Monthly Archives: December 2007
No film this awards season seems to have been kicked and beaten more than the sweeping period romance, Atonement. This poor movie has a strong stable of well-respected British thespians, a red-hot young director in Joe Wright (2005’s Pride and Prejudice), plenty of lofty, top-notch production values, and the whole enterprise is based off a highly acclaimed novel by author Ian McEwan. Where did all the hate come from? I think it has something to do with the fact that somewhere along the line Atonement became, on paper, the presumptive favorite to win Best Picture. Then reality hit and it hit hard. Atonement wasn’t even nominated by the Writer’s Guild, the Producer’s Guild, or the Director’s Guild and yet the film still managed to eek out a Best Picture nomination for 2007. I became suspicious that Atonement would turn out to be this year’s Dreamgirls, namely a presumptive front-runner that was too calculating and self-conscious and ultimately free of substance to make its mark. While Atonement is perfunctory and nothing altogether special, the film still succeeds as a worthy piece of entertainment that doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud.
In the mid 1930s, Robbie (James McAvoy) works as a housekeeper’s son on a lovely English estate. He has his eye on Celia (Keira Knightley) and puts his burning passion to paper, typing two very different notes. The first one is blunt (and features a naughty word that rhymes with “blunt”) and the second one is more of a poetic declaration of his affections. Robbie has instructed Celia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), to pass his love letter to the rightful party. He realizes too late that he sent her off with the wrong letter and Briony reads it herself, dumbfounded at the message and terminology. Briony is a bright child that fancies herself a playwright, but she’s still a child that cannot fully grasp the meaning of Robbie’s advancements. When she intrudes on Robbie and Celia having spontaneous sex against a library wall, she can only assume that Robbie is attacking her older sister (stupidly, neither says anything to clear up the awkwardness and just leaves the scene wordless). That same night Briony discovers her cousin being attacked and she’s certain that Robbie is the culprit, or is she? Her false confession sends Robbie to jail and alters lives forever.
Flash ahead to World War II, and Robbie has joined the Army to be released from jail, Celia reunites with him for the first time in years, and a now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) realizes her foolishness as a child and tries expunging her overwhelming feelings of guilt by working as a nurse and tending to the ghastly numbers of wounded soldiers.
Atonement is visually ravishing to watch. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is lushly colorful and blends light and shadow to an extraordinarily effective degree, draping the performers in contrasting colors that pop. Wright’s camera always seems to be perfectly located to discover beautiful compositions indoors and out; the movie is just visually pleasing on all fronts, like seeing Knightley in her dark green dress bathed in the glow of police lights at night. At several points, however, the film’s look does get overly soft and glossy, like the cameraman smeared gobs of Vaseline over the lens. The period costumes and production design are agreeably period-y. The musical score has moments of great lyrical poignancy and then it shatters when the score resorts to integrating the sound of a clacking typewriter as a percussive instrument. I wanted to beat my head against a typewriter to make it stop.
There’s a vague mechanical air over the entire two hours, like the filmmakers felt that merely assembling all the right pieces and having the right, awards-friendly pedigree would be enough. The five-minute uninterrupted tracking shot along the Dunkirk beach epitomizes this flawed belief. This superfluous shot wanders around soldiers stationed on a beach, winds around the outskirts of the bombed out city, and finally rests in a pub crawling with Brits, but nothing is added by the shot continuing uninterrupted and the staging fails to illuminate anything remarkable about the expensive set. The shot exists simply to call attention to its self and to serve as another bragging point for the filmmakers. The Dunkirk shot adds little to the atmosphere of the film because the scene barely flirts with giving a bigger picture of what is happening. Instead, that shot, like the movie, while well composed and entertaining, is an exercise in self-congratulation.
The film loses serious momentum as it transitions into war and its period of titular atoning. The movie just isn’t as compelling watching Robbie shuffle around at war. Rarely is he in any danger and he just seems to be biding time. Atonement is a tad too prim, a tad too demure to really go deep enough. The romance is intended to be of the unrequited variety but it feels malnourished even at an unrequited level, which is truly saying something. There is so much more beneath the surface but the film never wants to push too far for whatever reason. Knightley and McAvoy have a nice workable chemistry and that’s part of what makes the first half of Atonement the better half. So much of the story involves internal struggle but the movie doesn’t wish to invest the time needed to explore serious psychological wounds. Atonement never capitalizes on the intriguing if melodramatic opening of the film. This is by no means a love story, no matter what the marketers wish to convince otherwise. The romance between Celia and Robbie has little setup to seem believable or worthwhile. This is a movie about the power of words, which naturally is a topic that functions better in books.
