Monday, November 29, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Christmas shopping season is among us. Wherever you go, retail stores compete for your holiday dollar while charities simultaneously vie for your donations, monetary or otherwise. But as a sendoff for the prior year's events, the group we gathered for Thanksgiving decided to check out a horror film whose trailer had briefly made the rounds on Facebook. When I first saw the trailer for Thankskilling, it was obvious to me that the film was going to be bad and intended to be, with low budget, poor acting and trite dialogue and characters composing an entertaining if uninspiring smattering of clips. Frankly, I was sure I'd never see the final product and didn't really care whether I did or not, so poor was the quality of what I saw. Fast-forward to Thanksgiving night, when my friend Peter announced that Thankskilling was indeed available to view - and on Netflix streaming, no less - and worked it out with everyone that this was the film we were going to see that night.

Now, I'm not embarrassed to admit I was a little interested to see this film at the time. For one thing, I had a few beers in me by this point, and enough Thanksgiving grub in my belly that my judgment was understandably impaired.Also, while the trailer was undeniably awful, it did have one thing going for it: the potential for cult popularity. After all, how many movies are you going to see that include paranormal, homicidal turkeys who can apparently shoot guns, drive cars, and, naturally, kill college students? That was my thought process going into watching this film, though the outcome was rather closer to my initial trailer critique.

Surprisingly, the film sports animation better than some of it's big budget counterparts
Apparently, some Native American witchdoctor was insulted by American settlers over 500 years ago, and in retaliation, this mage summoned a demonic and insult-spewing turkey to murder all the white people it meets. Cut to present day, and this jive turkey has been resurrected in time to meet five college kids on their way home for Thanksgiving break. Naturally chaos ensues, and what follows is a fairly cliched plot that has no real surprises and no questions to ask except for exactly how much in the way of narcotics were ingested in making this film.

Scream! You're in a bad horror film!
First, let's look at the story. The five credited writers (it took FIVE writers to put this crap together?) were obviously high on opiated throughout the creative process. They didn't let little things like logic or subtlety or talent get in the way of writing the kind of film they wanted to display to the world. Certain things about the murderous turkey are unexplained or glossed over, such as how he can handle a shotgun, drive a car, or where he suddenly gets a tee pee. Also, why any of the characters would be friends with one another is seriously in question, as the five are about as far from one another on the personality matrix as could possibly be. And seriously, why does nobody even notice when the turkey wears a disguise that wouldn't fool a five year-old?

The turkey fools the characters, but we all know it's just a rubber glove
The acting isn't much better. Kristen 'The Good Girl' is supposed to be the never-give-up survivor type, but Lindsey Anderson doesn't have talent to make that appear genuine. Johnny 'The Jock' is portrayed as a smug footballer by Lance Predmore. At least Johnny has an actual backstory, as he has a feud with his father simply because he didn't make first-string quarterback. Ryan Francis overplays the dorky Darren 'The Nerd'. So does Aaron Ringhiser-Carlson as Billy 'The Hick'. And Natasha Cordova carries a standard Beverly Hills accent into her role of Ali 'The Slut'. With the exception of Johnny, there isn't any semblance of depth to any of the characters, and no reason to relate to - let alone like - any of them. None of the actors are particularly talented, though at least Cordova and Predmore did somewhat good jobs in portraying cliches, which is all they really needed to do. Other roles, including an old guy calling himself General Bastard as an old hermit named Oscar and Chuck Lamb as Sheriff Roud are too ridiculous to recount. The turkey's voice is not credited as far as I can tell, but except for a few witty one-liners, there isn't a much to even make a likable villain out of.

I really can't explain this
I can't stress this enough; Thankskilling was obviously made with the help of massive amounts of drugs, both legal and illegal. And I think that's the only way to enjoy watching the film too. Some may think that by the point you witness a song number about two of the characters being best friends, it's jumped the shark and admitted that it was never meant to be anything but a big joke. I, however, pretty much thought that as soon as I saw the trailer, so it was for me more of the same. If anything, it's an insanely retarded horror film with poor plotting, poor acting, mediocre dialogue and a budget so low it could do the limbo. If the killer turkey had been remotely interesting it would have been better, but cult status might be beyond even this films low reach.. There are SOME good bits, such as the film's theme interesting theme song and an opening so insanely ludicrous it'll make you laugh. But again you'd have to be as high as the filmmakers were, so some pre-Thankskilling drinking may be in order. I can't by any means suggest this film to anybody with a pulse, but if you are really hard up for a Thanksgiving-themed slasher flick, it's out there. It may be horrible, but under the right conditions you MIGHT be able to sneak some enjoyment out of it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Revenge of the Drens

In 2010, it has been a familiar story. See trailer for upcoming film. Trailer looking interesting, I eagerly anticipate the film's release. End result: Either the film is released in so limited a fashion that I have literally no chance to see the film in theaters (see: Jack Goes Boating, Centurion), or other films take precedence and the film passes before I've had a real chance to catch it (see: The American, The Losers, Paranormal Activity 2, Jonah Hex, The Last Exorcism). Either way I'm kicking myself for missing them at the theater, while patiently awaiting their DVD release for my perusal. The latter happened with Splice this past June. Just missing it in theaters after unimpressive box office results bid it a quick adieu, I was forced to wait until the film was released to see it, and even then after catching up on several other films I'd missed from earlier this year. Still, this film about gene splicing and cloning going horribly wrong definitely struck a chord when I first learned about it, and I had no doubt that it would be fighting for a spot on my Top 10 List for 2010.

