Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Review: Halloween (2007)

Halloween (2007)
110 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

Rob Zombie's Halloween is among the most misguided, confused, and unfocused films I have ever seen. On its face, it is a remake of the classic 1978 John Carpenter slasher picture that kick started the modern day horror stalker/slasher picture that has provided steady product for the last 29 years since. But Zombie tries to have it both ways. He adds his own contrived spin to the Michael Myers mythology, while at the same time trying to appease the fans of the original by cramming in all of the original material as well, plus bits and pieces from Halloween 2 and Halloween: The Television Edit. As a Halloween picture, it is inferior to every other Halloween sequel. Regardless of its worth as a remake, it is a stunningly terrible, borderline offensive motion picture.

The plot: At the age of ten, young Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch) is already damaged goods. Living in a stereotypically redneck home, with the stereotypically redneck home life. After his sister ditches 'trick-r-treating' with Mike in order to have sex with her boyfriend, young Michael goes on a killing spree. Myers is immediately committed, where he is treated by a young Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, not coming anywhere close to the pathos that Donald Pleasence brought to even the sorriest sequel). Eventually, the film skips forward fifteen years, where Michael manages to escape from an asylum and return to the town of his original murder spree.

It's obvious that Zombie only cares about the overlong first act, where he parades around white-trash clichés in a ridiculous attempt to gain audience sympathy for Myers' murder spree (and convince us that growing up in a conventional abusive redneck household will turn you into a silent supernatural stalker of the night, as opposed to an Ed Gein or Ed Kempler-type serial murderer). The second act truncates the entire narrative of the original Halloween into 30-minutes of screen time. None of those in peril are developed and there is no suspense to speak of. The entire middle act is just one brutal, savage, and arbitrary execution after another. There is no set-up and no character development to allow us to care about any of the ill-fated targets.

With the original Halloween, John Carpenter was accused of ending the sexual revolution by equating premarital teenage sex with death (something he has jokingly apologized for). In Rob Zombie's version, there is often nothing onscreen for us to view except sex and death. For the entire second act, we see nothing but teenagers swearing at each other, having sex with each other, then being brutally knifed to death. But the violence is so cruel, and the victims such cardboard, that one gets the idea that Zombie is truly rooting for Myers, as to fulfill some nihilistic view of humanity that would probably be cool to an eleven year old boy. Most disturbing is the way that Zombie seems to lavish detail on the pain and suffering of the most morally upstanding characters, while giving quick deaths to the amoral characters on the chopping block.

Acting-wise, the cast does what they can. Malcolm McDowell gets to utter a few 'He's super-ultra evil!' speeches that Pleasence made so memorable, but he barely has enough screen time to craft a performance. The soul of the original, in fact the original series, was Pleasence's Captain Ahab-like Loomis. His sad, tragic descent from respected doctor to borderline insane monster-hunter gave the sequels a gravitas that they otherwise would have lacked. Even Halloween 6, filmed as Pleasance was dying, had a sorrowful power as Loomis had given up the ghost only to find he had nothing left to fill his remaining days (a parable of the once distinguished actor becoming trapped in the disrespected horror genre?). In this version, Loomis is reduced to that guy who you think will show up to save the day at the last minute. The rest of the cast members are onscreen for only a scene or two before their bloody demise, so none of them register in the slightest.

Halloween is 45-minutes of contrived back story, followed by 30-minutes of one completely context-less murder after another, followed by the obligatory climactic chase scene which generates zero suspense because the audience is given no reason to root for either party. It is perilously close to a snuff film, with absolutely nothing to say and no real reason to exist. Zombie's previous films were flawed, but they were interesting, warts and all. House Of 1000 Corpses was a throwback to the 1970s horror freak show genre, while The Devil's Rejects directly deconstructed many of the nasty staples that we claim to love about horror films. Halloween is none of these things. It's not scary. It's not fun. It's not smart. It's simply really violent. Savage violence for the sake of savage violence is worse than offensive, it's boring.

