Sunday, December 30, 2007

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem / *½ (R)

Dallas: Steven Pasquale
Kelly: Reiko Aylesworth
Morales: John Ortiz
Ricky: Johnny Lewis
Jesse: Kristen Hager
Molly: Ariel Gade

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by The Brothers Strause. Written by Shane Salerno, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett and Jim and John Thomas. Running time: 86 min. Rated R (for violence, gore and language).

There are times when watching movies can be down right discouraging. I shouldn’t let a movie like “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” get me down in a year that brought such wonderful cinema as “American Gangster”, “Zodiac”, “Grindhouse”, “Stephanie Daley”, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, “Eastern Promises”, “No Country for Old Men”, “Knocked Up”, and “Hairspray”. But I can’t help it. I understand that the sci-fi genre can’t hope to produce high aspirations throughout, but how could one franchise—or even two, as is the case here—have fallen so far from its original greatness.

“AVP-R” made me yearn for Ridley Scott’s patience in building tension, with his long tracking shots and the silence of space in the original “Alien”. I desired James Cameron’s maternal themes and terse action from “Aliens”. I remembered David Fincher’s moody production design and stylized camera work from “Alien 3”. The simpler but easy to follow plots of the two “Predator” films were well conceived compared to this “Requiem” mess. Even the failure of “Alien: Resurrection” aspired to be something greater than just an action contest of rubber-suited muscle. Hell, I even found some pleasure in the rudimentary gamesmanship that made up the entirety of Paul W. S. Anderson’s sub-standard “Alien vs. Predator”. But “Requiem”—a title that has no apparent meaning beyond the fact that it sounds cool—aspires to be nothing more than bad B-grade cinema.

The Brothers Strause graduate from the visual effects teams of such visually stunning pictures as “300”, “Constantine”, and “The Day After Tomorrow” to the directors’ chairs with all too typically muddied results. It seems the only knowledge they gained from their experience with visual effects over the past decade or so is that if you keep the picture very dark, the audience won’t be able to see when you’ve colored outside the lines. The aliens and the predator in this picture fight many times, and I don’t remember an action picture where I dreaded the action sequences so much. This is simply because the picture was so dark that none of the action could be followed. There was even this potentially awesome looking alien/predator hybrid, but I never got a good look at him so I’ll never know for sure.

That is not to say those Brothers Strause handled the non-action sequences any better. Shane Salerno’s script provides too many characters and never any solid reasons for them to remain in harm’s way. With a plot set for no particular reason in Crested Butte, Colorado, Salerno (“Shaft”) doles out all the typical rising death count movie character types. John Ortiz (“Miami Vice”) is terribly miscast as the small town’s reluctant sheriff. There is the affluent rich girl Jesse (Kristen Hager, “I’m Not There”) and Ricky (Johnny Lewis, “The OC” TV series), the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants her. Ricky’s older brother Dallas (Steven Pasquale, FX’s “Rescue Me”) is a reformed troublemaker and former friend of the sheriff. And the strong female heroine comes in the form of Kelly (Reiko Aylesworth, FOX’s “24”), a recently returned soldier from Iraq and mother to Molly (Ariel Gade, NBC’s “Invasion”).

Why the story doesn’t begin with Kelly is beyond me. Instead we are introduced to the space creatures first as the bug-like aliens break away from their captors, the predators, aboard a spacecraft that crashes in the Colorado wilderness. I believe this scene is meant to be a continuation of the final scene from the first “AVP” movie, but the alien/predator hybrid is the only reference ever made to that story.

In fact, the referencing of previous films and practices of the aliens and predators with no further explanation or purpose seems to be a theme of this movie. Like the ship’s captain in the original “Alien”, one of the characters is named Dallas. No relation between the two is ever mentioned. In the same way Ripley takes on the mother role to Newt in “Aliens”, Kelly must work to be accepted by Molly as her mother again after years away at war. But once they start dodging blows between the aliens and the predator, Molly might as well not even exist. There are scenes that reference “Alien 3” as well, including one in a hospital where the alien/predator hybrid seems to take the same interest in the pregnant women in the maternity ward that the alien took in Ripley’s pregnancy from that earlier film. But the purpose seems designed more to disgust the audience than to make any biological sense.

Perhaps the most mind-boggling reference to any of the earlier pictures in either franchise, however, comes when the predator seems to counteract his entire purpose on the planet when he kills a cop, skins him, and hangs him from a tree for the humans to discover. While this is a common practice of the predators in previous incarnations, this predator is not on Earth to hunt humans, but rather purpose re-capture the aliens and erase any trace of their existence. Why else would he be carrying around some chemical that disintegrates all living tissue with which it comes into contact. He meticulously destroys all evidence left behind by the escaped aliens, including a father and son that were impregnated by some face-sucking alien bugs, but then he leaves the cop’s corpse as a calling card. I guess a predator just can’t suppress his own nature.

I suppose The Brothers Strause are proud of their resolve as filmmakers for having the guts to kill off children in the same horrific and gory manner as any of the adults in the film. What they don’t seem to have the brains to do is look at the films from which theirs originated and demand a script that lives up to the legacy that has been bestowed upon them. When the 007 series begins to spin its wheels, MGM shakes it up with a major revamp. Fox only seems interested in milking these once valuable franchises until they are dead and buried.

Monday, December 24, 2007

I Am Legend / *** (PG-13)

Robert Neville: Will Smith

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Richard Matheson and the 1971 screenplay “The Omega Man” by John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington. Running time: 101 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence).

I remember watching Will Smith in his first big screen starring role. The movie was called “Six Degrees of Separation” and told the true story of a man who conned his way into New York high society by claiming to be the son of Sydney Poitier. It starred such accomplished actors as Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Ian Mckellen, was directed by the great Fred Schepisi and written by renowned playwright John Gaure from his award-winning Broadway play. The character piece was a departure for Smith, who was still making his popular “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” television sit com and was known as a hip hop artist. Although the movie was well handled by the veteran filmmakers, its weak point was Smith’s performance which lacked the deeper inner workings of the more accomplished performers. Few could have guessed at that time what a powerful actor Smith would become. It seems every time he makes a movie he raises the bar a little bit higher. With “I Am Legend”, he has leapt to a height little reached by others in his trade.

In a virtually solo performance, Smith plays Dr. Robert Neville, the sole survivor of a world wide holocaust. Neville wanders a deserted Manhattan hunting and scavenging supplies with his only companion, his dog Sam. Sam is lovingly portrayed by a German Shepherd named Abby, but I think Smith deserves a great deal of credit for carrying her performance as well. Neville has “conversations” with the dog to hold on to his humanity.

If the images of a Manhattan that is beginning to succumb to three years of vegetation growth is not disturbing enough, it is clear that Neville and Sam have many things in this humanless world to fear. Despite the obvious skill with weaponry Neville displays by hunting caribou through the streets of the decimated Big Apple in a sports car, he won’t go into any dark places. He has alarms and elaborate security set up in his apartment compound that are set to keep him locked in from sunset to do sunrise.

Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) and screenwriters Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) and Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) do a good job structuring the story so you are given just enough information to make it clear what Neville’s goals are and keep you guessing about his motivations. The action is set three years after a mutating virus first sets in on the human race turning most people into savages with little resemblance of their humanity. Some, like Neville, were immune to the virus, but were killed off by those infected. Through a series of personal flashbacks, Neville shows us the beginnings of the outbreak and what happened to his own family. He had been a military scientist charged with finding a cure. He chose to stay at ground zero to continue his work. Reversing the effects of the virus is his only purpose left.

