Just in time for the New Year – tomorrow night we will be posting our brand new BEST OF 2009 column here . So don’t forget to check it out!
And Happy New Year, from your friends at Cinema Knife Fight!
Just in time for the New Year – tomorrow night we will be posting our brand new BEST OF 2009 column here . So don’t forget to check it out!
And Happy New Year, from your friends at Cinema Knife Fight!
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY (2008)
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(MICHAEL ARRUDA is following a rope leading through the forest. Along the way he sees sticky notes that read things like “Follow Me,” “You’re getting warmer,” and “Two loaves of bread, milk, dozen eggs.” Eventually he comes upon a cabin deep in the woods. On the door is a sign that reads “Enter.” He goes inside to see L.L. SOARES watching SAW V on a big screen TV.)
MA: Hey! You reviewed this slop last week! We’re reviewing THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY this week.
LS: I know. I’d just rather watch this crap.
MA: I’d rather watch something good! Anyway, we can’t always get what we want. And on that note, why don’t you tell these folks about the movie.
LS: (growls) Okay. I guess I might as well get this over with.
MA: Please do.
LS: THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY begins in 1997, when young Laurel Miller (Jessica Lowndes) finds herself in a cabin just like this one. However, she’s here to meet with her boyfriend. The romantic rendezvous is cut short by the appearance of her father, who takes her away. Unfortunately, in the car ride home, he also tries to kill her. He seems to think that once she turns 18 in a few days, she is going to turn evil. So he takes care of that with a sliver of glass to the head.
MA: I liked this pre-credit sequence. It worked for me, but probably not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. The sequence worked for me because of the number of times in real life desperate parents, especially fathers and husbands, have taken the lives of their children (and their entire families!) rather than just killing themselves. For this reason, I found the opening scary, because it resonated with real life implications. The fact that in this instance the father thought his daughter was going to turn evil at 18, and that’s why he wanted to kill her, did little for me.
LS: (Yawns) Yeah, that beginning was so compelling. Not!
MA: Well, maybe not for you, but then again, that’s not saying much. A young girl being murdered by her father isn’t yawn fest material.
LS: It is if the movie is full of clichés.
THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY then jumps to present day, where Molly Hartley is also about to turn 18. She’s been through some traumatic stuff lately. Her mother tried to stab her to death and is locked away in an asylum.
MA: I liked this, too. The fact that her mother tried to kill her gave Molly a legitimate conflict to deal with in this film, and for a while, anyway, caught my interest.
LS: Meanwhile, Molly and her dad have moved to a new town, and she’s about to start at a new prep school full of rich snobs. It doesn’t help that Molly gets nose bleeds and writhes around on the girls room floor having panic attacks.
When her father brings her to the hospital, Molly learns she has a benign tumor that might be causing all of the aural and visual hallucinations she’s been having lately. However, when the tumor is removed, things don’t get much better.
I actually found myself scratching my head during this movie. Supposedly, this is one of those movies that has a Christian subtext, and there are scenes that seem to reinforce this. Molly’s only friend at school (at first) is a born-again girl named Alexis (Shanna Collins), who clearly is there to “save” Molly. The thing is, she’s one of the creepiest characters in the movie.
MA: Yes, she is one of the creepiest characters in the movie, and so I would argue the point that this film has a Christian subtext. At times, it seems like it does, but when all is said and done, the Christian elements are exposed as merely plot points that don’t actually work, nor make sense. If this film had a true Christian subtext, the plot would have gone elsewhere.
LS: As Molly slowly begins to realize that her mother made a deal with someone when she was born stillborn – to save her life in exchange for her soul at age 18 – she also realizes that there are people who would do anything to kill her before she reaches that important age.
As a horror movie, MOLLY HARTLEY fails because it isn’t very horrific. It seems more like a special episode of GOSSIP GIRL, than a horror movie. The storyline is much more interested in things like Molly trying to fit in at a new school than it is in trying to scare us. In fact, this movie has way too many fake scares (people jumping out when you least expect them) and not enough real ones.
(A hand taps LS’s shoulder. He screams. Turns to see it is only MA).
MA (overacting on purpose): I’m sorry. It’s only me. I didn’t mean to scare you. (Both MA & LS turn to audience) Don’t you just hate the “it’s only me” scares?
LS: They’re the worst! Fake scares bite!
MA: Enough with the fake scares! We want real scares!
LS: I don’t have a lot of complaints about the acting, though. As Molly, Haley Bennett is effective enough. She’s cute and a pretty good actress. Much better than this material deserves. In fact, most of the cast members seem to be faces we’ve seen regularly on television, including Collins (Alexis), who was the daughter on the recent (and very good) show SWINGTOWN. Molly’s father is played by Jake Weber, who plays Patricia Arquette’s husband on MEDIUM. AnnaLynne McCord plays bad girl Suzie here, and was also bad girl Eden on the FX show NIP/TUCK. Handsome male lead Chace Crawford, who plays rich boy Joseph Young, is a regular from GOSSIP GIRL.
MA: Isn’t he a gorilla?
MA: Joseph Young. Mighty Joe Young’s real name was Mr. Joseph Young.
LS: Okay. Whatever. Molly’s mother is played by Marin Hinkle, a regular on TWO AND A HALF MEN. I could go on and on. I was surprised by how many cast members I recognized from TV shows. So, as you can see, these are experienced actors, and the movie plays like a decent enough TV-movie at times. However, its biggest drawback is its script.
The main problem with this movie is that it tries to double as a sermon, and it fails badly. Not only are the Christian trappings unconvincing, the character who most exemplifies the ideals is an outsider who seems to be borderline psychotic. By the time Molly believes the prophecies about herself and turns to Alexis for help, Alexis has become so weird and creepy that we don’t believe her for a minute as someone who can actually help the situation.
The ending also undermines the plot, because it a) shows that there is no such thing as “free will” and 2) shows that being bad is actually much more desirable than being “saved” which I don’t think is what the filmmakers had in mind.
MA: I’m not sure the filmmakers knew what they had in mind.
LS: MOLLY HARTLEY has plot lines and dialogue that are laugh-out-loud funny, as it shows us the story of a girl whose soul has been sold to the devil by her parents, and the repercussions that occur when she comes of age. If anything, I think that being “saved” should be the last thing on Molly’s mind, since what the “dark forces” have in store for her don’t seem all that bad at all.
So what did you think about it, Michael?
(Suddenly a huge gorilla is standing next to MA. The two converse, with MA mimicking monkey sounds).
LS: What are you doing?
MA: I’m talking to my friend here, Mr. Joseph Young, using monkey talk I learned from watching Bela Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932).
LS: Monkey talk?
MA: We have to communicate somehow. It took me awhile, but Bela’s a great teacher. Anyway, Joe’s disappointed he didn’t get a cameo in MOLLY HARTLEY. Don’t worry about it, Joe. We acknowledged you here.
(Joe waves to audience and exits)
MA (calling out to him): It might not hurt to switch agents, though! (to LS) Poor guy.
LS: Enough with all this monkey business! (Quick drum beat). I asked you what you think about the movie.
MA: I think I agree with you. (Loud, horrific, blood-curdling screams burst through the room followed by bursts of thunder and flashes of lightning). Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but in this case you’ve hit the nail directly on the head.
(LS lifts hammer and pounds nail into MA’s forehead making a loud crunch. Blood drips down over MA’s face.)
MA: Happy Halloween to you, too. (removes nail and wipes fake blood from his face) Very crude humor, very crude. I prefer the old-fashioned pie in the face, myself. (Lifts cream pie and shoves it into LS’s face).
LS (screams): It burns! It burns!
MA: Wasn’t I supposed to use acid? I’m sorry. Maybe it did call for egg yolks instead. How stupid of me.
LS (licking cream): I love spicy food!
MA: I aim to please. Anyway, you were dead on with your thoughts about this movie, especially its ending.
The ending shows that being bad is actually much more desirable than being “saved.” The way the ending stands now, it’s like “I believe in the devil so now I’m suddenly the recipient of supernatural powers, and I can walk through life untouched like an evil superman, or in this case, superwoman, and everything is wonderful.” Sorry. It doesn’t work that way. If it did, we’d all be devil worshippers, right? It just didn’t ring true to me. It was just too neat and easy, and worst of all, not scary.
(The Devil pops up in a puff of red smoke)
Devil: That’s too bad. I always hope movies about me are going to be good.
(Devil disappears in another puff of smoke)
LS: Normally I wouldn’t reveal the ending of a movie, but this one is so bad, I really hope nobody spends money to see it at the movies. This is definitely more of a rental.
MA: I was troubled by the religious aspects of this movie. If Alexis truly believed that Molly had sold her soul to the devil, and that she was going to become some demon on her 18th birthday, she wouldn’t have gone it alone and tried to drown Molly by her lonesome. She would have been in contact with others in her church, and they most likely would have told her that the idea of Molly becoming a demon was ludicrous. Then it would have made sense that Alexis would take on Molly alone.
If you’re going to bring religion into a movie, you ought to do it right or else you lose your audience. That’s why anytime I see a priest in a film and there’s some battle against evil, and there’s special effects flying all over the place, and the priest is acting like a Jedi Knight, it’s ho-hum time. Go back and watch THE EXORCIST and, whether you believe the content or not, it’s not presented in a fake way. There’s nothing in that movie that you couldn’t believe, if you wanted to. And that’s one of the reason’s it’s so scary.
And the whole bit about the 18th birthday also didn’t work for me. It would have worked better had it been a symbol for some of the horrible ceremonial acts of mutilation committed against women in certain cultures around the world today. These devil worshippers perhaps are going to mutilate Molly, or there’s something very dreadful about to happen to her. But as you said, in this case, her life gets better. In terms of horror, this isn’t scary.
The reason this doesn’t work here isn’t because I don’t like the idea that worshipping the devil, for instance, could be a good thing, because that’s why people would do it, after all, because they think it gives them power, or makes them feel good. No, the problem here is that it’s all so superficial. Life just isn’t that neat and tidy. Compare what happens to Molly to the character of the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. The Joker is clearly a powerful character, an evil character, and I would argue that he is a more realistic portrayal of “evil” than a smiling Molly parading around in her rich clothes at the end of this movie. The point here isn’t that evil can’t look like Molly, because it can, but rather if that’s what you’re going for, for crying out loud, make it real, not something you’d see in a commercial.
Like you, I enjoyed some of the performances. I liked Haley Bennett as Molly Hartley, and l liked Jake Weber as her father. I also particularly enjoyed Shannon Marie Woodward as Molly’s friend Leah. I thought the few times she was on screen the movie was that much better.
LS: Oh yeah, I liked her a lot, too, and wish she was in the movie more.
MA: While the movie didn’t excite me by any means, it held my interest for the most part. Because of the decent performances, I liked Molly, and I cared what happened to her. But the ending lost me, and a lukewarm movie with a weak ending just doesn’t cut it for me, and so I can’t recommend this movie. Like you said, if you’re into GOSSIP GIRL, you might like it— but if you’re into horror movies, like we are, stay away from it.
