Like THE LOST, which reached video shelves last month, this French film earned enthusiastic accolades on the festival circuit, where it was seen by ecstatic gore hounds eager to heap praise in direct proportion to the gallons of blood spilled on screen. The difference is that, unlike THE LOST, INSIDE (a.k.a., A L’INTERIEUR) is not nearly as boring, and there is an impressive level of craftsmanship on view. It was clearly made by people who did not resort to gore to hide a lack of talent; rather, this is the direction they consciously chose in pursuit of their own peculiar muse. Although that makes INSIDE much better than THE LOST, it also makes it much more disappointing. This is a film that had tremendous potential to be much more than it is, but that potential is squandered in a welter of self-defeating carnage.
After a brief prologue, in which Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is seen driving her car into an auto accident that kills her husband, the story flashes forward to show the young woman alone in her home on Christmas Eve, expecting to give birth the next morning. A nameless woman (Beatrice Dalle, identified only as “La Femme” – i.e., “The Woman”) breaks into Sarah’s home, apparently intent on stealing the unborn baby from the womb. Sarah’s mother shows up, then her lover; eventually some police stop by, along with a perp they have arrested. They are all just lambs to the slaughter, a way to keep refueling a narrative that has nowhere to go without more victims to kill.
To a small extent, the strategy works: the script revels in setting up expectations and then overturning them. “Surely,” you think, “with all these people, someone will be able to do something to help.” Guess again, sucker! The plot plays out like a nonsensical nightmare in which conventions are ignored, expectations are shattered, and numerous questions deliberately go unanswered: How does La Femme break in? Why is she able to effortlessly overpower the police and everyone else who intervenes?
The film offers some suggestive hints, leading you to guess that we are seeing some kind of masochistic guilt-ridden fantasy. Is it possible that everything takes place in Sarah’s mind, that she is torturing herself for having killed her husband in the car crash? As intriguing as this reading is, the film abandons it, forcing us to look for other explanations. There are clues that the intruder may be a ghost: at the very least, it would explain how she is able to get into the locked house; certainly, La Femme’s visual resemblance to Sarah suggests that she is the dark doppelganger of the heroine, a kind of avenging angel sent to punish her.
This latter explanation comes closer to the truth, except that the film ultimately opts to present La Femme as a flesh-and-blood character, not a supernatural force. Some third act revelations clarify her motivations but beg the question of why she is so damn invulnerable. In effect, the story shifts from a guilt fantasy to a revenge fantasy. It is no longer Sarah’s story; it is La Femme’s, and it is told with all the conviction of a drunken braggart in a bar regaling his bored listeners with tall tales of all the ass he has kicked. The gullible may fall for it, but everyone else has to shake their head in disbelief.
INSIDE begins as an utterly convincing, serious thriller with a great premise, but ultimately all of the intriguing hints are drowned in a deluge of graphic gore. It’s like a gusher: once it starts, it never stops. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury are absolutely fearless about not holding back; unfortunately, they go so far over the top with their hardcore shock effects, that they leap off the rails: at one point, after being stuck in the brain with a pair of scissors, a victim comes back to life only to be killed again, and we wonder why we’re suddenly watching a zombie movie.
This bloodshed is intense and brilliantly rendered, but you wonder what it’s doing in a movie that seemed to have higher aspirations. The weird thing about all this is that Bustillo and Maury clearly know what they are doing and are totally in control of the effects they want to achieve. There is no doubt that they have talent, and it will be interesting to see what they do next. Reportedly, they have been signed to remake HELLRAISER, and it’s easy to imagine their cinematic style will mesh well with the Clive Barker franchise – even if INSIDE’s attempt to blend a serious thriller with a splatterfest creates a mixture as appetizing as vanilla ice cream covered in steak tartar.
The sad thing is that, before the red geysers start splattering across the screen, the film is as frightening and intense as anything ever put on the screen. La Femme’s first aborted attack on Sarah (holding a knife over her pregnant belly while she sleeps) will have viewers squirming in their seats. By the conclusion, all the interlopers have been dispatched, and the film comes full circle so that La Femme can complete what she started, the tension has totally dissipated. In the end, watching INSIDE is like watching a stuck pig bleed out: long before the final death rattle, you’ve seen the end coming; when it finally arrives, your expectation of it has left you numb and indifferent.
INSIDE (a.k.a., A L’interieur, 2007). Directed by Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury. Written by Alexandre Bustillo. Cast: Beatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis, Nathalie Roussel, Francois-Regis Marchasson, Jean-Baptiste Tabourin, Dominque Frot, Claude Lule, Hyam zeytoun, Tahar Rahim, Emmanuel Guez.