So... yeah... wanna make out?
Splice introduces us to genetic engineers Clive (Adrian Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polly), who have seen their latest scientific breakthroughs all but thwarted by the higher-ups in the company that funds their research, who want their experiments to begin providing profitable rewards. Then, unknown by their employers, Clive and Elsa build a new life form, splicing many of the genetic codes they've used before with a sample of human DNA, a huge no-no in the scientific community. Operating under the noses of their bosses, the creature they sire grows quickly and develops from infant to young woman in a very short time frame. Dren, as she is called (nerd backwards), continues to develop new evolutionary traits and eventually becomes a danger not only to her "parents", but the world as a whole were she to be released unto the populace.

Well, sure, they're all cute when they're SMALL
Splice is directed by Vincenzo Natali, who many might remember for his work on the cult film The Cube. He's done a number of films since then, though the mainstream film watcher no doubt has heard of none of them. He's certainly a good enough director to tackle bigger projects, though this film seems to fall right in his comfort zone, taking on a timely controversial topic (in this case, human cloning and its genetic variants) and running with it. The film doesn't take itself too seriously, infusing the right amount of sweetness and humor into Dren's upbringing before letting the horrific aspects of the story take over. Natali also isn't afraid to leave some things ambiguous and up to the mind of the viewer. This might be one reason Hollywood hasn't nabbed him yet, as many American audiences seem to need every detail explained to them while watching a film, rather than just taking in the story and interpreting it their own way. With this film, Natali does an amazing job of letting the story tell itself, the characters growing around events they initiated but ultimately beyond their control.

Aww, look, she made a special friend!
It's been a big come-back year for Adrien Brody. The youngest ever recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his role in 2002's The Pianist, Brody had since not done too much, with most of his roles being overlooked by stronger performances in the same film (Hollywoodland) or giant monkeys. And those were his GOOD movies, outnumbered by his bad films and flops. Splice may not be the film that finally brings him back to the upper level, but starring in the action film Predators certainly won't hurt. He's the second-best part of this film, his performance as the dissenting voice to beginning this project in the first place to finding himself caring for this young woman who he has helped raise. Sarah Polly is less fun to watch, as she comes off as obstinate and immature. Elsa has her good points too; she's nerdy, funny and isn't opposed to a fully-clothed quickie when the need arises. She's also a driven worker, though her moral compass seems to need some tweaking. Not that I'm complaining much in that regard; her journey through experimental motherhood undergoes some bumps and bruises, but they also are the driving force when the film changes tack in leading to the film's conclusion. But the best performance in the film may be the one non-speaking role of Dren. Let me say first that the special effects on Splice are amazing in that Dren comes alive, her movements graceful sometimes innocently meek, her voice a high-pitched chirp. Her apparent innocence in the film's beginning makes the film that much more tragic when she begins to lean down the dark path. And French actress Delphine Chaneac deserves ample credit for her role, in which she had to communicate not only with Clive and Elsa but also the audience every thought that she wanted to express, and with every smile, frown and embarrassed look she did so smartly and wonderfully.

Okay, she's still kinda cute
The film doesn't have much in the way of secondary characters, as most of the film revolves around the above three pretty much nonstop. David Howlett, best known for his Stargate character Dr. McKay as well as starring in pretty much every Natali film to date, is an asshole of a boss who doesn't do much more than that. Brandon McGibbon plays Clive's scientist brother. He doesn't do much. Simona Maicanescu might be the best of the bunch but she, too, isn't present much as Howlett's superior.It's often a strain on a film that the main focus must be constantly maintained on so few major characters, but here it works out. What the film may lack in secondary roles it makes up for by getting the most it can out of its stars the whole time.

Okay, not so cute anymore
I wasn't sure what I was getting into with Splice, but with great special effects, no worse than good acting from the cast involved and great storytelling, Splice showed me a film that wasn't a horror film until it had to be, and in doing so became in my opinion the best horror film I've seen this year. Good enough for #10 on my Top 10 List, I'd recommend it to anyone who wants something a little different to see.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks! I'll be taking Friday off, so I'll see you back here on Monday, Nobember 28'th for my next review. Hint: It probably won't come anywhere near my Top 10 List. If it does, then the list must be broken.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Bloody Good Time

The legend of the Roman Ninth Legion is an interesting one. Supposedly, the veteran legion of over three thousand men who were stationed in Roman-occupied England in the waning years of the Empire disappeared in the woods of Scotland. Though this may no longer be the preferred explanation of historians who believe that the Legion was actually transferred to the eastern fringes of Roman occupancy and destroyed there, either in Judea or Parthia, it's certainly enough of an idea to capture the imagination of filmmakers. Next year, I'll likely check out The Eagle, which is about that very idea (though I'll likely enjoy Jaime Bell's performance more than that of the film's "star", Channing Tatum). But that film likely will have little improvement on a film that reached limited release this year, Neil Marshall's Centurion. When the film was first released this past summer, I was first entranced by the cast, which included The Wire's Dominic West and Quantum of Solace's Olga Kurylenko. When I discovered that Marshall was the director, I was hooked and determined to see the film at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, it's run in theaters was depressingly short, and my busy schedule meant I didn't get a chance to see it immediately. So it was only recently, when i re-discovered the film on DVD, that I finally got the opportunity to sit down and take it in. Would it be worth the wait?