Well, that about wraps up another Cinema Knife Fight.
LS: Until next time, I’m LL Soares.
MA: And I’m— (MA starts speaking to LS in monkey talk).
LS: You’ve gone bananas! (quick drum beat)
MA: Bananas? Did someone say bananas? (lifts cream pie) Special delivery – banana cream!
(MA throws cream pie at LS.)
(Fade to Black.)
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 11/3/08)
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: QUARANTINE (2008)
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(Inside a darkened apartment building, MICHAEL ARRUDA knocks on an apartment door. It opens, and MA enters the apartment.)
MA: Anyone here?
(L.L. SOARES is sitting in front of a television which is showing reruns of the old show EMERGENCY!, and there are no other lights on inside the room. MA calls to him again, but he does not respond.)
MA: Are you okay?
(LS makes some strange growling noises, sounding a bit like the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil.)
(LS jumps up and spits out a mouthful of popcorn.)
LS: What the hell? Don’t you knock?
MA: Sorry. I did. I guess you didn’t hear me.
LS: I must have dozed off.
(MA starts turning on all sorts of lights).
LS: What are you doing?
MA: Turning lights on. I can’t see in here.
LS: Scared of the dark?
MA: No, I just like to see. (The light reveals popcorn kernels all over the floor). On second thought…. (Turns some of the lights off again). Ready? Let’s begin. Tonight, folks, L.L. and I are here in this darkened apartment building to review the new horror movie, QUARANTINE (2008).
QUARANTINE tells the story of Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) a television reporter who, along with her cameraman Scott (Steve Harris), takes on the assignment of covering a Los Angeles fire department for a night. On this particular night, the department responds to a routine call about someone being ill inside an apartment building, and Angela and Scott tag along for the ride. Arriving at the building, they find that the police are already at the scene, and the officers explain that a woman was screaming from inside one of the apartments.
They enter the apartment and find a frightened old woman who looks extremely pale and ill. Before they can remove her from the apartment, she attacks them and viciously bites one of the police officers. As they retreat down to the lobby, they discover that the front doors to the apartment building are locked from the outside. Along with the rest of the building’s occupants, Angela, the police, and the firemen find themselves trapped inside the building, surrounded by lots of soldiers with guns.
Angela and the others quickly realize that they have been quarantined, and soon after they discover that the disease spreading inside the building is a deadly strain of rabies. The rabies spreads quickly, as the victims turn into murderous zombie-like creatures that attack and bite new victims. Angela and the others must fight to survive against these vicious creatures while at the same time seeking a way out of the building past the gun-toting officials outside.
Now, I liked QUARANTINE, but there were parts of this movie that I didn’t like. I liked the idea of the movie. I thought the concept of the reporter covering a night at a fire station was a good one, and the whole part at the apartment building I really liked.
LS: I really liked how most of the action takes place in the old apartment building, too. It’s a great location.
MA: I thought it was a creepy location, and ripe for some intense scares. Now I realize this is a remake of another movie, so I guess the writers can’t claim credit for originality here.
LS: Yeah, QUARANTINE is a remake of a Spanish film called [REC] (as in what comes onscreen when you push the “Record” button), and it’s very faithful to the source material. Aside from trying to flesh things out a bit, the American version is almost a scene-for-scene remake.
MA: I thought the scenes at the fire station at the beginning of the movie were rather slow, and not as interesting or as entertaining, let’s say, as the opening party scene in CLOVERFIELD (2008), to which QUARANTINE will inevitably be compared, thanks to its hand-held camera work and documentary feel. But this is a minor point, and not one that I hold against this movie.
LS: I didn’t mind the scenes in the fire house. I thought they established a real sense of normalcy before things get really weird. I also really liked the way the movie starts off with no opening credits, jumping right into the story, and reinforcing the idea that everything we see is the work of a television news crew.
MA: Back to the apartment building, which I said was ripe for some intense scares. It was, and some of the scares were intense, but I have to say, I had a very difficult time seeing things in this movie. The combination of darkness and quick hectic camera work, for me, severely hampered the thrills and chills in this movie. I wanted to see what was going on, but I had a difficult time doing so, and I found this to be a major distraction.
LS: I didn’t think it was a distraction at all. We see just enough in QUARANTINE to know what is going on, and enough to create some effective scares.
MA: I guess your eyes are better than mine.
LS: You’re the guy wearing glasses. Maybe it’s time for a new prescription.
MA: You think so? (removes two Coke bottles from his eyes.) (Replaces them with Pepsi bottles.)
LS: Hey, no product placement here!!
MA: Too late. Damage done. Next time I’ll do generic.
Anyway, speaking of the camerawork, I’m not sure it worked in this movie. Whereas CLOVERFIELD did a brilliant job convincing the audience that the guy holding the camera should be holding the camera as opposed to dropping it and running for his life, I’m not so sure here. In this case, I think I would have dropped the camera and stopped filming long before the cameraman does in this film. In effect, he films the whole movie.
The difference here is setting. In CLOVERFIELD, the characters are running for their lives in the middle of New York City. One man isn’t going to make much of a difference against a gigantic monster stomping skyscrapers. But in QUARANTINE, the characters are in a small apartment building…
LS: It’s not that small! There are lots of places for monsters to hide.
MA: It’s smaller than New York City, and there are less than a dozen people there. When things start going crazy, I think in this environment, you have to put the camera down and help out.
Now, this didn’t bother me a whole lot. I mean, the guy’s a journalist, so he’s doing his job. So, it’s not that it’s unbelievable or anything. It’s just that I didn’t buy the concept as much as I did in CLOVERFIELD. To me, human nature would take over, the instinct to help others and later simply to save oneself, those feelings would win out, and that camera would be history long before it is in this movie.
LS: None of this bothered me at all. I’ve seen real footage of cameramen filming a disaster scene and they make no effort to drop the camera and get involved. It worked for me.
MA: True, but how many times have you seen real footage where the guy holding the camera continues to film when he himself is being attacked or chased?
LS: Actually, there is a scene where the cameraman uses his camera to bludgeon a zombie to death, so you’re wrong about him not helping out.
(There is a loud shriek. LS and MA turn to see several zombie-like creatures attacking a man with a camera. As the CAMERAMAN falls to the ground with the creatures gnawing at his arms and legs, he continues to film.)
MA (points): See what I’m talking about?
LS (smiling): Neat! (Turns to MA) So, aren’t you going to help him out, Mr. Compassion?
MA (motioning for LS to go first): Maniacs before gentlemen.
LS (laughs): But while there are obvious similarities between this movie and previous “movies from the point of view of a cameraman” (which are becoming a whole sub-genre of their own), I think the most apt comparison is with George Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD, which also shows us an attack by zombies from the POV of a cameraman. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that QUARANTINE is what DIARY should have been. I love Romero films, but DIARY seemed weak in a lot of ways as the characters scrambled from one location to another. In QUARANTINE, everything takes place in a building closed off from the outside world, which is ironically similar to Romero’s classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. This actually gives us a stronger sense of suspense. In DIARY, I also found myself really disliking several characters, but in QUARANTINE, there really wasn’t much time to hate anybody – everything happens so fast once we get inside the apartment building.
And before anyone says “But this isn’t a zombie movie,” in a lot of ways, QUARANTINE follows the zombie movie template, despite the origins of its “creatures.” Just like 28 DAYS LATER, which also had biological infection at its core, that movie and QUARANTINE fit the zombie movie mold to a “T.”
(Behind them, the bloodied CAMERAMAN has returned to his feet with his camera and is taking a group shot of the zombie creatures, which put their arms around each other and smile for the picture.)
CAMERAMAN: Say “flesh.”
ZOMBIES (smiling): Flesh!
(A flash goes off even though he’s holding a video camera.)
MA (addressing audience): Hey, the gag works better with the flash. Creative license.
I was bothered much more by the darkness. Now, I know things were supposed to be dark, and that’s part of the fear factor here, but the bottom line was I really had a hard time seeing this movie, and that bugged me. I felt like I was missing a lot of the fun.
LS: Like I said, I had no problem with how it was filmed. I saw everything I needed to see.
MA: Good for you. (walks into wall). (getting up from floor) Turn some lights on in here!
LS: I can see fine.
MA: What, are you a bat?
LS (eyes glow red): Squeak, squeak.
MA: Err….okay. Another thing I found annoying was all the sirens in the background. Throughout most of the film, there are constant sirens outside. Wouldn’t they have eventually stopped? Wouldn’t there come a time when all the police and fire officials who were supposed to be on the scene arrived? And once they arrived, wouldn’t they turn their sirens off? You’d think so. Geesh!
LS: I guess it didn’t bother me at all, because after awhile I didn’t even notice the sirens.
MA: Anyway, there were things I liked in the movie. The last sequence in that strange attic room I thought was very creepy, and it was interesting, because the scenes preceding it were intense and action-packed, and suddenly, we’re in a room looking around in darkness.
LS: With the help of night vision, which looks nice and creepy.
MA: It was a change of pace, in that it gave you a chance to breathe, but as you did, you became cognizant that what you were looking at was bizarre and weird. The result was a chilling scenario. I was really into this final scene.
LS: I liked it a lot, too. And it fills in a lot of the holes about what’s going on.
MA: But then it was ruined because they showed the final—
LS: Whoa! Spoiler Alert! (to audience) Skip the next three paragraphs if you don’t want to know this.
MA: It’s not really a spoiler. The filmmakers are the ones who did the spoiling. Still, I guess your warning doesn’t hurt. Anyway, they showed the final scene of this movie in the trailer! Half way through this movie, I’m thinking to myself, I bet that scene is the final scene of the movie. I hope it’s not. Well, it was. So, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the end. To me, this ruined an otherwise scary ending. Shame on them!
LS: I was annoyed by this as well, and while I feel uncomfortable giving away a spoiler here, you’re right in that the trailer pretty much did that before we could.
MA: Damn right, they did. That being said, I wouldn’t tell folks not to see QUARANTINE because of this. It ruined the ending for me, but it didn’t ruin the movie.
LS: Agreed. (Holds up a sign that reads, “Spoiler Ends.”)
MA: Jennifer Carpenter as Angela was good in the lead role. We saw her a few years back in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005) as Emily Rose, and she was okay in that okay movie. She’s better here.
LS: Yeah, but even though I didn’t care much for EMILY ROSE (a movie we also did a Cinema Knife Fight for, back in 2005), I was impressed with Jennifer Carpenter even then. These days, she’s better known as Debra Morgan, Dexter’s foul-mouthed cop sister on the Showtime series DEXTER. She’s great on that show, and she’s very good here, in a pivotal role. The movie revolves around her, and she’s definitely up for it. Carpenter shows she is more than capable of being the lead in a film. She also pretty hot, so I didn’t mind her being on screen a lot at all!