The film BEOWULF has become the object of differing interpretations as to how depicts paganism in relation to Christianity. I recently reviewed the film in order to address these differing perspectives. Below is an excerpt of the resulting article that I posted at TheoFantastique:
I searched the Internet yesterday to familiarize myself with Christian interpretations BEOWULF and I found two views at opposite ends of the interpretive spectrum. On the one hand Christianity Today magazine included a review of the film that was very positive, so much so that it makes the claim that, “Screenwriters Gaiman and Avery have actually taken the spiritual imagery even further, heightening Christianity’s clash with the pagan Norse religions and orienting a plot that is shot through with biblical imagery.” The review goes further and states that “the animators’ inspiration was simple—a six-foot-six, incredibly muscular, Norse Jesus Christ.” On the other end of the spectrum National Review Online posted commentary with the title “Anti-Christian Crusade,” and the subtitle “Beowulf the latest installment in Hollywood’s attempt to reconfigure history.” With these radically different interpretations in mind as the film relates or doesn’t relate to Christianity, what are we to think of this artistically and technically beautiful piece of cinema that takes realistic computer generated animation to a new level?
The film, like the ancient folk epic upon which it is based, reflects a sixth century A.D. Anglo-Saxon culture, including the paganism of the time. In my viewing the film only included three direct references to Christianity, including two specific references and one general reference from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first direct reference comes in the form of a question near the beginning where a query was made of the king which he dismissed as to whether sacrifices should be made not only to the Norse gods of paganism but also the “new Roman god Christ Jesus.” The second reference comes toward the end of the film where Beowulf as king laments the loss of the time of heroes, battles, and monsters. In Beowulf’s view the “Christ god has killed it leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs…” The general reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition comes with a reference to the “sins of the fathers,” an allusion to an Old Testament passage which refers to the sins committed by the fathers visiting their children if they are not addressed properly by the fathers themselves.
With these three references to Christianity, which of the two interpretations of the film’s treatment of Christianity seem most accurate? The positive assessment, or the negative one? I’d like to argue that neither does justice and that another view is in order. Taken in the historical and cultural context of the story itself, the remarks made by the characters in relation to Christianity make perfect sense and seem to be a natural way in which sixth century Norse pagans, steeped in heroes, monsters, and battles, and deities that engaged in such eploits, would have reacted to Christianity and its offer of a new, suffering god and way of life advocating pacifism. Taken in context the remarks seem quite natural to the story and do not seem to reflect anti-Christian bias. On the other hand, in my view it is also a great stretch to see the film as inclusive of biblical imagery, and there surely is no support for the notion that Beowulf is modeled after a “Norse Jesus Christ.” The latter claim is reminiscent of Christopher Deacy’s concern over the frequet and inappropriate appropriation of Christ-figures in films where they do not exist. The reason for these differing interpretations is clear. If film viewers interpret the film in light of their presuppositions about Christianity and popular culture, then these presuppositions will result in the divergent interpretations we see represented by Christians along an interpretive spectrum. Read the complete post at TheoFantastique.
This retelling of the epic poem about a monster-slaying hero unites computer-generated imagery with live-action performances through the magic of motion-capture. Unfortunately, the marriage breeds a bizarre hybrid, as strange (if not quite as ghastly) as the half-human, half-demon Grendel that haunts the first act. Like that hideous monster, BEOWULF is an almost inexplicable mutant mishap, as if the genetic synthesis combined – and somehow magnified – the worst rather than the best of both parents. The background designs are beautiful; the creatures are imaginatively conceived; the human characters are rendered in fine detail and enacted with spirited performances. And yet, the result is artificial and unconvincing, with all the life of a perfectly preserved corpse manipulated by marionette strings: no matter how deft the performer, no matter how elaborate the movments, what we are watching looks dead. Continue reading “Beowulf (2007) – Film & DVD Review”→
This is a splatter-filled tale that feels like a throwback to ‘80s direct-to-video horror, when a bunch of prosthetic makeup covered in blood was all you needed to make a low-budget movie. The minimal story is about a mad scientist (WISHMASTER’s Andrew Divoff) who creates a plague that unleashes an unstoppable rage in its victims. After an accident at the lab, the disease infects some vultures, which pursue a band of teenagers coming home from an outdoor music fest. The geysers of blood that follow are so over-the-top that they are perhaps meant to be funny; instead, they are simply monotonous. The film is too obviously a showcase for the carnage, which lacks intensity or humor. At least the prosthetics are technically competent: the vultures that bedevil our heroes are rendered with unconvincing computer-generated effects that suggest old-fashioned stop-motion (complete with squawking sound effects that seem lifted from a Ray Harryhausen movie). Continue reading “Rage, The (2007) – Film Review”→
This grim drama about a desperate attempt to save the world from extinction falls just short of being one of 2007’s best films. Although seriously flawed in a couple of ways, SUNSHINE tells its core story – of a (virtual suicide) mission to re-ignite the dying sun – with a soul-shattering conviction that is utterly engrossing. Alex Garland’s screenplay presents a refreshingly hard science-fiction approach that remains rooted in believable reality – more NASA than STAR WARS – and director Danny Boyle serves it up with an unsentimental seriousness worthy of the high-stakes storyline. Had the screenplay not descended into schlock in the third act, this might have ranked among the classics of the genre. As it stands, the film deserved Oscar nominations in technical categories: art direction, photography, and visual effects create a vision of space travel as spectacular and unique as anything ever seen on screen.
