311 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Blood+ (2005–2006)
Astounding peaks with low valleys.
3 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Had I stopped watching midway through the 50 episode span to pen this review, you would read an overall lukewarm reaction.

The story frequently seems to get distracted with a large cast of characters from the lead protagonist Saya, her family, the Red Shield, the Chevaliers, the Cinqfleche corporation, and the Schiff. Saya, herself, struggles to remember her past, what she is, her fighting potential, and her destiny across a painful span of over a dozen episodes. Inconsistencies abound, especially in regards to characters inexplicably seeming invincible until the next encounter where they suddenly have weaknesses. In episodes 20-30, poor Saya exists to be beat up on to show how tough the rest of the crew is. The chiropterans can only be destroyed with Saya's blood giving way to a pointless gun fight once every half-dozen episodes or so. Sometimes the bullets slow them down; sometimes they don't even flinch. It all depends on what characters are in danger.

But long before any faults popped up, Blood+ introduces the ever sympathetic Saya Otonashi, an innocent girl discovering she's an otherworldly warrior. And when her eyes turn red after tasting blood, when she unsheathes her katana for the first time and springs into action to Mark Mancina's adrenaline rush of a score, I knew I was in for something special. Sure, the series would wander into waters I didn't much care for, but on the promise of those early episodes, I stayed with it.

I wanted to stay with Saya.

Despite the action-oriented premise – Saya and her sister, Diva, waging war with one another in the world of humans – Blood+ remains forever focused on the characters, their relationships, and their individual conflicts. Her 'brothers' Kai and Riku, love her as a member of their own family, wish to help and protect her, but what can they do against creatures Saya, and Saya alone, can destroy? Their conscience tell them to be there, to stand beside her, yet they only seem to get in the way and put themselves in unnecessary danger.

Saya's faithful servant and Chevalier, Hagi, harbors a long held unspoken love for his mistress. Expressing his feelings through quiet, unquestioning, obedience. "When this is all over," Saya pleads in one of the most potent flashbacks, "I want you to kill me, Hagi." He embraces her and answers, "if that is what you wish." But in the meantime, he doesn't hesitate to jump in the line of fire to protect her. Should he need to sacrifice himself, Hagi won't even blink. He'll do it without question nor regret.

The one-armed Chevalier of Diva, Carl has an ongoing blood-feud with Saya. In flashbacks, we discover he lost his limb to her long ago which fuels an obsession-like lust for revenge. But even though early on he outmatches Saya, he refuses to deliver the killing blow. "You don't remember yet" he laments and retreats, vowing to finish Saya after she's regained her memories … after she comes to full strength. Anything less would be a hollow victory.

Solomon, another of Diva's Chevaliers, falls in love with Saya, leading him to strive for peace between the two sisters and ultimately forcing him to choose between his mistress and her eternal enemy. Does he side with Diva and murder the woman he loves, or does he betray Diva and pursue an impossible love with she who has no reason to even trust him?

Along this epic journey, Saya and her companions meet up with experimental chiropterans called the Schiff who broke free from their captivity, but face an artificially shortened lifespan. In Saya's blood, they see their salvation, and being created as weapons they seek it the only way they know how: through violence. But then a human shows them another way.

Of course, more allies stand by to assist and guide Saya (David, Julia, Luis, Joel), and others stand to oppose her (James, Nathan, Van.) All are interesting in their own right (David and Joel's heritage interwoven with Saya's history) and have interesting quirks (Van's obsession with candy, and Nathan's … flamboyance?) All fight for their own reasons, and those reasons are threaded through the fifty episode span of Blood+.

With so many long-running interesting tangents to deal with, I'm not surprised director Junichi Fujisaku seems to get side-tracked on occasion. But here's what's interesting: though the build-up almost always struck me as mishandled, somehow when it came to the payoffs Blood+ delivered. Throughout the story, characters grow and evolve. Saya and Kai in episode 50 are not the Saya and Kai from episode 1. Characters die, and the tragedy resonates with a very real sense of loss.

The series has plot problems, yes. Pacing issues, faulty logic, and an almost self-parody habit of characters ominously looking out only to say "Saya" or "Diva." But you know what? The strength in its characters never wavers. They're fascinating in and of themselves, and their dynamic relationships with one another only magnifies that fascination.

When Saya and Diva finally stood across from each other, swords drawn and dripping with their own blood for the final battle, I'm glad I stayed with it. Blood+ truly was something special.
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Black Widow (1954)
Dull , predictable, and boring
24 January 2010
About midway through Black Widow, I realized my eyes constantly fell upon Gene Tierney during her scenes. Even when Van Heflin or another actor delivered his pivotal and emotional speeches which would otherwise command attention, I found myself watching Tierney's quiet reactions. Sometimes her presence in a scene amounted to nothing more than subtle eye movement; nevertheless, I found her mesmerizing.