Grade: D+

Monday, June 25, 2007

Review: Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)

Live Free Or Die Hard
126 minutes
Rated PG-13

By Scott Mendelson

For the last two months, the story around Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard IV) has been Fox's decision to rework the film for the sake of getting a PG-13 rating. Of course, the original three Die Hard films were hard-R, with graphic violence, pervasive profanity, and a general rough-and-tumble quality that were (along with the Lethal Weapon films) the standard bearers of adult action entertainment for about a decade. Having now seen the film, I now ask Fox what exactly it was thinking, but not for the reason you think.

The film is still brutally violent, with an on screen body count that nearly exceeds the combined totals of parts 1 and 3 (part 2, with its two passenger airplane crashes, is still the
record holder). There are point-blank executions galore, and many vicious fight scenes, gruesome explosions, and fatal car wrecks. Point being, fans of the series should know that this is still a rough, profane, and violent adult action film. On the other hand, it's a sorry state for the MPAA when this is considered more appropriate for children than the previous entries just because there is less blood and no one says the 'f' word (the way they work in McClane's catchphrase within these confines is surprisingly effective).

However, for those who are old enough to attend middle school or drive a car, this is a surprisingly effective large-scale adventure picture. The plot involves Timothy Olyphant as a rogue ex-government agent attempting to shut down the country by hacking into our electrical systems. Ironically, the story progression in the first act often resembles Willis's terrific 16 Blocks from last year, albeit with emotional heft traded in for elaborate shootouts and fights. The action scenes are set-up in a way to mirror the claustrophobia and vulnerability of the original film. With the exception of a third act True Lies rip-off, the action bits are relatively creative and the filmmakers were smart to fill the villain roster with notable sidekicks and thugs. Maggie Q does king-fu and District B-13's Cyril Raffaelli does his 'parkour' wall-bouncing thing, alas all too briefly.

As for our star, a bald Bruce Willis slides back into his signature role with a minimum of fuss. The main qualms come with the heavy-handed treatment of the generation gap between McClane and the villain, as well as Willis's accidental sidekick (Justin Long plays a computer geek who's apparently too young to have heard of the classic song 'Fortunate Son'). Also, the screenplay goes a little overboard in re-establishing McClane as a bitter pill who only reluctantly saves the day (the opening scene is also a little creepy as McClane is shown basically stalking his college-aged daughter). Justin Long comes off better than expected, thanks to a subplot that deals with his guilt for having inadvertently helped cause the chaos that unfolds. For most of the film, he is not hip or cool, but scared and slightly ashamed.

Speaking of that college-aged daughter, the third act stumbles by allowing Lucy McClane to be abducted by the villains, which is unfortunate, as the character has been kidnapped in at least two Die Hard video games. Since the conflict between McClane and the evil Gabriel is established and Long spends much of the film in mortal peril, there is no reason to pull out this most tired of clichés.

Regardless of past whiffs (the Underworld films), director Len Wiseman proves capable of pulling together a solid, crowd-pleasing action vehicle that showcases authentic top-notch stunt work and quality fight choreography. As a bonus, the supporting cast is filled with reliable character actors. Cliff Curtis is solid as the head government agent dealing with the mess, although Zeljko Ivanek is so wasted that I was sure he was going to be revealed as a traitor in the third act.

I still question Fox's decision to dub out the f-words in order to get that PG-13 (the bad dubbing is pretty funny at times), since they've now created a film that is still inappropriate for younger
children but whose rating may scare off or offend hard-action junkies. And, if Fox wants the family audience, why are they opening this against Pixar's Ratatouille?

