Category Archives: Movies

The Taken Trailers

I enjoyed Liam Neeson kicking hectares of ass in Taken and I’m sure the sequel will ramp the action up even higher, but let’s be honest: even the trailer feels a bit like a rerun.

Here’s a snippet of dialog from the trailer for Taken (2008):
Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) on a cell phone to his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace): “Now, the next part is very important: they are going to take you.”

And here’s a bit from the trailer for Taken 2 (2012):
Bryan Mills on a cell phone to his daughter: “Listen to me carefully, Kim: your mother is gonna be taken.”

I think I see where this is going.

Taken 3 (2016)
Bryan Mills on a cell phone to his daughter: “Kim, this is important: they’re going to take the dog…to a puppy farm upstate.”

Taken 4 (2020)
Bryan Mills on a cell phone to his daughter: “Listen, Kim: they’re going to take your order; make sure to get me a Diet Coke, and your mom wants onion rings instead of fries.”

Taken 5 (2025)
Bryan Mills on a cell phone to his daughter: “Julie…I mean, Kim…take the f$&%ing elephant!”

44 Inch Chest (2009)

44 Inch Chest (2009)

Starring Ray Winstone, Tom Wilkinson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Whalley and Jim Hawkins.

Directed by Malcolm Venville.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) is having a rough night. His wife of 21 years—Liz (Joanne Whalley), the love of his life, the queen of his universe, the mother of his children—has found someone new. Emotionally shattered, his life and home in ruins, Colin calls his friend Archie (Tom Wilkinson) who quickly rounds up the whole gang: Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), a foul-mouthed codger who’s quick to tell Colin how the late Billy Brighton would have handled the whole mess in the old days, by God; Mal (Stephen Dillane), a foul-mouthed hothead only too eager to conjure up imagined details of Liz’s affair; and Meredith (Ian McShane), a smooth and suave dandy who remains cool, collected and emotionally detached from the whole nasty business.

With a near-comatose Colin riding shotgun, Archie—good old soft-spoken, ever-supportive Arch, who lives with his mum and has never been married—drives the gang to the restaurant where Liz’s Loverboy (Melvil Poupaud) is a waiter (a waiter!). “Concentrate on your snails,” a bat-wielding Archie advises the patrons as Loverboy is forcibly removed from the premises and shoved into the back of the van, whisking him away to an abandoned apartment building, where he is locked in a large wardrobe (presumably the titular 44-inch chest) to await whatever revenge Colin chooses to exact.

“This isn’t a guys’ movie,” Laura declared as we watched Mal, Peanut, Archie and Meredith hurl abuse at Loverboy, finally removed from the wardrobe and seated—hands tied and a bag over his head—on a chair in the middle of the rundown apartment. “They’re talking too much; they’re not doing anything. That’s not how men behave.” It’s true: once Loverboy has been abducted, the main thrust of 44 Inch Chest is Colin deciding—with no small amount of advice from his friends—just what he’s going to do with his wife’s paramour.

44 Inch Chest is a tricky beast: a fairly straightforward story that often suggests all is not as it seems, that we are not privy to the entire picture, that at any moment some crucial bit we’ve been missing will be revealed, all the pieces will suddenly fall into place and our collective minds will be blown. For example, Loverboy’s face remains hidden for roughly two-thirds of the film, leading us to wonder if perhaps the gang has nabbed the wrong bloke or maybe when the bag is removed Meredith or Mal will recognize him, and his true identity will turn the story on its side.

Colin, too, teases us with flashbacks to his encounter with Liz; each subsequent flashback revealing a little more, planting the suggestion that maybe—just maybe—something horrible has happened to his estranged wife. Adding to the sense that all is not as it seems, Colin appears to be growing more and more delusional as time goes by, first imagining that Liz has found him and Loverboy, then dreaming up ever more unusual encounters with Liz and the gang. “Colin’s gone,” he says at one point, and Laura and I both began to wonder if we weren’t watching a British version of Identity.

We watched and waited, expecting that the next flashback would detail Liz’s gruesome death, or that the next words out of Old Man Peanut’s mouth would—between f-bombs—reveal that the entire scenario is playing out in Colin’s mind as he lies dying on his living room floor, murdered by his estranged wife.

When Colin leaves the apartment for the last time, it is immediately apparent that it really is the last time, that the other shoe we’ve been waiting for is never going to drop—it doesn’t even exist. The ending does not twist, the figurative sneeze we’ve been building up to for the past ninety minutes is denied, and along with it any sense of satisfaction, release or relief.

Brainstorm (1983)

Brainstorm (1983)Brainstorm (1983)

Starring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher,  Jordan Christopher, Donald Hotton, Alan Fudge and Uncle Ben Parker.

Directed by Douglass Trumbull.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

My mother-in-law is convinced that Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner killed Natalie Wood.

I mention this because it’s a bit of a running joke at the International House of Johnson; whenever Walken’s name comes up (and it does), one of us is likely to say “He killed Natalie Wood, you know.”

Robert Wagner’s name almost never comes up, ((Because Robert Wagner is simply not Christopher Walken.)) and when it does there’s no mention of his involvement in the alleged homicide.