Yeah, if I saw her chasing me, I'd run faster...
Centurion gets off to a quick start. In Roman-occupied Britain, the army is faring poorly against the Picts, Celtic warriors inhabiting the Scottish highlands. The Picts fight a guerrilla war that is foreign to the soldiers of the Roman military. They use sneak attacks and feints to defeat much larger foes, and the Romans have no plan or tactic against it. Under pressure from Rome, the governor sends the Ninth Legion north into Scotland under the command of Titus Flavius Virilus (West), their elite military army, to wipe out the Picts once and for all. That doesn't quite work out for them, as the Ninth is obliterated in an ambush that results in the capture of Titus and decimation of his soldiers in a battle bloodier than any you've seen in recent years. In the end, only seven soldiers are left, led by Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender). They decide to rescue Titus before returning home, all the while being hunted by the hunter and assassin Etain (Kurylenko), who has her own reasons for spilling Roman blood.

...Faster than him, anyway
While "Seven Centurions with Swords" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "Six Chicks with Picks", Centurion shares some similarities with Marshall's previous films. In seemingly all Marshall movies, a small group is cut off from all help and forced to fight the elements, each other and external forces in an attempt to get home, and Centurion is no different. Many of these men are damned to die never being able to see their homes or families again, as they are killed off one by one the closer they get to their homeland. Not all the soldiers are noble, either, and some downright villainous, and this thankfully leads to something of a mix of character types. But the thing it truly shares with it's predecessors is the blood flow. Marshall never shies from spilling blood, guts, or anything else in his battles, whether they be one-on-one or hundreds against hundreds. When someone, good or bad dies, you wince automatically, as the death is as brutal as you can expect from a Marshall film.

Not a zombie film, but from this shot you'd be forgiven to think so
The film, though similar in tone to Marshall's previous works, still manages to keep the tension high. Though the film is at it's heart a chase/action film, it doesn't feel samey and the audience doesn't feel like it's been sitting through the same sequence over and over. And any time Kurylenko is on the screen, that tension is tripled, as even playing a mute assassin she manages to convey with her mannerisms most of what you need to know to get the character, with what little else to know spoken of by others. Simply her presence is performance enough, and as a physical embodiment of revenge she's the real star of this film. Fassbender, before this best known as the Inglourious Basterds officer who couldn't count to three in German, is noble and strong as the film's lead. He comes across believably as a leader of men in dire circumstances, consumed with getting these soldiers home. Dominic West, best known (and amazing) as Det. Jimmy McNulty in the HBO series The Wire (The best show you've never seen, or in many cases ever heard of), has only a small role in this film but as a General who commands the respect of his men by leading them into the fight and will sacrifice anything for them, he works with his usual charismatic style. West is one of the best actors who hasn't made it big on the mainstream stage, and any chance you have to see him, you should take it.

They're not exactly "merry men"
It's a shame the film's secondary characters don't get as much presence as the film's stars. Far too often are characters confusable with one another, and it's not until after the scene is over that you realize who has died and who is still around, or which character committed a particularly dastardly deed. This isn't helped by the fact that most of these characters get precious little time for introspection, so we know very little about them before they are wiped from the slate of the film. The most recognizable of them creates his own problem, as while Noel Clarke is a talented actor, somehow a black Centurion seems a little too far-fetched to be believable. Marshall has stated that the film was never mean to be historically-accurate, but still. Are there any historians out there who can tell me whether this was at all feasible? Regardless, the handling of the film's cannon fodder could and should have had more time attributed to it. The best of them is actually Imogen Poots as Arianne, a Pict outcast that the survivors meet late in the film, with Liam Cunningham a close second as a veteran Roman soldier named Brick.

She just watched Quantum of Solace for the first time
The best thing about the film might be the moral ambiguity of it all. Though Dias is obviously an honorable man, and Etain more or less a monster (though justifiably so), the Romans are not necessarily the heroes of this tale. Though the Picts are shown as "tribal" and "barbaric" in their living styles as opposed to the "civilized" Romans, they almost certainly could be seen as the "good guys" from a different angle. After all, the Romans committed atrocities against the local British populace during their invasion and occupation in expanding their Empire. The Picts simply want to drive the Romans from their shores, to live free apart from the Empire. The legendary fate of the Ninth Legion is not so surprising when you consider the expansion of empires over the centuries, and their inevitable weaknesses from becoming stretched too thin. Getting back to the film, however, we still only have Dias to root for, and Etain to root against. That it could easily be the other way around is an interesting, and no doubt there's some who saw this movie thinking just that. In the end we're just hoping someone chops the head or arm of somebody else, to sate our apparent blood lust.

There's a LOT of blood in this film
It might not have been as good as Marshall's best film, The Descent, but Centurion was in my opinion well worth checking out. It's a shame when small imported films like this get overlooked for U.S. wide release, with Hollywood instead deciding to churn out their own story shortly afterward. I have no doubt that 2011's The Eagle will be nowhere close in quality to Centurion, despite it's assuredly larger budget and billions of camera filters to get the look "just right". It's a shame because Marshall is one of those directors who will never get any real attention from the mainstream until he makes some film about a far-east boy who finds the love of his life thanks to a corrupt quiz show (Sorry, Danny Boyle). But Marshall doesn't do that kind of film. He makes bleak, non-heroic action films in which the characters are often running away from danger instead of into the thick of it. And that's good enough for #7 on my Top 10 List. A little more character development would have gone a long way, but blood and guts and strong acting from all corners makes this not only one of this year's faves, but one of the year's more unappreciated flicks. It's not for everybody (Understatement of the year), but for those it appeals to, it is worth a watch.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Welcome to Dragon Training

It's got to be tough being DreamWorks sometimes. Even though the animation company, launched in 1999 by Steven Speilberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, launched an award-winning, worldwide cultural phenomena with Shrek in 2001, it has been overshadowed by rival Pixar for what feels like forever. Since animated films were finally given their allotted due with the Academy Award for Best Animated being introduced in 2001, DreamWorks has won the award only twice: for Shrek in 2001, and for the stop-motion Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005. Pixar, meanwhile, has tasted success five times with Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009), cementing their place as the more celebrated animation studio. And of the two studios, Pixar also has the only film that has broken the one BILLION dollar mark for gross, with this year's Toy Story 3. But give DreamWorks credit: they never give up and released three 3D animated films this year in Shrek Forever After, the recently-released Megamind, and the one that might be up for some awards at year's end, How to Train Your Dragon.

