Thursday, January 26, 2006

Land of the Dead (2005)

Ask any horror fan worth their salt what the definitive zombie movie is, and a hefty portion will probably answer with George A. Romero's seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead. Filmed near Pittsburgh on a shoestring budget, the tale of ragtag survivors defending themselves from a mob of zombies surrounding a rural farmhouse has become a true classic and permanently etched Romero's name into the upper echelon of horror movie filmmakers. Romero made other movies after Night of the Living Dead (including, of all things, the documentary O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose), but he returned to what brought him to the dance in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead. The tale of four survivors holed up in an abandoned shopping mall, Dawn of the Dead was a satire of '70s consumerism that was regarded as highly as its predecessor.

Romero's zombie apocalypse would resume just over a decade later, when his 1985 film Day of the Dead depicted a group of soldiers and scientists forced to hide out in a limestone mine. His third entry into the "Dead Trilogy" was not as well-received as the two that followed before it, yet it has managed to retain a devoted audience all its own. Romero moved on with his career, not returning to the undead world he created for two decades. Sure, he wrote and produced a remake of Night of the Living Dead in 1990, but that doesn't exactly count, does it? But finally, a full twenty years following the release of what long appeared to be the final chapter in Romero's beloved Dead Trilogy, Romero finally released the much anticipated fourth installment, Land of the Dead. Let's get to the review, shall we?

We begin many years after the start of the zombie epidemic depicted in Romero's previous three zombie movies. The dead now vastly outnumber the living, many of whom have fled to Pittsburgh, which now serves as a refuge and sanctuary for those trying to escape the undead. Bordered by a large river and an electrical barricade, the fortress-like city has developed a feudal-like government where the poor live in slums, while the rich live in Fiddler's Green, a luxurious skyscraper situated in the heart of the city.

In charge of the Fiddler's Green is Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who maintains control with the Dead Reckoning, an amalgam of a tank and tractor-trailer operated by a team of anti-zombie commandos led by Riley Denbo (Simon Baker). Riley is preparing for retirement, but after sparking a gunfight in a bar, he ends up in jail with his best friend and Dead Reckoning teammate Charlie Houk (Robert Joy), and Slack (Asia Argento), a hooker he started the gunfight to protect.

Meanwhile, Riley's lieutenant, Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), has gone renegade. Having his dreams of moving to Fiddler's Green crushed by Kaufman and out to even the score, Cholo hijacks the Dead Reckoning and threatens to bomb Fiddler's Green unless Kaufman pays him a ransom of five million dollars. Refusing to negotiate with what he labels a terrorist, Kaufman turns to Riley for help. And while all this is going on, in the outside world, the zombies are beginning to resume their pre-zombie lives. A cheerleader carries her pompoms, an undead brass band toot their horns to no avail, a zombie couple walk hand-in-hand.

The zombies are also beginning to show signs of intelligence, even the ability to communicate through various grunts. Taking center stage is "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark), a former gas station attendant who shows the most intelligence of all the walking corpses. Big Daddy becomes the de facto undead chieftain, leading them past many of the human defenses straight for Fiddler's Green as they seek vengeance for the raids carried out by the Dead Reckoning. What follows is carnage on a massive scale, as the citizens of the city try to escape the wrath of the immense zombie horde.

I enjoy a good zombie movie as much as the next person. But with Land of the Dead, it feels as if instead of innovation, we've been given more of the same. Outside of certain details, I really don't think much separates Land of the Dead from the other movies in the Dead Quadrilogy. As much as I liked and enjoyed Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead seemed almost like the same movie, only with changes in setting and characters. I also wonder about the movie's title. While Land of the Dead is definitely fitting, shouldn't it technically be Twilight of the Dead, just to go full circle? It's no big deal, but still, it would have been neat. In any event, as with his three prior zombie movies, Romero presents us with his own brand of social satire. With Land of the Dead, Romero uses his zombies to more or less complain about the government. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the enemies of the main characters are depicted as mindless creatures.

Romero also attempts to draw parallels between Kaufman and George W. Bush, as evidenced by a bit where Kaufman says that he doesn't negotiate with terrorists (a parallel cemented when Cholo's use of the word "jihad" in reference to using the Dead Reckoning against Kaufman). There is also a portion of the movie that touches on the "bread and circuses" tactic of the Roman Empire, as Kaufman uses gambling, alcohol, prostitutes, and other vices to distract the slum residents from realizing how miserable their lives are. While this does set up one very fun scene (in which a character is pitted against two zombies in a gladiator-style fight to the death), the whole social commentary thing seems very heavy-handed. Government bad, oppressed people good, I got it. I want violent zombie mayhem, not an indictment of crappy government policy.

