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Archive for April, 2011

28 Days Later (2002)


After waking from a long nap, there is always that feeling of disorientation as you try to get your bearings. This is especially difficult if things have changed drastically since you went to sleep. Meet Jim. He’s been in a coma for 28 days. In that time, the world has ended.

28 Days Later is a zombie horror film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. It stars Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Christopher Eccleston.

When a group of British animal liberation activists break into a lab to free some monkeys being used in medical research, they are warned that the monkeys are infected with a “rage virus” in the hopes of curing aggressive tendencies in humans. They don’t listen, and of course once they free one of the monkeys, one of the activists gets bitten, and hilarity ensues. Fast forward to 28 days later. Jim, a bicycle courier, awakens from a coma to discover that apparently London is completely devoid of human life, in one of the eeriest sequences in the whole movie. Then he discovers that, no, London is not abandoned – it’s populated by rage zombies. Yay. Fortunately the merry chase that ensues ends with Jim being rescued by a pair of uninfected survivors, Selena and Mark, who fill him in: the rage zombies are not dead, just really, really pissed off, and they try to kill anyone who isn’t infected. Trouble is, the rage virus spreads through bodily fluids, so a bite on even a bit of slobber getting in the wrong spot means that in a matter of seconds you’re one of them. Selena has hardened herself to this way of life, killing Mark without hesitation when he is cut in another fight with the Infected. It is not long, though, before they find another pocket of survivors, Frank and his teenage daughter Hannah, who offer them a place to stay and a glimmer of hope: a pre-recorded radio broadcast apparently being transmitted by an Army blockade in Manchester claiming to hold the solution to the Infection. Sounds great, right? Of course it does. Think it’ll be that easy? This is a zombie movie – of course it won’t. However, with dwindling supplies, the survivors have little choice but to investigate, and hope that they can survive the hordes of infected Rage zombies on the way…

I love zombie movies. They can be goofy and fun, or terrifying and claustrophobic, sometimes even within the same movie. 28 Days Later offered an interesting twist on the classic zombie – the living zombie, something previously explored by Romero’s original version of The Crazies but nearly forgotten until now. 28 Days Later crosses the living zombie with the fast zombie – something used extensively in the Return of the Living Dead series but since discarded until fairly recently with the Dawn of the Dead remake. This combination of zombie traits makes for a frenetic, terrifying take on the zombie movie. You don’t have time to react. You have to kill them or be torn apart. Infection takes seconds. And they absolutely hate you. The military subplot also reminds me a lot of the military subplot in Day of the Dead; the Army dudes have their own ideas about what constitutes a “solution” to the Infection, and once it is discovered you’re left with a general feeling of, “Well, we’re screwed now.” Because that’s what the military does in these movies: they take a bad situation and make it worse in the hopes of making it better.

The cast was tight and well-cast. Cillian Murphy works well here as disoriented coma patient Jim, the guy to whom the London situation must be explained by the others. He just wants to survive and get back to a normal life, and he is just as desperate and terrified as one would expect an uninfected human in a zombie apocalypse would be, but when he snaps – boy howdy. His woobie-ness goes away instantly, turning into a savagery that makes his later role in Red Eye look like Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Selena is another aspect of the zombie survivor, reluctant to make any human connections because she know that she might have to kill any allies without hesitation. Frank and Hannah comprise another aspect, the caregiver playing at normality to avoid traumatizing his young ward too much. And Major Henry West… you know, I’ve seen Christopher Eccleston in three roles so far, and only one of them, the Ninth Doctor, has been even remotely benevolent. I would call him Pragmatic Evil here.

Overall, 28 Days Later is a worthy addition to the zombie subgenre, effectively walking the line between subtlety and blind terror in its depiction of a once-bustling city given over almost completely to the Rage Virus. I highly recommend this one to all zombie fans.

The Abyss (1989)


About two-thirds of the Earth is covered in water. While science has pretty well figured out what lives on all the landmasses, the depths of the ocean remain a mystery. So far we’ve only caught glimpses of the strange, nearly-alien lifeforms that can withstand the crushing pressure in the deepest portions of the ocean, and its unlikely that were can ever know everything about the sea. We can only hope that whatever’s down there is friendly.