...And THAT'S how you train a dragon
Based on the fictional children's books by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon takes place in the Viking island of Berk, where the local populace is tormented by a particular variety of pest. Dragons roam the area, stealing livestock (or anything appropriately food-like) from the villagers, who in turn attempt to capture and kill the invaders. Nobody knows where the dragons attack from, and the leader of the Vikings, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) often leads his warriors in raids on the fog-shrouded dragon territory, usually resulting in disaster. The story focuses on Stoick's son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), and undersized boy with a penchant for clumsiness and not at all cut out for fighting dragons, much to the embarrassment of his father. He is also the object of scorn from the other young people in the settlement, all looking to become hunters in their own right, especially Astrid (America Ferrera), the girl Hiccup pines over. Hiccup's helplessness reverses when he somehow befriends an injured dragon that he names Toothless, helping the creature re-learn to fly and the two fast becoming best friends. However, it's only a matter of time before he can keep this secret friendship hidden from a society that hates dragons with a burning passion.

The fire effects are especially eye-popping
I'd been trying to get this film for a while now, all the rental places had been out for weeks and it was becoming less and less likely I'd see it before my interest ran out. I had pretty much passed it over when the film was released in March, and only witnessing lavish praise heaped upon it for months after it's release made me think that perhaps I should sit down and watch this. I'm usually not immediately on-board with animated films, even those which have gotten gross recognition. I didn't see last year's Up in theaters, though when I finally got around to seeing it, the film became one of my favorite films of the past decade. I've never seen a Shrek film. I watched Toy Story on TV, but never saw the second, which many hailed as being better than the first. The Incredibles I rented on DVD. I still haven't seen WALL-E or Ratatouille. Despite how much I invariably enjoy animated films, I almost always overlook them when they come out in theaters in favor of other, live-action titles. Maybe some part of me thinks they're for kids? The best animated films can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and How to Train Your Dragon is no exception.

...Aaand so are the atmospheric effects
The film is somewhat of a retelling of the classic "boy and his dog" archetype; Hiccup must hide his pet/friend from his father lest there be consequences. That the film does this while incorporating breathtaking visuals and dragon fights is a bonus, and the film is worth watching for it's beautifully-rendered backgrounds and settings alone. And yet it still comes back to the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless, as well as that between Hiccup and his father, that drives the story forward.

Hiccup attempts to protect Old Yeller... I mean Toothless
The voice acting is especially good, even if you take umbrage with Norse warriors being depicted with the Scottish voices of Butler, Colin Ferguson and David Tennant. Butler especially is noticeable in his performance as the great warrior of the village of Berk. He varies between strong warrior and frustrated father with ease. The only unfortunate thing is that he's so recognizable (and he was the only one I KNEW was in the cast before I watched it) that it breaks the suspension of disbelief, with my mind telling me that this was Butler, not Stoick. Ferguson I recognized - though could not name - and enjoyed as Stoick's friend and Hiccup's mentor Gobber the Belch. From his portrayal of the Viking handicapped by years of battle with the dragons, Ferguson conveys a respect for the character inherent in being the buffer between father and son. He does all he can to help Hiccup and persuading Stoick to give his son a chance. America Ferrera does a great job as Astrid, a powerful young warrior who eventually learns to like Hiccup. Though not given a lot to do for the film's first half, she makes it work when it's her time to shine. Other youths take a part of the story, but they don't have a lot to do with the time they're given. That they're so good helps, however, especially T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig as rival fraternal twins. Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are also great in limited roles, adding humor and character in small doses to the audience. The only actor who might be considered a disappointment would be Baruchel, whose voice seems to sometimes be perfect to the dialogue he's given, while other times seeming completely out of place. His is a small quibble within a sea of talented voice actors, but since he's the main character it is possible to be sick of hearing his voice by the end.

Like most animated films, human character are just a LITTLE off
The film only has one additional problem in my opinion, and it's with the film's animation style, especially those of the dragons we see during the film. While the backgrounds and distance shots are all beautiful, the movements of the dragons, especially the big ones, see a bit clunky and not nearly as smoothly animated as the rest of the film. While even the human characters stand out a little from the settings they're plunked in, the dragons are even MORE removed, making them seem out of place and almost hokey. Well, okay, Toothless is fine, but I suspect only because the animators put so much more work into him to make it work for the viewer.

Uhm, sure, you can be there for the sequel...
In the end, I'm not even sure How to Train Your Dragon will be remembered as the best ANIMATED film this year, as opposed to some who would seem to think it deserves discussion as best film this year. It certainly deserves a spot on my Top 10 Movies of the Year, but at #9 I wouldn't count on it staying there too long. I really enjoyed this film for it's amazing art and animation, even if the dragons weren't too well incorporated. A little character development would have gone a long way, but I can't complain about a film that was feel-good from beginning to end and succeeded in transporting me to a world where Vikings and dragons co-exist in such an awesome way..If you haven't seen it yet, do so now.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

'Skyline' an Airball

Wow, I was hoping for so much more. When the teaser trailers for Skyline began appearing back in August, I got excited.over it's interesting concept and promising special effects. I steadfastly avoided all subsequent information on the film until it's November release, and saw it yesterday with all the anticipation of a child about to go to town on his Halloween candy. Afterward, like that same child, I felt not too well about the whole experience.