After Kinsey and now Atonement, Vanessa Redgrave seems to have found a contemporary niche or her talents: she shows up in the final minutes to give a monologue that demands that the audience reflect from a fresh perspective. Redgrave plays an older adult Briony who has written several best selling books and is being interviewed for television. The ending is designed to be more devastating in print form, and it wants to call into question the nature of fiction and whether or not one lie and be absolved by another. But in the medium of film, the shockwaves are minimal because the language of film is visual. The stutter-step plot structure, which occasionally bends backwards to replay an event from an alternative perspective, is an extraneous annoyance that’s finally justified by Redgrave’s late appearance. What is the true cost for a “happy” ending?
While Knightley and McAvoy get all the attention and cause teen girls to swoon uncontrollably, the real star of Atonement is 13-year-old Ronan. The young actress is a revelation as a sophisticated girl entering the earliest stages of womanhood. She’s nursing some serious puppy love on Robbie and his disinterest fuels her false confession; she means to punish him. Ronan is eloquently precocious at the start, acting wise beyond her years, but when she steels a glimpse at Robbie’s unfortunate letter, she drops her older pretensions and presents the spirited and unrestrained eagerness of a girl that’s madly curious and madly in love. Ronan effortlessly switches between the two sides of Briony, playing the astute, proper young lady or the nervy, confused girl trying to make sense of her budding sexuality. Kudos to the casting director as well for casting an older actress to play the 18-year-old Briony that genuinely looks like a grown-up Ronan.
Naysayers dismissing Atonement as outdated rubbish are diluted; it’s a well-crafted movie from considerably all angles. Then again, those that champion the film as a testament to bravura filmmaking are also diluted; the film is good, yes, but entirely unexceptional. Atonement is a fine film that takes a reportedly unfilmable novel and gives it a good attempt.
Nate’s Grade: B
Famed musician/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s tale of murderous barbers, cannibalism, and poisoned hearts first debuted on Broadway in 1979. Sondheim has been very protective of his material when it comes to film rights, but it wasn’t until the combination of visionary director Tim Burton and acclaimed actor Johnny Depp that Sondheim allowed his revered musical to be made into a movie. The result is faithful production that expands the scope of the musical while maintaining an intimate, chamber-music feel. Sweeney Todd flirts with being a masterwork but settles for being incredibly damn entertaining.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London after 15 years in prison on a flase charge. Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, suitably creepy) wanted Barker’s wife for his own and conspired to have the barber sent away. Now under the auspices of Sweeney Todd, Barker has come back to seek his wife and daughter. He sadly learns that his wife is dead and his teenaged daughter, Johanna (Laura Michelle Kelly), is the ward of the Judge. Sweeney reopens his barber business above a flagging pie shop run by the eccentric Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Sweeney plots his revenge against the Judge and his henchman, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall, suitable rat-like). Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who traveled with Sweeney back to London, has set his sights on Johanna and intends to run away with her as soon as she can escape the Judge. Meanwhile, a rival barber named Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) recognizes Sweeney from the old days and wants his silence paid for. It’s not too long before things get dicey, throats get cut, and people get turned into meat pies.
People unaware of the Sondheim musical are going to be in for a big shock. The film is about 80 percent sung, and the singing never rises to big, show-offery numbers of crescendo power vocals; the songs are more in the variety of speaking and vocals frequently overlap. The movie has greater clarity to the lyrics, and for the first time I as able to actually decipher Joanna’s words in the song “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Fans of traditional musicals, the kind that feature songs centered on female deer or large corn exporting states, may be aghast at how adult and violent the musical is. It’s just as much a grand horror movie as it is a musical. No doubt people are not generally accustomed to soaring medleys set to gashed throats and spurting blood. Sweeney Todd is captivating tale where almost all the characters are villains in some sense, and yet you do build sympathies even after innocents are killed and baked into flaky desserts.
