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: ***

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

It goes without saying that one of the most famous video game characters in the history of the medium is Mario, the legendary mascot for Nintendo. Mario made his first appearance as the heroic "Jumpman" in Nintendo's classic 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, but Mario finally came into his own four years later when he and his brother Luigi starred in another classic game, Super Mario Bros.

Initially bundled with the Nintendo Entertainment System, the release of Super Mario Bros. in 1985 put Nintendo on the map and brought the video game industry out of the drastic financial slump it had fallen into two years prior. In the years that followed the game's release, it earned a spot as the highest-selling video game of all time, inspired numerous sequels, spin-offs, Saturday morning cartoons, and various forms of merchandise, and contributed to its main protagonist becoming a true pop culture icon.

The franchise's continuing popularity as the '80s became the '90s even led to a live-action Super Mario movie, the first major motion picture to be based upon a video game. Released by Hollywood Pictures in the summer of 1993, the movie debuted to critical scorn and low turnout at the box office.

I have to admit that this is going to be a rough synopsis to write. I say that because the plot is absolutely nonsensical, disjointed, and downright goofy. But I guess it's my duty to put something together, right? Sigh.

Anyway, as you can probably surmise, the story centers around the titular siblings. After losing out on another plumbing job to their apparently Mafia-affiliated rivals, cynical Mario (Bob Hoskins) and upbeat Luigi (John Leguizamo) end up crossing paths with a cute archaeologist by the name of Daisy (Samantha Mathis).

Luigi and Daisy hit it off quick, which leads the pair going out on a double-date with Mario and his girlfriend Daniella (Dana Kaminski). The two couples go their separate ways following the date, and Daisy takes Luigi to the underground site of her current dig.

Things go well, until a few of the local Mafia kingpin's goons start screwing around with the plumbing and flood the area. Luigi and Daisy retrieve Mario and the busted pipes are quickly repaired, but their celebration is cut short when two more goons knock out the plumbers and kidnap Daisy.

Mario and Luigi give chase, following Daisy and her abductors through a mystical portal and into an alternate dimension. See, the meteor that killed the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago split our universe into two separate worlds. One became the world we know, while the dinosaurs survived in the other, staying the dominant species and evolving into human beings. How's that for a slice of wacky pie?

This dinosaur dystopia is ruled by the tyrannical King Koopa (Dennis Hopper) and his scheming wife Lena (Fiona Shaw), who have eyes on conquering our world as well. It turns out that Daisy holds the key to unifying the two dimensions, and Koopa's idiot cousins Iggy (Fisher Stevens) and Spike (Richard Edson) have kidnapped her in order to find the key. And since they're incredibly stupid and don't know any better, they've also kidnapped four other women that they believed were Daisy, including Daniella. Naturally, it's up to Mario and Luigi to save the day, rescue the girls, defeat Koopa, and escape the fungus-choked hellhole they've found themselves in.

I'm going to come right out and say it: Super Mario Bros. is not a good movie. It's thoroughly indicative of why video game adaptations have developed such a negative reputation over the years, and as the first of its kind, it really got the genre off to an incredibly bad start. But truthfully, it's hard to really put a finger on just one specific thing that causes the movie's ultimate downfall.

Perhaps it's a combination of things. There's the dreadful script, the uninspired direction, lame effects, a cast that doesn't really seem motivated. Perhaps any and all of these things could be to blame. In any event, this movie is a poor attempt at not only a game adaptation, but as a movie in general as well.

Let's go with the direction first. Max Headroom creators Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel are at the helm, and though there are a handful of decent moments, their work here is way too generic to be taken seriously. Morton and Jenkel appear to have no idea how to properly tell a story, and fail to contribute any sort of visual flair to these disappointed proceedings. The same could be said for Dean Semler's cinematography, which is flat, mundane, and just way too plain for its own good.