Studio politics aside, Live Free Or Die Hard is a fun, well-crafted adult action film. So far, with this and Rocky Balboa, we're 2 for 2 in 80s nostalgia revamps. This gives me hope for Rambo IV (which will be a hard-R), to say nothing of the much anticipated (and somewhat feared) fourth Indiana Jones film. It's not a patch on the original, or the underrated Die Hard 2: Die Harder, but it is about as good as Die Hard With A Vengeance. It doesn't "Die Hardest", but it doesn't "Die Hardly" either.

Grade: B

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Review: Ratatouille (2007)

110 minutes
Rated G

By Scott Mendelson

One of the tragic consequences of our hurried age is our acceptance of less. We are too busy to pay attention to current events, so we demand our news be delivered in easily digestible sound bites that often obscure the real issues. We are too busy to truly enjoy dining, so we settle for fast food and chain restaurants that use the same frozen ingredients that can be found in a grocery store. Never mind smelling the roses, we are often too busy or stressed to even acknowledge those roses.

Pixar and Disney's Ratatouille is a celebration of that which is better than expected, finer than demanded, and a cut above to that which we settle for. Of course, all of those adjectives can be used to describe the movie itself, as it validates excellence by being embarrassingly superior to other 'acceptable' cartoons. It is, along with the stunningly overachieving Meet The Robinsons, a call to arms from Disney to all of its rivals in the realm of the cartoon feature. It shames the makers of the pedestrian Shrek The Third and does unmentionable horrors to Happily N'Ever After. Disney has rebounded from three years of mediocrity (Cars, Chicken Little, The Wild) and it is a joyous revival. Disney is back in prime form and lovers of quality can rejoice.

Some plot, in brief... Set in modern day Paris, France, this charming cartoon concerns the hopes and dreams of a single rat named Remy (Patton Oswald). He lives with his rat family, yet scorns the low-quality dining options that are available (i.e.- garbage). For Remy, food is not just fuel, but art to be savored and appreciated. He yearns to cook like the late, fabled chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), who once ran the finest restaurant in Paris but died brokenhearted when his restaurant was ruined by a review from a scolding, influential critic (Peter O'Toole, doing his best Vincent Price impression). By happenstance, Remy quickly finds his way inside the kitchen of the legendary eatery and his arrival is simultaneous with that of Linguini (Lou Romano), a nervous would-be dishwasher who also yearns for better things.

That's all you get, for the wonderfully literate screenplay is full of genuine surprises. That the film is peerlessly drawn and richly animated is a given; yet the work should not go unnoticed. Like Meet The Robinsons, the cast is filled with real voice over talent with only a token amount of celebrities (all of whom deliver real performances of warmth and passion). The score by Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Lost) is lively and completely different from his previous stellar work. The technical credits are all peerless and they only serve to supplement a wonderfully clever story.

The film is perhaps the first mainstream American cartoon that is truly intended for adults. Yes, kids will enjoy it, but this celebration of talent over luck and high class dining versus frozen microwaved meals is aimed at intelligent adults' pleasure center. The manic mayhem is kept to a minimum and the comedy is subtle and sharp. At its base, it is a character drama about those who refuse to settle for their place in society, not because they can't fit in, but because they want to contribute more. It is also, in a fashion, about the joys of discovering that glorious 'superior'. There is a monologue towards the end that is stunningly beautiful, an ode to the joys of finding new treasures and new wonders to behold. Nothing beats finding something that, to paraphrase Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, you love so much that it hurts.

The film is also a declarative yelp against the acceptance of mediocrity. Why shouldn't we demand better food, better movies and better politicians? Pixar, as a company, has always been a stand-in for Hollywood's best-case scenario (talent + resources + heart + commitment to character and story = success!). Director Brad Bird asks: why shouldn't every movie be as good as this? And if they are not, why should we give them a pass? Ratatouille demands better by being much better than we are accustomed to. Ratatouille IS a movie that is so good that it hurts.