Unlike other recent big screen versions of popular Broadway song-and-dance shows, Sweeney Todd is not simply the stage version transported to a bigger stage. This is a movie, through and through, and a perfect marriage. Burton is the perfect visionary to filter the twisted sensibilities of Sondheim’s masterpiece onto the silver screen. As a director, his work has been artistically backsliding since the start of this decade, but Sweeney Todd puts a firm stop to that. The technical aspects of Sweeney Todd are brought to life with great care and imagination. The Gothic sets are gorgeous and the costumes and cinematography are fitfully drab and dour, like everyone is living in a silent movie devoid of color; it takes a lot of hard work to create a near monochromatic playing field for the actors. And so when the blood does splash, and oh does it splash, the film pops with vivid color. Sondheim’s playful lyrics and rapturous music has never sounded better; it practically swoons.
The movie opens up the play in ways that a staged performance never could. Instead of keeping a distance from the bloodletting, usually something symbolic or as graphic as coloring a red line across a victim’s neck, Burton thrusts the audience right into Sweeney’s shop. The blood sprays in bright geysers and the violence is fully realized, fully felt, even if it’s never terribly realistic. The full weight of Sweeney’s vengeance and eventual destructive madness can be felt when the audience is witness to its wrath, and that includes the graphic murders. The medium of film ups the horror elements and transforms Sweeney Todd into a stronger work by amplifying the tension. The last scene with Mrs. Lovett is far more haunting than anything that could have been achieved on a stage. Burton also adds lots of dark humor thanks to his open visual palate, like during the song “By the Sea” where Mrs. Lovett fantasizes about her and Sweeney cozying up together in different scenarios. The film transports the viewer to the different pretend locales all the while Depp remains gruff and indifferent. He maintains the same curmudgeon from fantasy postcard after fantasy postcard. It’s the cheeriest segment in a grimly perverse musical that could rival Hamlet for dead bodies.
In an effort to slice a three-hour musical to a manageable two-hour movie, screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator) has pruned the story down to the essentials, namely everything that impacts Sweeney’s ultimate pursuit of vengeance. Johanna and Anthony, the hopeful lovers, have been pared down the most. Their only scenes now revolve around intruding upon Sweeney or helping him meet his venomous goals. The lecherous songs the Judge sings to himself about his lust for Johanna has also been cut (my wife was severely disappointed by this cut, saying, “You’ve got the Rick, come on!”). The most notable omission is the opening medley “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that serves as a Greek chorus-like overview of the sordid tale ahead. The song provides a lot of back-story and exposition that can be more easily covered by Burton fashioning visual flashbacks of Sweeney’s former life. The ballad and other absent songs are still used instrumentally throughout the film. Logan has also turned Toby (Ed Sanders), Pirelli’s assistant, into a much younger character, turning him into an urchin boy with fresh memories of life in a workhouse. I’m not entirely sure Toby’s protective song to Mrs. Lovett “Not While I’m Around” becomes an ode to puppy love and loses some believability. Also, normally Toby is played as a man-child who isn’t entirely whole in his mental faculties; however, the movie version turns him into a plucky Oliver extra. It seems less devastating and tragic.
But what about the singing? Depp won’t be knocking down doors on Broadway anytime soon but he delivers a very satisfying baritone that, while lacking in power or refinement, delivers in spades with emotion. His singing is full of great texture. His song “My Friends,” an ode to being reunited with his razors, is full of brio and nuanced longing, but he really shows his talent when Sweeney loses it. He’s a man obsessed with vengeance and when it escapes his grasp he snarls with scary intensity. When he launches into “Epiphany,” where he determines the whole human race is fit to have their throats slit, he barks at strangers on the street and howls at the sky, smiling at his glistening razors in hand. What can be forgotten with musicals is that there is so much more to a performance than simply an adept ability to sing the right notes. With Sweeney, Depp spins an incredibly rich performance that plumbs the dark recesses of a man whose only purpose is vengeance. In the end, when he’s saturated in blood and the full reality of his actions is upon him, Depp goes from remorse to psychosis to horror to acceptance in, like, a minute flat. Seeing such a classic Broadway character done justice by an actor of Depp’s immense talent is thrilling and a bit of a relief to Sweeney fans.