MA: I thought Jay Hernandez as Jake, the main fireman in the film who befriends Angela, was very good, too, as was Columbus Short as Danny, the policeman. Steve Harris played Scott, the cameraman. Harris used to be a regular on the David E. Kelley legal drama THE PRACTICE, a show which led to BOSTON LEGAL. Harris used to be excellent on THE PRACTICE. He’s good here, but the off-screen character, as written, is nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as the very likeable cameraman in CLOVERFIELD.
LS: For horror fans, Jay Hernandez also played Paxton in the HOSTEL movies, and his fellow fireman Fletch is played by Jonathan Schaech – an actor who played the killer in one of Michael’s favorite movies from earlier this year, PROM NIGHT.
MA: Yes, but you’ll be happy to know I enjoyed QUARANTINE much more than PROM NIGHT. Can’t say the same about HOSTEL though. Compared to torture movies, PROM NIGHT is better.
LS (visibly irritated): Let’s save that argument for another time, since you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about.
MA: I know exactly what I’m talking about. You just don’t agree with me.
LS: Some people might be curious to know that Schaech has also co-written episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR and FEAR ITSELF with his writing partner, Richard Chizmar, who publishes the magazine CEMETERY DANCE.
MA: I thought the screenplay for QUARANTINE by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle was okay. Some of the dialogue was not as sharp as it could have been, especially in that beginning sequence at the fire station. The direction by John Erick Dowdle was sufficient, as there were plenty of intense moments, but I would have enjoyed his work more had I seen it more clearly.
LS: While I’m getting a bit tired of zombie movies these days, I have to admit that QUARANTINE worked for me. It moved quickly, with a good amount of suspense, and I sat there eager to see what would happen next. I guess the fact that I’m a hard sell on zombies at this point means QUARANTINE was a pretty good flick, to keep me on the edge of my seat throughout.
MA: All in all, I liked QUARANTINE. I think it could have been better, it could have been scarier, but it was a fun 90 minutes for me, and I think if you’re in the mood to be scared, and to have fun being scared, you won’t be disappointed. I recommend it, but don’t expect a classic.
LS: I enjoyed it, too. Perhaps a bit more than you did. And I agree, it’s not a classic. But for what it is, it’s a good time.
BLOODIED CAMERAMAN: How about a picture?
MA and LS: Sure. Why not?
MA (to CAMERAMAN): Maybe you ought to have someone chewing on your leg. You seem to do your best work under duress.
(More ZOMBIES appear behind the CAMERAMAN and they are all growling and making menacing gestures.).
LS: Smart move. Insult the monsters.
MA: On second thought, let’s not stick around for that picture.
(LS and MA turn to flee but find bars on apartment windows. There are sounds of helicopters and sirens coming from outside.)
LS: Now, what?
MA: Let’s just walk off the set. (faces audience) Creative license.
(Bright lights come on and MA and LS walk off the set. Before they get away, though, creatures leap upon MA and pull him to the floor. There is loud shrieking.)
LS (both hands holding his face): Omigod, they killed Michael! You bastards!
(Winks at camera) Don’t worry, kids. He’ll be back next time.
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 10/14/08)
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: REVIEW OF THE MOVIE “IGOR” (2008)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(FADE IN : the scene is the interior of a gothic castle. A mad scientist’s laboratory, to be precise. L.L. SOARES is hunched over with a pillow strapped to his back , beside a giant switch in the stone wall)
LS: Now, master?
(Michael Arruda wakes from unconsciousness, stretched out on a slab. There are electrodes attached to his skull)
MA: Huh? What’s going on here?
LS (shouts): PULL THE SWITCH!
MA (breaks binds, leaps up, and shouts): Pull the string! Pull the string! That’s a Bela Lugosi mad scientist line from the Ed Wood movie GLEN OR GLENDA (1953), and it’s more creative than anything you’ll find in IGOR. (Lays back down and replaces electrodes and straps). There. Continue please.
(LS pulls the switch, electrocuting MA, who screams in agony)
LS: Ah, such music to my ears.(pulls switch back up) Okay, I guess that’s enough for now.
MA: What the hell are you doing to me?
LS: I’m torturing you for making me see the new animated film IGOR!
MA: Hey, that’s not my fault. You suggested we review this one.
LS: I know, but I can’t rightly torture myself, can I?
MA: You could look in a mirror.
(LS zaps MA again).
MA (grins): Whoa! What a charge!
LS: Sure, I suggested we review a kids’ movie for a funny change of pace. But I had no idea what I was in for. Surely you must have tricked me into this somehow.
MA: Heh, heh. (MA suddenly bursts from the straps and growls in a Bela Lugosi voice) You’ve made me stronger! Now, I talk in a real “Ygor” voice.
LS: No one’s going to get these jokes, you know.
MA: There are still Universal monster movie fans out there.
LS: Um…Okay, so I guess it’s my turn to introduce the movie? Are you ready? Here goes:
IGOR is the new animated film by director Anthony Leondis (whose previous “masterpiece” was LILO AND STITCH 2, which I believe went straight to DVD). It takes place in the dreary city of Malaria, where it always rains. The king of Malaria is an insect-looking dude with a huge head called King Malbert (voiced by Jay Leno). You know you’re in trouble when Jay Leno is your leader.
MA: Malbert is one ugly dude, looking like a cross between a Blue Meanie from The Beatles’ YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968) and one of the creatures from Disney/Pixar’s MONSTERS, INC (2001).
LS: Yep, he’s almost as ugly as the real Jay Leno.
MA: Hey, I like Jay Leno!
LS: Figures. Once Malaria was sunny and bright and populated by farmers, but the rains washed away all the crops. So the farmers were replaced by evil scientists who try to one-up each other in an annual “science fair” where they unleash their vile inventions. The worst of which is then used to threaten the outside world, who then pays Malaria not to unleash it. Kind of a variation on the whole “Weapons of Mass Destruction” thing.
It’s actually kind of a clever industry. A society based on evil science, though, has its own hierarchy. and here, the malformed and hunchbacked citizens make up the lowest echelon of that society, in the form of “Igors.” This is the servant class that serves the scientists in their experiments.
Igor (voiced by John Cusack) is a baby-faced Igor (since “Igor” is also the name of his profession) who works for the inept Dr. Glickenstein (John Cleese). Igor wants to be a scientist, but is cursed by his station in life to be a simple servant. However, when Glickenstein blows himself up during an experiment, Igor takes over the lab and goes about inventing something of his own – LIFE – in the form of a monster named Eva (Molly Shannon). She’s huge and made up of big and little parts stitched together, and she wouldn’t hurt a fly, which makes her an awful evil weapon. So Igor goes about doing what he can to make her evil. In his quest, he is aided by Scamper (Steve Buscemi) a rabbit who Igor has made immortal, which is ironic because Scamper constantly tries to commit suicide, only to be regenerated again. Igor’s other assistant is Brain who is, basically, a brain in a jar with some robotic parts that help him move around (voiced by WILL AND GRACE’s Sean Hayes, who I find annoying). Brain has the word “Brian” written across his jar because he is stupid and can’t spell. (laughs weakly).
MA: BORING!!! Not you, the plot. Kill me, why don’t you!
LS: That can be arranged. But I’d rather torture you instead. And I’m not even done yet!
Eva is a big softie, but Igor is intent on making her evil so that he can rise from his lowly assistant position to one of fame and fortune as Malaria’s most evil scientist. Unfortunately, Igor himself is too nice a guy to try too hard to change her.
Eva draws the attention of another scientist, Dr. Shadenfreude (Eddie Izzard), who has made a living out of stealing the inventions of others, since he has no creativity of his own. Shadenfreude seems like the lost cousin of Sigfried and Roy, and he’s one of the better characters here, which isn’t saying much. He, along with his evil girlfriend Jaclyn (Jennifer Coolidge) plan to steal Eva from Igor and use her as their entry in the evil science fair.
That’s the plot in a nutshell.
MA: Man, that’s one big nut! Why did you feel compelled to tell us all that?
LS: Because I’m a friggin’ sadist, of course!
And the movie isn’t even as exciting as it sounds! I normally like John Cusack but he’s too nice and a bit of a sad sack here. Aside from Izzard, the real standout is the always great Buscemi as the suicidal rabbit. And Molly Shannon does a good job as the good giant monster Eva.
I didn’t expect to love this movie – and, guess what? I didn’t. But it wasn’t as awful as I expected, either. While the entire thing was predictable and sappy at times, it was easy enough to sit through and didn’t bore me to tears at least, so that makes it at least better than the remake of PROM NIGHT, which remains the worst movie I’ve seen this year.
MA (laughing): It amazes me how much we disagree on the PROM NIGHT remake. I enjoyed PROM NIGHT much more than IGOR. In fact, for me, PROM NIGHT’s one of the better horror movies of 2008.
LS: (ignores him) IGOR is a decent enough flick for the kids (it’s rated PG, I guess because of the monsters and a few double entendres, but I see no reason why it couldn’t have been rated G). As for parents and other adults – you could do a lot worse. I know there must have been a lot worse animated films this year.
MA: Such as? Not that I’ve seen every animated movie this year, but I haven’t seen one I’ve liked less than IGOR.
LS: It didn’t exactly make me wax nostalgic, since the things I watched when I was a kid – old Universal horror movies and decent kids’ movies – were way better than this. But it was tolerable at least. Keep in mind, though, that “tolerable” is not exactly a seal of approval. If you need to see this movie, wait to rent it on DVD.
So what do you think, Michael?
MA: I think your plot summary was much too long. While it’s nicely done, very nicely done, I might add, it’s hardly worth it, providing this much detail for a movie that no one’s going to see. Tolerable? You’re being generous. IGOR was horrible.
The first problem I have with this movie is why isn’t it spelled YGOR?
(MARTY FELDMAN pops out of the wall in a secret compartment)
MARTY: Because it’s spelled I-gor!
MA: Thank you, Mr. Feldman! And he’s right, you don’t see the Igor spelling, pronounced “eye-gor” until Mel Brooks’ s YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). Ygor (pronounced “ee-gor”), is the correct spelling, and it’s been that way since Bela Lugosi initially starred in the role in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), the third of the Universal Frankenstein movies, and the last with Boris Karloff in the role of the monster.
You can call me a horror movie snob if you like, but that bugged me.
LS: God, if I call you anything, it would be “a most tedious fellow.” And you said I was boring!
MA: No, I said the movie’s plot was boring. Are there any spare brains laying around here you could purchase for yourself?
(MARTY FELDMAN pops out of the wall again holding a brain in a jar labeled “Abby Normal.” A laugh track whoops it up.)
LS: What is this, an episode of LAUGH-IN?
MA: Next, as a kids’ movie, IGOR doesn’t hold up. I have two sons, and though they’re getting older now, through the years we’ve seen our share of computer-animated kids’ films. Some are extremely well done and funny (SHREK, ICE AGE, BARNYARD ANIMALS), some are even modern day classics (TOY STORY 2), but most are simply OK (MADAGASCAR, OVER THE HEDGE). Still, there have been a few that were downright awful, and I’m afraid I’d have to place IGOR in this category.