The premise is that the crew of the Icarus II are piloting a bomb that will, hopefully, restore the dimming sun in time to save life on Earth. Hanging like a cloud of doom over their heads is the knowledge that, over a year before, the Icarus I disappeared on a similar mission, raising the questions: “What went wrong?” and “How can Icarus II avoid repeating it?” But the truly important question hanging over the film (the same one addressed in CHILDREN OF MEN) is: What sacrifices are individual humans willing to make when the surival of the entire species is at stake?
This raises interesting moral questions of a kind that a lesser film would ignore altogether. This first becomes apparent when Icarus II detects a distress signal from Icarus I, and the navigator, Trey (Benedict Wong), says he can plot an intercept course. Mace (Chris Evans) angrily denounces the idea, pointing out that their mission priority outweighs every other consideration, including not just the lives of the Icarus I crew but their own as well. In a simpler screenplay, this cold-hearted utilitarian reasoning would brand Mace as the villain (or at least the asshole) of the group, but SUNSHINE makes it clear that he is, under the circumstances, correct.
The rest of the story relates the results of the fateful decision to overrule Mace. Captain Kaneda (RINGU’s Hiroyuki Sanada) defers the decision to Capa (Cillian Murphy). The physicist’s decision is based not on consideration for the lives (if any) aboard Icarus I. Rather, the question is whether obtaining the bomb from Icarus I (and thus doubling the chances of successfully completing the mission) outweigh the potential risks of altering course. The variables are too complex to calculate to a certainty, so Capa makes a gut decision to pick up the extra bomb.
The remainder of the scenario details a series of complications that result from this decision. Trey makes a mistake recalculating the course, which results in damage to the ship; a repair attempt costs the life of one crew member. Docking with Icarus I leads to another disaster when the ships are mysterious torn apart. Later, a fire breaks out, destroying the Icarus II’s greenhouse, the ship’s source not only for food but also for oxygen on the months-long journey through the vacuum of space.
Eventually, the mission boils down to a dreadful moral choice: there is not enough oxygen left aboard Icarus to support the remaining crew members for the remainder of the mission. The only solution is that one of the survivors must die. Who will it be, and who will perform the execution?
Unfortunately, at this point, SUNSHINE begins to fall apart. The moral issue is evaded by having one of the crew turn up conveniently dead – apparently a suicide. Yet still the oxygen consumption is too much. It is hardly giving anything away (since this detail is revealed in the trailer) to acknowledge that there is an unknown person aboard Icarus, and out past the orbit of Mercury there is only place that someone could have come from: Icarus I. The fire was actually sabotage; the “suicide” was actually murder.
In order to motivate this behavior, the script relies on that tired old stand-by, religious mania. As if that were not enough cliche, the perpetrator is presented courtesy of some weird, blurry photographic effect that suggests an inter-dimensional alien. SUNSHINE devolves from serious science-fiction to routine stalk-and-slash tactics; it is as if 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had suddenly been hijacked by ALIEN.
Danny Boyle directs the pulp horror of the third act well enough. The threat may be contrived, but our characters still have to find some way to overcome it and save life on Earth, resulting in at least one great set-piece: a nail-bitingly heart-rending scene in which one character must effect repairs on Icarus by descending into the freezing cold liquid that prevents the ship’s core from overheating. This is one of those sequences almost worth the price of admission alone (comparable the eerie scene in Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, in which a mysterious life form revives after a suicide attempt that involves drinking freezing cold liquid nitrogen).
One suspects Boyle has a certain predilection for this kind of thing, as if he needs the big dramatic action to galvanize him. Certainly, the early section, meant to convey the boredom of a long space flight, is marred by an overly artsy approach that seems almost smug in its self-satisfaction. Every angle, every camera move, every dissolve and special effect seems designed with portentous intent, layered on so thick as to become off-putting. Fortunately, once the story kicks in, Boyle sets the pretentious stylization aside – or at least welds it so well to the story that they no longer stand out like a sore thumb.
