Archive for January 2005

Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)

January 19, 2005

Back there in 1976, two years before unleashing Halloween on an unsuspecting world, John Carpenter established his bad-ass street cred with the low-budget Assault on Precinct 13. A tip of the hat to Rio Bravo, the movie worked minimalist wonders with its stark, no-nonsense premise of cops and criminals banding together to hold off a gang siege. The new remake is okay for what it is, but it’s the work of people trying a little too consciously to be Carpenter-esque — most of the film is painted in varying tones of gun-metal blue, for instance, just like an early Carpenter flick. Still, it’s not a work of sacrilege, either, especially considering that Carpenter’s original — reportedly not among his favorites (like many directors looking back on early work, he can only see the rookie stumbles) — was itself a loose remake of Howard Hawks’ 1959 Western, and Carpenter himself sort of remade it as the atrocious Ghosts of Mars.

Ethan Hawke, as cadaverous as ever (get the man a sandwich), leads the new cast as tormented Detroit desk cop Jake Roenick, once a hotshot undercover narc before a bust went bad. He’s the one presiding over the soon-to-be-closed Precinct 13 on New Year’s Eve, during a hellacious snowstorm that forces a bus full of convicts to dump its surly cargo into 13’s cells. Along with seasoned Irish cop Jasper (Brian Dennehy, a welcome sight) and hot-to-trot secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo), Jake grudgingly takes in the convicts, including notorious gangster Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne, who must’ve found the weight Hawke lost), who’s the target of corrupt cops (led by a clenched Gabriel Byrne) who want to whack him before he testifies and implicates them.

James DeMonaco’s script is amusingly blunt about its character set-up, but also forgetful; at one point a convict (Ja Rule) actually introduces himself as a Libra, then pegs someone else as an Aries, but then never waxes astrological again. The usefulness of one character, Jake’s shrink Alex Sabian (who implausibly gets stranded at the precinct), is limited to the fact that she’s played by Maria Bello, who along with Drea de Matteo gets some of the typical John Carpenter femaleness (smart, scared but tough) onto the screen. Indeed, a lot of the characters here seem to be written (and acted) in homage to Carpenter, which may explain why, despite the change in premise and location, this Assault never quite feels like its own film. (Carpenter’s tribute to Rio Bravo, on the other hand, declared its own personality loud and clear.) It’s decent imitation J.C., I suppose — an homage twice removed.

Carpenter, I think, would have been more interested in the convicts than in Jake’s crisis of confidence. John Leguizamo, acting like Steve Buscemi channeling the Hitchhiker from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, twitches and rants as the junkie prisoner Beck, and Aisha Hinds has a potentially intriguing role as Anna, a sullen young woman who insists she was wrongly arrested (we never find out if she was or not). Laurence Fishburne, doing a King of New York-meets-Morpheus turn, is so hipster-stoic-cool he’s practically immobile; can this be the same actor who was so memorably unhinged in What’s Love Got to do With It as the manic-sadistic Ike Turner? The movie seems more interested in Jake’s Demerol addiction, or the shrink’s OCD (boy, obsessive-compulsives are really hot these days — see The Aviator, Monk, and Elektra).

I don’t want to spoil the original Assault‘s most famous moment for those of you who haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say that it involved a little girl who wanted vanilla twist. It was Carpenter’s signal to the audience that all bets were off, that there was no shock he would spare if realism called for it. There’s no vanilla-twist girl in Assault ’05, which probably says more about the times than about director Jean-François Richet’s willingness to pull out the stops. Richet, making his English-language debut here, unveiled a film in 1997 called Ma 6-T va crack-er, which one Internet Movie Database reviewer described as “a film showing and encouraging violence and revolt.” That sounds like a film close to Carpenter’s cynical heart, but all Assault encourages is the occasional buzz of adrenaline as most of its tiny cast is decimated. It’s neither graceful nor disgraceful; it just functions and then is over.


January 14, 2005

Mourning may become Elektra, the angry and traumatized assassin from 2002’s Daredevil who’s now getting her own movie, but it doesn’t really become Jennifer Garner. As she showed in the charming 13 Going on 30, Garner is a gifted, unself-conscious comedienne, effortlessly likable and endearingly klutzy — notes she doesn’t get to play that often on her show Alias, and never at all in Elektra. Unquestionably, Garner has the physicality and focus to play Elektra Natchios, who kills seasoned ninjas as if swatting flies. But it’s kind of like watching Bruce Willis when he shuts down his personality for one of those brooding action things he does for the money every couple of years: You know he has the range, but you wouldn’t know it from those movies. Garner is simply too friendly a presence to look comfortable as an ice-hearted hired killer.

That said, Elektra — a better movie than the majority of critics would have you believe — makes Garner’s repressed humanity work for the film. At the start, Elektra is polishing off bad men for big money (the movie, like all movies about sympathetic assassins, subscribes to Martin Blank’s dictum “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there”). She’s not happy about it, or about anything else: she seems to spend her blood money on fresh brushes to scrub her floor. The movie devotes a surprising amount of time to Elektra’s psyche, including a domineering dad who made her do swimming exercises, a murdered mom, and a bad case of OCD that compels her to count her steps and line up her fruits and vegetables just so. Between Elektra, Howard Hughes in The Aviator, and Tony Shalhoub on TV’s Monk, obsessive-compulsives sure are getting an attractive face forward lately.

