Archive for November, 2009

SWEENEY TODD

Posted in 2007, Cinema Knife Fights, Tim Burton Movies with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2009 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SWEENEY TODD
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares

(THE SCENE: a dark, cold street in 19th century London. MICHAEL ARRUDA  holds his long coat tight to himself, since there’s a chill in the air and snowflakes have begun to fall. He sees light coming from “Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie Emporium” and like a moth to the flame, he approaches. As he opens the door, a bell jingles, and he sees L.L. SOARES sitting at a table which is almost completely covered in round, thick meat pies).

LS: It’s about time you got here! You’ve got to try these pies, they are quite delicious.

(MA sits down. A serving boy pours a pitcher of ale into his cup. MA hungrily grabs one of the meat pies and bites into it.)

MA:  What the hell?  What’s this?

LS: What’s the matter?

MA (pulls a finger from his mouth): By God, there’s a human finger in me pie!

LS:  Yes, isn’t that great? A prize in every pie, Mrs. Lovett says! I got a whole mouth full of teeth in one of mine. I’m going to put them under my pillow and get a fortune from the tooth fairy. What wonderful pies – delicious and they have more prizes than Cracker Jack.

MA: (looks disgusted):  Wonderful pies, my butt!  The damn things need salt!  (Pours salt onto a pie). Now we’re talking! Mmm. Yummy. Okay, on with the review.

LS: Okay. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is the new collaboration between director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp. It’s the tale of a wrongfully imprisoned man who comes back to London to seek revenge on the despicably corrupt judge who sent him away in order to steal his wife. Once a kindly barber by the name of Benjamin Barker, he now takes on the nom de plume of Sweeney Todd to set up shop once more and bring customers to an untimely and bloody end.

The film is based on the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim, who is well known for his smart lyrics and for having a bit more of an edge than other composers, and the subject matter here is quite gruesome indeed. We have a barber who slits throats, bodies turned into meat pies, a creepy old judge who intends to marry his adopted daughter, roaches aplenty and devious con men. London of this time period is not a particularly cheerful place, and Tim Burton does a fine job of bringing the Broadway play to cinematic life. He has the visuals and atmosphere all down perfect. And you can’t ask for a better lead than Depp, who seems incapable of doing anything wrong these days.

But there is one problem I have with the film. You see, it’s a musical. And I friggin hate musicals!

LS bursts into song (Sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells”):

“Mu-si-cals, mu-si-cals
They’re like kryptonite to me
They make my hair stand on end
And my li-ttle ears bleed.”

MA(singing)(to the tune of The Beatle’s “Yesterday,” more or less):

“Musicals.
I have no problem with musicals.
I just don’t like this musical
It’s sad and boring and dark and dumb
And you don’t have no hair at all.”

LS: Sweeney Todd’s accomplice in this skullduggery is Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a pie maker whose business has hit the skids, mostly due to the lack of good meat in London at the time. But when Todd makes his first kill, getting rid of a blackmailing con-man, and the subject of how to dispose of the body arises, Mrs. Lovett comes up with the wonderful idea of baking the corpse meat into her pies. Suddenly, her shop is a hit and she’s the talk of the town! And Todd’s wonderful close shaves are to die for!

MA: (rubs his cheeks) I could use a shave myself.

LS: Yes, yes. Soon, my friend.

MA: In your dreams, barber boy!  Get on with the review.

LS: The main focus of Todd’s bile however is the vile Judge Turpin (the fine Alan Rickman) who had him falsely imprisoned for 15 years so that he could pressure Todd’s poor wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) into marrying him. She takes poison soon after however, leaving behind the child she had with Sweeney, the equally fair-haired and beautiful Johanna (the striking Jayne Wisener), who becomes Turpin’s ward. But the judge does not look on her with fatherly eyes, as he plans to marry her himself once she comes of age. When she refuses his advances, he has her locked in a madhouse!

So the judge certainly deserves the fate Sweeney Todd has in store for him, but the question is, how will our hero get access to the judge’s throat? And therein is the plot of this particularly yarn.

Like I said, I hate musicals, and that’s my dilemma. The opening scene of the film encapsulates my problem entirely. As a large vessel approaches London harbor, we first hear the singing of Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) whose voice is what one would call typical of the musical genre. He clearly has ability, but to tell you the truth, every time the lad opened his mouth, my head throbbed with an impending headache. So much do I hate the trappings of the modern musical.

And then, in response to Anthony’s song, we hear the voice of Johnny Depp. Many people have wondered if Depp can sing, and the truth is, he can, but not in any way like the “professional” musical-theater types, of which Bower is a perfect example. Depp’s voice is less trained, and he sounds a bit like David Bowie. And for that reason, his is the only singing voice in the film I can actually tolerate!

A subplot concerning the songbird Anthony and the imprisoned Johanna, with whom he falls in love, is like torture to me. Both sing in the classic musical style, and their scenes made me want to flee the theater screaming. Luckily, they are not on screen enough to ruin the film completely.

MA: I would disagree with you on that point. Can we just say the film stunk and go home?  I’ve got cookies to bake. Look, unlike you, I like musicals. I even like horror musicals. I liked the flawed PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2004), for example. I didn’t love it, but it was OK. But I didn’t like SWEENEY TODD at all, and here’s why.

Number one, the music. The songs did nothing for me. I don’t think in the course of writing this column, I’ve ever agreed with you more, in that the songs and subplot involving Anthony and Johanna were torture, absolute torture!  And no kidding, when they were singing, that’s exactly how I felt as well- I wanted to get up and get the hell out of that theater, and I like musicals!  My skin crawled!  Now, this isn’t a reflection on their ability. Their singing was fine, but in a film about a throat-slitting barber, it just didn’t mix, and it didn’t help that the songs were nauseating. I left the movie without liking even one song. That’s pretty bad.

LS (Rises from his seat): I thought the throat-slitting went well with the throat-warbling, especially since I hated the latter. Alas, it is time for that shave I promised you! Upstairs we go!

(FADE TO BLACK)

(An unseen Narrator with a deep voice sings to the tune of “YOU’RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH):

“You’re a mean one, Mr. Soares
You’re a mangy, horrid man
Your breath smells of brimstone and you have brain matter on your shirt
Mr. Soares”

(A new scene unfolds, as we find ourselves in a shadowy apartment with a barber chair. LS is sharpening a blade on a leather strap merrily)

LS: Of course, not everyone here can sing that well. The lovely Helena Bonham Carter (who was so great in films like FIGHT CLUB and who is married to director Burton) gives it a hearty go, but falls short. And actors like Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall (as the judge’s thug) are pretty bad singers, but courageous nonetheless. This is not to put them down, I think the cast is great. One who fares better is Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, Borat himself!), who portrays the pompous Signor Adolfo Pirelli. He plays the role to the hilt, and is perhaps the funniest character in the entire production. His shaving showdown in the public square with Depp’s Todd is one of the film’s highlights.

Another fun part is a fantasy sequence where Mrs. Lovett imagines what it would be like to marry Todd, the object of her affections. In various imaginary scenes, which include the two on a beach and getting married before a priest, Todd stays true to form as dour, brooding and fixated only on his revenge plot, which is pretty funny.

MA:  I agree with you on both those points.

LS:  As I said, Burton’s direction is fine here, but he’s a very iffy director in my mind. I know he has a fanatical following, but for every film of his I’ve loved (ED WOOD is a true masterpiece, and I really enjoyed SLEEPY HOLLOW; both films of course starred Depp), there have been others that haven’t been as successful (his remake of PLANET OF THE APES is a travesty and one of the worst films I’ve ever seen). Depp does seem to be his good luck charm, though, and if there’s any reason to see this film, it’s Depp’s terrific performance as the demon barber.

