Archive for March, 2011

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

Okay, think of things that scare you. Think long and hard. Scared of flying? Congratulations – you share the #1 fear amongst Americans. Scared of snakes? Hey, that’s a major fear as well, and an instinct hardwired into our psyche. Guess what? New Line Cinema decided to put them together in one movie, added Samuel L. Jackson, and stirred. A simple concept, with a simple plot.

They called it Snakes on a Plane. And it was awesome.

Snakes on a Plane is an action-horror film directed by David R. Ellis and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Marguiles, and Nathan Philips, along with lots and lots of snakes and just enough of a plot to contain them all.

While Sean Jones is vacationing in Hawaii, he witnesses a gangster named Eddie Kim murdering a witness, and naturally finds himself on Kim’s hit list. FBI Agent Neville Flynn is assigned to get Sean safely back to the mainland so he can testify against Kim in Los Angeles, putting Sean in first class on a passenger jet under security so tight it seems that Kim won’t be able to get within a mile of him. However, Kim has managed to come up with the only plan that the FBI hasn’t trained for: a time-released crate filled with hundreds of venomous snakes. After we meet a number of airline disaster sterotypes sharing the jet with Sean, the plane takes off, and midway through the flight the crate pops open. Naturally, snakes ensue.

Now, by the time this movie was made, the serious airline disaster movie had already been ruined forever by Airplane!, but the disaster genre as a whole had recently experienced a resurgence through the 90s and the turn of the 21st century. The “serious” disaster movie had been completely supplanted by the “fun” disaster movie, and that’s exactly what this is. In essence this is the Scream of airline disaster movies – a self-referential work poking fun at its own genre even as it offers thrills and scares (I mean, how can being stuck in an aluminum tube at 23,000 feet with hundreds of snakes not be scary?) Eddie Kim, the theoretical driving force for the core of the plot, drops almost entirely out of the movie once the plane takes off, but that’s okay – the movie wasn’t really about him to start with.

The casting was well-done here. Samuel L. Jackson is badass as usual as a no-nonsense FBI Agent opposite a terrified Nathan Phillips as Sean Jones, each trying to deal with the crisis in their own way. A few fun facts: news of Jackson’s casting largely inspired the fan-written line about motherf***ing snakes on a motherf***ing plane, but he threatened to drop out when his agent wanted to change the very descriptive title Snakes on a Plane to something more serious, on the theory that Jackson “can’t work” on a movie called Snakes on a Plane. Jackson assured his agent that the very awesome title was the only reason he wanted to work on the movie in the first place. And this is why he is awesome. In the supporting cast, we have a bevy of airline disaster stereotypes: the nervous guy who hates to fly, the ditzy blonde socialite with the yipyap dog, the unapproachable celebrity, the arrogant businessman who hates everyone else on the flight, the kids flying alone, the horny couple in the Mile High Club, the woman with the baby, the retiring flight attendant on “one last flight”, and the ambiguously gay male flight attendant. However, since this movie is already playing with its own genre, it plays with the supporting cast as well: the unapproachable celeb is a germophone, the woman with the baby helps draw venom out of a kid’s arm, the kid’s brother helps a herpetologist determine what snake bit the former, and the ambiguously gay flight attendant isn’t gay, just really enthusiastic. (Yes, seriously.)

If you like disaster movies and are looking for a fun homage to the airline disaster movie, absolutely check out Snakes on a Plane. It’s the movie inspired by a hundred airline disasters which in turn inspired a hundred internet memes.


Erin Brockovich (2000)

She had no legal education. She’s spent the last six years raising children. Nobody wanted to take her seriously. And she was about to bring a major corporation to its knees.

Erin Brockovich is a biopic directed by Steven Soderbergh about the Hinkley groundwater contamination lawsuit spearheaded by Ms. Brockovich against Pacific Gas & Electric. It stars Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, and Aaron Eckhart.

