Archive for December, 2007

I Am Legend (2007)

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Staring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, and Charlie Tahan
Written by: Richard Matheson (Novel)
Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman (Screenplay)
Directed by: Francis Lawrence

What is it about H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend? It seems that every time there is a major conflict raging in the world, a new interpretation of these novels gets produced. Wells’ classic was first turned into the famous Orson Wells’ radiobroadcast of 1938, as the rest of the earth was engulfed in a very real war. In 1953, at the height of cold war panic, George Pal brought the story to the silver screen, and in 2005, as the Iraq War raged on, Steven Spielberg committed another version to film. Matheson’s work has had a similar history. First filmed as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964, amid continued cold war fears, and later as Charlton Heston’s Omega Man, during the Vietnam War in 1971, the time has now come for I Am Legend to get a post 9/11 update of its own.

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This time around, two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith steps into the lonely shoes of Dr. Robert Neville, sole survivor of a global pandemic. By day, he wanders the vast, empty streets of New York city with his trusty dog, Sam, gathering supplies from abandoned stores and apartments, hunting the deer that now run freely across an overgrown Times Square (that is, when the zoo’s escaped lions don’t bag them first). By night, however, he is a prisoner in his own home. His windows are covered in thick sheets of metal; his doors are latched and barred. At night, you see, the vampires come out to play. Oh, the movie never calls them vampires, but that’s what they are. The plague has reduced humanity to a race of hairless, vein-laced creatures who feed on blood, and exposure to sunlight now burns them to cinders.

Dr. Neville searches frantically for the secret to his own immunity, hoping to formulate a serum that will cure these creatures and return their humanity, but his efforts have met with frustrating results. Now, however, it appears he may be on the brink of a vaccine.
He captures one of the creatures, injects it with the concoction, and records the progress, hoping to restore civilization before his own isolation drives him to insanity.

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Like Tom Hanks (Castaway), Will Smith is certain to get another Oscar nod for his work here, showing us how Man deals with total isolation and the absence of all human contact. He dresses mannequins at a local video store, chatting with them as if they are old friends, even trying to work up the courage to say hello to a beautiful (plastic) woman. And of course, there is his dog, Sam. Like Friday to Neville’s Robinson Caruso, the animal never says a word, and yet it provides an anchor that keeps the scientist moored to his sanity. While Smith’s banter can be humorous at times, there is always a great sadness in his eyes, and it says more about his loss than any words could express.

Director Francis Lawrence and writer Akiva Goldsman should be applauded for the storytelling they are able to accomplish without dialogue. News clippings plastered around an apartment tell the story of the end of the world, signs hung beside the road say, “God still loves us,” shots of the fallen bridges and vacant urban landscape call to mind the horrors of 9/11, and in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent cinema, the image of an empty crib screams volumes.

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While the first two-thirds of this film are masterfully rendered, the final act takes much of the wind from its sails.

Neville discovers another survivor and her son (Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan). In his apartment, he tries to get used to being around living people again, then must fight to save them from the creatures. While this section provides the explosions and gunfire the trailers like to display, it does not have the emotional firepower the film possessed when Neville was on his own.

Which brings us to the weakest portion of the film: the ending, which calls to mind the works of much-maligned director M. Night Shyamalan.

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The three film adaptations share their source material’s use flashbacks to tell the story of Neville’s family. Today, this is a common technique, used in everything from 1984’s The Terminator to TV’s Angel. Here, we are shown a single memory in pieces: the evacuation of New York. Each piece moves us further along until, near the end of the movie, we understand what really happened. Then, in the film’s final moments, Neville has a kind of religious epiphany that ties what is happening now to those flashbacks. It reminds the viewer of the climax to Shyamalan’s Signs, and the final scene even had this reviewer thinking of Shyamalan’s The Village. Had the filmmakers shown some of their earlier ingenuity to suggest what was coming throughout the film, this ending might have come off brilliantly. As it is, it seems anti-climactic, almost as if the creative team had given us everything they had too soon and were spent by the final frames.

Still, the opening and middle of I Am Legend are so very good, and Smith’s performance is so strong, it would be a crime not to join the last man on earth in a theater near you.

