Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dredd (2012)

Walk into any comic book shop in America, and you'll notice that ninety percent of the inventory is dedicated to superheroes. Nearly all of these heroes are, for all intents and purposes, vigilantes that operate outside the law. But take a look at some British comics and you'll see a crimefighter that is the law. That character is Judge Dredd, the star of the sci-fi anthology comic 2000 AD. Judge Dredd debuted in 2000 AD's second issue in 1977, continuing to appear in its pages to this day as the book's most popular character.

Hollywood eventually took notice of Judge Dredd's success and turned him into a movie in 1995. Despite featuring Sylvester Stallone as the titular lawman, the movie flopped and is still viewed as a huge disappointment to this day. But flash forward seventeen years later, to this past weekend when Judge Dredd finally earned his second chance at cinematic glory. The new flick, titled simply Dredd, hit theaters around the world to wide critical acclaim. And you know what? Those critics are right; it's an awesome flick.

Welcome to a future where the world is a really crummy place to be. Most of the United States is an irradiated wasteland due to a nuclear war, and the majority of the country's 800 million residents now reside in "Mega-City One." A sprawling metropolis stretching from Boston to Washington, DC, Mega-City One is a violent hellhole where 17,000 crimes are reported a day. But combating the criminal element are the Judges, a fraternity of police officers given the power to arrest, convict, and pass sentencing on the spot.

The movie follows a day in the life of the hard-nosed Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), who has been tasked with assessing struggling rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) and determining if she's fit to wear her badge. But what begins as a seemingly routine day in the field goes downhill quickly. After responding to a call about a triple-homicide at the massive Peach Trees apartment complex, Dredd and Anderson discover that the murders are connected to the sadistic drug lord Madeline "Ma-Ma" Madrigal (Lena Headey). Soon finding themselves trapped inside Peach Trees, the two Judges must fight their way up 200 stories of angry gang members if they're to bring Ma-Ma to justice.

I honestly thought that nothing would be able to beat out The Expendables 2 for the title of "best action movie of 2012." But then I saw Dredd and had my mind completely blown. Dredd is not only the best pure action movie I've seen all year, but one of the best I've seen in the last few years. I had high hopes for the movie going in, but I'm still astonished by how truly awesome it is. Anyone who calls themselves even a casual fan of the action genre needs to drop what they're doing and make a mad dash to the movie theater and see Dredd, because it's well worth the time and money.

Sitting in the director's chair is Pete Travis, who I heard had the movie taken away from him during the editing process. It's because of that that I'm not sure how much of the final product is his ultimate vision, but from what I saw, Travis did a hell of a job. The movie is an intense experience all the way through, never once letting up even in the moments it allows the viewers to catch their breath for a second. Every scene is exciting to watch, keeping one engrossed in what's happening the entire time. Travis also never resorts to that annoying quick-edited shaky-cam crap, instead letting us see everything that goes down. His repeated use of slow-motion also works in the movie's favor, and actually appears only when it's absolutely necessary (i.e. when characters are high on the "Slow-Mo" drug).

And although I'm not sure how much of the movie was shot natively in the format and how much was converted in post-production, the 3D effects were pulled off with quite a bit of success. Some scenes looked a little flat, but for the most part, the 3D is really good. It really helped to capture the massive size and scope of Mega-City One and the Peach Trees building. Travis even plays with it a little bit, making it look like some things are trying to physically escape the boundaries of the screen beyond just the typical 3D "pop at the viewer" thing.

But let's continue onwards to the screenplay, written by 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland. And in great action movie tradition, the script has practically no plot, some choice one-liners, a little bit of comic relief, and a hero that kicks ass and takes names. I honestly can't compare what Garland's given to Judge Dredd's comics counterpart, as I've sadly only ever read two issues of 2000 AD, but I can tell you that Garland has crafted something that makes me want to read the comic. Garland's Judge Dredd is a total hardass, the kind of cop that would walk into a room, announce that everyone is under arrest, and beat the everloving crap out of anybody who even looks at him funny. That's a comic book character whose books I would read all the time, and an action movie that I'd want to see get a hundred sequels.

