Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Black Christmas (2006)

It seems as if the horror genre runs in cycles. The genre dies down for a little while, then boom, it returns to prominence with the next big trend for the genre to follow. One of the more famous examples of this, I believe it goes without saying, was what I call the "great slasher boom" of the early 1980s. After the success of influential movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th, every aspiring filmmaker who could assemble a cast and crew cranked out their own slasher movie.

But among the hundreds of slasher movies released over the course of the '80s, one from the '70s managed to develop an underground following and the respect of hardcore horror fans. And although it doesn't have the mainstream notoriety that other, higher profile slashers have, Bob Clark's 1974 holiday horror flick Black Christmas is often noted as being the precursor to the entire slasher sub-genre.

Though while not a slasher movie of the purest sort, Black Christmas does craft many motifs that would eventually become the sub-genre's most enduring clichés. Unfortunately, it remained a lesser-known chapter in horror's pantheon until another big genre trend — remakes (or "re-imaginings," as many in the business are wont to call them) — emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century. Produced by the team behind the Final Destination franchise and the grossly underrated remake of Willard, Glen Morgan and James Wong's fresh take on the tale of sorority girls being stalked by a demented killer wasn't exactly a success with critics or at the box office here in America. But you know what? I didn't really think it was all that bad.

It's Christmastime at the Delta Alpha Kappa house, and despite the best efforts of housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Andrea Martin), the sorority girls just can't seem to get along. Megan (Jessica Harmon) isn't feeling too much Christmas spirit, thanks to a sex tape of her and her ex-boyfriend Kyle (Oliver Hudson) turning up online. And to top it off, Kyle is now dating bubbly sorority sister Kelli (Katie Cassidy). Meanwhile, drunken loudmouth Lauren (Crystal Lowe) is making a point of antagonizing everybody, while Melissa (Michelle Trachtenberg) responds with sarcasm, self-centered Dana (Lacey Chabert) just wants to open presents, and rich, religious southerner Heather (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) isn't in that happy of a mood.

You see, the sorority's "Secret Santa" program has developed something of a tradition, where one girl is selected to purchase a present for Billy Lenz (Robert Mann) as a joke. Heather was his Secret Santa, but flaked because she was offended by the idea. The reason why? Billy grew up in the Delta Alpha Kappa house. Born with an extreme case of jaundice, he was horribly abused by his alcoholic mother (Karen Konoval), who left Billy locked away in the attic while she showered Billy's little sister/daughter Agnes (played as an adult by Dean Friss) with affection. Yes, you read that right. There's some inbreeding in the Lenz home.

Billy finally cracked one Christmas, escaping from his ersatz prison in the attic and violently murdering his mother and stepfather before baking his mother's flesh into Christmas cookies. Because nothing really says Christmas quite like eating your family members. Agnes dropped off the face of the earth, while Billy spent the fifteen years that followed in a mental institution. And unbeknownst to the girls, Billy and Agnes have decided that to return home for the holidays. The sorority girls start receiving bizarre telephone calls, and when two of them go missing, the ones that remain soon begin falling victim to the psychotic ghosts of Christmas Past.

Truth be told, comparing the original Black Christmas to its remake is like comparing apples and oranges. They may share the same title and a few of the same elements, but they're completely different moves. In the original, we sat around for an hour in the middle of the movie while practically nothing happened. (Though I will admit that when something did happen, it was awesome.) In the remake, practically all of the superfluous subplots have been dropped or drastically altered so the movie could be transformed into something resembling the kooky holiday horror movies from the 1980s. A lot of people hated the remake, but so help me, I actually liked it. I thought the new Black Christmas was really entertaining, something that really goes a long way in helping this particular online reviewer overlook a movie's flaws. So let's jump right in and see exactly what made me feel that way.

Let's start with Glen Morgan's direction, which I thought was quite good. Though I thought the pacing was a bit inconsistent at times, everything else that Morgan does here is great. He gets some great camerawork from cinematographer Robert McLachlan, with much of the movie shot from odd angles and lit with Christmas tree lights. Morgan and McLachlan also make a point of reusing the creepy point-of-view shots that were a hallmark of the original Black Christmas. While they weren't as scary as they were when Bob Clark did them in 1974, they're still quite effective. Helping enhance the visuals is the excellent music composed by Shirley Walker. Walker's music is tense and frightening, while the use of certain Christmas carols during the movie added a bit of much-welcomed dark humor.

And then there's the screenplay, penned by our fearless director. As I said earlier, Morgan has altered or pretty much dropped all of the subplots from the original movie with the intent of making a more streamlined motion picture. No longer do we have a sorority girl freaking out her high-strung boyfriend by wanting an abortion, and a worried father leading a police search party to find his missing daughter has become a blasé sister arriving at the sorority to look for a sibling she hasn't heard from lately. Some elements do remain untouched, such as the phone calls, the idea of the killer hiding in the attic, and some of the weapons at the killer's disposal. But other than that, the movie is its own beast.

I noted in my review of the original Black Christmas that the killer is a complete enigma. We knew absolutely nothing about him, which made him even scarier. Instead of following in the original movie's footsteps, Morgan tells us, via flashbacks, the origin of the yellow-skinned lunatic haunting the sorority house. While the story is scary, unsettling, and — after a certain point — pretty gross, it's thoroughly unnecessary and a bit too complicated for its own good. I really don't see why there needed to be such a deep, extensive backstory. Does knowing the villain's full history make any real difference regarding the scariness? Because sometimes, less is more. I'd have been satisfied if they'd found a way to sum things up in a few sentences or a short little monologue. Maybe in another thirty years, they can do another remake and try reigning it in.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the script is the sheer number of characters that aren't very sympathetic. I'd expect to dislike Billy, his mother, and the token belligerent drunk chick, but it seems as if practically every one of the sorority girls are rude, catty bitches that don't get along at all. If none of them get along, then why would they all team up in order to survive at the end of the movie? I'd almost expect them to be proponents of the old horror movie rule of survival, "You don't have to outrun the villain, you just have to outrun everybody else." On second thought, the fact that the characters are both unsympathetic and one-dimensional might be the point. Because if that's the case, then maybe it's because it's more fun to watch them all meet their painful, violent demises. And really, isn't that what most slasher movies are all about?

And then there's the cast of victims. It's kind of hard to really point out any standouts when practically everyone is playing the exact same cookie-cutter character. And it's also tough to actually like any of the performances when all of them are mean-spirited shrews. The performances would have been more notable had there actually been a little variety. Some of them do make a good go of things, as Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Lacey Chabert aren't all that bad, and I thought Andrea Martin was charming. And although the makeup affects applied to them make them look more silly than frightening, I thought Robert Mann and Dean Friss were good as our villains.

Unfortunately, the majority of the cast was pretty mediocre at best. The worst offender is Kristen Cloke, who played the blasé sister I referred to a few paragraphs ago. She's so dreadful in the role, I think the only reason she's in the movie at all is because she's married to Glen Morgan. Yeah, that's right, I went there.

Okay, so the remake of Black Christmas isn't a great movie. However, it's an entertaining throwback to the goofy holiday slasher movies that made being a horror fan in the early '80s so much fun. Sure, it's got its fair share of flaws, and there's plot holes that you could drive an 18-wheeler through. But I thought the movie made for a great guilty pleasure that you might not be proud to like, but still like all the same. My fellow fans of the genre may have my head for this, but so help me, I liked the remake of Black Christmas. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go hide in somebody's attic and make some obscene phone calls.

Final Rating: ***

Black Christmas (1974)

Slasher movies are very much a staple of 1980s pop culture. From long-running franchises like Friday the 13th to lesser-known cult gems like Madman, The Burning, and Sleepaway Camp, slasher flicks from the '80s have still remained popular with old-school devotees of the horror genre.

But it should be noted while the hottest period for this style of movie was the decade of excess, they're actually a product of the '70s. Released in 1978, John Carpenter's all-time classic Halloween set the bar for all slasher movies to follow, earning a reputation as one of the true masterpieces of the horror genre as a whole. And let's not forget that it's the first — and as of this writing, the only — movie of its kind selected for preservation in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.

Halloween is often hailed as the first true film of its kind, but some won't hesitate to bring up a particular film helmed by Porky's director Bob Clark. Predating Halloween by four years, Black Christmas helped to create many of the themes that have now become oft-noted tropes and clichés. And while a lot of movies have ripped off Halloween over the years, quite a few owe a debt of gratitude to Black Christmas for getting the ball rolling.

Christmastime has come to the Canadian town of Bedford, where a group of sorority sisters at the Pi Kappa Sigma house are celebrating the holiday before heading home for their winter break. Unbeknownst to them, however, someone has decided to crash the party. Someone has crept into the sorority house's attic through an upstairs window, watching and listening as the girls go about their business. The girls are none the wiser, but they soon begin receiving phone calls from an unknown caller. What begins as obscenities grow to more bizarre, nonsensical ramblings, with the caller actually speaking in more than one voice. The sorority's token loudmouth drunk, Barb (Margot Kidder), blows him off as just another loony, but the calls have obviously rattled the rest of the girls. But though they're unnerved by it, they don't give them a lot of thought either... until one of the group goes missing.