The Abyss is a science fiction film written and directed by James Cameron, starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Beihn, and some really neat CGI effects created the hard way. Because it’s a James Cameron film, that’s why.

It is the height of the Cold War. When the U.S.S. Montana sinks near the Cayman Trench after an encounter with something unknown, the Soviets waste no time in sending ships and subs to recover the submarine and its warhead. With a hurricaine moving in, the Americans decide that the quickest way to get to the sub before the Soviets do is to insert a team of Navy SEALs into a privately-owned experimental underwater oil platform called the Deep Core and use that as a base of operations. Lindsay Brigman, the designer of the platform, insists on going along, even though she knows that her estranged husband, Bud Brigman, is serving as the platform’s foreman. Things get complicated when the salvage team tries to determine the cause of the Montana‘s failure, and spot strange, apparently intelligent creatures down there with them. The situation goes from bad to worse when the hurricaine hits above them and they are unable to untether themselves from the Benthic Explorer before its crane breaks off in the storm, nearly pulling the Core into the Trench. Now trapped far underwater, they must decide the best method of recovering and disarming the Montana‘s nuclear missile, while all the time something unknown and inhuman is watching them…

James Cameron does not make small movies. Even when he has a small budget, he makes big movies. For The Abyss, he had a big vision that, unfortunately, outstripped the capabilities of special effects at the time. As a result, almost a half hour of footage was cut out of the theatrical release until Cameron was able to find a way to make it look good. Fortunately, I had the privilege of watching the Special Edition (sometimes erroneously called the Director’s Cut, even though Cameron did the original surgery himself), and it definitely fills in a few of the holes leftover in the theatrical release, like why are the water beings there and what the hell happened to the hurricaine at the end. The underwater setting is spooky and haunting, reminding us how little we know about this particular biome, and the interior shots are claustrophobic in a way that reminds me of the original Alien, and for similar reasons: there is nowhere to run. There is no escape. In this case, though, the main internal threat comes in the form of a Navy SEAL suffering High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, one of many true-life phenomena that Cameron included to give the story a nice ring of verisimilitude.

The plot was slow to develop, but engaging all the same. While the first third seemed like it was just going to be a deep sea drama, giving the audience time to meet the characters and learn about the setting and its hazards offered a chance to identify with the cast before weird stuff starts happening. As such, I had a chance to sympathize and care about these people, and I was definitely rooting for Bud during his moment of truth in the Trench. Some people criticized the Brigman estrangement subplot, pointing out the possibility that it had been inspired by Cameron’s own pending divorce, but I felt it added a layer of human drama to it, setting up a believeable reconciliation at the end. The alien beings were alien enough that they were definitely outside the realm of People in Suits, and the fact that all their technology was water-based offered a glimpse of the true possibilities of intelligent alien life. Interesting note: At the time this movie was made, CGI technology didn’t exist to create effects that shared a scene and interacted with human actors, so for example with the water tentacle Cameron made live-action models of the tentacle, and filmed the set from every angle so it could be digitally recreated with the water tentacle in place. In the end, ILM spent six months to create 75 seconds of really awesome looking footage.

If you’re in the mood for a sci fi drama with just as much drama as sci fi, check out The Abyss. It doesn’t get overwhelmed by the special effects, and in the end the human plot is every bit as crucial to the story as the alien plot. James Cameron wins again.

300 (2007)

04/25/2011 3 comments

There are macho movies. And there are manly movies. Then there are those movies that are so laced with testosterone that they are very likely to impregnate any unprotected females who watch it. When Frank Miller sets out to make a graphic novel, he seldom takes half-measures, and this pseudo-historical account of a bunch of buff, half-naked warriors defending their nation against the Persions is no exception. After all…

This is Sparta.

300 historical fantasy film based on the graphic novel of the same title retelling the Battle of Thermopylae. It was directed by Zack Snyder, with Miller riding along as executive producer and consultant. It stars Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, and Rodrigo Santoro.

