Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2010)

Over the last decade or so, Hollywood has found that movies based on comic books are big business. Some of them are huge blockbusters, some aren't. But the vast majority of them still make plenty of money. But these are the ones based on American comics. The ones based on international comics are not only relatively rare, but they don't really do that hot either. Case in point: the 2010 movie Dylan Dog: Dead of Night. Based on the popular Italian comic series created by Tiziano Schlavi in 1986, the movie crashed and burned at the box office. But since I'm a sucker for comic book movies and have a friend who'd recommended it to me, I figured I'd at least rent the DVD from Netflix and see if its financial failure was a sign of the movie's quality.

Meet Dylan Dog (Brandon Routh), a New Orleans private detective who once specialized in cases involving the supernatural. But after his wife was killed by vampires, Dylan gave up paranormal investigations for more traditional ones. Dylan is so committed to putting the weird and macabre cases behind him that when Elizabeth Ryan (Anita Briem) attempts to hire him to hunt down the werewolf that killed her father, he promptly shoots her down. But when his devoted assistant and friend Marcus (Sam Huntington) is killed by another creature for what he believes are reasons similar to why Elizabeth's father died, he reconsiders and takes the case.

With a resurrected Marcus, who finds the transition into being a zombie a difficult one, by his side, Dylan's investigation takes him into the darker corners of New Orleans. He quickly discovers that Elizabeth's father's murder was connected to the "Heart of Belial," an ancient relic said to bestow immense power upon whoever wields it. Continuing to follow a trail of clues, he discovers that high-ranking vampire Vargas (Taye Diggs) is actively seeking the Heart of Belial, seeking to extend the reach of his power. And with many people after it, Dylan has to either find it himself or make sure the wrong person doesn't find it first.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night bombed at the box office and has all but faded into obscurity since its release four years ago. I can see why, beyond the fact that the character of Dylan Dog is, in my experience, pretty obscure in America. And as far as the movie itself goes, precious little of it is actually memorable, and the whole thing has a feel that it should have been produced for the Sci-Fi Channel instead of being theatrically released. It has a weird sheen of "direct-to-video B-movie" all over it. But it's not a particularly bad movie either. At its very worst, it's not a bad way to spend a boring afternoon.

The movie was the second feature film directed by Kevin Munroe, who'd helmed the animated TMNT in 2007. And for someone with no live-action filmmaking experience that I'm otherwise aware of, Munroe holds it together well. The only catch is that he apparently can't decide whether he wants to make a cheesy monster movie or a noir-oriented detective story that just happens to feature supernatural creatures. He tries to have it both ways, and we end up with a silly movie that's just kinda there. Monroe, to his credit, does keep the movie flowing. It may not be a smart movie or the most original movie, but it's certainly lively. He does make sure that the movie is energetic and doesn't stick around for the dumb parts to really cause a problem.

But the script, however, is actually pretty dumb. While they do give the movie a certain sardonic humor to it, writers Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer appear to have just cobbled together elements from other vampire fiction to make up their script. Watch Dylan Dog: Dead of Night and you'll see bits cribbed from True Blood, Blade, and the Underworld movies. Even after that, the plot still isn't anything you haven't seen before, and the characters are mostly generic and unremarkable. And while I've never read or even actually seen any of the Dylan Dog comic, so I can't really compare the movie to the source material, but I'm sure the comics don't really resemble the movie. (Though I am aware that the Dylan Dog from the comics has a Groucho Marx impersonator for a sidekick instead of a zombie, so take that however you'd like it...)

The cast, meanwhile, is very hit or miss as well. Anita Briem is forgettable, and Taye Diggs doesn't really contribute much. On the other hand, Peter Stormare is decent enough, while Sam Huntington is rather funny as the movie's comic relief. But Brandon Routh is the best part of the movie. He's a likable, charismatic actor, and I've enjoyed him in the other movies I've seen him in. Routh's performance in Dylan Dog: Dead of Night proves to be no different. He plays Dylan as straight laced but with a sarcastic sense of humor, and it's largely because of him and his rapport with Huntington that the movie is enjoyable.