Remind me, do aliens kill virgins or are we only safe in a pure horror film?

Directed by the Brothers Strause, helmsmen on the mediocre-at-best Aliens vs. Predator Requiem, Skyline certainly did not skimp on the special effects. As long-time special effects gurus and owners of the  Hydraulx SFX studio, brothers Greg and Colin have worked in the medium since their earliest days on the X-Files sets. In this way the effects - even on a meager budget - stand out as some of the best seen this year. Unfortunately, this is the only thing the film has to recommend it, as the rest is a mess compiled of every sci-fi horror film ever unleashed upon unexpecting audiences.

It's Turk!
The film begins with Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson) visiting Los Angeles for the birthday of Jarrod's best friend Terry (Donald Faison). After a fairly wild party, the group wakes up early the next morning when beams of light suddenly drop from the sky, "abducting" any who are caught in their gaze. Later, a second wave of alien craft descend to the Earth, and the survivors decide that they must escape before they suffer the same fate of those who have already been taken.

Why the aliens actually need the light to abduct people I don't get
Sounds like pretty standard fare, doesn't it? The "light" aspect of it is actually pretty inventive and done well thanks to the aforementioned SFX talents inherent in the building of the film. The light is almost addictive in nature, making the viewer feel powerful while at the same time sucking them into helplessness. Sadly, this small detail is only one good quality in a sea of uselessness. For one thing, we don't have any care about the characters, most of them are one-dimensional and uninteresting, from Brittany Daniels's spoiled rich girl to David Zayas's obstinate middle-classer, to Thompson's whiny girlfriend. And don't even get me started on the Jarrod/Terry characters (seriously, I know they say to "write what you know", but seriously, a film about artists and SFX guys in LA? Gag). In fact, when the military begins to make their eventual attacks on the alien ships, I sincerely hoped that we would get some military characters to interact with, because a bad-ass warior couldn't have been nearly as dull as watching these upper-class dandies try to make it on their own as the whole city crumbles around them. Sadly, that wasn't to be. Whenever a character is killed, we simply don't care because they're mostly assholes anyway.

I guess... the party's over?
The story actually revolves in a slow circle as the group constantly tries to escape, are driven back into their building, then try to escape again on a perpetual loop that gets old fast. There's nothing that hasn't been done in a dozen films before, and the whole thing reeks of a cheap Independence Day knock-off. Just like ID4, aliens position themselves over the major cities of the world and unleash hell upon the unsuspecting populace. Unlike that much better film, Skyline features only a small claustrophobic storyline, with the government's response to the alien menace largely unknown. What made the 1996 blockbuster so great was it's vision of the invasion from several different angles, with never a dull moment. With Skyline, the dull moment encapsulates the entire experience. Also, the film believability completely collapses when we first see the aliens in person, ALSO looking like ID4 clones. In fact, all the monsters that appear in this film look remarkably like aliens from just about EVERY sci-fi film you've seen in the last twenty years, So, hey, way to go, guys.

Oh, man. The new neighbors' dog shit in our flower bed!
The only thing worse than sitting through Skyline yesterday was discovering that the Strause brothers intend it to be the first of a SERIES of films that they intend to produce. The fact that they could sit through the final edits of this hunk of trash and say "Yeah, let's make another one!" is so absurd to me, I must end this review my directing my final comments directly to them. Ahem:

Dear Greg and Colin,

After seeing your film Skyline, I must protest your intentions to make another of it's ilk. Seriously, Skyline is the first film this year that SERIOUSLY made me consider it over Legion as worst movie of 2010. I was willing to forgive you for AVP: Requiem because of the R-rating and gore, not to mention the classic monsters, but Skyline proves to me that the two of you are far better at special effects supervising than you are at directing and ANY ATTEMPTS to make more movies should be left in a dark closet for all time. Gentlemen, just because crack exists doesn't mean you should smoke it, and just because you CAN make movies doesn't mean you SHOULD. I will most likely watch any film you do the SFX for and probably enjoy it, but any further directing attempts will only be met with scorn and derision from my corner. I appeal to your logic and hope you will see reason soon. There is only one right answer, and it is not a Skyline sequel. When I see Battle: Los Angeles next year, I am sure it will be the film I was expecting from you this time around. Thank you for your time, and I hope never to review another one of your directed films.

John "Gianni" Anderson
The Latest Issue

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Sequel Nobody Wanted

I remember when I saw the original 30 Days of Night in theaters. It was 2007.shortly after the film's release, when I was visiting my little sister in Philadelphia for her birthday. We were going to a drag show that night for her annual celebrations, but since she had the day off and nothing better to do, we trudged for about a half an hour through lousy rainy weather to see the new vampire flick by producers (and Evil Dead creators) Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert. With an intriguing cast including Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston and Ben Foster, Days looked like the kind of film I NEEDED to see. My sister wasn't as enthused, but agreed to go along to give it a shot. By the time the final credits had finished rolling, we were in agreement: It was a FAR better film than either of us expected. With a surprisingly strong performance from Hartnett (who was on his way out as a leading film actor) and good performances from the underrated George, character actor Huston, and the extremely talented Foster, not to mention amazing special effects and makeup, awe-inspiring cinematography, a unique setting and more gore than you can shake a from a hundred bloated corpses, and you can see why the film was so popular. Besides being based on the popular comic series of the same name, the film did a great job of putting vampires back in the position of being horror monsters, something Twilight and Vampire Diaries fans seem to forget ever happening. Of course, director David Slade would seemingly forget that same thing himself when he directed The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, but I digress. 30 Days of Night was a horse of a different color, blood red.

