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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 Add to this the Frank Miller filter, and you’ve got a tale whose historical content is more in line with Clash of the Titans than Saving Private Ryan.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.

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30 Days of Night (2007)

04/11/2011 1 comment

Welcome to Barrow, Alaska: the northernmost point in the United States – so far north, in fact, that there’s a span of about a month where the sun don’t come up at all. Ordinarily that don’t bother most of the locals; those that don’t like it head south for sunnier climes and the rest just hunker down like the hardcore Alaskans they are. This year, though, things are a little bit different, as the prospect of a thirty-day dark has brought some hungry visitors to Barrow, and they’re not feeling too neighborly…

30 Days of Night is a vampire horror film directed by David Slade and based on the comic book miniseries of the same named by IDW Publishing. It stars Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, and Ben Foster.

As the quiet Alaskan town of Barrow prepares for its annual “thirty days of night” in the middle of the polar winter, Sheriff Eben Oleson notices that someone is taking great pains to isolate the residents, sabotaging the town’s communications and transport. When Eben’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Stella, misses the last plane south, it looks like she is going to be trapped there for the long night as well, which makes things awkward between the two of them as they try hard to avoid each other in a town whose current population is about 200 people. Eben discovers a twitchy stranger in town is stirring up trouble, necessitating his arrest and jailing. the stranger is far from upset about this, saying that death is coming, and he seems to be under the impression that death is gonna help him out for all the good work he did on its behalf. Eben thinks the guy is just a loon until the sun goes down for the last time, and some other newcomers attack the local telecommunication center and power supply, leaving the town dark and completely cut off from the outside world. As Eben investigates, he and the other locals make a horrifying discovery: a pack of vampires has descended on the town, taking advantage of the long period of darkness to feast on the blood of the living. Now, Sheriff Oleson is in the middle of a desperate fight to save the remaining townfolk and last through the darkness, hoping to make it until the sun rises again…

Now, anyone with a decent working knowledge of world geography knows that above the Arctic Circle the sun doesn’t seem to behave like it does in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. There’s a stretch in the middle of winter where the sun doesn’t rise. At all. In reality it isn’t as abrupt as it is in the movie, with a stretch of days where it just gets a little twilight-y without actual daytime, during the period depicted as full dark in the movie. The real-life Barrow is quite a bit more populous, boasting about 4,000 people with State PD rather than a local sheriff, and the airport doesn’t shut down in the winter except during storms. That’s the trouble with naming your fictional setting after a real town – the facts get in the way. But hot damn if the concept doesn’t make a neat vampire story. The vampires look like human-shaped sharks rather than merely pretty, predatory humans, and they’re ruthless and vicious and gigantic douchebags to their food source simply because they know they’ve cut off every avenue of escape. In the comic they get one hell of a smackdown from a master vampire who wants to keep up the Masquerade that this bunch are so happily wrecking; not so here. The solid black eyes and the mouth full of sharp fangs are chilling and psychopathic, and the extreme measures they take to make sure that absolutely nobody gets out is so brutally ruthless that I actually found myself a bit afraid of them. Those eyes have no soul. These vampires will eat your face, and enjoy it.

As far as the human cast goes, Josh Harnett fares well as Eben Oleson, but the other locals seem to fade into the background as potential vampire snacks, even his soon-to-be-ex who, while pretty handy in a pinch, never offers any clues as to the reasons for their split. The other humans are largely forgettable, and all in all the vampire sharks are more interesting than the townfolk. The dialogue felt a bit hackneyed at times – not so much a problem with what was in the script so much as the delivery. While the plot was mostly engaging, in the end most of the characters felt less like real locals in a real town way up in Bum Frapping Egypt, Alaska, and more like what they were – largely disposable characters in a vampire movie.

While the concept of vampires above the Arctic Circle had promise and the vampires themselves looked great, uninteresting characters and slightly odd dialogue made this more or less a conventional vampire movie in a new and interesting setting. While overall it was engaging as a vampire movie, unfortunately I think the comic miniseries did it somewhat better. Vampire fans should enjoy it, though. Rent it sometime.