Regardless of my lack of enthusiasm in regards to his screenplay, Romero's direction is awesome. Combined with some wonderful cinematography by Miroslaw Baszak, Romero effectively creates a world rebuilding in the wake of the apocalypse. Though nothing really stands out as memorable (with the exception of the scene in which Big Daddy and the zombie army rise out of the river), Romero's direction is respectable. There are some parts where CGI is much too evident, like the zombie who's head is dangling behind his back, only attached to his neck by thin strips of loose skin.

But if anything can be said about Land of the Dead, it's that the makeup effects have drastically improved. The zombies in Dawn and Day were just so embarrassingly ugly by today's standards, considering that they're just regular people slathered in blue-gray greasepaint. But here, the zombies really look like the walking dead. I've long been a fan of the work of the KNB effects group, and their efforts here are exemplary. The movie also has an energetic, effective score composed by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, music that never becomes overbearing or offensive.

And while the zombies may be the main stars of the movie, the regular cast deserves a mention too. Lead actor Simon Baker did a good job, underplaying the whole heroic aspect of his character while still having enough charisma to actually be acceptable as the hero. John Leguizamo can be irritatingly over the top in many of his roles, but he's wonderful here. With another actor, the Cholo character could have come across as a one-dimensional, throwaway character, but Leguizamo's performance makes the character much more endearing.

Robert Joy and Dennis Hopper are both very entertaining as a dim-witted sharpshooter and the scumbag in charge, respectively, and rounding out the human cast is Asia Argenta. I'm not one to start a rumor, but I wouldn't be surprised if Ms. Argento, the daughter of legendary Italian director Dario Argento, was hired merely because of her father's reputation in the horror genre. She alternated between spacey and tough-as-nails, and whatever groove she was in took some time to get in line with. Representing the flesh-eating undead, Eugene Clark gives a wonderful performance, despite having very little to do besides look mean and grunt. And kudos to Romero for giving makeup wizard Tom Savini and Shaun of the Dead co-writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright brief cameos as zombies. As a fan of both Savini's work and Shaun of the Dead, I was very happy to see them in the movie.

While I wouldn't call Land of the Dead the "ultimate zombie masterpiece" that its tagline proclaims it to be, nor would I call it the best of the "Dead Quadrilogy," but it's still a fine example of why George Romero holds such high stature in the zombie realm. The cast is entertaining, the effects are outstanding, and the setting is effective, but as I said above, it still feels like more of the same. And for that, I'll give Land of the Dead three and a half stars. It probably won't appeal to anyone outside of diehard fans of Romero or zombies (or both), so if you like that sort of thing, check it out.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dark Water (2005)

I often talk about how often Hollywood movie studios will fall back on a remake instead of thinking up something fresh. But lately, in addition to remaking established American films, the latest trend has been to venture into Asian horror cinema to find new material. After DreamWorks scored a hit with The Ring in 2002, movie studios started buying the rights to as many Asian ghost stories as they could get their hands on. But while remakes like The Ring and The Grudge rely mostly on "boo!" scares and mind-twisting visuals, the remake of Dark Water took a more cerebral, ambient path in frightening its audience. Its depiction of a mother, her daughter, and their hellish apartment wasn't exactly a box office smash, but I'd call it the most misunderstood and overlooked of the Asian horror remakes. Let's check it out, shall we?

Our story follows Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly), who we learn is in the midst of a heated custody battle with her former husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) over their six-year-old daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade). Dahlia's search for a new home for her and her daughter leads her to a tenement on Roosevelt Island, where the building's landlord Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) shows her an apartment on the ninth floor. Ceci immediately proclaims the apartment "yucky," a description that hits the nail on the head. The place goes far beyond "fixer-upper" territory, looking like nothing short of a dilapidated hellhole in need of massive renovation if not out-and-out demolition. Not only is the apartment an eyesore, but it's also too small. So small, in fact, that when he can't find the second bedroom he promised, Mr. Murray proclaims the living room is a "dual-use" room. But the rent is in Dahlia's price range and it's only two blocks from a good school, so Dahlia takes it.

But as the days go on, more and more problems with the apartment begin to reveal themselves, mainly with the shoddy plumbing. A leak has caused a nasty black stain in the bedroom ceiling and water from the faucets often turns dark and viscous, yet Mr. Murray and cantankerous superintendent Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) repeatedly give Dahlia the runaround regarding it. And while her cramped apartment seemingly falls apart around her, so does Dahlia's life. Not too much time passes before she finds herself haunted by the mystery surrounding a missing child named Natasha Rimsky (Perla Haney-Jardine). And oddly enough, Ceci soon begins talking to "Natasha," an imaginary friend that she insists is real.