First and foremost, it’s simply not that funny. The humor isn’t very sharp and most of the jokes don’t work.
LS: Wait a minute! You’re telling me this movie was supposed to be a comedy?!!
MA: Worst of all, it completely fails as a parody. One of the things that made the SHREK movies so funny was the way they poked fun at fairy tales. What the Shrek series did with well known characters like the Gingerbread Man and Pinocchio was absolutely hilarious, creating memorable scenes of laugh out loud comedy.
IGOR doesn’t even come close here, doesn’t even try. There are really no “In” jokes from any characters from any of the old classic Frankenstein movies. Not that most people today would get those jokes, but that brings me to another point— why? I asked that question throughout this movie. Why make it? What’s the point of an Igor story? It plays like a horror-themed kids’ movie written by someone with no knowledge of horror movies. The film doesn’t even get the Igor character right. The character is based on a cliché of a character, rather than an actual character. It’s insulting to those of us who have watched these movies over the years.
LS: Listen “Mr. Kids’ Movie Expert,” do me a favor. The next time I ever suggest we review a horror-themed kids’ movie, hit me with a very large fish!
MA: Sure thing! And, for true laughs and a true Frankenstein parody, the champion remains Mel Brooks’s YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), now a classic in its own right.
LS: You’ll get no argument from me, there.
MA: So, IGOR fails as both a kids’ computer-animated comedy and as a homage to the classic Universal horror movies.
As you would expect, I’m not against the idea of a kids’ horror movie, but I still haven’t seen one I really like yet. Do you remember MAD MONSTER PARTY (1967)? That was an animated feature length film by Rankin/Bass featuring the voice talents of Boris Karloff and (gulp!) Phyllis Diller. I’ve always wanted to like this movie, but no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I still reach the same conclusion- it stinks.
LS: Aww, c’mon. You’re just a crab. MAD MONSTER PARTY is terrific. It’s a million times better than IGOR! And it’s got some great songs, like “It’s the Mummy!” (starts singing)
MA: Oh please don’t say that. Now I’m going to want to watch MAD MONSTER PARTY again to see if I like it. Time to bust out the barf bags.
And while lots of folks enjoyed Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) I didn’t like that one either. So, I guess there’s still room out there for other attempts at this genre, if any filmmakers out there want to try. I somewhat enjoyed MONSTER HOUSE (2006) a few years back, but that one was played straight, so it was a little different, and Disney/Pixar’s MONSTERS, INC. wasn’t bad either.
I agree with you about one of the best parts of the movie being Steve Buscemi as the suicidal rabbit. By far, he was my favorite character. Buscemi also lent his voice talents to the aforementioned MONSTER HOUSE and MONSTERS, INC., by the way.
(LS has fallen asleep against the wall and is snoring away)
MA (Hits LS over the head with a large fish, waking him up): Hey, you asked for it. I pretty much agree with all your points on this one, except I liked it even less than you did. So, now that we’re done, how about us switching places, and I get a turn pulling the switch?
(LS straps himself onto the table and puts electrodes to his head. MA hunches over and straps the pillow to his back)
MA: Now, master? (MA turns to the audience) And for the record, if we were sticking to the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, my name would be Fritz, not Ygor, and also for the record, I never called you master! Hunchbacks didn’t start using the word “master” in a Frankenstein movie until J. Carrol Naish as Daniel in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), so technically this movie should friggin’ be called DANIEL!
LS: My God, will you shut up?
MA: It’s alive! It’s Alive! IT’S ALIVE!!! (Produces lit cigar and places it in LS’s mouth) Here, have a cigar.
LS: Gee, thanks! (puffs on cigar) Cigar, good!
MA: Cigar very good!
(Cigar explodes in an animated blast of fire and smoke, leaving LS’s face covered in cinders.)
MA: Very good, indeed.
LS (unseen from the smoke): WHY YOU!! Wait til I get out of these straps….
MA: Oh, that reminds me. PULL THE SWITCH!
(Electricity crackles, accompanied by screams, as we FADE TO BLACK)
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 9/25/08)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(Since Michael and I are currently working on a BEST OF 2009 list of movies that most impressed us, I thought I’d post some solo reviews here of movies I enjoyed this year that didn’t appear in Cinema Knife Fight columns. The following are just two highlights of a good movie year.~LS)
Lars von Trier is an acquired taste. Not everyone likes his films. Most of them, like BREAKING THE WAVES, DOGVILLE and DANCER IN THE DARK are actually pretty challenging for the viewer. Von Trier’s approach and subject matter is definitely the work of a true auteur, but he is no stranger to controversy. ANTICHRIST is no different.
This isn’t von Trier’s first foray into horror. His early TV series, THE KINGDOM, (collected as two full-length films for American distribution), may have been his masterpiece. It’s layered, fascinating, and features some really great acting. It was also the source material for the Stephen King TV series KINGDOM HOSPITAL, which only seemed to hit its stride toward the end of its run, and never reached the level of quality found in von Trier’s original.
But where THE KINGDOM is perhaps von Trier’s most accessible work, ANTICHRIST is not an easy ride. This time around, von Trier gives us some of his most shocking and violent imagery, and it’s far from clear and straightforward. But it is, in several ways, even more successful as a horror film.
It is broken into several chapters, and begins with a strange, slow-motion sequence where a couple (Willem DaFoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love, while their child gets up out of his crib, walks around the house, and eventually falls from an open window.
The couple suffer from great grief after the death, as any parents would, but where DaFoe’s character seems to be able to go on with his life, his wife can’t let go. She has become emotionally crippled by depression and can’t leave their apartment. Her doctor also prescribes lots of medications.
DaFoe’s character is a therapist and tells her he wants her to stop taking all the medications, and he’ll help her get through this using therapy. She agrees. Part of the therapy involves the two of them going to a cabin in the woods where they used to vacation when they were younger. The forest is called Eden.
Once they get there, things seem to be improving, and she seems on the verge of a breakthrough. But this is deceiving. Instead, she slips into violent insanity, harming both her husband and herself. There are some pretty rough scenes involving stuff like genital mutilation (it seems that, since they were having sex when the boy fell, their very sexuality needs to be punished – and it’s pretty graphic). There’s also something about ancient witches who used to live in the forest, and there are animals who talk, in particular a fox who tells DaFoe that “Chaos reigns.”
Not everything in ANTICHRIST is clear and easily figured out. There are some aspects that will have you scratching your head. But there are also images that will haunt you long afterwards. This movie is not for the squeamish, but it does venture into territory we don’t often see in movies. It’s a powerful, transgressive film, and one of von Trier’s best works.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
This is a movie I’d been waiting to see for a long time. Supposedly, when it was first finished, Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak children’s book, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, was deemed too dark by test audiences. There were rumors it might not get released. But the more I heard about it, the more I wanted to see it.
Now that it’s finally been released, I can understand the criticism. WILD THINGS is not your typical kids’ movie by any stretch. In fact, it could be argued, it’s not a kids’ movie at all. It just happens to have a kid as its main character, but the themes it explores are quite deep.
Sendak’s original book was fairly simple and involved the wolf-costume wearing Max feeling lonely and going to an island full of oversized monsters. It was about stuff like rebellion and loneliness.
But if the movie was completely faithful, it wouldn’t have lasted half an hour. So there’s a backstory now, and the monsters are much more developed, and have an awful lot to say.
Max (Max Records) is a lonely, hyperactive kid (some would say a brat) who doesn’t seem to have any friends. But he does have boundless energy. His single mom (Katherine Keener) supports him and his older sister, Claire. When Max surprises Claire’s friends by chucking snowballs at them, they chase him down to his snow fort and destroy it, leaving him crying in the ice. Then, when he goes home, his mother is enjoying time with her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). Max feels neglected and angry and makes a scene. He then runs out of the house.
This is where reality becomes fantasy. Max runs down to the shoreline where he finds a boat. After sailing across a vast sea, he comes upon the island of the monsters. The monsters are huge and destructive. They seem a lot like big kids. In fact, they seem a lot like Max. At first, they want to eat Max, but he tricks them into sparing his life by telling them he’s really a king.
The monsters believe him and make him their king – because they yearn for guidance, just like Max probably yearns for a father. He has them do fun things like fight wars and sleep piled up on top of each other. But eventually, the novelty wears off, and the monsters are restless again.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is about growing up. Not just for Max, but for the strange beasts he rules over as well. The monsters are complex, fascinating characters in their own right, especially Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who loves to destroy things – a habit that often alienates him from those he loves best. Another monster, K.W.(Lauren Ambrose) is the object of Carol’s affection, but she leaves the group several times, looking for something more. Max does what he can to bring Carol and K.W.together. But there’s only so much he can do.
He gets the creatures to join together to build the ultimate fort, where they can all live together. But the monsters’ restless nature eventually ruins things, and Max gets to watch his own behavior mirrored in the others, and he grows in the process.
WILD THINGS will make you think and feel. It’s so much more than a children’s movie. It’s a solid achievement from a director who also gave us such recent classics as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION. Instead of collaborating with screenwriter extraordinaire Charles Kaufman this time around, though, Jonze co-wrote the screenplay for WILD THINGS with novelist David Eggers. It’s very satisfying and quite adult, especially in the tone of the film. These monsters explore issues of identity and mortality in their own strange way, and it’s a really interesting film.
© Copyright 2009 by L.L. Soares
Originally, Michael and I had planned to write a Cinema Knife Fight review of THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS this weekend. However, it turns out the movie is only in limited release (New York and L.A.) and isn’t playing anywhere near us. So we’ll have to put that off until the movie goes into wide release in January.
In the meantime, we’re working on our BEST OF 2009 lists, to be unveiled soon.
Both of us would also like to wish all of our readers a very happy holiday season from
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: MIRRORS
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(MICHAEL ARRUDA stumbles sleepily into his bathroom. His hair is disheveled, his face unshaven, and there are bags under his eyes. He is wearing Wolf Man pajamas complete with Wolf Man footies. He looks at his reflection in the mirror over the sink, gargles some mouthwash, and looks back into the mirror to see L.L. SOARES glaring at him.)
MA (spits mouthwash and screams): What the &^%$@#%$!!
LS (laughs): What, are you speaking an alien language now? What the hell does &^%$@#%$ mean?
MA: What are you doing in my bathroom?
LS: I rented an apartment in the mirror world, silly. To you, it’s your mirror. For me, it’s my window. Get used to it.
MA: What are gas prices like in the mirror world? Anyway, you nearly scared me to death.
LS: Got to do something about ‘nearly.’
MA: Seriously, that was one scary glare, much scarier than anything I saw in today’s movie, MIRRORS (2008), the latest horror movie from writer/director Alexandre Aja. Aja, as you might remember, wrote and directed the recent remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006), a film you liked better than I did.