There is a second wonderful performance in the movie provided by Emma Thompson (“Nanny McFee”). It is perhaps the most nuanced performance I’ve ever seen in an uncredited cameo. She opens the film as a doctor being interviewed on television for having discovered a cure for cancer. Her characters uneasy nature portends the dark developments to come.

I should not ignore some other performances that figure into the ultimate outcome of the plot. Brazilian actress Alice Braga provides a saving grace for Neville late in the film as Anna along with her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan). The filmmakers were wise to realize she could not have affected Neville without the boy. And Dash Mihok (“The Day After Tomorrow”) provides the threatening actions of the alpha male of the infected, who proves cleverer than Neville anticipates. It is a shame, however, that Lawrence felt the need to digitally enhance the infected mutants instead of relying on old fashioned make-up application. The digitally rendered infected have a rubbery, unrealistic appearance that destroys some of the illusion.

Some have criticized the film’s ending and its emphasis on faith and spirituality. Perhaps this is just backlash from the undue criticism of the recent release of “The Golden Compass” for its alleged anti-religious themes. But the filmmakers do a good job supporting their faith-based themes by presenting them simply and not providing extraneous or overwrought examples. Many of the plot’s details are flawed, such as Neville’s resources for power and gas, but other details support the story’s conclusion. Every character has a purpose, which may explain why there are so few. The characters are not aware of their purpose. God provides the materials for salvation, but the characters must provide their own means. As someone who espouses no definitive religious allegiances, I could see this story fitting in with any of the Bible and many other theological allegories.

But above any religious connotations or technical quibbles “I Am Legend” is a wonderful vehicle for the acting talent of Will Smith. This is Smith’s movie, and it contains everything that has made him one of the most respected and popular Hollywood stars. It is sci-fi allegory. It is action packed and thrilling. It is high drama. It is great legend, and Will Smith rises to legendary status for it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Alvin and the Chipmunks / ** (PG)

Dave: Jason Lee
Ian: David Cross
Claire: Cameron Richardson

With the voice talents of:
Alvin: Justin Long
Simon: Matthew Gray Gubler
Theodore: Jesse McCartney

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Tim Hill. Witten by Jon Vitti and Will McRobb & Chris Viscardi, based on characters created by Ross Bagdasarian. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor).

I will admit up front that I was never a fan of Alvin and the Chipmunks. I never liked their Christmas song because it was more about the chipmunks than it was about Christmas. (Its actual title is “The Chipmunk Song”—the part about Christmas only appears occasionally in parentheses.) And the lame attempts to turn them into a cartoon franchise left me yearning for more Disney shorts starring Chip and Dale. So it’s no surprise that I am not recommending this movie. But I’m a little surprised it wasn’t any worse than it was. The CGI-animated chipmunks were remarkably charming. But the film itself was not nearly as remarkable as the experience of seeing it in a theater filled with frothing kids.

My son Jack is not shy at telling me which movies he wants to see and pointing out when they show up in our local theater. I spent many weeks trying to shield him from the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” advertising campaign to no avail. Such is the price of breeding a cineaste at such a young age, I guess. I haven’t had the chance yet to make him understand that the sight of a talking chipmunk letting one rip in a man’s face is just not all that amusing. So when he saw—and repeatedly laughed at—that gaseous scene in the ads, he knew that this was a movie he had to see.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the droves of new chipmunk fans this scene had created throughout the entire community (and most likely entire country). Interestingly enough, although the chipmunk toot still produced a rousing response when finally seen in context, Jack claims his favorite part was when Alvin and Theodore got sucked up into the vacuum cleaner.

So popular was the chipmunk phenomenon amongst the children of our community that by the time it opened last Friday, it was the talk of the school. Jack ended up making his first movie date with Sam, one of his best pals from kindergarten. Sam was also kind enough to offer Jack a ride the theater—a gesture he neglected to pass on to his parents. Ang and I learned this when Jack asked sheepishly at dinner Friday evening if anyone had called for him. Jack doesn’t normally receive all that many phone calls at the age of six. Ang and I figured Sam had forgotten to ask his parents, to whom we are only very slightly acquainted, so we called them to invite Sam along with us. Sam’s folks loved the idea of not having to sit though “Alvin and the Chipmunks” with their son, but his little brother wanted to go too. So we offered to bring Max along and decided to give our younger son Jude his first test run at the cinema as well. Why we didn’t bring the dog along to herd them I couldn’t tell you.

At the theater we discovered half of the kids in Jack’s school had dragged their parents out to this clunker. Misery revels in company. After spending over $50 at the concession stand and coordinating a chain-and-buddy system to keep the kids together and performing a Barnum-&-Bailey—worthy balancing act with the popcorn, drinks and kiddie packs, we finally got the kids in seats and were able to witness all the chaos surrounding us. As the previews dished out the next string of cringe-inducing kids flicks, the chatter started to emerge from the 10-years-and-younger crowd. “I wanna see that.” “That one’s scary.” My favorite moment was when Sam claimed to have seen “Horton Hears a Who” even though it won’t be released until March, and then Jack chimed in, “I saw that one too! It was good.”

All the children surrounding us had similar reactions to everything. I had the impression of being stuck in a pen with bleating lambs. But the audience reaction really started to congeal once the film started. It was almost like watching a film with a festival audience. At film festivals, everyone has deep appreciation for the art of film and is much more willing to react and embrace the visceral experience of movies than during the typical multiplex experience. Kids don’t censor a thing. It was obvious from the start they loved those chipmunks, with “ooos” and “ahhs” synced to their every digital movement. And like I said, Alvin, Simon and Theodore were pretty charming.

It was also obvious that the ‘munks (as they’re referred to in the film) were the main attraction. The theater seemed to fall silent when the human characters were left to their own devices. I don’t think they were judging the contrivances of Dave (Jason Lee, NBC’s “My Name is Earl”) who’s music career was over until those ‘munks inspired him to write a song that certainly could have caught people’s ear in 1952 even though this film takes place in the present day. I’m sure they weren’t frustrated by the idiot plot romance that kept Dave and Claire (Cameron Richardson, TV’s “Point Pleasant”) apart when one moment of explanation would have brought them together. I doubt the juvenile depiction of the music industry through the ‘munks’ manipulative producer Ian (David Cross, HBO’s “Mr. Show with Bob and Dave”) bothered them. And I know they weren’t shaking their heads over how the talents of Jason Lee, David Cross and Cameron Richardson have—and hopefully one day will again—be used for much better causes. But they definitely weren’t feeling it from the human performers.

Really, this live action version of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” exists only to provide a platform for realistically rendered rodents to speak in high pitched voices, say cute things and perform absurd acts at the expense of their human counterparts. On that level, I suppose it delivers exactly what is expected of it. But if you aren’t under the age of ten, that really isn’t much at all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Golden Compass / ***½ (PG-13)

Lyra Belacqua: Dakota Blue Richards
Marisa Coulter: Nicole Kidman
Lord Asriel: Daniel Craig
Roger: Ben Walker
Serafina Pekkala: Eva Green
Lee Scoresby: Sam Elliott
Fra Pavel: Simon McBurney

With the voice talents of:
Pantalaimon: Freddie Highmore
Iorek Byrnison: Ian McKellen
Ragnar Sturlusson: Ian McShane

New Line Cinema presents a film written and directed by Chris Weitz. Based on the novel by Philip Pullman. Running time: 113 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence).