Dahlia's fragile grip on sanity is also challenged by horrible nightmares about her unloving junkie mother and the escalating bitterness in the custody battle over Ceci. As she begins to observe more and more bizarre occurrences around the building, Dahlia soon begins to question whether she really is losing her mind, or if her new residence is also occupied by a ghost looking to make its presence known.

Like The Ring, Dark Water is based on Hideo Nakata's adaptation of a short story by Japanese novelist Kôji Suzuki. Unfortunately, thanks to misleading marketing on the part of Touchstone Pictures, most people were expecting a Ring-esque movie, but got a psychological ghost story. Although Dark Water sadly wasn't a blockbuster, it holds firm as an extremely well-made film that deserves more attention that it got. Though many of the notes are the same, this movie's song is played much differently than its cinematic brethren. Watching Dark Water and The Ring Two back to back, it's obvious to me that Dark Water is everything that the Ring sequel should have been: suspenseful, brilliantly acted, and downright spooky.

Brazilian director Walter Salles, who previously helmed foreign films like The Motorcycle Diaries, makes the most of his first English-language film. As I said above, Salles doesn't rely on cheap scares or musical stingers to frighten his audience, instead opting to use a tense ambiance that pushes the movie's sense of dread. While the movie isn't exactly "scary" in the traditional sense, Salles draws out many scenes, making us anticipate when something would pop around a corner, which can oftentimes be scarier than the payoff itself. The movie is slow and subtle, and this tactic proves effective with the story being told, with the dramatic aspects standing out most of all.

Similarly, I found the screenplay penned by Rafael Yglesias to be most effective when concentrating on being mysterious and dramatic, not scary. Though there are a handful of unresolved subplots and things that seem out of place, I found much of what Yglesias wrote worked. The relationship between Dahlia and Ceci is a believable one, and if that heart-wrenching denouement at the end doesn't get to you, you don't have a soul. The movie also boasts an outstanding score by Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti, who has crafted melancholy music that is befitting of the movie's tone.

Where the movie truly succeeds is its cast. Jennifer Connelly is absolutely superb, giving what I felt to be one of the best horror movie performances I've seen in a long time. Connelly's performance is quite gripping, making we the viewer truly care about her as she slowly descends into madness. While I don't think that the movie truly answers if Dahlia's mental problems are being caused by supernatural means or a combination of stress and her own torturous childhood, Connelly's performance makes us feel for her. Meanwhile, young Ariel Gade is both creepy and adorable as Cici, very rarely venturing into the usual hackneyed "odd kid that talks to the dead" that you see in every ghost story nowadays. Both John C. Reilly and Pete Postlewaithe are wonderfully wicked as the manipulative landlord and stubborn superintendent, and though it's a small and thankless part, Tim Roth is entertaining as Dahlia's odd yet good-hearted lawyer.

Sadly, Dark Water struggled to find an audience during its stay in theaters. Perhaps it was due to people disappointed with the trailers and TV commercials promising one thing, and the movie delivering another. Perhaps it was due to the resentment that fans of Asian horror have for remakes. It could be either of those things, or it could be both of those things. I don't really know. But I do hope that it can find an audience on the home video market, where it could join movies like Stir of Echoes on the list of smaller, more intimate movies that often go unappreciated by mainstream audiences yet strengthen the genre through its efforts. Yes, Dark Water does have flaws, but with a remarkable cast and excellent direction, I'll gladly give it four stars and a hearty recommendation.

Final Rating: ****

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Fantastic Four (2005)

Hollywood has been making cinematic adaptations of comic books for decades, as far back as the Batman and Superman serials in the 1940s. From superheroes in the Marvel and DC camps, to underground comics like Road to Perdition, Ghost World, and A History of Violence, very few comic book properties are safe from filmmakers.

But one of the most talked-about adaptations (at least, in some fan circles) was the 1994 movie based on one of Marvel's most famous properties, the Fantastic Four. Produced by B-movie icon Roger Corman, the Fantastic Four movie was absolutely horrendous and has never been officially released, only seeing the light of day through online file-sharing programs and bootleg DVDs sold at comic book conventions.

Prompted by the influx of successful movies based on Marvel Comics properties that started with X-Men in 2000 (or with Blade in 1998, if you want to split hairs about it), Twentieth Century Fox decided to revisit the Fantastic Four a decade later with their own big-budget adaptation. With a bigger budget and an infinitely better cast, Fantastic Four premiered with much hype on July 8, 2005. But does it actually improve upon the previous disaster? That's what we're here to find out.