And speaking of action heroes, Karl Urban is amazing as the titular Judge. Urban forgoes the over-the-top hammy performance that Sylvester Stallone brought to the character, instead opting for something a little more deadpan. He speaks with a growl that puts Christian Bale's Batman to shame, and never comes across as being anything less than a badass. His Dredd is the epitome of confidence and self-assurance. When he announces that he is the law, you believe him. You can see that he'll never, ever in a million years stop fighting crime and bringing law to the lawless. Urban's Dredd is like somebody combined Batman and the Terminator, and it's so much fun to see him play the part.

I can also say the same about Lena Headey, who plays our resident villain. Headey is great in her role, her voice never rising above a purr despite her vicious, bloodthirsty demeanor. She jumps wholeheartedly into the role and makes Ma-Ma as awesome a villain as Urban is a hero. And while she doesn't get to play a total badass like Urban and Headey, I thought Olivia Thirlby still did a fine job too. Her character is a psychic who is unsure of herself and her role among the Judges, and as such is the only character to get any development during the movie. Thirlby makes it believable, bringing a level of vulnerability and heart to the movie. I liked her performance a lot, and I hope she gets more work based on it.

I hated hearing that Dredd tanked at the box office last weekend, because this is the kind of movie that should be a really big hit. And it probably would have been too had Stallone's version of Judge Dredd not had such a terrible reputation. Dredd's lack of box office success means we sadly probably never will see a sequel, which is a real shame. I want to see more of Judge Dredd's adventures through Mega-City One and the Cursed Earth. But even if there never is a sequel, at least there exists a Dredd movie that puts that 1995 disaster to shame. Go see Dredd in theaters while you still can, because it really should be seen, period.

Final Rating: ****

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

I've had kind of a love/hate relationship with the Resident Evil franchise over the years. While I've loved nearly all of the video games that have carried that name since the first game was released on the original PlayStation in 1996, the cinematic adaptations have left me sadly disappointed. Each of the movies have had elements that I liked, I can admit that. But the fact that the rich mythology of the games I cherish so much was either altered or flat-out discarded in favor of mediocre fan fiction makes the movies more frustrating than anything else.

But every time a new Resident Evil movie is released, I still have to go see it. I don't know what it is, but I'm drawn to every single one of these movies. And thus I was sucked into the newest chapter, Resident Evil: Retribution. And once again, it's a sadly average entry into a franchise that's never really seemed able to rise above its own faults.

The movie picks up not long after the end of the previous one, as the squad of Umbrella soldiers have laid waste to the survivors and captured Alice (Milla Jovovich). Alice is imprisoned and subjected to brutal interrogation tactics, but a freak power outage allows her to escape from her cell and make a break for freedom.

Alice is quickly intercepted by Ada Wong (Li Bingbing), an associate of the perpetually evil Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts). It turns out that Wesker triggered the power outage and sent Ada to retrieve Alice, whose altered DNA is the key to saving the human race from extinction.

But escaping to the outside world will be no easy feat. It turns out that Alice had been imprisoned deep beneath the ice of the Arctic Circle, in a combat research facility populated with Umbrella's homegrown creatures, monsters, and beasts. And while Wesker has his own team of commandos to extract Alice and Ada from the facility, the supercomputer that runs the place has sent a team of its own soldiers ― led by the brainwashed Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) ― after them as well.

Once again a Resident Evil movie sees a theatrical release, and once again I leave the theater feeling disappointed. Is it too much to ask for one of these movies to be better than the crap that this franchise has been giving us for the past decade? It's like everyone involved in the cast and crew can't be bothered to care because they know they'll still make a ton of money from people like me, people who are too dumb to know any better. And I really should know better, because I know exactly what I'm getting into when I walk up to the box office and buy a ticket to see a Resident Evil movie. But I keep doing it anyway, because I'm an idiot.