Carter has the weakest, thinnest voice of the cast. Mrs. Lovett is a larger than life figure that has been played on Broadway by the likes of Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone. The role is usually played more boisterous, more comically broad. It’s a juicy part and full of brash bravado. Carter stumbles through “The Worst Pies in London” and she seems to step all over her lines, rushing through and losing the comedic flavor. But like I said before, a performance is so much more than singing, and it is here where Carter imbues great complexity to her role. Her unrequited love for Sweeney consumes her and her relationship with Toby places her in an awkward predicament. Carter flashes a wealth of emotions through the power of her eyes. It’s a battle between maternal and sexual urges. Stylistically she resembles a rag doll someone tossed in the trash but it all works.
It’s refreshing and exhilarating to see a perfect marriage of material and artistry. Burton has transported Sweeney Todd into a faithful and jubilantly dark movie that doesn’t shy away from the grotesque. It’s a stirring, wonderfully Gothic rendition of Sondheim’s masterpiece. Sweeney Todd is blissful, spirited entertainment that’s not exactly for the squeamish, but this is one musical that can simultaneously touch the heart while turning the stomach.
Nate’s Grade: A
A chick flick crammed with lots of bona fide stars and A-list talent that manages to squander all talent. It slogs on and on, the back and forth nature of the plot does little to keep an audience alert, and the story it tells in the past is so pedestrian, so minuscule, and ultimately so mundane that you can’t help but wonder why an old woman on her deathbed would be flashing back and remembering it. This high profile weepy never finds the right tone and often settles for maudlin and predictable plot turns. Evening is the kind of movie that kills the chances for a large, female-driven film to get made in Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Prodigy, fraud, normal preschooler? This incisive and captivating documentary looks at a four-year-old who has made thousands of dollars on her modern art paintings. If she is the real deal, what does that say about modern art when a child can compete with serious artists? This intensely interesting story is given as objective a viewpoint as possible even as the filmmaker is forced into his own movie when the family he’s been documenting is looking at his film as a favorable retort to a very critical 60 Minutes segment casting doubt that the paintings are genuine. The filmmaker has his own doubts and explores the nature of journalism and storytelling and objectivity and what is art, and that’s when the documentary transcends its story and becomes about much more. I have no doubt that the child is involved in painting (the question registers with how involved her failed artist father is), but the people that are buying her paintings are buying them because they are also purchasing the story. My Kid Could Paint That, as one interview subject states, is really a story about adults seeking the limelight, because otherwise it would just be a kid having fun painting in the confines of her home. Is she exploited? Is she a genuine talent in a world of paint splashes and squiggly lines? Will she ever just be allowed to be a kid? These are just a few of the tantalizing questions this mature and insightful movie raises.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Extremely heartfelt, this cross-generational family drama runs aground on some familiar territory but is boasted by strong acting. Whenever the film’s focus falls to the arranged married couple settling into a new country and a new relationship, that is when The Namesake is the most affecting and interesting. Too much time is spent on Gogol (Kal Penn) as their son who has completely embraced American culture and throws off his Indian roots. Of course he comes around in his opinion but his character never feels fully formed or completely believable, more like a composite of a prodigal son. Director Mira Nair has an obvious personal attachment to this tale of an Indian family trying to make their way in the U.S. of A, and she never misses her mark when dealing with the intensely decent and selfless father and his love for his wife. It’s a shame then that the movie shifts too much focus at the halfway point onto Gogol. The Namesake is a touching and entertaining that’s a cut above thanks to sensitive performances.
