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Staying on Top (2002 Video)
The amazingly superhot and gorgeous Sasha Peralto is the reason this is my favorite softcore flick.
3 January 2007
Rating as a softcore flick: A+

Staying on Top stars Holly Sampson as Katherine Phillips, an advertising exec who's shifted out of a big account by her scheming boss Cindy La Conte (Angela Davies). Upset, Katherine quits the agency and starts her own business. This is much to the chagrin of Cindy, who needs Katherine's creative input if she's to have any hope of landing the job. To try and stay one step ahead of Katherine, Cindy uses any means at her disposal, including coercing her assistant Tai (Sasha Peralto) into spying on Katherine. It turns out Tai, who is friends with Katherine but whose career is at risk if she doesn't do what her boss tells her to, may very well be the wildcard that determines who lands the account.

When I review softcore flicks, I usually don't put much emphasis on plot but I made an exception in this case for though the story here isn't particularly outstanding, it's genuinely enjoyable and kept me on my toes with plenty of fun twists and turns. There's actually more to the story than I mentioned, which includes subplots about Katherine's photographer boyfriend and Tai's new romance with Chris. Being a softcore flick, there's obviously going to be a lot of romantic pairings, but the one between Tai and Chris is the only one presented with a real sense of sweetness and charm.

The rest of the movie involves a lot of scheming and double-crossing with the cast turning in some solid performances. As Tai, the amazingly superhot and gorgeous Sasha Peralto is charming and sympathetic, easily the movie's most likable character. Making Tai the focus of attention in the second half of the film proves to be the right choice since we're given someone to actively root for (and also left wondering who she'll ultimately side with).

Holly Sampson, also a superhottie who's never looked better, does a good job as well and is a likable character towards the end, but comes off a little too cocky and arrogant in the beginning. Angela Davies is very believable as the boo-hiss villain, one of those rare instances in a softcore flick where I was actually interested in the outcome because I was hoping to see the villain get her comeuppance.

But of course, as surprisingly fun as the story and characters turned out to be, the sex scenes are really the standout moments here. The film opens up with a scene where Holly rides her boyfriend beside a pool and the scene is so incredibly hot that it's hard to believe later scenes actually match and, in one instance, even surpasses it. One such equally fantastic scene features Holly undressing (where we get the awe-inspiring sight of her in a g-string) and masturbating in the shower, a very stunning sight indeed.

But the boner-inducing Sasha Peralto steals the movie in her two sex scenes, both of which are great (with the former taking place in a hot tub) but the latter one (which also closes off the film) is simply the best scene in the entire film, a nighttime sex scene set beside a pool with Sasha and her boyfriend going through a variety of positions before riding him to utter bliss. This scene is incredibly hot, energetic, and romantic. I've mentioned in another review that I think Sasha is the hottest woman in softcore (maybe even the hottest woman period) and this movie only further asserts that belief. Her adorable face and gorgeous body ensure that just mere sight of her is enough to take one's breath away (and induce a massive boner), but add in the fact that she's constantly nude in this flick and delivers some of the most sexually enthusiastic performances I've seen and it's enough to make one forget about all the other hot women in this flick (or any other movie for that matter) combined!

Two other memorable sex scenes feature Angela Davies inside a limo and Leila Hashemzadeh starting out posing for a photo shoot before things get a lot more explicit. Leila's sex scene actually boasts one of my favorite fetishes, with her nice-looking breasts pressed up against a shower glass door. The production values are also quite high, with a nice variety to the settings, aesthetically pleasing lighting and photography, and just a general look and feel to the production that exudes eroticism. With a fun plot, memorable characters, and great sex scenes this is about as good as it gets for sexy softcore productions.
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Hot softcore flick, but still should have had more of the superhot Sasha Peralto.
30 December 2006
Rating as a softcore film: A-

Despite the fact this film features hotties like Renee Rea, Tera Patrick, and Brandy Davis I admit the real reason I wanted to check the film out was because I noticed Sasha Peralto's name was in the credits. An incredibly gorgeous brunette with an adorable face and an amazing body, I have no trouble calling her one of the hottest women in the world. And anyone who's seen Staying on Top knows she's greatly energetic and enthusiastic during her sex scenes.

So I guess you could say I was a little disappointed she only showed up for one scene here. The show really belongs to Renee Rea, who stars as Juliette, a student who's doing a paper on sexuality and discovers the only way to do research is to experience matters first-hand. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the movie consists of people answering Renee's ads which get her into a variety of fun and enjoyably sexy situations.

The degree to which a softcore production like this works is how hot the sex scenes and women are, and both are top-notch all-around. As mentioned before, the hottest woman here is the boner-inducing Sasha Peralto, who gets in a great sex scene a little over halfway through the flick. Though I was disappointed she only showed up for a few minutes, some Sasha is better than none at all and at least this role paved the way for her scene-stealing turn in Staying on Top.

As the star of the production, Renee Rea is a very hot cutie. Though her character is a bit annoying in some respects, Rea gives off a sweet and appealing vibe that makes her endearing. The film's standout scene has to be the hot threesome with Renee, Brandy Davis, and the guy playing Davis' husband. Naturally, you can't help but think how lucky the guy must have been to be in this scene.

Tera Patrick has a prominent role as Renee's roommate, but for some reason, she just doesn't seem into her role here. Though her very presence dictates there's going to be some heat no matter what, there's still a noticeable lack of energy during her sex scenes when compared to some of her other softcore efforts. Still, Tera's a hottie and I have no reason to complain about seeing her fully nude.

As is typical of an Indigo flick, the production values are good and there's some pleasing lighting and photography. Personals was actually followed by a sequel which featured a slightly less attractive cast, but still delivered the goods with plenty of great sex scenes.
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Enjoyable low-budget adventure flick with tons of nudity and gore.
16 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Rating: *** out of ****

They really don't make movies like this anymore, and by that I mean we don't see low-budget hybrid adventure/horror flicks with constant gratuitous sex and nudity anymore, making Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals a relic of a time when exploitation cinema was at the height of its popularity. Almost thirty years later, this particular flick rates among the most entertaining of its genre.

The film opens in a mental institute, where undercover report Emanuelle (70s sex icon and all-around hottie Laura Gemser) figures she has a lead for a big story on cannibals when a nurse is bitten by one of the patients. Following up an interview with the patient, Emanuelle forms an expedition to the Amazon, where she tags along with an anthropologist, a hunter and his sex-obsessed wife (ultra hottie Nieves Navarro), a nun, and a blonde chick (Monica Zanchi) who really seems to serve no purpose other than showing skin. For the majority of the journey, the most pressing concern is who's going to have sex with who, but they eventually cross paths with a tribe of cannibals who decide on making this particular band of travelers their next meal.

I suspect the one audience that will find themselves most disappointed in the film are horror fans expecting a wall-to-wall gorefest. Except for the last ten minutes, there's very little in the way of violence and even then the actual gore effects may prove a letdown. Rather, your enjoyment of the flick rests more on the scenery, the constant nudity, and a low-budget sense of adventure through the jungle. Maybe my standards have gotten lower, but it really was enough to make for an entertaining experience.

I admit to being a fan of jungle adventure flicks, if for no other reason than to enjoy the exotic sights and sounds. Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals isn't exactly Temple of Doom in this regard, but it does a sufficient job of using its jungle locations to maximum effect so far as possible for such a low-budget flick. Of course, when the setting is mixed with hot naked women, how can I resist?

As Emanuelle, Laura Gemser is a hottie who appears perfectly natural and comfortable with her body, which seems to be the defining trait of her character. Her best moments in the flick include a hot sex scene at a pier, in which despite being clothed we still get great looks at her breasts and bush, and the last ten minutes of the movie, where she strips totally nude to fool the the tribe into thinking she's their water goddess. This actually stands as one of the most creative excuses for nudity I've ever seen and ultimately serves as a great way to cap-off the flick.

The other women in this flick are Nieves Navarro and Monica Zanchi. Navarro is an incredibly hot redhead with a fantastic body. She gets in her most memorable moment with a very explicit masturbation scene where she shows us virtually every inch of her body. It's also worth noting she bears a strong resemblance to the gorgeous Rocki Roads. Zanchi pales considerably in comparison to Gemser and Navarro, but she has a fairly good-looking body and contributes to the nudity. Like Gemser, she also spends the last ten minutes of the movie without any clothes on. It is bothersome to note that her character may have gotten impregnated by the tribe but it's an issue never brought up by anyone else at the end.

As a horror flick, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals is pretty much a resounding failure. While there is gore, the film is still otherwise lacking in suspense and action. But the addition of horror elements only serves to make this a very amusing cross-genre experience. If you're into low budget 70s exploitation cinema or just like to see hot naked women traipsing through the jungle, then this is almost undoubtedly a must see flick.
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Bruce Timm's DCAU has probably spoiled me.
13 November 2006
As a kid, it was pretty common for me to spend my Saturday mornings watching cartoons. But the only stuff that usually interested me were the superhero shows, and by the mid-90s I'd make sure to catch X-Men and Spider-Man, which were coincidentally the two comic book titles I usually spent my allowance on (more specifically, X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man back in their Jim Lee/Andy Kubert and Mark Bagley days, respectively).

Just recently, thanks to the hype surrounding Superman Returns, I made it a point to try and watch all of Bruce Timm's DC animated shows on DVD, and I found myself absolutely enthralled and in love with this animated universe. From the dark mysteries and noirish atmosphere of Batman to the epic and rousing sci-fi adventures of Superman and Justice League these were shows that delivered great animation, top-notch voice acting, mature writing, and action scenes that would put most summer blockbusters to shame. Hell, even the musical scores were amazing, with great work done by composers Shirley Walker and Lolita Ritmanis.

So stoked was I by the DCAU, I made it a point to try and rewatch some of the Marvel cartoons of the 90s so I rented any available DVDs (given that most of the Marvel shows didn't have any full season releases). Alas, I was half-surprised none of these shows came close to living up to my fond memories. The writing, the animation, the voice acting, and even the music all felt shoddy compared to Bruce Timm's DCAU.