Grade: A

Note - If you can arrange it, make sure you have dining reservations after the movie, preferably somewhere you've never tried before. And for another food-related masterpiece, track down Big Night, a 1996 comedy starring Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci as brothers attempting to operate a small restaurant.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Review: Sunshine (2007)

105 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Sunshine is a movie that really denies a reason for its own existence. It knows what it wants to be, but fails to truly follow through with its intentions. Like 28 Days Later, director Danny Boyle's previous genre picture (the charming Millions was a family film of the best kind), Sunshine yearns to be a genre film pared down to its core and with plausibility as the primary mechanism of suspense or terror. But, like former film, it lacks the courage of its convictions and cops out in the most insulting way possible as its second act comes to a close. And, since the first two acts do little to differentiate this film from its ancestors, it invalidates itself by its own failure of imagination.

The plot, in brief: It is the year 2057 and the Earth is dying. No, there is not a giant asteroid or comet heading for Earth, nor has global warming remade the world, nor even has the Earth's axis stopped spinning. No, this time the culprit of our destruction is the Sun itself. The Sun has stopped burning and the Earth has been doomed by a dark ice age ever since. The Icarus II is the second vessel to attempt salvation, via dropping a nuclear bomb into the Sun. As this frazzled crew (containing, among others, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, and Chris Evans) nears completion of their mission, they come upon a signal that is apparently being sent by the first Icarus, which disappeared seven years ago. Ok, next time interstellar journeymen encounter a long lost ship, might they consider investigating this ship and its mysteries AFTER they complete their mission, on the way back home perhaps?

Sunshine basically attempts to be an art house version of the 'we must journey into space or into Earth to save Earth' picture. But the Incredible Journey-type film has been done indie-style before. If you want ponderous, pretentious art-house discussions about the nature of love and humanity, try the Solaris remake (2002). If you want the quirky-character-driven version, try the severely underrated and ridiculously entertaining The Core (2003), which imagines character-actors like Hillary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Delroy Lindo, and Stanley Tucci as world-saving geniuses. Sunshine offers very little that is new and interesting.

The characters are cardboard, with only the goodwill for these worthy actors anchoring our emotional investment. Even 1997's Event Horizon (itself a horror remake of the original Solaris) had more fleshed out characters than this allegedly high-class sci-fi picture. Fair warning... spoiler-phobes may want to skip the next paragraph as I discuss the fatally misguided third act.

I bring up Event Horizon (an underrated and supremely terrifying theater experience) because there is a third-act development that completely kills any interest. Yes the characters are nearly thin but the production values are sharp, the dialogue is crisp, and there is a token amount of excitement during the set pieces. Alas, at about the 70-minute mark, Danny Boyle again shoots himself in the foot by deciding to end his picture in the most generic, superficial, and overwrought manner possible. Just as 28 Days Later went from grimly realistic zombie epic to a 'shirtless and buff he-man storms the castle to save the helpless females from lustful villains' dud, Sunshine goes from contemplative 'save the world from itself' fable to 'and then there were none' horror show. Heck, a character even makes a joke about that cliché halfway through the film, to no avail it seems. Furthermore, the final scenes are shot in super claustrophobic and tight-angles where we never even get a good look at the antagonist. We become geographically lost as to where our heroes are, where the villain lurks, and what still needs to be done if the original mission is to succeed. It's just a mess.

Without the courage of its convictions, Sunshine has no real reason to exist. Its generic finale negates its appeal as a clinical space epic, while it fails to terrify or intrigue as a pure science- fiction picture. Regardless of its flaws, 28 Days Later still somewhat worked as a reinvention of the long-dormant zombie picture. But Sunshine belongs to a film-type that has many, many variations, depending on your poison. For a pure pulpy horror show, go with Event Horizon (and be reminded again, why you should never, ever travel with Sam Neill). For a character-driven almost comedic approach, try The Core. For a somber, empathetic look at the looming end of the world, try Deep Impact. For a gung-ho pure action adventure variation, there's always, um... Armageddon. Without a vision and follow-through all its own, Sunshine has no reason to rise.