Brilliant yet bankrupt scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) has developed a theory that evolution was sparked by Earth passing through clouds of cosmic energy millions of years ago, and calculates that Earth will soon be passing through one of these energy clouds again. With his best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) in tow, Reed begs his ultra-rich MIT classmate Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to let him use his company's space station to observe and study them. Victor agrees, but with the condition that he gets the final say in everything.

Coming along for the ride are Victor's assistant Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) and her daredevil brother Johnny (Chris Evans), passengers that affect Reed and Ben in separate ways. Johnny's youthful arrogance annoys Ben, while there's a certain tension between Reed and Sue, thanks to their failed romantic relationship while attending MIT.

The five travel up to the space station to perform their experiments, but things go awry when the clouds appear hours ahead of schedule and all five are zapped by its energy. They return home intact, but each of them eventually begin to mutate, developing their own separate superpowers. Reed discovers an ability to stretch and elongate any part of his body; Sue can generate force fields and becomes transparent at will; Johnny gains the powers of pyrokinesis and flight; and Ben has himself some fancy new super-strength. But unfortunately for poor Ben, his incredible strength is offset by his skin becoming craggy orange rock. And that sort of thing can be hazardous to both your self-esteem and love life too, because his disfigurement causes his wife to leave him while he falls into a pretty severe funk.

Although the use of their powers save numerous lives in a car crash on the Brooklyn Bridge (a situation that prompts the media to dub them "the Fantastic Four"), only Johnny really embraces his newfound powers, as Reed, Sue, and Ben want to resume their normal pre-mutation lives. This desire for a return to normalcy spurs on Reed's research into building a chamber to replicate and reverse the effects of the energy clouds.

However, Victor's skin is changing into an organic metal, as well as developing the ability to generate and manipulate bursts of electricity. Blaming Reed's space venture for the failure of his company, he sets into motion a plan to exact vengeance against his rival. He begins sowing seeds of dissent among their ranks, prodding Ben's low self-esteem by convincing him that Reed's work on the chamber isn't very high on his list of priorities. Though he causes a temporary rift between his adversaries, Victor's plan ultimately fails, and donning a sinister metal mask similar to Darth Vader's, he re-christens himself "Doctor Doom" and vows to crush the unified Fantastic Four.

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, the Fantastic Four helped put Marvel Comics on the map. But alas, they just can't catch a break in the world of cinema. While it is most certainly better than its 1994 counterpart, this updated telling of the Fantastic Four story isn't very fantastic. Sure, it's entertaining, but it's perhaps mediocre at best. The screenplay, penned by Mark Frost and Michael France, makes for an incredibly uneven movie. While I personally thought that it was a good intro to the powers of the Four and Doctor Doom (an introduction that seems to draw inspiration from Marvel's "Ultimate Fantastic Four" comics), it didn't really tell much of a story.

The movie could have benefited from being twenty minutes longer. We're dropped right into the movie mere minutes before the fateful space trip that gives our lead characters their powers, and it's as if the filmmakers expect us to jump right in and expect us to be familiar with the characters from frame one. What are their backgrounds? How did they get to where they are? How are we supposed to believe that they're a family if that dynamic is never really established? I'm not a reader of the comics, I don't know these things. I understand they want to avoid wasting time by getting to their powers quickly, but a little character introduction is nice too.

The relationship between the Thing and his blind girlfriend Alicia Masters, as played by Kerry Washington, is severely downplayed as well. The character of Alicia is pivotal in the Thing's development, right? Yeah, well, it's kinda hard to be pivotal when you're relegated to one scene where you buy someone a drink. Don't get me wrong, it's a great scene, but in the long run, it doesn't really do much.

The movie's tone is very inconsistent, and comes across like it was aimed toward teenagers too young to properly appreciate other, better comic book adaptations like Batman Begins and Sin City. While I'll admit that the movie has a fun visual look and the special effects are good (not fantastic, but acceptable), it didn't seem like Story did enough to mask the flaws of the script he was working with.

Unfortunately, the weakness of the story is made more evident by weaknesses in the cast. Julian McMahon spends too much time being suave and cool and all that, and not enough time being a bad guy. It's like his agent forgot to tell him he wasn't on the set of Nip/Tuck or something. He's not helped by the fact that the role is written poorly, but at least McMahon could try to be intimidating. Doctor Doom is neck-and-neck with Magneto for the title of "coolest Marvel Comics villain," but in the movie, he's just another guy in a metal mask. Are we supposed to believe that he wants world domination because he's jealous of Reed and had a bad day on Wall Street? I'm sure they could have thought up some better motivation than that.