Things could have at least been saved a little had the movie's special effects not sucked, but they're poorly done as well. You're not supposed to notice when people are sitting in front of a green screen, but when you do, it's horribly distracting. That happens in this flick, and if you're still emotionally invested in the movie when it does, then I'm sure it'll take you completely out of the story. The lame effects are right up there with being able to see the wires that pick up Christopher Reeve in Superman III, and that was bad enough. I know that CGI barely existed at all in 1993, but couldn't someone have at least tried to make these things look believable?

In a movie full of flaws, the biggest of them has to be the completely inept screenplay penned by Parker Bennett, Terry Runté, and Ed Solomon. There are a few funny moments, but the script is so poorly put together that it barely qualifies as a script at all. There's one subplot that goes absolutely nowhere and contributes almost nothing at all to the movie as a whole (as such, I left it out of my plot synopsis), the dialogue is laughably lame, and there is very little that actually connects one scene to the next. Things are just strung together with no real rhyme or reason.

And then there's the oft-lamented fact that there is very little to tie the movie to the games. While the core story — Mario and Luigi try to save a princess from King Koopa — is there, along with a multitude of inside references, there isn't a whole lot of resemblance between this cinematic offering and its 8-bit source material. Since when are Goombas seven-foot-tall lizards with tiny heads? Since when are King Koopa and Toad actually humans? (To that aspect, am I supposed to believe that dinosaurs could somehow evolve into humans despite there being — as far as I know — no real genetic link between us?) And where did they get the idea that the Mushroom Kingdom looked like someone sneezed all over the sets from Blade Runner? I'm beginning to think the writers just threw a bunch of crap at the wall and used what stuck. For shame, writers.

And then there's the cast, who apparently have an incredible lack of motivation. I got the impression that each member of the cast either wasn't bothering to try that hard, just doing a piss-poor job, or realized just what kind of movie this was and chose to overact like crazy. Bob Hoskins, who supposedly didn't know the games even existed prior to accepting the role, is likeable as Mario. He apparently knew that the movie wouldn't amount to much, so he lets his outrageous fake accent take over and tries to have a little fun with it. Hopkins is almost always solid, and his performance here is no exception. John Leguizamo also does an acceptable and humorous job as Luigi. He's entertaining enough, though the character has him acting like either the world's biggest ten-year-old or a blithering idiot for the majority of the movie.

Samantha Mathis is cute and charming as Princess Daisy and Mojo Nixon is funny in his brief appearance as Toad, while Fiona Shaw is just kinda there in her role as King Koopa's conniving consort. (Hooray for alliteration!) Meanwhile, Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson are unfortunately inconsistent as bumbling lackeys/comic relief Iggy and Spike. They're funny on some occasions, while they're gratingly annoying at other times.

But the real standout is Dennis Hopper as King Koopa. Hopper is one of those guys who can take any random lame movie and make it a little bit better by merely showing up. (Go rent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or The Crow: Wicked Prayer if you don't believe me.) That theory is reinforced here, as Hopper puts forth a frenzied, over-the-top performance that makes the movie worth watching just for him. He, like Hopkins, seems to realize the poor quality of the material and does what he can anyway. He plays King Koopa as an egomaniacal psychopath, and he's obviously having a good time in the role. That sort of thing can certainly go a long way, for sure.

Although the movie isn't all that great, it at least has some decent set design, a fine musical score composed by Alan Silvestri, and a certain childlike energy that can make it appealing if it catches you in the right mood. Unfortunately, those factors aren't really enough to salvage and redeem the movie. I mean, you can tell a movie's a bit on the screwy side when a song ("Almost Unreal" by Roxette) gets the highest billing in the closing credits. But what could have been a simple, straightforward fantasy adventure movie somehow managed to get turned into... this. How do you screw things up that badly?

The truth of the matter is that even though I wanted to like the movie, there are just too many problems with it. Ergo, I really can't justify giving the Super Mario Bros. movie anything higher than two stars. With all the remakes Hollywood is doing, you'd think somebody would do a remake of this and finally do the Mario brothers justice.

Final Rating: **