In any event, a movie like this demands that Elektra have a change of heart, and when she meets a family next door — widower dad Goran Visnjic and his spunky daughter Kirsten Prout — we may guess correctly that they are her next assignment, and that she, seeing herself in the girl, will balk at killing them and incur the wrath of whoever wants them dead. Soon enough, Elektra is protecting dad and daughter from The Hand, a group of martial-arts supervillains with neato-keen powers: Tattoo (Chris Ackerman), for instance, sends animals out from his skin art to spy for him, and Typhoid (the half-Norwegian half-Malaysian model Natassia Malthe, an exotic mix if ever there was one) can kill things just by gesturing in their general direction.

Elektra is the first of two comic-book creations this year to be fitted for the screen from the work of Frank Miller; the upcoming Sin City is the other. Miller created Elektra as an old flame and sometime enemy of the blind superhero Daredevil, and she grew from there into Miller’s satire of bad-ass ninja babes in Elektra: Assassin (which, if adapted by Oliver Stone in his splintered Natural Born Killers/JFK mode as he was reportedly considering about ten years ago, would’ve been one hell of a ride). What’s missing in this Elektra is a certain sense of play and imagination; if you’re going to devise such outrageous villains for Elektra to battle, why can’t she do away with them by more colorful methods than throwing a sai at them or dropping a tree on them?

My favorite character from Miller’s older Elektra stories was always Stick, the blind, crotchety guru who trained her and then cast her out because she needed an anger-management course or two. Terence Stamp embodies Stick as well as anyone I can imagine, and if anyone deserves a spin-off from this spin-off it’s Stamp, who bizarrely seems to have aged from the androgynous Billy Budd in his film debut 33 years ago into someone who’s perfectly credible as a gnashing Cockney killer in The Limey and, here, a guy who seems equally at ease knocking pool balls around and pinning the muscular Jennifer Garner to the same pool table. It’s Stick who brings the once-dead Elektra back to life (since she died in Daredevil), and it’s Stamp who brings Elektra to life when it flags. As for Garner, once Elektra thaws out a bit and is allowed to show emotion towards the girl, Garner is on firmer ground and can safely drop her dead-affect assassin voice and act. But I’d still like to see her in as many romantic comedies as she has the stomach for.

White Noise

January 5, 2005

In Poltergeist, mischievous spirits talked to Heather O’Rourke from the staticky ether of a TV screen; then they sucked her into the TV. White Noise reiterates that theme at length, only without sucking anyone into electrical appliances; its sucking is mostly limited to the script. The movie presents its subject — Electronic Voice Phenomena, wherein people convince themselves they’re hearing the dead speaking through tape recordings or televisions — as if it were a bold, untapped mine of horror, though researchers have written reams of text about it, and William Peter Blatty devoted a section of his novel Legion to it. Perhaps the script had been rattling its chains in Universal’s attic for years before someone noticed that ghost movies are on a hot streak.

It’s good to see Michael Keaton on the big screen again (he’s been plying his trade in cable films or direct-to-video items), though I wish his comeback allowed him a shred of the humor that first endeared him to us. White Noise is the sort of time-waster he could, and perhaps did, enact in his sleep. Keaton plays a recently bereaved husband whose wife, a best-selling author, took off one night to hang out with a friend and never came home. For about five minutes, the movie does tap into that moment we’ve all had when a loved one is very late and getting later, the frustration and mounting fear. Before his wife’s body is even discovered, though, Keaton is visited by a mysterious guy (Ian McNeice) who claims to be getting messages from her.

Is the movie interested in exploring the grief and hopeful mania of a man trying to capture bits of his wife’s presence through dimly-heard voices in a sea of static? Not really. Keaton holes up in his gleaming white apartment with a bunch of TVs and cutting-edge recording software, and if anyone at his work or in his family (such as his first wife or his young son) suspects he’s gone off the deep end, we don’t hear about it. The movie is more concerned with the time-honored Dangers of Meddling with the Supernatural, spelled out for us by a blind psychic who senses what Keaton’s up to and flips out.

Is the movie scary? Only if this is your first scary movie. There are the expected seat-jumpers — the Looming Figure Passing Quickly in Front of the Camera, Unnoticed by the Hero (every director who uses this should send a check to John Carpenter); the Sudden Loud Sound, which catches the audience off-guard because everyone’s kind of leaning forward listening closely to the static; the Freaky Shadowy Things, which here seem to be three guys on the Other Side who enjoy messing with people. A lot of the suspense boils down to Michael Keaton squinting at TV static until some horrid face emerges — it’s like those joke websites that trick you into getting up close to the monitor until a shrieking face comes up. None of this is truly creepy, the way it was in Blatty’s Legion, where we read about spirits saying cryptic, bothersome things like “Here one waits” or “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Eventually the plot collapses into contrivance — everyone who’s dabbled in EVP is connected, you see, each person helping to open the door protecting us from Those Who Would Cause Mayhem. Events force Keaton to become a proactive seer, rushing to the scene of some mishap or crime, like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable. The film isn’t badly put together; the director, Geoffrey Sax, has done some decent things for British television, such as Tipping the Velvet and a modern-dress Othello, both in 2002. Whether it was otherworldly spirits on a monitor or just the need for a fast paycheck that compelled him to take on a routine ghost thriller is a mystery far more intriguing than anything in the movie.