Jessica Alba is severely miscast here as well, spending almost the whole of the movie looking like she's out of her element. Of the three movies Alba starred in over the course of 2005, she played a scantily-clad stripper, an invisible scientist, and a scantily-clad deep sea diver. If I may borrow a quote from Sesame Street, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong." As a red-blooded heterosexual male, I certainly have no problem staring at her for 106 minutes, but I don't believe she's a brainy scientist for a second. Maybe it's the fact that she's made a career out of starring in crap like Honey and Into the Blue, I don't know.

On the other hand, I have no problem with the other three members of the Fantastic Four. The character of Reed Richards isn't exactly the archetype of charisma, so Ioan Gruffudd allows himself to be in a supporting role for most of the movie. Gruffudd is very likable in the role, and if he'd been the focus of the movie for more than he was, I wouldn't have complained.

The duo of Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans, meanwhile, are like Fantastic Four's answer to X-Men's Hugh Jackman, stealing every scene they're in. If one good thing can be said about the movie, it's that Chiklis and Evans have a great comedic chemistry together, which made the movie far more enjoyable than it probably had any right to be. Although he's buried under pounds and pounds of makeup, Chiklis gives the Thing a humanity that the role demands. The transition from normal-looking guy to hulking orange rock is a rough one for poor Ben Grimm, and Chiklis makes us believe it. And Evans is wonderfully hilarious as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. He's very effective in his depiction of Johnny as a brash loudmouth prick that you can't help but like.

And while I have your attention, I'd like to point out something that I noticed about the movie. Something that I think gets overlooked is that, like The Incredibles, each of the characters have particular powers that mirror their personalities. Reed's malleable body illustrates the concept that he often tries to stretch himself too thin across any given experiment or concept, while Sue's invisibility is a metaphor for how she often feels Reed overlooks her. Johnny's ability to set himself ablaze seems appropriate for someone who's willing to do just about anything to get attention, and Ben is a classic example of the old phrase "don't judge a book by it's cover." He has incredible strength and a gruff, intimidating exterior, but on the inside, he's a charming, friendly guy. And let's not forget Victor Von Doom, whose coldhearted nature is reflected in the cold steel that makes up his body.

Good points can be found in Fantastic Four, such as two scenes involving Ben (the one where his wife first sees him, and the one where he first meets Alicia). There is also an admirable sense of teamwork in the final climax, but it comes with no real buildup or reasoning. As I said earlier, the movie could have been a lot better had they only spent more time setting up the familial dynamic among the Four. Fantastic Four would have been a fantastic movie (no pun intended) with a little more effort, but its flaws really bog it down. But thanks to some good spots in spite of its glaring flaws, I'll give it a thumbs-in-the-middle with three stars. As always, however, your mileage may vary.

Final Rating: ***

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

May (2003)

In this era of big-budget blockbusters, low-budget movies will occasionally fall through the cracks, going straight to video or getting limited, unheralded theatrical releases. It's a shame too, because some of these movies on the Hollywood fringe are actually pretty good. Such is the case with a little movie called May.

Filmed in the fall of 2001 on a budget of 500,000 dollars, May toured the film festival circuit for a year before Lions Gate Films picked it up for an extremely short, extremely limited theatrical run in the summer of 2003. In fact, May only played in a measly nine theaters in the entire country, grossing only $150,277 in a six-week run.

Garnering rave reviews from both critics and those who have seen it (including getting a four-star review from Roger Ebert), this tale of a misfit searching for a friend just may be one of the best hidden gems in your local video store's horror section. So let's get to the review, shall we?

For all of her life, May Canady (Angela Bettis) has struggled to fit in. Ostracized as a child due to the lazy eye she kept hidden under a pirate patch, poor May found little help from her obsessive compulsive, perfectionist mother (Merle Kennedy). As a result, she grew into a lonely, awkward adult striving to find her place in the outside world despite an utter and complete lack of any discernible social skills. Her only friend throughout life has been Suzie, a delicate homemade doll she keeps in a glass case. May confides her deepest, darkest secrets to Suzie, who, despite her unwavering silence, seems to give her own brand of very bad advice to her owner. Suzie may be an inanimate object, but to May, she's as real as any flesh and blood friend.

But a real human friend is what May truly desires, and she finally finds one in Adam Stubbs (Jeremy Sisto). An enigmatic mechanic and lover of Dario Argento movies, Adam has been watched from afar by May, who obsesses over him and his seemingly perfect hands. When Adam finally strikes up a conversation with her, she's on Cloud Nine, having finally found someone who she believes will appreciate her odd quirks.