4 out of 5 stars.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

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Starring: Lilyan Chauvin, Robert Brian Wilson, Linnea Quigley, Danny Wagner, and Will Hare

Written by: Paul Caimi (story)
Michael Hickey

Directed by: Charles E. Sellier Jr.

“You’ve made it through Halloween, now try and survive Christmas!”

So reads the tagline for Silent Night, Deadly Night. The movie caused an angry uproar upon its release in December of 1984, when parents groups, who thought the film depicted jolly old St. Nick as a homicidal maniac, picketed theaters. These groups obviously never saw the film, but their crusade was a success. Cinemas across the country pulled the flick from their screens within a week. In the summer of 1985, the film appeared on VHS, but by that point, it had been heavily edited. And then it was gone, stuck in moratorium; an all-but-forgotten bit of Slasher films past.

Until now.

Thanks to the merry elves at Anchor Bay and Starz Home Entertainment, we can celebrate this holiday season with the release of a new uncut and uncensored edition of arguably the best Christmas-themed horror movie ever made.

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The film opens with young Billy Chapman (Danny Wagner) on a road trip with his parents to visit Grandpa (Will Hare) in the local insane asylum. Grandpa appears to be catatonic, totally unaware of the world around him. When the doctors take Mom and Dad aside to discuss a plan of care, Grandpa suddenly snaps out of his trance and talks to Billy.

“You scared, ain’t ya? You should be! Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!”

Grandpa goes on to tell little Billy that Santa only brings presents to children who haven’t had a single naughty moment all year long. The rest of the boys and girls out there…he punishes.

“You see Santa Claus tonight you better run boy, you better run for ya life!”

(Author’s side note: If you happen to be surfing the net some night, look up “Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino do Silent Night, Deadly Night,” and you will see the directors act out this classic scene before a live audience!)

On the way home, Billy’s parents stop to help a stranded motorist dressed in a Santa suit. Unfortunately, this is a crook who just knocked over a gas station and shot the clerk. The crook kills Billy’s father, then rapes and murders Billy’s mother right before the boy’s tender young eyes.

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Billy is sent to an orphanage, where a caring nun wants to get the boy psychiatric help, but the sadistic Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) will have none of it. When the boy has nightmares about the night his parents were killed, she ties him to the bed to keep him in his room, and when Billy catches two teenagers having sex, he watches as the Mother Superior beats them with a belt.

“What they were doing was naughty,” she tells him. “They thought they could do it without being caught. But when we do something naughty, we are always caught. Then, we are punished. Punishment is absolute. Punishment is good.”

Now 18, Billy is given a job at the local toy store. There, he dreams about one of the cashiers and is plagued by guilty nightmares where Santa kills him as punishment for his secret desires. But all is well and good until Christmas rolls around again. As fate would have it, the man playing Santa is out sick on Christmas Eve, and Billy’s boss drafts him to fill the boots. This leads to a complete mental breakdown where Billy thinks he is Santa, and he spends the night doing what Santa does: punishing people with box cutters, arrows, axes, and in one famous scene, impaling a naked young woman (scream queen Linnea Quigley) on reindeer antlers.

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This is quintessential grindhouse cinema. Anchor Bay has used all the footage it could find to reconstruct the print, and some of it was in better shape than others. This leads to bright, colorful shots being intercut with dark, grainy frames, but it gives us, for the first time, the entire film as it was originally envisioned. Like the picture, the acting runs the spectrum from horrible (any of the bit players and victims) to downright brilliant (Chauvin and Hare), and the direction is all over the map. Many scenes are filmed with a camera mounted on a tripod, zooming in from a great distance on points of interest, other shots show more of a visual flair, with cameras peeking through keyholes and rushing down stairs. And the screenplay by Michael Hickey, for all of its flaws (and there are many), succeeds in showing how a sweet little boy’s psyche could be shattered enough to turn him into a cold-blooded killer. It’s the same tale Rob Zombie tried to tell with his re-imagined Halloween. The difference is that Silent Night, Deadly Night works.

If you are feeling nostalgic this holiday, or perhaps more than a little bit naughty, this is the film for you!

4 out of 5 stars.

Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

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Directors: Colin Strause and Greg Strause
Writer: Shane Salerno
Starring: Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, Johnny Lewis, Tom Woodruff Jr., and Ian Whyte

“So…what do you want for Christmas?”