MIRRORS tells the story of Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland), an ex-New York City cop who’s off the force because he shot and killed a fellow officer. He’s separated (of course) from his wife Amy (Paula Patton) and his kids. Ben takes a job as a night watchman at an old derelict department store which had burned years before and now needs to be maintained for some reason. I’m not really sure why.
LS: Yeah, in the movie an older security guard tells Kiefer that they have to patrol the building for insurance reasons, but it really doesn’t make much sense.
MA: There are lots of mirrors inside this creepy building, and it doesn’t take long before Ben begins to see and hear strange things coming from the mirrors – sounds of people screaming, images of people burning. Yep, there’s some sort of ghostly or demonic goings-on here, and it’s up to Ben to find out what. At first, he’s just curious, since these bizarre things are happening around him, and it’s human nature to want to know what’s going on. It’s also human nature to say “To hell with this!” and “I’m outta here!” but Ben is a movie hero, after all, so he can’t just walk away.
LS: Pretty early into his job, Ben starts to experience traumatic incidents like cutting his hand on a mirror that spontaneously cracks, and believing he is on fire (and rolling on the ground) even though he’s not. It’s strange how some things (like the crack) have real consequences in the real world (he really did cut his hand) while other things (the flames he believes he was engulfed in) do not (he doesn’t seem to have any burns).
Of course, anyone with half a brain would have quit this job after the first night things get weird, but our buddy Kiefer instead finds himself wanting to decipher the mystery of the mirrors, and he keeps going back, for some inexplicable reason. It’s a pretty flimsy plot, but you’re right, if Kiefer doesn’t go back, there wouldn’t be a movie.
MA: When this unknown threat begins to harm Ben’s family, then he kicks his investigation into high gear to find out what the mysterious force behind the mirrors is, what it wants from him, and how he’s going to stop it before it destroys his family. It all builds to a fiery climax that is a long time coming. There’s even a twist ending that is mildly amusing. I actually liked the ending, but would have liked it more had it come in the middle, and had the rest of the movie been about the revelation made at the end.
LS: I liked the ending, too. I thought it worked.
(HARPO MARX suddenly appears on the other side of the mirror and imitates MA’s every movement)
MA: Hey, knock that off!
(HARPO honks his horn and disappears)
MA: This might sound a bit exciting and I would agree if the emphasis is on the word “bit.” The biggest problem I have with MIRRORS is that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Take the main menace in the film, for example, the force behind the mirrors. It’s never clearly defined. For the most of the film, the audience has no idea what the menace is, and this is as it should be, since the first half of the movie plays like a supernatural mystery. But once the evil behind the mirror is identified, it’s explained all very quickly and not all that well. I still don’t understand what it wanted. I know it wanted Ben to find a particular person, which he does, but what that person was supposed to do for this unseen force remained vague.
LS: By the end, I understood what was going on. It wasn’t that hard to understand.
MA (taking offense): Excuse me, Mr. Brain!
LS (huge bloodied brain sticking out of his head): There’s no excuse for you. And seriously, if you didn’t understand this movie, you need to go see it again. Almost everything you claim is missing in the plot is there, if you pay attention.
MA(coughing into his hand): Bullsh*%! Bullsh*%!
LS: But it will also help the viewer if they’re well-versed in the Asian ghost movies collectively known as “J-Horror.” You see, MIRRORS is based on a Korean film from 2003 titled INTO THE MIRROR. And like most of these movies, there are similar images that occur again and again. Like evil children who die young (or appear to) and leave horrific curses behind.
And water. These movies friggin love rooms submerged in water. Personally, I found these overdone images tiresome awhile ago.
MA: I don’t think having knowledge of J-Horror will necessarily help you understand this movie any better. Take the facts surrounding the main building in the story for example. The film does not do a good job explaining who did what when, in terms of the fire which consumed the building. I’m also not sure why the building was still being maintained, when it’s been charred and empty since, I believe, 1952. This building is an important part of the movie’s plot, and to have these questions remain unclear is disappointing to say the least.
LS: Yeah, the “insurance” explanation seems kind of flimsy to me, too. But as for who did what when, it’s all there.
MA: I’m glad it was all there for you. I must have missed it when I blinked. In terms of plot, MIRRORS is very weak. There’s very little creative about it, and what’s there, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
LS: I agree with you, to a degree. This movie isn’t oozing in creativity, because, unfortunately, director Alexandre Aja is kind of weak in that department. He’s not much of an innovator. Which isn’t to say I don’t like his work, or that I didn’t like MIRRORS. I actually liked it much more than you did. But Aja kind of excels at re-imagining the work of others. His first film, HAUTE TENSION (2003), which I liked a lot, bore an uncanny resemblance to Dean Koontz’s INTENSITY (which was a television minieries in 1997 – and there are whole scenes that seem almost exactly the same!). The first film he directed in Hollywood, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, was a remake of Wes Craven’s 1973 classic – and I thought Aja actually improved on the original. So it’s no surprise that MIRRORS, as I said before, is also a remake.
Aja isn’t a fountain of originality, but he is a stylish director who knows how to use visuals. And I really liked the way this movie looked, and its overall sense of dread.
I thought he did that very well.
MA: Which is a long-winded way of saying there’s very little creative about this movie, and I disagree with you about this film being stylish. I didn’t find it visually impressive at all. For example, I thought the scenes inside the burnt out department store were the weakest in the film. I would have thought, considering the setting, that these scenes would have been the most effective. I thought the menace behind the mirrors worked best when it was menacing behind mirrors in the outside world— inside the characters’ homes, for example. I thought this was creepy, and it was probably my favorite part of the movie. Unfortunately, as was the case with other plot points in the film, it didn’t completely work for me because it was never clearly explained how the evil could get from one mirror to another. We’re supposed to believe, I guess, there’s a whole alternate reality behind mirrors. If this was the case the movie was trying to make, it failed miserably.
LS: I don’t agree. I like the scenes in the department store. I wish Aja had made them even scarier though. Of course, once the creatures that live in those mirrors start attacking people in the outside world, it’s even better. What Aja should have done was completely jettison the overly familiar J-Horror back-story, and taken this into a new, fresh direction. If you’ve seen movies like THE RING, DARK WATER (both of which have more water imagery, by the way) and THE GRUDGE, then chances are the second half of this movie will seem very familiar to you.
That said, I think this is one of the rare remakes of an Asian horror movie lately that I liked. I think Aja handles the material well, and the last half hour or so, as Sutherland finally faces the forces that are behind all this, is done well.
MA: I disagree completely. I didn’t find the scenes inside the burned building scary at all. I didn’t even find them creepy. I’m really surprised you liked this one. I thought it was dull.
LS: It probably helped that I actually understood what was going on.
MA: Kiefer Sutherland was okay in a variation of his role on television’s 24, and it’s a good thing he is, because a lot of the movie is him alone investigating the mirrors inside the dark abandoned building. However, his Jack Bauer on 24 is a much more interesting character, and his work on that show is much more intense, and so while’s he’s okay here, we certainly see him much better on TV every week.
LS: I actually thought Sutherland did a fine job with the role. I’m not a huge fan of his, but I think he’s a capable actor, and I think he excels at playing desperate men who feel like they only have one chance left. He has just the right amount of intensity to make that kind of character work.
MA: But not as much intensity as he displays on 24. The rest of the cast I also thought was okay. I did like Amy Smart as Ben’s sister Angela. I believe Smart was also in THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT a few years back, and I liked her in that, too.
LS: You liked THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT? I didn’t realize you were an Ashton Kutcher fan! But seriously, I like Amy Smart a lot, and she’s good in her role here, even if we don’t see enough of her (in more ways that one).
MA: Wipe that drool from your lips. I also just want to mention the presence of Julian Glover in MIRRORS. Glover only has a small role here, as Robert Esseker, the brother of a key character later in the movie, but he has a resume a mile long and a career in movies and television that goes back several decades all the way back to the early 1960s, and a lot of his roles have been genre-related.
My favorite Julian Glover role is the villain Aristotle Kristatos in the Roger Moore James Bond movie FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981), one of my favorite of the Moore Bond films. Glover has also appeared in HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002), INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Among his other genre credits include appearances in classic 1970s TV shows like SPACE 1999, DR. WHO and BLAKES SEVEN. He was also in one of my favorite Hammer Films’ science fiction movies, one of their Quatermass films, U.S. title FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967). Glover’s never been a star, but he’s appeared in a lot of good movies over the years, and his presence has added much to them. (lifts glass in toast) Here’s to Julian Glover and his long impressive career. Keep making those movies!
LS: Which is a long-winded way of saying you’re a fan of Julian Glover. I’m a big fan of FIVE MILLIONS YEARS TO EARTH, too. Great old flick. I thought Glover was good here, considering how briefly he’s in the movie, but he’s certainly nothing incredible. I can think of a dozen old character actors who would have done just as good a job, or better.
MA: But they’re not in this movie. I also thought the gore special effects were rather fake looking and detracted from the scares. They reminded me of 80s horror at its worst.
LS: I thought the effects worked, because Aja knows how to use them to tell a story. Like I said, he’s a very visual director. I thought the scene where Smart dies in a bathtub while she literally torn apart, for example, was pretty cool.
MA: Are you serious? I laughed. The only thing missing was Freddie Krueger popping out of the water! But the biggest detriment to MIRRORS in my mind remains its lack of clarity and poorly written story.
(LS puts his hands around his throat, strangling himself and MA begins to do the same)
MA (gasping): Stop that! I’m trying to review a movie here.
LS: Aww, you’re no fun. (Let’s go of his throat)
MA (gasping for air) Speaking of the poorly written story, my favorite dumb line from the movie comes when Ben’s wife Paula finally sees the weird stuff happening inside the mirrors, and she says to Ben in all seriousness “I should have believed you.” Excuse me, your estranged husband, already unhinged and unstable due to the trauma of shooting a fellow cop, who’s also on medication to help him break his drinking habit, shows up at your house, takes away all its mirrors, paints over the ones he can’t move, tells you he’s seeing strange things inside mirrors, and that there’s a whole other world behind mirrors everywhere and someone in this mirror world is trying to harm him and his family, and he says these things to you wielding a gun in front of your children, and you think you should have believed him?
You should have had him friggin committed.
LS: Okay, I gotta admit, you’re absolutely right on this point. Paula’s saying “I should have believed you” when ABSOLUTELY NO SANE PERSON would have believed Ben, was dumb, and extremely funny, given the circumstances.
MA: MIRRORS wants to be scary and mysterious, but its story is just too muddled to be successful. Therefore, I can’t recommend this movie. How about you?