So yeah, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night is one of those movies. It's barely mediocre at best, but it has a certain charm to it. I found it hard to actually hate the movie, simply because I thought it was too goofy to dislike. That cheesy B-movie feeling I mentioned earlier is largely what I liked about it, because the movie honestly doesn't have a lot else going for it. It's a mostly forgettable movie that works as perfectly disposable entertainment, and really, that isn't always a bad thing. Just don't expect to actually remember anything about Dylan Dog: Dead of Night should you actually see it. If it hadn't been for the notes I took while preparing for this review, I wouldn't have remembered anything about it.

Final Rating: **½

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011)

The Internet is a pretty big place. It's an untamed frontier whose darkest corners are full of the wildest, weirdest, most shocking and disturbing stuff imaginable. It was this vast digital world where I first heard of a bizarre movie titled The Human Centipede (First Sequence). The movie's premise is simple yet shocking: a mad scientist has kidnapped three tourists and stitched them together ass-to-mouth.

That concept got the movie a lot of attention. The movie was decried as disgusting, repulsive, and obscene, which only led to its writer/director taking the premise to a horrifying new extreme. And because I'm only now realizing that I am a tremendous masochist, I was compelled to watch the sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence). And I hope you'll believe me when I describe it as one really messed-up movie.

The protagonist of this happy little tale is Martin Lomax (Laurence R. Harvey), a portly British man struggling with serious psychological issues and social inadequacies that can be traced to being molested by his father during his childhood. Martin maintains an unenviable existence as an adult, facing constant abused from his domineering mother (Vivien Bridson) and working at a dead-end job as a parking garage attendant. The only thing that gets him through the day is his affection for the first Human Centipede. (Yes, as a matter of fact, The Human Centipede is just a movie in Human Centipede II.)

When we first meet him, Martin's obsession with The Human Centipede has begun to wholly consume him. He watches the movie on a perpetual loop while at work, and keeps a scrapbook full of images from the movie and paparazzi pictures of its cast. He's even reached the point of becoming sexually aroused by the movie. But when his mother discovers and angrily destroys the scrapbook, he goes off the deep end. Martin kills his mother and decides to take his obsession to an even more disturbing level by creating his own human centipede.

But Martin doesn't want to settle for a centipede made of just three people like the movie he adores so much. No, his centipede needs twelve people. Martin begins assaulting and kidnapping people from his parking garage late at night, dragging them to an abandoned warehouse to begin his experiment. He even manages to lure one of the actors from the movie, Ashlynn Yennie (playing herself), into his trap after contacting the cast of The Human Centipede and claiming to be the casting director for Quentin Tarantino's latest movie.

However, not only is his centipede not four times as big, it's infinitely more disturbing. Thanks to his lack of both medical experience and the proper surgical implements, Martin's stuck using a staple gun and a few big rolls of duct tape. And as he assembles his centipede, the movie becomes more and more revolting until it finally reaches a crescendo that I would have never believed if I hadn't seen it.

While the concept in and of itself is genuinely gross, the first Human Centipede is actually rather tame if you want to compare it to recent horror movies like the Saw franchise, the Evil Dead remake, or You're Next. Much in the way that Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is perceived as being far more gory and graphic than it actually is, I didn't think that the first Human Centipede was as gross as its reputation may have you believe. (That's not to say that the movie is all lollipops and rainbows, mind you.) And because the rule of "sequel escalation" means that things in a sequel have to be bigger and bolder than its predecessor, I have to assume that when it came time to make Human Centipede II, writer/director Tom Six said to himself, "You guys think the first movie is nasty? You haven't seen nasty." That's the only thing I can imagine would be going through Six's head when he came up with this movie.

From a production standpoint, Six approaches the sequel differently than he did the first movie. Gone is Dr. Heiter's colorful, glossy, brightly-lit domain. Instead, Six shoots the movie in black and white, in dingy, dark locations. And he puts that monochromatic color scheme to good use, using it in conjunction with the production design, creepy sound design, and stark cinematography to build an oppressive atmosphere meant to make we the audience feel as uncomfortable and repulsed as possible. And that's where Six succeeds.