MA:  I think I like Burton more than you, but I would agree that not all his films have succeeded, and that’s true for any artist. I just really like his visual style. Most of the time, I simply enjoy sitting back and looking at his movies. They usually look terrific, and SWEENEY TODD is no exception. Visually, it’s satisfying. And as much as I like Tim Burton, I have to agree with you again— I’m getting tired of agreeing with you so much today— that his PLANET OF THE APES is awful.

Johnny Depp is terrific, and his singing does sound like David Bowie. I thought he sung like Bowie, spoke like Michael Caine, and looked eerily like Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice (another Burton flick) at times!  Depp is the best part of this movie by far, though I enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter very much too, but they didn’t save the movie for me.

LS:  The Beetlejuice connection is not so far-fetched. There is a sight gag in Carter’s fantasy sequence where Depp is on the beach wearing black and white striped long underwear, which brings to mind a certain Michael Keaton character. Ready for that shave now? (Raises the open razor).

MA: Do you think I’m stupid?  I saw the movie. I know where you’re going with this.

LS: Oh yes, the gore. Another saving grace of this film is the generous amounts of human wine. Despite the musical numbers, Burton does not skimp on the bloodletting. Straight razors to the throat produce fountains of blood, and it’s this generous bleeding which balanced out the horrid singing for me.

MA:  See, I didn’t like the gore. We’ve had this debate many times before. I am not against blood and gore in the movies, but for me, it has to fit, there has to be a reason for it, and here, in a musical, albeit a dark musical, it’s just gross, especially in this day and age, when a certain group of individuals in the real world choose throat slitting and beheadings as their mode of terror, I just couldn’t get into it or have fun with it.

LS: Aw, you’re just an old sour-puss who takes everything much too seriously.

MA: I can’t help it. That’s what I was thinking as I watched those scenes. So, as much as I like Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter, I didn’t like SWEENEY TODD. It looked good, the acting and singing was fine, but it was dreary, the songs weren’t memorable, the story predictable, and the gore gratuitous. SWEENEY TURD is a stinker.

LS:  What a downer. I had a mixed reaction. While I despised the horrible songs (except when it was Depp doing the singing), I suppose I enjoyed this film. If only I could have had a “mute” button for the irritating parts, the movie would have been better still.

But I must admit, I’ve had much more fun writing this column about SWEENEY TODD than I did watching the film.

MA: You can say that again.

LS: I should note that the story of Sweeney Todd is an old one, and has been filmed before in non-musical versions. If you enjoy the tale, you can also check out the wonderful 1936 British version starring the underrated Tod Slaughter in the title role, and one of my favorite low-budget directors, Andy Milligan, tackled the story in his 1970 film BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS.

MA: Can we go home now?

LS:  How about that shave?

MA:  How about you listen to the songbird Anthony and the imprisoned Johanna sing again?

LS gives MA the finger— MA takes the severed finger and places it in a small bag.

MA:  Thanks. Just some extra ingredients for the cookies I’m baking later today. Extra crunchy. (Smiles slyly)

—END—

(originally published on Fear Zone on 12/27/07)

© Copyright 2007 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

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THE ROAD

Posted in 2009, LL Soares Reviews, Post-Apocalypse Movies with tags , , , , on November 27, 2009 by knifefighter

THE ROAD (2009)
(Solo Movie Review) by L.L. Soares

THE ROAD is a movie based on the bestselling novel by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy is the same guy who gave us NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and THE ROAD is just as grim. This time around, it’s not about drug deals gone bad and psychopathic hitmen. Instead, THE ROAD takes place after an apocalypse has killed most of the people on earth (in the book, the cause was intentionally kept vague, but in the beginning of the movie, they try to explain it a bit more, unnecessarily). The world is barren and covered in ash, and a man and his young son travel the road of the title trying to migrate to the south, where the weather is warmer, and basically just try to stay alive in a world gone mad.

There are other humans left, but most of them are very dangerous, and the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee)  – the characters are never given names – are always trying to stay one step ahead of vicious murderers who would kill and eat them without a moment’s hesitation. The atmosphere is one of constant tension as these two are always looking over their shoulders, as they wander the earth mostly looking for food (which is very hard to come by).

The movie is dark – not just the subject matter, but visually – the skies are always cloudy and everything looks cold and gray throughout, and it is very easy to believe that you’re watching scenes from a horrendous future.

John Penhall’s screenplay is very faithful to McCarthy’s vision, sticking closely to the events of the novel. While the book was a surprise hit (it was even chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club – the only book I’ve ever bought that had her seal of approval!) , I’m not sure how well the movie will do at the box office, due to its very depressing subject matter. But also because it is in limited release (the theater I saw it in shows mostly art house fare), and it has had its release date changed several times s (from what I can tell, it was originally supposed to come out about a year ago – usually not a good sign – although in this case I’m not sure why).

I really enjoyed it, but it’s safe to say that if you’ve read the book, you’re not going to find too many surprises. It is interesting to see some of the key scenes in the novel brought to life on film, however. Like the novel, some of the most powerful scenes happen suddenly and aren’t lingered on, whether it involves having to shoot a bad guy in the head, or finding human cattle chained up in a secret basement, waiting to become food for cannibals.

Mortensen, as usual, is terrific. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this guy give a bad performance. Most of the movie seems to take place on his face, and it works. With make-up making him look very worn and prematurely aged, he really is able to communicate much with just his face and eyes. The Man’s only real purpose in life anymore is to protect the Boy and keep him alive. Smit-McPhee, as the Boy, is very effective too (although he seemed a bit older than the Boy seemed in the novel -to me, at least), and the bond between them seems genuine. In the novel, the Boy seemed much more scared and anxious (always begging his father not to go into abandoned houses, etc.), while in the movie he is a bit more stoic.

The Man also has a lot of dreams and flashbacks to his wife (the Boy’s mother) played by Charlize Theron, including the scene where she gives birth to the Boy, and her decision not to go on any further at one point. While Theron was fine in the role, the Woman had a much bigger presence in the movie than she did in the book, and I almost felt like she had too many scenes in the movie.

They also meet some strangers along the way who happen to be well-known actors you can barely recognize beneath their grime and make-up, like Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce. Some of the scenes are downright heart-breaking as the Man and the Boy have to decide how much to help others they find, at the risk of depleting their own reserves. In a world where survival is everything, it’s hard to be too charitable, especially when you have a child to protect.

The bond between the Man and the Boy is the main focus of the film (as well as the book), and in a weird way, you almost want to say that nothing really happens, but that’s not true. While most of their journey is rather mundane, there are real tense, and  sometimes horrific, moments when their lives are in real jeopardy. The movie moves along at a good pace, and, like the book, you really care about these characters. Director John HIllcoat, who also gave us the terrific Australian western THE PROPOSITION (2005), does an excellent job here, and maintains a constant state of unease throughout.

Even though McCarthy has received much praise for his novel – and rightly so – it’s certainly not the first time this subject matter has been explored. Other memorable movies dealing with similar storylines include A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975), based on Harlan Ellison’s classic, award-winning novella, and featuring Don Johnson in an early role – which has achieved cult status over the years – and has a similar bond in a post-apocalyptic world, this time between a young man and his telepathic canine. And, of course, the movie that made Mel Gibson a household name, THE ROAD WARRIOR.

I  really enjoyed THE ROAD, and definitely recommend it, if it happens to be playing near you (which, unfortunately, is not a guarantee).