Things are all well and good between May and Adam at first, but things soon get too weird between them. The pair get together to watch his student film from college, a movie that features a couple engaging in carnal cannibalism. That's already bizarre enough, but during an passionately intimate moment, she makes an attempt to mimic the movie and tries biting Adam's bottom lip off. He pushes her away and leaves, claiming that he likes weird, but "not that weird."

When she tries patching things up between them a few days later, she inadvertently discovers that he has not only moved on, but believes May is a freak. The heartbroken May tries moving on as well, eventually getting herself wrapped up with a coworker, lesbian nympho Polly (Anna Faris). Believing she's more than just another sexual conquest, May finds herself having a one night stand with Polly. Unfortunately for her, she quickly finds out how very wrong she is when she finds Polly seducing another woman after stopping by her house unannounced. Rejected once again, May's life begins to crumble around her as she spirals into depression.

She attempts to make one last grasp at hope by volunteering at a day care center for blind children, reaching out to an isolated child named Petey (Rachel David). This ends up backfiring like everything else, as something resembling a show-and-tell activity leads to Suzie's accidental destruction. Forced to the end of her rope, May has nothing left to lose. After ruminating on her belief that there are only perfect parts but no perfect wholes, May decides to quite literally follow the advice her mother gave her as a child: "If you don't have friends, make one." She becomes the freak she was always made to believe she was and sets into motion a plan to create the perfect whole from the perfect parts of the people in her life, to finally have the friend she's always wanted.

While not a perfect film, May has many of the traits necessary to be a movie worth watching. Though telekinesis never comes into play, the movie may understandably draw comparisons to Carrie. Both are stories about young misfit girls that exact bloody revenge in the final act of the movie. (Ironically, Angela Bettis played the titular telekinetic in the 2002 made-for-television version of Carrie). And like Brian De Palma's cinematic rendition of Carrie. May is a well-made, well-acted piece of horror goodness that is worth every minute invested into watching it.

Making both his feature directing and writing solo debut (after co-writing/directing a movie with Chris Silvertson), Lucky McKee has crafted a intelligently quirky movie. His Tim Burton-esque style of direction is outstanding for a movie of this type, showing wild originality while managing to show his love for various other movies as well, with visual references to films like Taxi Driver, Roman Polanski's Repulsion, and Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula populating the movie. Using intriguing camera setups (with assistance from cinematographer Steve Yedlin), well-edited montages, quick subliminal imagery, and great, creepy use of music (composed by Jaye Barnes Luckett) and sound design, McKee's work shows that he has a lot of promise as a director within the horror genre.

McKee's screenplay is also intelligent, witty, funny, and frightening, as if it were a demented version of Ghost World. The characters aren't the typical horror movie stereotypes, but fully developed people. McKee also makes what could be trivial, mundane incidents much deeper. Take, for example, May's cigarettes. May doesn't smoke, but takes up the habit when Adam gives her a pack of his cigarettes. Big whoop, right? I disagree. May treasures that pack of cigarettes, making each one seem as important to her as Adam himself. It is as if they were an extension of his being, and smoking them brings her closer to Adam.

I also point at the numerous cracks that appear on Suzie's case throughout the movie. McKee seems to hint that the cracks are a way of giving Suzie a personality of her own, as if she's frustrated with May, trying to keep May all to herself. But if you ask me, the cracks are also representative of the ever-mounting strain being put on May's already tenuous grasp on sanity. With each traumatic moment, a newer, larger crack surfaces, before the case, the doll, and May's fragile psyche are finally smashed to pieces.

Although she is an inanimate object, Suzie is as significant as the lead character. In any other movie, Suzie would have come to life. We would have seen her move, we would have heard her speak. But in May, all of Suzie's living comes from inside May's mind. The doll's cold, unwavering stare is brought to life though the wonderful acting of Angela Bettis. The role demands an actress who can properly relate the character's frailty to the audience, and Bettis is quite up to task.

Many of the best horror movie monsters are the ones who can't escape what they do, but are merely victims of their nature. Characters such as Carrie White, Ginger Fitzgerald from Ginger Snaps, Kayako and Toshio from The Grudge, and Sadako Yamamura from Ringu are all like this, and May is among their ranks. Bettis's turn as May manages to draw sympathy and pity, even while she's hacking off the body parts of everyone she knows. Bettis successfully alternates between being shy and adorable, and very creepy, peculiar, and downright insane. The success of May is hinged on the talent of its lead, and Bettis carries the entire movie on her diminutive shoulders.