Unfortunately, X-Men happens to be one of those cartoons. Now, I can easily forgive dated animation. There's obviously no chance this series could look anywhere near as good a recent show as, say, Justice League/JLU, but it doesn't even look anywhere near as good as Superman: TAS or Batman: TAS/TNBA, its DC "competitors" at the time. It's also astonishing to make note of how terrible the voice acting was. While it's true some of the voices fit the characters well (Gambit, Rogue, and Wolverine come to mind), most of the lines are delivered in an overly dramatic fashion. I just can't help by try to stifle a giggle whenever Xavier screams and shouts "Power!" every time he's mentally hit by a Psionic attack or whenever Storm (whoever did her voice provides some of the most hammy voice acting ever) makes a point of shouting something akin to "Winds!" every time she summons her powers.

The stories seemed faithful, yet that's also part of the problem. There's such a slavish devotion to the comics that the show never really developed its own identity in the way the DCAU shows did. Part of the point of doing an animated series of a popular comic book is for the writers to make their own interpretation of the series. Timm and company pulled this off time and again, whether it was through original stories (i.e. Legacy and Apokolips...Now!, Project Cadmus, Mask of the Phantasm, and really just far too many to list), original characters (Andrea Beaumont, Harley Quinn, Mercy Graves, etc.), or superior reinterpretations of old characters (Brainiac and to a lesser extent Mr. Freeze).

With the X-Men writers seemingly afraid to deviate from the comics even in terms of characters' appearances (the X-men costumes matched those in the 90s comics), the whole show just gives off this impression of playing it safe. The series is essentially a bland, lifeless adaptation of the comics where as Bruce Timm's DCAU functions as its own separate universe, one that delivered grand entertainment and epic adventures. It doesn't speak well for the show when the only thing that's on my mind while I'm watching it is wondering just how Bruce Timm and his crew would have pulled it off.
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Primal Fear (1996)
Decent thriller that relies heavily on a solid cast.
10 October 2006
Rating: ** 1/2 out of ****

Here's a film I remembered being a huge fan of back when I first saw it in theaters in '96. Seeing it again for the third time since, it doesn't quite live up to my fond memories. Aside from Edward Norton's scene-stealing performance as suspect Aaron Stampler, there's really not much about the film that separates it from most of the genre. The plot, concerning the murder of a beloved archbishop at the alleged hands of an innocent-looking altar boy and the eventual high-profile trial, is certainly rife with potential but is never executed beyond the level that's expected of a competent pulp thriller.

But credit should be given where it's due, especially the first hour of the film, which does a pretty solid job of setting up the film as an engrossing mix of murder mystery and courtroom drama. The performances are all solid, with Richard Gere providing yet another effective variation of the slick, cocky persona (this time as a "big-shot attorney") he's mastered and Laura Linney acting convincingly stressed out and aggravated by the understandably vexing situation her character's been placed in.

But with all the pieces in place in the first half, the film never quite results in the tight, suspenseful thriller we expect. The most noticeable problem is excess baggage, with the film too often straying from the case at hand and veering towards less interesting tangents. There's just too much chaff here, with subplots that include the romantic tension between Linney and Gere, the writer doing the article on Vail, and the housing development project that simply takes up too much of the movie's already overlong running time.

Equally problematic is a major plot twist halfway through which, while effective in its own right and allows the opportunity for Norton to stretch his considerable acting talent, ultimately lessens the speculative tension that these thrillers usually rely on. From that point on, most of the enjoyment is derived from Norton's performance, and though it's not quite the show-stopper I once considered it to be (probably doesn't help I just saw this flick after his absolutely incredible performance in American History X), it's still one of the better debut performances any actor has ever put forth.

It's with some relief that I can at least say the film saves its best scenes for last (the last three minutes are quite memorable), and definitely finishes things off on a high note. Primal Fear was directed by Gregory Hoblit, who's actually proved himself a pretty skillful filmmaker when it comes to crafting thrillers. This one's merely competent, no more and no less.
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Great potential, but it winds up wasted in this middling sci-fi adventure.
29 July 2006
Rating: ** out of ****

If anyone still remembers, the early 2000s featured a glut of big-studio animated attempts at science-fiction adventures, with the likes of Titan A.E., Heavy Metal 2000, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and Treasure Planet all tapped heavily for box office or home video success. In hindsight, the studios were apparently capitalizing on a nonexistent trend, seeing as all these films were box office disappointments. Of the bunch, the only one that could qualify as a mild financial success would be Disney's Atlantis, which is baffling considering it's probably the weakest film of the bunch.

After dispensing with a spectacle of a prologue in which the titular city is flooded by massive tidal waves, the film skips to the year 1914, where linguist and generally nerdy scientist Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is once again unsuccessful in securing funds for an expedition to the fabled lost city. But he's given a second chance by a rich recluse (voiced by John Mahoney) who's put together a large team to search for Atlantis, led by a military commander (James Garner) who may have ulterior motives.

Traveling by submarine, the expedition finds themselves depleted of manpower and resources after an encounter with a robotic sea creature. Making their way through a system of underground caverns, the team eventually finds Atlantis and its native inhabitants, who greet them with an equal mix of suspicion and enthusiasm. The Atlanteans are apparently all centuries old but have forgotten how to read and write their own language. Problems arise when the commander reveals his true intentions to steal Atlantis' power source, putting Milo into action hero mode when he decides it's up to him to save the city and its princess.

Despite a potentially exciting premise, Atlantis virtually derails itself in its early scenes when it introduces its colorful cast of characters. Right off the bat, almost everyone is too quirky, be it in personality or in the manner in which they've been artistically rendered (characters' hands are drawn way too large). The worst offender has to be the horribly misguided Mole character, whose one-note schtick, that being his obsession with digging, is milked for all its worth for its humor, which is to say, not much at all, making almost every attempt at comic relief fall flat. The other supporting characters, whether it's the deadpan old lady or the sarcastic Italian explosives expert, aren't much better, but at least they're not as annoying.

As the film's hero, Milo Thatch is made fairly personable by the likable Michael J. Fox, but he's too awkward and gangly to be bought as an action hero even by animated standards. About the only characters who consistently work, either through their visual rendition or their personalities, are Helga and Princess Kida, the former oozing with sultry sex appeal and the latter quite charming and winning.

For such minor to moderate successes, it's unfortunate the most detrimental flaw of all is that the film just isn't that exciting. The first half of the picture, which details the crew's journey to Atlantis, should have been fraught with excitement and wondrous discovery, but these scenes are rushed through too quickly to sustain any sort of momentum. The second half is admittedly more successful, thanks to some surprisingly solid and charming romantic chemistry between Milo and Kida. Though the plot turns absolutely cliché at this point (what are the chances Milo's quirky buddies won't help him out?), the climactic battle delivers its share of visceral thrills, and the main villain is dispatched in a convincingly unpleasant fashion. It's not quite enough to win me over, but it does keep this film somewhat firmly above the level of subpar entertainment.

The story "borrows" quite liberally from Stargate, which itself stole from quite a few other films, making Atlantis feel almost like a second generation rip-off. Despite having been marketed to the teenage audience, I see this film being most enjoyed by younger children who have the higher tolerance for the quirky characters, the rushed pace, and the by-the-numbers plotting.

Even though the film didn't work for me, I am nonetheless quite glad the movie had even been made in the first place. American studios don't usually market their big-screen animated productions to the sci-fi and action/adventure crowd, so part of me still gets a thrill or two that Disney actually gave it a shot. They'd try again a year later with Treasure Planet, and though that film was unquestionably a financial disaster, it was a massive improvement upon Atlantis in every conceivable manner.
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A noble effort, but overall a mediocre animated series.
17 July 2006
It was pretty clear to me even as a kid that this show was never a match for Bruce Timm's Batman or Superman animated series. The animation, the storytelling, the voice acting, the action scenes, and even the music were all noticeably inferior. I think what kept me watching the show (aside from the fact that I was a huge Spidey fan at the time) was its emphasis on long story arcs. While there are no arcs here that come close to matching those in the DCAU, namely the Darkseid saga in the last several episodes of Superman: TAS or Project Cadmus or the Legion of Doom/return of Darkseid in Justice League Unlimited, I still appreciated the emphasis on continuity.

But the show's flaws were apparent from the start. From the mediocre voice acting to the simplistic dialogue, the show limited its appeal with its kid-oriented approach. Each individual episode had the tendency to move at a far too frantic pace, and this coupled with the long story arcs, ensured that missing even one or two episodes could mean taking quite a bit of time to catch up with the plot. I also had mixed feelings about the use of Peter's inner monologue. While it's an interesting approach to gathering his thoughts, too often these thoughts of his just dumb things down, especially when he's either stating the obvious or talking about things we could have figured out for ourselves.

Each individual episode had the tendency to move at a far too frantic pace, and this coupled with the lengthy story arcs, ensured that missing even one or two episodes could mean taking quite a bit of time to catch up with the plot. I also had mixed feelings about the use of Peter's inner monologue. While it's an interesting approach to gathering his thoughts, too often these thoughts of his just dumb things down, especially when he's either stating the obvious or talking about things we could have figured out for ourselves.

Another major sore point in the show was the use of the enigmatic (and that's putting it kindly) Madame Webb. I'm totally unfamiliar with this character and have no idea if she was even in the Spider-Man comics, but her presence is absolutely grating, sort of like the Oracle in The Matrix movies only ten times worse because she tends to pop out at random and has a voice that's akin to fingernails on a chalkboard.

Even worse were the attempts at depicting violence, with cops carrying silly-looking laser guns and Spider-Man never throwing a punch towards his opponents. Consequently, the action scenes seemed watered down, faring all the worse compared to the more violent and visceral battle scenes in the DCAU (where characters would actually bleed from severe cuts and punches). It may seem silly to think this stronger emphasis on violence would help a show, but watch Superman's Legacy or Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and tell me the sight of two opponents bloodied after an exhausting battle doesn't make the sequence all the more powerful and intense. This was something missing in ALL of Marvel's animated shows.