Days before the release of “The Golden Compass”, The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops broke away from the thinking of the Catholic League and their call for a boycott of the film. According to the Conference’s review of the film, “explicit references to this church” found in the book “have been completely excised” from the movie. Perhaps they realized, as anyone watching the film would, that calling for any sort of boycott would merely associate their agenda with those of the story’s villains.

Taken from the pages of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” fantasy series, “The Golden Compass” tells the age-old story of one group of people trying to suppress the free will of others. It takes place in a world other than ours where each human has his own animal daemon, a sort of familiar that chooses its shape during childhood and is mortally linked with its human. If the human is killed, so is his daemon. If the daemon is hurt, the human feels its pain.

The world created by Pullman, and recreated here by writer director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) with the utmost familiarity, is a richly detailed, complex place filled with several sentient races of importance, including the Gyptians, Witches and a race of intelligent warrior Polar Bears with the ability of speech. The production design and visual effects are spectacular, giving us industrial age pastoral landscapes, advanced urban structure and technology, and a cold northern climate that holds many secrets from the people of this wonderful world.

The story is an adventure for 10-year-old Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), whom Lyra thankfully refers to as Pan. Lyra is the last in a line of people with a special gift to read a truth telling device known as The Golden Compass. She begins her adventure by saving the life of her uncle, the enigmatic Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, “Casino Royale”). He is nearly poisoned by a member of the Magisterium named Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney, “The Last King of Scotland”) for his proposed expedition to the North to discover the true nature of a life force material known as Dust.

As Asriel travels to the North, Lyra finds herself in the care Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman, “Bewitched”). Despite Ms. Coulter’s niceties, her allegiance to the Magisterium makes her motives seem just as sinister as Pavel’s. The Magisterium is controlled by a High Council portrayed by fittingly dubious British heavies such as Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi. When it appears that Ms. Coulter is attempting to steal the compass, Lyra strikes off on her own to find her uncle and some children that went missing from her school.

This is a tale where any further description can only serve to harm the experience for viewers who are uninitiated into Pullman’s fantasy world. As one of them myself, I can’t say how devoted followers will take it. A story where a truth-seeing little girl enlists the aid of a gun-toting aerialist (Sam Elliott, “The Hulk”) and an armored polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen, “The Da Vinci Code”) to help her free children from a mysterious experimental facility where everyone has an animal companion that chooses its own shape and is destroyed with its counterpart may be a stretch for some audience members. But it is presented in such a casual way by the filmmakers—like everything in this world is just common knowledge—that once you get caught up in it, it seems like an adventure classic on par with the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

I’m sure there will be detractors who will complain that it is impossible to understand what’s going on, what with all this talk about daemons and dust and witches and ongoing conflicts that may or may not factor in to the bigger picture. But who ever heard of a Jedi or a Wookie or even the Force before George Lucas took us on his grand adventure. And like that fantasy masterpiece, the story of Lyra’s adventure is much simpler than the world which contains it. I can see a new generation of filmgoers obsessing over the contents of Pullman’s world in much the same way mine embraced the “Star Wars” mythology.

What I cannot fathom is how critics (and audiences apparently) have so casually dismissed this film. There is a powerful mythology established in this, what is surely the first episode of many, and an amazing attention to the detail necessary to sell a world so far removed from our own. Perhaps it is the very basic theme of how oppression of the general populace by the elite works that threw critics. Perhaps it didn’t live up to the hype created by the Catholic League’s condemnation of the film, since its villains could so easily represent many different forms of oppressive fraternities. To me their actions smacked more of Nazi fascism than anything else. Regardless of what others might think about it, I do hope it brings in enough money to warrant further installments of the series. It is one that promises to endure, if audiences will give it a chance.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Enchanted / *** (PG)

Giselle: Amy Adams
Robert Philip: Patrick Dempsey
Prince Edward: James Marsden
Nathaniel: Timothy Spall
Morgan Philip: Rachel Covey
Nancy Tramaine: Idina Menzel
Queen Narissa: Susan Sarandon

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Kevin Lima. Written by Bill Kelly. Songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Running time: 107 min. Rated PG (some scary images and mild innuendo).

Ever since her Oscar nominated role as the endlessly positive pregnant sister-in-law in “Junebug” Hollywood has been duty bound to find a leading role for the brilliant Amy Adams. I’m sure fans of that slice-of-life independent dramedy never expected that the role would come in the form of a Disney fairytale princess, but there couldn’t be a better actress to play a cartoon princess who suddenly finds herself stuck in a real life Manhattan. “Enchanted” is a Disney animated musical come to life, and it is aptly enchanting.

Adams plays a fair maiden, in cartoon form at first, who sings to her woodland friends about finding the perfect man with which to share first love’s kiss and live happily ever after. Her name is Giselle―not a very princess-like name in my opinion―and she meets her prince charming in the form of Prince Edward. Unfortunately, Edward is the nephew of the evil Queen Narissa, who pushes Giselle down a magic well on her wedding day so she can retain her crown.

Giselle comes out the other end of the magic well through a manhole cover in the middle of Manhattan. She soon meets another prince charming in the form of Robert Philip, a divorce lawyer with issues about spontaneity in a relationship. To throw in the required amount of romantic fantasy obstacles, Robert is a single father with a girlfriend. Also, Edward follows Giselle down the well to save her from her fate, as his stereotypical hero role requires. And Narissa sends her henchman Nathaniel to New York to ensure Edward fails.

Many romantic comedies might ask you to take this stew of clichés seriously, but “Enchanted” has a great deal of fun sending up the very conventions its studio spent so many years establishing. Even before the characters get to Manhattan, the animators and musicians are having fun with the cartoon clichés of singing animals and Giselle’s ridiculous ideals for a perfect man.

But it’s during the live action portion where the filmmakers have the most fun. Upon her arrival in New York, Giselle once again enlists the help of animal friends by singing to them in the wonderful number “Happy Working Song”. Instead of all the colorful woodland personalities of the animated forest, the Manhattan wildlife consists primarily of pigeons, rats and cockroaches. Adams’ reaction to her newfound musical help is exactly what makes her perfect for this role―a little astonished at the class of animal but willing to forgive them their appearance for their help.

The film has fun with Giselle’s cartoony apparel and with Edward’s earnest and overblown approach to challenges, and that gets us to why this film really works so well. The cast is wholly committed to this strange enterprise. With the film’s funniest portrayal as Prince Edward, James Marsden (“X-Men”) proves how underrated he is as a handsome hunk. Susan Sarandon (“Mr. Woodcock”) eats every hunk of scenery she can wrap her jaws around as the evil queen. Timothy Spall (“Harry Potter” series) shows off his clownishness as the queen’s henchman and gives him just a hint of sympathy. And I would almost say Patrick Dempsey has the thankless task of being the only real person in the movie except that he is here in his official capacity as the “McDreamy” persona that has revitalized his career on “Grey’s Anatomy”, and that can hardly be considered thankless.