When the missing girl's father and the other sorority sisters are unable to find her, the local police put together a search party led by Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon). But as the search progresses, the disturbing calls continue. Left to deal with it by herself while the other members of the sorority leave for home or help with the search, Jess (Olivia Hussey) must put up with not only the calls, but her high-strung boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), who's not exactly in a pleasant mood when he hears the news that Jess is pregnant and wants an abortion.

She finally decides to stick it to the perverted caller and has the cops put a trace on the phone. After numerous calls, the police determine that the calls are coming from — uh oh! — inside the house. And that's when Jess discovers the second half of the scary truth. Not content to stay hidden in the attic, the intruder has slipped down into the house and started picking people off one at a time. Knowing that somewhere in the house lurks a psychotic murderer, Jess is forced into a cat-and-mouse game against him in order to save her own life.

As I said in the opening paragraph, Black Christmas is recognized by many in the horror community as being something of a benchmark in the sub-genre of slasher films. You can definitely see where all those movies got their start, as Black Christmas boasts creepy POV shots, haunting music, a holiday setting, character constructs, and various scenes and ideas that would become clichéd. The fact that it doesn't follow the typical formula (since, naturally, there was no formula at the time) sets it apart from the multitude of slasher movies that dominated the 1980s, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I'll go out on a limb and say that Black Christmas's enduring popularity among horror fans may primarily be due to Bob Clark's fantastic direction. His work here is exemplary, as he teams with cinematographer Reginald Morris to give the movie an unsettling visual feel that really takes the movie above and beyond what you may expect of it. (Those frightening shots from the psycho's point of view are to die for, too.) The first thirteen minutes and the closing half-hour are the best horror movie filmmaking I've ever seen, and I commend Clark and Morris for their work. And greatly helping the visual aspect of the movie is Carl Zittrer's music. His piano-driven score, combined with the ambient noise used on the soundtrack as well, really sets the tone for our psycho's state of mind and pulls us deeper into the movie.

Next is the screenplay penned by Roy Moore. When I saw the movie for the first time, I wasn't exactly sold on the script. Outside of a few really creepy scenes and a kill or two, there isn't much else going on for nearly an hour in the middle of the movie. I guess I'm used to the more formulaic slasher movies that I grew up watching, but the movie's middle half drags at a snail's pace. There isn't a whole lot of suspense during this period because there's very rarely anything that builds suspense. However, while it drags in spots and there's a lot of stuff that doesn't contribute whatsoever to the story, the scenes involving the killer that are sprinkled in there really help put something of a dangerous undercurrent to the seemingly mundane proceedings.

I know it may sound like I'm giving Moore's script a thumbs-down, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. The characters are likable for the most part, the majority of the humor is funny, and the killer is genuinely scary. And how about that killer? All of the scenes involving him really makes all that other boring stuff worth sitting through, and the beauty of it is that we know absolutely nothing about him. We don't know his name, we don't know what he looks like, we don't know his motivation. We're left completely in the dark about him, and this really works in the movie's favor. What's scarier than the unknown?

Nowadays, every horror movie villain has some ultra-elaborate origin story that completely kills their mystique. Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Jigsaw from the Saw movies, the ghosts from The Ring and The Grudge... they've all had somebody tell every little detail about their histories. It even happened in the remake of the very film I'm reviewing right now. But the fact that the killer isn't specifically identified or even shown, outside of a few inconsequential features (such as his hand, or his eye peeking from around a door), makes him so much more frightening.

Lastly is the movie's cast, who are really good. Leading lady Olivia Hussey is charming and sweet. She is quite believable in the role, conveying the growing feelings of dread and fear that is needed to make the character work. I also thought John Saxon turned in a strong performance, but then again, when hasn't he? Keir Dullea is intense as his neurotic (and very, very suspicious) character, and every time he's onscreen, you get the feeling that he's one bad day away from becoming completely unhinged.

Perhaps the best performance, though, comes from Margot Kidder. Four years away from her career-defining performance as Lois Lane in Superman, Kidder is wholly entertaining as the opinionated, perpetually drunk loudmouth who has a hard time thinking before she speaks. She practically makes the whole movie by herself with her funny performance.

There's one cast member that I wasn't too fond of, however. Marian Waldman, who plays sorority house mother Mrs. Mac, annoyed me to no end. She's supposed to be part of the movie's comic relief, but the "kooky alcoholic" shtick didn't strike me as funny. And Waldman's performance is so awful, so painfully annoying, that I cheered when the killer took her out. It is amusing, though, to see all the elaborate places she's thought of to hide her booze. Hollowed-out books, toilet tanks, a hidden compartment in the closet, you name it. You know, now that I think about it, someone should invent a time machine and sent Roseanne Barr back to play Mrs. Mac. The character strikes me as being the Roseanne type, and with her in the role, the character might have been halfway entertaining.

Halloween may be the innovator of slasher movies, but Black Christmas is the originator. And for that, it earns my respect. It's definitely worth at least one watch, as it features some great cinematography, a cast that enjoys what they're doing, and some actual scary moments. Not those cheap "boo!" scares that are all the rage in modern horror cinema, but the real thing. While I found it had a few irritating flaws, and I didn't like the fact that you could literally fast-forward through half the movie and not miss anything of any real note, the other half of the movie really swings my opinion in its favor.

Though not a "slasher movie" in the truest connotations of the term, the movie made a lot of headway in establishing a prototype that other, better movies would improve upon. (It was also ripped off by other, crappier movies too, since the original When A Stranger Calls was like a poorly-made clone of Black Christmas.) This flick may not be done in the same style that fans of the sub-genre may be expecting, and it may not completely live up to the hype, it's still an fun movie nonetheless. And to think, Black Christmas was made by the same guy that made the family-friendly A Christmas Story nine years later. Bob Clark knew how to make Christmas movies, for sure.

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, December 10, 2007

Stay Alive (2006)

There aren't many horror movies that involve video games. Sure, there have been horror movies inspired by video games, such as Silent Hill and Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil trilogy. But I really can't think of too many horror movies where video games are an integral part of the plot. There was Brainscan in 1994, and that was pretty much it until Stay Alive was released early last year.

Though it was only the most modest of box office successes and has been dismissed by the more devoted horror faithful, I found Stay Alive to be a pretty entertaining little movie. I'm not going to argue that it should have been a smash hit or even that the movie is all that great. But I thought it was fun, and I'd like to explain why.

When an old friend dies a violent death, Hutch (Jon Foster) is heartbroken. His sorrow is lessened somewhat, however, when he inherits his friend's video game collection. Among these games is a bootlegged game titled "Stay Alive," a horror game featuring bloodthirsty 17th-century countess Elizabeth Bathory as its main villain. Hutch's friend had been beta-testing the game prior to his death, so he gathers together a group of fellow gamers — smart-ass stoner Phineas (Jimmi Simpson) and his Goth sister October (Sophia Bush); nerdy Swink (Frankie Muniz); Hutch's boss, Miller (Adam Goldberg); and Abigail (Samaire Armstrong), a newcomer to the group — and boots up a round of "Stay Alive" in memory of his deceased friend.

But what they believe is a harmless yet intense game proves itself to be much more dangerous when Miller's body is found the next day, murdered in exactly the same fashion as his character was killed in the game. They brush it off as an incredibly horrifying coincidence, but the group soon finds that the same fate is befalling each of them as well. And to make things worse, the game is even takes on a life of its own by playing itself to ensure their suffering. As elements of the game's world starts bleeding into our reality, those who've avoided death must face off against Elizabeth Bathory's ghost (Maria Kalinina) and find a way to stay alive.

I must admit that I'm not completely sure why Stay Alive has been so overlooked. Was it because of the PG-13 rating the movie carried during its theatrical release? Could it be the fact that its cast features actors who have appeared in such teenager-oriented television shows as Gilmore Girls, The O.C., One Tree Hill, and Malcolm in the Middle? I don't really know. No, Stay Alive isn't a great movie or anything like that, but it's a relatively solid flick that is perfectly acceptable entertainment in spite of its flaws.

Director William Brent Bell does a fine bit of work here, making certain mundane scenes seem more lively with a combination of cinematography and editing. He doesn't do anything that I would call revolutionary, but what he does do is make a strong effort to maintain the interest of the viewer. For example, look at the beginning scene in which our group of six play the game for the first time. Watching people play video games when you could be playing them yourself could get awfully boring, but Bell and cinematographer Alejandro Martinez film it with a frenetic energy that actually makes it exciting.

But it isn't all people playing games. Since this is a horror movie, after all, Bell makes sure to try his hand at suspense. Sure, he makes sure to throw in a few of the cheap "boo!" scares that seem mandatory in modern horror movies, but he also manages to let things creep up on us. Things slowly pop up in the background only for a few seconds, keeping us wondering just where it might reappear. And while it isn't perfect, Bell's work serves its purpose and gets the job done. It helps that the music composed by John Frizzell is great, too. Frizzell's music is almost too good, sounding like it belongs in a bigger movie than Stay Alive. So I guess it makes this movie better by association?