Dilios, a warrior of Sparta, relates the story of King Leonidas to an unseen audience, telling of his gruelling boyhood under the Warrior Code of Sparta to his ascension to the throne. Leonidas is a born badass. Naturally, when a messenger comes to Sparta on behalf of the god-king Xerxes and demands that Sparta submit to Persia, Leonidas basically tells him to blow it out his ass and kicks the messenger into a pit. Knowing that this display will incite war with Persia, who boasts an army ten million strong, Leonidas visits the Ephors, whose blessing he needs before the Spartan council will go to war. The plan he proposes will force the numerically-superior Persians into a bottleneck at Thermopylae, thereby eliminating their advantage. The Ephors refuse, as their oracle decrees that Sparta must not go to war during a religious festival. Fine. Leonidas is not just going to lie down and submit to the Persians, regardless what the Ephors say. Why? Because he’s Leonidas, dammit. He gathers 300 of his best men and head off to Thermopylae anyway to cockblock the Persians, unaware of the corruption stewing within his own city. And badassery ensues.

When I watched 300, I knew that it was based on historical events, though they were passed through the filter of a narrator who knew his audience and wasn’t about to let the facts get in the way of a rollicking good story. Add to this the Frank Miller filter, and you’ve got a tale whose historical content is more in line with Clash of the Titans than Saving Private Ryan. That’s okay, though, because it looked really awesome. A few characters and storylines were added to Miller’s material to offer a bit more depth and conspiracy to the narrative, and this decision did help break up what would otherwise be about an hour and a half of muscular, half-naked Spartans beating the everloving hell out of muscular, half-naked Persians, and offered a glimpse of what might have been happening back in Sparta while King Leo was at Thermopylae kicking ass and chewing gum. The stylized presentation of events didn’t detract from the movie at all – Miller had researched the Spartan lifestyle and how Greek warriors preferred to be portrayed, and the finished movie was very much in line with this. I call it the Testosterone Filter.

Despite the wall-to-wall asskicking that one would naturally expect from this movie, the setup and some of the filler did offer chances to get to know the Spartan characters, and provided a coherent introduction to the Spartan way of life to an audience that might not have a military history background. Leo et al were taught to fight and be strong from an early age. Men who died in combat were honored, as were women who died in childbirth. Queen Gorgo herself was beautiful but hardly a retiring queen, stepping up to directly garner support for Sparta going to war against the Persians while her husband and his 300 closest friends were fighting the good fight at Thermopylae. Men born crippled or deformed were considered lower than human – fitting in a society where you were expected to fight or die. The Persians were also depicted as subhuman monsters, a frequent complaint as it smacked of racism, but consider the narrator – a Spartan Warrior trying to convince the rest of Greece to unite against The Enemy. In that respect, Dilios’ account of Thermopylae was informative propaganda – look how hard our king fought against Those People who want to take everything we have and enslave us! Incidentally, I found David Wenham an amusing casting choice for Dilios, considering I’d seen him previously as the decidedly noncombatant comic relief inventor Friar Carl in Van Helsing.

If you want to see a manly movie, featuring manly warriors fighting a manly battle against manly enemy forces, I recommend 300. What it lacks in realism, it easily makes up for in impressive visuals and an exciting, action-packed story plucked from the pages of ancient history.

Miss Congeniality (2000)


There are times when an undercover operation requires only the best individual for the role – someone with the training and expertise to not only solve the case but also successfully masquerade as a given role, leaving no hint in the minds of others that they are the real deal. Occasionally this work is glamorous. Frequently it’s not. And sometimes you just have to go with whatever you have at hand. Meet Gracie Hart. She’s so going to kick your ass when she’s done being a beauty queen.

Miss Congeniality is a police comedy film directed by Donald Petrie and starring Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Caine, Candance Bergen, and William Shatner.

Gracie Hart is a rough and tumble tomboy who grew up depending on her fists rather than her looks and charm to negotiate diplomatic situations. Currently, she is the FBI’s leading undercover agent, though most of her roles tend towards being that random woman in the corner that nobody pays attention to. However, when a terroriss known only as the Citizen threatens the 75th annual Miss United States Pageant, the FBI needs to send somebody undercover as one of the pageant contestants – and to everyone’s surprise, Gracie appears to be the perfect candidate… except for the minor problems of her being about as feminine as Dolph Lundgren. The task of girlifying her falls to the long-suffering coach Victor Melling, who has to teach her how to look, walk, dress, and act like a beauty contestant in an insanely short period of time, while Gracie is tasked with making friends amongst her fellow contestants and figuring out who might want to blow up a beauty pageant and why. Naturally, hilarity ensues on all sides.

On the surface, this movie is a fun little action comedy starring Sandra Bullock as a frazzled brunette, Benjamin “Law and Order” Bratt as her love interest, Candace Bergen as an arrogant bitch pageant coordinator, and Michael Caine as an ambiguously gay beauty pageant coach. This is the closest thing to a chick flick I own, and the makeover story is a hilarious comedy of errors as Gracie tries like hell to “get it”. (Incidentally, I can relate – that shit is complicated) Then I did some digging and found that the movie actually works on two levels. The title is a snarky commentary on the tomboyish, argumentative, rough-and-tumble protagonist, which most people probably get right away. However, I looked into what the Miss Congeniality award actually meant, and discovered something kind of interesting. Gracie Hart hits every single point during the movie. Miss Congeniality is not expected to be a strong contestant, he is expected to make friends and help out her fellow contestants, paying more attention to others than to herself, and to help other contestants avoid disaster. Nice genius bonus, movie.

Miss Congenality‘s cast works well together, their respective personalities bounding off each other in natural and hilarious ways, mainly in the scenes with Gracie socializing with her fellow contestants and trying to overcome her natural FBI instincts and learn what the hell being a girl is all about. The romantic sideplot with Eric is understated and probably mainly due to Bullock and Bratt dating at the time (IIRC), but her rebelling against Victor’s lessons ultimately allows her to adopt her own take on beauty queen-ness without sacrificing her personality and becoming a Barbie Doll. In all, funny moments interspersed with the terrorist subplot made this an effective action-comedy without sacrificing either the action or the comedy.

If you like tight action-comedies built around personality clashes and potential disasters (both of the blowing up kind and the wardrobe malfunction kind), check out Miss Congeniality. It’s a surprisingly clever little comedy about finding a balance between who you are and who you need to be.

Van Helsing (2004)

04/22/2011 2 comments

Here’s a story
Of a man named Stoker
Who wrote a monster story just to scare
And because every great monster needs a hunter
He also wrote Van Helsing in there.

And here’s a story
Of a man named Sommers
Whose monster movies often entertained
He wanted to refurbish old Van Helsing
To make a brand-new franchise self-contained.

Van Helsing is an action horror film written, produced, and directed by Stephen Sommers, intended as an extended homage to the old Universal Studios monster films of the 1930s and 1940s. It starts Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, and Kevin J. O’Connor.

Van Helsing is an amnesiac vigilante monster hunter working for the Knights of the Holy Order, stationed at the Vatican. After returning from a mission to capture kill the murderous Edward Hyde, he is given two new tasks: Kill the fabled vampire Dracula, and while doing so prevent the last of the Valerious family from being trapped in Purgatory due to a vow one of the Valerious ancestors made. With the assistance of Q Branch Friar Carl, Van Helsing loads up on the cool toys he will need to take down the powerful vampire and sets out for Transylvania. When he arrives, he discovers that, with the recent death by werewolf of Velkan Valerious, the sole remaining heir is one Anna Valerious, who is determined to fulfill her family vow to kill Dracula. When Dracula and his three brides attack the village, they are forced to team up, and make a few chilling discoveries: 1. Velkan is Not Quite Dead, having been transformed into a werewolf under Dracula’s control. 2. Dracula has been trying to bridge the gap between life and undeath and bring hordes of little vampire babies, his offspring, to life. 3. He might be close to finding a way, if he can just get his hands on the Monster created by Dr. Frankenstein. 4. Dracula also remembers Van Helsing from a past encounter, and may hold the secret to unlocking his lost memories. Now Van Helsing is torn between stopping a cunning monster and discovering his own past, between his mission and his growing love for Anna, as he seeks a way to end Dracula’s menace once and for all. Again.

I found Van Helsing to be a neat little reimagining to a character who, in the original novel, was an old professor who had studied the ways of vampires in order to figure out how to kill Count Dracula. Here, he is a younger action hero who studies the ways of all monsters in order to determine the best ways to kill each. When you add this inventor sidekick Friar Carl, this vision of the vampire hunter becomes somewhat of a steampunk James Bond (complete with Bond Girl Anna Valerious). Like the Bond movies, this movie is mainly about the action sequences and the charmingly evil villain, and less about Van Helsing’s hinted-at background or, indeed, any meaningful character development. However, Van Helsing does manage to come off as a complex character. His mysterious past and the way he chafes at the rules and regulations of the Knights of the Holy Order echoes with Jackman’s other role at the time, Wolverine, but it heads in a slightly different direction here. Van Helsing grows cynical with his work, particularly as he recognizes that not all monsters are necessarily evil, and as he is set up as a fall guy when he kills otherwise innocent people who happen to have a monstrous alter ego. Unlike the antihero Wolverine, Van Helsing appears to be a genuinely good man whose implied horrible past seems to have trapped him in this role. The comic relief character Friar Carl balances out Van Helsing’s angst with much needed breather moments, particularly when his High Intelligence Low Wisdom antics result in explosions (to be fair, one of the explosions did save Van Helsing and Anna from a whole mess of vampires). Unfortunately, Anna Valerious manages only to be a typical Bond Girl, for despite her apparently tragic background she has about the emotional depth of a puddle, something for which I fault the writers less than the actress.

The plot of the movie, fortunately, was overall engaging, both as a standalone story and as the extended homage to classic Universal and Hammer Horror films that it clearly was. It hits all the traditional notes, with the mad scientist and his Igor, werewolves (which looked… just okay), Count Dracula and his three brides (whose flying forms were original and harpylike, but rendered in laughably bad CGI), all set in Transylvania, the place from which all European monsters hail. It’s a rule, that’s why. Most of the monsters are as expected, though they did try hard with the man-wolf forms of the werewolves, and a very steampunk take on Frankenstein’s creation. In essence, this is a reimagined crossover of classic monster movies, and it works mainly because the result is so much fun to watch.

If you want a fun, fresh take on an old character and classic monsters, I recommend Van Helsing. It’s a typical Stephen Sommers film, which means you can expect monsters and excitement, and a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Speed (1994)


“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. If the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed. If it goes below fifty, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”

There are relatively few movies out there where the entire premise can be explained in a single line of dialogue. Fortunately, this one sticks to the basics. Bomb. Bus. Nameless potential victims. Mad bomber. Love interest. Heroic cop. Shit blowing up. All that’s left is for you to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Speed is an action thriller film directed by Jan de Bont and written by Graham Yost and Joss Whedon (Yes, that Joss Whedon). It stars Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sanda Bullock, Jeff Daniels, and a Santa Monica city bus.

Howard Payne is not a happy man. So show how unhappy he is, he traps a bunch of people in an elevator rigged with explosives, threatening to send who whole mess plummeting to a rather abrupt doom if his demands are not met. He is thwarted by SWAT officers Jack Traven and Harry Temple, who rescue the hostages, but Howard appears to get blown up by yet another bomb. Oh well. Jack and Harry are commended for their bravery, and all seems well, until the following day when a city bus driven by a friend of Jack’s goes boom. Jack receives a call at a nearby pay phone, and learns two things in rapid succession: Howard Payne is (surprise!) still alive, and he has rigged a second bus to explode. Once the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed, but once it drops below that… well, you get the idea. Since this second bus is an express bus, stopping it before the bomb is armed proves futile, leaving Jack with no alternative but to board the bus at cruising speed in order to ensure the safety of its passengers and try to figure out how to get everyone safe. Now, he and his fellow police officers must think fast during the only fixed scrolling level in cinematic history to keep a city bus from going boom.

This is not a complicated movie, as summarized by Payne. As one of the crew for Die Hard, naturally de Bont would bem well-suited for this “Die Hard on a Bus” scenario, and as far as that goes he does not disappoint. Speed doesn’t try to pretend to be anything but an extended car fu story, and in this respect it does well. The plot is exciting, the villain is Evil with a Reason (which you find out as the cops dip into Payne’s backstory), and the idea of being trapped on a city bus rigged to explode is a commuter’s nightmare.

That said, the acting is… about what you’d expect in a movie like this. Keanu Reeves had made other movies between Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and this one, but I think this is the first one where he managed to really shake off the spirit of Ted Logan and start to mature as a serious actor. Dennis Hopper is wonderfully hammy as mad bomber Howard Payne, and Sandra Bullock is charming as the frazzled brunette role she would go on to play in later movies. Among the supporting cast, the other police officers were surprisingly competant given the usual trend in the action genre, but amongst the imperiled passengers the only real standout is Alan Ruck’s character Stephens, notable for his diplomatic translation over a radio of Jack’s reaction to finding a second explosive device on the bus.

So, if you’re looking for a decent action movie with a deceptively simple plot, you could do worse than Speed. It’s not complex, but it is engaging in a Snakes on a Plane sort of way, and it would be worth a rental one evening if you had nothing else to do.

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

04/19/2011 1 comment

Some horror movies work because you don’t know why things are happening. Of course, humans are curious creatures, and when faced with terrifying, inexplicable phenomena, we try to figure out what is going on and why. This is both a minor failing and a major boon for the species, as it helps us understand the world when we risk getting eaten by it. A number of horror movie sequels try to explain what happened in the first one. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. How does this one fare? Let’s find out.

Paranormal Activity 2 is a supernatural horror film directed by Tod Williams, serving as both a prequel and a sequel to the original Paranormal Activity. It stars Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Seth Ginsberg, Sprague Grayden, and Micah Sloat.

In the year 2006, new parents Kristi and Dan Rey find themselves faced with a chilling event: their house has apparently been burglarized, with every single room ransacked save for the nursery. However, the only item that has been taken is a necklace belonging to Kristi’s sister Katie. Justifiably spooked, Dan installs a number of security cameras around the house, through whose neutral eyes we witness the events that unfold throughout the film. Over the next few days, Kristi and Ali, Dan’s daughter from a previous marriage, start to hear strange noises and see items moved by an unseen forces, and their housekeeper and nanny Martine is convinced that they are being tormented by evil spirits. Dan is skeptical, and fires Martine after her repeated attempts at spiritual cleansing. All the while, though, the security cameras continue to record, until it becomes apparent that the spooky activity is centered around baby Hunter, and it might be connected with a secret in Kristi’s family’s past…

I enjoyed this one about as much as I did the first movie. In haunted house franchises like this, too often the attempts to explain or justify the haunting makes it something lame, but not so here. While the collective plight of Katie and Micah from the first movie is given an explanation, the reason behind it makes their situation seem so much worse. This, paired with the stinger at the end, combines to chilling effect as you see the ultimate result of Dan’s final decision. Watching the first one along with this one helps a lot, especially as the timeframe of the second one is established relative to the first. The ending definitely leaves you with an “Aw, crap!” feeling that sticks with you.

As with the first, the characters here feel like real people. Dan’s attempts to reckon with the mysterious activity mirrors Micah’s from the first movie, but he’s less of a dick about it and he genuinely comes off as wanting to protect his new family. The role of poking the demon with a stick falls to older daughter Ali, who believes in the paranormal but doesn’t recognize the danger of the hauntings until much later, and her boyfriend Brad, who thinks the whole thing is a joke. Ali parses out a likely reason for the demon to torment their family through her research, and in the context of the tale it appears chillingly plausible. Her attempts to contact the thing with an Ouija board get half a pass here, as she had no psychic to warn her against such a thing, but even so she seems like she should know how stupid that would be. At least she doesn’t make their situation (much) worse with her messing around.

If you liked the first Paranormal Activity, you will likely enjoy Paranormal Activity 2. It expands on the overall story and explains some of the unseen spectre’s motives, without ruining the perceived menace. I do recommend watching the first movie before watching this one, so things make sense, but this one is a pretty spooky movie in its own right.