Monthly Archives: June 2003

28 Days Later (2003)

Zombies have generally seemed one of the “little brothers” of the horror genre. Certainly not as complicated or Freudian as Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde, and no where near as seductive as vampires and werewolves. Zombies are stumbling, bumbling cement-shoe wearing monsters. They’re usually conduits for some kind of social message, like George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. The scary part of zombies is the methodical eventuality they exhibit. They may be stupid, they may be slow, and they may be really stupid, but they’ll keep coming. They’’re dead and they got no where to be. And there’’s the pull –– that they will eventually get you. You’’ll give in, something will happen, and they’’ll seize upon that unfortunate misstep (I did an extensive paper on the symbolism of zombies in Romero’’s films and the connections between religion and horror. I think I deleted it though, so this is the best analysis you’’re gonna get). Now there’s director Danny Boyle’s indie horror flick, 28 Days Later, which gives the zombie genre a few good shocks to the system.

We open up with stark television clips of violence, genocide, and all around mayhem around the world. It’s basically what the cable news stations are now, except in this case, the viewership of these broadcasts are monkeys. Yes, it seems that the British government is experimenting on the nature of rage by strapping monkeys onto slabs and forcing them, A Clockwork Orange style, to watch all kinds of icky video. Animal rights activists break into the facility and plan on freeing the primate prisoners. A lab assistant tries to deter the monkey theft. He says alarmingly that the animals are infected with “rage” (as are most drivers it seems), and that this infection is highly contagious. The animal rights activists scoff at his concern and open the cages to the primates. For their altruistic virtues the activists are instantly attacked, bitten, mauled (can one be mauled by monkeys? It just seems like bears and lions have a monopoly on this verb) and infected with this deadly rage disease. This is likely the worst PR set-back for the animal rights activists since PETA clubbed baby seals. Look it up.

Flash to the titular 28 days later. Jim (Cillian Murphy) comes to in a hospital bed, and like previous films, Boyle finds an outlet to shoehorn in some full-frontal male nudity. It’s almost like a director’s trademark. Jim’s a bike messenger and has been in a coma for about, oh, let’s just say for the sake of it, 28 days. Jim wanders through the vacant hospital calling out for anyone. He hits the streets of London to find them startlingly empty, like some Twilight Zone episode. City kiosks are papered with numerous pictures for missing relatives or good-bye letters. A scattered newspaper says London has been evacuated. Jim meets two other survivors, Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris). They wax chunky exposition to tell us what we already know: the virus got out, spread rapidly, is transmitted through the blood. Selena does have more unsettling news about the nature of the disease. It turns out that once infected a person has about 10-20 seconds of rational thought left before they fully turn into the rabid, crazed not-dead zombies. Jim demands to see his parents and the two agree to lead him to his home in the morning.

The next morning the surviving trio trek through the empty streets and residential areas. Jim enters his home calling out for his parents. He immediately has to cover his nose with his shirt sleeve. He walks into his parents’ bedroom to find both curled up next to each other long dead. On the nightstand are a bottle of wine and a slew of pills. His mother holds a picture of Jim as a child. On the back Jim reads: ““We left you sleeping. Now we’’ll be with you again.”” At the bottom it says, “”Don’’t wake up.”” Jim is devastated.

They find refuge in the apartment building of a Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The two have been surviving since the outbreak. Frank is delighted to find other survivors. He shares a radio message he picked up. The message, though slightly garbled, is from a military base a way’s away. They say they have discovered the answer for infection and will provide shelter for any survivors. The foursome pack up their belongings in Frank’s car and head for the military base with a new sense of hope.

The cinematography of 28 Days Later is wonderful. It’’s the best I’’ve ever seen digital video. The choice of shooting on that medium also amplifies the horror and creates a more immediate sense of danger. The musical score could have been written by one of those popular Brit-rock bands. It’’s propulsive, effectively building, and wonderfully sonic.

Harris is the star of the film, whether the makers know this or not. She’s one tough cookie but also reflects great moments of vulnerability as she opens up to the group and starts kindling some feelings for Jim. Gleeson is one of the best character actors out there, as evidence by a great turn in Scorsese’’s Gangs of New York. Acting is never the strongest suit for horror flicks but 28 Days Later has some nice exceptions to this norm.

28 Days Later has a resonating sense of truth to it, if that can be said about apocalyptic cinema. When one character regrettably becomes infected they order their fellows to stand back, but before succumbing they say, “Just know that I love you.” This felt so genuine to me. Like if a comet was hurtling to decimate the planet within seconds, and your loved ones were around you, would you not act the same way? How does one compress all their feelings and appreciation and love in closing seconds? Something tells me it’s something like what is displayed in 28 Days Later.

Boyle, as has been ingrained into me from the blurb-heavy ads, has indeed reinvented zombie horror. However, what you may not know is that zombie horror doesn’’t exactly have many titles to it. I think I’’ve already mentioned most of them. Boyle’s zombies aren’’t dead, just infected human beings. They don’’t move at that lumbering drag-your-feet speed of classic zombie lore, no these not-so-undead move with great velocity and ferocity, like rabid junkyard dogs. The new touches here and there provide some interesting dynamics to the genre.