While he obviously wants to shock us first and foremost, you kinda get the feeling that he wanted to put us in the mind of a truly disturbed individual. The first hour of the movie is genuinely creepy at times, as we're taken deeper into the hell that is Martin's life. He's obviously mentally ill yet everyone in his life abuses him rather than get him any help. His father molested him, his mother is a mean, bitter, callous bitch, and even his psychiatrist is more concerned with being incredibly inappropriate towards him than actually providing any help. Coupled with the fact that Martin is not only obsessed with The Human Centipede but has taken to committing some quite heinous acts inspired by it makes one wonder if Six had any sort of commentary in mind when he was making the movie. Since people are so quick to blame movies and video games and heavy metal music every time some loser kid goes on a rampage with a machine gun, perhaps Six could have been trying to reference a line of dialogue from Scream that told us "movies don't create psychos, they just make them more creative."

But then we hit the last half hour of the movie, where it becomes clear that all that commentary stuff I just mentioned is probably bunk, and that all Six really wants to do is skewer the reaction to the first movie. Human Centipede II is much more violent, brutal, gory, and disgusting than its predecessor. When Martin gleefully dances around his centipede after the high-powered laxatives he's fed them achieve their intended purpose, it almost seems as if one can hear the voice of Six himself narrating the scene, proclaiming that if this what we expected, this is what we'll get. You get the feeling that Six is using the third act of the movie to play a game of one-upmanship with himself, each passing moment providing something even more bothersome than the last. The whole thing becomes an exorcise in pushing the boundaries of good taste, in seeing just how much people will put up with before they get offended and quit watching. It's like an endurance test for the squeamish.

One might also be able to argue that it was an endurance test for the cast as well. Being in that position for any length of time surely couldn't have been too enjoyable. But I applaud them for being such troopers, though, because I wouldn't have been able to do it. However, the actors stuck in the centipede don't really have much to do as far as actually acting goes. No, the lion's share of that goes to Laurence R. Harvey, who is genuinely creepy in the role. He's constantly sweating, his bug-eyed face making it look like his eyes are trying to escape his head. And because he has no dialogue, Harvey communicates through grunts, heavy breathing, the occasional gleeful laugh, and through body language and facial expressions. He makes Martin feel like an absolute creeper, someone who just being around would make your skin crawl. You simultaneously want to pity and fear him, and you'll more than likely be repulsed by him as well.

This is typically the part of the review where I give my final thoughts and wrap things up. But I'm going to break away from my usual routine and use this paragraph to address Tom Six directly. If by some chance you've stumbled upon this review, Mr. Six, thank you for visiting my blog. I've seen both of your Human Centipede movies and after having just finished the second one, I have to say that you have some serious, King Kong-sized balls. The fact that you actually successfully convinced a cast and crew to make this movie, both of these movies, is amazing enough, but wow. You, sir, have to be either out of your mind or one of the bravest filmmakers out there. Maybe both, I don't know.

And as far as giving the movie a rating as usual, I have no idea what the hell to do. The movie is competently made and actually succeeds in the goals I'm sure Six set out to achieve while making the movie (that being to illicit reactions of disgust from the audience), and I'd give it three and a half stars for that. But on the other hand, I don't know whether I can properly call The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) truly good or bad. Maybe I should have followed in the footsteps of Roger Ebert's review of the first movie and refused to give it a rating at all, because I legitimately do not know if there's any sort of fitting grade to assign it. And would it matter? Wouldn't it seem kinda arbitrary? Some things are just beyond that, I guess.

Oh, and Mr. Six? Considering how repulsive this movie is, I dread seeing what you'll have waiting for me in Human Centipede 3. If the rumors I've heard about it are true, then I am absolutely terrified to see it.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, April 4, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

While many of the characters in the Marvel Comics superhero pantheon made their debuts during Stan Lee's legendary run in the 1960s, one of the most popular dates back to before the company was even called "Marvel." The one and only Captain America first appeared in a comic published by Timely Comics in 1941, and has spent the last 73 years cementing his place as one of the industry's most venerable characters. It hasn't always been an easy road for Cap, as he fell into dormancy and faced irrelevance after the end of World War II, and attempts at reviving him were relatively unsuccessful until Lee and Jack Kirby introduced him into the Avengers in 1963.

