Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Descent: Part 2 (2009)

I've written more than once about my occasional journeys into the realm of international horror movies. These "journeys" have taken me to Japan, Spain, Canada, Australia, and England, with more than a few great scary movies coming from these countries. One of them was Neil Marshall's The Descent, a fantastic flick about of a group of thrillseekers who get trapped in a cave system in the Appalachian Mountains with a pack of man-eating creatures. I loved The Descent when I first saw it, and it still holds up upon multiple viewings.

So when it was announced that there would be a sequel to The Descent, I got excited. But unfortunately, it ended up going direct-to-video in the United States and totally flew under the radar. I even forgot it had been released here at all until I got it in the mail from Netflix a few days ago. But here we are, so let's see if it's anywhere as good as its predecessor.

The movie picks up not long after where the first one left off, as Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald) has managed to escape from the uncharted caves that claimed the lives of her friends. She wakes up in the hospital two days later with no memory what happened and no reason why she was found covered in her friends' blood. Hoping to jog her memory and find some other survivors, Sheriff Vaines (Gavin O'Herlihy) demands that Sarah accompany him and a rescue team into the caves. This, obviously, is a very bad idea. It isn't long before they too are preyed upon by the bloodthirsty monsters that call the caves home.

The Descent: Part 2 is a far different movie than the first one. The original Descent focused more on atmosphere and suspense, while the sequel goes a more violent route. One could say the movie is to the first Descent what James Cameron's Aliens was to Ridley Scott's Alien. The Descent: Part 2 is more violent and more graphic than the original, but I sadly cannot say that it's as good. That's a real shame too, because I went in hoping for the best. That's not to say it's a bad movie, but it could have been a lot better.

The thing that hurts the movie most of all is its script. Written by James Watkins, J. Blakeson, and James McCarthy, the script is really lacking. The characters are forgettable and undeveloped, the plot is nonexistent, and a thought-dead character from the first movie shows up at the one-hour mark just so they can have a greater connection to the first movie. That has to be why the character was brought back, because I don't remember any loose ends from the movie that needed to be tied. They don't even handle the character's return that well, with any sort of drama or pathos that could be drawn from it is poorly done.

I also thought the movie's ending was total bullcrap. I try to avoid totally giving away endings, so I'm not going to spoil this one. But I can and will tell you that this movie's ending SUCKS. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. You know how some people get pissy over the twist ending of High Tension? I'm like that in regards to the twist ending of The Descent: Part 2. The twist comes absolutely out of nowhere, with no setup or clues at all. At least you could think of ways to justify High Tension's twist that make sense. But the only way I could justify this movie's twist is by assuming they wanted to do something as a hook for The Descent: Part 3. It's stupid and annoying and practically ruins the whole movie.

I was only a wee bit disappointed with the cast. With no character development and the fact that the movie is pretty much a body count flick, I got the feeling that the cast decided to not bother at all. Most of the actors are forgettable, but they're playing anonymous cannon fodder, so I guess it's understandable. The only people in the movie who stand out are Shauna Macdonald, Gavan O'Herlihy, and Krysten Cummings, and they aren't really memorable for good reasons. Cummings is annoying and O'Herlihy is just plain bad, while Macdonald's performance would have been a lot better had more of the movie been spent examining how her character had been traumatized. If the movie had adopted a psychological aspect, it could have made for one hell of a movie. But that doesn't happen, and Macdonald's performance is a little dull as a result. She makes a decent enough effort, but it sadly isn't enough.

Last on my list is the direction, courtesy of first-time filmmaker Jon Harris. And maybe it's just me, but I thought the movie looked comparable to one of those Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies, only with better effects. The movie just doesn't feel like they're actually stuck in a real cave. I mean, it sure seemed a lot less dark than a real cave would be. Where was all that extra light coming from? I guess it doesn't matter, that it could be included under the banner of "suspension of disbelief," but it makes me curious. And it doesn't help that it makes everything look like a cheap set, too.
I also wasn't a fan of the jittery camerawork and quick editing Harris employed during the action scenes. I hate that crap in general, and the movie didn't need it at all.

But that's not to say that the direction is all bad. While I was a little bummed that Harris chose to employ nothing but jump scares instead of building suspense or terror, some of the jump scenes are actually pretty effective. Harris even ties one into one of the original Descent's best scares via a camcorder belonging to a character from the first movie. And you know what? It works.