It’s a commonly asked question this time of year. You get it from your family, your friends, maybe even that co-worker who pulled your name in the office Secret Santa drawing. Well, if you love the ALIEN and PREDATOR franchises, and the countless graphic novels and video games that have had the two fanged nasties battling it out for over a decade, you might be hoping for a big-screen match-up that finally meets all your fan-boy/girl expectations. Lord knows, 2005’s ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (or AVP as the marketing geniuses at Fox wanted you to call it) wasn’t it. That movie was a watered down, PG-13 rated action flick for 12-15 year-olds who had never seen either series, and though they may have thought it was cool, it left true aficionados waving their fists and gnashing their teeth at what might have been. Now, on Christmas day 2007, Fox brings those disgruntled fans a present: ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: Requiem, or AVP:R. (Gotta love those marketing guys!)

This new round is an R-Rated, all-out melee designed to thrill everyone who was disappointed in the studios previous offering, and while the film is far from a perfect, it’s a very big step in the right direction.

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The action picks up the moment the first movie ends. As a Predator spacecraft leaves orbit, a new kind of alien erupts from the chest of a dead hunter. It is a hybrid, possessing traits of both creatures, and it immediately starts to attack Predators and damage their ship. Soon, the craft falls back through the atmosphere and smashes into wooded mountains outside a sleepy Colorado town. Their stasis tubes damaged in the crash, crab-like facehuggers quickly crawl from the wreckage and begin the process of creating a hive right here on earth. But this infestation will not go unchallenged. The ship’s distress signal reaches a far-off Predator outpost, and a special operative (an extraterrestrial Green Beret, if you will) is immediately dispatched to destroy these multiplying aliens and anyone that gets in the way.

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AVP:R has a lot going for it. The directors, Colin Strause and Greg Strause, clearly love these extraterrestrials, and they go to great lengths to pay homage to their previous incarnations. They brought back Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc., the creature effects gurus who have worked on every film in both series. This time around, the ALIENS appear just as they did in James Cameron’s classic 1986 film. They crawl across the walls and ceilings as they did in ALIEN 3, and swim like the beasts of ALIEN RESSURECTION. While thePREDATOR goes back the look of the 1987 original, using an inventive mix of old and new weapons to battle the growing alien horde. The editing is fast-paced, but the brothers thankfully resist the urge to use hand-held shaky-cams prevalent in so many action films of recent years. (Yes, I’m looking at you Michael Bay!) Die-hard fans will even thrill to the musical score by Brian Tyler, which features cues from ALIEN and PREDATOR films of the past.

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As the title combatants, Tom Woodruff Jr. and Ian Whyte give stellar performances while encased in latex and servo motors. These creatures do not have a single line of dialogue, yet their body language speaks volumes. Whenever there is drooling monster on the screen, the film is engrossing and thrilling to behold. When the humans take center stage, however, the movie suffers. Shane Salerno’s screenplay subjects us to a parade of movie stereotypes. There is the brother (Steven Pasquale), just out of prison and looking to do right; the young kid (Johnny Lewis) in love with the popular girl, bullied by a group of sadistic jocks; and there’s an army officer (Reiko Aylesworth) home from war that exists only because the filmmakers needed somebody who could fly a helicopter during the climax. While the actors who show their faces do a workman-like job with the stock roles they are assigned, they can do nothing to elevate the laughable dialogue they are forced to deliver. At one point, a girl who just watched her father get eaten is seen crying. “Is she gonna be okay?” someone asks. The girl’s mother replies, “She’s had a bad night.” And the audience shook its collective head and giggled when it should have wept. If Mr. Salerno had written a basically silent film, where Predators and ALIENS do battle while humans to nothing more than scream and run away, this might have been a four or five star film.

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The original PREDATOR and James Cameron’s ALIENS are classics of modern cinema. AVP:R is not. But then, it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s meant to be a fun, gory rollercoaster, and that’s exactly what it is. Blood, cool gadgets and weapons, and inventive set pieces all rush by at warp speed, and when it came to a stop, I wanted to get right back in line. Merry Christmas, Brothers Strause! Merry Christmas, Amalgamated Dynamics! Merry Christmas, Fox, you old studio! Sorry I didn’t get you anything. Oh, wait…I bought a ticket.

You should too.

3.5 out of 5 stars.