Much like those attempts to bring him back into comics, Captain America hasn't had the easiest road to travel when it comes to being translated into live-action movies. The serials produced by Republic Pictures in 1944 paid little respect to the character and his comic book origins, while attempts at feature-length movies ― two made-for-television movies in 1979 and a direct-to-video effort in 1990 (that wouldn't even be released in the United States until 1992) ― were all thoroughly lame.

That changed in the summer of 2011 when Captain America: The First Avenger hit theaters. Produced as a means to bring the character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and build towards The Avengers, the movie was a big fat hit and a pretty awesome flick to boot. But now it's been two years since The Avengers, and much like how the stories of Iron Man and Thor have progressed since then, Cap's story has as well. That brings us to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, another damn fine movie from Marvel Studios that once again proves why the "Star-Spangled Man with a Plan" is such a great hero.

As he continues getting acclimated to modern society, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) also maintains his activities as Captain America by operating as one of SHIELD's top agents. His latest mission takes him, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and a team of operatives to the Indian Ocean to rescue a hijacked SHIELD freighter from a band of pirates. The mission is a success, but Natasha's odd, secretive behavior during it is enough to make Rogers suspicious of how SHIELD really works.

He has every right to be suspicious, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) pretty much tells him that outright. Fury admits to keeping secrets from Rogers, but chooses to make amends by letting him in on one of SHIELD's biggest secrets, a classified project called "Project Insight," a surveillance program that would allow SHIELD to track and eliminate any target on Earth.

But Fury also warns Rogers to trust no one, a point he reiterates when he's attacked and seemingly killed by a group of mercenaries. Rogers follows a trail of clues left for him by Fury that leads to a horrifying discovery: the terrorist organization Hydra successfully infiltrated SHIELD not long after its inception following the end of World War II. The Red Skull's plans may have been thwarted, but Hydra has survived, secretly operating within SHIELD's ranks for decades and encouraging chaos throughout the world. Their influence goes all the way to the top, their members including United States Senators and high-ranking SHIELD official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who is coincidentally Project Insight's biggest supporter.

Pierce knows full well that Rogers can bring Hydra's entire operation down around them, and thus brands him a fugitive, sending Rogers on the run as he gets to the bottom of their conspiracy. Although Rogers has Natasha by his side and a helping hand from Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a retired Air Force pararescueman with an experimental winged jetpack at his disposal, his search for truth will find a speed bump in the form of a mysterious Hydra assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). With Hydra's forces and the Winter Soldier hot on their trails, Rogers, Natasha, and Sam must go underground if they hope to uncover SHIELD's darkest secrets, and more importantly, if they hope to survive.

The bar for the Marvel Cinematic Universe was set especially high when The Avengers came out two years ago, a bar that neither Iron Man 3 nor Thor: The Dark World really met. But then Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes along and not only hits that same bar, but completely shakes up the world of the franchise as we know it. It's got a real "must-see" vibe, a feeling that the movie is an event. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are making a mistake if they miss this one, because Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an absolute game-changer.

At the helm are Joe and Anthony Russo, whose prior credits include You, Me, and Dupree and several episodes of Community and Arrested Development. Those credits don't make the Russos sound like the kind of guys who would make a mega-budgeted superhero blockbuster, but they actually pulled it off. The movie is energetic from beginning to end, largely due to the Russos maintaining a high level of intensity throughout. Everything feels important, even the seemingly insignificant things, because this is the kind of movie where everything is important. Nothing is taken for granted, down to the tiniest detail. Everything the Russos do here is either building to something or a payoff to something else; precious few moments are wasted.

And like all superhero movies, the action sequences are one of the movie's big selling points. Many people will be going into the movie anticipating Captain America's acts of heroism and derring-do, and these people will not be disappointed in the slightest. Each of the action sequences are very exciting and impressively made, and thankfully never resorts to that annoying "shaky-cam" that plagues so many action movies nowadays. The Russos approach these moments with a steady hand and a ferocity that makes them feel even bigger and bolder.