The screenplay, penned by Bell and Matthew Peterman, doesn't really hold up as well. Though its premise is strong and the characters are very likable, it's ultimately a flawed — and at certain points, nonsensical — script. While the writers are quick to point out on the DVD audio commentary that they did make some historical inaccuracies in regards to Elizabeth Bathory for the sake of drama, the biggest flaws actually involve the game itself. Though I understand that Bell and Peterman needed something to push the story forward, the idea of the game playing itself seems awfully cheap.

What really gets me, however, is the actual logistics of the game. It's played on a PlayStation 2 at the end of the game, but the characters play it on laptop computers for practically the entire movie. So unless the game was released on both PCs and PS2s, it makes me wonder how they've gotten this whole thing working. And how is Miller able to play the game from miles away? I'm not an expert on such things, but I doubt a test version of a yet-to-be-released game can be played online, so barring the other characters making a copy of the game for him and setting up some kind of network between them, I just don't know how to explain it.

However, the cast does the best they can with the material. Jon Foster and Samaire Armstrong aren't bad as the lead characters, but I personally thought the supporting cast was more entertaining. Frankie Muniz and Jimmi Simpson were engaging and funny as the movie's comic relief, while Sophia Bush does a decent job as the perpetually smirking quasi-Goth. Adam Goldberg and Milo Ventimiglia are also good despite having precious little screen time, and I thought James Haven and Alice Krige — both of whom had their scenes cut from the theatrical release and reinstated for the unrated "director's cut" release on DVD — were creepy in their roles. Even at their weakest, I thought the cast worked well together, and really sold me on the whole thing. So thumbs up for them.

I doubt Stay Alive will ever be regarded as a classic piece of horror filmmaking. But I do believe it'd make for a fun movie to watch with friends on Halloween when you just want a quick scare. It's harmless entertainment that, though not the most memorable of movies, isn't a bad way to kill an hour and a half. So I'm going to give Stay Alive three stars on my patent-pending Sutton Scale. Now I've got to go make some phone calls to some video game developers, because Stay Alive: The Video Game is a game I want to play.

Final Rating: ***

Monday, December 3, 2007

Brainscan (1994)

If you've been a horror fan for as long as I have, then I'm sure you might consider the early '90s as being the worst of times. Not a whole lot of very good horror movies were released in the years prior to Scream coming along and shaking up the genre. But while there were a handful of modern classics like Candyman, Army of Darkness, and Wes Craven's New Nightmare released during the first half of the decade, they were far outnumbered by schlock like Leprechaun, Ghost in the Machine, Carnosaur, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.

Another of these disappointing movies was a little-known flick titled Brainscan. Starring a post-T2 Edward Furlong and scripted by a pre-Seven Andrew Kevin Walker, Brainscan tells the tale of a troubled teen whose escape into an odd computer game leads him down a very dark path. That probably makes the movie sound more interesting than it really is, to be truthful. So let's get to it.

All outward appearances would suggest that sixteen-year-old Michael Brower (Edward Furlong) could be living a pretty sweet life. He lives in a huge house in a nice town, and has converted the entire attic into a veritable geek palace, with all the comic books and awesome high-end electronics that money can buy. And with his father gone on business most of the time, he's left to do damn near whatever he pleases with no parental supervision. He's even the founder of his high school's "Horror Club," a small group of students that meet to watch and discuss violent horror movies despite the disdain that the surly school principal (David Hemblen) has for their activities.

Unfortunately, the physical and emotional scarring left behind after the car crash that killed his mother years before has put Michael in something of a prolonged funk. His main social activity outside of the Horror Club is hanging out with his flippant best friend Kyle (Jamie Marsh), and though he pines for the affection of his pretty neighbor Kimberly (Amy Hargreaves), he's too shy and withdrawn to say anything to her about it. So what's he do? He puts a camcorder in the window and peeps into her bedroom on a nightly basis. So he's like George McFly if he listened to heavy metal and had a really negative attitude.

But enough setup, let's get to the meat and potatoes of things. The ball gets rolling when Kyle shows Michael an advertisement in the latest issue of Fangoria for a new computer game called Brainscan. Billing the game as "the ultimate experience in interactive terror" and "the most frightening experience available on this planet," the advertisement also promises that Brainscan will "satisfy your sickest fantasies" and "unleash the dark side of your soul," but warns that it's not for the squeamish.

His interest piqued, he calls the number on the advertisement, and orders a copy of the game. Using a flashing light sequence to lull its players into a hypnotic trance and with a disembodied voice urging him on, the game gives Michael an hour to enter a house, stab a sleeping man to death, and chop off his foot as a trophy. Michael accomplishes this with time to spare, but he discovers the next day that a local man has been killed in the exact same fashion as how he did it in the game. Add in the severed foot he discovers in his refrigerator, and things just aren't going Michael's way at all.

And things are about to get much, much worse. The game's master of ceremonies, a grotesque figure calling himself "the Trickster" (T. Ryder Smith), emerges from the game, congratulating Michael on what he did and urging him to play the game's three remaining chapters. But in spite of Michael's increasing protests against continuing, Trickster pushes him to cover up evidence and eliminate any potential witnesses, even if those witnesses are those people closest to him. And as the pressure from both Trickster and a curious police detective (Frank Langella) mount, Michael's sanity is pushed dangerously close to the breaking point.

One could make the argument that Brainscan may be ahead of its time, as the plot could be construed as a metaphor for the theory that violence in video games can lead to violence in real life. That probably wasn't the movie's intent at the time, and thus that angle doesn't seem as touched upon as it could have been. If Brainscan had been made about ten years later, after the Grand Theft Auto franchise's rise in popularity, then maybe. But even if the movie did utilize that angle, it still wouldn't save it from being a thoroughly mediocre waste of time. And that's the really tragic thing. While it boasts an intriguing premise, the movie isn't very good. It's not a bad movie either... it's just kinda there. If it fell on either the good end or the bad end of the cinematic spectrum, then I wouldn't have to struggle to think of things to say about it. But no, Brainscan just had to go and only be of "meh" quality. And movies like that really grind my gears.

But I guess I'll need to break this down anyway, though I'll probably end up repeating myself a few times. The direction by John Flynn, best known for directing Steven Seagal's Out For Justice, is pretty good. It isn't anything groundbreaking, but he does keep the movie at a relatively brisk pace while getting some good cinematography from François Protat. There's also some fantastic original music composed by George S. Clinton. Clinton's music for Brainscan sounds like something Angelo Badalamenti would have done for Twin Peaks, with a trippy, surreal sound that is used to good effect. The rest of the soundtrack is give or take, however. The tracks contributed by Primus and White Zombie are pretty good, but the rest, from various bands that I've never heard of before, seem like generic filler.

The rest of the move, meanwhile, is a mixed bag if there ever was one. While Andrew Kevin Walker may have written Seven and Sleepy Hollow, he's got a few less-than-stellar entries on his résumé, and this is one of them. As I've said, the movie's concept — a teenager's actions in a video game having violent repercussions in the real world — is an intriguing one, but it could have been done a lot better. Maybe there was some script doctoring going on by someone who didn't know what they were doing? I mean, did the movie really need that lame running gag with the German shepherd showing up everywhere?

But to be honest, I can't even find much of anything to directly point at and say, "That's what went wrong with the script." But I did notice a general sense of poor storytelling, along with a big number of poorly-handled clichés. There's the loner with the goofball best friend, the girl next door that the lead character has the hots for, the suspicious cop, and the one adult that treats everybody like crap because of his crummy disposition. And then there's the Trickster, who just seems like a lame attempt to create a new Freddy Krueger. He's got an intriguing look, has a wisecrack for every situation, and even the ending feels like a setup for a potential Brainscan 2. If more time had been spent crafting Trickster as a true threat rather than as Freddy Jr., maybe he would have been a bit more memorable.

Last on the list is the cast. Edward Furlong's career may have started with a bang in Terminator 2, but then he did Pet Sematary 2 and started sliding into obscurity. That slide continued with Brainscan, and while I can't say that he's bad per se, he's too inconsistent to make any lasting impression. He's either brooding, mildly upset, or absolutely out of his mind. Furlong doesn't make a smooth transition between these emotions, just jumping to whichever one he needs from scene to scene. Maybe that's why he's only done two or three memorable movies in his career?

Meanwhile, Jamie Marsh is likable in the handful of scenes he has, despite his clichéd character. I also liked Amy Hargreaves, though I didn't feel there was a whole lot being demanded of her besides being cute. There isn't a whole lot asked of Frank Langella either, and he must have known that because he seems like he's just reading his lines off cue cards. He must have impressed somebody, though, because he played pretty much the exact same character in Bride of Chucky.

Let's not forget the last member of the cast, T. Ryder Smith as the Trickster. As I stated above, Trickster struck me as being a Freddy Krueger wannabe, and Smith plays Trickster as such, only with more punk rock sensibilities. His performance is over the top, as he recites his dialogue with a smirking cockiness that makes him entertaining in spite of his character's deficiencies. I'd definitely go out on a limb and call Smith's performance the true highlight of the movie, something to make it worth seeing.

