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