Perhaps what is different than most zombie films is that the audience grows to like the characters and root for their survival. In most horror films the characters are either too stupid or sketchy that it allows the audience to wait in amusement for their eventual horrific deaths. It’s simple: we want to see these people die because it’s titillating (Maybe I was wrong about all the zombie analysis I still had in my head).

Boyle does service a slight message in his zombie film when the group gets to the military base. Perhaps, he muses, our military and trusted leaders are no better than those rabidly wandering the streets. The idea of a thriller set against a biological pandemic also feels very timely and relevant. The film kind of drags in the middle during the stretch between London and the military base. And the end was a bit too much Die Hard for my taste, but is suitably climactic.

Boyle has crafted a creepy, smart, and engrossing piece of entertainment. I hope people don’t confuse this film with that Sandra Bullock clunker, 28 Days. They may be spending the entire time wondering where shirtless Viggo is and when Bullock will start her endless pratfalls (You knew I was going to talk about that movie somewhere).

Nate’s Grade: B

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Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)

More of the same, except this time all the verve and invention seems stale and reheated. This sequel subscribes to the bigger-better train of thought, so as it continues to get more and more outlandish and the girls become invincible super heroes on par with Neo, the movie tanks hard. Much has been made about Demi Moore’s “comeback” but apparently she wasn’t sharpening her acting muscles during her hiatus. No one said the first Charlie’s Angels movie was within the realm of reality, but in the sequel apparently the Witness Protection Agency has decided to store all their valuable information not in a computer mainframe, a system of files, no, on two magic decoder rings. What the hell? McG returns as director and cranks the style into overkill, set to a radio-friendly soundtrack, but it all seems so ho-hum and excessive at the same time. Quite an accomplishment. No more please.

Nate’s Grade: C

Hulk (2003)

Comic book movies are all the rage these days. The X-Men films, Spider-Man, even Daredevil all managed some level of success because they were, at their heart, entertaining pulp and treated the source material with some sense of reverence. Now Ang Lee’’s monstrous film Hulk lumbers into theaters and one could best describe it as being too serious for its own good.

Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is the quiet guy, the one who bottles everything inside. His lab partner Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) has recently broken off their relationship due to his emotionally shut-off demeanor. Well Bruce gets hit with a lethal dose of gamma rays and it kicks up something inside him. You see, Bruce’s long-absent father (Nick Nolte, looking frightfully like his drunken mug shot photo) experimented some kind of regeneration serum on himself. When he fathered Bruce he passed on whatever genetic alteration. So now when Bruce gets mad he turns into a 15-foot raging Jolly Green Giant (the CGI in this movie is not good). He starts enjoying the freedom letting go can bring. Nothing gets him more mad than some yuppie (Josh Lucas, badly miscast) trying to buy out his lab and then kill him to sell his DNA to the military. Along the way, Betty’’s father (Sam Elliott) tries to hunt Bruce and his greener-on-the-other-side alter ego for the good of us all.

Director Ang Lee has injected most of his films with a sense of depression and repression, from the biting and darkly astute The Ice Storm to the stoic Gary Cooper-like silence of the aerobatic samurai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He’’s a master filmmaker without question. Lee bites off more than he can chew with Hulk much like the gifted Cameron Crowe did with the sci-fi Vanilla Sky. Lee is so damn ambitious that Hulk tries to be everything and it ends up fulfilling nothing. His film is the most ambitious and the most tedious super hero/comic book movie of all time. What does it say when the super green Hulk has more personality than the bland Bruce Banner?

The acting is a non-issue here. Connelly remains one of the most beautiful women in all of movies and has incredibly expressive eyes and brows. She has this strand of hair that’s always in the right side of her face. It’’s so awkward. Bana gets the least fun part as the mentally scarred kid afraid of his own anger. He doesn’’t do much but then he isn’’t given much. Elliott overacts with impressive gusto whereas Nolte overacts like every line was his last breath.

After about an hour or so of beleaguered talking and flat characters, I started to become restless. I wanted to see Hulk smash, Hulk smash good. Instead what you get is endless scenes of cheesy speeches, sci-fi babble speech, phony philosophy, and mind-numbingly awful pacing. Seriously, Hulk has worse pacing than glaciers. You’’ll see the Mona Lisa yellow faster than this movie will be over. And in some weird paradox, I think it’ will never be over.

Lee attempts to make the film a living comic book. You’’ve never seen this many wipes short of a Brady Bunch marathon on TV Land. Lee splits his screen into multiple panels and slides them around much like the layout of a comic book. However, this visual cue is overused and calls attention to itself in a “how arty are we” kind of pretentious way. If Hulk was attempting to be a comic book movie, then where the hell did all the action go? This movie could have been subtitled The Hulk Goes to Therapy because everything excluding an over-the-top final act revolves around people working out childhood issues. Man, there’’s nothing I like to see more during the summer than a $150 million dollar movie about – people working out childhood issues. Oh yeah!