Hey, didn't you get killed off in Lost?
My fond memories of this time 3 years ago are pretty much the only reason I picked up 30 Days of Night: Dark Days. I certainly could have left it in the rental machine: I'd already picked out the previously-reviewed Human Centipede and Robin Hood, certainly more than enough for a short-term rental. Yet I couldn't help but be drawn in enough to take a shot with it. After all, while being a direct-to-DVD sequel to a quality film usually means that it's a steaming pile of unmentionables, there was always the chance that THIS film will be the one to break that particular mold. Hey, it could happen.

Remember kids, wear lots of sunblock!
None of the actors from the first film reprise their roles in the sequel, and so the role of Stella Oleson, one of the only survivors of the vampire attack on Barrow, Alaska, is played not by Melissa George but by Kiele Sanchez. That's right, Melissa George was replaced by Nikki of Lost's infamous couple Nikki and Paolo. Stella has left the rebuilt Barrow behind her, traveling the country trying to convince people that vampires exist and were the cause of the town's destruction, to try and prevent such events from occurring again. Naturally, this is met by ridicule and derision, and Stella also gets the attention of the vampire powers, who don't want humanity to become aware of their existence. Hunted by these bloodsuckers, Stella meets a group of survivors like her: amateur vampire hunters who recruit her to hunt down the vampire queen Lilith (Mia Kirshner) who directs all vampire activity and supposedly ordered the attack on Barrow that was the basis of the previous film.

Woah, if ALL undead looked like this...
Let me first say that everything that was original and interesting about the first film is gone in this sequel. The remote Alaskan town has been replaced by dull Los Angeles ghettos. The Vamps are still blood-covered and animalistic, but borrow more from designs like that of White Wolf a lot more than before, usually sporting a lot of leather. The literal 30 days of night that are traversed through the first film are gone, as half the film takes place during the day. And while we genuinely learned to care about characters like the estranged husband and wife Eben and Stella, here the characters we are introduced to have personalities of stone, with little to draw interest. The writing, along with the source material  is partially to blame, as the ideas are simply not enough to justify a new story in this universe. But the directing by first-timer Ben Ketai is so one-noted, I'd be surprised if he got any feature work in the near future. Ketai's vision is very straightforward, with no room for originality or sidetracks. The shots are closed and claustrophobic, with very little in the way of open ground. Even when a scene takes place out in the open, it still feels like a closed environment, with barely any clear speak of. The film  lacks the open world of the original film, instead choosing to be a closed-off creature of it's own making.

But see, he's a good guy! He hasn't tried to eat you yet!
The film also lacks the acting talent of the previous effort. To compare Kiele Sanchez to Melissa George would be unfair, as the Grey's Anatomy castoff is simply more talented than her Lost counterpart. Sanchez does end up with one of the film's better performances, but that's due more to default than anything else. She manages to handle intensity and stress-driven scenes fairly well, but doesn't get to do much more than that. Rhys Coiro meanwhile is dull and drab as Paul, one of the vampire hunters who recruits Stella. It might be more the way the character is written, but Coiro nevertheless never steps up to take more control, allowing the blah character design to run off without him. The same can be said for the other hunters Amber (Diora Baird) and Todd (Harold Perrineau). Baird is a so-called "tough girl" who berates Stella for not being tough enough but breaks down at the first sign of tension. Perrineau is just a dude, no reason to care about him in the slightest. Neither is very interesting or sympathetic, and so even if the performances had been redeemable, it wouldn't have mattered much. Ben Cotton is good in a small role as a "good guy" vampire, though what he is and how the character is portrayed has been done before. But the best of the cast is actually Mia Kirshner as Lilith, the vampire queen. Kirshner plays Lilith as a sensual creature, in almost rhythmic tune with the world around her (such as it is) and her penchant for taking blood from her victims in an almost carnal manner. She's has a relatively limited performance over the course of the film, but unlike many of her cast mates she actually takes advantage of the time she has to put on her best game face.

You're trying to be Cpl. Hicks. You, sir, are NOT Cpl. Hicks

And speaking of game faces, the makeup effects here are almost as good as in the original film. Different vamps are individually recognizable through discernible haircuts and outfits, but the classic make-up effects hold up well, with pale faces contrasted not only by black eyes but blood-splattered faces, fresh from their latest kills. Blood and gore are pretty well done, and wounds and throat rips are rendered fairly realistically. In the original movie, the blood clashed beautifully with the lily-white snow and was rendered beautifully. Here it's much more drab without the like comparison, and the blood itself isn't as "thick", actually kind of watered-down upon first viewing. Considering the blood is really the biggest reason to watch a film like this, it makes this the biggest disappointment.