Taken in perspective, I suppose the animation was pretty decent (I remember Carnage looked awesome), superior to most other Marvel animated efforts, but lacking the energetic fluidity of its DC competitors at the time, namely Superman: TAS, Batman: TAS, and The New Batman Adventures. In fact, the animation in Spider-Man had the tendency to move in a choppy manner during the action scenes, which was pretty distracting.

From what I've heard, the series ended with a cliffhanger that was never resolved, much to the dismay of fans. A few more Spider-Man shows have since cropped up in the last few years, including one from MTV. Didn't much care for that one, either, but I admit its action scenes and voice acting were at least superior to this 90s rendition.
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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Emissary (1993)
Season 1, Episode 1
Not the best start for a series.
10 April 2006
Rating: * 1/2 out of ****

My enjoyment and appreciation of Star Trek has the tendency to wax and wane. While I enjoyed most of the movies and am a huge fan of TNG, the rest is more or less up for grabs. I have only seen two season's worth of the most recent incarnation, Enterprise, and I find it a very underrated series, thanks in particular to the knockout season 3 Xindi story arc. Voyager did little for me, with its subpar cast and bland storytelling hindering its otherwise enticing premise. But it's Deep Space Nine that baffles me the most.

For the past several weeks, I've been trying to catch up on DS9 so that I could follow the Dominion War arc, and I started from season 3's The Die is Cast, which proved to be a pretty exciting episode so I decided to give the series a shot. And from there on out, it's been up and down for me. I wasn't able to catch all the episodes, but I tried my best to see those that pushed the Dominion story forward. The end result was an often frustrating mix of engrossing episodes (The Way of the Warrior, Broken Link, Apocalypse Rising, Tears of the Prophets, The Siege of AR-558) mixed with plenty that I found rather overrated (In the Pale Moonlight, season 6's Dominion-occupied DS9 arc).

But I'm pretty glad to see that the series on ended on a high note thanks to the Final Chapter arc, which concluded with the terrific two-hour What You Leave Behind, which proved to be one of the Star Trek franchise's most exciting and moving episodes (other solid episodes in this arc include The Changing Face of Evil, When it Rains, Tackling the Wind, and The Dogs of War). Consequently, I was pretty curious to revisit the first episode and see how it all began, and while watching Emissary worked as a curiosity for a while, it wasn't long before boredom set in.

Not that Emissary doesn't get off to a decent start. The opening sequence depicting the Battle of Wolf 359 is a fast-paced way to get the series going, even if the battle itself appears way too small in scale. The actual introduction of the station and its crew is handled fairly well, and it was nice to compare and see how the characters progressed over the years, the most obvious instances being Major Kira (Nana Visitor) and the Ferengi Nog. Kira is actually one of my favorite characters on the show, so it's particularly interesting to see the hostility she displays towards the Federation in this episode, especially compared to how she handles being in charge of the station by the final episode.

Most of this premiere suffers because it has to establish a none-too-exciting set-up. In this case, it's watching Sisko deal with the prophets while coming to terms with his own emotional pain. Undoubtedly, it's the emissary/prophets storyline that I like least about DS9 (well, maybe it's a bit better than those annoying Ferengi episodes), as I don't think the series ever did a particularly good job of making the prophets or their motives intriguing. Their presence has also been ripe for some deus ex machina moments (Sacrifice of Angels comes to mind).

It doesn't help that some the acting comes across rather amateurish, particularly Terry Farrell as Jadzia Dax and the actress that plays Sisko's wife. Even the typically solid Avery Brooks slips in quality on occasion here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best performance is delivered by Patrick Stewart, who makes an enjoyable cameo appearance as everyone's favorite French British starship captain. So maybe this wasn't such a good start, but it's nice to know the series would improve and I am looking forward to seeing how the Dominion are introduced.
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SeaQuest 2032 (1993–1996)
Has some charms, but it didn't live up to my fond memories.
10 February 2006
I was a bit of a sci-fi nut growing up, so you can imagine the joy I experienced when sci-fi on the small screen made a strong resurgence in the early to mid 90s. Yep, those were the days, back when I found myself glued to the television, eagerly watching and awaiting the newest episodes of shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, Earth 2, Sliders, The Outer Limits, and NBC's Seaquest DSV.

Seaquest caught my attention for three particular reasons: the premise of an undersea world was immensely appealing, the series was being executive produced by none other than Steven Spielberg, and the star of the show was one of my favorite actors, Roy Scheider. With all these ingredients, I just knew this was going to be a sci-fi classic and given how undemanding a sci-fi fan I was back then, this show won me over from the start. Watching season 1 again, it's a bit tougher to imagine why I was so fond of this show in the first place.

Certainly, there's a handful of bright spots to be expected. Scheider, as always, does a great job of playing the fatherly authority figure/everyman role that I'm sure he's grown used to. The f/x and sets, very "90s" in look and style, were quite impressive for its time and are still passable enough today that they don't often distract the viewer. The series even occasionally delivered its share of high adventure and mild suspense. I also liked John Debney's main theme, which is actually kind of catchy.

But the series never came together like it should have. From the start, Seaquest was clearly aping ST: TNG, what with the UEO/Federation parallels, the captain/ship's doctor romance, and the brilliant but annoying teenager who served no other purpose than to draw in a younger demographic (even though Jonathan Brandis, RIP, was a better actor than Wil Wheaton, I still found Lucas far more irritating than Wesley Crusher).

This would all be perfectly forgivable if the show actually delivered on its fantastic premise. Unfortunately, Seaquest is cluttered with too much vanilla-bland writing and cheesy dialogue. Seemingly 3/4's of the episodes attempt to deliver an important "lesson," but this tends to come off as self-consciously heavy-handed and corny. The show was also clearly intended for a family audience, hence the mostly light tone and lack of any material that might come across as potentially offensive; this must almost be entirely attributed to Spielberg's presence, as I cannot imagine Rockne S. O'Bannon pandering to younger audiences.

Looking back at the first season's 23 episodes, I wouldn't say they're awful; in fact, I found most of them just plain and mediocre. The only one that stood out was Episode 4, entitled "Games," which managed to deliver sharp suspense for most of its duration, still unfortunately marred by a cheesy climax, which became a staple of the series. Of all the shows I mentioned above, this rests with Earth 2 as the worst of the bunch (TNG still the best, of course).

Is Seaquest a bad series? For the most part, yes, but I've got too much of a sci-fi slant to hate it. Anyone completely weaned on today's sci-fi shows (Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Firefly, Stargate, Enterprise) aren't going to find much in Seaquest that would appeal to them. But those who grew up on early 90s sci-fi...well, you've undoubtedly seen this show enough times already to know if it's up your alley or not.
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Boo (2005)
Good setting and some nice atmosphere, but the rest is pretty terrible.
2 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Rating: * out of ****

The straight-to-video market has actually produced a number of quality horror films in the last few years, so no longer should we automatically expect crap from the genre just because it happens to end up on rental shelves first. Quite hyped up by straight-to-video standards, Boo is unfortunately one of the more disappointing films I've seen in recent memory, not nearly the taut, scary experience I'd expected. Heck, it's not even fun to watch, which is the least I'd hope for from a movie about a group of teens stuck in a haunted hospital.

What I just mentioned was the gist of the plot, though there's also a subplot about a guy searching for his sister in the hospital but it's about as awkwardly introduced as just about anything else here. Take, for instance, the opening scene, which seems to want to poke fun at the self-conscious horror flicks that once swarmed the market, but it's a scene that fails to produce any tension or laughs.

This is indicative of the rest of the film as a whole. Though the movie appears to be a straight-up horror flick, it's hard to tell if there's an underlying layer of self-awareness to the whole thing or if it's just because the acting is so stilted, it's difficult to discern if the cast was even taking the film seriously.

That's not to say there aren't already plenty of problems with the plot, the most obvious of which is that rather than playing it in a simple, straightforward manner, the script tacks on some of the most annoying plot devices the genre has to offer, most particularly the girl who has that inexplicable "psychic link" with the hospital. Any time the film looks like it might gain some momentum, this "psychic link" rears its ugly head and brings the pace to a griding halt.

But weak as the story is, the acting is definitely worse, with not a single passable performance among the entire cast. They're not even convincing when they're re-animated "ghosts," to the extent that the director even ends up resorting to using reverberating voices to make them sound scary. I'm usually lenient when it comes to quality acting in the genre, but I'm beginning to realize how important competent performances are, seeing as I'd like a character or two to root for or at least someone who genuinely looks terrified by the situation around them.

The gore is a mixed bag. Not badly done, but when created with CGI it fails to mesh in well with the more atmospheric approach that director Anthony C. Ferrante is clearly striving for. Though the film mostly fails to deliver, I've got to give the filmmakers credit for achieving a fairly decent sense of atmosphere and a pretty good setting, but that's as far as it goes. Such qualities do little good when the rest of the film is otherwise flat and lacking in scares, suspense, or even a sense of urgency. Worst haunted house flick since Dark Castle's Thirteen Ghosts? Probably so.
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Without the superhot Julian Wells, it would be almost a total disaster.
30 August 2005
Rating as a softcore flick: C+

Watching Seduction Cinema flicks are a considerably different experience than most other movies of the softcore genre. They usually have poorer production values, attempt at having a plot that constantly shifts in tone, and feature women who, shall I put it kindly, are usually plain and not all that attractive.

But there are exceptions to that last rule, as I had an immediate crush on Laurie Wallace when I first saw her in The Erotic Witch Project, thus my only reason to seek out the rest of her films under Seduction. This eventually led me to Witchbabe, which had one fairly short scene in it with Julian Wells, but it was enough to make clear that Laurie would have some competition as the hottest chick in Seduction (though, as far as I'm aware, Laurie now works for Torchlight Pictures).