Returning to both write and direct the latest entry into the saga is Paul W.S. Anderson, a filmmaker who as far as I can tell is like a low-rent version of Michael Bay. He's all sizzle and no steak, putting as much emphasis as possible on style without even remotely considering substance. That isn't always a bad thing, but with this movie, Anderson doesn't make so much as the slightest attempt to use that style to overcome or distract from the movie's flaws. It's like he just can't be bothered to care as long as Sony Pictures is still willing to hand him a big stack of cash to keep making the Resident Evil movies.

But practically all of the movie's flaws lie are with Anderson's screenplay. The script for this movie is just more proof that he simply does not care and would rather cobble together a bunch of garbage that shares a couple of names with the video games that Anderson is supposed to be adapting. And as bad as the writing for the other four Resident Evil movies might be, Anderson flushes the whole thing down the crapper with this one.

I do applaud his efforts to connect the disjointed continuity of all the movies together with a monologue at the beginning of the movie, but beyond that, Anderson steers things into a nosedive. It begins with his introduction of a bunch of new characters and the reintroduction of characters that died earlier in the series (having been brought back via cloning courtesy of Umbrella), while some from Afterlife disappear without as much as a mention. What happened to Chris and Claire Redfield? What happened to that "K-Mart" girl? They just up and vanish, no excuse given. Was this a situation where the actors didn't want to come back and Anderson couldn't recast them? I'll admit that I enjoyed seeing Ada Wong, Leon Kennedy, and Barry Burton up on the big screen, but did we absolutely need them when there's perfectly good characters already there?

What bugged me more than that is the absolute lack of anything resembling a plot. There is no story here. None. We're given the "Alice has to escape from Umbrella's facility" setup nearly twenty minutes into the movie, and that's it. The whole movie is just one big flimsy escuse for a batch of loosely connected action scenes. With no plot and no reason to give a damn about anything that happens, the movie just becomes a cacophonous mess. It's like Anderson is letting Uwe Boll write these movies, because he obviously has no desire to make anything that resembles the games anymore.

At least Anderson's direction is pretty good. Since he can't give us any substance, he makes up for it with a lot of style. Not only are the movie's 3D effects absolutely amazing, but the action scenes are very well done. While Anderson runs out of steam by the time the movie ends, he still manages to craft an action movie that's a real feast for the eyes. My favorite part, though, as near the beginning, when we see a huge mob of zombies running amok through a test simulation in a fake suburban town within Umbrella's facility. It actually takes the movie towards the horror contained within the early chapters of the video game franchise, and I thought it was really effective. I actually got invested in it (before Anderson shot himself in the foot with the rest of the movie, that is). The scene is really good, and it makes me wish Anderson had just done that for the whole series.

And then there's the acting, which is a mixed bag. Nobody is actively bad or anything, it's just that a lot of the cast feels like they're on autopilot. Take Milla Jovovich, for instance. For the majority of the movie, she's her usual self. No heavy lifting is required for her role, she just needs to talk in an unaffected monotone voice and beat up some monsters. It's all the more jarring when you see Jovovich playing a clone of Alice programmed to be a devoted wife and mother in that suburbia simulation I mentioned. Jovovich is great in that sequence, but once she has to jump into "Ass-Kickin' Alice" mode, that all goes away and she gives us the same old performance from the first four movies. Maybe I'm projecting my own utter contempt for the Alice character onto Jovovich's performance, but she struck me as just being here for the paycheck.

I was also on the fence about Li Bingbing as Ada Wong. She looks the part and actually comes very close to nailing it. But I didn't feel like she had the same sly, mysterious nature of her video game counterpart. And maybe it's just me, but Li's dialogue sounded like it was dubbed. I'm aware that English is not her first language and perhaps she memorized her lines phonetically, but something about it just sounds... off, I guess.