© Copyright 2009 by L.L. Soares

RED SANDS

Posted in 2009, Horror DVDs, Michael Arruda Reviews with tags , , , on November 26, 2009 by knifefighter

PICKIN’ THE CARCASS: RED SANDS (2009)
by Michael Arruda

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: PICKIN’ THE CARCASS, a column originally published at www.fearzone.com, looks at movies that flew under the radar the first time around, small releases that didn’t get much press.  This particular review ran in April 2009.  —Michael Arruda)

On the carcass menu today, it’s RED SANDS (2009), a new horror movie from director Alex Turner that takes place in the desert of Afghanistan.

I gotta tell you, as soon as I found out that RED SANDS was my carcass pick for this month, I was psyched, almost as psyched as pulling away that succulent piece of meat from the carcass and chomping down—  what?  That’s turkey carcass, okaaay?   Jeeesh!  Anyway, I was psyched because a horror film about American soldiers in the desert of Afghanistan promised something more refreshing than the standard horror fare we see so often today.  You know, the usual stuff, stories about violent psychotic killers or the recent ubiquitous ghost stories, most of which involve teenage girls with deceased mothers.

So, just by its initial setting alone, RED SANDS had something more going for it, an edge that made me purdy darned curious to check it out.  I looked forward to finding out what this horror flick was all about.  I didn’t have to wait long.

RED SANDS explains its menace immediately, even before the opening credits roll as the word “Djinn” appears on screen followed by an explanation of what it means.  Djinn, it turns out, are creatures from pre-Islamic mythology created by God before all other life.  They are made from smokeless fire and are able to change shape at will.  They hate humans.  Most have left the mortal world, but some have not.

So, right off the bat we know what the soldiers in this movie will be facing.  This immediate explanation worked for me, because it piqued my interest and had me looking forward to what was about to happen.

In RED SANDS, a unit of U.S. soldiers is assigned the mission of investigating a desert road that is reportedly being used by Al-Qaeda terrorists.  Their mission is to observe the Al-Qaeda activity in the area and engage if necessary.  Before they reach their destination, they stumble upon some strange ruins which include a mysterious giant statue.  One of the soldiers shoots at the statue for fun, and as a result, the statue crumbles to the ground.  What the soldiers don’t realize is by destroying the statue, they have awakened the Djinn.

Soon after they set up camp, the soldiers are surprised by an unexpected visitor, an Afghan woman who doesn’t speak or understand English.  Shortly after her arrival, strange things begin to happen.  Soldiers begin experiencing bizarre dreams.  They see strange images, such as soldiers they know are dead, and they hear weird messages over the radio.  In short, all kinds of creepy stuff starts happening, until one by one, the soldiers start dying.

RED SANDS is one freaky movie, chock full of creepy images.  It’s the kind of movie best watched late at night with the lights out.  There are enough disturbing images to really play with your head.  Images of soldiers with massive head wounds, beautiful women who suddenly change into monstrous demons, along with those images of war that naturally disturb, such as the death of innocent children.  And a lot of these images are flashed across the screen with lightning like speed, and the result is often jarring.

Director Alex Turner also does a terrific job playing with light and darkness.  There are a lot of scenes that take place in darkness, not pitch black darkness, but the shadowy kind where you can just see enough to know that something’s not right, but you can’t quite make things out completely.  A soldier walks into a low lit room, and he shines a light across the room over the face of a previously unseen woman.  He brings the light back to her, sees her again, and then enters the darkness surrounding her, disappearing with her into the blackness.  Creepy stuff.

Even though this movie is about a supernatural creature, don’t expect it to be “Alien in the desert.”  Don’t expect battle scenes between soldiers and monsters.  RED SANDS is not that type of movie.  The supernatural creature here attacks the humans through dreams and other psychological means.  To that end, the movie really succeeds as a scary psychological vehicle.

It’s Rated R so there’s some gore, but the movie doesn’t go overboard by any means, nor does it wimp out either.

It also has a neat music score by Luke Rothschild and String Theory, a nice mix of electronic sounds and traditional horror movie music.  The score adds to the psychological terrors of the film by hitting unconventional notes at some key times.

The film certainly has its drawbacks.  One of them is the lack of a central character.  While the acting is all fine, there isn’t one main character who stands out above the rest.  This is less the fault of the acting than of the writing by Simon Barrett, who wrote the screenplay.  The characters aren’t really fleshed out at all.  That being said, the one memorable performance is by J.K. Simmons (SPIDERMAN 1, 2, & 3) as Lt. Col. Arson, and his role is essentially a cameo, as he only appears for a few brief minutes.

And as much as I enjoyed the creepy plot, as it moves along, it quickly becomes predictable in terms of guessing how the story will end, especially considering it’s told in flashback.  I had the ending figured out long before the final scene, and if you’ve seen enough horror movies, no doubt you will too.  It’s not an original concept.

Visually the movie is unimpressive, which might come as a surprise considering that it takes place in the deserts of Afghanistan.  There’s nothing really to distinguish it visually from other horror movies.  There’s no stunning photography of the Afghan desert, for example.  In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say the desert scenes were all done digitally.  Yep, CGI strikes again!  The movie definitely sports that artificial “cartoony” look to its desert scenes.

The good news is this doesn’t really hurt the movie all that much.  It’s not a sweeping epic, after all.  It’s a horror tale about a supernatural creature, and so the fine work done in the shadowy darkness by director Turner more than makes up for the visual ho hum status quo of the bright daylight scenes in the movie.

RED SANDS is a neat little horror film, immediately engrossing by its setting alone, and then by its quick revelation of its menace.  Best yet, the story which follows, in spite of its predictability, does not disappoint.  It’s an edgy, hard hitting psychological supernatural thriller that will succeed in making you just a wee bit uncomfortable, even in the comfort of your own home.

RED SANDS is available on DVD right now.  It’s worth a look, as long as you don’t mind cheap looking deserts.

—END—

© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda

The Twilight Saga: NEW MOON

Posted in 2009, Cinema Knife Fights, Vampire Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2009 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: NEW MOON (2009)
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares

(THE SCENE: A darkened movie theater. In the front row, LL SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA are seated, watching  HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Christopher Lee has his fangs bared and they are covered in blood. )

MA: This is fun.  Imagine, you inviting me to watch one of my favorite Hammer movies.  What’s the catch?

LS: I’m making a point.

MA: Which is?

LS:  (looks up at the screen): That is what a vampire should be.

MA:  Agreed. (snaps fingers – image on screen changes to Bela Lugosi from the 1931 DRACULA).  And him, too.  (snaps fingers again – image changes to the vampire  in the 1922 classic NOSFERATU) And him.  (snaps fingers again – image changes to Frank Langella) And even him.

LS: Are you sure?

MA (grimaces): Well, I’m on the fence with Langella, but in that 1979 version of DRACULA he had nice hair! (Snaps fingers one more time.  Image changes to Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen from NEW MOON).   Not him.

LS:  Okay, I think the little history lesson speaks for itself.

Now on to our review of NEW MOON.

***

(SCENE switches to high school cafeteria.  Students are seated and talking and laughing in between eating.  There are several students who are not talking and laughing, however. Several very, very pale students, sitting there brooding and staring at each other longingly like Romeo and Juliet wannabes.  MA and LS are seated at a nearby table, eating from trays)

MA:  You know, since we’re so much older than these students, I thought we’d stand out like a sore thumb, but I don’t think we’re going to be noticed at all.  If no one notices that half the student population looks like vampires— hell, they are vampires— we’re going to remain unnoticed.

LS:  Think again.  We’re being stared at.

STUDENT:  Who are those guys?  They’re so old.

MA:  Oh well.  I guess you have to be a vampire to fit in.

STUDENT:  You just have to be young.

MA:  Touché, my young friend.

STUDENT: You’re not my friend, grandpa!