So Dr. Jekyll and Mistress Hyde marks the first movie I've seen with Julian in the lead role, and all things considered, it's not such a bad softcore movie. Sure, most of the other women are unattractive, particularly Ruby Larocca and the overrated Misty Mundae, but almost every scene features Julian in it, enough to carry me through the short 70 or so minutes.

The film actually tries to work as a serious psychological drama and as a titillating skin flick, and this is where the problems mostly lie. When it concentrates on the former, it's mostly a disaster. While the cinematography is surprisingly solid and atmospheric, the acting and script simply aren't good enough to make any of the drama believable. The performances are especially pathetic, with Larocca sounding like she's having difficulty memorizing her lines.

But as a softcore extravaganza, the movie gets just enough right to get a passable recommendation. It is unfortunate, though, that an early masturbation scene with Julian looks as if it boasted a body double in her place, even though such a move makes no sense in this genre. Otherwise, though, I would say the movie is worth watching for those who find Julian Wells an absolute hottie.
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Haunted (1995)
Despite some strong merits and a wonderfully radiant Beckinsale, the film never fully succeeds as romance or as horror.
2 August 2005
Rating: ** out of ****

Haunted is probably a slightly better movie than I'm giving it credit for, but after having seen so many similarly themed supernatural dramas the past few years, this one just didn't have the impact on me it could have had if I'd seen it back in '95. So take that into account for both my rating and my review.

Set mostly in the English countryside in the early 1900s, Aidan Quinn stars as David Ash, a professor who spends his time debunking the supernatural. His latest investigation takes him to a country manor occupied by three siblings (two brothers and a sister played by the gorgeous Kate Beckinsale) and their housekeeper, who claims the estate is haunted.

Initially, the strangest oddities Ash notices is the pseudo-incestuous way the siblings act around each other; the older brother paints the sister, Christina, in the nude, and she and the younger brother often go skinny-dipping in the lake together. Still, Ash finds himself falling for the lovely Christina, even as he ponders the history of the manor, its occupants, and the secret behind this haunting.

By most standards, Haunted is not a bad movie. In fact, it's got plenty of merit. The cinematography and locations are beautiful, the pacing is rather brisk despite the fact very little actually happens on-screen, and Kate Beckinsale is so breathtakingly gorgeous it's hard to believe a person could be so naturally luminous. I would wager anyone new to the genre would probably enjoy the movie quite a bit.

But as someone expecting something innovative or original, the film just didn't do it for me. From the beginning, the climactic twist is blatantly obvious, and unlike the later films this twist inspired, it's not structured in such a manner that you'd gain a new appreciation of the film by re-observing the hints.

While I gather that the film is partly a romantic drama, the tone and atmosphere are a little too light, such that when the film does attempt its scares they never fully work (this is the kind of horror movie that'd work well for those who generally don't like horror). It surely doesn't help that few of the characters even seem concerned the manor might be haunted.

But as a romantic drama, the film is a moderate success. Aidan Quinn makes a likable enough protagonist and Kate Beckinsale is not only a physically wondrous presence (I would have been inclined to bump the rating up if her nude scenes had been genuine), she's immensely charming and appealing as well. There's enough solid chemistry between the two to sustain a large portion of the film.

But even this story stumbles pretty badly once it intersects with the haunted manor plot, both leading to an unsatisfying ending. Come to think of it, even if I had seen the film in its initial release, the twist might have worked as a genuine surprise, but it really harms the film more than it helps, so perhaps it makes little difference the twist is so obvious.

I have little regret of the time and money I spent to watch the film; it's still going to be required viewing for Beckinsale fans (like myself) who'll watch her in just about anything. But with so many superior entries in the genre, the film otherwise wouldn't be worth mentioning without her.
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Russell's terrific, but this is mostly an average thriller.
1 August 2005
Rating: ** out of ****

I must admit to having a particular fondness for the glut of crime thrillers that lasted from the late 80s to the mid-90s. Chief among these guilty pleasures are fun movies like Harold Becker's Malice, the horribly titled Jack's Back, the Goldie Hawn flick Deceived, and the terrific Jagged Edge. 1985's The Mean Season is apparently one of the earlier entries in the beginning of this trend so it earns a few points there; otherwise, it's a pretty average effort, certainly not helped by far superior films of its ilk in the years to come.

Kurt Russell stars as Malcolm Anderson, a Miami journalist who's getting burned-out covering eight years worth of deaths. Just as he's planning to leave his job behind and move with his girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) to Colorado, his latest assignment takes him on a wild spin. While covering the murder of a teenage girl, he receives a phone call from the girl's killer himself, who reveals that he plans to take four more victims. This soon-to-be serial killer is out for fame and wants Anderson to report his crimes and whatever bits of info he chooses to give him. But as the murders progress, the killer is dissatisfied with the media coverage, believing too much of the focus is on Anderson, and as he sees it, the only way this can be remedied is by eliminating the center of attention.

Though the film is ultimately mediocre, it does get off to an effective start. The premise is fairly interesting and an instant grabber. The filmmakers' do a good job of building some mild suspense by keeping the killer's face hidden; the voice acting for this particular character is also quite effective, occasionally reminding me of the similar voice work in Joy Ride.

But the movie never really takes off like it should. Though we're intrigued by the bits and pieces of info that are revealed by the killer, very little is ultimately revealed about his motives or his past. While this is an approach that often works (The Silence of the Lambs and Seven are perfect examples), it backfires in this case, primarily because one of the more intriguing mysteries is wondering why he's duplicating these certain murders; a lot of hints are given, but trying to piece them together doesn't add up to any satisfying answers.

Once the killer's face is revealed, a lot of the movie's charm is worn off. The guy was creepy as a voice that nobody could match a face to, but feels like a generic psycho once he's fully revealed. The film also fails to take advantage of the stormy weather that's promised in the title; what could have been an instance of great visual atmosphere is totally squandered. The same goes for the Everglades setting, which I've always found had a tinge of dread and mystery to it.

For the most part the cast is quite good, especially Kurt Russell, who's one of the few movie stars out there who can exhibit a perfect balance of charisma and emotional intensity, which he does here. He's always likable, even when we think his character could use a little more common sense. A fresh-faced Andy Garcia turns in solid support as the investigating police detective. Only Mariel Hemingway comes across as subpar, but it doesn't help that her role amounts to little more than playing damsel in distress. One also wonders why Anderson and his girlfriend weren't given stronger police protection, but that's probably just for the sake of moving the plot ahead.

Middling stuff overall, but watchable enough to be worth a viewing for Russell fans or, if you're like me, you just like to watch this kind of Hollywood thriller from the 80s (and early 90s). But as far as this genre goes, all the flicks I mentioned above are preferable to this.
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For me, it's definitely the worst of the Living Dead films and ruins Romero's otherwise solid track record in the zombie genre.
17 July 2005
Rating: * 1/2 out of ****

Land of the Dead has been long-awaited for a good two decades. Set presumably some time after Day of the Dead, the plot focuses on a human population that has managed to survive by barricading themselves within the "remains" of Pittsburgh by means of guards and electrified fences (as well as rivers that are bordering the city). The rich reside in a tower called Fiddler's Green but everyone else is forced to live in the streets, with only the false hope of being able to attain high-class status.

One guy dissatisfied with living in the streets, Cholo (John Leguizamo), doesn't take kindly to the mayor's (Dennis Hopper) refusal, especially having been his lackey for three years with the expectation of reward. So Cholo steals the armored vehicle Dead Reckoning and threatens to destroy Fiddler's Green unless he gets his five million dollars (which is the amount needed to get high-class status, but did he really expect to be welcomed into Fiddler's Green with open arms after this incident?). Refusing to cooperate, the mayor hires Riley (Simon Baker) to bring Dead Reckoning back. Meanwhile, the undead are planning to invade the city thanks to the evolving zombie called Big Daddy, and given this couldn't happen at a worst possible time, you can guess what'll happen next.

I'm going to put it bluntly, this film is by far the worst of Romero's zombie movies, lacking in so many ways that I would still feel the same way even if I didn't have its predecessors to compare it with. But there are its predecessors, and having already seen three prior films in which characters must hold off scores of zombies at bay from inside some "safe" location before it's ultimately penetrated by the undead, let's just say seeing this a fourth time gets a little repetitive.

The film does have elements worth appreciating, the cinematography is excellent and easily the best of the series; I especially loved the stylish and creepy nighttime shot of zombies shuffling within a fog-shrouded forest. The movie is also the most action-packed of the series, so the non-stop gunfire keeps the movie watchable. The production values are also pretty good considering the budgetary limitations (some of the f/x still look pretty weak, though).

Otherwise, LOTD is rushed, unfulfilling, and does little its predecessors haven't already accomplished. What new material it does aim for is poorly conceived, a shocker considering Romero's had twenty years to mull over this material. Take the city, for instance, it's never fully explained how the monetary system works or where the electricity is coming from. I was able to suspend my disbelief for the latter in Dawn of the Dead, but I'm not willing to let Romero pull the same trick twice, especially when the inner workings of the city should have been further explored.

The movie's social commentary feels like a slapdash effort of contemporary issues tossed together without any real coherency, with characters acting in blatantly idiotic fashion for no other purpose than to continue serving the commentary. The original Dawn of the Dead's commentary on consumerism worked because it was a natural outgrowth of the way the characters' believably behaved (if you had free reign to a mall, you likely wouldn't want to leave, would you?).

Yet here, Romero feels compelled to ensure that Hopper's character won't dare negotiate, even preferring to leave the city (to go where exactly?) and kill an associate rather than give up five million bucks. To keep the commentary going, Romero even has Hopper take all his cash with him, even though I had to wonder what it was good for. Considering his demands, the same problem also applies to Cholo. Are there other cities/outposts out there using the same currency as well? If so, why not at least mention it so we don't question the characters' motivations, especially considering it's the basic framework that leads to so many deaths later in the film.