I state this observation not to draw attention to Tierney's performance (a fine actress, indeed, but she does not have much to do), rather, I mention this to criticize director Nunnally Johnson's utter incompetent frame. An artist controls his canvass through focal points; he commands the viewer's eye to journey through the image across a predetermined path. This sets up a visual rhythm, helps the audience take in and process the imagery, and motivates the viewer to continue, you know, viewing.

Johnson's frame, though, remains bland, flat, and uninteresting—a non-descript street where a parade of characters will march, deliver their lines, and rigidly move the plot along to a monotonous drum. Never does the camera linger on the sights or appreciate the visual aspect of the medium. Characters appear, they move around, and they talk. Oh, do they ever talk. They talk so much that Black Widow could transition to a radio drama with minimal altercations.

Some films, such as Blade Runner, are so visually spectacular one could mute all sound and let the images speak for themselves. With Black Widow, one could shut off the picture and lose absolutely nothing. Since Johnson failed to provide a frame worth looking at (much less a focal point), is it any wonder why the eyes might settle on Tierney even when she's just part of the background? I know, I know. Not all movies are equal, and not all movies are supposed to be Blade Runner caliber demonstrations of artistic virtuosity. The focus—nay, the entire point—of Black Widow is the plot. So, a young attractive writer (Peggy Ann Garner) moves into town and turns up dead in producer Peter Denver's (Heflin) apartment. In traditional Hitchcockian fashion, the innocent man must clear his name, get to the bottom of the accusations, all while avoiding the authorities.

This brings me back to Johnson's directing (and writing) where a lack of subtlety all but announces the killer, which proves fatal in the telling of a murder mystery. The deceased woman had a relationship with the husband of a famous Broadway actress. Well, there's a whole two men in the movie that fit that bill, and we know one did not do it. Now throw in ominous lines of dialog like, "no darling, I'd never cheat on you. You'd strangle me in my sleep." Is it a coincidence that the victim also died by … nevermind.

Like all murder mysteries, the ending is a series of monologues explaining what may have happened and, ultimately, what did happen. And when the audience has pieced together the puzzle twenty minutes ago, it gets quite boring watching the characters play catch up. You just want to sit down next to Gene Tierney there in the background, chill out, and wait for the plot.
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Avatar (2009)
To Dream of Another Time.
7 January 2010
When I was 10 years old, I remember seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day in the theater. And when Arnold first saves John Connor from the T1000, I recall the vivid awareness that I wasn't just watching that Summer's action Blockbuster. It was something more. At the time, I didn't really know or understand that feeling. But years later, when I'd revisit T2 it would click into place.

I wasn't watching a movie. I was watching a Dream.

Across the years, I've been blessed to encounter a handful of other films that gave me that same feeling—the feeling that I could close my eyes, and awaken to a new world of distilled imagination. Blade Runner, Pan's Labyrinth, Metropolis, and Nosferatu are a few names on that short list. Early in Avatar, when paraplegic Jake first links with his Na'vi avatar and races across the Pandoran landscape, exhilarated to be running again, I leaned forward in my seat and smiled. Once again, I wasn't watching a movie. I was watching a Dream.

Avatar uses the classical narrative structure of a man who must step beyond his culture, become one with a society alien to his own, and ultimately make a stand with his new brothers. And unlike previous telling of this tale, Jake can literally step outside of his human skin and take on the form of a blue-skinned and golden-eyed humanoids called the "Na'vi."

Neytiri, a female Na'vi, guides Jake in the ways of her tribe, and as they make this journey together a bond forms between them. "I see you," she whispers to Jake. "I see you," he whispers back the way two lovers might exchange "I love you"s. And there couldn't be a more appropriate expression of affection for these characters. "I see you." Director James Cameron wants to open his audience's eyes, as Neytiri opens Jake's eyes, to the breathtaking sights of Pandora. But unlike visual effects masturbations like G.I. Joe and Revenge of the Fallen both of which throw CGI out randomly in an effort to create the most/biggest/boomest explosion, Avatar aims to recapture the child-like wonder of experiencing a *vision* that, to quote Manohla Dargis, "really is bigger than life."

Another director would be content to show the majestic floating "Hallelujah" mountains in the distant background, but not James Cameron. He goes further and invites us to climb them with Jake and the young Na'vi hunters. After dangling perilously from vines and rock faces and clawing our way to the top, Cameron then lets us ride on the back of winged dragon-like creatures, the Mountain Banshees, and soar above and between this magical landscape of towering miracles and impossible valleys.

But more importantly: amidst the overabundant spectacle, Cameron never loses sight of that child-like curiosity driving all fantasy. Do you remember staring at the cover art of your favorite book asking, "What would it be like to fly? How exhilarating would it be holding on to a Banshee for dear life while it dove 300 feet straight down? To feel the roaring wind rush past with the intensity of a hurricane as you fly—really, truly, honestly fly?" James Cameron remembers asking those questions.