Nate’s Grade: B+
A moderately surprising comedy that’s really much more fish-out-of–water than tired You Got Served dance parody. Jamie Kennedy busts a move as a kid in a man’s body who wakes up after being in a coma for 20 years. There is an overemphasis on recreating the 80s in the early part, with a crushing amount of catch phrases, name drops, and dated toys and fashions. The rest of the film follows the sports formula closely as Kennedy reassembles his aged Funky Fresh Boys to win a dance competition for standard goals like saving his family and winning the girl of his dreams. Kickin’ It is a simpleton comedy that never aims it sights too high, but every now and then the film connects on a gag or a character that produces some real yuks (my favorite being a homeless man convinced he invented break dancing). Some of the jokes are pretty dusty and the romance is, like most of the conflict, forced and contrived, and yet I cannot hate this movie. I never grew weary watching it even though during the climactic dance-off tournament there is a dearth of even attempted comedy.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s been some time since infamously derided director Uwe Boll reared his head and much has changed. 2006’s Bloodrayne was his last theatrically released movie but that movie was originally shot in 2004 and pushed back. In the meantime Germany revised its tax code closing the loophole that helped finance many of Boll’s cinematic duds thanks to German financiers being able to write off their debts. Boll has finished an additional three movies that are all scheduled for release in 2008, including the star-studded (for Boll) Lord of the Rings rip-off, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale opening this month. Boll may never get a chance to direct a theatrically released film again, which may explain his decision to helm a direct-to-DVD sequel to Bloodrayne.
The dusty town of Deliverance, Montana is under assault from the monstrous Billy the Kid (Zack Ward). Except Billy is no ordinary bandit but a powerful vampire intent on keeping his dastardly deeds nice and quiet until the railroad moves in with a nonstop supply of fresh meat and future members of the undead. Newspaper reporter Newton Pyles (Christopher Coppola, no relation to the famous family) has ventured to Deliverance in hopes of witnessing and writing exciting tales of the Wild West, and instead he’s become the man forced to write the cover-up of Billy’s actions. The vampires have kidnapped the town’s children with the idea of feasting off them while they wait. The town’s only hope is half-human, half-vampire Rayne (Natassia Malthe). Under the guidance of rustler Pat Garret (Michael Paré), the pair gather a team to combat Billy the Kid and free Deliverance from evil.
Stylistically, Bloodrayne II: Deliverance is Boll’s desperate attempt to ape the look and feel of HBO’s popular Western series, Deadwood. It really is rather obvious to anyone that has ever seen the show. The costumes in Deliverance look similar, the sets are dressed similarly (though they still come across as too tourist attraction stagy), the gas-lamp lighting and use of darkness seems pretty similar, and the screenplay even manages to sprinkle in a few “cocksuckers,” which any Deadwood fan would know was the term of choice for historic cowpokes. Boll has the directing habit of borrowing liberally from his sources, so I expected nothing less for his attempt at a Western. The mundane cinematography goes to great lengths to declare how handheld the camerawork is. There is a noticeable difference between following the action as it develops for a docu-drama feel and simply shaking and bobbing the camera for a misguided attempt at artistic effect. After a while you feel like the cameraman must be balancing on a unicycle. There’s an over reliance on particular camera shots and close-ups are strictly reserved for the eyes and fingers during buildups to gunfights. The lavish mountain scenery of Canada (er, I mean Montana, yeah, Montana) is probably the visual highlight of a film.
The action is surprisingly decent. The climactic shootout between the forces of good and evil isn’t going to rival anything I saw in the updated 3:10 to Yuma, however, to Boll’s credit, the action is not ineptly constructed. He develops parallel lines of action and separates Rayne’s posse to deal with separate heroic last stands. Gunfights are naturally easier to stage than sword battles (shot 1: bad guy fires, shot 2: good guy ducks then fires, shot 3: bad guy gets hit) and that might explain why Rayne doesn’t break out her signature arm-blades until the very end of the climax. Rhetorical question time: who brings an arm-blade to a gunfight, anyway?
But it is structure that weighs down Bloodrayne II. Boll finally has a handle on crafting some workable action sequences and he just blows it. Bloodrayne II has exactly three action sequences and the first two are rather puny. There is a long drought in between action and in its place are a lot of dull conversations amidst increasingly dull characters. Vampires and the Wild West is a concept that can work; fun can be had with vampire cowboys and high noon (make that midnight) duels, and yet Boll seems uneasy about embracing its supernaturally campy potential. Bloodrayne II has little blood, zero gore, no nudity, no sex, and a pitifully scant amount of action. In other words, it’s missing all of the exploitation elements that make a movie like Bloodrayne II worth watching.
Screenwriters Christopher Donaldson and Neil Every throw in a lot of side characters into the stew but then quickly dispatch them as well, which at least keeps the audience on their guard and wary that anyone that assists Rayne is destined for a sudden end. Most egregiously, they speed through one of the best segments in all of movies: the getting-the-team-together sequence. Rayne and Garret are collecting a posse that includes a con man preacher (Michael Eklund) and a drunk affectionately known as Slime Bag Franson (Michael Teigen). Part of the enjoyment of the Western is following the unifying of a team and watching relationships form, and Bloodrayne II rushes through this process. It collects its gunfighters in brief introductions and then heads right for the finish.
There seems to be little continuity between the two films even ignoring the change at lead vampire slaying lady. The vampires in this entry behave drastically different from the older European ones in the first film. Rayne seems to have lost her healing abilities, which were what the circus folk put on display when she was their money-earning star of their own little freak show (apparently during the 100-plus year gap between films Rayne got a little hammered during Spring Break and got a lower back tattoo). I bring up the healing issue because at one point Rayne is shot several times while escaping via swimming through a river. She’s struggling to regain her strength and confesses to Garret about her true nature and her need for blood. In one of the most curious moments for a movie that pairs vampires and cowboys, Garret slices open his arm and holds it over Rayne, dripping blood all over her face. The characters even seem to catch the weirdness as they both remark how much more useful a simple cup might have been.
It wouldn’t be a Boll movie without an abundance of the bizarre, the ludicrous, and the unintentionally funny. Rayne travels great distances on horseback to Deliverance with the intention of slaying some vampires she knows are responsible for murdering her friends. She finds the reflection-free accomplice (House of the Dead‘s Tyron Leitso) and holds a stool to his windpipe, choking the bastard. Instead of finishing him off Rayne relents and lets him live because, wait for it, he let her participate in his card game. Talk about a strange shift in motivation. During the climax, the townsfolk are stirred to rise up against Billy and his vampire clan thanks to the mayor and Pyles finally growing some spines. They set out to shoot them some vampires, but really what will they accomplish? Bloodrayne II established earlier that the vampires could take being plugged with bullets unless the ammunition is combined with garlic. I doubt the townspeople know they need that key ingredient to their firearms. How do the people in 1880s Montana manage to get a copy of the Chicago newspaper Pyles writes for? The railroad hasn’t made its way to Deliverance so I’m at a loss for the speedy spread of print journalism 1,000 miles away.
But the most unintentionally funny moment comes at the end when Billy has staged an elaborate system of pulleys so that when Rayne opens a door it drops a weight that will raise a series of nooses around the captured children’s necks. The kid on the furthest right is hung to death and the children seem to be arranged according to height, which seems a little OCD even for a vampire. The tallest kid on the far left of this makeshift gallows reacts very differently. While the rest of the child actors are crying, fretting, and acting like the ropes are cutting their breathing, this kid on the far left is just standing stone-faced and still.
The dialogue is expectantly awful, including clunkers like Pyles saying, “I have a question. I came looking for stories of the Wild West,” and then never actually asking a question (what kind of reporter doesn’t know what a question is?). The best/worst example of dialogue is literally the final line spoken and it blindsides the audience like a car crash. Garret says with a glint of wisdom, “Life is like a penis. When it’s hard you get screwed and when it’s soft it can’t be beat.” Wow. Someone alert the motivational poster industry because I have a gut feeling this will rival the perilous “Hang in there” kitty.
The first Rayne, Kristanna Loken, decided she’d rather stick with her Sci-Fi TV show, which has since been cancelled, than don the arm-blades once more for Boll. Malthe (Elektra, Skinwalkers) has the acting prowess you would expect from a former Maxim magazine model. It’s not like the role of Rayne involves much emotional complexity; mostly an actress has to be able to deliver some clunky dialogue and look attractive while swinging a sword. Malthe is certainly a fine looking woman but she is a non-starter when it comes to the world of acting. Whenever she speaks it’s in the same emotionless, dry tone even when she’s supposed to be angry. She comes across like an ineffectual dominatrix who’s studied acting by watching tapes of Shannon Doherty.
Ward is hilariously miscast and completely unconvincing as an evil bloodsucker cowboy. Ward got his start in the classic A Christmas Story and I remember him best playing the goofy, dumb younger brother on comedian Christopher Titus’ hysterical TV show, Titus. Ward tacks on a lousy Eastern European accent that comes in sharp conflict with the setting and material of the film. Are vampires immune from having accents rub off on them, because Rayne seems to have assimilated well into frontier speech patterns? I challenge others not to crack up when he yells, “Now the slaughter begins.” In his defense, Ward isn’t given many scenes to play and the screenwriters have to fall back on the cheap “kids in danger” device to establish his villainy.