MA:  Hey, I’m not that old, you little snot—- (takes a deep breath and composes himself) Okay…Anyway, we’re here today in this youthful setting to review the new horror hit, NEW MOON (2009), the second film in the immensely popular TWILIGHT series.  Now, I use the term “horror” very loosely, because this is hardly a horror movie.  It’s a love story with horror elements, and these horror elements are so tepid and sanitized, they’re barely there.

The movie continues the love story between high school senior Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and vampire hunk Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).  Edward, being the noble vampire that he is— the monsters in this film are so noble and honorable, it’s nauseating—decides that taking away his girlfriend’s soul is not a good thing, which is what would happen if she became a vampire, and so he decides to break off the relationship and leave town.

LS: I thought the whole “I’ll be damning your mortal soul” thing was pretty idiotic. Edward just spent an entire previous movie proclaiming his love for Bella, and the soul thing didn’t even come up. All of a sudden, it’s a problem. And, for people without souls, these vampires sure seem emotional enough. Wouldn’t losing your soul make you kind of like an empty shell? And if you live forever, how can you really be damned, if you don’t go to an afterlife? There are a whole lot of questions that are left unanswered.

MA: This leaves our brooding young teen Bella more than depressed, as she becomes lost and distraught, sitting around in a stupor, waking up in the middle of the night screaming for her long lost love, and avoiding her friends.  Just another typical day in the life of a teenage girl.

LS: Y’know, it almost seems like Bella has already lost her soul. Remember my “empty shell” comment. Well, I’ve never seen such a robotic teen-age girl. She talks in almost a monotone and never shows any real emotion except when she’s screaming in her sleep. I thought the way Kristen Stewart has played her, in both movies, has been a bit odd. For a story so passionate, she sure seems way too in control all the time. In fact, there is only one scene in this entire movie where she actually smiles (it’s a scene with her friend Jacob). I know teenage girls can be sulky, but Bella just seems downright catatonic a lot of the time.

(PRINCIPAL walks over to their table)

PRINCIPAL: Excuse me, but I’m going to have to ask you gentlemen to leave. I don’t know how you got past security.

LS: Cool your jets, we’re doing a review here.

(Two burly bouncer-types come up behind the PRINCIPAL)

MA: Okay, okay, we’re leaving.

LS: The food here sucks, anyway.

***

(SCENE changes to the middle of the woods)

MA: Bella finally tries to move on with her life, and establishes a close friendship with her friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) who just happens to be a werewolf, and in this movie, vampires and werewolves are sworn enemies.

LS: Ah, Jacob. Early on, he’s just the sweetest guy around (and pretty boring at that), and then suddenly his hormones take charge and he’s changing into an animal.  Isn’t 16 a little late to go through puberty?

MA:  Evidently, not for werewolf puberty.

LS:  And is anyone else as sick of the vampires vs. werewolves thing as I am by now? Why can’t we all just get along?

MA: So, there is your love triangle, because Jacob also has the hots for Bella, but being the noble werewolf that he is, pushes her away because he’s afraid in his angry werewolf state he might harm her.  Who will Bella end up with?  It’s a false love triangle, because it’s easy to see that Bella’s true feelings are for Edward, and so there’s little suspense here as to who she wants to be with.

LS: The whole “Edward has to go away” plotline is so contrived and stupid. He spends all this time resisting and then declaring his love for Bella. He constantly fights to protect her. And then he suddenly just skulks away. He says he’s doing it for her protection, but what about the evil vampire Victoria, from the last movie, who is still out there, and still looking for revenge. By leaving, Edward is putting her in more danger. What a JERK!

And, at the risk of sounding crude, there’s one scene that epitomizes the entire movie. When Edward leaves, he tells Bella, “I don’t want you to come.” Frankly, that’s the sum of their entire relationship. He won’t have sex with her, because he’s afraid he’ll lose control and kill her. He won’t turn her into a vampire so that they can finally consummate their relationship. The Edward/Bella thing is a study in sexual frustration. Maybe Edward is content to go throughout eternity a eunuch, but Bella is obviously a woman with needs that aren’t being met. And he expects her to put up with this forever?

MA: To make something happen in this movie, there’s a silly plot point of Edward thinking that Bella has died, and so he attempts to end his own life by breaking one of those noble vampire laws which states that vampires cannot reveal themselves to the world.  Of course, Bella gets wind of this and rushes across the world to save her lover, and to be honest, this entire sequence of events is nothing you haven’t already seen if you’ve seen the previews.

LS: He thinks Bella has committed suicide, and decides he can’t go on without her. Maybe he should have thought of that before he left town. And does this mean if Victoria had killed Bella, instead of her supposedly killing herself, that that would have been better? Either way, Edward was responsible and shows how truly clueless he is.

Of course this whole storyline gives us a chance to meet The Volturi, a ruling class of ancient vampires who are the closest thing Edward’s kind has to royalty. He doesn’t just want to kill himself, he wants to involve the highest echelon of vampire society to do it for him. If he breaks their rules, they’ll destroy him. Why can’t he just do things quietly? What a friggin egotist. “Only the best can kill me!”

MA: NEW MOON is a dreadfully boring movie.  And this will hardly matter, because fans of this series will see it anyway, but for your average horror fan, don’t bother.

LS: I really hate to say  this, but I thought  the first movie was better.  I posted a solo review of TWILIGHT a few days ago, and no matter how much I disliked it, I have to say that it at least moved at a decent pace, and the story wasn’t completely sleep-inducing. In comparison, NEW MOON is awful on a lot of levels. I’d say the biggest problem is the fact that Edward leaves early on, and then we don’t see him for half of the movie. Sorry to break this to the kids who call themselves “Team Jacob” – but Jacob the werewolf is just a totally boring, lame character. Sure he’s a sweet guy who’s trying to do what’s right. But he’s also one of the least charismatic characters in the series so far. I really didn’t care about him. And you don’t once think for a moment that Bella considers him anything more than just a friend, which is sad. Of course, she’s not above leading him on just so that she can keep him around as a pal to help fill the gap Edward left behind.

MA: All too true.  NEW MOON is not really a horror movie.  It’s a love story, and it’s not even a good love story.  Early on in the movie, there are references made to ROMEO AND JULIET. There is no comparison between that classic story and the characters in this movie.  Romeo and Juliet were filled with passion.  There’s no passion here.  The characters barely kiss, let alone anything else.  No wonder they’re always frowning and brooding!  Not that they have to do anything else, but they’re not even trying.  It comes off as unnatural.  Kiss each other already!

LS: Actually, they do kiss, toward the end.

MA:  OH MY GOD!!!  There’s one kiss at the end of the movie!  What passion!!!

LS:  I know there’s a kiss, because when it happened, a hundred teenage girls in the audience gasped. But if the “big love moment” is just a kiss, that seems like a big letdown to me.

MA: There’s no chemistry between the leads in this love triangle.  Why both Edward and Jake are madly in love with Bella is hard to tell, based on this film.  Bella is not that likeable.  There’s no passion between these characters, and I’m not just talking physical here.  Watching these kids on screen, you don’t get the feeling they’re real.

LS: I actually find Edward to be the most interesting one of the bunch, and his lack of screen time was a big detriment to this movie.

MA: The most authentic relationship in the movie is between Bella and her single dad Charlie (Billy Burke).  Charlie is probably the most fleshed-out character in the movie, which is too bad, since the movie’s not really about him, and he’ s not onscreen all that much, but when he is, Burke delivers the best performance in the movie.

LS: Yeah, Charlie is pretty good. He was good in the first movie, too. Another character I liked, surprisingly enough, was Edward’s “sister” Alice (Ashley Greene). Sure she’s a dopey teenage girl vampire, but she was one of the few characters with a real personality. And in one tense scene at Bella’s house, where Alice and Jacob clearly dislike each other because of what they are, I wish she would have just kicked his werewolf butt.