Erin Brockovich had always had to fight for what she believed in. After two divorces left her raising three kids, she needed a job and decent childcare – all simple things. When another driver runs a red light and plows into her car, she hopes that she might finally get a break, but when she loses her personal injury lawsuit against the doctor driving the other car, she asks her attorney, Ed Masry, to give her a job as compensation for what he had said was a slam dunk case. He gives her work as a file clerk, but when she investigates the inclusion of medical records in a pro bono real estate case involving PG&E, her instincts start telling her that things simply do not add up. When she digs further, she discovers a systematic cover-up of the use of toxic hexavalent chromium, which has leached into the groundwater in Hinckley and has been poisoning the residents for decades, causing numerous health problems. Well, Erin is not going to let this stand just because PG&E has billions at their disposal, and one major corporation is about to learn what happens when you get on the bad side of a tenacious spitfire.

Erin Brockovich’s story is an inspirational one. With no formal legal education, three kids, and the persistence of a pitbull, this woman posed an unexpected threat to the comfortable apathy demonstrated by a huge power company. Everyone knows what it’s like to butt heads with a huge, faceless corporation who would rather stonewall you into going away than address your concerns, whether those concerns be a billing problem or something more serious. Thoughout this film I found myself rooting for her as fate conspired to push her down, and she just got right back up and pushed back harder. There was no stopping her, even when nobody else believed in her. The best part is that, with a few artistic variations, her story is absolutely true. Not only did she kick PG&E in the nuts to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, but she has gone on to helm Brockovich Research & Consulting, a consulting firm.

Julia Roberts fares well as Brockovich here, not letting people push her around just because they had all the money. Amusingly, they actually toned down her mode of dress for the movie, making me wonder what the real Erin wore that was more provocative than the see-through blouse and black bra she wears to the office in one scene. While it stretched credulity that a woman with three young children would have a figure like that, some women are just blessed. Albert Finney holds his own as her slightly put-upon boss Ed Masry, trying to explain the way things are and being bewildered at first by her refusal to just accept them. Eventually the two of them meet in the middle as he starts to see the merit in her case and she starts to learn how to use the system to the benefit of the people of Hinckley. Aaron Eckhart adds an unexpected bit of flavor as Brockovich’s next door neighbor/love interest George, only a couple years before he would become a major actor in films like Paycheck and The Core, and overall the entire cast just works well together.

If you want to watch an inspirational underdog story, a true-life legal drama, or just a movie what prominently features Julia Roberts’ cleavage, try Erin Brockovich. You will be cheering her on every step of the way.

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)

In 2002, Eli Roth directed a red-splattered gorefest called Cabin Fever as a throwback to the “tits and blood” style of slasher horror. It was messy, grotesque, and subversive; horror fans praised it for its daring, and it has grown to be a cult hit. In 2009, Ti West directed a sequel, picking up at the obvious hook set up by the previous film, hoping (as always) to achieve the same level of black comedy as the first. Did it work? Let’s find out.

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever is a horror film directed by Ti West, following the path of a strain of necrotizing fasciitis to a high school senior prom. It stars Noah Segan, Rusty Kelley, Alexi Wasser, and Guiseppe Andrews.

Cabin Fever 2 picks up in the woods from the first Cabin Fever, where we see that Paul, well into the advanced stages of a flesh-eating virus, as survived long enough to try like hell to escape from the woods – leaving bits of flesh behind on various obstacles – only to become a large red splash on the front of a school bus almost as soon as he reaches a road. Deputy Winston (a minor character from the first film) is called to the scene of the very gory collision (final score: Bus – 1, Paul – 0), and while he initially decides that the bus had hit one of the rare species of moose that are filled with red Kool-Aid, he soon finds evidence that the large splatter had once been human. Seeing a truck filled with Down Home brand bottled water (filled in the nearby lake, because sterilization and filtration processes are for pussies) headed for a larger down, he gives chase, hoping to stop disaster from spreading further. Turns out the bottled water is headed to a small high school, which is getting ready for its senior prom. After we meet a few principal characters at the high school (the Hero, the Hero’s Loser Best Friend, the two Token Geeks, the Douchebag, the Douchebag’s Girlfriend, the Conceited Blonde Prom Queen, and the Asshat School Principal), things soon ramp up as the contaminated water is distributed to just about every named character and several unnamed characters, and the prom spirals downward into an episode of Happy Tree Friends. Meanwhile, a random group of faceless containment guys from the CDC show up to contain the infection, even if it means killing everyone who isn’t already projectile vomiting their own liquefied organs all over everyone else. So… yeah.

Whereas the previous film was gory but also tense and laced with black humor, Cabin Fever 2 was just messy and gross. There were a few blackly humorous moments, like when the truck driver starts choking at the diner and squirting blood out of his tracheostomy (made more absurd by the fact that one waitress was attempting to perform an exorcism on him when the red stuff started spraying), and the last several scenes in the movie where Douchebag’s Girlfriend (by the name of Cassie) is running around in a prom gown soaked with blood, in a clear nod to Carrie. Unfortunately, though, most of the movie is just a mess, and not even in a way that made the original a good mess. All the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes from every high school slasher movie ever, with absolutely none of the usual instinctive aversion to things like sores and errant bodily fluids that might at least have delayed a few of the deaths. Even in the core cluster of protagonists, I didn’t really see anyone to root for, just people I was waiting to die horrible, gory deaths. At least the first one offered a bit of tension as the disease slowly developed (rather than blossoming all at once into bloody vomit) and had a couple of people I was interested in; of the two characters that survived the first movie, one died right away, and the other was an annoying twit.

While I occasionally enjoy a gory film, I cannot in good conscience recommend Cabin Fever 2, even to people who enjoyed the first one It rides too heavily on gore rather than on a well-paced, intelligent escalation of the plot, and in the end you’re just left wading ankle-deep in red mess. Avoid this one at all costs.

The Ring (2002)

Stories featuring evil children date back as far as Village of the Damned, The Exorcist and The Omen. Even today, there seems to be a rule that children under the age of 12 in horror movies can be the scariest antagonists, because you expect children to be innocent, to need our protection. Samara Morgan is about to show us a new generation of evil children…

The Ring is a psychological horror movie directed by Gore Verbinski and a remake of the Japanese movie Ringu, in turn based on the book Ring by Koji Suzuki. It stars Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Daveigh Chase, and Brian Cox.

When 16-year-old Katie Embry dies under mysterious really freaking weird circumstances, the event hits her 9-year-old cousin Aidan especially hard. After the funeral, Katie’s mother, Ruth, asks her sister Rachel, an investigative reporter, to investigate Katie’s death, as the poor girl was found in a closet with a horrifying expression on her face, as though she’d been literally scared to death. The only other witness to Katie’s death, her friend Becca, was left so traumatized that she had to be committed to a mental institution. Rachel’s quest brings her to the cabin where Katie had spent the weekend with friends a week before her death, where she finds a mysterious videotape. Upon watching it, she sees a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness series of images flicker across the screen, and once the tape has ended, she receives a phone call informing her that she has a week to live. Yay. Now Rachel races against this deadline to unlock the secrets behind the videotape in the hopes of breaking this curse before it’s too late.

When The Ring was first released, I admit I was a bit skeptical. I’d become jaded on campy slasher movies that rely on blood and guts for their scares, and I was starting to think that there were no really scary horror movies anymore. Then I saw this little wonder in the theater, and I knew that there was still somebody out there with the talent to really scare the piss out of people, without showing everything. And Samara is a new twist on the typical horror villain: she kills pretty much indiscriminately – you see the tape, you’re gonna die in a week. She doesn’t go after the druggies or the sexually active – she has more of a blast radius than crosshairs. Once she has her hooks into you, you absolutely cannot run far enough to get away from her. Adding another element is the fact that this is a remake of a Japanese ghost story – the onryo. Sure, many Western ghosts can be vanquished by helping them find closure, by helping them solves a problem left unfinished, even if it’s their own murder. Not the onryo. She’ll just keep on going. And she will get you. The fact that you don’t see what she does that leaves her two on-screen victims looking like that makes it infinitely worse, leaving us to come up with our own theories. And all this malevolence is locked inside something as innocent as a videocassette.

The cast is sparse but well-chosen: Naomi Watts as Rachel, the tenacious reporter on a tight schedule, forced to use all her investigating skills to hopefully avert her own death, David Dorfman as Aidan, the benevolent counterpart to Samara’s Creepy Child, and of course Daveigh Chase as Samara herself, innocent and childlike on the surface but with a chewy center of uncontrolled psychic abilities fueled by a simmering hatred for a world that has rejected her; I see big things in Ms. Chase’s acting future. In the supporting cast, Brian Cox, pre-X-Men is a tragic man, grieving the death of his wife years ago and feeling guilty about the relief he feels over the loss of his daughter. Martin Henderson as Rachel’s ex Noah doesn’t offer us enough to get to know him, however, leaving him as just a harsh lesson about why you should be afraid of unlabelled videotapes.

While it may be difficult to see the menace in video tapes anymore, in today’s world of YouTube and writeable DVD’s, an unstoppable evil wrapped in a package of innocence still endures as an effective horror menace. What makes this movie terrifying is the impending threat, combined with things you don’t really think about until later, getting together and laying eggs in your unconscious mind until, hours later, the realization hits you. If you’re looking for that type of subtle horror movie, pick up The Ring and watch it in the dark.

16 Blocks (2006)

Bruce Willis has long been the quintessential “cop” actor. From his role as John McLane in Die Hard, he has played a number of cops, police officials, and detectives over his long career, with great effectiveness. His more recent cop roles seem to be tending towards a little-explored facet of the cop role in recent movies: the tired cop. And in 16 Blocks, one tired cop has one simple mission. And it’s an escort mission. FUUUUUUUUUUUUUU~

16 Blocks is an action thriller film directed by Richard Donner and written by Richard Wenk. It stars Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse, and is shot in the “real time” narrative format.

Jack Moseley is a tired, burned-out, and rather hung over NYPD detective. After pulling an all-nighter, Jack is about to go home and crash for the day when his lieutenant gives him one last assignment. Jack doesn’t want the job; he just wants to get some rest – but his lieutenant has no one else on hand to take the job, so Jack is it. It sounds like a simple assignment: escort one guy sixteen blocks from jail to the courthouse to testify as a witness for the prosecution. He has to get there by 10. Simple, right? Well, if you discount the fact that a lot of people are going to try to kill this particular witness, and many of them are fellow cops, then yeah, it’s a simple mission… until it isn’t.

I wasn’t sure about this one when I got it from Netflix. The premise was so simple, it sounded like it was going to be sixteen blocks of shootouts, car chases, and flashy stunts. To my surprise, 16 Blocks is as much a character study as an action thriller. Rather than squeezing the aging Bruce Willis into a generic Cop mold (which he seldom fits, even when he creates the mold in question), they give him a past, a family, flaws, weaknesses, and regrets. He’s an alcoholic. He did some bad things in the past. And yet, he is still a noble character despite (or because of) all this. Likewise, Mos Def as Eddie Bunker is not a generic wisecracking con. Even though at the beginning he seems to be mainly channeling the Cat from Red Dwarf as he prattles on and on into Jack’s ear, he too has plans, hopes, and regrets, saving him from being nothing more than That Annoying Black Guy Bruce Has To Babysit. He, too, is a noble character, though he is rightfully afraid for his life for most of the movie, as he reveals his altruistic plans for the future. However, because so much of the story focuses on these two, David Morse’s role as antagonist Detective Frank Nugent is left a bit short. As the story unfolds we do learn the whys and wherefores of his character, but mostly he seems a bit generic, the figurehead and point of contact with what turns out to be a desperate conspiracy of silence.

Fortunately, the extensive character development combines well with the basic plot, turning what would otherwise have been a tired, generic story into something interesting. You learn to care about Jack and Eddie and their respective goals, rather than just sitting back and watching the chaos ensue. The action is subdued, just a relative handful of firefights and a fair number of foot-chase sequences as Jack focuses more on avoiding their pursuers (who could and would happily kill his charge) than confronting them with guns blazing (which could go all kinds of wrong for him). It is a tense game of cat and mouse that takes a step back into Die Hard territory – limited ammo, limited timeframe, limited resources. Their pursuers are tenacious and resourceful, keeping them on their toes and preventing them even the luxury of any real breathing room. Jack and Eddie must get away every time, while their foes only have to get to Eddie once and it’s all over.

While more subdued and less flashy than many contemporary action movies, 16 Blocks was still decently engaging. With three-dimensional characters and a decent setup, this movie would be worth a rental some night when you aren’t in the mood for car fu, gun fu, bomb fu, or over-the-top action-star pyrotechnics.

The Thing (1982)

03/26/2011 2 comments

When you’re stuck in an Antarctic research base over the winter, the only people you can really trust to help you if there’s trouble are your fellow researchers. But what if there’s something there that can imitate anything perfectly? If that happens, you can’t trust anyone… even yourself.

The Thing is a science fiction horror film directed by John Carpenter, ostensibly a remake of The Thing from Another World but actually a more faithful adaptation of the original novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., and serves at the first part of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy (followed by The Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness). It stars Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Charles Hallahan, Donald Moffat, and some stomach-churning monster effects by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston.

The Year: 1982. The Location: an American Antarctic research station, manned by a small team of scientists. As the researchers are getting ready to batten down the hatches for the coming winter, they are accosted by a scientist from a nearby Norwegian station, trying frantically to kill a fleeing dog. The Norwegian is hysterical and disoriented, shooting wildly, and the Americans are forced to kill him for their own safety, and adopt the dog. When they investigate the Norwegian camp looking for an explanation, they discover the place is trashed, its personnel variously missing or dead, with evidence that the Norwegians had found something bizarre under the ice. Analyzing the uncovered remains, the research station’s medical examiner comes up blank, except that the hideous, inhuman creature possessed a complete set of humanlike internal organs. It is not long, though, before the researchers discover that the creature is not completely dead, and possesses the ability to assimilate and imitate any living creature it encounters. Remember the dog? Yeah. It soon becomes clear that with this shapeshifting alien on the loose in their station, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell who is an ally, as the harsh Antarctic winter closes in on all of them…

Paranoia fuel FTW! This tale of unknown malevolence closing in on an isolated group of individuals is further proof that John Carpenter is a genius of horror. The story is tight and nerve-wracking, building the tension as the hours of increasing uncertainly creep by, until you can’t even be sure if MacReady (through whose eyes we largely view the story) is not the Thing. The idea that close friends, family, or even colleagues might have been seamlessly replaced by this malevolent creature whose motives are impossible to guess is the ultimate in paranoia, used in movies ranging from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Terminator 2, but The Thing offers a claustrophobic twist: you are trapped there with this creature, and it is trapped here with you. Such unrelenting uncertainty leads to desperate reactions to flush out the traitor, the imposter, the Thing pretending to be your friend, until ultimately you reach a “nuke it from orbit” solution: destroy everything and hope it is destroyed too.

The creature effects in this movie are striking and well-done. Created in an age long before CGI was even plausible, the animatronics and puppetry required to bring the Thing to life were designed by Rob Bottin, celebrated master of body horror, with the dog-Thing created by Stan Winston, celebrated master of just about every other kind of monster. The effects are visceral, meaty, and cheerfully gooey, nauseating and terrifying audiences with the mishmash of barely-recognizeable shapes forming in an amorphous pile of Thing – maybe this head reminds you of a dog, or that face reminds you of one of your colleagues, while this limb might almost be a batlike wing. On the other side of the coin, three effects that really stand out are the chest-mouth, the spider-head, and the exploding blood (which is likely to make even the most jaded horror-hound dump his popcorn in a neighbor’s lap). The acting is exemplary as well, considering how many key plot points are dependent on in-universe uncertainty, and a number of scares and twists were kept hidden from the cast until the “boo” moment to allow them to react genuinely.

If you like your horror movies paranoid, your settings claustrophobic, and your aliens weird and pissed off, absolutely grab a copy of The Thing. Watch it with friends and with the lights off.

The Wolfman (2010)

Even a man whose heart is pure
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright…

Lawrence Talbot is about to have the worst family reunion ever…

The Wolfman is the 2010 remake of the 1941 horror film The Wolf Man. It was directed by Joe Johnston and stars Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, Emily Blunt, and werewolf makeup by veteran monster maker Rick Baker.

After Ben Talbot is mauled to death by an unknown creature in Wales, his brother Lawrence is summoned from a stage production of Hamlet by Ben’s fiancee Gwen to find out what happened to him. Lawrence has a tense reunion with his father, Sir John Talbot; Lawrence’s mother had committed suicide when he was a boy, and Lawrence himself had been sent to an insane asylum to cure him of the delusions that John had killed her. Many of the locals blame a nearby troupe of gypsies for the killings, but others claim that there was a similar rash of murders decades ago, with the culprit suspected to be a werewolf. When Lawrence visits the gypsy camp, an old fortune teller named Maleva tells him that an evil had befallen his brother – just before a creature attacks the camp, killing many of the gypsies and leaving Lawrence gravely wounded. Little does Lawrence know that he is about to get an up-close look at the terror menacing the countryside, as well as the dark secrets of his own past, as he finds himself on the run from the police, led by the famed Inspector Aberline…

For some reason it seems to be really hard to make convincing-looking werewolves in recent horror movies. Costumes look like people in bear suits, and CGI tends to look like cheap video game graphics. So, it was refreshing to see filmmakers take a step back towards the Universal Studios roots of the modern werewolf movie and do a wolf-man-style makeup for the title beastie. Rick Baker’s work here in effect helps him come full-circle, as he had been inspired to go into effects makeup by watching the original The Wolf Man, and went on to do the effects in An American Werewolf in London. The wolf man makeup looks great here, espcially considering how much like a werewolf Del Toro looks by default (seriously, he is a very hairy man), and enhancing the transformations with CG only strengthens the effect. Many of the stunts were done with live performers rather than CG, another good move, and the whole thing comes together well to breathe new life into an old legend.

The core cast is also brilliant, composed mainly of veteran actors with a fair amount of experience under their collective belts. Even Emily Blunt, a relative newcomer to horror, is well-experienced in doing period pieces and so is not far outside her usual environment here. Del Toro, as the tortured monster with a grim past, is fantastic here, and he speaks with a very convincing American accent… in, uh, Wales. Most of the Welsh characters default to what sounds like a generic British accent, even Anthony Hopkins (Welsh by birth), but this can be excused due to the likelihood that American theatergoers would know what a Welsh accent is supposed to sound like (slim to none). Fortunately there is a lot of chemistry there, particularly the romantic chemistry that develops between Lawrence and Gwen, and the familial tension between Lawrence and Sir John. And that little oh crap scene where Inspector Aberline sees the brutish reality behind the gypsy tales of the wolfman was extremely satisfying. Aberline was fresh off the Ripper case in London, and here he gets to see what real monsters look like.

If you are looking for a contemporary werewolf movie that backtracks to the roots of the Hollywood werewolf, I highly recommend The Wolfman. A well-woven story, a tight cast, and werewolf effects only lightly supplemented by CGI will leave you howling for more.