They also manage to make the absolute best out of the movie's 3D conversion too. I've talked about these post-production conversions in the past, about how they never look quite as good as the movies shot natively in 3D, but this particular conversion is actually pretty great. It's a consistently good conversion, with plenty of depth and pop in each scene.

Continuing with the theme of the movie's impressive components, let's move onward to the screenplay penned by Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely. Drawing inspiration from both Ed Brubaker's 2005 comic book storyline that introduced the Winter Soldier and political conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s, Markus and McFeely have penned a script that's more intelligent than a lot of other superhero movies. The dialogue is smart, the jokes are funny, and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep the audience glued to the screen, wondering what will happen next. And the whole setup with Hydra is such that it can have major repercussions within the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. The aftershocks will surely be felt on that Agents of SHIELD television show, but it also changes how one could look at the prior movies. I mean, just how entrenched was Hydra behind the scenes? A cameo from a certain character from Iron Man 2 and the revelation that he's secretly in league with Hydra completely alters the tone of his scenes in that movie. And that could just be the tip of the iceberg for all we know!

But it also makes us look at the world of Captain America as a whole. The movie pits the black-and-white world Steve Rogers where there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys against the modern world's shades of grey. It's idealism versus cynicism, hope versus fear. Captain America was created in a simpler time for a simpler world, at a time when we could trust those in power and our only enemies were the Nazis. But now, seventy years after the end of World War II, we live in a different day and age. The character's idealism is almost out of place nowadays. But it's refreshing to see a superhero movie where the title character has hope and inspires it in others. He fights evil not because of some grave injustice in his youth or some greater compulsion, but because he believes the world can be a better place and is worth standing up for. Captain America represents the best of human potential, a regular guy who stands up for what's right not because he's forced into it, but because it's the right thing to do.

Anyway, all that's left for me to discuss is the acting, which is very good all the way across the board. Among the supporting cast, Scarlett Johansson contributes a fine performance as the Black Widow. Much like her appearances in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, Johansson plays the character as putting up a cold, emotionless front to hide her true self behind. The character is really layered, and she brings a lot of nuance to it that really shows how good a choice Johansson was for the role. Samuel L. Jackson also reprises his role as Nick Fury, and this time around, he's given far much more to do than in his earlier appearances as the character. Jackson is given the opportunity to be the badass we all know he and Fury both are, making the most of it with his nothing short of awesome presence and approach to the character.

New to the franchise, meanwhile, is Anthony Mackie, who makes the Falcon's debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a memorable one with his likable and charismatic performance. He's a lot of fun in the role, and I'm totally looking forward to seeing him play the Falcon in future movies. And as our villains, Sebastian Stan and screen legend Robert Redford provide some damn good work. Stan plays the Winter Soldier with a coldhearted ferocity, but as the movie progresses, the chinks in the character's psychological armor become more apparent and Stan pulls these moments off effortlessly. Redford, on the other hand, brings a more cerebral approach to his role. He's the brains to the Winter Soldier's brawn. And while I'm actually surprised to see an actor like Redford in a movie like this (he was reportedly offered the role as an homage to his appearance in Three Days of the Condor, and accepted it so his grandchildren could see one of his movies), I'm glad he took the part because he adds a modicum of credibility to the whole production.

Last but most certainly not least is Chris Evans as our titular hero. Evans is charming as always, in the role, continuing to play Captain America with every bit of the courageousness that makes the character so great. Bravery and that aforementioned idealism make up the core of Captain America, as he'd stand up to any threat, no matter how huge or insurmountable, if it meant protecting people and keeping them safe. Evans portrays that perfectly, making one believe that Cap is everything people say he is.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best the Marvel Cinematic Universe ― and the superhero genre as a whole ― has to offer. It's fun, exciting, and thoroughly engrossing. It's the kind of movie that sucks you in and doesn't let you go until its final frames have flickered across the screen. Any flaws it has, any complaints I have, are all minor gripes and nitpicks, nothing that can't be gotten over. The movie is definitely worth seeing as soon as you get the chance, and I can't wait to see where it all goes from here.

Final Rating: ****½