There are further instances of stupidity, such as Riley choosing not to warn anyone inside the city about Big Daddy. The soldiers protecting the city prove incompetent in almost every fashion, with one guard actually rappelling into a crowd of zombies. Later in the film, there's even a guy who wears headphones while he's outside the city, by himself, and not at all far from known zombie territory. This scene is also indicative of the countless jump scares Romero attempts, all of them obvious and hilariously overdone.

As for the zombies, there's the storyline involving Big Daddy, an undead gas station attendant who's inexplicably getting smarter. Much of the appeal of zombies is seeing them act out as mindless drones with no other motivation than to eat human flesh. That Big Daddy is able to think and seems to actually want revenge for his fallen zombie brethren completely mutes the sense of dread and terror that came with zombies acting on just pure instinct.

Most astoundingly, Romero takes this a step further and actually wants us to sympathize with the zombies. I shouldn't be surprised by this development, as it's all been clearly leading up to this point since Bub's humanity in Day of the Dead and the constant "they're us, we're them" lines. Doesn't mean I have to like it, especially when the previous installments have made it clear being a zombie isn't something to cherish and the general fact that they like to eat people doesn't exactly make me want to side with them. For me, LOTD continues Romero's downward spiral, and I still haven't liked a movie of his since the 80s.
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Unleashed (2005)
Surprises never cease, Unleashed is the best action film I've seen in years.
15 May 2005
Rating: **** out of ****

If I'm always skeptical of Jet Li's English-speaking films, it's for good reason. They're usually crap. Too often, he's either been put in the hands of incompetent directors who couldn't properly film or edit his impressive martial arts abilities and/or he's teamed alongside a cast that includes one rapper too many. It also didn't help that these movies were poorly written and acted, failing to work as either a showcase for Li's moves or his charisma. So it's all the more satisfying that Unleashed goes through its entire running time without succumbing to any single one of these flaws.

Jet Li stars as Danny, a fully grown man with the mind of a child who is a literal slave/pet to Bart (Bob Hoskins), a Glasgow mob boss who keeps Danny in a cage and uses him as a form of "persusasion" to those who owe him money. Like a dog, Danny wears a collar, shy and seemingly dumb whenever it's clasped around his neck, but a ferocious killer once he's unleashed.

After a mishap with another criminal, Bart and Danny are left for dead, leaving an injured Danny to crawl to a warehouse where he's taken under the wing of kindly blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). Starting over with a clean slate, Danny comes to enjoy his new life and loving family; no longer is violence or cruelty something he must face everyday. But fate hands him an unlucky turn when he's forced to confront Bart, finding no choice but to give in to his violent side one last time.

The film's premise, that of a violent man finding a better life, is nothing new but rarely have I seen the simple but effective premise delivered so well and with such genuine heart. To my immense surprise, it's Jet Li's performance that anchors the film, showing us a side of corrupted innocence and child-like enthusiasm that is sweet, moving, and occasionally even quite humorous. The transformation and natural maturity Danny undergoes is engaging, and it's to no small measure of Li's performance that we hope Danny can entirely shed his former life even when we know it'll inevitably catch up with him.

Li is surrounded by a fantastic cast with great actors Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins pulling their own weight. Freeman delivers as always, playing the kindly authority figure with firm but gentle resolve. Hoskins is over-the-top but suitably so as Bart, whom we're quite sure is complete scum, yet one can't dismiss the fact that he holds Danny in a certain esteem, and that he may actually be the only person in the world Bart cares for, however twisted a manner he chooses to show it. Relative newcomer Kerry Condon is cute and appealing, although she could just as easily have won me over with that great smile of hers.

As a kick-ass action film, Unleashed is superb. The ratio of action to story might be a bit less than hardcore martial arts fans desire, but there's no question every facet of the plot bolsters the fight scenes, giving every battle a palpable and underlying current of emotion that adds to the thrills of the spectacle. And spectacular action this is; every fight scene-most especially the brutal opening sequence and the thrilling, almost emotionally exhausting climax-is brilliantly filmed and edited, wisely emphasizing Li's natural abilities in favor of quick-cuts and wirework. There are a few instances of Matrix-style slow motion, but the spare usage works to the film's advantage. There's even a terrific fight scene inside a tiny bathroom that far outdoes a similar scene in The Matrix.

An absolute winner on almost every conceivable level (the exception being that the title should be changed back to Danny the Dog, but I'm not going to hold that against the movie), Unleashed delivers some of the best action scenes I've seen to go hand-in-hand with memorable characters I adored and a story that riveted me from start to finish. I should also not slight director Louis Leterrier, who puts it all together with the right mix of strong style and natural storytelling. Why can't all action films be this good?
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Men of War (1994)
Most definitely Lundgren's best movie, with lots of action, gorgeous scenery, and an excellent supporting cast.
6 May 2005
Rating: *** out of ****

I don't generally make it a point to review Dolph Lundgren films, since they're usually steeped deep into mediocrity, but I gave this one a chance based on some fairly high recommendations. And I have to admit, I'm pleasantly surprised; though not a great movie, Men of War delivers thrilling action amidst a plot that's actually not half-bad by "generic action flick" standards.

Lundgren stars as Nick Gunar, an ex-special forces operative who's given a lucrative job by a corporation looking for someone to do their dirty work. Apparently, the company wants mining rights on a small island inhabited by a village of natives and they think Gunar's the man to convince the villagers to sign the rights over; if the natives don't agree, then Gunar and his men will have to eliminate them. With some reluctance, Gunar agrees to the deal and rounds out the rest of his team with hard-boiled mercenaries (totaling eight in all, including Catherine Bell) looking for a good payday.

But upon their first few days on the island, Gunar and a few of his teammates find themselves quite taken with the natives and their way of life, and are unable to bring themselves to complete the mission. This splits the team in half, with Gunar and his group choosing to defend the island and the rest leaving to join another much larger mercenary group (led by Kevin Tighe and Aussie Trevor Goddard) that's got its eyes set on completing the mission. No points for guessing this is going to lead to all-out war.

The film's premise, though often used time and again in the annals of action cinema, is effective in immediately engaging the viewer. Plot has often been a tricky complication in Lundgren's movies, as they tend to get in the way of the action or there's simply not enough of a hook in the story to hold one's attention. Not so in this case, and while the script isn't particularly complex or convoluted, I found myself quite interested in the natives' plight and the way Gunar and his soldiers respond to the situation.

It's also to no small degree that I even cared about the characters, and in this regard, even the natives aren't short-sighted, as ample screen time is given to both B.D. Wong and Charlotte Lewis. Wong, in particular, is excellent as the translator who helps bridge the cultural gap. As the lead, Lundgren is likable and appealing, displaying a fair amount of the same charisma that made Schwarzenegger a huge star. He's clearly not a good actor, but he has an undeniably strong presence.

The supporting cast immeasurably aids the film, most especially hottie Catherine Bell as one of the ass-kicking mercenaries with a heart of gold. I'm only a little disappointed that she didn't strip down or show any skin, so it seems that gratuitous task was left up to Charlotte Lewis. Also making strong impressions are Tom Wright and Tim Guinee as mercs on Gunar's side and Trevor Goddard as the over-the-top villain.

The action scenes are spectacular and thrilling, even if most of it is held off until the climax. But what a climax! The last half-hour is non-stop mayhem, with shootouts, explosions, knifings, and fisticuffs taking place all over the island. For my money, this is the best B-movie battle since Arnold took on all those Latino soldiers in Commando. Lundgren doesn't really get to show off his martial arts moves until his mano-a-mano battle with Goddard, but it's a damn good showdown that wraps the action up on an exciting note.

Add to that the gorgeous scenery and surprisingly high production values (this certainly has the look and feel of a theatrical release), and I'd have to say Men of War is a winner. It's not innovative or original cinema, but it is a highly entertaining action flick and that's all I ask from a movie starring Dolph Lundgren.
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The Mission (1986)
Roland Joffe's follow up to the masterful The Killing Fields is well-crafted and often easy to admire, but ultimately comes up a bit short.
1 May 2005
Rating: ** 1/2 out of ****

Back in 1984, Roland Joffe accomplished the near impossible; his major motion picture debut, The Killing Fields, defied every expectation typically associated with neophyte filmmakers and what Joffe delivered was one of the most powerful and moving films I've ever seen. So it's no surprise I highly anticipated his follow-up film, The Mission, and it's obvious that by bringing back the same team (producer David Puttnam, cinematographer Chris Menges, and editor Jim Clark), they attempted to capture the proverbial "lightning in a bottle" a second time. Unfortunately, the end product isn't quite cinematic magic.

Set in the 18th century, Jeremy Irons stars as Father Gabriel, one of several Spanish Jesuit priests (including Liam Neeson) assigned to convert the Guarini tribe of South America into Christians. His efforts are gradual, but successful. Converging with this story is Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a slave trader who seeks penance after killing his own brother in a fit of rage. For all the Guarini that he has killed or sold off into slavery, they still show compassion and forgiveness towards him, and he is accepted into the mission, even converting into a Jesuit priest under the guidance of Father Gabriel.

The priests and the Guarini natives eventually find themselves in heated discussion with politicians and slave-owners, who are debating over whether the mission should fall under the rule of Portugal, thus endangering all the Guarini with the possibility of being made into slaves. Determined to prevent such an action at any cost, Mendoza takes up his sword once more, coming into conflict with Father Gabriel's peaceful approach.

The Mission was released in 1986 with little success in theaters, despite garnering a respectable 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Since then, it's developed a devoted fan base who consider it among the most underrated films of the decade. As much as I'd like to, I can't quite agree. Though a respectable and often beautifully crafted effort, the film ultimately comes up short in human interest and emotions, with Joffe often favoring lingering shots of lush jungle scenery and needlessly overlong political machinations involving secondary characters whom we couldn't care less about.

The film is divided into three acts, the first, involving the spiritual transformation of Mendoza, is easily the most compelling. Despite De Niro's occasionally stilted performance (his delivery of some of the dialogue, particularly "Are you laughing at me?" still makes me cringe), his emotional torment is heartfelt and absorbing and his acceptance into the mission is genuinely moving. It's almost all downhill from there.