MA: I don’t know.  Alice was just too cute and nice for me.  She’s a vampire, for crying out loud!!  I don’t want a cute and nice vampire!  Jeesh!

As a love story, this movie fails.  The characters are not engaging, nor are they so tragic you feel agonizing pain for them.  I can’t really see too many tears being shed during this movie.  A tearjerker, NEW MOON ain’t!

LS: Tell that to the audience I saw it with, which was like 90 percent teenage girls. They were gasping and crying throughout this dreck. And why don’t you be honest for once, Michael. I saw a few tears welling up in your eyes, too.

MA: Yeah, that was when I realized I’d finished my popcorn!  Interesting that you should mention the audience, because in the sold out theater I saw it in, I was surprised to see more women in their 20s and 30s in attendance than teens.  There were also a significant number of men in the audience too.  They were the ones laughing.

As a horror movie, NEW MOON fails even more miserably.  The so-called horror elements are so sanitized, that after watching this movie I felt as if I had just bathed in hand sanitizer.  These are vampires?  Edward has a whole vampire family that are so nauseatingly “normal”— imagine the classic TV show  THE WALTONS, except they’re vampires.  Everyone is so “together” you almost expect Bill Cosby to show up.  They could at least have given us THE SIMPSONS as vampires!

LS: Yeah, the vampire family is pretty wimpy. But I still kind of wish there had been more scenes with them, just because everyone else in this movie was even worse.

MA: Then there are the werewolves, which are so neatly groomed they look like they had hairdressers.  That’s about as much as I can say for them.  The CGI effects here are sadly fake looking, and the werewolves just don’t generate any fear or realism.  They play like characters you’d see in a NARNIA movie.  More for kids than adults.

LS: Oh my god, the werewolves were horrible! CGI at its fakest. And do you remember the times when werewolves were actually creatures that were half-human and half-wolf? Werewolves used to be a chance for the make-up guy to go wild! Now, people just turn into regular wolves, and it’s pretty unexciting.

(LON CHANEY JR., as Larry Talbot, pops out from behind a tree. HENRY HULL pops out from behind another tree, dressed as THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON)

CHANEY: Yeah, what’s that about? Werewolves used to be scary.

HULL: You’re telling me. Even my crude 1930s make-up is more horrific than animated wolves.

LS: Exactly! There’s nothing scary about a plain old wolf, unless it’s attacking you in real life. On the screen, it’s like “ho-hum.” Just another reason why I found Jacob’s character so damn boring. And then when he realizes he’s a werewolf, he cuts off his long hair and has the buffest body in the movie. I guess this is supposed to make him sexier. But it just made him more laughable.

(Several LARGE WOLVES appear in the forest, growling and watching them)

MA: Uh, oh. Looks like we offended the locals.

LS: What are they going to do, CGI us to death?

MA: You have a point.

And as a plain old movie, NEW MOON fails.   It’s slow, and it’s painfully talky.  I mean, this film runs for just over 2 hours, and most of it is talk, talk, talk.  If you like watching soap operas, especially with teenage characters, but without the sex, then you’ll enjoy NEW MOON.  Because that’s what this movie comes down to.

LS: Y’know, that is the bottom line. Some people have told me, “Well, you’re not the target audience for this movie.” And that’s probably true. But a good movie is a good movie. And I’m not putting down Young Adult (YA) stories here. There are some very smart, well-written YA books out there. It appears that TWILIGHT (and its sequels) isn’t one of them. Whether it’s made for kids, teenagers, or adults, a movie still has to be well-written and deliver a quality story to be good, no matter what age it is intended for. And the TWILIGHT movies don’t deliver.

MA: The acting is not bad.  Kristen Stewart does an admirable job as the brooding Bella, and she certainly does seem like a troubled teenager in love.

LS: There is something appealing about Stewart. I can see her being really good in a smarter, rebellious teen movie. But Bella is all about love and passion, and Stewart just plays her with this monotone. This really distanced personality, that doesn’t really seem to work for me. I don’t think she’s a bad actress, I just think that they could have found a better Bella.

(A ROBOT pops out from behind a tree)

ROBOT (speaking in monotone): I think Kristen Stewart’s acting was very good.

LS: You would!

MA: Robert Pattinson is OK as Edward, the vampire.  He sulks a lot, and that pretty much sums him up. He doesn’t do a whole lot more.

LS: Yeah, Edward is pretty toothless. And he makes the most idiotic decisions possible. But I have to give Pattinson credit. He does have a certain charisma. I can understand why he’s become so popular. And, frankly, if you’re going to play a vampire, you’ve got to have at least a little charisma.

MA: Yeah, I’ll agree with you there.  He does have some charisma, but in this movie he doesn’t get to do a whole lot with it.  Taylor Lautner doesn’t do much as Jake the werewolf either.  He just gets angry easily.  Since when do werewolves have such bad tempers?  I didn’t get it.

LS: It’s those raging wolf hormones. I thought that was pretty obvious. But yeah, I thought Lautner was easily the weakest link in this movie, and a big reason why it drags so much. His relationship with Bella seems totally one-sided throughout. Never once do I believe she’d choose him as a lover.

MA: The screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg fails to engage.  It gives us characters who we really don’t get to know, and the situations they’re placed into are hardly engrossing.  Director Chris Weitz doesn’t fare any better.  There’s little that makes this film cinematic.  The movie is all talk and little action.  And it’s all so tepid, I actually felt as if I were watching a rated G movie.

LS: Rosenberg wrote the previous movie’s screenplay, too. It was at least tolerable. So I have to think the source material  has to take some of the blame. And Chris Weitz does a fairly awful job directing this one. Catherine Hardwicke proved herself to be a much more capable director with this kind of stuff. At least she was able to make TWILIGHT watchable. NEW MOON is actually torturous at times to sit through. Too bad she didn’t stick with the series. If nothing else, it would have given her a nice payday.

And I HATED the scenes where characters run in slow motion, their hair swaying the breeze. Some of the most cliché camera shots in the world. I mean, the cinematographer could have at least tried to be a little creative.

Michael, there were several scenes that relied on flashbacks to the first movie. Did you have any trouble following that?

MA: No.  The flashbacks were straightforward.  NEW MOON wasn’t exactly a mental exercise.  It was fairly simple to jump right into what was going on without having seen the first movie.

LS: Overall, I’d say it was exactly what I thought it would be. A complete waste of time. Which is ironic as hell, since both of us couldn’t get in to see NEW MOON on Friday night (all showings were sold out way in advance). Hard to believe we went through so much trouble to see this one, and it was so bad.

(turns to audience) Learn from our suffering. Don’t make the same mistake we did. Don’t go see NEW MOON.

MA: It was worse than I expected.  Not that I expected much, but I was hoping to like it.  I didn’t like it at all, however.

LS: Me either.  But I had the misery of sitting through two of these movies in one week. Pity me.

MA: Pity you? You haven’t seen anything yet.  How many books are there in this series?  This experience in vampire boredom is not even close to being over!

LS:  Unless we finish it now.

MA:  How do you propose to do that?

LS (hands MA a hammer and stake, and he wields a silver axe):  To battle!

MA:  I have a better idea.

LS:  What’s that?

MA:  Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing, telling the good folks out there the truth, and that is, NEW MOON is a snorefest.  Whether you’re the target audience or not, it’s a dull movie that hardly deserves the hype.

LS (swinging axe):  Can’t I at least chop off one head?

MA:  Sure, you can chop off one head, as long as it’s not mine.

LS:  You’re lucky you said that.

MA:  Well, it looks like we’re off to hunt vampires.  Until next time—.