Ultimately, SUNSHINE attempts to make some kind of statement about the conflict between faith and reason, but the message is muddled by reducing one half of the discourse to the level of a matinee villain. Fortunately, the underlying theme is strong enough to carry the film over its descent into genre conventions. The turn toward melodrama undermines some believability, but the story, with its heroes forced to make almost unendurable sacrifices, remains emotionally riveting. Watching it feels, at times, like being trapped aboard a ship on a hopeless mission, but when the last image fades, you will be glad you underwent the journey.
The DVD presents SUNSHINE in widescreen with audio options for English 5.1 Dolby Digital and Spanish and French Dolby Surround, along with optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles. Bonus Features include two audio commentaries, deleted scenes, web production diaries, and two short films.
The twelve deleted scenes are mostly expository moments meant to establish the characters or clarify the logistics of the action. There is a talky alternate version of the final confrontation with the villain, which was apparently meant to provide intellectual element to the physical conflict. All of these sequences have optional audio commentary by Danny Boyle.
The Web Production Diaries provide the cast and crew short vignettes to talk about themselves and their involvement with the film. Particularly interesting are the comments from the physicists hired to oversee the scientific accuracy of the film.
The audio commentaries are by Danny Boyle and Dr. Brian Cox. Boyle is good at providing the nuts and bolts information about bringing the difficult project to the screen, but Cox’s commentary is even more interesting, perhaps because it is not the sort of thing one usually hears on these DVDs.
Basically, Cox addresses the issues of scientific accuracy versus dramatic license and points out where Danny Boyle drew the line between them. Cox notes that, according to current scientific theory, the sun should not die out for billions of years, but he was able to fashion a theory that would account for the scenario in the film. Although never specifically stated in the film itself, Cox tells us that the sun has been diminished by the presence of a “Q-Ball,” a theoretical particle disrupting the fusion reaction that fuels the sun. The bomb on board Icarus II is not mean to reignite the sun but to destroy the Q-Ball, allowing the sun to return to normal.
The two short films are “Dad’s Dead” and “Mole Hills.” Neither has anything to do with SUNSHINE. Danny Boyle included them because he thinks DVDs are an opportunity to bring short subjects to a wider audience.
SUNSHINE(2007). Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Alex Garland. Cast: Cillian Murph, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong, Chippo Chung (voice of Icarus).
EDITOR’S NOTE: As mentioned in our rundown of genre films overlooked by the Oscars, John Cusack gives a one-man show in 1408 that rivals Will Smith’s somewhat similar turn in I AM LEGEND. Neither one got a nomination, but we think they should have.
After all the bones were broken and all the blood was spilled, after all the flesh was sliced and diced, after all the echoes of agony, the gnashing of teeth and the wailing of despair, had faded, it was not the highly-hyped HALLOWEEN, not the hostile HOSTEL, not the gritty GRINDHOUSE that was the most successful horror movie of the year. Instead, it was a little, low-key ghost story about a man spending a night in a haunted hotel room.
One might credit the success to the cache of the Stephen King brand-name, but that did little good for THE MIST, which dissipated almost as soon as theatre doors opened. No, one is forced to conclude that there is an audience of movie-goers who want to be thrilled and chilled, not gutted and filleted. 1408 catered to this demand by relying on the classic structure, as laid out by Victorian author M. R. James in the introduction to his book Ghosts and Marvels:
Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation, but, I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable.
1408 follows the formula so closely that it might seem in danger of degenerating into a cliched mess, but it is rescued by the basic virtues of solid craftsmanship. Basically, any subject, even one as familiar as the ghost story, can be done right if it is done well. This film serves up the ominous portents, the haunted history, and even a dark and stormy night – and makes it all work, thanks to clever writing, directing, and acting. On top of all this, we get another variation of an old standby, the Prophet of Doom Who Warns the Hero Away – a character who has been around, in modern form, at least since Melville’s Moby Dick. In this case, we have Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Olin, manager of the hotel that houses the haunted room. He has a function; we know what it is, and we know he will fail – otherwise, the film would end before it got started. Yet his confrontation with Mike Enslin (John Cusack), an author who makes a living by writing about his experiences in haunted houses, plays like a legitimate drama, filled with believable human frustration over Enslin’s dogged insistence on ignoring the warnings meant not to intrigue but to dissuade him.