He's filled the world—the vision—of Avatar with sights both grand and subtle. This is a movie that will go full throttle into an epic battle where a legion of Banshee-mounted Na'vi fly fearlessly through the airborne mountainscape while the military gunships unleash a hellstorm of missiles, and yet it also has the patience to let Neytiri reverently pause to observe where the drifting Seeds of Eywa fall. It will show you giant colorful dinosaur-like creatures smashing through trees in the all but obligatory stampede sequence, but look closely when the Na'vi get ready to ride a Banshee and you'll see gill-like orifices through which the creatures breathe. The world of Avatar feels bigger than life, yet I felt like I could reach out, grab a sample, and take it with me.

Is Avatar perfect? Far from it. It blatantly contradicts itself during the climax and brushes a little too close with propaganda in places. But like a dream, it didn't matter. When you've looked across the Pandoran landscape at night and absorbed the mystical beauty of the self-illuminating flora, when you've felt the thrill of watching Jake command the meanest predator on the planet and unite the Na'vi tribes, when you've *seen* Avatar … you don't care about its logistical faults.

It's a movie about sights, and James Cameron isn't shy about that point. It's the heart of the film. It's in every frame—in the very fabric of the film. Hell, it's even spelled out in the dialogue.

"I see you."

In the cold mechanical adult world of unforgiving cause and effect, Avatar is the movie to reawaken the forgotten child of so long ago. The child who believes in searching for undiscovered frontiers to explore, who believes dragons and magic exists, and who believes dreams are real. It's always refreshing finding out our inner child is still alive, that the jaded real world hasn't killed him off entirely yet.

Thank you, James Cameron.
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The Mangler 2 (2002 Video)
It mangled something all right.
1 December 2009
Mangler 2 contains a great metaphor for itself. Midway through the movie, tensions run high, accusations fly, two female characters nearly get into a scuffle, and then we cut to fingernails dragging across a chalkboard … and they keep dragging, inflicting that irritating screech upon the poor helpless viewer.

Gone is the possessed laundry machine from the first film, replaced by an even more ridiculous unrelated premise: a private school receives a new state of the art security system which, in traditional horror fashion, goes haywire and starts killing everyone. Yes, a new security system that automates everything from the doors to the refrigerators to, presumably, the motion detector auto-flushing toilets. This of course means those darn "'puters" factor heavily into the narrative, which means the script requires the characters to interact with the computers, which translates to scenes of actors standing around monitors, reading information off the screen, and telling the audience what they're typing as they're typing it.

Note to filmmakers: while computers may provide fun and exciting direct interactions such as video games and other applications, there's few things as boring as watching someone else interact with them.

The protagonist, Jo, is a rich girl outcast who hates even her own little clique of stereotype horror staples, leading her smiley bodyguard to muse aloud, "it's kind of sad that I'm your best friend." Then again, said clique threatens to blame her for a website vandalism prank, prompting Jo to unleash the Mangler 2.0 virus upon them. Tight knit group, non? Now, I'm all for a bitter anti-social protagonist (especially one who goes all out and embraces her dark side). It's certainly more interesting than the typical PG13 heroine plaguing horror movies these days … but if you're going to venture into those waters, go all in and make it a dark movie. Not long after Jo has stormed off at the brink of tears, she's sitting around the pool, chatting with those same "friends" who would rather make her their scapegoat so they can go to prom.

Yet, I might—might—forgive all of the above. That is until time comes for the first kill and we see Mr. Bob Fix-it working on a lawnmower, but he has the wrong wrench size. So he walks out of the room, across the hall, into another room to fetch another wrench. Personally, I'd have the toolbox next to me, but never mind. He hears some funny sounds coming from down the hall, goes to investigate, and … it's just the French chef in the john. So, false scare over with, Bob goes back to his lawnmower and, again, wrong wrench size. Back out of the corridor, into the other room, into the toolbox, and he comes back with another wrench. As he returns to the lawnmower, we see a pair of garden sheers following him. And what's supporting these garden sheers? Why, a snake-like cluster of wires and cables. Goodbye suspension of disbelief, and goodbye any chance of overlooking premise/character shortcomings.

I hesitate to mention this, but clearly director Michael Hamilton Wright intended to pay tribute to the much superior garden sheer scene in William Peter Blatty's Exorcist III (itself, a much superior film, incidentally.) And so goes the long parade of ideas either ill-conceived (synchronized escape from the evil security cameras? the "snowflake" analogies? the "hip" slang and "Scream" explanations the Mangler 2.0 virus has picked up?) or ill-executed (a murder in the dark, illuminated only by the brief inadequate flash of a still shot camera? the murder by hanging that shows only bikini bottoms?) It all leads up to the underwhelming climax featuring an uninspired nod to Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (reminding us, yet again, there are better time investments within the very same genre.) It's funny how when a competent director quotes another movie within his own, the attentive viewer will pick up on it and smile appreciatively. In the case of Mangler 2, it feels like Michael Hamilton Wright is physically molesting the memory of better movies.
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Krull (1983)
Epic without a direction
5 August 2009
Pauline Kael infamously wrote of Star Wars, "it's an epic without a dream." While inappropriate for Lucas' 1977 film, it certainly holds true of Peter Yates' Krull, a nonsensical sci-fi fantasy hybrid which indulges in the superficial aspects of both genres without tapping into the common heart of either.

