Archive for January 2010

Legion

January 23, 2010

A lot of movies these days pay tribute to cheesy ‘80s exploitation flicks. Legion actually is one, though it was shot in 2008 and has computer effects (which aren’t much more convincing than what filmmakers had to work with in the ‘80s). It’s essentially John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 meets The Prophecy, with a side order of Maximum Overdrive (most of the film unfolds in and around a greasy spoon in the middle of the desert). Its creaky script (which stops dead every so often so that a pair of characters can emote at each other) puts a pretty low ceiling on how much better the movie could’ve been, but it could’ve been worse. It’s highly forgettable but reasonably Netflixable.

Paul Bettany, in the first of his two films with first-time director Scott Stewart this year (next up: Priest, in August), plays an angel named Michael who rebels against God’s plan to wipe us all out. Michael de-wings himself, arms himself to the teeth, and heads off in search of Charlie the diner waitress (Adrianne Palicki), whose unborn child is the future of mankind. Michael holes up in the diner with a ragtag assemblage who just happen to be there, including the joint’s owner (Dennis Quaid), his son (Lucas Black), the cook (Charles S. Dutton), a well-to-do family waiting for their Beemer to be fixed (Kate Walsh, Jon Tenney and Willa Holland), and an estranged dad (Tyrese Gibson) who, fortunately, is packing heat.

From there, it’s a stand-off against creepy possessed people, who can walk on ceilings and sport sharklike teeth. I knew I was going to kinda like this movie when Dennis Quaid, having already endured an attack by a sharp-fanged old lady, pointed a shotgun at Paul Bettany and hollered “Lemme see your teeth! TEETH!” and Bettany sort of sighed and displayed his perfectly normal angelic choppers. Legion is full of borderline stupid (sometimes not so borderline) moments like that. The scene that finally totally won me over: a heartfelt scene between Michael and Quaid’s unfortunately named son, who’s having a crisis of doubt; Michael lists all the good things the goofily monikered kid has done, and finishes with a somber “You, Jeep. You’re the reason I have faith.” Paul Bettany already has an Oscar from me for saying that line without falling down laughing.

The rest of us are free to yuk it up. I didn’t feel that my enjoyment of Legion was ironic or mean, or on a Mystery Science Theater 3000 level. The movie takes its absurdity very very seriously, but somehow it retains the vibe of the sort of flick you used to encounter in the video store in a lurid, battered clamshell case. I loved watching Paul Bettany stomp around grimly with a variety of serious weaponry; I knew melodrama in 2010 wouldn’t get much finer than a tearful Kate Walsh snarling at her bratty teen daughter, “It’s all your fault we’re here! I was happy in my home”; I cackled when the film began and ended with the same idiotically portentous line of narration. Most of all, I cherished the idea that, if God were to get sick of us all and decide to pull the plug, he’d do it with an army of possessed people easily put down with bullets and stymied by a few boarded-up diner windows. And I’m comforted that they still do make movies like they did back in the ‘80s.

The Book of Eli

January 17, 2010

There’s a wonderful gift tucked away near the end of The Book of Eli — a scene between Gary Oldman, who played the title role in 1992’s Dracula, and Tom Waits, who played his Renfield. As I recall, the two strange gentlemen never actually got to act together in Dracula, so their screen time together here eighteen years later is overdue good news for fans of that film. I sat there wondering if, while sitting on the set of Eli, they’d shared war stories from their separate time on Dracula. What I wasn’t wondering was whether Waits’ character, a Mr. Fix-It, would succeed in opening a locked and valuable item for Oldman’s character, the scummy leader of a post-apocalyptic town. The actors’ past was more compelling to me than their present that I was watching.

On a technical level, The Book of Eli is smooth and assured. It would almost have to be, with Allen and Albert Hughes (directing their first feature since 2001’s From Hell) behind the camera, aided by veteran cinematographer Don Burgess, who practically achieves a black-and-white film in color, and an oddball but evocative score by Atticus Ross. High marks to all. It’s the script, a first by Gary Whitta, that paints by the numbers and seems fed by too many post-bomb fantasies as well as the Sergio Leone movies, Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi, and many others. Here we are again, after the big one drops, in the same bleached wasteland with the same scruffy, feral survivors.

