual unknown in the lead role. If someone like Nicholas Cage or Ashton Kutcher or whoever had played Superman, it could have pulled the viewer completely out of the movie. But with Routh in the role, we don't view the title character as "[famous actor] as Superman," we see only Superman. And casting Routh proved to be a good move, as he really holds the movie together with his portrayal of Superman's strength, Clark's meekness, and Kal-El's internal struggle to rejoin a world that has left both of his Earth personas behind.

Despite my beef with the way her character is written, I have to admit that I did enjoy Kate Bosworth's performance. If the character hadn't been as poor as I found it to be, I think her performance would have been even better. Bosworth and Routh have a great chemistry together, but due to Lois being written less than satisfactory, I felt that it bogged down Bosworth's performance and made it good, but not great.

I also thought that James Marsden did about as good as could be expected. His character is painted as a perpetual second-banana to Superman in the minds of both Lois and the viewer, but I thought he made a good romantic foil for Superman. You can see through Marsden's performance that Richard wants to be there for Lois and Jason even though he knows Ms. Lane would leave him for Superman in a heartbeat. And how about Tristan Lake Leabu as Jason? Not a whole lot is asked of him aside from standing there and looking cute, but he pulls it off like a pro. Frank Langella and Sam Huntington are also quite good, despite being super-minor roles. Both of them are well-suited for the roles, and both are quite entertaining.

Parker Posey is great as well. The character of Kitty Kowalski is essentially a clone of Miss Tessmacher from the first two Reeve movies, but Posey plays the role with a passion and humor that's needed for the role to work. As I said, Kitty is a modernized version of Miss Tessmacher, which raises the question, "Why does Lex Luthor surround himself with such ditzy women?" And I think the answer is simple. Luthor's intelligence and narcissism are vast, and keeping a dim-witted woman by his side makes him look even smarter by comparison. It's totally within the realm of the character. And last but not least is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. The role could not have been better cast, because Spacey is nothing short of excellent. Spacey plays the role with just a touch of the humor Gene Hackman's Luthor had, but there is more menace than silliness to be found here. His Luthor is megalomaniacal, vicious, egocentric, and sarcastic, everything one would expect from the Man of Steel's archenemy.

Perhaps the most spectacular things about the movie, however, is its music and direction. The previously mentioned sense of familiarity brought by the screenplay is greatly enhanced by John Ottman's wondrous score, which borrows memorable motifs from the brilliant music composed by John Williams for the first two Reeve movies (including the legendary theme song). This, along with Ottman's impressive original music, gives Superman Returns a sound that is as grand and epic as the rest of the movie.

And I must admit that Bryan Singer's direction is outstanding. Singer is no stranger to superhero movies, and he uses that experience to craft a movie that can please fans of the old movies and wow a new generation of moviegoers who didn't grow up with them. His affection for the original movies is readily seen, evidenced by his use of the same style of opening credits from the originals, and his use of the same shot that closed all four previous movies. He delicately balances the drama with the humor and action, and I think he succeeded. And with a little help from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and a team of special effects wizards, Singer's also given the movie a tremendous visual upgrade. The special effects are, without a doubt, astounding. Though we know that quite a few of the effects are computer-generated, they're not distracting, but quite believable and enjoyable.

As I said above, Singer balances the humor, drama, and action effectively. But what he also does is use the movie as an intriguing religious allegory. Superman is a metaphorical Christ figure, the only son of a father who sent him to Earth to become a hero for millions. This comparison is noted on numerous occasions in the film, with moments such as Jor-El's opening monologue, Superman snatching a large sign that reads "grace" and catching an enormous globe as it falls from the roof of the Daily Planet (essentially holding the whole world in his hands, like the song kids sing in Sunday School), and pretty much the entire climax and epilogue. Superman even says to Lois at one point, "You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one." The comparisons come close to hitting us over the head at times, but they do make for an interesting subtext that isn't usually explored in the various depictions of Superman.

Superman Returns may or may not be remembered thirty years from now as a classic along the lines the first two Reeve movies, but I found it to be an impressive, high-quality film. I thought it was everything that it should have been. Sure, it has its flaws, but what movie doesn't? However, the movie does excel in spite of its imperfections, and breathes new life into a franchise that at one time looked like it was headed nowhere fast. And thanks to that, I'll gladly give Superman Returns four stars. Even if the movie sucked, it certainly couldn't be any worse than Superman III or Superman IV, could it?

Final Rating: ****

Monday, November 13, 2006

Alone in the Dark (2005)

Among all the varying genres that comprise the world of video games, one of the most popular is survival horror. The genre, as you may gather from its name, is populated by games whose players must survive attacks from various undead creatures, supernatural ghouls, and/or monstrous beasts while escaping from an isolated location. The genre has been popularized by immensely successful franchises like Capcom's Resident Evil games and Konami's Silent Hill games, but its roots can be traced to a PC game titled Alone in the Dark.

First released in 1992 by Infogrames (currently the bearers of the Atari name), Alone in the Dark is not the first survival horror game nor the most recognizable, but it has become one of the more influential titles in the genre, helping pave the way for games like the aforementioned Resident Evil and Silent Hill. With the moderate financial success of Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil movies, I guess it only made sense that an Alone in the Dark movie would come sooner or later.

But what would have been a movie with a lot of promise ended up being directed by Uwe Boll, the genius behind the cinematic classic House of the Dead. Of course, by "genius," I mean "hack," and by "classic," I mean "giant steaming turd." Apparently not satisfied with presenting us with just one absolutely horrendous movie based on a video game, Boll thought it wise to ruin another potentially good video game adaptation. So let's get this over with, shall we?

The movie opens with a boring, two-minute text crawl that establishes that an ancient Native American tribe named the Abkani tried opening a gateway to a "world of darkness," but something evil got out and wiped their entire civilization off the face of the planet. Ten thousand years later, that evil has waited in the darkness, waiting for the gate to be reopened. Miners first discovered remnants of the Abkani in 1967, and the government established Bureau 713, a top-secret paranormal research agency charged with going to the most remote places on Earth, tracking down Abkani artifacts, and bringing their darkest secrets to light.

Professor Lionel Hudgens (Matthew Walker), the man placed in charge of Bureau 713, was removed from the project due to his "controversial research," so he decided to build a laboratory in an abandoned gold mine, where he could conduct experiments on orphaned children in order to, quote, "merge man with creature." His victims apparently survived as sleepers, waiting to be called into action. And that's pretty much the gist of it. I had the idea to just reprint the thing word for word, but I just couldn't force that sort of torture upon my readers.

Now that we're past all that silliness, let's get to the meat of the plot. We're quickly introduced to Edward Carnby (Christian Slater), a former 713 agent that became a freelance paranormal detective following his dismissal from the bureau. He's just returned to the big city from the Amazon, where he found an Abkani artifact. But as soon as he gets in a cab, he ends up in a car chase with a very suspicious individual (Ed Anders). This leads to a very drawn-out fight between Carnby and this individual in a back alley, who shrugs off gunshots as if they were only a minor annoyance. Carnby ends up knocking the guy off a ledge and onto a conveniently placed wooden spike, which proves that just because you're impervious to bullets doesn't mean you can survive a good impaling.

Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Aline Cedrac (Tara Reid), the assistant curator of a nearby museum. Like Carnby, she too is researching the Abkani, as well as preparing the artifacts for an upcoming museum exhibit. She gets a call from the museum's main curator, the previously mentioned Professor Hudgens. He tells her that he has discovered a new artifact, a large golden sarcophagus, deep beneath the ocean, and that he will be bringing it to her soon. The ship's crew begs to open it and reap the riches they believe to be inside, but when Hudgens denies their requests, they knock him out and lock him up.

The crew opens the sarcophagus, which will end up being both the worst and the last decision they'll ever make. Opening the sarcophagus lets all kinds of nasty things out, and when Hudgens manages to break out of his room, the entire crew has been slaughtered. I'm betting that this sarcophagus saw the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and figured that if the Ark of the Covenant can melt all those Nazis, surely it can wipe out a few greedy deckhands just fine.

Back at the museum, Carnby arrives and is greeted by Aline. There isn't much time for pleasant hellos before the power goes out. Aline hears bizarre noises coming from other areas of the museum, and when she and Carnby check it out, they're attacked by a group of monsters that look like the evil offspring of Cujo, the Predator, and the creatures from the Alien movies. Carnby manages to get in a few shots on one with his trusty handgun, but they obviously can't take it on. But never fear, a fleet of commandos from Bureau 713, led by Commander Richard Burke (Stephen Dorff), crashes in through a skylight and makes short work of the monster.

After Carnby and Burke get into an argument, Carnby manages to sneak off with Burke's security pass and heads for the Bureau 713 science lab. There, Dr. Sam Fischer (Frank C. Turner) is running an autopsy on the man that previously attacked Carnby. Fischer has managed to identify the man as an ex-713 agent that had been missing for twenty years, and has discovered a long centipede-like bug had fused itself to the agent's spine and took over his entire nervous system.

It turns out that these bugs are somehow connected to the monsters (which 713 has named "Zenoes," for whatever reason), though they never really explain how. I'm not sure, but I guess we're just supposed to assume the monsters are very evolved, very angry versions of the centipedes.

To tell you truth, they probably did say, but this movie's so awful that I just stopped paying attention after a while. But it's not like it matters, since these bugs are only involved in maybe two scenes in the entire movie. But while we don't learn much of anything about the bugs, we do learn that Carnby was one of the twenty orphans that Professor Hudgens experimented on two decades prior. Turns out he has one of those spine-eating bugs in him too, but his bug is long dead, thanks to Carnby suffering an accidental electrocution as a kid. The other nineteen orphans had those bugs in them too, and when Professor Hudgens's crewmen opened up the Abkani sarcophagus, it awakened all those bugs and turned their hosts into guys like the one that tried killing Carnby.

Wait, wait, wait. You know what? I really don't feel like talking about the plot anymore. So I'm just going to throw in the synopsis towel right here. To sum it all up, Bureau 713 somehow manages to track the presence of the monsters to Professor Hudgens's gold mine — which is conveniently underneath the orphanage where Carnby lived in his youth — and Carnby, Burke, and Aline learn that Hudgens was behind the whole thing. I guess they didn't read the crawl at the beginning of the movie, otherwise they wouldn't have been so surprised. God knows I didn't want to read that crawl either.

So Hudgens ends up opening the Abkani gate back up and starts to let all these monsters out, but Burke kills him and sacrifices himself in order to blow up the gate and close it again. Carnby and Aline survive, but it turns out that the entire human race has presumably disappeared just like the Abkani. Yes, I know I gave away the ending, but I don't care. This movie sucks too much for me to bother trying to avoid that sort of thing. Me doing that just saved you 96 minutes that you could use to do more resourceful things like watching paint dry or smacking your face against a brick wall.

If that whole summary comes across as being a little on the nonsensical side, then I should inform you that the movie itself didn't give me much help at all. It makes absolutely makes no sense whatsoever, and even thinking about this horrendous excuse for a movie makes me so angry that after watching it, I wanted to beat the hell out of the first person that looked at me funny.

Perhaps I could have just summed it up in a few sentences. Maybe something like: These Native Americans opened a door to Hell, and monsters got loose. A zillion years later, this mad scientist took all these orphans and stuck little monster parasites in their spines. Two decades after that, these little monster parasites turn people into zombies, and they team up with some ugly CGI monsters. Christian Slater and Stephen Dorff kill them all, though Tara Reid's awful acting could have made the monsters contemplate suicide instead. There. Why didn't I just do that in the first place?

Where to begin, where to begin. Sigh, let's go with that dreadful script first. Credited to Elan Mastai, Michael Roesch, and Peter Scheerer, the movie is apparently less of an adaptation of the original Alone in the Dark game and more of a "quasi-sequel" to the fourth game in the series. Not that it matters, not that I give a damn, but I'm just saying. But no matter what game it's based on, the screenplay is so abysmally bad that it makes my brain hurt. The movie's plot could have been done with some reasonable amount of intelligence, but no, we can't have that. They had to go and make this thing as unworkably complicated as they could get. It's like they had all these ideas they thought were cool and slapped them all together with no sort of rhyme or reason, with nothing that really connects one scene of the movie to the next.

I also got the impression that Mastai, Roesch, and Scheerer weren't entirely sure what kind of movie they wanted to write. So they just threw in a bunch of horror and action elements, then added a lame voiceover from the Carnby character to make it seem like a bad film noir. The screenplay seems like it wants to do a lot, but it doesn't accomplish much of anything.

The characters are terribly flat and one-dimensional as well. I don't even know if you can really call them characters. They're more like cheap character constructs, placeholders for where the actual characters would have been. There's the rogue detective with the gruff exterior; the mad scientist (who only has five or six rather small scenes in the whole thing); the cute, brainy research assistant; the macho commando that just wants to shoot some monsters and treats most people like dirt; and the mountains upon mountains of nameless, faceless cannon fodder. These characters might not have been so bad if there had at least been some decent dialogue, but Mastai, Roesch, and Scheerer don't even give us that. I'm not saying I could do any better, but I don't believe I could do any worse.

And how about that long text crawl that starts the movie? I just want to punch that thing in the face. If you thought those ungodly long text crawls in front of the Star Wars movies were taxing, then you'll probably be looking for the "fast forward" button on your remote control about two seconds into this one. Either they had so little faith in their audience that they believed nobody would "get it" without having it all spelled out for them, or they were just too lazy to set things up properly. I personally think it's a little from Column A, a little from Column B. The crawl is also completely insulting to the viewer's intelligence, as is both incredibly confusing and guilty of giving us way too much information. The movie's first five minutes tell us nearly every major revelation to come, so when the characters find all this information out, it's not shocking or surprising. It just leaves us saying, "Well, it's about time."

The music could have used quite a bit of work as well. Composed by Bernd Wendlandt, the music is overbearing, intrusive, and annoying. The movie's overuse of random heavy metal songs performed by bands nobody's ever heard of really grinds my gears too. It seems like every action scene is set to some metal song that's had its volume turned up to eleven. I can't really concentrate on the movie if I'm too busy trying to keep my ears from bleeding, which should be a lesson to all potential young film composers and soundtrack compilers.

Then there's the cast, who certainly aren't making matters any better. Christian Slater does as good a job as can be expected, but considering the material, I'm not surprised that his performance may be a little lacking. But it could be worse, very worse. He could have mirrored Tara Reid's performance. Holy crap, does she stink up the joint here. She's probably the least convincing assistant museum curator ever. She's right up there with Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough.

Casting Tara Reid in this role is like casting Paris Hilton to play the lead role in a movie about Mother Theresa. Even if she didn't come across as a perpetually drunk party girl in public, Reid would still be a bad choice for the role. She should stick with film roles that she'd be good at, like too-cute ditzes or party animals that like the sauce. Reid plays her role here with almost no emotion at all, like she's more concentrated on simply saying her lines than, y'know, acting. Like an actress would.

The third major actor in the movie, Stephen Dorff, seems to realize that the character doesn't require a whole lot of effort from him, so he puts his performance into auto-pilot. Dorff just coasts through, further emphasizing how hollow these characters are. And then there's Matthew Walker. They hint that his character is important, but I doubt this, considering how little screen time he is given. As I said, he has maybe six scenes tops, and considering how flimsy the material is, that doesn't really give him enough time to make any sort of impression. Though even in his limited screen time, I can't really say I thought he'd have made the movie any better with a beefier role.

And lastly, there's our fearless leader, Uwe Boll. If there is just one reason for him to continue directing movies, it's to show potential filmmakers how to screw up a movie. I just don't see why video game publishers continue to hand him the film rights to their properties. At the time of this review, he's done three video game adaptations that huge flops at the box office, and he has three more lined up that would probably be better off heading straight for video store shelves. I'm not usually one to make accusations, but I'm willing to bet that he could screw up Pong: The Motion Picture. But I'm here to discuss Alone in the Dark, so let's do that.

The whole movie looks like it was done with the intentions of making a low-rent made-for-TV movie. Outside of a few really good camera angles from cinematographer Mathias Neumann, the movie looks really, really cheap. For example, the big action scene about fifty minutes into the movie is so horribly done that it's laughable. It's filmed badly, it's edited badly, and the whole thing looks fake. It looks like it was done by putting a strobe light in front of a black backdrop with some crates and miscellaneous junk scattered around. If you're not even going to bother trying, why do it at all?

Everyone involved with this movie should be ashamed of themselves. I understand that some people in Hollywood will occasionally participate in less-than-stellar movies in order to make sure their bills get paid on time, but this is just ridiculous. The truth of the matter is that inside Alone in the Dark is an awesome action/horror movie that is begging to be freed, but all we're given is a half-assed waste of 96 minutes that's comparable to the most mediocre of Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies. It's poorly directed, poorly written, poorly acted... the entire movie is straight-up poor.

I will admit that Alone in the Dark is an improvement over House of the Dead, but that's like saying getting punched in the face is better than getting kicked in the testicles. It's definitely the lesser of two evils, though not by much. The final verdict is one and a half stars, and a warning that unless you're a glutton for cinematic punishment or have extremely low standards, you may want to avoid Alone in the Dark.

Final Rating:

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Motion pictures nowadays draw inspiration from lots of sources nowadays. Novels, television shows, video games, urban legends, comic books, plays, and true events have all been translated into film, but among the oddest ideas for a film are amusement park rides and attractions. Walt Disney Pictures ventured into this idea in 2002 when they released The Country Bears, based on Disneyland's "Country Bear Jamboree" attraction.

The movie was a tremendous failure at the box office, but that didn't stop Disney from releasing two more ride-based films the following year. One of them, Eddie Murphy's The Haunted Mansion, would barely break even, while the other would go on to gross over 650 million dollars worldwide and become one of the most acclaimed films of 2003. Based on the immensely popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl reinvigorated the struggling genre of pirate adventures while earning five Academy Award nominations. But is it worthy of such plaudits? You bet it is.

Our tale of adventure begins aboard the HMS Dauntless as it sails from England to the Caribbean. On the ship's deck is Elizabeth Swann (Lucinda Dryzdek), a young girl whose father (Jonathan Price) has been named governor of the Jamaican harbor town of Port Royal. As she discusses her obsession with pirates with her father and the ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Norrington (Jack Davenport), Elizabeth sees an unconscious boy named Will Turner (Dylan Smith) floating on a makeshift raft nearby. It isn't long before the crew learns where Will came from, as the Dauntless soon thereafter passes a fiery shipwreck.

As the crew searches the wreckage for survivors, Will is rescued and put in Elizabeth's care. She discovers a gold skull medallion around his neck, which Elizabeth assumes means he's a pirate. Fearing he'll be executed, she quickly yanks the medallion from Will's neck and hides it from the others. She looks out onto the ocean, and sees a ghostly ship with shredded black sails leaving the scene of the crime.

Flash forward eight years into the future, where Norrington is courting the adult Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) while anticipating a promotion to commodore by the British Royal Navy. Norrington pulls Elizabeth aside after his promotion ceremony and begins to propose, but her tight corset causes her to faint and fall into the bay. Inept buccaneer Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), newly arrived in Port Royal, sees what happens and dives in after her. He pulls her to safety, but when Governor Swann and Norrington arrive and notice the brand from the East India Trading Company on Jack's wrist, they attempt to arrest him for piracy.

Jack makes a daring escape and slips into a blacksmith shop, where he's discovered by the adult Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), now a blacksmith's apprentice with an unrequited love for Elizabeth. Will is a wee bit less than fond of pirates, so he makes an attempt to introduce Jack to the business end of a sword. The two engage in quite an exciting swordfight, with Jack only getting the upper hand by pulling a gun on his foe. But before we can discover whether Jack would have shot him, he is knocked unconscious by Will's employer and is thrown in jail.

That evening, Port Royal is attacked by the infamous ghost ship the Black Pearl, "called" to port by a mysterious pulse emitted by Elizabeth's skull medallion before Jack pulled her from the bay. The Black Pearl's pirates rampage through Port Royal and kidnap Elizabeth, who immediately invokes the right of parlay in order to conference with the Black Pearl's heartless captain, Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Elizabeth, claiming her surname is Turner because she fears Barbossa is after her father, barters the medallion in exchange for the Black Pearl permanently leaving Port Royal. Barbossa accepts the trade, but — thanks to a loophole in their agreement — refuses to release Elizabeth.

The next day, Will fails in his attempts to convince Norrington to immediately go after Elizabeth's captors. While the Commodore plans a more strategic course of action, Will decides more drastic measures are necessary. He goes to Jack and offers to break him out of prison if the pirate will help him track down Elizabeth and the Black Pearl. Seeing this as his opportunity to reclaim his beloved ship from the mutineers that stole it from him ten years prior, Jack accepts. Will frees Jack from his cell and they quickly abscond with the HMS Interceptor, the Royal Navy's fastest ship.

The duo heads to the lawless island of Tortuga to assemble a motley crew, and with Norrington and the Royal Navy hot on their heels, they follow the Black Pearl to the mysterious Isla del Muerta. But accomplishing their goal will be no easy feat. Barbossa and his men need the blood of a long-dead shipmate to reverse an ancient Aztec curse that has left them stranded somewhere between life and death. Believing that Elizabeth and her medallion are the keys to regaining their mortality, they aren't going to let her go without a fight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is all about excitement, adventure, and entertainment. It does not hesitate to take us straight into the thick of things, forgoing any sort of opening credits aside from the title. Not even the Disney or Bruckheimer Films logos precede the movie. The movie stays true to its amusement park roots by being a thrill ride from the very beginning. However, I did find it to be somewhat on the lengthy side. The movie clocks in at two hours and twenty-three minutes, the majority of which is comprised of fights, chases, and other types of action. Since a few of the scenes grow quite protracted, some of them could easily be trimmed, and the movie could have been easily reigned in at an even two hours. But aside from that, I really don't have any really grievous complaints.

While director Gore Verbinski's previous movie, the 2002 ghost story The Ring, was a straight-up horror film, his work here is more akin to Sam Raimi's cult classic Army of Darkness. There's loads of quirky comedy, a goofy lead character, and an army of skeletons in both. It seems to me that if Raimi had put Bruce Campbell on a pirate ship instead of in medieval times, Army of Darkness would have been quite similar to The Curse of the Black Pearl. Verbinski's direction here is quite good, and it benefits from Dariusz Wolski's spectacular cinematography and the wonderful music composed by Klaus Badelt. Badelt's music really enhances the movie's action, and the occasional instance of the Disneyland ride's anthem "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life For Me" are quite amusing.

The screenplay, penned by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, is quite daffy, never taking itself too seriously. Not once do we the viewer question any plot holes while watching the movie, though that may come up during post-movie reflection. Barbossa and his men are pretty much invincible, which means the Royal Navy probably won't beat them as long as they're cursed. So did the scene where Jack fought Barbossa while Barbossa's crew attacked Norrington's ship really need to run ten minutes? And how many times do we need to see Jack get caught and almost killed before he makes a daring escape? I know he's a crafty little weasel, so I don't need it repeated to me over and over. While most of the problems could have been solved by spending a little more time in the editing room, I do wonder if Elliott and Rossio knew just how long the movie would be when they finished the final draft of the script.

Let's move on to the cast. Jack Davenport and Jonathan Price are wholly unremarkable, but their characters were total non-factors, so I'll forgive that. However, the rest of the cast more than makes up for two unimportant third-tier characters. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley make a cute couple, and both of their performances are quite fun to watch. However, I got the impression that they were taking the material way too seriously. If The Curse of the Black Pearl was less comedic, then this point would have been rendered moot. But no matter, this is only a minor complaint. Geoffrey Rush is wonderfully over the top, playing the role like he's having the time of his life. He makes Barbossa an engaging villain, one that might even be likable if he wasn't such a bad guy.

But the most impressive member of the cast is Johnny Depp. Depp is absolutely brilliant, owning the whole movie. The character of Captain Jack Sparrow hearkens back to a time when memorable characters were valued more than movies that rely too heavily on computer generated graphics or way-too-pretentious social commentaries, and he plays the role with an extraordinary enthusiasm. Had he played the role straight, in the vein of legendary cinematic swashbuckler Errol Flynn, the entire movie would have been ruined. He instead plays the role with a sense of whimsical silliness that sets the tone for the entire film.

I point to a scene where Jack and Elizabeth are marooned on a desert island, and Jack puts a hidden cache of rum to good use by getting blind stinking drunk. Despite his inebriation, he behaves exactly the same as he does when he's sober. This sort of thing is very much evidence on the direction Depp has decided to go in. The movie would have been dead on arrival without his amazing performance and the wonderfully goofy character, and I found Depp to be quite deserving of his Best Actor Oscar nomination.

As I said above, the movie's roots are quite noticeable, as it keeps a rapid, exciting pace for nearly its entire running time. It only slows down long enough to fulfill needs for necessary plot advancement and exposition. With a little bit of streamlining, the movie would have been an epic for the ages. But truth be told, it's still pretty darn good. Boasting entertaining performances, thrilling action sequences, and believable, seamless CGI effects, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is worth seeing. I'll give it four and a half stars and a proud seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****½

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Batman Begins (2005)

The year was 1939. World War II was beginning, the career of legendary baseball player Lou Gherig was ending. The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind were released, and the "Golden Age of Comics" was just starting. By the time the year was out, the industry had seen Bob Kane and Bill Finger create a superhero that straddled the line between hero and vigilante.

A masked man striving to protect the city Kane and Finger's creation calls home from the criminals that claimed his family, he is called by many names. He is often referred to as the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, the Masked Manhunter, and the World's Greatest Detective. But he was born into the world with just one name: Batman. He has become a superstar in the seven decades since he first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics #27 in 1939, serving as not only as one of DC's flagship characters, but ranking with Superman and Spider-Man as one of the comic world's most iconic figures.

Batman has ventured outside of the printed page on numerous occasions, seeing translations into video games, toys, cartoons, movie serials in the 1940s, and the famous 1960s television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The show (and its spinoff movie) were super-silly, prompting the uninitiated to assume that the comic version was just as campy.

Batman, however, would be undeterred, and his public image would be drastically altered by Frank Miller's gritty 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton's adaptation in 1989. Burton's film inspired three sequels between 1992 and 1997, but similar to Christopher Reeve's four Superman movies, the franchise started a quick downward spiral with the third and fourth films in the series. Fans cried foul at the cinematic downfall of their hero, aiming their hatred at the apparent return to the campiness of the old television show. Warner Brothers apparently heard their cry, and felt the need to wipe the slate clean with a complete and total reboot. And reboot they did, starting with the Dark Knight's backstory in Batman Begins.

As our story begins, we're introduced to eight-year-old Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) as he plays in his backyard with a friend, Rachel Dawes (Emma Lockhart). She discovers an arrowhead, but Bruce swipes it and makes off like a bandit. Rachel chases him, but when he attempts to hide, he ends up falling into an old well. Stranded at the bottom with a broken leg, Bruce is overwhelmed by a swarm of bats.

Flash forward just over twenty years into the future, where the adult Bruce (Christian Bale) is interred at a horrible Asian prison, looking more like a psychotic Grizzly Adams than a billionaire playboy. And I'll be honest, the prison makes Schindler's List look like a fun way to spend a weekend. The place looks like Hiroshima: The Morning After, the slop they serve the prisoners is so disgusting that it barely qualifies as food in any sort of ethical sense, and to top it all off, Bruce ends up in a giant brawl with six guys at once. He kicks the crap out of all six before the guards break it up, getting thrown in his cell before he can hurt anyone else. In his cell, he's greeted by the enigmatic Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who offers Bruce the answers he's sought for his entire life.

Bruce accepts his offer, and arrives at a Himalayan palace occupied by a band of masked ninjas and their equally enigmatic leader Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). It is here that Ducard reveals his intention to take on Bruce as a protégé, and train him to combat evil in all its forms. He teaches Bruce numerous fighting styles, dropping little nuggets of wisdom while instructing his pupil to use theatricality and fear to conquer his foes. So in short, Ducard is like a funhouse mirror version of Qui-Gon Jinn from The Phantom Menace. Bruce's physically demanding training progresses, as we see flashbacks of his past and the path his life has taken. From watching a mugger senselessly murder his parents as a child, to his failed attempt as a young man to gain revenge by killing that mugger, to traveling the world committing crimes to sustain himself.

Bruce's training is a success, and he is accepted into the "League of Shadows." The League is an ancient organization, dedicated to restoring their view of order to the world in an "end justifies the means" fashion. Responsible for the downfall of numerous decadent societies, the League has sacked the Roman Empire, started the Black Plague, set the Great Fire of London in 1666, nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, took out Sodom and Gomorrah, hijacked the planes used in the attacks on September 11th... okay, I'm exaggerating a tad. They're only responsible for Rome, the Plague, and the London fire. But from the way Ra's and Ducard talk, the influence of the League of Shadows is rivaled only by the Illuminati. Anyway, Ra's and Ducard want Bruce to lead the League into Gotham City, which has been selected as their next target. Bruce refuses to destroy the city he loves, realizing that the League is simply a group of criminals hiding behind the guise of justice. He severs ties with the League by burning the place down and fighting off most of the League's members, then departs for home.

Bruce is reunited with longtime Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), who brings his ward up to speed on Gotham City events in his long absence. He has been declared dead, and his shares in Wayne Enterprises (the philanthropic business founded by his father) have been liquidated by company CEO William Earle (Rutger Houer) with the intention of taking the company public. It is on this flight home that Bruce declares his intentions: to save Gotham City from the crime choking the life out of the city.

Upon his return to Gotham City, Bruce heads to the Wayne Enterprises headquarters, inquiring about a job in the Applied Sciences division. He is led down into the division's long-forgotten warehouse in the basement, where he is introduced to Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman). An unjustly demoted scientist that is the only person working in the division, Fox has developed numerous prototypes for the military. But as it turns out, they were all rejected because they would be too expensive for mass production. If Ducard is like Qui-Gon Jinn, then Fox is like Q, only working for Batman instead of James Bond. Bruce drafts Lucious as his armorer, "borrowing" the unused prototypes under various false pretenses (such as spelunking and cliff diving) in order to craft a disguise for himself.

He tests out the disguise one night by paying a visit to police sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few honest cops in the city and the officer who helped console a young Bruce on the night his parents died. Bruce asks what it would take to bring down Gotham City's powerful crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), and warns Sgt. Gordon to "watch for [his] sign." Through a little investigative work, Bruce discovers that Falcone is expecting a shipment of drugs smuggled inside stuffed animals. He picks off each of Falcone's henchmen one by one, fighting his way through them to the mob boss's limousine, where he yanks him out through the sunroof and knocks him unconscious. When the police finally arrive, Sgt. Gordon discovers Falcone strapped to a spotlight, projecting the faint silhouette of a bat into the night sky... the work of the vigilante that becomes known as "Batman."

As the movie progresses, Batman finds himself up against a corrupt psychologist named Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). At first seeming like a harmless drug dealer with ties to the Mafia, he continually has sane criminals committed to Arkham Asylum so they can avoid prison. We soon learn, however, Crane's deeper, more malicious intentions. Y'see, he's using drugs acquired from Falcone to develop a weaponized hallucinogen that causes its victims to project their worst fear onto everything they see. Donning a burlap sack as a mask, Crane has created an alter ego he calls "The Scarecrow" in order to facilitate the fear of his victims.

After Falcone goes insane (thanks to the fear toxin), Bruce's old playmate Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) – now an assistant to Gotham City's district attorney – wonders how a man with no history of mental illness goes crazy as quickly as he did. Crane offers to show her why, leading her into the asylum's basement, where various henchmen pour Crane's hallucinogen into a water main. Rachel catches what's up and tries to leave, but the masked Crane blows his toxin into her face.

Batman wastes no time in saving the day, swooping in and taking out the henchmen before spraying Crane with a dose of his own fear gas. Frightened into submission by his vision of Batman as a demonic gargoyle, Crane reveals his backer: the believed-dead Ra's Al Ghul. As the third act begins, we see the true face of Ra's Al Ghul and witness as Batman attempts to thwart his master plan: to vaporize Gotham City's water supply and cause the latent drugs to infect the entire city, creating a wave of panic that will cause Gotham's citizens to destroy themselves from within.

Wow. That's really all I can say, just "wow." As much as I liked Batman '89, I'm of the opinion that Batman Begins quite possibly exceeds it in terms of both filmmaking quality and storytelling style. For those still clutching to the belief that Batman Begins is a prequel to the Burton/Schumacher quartet, just let it go. This is an all-new franchise. The movie doesn't fit into the previous continuity, which is especially evidenced in the fact that the Waynes were not killed by The Joker as depicted in Batman '89. Here, they're murdered by Joe Chill (as played by Richard Brake). Besides, they had to reboot the series, because they killed off the majority of the best villains. The villains are just as much of a draw as Batman is, and oustside of Scarecrow, Burton and Schumacher pretty much used all the best ones. How many casual fans have heard of Victor Zsasz or Killer Croc? The only true remaining hint of the Burton/Schumacher era that I caught is the rather sly reference to the opening scene of Batman '89 ("What the hell are you?" "I'm Batman.").

The script, penned by Nolan and David S. Goyer, combines elements of classic Batman stories such as Batman: Year One, The Man Who Falls, and The Long Halloween to make an excellent script, seamlessly blending Nolan's dark storytelling style with Goyer's ability to write entertaining comic book adaptations (with movies like The Crow: City of Angels and the Blade trilogy on his résumé). We're taken deeper into Batman's psyche and we actually get to see what's inside his head, as opposed to him just being a guy in a black rubber suit that's background noise for the villains. Rather than ruin the Batman mythology, Nolan and Goyer weave a tale that enriches it. We see the reasoning behind the "Batman" image, the birth of the Batcave, how he acquires those wonderful toys. We get to understand the character, to see his motivation.

The movie is as much about Bruce Wayne as it is about his masked alter ego, which brings more humanity and heart into the story. The hedonistic playboy side of the character's personality has been depicted by some comic book writers as Bruce's secret identity, while his "Dark Knight" side has been cast as the man's true nature. Nolan and Goyer have apparently taken that same route, because when the Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins puts on his cape and cowl, that's when we see his true face. This movie's Bruce is a hero through and through, and we get the sense that he feels more at home in the Batcave than he does in Wayne Manor.

But there is one thing that bugs me about the script. Is it just me, or are there flaws in that water vaporizer contraption used at the end of the movie? The human body is mostly water, so couldn't it vaporize people too? I'm not a science whiz, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. I don't have a clue. But in any event, the water vaporizer would have made an awesome weapon to use against Aquaman. If they make an Aquaman movie, they should totally rip that off.

After crafting such fascinating films as Memento, director Christopher Nolan has breathed new life into the thought-dead Batman movie franchise. Nolan's work here is just as well-crafted as the screenplay. The movie's look hearkens back to Tim Burton's original movie, yet retains its own individuality. While I normally complain about dizzying, quickly-edited action scenes, they work within the context of the movie. Take, for example, the scene where Batman interrupts Falcone's drug shipment. He appears out of nowhere, striking at a moment's notice. Falcone's henchmen are confused and have no clue what's going on, and the scene's editing reflects that.

The movie's camerawork (orchestrated by cinematographer Wally Pfister) pushes the movie along, putting to use exciting camera angles and moody lighting. Many of the scenes are cast in a melancholy gray light while others are tinted with earthy browns and sepia tones, which suits the movie's tone perfectly. The movie's special effects are also great, relying more on stuntmen and real gadgets than CGI work. They could have gone the whole Catwoman route and had a Batman that looked like he was ripped out of a video game during the action scenes, but the use of actual working props and stuntmen makes the movie that much more believable. And boy, did I like that Batmobile. Looking like an amalgam of a Hummer, a tank, and Dodge's aborted Tomahawk motorcycle, the Batmobile (called "the Tumbler" in the movie) isn't the typical Batmobile, but still manages to be sleek, intimidating, and downright cool.

Batman Begins is also assisted by a wonderful score by Hans Zimmer and James Nelson Howard. Their music doesn't rely on recurring leitmotifs like the scores by Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal's previous scores, but I liked it all the same. The score carries a lot of power and strength, without overshadowing what's onscreen. The score is never overbearing, maintaining a presence throughout and helping to tell a story as much as the screenplay and cast.

Speaking of, let's talk about the cast. Christian Bale does a spectacular job, wonderfully conveying the deep psychological scars of a person who as a child watched as those closest to him were violently snatched away, and seeks to avenge them as an adult. Bale's enthusiasm for the role is evident, and when the actors have fun, the viewer does too. His heroic turn here is the polar opposite of his equally extraordinary performance as an off-his-rocker serial killer in American Psycho, and he manages to play perhaps the best Bruce Wayne of the five actors who have gained notoriety for the role.

Bale is surrounded by an impressive supporting cast, with Liam Neeson and Michael Caine as its best members. Both Neeson and Caine are awesome, bringing some much-welcomed class to the movie. They could have just stood around smoking cigarettes and downing martinis for two hours and it would have ruled. Gary Oldman is fun as the future Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon, and Rutger Houer's turn as the sleazeball Wayne Enterprises CEO is enjoyable as well. Cillian Murphy, who I'd only seen prior as the protagonist in the British zombie movie 28 Days Later, turns in a creepy performance that makes me wish Scarecrow had gotten more screen time.

And despite having almost no screen time at all, Linus Roache is great as Bruce's father. Roache's performance is understated, yet he manages to come across as a truly loving father that leaves a thumbprint on the movie as a whole. However, not everything about the cast is so great. Katie Holmes is likeable, but I just wasn't believing her as an assistant DA or as a love interest. She doesn't bring much to the movie outside of standing around looking cute, so her character just seems superfluous. Holmes and Bale don't have the same chemistry as, say, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man or Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in Superman. Though to their credit, Holmes and Bale are a more believable couple than Holmes and Tom Cruise. Maybe that's why she spent so much time talking about Tom than promoting the movie when it was released, because she realized that she was totally out of her league when compared to the rest of the cast.

I enjoyed Batman Begins a lot, and combined with the fact that it's well-made and well-acted, goes a long way into how much hype I give it. I really don't have much bad to say about the movie at all, and I'm willing to list it in my top-five movies of 2005. The quality of comic book adaptations can be mixed, but I'm of the opinion that Batman Begins is one of the best of the bunch. Not as awesome as Sin City, but still great. I'll give Batman Begins four and a half stars and a vote of confidence, so check it out.

Final Rating: ****½

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Hard Candy (2006)

If appearances can be deceiving, then perhaps the most deceptive of all is an Internet chat room. That person you may be getting to know online, that one you think you may have so much in common with, could be someone with an entirely different personality and motive. Watch any random episode of Dateline NBC's "To Catch A Predator" gimmick, and you'll probably see at least a few middle-aged men who believed they'd sweet-talked their way into the pants of some nonexistent teenage girl they met over the Internet. This sort of situation is the basis for Hard Candy, an excellent independent film that tells the tale of a real-life meeting between two online buddies that quickly becomes a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

We begin our story by peeking in on an online conversation between "Lensman319" and "Thonggrrrl14," as the two agree to meet in person at a local coffee shop. And as they meet, we meet them as well: "Thonggrrrl14" is Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), a petite fourteen-year-old girl who is well-read despite barely looking a day over twelve; "Lensman319" is Jeff Kholver (Patrick Wilson), a charming 32-year-old photographer.

The pair strike up a conversation over a slice of chocolate cake, a conversation that is both friendly yet awkward. Jeff seems shy and a little nervous, and Hayley comes across as naïve yet mature for her age. As the conversation continues, the British techno band Goldfrapp comes up. Hayley is a fan, and when Jeff mentions that he's acquired a bootleg MP3 of a recent Goldfrapp concert he attended, she absolutely has to hear it. She more or less invites herself over to his house, even though they both agree that going back to his place is a little bit crazy.

They get back to his house, and as Hayley listens to the MP3, Jeff offers her a glass of water. She declines, stating that she's been taught to never drink any beverage she hasn't prepared herself. Hayley leads Jeff into the kitchen, where she raids the fridge and starts making screwdrivers. Times must be different nowadays, because when I was 14, the only screwdrivers I knew about were the kind they sell at hardware stores. Maybe I was too sheltered as a kid, I don't know.

But anyway, Hayley starts pouring the vodka and orange juice, and things start livening up. She starts begging Jeff to take pictures of her, similar to the ones he's taken of various models that hang on the walls of his house. Hayley turns on some techno music and starts dancing on the couch, but when Jeff returns with his camera, he gets dizzy and passes out.

He awakens sometime later to find himself tied to an office chair. Hayley greets him, explaining that she spiked his drink with something she'd stolen from her father, and that she was afraid she'd accidentally used too much. At first thinking this is some kind of joke, Jeff soon learns that Hayley is not the innocent young girl he believed her to be, but a cold, calculating sociopath with an axe to grind. Her agenda: to pull every skeleton out of his closet by proving her belief that Jeff is a pedophile. And folks, Hayley isn't playing around. She's willing to go to extreme lengths to make sure Jeff suffers, as she pumps him for information regarding his indiscretions and the disappearance of a young woman he may have once photographed.

Although it never claims itself to be such, Hard Candy could perhaps be construed as a spiritual cousin to movies like Takashi Miike's Audition. Both movies center around men whose relationships with the younger women in their lives aren't everything they originally believed them to be. But what separates Audition and Hard Candy (besides the lack of gore, of which there is very little in Hard Candy) is how we connect to the characters. With Hard Candy, it's as if we were merely dropped into the middle of a certain slice of life with no preparation. As the movie progresses, we get glimpses into Jeff's true nature, but we never really feel like we can identify with him. We learn that he enjoys the company of underage girls, and that he may be connected to a missing teenager.

It's hard to sympathize with him while knowing this information, but it's just as hard to sympathize with Hayley. I don't want to say she's one-dimensional, because I don't believe she is. There's a lot going on inside that mind of hers. But Hayley is absolutely devoid of a soul; she's a complete blank slate who completely negates anything we think we know about her with just a few lines of dialogue.

And really, should we sympathize with her? Do we cheer for her because she is doling out comeuppance to someone we are led to believe is a pedophile, or do we fear her because of how she gleefully tortures him both physically and psychologically? She is not painted as a feminist antihero, but as an enigmatic sociopath that enjoys what she's doing. She says early in the movie that "four out of five doctors agree that I'm actually insane," and though she sounds like she's joking, it appears that nothing could be closer to the truth.

Hard Candy is a very minimalist film, with nearly all of the 104-minute running time centering around two characters in one location. Director David Slade takes that and uses it to raise the movie's intimacy. He relies heavily (perhaps too heavily) on close-ups of his actors, but it manages to work in the movie's favor because it pulls the viewer deeper into the atmosphere. Slade also puts his music video background to good use, as we get some quite effective fast-motion and slow-motion. Combined with the work of cinematographer Jo Willems, it almost feels as if MTV decided to branch out into art house films.

Slade's work is also greatly enhanced by the engrossing score composed by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott. The score alternates between thumping techno, a subdued ambiance, and occasions of no music at all. Sometimes silence is golden, and Nyman and Escott understand this. Many times, they just let the sound effects do their work, which is much more effective.

I also thought the screenplay penned by Brian Nelson was extremely well done. The movie has no real hero, no real villain. Nelson's script is not painted with black and white, but shades of gray, which makes the movie all the more intriguing to watch. The script touches upon certain taboos that most movies won't, but instead of doing it like some cheap Lifetime movie, Nelson makes Hard Candy bounce between psychoanalytical drama and black comedy. And believe it or not, it all balances out properly and works quite well.

But perhaps the best things about the entire movie are its two leads, Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Outside of one or two scenes, they are the only characters in the movie, and both Wilson and Page are extraordinary. The movie is heavy on dialogue and the action scenes are rather light, but the duo effortlessly handles all that is required of them. Wilson is wonderful, managing to make the viewer both dislike him and feel sympathetic for him simultaneously.

His co-star, however, is absolutely excellent. Some critics have heralded this as Page's breakout role, and I might have to agree. Page is absolutely riveting as she plays the role with a certain whimsical merriment. Her character is smooth and cunning, and Page makes it believable. The movie is all about Page and Wilson, which makes Sandra Oh's cameo as a nosy neighbor delivering Girl Scout cookies so superfluous. Yeah, she might have a little name value after scoring points with Sideways and Grey's Anatomy, she doesn't bring anything to the film at all. Nothing against her, but the inclusion of her character doesn't bring much to the movie outside of a distraction. While I think the character was included to add a little "is Hayley going to be caught?" tension, it ultimately went nowhere and served no greater purpose to the movie.

Viewers will be either engrossed with or turned off by Hard Candy. The subject matter – a young girl torturing a suspected pedophile – will not appeal to everyone, but it will nonetheless get a reaction from those who see it. It is a film made with passion and with talent, and it is a film that is thoroughly fascinating. The movie is worth the price of admission, just to see the performances of its two leads. And because of this, I cannot give Hard Candy anything less than four stars and a very hearty seal of approval. It will not satisfy everyone who sees it, but I believe it is worth watching at least once, just for the experience.

Final Rating: ****