Oh! Um... don't let me... disturb your dinner...
Okay, it wasn't TOO bad. But it sure as hell was bad. Based on the 30 Days of Night universe but not using any of it's unique concepts, Dark Days could have been renamed any old thing and nobody would have known the difference. I really shouldn't be too surprised; there's a reason direct-to-DVD films aren't too highly regarded, especially ones that are sequels to legitimate blockbusters. It had a tall order to stand up to, and when a mediocre cast, trite storyline and amateurish direction collaborate on a film like this, there's no good to come from it. I'm sure there must be SOME direct-to-DVD goodness out there, but I'm hesitant to give it another shot after this clunker. See the original instead.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Must be One for Watching

Well, I'm not sure what to say. A few weeks ago it was recommended to me that I review Jackass 3D by my co-worker Jeff, so when I finally had a day I could go I schlepped down to the theater to take it in. I'd never, with the exception of a few glanced clips here and there, had much experience with the gross-out stunts show that became such a pop culture phenomena a decade ago. I've known people over the years who swear by the show as hilarious entertainment. I've also known people who think it's the worst thing in existence, a plague defining the maelstrom that is reality TV. Whatever people's opinion, it was a huge part of MTV's popularity in the early part of the past decade, inspiring several spin-offs involving members of the Jackass team. De facto leader Johnny Knoxville even turned his fame into a brief film career. I have had no interest at all in seeing this film or any of it's ilk, but decided I couldn't condemn something I'd never seen. So here we are. Let the condemnation begin.

Ooh, right in the brain case!
Jackass 3D has no plot, not even a guiding idea or a trend in the stunts they pull. The film basically goes from skit to skit, stunt to stunt. One or more of the group attempt a trick, some involving dangerous situations such as falling from great heights, others involving getting beaten up by animals such as goats, buffalo or even a bull. Sometimes someone plays a trick on another cast mate with cameras rolling. Some aren't dangerous at all, simply disgusting and often involving potty humor and (literal) buckets of excrement. Most of these are barely watchable, let alone amusing in the slightest. One of the best parts of the trailer was something known as the "High Five" in which a cast member would be surprised in walking through a door to get a spring-loaded giant hand flying around the corner to knock them silly. And it's the best part of the film. It's also the opener. That's right, they used the very best stunt/trick to open up their precious film. Once I realized this, I was not looking forward to what else they had dredged up for this third film in the series.

The last toga party I hope to EVER attend...
There is one thing this crew does well, and that's build up anticipation for the stunt in question. With few exceptions, most of the stunts are set up well, with the viewer sitting on the edge of his seat waiting for what happens next. The fact that the anticipation almost never pays off in an entertaining stunt is unfortunate, but that anticipation would be the hallmark of a better series. Too often are we told exactly what is going to happen in the setup and the best skits are when we learn the stunt as it happens. Some of the skits are good as well, though very few of them are very memorable. Besides the "High Five", "Electric Avenue" was an entertaining diversion as the Jackass team, clad in prison garb, must make their way through an obstacle-laden hall rigged with tazers and cattle prods. One midget bar fight was actually really clever in its stupidity. And the "Snake Pit" was entertaining if only to see Bam Margera cry like a girl. Probably most importantly, the group are obviously good friends and there's always cheer and goof times even when someone in the group has been pranked. At least if they're going to do these dangerous stunts and break bones (as they do) they obviously have a good time doing it.

But those were the only good things about the film. While seeing Knoxville and crew get knocked around by nature's beasts elicited a few chuckles, the vast majority of what I saw was nigh unwatchable, with the film culminating with the launch into lower orbit of Steve-O in a portable toilet (with plenty of waste on-site). Using high production values to simply fling poo around is not something I usually expect to see when I go to the theater. Okay, that happens sometimes, but it's not usually a literal statement. Also, the incorporation of 3D in this film is a joke. Ninety percent of the time you don't even remember that the film is IN 3D, as only a few scenes actually use it to any real effect. Even those scenes don't need the effect, and it's obvious the 3D aspect was solely brought in to garner additional ticket sales. Even with a "measly" budget of $20 million, the movie FEELS cheap, with only the opening and closing sequences using the technology anywhere near it's full ability, and those sequences fell overwrought and unnecessary in comparison to the rest of the film. And really, do I NEED to see anyone's wang try to hit a ping-pong ball for a home run? Could've skipped that one.

Something wicked this way comes
There's really not a whole lot more to say about this. Not a whole lot I WANT to say about it. It may have had a few tricks up its sleeves to amuse me, but Jackass 3D is overlong, under-funny, and not something I feel good about paying extra of my hard-earned income to see in 3D when I could have streamed whole episodes of the show for close to nothing for the same effect. Worst of all, in a few days I won't be able to tell you anything about the film, so forgettable was most of it, leaving only this blog and a film receipt I've already thrown away as evidence that I was willing to watch this. With many new movies hitting the theaters and several I've been looking forward to for some time, to waste good time and money on a film that doesn't reciprocate the effort I put in just sitting through 94 minutes of mediocrity feels like I've had a crime put upon me. A stupid crime.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to watch Centurion to wipe the stupid still imprinted in my brain.
Hopefully, this is "The End"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


What is it these days with the movie industry trying their hardest to portray things "accurately"? It seems every filmmaker who once contented themselves with dreaming up original ideas before immortalizing them without needless speculation about exactly how things should be, now go the extra mile to make things as accurate as they possibly can. Medically accurate. Historically accurate. Scale accuracy. Hollywood is slowly becoming so obsessed with how things need to appear that I fear someday soon these same film legends will forget that they're trying to ENTERTAIN an audience. Ridley Scott I fear is strolling down that road. The director, whose sci-fi films Alien and Blade Runner were among the best of their genre, seems to be on a permanent accuracy-high since his good but over-hyped Gladiator won Best Picture in 2000. Since then, he's produced a number of films that have been lauded for their "historical accuracy" and while some, like Black Hawk Down or American Gangster, were fairly well received and made gobs of moolah, Kingdom of Heaven's lack of audience is a perfect example of what can happen if you too overly rely on such semantics. At least, these thoughts are what I had after seeing Scott's latest directorial effort, Robin Hood.