The build-up in the second act is initially effective, with the heated debate over the Guarini engrossing, but the conflict eventually loses steam when we're subjected to dull, endless dialogue that grows inadvertently confusing even as it intends to clear up the matters at hand. It's also in the middle segment the film loses its human focus and all that's really left is the question of will they or won't they fight.

The third act is the inevitable battle, and while there are a few powerful moments amidst the chaos, the sequence is a badly choreographed mess. The editing also feels a little rough, with quite a few scenes feeling like they clocked in a little too soon (the sudden transition after Irons' "God is love!" line is disjointed, to say the least). The Guarini are never developed beyond the typical "noble savage" portrayal, so it's difficult to feel for their plight beyond the fact that their forced subjugation and mass slaughter is a heinous crime. I wanted to feel more for them, but they're merely a backdrop for the more seasoned cast.

As Father Gabriel, Jeremy Irons is superb, unquestionably one of the film's consistent bright spots. It's unfortunate he's never that well-developed in any of the film's separate acts, but his performance alone is able to draw us in even if the script lets him (and the audience) down. In supporting roles, Ray McAnally and Liam Neeson are excellent, though a bit limited in screen time. For Neeson, this was more of a hint of greater things to come.

Ennio Morricone's score deserves a special mention; whatever emotions Joffe is unable to convey on screen, Morricone's music can conjure in just a few notes. It's one of the most beautiful scores I've had the pleasure to listen to, especially in segments with oboe and flute. The chorus in the background is perhaps a bit much, but an overpowering score can do wonders in a film otherwise unable to muster all the intended emotions.

Joffe's work in the film is still overall quite solid, but he completely lost his footing soon afterward, losing a grip on his career with a long string of critical and financial disasters, including Super Mario Bros., The Scarlet Letter, and Goodbye Lover. I'm convinced The Killing Fields was not a fluke, but the sign of a genuine auteur who showed his prowess thanks to a brilliant script and cast. Blend those two elements with his natural skills and I'm sure we'll get a film worthy of mention alongside his debut. Let's just hope this happens sooner rather than later.
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Cobra (1986)
A depressing reminder that for every rollicking action extravaganza like "Commando," we have a dozen more duds like "Cobra."
15 April 2005
Rating: * 1/2 out of ****

Cobra is an 80s flick all the way, made back in the days when macho action flicks featuring one-man armies reigned supreme, so it's technically a movie that should be right up my alley. But watching it again for the first time in over ten years, it serves more as a reminder that making a macho classic isn't quite as easy as it seems, and why Schwarzenegger's Commando will always be the standard by which the one-man army genre will be judged. Hell, forget Commando, I'd estimate Cobra is only about half as good as Dolph Lundgren's The Punisher, if that says anything about where this rates in the annals of 80s macho action cinema.

Sylvester Stallone stars as Lieutenant Marion Cobretti, a trigger-happy L.A. cop who shows little mercy to the scum of society. Naturally, he's the perfect man to protect a model (Brigitte Nielsen) who's the target of the Night Slasher (Brian Thompson), the head of a nasty cult that wants to create a new world order. They've got their sights set on Nielsen because she saw the Night Slasher exerting one of his more intense facial expressions on a particularly dark night, and that's apparently enough to deem her an eyewitness to a murder she clearly didn't see.

Anyway, it's obvious how the rest of the movie will play out; Cobretti will make out with the model, somehow keep her completely unharmed even when getting the both of them into lots of chases and shootouts, and he'll kill all the scum before riding off with the "babe" into the proverbial sunset. If you think I'm giving too much away, then you definitely haven't seen enough action movies.

While its an unwritten rule that one usually doesn't watch these kinds of action movies for plot, I think it's fair to say that one at least hopes for a fairly consistent flow in its narrative, or for the writer (in this case, Stallone himself) to offer up a compelling MacGuffin that bridges the action scenes well enough to hold interest between the shoot 'em up action. No such luck here; a fair portion of the plot is structured around the cult and their serial killings, but the film just glances over the cult's motives, and what is revealed sounds like it was (badly) ad-libbed by Brian Thompson on the spot.

Just as bad is the main story revolving around Cobretti protecting the model. Despite being a real-life couple at the time, Stallone and Nielsen have no chemistry, making their scenes together painfully awkward and unconvincing. Even Schwarzenegger and Rae Dawn Chong worked way better together in Commando and there wasn't even any attempted romantic tension in that relationship. If you actually rooted for Cobretti and the chick to get together by the end, you are a better person than me.

Even with all these faults, what ultimately kills the movie is that it's just not much fun. The action scenes are fairly plentiful, and a few of them are even reasonably decent (the big car chase is well-shot and edited, and a later chase scene where Cobretti mows down a lot of bikers from the back of a pick-up truck hints at the fun flick this could have been if it had boasted more self-knowingly outrageous moments like that), but without any care towards plot or character, it's hard to get involved in all the mayhem, especially when a lot of these scenes are mired in boring clichés (the final showdown is set in a foundry; argghh, I hate that setting!).

Even worse is the fact that almost everyone involved seemed painfully unaware they were making pulpy escapist cinema. Aside from a few very unsuccessful one-liners, Cobra is too serious in tone to genuinely enjoy. A lot of action movies that take themselves seriously manage to work because of (at least mild) attention to plot and characters; without these elements, the laziness of the filmmakers becomes more obvious as we watch a film that wishes to be taken seriously (there's a half-hearted attempt at a message about the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of justice) without going into the effort to deserve that merit, and that's just plain insulting.
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Sporadically engaging, but easily the least of the L&O shows.
23 February 2005
Law and Order works because it provides us with engaging police procedural in the first half of the show, then pays it off with tense courtroom cases that are often quite controversial. The cast is excellent, with Jesse L. Martin still going strong, Dennis Farina proving to be an excellent "replacement" for Briscoe, and Sam Waterston still showing why he's one of television's finest actors.

L&O's first spin-off, SVU, works because it takes full-center focus on the police procedural, giving us compelling, elaborate, and plausible mysteries, meanwhile balancing them by exploring the personal lives of the show's leads. The cast is superb as well, with Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay easily the best pairing of any current crime series. As of right now, SVU is the best of the L&O's and even the best crime show on TV.

The second spin-off, Criminal Intent, obviously has to differentiate itself, and this is where it immediately falters. They give great character actor Vincent D'Onofrio a role that essentially means he's the requisite scene-stealer, meaning anyone else, even his partner, is just playing second banana. Kathryn Erbe, Jamey Sheridan, and Courtney Vance are just there to provide window dressing to L&O fans who expect similarities to its predecessors. But given what little the cast has to do, this may as well be a solo private detective show with just D'Onofrio (and a sidekick, which is pretty much Erbe's role on the show).

Worse yet, the series is far too mired in formula. D'Onofrio's Robert Goren will obviously uncover all the clues, discovering the identity of the killer early on, but with no hard proof, will instead use psychological ploys and manipulation to force a confession. There's something unsatisfying about knowing the manner in which every criminal will receive his comeuppance.

It's still not a bad show; as usual for a Dick Wolf production, the police procedural is still fairly engaging (but less so because we're made aware of who the killer is from the start), the acting is solid even if the secondary cast gets virtually nothing to do, and the show does have an authentic look and feel to it. I still watch the series on a sporadic basis, but it's not keeping me coming back week after week the same way SVU does.
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Saw (2004)
Despite a good premise and signs of potential talent from James Wan, Saw completely falls apart in the last half-hour.
21 February 2005
Rating: * 1/2 out of ****

Opening to acclaim throughout a number of film festivals, Saw became the low-budget horror flick that came out of nowhere and took everyone by surprise. But hype has its backlash, and in my case, I can't say I came out of this film particularly impressed. There are elements in the film worth appreciating, but aside from a few tricky plot twists, it accomplishes nothing that other films haven't done before with more skill and freshness.

Getting straight to the point, Saw opens with young photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) awakening in a bathtub, disoriented and confused towards his whereabouts. As it turns out, he's in a large, dank, grime-filled bathroom, chained to the pipes. He's got a chained companion on the other side of the room, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), and in between them lies the body of a dead man.

Through a series of clues, Gordon deduces they're dealing with the "Jigsaw," a serial killer who finds elaborate methods of forcing his victims to perform a series of grueling tasks, and if they fail, the penalty is death. A message left behind by tape informs Gordon of his task; he must kill Adam in eight hours or his own wife and child will be murdered.

It's a good premise, but it's obvious the filmmakers aren't going to make a feature-length production set entirely within a bathroom. Unsurprisingly, it's the scenes set outside the bathroom that the movie first shows signs of faltering. Problem number one is that the sets appear rather low-grade, no surprise given the budgetary constraints. Problem number two is that the movie still wants to keep its villain's identity a surprise. In fact, I wasn't swayed at all upon the initial revelation of the killer, especially when this "surprise" is still juxtaposed alongside scenes set in the past where the filmmakers' still keep the killer's face hidden.

Such twists and turns grow tiresome, all the more so when it's obvious that the killer always (and I mean ALWAYS) has a trick up his sleeve, making the final shock quite obvious moments before its underwhelming unveiling. Hey, I like my serial killer flicks to feature a smart villain as much as the next guy, but it's just plain annoying for them to be all-out omniscient.

The scenes set within the bathroom are initially effective. The acting between Elwes and Whannell is convincing enough, with Whannell showing hints of genuine charisma that could serve him well in the future. But all this takes a flabbergasting nose-dive in the last half-hour, beginning with the cigarette scene. It was by this point I wondered if director James Wan was winking at us because prior to this the film was serious in its intent to scare.

I can't help but admit that this far into the picture, I started laughing and couldn't stop. I was willing to suspend my disbelief at a lot of the plot, even at the fact that five hours could suddenly pass and catch up on the protagonists (surely, at least one of them would keep better track of the time?), but that the killer would know that at least one of the two men would look inside his wallet and find the right picture and message, and to be aware of how desperate one of them is for a smoke in even such a dank environment and have a back-up plan to test the possible contingency that could result; well, I have to say, it felt like a parody of all the "smart" serial killer flicks we've seen before, and the acting only goes further to serve that belief.