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)


The AvP movie franchise had so much promise. It really did. The idea of Xenomorphs and Predators duking it out had been tested in print media, to great success. Both sides were well-detail as far as social structure, weapons, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses as fans of both series tried to calculate who would win, in the style of Deadliest Warrior. Then the first movie came out, and it was… mediocre. Nothing stellar. Of course, Universal seemed to like the idea of taking the Alien franchise to Earth (and portraying the chaos that would ensue in a populated area), so they made a sequel to their mediocre crossover.

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem is that sequel. Directed by Colin and Greg Strause, AvP:R picks up right where the previous movie left off and stars Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, and John Ortiz.

When I say this movie picks up right where the last one left off, I’m not kidding. Reminding the viewer in its first scene how screwed the Predators are when a Predator-Alien hybrid (hereafter Predalien) hatches from the chest cavity of the last surviving Predator from the first film, the film dives right into the action as this nasty critter matures and lays waste to the crew of the Pred ship. A distress signal is sent back to the Predator homeworld, and a single Predator is sent to investigate as the wrecked ship crashes in the woods outside Gunnison, Colorado, releasing a number of facehuggers and the Predalien. The facehuggers are first encountered by a man and his son out hunting, and as these facehuggers appear to still be on the accelerated gestation exhibited in the first AvP, it is not long at all before their guests hatch out. Meanwhile, the Predator lands, investigating the cause of the crash, and we learn that Pred visors can record as well as see in multiple light spectra. In the recording, he sees the beastie that shredded his comrades, and goes searching for it, using a weird blue liquid to destroy any evidence of the Predalien’s predations.

In town, a number of potential victims locals and visitors are seen, including an ex-con returning home to her family, the distressed wife of the hunter, the town sheriff, and a reluctant pizza boy sustenance delivery specialist trying to woo the girl of his dreams, only to incur the wrath of her current douchebag boyfriend soon-to-be-ex. Of course, the human plot soon spirals off into pandemonium when the Predalien takes up light housekeeping in a storm drain with its growing army of offspring, and the Predator heads into town in hot pursuit. And, uh… a monster movie ensues.

This movie managed to be even more mediocre than its predecessor. The quality was neither high enough to be considered a good movie, nor low enough to be an enjoyably bad movie. If you look at it as a pure monster movie, it’s about Sci Fi Original Movie-quality. As an Alien movie, it’s proof that the franchise might be running out of steam, and as a Predator movie, it doesn’t have quite the cultural details that made the hunters in the first two movies engaging, and the human characters are more one-dimensional than the cast of the first AvP. I found myself in the state of mind where I was having a hard time caring about the human side of the plot enough that the Predalien menace was thrilling, and in all the movie seemed to be aiming to shock me or gross me out than really engage me. In other words, it took the qualities that failed in the first and added blood and guts to make the second movie fail harder.

The Xenos in this film are variously bad CGI drones, ugly Xeno costumes (looking distinctly ragged, as opposed to the sleek, efficient design that made Alien and Aliens work so well), or unconvincing CGI chestbursters. The only Xeno that looked good was the Predalien, who combined distinctive traits of both Xenos and Predators, but it didn’t have nearly enough screen time to make up for it. The use of heavy shadows in the fight scenes boded ill for the FX guys’ confidence in the Predalien design, but given the context it mostly worked.

For a long time, the Alien people have wanted to make a “Xenomorphs on Earth” movie. They’ve been kicking it around since the early stages of Alien:Resurrection, and James Cameron was even working on his own Alien 5 script when the AvP movies began production. I hope this isn’t the best they can do. My advice for anyone who decides to try again – take the time to do it right! Putting good monsters in a bad story just makes a bad movie. As for AvP:R, give this one a big miss.

Paranormal Activity (2007)


Ever since she was a girl, Katie has been harassed by an unseen supernatural presence, which has subsequently followed her to the new home she shares with her boyfriend Micah. Micah has just had the brilliant idea of setting up a video camera at night to record some of the nocturnal goings-on, hoping that if they can capture proof of the paranormal maybe they might get some help in getting rid of it. If not, at least they have some cool footage of the supernatural to sell. Simple, right?