LS: Well, like I said, I didn’t find it muddled at all. There are some lapses in logic, but overall the story made sense to me. I like Aja’s style, and I think he did a good job despite the J-Horror clichés he had to work with. Compared to other American remakes of similar films like DARK WATER and THE GRUDGE, two weak, PG-13 rated remakes produced by Sam Raimi’s company, I thought this one was creepier and more successful. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Aja was allowed to make an R-rated horror movie. Although, to tell you the truth, I don’t see how it got its rating. The only nudity is a side view of Smart getting into a tub (we don’t even get a full frontal here), and the gore is average for this kind of flick.
I thought Aja could have turned out a much scarier film if he didn’t have to stick to the plot of the original Korean movie. I also thought the very first scene, where the previous security guard (before Ben takes the job) is running from something and confronts his evil image in a mirror was very effective, and a nice creepy way to start things off.
I don’t think MIRRORS is a great film, but I found a lot to like about it.
MA: So, about this alternate mirror world. Does this mean every time I look into a mirror I’m going to see you?
LS: Sometimes me, sometimes them. (points over his shoulder).
(From inside mirror, we see an enormous crowd of people as far as the eye can see.)
MA: What the &^%$@#%$?
LS (pulls out cell phone): I just got The Mirror Network. Can you hear me now?
(First published on Fear Zone on 8/17/08)
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(And now, a review of quite possibly the worst movie of 2008 – LS)
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE
By Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(SCENE: We come upon L.L. SOARES digging a ditch in a cemetery. There are snow drifts and the earth is hard with frost. MICHAEL ARRUDA shows up to give him a hand.)
MA: Who’d you kill this time?
LS: No one yet. I’m trying to bury the X-FILES.
MA: You mean X-FILES 2?
LS: No, the whole franchise, and it’s not called X-FILES 2. That would be too easy. Instead it’s called THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE. As if that old chestnut of a slogan from the TV show wasn’t tired enough, now they have to use it in a movie title.
MA: What’s wrong with that? I want to believe too. I want to believe that the truth is out there, that these things we write about are real on some level. You hear me? I want to believe, brothers and sisters! I— sorry, I got carried away.
LS: I think I’ll dig a second ditch.
MA: But first, we have a review to do.
LS (groans): The thought of reliving this movie gives me the creeps.
LS: It’s something like ten years after the events of the first X-FILES movie. Since then, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) has left the FBI to become a full-fledged medical doctor at a Catholic hospital. Her former partner, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), has gone into a life of seclusion and has even grown a mountain-man beard.
MA: I liked the beard. He should have kept it throughout the movie. It would have given the film an identity it lacked.
LS: This movie needed a lot more than some lame beard to give it an identity. It needed a totally different script!
Mulder spends his days clipping articles about strange phenomena out of the newspapers. On his wall is the old poster of a flying saucer and the words “I Want to Believe” from the TV show (sound familiar?)
An FBI agent goes missing, and the Bureau is using a psychic to find her, named Father Joseph Crissman (played by Billy Connolly). Father Crissman is actually an ex-priest who was convicted of pedophilia, but somehow the Bureau trusts this guy enough to follow his “visions.” So far, he’s led them to several severed limbs – evidence of some bizarre serial crime – but no sign of the missing agent yet.
Special Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) asks Mulder to come back to the FBI. She wants him to check out the credibility of the priest’s visions, and also use his past experience in bizarre cases to help track down the missing agent. Of course, to get in touch with Mulder, the Bureau has to first contact Scully, who is one of the few people who know his whereabouts.
Once Mulder and Scully get involved in the case, it goes from lame to plain old boring, as Father Crissman continues to have visions that bring them closer and closer to solving the mystery. Unfortunately, the mystery itself, as it unfolds before us, isn’t very interesting.
A subplot involving a dying child that Scully is trying to save in the hospital seems rather unnecessary as well, and while the fight to keep someone alive should be compelling, the truth is, it isn’t here.
(A PRIEST with long white hair stumbles onto the scene, and approaches MA and LS).
PRIEST: It’s here. It’s here. She’s alive. My visions tell me she’s here. I see—.
(LS hits the priest over the head with his shovel with a loud CLANK! knocking him out cold)
LS: Stars. That’s what you see now.
MA: You know, I do see something down here. (Drops to hands and knees and starts digging in snow.)
LS: I absolutely hated this movie, which surprised me, because I was a big fan of the television show when it aired on Fox from 1993 to 2002. Well, I was a fan of most of it. The last few seasons were pretty much a waste of time, and the first X-FILES film was mediocre at best. But it was a masterpiece compared to this movie.
Which is all sad, because there was a point when it was one of the best shows on television.
The problem was that the first film dealt with the whole alien conspiracy storyline that got more and more muddled on the TV series as it developed. The movie ended up asking more questions than it answered. But the best shows were always the ones that were self-contained cases rather than the conspiracy storyline, and creator/director Chris Carter seems to understand that this time around, and has dropped the complex alien storyline here in order to give us a story of tormented psychics, weird experiments, and severed limbs.
Too bad that the new film not only seems like a bad episode of the TV show – it’s also a LONG episode –as in the length of a feature-length film, which it claims to be.
I actually had a hard time watching this one. I just got more and more restless as it went on, and wished I was anywhere but in a movie theater watching a lame X-FILES sequel. I mean, at this point, what is the audience for this thing? A lot of fans gave up on the show years ago, when it dropped in quality. And a lot of audience members who didn’t watch the show will not get any new interest in it based on this film.
The whole thing was just dismal. I WANT TO BELIEVE that I didn’t spend $10 to see this useless crap, but unfortunately, I did!
MA: I found it! I found a body part! (Lifts the severed head of an alien from the snow). Too bad this wasn’t in the movie. (Tosses head away and wipes green blood from his hands onto his clothes).
No surprises here. I didn’t like this movie either.
What’s interesting is that unlike you, I was not a fan of the X-FILES TV show. I caught one or two episodes here and there over the years, but I never watched it regularly, so I’m coming from the perspective of someone who didn’t have knowledge of the show.
But the one good thing about this movie is that you don’t need knowledge of the show to understand the movie. As you said, it’s a stand-alone plot. But, as you also said, it’s a lame and dull plot, and I agree with you on both those points. Talk about going for the non-dramatic! This film was about as compelling as a snowflake. I mean, you have a story of a possible serial killing, and yet we don’t get to know the victims, nor do we know anything about the villains until the mystery is revealed, and even then, they’re not fleshed out. There’s simply no emotional connection here, other than to Mulder and Scully, but that doesn’t make for a very balanced movie.
Still, I enjoyed the two leads, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and I thought they were both very good in this movie, as you would expect. They were believable, as they should be, having played these roles for so many years.
LS: I thought Mulder and Scully’s scenes together were incredibly flat for two characters who were once lovers. It’s not clear what their relationship is now, but they’re not married, and they had a child together who died.
I thought they did a good job showing the pain between them, the lingering ache of losing a child. But I couldn’t bring myself to believe there was ever any passion between these two characters. Watching them was like watching the sex lives of robots.
MA: I believed that they genuinely liked each other and missed each other. That was expressed quite clearly to me, but no, based upon what I saw of them in this movie, I wouldn’t categorize them as passionate. The lack of passion didn’t bother me though. I didn’t think this was supposed to be a love story.
I also really enjoyed Billy Connolly’s performance as the psychic priest. His performance as a convicted pedophile generated the right amount of anger, disgust, and most difficult of all, sympathy. It wasn’t a knockout performance by any means, but in an otherwise stale movie, it added some spice.
LS: I actually like Billy Connolly. However, I thought his character was rather repellent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a movie – characters don’t have to be likable to be compelling – but despite the movie’s attempts to make him sympathetic, I didn’t find myself moved to care very much about him. I also thought it was interesting how he’s a major presence for most of the movie and then when he dies, it is completely anti-climatic (has nothing to do with the story) and happens off-screen. Like the script just lost interest in him.
(The COWARDLY LION runs up to them, wringing his hands)
LION: I do believe in spooks! I do believe in spooks!
LS: Hey, you already “believe.” I bet you liked this X-FILES movie!
LION: I dunno. I was too scared to watch it!
(LION runs away in fright)
MA: At least I didn’t hit him with a shovel.
I actually was drawn into the mystery during the first half of this movie. I wasn’t sure where it was going to go, and it was just mysterious enough to hold my interest. There were missing women, severed body parts, and visions from a weirdo priest. For a while there, it was fairly interesting. I even thought, “You know what, I should check out the original episodes of the show on DVD to see what I missed all those years ago,” which I bet is exactly what writer/director Chris Carter was aiming for when he decided to make this movie.
But once the mystery is revealed, and we know what this film is about, it’s a letdown as it just isn’t that compelling, scary, or even all that interesting. Those thoughts I had about checking out the original series? Pushed aside. I’ll finish the dozen or so series I’m watching right now first.
LS: You should still check out the early episodes at some point, to see how all of this actually WORKED at one point. But this franchise long ago passed its expiration date.
MA: THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE does in fact play like an elongated TV episode, and the sad part is, it’s not even a very good episode. It’s largely forgettable, in terms of plot. It also doesn’t make a very good movie, as there’s nothing cinematic about it. The key chase scene in the movie, for example, should have been a high point, a major source of excitement and suspense, but it falls flat. It’s dark, hard to see, and for a chase scene, rather slow. For me, that was the beginning of the end, because it was also around this time that answers started being revealed, and they where ho-hum revelations at best.
I also agree with you about the subplot about the dying boy. You know, I liked this plot for a while, and I felt for the boy, and Scully’s determination to save him I found admirable, but in terms of this movie, so what? There wasn’t a strong enough tie-in to the main plot.
LS: The boy was supposed to be a surrogate for Scully’s child who died. It was supposed to make us feel something. But I just found this storyline forced and boring. Where it should have been poignant, it just hung there.
MA: Watching this movie was like eating a slice of white bread when you were expecting a hearty slice of rye.
LS: White bread would be a treat. This movie is like eating paper.
MA: You’d think that after a 10 year hiatus, writer/director Chris Carter would have come up with something more compelling.
LS: Definitely. For a while there, it was like Carter fell off the face of the earth, which is bizarre, since at the peak of the X-FILES show, he was being touted as a friggin genius. I guess in his case, genius is a fleeting thing. After all these years, he should have had a script that could knock us out. But this is a complete dud.
And it’s funny how the die-hard fans who still exist now seem kind of sad. There were people in the audience I saw this with who cheered the first time the X-FILES theme was played. They cheered the first time Scully and Mulder came onscreen. Even after two bad final TV seasons and a lame movie spin-off, these people still thought they were going to see the show returned to its former glory. And Carter keeps delivering low-quality product.
MA: I did enjoy the George W. Bush gag very much, and it was fun to see a movie with snow at this time of year, but that’s about it.
LS: George W. gags are a dime a dozen and have reached the saturation point where they just make me cringe. But the fact they also made fun of FBI founder (and total whacko) J. Edgar Hoover redeemed the joke.
MA: Saturation point? What planet are you living on?
THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE is about as intriguing as an afternoon nap. Perhaps a better title for this yawn fest should have been, THE X-FILES: I WANT TO SLEEP.