—END—

© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

TWILIGHT

Posted in 2009, LL Soares Reviews, Vampire Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by knifefighter

TWILIGHT (2008)
(Solo Movie Review) by L. L. Soares

Originally I was planning to avoid the TWILIGHT movies like the plague. But Michael Arruda and I decided to do a Cinema Knife Fight column this weekend about NEW MOON, so I figured I’d sit down and watch the first movie of the series, TWILIGHT, just so I know what it’s all about.

I really wish I hadn’t.

As a long-time vampire fan, I’ve really dreaded the whole de-fanging of the genre. It began, sort of, with the Anne Rice Lestat books, where vampires took on the persona of romantic aristocrats rather than dangerous predators, but even Rice knew to not remove the horrific aspects completely. Unfortunately, these more sympathetic versions evolved (devolved?) more and more over time, until we get the likes of TWILIGHT and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, where once noble monsters are now just fodder for teen soap operas.

Which really makes me long for the days when the original DARK SHADOWS was a daytime TV staple. Sure, it was a real soap opera, but it was a lot more exciting, despite its shoestring budget, than what we have to sit through now.

Not all vampire-related shows and movies are crap, though. I’ve actually become quite addicted to Alan Ball’s HBO series based on Charlaine Harris’s “Sookie Stackouse” series, namely TRUE BLOOD. One of my favorite recent series in any genre, it shows that you can have romantic aspects and still keep the vampires dangerous. Of course, TRUE BLOOD also benefits from good acting and top-notch scripts.

TWILIGHT, in comparison, is a limp flower.

Sitting down to watch the DVD, it was both better and worse than I expected. Better because it didn’t bore me to death and seemed to move at a steady enough pace (I’d really expected it to be a plodding nightmare to watch). Worse because, well, it’s just as dumb, if not more so, than I thought it would be.

For those who don’t know the story by now, TWILIGHT is the tale of Bella (short for Isabella, but also probably a homage to Bela Lugosi, star of the classic 1931 version of DRACULA, which is so superior to this crap it isn’t even funny) Swan, played by Kristen Stewart, who moves from her mother’s house in Phoenix to go live with Daddy in Seattle. Mom’s following her latest boyfriend to baseball camp, and Dad gets some bonding time with the daughter he hardly sees since the divorce.

Washington State gets plenty of rain and is dark most of the time, so it’s the perfect breeding ground for vampires. And these aren’t just any bloodsuckers – they’re ones who were “turned” as teenagers, and so, to fit in to the outside world – they have to go back to high school every time they move to a new town (as Edward says at one point “the younger we can seem when we first move in, the longer we can stay someplace.”) Imagine the horror of having to relive high school over and over again! That’s scarier than vampires!

The town in question here is Forks, Washington, and the vampires are the sulky Cullen clan, led by patriarch Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Patrick Facinelli, who also plays a doctor on the Showtime series NURSE JACKIE) , and  a motley crew of the undead who pass themselves off as one big family. The brooding Cullens pretty much keep to themselves in school, and are considered to be just more weird goth kids by their peers.  Enter Bella, smart and rebellious; she feels a lot like an outsider herself. When she gets paired with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattison, who is supposedly “dreamy” to legions of fans, but I don’t see it) in biology class, there’s instant chemistry, and Edward takes off for awhile. Why? Because he’s instantly smitten and knows how this is going to end, with a passionate romance, and he wants to spare poor Bella the torture of being involved with a vampire. How thoughtful.

Of course, despite Edward’s efforts to turn her against him and keep her out of his life, he and Bella do fall in love. And once she finds out the truth about him, their bond gets even stronger.  Not only is he handsome and intense, Edward is also special and one of a kind. And he is obsessed with protecting Bella, so he’s like a great big guard dog, always watching out for her and at her beck and call.

His “family” takes to Bella right away, not least because they’ve taken an oath to not feed on humans. They drink the blood of animals instead, which keeps them alive and strong but which, as Edward says, “it never satisfies.” Of course, there is some tension when Bella is the only human in a house full of vampires who can all smell her blood (and it’s supposedly tantalizing!).

Since the family is so nice, there have to be bad guys. In TWILIGHT, it’s a trio of bad-ass vampires who are “just passing through” Forks and leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. At first it looks like Laurent (Edi Gathegi) is the leader of this group, but he’s actually a wimp who ducks out as soon as he can, leaving impetuous Victoria (Rachel Lefevre) and merciless James (Cam Gigandet) to kill humans mercilessly. I guess Laurent is just along for the ride. Once they get a whiff of Bella at a Cullen family baseball game (don’t ask), and Edward gets protective, some kind of bloodsucker protocol is breached and James decides he has to have her, things get ugly, and its vampire clan vs. vampire clan.

Which doesn’t even take into account the centuries’ old pact between the Cullens and the local Indian tribe who have a reservation just outside of Forks. The Indians are descendent of wolves (!) and are thus werewolves (oh no!), and they have a deal that the vampires can drink the blood of animals, as long as they don’t come on their land. Which you know is the set-up for another upcoming blood feud. This of course involves yet another potential love interest for Bella, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), an Indian/werewolf boy who supposedly plays a much bigger role in the sequel, NEW MOON.

James, the main baddy, is actually pretty laughable. He looks like a Keifer Sutherland wannbe from THE LOST BOYS (which, by the way, is one of my other least favorite vampire movies, ever). With his blonde hair tied back in a pony tail and his stiff leather jacket that always makes him look like he’s posing, James is about as scary as a sulky male model. But we’re led to believe he’s vicious and sadistic and all-in-all bad news. He looked like a wimp to me.

So the rest of the movie is Edward and his family trying to protect Bella from a vampire who “won’t give up until the game is over.” Which leads to a big finale which was actually pretty ho-hum. Just another lame fight scene, with people floating in the air and punching through walls that would have been just as at home in a generic superhero movie.

As for the rules of vampires, let’s see. In TWILIGHT they come out in the daytime (supposedly it’s always dark and rainy here, but it looks clear and well-lit to me). They only miss school during particularly sunny days. And the sun doesn’t hurt them, it just makes them sparkly like diamonds (how scary!) which is only dangerous to them, I guess, because it gives away their identity to humans. They don’t have visible fangs or sleep in coffins. Oh yeah, and they all look like they’ve got clown make-up on. It’s so blatant that, as soon as you see them, you instantly think “these are either vampires or albinos.”Or clowns.  Especially daddy Carlisle, who is so pale he is laughable. In the first scene where we meet him, I shouted at the TV screen “Going a little heavy with the greasepaint, aren’t you!”

The ways Bella finds out about Edward’s secret are pretty lame, too. In one scene, an idiot named Tyler (Gregory Tyree Boyce – easily one of the most annoying characters in the movie, despite limited screen time) is driving wild and “loses control” of his car, which is about to crush Bella to death in the school parking lot, before Edward steps in to stop it with one hand and push it away. Tyler  says “I’m so sorry, I couldn’t control it” even though we’re never made privy to exactly what his problem was, and he seems like a complete moron who really couldn’t care less that he almost killed someone. The only reason for this stupid scene was so Edward could have an excuse to save Bella and show off his powers.

Another scene, where a group of boys turns out to be predators who possibly want to rape Bella, gives Edward another chance to show up and save the day, thus winning Bella’s heart in the process. (These boys seemed asinine and I almost think Bella could have beaten them up by herself).

And, of course, in keeping with the romantic heart of the movie, Bella and Edward can’t have sex because then he could lose control and go into a blood frenzy that could end with him feeding on her. So we get yet another passionate but platonic romance. How sweet and safe!

There is a lot to hate about TWILIGHT if you’re a fan of real horror. There is nothing, except for all the talk of blood thirst, to really make us believe the Cullens as vampires. With super speed, super strength and heightened senses, they could easily be members of THE X-MEN instead. There’s nothing very horrific here.