So yeah, that's my take on Brainscan. It's a relatively obscure movie by most standards, and for understandable reasons. The only thing that makes it memorable at all is the idea of unknowingly committing real murders through a computer game. Take that away, and all you're left with is a mediocre, utterly forgettable movie. And that pretty much sums the whole thing up. It's definitely watchable, entertaining at times, but it's nothing that you should feel guilty for missing. I guess I'll give Brainscan two stars. There was the potential to make a great movie here, but it just seems wasted.

Final Rating: **

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Wizard (1989)

I'll be the first one to admit that I'm a child of the '80s. And growing up in the era before Microsoft and Sony dominated the video game market, there was nothing cooler than the Nintendo Entertainment System. The little black-and-gray box that revitalized the sagging video game industry when it hit North American stores in 1985 was a source of hours of fun for my generation. Its popularity knew no bounds, to the point that many people (the ones I knew, anyway) began referring to video games on any console as "Nintendo games." By the end of the '80s, the Nintendo name had branched out into cartoons, breakfast cereals, and all kinds of other merchandise.

But perhaps the most bizarre thing affiliated with the house that Super Mario built was a 1989 film titled The Wizard. With a story that's an odd amalgam of Rain Man and The Who's rock opera Tommy, The Wizard features so much product placement from Nintendo that it might as well be titled Please Buy Our Stuff: The Nintendo Movie. The giant Nintendo flag that The Wizard flies does give it a certain charm, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good movie.

Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) is a little boy with a big ol' bucket of issues. The emotional and psychological trauma he suffered after watching his beloved twin sister drown two years earlier has caused him to develop a mental disorder similar to autism, rendering him virtually catatonic. Perpetually clutching a little metal lunchbox for reasons unbeknownst to his loved ones, he has become obsessed with California to the point that not only does the state's name comprise the bulk of his vocabulary, but he's made a pretty annoying habit out of trying to run away to California.

The poor kid's worsening condition has actually led to the fracturing of his family. Jimmy, who lives with his mother and scumbag stepfather (Wendy Phillips and Sam McMurray), has little to no contact with his half-brothers Corey (Fred Savage) and Nick (Christian Slater), who live with their father Sam (Beau Bridges). When Jimmy's mother and stepfather have Jimmy put in an institution rather than deal with his odd behavior themselves, Corey is the only one to respond to the news with righteous indignation.

Corey breaks Jimmy out of the institution, and the two runaways hit the road for the Golden State. And hot on their trails is Sam and Nick, as well as a rather sleazy fellow by the name of Putnam (Will Seltzer), a bounty hunter hired by Jimmy's mother and stepfather to bring him in by any means necessary. And when I say this guy is sleazy, I mean it. He's more weasel than man.

While embarking upon their trek, Corey and Jimmy cross paths with Haley Brooks (Jenny Lewis), a free-spirited adolescent con artist who herself is hitchhiking towards the bright lights of Reno. But after Jimmy posts an incredible high score at a bus stop's arcade, Corey and Haley realize that they're in the presence of a gaming prodigy and immediately change their plans. They pool what meager resources they have and start hitchhiking across the country to Los Angeles, the location of a high-stakes video game tournament with a grand prize of 50,000 dollars.

But to get there, the three runaways will have to stay one step ahead of those who wish to end their adventure while butting heads with Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson), a Power Glove-wielding punk that has mastered the fine art of all things Nintendo. Though no matter what obstacles stand in their way, the trio remain undaunted in their quest to enter Jimmy in the tournament and prove that he doesn't belong in an institution.

If you've seen it, then you know that The Wizard is a weird movie. And to tell you the truth, it's easily one of the most preposterous pieces of cinema that I've ever seen. Maybe the fact that I'm reviewing the movie after watching it as an adult in 2007, instead of as a kid circa 1989, is screwing with my perception. If I was currently within the proper demographic for The Wizard, this review would be, "Dude, this movie is awesome! Nintendo is awesome! Universal Studios Hollywood is awesome! The Power Glove is awesome! The whole flippin' thing is awesome! Wheeeeeeee!" But now, I'm all, "Dude, those three kids are gonna get kidnapped and molested and killed and molested again and buried in a shallow grave somewhere. This isn't going to end well at all." I mean, when you start realistically thinking about the idea of three kids hitchhiking from Utah to California, the movie becomes more and more illogical. (That's the thing about adulthood; you develop the ability to discern the weirder, more unsettling subtexts of movies intended for younger audiences.)

But then I remember that it's a family movie that is essentially a gigantic commercial for Nintendo, with references to — and blatant placement for — Hostess, Wonder Bread, Dairy Queen, Frosted Flakes, Universal Studios Hollywood, 7-Eleven, Pepsi, the magazine Cosmopolitan, Hollywood Squares, Tom Petty's album Full Moon Fever, and the city of Reno, Nevada. So yeah, with all that advertising, you can pretty much guess it'll have a happy ending and nothing bad is going to happen to anybody but the villains. I was seven years old when the movie came out, so I probably would have been better off reviewing it then.

But seriously, the movie has Nintendo's fingerprints all over it. Nintendo's best sellers at the time — famous titles such as Double Dragon, Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Metroid, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest — are all shown or referenced, the Power Glove is lauded like it's the holy grail, and the movie's grand finale might as well be footage of a giant neon sign advising viewers to go purchase Super Mario Bros. 3, which was released two months after The Wizard hit theaters. Even the movie's catering was done by a company called Mario's Catering. Watch the closing credits if you don't believe me. The only thing from the late-'80s Nintendo catalog that's missing is the "Rob the Robot" accessory.

And if you're the kind to partake in such, why not turn The Wizard into a drinking game? Here's the rules: take a shot every time Jimmy says "California" in that spaced-out little voice of his, and another shot whenever there's some form of product placement for a product or company that isn't Nintendo. I would say to take a shot every time you see or hear a Nintendo reference, but then you'll have died of alcohol poisoning by the end of the movie.

The Wizard may be a mediocre movie that time may not have been kind to, but it is a hard movie to hate. Even if you're less than impressed, I doubt you'll come away calling it the worst movie you've ever seen. Part of the reason why is the direction by Todd Holland. Though he and cinematographer Robert Yeoman film the movie with all the production value of a cheap made-for-television movie, they still manage to bring forth a certain liveliness that improves the movie's quality. Nobody is ever going to accuse Holland's work here of deserving any awards, but it's definitely serviceable.

My only real problem is the number of bloopers, especially involving the games. A lot of them aren't really going to matter if you aren't too familiar with the games, nor do they really take away from the movie, but some of them are so obvious that it's a bit distracting. I'm not really going to get too in depth about the bloopers, since you can easily find a list of them via a search on Google or IMDB. But you'd think a movie intended to sell you video games would have a little more accuracy in regards to those games.

Another part of the charm comes from the script penned by David Chisholm. I've said a few times in the review already that The Wizard is a 100-minute commercial for the Nintendo Entertainment System, with product placement to the point that it very nearly becomes Nintendo-sponsored propaganda. But that's not the only thing the movie has going for it. It also has an absolutely ridiculous plot that's crammed chock full of the schlockiest melodrama this side of the Lifetime Channel. It's way too sappy and contrived, and seems mostly cribbed from other, better movies.

Chisholm's also written some tremendously goofy dialogue ("I love the Power Glove. It's so bad.") and scenes that make no sense at all (how can Corey and Haley give Jimmy advice on how to play Super Mario Bros. 3 when none of them knew the game even existed prior to the contest?). And let's not forget the underage cigarette girl pitching trays full of candy during the sequence in Reno.

Throw in the fact that the Nintendo stuff horribly dates things, and you've got a movie that doesn't really sound all that good. But somehow, despite being material that isn't all that strong, it's actually fun in a kitschy kind of way. Plus all the Nintendo stuff that gets worked into the story makes it a fun look back at an innocent time when everybody was a gamer, not just nerds.

But perhaps the most charming element of all is the cast. The highlight would have to be Fred Savage, who was more than likely cast due to the success of The Wonder Years. He does turn in a decent, likable performance, really overcoming the flaws in the material. Jenny Lewis is also quite fun as the feisty counterbalance to Savage's character, the silliness to his seriousness.

And then there's Luke Edwards, the final member of our team of three. Practically nothing is asked of him, and he spends the movie playing a character that, for the most part, doesn't really do anything at all besides sit in front of arcade machines. It's almost like someone told him to imitate Judith O'Dea's performance in the original Night of the Living Dead. If he wasn't a necessary part of the story, you'd almost forget he was there.

Christian Slater and Beau Bridges are also really good, but they're both better than the material. Lastly are Will Seltzer and Jackey Vinson as the slimy bounty hunter and cocky gaming whiz, playing their characters as so unlikable that they make you want to jump into the movie and pelt them with assorted fruits and vegetables.

