Archive for February 2005


February 25, 2005

There’s nothing much a horror fan can do with the dead-on-belated-arrival Cursed other than attend the wake, pay respects, pat Wes Craven on the arm, and say “Sorry for your troubles.” Craven, who hasn’t had a film in theaters in five years (the lame Scream 3 in early 2000 was the last to bear his signature), chose for his comeback an overly touchy-feely script by Kevin Williamson, who wrote his and Craven’s biggest hit, the original Scream. The result has become semi-legendary among horror buffs for its tortured backstory; shelved for over a year, about half of it was reshot, then watered down to a PG-13 for mass teen consumption. It really never deserved to be more than a quickie TV-movie on the WB, where it would’ve aired around Halloween and then faded into oblivion.

Christina Ricci, attempting her own comeback (2001’s Prozac Nation, the drama that was supposed to do it for her, sat unreleased for years), takes a deep breath and dives into the cheese. She’s playing Ellie, an assistant on the Craig Kilborn show, an indignity perhaps even greater than turning into a werewolf. But the latter appears to be in her future, after she and her teenage brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg) are scratched by a lycanthrope one night. Soon, they share a craving for raw meat, an aversion to silver, and a willingness to deliver bad Kevin Williamson dialogue. Who knows why this werewolf story is set in Hollywood, on the margins of a late-night show that was cancelled a year before this movie came out? Who can explain the presence of Scott Baio, who gamely appears as himself and comes on to Ellie when she starts throwing off full-moon pheromones?

Cursed may once have been a nastier affair, even verging on the incestuous (why else bother to have a brother and sister share a blood curse?). What we get, though, is any number of subplots that barely make sense, such as the one in which a homophobic jock taunts Jimmy and then, allegedly shockingly, turns out to be gay himself (Williamson’s seen American Beauty one too many times, I suspect). Ellie has a boyfriend, a bearded designer (Joshua Jackson) putting together a horror-movie-themed restaurant/club, just so that we can get many shots of people framed next to a Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man statue. The wit of 1980’s The Howling (which featured a shot of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl) and 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (prankishly edited to the rhythm of several moon-related tunes) is far beyond Williamson’s reach.

Speaking of American Werewolf, Rick Baker — who won an Oscar for his groundbreaking transformation effects on that film — is mentioned here in the credits as “special make-up artist,” which, on the evidence of the movie, must mean “applying eyeliner to Christina Ricci.” Looking at the badly executed werewolves in Cursed, which move as unconvincingly as any computer-generated werewolf ever has, I refuse to believe that Baker had any more to do with these critters than minor consultation by phone: “Yes, they are supposed to have fur and fangs. Send the check to…” In theory, a Wes Craven werewolf movie with Rick Baker on board should have been dark magic, but Craven long ago seemingly resigned himself to making diversions for high-school kids.

Most of whom, I would think, will skip this (Cursed earned a non-whopping $9.5 million its opening weekend) and wear out their copy of 2000’s Ginger Snaps, a sharp and deadly werewolf movie that happens to center on teenage girls, but offers something to any demographic: intelligence, wit, great sarcastic dialogue, and genuine fright. After that film, as well as other cult favorites like Brotherhood of the Wolf and Dog Soldiers, a werewolf story needs to bring more to the table than a tired sexual metaphor (the culprits are a womanizing jerk and his jilted ex-lover). If the movie is saying that life in Hollywood is red in tooth and claw — that people move in packs, feed remorselessly on the weak, and turn into beasts after dark — we’ve got any random E! True Hollywood Story to tell us that. If Craven and Williamson don’t like it in Hollywood, they should get out; Williamson may be lost to the mainstream, but Craven has made at least three outlaw classics outside the system (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street), and he still could, if he learns from this experience, hires a group of grubby unknowns, and sets out to scare us again.


February 18, 2005

For those familiar with the Vertigo Hellblazer comics, on which Constantine is based, Keanu Reeves playing John Constantine is a little like William Hurt playing Denis Leary. In the comics, Constantine is a profane, chain-smoking, irreverent, and deeply British figure, openly contemptuous of anyone he considers a “wanker,” whether a junkie or a demigod. Reeves gets Constantine’s surface habits but misses the punk-rock edge that laughs in the face of armageddon. For all that, though, this Constantine is acceptable for what it is: a kitchen-sink metaphysical adventure, in which the surly hero slouches unwillingly from one horrific encounter to the next while wishing everyone would just leave him alone to sit and smoke in his dusty Los Angeles apartment.

Constantine, who casts out demons in order to secure himself a good seat in Heaven (he’s destined for Hell, for reasons familiar to Catholic readers), gets pulled into a mystery involving a psychic who went sidewalk-diving. The psychic’s twin sister Angela (Rachel Weisz), a cop, is convinced that it wasn’t suicide. Angela sees her sister on a security camera whispering the name “Constantine” right before she jumps to her death; I’d say Constantine owes the dead sister a cut of his salary for the great reference. In any event, Constantine agrees to figure out what drove the sister to her death and perhaps rescue her soul from Hell.