LS (stops digging and raises his head to reveal he is crying blood): I just want them to stop making these films. I want to believe that I’m finally free of bad X-FILES movies!
MA (also begins to cry): I want to believe that a man can fly!
(Suddenly, a full orchestration of John Williams’s SUPERMAN theme is heard, and Superman flies by above them.)
MA: Thank you. I do believe! I do believe!
(LS hits MA over the head with his shovel with a loud CLANG!, knocking MA into the ditch.)
LS: I do believe this review is over.
MA (unseen): There’s something else down here.
VOICE: Phone home.
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 7/27/08)
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: AVATAR (2009)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(While their human bodies lie in cylindrical machines in a sleep state, MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES awaken as tall, blue alien creatures on a lush forest world called Pandora)
MA: Cool! I always wanted to be tall and blue!
LS (pops open a beer): Yeah, that’s great.
MA: And I see you’re going for the blue beer-belly look.
LS: (belches): Can’t beat it.
MA: I’ll race you to the top of this gigantic tree.
(They scurry up the sides of the tree quickly and reach the top)
MA (hanging from a vine): Why don’t you tell the folks a little about our movie this time around?
LS: Okay. This weekend we went to the see much-hyped new movie by James Cameron, AVATAR. This is the first new movie Cameron has directed since the Oscar-winner, TITANIC (1997).
(Voice off-camera shouting): I’m on top of the world!
(MA & LS look off into distance.)
MA: It’s that DiCaprio guy again. He’s really hyping SHUTTER ISLAND these days. Well Cameron did direct some documentaries about the real Titanic and another submerged ship, the Bismarck.
LS: I know, but I don’t care about sunken ships. And those weren’t big Hollywood features. This is his first BIG movie in 12 years.
There’s been buzz around AVATAR for a long time now. Everyone has been saying that this movie is going to revolutionize CGI effects and 3-D cinema. It’s been hailed as some kind of big event in movie-making. And it cost something like $500 million to make.
MA: That’s a lot of money!
LS: Tell me about it. So with all this buzz behind it, I walked into AVATAR expecting to be disappointed. No movie can live up to that kind of hype. The thing is, AVATAR is a pretty good movie.
Avatar’s plot isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It’s the whole “invader goes native” storyline. You’ve seen similar stuff in everything from A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970) to DUNE (1984) to DANCING WITH WOLVES (1990), to name a few. A foreigner comes to a strange place, usually to exploit the inhabitants, but instead comes to identify with them and become their savior. This plot is not particularly clever or fresh. But Cameron does a decent job using it for his own needs.
MA: I agree. The plot is nothing new, and I’ve heard that already used as a criticism against this movie. But the thing is, as I’m guessing you’re going to point out, AVATAR has so many other things going for it, it would be ludicrous to pan this movie because its storyline isn’t original.
LS: How many movies are all that original these days, anyway? We’re talking about the era of remakes and “reimaginings.” Compared to that, AVATAR seems fresh.
MA: Even though most great movies do have terrific scripts and stories, there have been plenty of exceptions to this rule, and AVATAR is one of them. Don’t get me wrong, AVATAR does not suffer from a lousy script. It’s just as you said, it’s far from original. But it’s still a powerhouse movie.
LS: In AVATAR, Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a wounded Marine who ended up in a wheelchair. When his twin brother, a scientist about to be shipped off to the distant planet Pandora, is killed, the military comes to Jake and asks if he’ll take his brother’s place. The reason why they do this, even though Jake is not prepared for his mission, is because it’s all about DNA.
With the promise that he’ll get legs that work, Jake takes them up on their offer and is put in suspended animation and shipped off across the universe.
Once he gets to Pandora, he finds that there is a creature that was created mixing his brother’s DNA and that of the natives of the planet, a race of seeming savages called “the Na’Vi.” With new technology, he will be able to inhabit this new body with his mind, and attempt to infiltrate the aborigines of this planet.
Why? Well, as is almost always the case, it’s all about the money. Pandora has treasure troves of a metal called Unobtainium (what a silly name), just beneath its surface. A big Earth corporation wants to mine this ultra-expensive mineral, but the pesky inhabitants of the planet always get in the way. For some reason, these creatures don’t want their planet raped and ripped apart by beings from another world. Go figure!
It’s Jake’s job to gain the inhabitants’ trust, and convince them to give their land over to this Earth corporation (represented mainly by Giovanni Ribisi at his most unctuous). The military is there to blow things up if peaceful means don’t work. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is the head military guy here, and he’s itching to use high-tech weapons on the rather primitive planet-dwellers and show them who’s boss.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, from James Cameron’s classic ALIENS (1986).) She’s interested in Pandora and its inhabitants for scientific reasons and wants to learn from the creatures and deal with them peacefully.
At first, Jake is gung-ho to help Colonel Quaritch, a fellow Marine, but as the story goes on, and Jake actually makes contact with the creatures, he realizes more and more that what the greedy corporation wants to do is wrong, and he eventually sides with the natives. (You might call this part of the plot, a “no brainer.”)
It doesn’t hurt that certain events take place to make the creatures believe he is some kind of “chosen one” that they have been waiting for. At first, they distrust Jake and want to kill him, but then they decide to give him a chance to prove himself. After several initiations into their culture, Jake finds himself having to make a major decision. Is he on Earth’s side in this conflict, or the Na’Vi?
Like I said, this “infiltrator who has a change of heart” storyline has been done before countless times, but Cameron just uses this plot as a jumping off point and gives us a lot more than that.
First off, there are the visuals. Cameron not only creates a planet and its flora and fauna – a fully developed world – but he places us right in the middle of it. 3-D has come a long way, and Cameron takes full advantage of the technological advancements he helped push forward. Once again, as in movies like CORALINE, the 3-D effects aren’t wasted on things jumping out at you. Instead, they’re used to deepen the terrain, to make Pandora seem even more real. To give depth to everything we see. That, mixed with the abundance of color on this new world, creates for a sometimes astounding visual experience. I sure hope you finally got to see a movie in 3-D, Michael, because that’s a big part of what makes AVATAR so good.
MA: But then who would write about the movie from the perspective of those moviegoers who didn’t get to see the movie in 3-D? Someone else, that’s who! Because I DID see it in 3-D, and I was impressed. I highly recommend to the folks out there: find a theater with 3-D and see it the way it was designed to be seen. It truly is an amazing experience.
I agree with you 100% about the depth perception and the abundance of color. That’s always been my knock on 3-D in the past, how the effects were wasted on those silly “jump out at you” moments which generally had little to do with the movie’s plot. As you said, here, the 3-D helps create the world of Pandora in a way that couldn’t be done in a “normal” print. Watching this film was almost like admitting “Yes, this is the next wave of motion pictures.” I want to see more movies that look like this, and not just films about alien worlds. The 3-D effects were THAT good!
LS: There was a lot of hype about the visual splendor of this movie, and, for the most part, it lives up to the hype.
MA: I agree.
LS: Then there’s the cast, which is pretty decent. Worthington – who was the ONLY reason to see TERMINATOR: SALVATION – shows us he wasn’t a one-trick pony by giving us a solid protagonist to guide us through a new world. He’s at times vulnerable, cocky, soulful, and defiant. He’s not the greatest actor who ever lived, but he is up to the demands this movie makes of him, and acquits himself well.
MA: I agree with you about Worthington. I liked him a lot here, but— and this isn’t a knock on his performance— I did like him better in TERMINATOR: SALVATION.
LS: Yep, but TERMINATOR: SALVATION wasn’t a very good movie, which actually gave Worthington a real chance to shine.
Sigourney Weaver, who never disappoints, gives a strong performance as Dr. Augustine.
MA: Can you believe that it’s been 30 years since the original ALIEN (1979)? And Weaver still looks pretty good! Not bad for someone who’s 60! Speaking of ALIEN, Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for that movie and a host of others, just passed away on December 17. Very sad.
LS: Yeah, that is sad news. ALIEN left a huge impression on me as a kid. He also wrote the screenplays for movies like DEAD AND BURIED (1981), THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (which he also directed, from 1985), and LIFEFORCE (1985). He was a talented guy.
But back to our review. We were talking about the cast of AVATAR. Giovanni Ribisi is perfect as the sleazy businessman with just one god – the almighty dollar.
MA: I liked Ribisi too, although didn’t Paul Reiser play almost the exact same role in Cameron’s ALIENS?
LS: In one of the movie’s best performances, Stephen Lang is a force of nature as Colonel Quaritch. At first, he seems sympathetic, but the more he’s allowed to run wild on the natives, the more despicable he becomes. It’s not just another mission for him, it’s personal, and he wants to make the Na’Vi bleed. He wants to break them, and he has no intention of backing down.
MA: I thought Quaritch was strictly cliché. I’m weary of these close-minded renegade military types. Surely we can have some heroic military leaders in the movies once in a while?
LS: I agree. But Lang takes the role and runs with it. I think he pumped as much life into what could have been a complete cliché as possible. He at least makes this tough-as-nails character very watchable.
MA: True, you can’t take that away from him.
LS: But the one performance that leaves even Lang in the dust is Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, the female Na’Vi warrior who becomes Jake’s mentor, and later on, his lover, and who is such a three-dimensional (pardon the pun), fierce, real character, that she transcends the CGI effects to become the most powerful and sympathetic character onscreen. Every time Neytiri is onscreen, she’s the center of your attention. She’s simply remarkable. Her last big role was as Uhura in the new J.J. Abrams STAR TREK movie, but I think this is the movie that’s going to make her a star.
MA: Maybe. I mean, you’re right about her performance, but since she’s a CGI effect throughout, and we never really see HER, I’m not so sure it’ll make her a star.
LS: Okay, okay. But after this performance, she SHOULD be a star. How’s that?
The supporting characters are just as strong, from Michele Rodriguez (who is always pretty cool) as a pilot with a mind of her own, to Wes Studi and CCH Pounder as Nytiri’s parents – the chief of the tribe and their spiritual leader, respectively.
MA: I agree with you here again. I particularly enjoyed the work of CCH Pounder, who we saw recently as Sister Abigail in ORPHAN (2009).
LS: She was always really good on the FX series THE SHIELD, too. Man, I miss that show.
Personally, I am very critical of CGI effects. I think they’re often overused, and more often than not, they look very fake. But I forgot all about that in AVATAR. The computer animation may not be perfect in every scene, but for the most part it maintains the illusion that you are on an alien world, and makes you believe. I am sure CGI will just keep getting better and better, but so far, AVATAR is the best use I’ve seen of it.
MA: I agree. I kept thinking, the way Pandora looked was the way Skull Island SHOULD have looked in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005). Now, while the Skull Island scenes were the best part of Jackson’s uneven remake, had he had this technology, KING KONG might have overcome its weak New York City scenes.
LS: AVATAR is being touted as not just a movie, but as an event. James Cameron has put years of his life, and the astounding amounts of money at his disposal, into giving us something big, and it’s a lot of fun.