But I did, however, like Sienna Guillory, who plays the brainwashed Jill Valentine as the most unapologetically coldhearted bitch imaginable. She really makes it work, and I'm glad Guillory's returned to the franchise. But without a doubt, my favorite bit of acting comes from Aryana Engineer. She plays an artificially-created little girl built to be Alice's clone's daughter in that suburban weapons test, but finds herself taken in by Alice after her "mother" gets chomped on by a zombie. Engineer plays the role extremely well, and I thought she was really cute and likable. The relationship between her character and Alice is obviously supposed to be somewhat evocative of Ripley and Newt in Aliens, but I won't hold that lack of originality against Engineer, who I felt did a fantastic job.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole is nowhere near as good as Engineer's performance. It actually makes me outright resent the Resident Evil name altogether. I probably wouldn't be so frustrated with it or the movies as a whole if I weren't already a fan of the games, but even that doesn't change the fact that Resident Evil: Retribution is an unmitigated disappointment. They'll probably end up making a sixth one of these godforsaken movies, especially considering how Retribution ended, and despite all my better judgment telling me to do the opposite, I'll probably see it anyway, There's no way it could be as bad as this one… could it?

Final Rating:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Constantine (2005)

I've said it before, but there's more to comic books than superheroes. Basically every genre you could think of is represented, with some publishers having their own studios and imprints dedicated to telling tales with characters that are decidedly not superheroes. One of the most popular of these is Vertigo, a DC Comics imprint launched in 1993 that focuses primarily — but not exclusively — on horror and fantasy stories intended for mature readers. The Vertigo line has published some of the industry's most acclaimed works, books like Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets, Garth Ennis's Preacher, and Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man.

But Vertigo's flagship book has always been Hellblazer. The comic's protagonist, a cynical expert in the occult named John Constantine, was the creation of legendary comic writer Alan Moore and artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Debuting in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing #37 in 1985, Constantine served as Swamp Thing's advisor in all things supernatural. He proved popular enough that the Hellblazer book was created in 1988 solely to give him a starring role. The book migrated from the DC banner to Vertigo upon the imprint's creation, and has remained in publication ever since.

While neither Hellblazer nor its protagonist have ever reached the same level of mainstream notoriety attained by DC's pantheon of superheroes, Constantine was eventually picked to be translated into a movie in 2005. Titled Constantine (to avoid any potential confusion with Clive Barker's Hellraiser horror franchise), the movie hit theaters to mixed reviews and modest yet respectable box office grosses. And while it isn't a great movie, it isn't a bad one either.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) doesn't exactly have an enviable existence. He's a self-loathing pessimist who, since childhood, has been able to see the true forms of the supernatural entities that invisibly walk among us. The stress caused by this ability was enough to drive him to attempt suicide during his teenage years, something that ensured his soul has a one-way ticket to Hell when he dies. And since he's recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer thanks to a lifetime of heavy smoking, it appears as if Constantine is headed there sooner rather than later. To try to sway things in his favor and earn his way into Heaven, he has made a career out of performing exorcisms and destroying demons.

Constantine's adventures eventually lead him to Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department who is investigating the mysterious death of her twin sister. Angela was told that her sister jumped from the roof of a building, but she believes that she was thrown by malevolent forces instead. The details surrounding her demise draw Constantine's attention, with all the clues leading him to believe that it may be tied to a rise in demonic activity that could cause a dark shift in the balance between Heaven and Hell.

Constantine has gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years, due primarily to its casting choices and how far it strays from its Hellblazer roots. And when you compare the movie to the source material, yeah, it's a real letdown. But when judging Constantine on its own merits, I didn't think it was that bad. It definitely has its flaws, and never really gets above just being an "okay" movie. But I honestly didn't think it's the hot mess it's been thought of as.

The movie was directed by Francis Lawrence, who would later go on to make I Am Legend, Water For Elephants, and the upcoming sequel to The Hunger Games. But back in 2005, he was just a music video director who was making his feature film debut. His work on Constantine is decent enough, nothing groundbreaking, but nothing terrible either. He does have some slick cinematography to work with, and if anything, his work is consistent and confident. And that can really go along way sometimes.