I don't believe anyone who's seen it will argue that The Wizard is a work of art. But it's just too silly to not enjoy at least a little bit. And while the younger gamers that only really know the PlayStation and the Xbox won't get what makes The Wizard so fun, it's a thoroughly fun look back at why kids my age had it so well as the '80s came to a close. With Nintendo everywhere, a last act featuring a chase through Universal Studios Hollywood, two New Kids on the Block songs on the soundtrack, and a young, mullet-sporting Tobey Maguire in a "blink and you'll miss it" cameo, The Wizard has earned its cult status among lovers of the '80s retro movement. It's not great, it's barely good, but it is most certainly engaging and, frankly, a real guilty pleasure. So I'll give it two and a half stars, and a recommendation to those who wish to wax nostalgic about the Big N's glory days. Go check it out.

Final Rating: **½

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)

I believe I'm accurate when I say that are very few movies based on video games that are actually good. I could count the number of good video game movies on one hand and have fingers left over. One of these rare movies is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, based on the insanely popular game franchise distributed by Eidos Interactive. Nobody will accuse the movie of being a groundbreaking cinematic achievement, but it was entertaining, and that can go a long way.

Unfortunately, Paramount Pictures had to go and muck things up with a sequel. Following the precedent set by New Line Cinema's pair of Mortal Kombat movies, Paramount followed up a fun, charming movie with a sequel that throws up all over itself before patiently waiting to die. That movie, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, is a downright poor sequel that could have been so much more.

Once again, our story centers around adventurer Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie), who MI6 attempts to draft into service in their hunt for evil scientist Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds). Reiss is hunting for the mythical object known as Pandora's Box, and MI6 needs Croft to find it before he does. Though reluctant, she agrees to help them out after learning that Reiss is working with Chinese gangster Chen Lo (Simon Yam), whom Lara wants to get a piece of after a violent encounter between them a few days earlier.

But her help comes with a catch; Lara stipulates that a past associate, a mercenary by the name of Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), be freed from a prison in Kazakhstan so he can assist her. MI6 complies, and he and Lara traverse the globe to find Reiss and stop him from acquiring Pandora's Box and unleashing the evil inside it.

I'm almost afraid to really go into everything wrong with Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, because if I start, I don't know if I'll be able to stop. I can forgive a movie's flaws as long as it does something to make up for them. The first Tomb Raider movie succeeded in overcoming its flaws by being a lot of fun, but this sequel doesn't have much of anything to help it. It does so much wrong, but can't seem to do anything right. The direction is pedestrian, the script is absurd beyond words, and the cast seems like they'd rather be off doing something else. I would say that The Cradle of Life is less than the sum of its parts, but that sum isn't too high either.

I guess we'll start with the movie's fearless leader, Jan de Bont. De Bont's first movie as a director was the very awesome Speed, but I'd go out on a limb and say that his directorial career has gone downhill ever since. And with The Cradle of Life, it appears he may have scraped the bottom of the barrel. (Though after Speed 2: Cruise Control, he maybe scraping the ground underneath the barrel.)

De Bont just shows a general ineptitude, poorly crafting an already ludicrous story. He and cinematographer David Tattersall do a poor job of filming the movie (though there are a few fleeting spots of brilliance), and de Bont grossly overuses the slow-motion feature on the editing equipment. Does every action scene need two or three slow-motion shots? I'll be the first one to complain about super-fast editing in action scenes, but this takes it to the opposite extreme. It's excessive to the point that it makes Uwe Boll's overuse of badly-done "bullet time" effects in House of the Dead look nearly acceptable. Everything blends together in a big, monotonous blur after a while, with no one scene really standing out from any other.

And it doesn't help anything that a lot of the sets don't look like real places at all. Even the stuff shot on actual locations, especially the Hong Kong stuff, looks like it was filmed on some cheaply organized Hollywood backlot. That really takes away from anything positive about these scenes. And then there's the fact that de Bont apparently made the movie with gay men and jealous girlfriends in mind, because most of Lara's sex appeal is gone. One of the video game heroine's primary traits is that she's going about her business in the sexiest way possible, but de Bont goes about things like he's trying to avoid showing her in any sort of titillating situation. Many of her outfits — specifically the skin-tight silver wetsuit, as depicted in the poster above — don't really do a whole lot for her. And when she's actually wearing the flattering costumes, the scenes are badly shot and edited. So yeah, de Bont's work is pretty much crap.

Next up is the piss-poor script, written by Dean Georgaris from a story by Steven F. de Souza and James V. Hart. Sure, he didn't write the final script, but I want to blame Steven de Souza for the script's lackluster quality. I say that because after writing and directing that absolutely dreadful Street Fighter movie, nobody should ever let de Souza anywhere near a movie again. Well, at least not video game movies. The script is badly composed, vacuous, full of lame dialogue ("You can break my wrist, but I'm still going to kiss you."), and boasting an incredibly unsatisfying ending with no real payoff and scenes that are flat-out insane.

Take, for example, a scene near the beginning of the movie. Separated from her boat off the coast of Greece, Lara decides to cut her arm and let a little blood in order to get the attention of a shark. When a shark does show up, what does she do? She punches the shark in its nose (causing it to whimper like a hurt puppy), then grabs its fin and catches a ride on its back. What the hell is that?! Seriously, what is that crap? Who decided that was a good idea? I'd expect that out of one of one of those awful Jaws sequels, but this? Sigh... sometimes I just don't know what to make of the world anymore.

Lastly is the cast, who are, for the most part, sadly unimpressive. That's a real bummer, too, because the cast was one of the strongest parts of the first movie. While I thoroughly enjoyed Angelina Jolie's work in the previous film, her performance here left a lot to be desired. She's awfully wooden in the role, like she realized just how bad the movie would be, and only put forth enough effort to make sure that her paychecks didn't bounce. That's a real shame, too, because a good performance from Jolie probably could salvaged at least a small piece of this drek.

And not only is our heroine dull, but our villain hands in an utterly banal performance as well. Ciarán Hinds does a really substandard job, making his character one of the worst cinematic villains of this decade. Simon Yam is decent, but his screen time is so limited that we can never really get a feel for him. The best performance, though, comes from Gerard Butler. He plays his role the same way Jolie played her character in the first movie, with a brash cockiness that makes him worth following.

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. But there's not a whole lot about it to like. Gerard Butler's watchable performance and Alan Silvestri's acceptable music just aren't enough to save the movie from being 117 minutes of downright boring tripe. And that's really the worst part about the whole thing: it's so boring. I actually had to watch the movie in pieces, because I kept getting distracted by other, more interesting things. Like watching paint drying and grass growing, those sort of more interesting things.

My final verdict for Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is two stars, and I'd like to close with a little advice. If you have to watch a movie featuring a mythical golden box that kills people when it's opened, make sure you watch Raiders of the Lost Ark instead of this. At least they opened the box in that movie.

Final Rating: **

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

In the land of action-oriented video games, most of the protagonists tend to be male. Women in these games tend to be relegated to the role of either sneaky femme fatale or whimpering damsel in distress. But on an occasion or two, you'll find an exception to that. One such exception has become one of the most popular and recognizable video game characters of the '90s.

A rare alpha female in a land primarily dominated by men, Lara Croft first grabbed the attention of gamers everywhere (along with the fantasies of teenage boys everywhere) in 1996 when Eidos Interactive released Tomb Raider onto the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and PC. The game was a smashing success, and the popularity of Tomb Raider and its heroine led to a number of sequels, comic books, original novels, and eventually, a major motion picture.

With an Oscar-winning actress as the titular heroine, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was released in the summer of 2001 and was a box office success despite a mixed reaction from critics. But is it just another crappy video game movie, or does it take after its heroine and serve as the exception to the norm?

As you can more than likely surmise, our story centers around the one and only Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie), an unconventional British aristocrat whose skill and success at tracking down ancient relics has earned her a reputation as one of the predominant "tomb raiders" amongst her peers in the archaeological community. After discovering an bizarre clock inside a hidden chamber within her mansion, Lara discovers that it is the key to finding a mystical icon known as "the Triangle of Light." If the separated halves of the Triangle are reassembled during the extremely rare period when the nine planets in our galaxy are aligned, whomever possesses it will be able to control the flow of time.

And wouldn't you know it, the planets are only seven days away from aligning for the first and only time in five thousand years. Following clues left for her by her dearly departed father (Jon Voight), Lara must cross paths with rival tomb raider Alex West (Daniel Craig) and locate the Triangle of Light's missing halves before the sleazy Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) can acquire them on behalf of everyone's favorite amoral secret society, the Illuminati.

Since the beginning of the "video game adaptation" genre, the first Mortal Kombat movie has been considered the best the genre has to offer. But it seems as if this movie has unfortunately been forgotten about. Unlike a lot of other video game movies, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider manages to properly capture the feel and atmosphere of its source material. It isn't a cinematic masterpiece by any means, but by golly, it's entertaining. And isn't that the most satisfying thing we could hope for?

Let's go to the direction first. Simon West is at the helm here, and his work is sound. He does what he can to go the extra mile and do things the viewer won't expect. The bungee cord fight scene is almost enough for the movie to earn its price of admission. The movie plays out like a video game would with moments of story and character advancement interspersed with plentiful action sequences. There's even a boss battle or two. West handles it all with flair, never falling into the standard action movie clichés. You know the ones; super-fast editing, shaky camerawork, overbearing music. That sort of thing.

