Monday, March 26, 2007

The Grudge 2 (2006)

I've made it no secret that I think the horror genre's strongest presence this century lies not in the United States, but overseas. Some of the most important, influential horror movies of the last several years have come from Eurasia, particularly Japan and Korea. Perhaps sensing the potential in bringing the J-Horror phenomenon to America, DreamWorks Pictures and director Gore Verbinski teamed up in 2002 to create The Ring, a remake of Hideo Nakata's amazing ghost story Ringu. The Ring was a big fat hit, grossing nearly 250 million dollars worldwide and inspiring other American film studios to start doing their own J-Horror remakes.

One of the more unique of these remakes was The Grudge. Inspired by Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on films, The Grudge stood out from the rest because of the lengths producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert were willing to go to keep it faithful to its source material. Shimizu was hired to direct, Takako Fuji was brought back to reprise her role as the film's villain, and the movie was shot with a mostly-Japanese crew in Tokyo. And while critical reaction was mixed, The Grudge scared up 187 million dollars worldwide and Columbia Pictures announced plans for a sequel only three days after its release. With Shimizu and Fuji once again returning to the Ju-on/Grudge franchise, The Grudge 2 hit American theaters on October 13, 2006. I liked the remake, but the sequel, I'm not as enthusiastic about.

Like the other Ju-on/Grudge movies, the movie follows a nonlinear timeline, intertwining three different stories in three different points of the chronology. It gets kind of confusing at times, so bear with me as I try to make sense of them here, for the sake of a somewhat coherent plot synopsis. Okay? Alright.

Our first story occurs mere days after the events of the previous Grudge movie. Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is in a Tokyo hospital, and word of her "accident" has gotten back to her bedridden mother (Joanna Cassidy) in California. Too ill to travel, she commissions Karen's estranged sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) to see what's causing all the problems. Aubrey flies to Japan and arrives at the hospital, discovering that her sister is has been driven completely out of her gourd by what has happened to her.

Karen begs Aubrey to get her out of the hospital, but ends up causing a scene and forcing orderlies to strap her to the bed as her sibling is pushed out of the room. But it's no time until Karen breaks free of her restraints and attempts an escape. She ends up on the roof, but that provides her no shelter from the malevolent spirits that haunt her. This lack of shelter proves fatal, as Karen plummets off the roof and lands on the pavement in front of Aubrey as she leaves the hospital. This tragedy prompts Aubrey to team with a journalist named Eason (Edison Chen) and dig deeper into the supernatural machinations behind Karen's demise. But the deeper they dig, the more they find themselves being stalked by the same ghosts.

Our second story revolves around Allison Fleming (Arielle Kebbel), the new kid at Tokyo's international high school. Her awkwardness makes her an easy target for the cool kids, which is inferred as Vanessa (Teresa Palmer) and Miyuki (Misako Uno) lead her to the charred remains of the house from the previous movie. The pair guide Allison upstairs to a closet door, and tell her that if she can sit in the closet and count to ten, she'll see the ghost of a woman that was murdered and stashed in the crawlspace above the closet. All the kids are doing the closet ten-count, Vanessa and Miyuki say, so since peer pressure is a bitch, Allison reluctantly climbs into the closet and gets to counting.

But if Mean Girls has taught me anything, it's that teenage girls are the most evil people on the planet. I say that because as soon as Allison gets to five, Vanessa and Miyuki slam the closet door and trap their terrified classmate inside. Allison flips out, even more so once she sees the stringy-haired ghost crawling into the closet from the crawlspace above it. She manages to free herself from the closet, and all three girls bolt from the house. However, what was supposed to be a harmless prank evolves into something far worse, as the three girls soon learn that just because they're out of the house doesn't mean they're out of trouble.