The other actors don’t fare much better. Coppola annoys within minutes of appearing onscreen. A helpful bartender (Chris Spencer) is astoundingly bad even for an Uwe Boll movie. He plays the part like Ted Lange in the Wild West. Boll go-to actor Paré actually seems at home with the Western material and his curt, monotone delivery fits well with the material. He’s a good fit for this genre but that doesn’t excuse his poor performances in four previous Boll flicks. The best actor in the movie is the original sheriff-turned-vampire (John Novak) who works an impressive snarl and a natural physically intimidating presence. He would have made for a serviceable lead villain over Ward.
Bloodrayne II: Deliverance is far less fun than the original while being better in some regards and worse in others. There isn’t much artistic growth shown. Boll was naturally meant to transition to the relegated realm of direct-to-DVD movies. It’s more his terrain what with the queasy production values, bad acting, and shoddy, repackaged scripts. In the world of direct-to-DVD a movie can live on into infinity thanks to assembly line sequels. Did anyone realize there are now, thanks to direct-to-DVD releases, seven Children of the Corns, four Bring it Ons, and a whopping 13 Land Before Times. It’s here where Boll’s quick production turnarounds will yield the most gain and where he may even thrive. He’s already planning to direct a Bloodrayne 3 and producing an Alone in the Dark 2 (regrettably there was a 2005 direct-to-DVD sequel to House of the Dead though it had no Boll involvement whatsoever). I think Uwe Boll is finally where he belongs.
Nate’s Grade: D
Forget whatever the advertising and the trailers had you believe this film was about. Instead of watching a ghost solve the mystery of his own death, almost all of The Invisible consists of following an obnoxious kid mope about. There is no mystery from the start because the audience witnesses exactly what happens, knows exactly who the murderer is, so much of the film is just waiting for other characters to piece things together. It’s the cinematic equivalent of sitting on your hands. The plot holes are massive and people have the irritating habit of acting out of character or being moronic (why does the best friend, who inadvertently got his friend killed but was not an accomplice, say nothing to the police?). When the film tries to shoehorn in a laughably contrived romance between murderer and murderee, I was about ready to kill someone myself. Whole sections and characters could be wiped out and nothing would be too altered. The ending is a cop-out and makes little sense given the facts of the case (it’s never really a murder, which makes the advertising even more wrong). Watching The Invisible feels like you’re chained to an annoying emo kid who won’t shut the hell up. This is one lame, snooze-worthy supernatural After School Special.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Ever wanted true and ever-lasting quiet? Be careful what you wish for. Super buff scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last known survivor of a virus that swept throughout the world in 2009. The U.S. government quarantined Manhattan and military jets blew up the bridges leading out from the island. Now in 2012, he and his lone companion, a German Shepard, must seek out supplies by day, because at night is when the “dark seekers” come out. These mutated creatures are what are left of those that fell prey to the virus; they can only come out at night and feed on blood. Smith has been capturing the creatures to run tests to see if he can crack the virus and offer a cure, except that the emerging creature hierarchy doesn’t exactly like having their members captured for scientific experiments.
Deeply unsettling, I Am Legend comes across like a post-apocalyptic Cast Away? but with vampires. I think they’re vampires, they kind of unhook their jaw like from The Mummy and have goopy gelatinous skin like from The X-Files Movie; they’re attracted to blood and burn in sunlight, therefore through my non-scientific analysis of fictional creatures, they’re vampires. Case closed. The movie shrouds the details of the end of the world in mystery that it doles out via flashbacks, and it works very well at keeping an audience intrigued without opening the door for distracting nit-picky questions. Being the last man to walk the planet presents all kinds of interesting scenarios, and simply watching Robert Neville go through his daily routine is entertaining. He picks up DVDs to watch, many of which he has seen so often he can recite line by line. He drives through the empty streets of New York trying to hunt stray deer. He tests his newest serums on infected rats. He sends out a radio message looking for survivors. The man even pumps his own gas. And then night comes and he barricades his home and sleeps in a bathtub listening to the voluminous howls of the creatures he now shares this world with. There’s a pleasing rhythm for an audience with routine, but it also helps answer the biggest question of adaptability. How would someone go about his or her daily life without another human (key word there) soul? The adjustment is part of the enjoyment. Many films and TV shows have walked this path before, hell half of the Twilight Zone episodes cover this scenario, but I Am Legend presents an awe-inspiring sight of desolation. Seeing birds-eye view angles of deserted Manhattan streets, overcome with encroaching grass and plants, is chilling and morbidly effective. The eerie quiet of the day may be even scarier than the dangers that lurk by nightfall.