As I watched “Enchanted” I was reminded of all the Broadway shows being produced from old Disney material and various other films lately. It is a little depressing to think that Broadway is so starved for marketable material that it must turn to another medium that so egregiously steals from other sources for its commercial inspiration. To think of “The Incredibles” or some other such animated hit becoming the next big Broadway hit is enough to turn my stomach (and please tell me I didn’t just give some producer his next great idea). But the thought of a Broadway version of this movie is actually quite invigorating. They could just use the same opening animated sequences and when Giselle arrives in Manhattan the stage will light up with life. There are already a couple of memorable musical numbers, which could easily be added to with the continued skills of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. And I don’t even like watching theater, so if this simple film could inspire thoughts like that in me, it must be doing something right.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Beowulf / ***½ (PG-13)

Beowulf: Ray Winstone
Hrothgar: Anthony Hopkins
Wealthow: Robin Wright Penn
Wiglaf: Brendan Gleeson
Unferth: John Malkovich
Ursula: Alison Lohman
Grendel: Crispin Glover
Grendel’s mother: Angelina Jolie

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Robert Zemekis. Written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, based on the epic poem. Running time: 113 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity).

My enjoyment of the new digitally created movie “Beowulf” may reflect the teenaged Dungeons & Dragons player in me more so than admirer of enduring English literature. What director Robert Zemekis has produced with this adaptation of the “epic poem” about the warrior Beowulf and his struggles against the monster Grendel and his even more vicious mother is a far cry from the story I could barely comprehend in my high school English class. It is more like the ultimate boy fantasy film with swords, sorcery, one hot babe and a dragon that puts most other screen representations of the fantasy beast to shame. It is more of a great ride than a deep musing on temptation and death. And it is a hell of a lot of fun.

Zemekis uses the same CGI motion capture technology that he did to create his previous animated features “Monster House” and “The Polar Express”. I criticized “The Polar Express” for its impression of being some sort of amusement park ride when I felt the spiritual Christmas material that he was tackling deserved a more mature approach. With “Beowulf” I don’t feel this is the case. Perhaps an English Literature professor might disagree with me, but the adventure here is not as weighed down by contrived meaning as that previous film.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the English lore of Beowulf and Grendel―as I imagine much of its audience will not―I offer this synopsis. Hrothgar is king of a secluded portion of rocky Scandinavian coast land circa 800 A.D. His warrior-based town is attacked by a monster known as Grendel, who kills even his best soldiers without much effort. Beowulf is a warrior from across the sea who answers Hrothgar’s call for anyone to defeat this beast. Beowulf’s reputation is grand, boasted mainly by Beowulf’s own stories of his unbelievable triumphs. But he proves his legend not entirely without merit when he fights off Grendel, following him back to his mother’s lair where a deal is struck between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.

The nature of their deal I will leave for you to discover, but as my memory serves its results are much more spectacular here than they were in the poem. But then I believe this is where Zemekis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman (“MirrorMask”) and Roger Avary (“Silent Hill”) actually capture the true intention of the original material. The poem, which has no known attributed author, was likely intended as an entertainment, something that could be told around the mead hall each night, and that is certainly what is presented here.

I’ve read criticism that scoffs at how overdone the boastfulness of the characters is, but this type of chest banging must be necessary for survival in the warrior society presented here. While much of the dialogue could be laughed at when seen in a certain light, it is used to evoke a spirit of the environment in which this tale takes place. The cast assembled to perform the material (both vocal and motion capture) is first tier. Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Alison Lohman, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie form a dream cast that are able to work the material with more strength of conviction than others might. Jolie as Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the most perfect casting decisions of the ages, as is Glover as the misunderstood beast.

The digitally created environments make this one of the most beautiful fantasy films ever experienced. Often budget constraints are too much for filmmakers to convincingly create and entire fantasy world. With digital technology the filmmakers are allowed to produce a variety of locales, each with their own distinct character. And the weather represented through sea squalls and snow storms creates a claustrophobic effect to the landscape that doesn’t hinder its scope.

While the backgrounds and sets look amazing, I can’t help but question why this movie is entirely created in the computer. In order to render the human form as realistically as possible, the motion capture process―which takes images of the actors and transfers them into a computer generated character―requires full performances from the cast. I suppose this process saves on scheduling all the cast members to perform at the same time and cuts down on costuming costs, but can it really save enough money to justify its ends―a realistically rendered digital character that looks exactly like the performer who plays the role in the digital capture process? And even this process does not create a perfectly realistic performance. There is still a stiffness to the movements of the characters that isn’t quite life-like.

I also have to wonder about the PG-13 rating when considering the computer rendition of Jolie’s seductive demon. For all intents and purposes Jolie appears in full frontal nudity here. The gossip columns even ran stories about how she had to warn Brad Pitt before the preview screening because she was embarrassed by her naked appearance. I don’t know if this story is true or not, and Jolie’s naked form is certainly not a negative aspect of the movie, but did the MPAA justify their rating because it was “animated”?

There are many other reasons this film should be rated R. Jolie’s naughty bits might be the only to appear however minimally covered, but Zemekis certainly teases the audience with Beowulf’s endowments as well. And the violence is extreme. It may not be gory with blood, but when you have a ten-foot monster chewing on a man’s head while drooling the evisceration onto bystanders below, there is a level of disgusting there that requires a certain level of maturity. Rarely has a film wanted so badly to be rated R and teased the audience with the possibilities that its creators seem so unwilling to fully embrace.

My third minor complaint comes with the 3-D aspect of the film. “Beowulf” marks Hollywood’s big push to make 3-D a viable format for wide release films again. Released in Digital 3-D on 740 screens nationwide and in IMAX 3-D, it is the biggest 3-D release to date. I agree that the format could provide an experience that audiences might want to come back for, but why must directors of 3-D insist on making a point in the action of shoving spears, hands and various flying objects into the camera. In an action film of this magnitude there are plenty of opportunities to appreciate the 3-D experience without having it shoved down your throat. When directors finally realize that the audience is aware they are watching a 3-D movie and don’t need to have it pointed out to them, it will become a much more widely accepted form of entertainment. Until that time it remains a gimmick.

Although I felt I had to make a point about these negative issues I had with the film, they were each very minor in respect to my enjoyment of the film. “Beowulf” is a fine achievement in fantasy filmmaking. The film retains the Old English poem’s themes of fidelity, loyalty, and even the birth of Christianity as a widely practiced religion. It does not spotlight these elements, but prefers to embrace the entertainment factor of a story involving demons, warriors and dragons. Perhaps it is these elements that encourage high school English teachers to inflict their students with a language that modern teens can barely comprehend even though it is called English. I’m not sure this film is exactly the Cliff Notes version of the epic poem, but it is fun.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #12: Horrific Bliss

It has been an amazing Horrorfest this year. It sounds like the type of thing that is said every time one of these things comes to an end, but it feels like this was by far the best Horrorfest I’ve ever put together. Highlights of this year include the Korean monster flick “The Host”; the Rob Zombie serial killer western “The Devil’s Rejects”; the original and first sequel to the modern Dead Teenager Movie model “Halloween”; the master class of films from directing giants Nicolas Roeg, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman; the hidden horror/comedy gems “Dead End”, “Black Sheep”, and “Fido” (thank you Trev for the first one on that list); the Canadian ballet/silent revision of the vampire classic “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary”; the religious thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”; and the psychological quagmire of “Bug”. I learned a great deal about horror in the ‘70s from the IFC doc “The American Nightmare”; revisited treasured personal classics in “Fright Night”, an episode of “The X-Files”, and “Twilight Zone: The Movie”. I was frightened and delighted by the works of Stephen King in “The Dead Zone”; “1408”; and the TV anthology series “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”. I was even surprised by the recent flops “Mr. Brooks”, “The Reaping”, “Severance”, and “Day Watch”.

Of course there were movies I would have been better off to avoid, although not as many as in previous years. Topping this year’s list of avoid at all cost would be the terrible z-movies “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”, the Nicolas Cage remake of “The Wicker Man” and “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die”, all made at the same mentality level -- a shade above retarded. Nor would I wish “Stay Alive”, “The Return”, or “Resident Evil: Extinction” on my dearest friends. And the Rob Zombie remake of “Halloween” was just disappointing.

There are four more films that have not yet been discussed. I hope you enjoy reading about the final four and continue to send in suggestions of your own personal favorite horror films for future Horrorfests in the comment section of this post.


“The Invisible” could have been a great film. It is a ghost story that amazingly didn’t originate in Japan or Korea. It follows a teenager who is beaten almost to death in the woods one evening. Existing somewhere between life and death, his ghost seeks out his would be murderer to convince her to confess to where his body is hidden.

Director David S. Goyer (screenwriter for the “Blade” trilogy and “Batman Begins”) does a great job establishing the creepy, depressing, saturated northwest coast atmosphere of the Washington state location. And the screenplay by Mick Davis and Christine Roum, based on the novel by Swedish writer Mats Wahl, explores how tricky this ghost’s situation is in getting people to notice him without the ability to physically impose himself on their surroundings. The filmmakers take their time in establishing the ghost’s condition, which is well suited to the teenage mindset of never feeling you fit in or are understood by adults.

The adults are poorly portrayed in the cases where they are developed, as with the kid’s overwrought mother, or just non existent. The cops only seem to exist to impose and inflame the kids’ sense of adult oppression.

There are other detail elements of the film that are handled poorly by both the screenwriters and the director. For instance when the police finally have a chance to find the kid before he dies, no effort is made to call ahead for anyone near the location to prevent any further harm to him. The scene is exploited as an attempt to milk some extra suspense but just makes the police seem incompetent. A simple weak-signaled cell phone call would have allowed the same effect with a plausible reason for the suspense.

This is a film I would have loved in high school. It’s filled with the angst that fuels so many teens and has a killer soundtrack. As an adult, it is too easy for me to see its weaknesses. And I now realize how little teens understand the adult world. A good filmmaker can impart some adult enlightenment and capture all that typical teen trauma at once.


Earlier this year I reviewed the newest movie version of the classic Jack Finney sci-fi novel “The Body Snatchers”. “The Invasion” was trashed by critics, however I felt this modern update of Finney’s strong commentary about what makes us human did a good job of incorporating current world views into its story. Perhaps the most highly regarded version of Finney’s story is the Philip Kaufman-directed “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” from the late ‘70s.

In watching this sci-fi/horror classic for the first time since I was a child, I can confirm that there is good reason for this to be considered the best version. Not only does it reflect the changing societal climate from the flower power of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to the Reaganomics that changed the free-loving hippies into materialistic yuppies along with conveying Finney’s original ideas about the individual spirit of humanity, but it is utterly creepy in the way it portrays the way people are being replaced by vegetative clones.

It is also notable that in the ‘70s it was actually possible to show full frontal nudity in a PG-rated movie. Certainly if PG-13 had existed as a rating back then, it would have been utilized for the type of nudity in this film. Studios today cannot separate nudity from sexuality, so such nudity wouldn’t sneak by without an R rating today. But that freedom of ‘70s filmmaking enabled filmmakers a very direct way to show the innate vulnerability of humanity through the nude form.

I suppose the nudity in this film is not entirely without some sexual suggestion, but sex is not the point. Certainly there is some temptation in the peaceful way of life offered by the alien virus which produces the pod clones, just as the nude form in which the newly reborn clones is tempting to those unaffected who view them. But at the same time it is quite disturbing and off putting to see humanity in this vulnerable state. Maybe if we were to become an entirely peaceful society we would then become vulnerable to threats of all kinds that in our current state of conflict we could never imagine.


Speaking of the disturbing, there is perhaps no other film screened during this year’s or any previous years’ festivals more disturbing than Takashi Miike’s “Audition”. Of course, calling this movie disturbing is like holding your hand directly over an open flame and calling it hot. Seeing it and then calling it disturbing is only providing obvious information to anyone who has seen it or might seriously be interested in it.

The story involves a widower who is encouraged after many years by his son and a friend to start dating again. His friend is a film producer and suggests that he should sit in on one of his auditions to feel some candidates out. It is not a surprise to find that the most attractive possibility to our hero also happens to be the most sinister. There is a scene when the widower calls the woman after their first date to ask for another that is at once inexplicable and necessary to draw the audience in. I won’t describe it (however you can view it below), but this is the point where as an audience member it becomes your duty to yell at the screen, “Turn back! Don’t do it! Leave her alone. You’ll regret it!” despite the fact that you know this will do the man no good.

Other than this scene, not much horrifying happens until the last few minutes. There are some strange dream sequences and a good deal of urging from the widower’s friend not to rush headlong into this relationship, but nothing to prepare you for what happens in the closing moments of the film.

It occurs to me that I’m not sure just why this film should appeal to anyone, but it is intriguing, even fascinating. Is it a cautionary tale? Is there a morality message here? Certainly, it has both those elements, but I suppose it appeals most to that human instinct that will have us stand and observe a car crash or countless people getting nailed in the family jewels on a program like “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. Most assuredly there is nothing funny about this film, but it is hard to look away, even once just looking becomes painful.


“May” is possibly the most innocent film I’ve seen during this year’s Horrorfest. It is like “Audition” in that throughout most of the film nothing too horrific happens, but you just know that something sinister is lurking. May is the most precious of characters. I fell in love with her knowing that she would do something terrible in the end. I almost didn’t want the film to turn horrific I liked May so much.

May, as played by Angela Bettis, is an odd duckling to say the least, a social outcast that draws people to her out of curiosity over her overt strangeness. Now, there are reasons for her underdeveloped social skills, but she is trying to achieve some sociability. She tries so hard, but has no basic foundation upon which to place her newly discovered social interactions.

She becomes infatuated with a man who is interested at first because he “likes strange”. But when he shows her a clever student film he has directed and she takes it a little too literally, he decides May just might be a little too strange. May tries to let go of him, finding some comfort in a girl she knows from her work in a veterinary office. But May feels betrayed by this woman eventually as well.

There is no doubt throughout these relationship experiments of May’s that they will go sour in a way that would make Glenn Close’s character from “Fatal Attraction” seem like a minor annoyance in one’s life, but writer-director Lucky McKee does such a good job making you want May to succeed and spend the whole time hoping for everything to turn out alright. When it all goes south, it is a crushing blow that is disappointing because you know it had to happen and splendid because you want anyone to have wronged this wonderful monster to pay, no matter how reasonable they were.

“May” is a simple horror film. It is classic in that sense and made for a wonderful closing film for this year’s festival. It isn’t filled with righteous overtones or subversive undertones, other than May’s own social perversions. It is a film you can just sit down and enjoy without having to put any thought into what it all means. And yet it is still a multilayered exploration into a specific horror subject. May’s horror lies entirely within character and plays upon the audience’s need to accept as much as May needs to be accepted. It is a horrific bliss.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

American Gangster/ **** (R)

Frank Lucas: Denzel Washington
Richie Roberts: Russell Crowe
Huey Lucas: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Detective Trupo: Josh Brolin
Eva: Lymari Nadal
Lou Toback: Ted Levine
Freddie Spearman: John Hawkes
Nicky Barnes: Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Dominic Cattano: Armand Assante
Mama Lucas: Ruby Dee

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Steven Zaillian, based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson. Running time: 157 min. Rated R (for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality).

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the new crime drama “American Gangster” is that it was directed by British filmmaker Ridley Scott. Certainly the film’s level of excellence achieved is no surprise coming from Scott, director of such classics as “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, and “Black Hawk Down”. But it is surprising that a Brit could capture such profound observations about American crime.

The movie opens in a department store with a Harlem crime kingpin remarking to his driver that there is no ownership of anything any more. By eliminating the middleman, department stores and such have taken the businessman out of the equation. Everyone has access to everything, and nothing is earned like it once was.

It is 1968, and those observations are the last that particular crimelord will ever make. His driver and closest confidant is Frank Lucas, a man who will become the biggest fish in the pond of the New York drug scene throughout the 1970s by eliminating the middleman and bringing the drugs directly to the streets of Manhattan himself, using U.S. military transports out of Vietnam to bring in a better product at a cheaper cost. Yet he never loses sight of his former boss’s passion for ownership. He models his organization after the Italian mob and keeps the business within his family, reducing the threat of betrayal and maintaining tight control over his product.

Richie Roberts is the New Jersey detective who is trying to break up the surge in drug trade spilling out of the city. He is one of those obsessive cops who can’t keep a family together thanks to his dedication to his job and some philandering on the side. He is an honest cop ostracized from his department for turning in over a million in cash found in a suspect’s car trunk and failing to take a cut for himself. By the conclusion of Frank’s and Richie’s stories, Richie’s honesty will provide one of the more unique endings to a drug crime story in cinematic history. It is the story of two wholly driven men who are after something neither their peers nor their actions can predict.

Denzel Washington provides another strong performance as the gangster Lucas. He proves the cold brutality displayed in his Oscar winning performance for “Training Day” was no fluke. But this villain is deeper than the one he played in that film, with a stronger sense of pride and purpose. Washington’s warmth is seen in the way he involves his family in his endeavors. His mother (Ruby Dee, “Do the Right Thing”) provides a moral base that prevents him from succumbing to many of the pitfalls of his criminal life. And his relationship with his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Children of Men”) rings truer than more typical Judas portrayals of brothers in crime.

Russell Crowe’s Richie appears on the surface to be a mess of a man; his honesty is more of a hindrance to his life than a benefit. Crowe, who can play such a cool criminal in films like “3:10 to Yuma”, does just as good a job with the basket cases. We’re introduced to Richie during a law class as he attempts to better his position by pursuing a law degree. Asked to present a mock case in front of the class, he is just a bundle of nerves. Later in court, trying to gain custody rights for his son, he admits that as a father and husband he is unfit and does not deserve custody. But when it comes to pursuing the justice he wants to enforce, he lets no one stand in his way. And Richie’s justice is more broad-minded than it may seem at first. He is not content with just shutting down some petty drug dealers.

I admire that Scott’s direction doesn’t overplay moments. Lucas’s and Roberts’s actions rarely carry over beyond the moments in which they happen. When Roberts is confronted with bribes from both friends and enemies, the camera doesn’t linger on him looking for the inner struggle. Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“A Civil Action”) keep his character simple, never overcomplicating his actions with questions of honesty. He’s just plain honest.

While some moments with Lucas are more sharply emphasized, like his courtship of Eva (Lymari Nadal, “Battlestar Galactica”) or the gift of a mansion for his mother, these serve to show what is important to him. His dealings with a rival drug dealer and a particularly rotten cop played by Josh Brolin (“Planet Terror”) are brief and impersonal. Pay back is a matter of business, not personal revenge. Scott uses the style of his direction to define both characters rather than overwrought dialogue and flashy camera moves.

Looking back at Scott’s filmography highlights his evolution as filmmaker. Over the past few years he has dedicated much of his efforts to grandiose epics, like “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven”, with a few personal films scattered in there, such as “Matchstick Men” and last year’s “A Good Year”. “American Gangster” feels like a fusion of the two styles.

For a long time, Scott was accused of making impersonal films that lacked character development. Looking back at the two crime dramas he directed in the eighties, “Black Rain” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”, it is as if “American Gangster” were directed by an entirely different filmmaker. While Scott still doesn’t linger on his character studies, “American Gangster” exemplifies an economic approach to character development. The film is at once a character study and a crime epic, much like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” from earlier this year, but with a vastly different execution.

It would be easy to try comparing “American Gangster” to other crime classics, like “The Godfather” and “GoodFellas”. But this would be a mistake. While those films play like some modern version of the Greek tragedy, “American Gangster” has something much more specific to say about the world we live in―a world of consumerism and a broadening world view. Lucas and Roberts are two men who are able to adapt to our evolving climate. In doing so, they point out our country’s weaknesses and strengths. And their story is pretty incredible on top of that.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #11: In Faith We Fear

Faith is the basis of any belief system. Without faith we have nothing. I guess this is why faith is so frequently mined for horror. What if there is nothing else? What if what we believe is wrong? Or worse, what if what we believe is right?

For the faithful belief can often be blind. When you have faith that often means you don’t question the source of your lessons in faith. But what happens when that source is also a source of evil?

Many people have faith in the Catholic Church, although with some of its recent practices in hiding abuses made by the very priests people entrust with their own faith and even their children, the devil is only one side of your fears. “Deliver Us from Evil” is not a horror film. It is a documentary that looks at the horrific practices performed by a California arch deices that hid and protected a known child molester.

Father Oliver O’Grady is an admitted sex offender that the Catholic Church continues to protect to this day. He did serve some time for his crimes here in the United States, but he continues to live off the church dime in Ireland since no one could bring enough evidence against the church proving their knowledge of his actions at the time of his conviction. His story is told here by his victims and O’Grady himself. The church had no comment.

It is hard to tell which is more horrific in this movie, the victims’ reactions to what was done to them, or the cold clear observations Father O’Grady makes upon himself and his admittedly wrong actions. Bob Jyono, the father of one of the victims, lashes out in rage in one scene with viscous words and volume. Frightening coming from a man that is so clearly a laid back, easy going guy.

But the really frightening aspect of this film is how the church and Father O’Grady so unapologetically avoid any sort of blame for his actions and the fact that he was allowed to remain free for so many years without any sort of repercussion or any protection for the children whose care was placed in this monster’s hands. It is enough to make one lose their faith.

A loss of faith is often the case with the hero of a religious based horror flick. In “The Exorcist” Father Karras is going through a crisis of faith when Regan MacNeil’s possession is brought to his attention. In “The Reaping” Hilary Swank’s Prof. Winter was once a missionary but now spends her days debunking religious phenomena with scientific explanation. That is until a backwater Louisiana town begins to experience the Seven Plagues as described in The Bible.

Winter is really a great example of economy of set up. Her skepticism allows the plot to move forward, but her former faith gives her the experience to know what should be going on. Although the twist of the plot can be seen coming, it works wonderfully with the character of Winter in balancing her doubts and beliefs. I won’t reveal the outcome, but it is unique in the way the perceived threat and solution to that threat are related. It is almost backward from what’s more commonly used in films with less faith in the religious material in which it is based.

When it comes down to it, what attracts audiences to religious horror is that we want to believe. Perhaps the evil is easier to believe in than the good, but neither can exist without the other. In “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, a priest is accused of allowing a girl to die while under his care when an exorcism goes wrong. No one believes the girl was possessed except for the priest and the girl’s family. Not even the defense attorney, and certainly not the prosecuting attorney, who is a “man of God”. Well, aren’t we all?

But still we have to be convinced to believe. This makes me think of a movie I discussed in my last report about vampires. There is a scene in “Fright Night” where the vampire hunter, played by Roddy McDowell, tries to fend off a vampire using a crucifix. When it doesn’t work the vampire tells him, “You have to believe for that to work.” Later, when the vampire hunter remembers this, the crucifix miraculously does work. It isn’t quite that easy in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”.

Emily was a devout Christian. The defense attorney, played by the luminous Laura Linney, is at best an agnostic. But when the same occurrences that preceded Emily’s possession begin to happen to her, the priest points out that just because she doesn’t believe, it doesn’t mean that the evil spirit can’t get to her. In the end, although the prosecution is able to shoot countless holes in the defense’s case with “experts” utilizing “scientific logic”, Linney’s character believes Emily’s story. And the audience believes. The best religious films are those that can make you want to believe, no matter what your predilection.

We all want to believe in something. Horror is a quick way to get that need fulfilled when it is done well. Documentaries, on the other hand, seem pretty good at shattering our beliefs. And isn’t that scary?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bee Movie / ** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Barry B. Benson: Jerry Seinfeld
Vanessa Bloome: Renee Zellweger
Adam Flayman: Matthew Broderick
Ken: Patrick Warburton
Layton T. Montgomery: John Goodman
Mooseblood: Chris Rock

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith. Written by Jerry Seinfeld and Spike Feresten & Barry Marder & Andy Robin. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for mild suggestive humor, and a brief depiction of smoking).

Now I know that as a parent I have an inflated sense of my children’s intelligence and abilities, but my son Jack is a genius. Whether this is true or not I suppose remains to be seen, but I do have corroboration from his kindergarten teacher that he is quite smart. So his reaction to the new DreamWorks animated film “Bee Movie” troubles me. He enjoyed it well enough, if only because it was an opportunity to watch a cartoon on the big screen. But he spent more time during the screening trying to figure out exactly what was going on when he could have been laughing.

It wasn’t that it was a difficult story to follow. Jerry Seinfeld provides the voice of a young bee who is finally ready to enter the hive work force―after three days of grade school, three days of high school, and three days of college (ha, ha). But the idea of choosing a job he will perform for the rest of his life is too much for Barry B. Benson to handle.

Barry’s best friend Adam (Matthew Broderick, “The Producers”) is content with bee life as is. He has pride in his hive and opposes Barry’s ideas about leaving the hive to see the outside. But Barry is tenacious and gets the nectar gatherers to take him on a run. Once outside, Barry is so overwhelmed that he loses his way and inevitably breaks some of the cardinal rules of bee life, the most important of which is “Don’t speak to humans.”

The human he speaks to is a florist named, of all things, Vanessa Bloome (Renee Zellweger, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”). He feels compelled to thank her for saving his life from her self-centered boyfriend, Ken (Patrick Warburton, “The Emperor’s New Groove”). She seems to take the news that bees can speak English at decibel levels audible enough to register in her eardrums very well.

All of this is fairly standard family cartoon material, and is filled with clever Seinfeld-style observational humor, like the way the bee hive is sponsored by a big corporation and run by a series of sub-corporations falling under one conglomerate, or the way it ribs at how in fictional movie societies everything seems to run at a level of chaos that somehow never collapses in on itself. Clearly, this isn’t exactly kid’s stuff. But there is plenty of kid’s stuff, like the goofy hat Adam must wear in his job to save every last drop of honey.

The film displays an amusing, if not entirely focused, combination of your typical boy-meets-world story and intelligent comedy. The second half of the film, however, is only moderately effective in another way. The plot becomes slightly more complex once Barry decides that it is his life’s mission to get all the honey that humans consume returned to the bees. For some reason, Ray Liotta appears as himself, profiting off the bees’ hard labor with his own celebrity line of honey. His presence smells of an unexpected Hollywood friendship between him and Seinfeld, and who would expect Ray Liotta to show up in a kid’s movie?

Anyway, all this leads to a courtroom scene in which Barry―with interspecies girlfriend Vanessa by his side―brings a lawsuit against the human race on behalf of all bees everywhere for the theft of the world’s honey. The results of this legal battle are as unlikely as expecting a six-year old to understand the concept of a law suit. It is not impossible for them to grasp, but it is a great deal of work for something that isn’t nearly as exciting as toys trying to get back to their owner, or a family of superheroes, or even a rat that just wants to cook wonderful food. I have heard from some who felt the latter was a little dull, but not as dull as a courtroom scene. Aren’t there already more than enough of them in films aimed at adults?

Much of the humor in “Bee Movie” is good enough for a chuckle or two, but it seems this is a movie of two minds. One wants to provide a typical cartoon experience, placing human societal characteristics on a very foreign environment. This is the film Jack said he enjoyed when I asked him if he liked it. The other one feels the need to throw in more unique experiences but doesn’t realize they just don’t fit. I’m sure few people have forgotten the anticlimax of the “Seinfeld” television show. Those slice of life oddballs never should have gone anywhere near a courtroom. Neither should their bees.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Horrorfest Report 2007 #10: I, Vampire! I Wish

Vampires are the kings of the undead, the ultimate state of monster immortality. The blood suckers have long since been the most romantic of the horror monsters and somehow the most classic. They don’t have the savagery of some monsters or the grotesqueness of others. They are the most human of all the monsters, idealized humans in many ways, despite their hemophilandering.

Well, there’s the rub, isn’t it? They are philanderers, usually handsome and rich, living off the sexuality of others. They are sexual predators, but not the sodomizing pedophiles that haunt our reality. They are monsters we might even aspire to be. But mostly it comes back to the sex thing.

As a teenager one of my favorite guilty pleasure horror flicks was “Fright Night”. Although it was rated R, it was a very juvenile take on the whole vampire mythos. Its hero, Charlie, is a teen who is obsessed with all the things I was at that same age, sex and things that go bump in the night. Like Charlie, I sometimes had trouble prioritizing the two. I mean who didn’t want to get laid, but it isn’t everybody who might just be living next to a real live… er, I guess that should be dead vampire!

Charlie and his friends are outcasts from the social scene just as every teen feels he doesn’t ever really fit in. Evil, Charlie’s strange friend who has the unfortunate fate of becoming the vampire’s first familiar, in particular seems to be loathed by all including his friends. Of course he would want to become a vampire. He finds that being a vampire servant isn’t any more rewarding than being a hero’s sidekick. The grass is always greener.

Chris Sarandon as the vampire epitomizes everything teens yearn for in becoming adults. He is idealized in every aspect. He’s handsome and has some strange connection with anybody he looks at. He seems to be rich and yet doesn’t appear to have any responsibilities. He even has a servant to do all the house chores. Who wouldn’t want to be this guy?

Canadian auteur Guy Maddin deals regularly in fantasy. His films often conjure up an idealized world where silent film and sound meet. His films look uncannily like some century old silent that was dug up from a vault and yet have sound and dialogue that exists as if it came out of the same time capsule. This somehow makes him the perfect director for a remake of the Bram Stoker classic “Dracula”.

Looking like something that could have been filmed even before Bela Lugosi’s Universal monster take on the original vampire, “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” remains a subject purely Maddin since it is based on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s stage version of the tale. It is a silent film and it works as wonderfully as any version of this story ever has.

Filmed beautifully in 8mm and 16mm black and white, this version of the classic vampire tale once again stresses the sexuality of the vampire and the obsessive hormones of his victims. Focusing mostly on Dracula’s assault on Lucy while she is being wooed by three men, the dance emphasizes the perfection of Dracula versus the imperfections of the men. The doctor is obsessed with his patients, including the demented Renfield. The Texan is a sad caricature of American bravado. Even Lucy’s eventual fiancé Lord Holmwood ― while the best of the lot — comes across as a bit of a sissy. For a time, I thought these roles were handled by female dancers. Maybe they were; their masculinity certainly seemed to be in question.

Dr. Van Helsing seems to be the only real man of the bunch. His only problem is he older and comes into the story after the creature already has Lucy under his spell.

Dracula is performed by a dancer of Asian descent, Zhang Wei-Qiang. This adds a mystique to the character that has probably become harder to define within the confines of the western world in modern times. Zhang has that special draw that Dracula requires and is somehow easily captured when contrasting western ideals with eastern races.

This film doesn’t deal as much with the characters of Harker and Mina as much as other versions, but there is a nice sequence when we are introduced to them at a convent. They disappear from the nun-filled courtyard to a private room and court each other with sexual advances that are not realized. The sequence is followed by Harker’s imprisonment within Dracula’s castle by his bride harem. Men are such slime when it comes to sex, are they not? Of course, this sexual fantasy isn’t exactly a pleasurable experience for Harker in the end.

Today, modern takes on vampires have lost much of the emphasis on sexuality in order to take advantage of the technological advances in makeup and special effects. Even the supernatural element has been lost to a great degree and vampires have evolved into some sort of gothic superheroes and villains in films like “Underworld” and “Blade”. Sure these superhero vampires dress in skin tight outfits as befit their comic book influenced world, but little actual sexual exploration finds its way into these films.

Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has brought this vampire as superhero idea to its highest degree with his “Vampire Watch” series. He wowed audiences with his visual wizardy in the first film of the trilogy “Night Watch”. He has been accused by US critics with visual excess in the second of the series “Day Watch”, which hit American theaters earlier this year and is now available in an unrated DVD.

Interestingly enough, “Day Watch” seems to have reintroduced sexual desire into this series, which was mostly battle fantasy influenced in the first film. In this film we see the hero in a romantic situation with one of his co-workers, a fellow Night Watcher who helps police the vampires to keep the light and dark in balance. Their situation is complicated when the hero must switch bodies with another female co-worker in order to escape prosecution for the murder of a Day Watcher, who exist to make sure the light does not over power the dark. We also see a villainess who desires a much younger vampire but is trapped in a relationship with the primary villain. The young vampire is not affiliated with either the Day or Night Watch, but represents the freedom of youth the villainess is on the verge of losing forever. She is clearly the most sexual creature of the proceedings.

While again no actual sex is explored in the film, the super powers of this unique mythology of vampires is the focus of the film. But anyone who has paid any attention to comic books knows full well that super heroics are very closely related to sexual awareness. Most superheroes become aware of their abilities during puberty as a reflection of how greatly the human body changes during this point in our maturity. And so vampire flick emphasis on super heroics is not as far a cry from the classic origins upon which the most popular of monsters is based as is might seem.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #9: Zombies ‘R’ Us

Zombies have recently become one of the most popular subgenres of horror. And the great thing about zombies is that proliferation is one of their primary attributes. You can keep on killin’ ‘em and we’ll make more!

George A. Romero has carved an entire career out of manufacturing zombies in mass quantities. And with a new remake of “Day of the Dead” and an original Romero sequel “Diary of the Dead” on the way to theaters next year it seems old age isn’t slowing him down any more than death will slow down his victims.

Another zombie franchise that just keeps on truckin’ — although not nearly as gracefully as Romero’s “Dead” series ― is the video game-based “Resident Evil” series. I suppose it keeps Milla Jovovich employed, and that isn’t an entirely bad thing.

In the third and most recent installment in the series “Resident Evil: Extinction”, Jovovich finds herself rescuing a caravan of survivors of the zombie apocalypse in a Las Vegas that has been reclaimed by the desert. She seems to have developed some psionic powers over the course of three films, and the Umbrella Corporation responsible for the zombie outbreak continues to use her character to develop a serum to control the zombies.

I find it interesting that the doctor in charge of developing a “cure” is not the slightest bit interested in finding an outright cure for the infected zombie victims, but is developing a serum the will “domesticate” the ferocious flesh eaters to be used as menial laborers. I suppose since this mega corporation has effectively destroyed the human race, they need someone to do their laundry and care for their children while they toil away in their underground bunkers ruling what’s left of the world.

Or perhaps they are thinking along capitalistic lines of product development. “Buy our new and improved Zombie 3000, and make your life even better than it was before you lost everything in the zombie holocaust!”

But the makers of the Canadian zombie satire “Fido” really beat the “Resident Evil” team to that particular punch line with what is perhaps the strangest and funniest zombie flicks to ever come along.

The set up is hard to describe briefly, but I will do my best. “Fido” takes place in a 1950s Americana type of Cold War environment where instead of the threat of nuclear war, the world has been overrun by zombies. Taking place a generation removed from the “Zombie Revolution”, people live idealistic suburban existences in fenced in communities where the citizens are content to pretend the threat of zombie attacks are a thing of the past and even keep zombies as live-in servants. Owning a zombie is a sign of higher social status. If one family has six zombies and another has one, it is easy to tell which one is more important to the community’s existence.

The whole thing is a critique on American society and our dependence on conveniences. In our theoretically classless society, where somehow everyone is included in the middle class from our underpaid teachers all the way up to our oil tycoons, we are increasingly becoming more defined by the varying amounts of conveniences we can acquire. Lawn services, automatic lighting, cars that can parallel park themselves, these things are becoming what we define ourselves by, rather than the pure family values we claim are the heart of what made this country great.

What’s more, we are playing with fire with how dependent we have become on these conveniences. It is more important to us that they exist than what the consequences are in utilizing them. The impact of fossil fuels on our environment is the easiest parallel to draw to the zombies of “Fido”. Why does our dependence continue so insistently when there is such danger to the environment and so many alternatives out there?

And then there is immigration. Who would cut our grass if we got rid of our zombies? Sound familiar? “Fido” dives into many issues that are being discussed in our society and many that are not. Consider the flirting that goes on between the hero family’s mother and zombie. Fidelity. Interracial couples. Gay marriage. Subversive sexual habits. Will these topics ever be resolved in a society so obsessed with the family values it so clearly lacks?

But the best part of “Fido” is that it is genuinely funny. Some people might find that “Resident Evil: Extinction” makes them laugh as well, but “Fido” is supposed to.