Decent at first, Elwes goes off the deep end in the movie's climax. One has to question how someone would truly respond in such a situation, so I'm not going to criticize his acting in that respect. I just can't deny that my immediate response was pure hilarity; Elwes is not a very good actor, but he's competent enough for me to believe he was perfectly aware of how silly he looked and overplayed it for all it was worth. Considering the absence of suspense, I think the laughs go a step or two in making up for it.

Also, without giving too much away, there must have been other ways for a certain character to resolve his predicament (like seeking help) if the danger that's posed upon him is slow-acting enough for an incredibly elaborate plan to unfold over the course of many hours. The danger is, in fact, so slow-acting that after all those hours, this man (who should not be a very skilled fighter or marksman) is still capable of engaging and holding his own in shootouts, chases, and fistfights with a crazed and determined ex-cop.

Director Wan has potential, but he needs to lay off on camera tricks and realize quick cuts and sped-up camera-work serve as distractions and do little to build genuine scares or suspense. In fact, I was surprised by how easy it was for me to sit through this film. At no moment did I ever feel a sense of dreadful anticipation like I do with the best (or even solidly competent) of the genre. Much of the reason for that has to do with the flashback structure, we're clearly aware of who's alive or who isn't considering we know who's telling the story.

It doesn't help that each twist spirals the movie further into a hole it can't dig itself out of, the final strike coming in the last moments with a preposterous surprise revelation. We barely saw this guy prior to this scene, so why make a big deal out of this surprise by going through a pointless flashback? This is one case where an otherwise middling movie is destroyed by a terrible ending.
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One of the finest softcore films with one of the hottest casts thanks to Tera Patrick and Tracy Ryan.
19 February 2005
Rating as a softcore film: A

The basic premise of this picture is lifted straight from the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston hit The Bodyguard: famous movie star Maxine Strickland (Tracy Ryan) is receiving threatening letters from an obsessed fan, so she hires conflicted tough guy Paul Logan to protect her. Most of the movie is set around her mansion, with the suspects including her butler and maid and her best friend Naomi Grant (Tera Patrick), who's secretly jealous of Maxine's success. No points for guessing the movie doesn't really care about the mystery.

Through and through, SOM is an excellent softcore production. The production values are passable, the lighting is excellent, the soundtrack is pleasing enough, and best of all, the women are breathtakingly gorgeous and the sex scenes are titillating. Taken for what it is, the movie succeeds on virtually all counts.

What's immediately eye-catching is the presence of two of the hottest women around, the blonde Tracy Ryan and half-Asian/half-American Tera Patrick. Tracy's best scenes are mostly near the end, when she has a lesbian encounter with Monique Parent (the least attractive woman in the movie, but not too distracting) and a passionate sex scene with Paul Logan. Tera's best scene is a threesome with the hot maid and the butler. Pity the redhead playing the maid is uncredited, she's incredibly hot, even looking as good as Tera and Tracy on several occasions.

The only thing that really disappoints is the lack of a lesbian scene between Tera and Tracy; here you have two of the hottest women and to simply neglect what could have been a coupling for the ages is completely flabbergasting. I'm not sure who to blame this omission on; even though I'm aware Tera Patrick usually doesn't do lesbian scenes, this is softcore and she did have that scene with redhead. So I guess this is the director's fault.

For anyone who actually cares about the plot, no one should have any trouble guessing who the culprit is. I'd say it's the character who serves no other purpose to the story, but then again, the only purpose any major character in this film serves is to bare their skin. Whatever the case, any single scene in the movie is far more satisfying than the whole of The Bodyguard.

In regard to other aspects of the plot, I'd say that any man who would cheat on Tracy Ryan clearly isn't thinking straight, but he's cheating on her with Tera Patrick! I can see why such a temptation would be too hard to resist. It's also easy to see Paul Logan succumbing to Tera's charms (or maybe it's just her looks) even when he has a thing for Tracy.

Seduction of Maxine is definitely one of the best softcore films in memory, ranking alongside other productions like Femalien, Fast Lane to Vegas, Alien Files, and Hidden Beauties. Now if only a movie could combine Tracy Ryan, Tera Patrick, Venesa Talor, Sasha Peralto, Sage Kirkpatrick, and Laurie Wallace, I'd be in softcore heaven.
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Krull (1983)
I might regret saying this some time down the road, but Krull is a really fun 80s sci-fi/fantasy adventure.
18 February 2005
Rating: *** out of ****

Enough people have tried comparing to Krull to Star Wars that I won't even bother emphasizing the similarities aside from the fact that Krull's mythology isn't half as well thought out, but it's just as fun as anything in George Lucas' space opus, and that's good enough to earn a recommendation from me; at the very least, this is easily among the best of its respective genre (better than, say The Sword and the Sorcerer or Willow), and it is to these standards one will immediately realize if this movie is up their alley or not. It probably isn't.

Set on a faraway world known as Krull, the film opens with the oncoming invasion of the Slayers, a fearsome, planet-conquering army led by the Beast, whose lair is a spacecraft shaped like a large mountain called the Black Fortress. They've clearly got the sword-wielding residents of Krull outmatched, as the Slayers are armed with laser, though they curiously still use horses as a means of transportation.

Knowing the only way to stave off the invaders is to unite, the planet's two warring kingdoms set aside their differences so that Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) may be wed. In the middle of the wedding ceremony, the Slayers storm the palace, killing everyone except for Colwyn, and they take Lyssa back to the Fortress as a gift to the Beast. If this was really the extent of both kingdoms' armies, then I don't see how they could have stood even the slightest chance in a full-on war with the Slayers.

Anyway, the Beast has apparently chosen Lyssa to be his bride because he's aware of the prophecy that whomever she chooses to be her husband (and consequently the king), their eventual son will become ruler of the galaxy. Logically, I could only see this working if she chose the Beast, considering Colwyn has no means of interplanetary travel, which would make galaxy-ruling a bit of a tough task.

Determined to save his bride, Colwyn retrieves the five-bladed throwing star (think Alien vs. Predator) called the Glaive and recruits loyal followers during his journey (namely a band of criminals, including Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane). Hindering their quest is the fact that the Fortress automatically transports to a new location during every sunrise. This does beg the question why the Beast doesn't just blast off the planet with his bride-to-be than risk the slightest chance of Colwyn finding her...but I digress.

For all the moments of cheese (no moment unintentionally funnier than when Colwyn is able to recognize one of his men by a blood trail), unconvincing blue-screens, and occasional subpar effects, Krull still works dandily as a rollicking adventure. The cast is much better than usual for this kind of material, with Ken Marshall making for a charismatic and likable hero and lovable rogues like Neeson, Coltrane, and Alun Armstrong (whom I'll always remember as the traitorous Mornay in Braveheart) providing solid support. Lysette Anthony radiates beauty as Lyssa, she's easily one of the most drop-dead gorgeous princesses in cinema history. There's no question I'd go through the same trouble to rescue her as well.

Despite running a little over two hours, Krull moves at a consistently excellent pace, delivering good production values (loved the exterior and interior sets of the Black Fortress), beautiful locations (and thus, some lovely cinematography), and a number of exciting action sequences. The battle scenes are surprisingly well-choreographed; whatever the sword fights may lack in gritty violence is made up for by pure swashbuckling fun. Other terrific scenes include Colwyn's solo rock-climbing, the trek through the swamps, the adventurous ride on the Firemares, and the battle/chase within the Fortress. The action and adventure is given a great boost from James Horner's rousing score, one of the composer's personal best.

Director Peter Yates strictly adheres to fantasy formula, so there are no surprises to be found. The plot is occasionally baffling, essentially making up a lot of its own rules as it goes along (the old mentor telling Colwyn he can't use the Glaive until the right moment, a character staying behind because his "time is up" only to come to the rescue later, etc.). But it's all in good fun, and the movie is pieced together with moderate coherency and consistent momentum. Recommended to fans of 80s fantasy, Krull delivers the goods for those into this sort of thing.
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The Skulls III (2004 Video)
Not much of a movie, but Clare Kramer is a talented hottie worth watching.
5 February 2005
Rating: * 1/2 out of ****

Here it is for your viewing enjoyment, the second straight-to-video sequel to a box office release nobody remembers. For anyone who's not tired of the formula flogged out over the last two films or hasn't seen them, The Skulls III should make for a perfect Friday night rental. In the end, it's still a simple rehash, only with a nominal twist; the lead character is a hot chick, not a bland-looking blonde pretty boy.

Clare Kramer stars as Taylor Brooks, a college co-ed trying to initiate into the elite, secret society known as the Skulls. The members are all male, but an exception is made in her case because of her father's connections. Despite passing the required tests and rituals, Taylor finds herself in a tight jam; she wakes up one morning to find blood all over her clothes and her boyfriend dead. No points for guessing the Skulls are setting her up to blackmail her father. As expected, she's not going to take this treatment lying down, and with the help of a few friends, she searches for any evidence that can clear her name.

If the original Skulls was an overwrought thriller with horrific leads (Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, and Leslie Bibb), then the sequels are at least a step above thanks to more likable and charismatic actors. The Skulls II benefited from solid performances from Robin Dunne and the super-hot Lindy Booth (who's fast becoming my current favorite hottie actress); this second sequel stars the delectably hot Clare Kramer, whose presence alone is enough to sustain the movie even when you know it's all routine.

The first half of the movie is structured rather awkwardly, there's a police interrogation that leads to a flashback, but this segment is interrupted before going to the flashback again in a different location, even though the new guy asking the questions already knows as much as the person supplying them. This is truly dumbing down for the audience.

The second half is more traditional to the series formula, though a lower budget puts things on a smaller scale. There's some tip-toeing around and some close call, near encounters with the villains, hardly anything you haven't seen before and done better, even in its predecessors. The expected chase scene is more perfunctory than ever, it's basically a middle-aged guy chasing after a fit, young woman down a few steps before she kicks his ass.