This is pretty heavy stuff for a Hollywood movie. After a taped TV interview that sets up how the virus began it immediately cuts to three years later and complete desolation. While there aren’t bodies strewn about, the lasting remnants of humanity are visible be it lines of empty automobiles or houses stockpiled with food and decorated for a new baby to arrive that never will. Death permeates every frame, and Neville dismisses the idea of “God’s plan” by declaring 90 percent of the population died immediately, 12 million proved immune and healthy, and 588 million turned into the “dark seekers.” Understandably, I Am Legend may be a bit too intense for younger kids and there are some late plot turns that will make animal lovers cringe.
Besides being an interesting what-if scenario, the movie is also a skillful, tense, and occasionally harrowing thriller filled with scares. The aforementioned moments of quiet are definitely eerie when presented on such a mass scale, and for a place as naturally noisy as New York City, but I Am Legend still has some classic spook moments that can still tingle a spine. When Neville’s dog runs into a dark building he follows, and every step becomes a great addition in terror. It’s your classic afraid-of-what-you-can’t-see scenario that horror milks, but I Am Legend invests the audience in Neville, and yes his furry companion, so that there’s genuine apprehension as we plunge into darkness. The CGI vampires won’t quicken the pulse alone, but add in the idea that every human being on the planet, your friends and family, has turned into a predatory creature and then the situation becomes more disturbing. When the vampires trick Neville and wait for the trickle of daylight to expire, the movie is downright nerve-wracking in the best way. The scene plays out at an agonizingly slow length that pins the viewer to the chair.
Smith gives a fabulous unnerved performance as, seemingly, the last man on Earth. Smith is an actor known for his wide grin and intense charisma, so plopping him down in a post-apocalyptic world doesn’t seem naturally ideal. There are long stretches where he is only acting alongside a German shepherd for companionship. Neville is dramatically lonely and befriending mannequins, including one female mannequin that he is working up the nerve to talk to in the video store. Smith is slowly breaking down from the void of human contact and he showcases how weary extreme loneliness can become. When he sees “Fred” the mannequin in an unexpected place, Smith just loses it. After such isolation, he has forgotten how to act around human beings and he is very much a casualty even as he survives. His strong relationship with his dog is occasionally touching and very reminiscent of Cast Away with Wilson the volleyball; I was more emotionally attached to this dog than I have been for entire slates of movie characters. Smith and the dog carry this movie and they both do outstanding work.
I Am Legend is about 3/4 of an awesome movie, and then it takes a step into a more conventional direction with some new additions. The ending is satisfying and a ray of hope amongst a thoroughly bleak tale. I Am Legend flirts with the profound perspective shift of Richard Matheson’s original work but then opts for something a tad more redemptive and familiar to anyone that watched 2002’s Signs, and yet the ending still relatively works for the material. I didn’t feel cheated and I suppose that’s what counts the most when it comes to a big budget blockbuster action thriller.
I wasn’t expecting a sturdy survivalist parable mixed in with some semi-smart sci-fi and chills, so I Am Legend is a futuristic thrill ride that satisfies on different levels. Sure the last act change-up causes the movie to lose focus, and it’s not nearly as entertaining as watching Smith just go about his post-apocalyptic business. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) steers the movie away from camp and ramps up eerie set pieces and a strong visual command even if the CGI zombie-vampire-people look a little cheesy. The movie becomes a one-man-show and Smith, in all his quiet rage and mounting despair, is the key that holds this entire entertaining enterprise together. I Am Legend is short of legendary but it’s most certainly worth your time.
Nate’s Grade: B+