One strength of Stephen King’s writing, which James himself never really mastered, is characterization. For King, it was never enough to have simply an antiquarian, an ingenue, or a ghost hunter walking into a haunted place; his characters were always complex people, often haunted by their own inner demons, which were activated by proximity to supernatural evil. 1408 continues in that tradition (albeit much augmented by the screenwriters), by fashioning Enslin as man who never came to terms with the grief over the death of his daughter, which in turn led him to walk out on his wife (apparently after announcing that he was going out for some cigarettes). We are led to believe that he switched from writing literature to non-fiction because he was searching for evidence of life-after-death, which he hoped to find in one of the haunted houses that became his subject matter. Failing that, he turned even more bitter and cynical, eager to crush not only his own hopes but those of his readers.
With this kind of set-up, which is cleverly interwoven into the narrative, not all front-loaded as exposition, Enlin is inevitably heading toward a confrontation with forces that will challenge not only his beliefs but, more precisely, his unbeliefs. Room 1408 becomes a sort of private, personal Hell, populated not only by the ghosts of past victims but by the inner demons of Enslin’s mind. The manifestations are presented in a dramatic way that almost invites the audience to interpret the action as hallucinatory, as if Enslin’s guilty mind were torturing him not only with his past grief but with his own failure to deal with it.
Even with all the psycho-drama, 1408 never forgets to frighten its audience. Having introduced the actor in a placid way, the film has lulled the audience into a close identification that makes the viewer feel as if standing side by side with Enslin in the haunted room, so that when the ghosts start jumping, the audience jumps as well.
The actual manifestations are somewhat variable; fortunately, the film’s carefully wrought audience-identification strategy carries you past them. Director Mikael Hafstrom conceives the first couple of ghosts in gimmicky ways: the oldest one flickers in black-and-white like an old silent movie; a later one resembles a ’50s Technicolor movie. Far better are moments of mind-bending horror, such as a scene reminiscent of Polanski’s THE TENANT, wherein Enslin looks across the street and sees himself staring back from a window in the opposite building.
The script plays around with the conventions not only of the horror genre but also of the dramatic form, presenting an apparent opportunity for the protagonist to learn his lesson and grow as a person. Unfortunately, the inevitable plot twists are sadly predictable: when Cusak’s character nearly drowns early on, you can bet that later he will wake up thinking the rest of the movie was just a near-death experience. This kind of manipulation undermines the ending: the point becomes not to finish the story as effectively as possible but to “surprise” the audience with some unexpected resolution. Sensing the artificiality, the audience tunes out, and the ending lacks conviction. (Apparently, the filmmakers themselves sensed this, and were uncertain about how to end the film.)
Whatever its weaknesses, 1408 holds you captive. The film may seem like a one-room version of THE SHINING, condensed and tight rather than big and sprawling like the Kubrick movie, but Hafstrom does an impressive job of keeping its limited space visually interesting for feature length, and when all else fails the story succeeds on the strength of Cusack’s performance. The actor is allowed to give a virtual one-man show, ranging from funny to fearful, alternating between broad physical action (when the character explodes in rage against the room’s asault on him) with quieter interludes of angst and despair. Forcing the audience to experience his terror with an almost first-hand immediacy, Cusack runs the emotional gamut, delivering a performance as layered and complex as any of the 2007s Oscar nominees. Thanks in large part to his efforts, 1408 comes close to being a character study rather than a horror film – WILD STRAWBERRIES, with ghosts. Unlike too many movies that aspire to more than mere horror, this one achieves its goal without neglecting the fear factor.
DVD DETAILS (Spoilers)
Dimension Home Entertainment’s 2-Disc DVD set contains both the PG-13 theatrical cut and the so-called unrated “director’s cut.” The latter is longer, contains a few more flashes of blood, and features an alternate ending. Picture and audio quality are solid. Subtitle options include English for Hearing Impaired and Spanish. Bonus features include Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, and an Audio Commentary. DELETED SCENES(presented with optional commentry):
Contacting Lily: Actually an extended version of a sequence that was recut, parts of it appearing elsewhere in the final cut. Mike Enslin fears he is being watched through overhead vent before opening laptop.
Wrought with Guilt: Mike Enslin’s tape recorder talks to him while he flashbacks to dialogue with wife about thier dead daughter.
I Warned You About 1408: Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) appears in post-office before construction workers tear down facade, revealing that Enslin is back in 1408.
Tilting Room and Lilly Pleads at Door: After refusing to commit suicide, Enslin sees Lily arrive on a TV nonitor, and he tries to run to the door. The room does not actually appear to tilt; rather, gravity seems to go askew as Enlin is pulled away from his destination. Unable to prevent his wife from entering, Enlin begs her to leave, but she does not want to abandon him. The anti-gravity effect is visually interesting, but the scene does not work well.