And while this has always been a thriller cliché, ever since Pitch Black, it's become more popular than ever for a movie to present us with characters who turn out not to be whom they initially appeared to be (PB and Unbreakable are the only movies in recent memory to pull this kind of twist off perfectly). Let's just say it won't take a genius to guess which of the male leads turns out to be the surprise villain and which turns out to be the surprise hero.

For all my complaints, I knew perfectly well what to expect from this movie and I can at least say it's always watchable. There may be no first-rate thrills or suspense, but the plot moves at a fast clip and doesn't waste much time getting from Point A to Point B. Best of all is the charming Clare Kramer, who's immensely appealing and a total delight to stare at.

It's rather a pity that she's mostly appeared in supporting roles below high-profile young actresses like Kirsten Dunst, Kate Bosworth, and Jessica Biel. There's no question in my mind she deserves to be a bigger star than all of them combined. The Skulls is a series that looks like it's going nowhere fast, but here's hoping it'll at least serve as a stepping stone for a few talented young actors.
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Dreamcatcher (2003)
Dreamcatcher is proof that a "high-class" monster movie is far worse than a more honestly simplistic one.
28 January 2005
Rating: * out of ****

Those who know me realize I'm a pretty lenient guy when it comes to movies. And I have to be since I'm such a huge fan of horror, a genre renowned for spitting out crap at an alarmingly disproportional rate compared to its quality films. So being the easy guy that I am to please, I feel I should at least briefly mention what I liked about Dreamcatcher, namely that it boasts a first-rate cast and almost easily the best production values of any Stephen King adaptation and...well, that's about it.

Yet another addition to the pile of failed Stephen King adaptations, Dreamcatcher is little more than a mish-mash of almost every conceivable plot King has written since the beginning of his prolific career. An opening sequence gives us separate introductions to each of four best friends (played by Tom Jane, Damian Lewis, Jason Lee, and Timothy Olyphant), who all display somewhat varying levels of psychic abilities. Anyway, these four go on a hunting troop in the woods, but a couple of mishaps split them into groups of two and each pair must deal with a fairly immediate crisis.

To make matters worse, the animals in the vicinity all seem to be retreating from a perceived threat and the area is put under quarantine with the arrival of a black ops team (led by Morgan Freeman), whose specialty is (I kid you not) exterminating extraterrestrials that pose a threat to the survival of the human race. Freeman's second in command is played by Tom Sizemore, and it won't take a genius to guess the two will tussle over the way the situation should be handled. Meanwhile, the four pals have to deal with slithery aliens that can apparently shapeshift into more traditional grayish, bipedal E.T.'s (except way taller) and also turn into red dust that's capable of possessing a human body.

I'll start my critique off by stating who should not be blamed for the disaster the film turned out to be, and that's virtually the entire cast. With the exception of Donnie Wahlberg, this highly-talented ensemble does a more than passable job of mustering solid conviction when they deliver the cheese-dripping dialogue. It's all the more pity the film is as terrible as it is; this cast is arguably the best assembled for a Stephen King adaptation since The Shawshank Redemption.

I also liked the cinematography, which captured the beauty of the snow-covered landscape, even doing a fine job of developing a quietly sinister atmosphere in the film's early moments, and that's something most genre movies can't seem to accomplish these days. Some of the visual effects are also initially interesting to behold, though they grow more unconvincing as the film progresses.

But that's virtually the extent of everything I liked about Dreamcatcher. If I had to peg someone specifically for the crap this movie turned out to be, it'd have to be Stephen King, because the source novel itself is poorly written sci-fi nonsense. Chief among the poor writing is the "in-joke," nostalgic dialogue between the four friends that's obviously amusing to them, but is stale and silly to my ears. Perfect example? "Scooby-Dooby Doo, we've got work to do." The story is riddled with contrivances that rely on character stupidity, one such instance occurring early in the film which shows a compulsive toothpick-biter who's sitting on a toilet lid to keep an alien from getting out, but he actually risks getting off the seat just to reach for a toothpick on the floor; sorry, but that's the kind of "characters acting in stupid ways to advance the plot" b.s. I just can't buy.

The film boasts a number of baffling plot holes: why do only two men go in search of a renegade alien when the entire military is at their disposal (heck, it's only the entire world at stake)? How is Mr. Grey is able to turn back and forth from the alien shape to Jonesy without tearing any of his clothes? And why doesn't Jonesy just turn into his powerful Mr. Grey form to break down that door and remove the manhole rather than going through the trouble of it in his much weaker human form? The movie also frustratingly fails to establish what the alien creatures are fully capable of. Early scenes indicate they're shapeshifters, able to vacillate back-and-forth between their serpent forms, bipedal body structure, and that red dust, but none of this is explored to a satisfactory fashion. I'm also not sure why all the aliens didn't just use the red dust method to possess the humans in the surrounding area.

It's hard to say what director Lawrence Kasdan was aiming for. The early scenes indicate a more subtle, atmospheric approach, but that's out the window less than an hour in. Maybe that's just as well, I can't stand psychic links anyway, and couldn't bear to see a 136-minute movie devoted to this lazy plot device. To my chagrin, it still manages to figure into the last half-hour as a pretty lousy way of advancing the story.

As a gory slime-fest with hostile alien creatures, the movie's almost a total bore, the story switching back-and-forth between different characters and never developing momentum for any of these individual plot strands, not even when they eventually converge. You might also be a little miffed by the lack of man vs. monster action, these aliens prefer a sneakier approach to taking over the world.

If anything, Dreamcatcher is a good reminder that creature flicks work best when they maintain a stark simplicity rather than veering off on more "ambitious" tangents like this movie attempts. There are number of wonderful monster movies set in secluded locations, films like Pitch Black, Deep Rising, and John Carpenter's The Thing. I highly suggest you check all of those out instead.
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Cellular (2004)
A thriller worth watching for its exhilaratingly fast pace, situational humor, and Chris Evans' star-making performance.
22 January 2005
Rating: *** out of ****

Gimmicky thriller premises are a dime a dozen. Fox's 24 essentially expounds on that idea every episode without any rhythm or consistency. The real trick is executing the idea with the right panache and skill to weave it all into a fun thriller. So is David R. Ellis' Cellular worthy of Phone Booth acclaim, or is it just another Nick of Time? You just might be surprised to see it's every bit as enjoyable as the former, with only occasional hints at the pure cheese of the latter.

Young beach bum Ryan (Chris Evans) is having just another typical day of sun and fun at the beach, but his girlfriend (Jessica Biel) sees his behavior as lazy and irresponsible. To try and patch things up, he promises to run a few errands for her, but on the way, he receives a call on his cell phone from a stranger named Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger), a woman who claims she's been kidnapped and is being held in the attic of an unfamiliar house. Her call to Ryan was completely random, but the catch is, she has to stay on the line or the signal may be lost for good.

Though initially dubious of her outrageous claims, Ryan quickly comes to believe her after he overhears one of the kidnappers on the phone. Deciding to help out in any possible way he can, Ryan tries to locate her family before the kidnappers do. Unfortunately, obstacles to keeping the phone signal going present themselves at every turn, and Ryan finds he must go through some extreme measures to keep Jessica on the line.

It's these obstacles that make up at least half the fun of watching Cellular. Whether it's a dying battery, "typical" close call encounters with the villains, car chases that require driving backwards or on the wrong side of the road, director Ellis keeps the pace lightning fast by presenting every plausible hindrance there is to keeping a cell phone signal alive. That might not be as immediately catchy a premise as keeping a bus above 50 mph, but it's hard to care when the gimmick is delivered with this much fresh skill and energy. Ellis also directed the enjoyable Final Destination 2, proving he has what it takes to deliver straight-faced thrillers in spite of their naturally ridiculous premises.

But as terrific a job as Ellis does, it's the cast that keeps the momentum going even when the story starts to sag. As the everyman caught in this horrifying situation, Chris Evans is wholly convincing and immensely appealing as Ryan, playing out an otherwise simple role for all its worth. Most of the movie rests on his shoulders, so it's to no small amount of praise when I say that we eagerly want to follow him through every move of his day-long adventure. Kim Basinger is surprisingly just as good as the kidnapped woman, proving that much like her physical features, her acting skills are improving with age. The other major standout is Jason Statham as the head kidnapper; he's obviously affecting an American accent that's not all that believable, but he brings an intensity to the role that makes him fiercely menacing.

The plot boasts the expected coincidences and contrivances that are needed to fuel the story, and most of these are easy enough to accept, but there are admittedly a few nagging problems. While I could reasonably believe that the kidnappers wouldn't tie up Jessica and could also accept that she knows just enough about phones to fix one up well enough to make one call, I found it less easy to swallow that the kidnappers wouldn't at least keep a guard posted right outside or inside her room. No biggie, though.

The more bothersome bits involve a few unlikely coincidences that allow a cop (played by William H. Macy, who delivers another one of his requisite subtly funny performances) to conveniently piece together a number of the clues. Even more troublesome is the climax, which has the unfortunate task of resolving every introduced plot strand, and while the results are still highly entertaining, it comes across a bit messy (though ironically finishing things up on a nice and tidy final note).

Still, the story makes a lot of right choices when a lesser movie would have simply veered off course for good. A plot twist involving the villains' identities and their motives is smart and surprising. The movie also satisfyingly chooses to reveal its surprise villain halfway through rather than saving it for a silly last-minute unveiling.

The film also boasts a good sense of humor, a lot of it coming from Evans, who handles the comic moments with natural ease (no real surprise, he was also very funny in Not Another Teen Movie). His best moment comes in one scene where he's in a private school searching for Jessica's kid, flabbergasted over his name (which is particularly funny) and how identical every student looks in the same brand of clothing. The laughs don't defuse the tension, though, and it's with this fun mixture of suspense and occasional comic ingenuity that makes this a highly recommended thriller.
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