Constantine is shaped as a supernatural noir, much like the TV series Angel, also set in L.A. (where demons apparently prosper). The fun of the comics was partly in the colorful rogue’s gallery of characters Constantine ran across, and the movie gives us Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), a quasi-voodoo man who holes up in a nightclub for psychics only; Beeman (Max Baker), who lives in the back of a bowling alley and can get you any magical gadget; Father Hennessy (jiggly-eyed Pruitt Taylor Vince), an alcoholic priest who calls Constantine in when his exorcism attempts fail; the androgynous Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), an angel not quite of the Roma Downey variety; and Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale, frontman of the rock group Bush), a suave half-breed demon. Constantine is also driven around by Chas (Shia LaBeouf), a kid who wants to be Constantine if and when he grows up.

The movie is certainly more entertaining than last fall’s tedious Exorcist: The Beginning; if you’re going to make a theological action-adventure, Constantine is much more the way to go. It comes complete with mumbo-jumbo about the birth of the son of Satan, and joining his blood with the blood of Christ to achieve an apocalyptic end; it goes for all the marbles, like any season finale of Buffy or Angel, and the outcome is similarly never in doubt. (You don’t watch a hero for two hours or 22 episodes just to see evil triumph at the end — not in a $100 million Hollywood film, anyway.) While decidedly no one’s idea of the John Constantine of the comics (who was originally modelled on Sting), Reeves acquits himself well enough; neither the worst nor the best actor imaginable for the role, he inhabits this pissy character and his bleak surroundings with something like grace. His whoa-dude voice may still wreak havoc with his line readings, but his body has its own eloquence, able to move from cynical slouch to action-hero stance in a heartbeat.

Handsomely shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, and directed with a strong taste for oblique angles by first-timer Francis Lawrence (another music-video vet), Constantine is one of the better-looking films of the season, despite some dim lighting in a scene involving dozens of buffalo dropping dead (the moment would pack more of a spooky punch if you could see it better). It also occupies a useful middle ground between campiness and taking itself too seriously; it opts for neither of those, approaching its supernatural highlights with a matter-of-fact attitude. As for the movie’s apparent fixation on water as a portal to Hell (various characters submerge themselves in bathtubs or dunk their feet in the liquid for a peek at the forbidden, and poor Rachel Weisz seems to spend half the movie drenched), your guess is as good as mine; Constantine has been cross-marketed everywhere from Comedy Central to a PlayStation game, but somehow Poland Spring missed out on the merchandising action.

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

February 11, 2005

Jackie Chan is getting old, and wasting his time in too many projects unworthy of him (Around the World in 80 Days, anyone?). Jet Li, too, must be aware of the ticking of the clock: he turns 42 this year, and seems to be branching out into more dramatic fare. The time has come for a new heir apparent of martial-arts cinema, and Tony Jaa may be that man. Born Panom Yeerum in 1976, Jaa is a young master of the Thai brand of kickboxing, Muay Thai; his influences are Chan and Bruce Lee, and he displays Lee’s brutal yet almost spiritual command of hand-to-hand combat and the younger Chan’s absolute fearlessness.

Jaa’s calling card is Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, which knocked around a couple of years and then opened in America in limited release. You may have seen the ads in which Jaa executes an impossible jump through a loop of barbed wire. Well, that’s really him jumping, and that’s really barbed wire, and that’s about as close as he ever gets to a wire in the movie. Unlike the floating, hopping masters in Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jaa defies gravity without wire work or computers. He tests the limits of his body so recklessly — although each stunt has probably been meticulously plotted out — that I have my doubts as to how much longer he’ll be alive. Catch him in action while you can.

The plot of Ong-Bak could have served an early Jackie Chan film. The movie is not named after Jaa’s character, whose actual name is Ting. Ong-Bak is a Buddha statue vital to the well-being of Ting’s village of Nong Pra-du. Some thugs steal the statue’s head. Ting must find it and bring it back. Aiding him is a fellow villager, Hum Lae (Perttary Wongkamlao), who has fled to Bangkok and renamed himself “George.” Hum Lae runs scams along with a feisty young woman, Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol, who has the most annoying voice heard in a movie in years). These three take on the Bangkok crime world, headed by a wheelchair-bound villain who speaks through an electrolarynx. And, of course, there are plenty of opportunities for Ting to show his stuff.