Arriving at the Dolphin (Director’s Cameo): Enslin flies on on airplane ot New York, with director Mikael Hafstrom playing another passenger on seat next to him.
SECRETS OF 1408 (Featurettes)
The Characters: Video interviews discussing the characters, including the Room itself. There are behind-the-scenes glimpse of gimbal used to tilt the room. Cusack talks about working mostly without another actor.
The Director: Video interviews, clips from film and behind-scenes footage paint a picture of Mikael Hafstrom working with his actors. This vignette feels a bit like a mutal admiration society, Cusack complimenting the director and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura complimenting Cusack.
The Physical Effects: Depicts the diifferent versions of set used to achieve differnet effects: flodding, tilting, etc. This includes more footage of the gimbal, and we see the set lowered into a water tank for the flooding scene.
The Production Design: Focuses on creating the look of the room, which had to be ordinary but not boring, the trick being that it could not look obviously spooky. The concept was to portray the “banality of evil.” Several versions of the room were built for its many appearances (such as the frozen version). We learn that the production designer worked with closely with the physical effects crew and the lighting crew, in the latter case so that the set could be lit with the lamps and fixtures actually seen on screen.
Director Mikael Hafstrom and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski talk extensively about the film. Hafstrom cites Polanski films ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE TENANT, and REPULSION as influences. Unfortunately, the director tends to talk over the screenwriters and frequently delays subjects by saying “We can come back to that later.” The effects is frustrating, and one suspects that some of the topics end up not as fully discussed as they might have been. For instance, Hafstrom never settles the question of who sent postcard that lures Enslin to Room 1408, which is acceptable, but he seems not even to have an interpretation of his own to offer.
Alexander and Karaszewski provide interesting details about the differences between the script’s first draft (written by Matt Greenberg), their own drafts, and later story changes made during post-production. Eventually, you get the impression that the creative team had trouble coming to definite decisions and resorted to the cop-out of leaving the interpretation up to audience. This approach can work, but it works best when the filmmakers have a rational worked out in their own minds, so that the clues they present add up.
The audio commentary makes clear that, despite the label, this is not truly a “director’s cut” (i.e., the cut sanctioned by the director before being re-edited by the producers). Rather, it is an alternate cut that includes ideas that were abandoned and scenes that were dropped or shortened to speed up pace or secure a PG-13 rating. There are a few more snippets of dramatic material (e.g., with Enslin and his father). When the paintings in the room change appearance to unnerving effect, one features a glimpse a nipple. (We learn that one of the room’s ghosts, who was not explained in the history Mr. Olin gives to Enslin, was added to a painting, because the filmmakers were afraid audiences would wonder where the character came from.) And Enslin’s crawl through the ventilator shaft, including a confrontation with a living corpse, goes on longer.
The director’s cut has Mike Enslin die, sacrificing himself in the fire he sets to Room 1408. Afterward, Mr. Olin shows up at the funeral to give Enslin’s personal effects to his widow, who refuses them. When a disappointed Olin returns to his car, there is a phony jump scare with a burned Enslin briefly glimpsed in the backseat. This is followed by a scene back at the burned-out hotel, which fades out while Enslin’s ghost calmly exits 1408, presumably to reunite with his daughter in the afterlife. The two sequences actually feel like two alternate endings, tacked together despite their contradictory nature: if Enslin’s ghost (looking perfectly normal) is back i 1408, then why is he appearing as a bogey-monster in the back of Olin’s car? This seems to be evidence that the filmmakers had trouble deciding on an ending, so they tried out three of four different ones; one ended up in the theatrical version; two on the DVD. Sadly, none of them is fully satisfying.
1408 (2007). Directed by Mikael Hafstrom. Screenplay by Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, based on the short story by Stephen King. Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub, Jasmine Jessica Anthony.
What’s more fun than bats in the belfry? Rats in the kitchen! At least, that is the answer suggested by Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Studios with their blockbuster hit RATATOUILLE. Audiences and critics seem to agree. The computer-animated film earned over $600-million at the world wide box office, received a 96% aggregate approval rating at both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, is currently at #112 on the IMDB top movie chart, and was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in five categories (including Best Animated Feature) – more than any other animated film except Walt Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991, which is the only animated film ever nominated in the Best Picture category). As if this were not enough, there are some who believe that RATATOUILLE should have received a Best Picture nomination as well, instead of being relegated to the animation category. With the Academy Awards ceremony due later this month, now seems like a good time to reassess the praise dished out to the film, or as the sinister food critic Anton Ego would put it, “After reading a lot of over-heated puffery…you know what I’m craving? A little perspective.”