Where the movie begins to falter, however, is the screenplay credited to Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello. While it draws inspiration from two Hellblazer story arcs, it ends up going off on its own path with characters that barely resemble their comic counterparts. Not only does the plot feel like it's borrowed liberally from the movie The Prophecy, but long gone is the smooth-talking conman from the comics. He's not the lovable rogue fans of the comics have come to love, but another random action hero that are a dime a dozen in movies like this.

The script probably would have been a lot better had it not been a Hellblazer adaptation. Change the names of some of the characters, and you're on your way to an "occult detective" movie that wouldn't have been too bad. But Brodbin and Cappello don't really do anything to bring the movie up above mediocrity. You get the feeling they were hired to just write a movie, quality be damned. Had they turned in something stronger, Constantine would have been great. We don't get that, though, and it's a damn shame.

Even the acting is mostly subpar. There are some good performances from supporting cast members ― I particularly liked Djimon Hounsou and Peter Stormare in their small roles ― while other actors contribute just enough to keep from really sucking. But the real actors worth talking about are the two leads, Keanu Revees and Rachel Weisz. Weisz is particularly unimpressive, like she couldn't be bothered to try half the time. She's just barely a few steps up from Kristen Stewart in the Twilight movies in terms of how little she brings to the movie.

But on the other hand, I liked Reeves a lot. Say what you will about his ability, but I thought Reeves was a total badass in this particular movie. He is miscast, yes, especially since the original John Constantine is a Brit who looks like Sting. But considering how far off the mark the writers were, one could barely say that Reeves is playing the comic book character in the first place. I thought he did an admirable job with what he was given, though, and I'll commend him for it.

In retrospect, it feels like they were trying to make another Blade, only replacing vampires with demons. And it's basically two hours of wasted potential, a movie that has a few good moments and elements but shoots itself in the foot at every available opportunity. A Hellblazer movie could be a great flick, but Constantine is not it. It's a watchable movie that's enjoyable to a degree, but it's a real letdown if you know even a little about the title character. I will give it two and a half stars and even though it doesn't even come close to living up to its potential, it's still worth a watch. Just don't be surprised if you come away hoping there'd have been more to it.

Final Rating: **½

Thursday, September 6, 2012

[•REC] 3: Genesis (2012)

Ever since I first saw The Blair Witch Project thirteen years ago, I've had something of a fascination with "found footage" movies. I've sat down and watched a ton of the good, the bad, and the ugly that found footage has to offer, and I've never grown tired of them. And that's one of the big reasons why, during one of my sadly infrequent ventures into the world of internationally-made horror movies, my eye was caught by the Spanish zombie movie [•REC]. The first time I saw [•REC], it absolutely scared the pants off of me. And it's effective enough that it still scares me even though I've seen it multiple times now.

I'm surely not the only one who feels that way, because it very quickly got both an American remake and a sequel. The remake was basically the cinematic equivalent of a mediocre cover song, but [•REC] 2 was a great flick in spite of a few minor flaws. Inspired by the success of that sequel, the franchise's creators ― Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza ― decided to do something a little different to continue the saga. Instead of teaming up a third time to create one more sequel, they split up and each directed one of their own. Balagueró would take the fourth movie (the release of which I'm still eagerly anticipating), while Plaza directed the movie we're here to discuss now, [•REC] 3: Genesis. Plaza approached the movie in a bold manner, which I'll get into a bit later, but the final product wasn't quite the worthy follow-up that I'd hoped it would have been.

The movie pulls us away from the apartment building the first two movies called home and instead takes us to a lavish mansion, where young couple Koldo (Diego Martin) and Clara (Leticia Dolera) are having their dream wedding. But their dream quickly becomes a nightmare when Koldo's uncle, unknowingly infected with the zombie virus, turns feral and bites his wife's face off during the reception. One zombie begets a multitude of flesh-eating psychos, and in the mass panic, Koldo and Clara are separated. If the two newlyweds are to be reunited, they'll have to wade through an army of cannibalistic monsters that used to be their friends and family.