And the third story is something a little different, taking us from Tokyo to the windy city of Chicago as a woman named Trish (Jennifer Beals) is moving in with her new husband Bill (Christopher Cousins) and his children. She has no problem getting along with Bill's daughter Lacey (Sarah Roemer) and her best friend Sally (Jenna Dewan), but his son Jake (Matthew Knight) isn't handling the changes all that well. Trish attempts to make nice with Jake, but far more disconcerting things are afoot in their apartment building. Everyone begins acting bizarrely, and the neighbors (Paul Jarrett and Gwenda Lorenzetti) are harboring a creepy stranger who lurks around the building at all hours of the night in a dirty hooded sweatshirt. And a few ghosts have been making appearances in the tenement's shadows too.

All three stories come to a head in the film's climax, as we learn how they are all connected to one another, to the murderous spirits of Kayako Saeki (Takako Fuji) and her son Toshio (Oga Tanaka), and to a curse that can no longer be contained in the land of the rising sun.

Have you ever seen a movie that has all the potential in the world, but fails to capitalize upon it for one reason or another? That's what happened with The Grudge 2. There is some good to be found in the movie, particularly the direction, but it falls flat in quite a few categories. I wanted to like The Grudge 2, I really did, but it seems like the movie came down with a bad case of "sequelitis" and made promises it couldn't keep. Because instead of getting a terrifying horror movie on the level of the others in the Ju-on/Grudge franchise, we instead get a nonsensical exercise in mediocrity on the level of The Ring 2. And that's terrible.

Of all the things wrong with the movie, one of the few things that actually gets it right is Takashi Shimizu's direction. Shimizu must have figured that if the rest of the movie isn't going to be any good, he might as well make it look good. This is the sixth time he's directed a Grudge or Ju-on movie, so you'd figure he'd either be really good at it, or bored out of his skull. I don't know about the latter, but I'm sure he's got the former down. He packs the movie with an amazing atmosphere and creepy, unsettling, and downright bizarre visuals (the girl with the half-gallon of milk, for example), and manages to insert Kayako and Toshio any way he can in order to facilitate a scare. Kayako and Toshio are like evil pissed-off ghost ninjas. They just pop up out of nowhere and spook and/or kill their prey, then vanish just as quickly as they appeared. You know what would have been awesome? If, as a wild plot twist, Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid had been the root of all the problems. I know Pat Morita's dead, but there's your angle! He's controlling all this from beyond the grave!

But anyway, back to Shimizu's work and the scares, lots and lots of scares. Whether they're subtle, blatant, or cheap "boo!" scares, they might not be as strong as they could be, but a few of them are still effective. Shimizu and cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima pair up to create a number of wonderfully framed camera shots from different intriguing angles, and when combined with the great music score composed by Christopher Young, certain scares manage to sneak up on us and raise the fright factor.

However, where the movie starts going downhill is the screenplay penned by Stephen Susco. With three stories being told simultaneously, the movie can become confusing as we bounce back and forth between them. And the more confused we become, the more we begin to withdraw from the movie. If Susco had instead kept the stories separated as three different chapters (similar to the Ju-on movies or a Quentin Tarantino movie), I think the concept would have worked better. But by chopping them up and hopping around from one to another, it's harder to build a level of suspense that encompasses each individual story. It causes the movie to teeter on the brink of incoherence, really hurting any chances the movie had of being any good.

And I have to say that I thought the Aubrey storyline was thoroughly useless. The remake was the paragon of the phrase "less is more," and its simplicity was its strongest point. It merely let the concept — "everyone who enters a haunted house dies" — work up the scares. But by adding all these little details about Kayako's rough childhood, that simplicity is ruined by making things too complex. We don't need to know everything about Kayako's past, other than what caused her to be a ghost in the first place. Why isn't that good enough? Why muck it up with all this unnecessary fluff? And it doesn't help that they brought up some big twist regarding Kayako's mother, then cease to mention it any further once it becomes no longer relevant. If they're just going to drop it at a moment's notice, why even include it to begin with? Sigh... the movie would have been ten times better if this storyline had just been excised and the movie's focus shifted to balancing the remainder.