We start with a Stars Warsesque opening where a vast ship moves across the frame. A ship that much resembles a strange rock formation like, say, a mountain. And while this mountain/spacecraft lands, a voice-over invokes the fantasy genre with a prophecy of a Prince who shall defeat the intruders, slay the beast, save his bride, and their son shall rule the galaxy.

Thus begins the formula: Prince + Mentor + Princess to be Saved + Ragtag group of unlikely allies + Monstrous Villain = Fantasy (throw in rotoscoped lasers, and voila: Sci-fi.) Now, I don't have any problem with said formula if said film can convince me to suspend my disbelief for it. Who is the Prince we're supposed to follow? Who is the Bride he's supposed to save? Why should I give a damn about them? I do not need (nor do I expect) full blown character bios and witty Shakespearian asides, but at least give me interesting little character quirks to separate these people from every single bland-to-mediocre fantasy novel, every single fantasy video games, and every single D&D campaign I've ever played.

Give me characters with conviction.

Unfortunately, everything exists to satisfy the formula, and the movie almost never takes a step further. The prince embarks on his epic quest to gain the glaive, find the seer, track down the fire mares, and engage the black fortress with an adventure loving smile … nevermind that the villains have his bride and are doing God knows what to her. The mentor imparts no wisdom upon the young hero, rather, exists to connect the dots and keep the plot moving by informing everyone where to go next. When the villainous slayers die, a strange creature bursts from their skulls and burrow themselves into the ground, but no one questions what they are or why this happens. The beast kidnapped the young bride for the sake of kidnapping the bride (why the hell do they care about this planet to begin with, anyway?).

Yates introduces a Cyclops, and sets up a potentially magnificent pathos – that these creatures long ago made a pact with the Beast to see the future. Betrayed, now all they can see is the moment of their own death. In passing, this Cyclops speaks of his curse, but the film never explores it. "I must stay here," he informs while everyone else rides on to the black fortress, but never does he state why he must stay there. Then a few minutes later, we see him riding to the rescue for an anti-climactic climax that carries the weight of a man deciding on decaf seconds before the 7/11 clerk pours his coffee.

The only character with any development and anything resembling pay off lay in the comic relief. Yes, Ergo, who describes himself as "Ergo the magnificent! Short in stature, tall in greatness, narrow in focus, and wide in vision." Early in the film, we see the extent of his magic as he shuffles through scraps of parchment, mumbling some arcane words, and presto! He magically changed … himself into a goose. Over the course of the movie, he buddies up with a depressed young boy who lost his father figure. The boy says if he could have anything in the world, he'd want a puppy. So on the road, Ergo turn himself into a cute little beagle, and the boy is delighted. Later on, the two are trapped (inexplicably abandoned by the Prince) with Slayers approaching. Ergo changes himself into a tiger, and strangely steals the sympathy right out from under Prince-what's-his-name who left them both to die.

Yes, the Prince flat out abandoned his companion and a small boy, and the scene doesn't bother conveying a sense of loss. The prince starts to go after them, but when it's apparent he'd be trapped with them he hops out of the hole so fast you can almost hear the MST3K crew throwing out the line, "Eh, screw this!" Is this prince going to tackle rescuing his princess with that level of commitment? What about their marriage? Some happily ever after.

Since the film fails so epically on the character level, one can't help but notice the premise's absurdity. Medieval knights will fend off enemies capable of space flight. The bad guys, the Slayers, slowly approach with spears that fire off long range energy projectiles, and then when close these stiff and stilted creatures then use their spears as melee weapons. Why not just stand back and fire until everything is dead? And why have they mastered spaceflight, but not – I dunno – cannons? Heat rays? Atomic and biochemical weaponry?

That's not to say Krull entirely lacks any redeeming features. Quite the contrary, when the character's actions take a backseat to show off Peter Suschitzky's breathtaking photography of magnificent landscapes, and when the lifeless dialog yields to James Horner's primitive (but charming) score, Krull stands with the best cinematic experiences.

It's strangely ironic that Krull is strongest, most riveting, and most inviting when the characters shut up, fade into the background, and just move from point A to point B.
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Wiener Schnitzel Western?
30 December 2008
The original BloodRayne opened with a promising montage and effective establishing shots – it showed a flicker of hope before collapsing into a pile of mediocrity. This sequel opens with an uninspiring montage of faded photographs, it introduces a nails-on-a-chalkboard city boy writer who just arrived in the old west, and like its predecessor it goes downhill from there.

Like a baby learning to walk, Uwe Boll has taken a few unsteady steps away from blatantly ripping off better films in hopes that somehow a bit of Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, and Michael Bay will rub off on him. Boll fell down, got scared, and ran back to his most primal instinct: leaching. Look out Sergio Leone, since this is a Western, guess who's next?

Contrary to what the credits say, the star of BloodRayne II: Deliverance is not Natassia Malthe who plays the titular character. No, the star is the Western clichés, themselves. All of them.