But the problem with The Descent: Part 2 is just how unnecessary it feels. Was this a movie that absolutely needed to be made? If it was, then it could have been done a lot better. As it stands, the movie is simply adequate at best. It's okay, I guess, but I'd really rather just stick with the first movie and pretend the sequel didn't exist. I didn't think it was a bad movie at all; I just thought it was disappointing. And that's terrible.

Final Rating: **½

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Buried (2010)

Like many others out there, I'm claustrophobic. It's not an extreme case or anything, but tight spaces are something that I'd like to avoid. And as a claustrophobic person, one of the worst things I could imagine would be to find myself buried alive. Just thinking about it makes me want to have a panic attack.

It was this fear that drew me to the movie Buried. Its whole concept captured my attention, but since it didn't play anywhere near me during its theatrical run last fall, I unfortunately missed out. But thanks to the wonders of DVD and Netflix, I can tell you that Buried is one heck of a movie.

As the movie begins, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a civilian contractor working with the American military in the Middle East, awakens to find himself in a rather dangerous predicament. Paul's convoy was attacked by Iraqi insurgents, and he was taken hostage. These insurgents have buried Paul in a pine box somewhere in the desert, holding him for a million-dollar ransom. With him in the casket is a working cell phone, with which he frantically tries contacting someone who can help him before what little oxygen he has runs out.

A lot of movies, both in the thriller and horror genres, have tried using claustrophobia to enhance their atmosphere. Some are successful, some are not. But Buried is one of those movies that takes claustrophobia to such an unconscionable degree that it's almost unbearable. I practically had a panic attack within the first ten minutes of the movie, no joke. The way the movie accomplishes this is pretty brave, which I'll get into later. But I'll say this much now: Buried is fantastic.

The movie was directed by Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortés, who took the very bold step of never leaving the coffin. Not a single second of Buried takes place outside of the box our protagonist is trapped inside. Most directors probably would have used flashbacks, or taken us above ground to show us whom Paul is talking to on his cell phone. But Cortés doesn't. He keeps the movie inside the coffin, lighting it with a lighter, a flashlight, glowsticks, and a cell phone screen. He honestly could have made Buried with a camcorder on a budget of 500 bucks, for all we see during the movie. This minimalist approach actually makes the movie move unnerving, since it gives us so little room to breathe. I'm sure that's what Cortés was aiming for, and if it was, he aced it.

I also thought that the script, penned by Chris Sparling, worked well too. Sparling essentially wrote a one-man show, since Ryan Reynolds is the only actor to physically appear on-screen during the movie. But he pulls it off without a hitch. It must have been tempting to write scenes set above ground, but the fact that there are no scenes like that at all is really cool. The only thing that bugged me about it is this: Why couldn't anyone try tracking the GPS locator in Paul's phone? If the kidnapper had left him with one of those first-generation cell phones that were the size of a brick, then I'd understand. But he was stuck in there with a BlackBerry. Unless the kidnappers disabled the GPS locator, he could have been found in no time.

And as the only actor in the movie (outside of the voices heard over the phone), Ryan Reynolds has to carry the whole thing by himself. And he's good, really good. I'm still not used to seeing him in non-comedic roles, even after seeing this and The Amityville Horror, but if he can pull it off, I'm not arguing with him playing roles like this. Reynolds is believable here, in that I'd probably act the same way if I were stuck in the same situation. That is, once I stopped crying and peeing myself in fear. The movie would have been ruined had Reynolds's performance been anything other than great, but luckily, he is great.

Though they aren't produced that often, there does exist a tiny sub-genre of movies where people find themselves trapped alone in unenviable situations. There have been people stuck on a ski lift, in the middle of the ocean, in a phone booth at the end of a sniper's gun barrel, and between a literal rock and a hard place. Buried is not only a fantastic addition to that sub-genre, but an awesome film in general. It's incredibly effective, well-made, and definitely worth watching. I'm actually sad it didn't get a wider theatrical release, because it's totally deserving of a wider audience. But that's the glory of a DVD release, right? So yeah, go rent Buried right the heck now, because on the usual scale, I'm giving it four stars and a solid recommendation. It's definitely worth the watch.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, February 4, 2011

Clue (1985)

You can turn pretty much anything into a movie. No matter how crazy the idea may be, it can be done. I know this because I've seen it happen. All we have to do is go back in time to the winter of 1985, when Paramount Pictures released a movie based on the classic Parker Brothers board game Clue. No, I am not making that up. A major film studio actually turned a board game into a feature-length motion picture. But believe it or not, the movie is actually really good. It's a tragically underrated flick that really should have a broader audience than what it has currently.