Grade: C

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Review: Meet The Robinsons (2007)

Meet The Robinsons
95 minutes
Rated G

By Scott Mendelson

About halfway into Disney's Meet The Robinsons, I noticed my face was starting to hurt a little. I moved my jaw a little bit and nothing was specifically sore. After rubbing my cheeks for a second, I let it go and my face returned to that pained status almost instantly. I then realized that my face was in mild pain because I had been unconsciously grinning for at least the previous twenty minutes.  Meet The Robinsons is the best all-around cartoon since The Incredibles. It's actually funnier than The Emperor's New Groove and almost as moving as Toy Story 2. It's a broad declaration of war from Disney to all the other competing studios that have dipped their toes into the animation waters in the last few years. This is Disney at its prime. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Review: Host, The (2007)

The Host
115 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

The Host is a surprisingly successful combination of a number of genres. It is at times, a genuinely scary monster movie, a poignant family drama, a campy comedy, and, like all of the best horror films, a richly symbolic political parable. That it all gels together is almost a matter of luck. It is one of the very best monster movies in many many years, partially because it remembers to actually make your monster something to be truly frightened of.

The plot, in brief: Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is a loving, if absent-minded father to young Hyan-seo (KO A-sung). During the day, he helps run a food stand near the Han River Bridge with his own father. All hell breaks loose on a random afternoon when a giant mutation leaps out of the river and kills dozens of citizens before snatching Hyan-seo and returning to the waters below. Fearing the worst, the rest of the family reunites and is taken into custody by the government, as the powers that be fear contamination of an alleged virus that this monster allegedly carries. After a very-much alive Hyan-seo is able to contact her father from the layer of the monstrous 'host', the entire family makes a desperate sprint to save their youngest member. Ironically, the biggest obstacles to this quest are not the threats by the monster, but the 'monstrous' bureaucracy of an uncaring and ruthless South Korean government, which may be taking its orders from someone else.

First and foremost, the creature in question was created partially by WETA Workshop (the FX house that Peter Jackson founded and used for Lord Of The Rings, King Kong, and The Frighteners), and it shows. Although the CGI isn't always seamless, the actual monster is truly horrifying. This is easily the scariest original onscreen creature since The Relic (without that creature's unfortunate resemblance to Snufalufagus from Sesame Street). Even though it's barely the size of a bus, it's presence looms much larger. Even the initial attack is shocking in its banality. It strikes without warning, in broad daylight, in plain site. The almost comical casualness of the scene and its presentation is surprisingly effective. Also worth noting is the issue of onscreen violence. Director Bong Joon-ho carefully picks and chooses when to show you gore and when to keep it off screen. Much of the violence is off screen or discreet, but every once in awhile he gives you a full on viewing of slaughter and carnage (different genre to be sure, but Last King Of Scotland also successfully used the withholding of onscreen violence to make the eventual reveals all the more sickening).

The acting is completely appropriate, bouncing between almost comical displays of anguish and deadly serious brooding. What's more noteworthy is the razor-sharp political satire than exists within. As is often the case with monster movies, the real monster is 'us'. Much of the second and third acts of the picture involve the family struggling to escape from government authorities and those who are frightened enough by the government-fueled hysteria that they would turn in their own friends for a small reward. The film specifically indicts US international policy as an unwanted and often murderous meddler as the monster is more or less created by American scientists who force Koreans to dump dangerous amounts of formaldehyde into the public waters (something that actually happened in 2000). The funniest bits involve the news coverage of the attack, which concentrates almost completely on the one American victim. This lone decent American dies heroically saving others yet becomes a key propaganda tool in suppressing the people and enforcing authoritarian martial law. The would-be subtext and symbolism is overflowing, and I'll let you decide what the movie means to you.