They are about to learn that this is the parapsychology equivalent of poking it in the face with a stick.

Paranormal Activity is a supernatural horror film written, directed, and edited by Oren Peli, who also set up his own house to use as the movie’s setting. It stars Katie Featherstone, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, and Amber Armstrong.

It starts simply enough. Micah (Sloat) comes home with a video camera which, as it is explained, he plans to use to record the nocturnal shenanigans of an unseen entity that’s been plaguing his girlfriend Katie (Featherstone), in the hopes of identifying it and getting rid of it. Katie explains the backstory on camera, implicating the being in the fire that destroyed her family’s home when she was eight. It returned when she was thirteen, and has recently shown up again since moving in with Micah. She doesn’t care about the money-making potential of the footage; she just wants the thing gone. They also enlist the help of a psychic (Fredrichs), who informs them that this thing is actually a demon that has fixated on Katie – but his area of expertise is ghosts and not demons, so he gives them the number of a local demonologist to consult, and warns Micah both of them not to antagonize or try to communicate with it. Naturally, Micah decides to be a dumbass, and the incidents only escalate. NICE JOB, MORON.

Of course, the real meat of this movie (around which the plot-padding is arranged) is the footage of what the invisible demon gets up to at night. Yes, that’s right. Invisible. The demon is never recorded on camera. However, all the phenomena that one associates with haunting footage are there – odd noises and knocking sounds, an unattended door moving while the homeowners are asleep nearby. A spooky addition is Katie getting up at butt-thirty in the morning and standing, staring at the sleeping Micah without moving while the footage fast forwards through the next two and a half hours. These events soon escalate to a horrifying conclusion (of which there are apparently four; I have only seen the DVD release one)…

Originally conceived as an independent film, it was picked up by Paramount after studio representatives saw it at a screening and promptly crapped their pants were impressed by the minimalist approach. The film premiered at the Screamfest Film Festival, was shown at the Slamdance Film Festival, and was screened at the Telluride Film Festival. It is currently the most profitable film ever made, filmed on a shoestring budget of $10,000 and earning $194 million worldwide.

I saw this movie a while back, not really knowing what I was getting into. I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project, so I gave this one a shot. It scared the piss out of me. I watched it again recently, this time knowing exactly what I was getting into. Guess what? It still scared the piss out of me. There is something so vulnerable about having stuff like this happening in the dead of night while you’re sleeping and helpless, and the fact that you never see the demon just makes things worse. The effects were subtle and understated, and the setup made something as simple as a door moving six inches by itself incredibly eerie. The fact that the nighttime shenanigans were filmed by a single fixed handheld camera on a tripod didn’t detract from the effect at all; rather, the in-universe camera made it seem more genuine, like these were actually a couple of college students with weird shit happening to them for no goddamn reason at all.

That said, if you don’t like the found footage genre, and if you like seeing your monsters onscreen, you probably won’t like this movie. Most of the terror is largely implied, leaving it up to the audience to imagine what sort of being is harassing them and what could possibly be causing the weird noises at night, not to mention the bits where Katie is shrieking her head off in another part of the house. The terrifying spikes of fear when the weird stuff happens makes the other scenes seem like padding, and there were bits where I just wanted the demon to eat Micah and be done with it. The psychic seemed to know his limitations well enough to realize when he was over his head, but bailing on them at the eleventh hour really didn’t help them at all, even if it was an effective barometer of how real things had gotten by that point.

So, if you liked The Blair Witch Project and you like subtle haunted house movies, you will probably enjoy being scared spitless by this movie. Just don’t watch it immediately before you go to bed.

1408 (2007)


Ah, Stephen King.

In the thirty-mumble years he’s been writing horror, a lot of his work has naturally been adapted to the screen. The results have been… mixed. At the high end we find The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, the latter of which scared the everloving piss out of its audience and remains a classic in its genre. At the low end we have movies like Maximum Overdrive, The Langoliers, and Children of the Corn.

I am happy to say that 1408 is at the upper end of this spectrum.