I didn't have such a problem with the other two storylines. The schoolgirl storyline is straight out of the Ju-on flicks, and outside of the "mean girls pull a prank on an awkward classmate" cliché, I thought it worked. However, of the three, I was most interested in the Chicago story. The idea of Kayako and Toshio crossing the Pacific Ocean is an intriguing one, because it can open up the franchise to a plethora of new victims and setups that might not be readily available in a Japanese setting. (Though I will admit that Kayako appearing in a no-tell motel during the schoolgirl storyline was very neat.) The grudge calling an American apartment building home is definitely a concept I'd like to see reprised in a sequel or two.

And while we're here, let's talk about some things I didn't quite get about the movie. In their storyline, Aubrey and Eason visit an seventy-something exorcist who lives in the middle of nowhere and speaks English fluently. How? Does every senior citizen living in the Japanese countryside speak perfect English? I'm not saying that it's impossible for her to have such a masterful handle on the language, but it seems rather improbable. It's not just The Grudge 2, but it seems like so many movies set in foreign countries have characters that speak English with no problem despite the fact that they probably shouldn't be able to. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 might suck, but one thing they got right is having a reason why a 14th-century Japanese emperor could speak fluent English.

And another thing I couldn't quite grasp is that it's established that the story of the three schoolgirls is set two years after the events that befell the Davis sisters, so you'd think that the Saeki house more than likely would have been demolished after Karen torched the place at the end of the first movie. Or at the very least, since its owners were dead, it would have been left to either the next of kin, or even defaulted back to the real estate company so they could do something with it. I know the house has to be there (and in surprisingly good structural shape, too!) for the sake of the plot, but you'd think that what's left of a building after it's burned down would be taken care of after a while. If it was, say, two weeks after the fire instead of two years, it would make more sense. But what do I know, I'm not a screenwriter.

Last but not least is the cast. Takako Fuji and Oga Tanaka aren't in roles that are super-challenging, but they and their characters are the most important parts of the movie, and I think they did a great job. Meanwhile, Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance alternates between placid or completely over-the-top insane, with no middle ground amid the two extremes. I guess Gellar figured that since she was only getting roughly five or six minutes of screen time, that she was going to at least do something that would stand out.

And while I normally like Amber Tamblyn's work, I don't believe this will be noted as one of her best performances. She keeps a perpetual sourpuss look on her face, not really showing too big of a difference in happiness, sadness, fear, or confusion. If she had been working as hard as she did on Joan of Arcadia, I might not be complaining. Arielle Kebbel, Matthew Knight, and Edison Chen aren't all that bad, but I didn't believe that any of them really held the screen like they should have. None of the rest of the cast really contribute anything memorable, and I'm sad that Ryo Ishibashi's role in the movie is relegated to a short two-minute cameo. He was one of my favorite parts of the first Grudge, and I think he and his character could have easily been placed in Chen's spot without making too much of a difference.

Maybe I'm being too hard on The Grudge 2. There are some good parts to be found, so if you can enjoy the movie on that alone, it might not be as bad as I'm making it out to be. But I found that the movie's mediocre and bad points outnumber its good ones. As a whole, it isn't all that it could have been. It isn't completely awful, but it almost seems like just a quick way to capitalize on the previous movie's success. All the pieces are there to make a great movie, but it appears only a few of them were put into place. The movie is too long, too complex, and weaker than it should have been. And ultimately, the movie is just kinda there. It's entertaining to a particular degree, if one can get over the flaws that drag it down. So because of that, I'm going to give The Grudge 2 two stars. What a wasted opportunity it was.

Final Rating: **

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

There was no greater time to be young or young at heart than on a Saturday morning in the 1980s. While the concept of Saturday morning cartoons had been around since the 1960s, many of the most fondly remembered cartoons of my generation were from the 1980s. Shows like Masters of the Universe, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and The Real Ghostbusters made the decade of excess memorable for nostalgic cartoon fans such as myself. However, many of these cartoons were accompanied by such massive and popular toy lines that it was hard to tell whether the toys were a marketing device for the show, or if the show was a marketing device for the toys.