West and cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. just let the action play out and document things as they happen. And to tell you the truth, the movie is better for it. The musical score composed by Graeme Revell is also pretty good, if not a little unremarkable. That's probably because it's often pushed aside by the lame hip-hop and techno music that comprises the soundtrack. I'm sorry, but the movie's soundtrack doesn't really do it for me.

Next is the script. Penned by Patrick Massett and John Zinman from a story by four other writers, the movie's plot is a bit too complex for its own good. But the truth of the matter is that the story is only secondary to the movie's action. The story is only really there at all in order to fill the gaps between the action sequences, and I think that if they could have done a movie with no story at all, they wouldn't have bothered with writers.

And as over-complex as the story may be, there's a few little bits that just don't click together, mainly when it comes to the character of Alex West. I couldn't really find any purpose for the character to ultimately serve. Is he supposed to be some kind of romantic foil for Lara? Is he supposed to be an evil tomb raider that sees the error of his ways by the end of the movie? I say this because I couldn't really figure out whether the character was supposed to be important, or just a random henchman for the main villain. Seems like the writers just couldn't figure out any sort of purpose for him either.

Last but not least is the cast. Though they aren't as significant to the movie as its star, the supporting cast all do some fine work. Jon Voight is good despite only having a few scenes, while Christopher Barrie and Noah Taylor are likeable in their small roles as Lara's butler and personal computer whiz. I also liked Daniel Craig in spite of his character's glaring flaws, and I thought Iain Glen turned in a fine performance, giving our villain the slimy disposition he needed.

But of course, the whole movie is carried by our star, Angelina Jolie. Jolie is enjoying herself and it shows, as she plays Lara Croft with a cocky, swaggering confidence that makes her more than charming. She's very convincing in the role, which is helped by Jolie's nearly flawless British accent. It seems like a lot of actors can't really pull off a believable accent, but Jolie is talented enough to do it. That aside, I think this movie should at least be noted for the brilliant casting of its lead, because Jolie is absolutely perfect in the role. The aforementioned confidence she brings to the role, along with her innate ability to exude sex appeal without really trying, makes it hard to imagine anybody else in the role.

As I said earlier, it's a shame that the Tomb Raider movie is not as exalted as Mortal Kombat among fans of the "video game movie" genre. It's not the greatest movie ever, but it's definitely a lot of fun to watch. A wild, energetic combination of James Bond and Indiana Jones movies, it's a flick that values entertainment above all else. It's nice to see a movie like that once in a while. So I'll go out on a limb and give Lara Croft: Tomb Raider three and a half stars and a thumbs up. Though I will have to say that it still doesn't let Simon West off the hook for making that awful remake of When a Stranger Calls.

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Street Fighter (1994)

Long before the PlayStation or the Xbox were ever conceptualized, the best place to be if you were a video game fan was at the arcade. And if you anywhere close to an arcade in the early '90s, then you've probably heard of one of the true arcade classics: Street Fighter II.

First released by Capcom in 1991, Street Fighter II was the sequel to a rather unremarkable game from 1987. But rather than become an inconspicuous footnote in video game history like its predecessor, Street Fighter II was a great big hit, followed by no more than five updated versions and numerous ports to home consoles.

In order to capitalize on the worldwide success of the game, Universal Pictures purchased the film rights from Capcom and released their live-action cinematic adaptation to theaters in the winter of 1994. And let me tell you, folks, that if it weren't for thoroughly lame movies like Street Fighter, video game adaptations wouldn't have developed the negative reputation they've developed over the years.

Oh boy, writing this plot synopsis is going to be a whole lot of fun. I think that in the best interests of my own sanity. I think I'm going to have to skip over a few plot points (read: screw the whole thing) and try to keep things simple. Otherwise, I'm gonna be sitting here all day explaining everything, and nobody wants that. So let's get to it.

Megalomaniacal warlord General M. Bison (Raul Julia), the dictator of the southeast Asian country of Shadaloo, has taken dozens of Allied Nations relief workers hostage. (Why it's the Allied Nations and not the United Nations, I have absolutely no clue. Probably some legal technicality.) Via a pirated television signal, he announces that if the Allied Nations fail to deliver him a ransom of twenty billion dollars within three days, the hostages will be executed.

But all hope is not lost for the forces of good. Colonel William Guile (Jean-Claude Van Damme) has lead a platoon of Allied Nation soldiers into Shadaloo, vowing to rescue the hostages and end Bison's reign of tyranny. Aiding Guile are television news reporter — and trained martial artist at that — Chun-Li Zang (Ming-Na Wen) and her co-conspirators Balrog (Grand L. Bush) and E. Honda (Peter Tuiasosopo), as well as Ken (Damian Chapa) and Ryu (Byron Mann), a pair of small-time hustlers who've run afoul of the notorious gunrunner, Victor Sagat (Wes Studi). It's all very convoluted, trust me, but it all somehow leads to an immense showdown at M. Bison's compound.

I made about as much sense out of that as I could without just copying the movie's Wikipedia article word for word, and I'm not completely sure it had to be that way, either. The Street Fighter games are incredibly simple; you just pick your character of choice and proceed to kick the everloving crap out of your opponent. But somewhere between the games and the live-action movie, things got a wee bit muddled. What we get with this flick is a lot more (badly done) political intrigue and a lot less awesome punchy-kicky stuff.

And really, I'd have to say that the lion's share of the blame should probably go to Steven E. de Souza, this epic's writer and director. I'll get to his directing work in a minute, but I'd like to discuss his direction first. I do applaud his efforts to try and tell some kind of story, but the problem is that he just doesn't do all that great of a job at it. The big problem is that his direction, like most action movies from the time period, is just far too generic for its own good. There isn't really anything going on to separate it from any of the million other interchangeable movies like this that star Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal.

I understand that the movie's target audience when it was released was primarily indiscriminate teenage boys who would have been happy with any movie featuring live-action versions of their favorite video game characters no matter how flawed it was, but couldn't de Souza have done something with a little more flair? There are a couple of well-done moments, thanks in some part to cinematographer William Fraker and music composer Graeme Revell, but overall, there's nothing that makes de Souza's work stand out.

Even worse is that de Souza's screenplay is trite, hackneyed, and full of piss-poor, groan-inducing dialogue. I'm beginning to think that "Steven E. de Souza" is a pseudonym invented by the Writer's Guild as a replacement for "Alan Smithee," because how do you go from writing Die Hard and 48 Hrs. to writing crap like Hudson Hawk, Judge Dredd, and Street Fighter? Were there significant rewrites that were out of his control, and he got stuck with the credit? Because I don't really know how to describe the script for Street Fighter, other than as bad, very bad.

I appreciate de Souza's attempt to craft a plot for the veritably plotless games, but the fact that he tries to cram every single character from Street Fighter II into the movie turns things into a convoluted, crowded mess that is nearly unable to support itself. I'm sure there was some sort of contractual obligation that necessitated as many characters as possible being included in the movie, but if de Souza had whittled the story down to just a few characters and allowed them to develop, the movie might not have been so bad. But we instead get... this.

Street Fighter is so poorly written that even scenes that are supposed to be important are done in the dumbest, cheapest ways possible. Mainly, the bit where we discover that Chun-Li, Honda, and Balrog have been captured by M. Bison's troops. This would seem like a crucial plot development, but instead of being shown what happened, it's merely stated through a bad on-screen graphic. And you have to be paying super-close attention to even catch it, too. That is lame! I hope that the production had gone over budget and they couldn't film that scene, because if it was written that way in the script, I'm going to fly into a rage that I just may never come out of.

We'll conclude with the cast, who are a mixed bag, especially with the crummy material they've been given to work with. The best member of the cast is undoubtedly the late Raul Julia, who passed away two months prior to this flick's theatrical release. His absolutely over-the-top performance as the psychotic M. Bison is just so much fun to watch, as he delivers even the most ludicrous lines with a flamboyant glee and infuses the character with the smug pompousness that Bison needs.

And as our protagonist, Jean-Claude Van Damme actually doesn't do all that badly, believe it or not. It's not his best performance, but he's still a charismatic hero. It's just disappointing that he has to deliver the world's least inspiring motivational speech to his troops, and that he has only one fight scene in the whole movie. You'd think an actor whose entire career has been based around him kicking the snot out of everyone he meets would have his strengths played to, so giving Van Damme only one fight scene — and a weak one at that — is stupid.

Moving along, Ming-Na Wen does the best she can as Chun-Li, considering she's delivering some of the worst dialogue ever committed to film. That monologue she has, detailing why Chun-Li hates M. Bison so much, is the main transgressor, and the whole crappy thing just drags down Ming-Na's performance. Meanwhile, Damian Chapa and Byron Mann seem to have realized that the material is rubbish and don't bother to try all that hard. Grand L. Bush and Peter Tuiasosopo apparently realized the same thing, but they at least try and make the best of it. And am I the only one that got a real Danny Glover vibe from Bush?