Sitting there as an adult watching AVATAR, I came as close as I ever have to the way I felt as a kid watching the original STAR WARS for the first time, back in 1977 (I refuse to call it A NEW HOPE). I felt the wonder of having an alien world brought to life. But, I’d go so far as to say that AVATAR is an even bigger deal.
MA: I don’t know if I’d go that far. Certainly, in terms of CGI special effects, you could make the argument that AVATAR is the best we’ve seen so far, but in terms of the overall package, I was blown away much more by STAR WARS in 1977 than I was by AVATAR now. STAR WARS was a rousing story packed with adventure and thrills the likes of which I had never seen before. I wouldn’t describe AVATAR as rousing. Sure, it gets more emotional towards the end, but as a whole, it’s more of a cerebral vehicle than STAR WARS.
LS: Doesn’t matter to me. I’m not a STAR WARS fan (ALIEN actually left a much bigger impression on me).
Although, as a kid back in ’77, I was pretty impressed with the movie when I first saw it. But, you’ve got to admit, the storyline of STAR WARS wasn’t exactly original, either.
MA: No, not at all, and I don’t think scripts are George Lucas’ strong point either, but STAR WARS had an energy about it that really made me believe in that story, in that entire galaxy far, far away. Plus it had Peter Cushing.
And in terms of CGI special effects, though AVATAR may be the best I’ve seen, what has come before it has been relatively close. Even KING KONG in 2005: those special effects were fantastic. We saw similar technology in WATCHMEN, though not as impressive. But back in 1977, before STAR WARS, what did we have? You had 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968, and those effects were impressive, but other than that, what? LOST IN SPACE and STAR TREK on TV? STARS WARS was WAY, WAY ahead of its competition in terms of special effects at the time.
But that being said, I loved AVATAR and highly recommend it. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and coming in December, when the year is almost done, that’s saying a lot. It’s not a horror movie, so I can’t say it’s the best horror film I’ve seen this year, but in terms of science fiction, I did like it better than DISTRICT 9 and WATCHMEN, two other movies this year which I really liked, so I’m singing praises here for AVATAR.
LS: Something to keep in mind when we do our BEST OF 2009 column in a few weeks.
MA: Yeah, you could make the argument that you should see this movie for its 3-D effects alone. They’re THAT good!
Sure, the plot isn’t original, but you’re not going to be bored or disappointed with it. And while there are spots in the middle where I thought the pacing slowed down a little, for a movie that’s over 160 minutes long, it went by fast.
LS: Yeah, I saw the plot twists coming a mile away, and every time a new creature was introduced, you knew it would have a “big moment” later on. But I didn’t find the movie boring at all. It kept me riveted throughout.
MA: I completely bought into the Pandora world and allowed myself to become lost in its splendor. Watching AVATAR was an immensely pleasurable experience, and I can’t say it enough: go out and see this movie in 3-D! It’s an amazing experience!
LS: Other asides: Worthington as the Avatar-Jake looked an awful lot like Edward the Vampire from NEW MOON to me.
MA (shrieks in horror): Noooo!!!
LS: Something about the face. And Nytiri reminded me an awful lot of the tiger woman from the old Hammer movie, VAMPIRE CIRCUS (fangs and all), from 1972. In fact, with their feline features and stripes, the Na’Vi are very much like blue tiger-people. All of the other creatures are pretty amazing too, especially the bird/dragon creatures they ride as they soar through the skies.
MA: Yeah, the creatures are very cool.
(A big blue MONKEY swings by on a vine, wearing a shirt that says “OLD NA’VI”)
LS: I think the biggest testament to Cameron’s achievement here is that after awhile, you start to lose interest in the “real” world of soldiers and scientists, and get lost in the scenes among the Na’Vi. Just like Jake Sully, you yearn to leave the human world behind and embrace the world of Pandora. And that’s the highest compliment I can give James Cameron here.
MA: I had some nitpicks too. Though I first want to say you’re dead on about the VAMPIRE CIRCUS comparison! Nytiri and the tiger woman from that classic Hammer Film could be sisters!
This film takes place in like what? 2154 or something? And yet all the people in the film are wearing clothes that we wear today. I think styles would have changed in 150 years.
Also, as blown away as I was by the film’s effects, watching this story of an alien race created by CGI, albeit amazing CGI, it still felt to me like I was watching a cartoon, and because of this, it’s just that much less effective, less real, less resonating, than if I were watching real actors. I mean, I loved this movie, but I wasn’t all that moved when the story heated up towards the end because I felt like I was watching an adult cartoon, and that’s just not the same, in terms of emotion, as watching people.
LS: I don’t know. There were times when I looked at the faces closely and felt they were a bit cartoony. But most of the time I bought that they were real beings. The effects were good enough to make me forget I was watching CGI effects and just get sucked into the story. Although I did find it convenient how all of the Na’Vi characters had vines that just happen to cover certain parts of their anatomy. That kind of bummed me out. At least WATCHMEN had the balls to show ALL of Dr. Manhattan. If certain characters are supposed to be comfortable in their nudity, then they should be shown that way. Not sanitized for our protection.
MA (laughing): I knew you’d get to this point sooner or later. I’m amazed you waited this long! I understand your point, but I’m sure James Cameron didn’t want an “R” rating on this film.
To be honest, the fact that I found some scenes “cartoony” may have less to do with the effects and more to do with the writing. I recently watched UP! (2009), the Disney/PIXAR movie, and that was a film that did resonate with me in terms of emotion. Now, I knew I was watching a kid’s movie, and the animation looked like a kid’s movie, but the story moved me almost to tears in some places. AVATAR did not. So, perhaps with sharper writing, an adult cartoon could resonate more with me, I don’t know.
LS: You big baby! If you want to cry so badly, go chop an onion.
MA: I do know watching AVATAR was a tremendous amount of fun, and I hope people go out and see it, because it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
LS: I agree. I totally expected to hate this movie and slam it for all of its hype, but, surprisingly it won me over. Go see this one. You’ll be glad you did.
(MA and LS leap from the tree onto the backs of two bird/dragon creatures and fly off towards a full moon.)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: BRUCE DERN, AN APPRECIATION
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
Dern in a movie many consider a science-fiction classic, SILENT RUNNING (1972)
(THE SCENE: MICHAEL ARRUDA and LL SOARES trudge through a swamp. Frogs are croaking in the background.)
MA: We’re here in a swamp because last week I reviewed the 2008 movie SWAMP DEVIL, now on DVD. It starred Bruce Dern. Dern is such a strong actor, I wanted to say more about him.
LS: What, did he die or something?
MA: No. I just thought once in awhile we’d discuss the careers of some of the actors whose work we enjoy.
LS: Then what the hell am I doing here? I didn’t review that movie.
MA: No, but don’t you have some thoughts to share about Bruce Dern?
LS: Thoughts to share? What is this, a PBS kids show?
MA: Hey, if you have nothing to say, you’re free to go.
LS: Nah, I like swamps. (Reaches underwater and swipes a fish which he promptly eats). Good snacking here.
MA: Why am I not surprised? Anyway, back to Bruce Dern. In his heyday back in the 1970s, Dern made his living playing psychotics and other intense over-the-edge types. My favorite was his role as the Vietnam vet/turned terrorist in BLACK SUNDAY (1977) in which he pilots the Good Year Blimp in an attempt to set off a bomb over the Super Bowl.
Dern was also memorable as the hero in Alfred Hitchcock’s final movie, FAMILY PLOT (1976). He also had the distinction of playing one of the few movie villains who actually succeeded in killing off a character played by the Duke himself, John Wayne, in the western classic THE COWBOYS (1972). It’s such a shocking moment in the film.
I used to love watching Bruce Dern in the movies in the 1970s. For a time, he was one of my favorite actors. I also enjoyed him in such minor films as THE DRIVER (1978) and the Kirk Douglas western POSSE (1975).
But you know, other than SWAMP DEVIL (2008) which I just reviewed, I can’t think of another horror film that Dern appeared in. You?
LS: You can’t think of another horror movie? Boy, you’re not trying very hard.
He was in an entertaining low-budget horror flick called THE INCREDIBLE TWO- HEADED TRANSPLANT (1971)!
MA: Oh yeah! I forgot about that movie! I liked that one a lot.
LS: You goober! Dern played the mad doctor who puts a sadistic criminal’s head on the body of a mentally handicapped farm hand. The result is a movie that’s pure cinema trash, but a helluva lot of fun, and it came out a whole year before the more famous THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972) starring Ray Milland and Rosie Greer. Man, I wish they’d make some new two-headed man movies! Maybe they could even make a two-headed woman for his bride! I can’t believe you forgot about this movie!
MA: That wasn’t me. That was my other head. (Suddenly MA has a second head, an evil looking version of himself)
SECOND HEAD: How you doin?
LS: That’s freaky. And Bruce was in tons of classic horror TV shows, appearing in episodes of Boris Karloff’s THRILLER, ALFRED HITCHOCK PRESENTS, and one of my favorite episodes of the original OUTER LIMITS TV show, “The Zanti Misfits.”
More recently, he was in the awful remake of THE HAUNTING (1999), based on THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson. (If you’re interested in this, you should see the 1963 version instead!).
And a lot of people forget that his career goes all the way back to 1960! And he was in tons of cool exploitation films in the 1960s and 70s, including lots of biker flicks like THE WILD ANGELS (1966), THE CYCLE SAVAGES (1969) , and THE REBEL ROUSERS (1970). He was also in two classic LSD movies for Roger Corman: THE TRIP (1967) and PSYCH-OUT (1968).
He was also in the classic movie THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972) with Jack Nicholson (the two of them worked well together, they were also both in PSYCH-OUT, too) , and the science fiction classic SILENT RUNNING (1972), which I liked a lot.
I also really enjoyed him in AFTER DARK, MY SWEET (1990), based on a novel by the crime fiction master Jim Thompson, and TATTOO (1981) about an obsessive tattoo artist.
Most recently, he’s had a recurring role on the HBO series BIG LOVE. So he’s still acting regularly. Not bad for an actor who’s 73.
(A giant mosquito flies at MA’s face. LS swings a giant fly swatter and smashes the mosquito, spattering MA with mosquito blood and guts. MA groans and stumbles away, swearing.)
LS: GOT IT!
MA (returns): That was some mosquito. I suppose I should thank you. I’m glad I didn’t get bit by that thing.
(The MUMMY walks by carrying a lifeless body of a woman through the swamp.)
MA: Hi Kharis!
LS: I could really go for some tanna leave just about now.
(The MUMMY waves.)
MA: (to audience): What’s your favorite Bruce Dern movie? What kind of role would you like to see him play today? Let us know.
LS: Look, some alligators! Maybe I can bring one home as a pet!
MA: We’ll see you this weekend with our review of the highly anticipated new James Cameron movie, AVATAR. Until then—-.