One such cartoon was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Based on the gritty underground comic book created in 1984 by Mirage Comics founders Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the lighthearted cartoon made its debut in the winter of 1987 and immediately became a mainstream cultural sensation. And what a sensation it was. Ninja Turtles merchandise flooded the marketplace, from the successful action figures and toys to products like breakfast cereal, clothing, Hostess fruit pies, video games, and a second line of kid-friendly comic books published by Archie Comics.

The Turtles were everywhere, so invading the lives of my generation that if a group of six-year-old kids formed a Ninja Turtle religion in the late-'80s, I wouldn't have been surprised. The phenomenon became so huge, that it only made sense for someone to produce a movie in order to capitalize on the popularity of the Ninja Turtles. Drawing inspiration from both the cartoon and Eastman and Laird's original comics, New Line Cinema's live-action cinematic adaptation hit theaters on March 30, 1990. Great comic/cartoon tie-in, or shameful attempt to make money? I'll tell you at the end.

New York City has fallen under the grip of a crime wave. No, this crime wave has nothing to do with a drug trafficking ring, murders, assorted violence, the Mafia, or gang warfare on the scale of The Warriors, or anything fun like that. It's just lots and lots of burglaries. From petty thefts to grand larcenies, more and more robberies perpetrated by unseen thieves are being committed. Yeah, it might just be a bunch of minor misdemeanors, but those can really pile up if there's a mighty crapload of them all at the same time.

The police refuse to talk about these crimes, but television news reporter April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) theorizes that they're possibly being committed by the same group of people. After filing a report about the crime wave for the evening news, April actually comes across some of these unseen thieves as they rob a production truck in a dark corner of the parking lot. They see her too, and none of them have any qualms about mugging a defenseless woman. Luckily for April, a street light above them shatters, and unluckily for her attackers, something knocks them all out just before the police arrive.

We follow April's saviors into the sewers, where we discover that they are a quartet of anthropomorphic tortoises trained in martial arts, each named after Renaissance artists and each carrying their own signature weapon. There's the sword-wielding samurai Leonardo (the voice of Brian Tochi); intellectual Donatello (the voice of Corey Feldman), armed with a bo staff; nunchucku-twirling practical joker Michelangelo (the voice of Robbie Rist); and sai-using Raphael (the voice of Kenn Troum), a sarcastic loner with a quick temper. The four return the subterranean den they call their home, as they prepare for a victory feast with their adoptive father, a wise mutant rat named Splinter (the voice of Kevin Clash).

Raphael and Leonardo get into an argument soon after arriving home, and Raphael storms out so he can cool off. He ends up in Central Park, where a fight with two purse snatchers leads Raphael to another brawl with Casey Jones (Elias Koates), a masked vigilante armed with an arsenal of sports equipment. Casey wins after cracking him with a cricket bat, further enraging Raphael by calling him a freak as he runs off. And that just doesn't jive with Raphael. He chases Casey a few blocks, but returns home defeated after his quarry evades him.

A day or two passes, and April returns to work, digging deeper into the cause of the crime wave. Doing so has not only draws the ire of the police department's grossly ineffective chief (Raymond Serra), but runs her afoul of a secretive, ancient band of ninjas known as the Foot Clan. A group of masked Foot members accost her in a subway terminal, warning her to keep her mouth shut before knocking her unconscious. But luckily for April, Raphael steps in and wards them off. He scoops her up and not knowing where else to go, takes her to his humble abode. She eventually awakens and is understandably freaked out, but calms down long enough for Splinter to explain how he and his four reptilian "sons" came to be. The Turtles escort April back to her apartment, but return to discover that the Foot has discovered their home and kidnapped Splinter.

The four emotionally crushed Turtles return to the safe haven of April's apartment, while Splinter is taken to the Foot's headquarters. Their headquarters is a secluded warehouse reminiscent of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, a den of sin and vice that seems to have drawn the attention of every no-good sleazebag punk kid in New York City. It is there that the Foot Clan is slowly building an army of teenage ninja warriors, led by a criminal mastermind known as "The Shredder" (James Saito).

One of these teenagers is Danny Pennington (Michael Terney), the son of April's boss. Shredder has proclaimed the Turtles as the Foot's equivalent of Public Enemy #1, and having seen them hiding out at April's apartment, Danny tells Shredder exactly where to find them. Oh, that's just great. That no-good little weasel completely sold the Turtles out. I didn't like you before, but it's safe to say that you just made my list, pal. And another thing, Danny: stealing wallets from yuppies, wearing Sex Pistols shirts, and hanging out with an evil ninja clan doesn't make you hip. It just makes you even more of a tool.

Morning comes, and Shredder's chief lieutenant Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata) leads a veritable army of Foot soldiers to April's apartment and launch a surprise attack on the Turtles. Even with Casey joining the fracas after seeing it from a nearby rooftop, the Foot grossly outnumber our heroes, who are forced to fall back as the building burns down around them. They retreat to April's childhood home in the country, where the defeated Turtles regroup and prepare themselves for a return to the city. They do eventually return, and with an apologetic Danny leading Casey to the Foot's headquarters so they can free Splinter, the Turtles wage a war with the Foot Clan that moves from the sewers to the streets, climaxing upon the city's rooftops as they have a final confrontation with Shredder.

In the lexicon of movies based on comic book superheroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems to get lost in the shuffle. One could blame it on the fact that the unbelievably immense success of the cartoon and action figures overshadowed the existence of the comics. And it's usually dismissed by non-fans, lumped with other forgotten comic book movies like Spawn or Steel. Forgotten comic book movies are usually that way for a reason; those that remember them don't exactly remember them fondly.

But usually, the forgotten ones were poorly-made claptrap that completely flopped at the box office. That wasn't the case with this particular movie. The movie is actually pretty well done, and just like the franchise that inspired it, the movie was actually a big fat hit. It grossed just shy of 202 million dollars at the worldwide box office, and actually earned a spot as the highest-grossing independent movie of all time (until being dethroned by The Blair Witch Project nine years later). What surprises me about that is that it was neither produced nor distributed by a major studio. You'd think that with Turtlemania running wild, the major studios would be sacrificing their firstborn children to acquire the film rights. But New Line Cinema picked up the distribution rights with Golden Harvest handling production, and New Line had their some of their biggest success since the Nightmare on Elm Street series began.

The screenplay written by Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck is very well done. It's actually darker than one would expect, considering that the movie probably wouldn't have been made if it hadn't been for a certain bright, cheerful Saturday morning cartoon. There's brief violence against women and animals (not counting violence against the four turtles, of course), two murders (and a third, implied one), and even a handful of mild profanities. I assume Langen and Herbeck chose to write the movie like this in order to retain some connection to Eastman and Laird's original comics, while also doing something to make the movie feel grown up. They even make references to The Grapes of Wrath, War and Peace, and, of all things, Bruce Willis's old TV show, Moonlighting. That way, the adults who got dragged to the local movie theater by their Turtle-obsessed kids wouldn't feel like they were watching a movie made entirely for children.

But I have to say that, darkness aside, Langen and Herbeck's screenplay has a youthful enthusiasm. Scenes like Donatello and Casey playfully insulting one another alphabetically, Michelangelo yelling martial arts advice at an animated version of The Tortoise and the Hare, and the Turtles teasing Raphael because they think he has a crush on April keep the movie entertaining, lighthearted, and enjoyable. The only part of the script that fails is the instances of awkward, cringe-worthy dialogue, particularly the surfer lingo used by the Turtles. I'll admit that Kentucky has never exactly been the surfing capitol of the world, but I can't say that I know a single person that has ever said "gnarly," "radical," or "cowabunga" in a regular conversation. I have no clue how talking like that was ever cool, even in 1990. Of course, I'll probably be mocking modern slang in about twenty years, but that's the circle of life.

Steve Barron's direction isn't too bad either. Known at the time for his work as a music video director, Barron appears to understand that the silliness of the Ninja Turtles concept is also what makes it special. Thus, neither Barron or cinematographer John Fenner really try anything fancy to distract from that silliness. I must say, though, that Barron does manage to keep the movie's energy high, especially during the action sequences. Prolonged fight scenes can grow tedious if they go on for too long, but Barron injects them with humor in order to keep them entertaining. Of course, it's completely within reason for the Turtles to crack joke after joke during their fights, so that also shows Barron's understanding of the property. On the music side of things, I enjoyed the music composed by John Du Prez. The score is engaging, exciting, matching the movie's pace and tone scene for scene and really enhancing what we see onscreen. And I have to say that the score is way better than pretty much all of the songs on the soundtrack. Pretty much all of the songs are as lame today as they were in 1990, and that's terrible.

The voice actors are excellent too, each of them filling their roles well. The actors playing the Turtles and Splinter give each of their characters lots of depth and emotion, which the roles need in order to make the characters believable. Unfortunately, the human cast is a mixed bag. Elias Koates is outstanding as Casey Jones, turning in a performance that's my favorite part of the whole movie. If I had to pick just one reason to check this movie out, it would be Koates's hilarious, entertaining performance. Meanwhile, Judith Hoag misses a few notes, which is mostly due to her having to deliver a few awkward lines of dialogue (i.e. "Am I behind on my Sony payments again?"). But for the most part, she's not bad.

But I'll tell you who is bad: pretty much everybody else. Raymond Serra and Jay Patterson, who plays April's boss, are complete non-factors in extremely minor, almost pointless roles, and Michael Turney just isn't very good at all. I could have completely done without the character to begin with, and Turney's awful performance makes me reach for my DVD player's fast-forward button every time I see him.

And I don't know whether I should really comment on James Saito or Toshishiro Obata's performances, since according to the credits, both of their voices are dubbed (with David McCharen handling Saito's dialogue and Michael McConnohie handling Obata's dialogue). It's like how people were complaining that Linda Blair got an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Exorcist when she didn't even speak half of her own dialogue in the finished film. If Saito and Obata's voices were dubbed over for reasons similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger's performance in Hercules in New York, that's one thing. But if it's a matter of a language barrier, then I don't know what the problem is. Some of the actors in Hostel couldn't speak a word of English, and still managed to learn their lines phonetically. It shouldn't have been too hard for Obata, since he only had three short lines in the whole thing. I guess I'm just raising a stink over something that isn't all that big of a deal in the long run, but sometimes it's just the little things that bug me to death.

I would, however, be remiss if I didn't at least mention the real stars of the movie: the costumes designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The movie wasn't a success for the plot or the direction or anything like that; it made so much money because kids wanted to see four six-foot-tall turtles kick ninjas in the head. And I think those kids got their money's worth.

Nowadays, the characters would have probably would have been CGI-enhanced, if not completely computer generated. But the fact that they're four guys in suits with animatronic facial features helps the movie feel a bit more real, since we can see that the cast is actually interacting with someone that's there on the set with them. And you'd think that the turtle costumes would be uncomfortable and constrictive, but the four actors wearing them — David Forman, Michelan Sisti, Leif Tilden, and Josh Pais as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael respectively — and their stunt doubles don't seem like they have any trouble performing. And for that, I applaud the Creature Shop's efforts.

I was one of millions of kids caught in the grip of Turtlemania back in 1990. We couldn't get enough of our favorite foursome, and to us, a Ninja Turtles movie was bigger than the Super Bowl and World Series combined. And nearly twenty years later, we Turtle fans have grown up, but I think the movie as aged as well as one could expect. No, it isn't as solid as it might have been when it was first released, but it's not a bad movie at all. As a comic book movie, I'll admit that it isn't as well-made as recent fare featuring Marvel and DC stars. But as entertainment, and as a reminder of just how wonderful my youth was, I think the movie was great. My final verdict: three and a half stars, leaning heavily towards four. Cowabunga, indeed.

Final Rating: ***½