Laura and I don’t honestly believe that Natalie Wood’s death was anything but a tragic accident, ((For those who may not be aware of the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death in late 1981, she drowned after falling overboard from the yacht Splendour, on which she had been cruising with Wagner (her husband) and Walken. The coroner concluded that she was intoxicated at the time of her death. Wood’s death was ruled an accident, but some people are convinced otherwise.))  but the fact that my mother-in-law is so convinced and is, consequently, so creeped out by Christopher Walken amuses us.

I guess we’re just morbid people.

Brainstorm was Natalie Wood’s final film. When my wife asked if we had anything interesting to watch Saturday night, I said, “We could watch Brainstorm. It stars both Christopher Walken and that woman he killed.”

Yeah. Morbid.

But it worked. She took the bait and we watched the movie. “Ohhhh,” she said when Louise Fletcher’s named popped up in the opening credits, “she plays a good bad guy.”

I think that’s part of why I didn’t like Brainstorm. See, Louise Fletcher—Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; she does indeed play a good bad guy—doesn’t play a bad guy. Sure, she’s cranky and she chain smokes, but there’s nothing at all malevolent about her character. Hell, she’s Walken’s love interest, for cryin’ out loud! Talk about failing to meet expectations.

*Psst! Spoilers ahead!*

I can’t blame Fletcher for playing against type, but if ever there was a movie that needed a bit more malevolence, Brainstorm is it. You’ve got a bunch of scientists working on a device that can record and play back everything a person experiences, complete with all five senses (and the promise of adding emotion and thought to the mix). Of course the military wants it! Of course there are shady back room deals and underhanded tricks and Michael Brace (Walken) is locked out of his own lab, denied access to his work…but none of it amounts to anything.

Lillian Reynolds (Fletcher), Brace’s partner, insists that she doesn’t want the military to use her work to kill people—which, of course, is exactly what they plan to do with it; they create Project Brainstorm based on Reynolds and Brace’s work. Brainstorm contains tapes that, among other things, can cause the viewer to experience psychotic episodes. When Reynolds suffers a fatal heart attack while working alone in the lab, she chooses to record the totality of her own death with the device…and leave it for Brace to view. When Brace begins to view the tape, he starts to experience a cardiac event and intends to modify the device to allow him to view Reynolds’ death safely.

Brace’s boss, Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson), forbids the scientist to view the death tape. Brace is locked out of the lab and must use every bit of early-1980s computer technology to get back in, hacking the system so he can view the tape remotely and destroy the lab—along with Project Brainstorm—in the process.

Ultimately, Brace is his own worst enemy. He puts himself in far more peril by insisting on viewing Reynolds’ death tape than anything threatened by the government goons (who plan to arrest him). And why does Reynolds, who was so adamant about ensuring that her technology wouldn’t be used to harm people, record her own death, an experience that she must know could be fatal to anyone who relives it with the device? Why, so Brace can get a glimpse into the afterlife, of course. Well, a 1981 version of the afterlife, that is. Lots of pretty lights and stars and nebulae and more lights that might be angels flying around a brighter light that’s probably heaven. ((This is to be expected. Director Douglas Trumbull also helmed Silent Running (1972), which features similarly bedazzling special effects. Between directing Silent Running and Brainstorm, Trumbull supervised visual effects for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Blade Runner (1981). The visual effects in these films have not all aged well—Blade Runner being a notable exception—but as Chris Miller points out in Episode 0020 of The Secret Lair (wherein we discuss Silent Running) Trumbull and his cohorts were revolutionizing modern visual effects. ))

Brace, of course, appears to die as a result of this experience, but his formerly-estranged-almost-ex-wife, Karen (hey, there’s Natalie Wood!) brings him back with—what else?—her newly-rediscovered love for him.

See what I mean about the need for malevolence? How about having Reynolds somehow imprint herself on Brace with her death experience, then editing that experience and using it to kill all the military-types who are after her technology? Better yet, have Reynolds imprint herself on Brace’s almost-ex-wife and do the same, leaving it to Brace to figure out what’s happened and stop her? Or just do something sinister with the military application, rather than hinting at it and destroying it so Brace can see a fancy LiteBrite.

So it was the expectation of something more sinister that led to my being so disappointed with Brainstorm. Terson’s motives for locking Brace out of the lab aren’t anything more than a desire to protect his friend. Sure, the government has nasty plans for Project Brainstorm, but it’s rendered almost entirely peripheral to the story by Brace’s insistence upon viewing Reynolds’ death experience. The journey wasn’t nearly as suspenseful as I wanted it to be and the ending was (to me, at least) a major anti-climax.


Portions of this review originally appeared on the Whateveresque forum.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Teaser Poster)Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Ramon Rodriguez, Isabel Lucas, Hugo Weaving, Frank Welker and Eeyore

Directed by Michael Bay

SPOILER ALERT: These innocent-looking words may transform into evil, plot-revealing spoilers without further warning.

Michael Bay is often the object of much scorn and derision for directing films that favor style over substance, assaulting the audience with flashy special effects and booming soundtracks while seeming to eschew such things as character development and  coherent storytelling. In spite of this, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made thirty-seven bazillion dollars ((Net.)) over the course of its opening weekend.

Did I say “in spite of this”? I meant “because of this”.

The reason Michael Bay’s second Transformers movie made a metric ton of money despite reviews that are almost universally negative is simple: Michael Bay understands that the modern movie theater is tailor-made for big, explodey, in-your-face films featuring frenetic action and jaw-dropping special effects that push the audience right to the edge of sensory overload and keep it there for nearly two solid hours. Bay’s brand of filmmaking has all the elements that compel me (and millions of people like me) to step up to the ticket counter and plunk down eight or nine (or ten) of their hard-earned American dollars in exchange for a hundred and twenty or so minutes of larger-than-life, mind-numbing eye candy.

Mock me if you will. Call me a philistine. I’ll gladly cop to that charge. Why? Because when the theater shakes to the rafters each time Optimus Prime’s massive metal fist smashes into a Decepticon’s face it completely drowns out the sound of cell phones ringing. When a flaming meteor pummels a giant aircraft carrier, I can’t hear the people behind me—you know the ones; the couple who insist on maintaining a running narrative throughout the entire film—yeah, I can’t hear a word they’re saying, nor can I hear the baby crying off to my right. As an added bonus, those giant transforming robots beating the bolts out of each other in a fight sequence so fast-paced my eyes and brain can barely keep up renders me all but unable to even notice the jackass in the next row updating his Facebook status from his iPhone. It’s sheer bliss.

Compelling characters? Subtle, nuanced performances? Thought-provoking narrative? Please! That stuff has no place on a forty-foot-wide screen rendered in so much digital brilliance that I can count the sympathetic protagonist’s eyelashes as the camera zooms in for a close-up during his heart-wrenching, Oscar-worthy monologue. When I want to watch a film from a visionary director that provides some insight into the human condition—the sort of intellectually-stimulating high-brow cinema-as-art drivel I’ll be talking to my well-read friends about over chardonnay and canapés—I’ll buy the DVD and watch it at home. Where it’s quiet. Where no one is kicking the back of my chair. Where the only jackass with a cell phone is me.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a triumph of cinema-as-spectacle. That said, it is also an awful, awful movie. All that stuff about sacrificing ((Or just plain ignoring.)) a decent story in the drive to push action to the forefront; it’s all true. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a film that, like most everything Michael Bay has ever touched, makes me want to give him a high-five and then drive my knee into his tender, private bits.

The part of me that can switch off my critical brain and just enjoy the awesome sight of 40-foot-tall robots transforming into vehicles and then back into robots, all the while beating the ever-lovin’ hell out of each other doesn’t begrudge Bay one nickel of the admission price. The other part of me—the part that still geeks out over those transforming robots but cringes when one of those robots displays very obvious testicles or when the formerly-badass leader of the Decepticons is reduced to a groveling lickspittle at the feet of The Fallen or when the movie turns into Decoys 3: Alien Robot Seduction—that part howls for Michael Bay’s head on a pike.

Revenge of the Fallen obeys some bizarre, twisted balance that I will call Bay’s First Law, which can be simply stated as follows: For every moment of awesome, there must exist an equal and opposite moment of awful. ((Bay’s Second Law: An object, particularly a vehicle, at rest will disgorge its passengers in motion—slow-motion.))

Awesome Awful
Transforming robots. Come on, that’s right up there on the list of The Coolest Things Ever. Non-transforming robots. I’m looking at you, Ravage and The Fallen. Seriously, a robot that looks like a giant chrome kitty? Who the hell is that going to fool?
Robots in disguise. This might be a little redundant, but it bears repeating: robots that can transform into cars and planes and tanks and motorcycles are made of awesome! ((But I’m still annoyed that Optimus Prime has a mouth.)) Robots in disguise…as humans. No! No, no, no! A thousand times: no! Once you give Transformers the ability to assume non-mechanical disguises you ruin them forever! You need look only as far as the Dinobots to see ample evidence of this.
Devastator. What’s cooler than a car transforming into a giant robot? How about six or seven contruction vehicles combining to transform into a robot so big it can’t even stand upright? Devastator. What’s not cool about a robot made of seven construction vehicles? How about a pair of testicles made of wrecking balls, dangling between said robot’s legs despite the fact that none of the vehicles comprising the robot had a wrecking ball?
Jetfire. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest plane in the history of aviation; the only way to make it cooler: transform it into a giant robot… …but not if that robot is my grandpa! He has a beard and a cane, for cryin’ out loud! Oh, and here’s something you probably didn’t see coming: he can teleport. Dude, if you can teleport, why do you need wheels or wings?
More Transformers. Revenge of the Fallen has a bunch of new Transformers, both Autobots and Decepticons. More giant transforming robots = more giant transforming robot fights. And that is cool. Yeah, but…two of those new ‘bots (Skids and Mudflap) are best described as racist caricatures, while Arcee, the only female Transfomer, ((Don’t try to think about why a Transformer ought to be female; your head may explode.)) is killed after only one line of dialog. Definitely not cool.

Then there are the humans, who exist solely to allow the budget some breathing room and to remind the audience that the Autobots have to watch where they step. Bay still drools over Mikaela (Megan Fox) with his camera, ((Megan Fox’s lipstick remains unsmudged whether she’s dry-humping a motorcycle or after two days of hauling her shapely backside across the deserts of Egypt, pursued by murderous Decepticons. Cover the Autobots in that same lip gloss and they’d be pretty much invincible.)) while Sam (Shia LeBeouf) remains the hapless, confused hero and his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) provide much-unneeded comic relief.

Whether they be searching for the elusive Matrix or stumbling (literally) through a painfully-long drug joke on an unnamed college campus, anytime the humans occupy the screen without the titular transforming robots present they drain a little more of the awesome out of the movie. Thankfully, there’s enough left that I’m waiting for my next opportunity to sit in a multiplex auditorium and have my senses overloaded by all of Michael Bay’s transforming sound and fury; even if, at the end, it signifies nothing more than meets the eye.

Star Wars: My Chinatown Moment

I had a Chinatown moment recently while watching one of the Star Wars movies with Kyle, my three-year-old son, and I realized that George Lucas is the Jake Gittes to my Evelyn Mulwray. ((If you haven’t seen Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson as J.J. “Jake” Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray, you should; this analogy makes more sense if you have. Go ahead: put in in your Netflix queue or run down to the corner video store. This blog will be here when you get back.)) It’s not that much of a stretch, is it? George delivered three prequels like so many slaps to the face of die-hard Star Wars fanboys like myself, and they hurt.

Before Kyle was born, I banished the prequels from my home. Even after I began his training—introducing him to the space opera by way of the LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy video game on my old Xbox—I was determined that the prequels would not sully my DVD player. We played the entire game together, and he experienced Tattooine, Yavin IV, Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City and the forest moon of Endor in a multitude of interlocking bricks. When I upgraded to an Xbox 360, Darth Elmo I decided that there was little harm in upgrading to LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga as well. I’d played through the prequel trilogy LEGO game before my son was old enough to pick up a controller and found that (surprise!) it’s much more entertaining when there’s no intelligible dialog.

A few months ago, we graduated from the video game to the movies. Despite a few bumps (he’s not terribly fond of the Wampa ice creature in The Empire Strikes Back; ditto for Luke’s encounter with Vader in the tree-cave on Dagobah and Jabba the Hutt’s menagerie in Return of the Jedi) the movies are a big hit at the International House of Johnson, and I get requests to watch them on a daily basis.

Then a couple of weeks ago I decided to lift my ban on the prequels. I realized that as much as I reviled them, the prequel films would be right up my son’s alley. He’d already been inoculated: he loves Yoda in all of his puppety glory, pretends to be Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, ((I have yet to convince him to pretend to be Lobot.)) refers to a Belle (Beauty & The Beast) PEZ dispenser as “yellow Princess Leia”, runs around the house yelling “Open the blast doors!” and “Oota goota, Solo?”; he even knows who is “in Darth Vader”. But there was an entire trilogy’s worth of characters that he’d only ever seen in LEGO minifig form.

So I borrowed Star Wars: The Clone Wars from the local library. He’d seen the endless advertisements for the series on Cartoon Network and would often strike a Power Rangers-esque stance while yelling “Star Wars the Cone Wars!”—he’s not so good with the letter L just yet—so I thought we could ease into the prequels with the animated adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. The reaction upon seeing the Star Wars logo was pretty much what I expected—an explosion of ecstatic joy—but the movie didn’t really hold his interest beyond a few oohs and aahs during one of the lightsaber battles.

I suspected that my son would be more interested in the familiar characters and situations in The Phantom Menace, so I picked up the DVD from The Exchange, my local used music/movie/video game store. We watched the movie together and I saw everything that made me hate it: Jake Lloyd’s horrible acting, Natalie Portman’s inspired impersonation of a woodcarving, the utterly ridiculous Trade Federation droids. ((“Roger, roger!”? What kind of nonsense is that? If the droids are all controlled by a giant ship in orbit and every last one of them shuts down when that ship is destroyed, why do they need to communicate verbally with each other at all, much less in an idiotic homage to Gomer Pyle?)) All of it.

And my son loved every last minute.

I’ve watched bits and pieces of The Phantom Menace three or four times since then, and it still makes me cringe to hear Anakin Skywalker ask Padmé Amidala if she’s an angel. Something screams inside me anytime midi-chlorians are mentioned. ((Riddle me this, George: If the Jedi believe the Sith have all been wiped out, do they not understand that one who will “bring balance to the Force” is going to have to kill a cubic buttload of Jedi? Why would any Jedi in his right mind want to find such a person?)) And when Yoda appears, his face swollen and his features distorted as though he’s in the midst of a horrible allergic reaction—possibly to a gundark bite—I just shake my head.

But it’s still Star Wars, and my son loves it. And while we were watching it together one night before bedtime, I suddenly felt like Evelyn Mulwray.

I love it!

*slap*

I hate it!

*slap*

I love it!

*slap*

I hate it and I love it!

Lucas has always maintained—despite the froth and fury of fanboys like myself—that the prequels were geared toward children. Watching my young apprentice’s reaction, it’s clear that Lucas wasn’t just blowing smoke; I am a generation removed from what passes for Star Wars these days, but experiencing them with my son has brought an unexpected appreciation for something I was convinced I loathed.


This was originally written for Whateveresque, a web forum maintained by author John Scalzi. It is reprinted here—in a slightly altered form—at my wife’s request.

Movie Review: Rogue (2007)

Rogue (2007)Rogue (2007)

Starring Radha Mitchell, Michael Vartan, Sam Worthington, John Jarratt, Caroline Brazier, Robert Taylor, Stephen Curry, Celia Ireland, Heather Mitchell, Geoff Morrell and Alice.

Directed by Greg Mclean.

Music by François Tataz.

Rogue is one of those rare beasties: a movie that exceeded my expectations on every level. Rarer still, it’s a giant crocodile tale that manages to escape from the realm of the B-Movie, by my accounting a feat that’s happened only twice before. ((Lake Placid and Primeval, though I wouldn’t argue if the former—intentionally campy as it is—were classified as a B-Movie homage.)) The killer crocodilian is one of my favorite movie genres, but to love these films it’s necessary to embrace bad acting, fountains of fake blood, dodgy special effects and scripts that are—to be kind—less than polished; in other words, you gotta love schlock.

Writer/director Greg Mclean’s tale of a tour boat running afoul of a 7-meter rogue saltwater crocodile in Australia’s Northern Territories is decidedly not schlock.

The acting is fairly solid, with fine performances from Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill) as Kate Ryan, the guide who leads a boatload of tourists to their unfortunate encounter with the titular rogue crocodile, Michael Vartan (Alias) as Pete McKell, a travel writer who is anything but thrilled with his current assignment, and Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) as Neil Kelly, the rowdy local who pesters the tour boat only to find himself stalked by the same killer croc. The rest of the cast is a decent mix of personalities, complete with the quiet guy, the weirdo, the jackass you really want to see get eaten, the lady who’s probably going to freak out at any moment, the kid, the heroic guy who you weren’t expecting to die so soon, and the dog. Of course there’s a dog.

Blood? Sure, there’s blood—being eaten by a crocodile is bloody business, and this isn’t an Australian retelling of Alive; those tourists aren’t gonna eat themselves (or each other)—but it’s not the typical Festival of the Spurting Artery you (if you’re the type who watches these films) may have come to expect. There are really only four bits of gore that I can recall in Rogue—one done strictly for the shock, the second and third to emphasize just how badly the characters are injured and the last to emphasize just how dead the giant crocodile is ((Oh, hey, SPOILER ALERT: the croc dies.))—and they all occur in the last 10 minutes of the movie. I appreciate a horror flick that doesn’t feel the need to spray blood and other stuff that really should stay inside the body all over the scenery. Rogue relies on the looming threat of a monstrous, lurking predator to provide the chills and leaves the fountains of gore to lesser films, like the ill-advised splatterfest, The Care Bears vs. The Killer Unicorn. ((This film is not yet rated.))

Another hallmark of creature features is special effects that look like they were ripped off from a bad episode of Land of the Lost, ((I know, I know, that implies that there were good episodes of Land of the Lost. I’m blinded by nostalgia.)) complete with a critter that most likely started its life in the discount bin at Pat Catan’s. The crocodile in Rogue is a blend of computer-generated imagery and animatronics, and both methods are put to good use. The DVD extras include a breakdown of one particular croc-chomping, and the mixture of elements (wire-work, stunt actor, real actor, computer-generated imagery, etc.) is impressive; there’s a lot going on for a scene that lasts all of ten seconds. The digital legerdemain used to make it appear that the last half of the movie takes place in the same environment as the first half is impressive, too. The effects don’t look at all like effects, and until the curtain is drawn back you may not even be aware that the curtain was even there in the first place.

But it takes more than whiz-bang special effects to make a good movie, ((I’m looking at you, Wachowski Brothers. And you, too, Frank Miller.)) and even a competent ensemble cast isn’t going to be able to do much if your script is crap. ((Your turn to receive my glare, X-Men 3.)) The story in Rogue isn’t likely to win any awards for writing, but it does the job, which mostly entails getting the characters where they need to be in order to set up the buffet without stretching the bounds of feasibility and then letting the crocodile do the rest.

Rogue has a couple of other things going for it that didn’t even make the schlock vs. non-schlock list: stunning scenery and an excellent score.

The scenery rivals—hell, surpasses—the New Zealand vistas into which Peter Jackson dropped hobbits, elves, dwarves and orcs for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mclean shot Rogue in some areas of Australia that, if you believe his audio commentary and some of the DVD special features, have rarely been captured on film. The landscape—high, rocky plateaus surrounding heavily-forested lowlands with a wide, calm river running through it—is breathtaking, and certainly like nothing I’ve seen before; especially not in a horror film.

Likewise, the musical score by François “Frank” Tataz and featuring aboriginal vocals by Jida Gulpilil is miles away from anything I’ve heard in a horror film. Sure, there are a lot of the familiar tropes—pizzicato strings during some of the more tense, prickly moments and a low, ominous cello-based motif for the crocodile—but the tropes are done really well, and there’s also a beautiful suite that accompanies the first third of the film, a haunting piece that provides a perfect accompaniment to the vast, lush landscape. It’s the first horror score in memory that I’ve wanted to own on CD.

In case it’s not readily apparent by now, I thoroughly enjoyed Rogue. I’ve seen enough killer crocodile movies to recognize a true diamond in a genre that falls, by and large, almost entirely in the rough. It’s not a perfect film—I thought the close-ups of the rising tide looked particularly manufactured, there’s a line of dialog shortly after the tour boat is disabled that seems to allude to a croc-chomping that never happened, and the crocodile would have to have one hell of a big appetite to eat no less than three and a half full-grown adult humans over the course of just twelve hours—but when compared with the rest of its ilk it comes pretty close.

HOW-TO: Make Video Game Movies Better

John Scalzi, a science-fiction author whose works (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Android’s Dream) I’ve been enjoying over the past several months, has a column over at AMC’s SciFi Scanner section. Today’s entry is entitled “Doom for Dummies or How Hollywood Makes Video Game Movies“. ((I don’t want to spoil the column for you, but if the title were a question (a la, “How babby is formed?”) the answer would be “badly”.))

Now, there’s been some debate recently about whether slavishly reproducing the original source for movies adapted from other media is good or bad. Movies like Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone and, more recently, Watchmen, tend to hew very close to their source, whereas films like The Lawnmower Man and Blade Runner bear very little resemblence to the works from which they are derived. Video games tend to fall into the latter category, as what’s ultimately delivered to theaters (or straight to the shelves at Blockbuster) often shares little more in common with the game than the name. For a fine example of this, see In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. ((Actually, don’t. Really. Skip it. You’re better off not knowing.))

Now, having recently seen Watchmen, which is a movie adapted from a comic book mini-series, I’m of the opinion that sticking as close as is reasonably possible to the source material can result in a pretty good film. On that basis, and that basis alone, I am recommending that filmmakers attempt more faithful recreations of video games when adapting them to the screen. There are some elements that simply won’t transfer well—such as the character’s health bar and the fireworks display any time he or she levels up, or the constant chugging of mana and health potions—but I think there’s one common video game element that filmmakers consistently overlook when adapting from console to screen, an element that is well within a director’s ability to recreate faithfully, a nod to fans that is both simple to accomplish and will be instantly associated with the source material.

I’m talking, of course, about crappy camera angles.

If Lara Croft were, in the midst of a potentially deadly encounter with one of the many dangerous creatures one comes across while raiding tombs, suddenly obscured from view for several seconds because the camera swooped behind an outcropping of rock for some damn reason, anyone in the audience who had actually played the game would instantly identify with the moment.

Cave Chao Lan Reservoir Khao Sok National Park. Photo by René Ehrhardt. Released under a Creative Commons license.
Lara Croft battles a giant, fire-breathing salamander in the latest Tomb Raider film.

If Max Payne were to duck down an alleyway and disappear because the camera didn’t follow him, only to be brutally attacked by a hidden, hellborn beast that the audience couldn’t see because why the hell isn’t the camera moving? I can’t see what the hell is happening! the audience would know beyond a doubt that the original source material had been treated with kid gloves. “Yes!” they would cry. “Yes! At last, here is a filmmaker who understands the video game experience!”

The only way to further immerse the audience into the events unraveling on the screen would be to give them controllers to throw at it.

Movie Review: Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen (2009)Watchmen (2009)

Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Stephen McHattie, Robert Wisden and Max Headroom.

Directed by Zack Snyder.

It is 1985. Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President of the United States. America and the Soviet Union stand on the brink of nuclear war. Only the awesome power of Dr. Manhattan, a being who some postulate is more god than man, keeps the nations from annihilating one another. The masked heroes who once patrolled the streets have retired; only the enigmatic outlaw vigilante known as Rorschach remains. When an unknown assailant throws sixty-seven-year-old Edward Blake through the window of his thirtieth-floor apartment, Rorschach turns up at the crime scene to investigate. Before he retired, Blake’s secret identity was the government-sanctioned hero known as The Comedian, and Rorschach suspects that Blake’s death may be a sign that someone is gunning for former heroes.

Watchmen is based on a twelve-issue mini-series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Originally released in 1986 and 1987, Watchmen is considered by many to be one of the most important comics ever created, and a work that couldn’t possibly be translated to film.

Watchmen is an interesting beast: a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, but which I can envision various people not liking at all, for various reasons.

  • It’s too long. Since the resurgence in popularity of superhero films around the turn of the century, the average entry into the genre has been just over two hours in length. ((A sampling of thirteen of the most popular (or at least prominent) films in the genre reveals an average running length of 125 minutes.)) The Dark Knight, which I found to be about 40 minutes too long, clocked in at just over two and a half hours. Watchmen adds another eleven minutes, with a running time just seventeen minutes shy of three hours. That’s a long time to be sitting in a movie theater without an intermission.
  • It’s too short. The DVD release of Watchmen will include a whopping forty minutes of additional footage, and that’s before the animated Tales of the Black Freighter is added to the mix. That’s all material cut out of the original comic book, material that fans of the source—at least those fans who wanted to see the allegedly “unfilmable” story brought to screen—are eager to see.
  • There’s not enough action. Watchmen opens with a rather lengthy fight between Edward Blake and an unknown assailant, but after that it’s mostly a bunch of people talking for the next hour; this isn’t a movie for an audience used to seeing a big battle every seven to ten minutes. The problem is exacerbated by trailers that show lots of the very butt-kicking that we’ve come to expect from our superhero movies, setting expectations for an action-packed thrill ride with costumed heroes laying the smackdown on an endless parade of thugs, punks and ne’er-do-wells.
  • There’s too much violence. For a movie with only a handful of real action sequences, Watchmen is chock full of violence. Bone-crunching, blood-spraying violence that’s graphic enough to earn an “R” rating several times over. Zack Snyder implies very little, preferring instead to show the sometimes-nauseating results of the brutality right up there on screen; “subtle” isn’t a word that enters into Snyder’s vocabulary here. The violence isn’t all perpetrated in the name of justice, either. There are some very disturbing moments in which the heroes do terrible things to one another and to the very people they are ostensibly protecting.
  • It’s not a proper superhero movie. Even the darkest of our superheroes—Batman, for those who are keeping score—has a line he refuses to cross. No matter what the villain of the week did, no matter how many innocent people died at his or her hands, The Dark Knight isn’t going to intentionally kill the bad guy. Oh, sure, he might elect not to save someone from an untimely demise of their own making (see: Batman Begins), but he’s not going to take that life with his own two hands. The heroes in Watchmen, on the other hand, routinely torch the bad guys with flamethrowers, break their necks, or simply make them explode into a spray of blood and gore with a gesture. To make matters worse, the good guys sometimes kill innocent people, too. Next to the likes of Rorschach, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, Batman is about as dark and gritty as The Greatest American Hero.

In spite of all this, I liked Watchmen. A lot. I’ll happily purchase the extended six-disc ((This is probably an exaggeration. Probably.)) Director’s Cut on DVD because I do want to see what Snyder left out of the theatrical cut, but I’m glad he did save it for the DVD release because I really, really had to pee by the time the end credits rolled, and another forty, twenty or even ten minutes in the theater would have resulted in disaster. 

Everything else—the lack of non-stop action, the ultra-violence and the despicable acts perpetrated by the so-called heroes—I was fully prepared for when I walked into the theater. I’ve read the mini-series at least a half dozen times over the past twenty years, so I was well aware of the sort of things these flawed—sometimes very deeply flawed—people do when given the means to do pretty much whatever they want. I was a little surprised to see just how much of the gruesome aftermath of violence Snyder was willing to splash up on the screen, but considering the source I don’t feel it was excessive.

In most respects, the film holds true to the comic book.  The resemblance of the cast to their illustrated counterparts is nothing short of astonishing, and some scenes are lifted (lovingly) directly from the page to the screen; it really is like seeing one of Gibbons’ panels come to life. Some story elements have been changed, perhaps for purposes of simplification, but the core ideas and themes appear—to me, at least—to be intact. 

I was a little worried about how the characters of Rorschach, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan would come across, but for the most part I was satisfied. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is absolutely brilliant, delivering the vigilante’s stilted dialogue in a manner that stops just shy of becoming corny; no mean feat. Jeffrey Dean Morgan manages to make Edward “The Comedian” Blake both a vile, despicable bastard as well as a frightened, damaged and ultimately tragic man, while the transformation of Billy Crudup into the blue-skinned, white-eyed Dr. Manhattan is nothing short of stunning.

It’s almost unfortunate that those three characters are so brilliantly realized in the film, as it casts something of a shadow over Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). Nite Owl is my favorite Watchmen character, probably because I enjoy heroes who use brains and gadgets to fight crime, and because I admire the way in which Dan Dreiberg has embraced the owl theme in his costume, weapons and Archie (short for Archimedes) the owlship. I’ve always thought Bruce Davison would be my ideal Dreiberg/Nite Owl, but he’s a bit past the age where he could realistically play the role. Wilson does a fine job, and Akerman fills out the Silk Sceptre’s rather scanty costume well, too. Neither have quite the presence of Rorschach, but that’s to be expected; of the characters, it is Nite Owl and Silk Spectre who most closely fit the classic image of the superhero, and their alter egos are the least damaged of the bunch. Approaching something that could almost be called “normal”, they are thus the most out of place in the world of Watchmen.

SciFi Schlockfest: Round 1

SciFi Channel LogoI didn’t get nearly as many movies watched as I intended to while Kyle and Laura were in the Orange Juice and Metamucil State, but here’s the first batch from the SciFi Schlockfest (with a couple of bonus movies thrown in for good measure):

  1. Anaconda 3 (2008). David Hasselhoff can’t need work this badly, can he? I mean, the guy’s got Baywatch money! And don’t get me started on how John Rhys-Davies continues to parlay the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy into movies like Chupacabra: Dark Seas and…this. Why is it that any time scientists are seeking cures for Alzheimer’s Disease and cancer they inadvertently create monsters of unimaginable horror? In this case, it’s a pair of 60-foot-long snakes with machetes for tails. Now instead of just squeezing and biting, the snakes impale! They also live on a steady diet consisting almost entirely of human heads, which makes their two-hour growth spurt to 100 feet long all the more amazing. In fact, the only thing more amazing than machete-tailed snakes that nearly double in size eating only noggins is Hasselhoff’s mustache. (2/10)
  2. Aztec Rex (2007)
    image-1108
    Aztec Rex (2007). SciFi.com lied to me. The official page for Aztec Rex (AKA Tyrannosaurus Azteca) says “The Aztecs summoned a Tyrannosaurus Rex to keep Cortés and his army out of Mexico. Now they need the Conquistadors’ help to stop the T-Rex from killing them all.” Except that the T-Rex in question has been roaming the valley for thousands of years and the Aztecs have been feeding it human sacrifices every month. The Conquistadors show up and accidentally annoy the beastie, then all hell breaks loose. The computer-generated T. Rex is terrible, Cortés is from New Jersey (he’s got blue eyes for cryin’ out loud!) and…well, Ayacoatl (Dichen Lachman) isn’t hard to look at, and at least the hero (Rios, played by Mario Sanchez) is actually Hispanic.  But really, Jurassic Park was made fifteen years ago, I would think that even the SciFi Channel could afford CGi dinosaurs that don’t stick out like puffy stickers on a Trapper Keeper. (3/10)
  3. Rise: Blood Hunter (2007)
    image-1109
    Rise: Blood Hunter (2007). Sadie Blake (Lucy Liu) is a reporter who has a run-in with the undead and wakes up a vampire. Instead of dressing in black and listening to The Cure, Sadie decides she’s going to kill every vampire she can find until she finds the one who turned her. This is literally a vampire movie without fangs, as the vampires simply don’t have ’em; when the blood suckers want to dine, they use fancy little knives to open the nearest artery. Not a bad flick, but Robert Forster is absolutely wasted as a businessman who almost solicits a prostitute in the first two minutes of the movie and then is never seen again. (5/10)
  4. The Descent (2005) wasn’t technically on the Schlockfest list, but it was on the DVR. A group of spelunking women encounter carnivorous mutants while exploring an uncharted cave. It’s kind of like Deliverance in the dark without the banjoes. As flashlight horror goes, The Descent was really quite good. (7/10)
  5. Croc (2007) is another movie that wasn’t on the list, but I stumbled across it on The SciFi Channel yesterday and, given my well-known love for giant crocodile movies, had to watch. The cast is entirely composed of no-name (and even less talent) actors, with the exception of Michael Madsen as Croc Hawkins, that rarest of beasties: the hunter who’s out for revenge but isn’t so obsessed with the critter that he’s lost his perspective; in other words, he ain’t crazy. All the other tropes are present, though, including the mayor who doesn’t want to shut down the beaches because it’ll hurt the tourist trade. (3/10)
  6. A Sound of Thunder (2005)
    image-1110
    A Sound of Thunder (2005), yet another movie that wasn’t on the list, was adapted from a Ray Bradbury tale. I heard an old radio production of the story a couple of months ago and the movie adaptation (starring Ben Kingsley and Edward Burns) piqued my curiosity. The story concerns a group of time travelers who muck things up while hunting dinosaurs in the past, thus thoroughly discombobulating evolution. Most of the movie is filler, introducing new and more dangerous beasties in our heroes’ futuristic “present” (which apparently attended the same “How Things Will Look in the Future (Really)” school as Total Recall) with each “time wave”. Edward Burns must fight and dodge the beasties during his desperate search for who mucked up what in the Cretaceous Period. Interesting, but mostly just cheesy filler. (5/10)

For those keeping track at home, here are the remaining movies on the SciFi Schlockfest list:

  • Alien Lockdown
  • Beyond/Beneath Loch Ness
  • BloodMonkey
  • Ghouls
  • Heatstroke
  • Living Hell
  • Odysseus: Voyage to the Underworld

Thankfully, SciFi showed Dragon Wars this past Saturday, and I’ve already rendered my opinion of that gem in an episode of The Secret Lair, so the list hasn’t gotten any longer. A few human heads should rectify that.

SciFi Schlockfest is Coming

SciFi Channel Logo

The Saturday SciFi movies are really starting to pile up on my DVR, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to sit down for a little schlock-fest. That opportunity has arisen: Laura and Kyle have gone to Florida for a week with my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her family. I had originally planned to go, too, but the timing isn’t ideal from a work perspective, so I opted to stay home. This leaves me in a very quiet house with two cats, an Xbox, a PC with yet another dying hard drive, and a DVR chock full of movies from “The Most Dangerous Night of Television”.

Here’s just a sampling of the movies I’ll be enjoying over the next seven days:

  • Alien Lockdown. Two words: Martin Kove. Yeah, the dude from Hard Time on Planet Earth. ((And also a little film called The Karate Kid.)) Yeah, I’m the only one who remembers that show. So what? Oh, and it was directed by Tim Cox, the fellow who brought us Mammoth. ((Well, brought me Mammoth, because I know I’m the only one who watched that.))
  • Anaconda 3: The Offspring starring David Hasselhoff and John Rhys-Davies. That’s right, snakes hasslin’ the Hoff.
  • Aztec Rex. Dinosaurs and conquistadors in Mesoamerica!
  • BloodMonkey. Yes! Pan Sanguia! I really have no idea what this is about, but the title is made of awesome.
  • Beyond/Beneath Loch Ness. The DVR says “Beneath”, but SciFi.com says “Beyond“. Which will it be?
  • Ghouls. Something about teenagers, probably getting eaten. By ghouls, I guess.
  • Living Hell. “The military created it. An accident set it free. Now one man must lead us to survival or extinction.” I hope that one man is Vincent Ventresca. It’s not? Crap, we’re screwed.
  • Odysseus: Voyage to the Underworld starring Arnold Vosloo, because they got Jet Li for the second Mummy sequel.
  • Rise: Blood Hunter. Lucy Liu! Michael Chiklis! Robert Forster! Why is this the first time I’m hearing of this movie?

That’s just a sampling. I know there are a couple more, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head.