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Stir of Echoes (1999)
It's all about the Bacon
Kevin Bacon is a fine actor. We all know that, right? But it's not until you see him in this fairly weak flick, a rather poorly plotted and paced derivation of a classic ghost story, that you know just *how* fine an actor he is. And I'm here to tell you, Kevin Bacon is a *FINE* actor.
The material here is pretty sketchy. We have a protagonist who is an average Joe with a few aspirations which never amount to much (in an early scene, he makes a vague reference to being in a band, a plot line that strangely disappears at once), a ghost story that takes place almost entirely in a well-lit suburb (not the most haunting of circumstances), and some shoddy dialog (the supporting characters mostly seem to drink beer, swear, and watch high-school sports). The motivations are absent (why does this average Joe have a sister-in-law who is clearly an art-ees-teek hypnotherapist? Why would he let this flake experiment her technique on his brain?). The special effects and camera angles and mechanics are strictly functional (save one well-handled early scene of hypnosis, on which they apparently blew their entire SFX budget).
Yet Bacon rises above all of this petty mishandling to deliver some real soul to his part. When he gets a sudden premonition about danger and tears through a crowd to follow up his instincts, you find yourself breathing hard along with him. When his wife confronts him about how his new obsessive behaviors are tearing their family apart, his rage and frustration are palpable, as his his sweetly delivered, completely nonverbal, guilty apology. It's really a remarkable performance, and worth the price of admission to an otherwise very straightforward story, one which would have been downright boring without the man's talents.
Well done, Kevin.
Æon Flux (2005)
Outstanding visuals. And, for a change, I mean that.
The visual artists of this film should have received the Academy Award. Production Designer Andrew McAlpine; Artistic directors Marco Bittner Rosser, Sarah Horton, and Andreas Olshausen; Set Designer Berhard Henrich; Costume Designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; the makeup artists; even the hair designers. It's all good.
You've got to understand, I have never been a fan of the visuals-driven movie. Occasionally a film is so revolutionary (Blade Runner, Edward Scissorhands, The Matrix) that you simply have to applaud, but most of those movies have other things going for them. Far, FAR too much crapola gets filmed these days and passed off as 'art' when all it really is is 'flashy.' The worst offenders have always been genre flicks (fantasy, horror, sci-fi), and the worst of *those* have been supposedly "futuristic" science fiction films which take their 'vision o' the future' oh-so-seriously, yet fail to understand that the future's changes will be more than simply grim recreations of 1930's Germany (Equilibrium) or a rather glitzy version of an L.A. mall scene (Ultraviolet).
Finally, with Aeon Flux, there seems to have been some real care taken. The clothing, the architecture, even the foodstuffs have a slightly-slimy, neoprene 'wetness' to them which goes right along with the core themes of bio-engineering, yet manages to avoid ripping off either H.R. Giger or the Watchowski Brothers. Kudos to them for producing what is, yes, an effects-driven film, but one in which those effects serve the mood and purpose of the narrative.
Oh, the plot and characters and whatnot? Yeah, forgettable schlock. But who cares, these days, other than some self-important, smug, high-brow critical types anyway?
We apologize for the previous movie
Dear viewer: we here in Hollywood would like to apologize for the "Dungeons and Dragons" movie released in 2000 which starred Jeremy Irons as the ghost of Liberace and Marlon Wayans as Marlon Wayans, only whinier.
To make up for that abomination, we'd like to offer this movie in its place. It's not particularly deep, but its plot is awfully similar to the role-playing games its based on, so it's at least true to the material. The acting isn't stellar, about what you'd expect from a competent college theater department. The special effects are a little sci-fi-network, but hey, we were sneaking CGI time on the computers in between making real movies like "Star-Wars vs. Pirates-of-the-Caribbean, part 7." Best of all, this movie is clearly made for the actual fans of the original games on which it was based. There are in-jokes and name-dropping aplenty here, from the expedition to the Barrier Peaks all the way up to the Ghost Tower of Inverness. Gems of true-seeing, liches, dragons with breed-specific breath weapons, all that geeky stuff you memorized when you were twelve years old, instead of going out and getting a date? Yeah, that's all in here. We thought that might be important after we abused the heck out of you with the first D&D flick, expecting you slavering fanboys and aging RPG players to simply roll over and pony up cash even when we churned out a perfectly crummy movie. We felt awfully bad about it later, and so we made this film, like I said, as an apology.