I also thought that Kylie Minogue — yes, the singer — did a respectable job as Cammy, Guile's second-in-command, and Jau Tavare was amusing as preening pretty boy and cage fighter Vega. And I must admit that I really liked Wes Studi, Andrew Bryniarski, and Miguel Núñez Jr. as well. Bryniarski and Núñez are funny and actually entertaining in their roles, and Studi hands in what is the movie's second-best performance. Though not as over-the-top as Julia's, Studi's work here is worth seeing, one of the few bright spots in the dark abyss that is Street Fighter.

As you've hopefully gathered from this review, Street Fighter is a pretty bad movie. The only people that should even watch it at all are ultra-devoted fans of the games and people that love crappy mid-'90s kitsch. For a movie titled "Street Fighter," you'd think there would be more street fighting. I mean, the games were nothing but street fights. But it's basically just a G.I. Joe movie featuring the characters from Street Fighter II. It's mostly just military stuff and three fights in the last half hour. This whole thing just adds up to a pitiful movie and a pitiful experience. So I'm going to give Street Fighter two stars and pray that Steven de Souza realizes just how big a mistake he made.

Final Rating: **

Monday, October 8, 2007

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

Movies based on video games are a tough sell. Finding a good one is like finding a needle in a haystack. But in the summer of 1995, New Line Cinema caught lightning in a bottle with their live-action adaptation of Midway's Mortal Kombat. Though critical reaction was mixed, it made 122 million dollars at the worldwide box office and earned a reputation as the genre's standard bearer, the movie most video game movies are eventually compared to.

Because of that success, New Line naturally approved a sequel. But with only two main cast members returning and the original movie's cinematographer taking over the director's chair, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation serves only to reinforce the stereotype that video game movies aren't all that great.

We pick up right where the previous movie left off, with our triumphant heroes celebrating their victory in the Mortal Kombat tournament. But their party doesn't last too long, thanks to Outworld emperor Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson) opening a portal to Earth and declaring that he's going to conquer our world no matter what. And to prove he means business, he kills Johnny Cage (Chris Conrad) within the first six minutes of the movie. Because when you want to make a statement, you start snapping necks.

So yeah, the veritable gauntlet has been thrown down. And what a gauntlet it is, too. Lord Rayden (James Remar) reveals that because Shao Kahn broke Mortal Kombat's rules by opening the portal, our fearless heroes have six days to rectify this issue before Earth is absorbed into Outworld. Those are bad times indeed. And as the clock counts down to disaster, Rayden sends everyone is sent on their separate ways in order to find a solution while he himself seeks counsel from the Elder Gods.

As they split up, Liu Kang (Robin Shou) hunts for a Native American shaman named Nightwolf (Litefoot), who may or may not hold the secret to defeating Shao Kahn; Sonya Blade tracks down backup in Jax (Lynn "Red" Williams), her Special Forces partner who wears cybernetic enhancements on his arms; and Kitana (Talisa Soto) finds herself kidnapped and confronted by her resurrected mother — and Shao Kahn's queen — Sindel (Musetta Vander). And as you can probably surmise, each story ultimately converges and leads to a final brawl between the forces of Earth and Shao Kahn's evil minions, with the fate of Earth on the line.

Ever see a movie that was so bad, it made you feel like clawing your eyes out just in case the movie happened to burn itself into your retinas? I've seen a few, and one of them is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Everyone involved with this movie should be ashamed of themselves for making a movie so awful, it practically killed the entire Mortal Kombat franchise. Sure, Midway still produces Mortal Kombat games on occasion, but the hot streak the franchise was on during the '90s slammed directly into a brick wall due in large part to this movie.

It's so bad that if you do a little research, I'm sure you'll probably discover that watching this turd is listed in the Geneva Conventions as cruel and unusual punishment. The directing is laughable, much of the acting is lame, what little plot there is makes no sense, and the whole thing just hurts to watch. It's so very awful.

I'm quite tempted to just end the review right here, because I'd rather do something a little more productive than talk about this movie. But I guess I should be committed to my craft and break down just why I'm so upset with it. Up first is the direction by John R. Leonetti. You'd think that he would have picked up a few things about how to direct a feature film during his relatively extensive career as a cinematographer, but you'd be wrong. I'd almost forgive him because this is his debut as an actual director, but the movie is so bad that I just can't. His work here is so sub-pedestrian that I'm not surprised at all that the only other work he's had as a director has been The Butterfly Effect's cheesy direct-to-video sequel and a little television work.

Leonetti apparently has no idea what he's doing, and it's evidenced by just how poor the movie looks. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti does a weak job composing shots, the sets look dreadfully cheap, the editing is questionable (a shot of one character's death is recycled for another, completely different character!), and the special effects are downright atrocious. Seriously, what idiot at New Line decided to release the movie in theaters with special effects that look half-finished? Were they rushing to meet their release date, or was it some kind of inside joke amongst the producers? Everything just looks really, really bad. For starters, the cast is obviously performing in front of a green screen in quite a few scenes, and the effects team's failure to convincingly blend them in with their environments is distracting.

And let's not forget the atrociously bad CGI. The movie's climax features Liu Kang and Shao Kahn transforming into giant dragons in order to do battle, and the entire sequence is so laughably fake that any sort of suspension of disbelief anyone has managed to maintain through the movie is immediately dashed away. The only effects in the entire movie that look halfway decent are Shao Kahn's monstrous bodyguards, four-armed warrior Sheeva and the centaur Motaro, played by Marjean Holden and Deron McBee respectively. There isn't any major improvement or advancement compared to the Goro effects from the previous movie, but they still look pretty good.

Unfortunately, that little compliment isn't enough to change my opinion of the effects as a whole. It makes sense, though; everything else about the movie is horrible, the effects might as well look bad too. The music is pretty awful, as well. With an original score composed by George S. Clinton and a soundtrack full of industrial and techno bands, the movie will make you go deaf if you have your sound system's volume turned up higher than a whisper. It's invasive, offensive to the ears, and just plain bad.

And then there's the script. Though the movie has a zillion problems, the biggest one has to be the script. Screenwriters Brent V. Friedman and Bryce Zabel seem to have gotten the idea that instead of making the fans happy with a well-told story, that they'd just cram as many characters from the games into the movie as possible. Really, the movie is like the War and Peace of video game movies, with no less than twenty-two characters from the games making an appearance in the movie.

Because of this, Friedman and Zabel spend too much time introducing random characters for one or two fight scenes instead of actually developing a coherent plot. If the director can't properly tell a story, it's because Friedman and Zabel can't properly write one. There's something in there about Shao Kahn and another character scheming to achieve universal domination and some other things that are in there for some reason, but everything is so nonsensical and convoluted that none of it can be made heads or tails of.

Lastly is the cast, of which pretty much all involved are ringers brought in to replace the actors from the previous movie that didn't bother returning. Apparently, everybody but those that came back had the good sense to avoid this turkey. Robin Shou reprises his role as Liu Kang and is acceptable, but thanks to how badly the movie is made, his main talent — his fighting skills — is practically rendered ineffective. James Remar comes in as Lord Rayden, and though his performance isn't as good or as enthusiastic as Christopher Lambert's, Remar still does an acceptable job. I also thought Sandra Hess did a good job replacing Bridgette Wilson as Sonya Blade, and she also is successful in being a believable fighter. And that's about it for the decent part of the cast, so let's get to the bad.

I wasn't quite impressed with the returning Talisa Soto, who, with this movie, continues the slide into obscurity that plagues most former Bond Girls. She doesn't have as much screen time as she did in the first film, and when she was on-screen, I got the impression that she'd rather be somewhere else. Former American Gladiators cast member Lynn "Red" Williams is supposed to be the comic relief, but unfortunately, his one-liners are as lame as his delivery.

And then there's Brian Thompson as the villainous Shao Kahn. His performance fluctuates between generic B-movie bad guy and completely over-the-top madman, and he elicits more chuckles than any feelings of intimidation. The rest of the supporting cast is just playing filler characters only in the movie so the main characters can have someone to fight, so their performances are just kinda there. The only one that I felt stood out is Musetta Vander, who is entertaining in an "Eartha Kitt as Catwoman" kind of way.

I do hope you readers appreciate the tortures I put myself through for the greater good. The only way this movie could have been any worse is if it were directed by Uwe Boll. But then if it had, this review would have ended with me hanging myself, so thank God for small miracles. It isn't the absolute worst movie I've ever seen, but I'd probably put it in the top ten if pressured. It's just so incompetently made, like not a shred of thought went into producing a good movie.

The original Mortal Kombat movie isn't a great movie, but it is revered by quite a few video game fans because it still managed to get a few things right and was all the more entertaining for it. Its sequel, however, is the complete opposite, doing pretty much everything wrong from the start. And that's why I'm giving Mortal Kombat: Annihilation one and a half stars. Sigh... the things I watch for my craft.

Final Rating:

Friday, October 5, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

Since the early 1990s, movie studios and filmmakers looking for a quick buck have turned to video games for inspiration. Unfortunately, the idea of doing movies based on video games got off to a rocky start when the lackluster Super Mario Bros. movie was released in 1993, and the genre has been struggling to prove itself ever since. While there have been a few notable adaptations that could be considered good (specifically Mortal Kombat and Silent Hill), the majority of video game movies that enter production usually end up being pretty bad. Or if it's directed by Uwe Boll, they'll end up being hideously, miserably, appallingly terrible.