Russel Crowe and other people
In his take on the fabled hero who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, Scott has attempted to draw upon the true happenings in England during the year 1199. Russell Crowe plays Robin Longstride, an archer in King Richard's Crusades and the war against Philip II of France. Along with his fellow archers Alan A'Dale (Alan Doyle) and Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes) and another soldier called Little John (Kevin Durand), Robin leaves the King's army and journeys home to England, where the men want to live in peace. Richard the Lionheart is killed in battle, and when news reaches England of the King's death, John (Oscar Isaac) is immediately anointed the new King of England. However, all is not well, as John's childhood friend and knight Godfrey (Mark Strong) secretly plots with the the French King to invade England, and John's rise to power facilitates the Barons of England-ruled territories to rebel against him, fracturing John's rule. Robin and his (not yet merry) men, meanwhile, have found themselves in Nottingham, a village where Robin is asked to fill in for a deceased knight, Robert Loxley, and meets Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett). Over the course of the film, Robin also learns much about his past, which had been a mystery to him for most of his life.

So tell me, why will a spoon hurt more?
This particular adaptation of the Robin Hood legend actually plays out more as a prequel to the more popularly known stories such as the one depicted by Disney. Starting not all that differently than the Kevin Costner variation, this new telling puts aside much of the feuds with King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham to focus more on the traitor Godfrey and the impending French invasion. In this way we actually get something different than we're used to, while also being exposed to enough familiar territory to be comfortable. It's a delicate balance, and this level of storytelling is one that Scott does well. As for the "historical accuracy" aspect, there are plenty of spots in the tale that Scott either glosses over or just plain gets wrong. I'm fairly certain the French never used a rowing variation of the Higgins boat made popular during the invasion of Normandy in WWII when invading England. Many bits, such as the details of King Richard's death or the inaccuracy of the French invasion, happen nothing like what appears in historical texts. In all, the "historical accuracy" claim seems to be unfounded and unnecessarily rolled out.

Marian wishes for more historical accuracy
This in itself isn't too bad when you consider the interesting characters and the actors who portray them. Though Crowe is a talented performer, he's really not suited to the role of hero. His best performance to date is of Officer Bud White in LA Confidential, a complete and unrepentant asshole, yet he keeps trying to play these noble roles of characters who are put under the thumb of oppression and lead those like him out of it. Robin is a capable, strong, and charismatic individual who for much of the film is just a common soldier. Yet by the end he's practically commanding the British army to victory. This is mostly the script's fault, but Crowe is not infallible, especially when his accent (which I guess is Scottish, but who can really tell?) changes constantly over the course of the film. He's also not quite so convincing when he's trying to be more suave. It's obvious he was cast in an attempt to recapture the glory of the Gladiator days, and here it just doesn't work. Blanchett is also talented as the Lady Marion, but she's another performer who had one major role and has been trying to duplicate it's success ever since. Her dialogue is mostly empty and voicing thoughts for the audience's consumption, and her eventual romance with Robin is not a little contrived. And of course Scott couldn't resist plugging her into soldier's garb when given the opportunity She's talented enough to pull it off, but there's only so much she can do. Imagine if she'd gotten a REAL role, what she could do with it. The standouts of the film are by far Mark Strong as Godfrey and Oscar Isaac as King John, Strong has been in a lot of good films lately, with Sunshine, Kick Ass and Sherlock Holmes painting the canvas with talent and believability. As the traitorous Godfrey he is charismatic in a deadly sense; he can convince you he's your best friend while sticking a blade in your spine. Isaac is more of a campy performance, but make no mistake: This is no Alan Rickman "spoon" stint. John is an unloved King, full of the things that make you hate even his appearance when he's on screen. He's everything Robin isn't, and it's a shame they don't spend more time together on screen, as that might have brought the film to another level.

They would settle for TARGET accuracy
The Merry Men get much less attention than they usually would, and that's a shame. Kevin Durand actually puts on what I think is his strongest show to date as Little John, the playful but dangerous second-in-command to Robin. The only non-archer in the group, Durand plays to his physicality the best of any role he's had since Lost. Mark Addy makes a fun Friar Tuck, recently taking over Nottingham's Abbey. With the odd habit of beekeeping (to make Mead, of course), Addy is fun in the little bit he's allowed to perform. Scott Grimes and Alan Doyle are fine if underused in their supporting roles. Grimes, best known for his work on Band of Brothers and ER, is charming but doesn't do too much else besides fire arrows. Doyle uses his musical talents as a member of the Celtic band Great Big Sea to play the minstrel A'Dale, but when he's not making music he's pretty much a side note. A little more attention to these men, as well as the professional William Hurt as Earl William Marshall would have helped expand the story and take a little away from focusing on Crowe's foibles.

William Hurt is better than this
Taken with a grain of salt (and avoiding talk of historical inaccuracies), I enjoyed Robin Hood in spite of it's problems. It's an overwrought mess, obviously bucking for awards but not good enough in any capacity to be deserving of them. It is however a fun viewing if you don't focus on how good it SHOULD have been. It's about on the same level of Hereafter: Interesting story with talent in both the director's and actor's chairs and yet somehow lacking in what makes a wonderful movie-going experience. Not equal to the sum of it's parts, I'd still recommend seeing this if you want to take in a fantastical action film with good acting, and it certainly was better than the movie you PROBABLY saw when it was in theaters, the disappointingly mediocre Iron Man 2. A word of warning to historical scholars, however: YOU won't be able to sit through this film.