The Clue movie takes us to a foreboding mansion in the middle of nowhere, where six strangers have been invited to a dinner party. As they arrive, they are greeted by Wadsworth (Tim Curry), the butler of the house, who informs them that they have each been given pseudonyms for the sake of privacy. After dinner, Wadsworth reveals that they're all connected to each other through one common element: extortion. The mansion's owner, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), is blackmailing them, as he is aware of secrets that could destroy their lives if revealed...
  • "Mrs. White" (Madeline Kahn) is alleged to have killed two of her husbands, one of whom was a nuclear physicist working on the next neutron bomb.
  • "Professor Plum" (Christopher Lloyd) is a former psychiatrist who lost his license after having improper relations with a patient, something that potentially cost him his job at the World Health Organization.
  • "Mrs. Peacock" (Eileen Brennan) takes bribes to ensure her United States Senator husband votes a certain way.
  • "Miss Scarlet" (Lesley Ann Warren) runs an illegal bordello who has a rather high-profile clientele.
  • "Colonel Mustard" (Martin Mull) is a war profiteer who uses his connections within the Pentagon to acquire and sell stolen radio components on the black market.
  • "Mr. Green" (Michael McKean) is a closeted homosexual who works for the State Department. There would be dire consequences for him if this were to become widely known, considering that the movie takes place in the less-tolerant 1950s.
Wadsworth has gathered them all together to confront Mr. Boddy and hand him over to the cops, whom he assures are on their way. But a wrench is thrown into the mix when Mr. Boddy is killed by persons unknown. As the night progresses, more people start turning up dead, and Wadsworth and the six guests frantically try to determine who the killer is before the police arrive

I know what you're thinking: "Who in their right mind would turn a board game into a movie?" I thought the same thing when I first heard of the Clue movie. But as I said in the introduction, the movie is surprisingly good. It's smart, funny, well-acted and directed. It's one of those movies that I simply cannot believe people wouldn't like. How can someone not watch this movie and not think it's great? But let's dig into the Clue movie and see why it's so good.

At the helm is Jonathan Lynn, making his directorial debut. He'd go on to make My Cousin Vinny, The Whole Nine Yards, and Sgt. Bilko, but we're here for Clue, so let's stick to that. Lynn approaches the movie with a sensibility resembling that of film noir, using the music, cinematography, and set design to make Clue an effective parody of the murder mystery genre. You don't really need a lot to make a comedy work, but Lynn goes all out in making sure his movie is especially good.

It helps that Lynn has other elements to work with as well. One of them is the script written by Lynn himself, from a story by he and John Landis. The script is not only incredibly funny, but very smart to boot. Clue was actually released with three endings, with each theater showing a different one. Lynn's script is so smart and well-written that all three are plausible conclusions. It also provides a boost to his direction, since Lynn had to film the movie in such a way to make the three endings work too.

But the best part of Clue has to be its ensemble cast. Everyone in the movie provides a great performance regardless of how minor or inconsequential their character is. Perhaps the most dominant member of the ensemble is Tim Curry, who I've always enjoyed even in the worst of movies. He's fun, charming, and downright entertaining here, and especially during the bit where he's running around explaining just how the murders were committed.

I also thought Christopher Lloyd and Michael McKean were fantastic in their roles, and I quite enjoyed the late Madeline Kahn as well. Her dry, almost deadpan delivery was a stark contrast to the overacting coming from her co-stars, and it made for an amusing watch. And while I'm thinking of it, did Colleen Camp's accent have to be so outrageous? Camp plays the mansion's resident French maid, and the accent she takes on is so over the top that there's no way it was meant to be anything but a joke. It's just too silly to take seriously.

That pretty much sums up the whole movie. It's too silly to be serious. And that's what's so great about it! You're making a movie about a board game, so why not go as goofy as possible? Clue's a movie that I wish had a wider audience, but the fact that it's merely a cult hit means that I get to have fun introducing it to people. Like you readers, for instance. This review probably hasn't done the movie justice, but I hope that you'll overlook the fact that it's based on a board game and check it out. It's definitely worth a watch. So on my scale, Clue gets four stars and a proud recommendation. Movies based on board games... what'll they think of next?

Final Rating: ****