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew with a keen sense of when to keep the camera at a distance (the better to capture Jaa’s skillful moves), Ong-Bak takes its time for a while, just teasing us with flashes of Jaa’s virtuosity: a sequence of him just practicing his moves, a comically brief two-hit fight (Ting hits his opponent; his opponent hits the floor and stays there). Then the action really kicks in, and normal humans like you and me might get sore just watching some of it. Several of the hits couldn’t possibly have been faked; when Ting leaps high into the air and brings his elbow down on someone’s skull, you just wince and say “Yep, that poor bastard went to the hospital after the take was done.” Considerably grittier and bloodier than what most non-chop-socky devotees are used to, Ong-Bak likely won’t go over with admirers of the more stately Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but there’s a kind of head-bashing poetry in the movie’s fight choreography (by Thai legend Phanna Rithikrai, who directed the 1986 action film Born to Fight, which inspired a fifteen-year-old Jaa to go into the business).

In the end, Ong-Bak concerns itself with the battle of urban and rural; the humble village is seen as a place of generosity and faith, while Bangkok is Sin City, where innocents are fed into the meat grinder of the drug trade or the skin trade. (Some of the storytelling is fuzzy: There’s an ill-fated woman who gets hooked on the drugs she’s forced to carry, and I didn’t know until I read the official website that she’s supposed to be Muay Lek’s sister.) The outcome of a face-off between the villain and a giant Buddha head leaves no doubt where the film’s loyalties lie. But most of the movie has a more visceral goal — to make you gasp or laugh or cringe at the physical excesses of Tony Jaa, who I sincerely hope makes it past thirty. I’m sure the elder statesmen Jackie Chan and Jet Li are rooting for him, too, while watching their backs.

Boogeyman (2005)

February 4, 2005

Ever gone to one of those “haunted houses” where you end up wandering through pitch-black hallways while things jump out at you loudly? That describes too many horror movies these days, and it especially sums up Boogeyman, a film I wouldn’t recommend to anyone with a heart condition — not because it’s so terrifying, but because the damn thing is like having someone scream “Boo!” in your ear every five minutes. The cumulative effect is less scary than irritating. Epileptics might want to steer clear of Boogeyman, too, as its shocks depend a lot on rapid-fire subliminal flashes of supposedly horrific images. Everyone else merely risks slow death by boredom.

Fifteen years ago, a little boy cowers in his bed from some unseen thing in his closet. His dad reassures him that there’s nothing there, but apparently the Unseen Thing hasn’t gotten the memo, because it makes short work of poor Dad. Cut to the present day: the little boy has grown up to be Tim (Barry Watson, of Sorority Boys and TV’s 7th Heaven), who works at a city magazine when he isn’t leaving all the lights on in his apartment and casting a wary eye at every closet he sees. Tim has king-size issues — he still visits the juvie psych ward that treated him as a kid — and the official story is that his dad just took off and that Tim processed the abandonment by concocting a Boogeyman that took Dad. Of course, if that were the case, we wouldn’t have a horror movie.

We barely have one anyway. The idea of the Boogeyman has powered many a nightmare; Stephen King’s early short story of the same name is a nasty little item that reads like a dry run for Pet Sematary (it also inspired a poorly-made low-budget short film), and there was an amusing, if baffling, 1980 thriller called The Boogeyman, about a haunted mirror. John Carpenter also gave his famous killer Michael Myers the nickname in the original Halloween (“It was the boogeyman,” said Jamie Lee Curtis; “As a matter of fact,” agreed Donald Pleasance, “it was”). So I was up for a decent horror flick tackling this childhood terror. What I got instead was a thinly plotted clothesline of shock effects and a monster, when we finally see it, that looks like a lame ripoff of the three ghastly, silent killers in the superior Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hush.”

Watson, who should probably stick to TV and drag, makes an annoyingly wimpy hero, and an asexual one, too, though Tim has a hot girlfriend (Tory Mussett), and another childhood friend (Emily Deschanel) who has a major crush on him. More bewildering still, Tim apparently came from the loins of Lucy Lawless, who has a pointless cameo here in a flashback as Tim’s mom. Lawless hasn’t been doing much since Xena ended except tiny roles in films produced by her husband Rob Tapert and his partner Sam Raimi, who founded the company Ghost House to put out medium-budget PG-13 spook shows (their first was The Grudge). It’s nice that Raimi, who made his name as the hyperactive director of the Evil Dead films, wants to keep his hand in horror, but it would be nicer if these movies amounted to anything but making a quick buck.

I’m sick of the supernatural, too. Ghosts have become the new slashers — overworked monsters in an exhausted genre. The Sixth Sense started it, and the Ring remake kicked it into overdrive. For a while, it was refreshing to see old-school horror that didn’t rely on dumb teenagers being isolated and butchered, but now we have dumb teenagers (or dumb adults) being isolated and…startled a lot. It will continue, I fear, until another horror movie comes out of nowhere and makes $200 million, and then everyone will rip that off for five years. Anyone want to predict the next trend? I’m sort of hoping for a giant-monster comeback. While we wait, though, tepid seat-jumpers like Boogeyman exist to kill part of a Saturday night.