An outlaw, Billy the Kid, has gripped the poor town of Deliverance. A lone gunslinger (sword slinger?) Rayne rides into these desolate, dusty streets. The sheriff issues her a stern warnin' "not to cause trouble in these here parts. Sade don't like trouble." So Rayne moseys on over to the saloon where she runs into another outlaw, a rival. And they'll settle them thar differences over a game of cards. Yes, cards. Because even if evil vampiric Billy has kidnapped all the children as he holds a town hostage and builds an undead army, there's always time for five card draw.

Rayne whips out a four-of-a-kind (aces, no less) as all these films require, trumping her competition's full house. Of course, villains don't like losin', so they settle this civilized style with an ol' fashioned showdown at noon—er midnight, or … whenever. That thar Sheriff don't like that much, so he arrests Rayne and sentences her to hang but not before giving her time to make peace in the jail because no Western is complete without a jail scene. Naturally, the heroine is destined to escape and round up the magnificent seven – er, magnificent four – for the obligatory hero's walk down the main dusty road.

Clichés alone are not any reason to fire off criticism; however, when the plot is nothing more than a game of "connect the clichés" then you're asking for trouble. Compounding this, Uwe Boll decides to imitate the immortal The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly which is really asking for trouble.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a fifteen minute plot sustained across three hours by the directorial virtuosity of Sergio Leone (helped immensely by the energizing and exhilarating score by Ennio Morricone.) That film is the ultimate triumph of style over substance.

While Uwe Boll can be a stylish director, he lacks any sense of discipline (or common sense for that matter.) Thus, Boll ripping off a movie that often flirts with overkill and parody (but knows when to stop) spells disaster.

Prime example: Good, Bad, and the Ugly draws out its final showdown with close ups of eyes, guns, and itchy trigger fingers. So BloodRayne II's finale is a dual narrative where Rayne's posse waltzes into a barn where Billy's posse awaits in the rafters with a small arsenal, meanwhile Rayne sets off a trap that threatens to hang the town's children. It's up to Rayne to hold the rope in place and keep the kids alive. Cut back to the barn, Rayne's posse of two stand around waiting to die, exchanging last moment quips and lighting up a cigarette at a leisurely pace while a redundant tragic motive whines like a dying coyote in the soundtrack. Cut back to Rayne still holding the rope while Billy gets up to give a villain's speech. Cut back to the posse, they're being told to turn around for the tenth time. Cut back to Billy, he still hasn't shut up yet, and Rayne still stands there holding the rope while the shortest of the brats hangs and dies (then Billy feeds on him.)

On their own, either scenario is painfully drawn out; together, they're unbearable. Oh, and now we're cutting over to the townsfolks and city boy who are arguing whether or not they should get involved. Two people run outside, one gets shot, the other runs back inside. More talk ensues. Wonderful.

Someone – anyone – for the love of God do something meaningful.

But the greatest sin is how poorly the titular character is handled. Rayne is pathetic. She beats one outlaw just fine, and then magically turns into the most worthless action hero ever. The sheriff bops her on the head, and she's out cold. She escapes the gallows, dives into the river, bad guys shoot in her general direction, and when she surfaces she's on the brink of death (nope, we never see any bullets actually hitting her either.) During the film's climactic confrontation, Billy gets bored of fighting Rayne with his letter openers and decides to beat the living crap out of Rayne with his bare fists in front of the villagers – villagers who two seconds ago vowed to make a stand … standing on the porch, watching Billy hold Rayne up with one hand, repeatedly punching her in the face with the other.

Rayne, you know those blades you've kept on your back through the whole movie? You might try using them.

It's nice to see an action movie willing to hurt it's hero, and even nicer that it's brutal in the beating, but an action movie's hero still needs to be tough. Bruce Willis got ripped apart in the first Die Hard, and the Predatory beat the hell out of Arnold Schwarzennegar … but Arnold and Bruce also fought back.

Rayne just stands there and bleeds. I guess that explains the title.
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Saw II (2005)
If it would just shut up, I might have enjoyed it
30 December 2008
Well, I didn't much care for the original film; however, I had a glimmer of hope for the sequel. I felt the original lacked ambition as though it just ran through the motions (and did a pretty damn good job of running through said motions) but ultimately didn't deliver anything new. Superficial? Sure. Genuine? No.

Saw II commits my ultimate pet-peeve of horror sequels. It explains … and explains … and explains. Great, we get it. The Jigsaw killer does what he does to make people appreciate their life. Did you see what I just did? I explained the entirety of the Jigsaw's motive in a single sentence. Saw II spends the bulk of its running time explaining that one sentence. And you know what? I distinctly remember the first Saw over-explaining how technically the Jigsaw has never pulled the trigger himself, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Honestly, who gives a damn about John the Jigsaw being a cancer patient and his attempted suicide when there's poisoned characters running around through a trap-filled house looking for the antidote? When one of these characters is a complete psychopathic nutcase who will inevitably snap and start killing everyone else (a la Cube)? It's great that the villain isn't a faceless killing machine, and indeed Tobin Bell brings great charisma to the mastermind role (side note: he might be the only character in the film with charisma). It's great that he has an actual motive and a logic behind what he does (regardless of how warped said logic may be.) That makes Saw II all the more depressing. It's not that the writers did not give their killer a reason, it's the fact they don't know when to shut up about it.