Yet, even if you choose to ignore the politics, you're left with a truly frightening and exciting monster movie, which balances the fantastical with a completely convincing family drama that
effectively grounds the genre elements in a frightening 'plausibility'. The horror elements are convincingly scary and pulse-pounding. The family struggles are genuinely moving. The subtext is multi-layered never simplistic. And, when appropriate, the film is laugh-out-loud amusing. Regardless of what kind of film you find The Host to be, it's a terrific piece of entertainment.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Review: Hitcher, The (2007)

The Hitcher
95 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

When my fiancee and I approached the specific theater, we noticed that the employees were checking Ids with unusual vigor, and I silently laughed to myself. I had nothing to worry about. After all, I was old enough to distinctly remember the original Hitcher being released in theaters. Gosh, I'm getting old. Yes, I'm also old enough to remember what made the original so quirky and interesting back in ancient 1986, so I can tell you that this remake seems to make a conscious effort to dilute all that was special about the old trashy B-movie original.

The plot... Grace and Jim are two kids who are traveling on a road trip for spring break along various highways. This, along with the fact that they are both very attractive, is all we ever learn about them, period. Meanwhile, as Ken and Barbie drive along in search of America, the mysterious John Ryder steps out from the darkness, with a broken down car and the completely trustworthy persona of Sean Bean. Now Sean Bean is one of my favorite actors, but I kinda wish they had cast Sam Neil, so it would advance my ongoing theory that one should never, ever travel anywhere with Sam Neil (Dead Calm, Jurassic Park, In The Mouth Of Madness, Event Horizon, Jurassic Park 3, The Triangle, etc).

Anyway, when Sean Bean shows up in a dark, flapping trench coat in the dead of night and asks for a ride, most intelligent folks would opt to call him a tow-truck instead (AAA: it's not just for responsible adults, it's for serial killers too!). Of course, these idiots do give him a ride and mayhem and carnage ensues in a similar manner to the original. Needless to say, the violence is a little more graphic, but since the original's violence caused a minor stir back in the day, one can't skirt on the blood and/or guts (the 'oh-my!' moment of the original, which was off-screen, is now presented in all it's gory, err, glory). Fun fact: the original was funded by one of the companies that George W. Bush was a board member on before politics, and its financing of The Hitcher was a minor scandal during the 2000 election, due to its infamous violence.

What is skirted on, unfortunately, is the darkly comic character interaction of the original. In the first film, the hunted was not a CW-tested teen couple, but rather a single lonely, vaguely geekish kid, Jim (C. Thomas Howell) on his first adventure. And John Ryder (Rutger Hauer in a career-defining performance) wasn't just a one-note killing machine, but a weird dreamlike phantom who tried to connect to our hero for reasons that were implied but never stated. And the addition of a random girlfriend right at the beginning allows the filmmakers to play gender reversal at a few key points, which is fine until the ghastly finale that exchanges dark pathos and compromised humanity for false and insulting 'girl power'.

This is the first real miss for Platinum Dunes, which was founded by director Michael Bay as a way to give untested but promising filmmakers a crack at success, using lower-budget remakes of older horror films as the vehicle. They debuted with the slightly better than expected Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (2003), then returned with a stunningly scary and effective improvement on The Amityville Horror (2005), then followed up at the end of last year with a prequel to their Chainsaw film that was actually better and far more interesting than both of its forebears (yes, that's right, the characters were far more richly developed than those in the 1974 'classic').

With this fourth entry, we get the very kind of film that most everyone was expecting from this company when they were first announced. It's boring instead of scary, condescending in its alterations, and completely drained of the disturbing character interaction that made the original as memorable as it is to geezers like myself. In short, The Hitcher is one ride you should refuse. And, for a better example of this genre, try the original Hitcher (duh), The Hitcher II (it's allegedly decent made for video sequel; can't be any worse than this one right?), Duel (Stephen Spielberg's first movie, way back in 1971), and one of my favorite scary movies of this decade, Joyride, a stunningly well-made thriller that didn't find the audience it deserved in late 2001.

Grade: C-


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