But it should be noted, though, that a few fall through the cracks and end up being somewhere in between. Among them are Paul W.S. Anderson's movies based on Capcom's Resident Evil franchise. The games are considered sacred gems of the "survival horror" genre, but when the first movie based on them hit theaters in the spring of 2002, the reception from the core fanbase was decidedly mixed. Some liked it and defended it, while others loathed it due to its drastic departure from the source material.

Differences in reaction aside, it was still financially successful enough to spawn a sequel that tried to satisfy disillusioned fans by bringing things closer to the universe of the games. And though it still polarized the fanbase, it racked up plenty of money at the box office and prompted Sony Pictures to approve a third Resident Evil movie. Once again heading down its own path while borrowing a handful of elements from its source material, Resident Evil: Extinction is evidence that even if a movie isn't great, it can still be somewhat entertaining.

Our story begins five years after the events of Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and the world is much worse for wear. Thanks to the T-Virus managing to escape its quarantine, the human race has been pushed to the brink of extinction. Earth has become a barren, desolate wasteland, and those who haven't become flesh-hungry zombies are forced to stay on the road and struggle for survival.

However, this tiny little setback hasn't stopped the malfeasant Umbrella Corporation from continuing their experiments in their subterranean compounds around the globe. Chief researcher Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen) postulates that the undead masses could be domesticated with a new strain of virus synthesized from the blood of his favorite lab rat, Alice (Milla Jovovich).

Of course, Dr. Isaacs neglects to mentions to his superiors, including Umbrella chairman Albert Wesker (Jason O'Mara), that he's also using it to create zombies that are faster, smarter, and a million times more aggressive. But that's just a minor little detail, isn't it? Dr. Isaacs is committed to developing this new virus, and has no qualms with sending hundreds of Alice clones through a deadly obstacle course to obtain the samples he needs. However, he'd much rather have a pure specimen from the real Alice.

However, Alice is taking every precaution necessary to avoid detection. She has taken herself off the grid, living a nomadic life as she tries to cope with the ever-escalating telekinetic powers bestowed upon her by Umbrella's experiments. But her eremitic existence is about to get a little less lonely.

While on her way to a supposedly isolated spot in Alaska, she crosses paths with two old friends: Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr) and L.J. (Mike Epps). The pair are headed to Las Vegas, and have a caravan of fellow survivors in tow. Among these survivors are Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), the caravan's leader; Betty (Ashanti), L.J.'s girlfriend and the resident medic; and a teenage girl called K-Mart (Spencer Locke), nicknamed as such because the others found her living in an abandoned K-Mart store. Plus there's also a few people who are — let's face it — anonymous cannon fodder.

The caravan agrees to follow Alice to Alaska, but a choice encounter with Dr. Isaacs and his army of super-zombies leads to a change in plans, as making it to Alaska becomes secondary to the destruction of the Umbrella Corporation.

It seems apparent that Resident Evil: Extinction, as with the two movies preceding it, was made merely as a vehicle to showcase Milla Jovovich's monster-fighting skills. The series of movies are ostensibly a triumvirate of adaptations of the Resident Evil games, but all of that seems to have been eschewed so we could watch "The Adventures of Super-Milla."

If you're a fan of the games and are upset by the movie trilogy's great distance from the source material, then you'll absolutely loathe this chapter in the film franchise. Outside of a few character names and a handful of certain minute details, there's really nothing at all to connect it to the games. So as a video game adaptation, I think the movie is a failure. But as a sci-fi action movie, it's actually somewhat entertaining.

Let's start things off by discussing the direction, handled by Russell Mulcahy. Particularly notable for his work on Highlander and dozens of music videos, Mulcahey does a very good job here. Unfortunately, there are a few spots that I had trouble with his work. One was his overuse of the CGI mapping of Umbrella's underground complex. Once is good, twice is okay, three times or more is a waste. I also absolutely hated the scene in which the Alice character fights off some zombie dogs. The scene is poorly shot and atrociously edited, to the point that you can barely tell at all what is supposed to be happening.

However, Mulcahy does reign in his editor after that, and he and cinematographer David Johnson craft a film with an exciting, ambitious visual flair. The action scenes are well done, and they put the desert setting to good use, making things look dirty, gritty, and lifeless. They also give the same lifeless feel to the underground bunker scenes, except adding a colder, more bureaucratic tone befitting the moments that happen there.

Mulcahy's work is also bolstered by the great special effects, as well as the musical score composed by Charlie Clouser. Though the CGI blood splatters look fake (whatever happened to stunt guys using the old-school squibs?), the other visual effects and Patrick Tatopoulos's makeup effects are well done. I specifically point to the nasty super-zombies and the enormous creature Alice fights in the film's climax, which look both amazing and frightening.

Meanwhile, Clouser's music does much to pull the viewer in. His work echoes the score composed by Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson for the first movie, and its aggressiveness suits Extinction to a T, going a long way to enhance the film's visuals. If anything can be said in the positive about this movie, it's that it looks and sounds pretty good.

The bad news is that all the great direction, music, and effects in the word couldn't save the horrible screenplay. Once again written by Paul W.S. Anderson, the movie feels like we've skipped over the franchise's third movie and are now watching the fourth. Characters are missing with no explanation as to what happened to them, and certain events we weren't privy to are only vaguely hinted at. Is it so wrong to expect at least a little more information to bridge the events between Apocalypse and Extinction?

And let's not forget the horrible misuse of characters from the games. Albert Wesker is the Keyser Söze of the Resident Evil franchise, but here, he just sits around and acts smarmy. And how about Claire Redfield? I don't remember her being anything like her movie counterpart in the games. My guess is that she was just supposed to be a stand-in for Jill Valentine. If I understand the facts correctly, Sienna Guillory, who played Jill in Apocalypse, was supposed to reprise her role in Extinction. But since her commitments to Eragon made her unavailable, we're instead stuck with the same character getting a different name. I mean, was Anderson even trying? It's like he figured he'd just throw out some random names and factoids from the games and hope the fanboys would be satisfied.

But the real problem is that there's nothing resembling character development or anything like that. In fact, any character who isn't Alice, with the possible exception of Dr. Isaacs, is simply a complete non-factor. As I said, the movie might as well be renamed "The Chronicles of Milla Jovovich, Bad-Ass Superheroine," because she comes across as the only character Anderson really gives half a damn about. I'd like to avoid making accusations, but I think he made the Alice character such a huge focus because he's dating the actress that plays her. Not to say that's the truth or anything, but still.

And even if that weren't the case, the script is still pretty bad. The scenes feel like they're just strung together with no real rhyme or reason, including a few scenes that fail to contribute anything at all to the movie. Like the "Alice vs. zombie dogs" scene at the beginning, for example. Not only is the scene incomprehensibly shot and edited, but I can't think of any reason for it to be in the movie in the first place. The primary demographic for the movie is the crowd that liked the first two movies, so did Anderson assume that they'd forgotten Alice was über-powerful? My assumptions are either that, or they just needed a scene to pad out the movie's running time. This scene being included is probably just as much Russell Malcahy's fault for leaving it in the movie to begin with, but somebody had to write it.

Okay, time to move on. The more I think about Anderson's lame writing, the more upset I get. Let's discuss the cast, shall we? Since she's the star and the entire movie revolves around her, let's talk about Milla Jovovich first. She obviously enjoys playing the role, and her enthusiasm shows. She's acceptable during her dialogue moments, but she's a lot of fun to watch during the physically demanding fight scenes. If the intent of these movies is to turn Jovovich into the next big female action star, she's off to a good start.

The cast's other big gun, Iain Glen, is entertaining to watch as our scenery-chewing villain du jour. His portrayal of Dr. Isaacs as an over-the-top mad scientist contributes a lot to the movie, making for an entertaining villain that is fun to watch.

Unfortunately, because the characters are so flat, it affects how the performances of the other actors are viewed. Because of that, it seems like the rest of the cast are just skating by on auto-pilot. Ali Larter is fine in her role, though I don't really believe the character was written to suit her strengths. I also thought Oded Fehr did well, and that Mike Epps was quite funny and likeable. Spencer Locke is just kinda there, and while Grammy-winning singer Ashanti actually does a better job than I thought she would. However, since her character only has two or three scenes, it's really hard to gauge the quality of her performance.

I should also make note of Linden Ashby's entertaining performance in his tiny, thankless role as the caravan's resident cowboy. And lastly is Jason O'Mara as Albert Wesker. Though the links between the video game version of Wesker and his cinematic doppelganger are loose at best, O'Mara still does a decent job replicating the character's style.

Though I don't believe this movie will ever be considered a piece of classic American cinema, it's most certainly a "guilty pleasure" kind of flick. It is a movie that is quite focused; it knows exactly what it wants to accomplish, and who its audience is supposed to be. And although there are some big flaws, the movie never tries to be anything more than a simple slice-and-dice zombie movie. That's really the best that can be expected from it. So I'm going to give Resident Evil: Extinction three stars. If you loved the first two movies or are obsessed with any and all things Resident Evil, go check it out.

Final Rating: ***