Hulk is an overlong and ambitiously meandering film that’s incredibly serious, incredibly labored, and incredibly boring. Someone needs to tell the creators of this film to lighten up. The big-screen adaptation of the big green id may have heavy doses of Freudian psychoanalysis (try and tie THAT with the merchandizing onslaught) but the film is barren when it comes to fun. Even comic book fans should be disappointed. I heard a story of a kid who saw Hulk and asked his mom when the movie was going to start, and she replied, “90 minutes ago.” Should you see Hulk in the theater at full price? No. Instead, give your money to me. It will have more resonance and action than anything this bloated, joyless, self-important vacuum of entertainment could offer.

Hulk mad? Audience mad! Audience leave theater. See other better movies instead. Hulk sad. No Hulk 2. Audience happy.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Italian Job (2003)

The Italian Job’ is equal parts dumb and equal parts entertaining, which makes for fine breezy summertainment. The cast is agreeable, the heist is interesting, the action is full of sexy cars and explosions; I call into question how in the world Jerry Bruckheimer’’s name is absent from this. Maybe he’’s too busy with his TV work.

The film opens up on a nifty heist in, of all places, Venice. Grizzled old-timer John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) leads his crew for, say it with me now everyone, one last heist. Charlie (Mark Wahlberg) is his second in command and the heir to the thievery throne. The crew steals a safe full of gold bars by applying explosive paint to specific levels of ceilings, causing the safe to drop two floors into the awaiting arms of our scoundrels. The Venice police believe the safe to be riding off in a boat, driven by the crew’’s getaway man Handsome Rob (the always good to have Jason Statham). But no the real safe has fallen into the canal and Charlie and John are scuba-safe-crackin’’. The crew gets away with their misdeed and toast about their thievery atop a mountainside.

Everything is good. But wait, Steve (Edward Norton) double-crosses his peers and hijacks the gold and kills John. Here’s what I don’t get. Everyone in the crew is shocked, especially an overactive and whiny Wahlberg (and there’’s no worse kind than a whiny Wahlberg). ““How could you do this?”” whines Whiney Wahlberg. Let me think here. Maybe it’s because … YOU’’RE ALL THIEVES, JACKASS! What was that old saying, no honor among thieves or something. To paraphrase ‘Go’, you guys aren’’t exactly in a highly ethical industry. There aren’’t good thieves and bad thieves; this ain’’t no Errol Flynn pic. I would also like to note that everyone in the crew should have known of Steve’s predestined treachery just by the fact that Norton has a mustache. C’’mon, do you need any bigger a sign? Anyway, the van the crew is in drives off a bridge into subzero water. Steve fires some round into the water and believes he’s killed his former crew. They of course are not dead and instead are using the scuba gear to breathe. Of course, it’’s still subzero temperatures but what does that matter?

We then flash to one year later. Dead John’’s not-so-dead daughter, Stella (Theron), conveniently works as a professional safe-cracker to tests security systems. Hmm, I wonder if that will come in handy later. Charlie approaches her with a plan to re-re-re-steal the gold from Steve, the man who, dramatic pause, killed her father. She agrees to help because she wants to see the look on Steve’’s face when he finds his money gone. It’s probably something very similar to many people over 40 I see now that the stock market is full of price-inflated charlatans.

What follows is Charlie reassembling his crew; Seth Green as the geeky tech dude, Handsome Rob, and Mos Def as the demolitions expert. Together they work out a plan that is part elaborate and part ludicrous, but still entertaining. This is where ‘The Italian Job’ gets the rules of heist cinema right: 1) Efficient amount of time must be made to plan the heist so the audience knows the steps and every role of importance. 2) The heist must go off for an extended period of time for the audience to enjoy the payoff of watching all the rehearsal proceedings. 3) The heist has got to be done in an interesting way. 4) Not everything has to go according to plan. The only real action sequences in ‘The Italian Job’ bookend the film, with the opening Venice heists and the later and extended Steve steal. With this said, the end still carries a good sense of payoff for the audience, and watching all of the different elements of the team work together with their own responsibilities builds a sense of attachment to these otherwise undeveloped characters.

I am convinced Mark Wahlberg is a black hole of acting. Sure, he can do Affable Lug fine and dandy as evidenced by ‘Boogie Nights’, but when Wahlberg attempts (and that is the operative word) to emote he looks like his leg is caught in a bear trap. His whole bland handsome understatedness isn’’t fooling me. Theron is a pretty face but I still haven’t seen anything she’s done to convince me she’s anything more. Green is very funny in his geeky role, complaining that he had the original idea for Napster and it was stolen from him by his roommate. Statham and Mos Def round out a likable if slightly one-note crew.

Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator) has graduated from the world of music videos but still knows how to stage some exciting scenes. The slick ending heist, with the L.A. gridlock, three trucks to chase after, and fleet of patriotic Minis is a great popcorn action set piece all the more appreciated because of the patient setup the movie has given.

In the days of summer, where some people wrongly consider a bloated and pretentious action film to be entertaining, even if they don’t get a lick of it, it’’s especially nice to have something like ‘The Italian Job’ remind us the escapist fun summer flicks can offer. Just don’’t worry if Wahlberg looks to be in pain.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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