At least Denzel Washington’s iconic hero Eli still has his iPod (which still works, even though it needs occasional recharging — what a product placement for Apple). Eli wanders the wasteland, heading west, carrying his precious book. Oldman’s character, Carnegie, wants the book; he feels it contains words that will give him greater control over people. (No, it’s not How to Win Friends and Influence People.) A girl from Carnegie’s town, the suspiciously unscruffy Solara (Mila Kunis), wants to tag along with Eli on the road. At one point they happen across a bizarre old couple (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) whose idea of a turntable oldie is “Ring My Bell,” which tells you how far in the future we are. (If it had been something by Lady Gaga, the whole movie might’ve been redeemed.)

Since this isn’t a muy serioso post-apocalyptic piece like The Road, Eli gets in a lot of fights. He swings a mean sword, he’s a pretty crack shot, and he seems able to shrug off bullets because he’s “protected.” By whom? Oh, the author of the book he’s carrying. In fits and starts, The Book of Eli works as a dead-cool addition to the Lone Man Walks the Earth subgenre, though it cuts away too much to Oldman, overacting to alleviate his boredom, ranting to his doofus henchmen that he wants the book. We’re told that all copies were destroyed, because the book started the war that ended in ashes. (No, it wasn’t Twilight, with the battle between Team Edward and Team Jacob going nuclear.) My question: If the iPod is still around after the fire, why not audiobooks? The newer iPods even have book apps. If it had turned out that the book of Eli was actually tucked away on his iPod between Johnny Cash songs, it would’ve been a great finger in the eye to PC devotees; it would mean that divine power is on Steve Jobs’ side. But again, this is what I’m thinking about instead of the worn premise. It sure is a slick piece of iconography, though; let’s hope the Hughes brothers don’t stay away so long next time, or, if they do, let’s hope they spend some of that time looking for a better script.

Retro

January 13, 2010

Newly uploaded reviews of older films: Undead (2003) and Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960).

The latter was the inaugural film in the new Movie Night series I’m screening at the local library. Next up is Monterey Pop, which I haven’t yet reviewed. Then there’s The Last Waltz (also not yet reviewed), Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock, and Urgh! A Music War.

Daybreakers

January 10, 2010

Here’s an example of an interesting premise without much of a movie to put it in. Daybreakers posits a world, nine years in our future, in which vampires have become the dominant life form. They go about their lives, guarding against the sun and drinking their coffee with a dash of human blood. Problem is, the vamps are running out of humans, so their scientists — including vamp hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) — are working on a substitute for blood. Edward is one of the nicer vampires; he was turned into one against his will, so he still has some compassion for humans, which will get him in trouble.

As I said: cool premise, with a touch of allegory. But Daybreakers is a dreary-looking and sluggish narrative that doesn’t go anywhere special. This is the overdue second feature by the twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, whose 2003 debut was the antic but derivative Undead. The new film is equally derivative but nowhere near as lively; the look is consistently blue and gloomy, and only Willem Dafoe as a rebel human who calls himself Elvis supplies any levity whatsoever. The existence that the vampires want so desperately to maintain seems awfully drab.

Daybreakers has been praised for the details of its world-building, but in truth the Spierigs don’t go much beyond a few broad strokes. Which wouldn’t be as much of a problem if any of the human characters had a little humanity (other than Dafoe) and any of the vampires were even a little exotic. As it is, the vampires are essentially just people who need to drink blood and have fangs and amber-colored eyes. There’s another interesting idea — a subculture of homeless vampires who can’t get blood regularly and turn into horrific bat-like creatures called “subsiders.” But not a whole lot is done with them, either. They’re brought in at intervals, as if to remind us this is a horror movie.

Except it isn’t. It’s more of a science-fiction dystopia borrowing heavily from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, with a side order of Gattaca. We also get the expected action-movie beats; at least twice, a villain gets the drop on a hero, only to be dispatched by an offscreen savior who has arrived just in time. The Spierigs clearly put more thought into the premise than into the script, which proposes a laughable cure for vampirism and includes a corporate character (Sam Neill, who manages to be suave when he isn’t spattered with blood) who makes no sense at all.

The best vampire movie in recent years remains 2008’s Let the Right One In, which didn’t bother much with the whys and wherefores of vampirism — in short, the nerdy stuff — and focused on the relationship between the human and the inhuman. The Twilight movies, goofball as they are, work the same side of the street. Daybreakers doesn’t deal with relationship stuff at all, other than a barely sketched-in conflict between Edward and his soldier brother. I’m not saying a vampire movie has to be heavy on the drama, but Daybreakers offers virtually nothing in its place. As with Undead, it seems to have been made so that the Spierigs could include a scene of a bad-ass hero slaying monsters with his cool modified gun (in this case, a crossbow/shotgun). Maybe the Spierigs should go into weapons design. It seems to be what’s closest to their hearts.


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