What's the point of that expository montage at the end when the entire movie is an elongated expository montage? I know, I know – it's not supposed to be great literature. Cut it some slack for at least trying, right? Well, if a die-hard fan has made it this far before clicking "No, this review was not helpful" out of spite, then here's the good news: this ain't no sissy PG13 "horror" flick. Saw II knows exactly who its fans are, and delivers the gore along with scenarios that make the squirm-inducing original look like a day at the spa. From the thought of someone cutting open their own eye, to a pit full of syringes, to a character cutting off a large chunk of his own flesh, again Saw II delivers the bloody goods. And here's a bonus: most of the trapped characters hits those annoying archetypes the scenario demands, making their deaths all the more satisfying.

Also to its credit – Saw II is slick and polished, but at the end of the day all Saw II has done for horror is trade in the 80s-naivety/motiveless killers gimmick and the 90s hyper-self aware "Scream" rip off gimmick for the current fad: the trendier over-explained "gotcha" twist ending gimmick.

And, who knows, maybe I wouldn't be complaining too much if the film would have actually, you know, surprised me. Then again, the first Saw actually did surprise me, and I still wasn't impressed. Oh well…
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Day of the Dead (2008 Video)
Well, it didn't disappoint, but …
16 December 2008
I admit it. I had it in for this film early on. No, not because it's a remake of the Romero zombie flick. The words "A Steve Miner Film" popped up on the screen, and I was tempted to switch the movie off right then and there. With the exception of Warlock, the guy has basically directed the same horror film for 20 years. Then my misplaced optimism kicked in, "Give him another chance. You've found some gems in unlikely places. After all, you hated Romero's Day up until the very end when it blasted you with genius and completely reversed your opinion." Okay, okay, fine.

And so the film opens with two young couples making out in some backwoods cabin not unlike the trademarks of some other movies Steve Miner has directed. You might have heard of them. They're called "Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3." Zombies meet cheesy 80s slasher clichés? Uh, huh. At this point I banged my head against my laptop's keyboard and muttered, "I hate being right." Again, the temptation to axe the Netflix stream beckoned for me. The movie has made its thesis statement – it's declared it's intentions – and it's planning on indulging in my pet peeves within the genre.

Turn it off, Jay! Make everyone happy! Why, oh why, keep watching a movie you know you'll hate? Answer: sometimes in genre crap you find something special. Like Sleepaway Camp 2, April Fool's Day, and Wolf Creek. Optimism must prevail ... even if I am a pessimist.

Thus, I descended into a small town on the brink of a zombie epidemic. A long line of cars await at a blockade, trying to escape a quarantine. Many people have fallen ill, an ominous sign in this genre. A few wandering corpses litter the forest and dark alleys. But the full blown undead outbreak has yet to occur, and I couldn't help but wonder, "why not take a cue from Romero, and just start the movie post-zombie apocalypse?" I mean, what part of discovering a zombie infestation is still interesting? Nevermind.

We meet Sarah, played by the petite Mena Suvari whose acting ability might be able to convince us this blond bright eyed woman has not only been through boot camp but is a commanding officer if only the script didn't undermine her performance with lines that suggest she's a still a little girl in high school. Then there's Nick Canon, whose acting talent has no prayer of convincing us that he would have survived basic training with his "gangsta bad self" attitude. Nick, I hope the zombie of Lucio Fulci bites your testicles off and eats them. Don't worry, though, you'll have company because the staple dorky white vegetarian played by Stark Sands really needs a violent castration too.

But what am I saying? That would be creative gore. It's not like a movie like this would have the balls to – oh wow, a zombie just ate his own eye. Huh. Okay, maybe an appropriate gruesome end will befall them after all.

Films of these nature require at least one scene of utter undead chaos, and Day of the Dead sets up the bulk of its carnage in a hospital where all the zombies-to-be have congregated. As the mayhem revved up and zombies went wild on the survivors with the frenzied intensity of an epileptic seizure enhanced by an LCD overdose, I couldn't help but notice the uncanny resemblances to the genre crap parodied by Robert Rodriguez's half of the GrindHouse doublebill. Then it struck me: this movie would be an absolute blast if it had a sense of humor. What's that? A vegetarian Zombie? Right. Give me sec so I can revise my previous statement: "this movie would be an absolute blast if it had a *good* sense of humor." (and a chick with a gun for a leg couldn't hurt either.)

For the climax of the film, the leftover fodder descend into an underground lab for the obligatory explanation behind the current situation. Cool. Now I know a scientific experiment went awry causing all this chaos. Thanks. But, I don't suppose there's also an explanation as to how this lab can go unnoticed under a seemingly secluded building in the middle of the woods where kids dare each other to enter so they can spy on big brother and his girlfriend who come here for sex all the time.