One should quickly add that “perspective” is not synonymous with “cynicism.” Only a cynic dedicated to validating his own cynicsm could dismiss RATATOUILLE’s delectable qualities: the movie is fast-paced, clever, funny, and even occasionally moving. In short, it is a delightful treat. But is it, as some would have us believe, a gourmet masterpiece?
Not quite. I think what we have hear is the cinematic equivalent of “Availability Cascade” (a term coined by U.S.C. professor Timur Kuran). This is defined as “a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse.” Or put more simply: If 100 people are telling you the movie is great, you are likely to agree; then you become part of the 101 people who convince the next guy that the movie is great, which leads to 102 convincing the next, etc.
I want to make a careful distinction here. I am not saying that RATATOUILLE is bad or that critics praised it out of mindless peer pressure or that audiences enjoyed it because critics told them to. Rather, my argument is that, when a film receives nearly universal approval, it becomes difficult to express a contrary opinion without being dismissed as a bitter real-life version of Anton Ego. This unanimity of opinion leads to an illusion of perfection, which in turn reinforces the perception of the film as not only Oscar-worthy (which it undoubtedly is) but also as somehow under-rated or snubbed, because it did not receive a Best Picture nomination.
Hefty heapings of critical praise feed the theory that RATATOUILLE is the victim of an anti-animation conspiracy. The “cataclysmic event” launching this cascade seems to be A.P. writer Jake Coyle’s article ‘Ratatouille’ may have been squeezed out of best pic because it’s animated, which has been syndicated to several online outlets. Coyle begins by contrasting the animated film’s up-beat story with the “tales of depravity” seen in the live-action nominees for Best Picture. He then quotes several experts who suggest that consideration for a Best Picture nomination were taken off the plate since the Academy has a separate category for animation:
Tom O’Neil, a columnist specializing in awards coverage for the Los Angeles Times’ “The Envelope” website, has pondered whether “Ratatouille” – which he calls the best reviewed movie of the year – is the equivalent of “Beauty and the Beast,” only it had to deal with the specialized category.
“Is this a case where it’s penalized and ghettoized because there’s a separate category for animated fare?” O’Neill said. “It seems to have the same respect in the industry and among film critics as ‘Beauty and the Best.”‘
Building upon Jake Coyle’s article, Dominic von Riedemann advances a conspiracy theory at Suite101.com, arguing that the Best Animated Feature category was deliberately created to prevent animated features from being considered for Best Picture. Almost the opposite is true: the Animated Feature category was created to help earn recognition for films that are traditionally shut out from the Best Picture category (in much the same way as the Best Foreign Language Film category operates).
In point of fact, Walt Disney Pictures (according to a New York Times article referenced in Slashfilm.com) was reluctant to push RATATOUILLE for Best Picture, fearing that Academy members might split their votes between both categories and end up giving it nothing. With a win in the Animated Feature category almost guaranteed, the risk was deemed too great.
So, why the belief that RATATOUILLE was somehow snubbed by Academy voters? Basically, the film’s boosters are lamenting that the Cascade Effect* did not cascade quite far enough. Jake Coyle’s article quotes the facts and figures to convince us that the film simply had to deserve a nomination. Among other things, the title appeared on the year-end top-ten lists of critics at over twenty major outlets, including Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, Empire, LA Weekly, The Boston Globe, and Slate.com.
Clearly, the vast majority of critics savored the film with all the enthusiastic gusto of Anton Ego enjoying the titular dish. Whether the Oscar-worthy accolades were completely warranted – or even particularly articulate – is not so clear. They definitely lack the poetic joy that Ego himself summoned when articulating his epiphany at the end of the film.
Roger Ebert rather generically named RATATOUILLE “one of the best of the year’s films,” praising it as “a triumph of animation, comedy, imagination and, yes, humanity.” He does little to justify the praise, beyond citing the expressive animation (which is indeed one of the film’s tastier provisions).
In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan called the film “audacious’ (twice!) and insisted that “it takes risks and goes places other films wouldn’t dare, and it ends up putting rival imaginations in the shade.”
Presumably, Turan is referring to the rats-in-the-kitchen concept, but is there really much risk – or originality – in anthropomorphizing an animal into a cute talking critter that can do the unexpected? Is a cooking rat that much more imaginative than Toonces the Driving Cat? At least Saturday Night Live had the wit to imagine that Toonces might be a bad driver. RATATOUILLE writer-director Brad Bird never even considers the possibility that Remy the Rat might be a bad cook – that would have been a real risk, trying to celebrate the drive and desire of a would-be artist lacking talent (a la ED WOOD).