Anyway, we hope this makes up for the previous flick. Sorry about that. So, are we good now? You can indicate your acceptance of this apology by buying tickets to SW-vs-PotC-7, mentioned above. Matinée is cool. Thanks in advance.
Dark Water (2005)
Pretentious. Also, wet.
Oh, look, Hollywood found another Japanese horror flick they hadn't remade yet.
Well, kind of. Dark Water turns out to be from the guys who brought you the 'Ring' series, and boy does it show. Single mom? Check. Kid who sees apparitions? Check. Spooky kid ghosts? Check. Slowly developed tale of abandoned kids, discovered through circumstantial evidence? Checkarooni. Lots of water imagery? Check. Haunted bathroom? Check.
Consider that last one closely. What is the Japanese obsession with water, particularly bathrooms, as a vehicle for death and haunting? Yes, I know, their country is surrounded by oceans. So is ours. That doesn't compel us to make EVERY SINGLE FILM about the perils of going swimming in the bathtub.
The worst part of this movie, oddly, is not the flat acting, the hackneyed plot, the forgettable imagery, or the red herrings scattered liberally (and pointlessly) throughout the film. It's the extras, in which we see and hear the filmmakers gushing (there's that water imagery again) about how ar-tees-teek their vision is for, get this, hosing down their sets. They are really excited, like little kids, about just how WET these sets are going to be. Man oh man, these will be the wettest. Sets. Evahr!
Then they offer you a DVD extra in which you can layer and mix the sounds of various flushing toilets, just like the real sound engineer from the film, in order to create the Ultimate Spooky Bathroom Scene!
No, I am not making this up. That's what passes for horror these days.
Le pacte des loups (2001)
Kill the editor!
This is a nice little film. It's a tightly written action thriller, with an unusual setting for this kind of movie, and a likable protagonist, half Sherlock Holmes, half Indiana Jones. I particularly enjoyed the pacing, in which no scene is wasted, nor drawn out too long, and...
Oh who am I kidding.
This *should* have been a nice little film. In a pleasant alternate universe, it is. But what we have instead is a likable protagonist, great setting, and an engaging plot which unfortunately has been bloated up to two-and-a-half-hours by Director Christophe Gans' unfortunate love-affair with his slow-motion camera lens. The turgid pacing, in which scene after scene just drags on and on and on, is enough to unfortunately rob this movie of some of its enjoyment factor.
Example: in one scene, our hero enters a high-class brothel. Lots of ladies are around wearing not much other than rouge and face powder. It should have taken about five to ten seconds to establish this fact, before our hero wanders deeper into the brothel to establish an important contact with another character. Instead, we get two and a half minutes of slow motion tracking shots of our hero, happily wandering through bolts of hanging silk, encountering new lovelies behind every tilted fan. About a minute in, I started feeling a little dirty for watching what was looking more and more like porn. After two minutes, I was simply bored.
The problem can be summed up in Gans' comments on the DVD extras. He shows the un-cut version of the opening fight scene, which lasts almost four times longer. Then he goes on and on, gushingly, about how WONDERFUL the editor was, how BEAUTIFUL the fight choreography was, how MANY, MANY DAYS of footage were shot and how if (oh rapture!) he'd had the chance, he would have included all of it in the final film.
Did you catch that? Days of uncut footage of a single fight scene, half of which is already in slo-mo. And Gans wants to force ALL of it on his viewers.