Released in 2007, 1408 stars John “Say Anything” Cusack and Samuel L. “Snakes on a Plane” Jackson, with Tony “Hey It’s That Guy” Shalhoub in a minor role. It was directed by Mikael Håfström and adapted from King’s short story of the same name.

Mike Enslin (Cusack) is a horror writer who travels across the country investigating so-called “haunted” sites, documenting his experiences and rating each one on his “Shiver” scale from one to ten skulls. However, he has become cynical and jaded, failing to observe any genuine hauntings amid a lot of hype and atmosphere offered by otherwise unnoticed flyspecks wanting to drum up business. This changes when he receives in his usual pile of mailed suggestions one entry that piques his interest – a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, inscribed with a warning: “Don’t stay in 1408.” Of course, this is the equivalent of saying to anyone in a horror movie “Don’t go in the woods,” “Don’t investigate that spooky house,” and especially “Don’t read the demon summoning spell in that book bound in human skin and then record it for the next bunch of unlucky campers to stumble across and start everything all over again. YOU. DUMBASS.” So naturally Mike wants to stay in 1408.

To his surprise, not only does the staff of the Dolphin not welcome the stay of a pseudo-famous writer in the infamous 1408, but the manager, Gerald Olin (Jackson) actively tries to discourage him, showing him photographs and news clippings of all the suicides (lots) and accidental deaths (fewer, but still statistically high) that occurred in the room, each one occurring within an hour of the victim’s arrival. Olin asserts that there is nothing in the room – the room itself is malevolent. Mike is impressed by all the trouble Olin is going through to warn him about this scary scary haunting, and decides to stay anyway. Finally, Olin acquiesces, and Mike gets his hotel room.

And Mike discovers that Olin was absolutely right.

This movie is unique amongst haunting stories in that there is, as Olin makes clear, no actual concrete presence in the room, no phantom or demon for the audience to hate. It’s just a hotel room, and so the audience rides along with Mike’s building frustration and fraying sanity as the room drags him kicking and screaming into the darkest corners of his own troubled psyche, forcing him to confront the death of his daughter Katie (of some unspecified illness) a year before, and his subsequent estrangement from his wife. The room’s visions are unbearably cruel, soon seizing on Mike’s powerlessness to save his family, and twist the knife over and over while Mike struggles to outwait an hour-long countdown (helpfully provided by the clock radio in the room), hoping against hope that when the hour is up, the room will be done with him, while intermittently being taunted by the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” as the leitmotif of unfathomable evil.

I haven’t seen many movies that manage to pull off the evil genius loci effectively, but 1408 manages pretty well. The idea of being trapped in a confined area that hates you shovels on the paranoia fuel in a way not seen since the Wall Monsters of early D&D. More than that, it can dig into your mind and conjure up the most traumatic memories you have, meaning you have no defense because it’s like being tortured by your own brain. More than that, 1408 will happily put you in an endless feedback loop of your own worst fears, but it won’t kill you. Oh no. That would be too easy. It makes you kill yourself, like the unholy spawn of Jigsaw and the Overlook Hotel.

John Cusack certainly had his work cut out for him, carrying the bulk of the action opposite an evil hotel room, but he pulled it off. As the room hits him with more and more nightmares, you really get a sense that rather than being the two-dimensional jerk he might have been in a lesser movie, Enslin is a real person, with a real history and genuine reasons for what he does. On some level he wants to believe in an afterlife, because then he has a chance to see Katie again, but as an atheist he can’t even allow himself this solace. And good old Sam Jackson, playing a character originally described as a white middle-aged British man, is comfortably no-nonsense in his relatively brief role as the guardian of his hotel guests and the last barrier between Mike and yet another boring stay in a not-haunted room monstrous, mind-bending psychological torture.

All in all, while the premise is very simple, the execution is brilliantly done, using little details to mess with the viewer’s mind just as the room messes with Mike’s. While the “haunted hotel” thing has already been done by King, here the scares are condensed to a single room, offering a more claustrophobic setting and tenser atmosphere as its hapless victim slowly goes maybe-crazy drowning in his own fears and anxieties. Just try not to rent it next time you’re traveling abroad.