No one ever seems in any real danger, and there’s way too much in the way of soulful glances and protestations of love.

And one more thing. Edward can read minds (he’s the only one of his kind who can) and he’s a vampire, so he’s like Sookie Stackhouse and Bill Compton (from TRUE BLOOD) rolled into one! He moans about how painful it is to read the minds of others, but somehow he can’t read Bella’s mind, and right away I wanted to shut this movie off and go find a TRUE BLOOD box set somewhere and watch that instead. At least that show makes it cool again to like vampires.

TWILIGHT makes it all seem very silly and more than a little cringe-worthy.

Director Catherine Hardwicke somehow does a decent job with awful material. Things look good and the pacing is good. It’s just too bad the characters and plotline are so weak.  The script by Melissa Rosenberg (based on Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular book series), is pretty lame, but  that probably isn’t Rosenberg’s fault. She does what she can with the source material. And of course, what I find insulting and fangless, fans of the TWILIGHT books find a dream come true. So what do I know?

And, lucky me, I get the joy of seeing Part 2 this weekend, when the sequel, NEW MOON, comes out.

This has been a very masochistic week.

NEW MOON review coming soon.

-END-

© Copyright 2009 by L.L. Soares

THE BOX

Posted in 2009, Michael Arruda Reviews with tags , , , , , on November 20, 2009 by knifefighter

THE BOX (2009)
(Solo Movie Review) By Michael Arruda

Here at our new CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT Web site, we aim to cover as many horror movies as inhumanly possible, especially the newest releases.  And we’ll cover these flicks with both the Cinema Knife Fight column and our own solo reviews.

Tonight I’m flying solo, with a review of the new movie, THE BOX (2009).

THE BOX is based on a Richard Matheson short story, “Button, Button.” That’s some fine source material.  Will the movie live up to it?  Let’s see.

Right off the bat, THE BOX has something going for it, and that is its neat premise.  A young couple, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), suddenly desperate for money, are approached in their home by a stranger named Arlington Stewart (Frank Langella), who presents them with a box and a choice.  If they press the button on the box, they will receive one million dollars cash, but someone they don’t know will die.

Of course, the premise here is intriguing, because it’s an experiment in human nature.  For some people, whether or not they push the button depends on how badly they need the money.  For others, no amount of money in the world would make them push that button, and then there are those who might not think twice about pressing the button, either because they place little value on human life or, more likely, what they don’t see doesn’t bother them.  As long as they don’t see the murder, why not press the button?

So, there are lots of intriguing possibilities here.  Too bad the movie doesn’t explore them.

While the characters in this movie do need the money, there really isn’t a decent debate here, due mostly to some ineffective writing by screenwriter Richard Kelly.  The movie wastes lots of time as Norma and Arthur go back and forth over whether or not they should push the button or not.  This is wasted time because everyone in the theater knows they’re going to press the button.  They should have pressed the button in the opening moments of the movie.

But no, the moment is dragged out for quite a while, which bring us to a major problem with THE BOX, and that is, dreadfully poor pacing.

So, Norma and Arthur push the button, and gentlemanly Mr. Stewart pays them their money.  They feel guilty immediately, but the money is theirs, and there’s nothing more they can do about it.  If only things were that simple.  If only this movie were that simple.

You see, strange things start to happen (like their opening a gift box at a party with Mr. Stewart’s picture in it) that make Norma and Arthur extremely suspicious of the man.  In short, he’s not going away.  They ask Norma’s father, a cop, to run a background check on Mr. Stewart’s license plate number.  Within moments of this request, they receive a phone call from Mr. Stewart warning them that they shouldn’t have contacted the police.

From here, things grow weirder and more bizarre by the second.  People keep showing up with nose bleeds, strangers run up to Norma and Arthur with dire warnings, their babysitter isn’t who she claims to be, and somehow this is all tied in to Arthur’s place of work, which happens to be NASA.  Hmm.

As things grow more and more convoluted, the movie really goes downhill. The deeper the film delves into the mystery, in an attempt to explain just what the hell has been going on, the more confusing and silly it all becomes.  It’s as if screenwriter Richard Kelly couldn’t really make up his mind as to how he wanted to explain the box, so he just threw in a bunch of stuff and hoped for the best.  He got the worst, which is too bad because this story has lots of potential for suspense, scares, and good old-fashioned storytelling.  There is a whole world of ways in which the reason behind the box could have been genuine and scary.  But the film moves about as far away from scares and reality as it can get.  Worse yet, it fails to make sense of its outlandish conclusions.  If you’re going to take the “way out there” route, at least give the audience something that makes sense.

There’s little that makes sense in THE BOX.

Writer/director Richard Kelly, who also served as the writer and director for DONNIE DARKO (2001) seems to have lost his way with this story.  It’s as if he brainstormed ideas for making THE BOX into a feature length movie, failed to come up with something satisfactory, yet made the movie anyway.

The acting is OK, but considering the performers, it should have been better.  I’m a big fan of Frank Langella, and I certainly enjoyed watching him here as Mr. Stewart, but to be honest, it’s just an OK performance.  Langella was much better as Richard Nixon in FROST/NIXON (2008).  Here, he just walks around looking gentlemanly and delivering lines with a special effects-laden face that shows a considerable portion of his face burnt away, but he’s neither compelling nor scary.  He’s just mildly interesting.

Cameron Diaz is OK as Norma Lewis, but I’d have to say of the main performers she was the biggest disappointment.  This was her movie to carry, yet she didn’t.  Norma Lewis is barely memorable.  James Marsden (Cyclops in the recent X-MEN movies) fares better as Norma’s husband, Arthur.  There’s something more real about him, and when all these bizarre happenings begin to take place, his reactions come off as more genuine.

The movie takes place in 1976 in Richmond, Virginia, and the year is important because one of the major plot points of THE BOX involves the Mars Viking mission of that year.

The movie does a good job placing us in 1976. It goes further than just clothing, hairstyles, and cars of the period.  The kids carry metal lunch boxes, we hear the voices of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter on the radio and TV, on TV we see Johnny Carson and the old ABC sitcom “What’s Happening?” and the TV itself is one of those horrible looking “boxes” from the 1970s.

I remember those boxes well.  Their buttons were more fun to play with than the box in this movie.  In fact, I almost wish THE BOX had been about an old television.  It would have been more interesting.

THE BOX is anything but interesting.  It’s slow, confusing, not at all scary, and is about as exciting as its name.    I had been looking forward to this one, but sadly, it’s a huge disappointment, and I can’t recommend it.

In short, this is one box not worth opening.

—END—

© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda

THE MIST

Posted in 2007, Cinema Knife Fights, Stephen King Movies with tags , , , , , , on November 19, 2009 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE MIST
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares

FADE IN:

(THE SCENE:  Inside a quaint, small town supermarket, MICHAEL ARRUDA pushes a shopping cart along the produce aisle. His cart is full of an odd assortment of items, including shrunken heads, skulls, severed body parts stained with blood, sweetened monster cereals in colorful boxes, and a hardcover copy of SKELETON CREW by Stephen King. Michael stops to select some Florida blood oranges.  Suddenly L.L. SOARES appears, shouting and waving a burning torch at some unseen menace.)

LS:  Watch out!  They’re coming!

MA:  Giant bugs?

LS:  No, an angry mob of naysayers who only read reviews before the film is released!

MA (shouting towards mob):  Film criticism is timeless, people!  Put down your torches!

LS:  They’re scared!  People revert to animals when they’re scared!

MA (to LS):  It’s all your fault. I told you to not to come out in public without your mask.