Take a clue, Gans. You've got a nice eye for visuals. You've got a good head for characterization (though you work too much in gesture, rather than dialog). You've even got a heart for atmosphere.
But fire your editor. He stinks.
Lady in the Water (2006)
Once upon a time, there was a filmmaker who thought he would write a totally new story, totally original, never before attempted, about how people should be nice and not make wars so much. Except instead of actually saying anything about that, he wrote a bland fairytale about a mermaid who wants to go home but is in danger of being eaten by a cactus-dog.
"Batteries not Included," but with mermaid instead of toy-sized aliens.
See the building. See the people in the building? Each one has a special thing. One has a big Mexican family that screech a lot. One of them is a loud Chinese-American mama stereotype. One has a big arm! Oh my, those people sure are quirky! That must mean they are "characters," boys and girls! No need for icky "subtlety" or "motivation" here! See the people in the world? They fight a lot. We know because the animated prologue told us so! If only some nice angel would make them stop. Having them actually have a reason to stop fighting would be a hard story to tell, wouldn't it boys and girls? Too hard.
Too bad nobody knows why the angel-mermaid-girl is here. It makes it hard to have any kind of story. Oh look, look! The nice angel-mermaid is in a fairytale that one of the people heard when she was a little girl! Good thing, huh boys and girls? Now we know what all the characters have to do to save her! Wasn't that lucky?
I heard some film critics on the radio talking about who should win the Razzie award for worst picture of the year. They mentioned some real stinkbombs, but as one of them pointed out, you *expect* low-profile, exploitive, and genre movies like "BloodRayne," or "Little Man" to be terrible. They're not pretending to be ART. "Lady in the Water" on the other hand, the critics claimed, should be named worst film of the decade, strictly because it's so "arrogant." Perfect word. Perfect summation. Perfect fate.
For once, they got it all right
Horror/Comedies are usually neither. They aren't horrific. They aren't funny. Slither is.
The horrible thing is, there are these nasty little alien slugs bent on taking over the earth and devouring its inhabitants. The funny thing is that nobody in the hick town where they land can quite take them seriously.
Nathan ("Serenity") Fillion is the standout star of this flick, with a dry delivery perfected working for various Joss Whedon projects tempered by his own goofy sensibility (very evident in the generous out-takes and behind-the-scenes cramming the DVD). But there really isn't a loser in the whole bunch. Gregg Henry delivers a perfectly smarmy take as the mayor of this tiny town, full of fake smiles and bonhomie one moment, of very real pettiness and terror the next. Michael Rooker is unexpectedly sympathetic as the primary 'villain.' It's unexpected because Fillion's character clearly has the hots for Rooker's wife, who married him when she was young, and you expect from the first reel that this guy's going to turn out to be some kind of abusive jerk. But he isn't. He seems to honestly love her, which plays havoc with all the expectations we have for the character, and makes his ultimate fate as the host of the alien slugs a lot more horrible than it would have been had the character simply been the pure jerk cliché demanded.
And that's where Slither really shines: it plays merry hob with the clichés of both comedy and horror, but manages to get the best of both. Slapstick comedy relies on making fun of someone, but in some of the most obvious pratfalls in this movie, people die who shouldn't. Horror relies on the intrusion of the unreal into the real, but the monsters, in this movie, are rendered with a kind of practical flatness (the camera is not at all shy about revealing the bad guys or their victims) that makes it somehow even worse. Witty humor is usually put in the mouths of the smartest characters, to make fun of the hicks, but in this movie the hicks have all the best lines.
Kudos to the filmmakers for rising to the occasion in a way few movies of such mixed genres can manage. Here's hoping they manage even more in the future.
Stay Alive (2006)
I've seen worse
Not bad. Not great, certainly, but not bad.
"Stay Alive" is a horror flick about a video game which manages to somehow kill off its users. This premise has been used for several (possibly several dozen) horror movies, stretching back at least to the early eighties. This treatment of the storyline is fairly consistent (a plus, given some of the dogs like "Virtuousity" which plague this genre) and doesn't try to bite off more than it can chew (like the pseudo-apocalypse of "Pulse").