I went into [•REC] 3 with high hopes. I loved the first two movies and I'd anticipated having a similar reaction to this third one. But I can't say I fell for it like I had its predecessors. It's a decent enough movie that has some cool moments, but there was just something missing. There's something raw and visceral that [•REC] 3 is lacking, like the sense of foreboding menace that encompassed the first two movies had been stripped away and replaced with something resembling a touch of self-awareness. It's a less-than-serious movie in a franchise that had so far been deadly serious, which I thought made [•REC] 3 more disappointing than anything else.

As I mentioned in the introduction, [•REC] 3 was directed by Paco Plaza, the co-director of the first two entries in the franchise. Plaza starts out utilizing the tried-and-true "found footage" style, but jumps into a traditional filmmaking style about twenty minutes in. It's not as jarring a transition as it could have been, and Plaza actually handles it very well. The transition from "found footage" to traditional movie lets Plaza craft scenes far differently than he would have been able to if the movie had continued with that first-person perspective. Not only does he get some nice cinematography that gives the movie a broader feeling, but it also allows Plaza to get a little more creative. Instead of utilizing a ton of jump scares where something leaps into frame and shouts "boo," Plaza will build up suspense by occasionally sitting things in the background and letting them sneak up on the characters.

The bad part, though, is that because the movie is more brightly lit and in a more spacious location than the first two, the movie loses a lot of the claustrophobic atmosphere that was a hallmark of the first two movies. Both of the prior movies afforded the audience precious little breathing room. [•REC] 3 can't say that, since it gives us a wider scope of what's going on during its ill-fated wedding.

The movie also feels less serious than we've seen before, nearly venturing into the same territory occupied by more comedic horror movies like Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. It's definitely a little more lighthearted than I'd expected when I first started watching the movie. And while Plaza's direction plays a part in that, it's also due to the script written by Plaza and Luis Berdejo. The script is a little too sly for its own good. It tries too hard to wink at the camera, and a couple of the jabs at the whole "found footage" style could have been a bit more subtle. Even some of the characters are a bit too goofy, like a children's entertainer whose costume is repeatedly confused for SpongeBob SquarePants. Yeah, I thought the character was funny every time turned up, but was the comic relief really that necessary?

Plaza and Berdejo also don't do an awful lot to connect the movie to the prior two. There's a few little things that hearken back to what we've seen before, like religious iconography being a formidable weapon against the zombies. But for the most part, [•REC] 3 is a standalone chapter in the franchise. It makes me wonder just where the movie will go in the grand scheme of things and how (or even if) Jaume Balagueró's [•REC] 4 will try connecting it to everything else.

But let's move along to the movie's cast, most of whom are honestly pretty disposable. However, the movie's two leads ― Leticia Dolera and Diego Martín ― are both quite good in their roles. Dolera and Martín are both charming and actually pretty convincing too. They actually make you believe that Dolera hacking her way through a horde of zombies with a chainsaw (all the while screaming about how they ruined her special day) and Martín dressing up in a suit of armor to hunt for his new bride are things that don't seem that farfetched. They are the movie's emotional center, and they jumped into their parts headfirst. Dolera and Martín really make the movie a lot better than it might have been without them.

While I cannot say that I thought [•REC] 3 was a bad movie, I was unfortunately disappointed with it. I guess I'd gotten my hopes up way too high. But considering how much I enjoyed the first two movies, how could I not? But despite that disappointment, I still thought it was a fine flick that's worth seeing if you're a fan of the [•REC] movies like I am. And even at its worst, [•REC] 3 is still miles ahead of that mediocre direct-to-video sequel that the remake got last year. I'll take "disappointing yet still good" over mediocrity any day.

Final Rating: ***½