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as being an optimistic pessimist – someone who continues to watch out of hope while knowing it's only a matter of time before Super Zombie shows up to do battle with the hormonal Veggie-burger Zombie. Of course, you probably know us optimistic pessimists by our more common title: morons.
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Juno (2007)
Bite me again, Junebug
16 December 2008
Every so often I have to completely shut down my movie intake to preserve my enthusiasm for the medium. It's not that I expect consistent high art, deep existential narratives, and labyrinthine complex characters and am frequently let down. I enjoy great trash as much as the next guy. But after awhile the sameness of mainstream cinema just gets to me. The feeling that I've seen this movie before. That I can look down at a stopwatch and recite verbatim the events as they unfolds on screen without ever actually observing them.

The feeling of "Why am I watching this movie?"

Perhaps that's why I react so strongly to films like Juno who, like it's quasi-animated opening credits, strolls along on a whim at its own quirky pace while downing a jug of SunnyD. Sure, like all stories, there's a conflict, complications, and a resolution, but Juno does so while whistling to its own goofy guitar riffs and gets to the inevitable destination whenever it feels like it with refreshingly little fanfare. So let me grab my guitar, a 64oz blue slushie, and a vase to throw up in, and we'll get this review under way.

The film understands a fundamental principle of human nature that many formulaic tear-jerker fail to get – that grandiose posturing doesn't necessarily resonate with the audience, nor does it capture the imagination. We've heard that song and dance before, and because of blatant whoring and oversaturation, we now dial it out. But those weird and awkward tidbits? Those freaky bits of nonsense trivia? Those are the things that make us stop and ask, "say what?" Soon after discovering her pregnancy, Juno goes to an abortion clinic where she runs into a classmate protesting, chanting the Pro-Life agenda – how babies have hearts and feelings, yadda, yadda, yadda. Juno sighs, rolls her eyes, and presses on. And, you know what? Babies have fingernails too. Now Juno pauses, furrows her brow and turns around, "fingernails?" Then suddenly, everywhere she looks, those blasted fingernails haunt her, scratching at her, rapping on a noisy surface impatiently just to p*ss her off.

This scene and Juno's decision to keep the child rolls by without letting the pro-life/pro-choice debate dominate the narrative. It carries the appropriate weight it should for a girl in her shoes, but never stoops to propaganda for one side or the other. It's a part of Juno's story, it helps shapes who she is, thus it's an unavoidable tangent handled with grace and subtlety.

Going on the hunt to find adoptive parents, I expected Juno to interview a number of potential parents in that obligatory montage of freaky-rific, hill-billy-tastic, and spaz-happy couples that these movies seem to require. It never came. Instead, her and a friend read through personal ads, dismissing the prospective parents as though deciding what CD they're in the mood for, and then Juno comes across Mark and Vanessa. That's it. That's the couple. Can we get some happily ever after music? What? Still have to go through with the rest of the movie? Okay, fine.

As Juno and her dear old dad drive out to meet the aspiring parents, we detect something amiss as we see towels and cuff-links straightened, magazines strategically laid out on the coffee table, and an obsessive compulsive attention to tidiness. It resonates with almost sinister intentions like the pair are hiding something, and this feeling underscores the narrative through the following conflicts.

Though impressed in general, none of these efforts really resonate with Juno ... until she spots a Les Paul tucked away in another room. I watched with fascination as a connection bloomed between Juno and Mark during their brief jam session. That is before obsessive-compulsive Vanessa breaks up the party. The seeds of that friendship further develop when Juno stops by to show off her ultra-sound, and she gets into a discussion with Mark whether Argento or Gordon reigns as the grandmaster of horror. It's not the relationship one would expect from a man and woman spending time with each other in one of these films, rather a kinship. She treats Mark like a strange cross between a father and a best friend and really wants her child to be with this pair because they're more mature than she is (they're old, after all) and, hey, this guy has good taste.

Hanging out in a mall, the film defied my expectations again. Juno spots Vanessa shopping with some friends who happen to have children of their own. Juno curiously looks on, watching this woman interact with kids. No doubt hoping to get a hint of how Vanessa will treat her baby. Every moment we've seen Vanessa, we've seen only a presentation, a façade which is inherently suspicious. Through Mark, we've seen signs of Vanessa's imperfections and hints to her tyrannical reign over his life. But now Juno can see her outside of the meticulously constructed illusion. Now Juno can observe who Vanessa really is.

I honestly expected to see a cruel woman with no patience, an evil control freak who makes kids screech with misery when they don't abide by her will. As Juno watches, though, we see a woman radiating with affection, and we realize that Vanessa's misguided efforts to paint a perfect household were the work of a woman who truly believes she was born to be a mom. A woman desperate for motherhood. She'll make mistakes, but she'll learn from them. She's a woman who will give this thing her all.

The plot eventually brings Juno and Mark together in a scene where conversation leads from comic books to music and they wind up slow dancing to a song played at Mark's prom. And I thought to myself, "You know, in a lesser movie Vanesse would walk in on these two, see them in each other's arms, and interpret it as something it's not."

She didn't.
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Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (2006 Video Game) but a dream within a dream.
10 December 2008
Like those nights when you lie in bed and sleep lingers just beyond your grasp, Dreamfall's appeal remains elusive. The camera has a mind of its own and requires some adjustments in the option's menu; the battle and stealth mechanics feel awkward and terribly primitive but, strangely enough, appropriate considering this is neither a battle nor stealth based game (and it also helps that said mechanics rarely come into play.)

Then as slumber finally slithers around your consciousness and takes hold, the charms of the Longest Journey's sequel are unveiled like the unknowing surrender to a dream. After a cameo appearance of Bryan Westhouse in the prologue, we're introduced to young Zoe Castillo, college dropout extraordinaire whose sexy British accent is music to listen to (provided by Ellie Conrad-Leigh). Lost in the monotony of daily routines – same faces, same places, no direction – what's the point of it all? Zoe gives in more and more to apathy, lamenting that she's not seen some of her friends in ages because she doesn't feel like making the trip … and she hates herself for it.

After the obligatory introduction to Zoe's home, Casablanca, fate offers her a road to redemption when her good friend Reza, an investigative reporter, vanishes. She vows to find him no matter what the cost. "I may not like the Zoe I'm becoming," she tells one of Reza's contacts, "but I couldn't live with the Zoe who does nothing when her friends need her." What draws me to Zoe and makes her one of my favorite characters across any narrative medium is how she touches both a negative archetype of the spoiled rich girl who has everything, and she simultaneously embodies the spirit of the poor everyman who refuses to surrender. She has everything, yes, but if you look beyond superficial materialism, you see she has nothing.

Zoe can walk away at any time and continue her comfortable lifestyle, but instead she chooses to fight her descent into irredeemable lethargy, she chooses to take the reigns of her life back from autopilot, she chooses to make a stand. And, being a spoiled rich girl with no obligations, she has both the time and the resources to travel to hell and back. If that's what it takes to save Reza – and, in doing so, save herself – then so be it.

Reza's trail leads her to Newport Venice with familiar faces in familiar places for TLJ fans – Charlie, Emma, the Border House, and the Fringe. Then it's across the divide to the wintry landscape of the magical parallel realm, Arcadia, where I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the heroines of Dreamfall and Longest Journey to meet face to face. I would not be disappointed. Sarah Hamilton reprises her role as April Ryan, and hearing her voice again after eight years I marveled how vividly I remembered this character. Her voice brought a stream of nostalgia that made me want to replay Ms. Ryan's original adventure.

The veteran shifter assists Zoe in returning to Stark where she can continue her search for Reza. Meanwhile, the narrative changes hands to April Ryan who goes on to investigate a brewing conspiracy in Arcadia while dealing with her own emotional turmoils (saving the twin worlds takes its toll on a girl, you know.) Their journeys bring both women to dungeons they must explore alone in their respective worlds – Zoe into a secret underground lab, April into ancient ruins of a forgotten civilization. The narrative masterfully cuts between them, revealing through juxtaposition that both dungeons are linked – that the threat in Stark has a mirror image in Arcadia – yet the game never answers how.

With the return of April also comes the return of the lovable sidekick, Crow (again voiced by Roger Raines). And, yes, he's still got the gift of the gab. "My beak is a finely tuned instrument of love." He tells Zoe, "When I speak, girls tremble … also guys. Guys tremble too, but not in the same way." And it was almost magical to see April and Crow's silhouette against a shift again as they visited familiar territory straight out of key scenes in The Longest Journey, and again I found myself longing to revisit the original game.

Like its predecessor, Dreamfall assembles a colorful cast of characters, somewhat toned down from TLJ; however, they better suit Dreamfall's darker vibe. That's not to say Dreamfall is lacking in amusing exchanges – the Chinaman, the wonderful-fantastic Spice Merchant, Theoretically Blind Bob, and a cameo from Roper F Klacks, himself. But Dreamfall has another, bleaker, agenda.

Despite a few brief detours with April, Dreamfall is Zoe's tale to the point that even the game mechanics take a backseat to her development and storyline. So it's only appropriate to return to our heroine and discuss what makes this dramatic narrative work so well: Zoe's vulnerability. She's still a lost soul, a college dropout, up against worlds-spanning corporate conspiracies. When Zoe discovers a blood-splattered room, or when armed guards chase after Zoe, the danger resonates more vividly because she's not a Lara Croft or a BloodRayne. If they catch her, she's screwed. Game over.

Make no mistake though – Zoe may be vulnerable, but she is not helpless. Throughout the game, Zoe will call upon her wits, her charms, and (every once in awhile) her fists to get herself out of a bind. Because she's not helpless, she chooses to embark on this journey despite her weaknesses, despite being way out of her league, despite the apparent hopelessness of the task.

Little rich girl Zoe Castillo chooses to fight. For Reza. For herself.
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