The gore-hounds won't be happy with this movie, because the deaths, while on screen, are treated with a kind of modest mid-range shot, not the leering close-up zoom they crave. The story-driven horror set will deride the corny dialog (and it is often corny) and transparent plot. The few 'scares' are mostly driven by the MtV-style jump-cut...strictly for teenagers. The visual effects aren't particularly compelling or new.
But I liked it all the same. Other than Jimmi Simpson, who grossly overplays his part, the acting is competent. Frankie Muniz, the one name-recognizable semi-star of this flick is given achingly bad lines during the first half of the movie, but his character settles down in act two. The visuals are passable, particularly the bits which are supposedly taken from the game itself, and look close enough to today's actual video games that the filmmakers should deserve a point for that alone (why do so many filmmakers have NO CLUE what a computer program actually looks like?). The main villain is no great shakes, and there's some unexplained backstory, but there's enough sense of menace that we can forgive it.
In more seasoned hands, this could have been a much better movie, yes. But as it is, it's worth a quick rental.
This movie actually deserves a '2.' I give it one half-point bonus for being a low-budget production (they tried) and another half-point bonus for clever packaging mentioning their independent film-festival awards, rather than anything about the actual movie inside.
This is quite clever of them, for you see there ain't much movie there. Westender is an off riff on the medieval/fantasy genre: it's the middle part of a trilogy which doesn't exist. Our protagonist, a Doughty Knight (tm) is wandering the countryside. As he goes from minor scrape to minor scrape, he gets visions of some mysterious past 'failing' so we can piece together that he USED to be some big hotshot in the army, but quit when his sweetie was torched as a witch or some similar thing. By film's end, he has decided to recommit to his knighthood, and take the army back to victory.
But that's it. We never really see the initial problems which led to his downfall. We never see what happens once he takes the reigns of the army again. All we see is this kind of lumpy-faced guy lurching drunkenly around the forest, occasionally in grave-robbed armor, weeping about what a failure he is. Sometimes these lurching scenes take place on sand dunes. Sometimes in waterfalls. Sometimes they last for up to fifteen minutes, with no dialog whatsoever.
Verdict: boring. I am all for psychological exploration, but to indulge in it I have to GIVE A DAMN about the character. I don't, in this case. Oh, and special anti-kudos to the hapless dweeb who plays our hero's sometimes traveling companion and minstrel: poor delivery doesn't magically improve when it's delivered in a louder whine.
It's NOT a '1.' But it sure is below par.
'Pulse' follows up on the recent surge of American adaptations of Japanese horror flicks. The problem with following up on a trend is simple to see: if you're the first person to try a new thing (such as those bringing the coolly creepy sensibility of Japanese horror to American shores), you're going to try to choose the very best material ("Ringu") to get the very best results ("The Ring"). Then, when later people come along and try to duplicate that success ("The Grudge," "Dark Water," and now "Pulse"), they're going to have a harder time, because they are NOT working with the best material, but with the stuff you passed over the first time through.
So it is with "Pulse." While "The Ring" offered a real sense of controlled story (other than that miserable final sequence), the key word for "Pulse" is "excess." The supposed undergraduate-age protagonists are TOO pretty, TOO hip (and a good deal TOO old), and way TOO connected to their cell phones. Look, I teach college for a living. I see real students, in California no less, in their native environment. NOBODY acts like these tech-heavy clowns.
Yes, I know it's all to prove the political point of the film ("technology BAD"), but what it seems like is laziness. Like too many badly done horror movies, the protagonists are so godawfully smug about their sophistication in the face of creepy happenings that by the time people start getting their faces chewed off, we're really willing for it to happen to them.
Ah well. Maybe someone somewhere has some better material for American adaptors. Bollywood horror, anyone?