The other two main characters, Jeremy Sisto and Anna Faris, are also very fun to watch. Sisto excellently plays his role as a "real" guy, representing the voice of the audience as he wants to be May's friend, yet begins to back away as he gets uncomfortably deeper into her world. Faris, who you may recognize as the star of the Scary Movie films, is wonderful as well, bringing a sense of silly humor to the movie as May's second chance at being loved and accepted. She steps across into "over the top" territory on occasion, but she still makes the character work.

May is a wicked character study, delving into the mind of a social pariah that desperately strives to find flesh-and-blood companionship, but just can't catch a break. As I said in the opening paragraph, May is quite possibly one of the best hidden gems out there. The movie is sweet, sad, and scary, with a lead actress whose performance will keep you glued to the screen. I'll side with Roger Ebert's review and give May four and a half stars, and a hearty seal of recommendation.

Final Rating: ****½

Sunday, January 1, 2006

The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

Television and cinema has brought us many famous vehicles. There's KITT from Knight Rider, Herbie the Love Bug, the Ectomobile from Ghostbusters, Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine, the Mach 5 from Speed Racer, and the Batmobile. But with all of those in consideration, one car stands out in the minds of most Southerners as their favorite fictional mode of transportation: a tricked-out 1969 Dodge Charger dubbed "the General Lee." Anyone who watched television in the early '80s has heard of the General Lee, which made its first appearance when The Dukes of Hazzard premiered on CBS on January 26, 1979.

Originally a midseason replacement for a cancelled series, The Dukes of Hazzard quickly became one of the most popular shows on CBS, so popular that it was second only to the legendary soap opera Dallas in the ratings. In the two decades since its final episode aired, the family-friendly show has gone on to achieve a large cult following, with reruns drawing high ratings on TNN (prior to becoming Spike TV) and CMT.

The General Lee has become almost as recognized as the Nike swoosh, and denim cutoff shorts have been affectionately known as "Daisy Dukes" ever since. With the recent trend of old television shows being remade into movies, I guess it only made sense for Warner Brothers to roll the General Lee back into action on the big screen.

The plot, as with just about any random episode of the show, is relatively simple. Our story takes place in the fictional Hazzard County of Georgia, where "good ol' boy" cousins Bo (Seann William Scott) and Luke Duke (Johnny Knoxville) are preparing to enter the General Lee against Hazzard County golden boy Billy Prickett (James Roday) in an upcoming stock car race. After making their latest moonshine run, Bo and Luke return home to discover that their farm has been seized by Hazzard County's corrupt commissioner Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds). Why? Turns out that the equally corrupt county sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (M.C. Gainey) found an illegal moonshine still in their barn. Of course, Boss Hogg and Rosco — being the bastions of goodness they are — planted the still there because, as sexy Duke cousin Daisy (Jessica Simpson) theorizes, "they were just too damn dumb to find the real one."

Upon stealing a safe from a construction site and paying a visit to a college science lab in Atlanta to find out what exactly the contents were, the Dukes discover that Boss Hogg is planning to acquire as many tracts of land as possible in order to raze the town and build a coal mine on top of it. With the help of Daisy and their moonshine-brewing uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson), the Dukes embark on a series of misadventures to save the county while trying to stay one step ahead of Boss Hogg and Rosco.

The Dukes of Hazzard movie at first seems very much like an inflated episode of the television show that inspired it, but it's seen some rather drastic additions in the form of profanity and drug use (and nudity, if you're watching the unrated DVD). While these additions would no doubt be welcome had the movie been completely original, adding them sacrifices the element that made the show family friendly. Why the producers felt the need to make these changes, I'll never know.

However, what's left of the show isn't changed with much. The only things most casual viewers will remember about the show are Daisy's short shorts and the General Lee, and both of those are in tact. There are car chases, action, a cute girl in super-short shorts, and all the Southern charm in the world.

We can obviously tell that Jay Chandrasekhar is behind the camera. A member of comedy troupe Broken Lizard, Chandrasekar's direction is very much in the style of his two prior movies, Super Troopers and Club Dread. Likewise, all five members of Broken Lizard appear somewhere in the movie, including Chandrasekar himself (who appears in one of my favorite scenes, a reprisal of the opening moments of Super Troopers).

Chandresekar is also up to the challenge of filming the numerous action shots that populate the movie, with assistance from cinematographer Lawrence Sher (who previously worked with Chandrasekar on Club Dread). From the famed General Lee jumps to the car chase scenes to the barroom brawl early in the movie, Chandrasekar proves himself to be a credible director. He also goes out of his way to keep the movie interesting even when nothing is going on, and his ability to improve upon mediocre material with his directing ability is evidenced here.

And boy, is the material mediocre. Credited to John O'Brien (who also co-wrote the cinematic adaptation of Starsky & Hutch), the screenplay heavily alters the characters as we know them from the show. Daisy has seemingly had her "bimbo" levels amped up to eleven, Bo has an unhealthy sexual attraction to the General Lee, and Uncle Jesse, the show's moral backbone, is telling dirty jokes and smoking weed. I know Willie Nelson is famous for being a pot-smoking hippie, but they could have easily made a joke about cheating on his taxes instead.

And perhaps most altered are the characters of Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco. While they were the villains on the show, they were more misguided than downright evil. Boss Hogg's depiction seems as if Burt Reynolds has gone from playing The Bandit to playing Smokey, and Sheriff Rosco seems to be the most different. His childlike nature from the show is all but gone here, and we're given a sheriff that's as mean as a rattlesnake and genuinely hates the Dukes. As despicable as he is in the movie, I'm surprised they didn't turn Sheriff Rosco's beloved basset hound Flash into a Rottweiler. I understand the desire to have credible villains, but I guess I'm just used to the Boss Hogg and Rosco from the show.

However, O'Brien's screenplay (which was given a little polish by Broken Lizard) does have many moments that I found to be downright funny, no matter how lame or silly they may have been. From the aforementioned spoof of Super Troopers, to the fight scene early in the film, to the postmodern jokes about the Confederate flag on the roof of the General Lee, the movie succeeds in making me laugh, so I can't fault it for that.

The cast can make or break a comedy, but for the most part, the Dukes cast is a hodgepodge of different levels of talent. Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville, perhaps best known as "Stifler from American Pie" and "that guy from Jackass" respectively, are enjoyable as Bo and Luke. Both are extremely funny actors, and they do manage to make things entertaining. Jessica Simpson, who plays the scantily-clad Southern belle Daisy in her first major foray into acting (after a few guest spots on That 70s Show and the 2003 revival of The Twilight Zone, along with a cameo as herself in Dana Carvey's The Master of Disguise), obviously didn't have to fend off any offers from the Royal Shakespeare Company to do the movie. Her lack of acting experience is painfully obvious, though one can tell that she's at least trying. And was it just me, or did her Southern accent sound forced and fake? She's from Texas, so you'd think she'd already have something resembling a real Southern accent.

Burt Reynolds and Willie Nelson both put their own Southern stamp on the movie, each giving likable performances that, while far different from the base material, are still engaging. Meanwhile, M.C. Gainey and Michael Weston aren't awful as Sheriff Rosco and Deputy Enos Strate, James Roday is forgettable as Bo's unlikable rival Billy Prickett, and Junior Brown does a fine job filling the shoes of the late Waylon Jennings as the disembodied voice of "The Balladeer."

But I found my favorite members of the cast to be David Koechner as mechanic Cooter Davenport and Broken Lizard's Kevin Heffernan as conspiracy theorist Sheev, a character created specifically for the movie. Koechner has been hilarious in his past acting roles (including Anchorman and a stint on Saturday Night Live), and although he only has a handful of scenes, he doesn't disappoint. Heffernan is also quite funny, though I really didn't need to see him in his tightie-whities (though it's definitely a step up from seeing him naked in Super Troopers).

The movie also benefits from entertaining music. The twangy country score by Nathan Barr is great and quite fitting, but where the real fun lies is with the song soundtrack. Fittingly comprised of music from bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Montgomery Gentry, ZZ Top, and the Charlie Daniels Band, the soundtrack isn't bad. The filmmakers also make the very wise decision to use the version of the theme song performed by Waylon Jennings, complimented by Willie Nelson's faithful cover. However, where the soundtrack stumbles is Jessica Simpson's horrendous, embarrassing cover of the Nancy Sinatra classic "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'." If Sinatra was dead, she'd have been doing cartwheels in her grave when the song was released.

I know that the movie has been pretty much reviled by both critics and fans of the show, but you know what? I liked it. The movie knows that it's silly, and it revels in it. It might not be built on the strongest of foundations, but the movie still entertained me. I go to movies to be entertained, so in that aspect, I'll call The Dukes of Hazzard successful. I know what I like. Yeah, the movie isn't perfect nor is it 100% true to the show, but so what? Screw the hoity-toity critics that are just too highbrow to enjoy themselves. The Dukes of Hazzard have never been highbrow, and that's the way it should be. I'll give it a solid three stars and a recommendation to fans of goofy Southern humor.

Final Rating: ***