(An eerie mist clouds the view outside the glass storefront window. MA notices.)

MA:   That reminds me—we have a movie to review.

LS:  Take it away, Digby.

MA:  THE MIST, based upon the Stephen King novella of the same name, is one of those stories that begs to be filmed. Like a perfect storm, it’s the perfect blend of thrills, chills, and good old-fashioned suspense and adventure. After a violent storm the night before, a mist descends upon a small Maine town, and a bunch of people find themselves trapped inside a supermarket, as, from the mist, deadly man-eating creatures emerge. Eventually the strange creatures force their way inside. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) fights to protect his young son, and later finds himself leading a small band of survivors on a trek into the mist, hoping to escape the bloodthirsty creatures and find any remnants of civilization.

While I enjoyed THE MIST, it was nowhere near as good as the story on which it was based. Right off the bat, it suffered from a lack of believability. People were frightened before they should have been. Sirens are heard outside the supermarket, and customers react as if they’re in the middle of the cold war. I found their fear exaggerated and out of place. The sense of oncoming dread worked much better on the printed page than in the movie, no doubt due to the effectiveness of King’s writing. I thought this film got off to a flat start, but then picked up in the middle and gained steam as it went along.

LS: I totally disagree. I thought the pacing was good and the movie gets to the action fairly quickly.

MA:  Really?  I thought it plodded along till the tentacles scene. Speaking of which, the creature special effects were average and unspectacular. In fact, I found myself thinking they looked fake, which brings me to another problem. THE MIST wasn’t all that scary. At times, it played more like an old 1970s disaster film (who will survive?)— with its clichéd characterizations — than a horror movie.

Actually, the scariest part of the movie wasn’t the creatures, but Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden, delivering the film’s best performance) whose religious fanaticism struck a nerve, especially in these post-9/11 times. She was frightening. Yet, even this part of the movie was flawed. I thought her screen time went on far too long. Of course, that’s the point of the story, that when people are terribly frightened, they revert to their primitive selves and forget what it is to be civilized. In short, they become scared, murderous bastards. Again, this theme works better on the printed page than on screen.

I would have liked less Mrs. Carmody and more giant bugs, because in effect, the movie version of THE MIST is an old-fashioned monster movie, and what it needed was more monsters!

(As if on cue, strange music plays, and a group of giant roaches and slimy trolls do a conga line down the isle, dancing and singing. LL and MA stare as they go by. Then the creatures disappear.)

MA:  Preferably monsters that don’t sing and dance. I also didn’t like the new ending. Writer/director Frank Darabont changed King’s original open-ended finale and opted for a much more concrete one. It didn’t really work for me. Intellectually, I bought into it. It packs a punch and delivers a message, but emotionally, I found it much too dark for what previously had been a fun monster movie.

The performances were solid, and the script effective— there were some terrific zingers  that got the audience laughing, but as a whole, it fell short. All in all, I thought it was OK, an average film version of a phenomenal novella. How about you?

(L. L. Soares snags a beer from the refrigerated section.)

LS:  Hell, the world’s coming to an end. Why let good beer go to waste?  Want one?

MA: No thanks. I’m working.

(A giant tentacle rises up from behind LS and tries to grab a beer bottle, but he slaps it away)

LS: Get outta here, ya creep! (opens bottle and takes a swig.). Well first off, make up your mind. First you complain that THE MIST isn’t scary and that it’s too much like a 70s disaster film. Then you say you enjoyed the fact that it was an old-fashioned monster movie. You can’t have it both ways.

MA:  Why can’t an old-fashioned monster movie be scary?  THEM! (1954) was an old-fashioned monster movie, and it was scary.

(A giant ant pokes its head out of a pile of canned goods: “Damn right we were!”)

LS:  Look, I enjoyed King’s original story a lot, too, and for the most part, the movie is faithful to it. I thought the cast was pretty good – Thomas Jane isn’t the most exciting actor in the world, but he’s good here, and between this one and DREAMCATCHER, he’s starting to become a King regular. He plays the typical King hero well enough. You also have Andre Braugher as Drayton’s pompous lawyer neighbor Brent Norton, who doesn’t believe any of this is happening until it’s too late. Laurie Holden (who was also the cop in SILENT HILL) does a good job as Amanda Dumfries, Drayton’s potential love interest (I say “potential” because, while the two do have a love scene in the original novella, that’s skipped in the film version). And even the kid who plays Drayton’s son Billy (Nathan Gamble) is just fine. You’ve also got solid character actor William Sadler as a Maine local, Toby Jones (who played Truman Capote in last year’s INFAMOUS) as a supermarket employee who takes Drayton’s side early on, and Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden as Mrs. Carmody. As you said, a good cast.

I had a mixed reaction to Harden, though. You thought she gave the best performance in the movie, but I thought that she was a little too over the top at times. But I guess if you’re going to play a religious zealot, you might as well go for the gusto. By the time the movie was in full gear, I was pretty much buying her performance, too.

(MA slices a blood orange and hurls a half at LS. The fruit hits LS square in the face. LS wipes off red pulp and looks at MA, who feigns innocence).

LS: The monsters aren’t the most amazing effects ever put on screen, but considering this movie did not have a huge budget, I think they did a decent job bringing King’s vision to life. And the movie did a good job of capturing the mood and the claustrophobia of the original story.

Director Frank Darabont has given us some of the best King adaptations so far. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE were two solid films. And so is this one. But THE MIST is a change of pace. Where SHAWSHANK and the GREEN MILE focused exclusively on very human heroes and villains, THE MIST gives us a more otherworldly scenario. The monsters make this one a different animal, and Darabont directs it with a sure hand.

(A giant, ugly, flying insect buzzes around them. MA feeds it an orange).

In fact, I found just about everything about this movie decent. Not amazing. Not a modern day masterpiece. But pretty damn decent.

MA:  But didn’t that bother you?  I mean, the King story is obviously top-notch stuff, and the film just doesn’t measure up. Didn’t it bother you that it was just decent and not superb?  It left me disappointed.

LS:  Most times you’re going to say the book is better than the movie. That’s hardly new. But I thought Darabont did a good job adapting the story for the screen. In less capable hands it might not have been half as entertaining as it was. I didn’t feel disappointed at all.

(MA throws another orange, but LS ducks this time.)

LS:  If it does get a bit heavy-handed and obvious about how the people in the supermarket split into warring factions, it works because chances are good this is exactly how it would play out in real life. When people are in a situation that is totally alien to them, and which they feel completely helpless in the face of, they’re going to tend to revert to their base instincts.

MA: True, but this still worked better in King’s story than in the film. Somehow, it came off as forced in the movie, but natural and normal in the book, which I guess, is a testament to King’s writing.

(The flying insect buzzes above LS’s head, annoying him).

LS: As for that ending – which seems to have become a point of major debate – I liked it just fine. The disturbing and horrible choices that are made pack a wallop. Some people have said the ending is too much of a downer. But I thought Darabont’s denouement had a definite kick to it. These are people who are terrified, who are not thinking clearly, and in that context, it made sense to me. Beyond that, I won’t go into any details about what actually happens, because it’s an ending that deserves to be experienced, and I’m not about to spoil that for anyone.

Compared to a lot of cliché horror films that come to the big screen every year, I thought THE MIST was above-average. You could do a lot worse.

MA:  You could also do better.

(LS swats the monster bug dead with a gigantic flyswatter, showering MA with insect guts. MA wipes his face and licks his lips.)

MA:  Mmmm. Strawberry mist.

—END—

(First published on Fear Zone on 12/25/07)

(NOTE: Two years later, I have to admit, I like this movie even more than I did back then. In fact, it’s become one of my favorite Stephen King adaptations – LL)

© Copyright 2007 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares