Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003)

As someone who enjoys movies quite a bit, I really value having an Internet connection because it gives me the opportunity to discover movies I'd have otherwise never heard of. Some of the reviews on this very blog probably wouldn't have been written if I hadn't heard about the movie online in the first place. Such was the case with Battle Royale, a particularly wild movie based on a novel by Koushun Takami. Released at the tail end of 2000, the movie ― as well as the manga Takami's novel inspired ― caused a great deal of controversy due to its story featuring dozens of young teenagers violently murdering one another. But the movie and manga were not only successful, but they've developed a faithful cult following around the world.

I guess Japan took a cue from Hollywood filmmakers and figured that if one movie can be a hit, you might as well make another one. So three years later, Toei Company released Battle Royale II: Requiem to reviews that were primarily negative. I absolutely loved the first movie, so I was disheartened to hear so many people saying that the sequel wasn't very good.

I was never able to verify Battle Royale II's quality for myself because I'd never had the opportunity to actually see it. But since it came included with the original movie's four-disc Blu-ray release here in the United States, I figured I might as well give the movie a shot. So I guess I'll finally find out if the movie is as disappointing as I'd heard it is.

Three years have passed since the previous movie's conclusion. Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) has in that time banded together with a number of fellow Battle Royale survivors to form "the Wild Seven," a terrorist group who've declared war against the adults of Japan. They're deadly serious about their war, bombing a number of high-rise buildings in Tokyo and killing thousands in the process.

Their activities have prompted the Japanese government to change the way Battle Royale is played. A class of 42 students from Shikanotoride Junior High School are kidnapped by the government and entered into this new spin on the old game. Under Battle Royale's new rules, their objective is not to kill one another, but to eliminate Shuya and the Wild Seven. And to make sure they play along, the students have all been fitted with the familiar explosive collars. The twist, however, is that each student has been paired with another, and their collars will detonate their partner strays too far away or is killed.

Forced into compliance, the students are shipped to the Wild Seven's island base, where they have three days to kill Shuya if they wish to survive. And in a scene straight out of Saving Private Ryan (had that movie featured a bunch of panicky kids instead of trained soldiers), their numbers are violently cut in half before they can even get to the island. Only a handful of students survive the bombardment long enough to make it inside the Wild Seven's fortress, where Shuya realizes he's been combating innocent Battle Royale participants.

The Wild Seven deactivate and remove their collars, and Shuya offers them the opportunity to join him and rebel against those that made them unwilling soldiers. Realizing the game has changed and feeling pressure from the United States, the Japanese prime minister sends in the military to wipe out everything on the island with a pulse. The entire war comes to a head on the day after Christmas, with a bloody, explosive battle to end all battles.

I can definitely tell you with absolutely no hesitation that Battle Royale II: Requiem isn't very good at all. It's not terrible; I've seen worse movies. But Battle Royale II is so mind-numbingly mediocre and banal that after a while I stopped caring and started thinking of all the other things I could have been doing instead of watching this movie. It's not just a disappointing sequel, but it's a frustrating letdown of a movie altogether.

The movie was originally supposed to be directed by Kenji Fukasaku, who helmed the first Battle Royale. However, his son Kenta was forced to step in to replace him her after he tragically lost his battle with prostate cancer after shooting only one scene. To his credit, Kenta ― who actually made his feature film directorial debut here ― does a fairly decent job putting the movie together.

Battle Royale II lacks the more artistic aesthetic of the first movie, as the younger Fukasaku approaches the sequel as if it were your run-of-the-mill war movie. I wasn't joking when I compared that one scene to Saving Private Ryan earlier. It really does feel a lot like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. Almost all of the action scenes are like that, with shaky handheld camerawork and quick editing. It makes the movie very tonally different from the first movie, which might not be a bad thing since it means Battle Royale II isn't just a lame ripoff of its predecessor.

The only bad part is that after a while, all the action scenes start blurring together until it just starts getting boring. It doesn't help anything that the screenplay, written by Fukasaku and Norio Kida, is really poorly done. It's obvious that Fukasaku and Kida meant for it to be a social commentary on the nature of war, because they hammer you over the head with it instead of trying to be even a little subtle. There's even one part where they try to invoke memories of the September 11th attacks, something I thought felt more exploitative than anything else.

There's also pretty much zero character development, especially among the Battle Royale students. Most of the kids from the first movie weren't completely well-rounded characters either, but you could still tell they had lives and friendships before finding themselves stuck in the Battle Royale scenario. Battle Royale II's students, on the other hand, are all useless cannon fodder. The fact that their collars are all interlinked, thus killing the kids two at a time, doesn't help this. It's basically killing 42 birds with 21 stones. Did Fukasaku and Kida just want to up the carnage for the sake of mindless violence? Was this part of that "war is hell" commentary? And just how are we supposed to care about the students if they get their heads popped off as soon as they appear onscreen?

Let's move on to the cast, most of whom I felt didn't really make an impression. But there were a few actors whose performances I thought were worth talking about, like Riki Takeuchi. Takeuchi plays the role of the Battle Royale "teacher" this time around, and he feels like he's trying to channel Takeshi Kitano's performance from the first movie, only more smug and a hundred times hammier. Even at his silliest, Takeuchi is actually pretty good.

Tatsuya Fujiwara returns to the role he played in the first movie, and I thought he was a little inconsistent. He tries his hardest to come across as a philosophical yet hardass fugitive scarred by the horrors of a war he never wanted, but it doesn't really work. Fujiwara is actually a lot better in his character's more introspective moments, when he lets his guard down. In those moments, Fujiwara is fantastic. Sadly, there aren't enough of those moments, which means he doesn't get to shine like he could.

Among the actors playing the students, Shugo Oshinari is quite obviously trying, but I had a hard time buying his performance. He looks like what would happen if D.J. Qualls was an Asian kid that was trying way too hard to be dramatic. And I can't say I really cared for Ai Maeda either. She plays her part like she's off in another world, like she's distanced herself from everything. Maybe that's what Maeda was going for, I don't know, but it feels more awkward and distracting than anything else.

I will say, though, that I liked Yuki Ito in his short appearance as an ill-fated student, but the rest of the cast is just kinda there and don't do anything to stand out. It was nice to see Takeshi Kitano and Sonny Chiba pop up in their far-too-brief cameos, though. I wish they'd gotten to stick around longer, because those two guys are awesome.

I didn't think the movie was as abysmally rotten as people make it out to be, but Battle Royale II: Requiem is still a really awful sequel and generally lame movie altogether. The whole thing is poorly conceived, poorly executed, and just plain poor. And knowing that Battle Royale spawned such a disappointing movie is a real bummer, considering how much I like and enjoy the first movie. So I'm not giving the sequel anything more than two stars. And you know what? It just hit me: With all the critical and financial success that The Hunger Games has been enjoying as of late, I wonder if we'll ever see that American remake of Battle Royale that was rumored for so long.

Final Rating: **

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

If you're a fan of B-movies from the 1950s, then you've probably seen a ton of movies that featured monsters created by radiation or nuclear energy. This blend of horror and science fiction were all over drive-in theaters during the '50s, only really letting up once the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union started heating up.

Fast forward to 1977, the year that American International Pictures and filmmaker William Sachs teamed up to create The Incredible Melting Man. A throwback to those old B-movies (particularly owing a big debt of gratitude to the 1959 flick First Man into Space), The Incredible Melting Man is an unfortunately dumb movie. Such was its eventual descent into obscurity that I probably wouldn't have even known it existed had it not appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1996. And really, the only thing the movie has going for it are that MST3K episode and its effects. So let's dig in and see just where the movie went wrong.

As things get started, we're introduced to Steve West (Alex Rebar), an astronaut leading a three-man expedition to Saturn. Things unfortunately go haywire as soon as the movie begins, as we're not a minute in and the three astronauts are almost immediately exposed to a massive blast of radiation. Two of them are killed, while Steve suffers a pretty serious nosebleed before losing consciousness.

We next see Steve in a hospital bed, covered in bandages after having somehow managed to return to Earth. But as Steve awakens from his coma, he's horrified to discover that the radiation has caused his flesh to quite literally melt away. His condition having left him prone to fits of uncontrollable rage, Steve freaks out upon seeing himself in a mirror and escapes the hospital.

Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning), a long-time friend of Steve's, is called in to help examine the body of a nurse that Steve attacked and partially devoured as he fled the hospital. Dr. Nelson realizes that Steve has gone completely insane and is now compelled to consume living human flesh as a means of slowing down the melting process. He contacts General Michael Perry (Myron Healy) of the Air Force to let him know that Steve has escaped. General Perry oversaw the Saturn expeditions and has been tasked with covering the whole thing up for some reason, so he agrees to help Dr. Nelson track Steve down. It's going to be a struggle for General Perry to keep this under wraps too, since there's only so long before the pile of eaten bodies and puddles of melted skin start become harder to hide from the cops.

Having seen the MST3K episode on more than one occasion, I knew ahead of time that The Incredible Melting Man wasn't a very good movie. But I didn't realize just how much of a mess it was until I sat down and watched it without the commentary of Mike Nelson and company. It's one of the most uneven movies I've ever seen, with both its good elements and its flaws spread out in such a way that it never finds any sort of rhythm.

This disaster was written and directed by William Sachs, whose less-than-stellar efforts on both fronts cause the whole thing to start circling the drain before it begins. From a directorial standpoint, Sachs's work is all over the place. There's some very good cinematography, but nothing makes sense from a storytelling standpoint. The editing is choppy, and the pace is so uneven that the movie ends up just being a tremendous bore.

It doesn't help that Sachs continually does a piss-poor job establishing things in relation to everything else. You never really get a feel that characters are ever in the same area. Instead of feeling like Dr. Nelson and General Perry are in the same town as the melting man, it comes off like they're on opposite ends of the state. It's like watching Plan 9 from Outer Space again.

Sachs's screenplay doesn't help matters much either. I've read that he had originally written the movie as a parody of '50s monster movies, which explains a lot of the more comedic moments in the movie. But even with that knowledge, the script still comes off as being really bad. It's full of plot holes and scenes that go nowhere that that it's no wonder the movie's pace is so uneven. Sachs doesn't take so much as a second to explain any real details behind what exactly caused Steve to start melting, or how he knows he needs to eat flesh to survive, or how he even managed to travel the 938 million miles from Saturn back to Earth without having melted into a puddle of goo in the six and a half years it would take to make that trip.

It also doesn't explain just how quickly the doctors figured out what happened to Steve so quickly. It could probably be blamed on the fact that Sachs never really tells us how long he'd been in that military hospital at the beginning of the movie. It honestly feels like Sachs chopped fifteen or twenty pages of exposition out of the script. And giving the movie an introduction or a setup to begin the movie would have been nice, too.

And just why is General Perry so concerned with keeping the whole situation covered up? If some melting cannibal is out there terrorizing the countryside, why send only a military bureaucrat and an ineffectual doctor after him? I get not telling the public, since it'd avoid mass panic, but why not bring in a SWAT team or the National Guard to hunt him down? It doesn't make any sense at all.

And then there are all the scenes that go nowhere and add nothing to the movie. There's the two old people who try to steal lemons, a couple of kids trying cigarettes for the first time, all kinds of talk about Dr. Nelson's wife being pregnant, and a model who keeps getting pressured to take her top off by a lecherous photographer, and none of it really matters whatsoever. Outside of choice encounters with the melting man, these scenes are good for nothing but padding. It's just a bunch of useless crap that any writer with some actual talent could have actually made work.

The acting isn't very good, either. Alex Rebar can't really do much as the titular melting man, but then he actually can't convey much through all that red slime he's wearing. It's not like there's any real material for him to work with, anyway. Myron Healy isn't all that great either, but his role is so minor that he might as well not even be in the movie. The biggest offender is Burr DeBenning, who is so stiff that he's boring. His character is not only written as an incompetent doofus, but DeBenning doesn't do anything to give anyone a reason to give a crap about him.

At least the movie boasts some great makeup effects. Put together by seven-time Oscar-winning effects wizard Rick Baker, the effects look pretty damn awesome. You can tell Baker didn't have a very huge budget to work with, but he still managed to make the melting man look as gross and as disgusting as possible. Baker's work is really the only reason at all to watch the movie.

If you haven't quite figured it out, The Incredible Melting Man was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a very good reason. But the problem with this particular bad movie is that its flaws really make it more boring than anything else. It's not the kind of bad movie that's still amusing or even fun to mock. You just want it to hurry up and end. If it weren't for Baker's effects, I'd tell you to skip the movie altogether. So I guess The Incredible Melting Man earns one and a half stars solely for the makeup alone. Just stick with the MST3K episode if you really want to see the movie.

Final Rating:

Friday, March 9, 2012

Silent House (2011)

Remaking a movie can be a tricky prospect. If the source material is held in high regard, people might not be quick to accept it. I guess that's why some studios will turn to movies for foreign countries for material. Remakes of Asian horror were all the rage for the first half of the last decade, but burned out after the one-two punch of some financial failures and the growing popularity of "torture porn" at the time. But American adaptations of foreign horror still pop up on occasion.

Such is the case with Silent House, which arrives in theaters today. A remake of the Uruguayan thriller La Casa Muda, Silent House takes a cue from how Quarantine approached [∙REC] and duplicated La Casa Muda right down to how the movie itself was made. Silent House follows in La Casa Muda's footsteps and was shot with a handheld camera and edited to look like one long, continuous take. The movie was met with mostly positive reviews when it screened at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and combining that with my own positive experience with La Casa Muda, I'm hoping Silent House doesn't let me down.

The movie follows a young woman named Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), who is helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate their old family home with the intention of selling it. So far out in the boonies that cell phone coverage is out of the question, the house is in a tremendous state of disrepair. The windows have been boarded up to keep squatters out, there's no electricity, and there's a mold problem that threatens to consume the entire house.

Sarah and her father are alone in the house late one evening when she hears a noise coming from upstairs. An investigation comes up fruitless, and her father tries convincing her that it's probably just rats. But when the noises get louder and more frequent, Sarah discovers that her father has seemingly disappeared. She quickly realizes that something evil is in the house and that there's no one who can help her. The trapped Sarah must now try and survive the dark secrets that lie within the dilapidated house.

Say what you will about most remakes, but Silent House actually does a great job at replicating the whole experience of La Casa Muda. It's a suspenseful, frightening movie that, much like the movie it's derived from, pretty much runs off the rails during the last ten or fifteen minutes. Silent House is a damn fine horror flick whose only real problem is what I felt was a less than satisfactory ending. But I'm not going to hold the ending against it, because outside of that, the movie is great.

Directing the movie are Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, the husband-and-wife duo that created the 2003 "lost at sea" thriller Open Water. Though the bigger budget at their disposal means that Silent House looks more polished than La Casa Muda, Kentis and Lau still manage to craft a movie that is very effective. Even when it feels like they're just doing La Casa Muda's greatest hits, they've managed to pack the movie with some real scares and suspense. They succeed in making Silent House an intense ride from beginning to end.

Kentis and Lau also use the "single uninterrupted shot with a handheld camera" gimmick that La Casa Muda used to its own advantage, which makes the remake just as visually thrilling as the movie that spawned it. The directors and cinematographer Igor Martinovic really know how to use this technique well, though you can point out some moments where they could have snuck in edits. One or two moments are blatantly obvious, but some of the other possible moments could go either way. You could probably turn it into a drinking game if you so desired.

I just wish, though, that they had used a Steadicam or something a little smoother for the camerawork. There were more than a few instances where the camera was bouncing and shaking around so much that the movie looked like one of Matt Damon's Bourne movies. It got to the point where I thought Kentis and Lau would have been better off doing Silent House as a "found footage" movie instead. But regardless of that, the directors have done a great job.

It's just unfortunate that the script didn't work out as well. Written by Lau, the script does stay close to the source, but that isn't always a good thing. For starters, there's pretty much no character development whatsoever. I can imagine that would be hard to accomplish in a short movie with a narrative told in real time, but the characters are still thoroughly one-dimensional.

And then there's the problem of the twist ending again. The twist itself isn't so bad this time around, since at least Lau tries to set it up. The fact that there are actually some clues this time around is nice, but some of the clues and the ways the characters react to them made it easy to figure out at least part of the twist. The other part I saw coming only because I'd seen La Casa Muda. Maybe it would have been different if I hadn't seen it so recently, I don't know.

I also thought the ending was kinda weird, in the sense that I thought it came off too much like the twist in High Tension. (Be warned, this paragraph contains SPOILERS, so skip ahead if you want to avoid them.) They never say whether the house was actually haunted or if it's just a hallucination or what, I know I compared La Casa Muda's ending to High Tension's, but a parallel between High Tension and Silent House seems more apropos. I'm guessing the whole thing was a fantasy caused by a mental breakdown, but it's not exactly made 100% clear.

(Okay, no more spoilers, I promise.)

Another way Silent House copies La Casa Muda is its awesome lead actress. The movie would have lived or died by the performance of its star, and Elizabeth Olsen is far from a let down. I'd heard she was a great actress thanks to all the acclaim she got for Martha Marcy May Marlene last year, but having not seen that particular movie, I didn't know what to expect. I mean, she's the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, neither of whom are master thespians. But surprise, she's nothing short of amazing. Olsen plays the role with conviction and earnestness, making her both believable and sympathetic. It's a fantastic performance that is enough to convince me that Olsen has a very bright future ahead of her.

I've said some good and some bad about Silent House, but my honest opinion is that it's a genuinely spooky movie. I have no idea why it hadn't secured any legitimate distribution during the fourteen months that have passed since its screening at Sundance. Sure, the ending is a little weak and the movie at large might not please everyone. But Silent House is good enough for me to recommend it to any and all fans of horror movies. So I'm going to give it three and a half stars and a thumbs-up. And is it wrong that I kept accidentally typing "Silent Hill" instead? Maybe I just want to see a sequel to the Silent Hill movie? Because I actually kinda do.

Final Rating: ***½

La Casa Muda (2010)

A few times in the past, I've spoken of my occasional adventures into the realm of international horror movies. I've gotten lucky with a lot of these ventures, since most the foreign horror that's come my way has been more good than bad. I bring this up because I was actually surprised to learn that the movie Silent House, which sees its wide theatrical release today after premiering fourteen months ago at the Sundance Film Festival, is actually a remake of a movie from South America. So I figured I'd head back into international waters and review the movie that inspired Silent House.

Released in its native country of Uruguay as La Casa Muda (which, as you've probably guessed, translates to The Silent House), the movie was shot over four days with a high-end digital photo camera on a budget of roughly 6,000 bucks. And with the intriguing approach of being edited to appear as if it were filmed in one long take (similar to Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 thriller Rope), let's dive in and see if La Casa Muda can live up to its tagline's promise of "real fear in real time."

The movie follows a young woman named Laura (Florencia Colucci), who has traveled to a rundown house out in the middle of nowhere to help her father (Gustavo Alonso) fix the place up so it can be put up for sale. Despite the house's lack of electricity, she and her father decide to camp out there for the night. But as they begin to settle in, Laura begins hearing strange noises coming from upstairs. Her father goes up to investigate, but the next time we see him, he's a beaten, bloody mess. As we soon learn, the house holds a dark secret that is just waiting to be revealed.

Say what you will about it, but La Casa Muda is one of the most unique horror movies I've seen in a long time. The whole concept of it being an uninterrupted single take is a novel approach, making the movie a genuine rollercoaster ride for much of its running time. The movie is not a perfect movie; it has its fair share of flaws that hold it back from being absolutely fantastic. But the flaws do not outweigh La Casa Muda's effectiveness. It's intense at times, downright frightening at other times, and really atmospheric throughout the whole thing.

A lot of this is due to the efforts of director Gustavo Hernández. With the assistance of cinematographer Pedro Luque, Hernández constructs a movie that is claustrophobic and unrelentingly suspenseful for much of its running time. Even the instances where he allows us to slow down and take a breather are tense. Though you can see moments when Hernández and his editor could have possibly snuck in a quick edit or two, the fact that they succeeded in making it look like one continuous take is impressive.

The "one continuous take" gimmick and the fact that it was shot with a handheld camera, allow us to feel like we're actually in the movie ourselves. We the viewers essentially are the main character. With the exception of one or two "now you see it, now you don't" scares, we don't see or know anything that she doesn't. It actually adds to the creepy atmosphere that Hernández builds over the course of the movie and it reeled me in hook, line, and sinker.

It helps that La Casa Muda is focused around an actress who puts forth a fantastic performance. Florencia Colucci is by herself for the bulk of the movie's running time, but she absolutely knocks it out of the park. Though the role feels similar to a stereotypical slasher movie "final girl," she's believable to the point that she can actually make you forget to wonder why she's still roaming around the house instead of getting the hell out of there. There's not much to the role in terms of depth, but Colucci still manages to be aces.

Unfortunately, where La Casa Muda begins to fall apart is its screenplay. Written by Oscar Estévez from a story by Hernández and Gustavo Rojo, the script is not very strong at all. The plot is practically nonexistent, and there is absolutely zero character development; Colucci's character is so one-dimensional that if she were a swimming pool, you'd crack your skull open if you dove in headfirst. And by the time there is something resembling development, it not only comes completely out of nowhere but the movie's almost over to boot.

That ties into my next complaint about the script: the twist ending. The twist is just dumped into our laps with no clues or expository dialogue or anything else that would set it up. There are a series of Polaroid pictures that appear over the closing credits and try filling in some of the gaps, but it's still way too vague to make any sort of sense. I'm okay with vague endings as long as I've got enough clues to connect the dots in my head. But La Casa Muda has practically no dots at all. The lack of exposition also hurts the characters, because none of the three people who appear in the movie ever come across as being very deep. (Then again, Gustavo Alonso and Abel Tripaldi probably only have a combined ten minutes of screen time.) I know High Tension gets a lot of crap for its twist, but at least you can kinda make sense of it if you approach it the right way. It's too bad you can't really do the same with La Casa Muda.

But those faults aside, I thought La Casa Muda was a damn fine horror film. It's suspenseful, scary, and exciting all at the same time. The "one long take" thing could just be a gimmick to garner some attention for the movie, but it works. It really helps to ratchet up the dread and make the movie that much better. And because of that, La Casa Muda is going to get three and a half stars on my scale. And with the remake seeing its release this weekend, I can't wait to see how the United States translates the movie.

Final Rating: ***½