A little more articulate is Salon.com’s Stephanie Zacharek, who notes that Brad Bird “doesn’t set out to wow us. His colors are never garish; his characters are always written, fleshed out, not just storyboarded; and his ideas, while easy enough to grasp, stretch beyond the typical homilies of being true to oneself, or of asserting that everyone is special. In fact, Bird’s pictures […] recognize that the development of potential (and not just mindless praise of the raw, unshaped material in all of us) is what’s important.”
Zacharek nails Bird’s strength: Whereas second-rate CGI films like BEE MOVIE are content to continually hurl digital cream pies in our face, hoping the cream filling will hide the bland taste of the under-cooked main dish, RATATOUILLE is like a carefully balanced seven-course meal. Brad Bird is not above resorting to the equivalent of a slap-stick pie fight (Alfredo’s contortions while hidden rat Remy scuttles beneath his clothes wear out their welcome), but overall this frothy frosting is used like a decoration carefully applied to a scrumptious cake.
Where Zacharek goes wrong is in suggesting that RATATOUILLE is about the “development of potential.” To be fair, I believe the film has its heart in the right place; it wants to present a meritocracy wherein someone’s achievement is based on their hard work and dedication, not their legacy (George W. would never have made it to the presidency in this animated world). Unfortunately, the demands of popular entertainment force RATATOUILLE into a dramatic structure somewhat at odds with the theme. In fact, the film is a fairly traditional story about someone who is born special and struggles to get others to see his meritorious nature.
Remy is a rat who likes good food, not garbage. Dad thinks his son should resign himself to being a rat, but Remy follows his dream, which leads him to become a cook in a French restaurant. Of course, no one will accept a rat in the kitchen, so Remy hides beneath the toque of a clumsy goof named Alfredo Linguini. At no point is it suggested that Remy has anything to learn or any personal growth to make before becoming a great chef. His greatness is simply assumed. His true quest is to gain acknowledgement.
That is not a very big pan in which to cook up an interesting story. Consequently, the script relies on side dishes and appetizers to fill out the menu. Alfredo turns out to be the son of Gusteau, the late owner of the restaurant. Alfredo’s mom, for reasons unexplained, never told her son the truth about his parentage, but she did impart the information in a letter to Skinner, the restaurant’s new owner. Skinner keeps the information secret (the script presents this as villainy on his part, although he appears to be following the wishes of Alfredo’s mother). This creates a subplot (and a nice chase scene) in which Remy steals the letter and brings it to Alfredo. Fun stuff, but largely irrelevant to the movie’s oft-stated theme: “Anyone can cook.”
Later, to keep the story simmering with some kind of surprise, Alfredo and Remy have a falling-out that makes no sense. Up until Alfredo gains control of the restaurant, Remy wisely prevents him from telling the truth about where his cooking skills truly originate. Suddenly, and for no obvious reason, Remy becomes resentful that Alfredo is getting all the credit. Does Remy really expect Alfredo to put himself out of business by announcing at a press conference that a rat is running the kitchen?
A disappointed Remy rejoins his Dad, who tries to illustrate the unworthiness of humans by showing him a storefront window full of dead rats in traps (what kind of store is this, exactly?) Why should Remy need this lesson, when the opening sequences have shown his personal experience with human attempts at ratricide? The scene simply fills up a little screen time, hitting an obvious emotional note while Remy is feeling down. But Remy’s emotional state is clearly temporary, a minor setback, not a life altering crisis. With plot conflicts as mild as these, it is no great dramatic catharsis when they are resolved. Alfredo apologizes to Remy; in a nod to family values, Remy’s Dad decides to help his son fulfill his dreams. As Darth Vader said to Luke Skywalker, “All too easy.”
This light-hearted, almost frivolous approach, yields a film as sweet as a delicate souffle, but it is not filling. Stretching the culinary metaphor to the limit, one might say RATATOUILLE lacks the nutritional value of a truly satisfying meal. Only near the end does it serve up something meatier, a conclusion that comes close to warranting the accolades.
Stephanie Zacharek describes the sequence perfectly, so I will allow her to do the honors:
Near the end of the picture, Ego has a speech that begins with a statement about the uselessness of critics, about the way they live for the experience of slapping things down instead of creating anything worthwhile themselves. The speech winds its way around to a more complicated revelation, about the importance of finding beauty and wonder in unexpected corners of our world. [….]
[…] for me — a person who writes about movies but doesn’t make them — Ego’s speech rings completely true, and I can’t read it as Bird’s way of cutting down critics, of painting them as evil creatures who must be reformed. If anything, I wonder if he doesn’t feel a kinship with them. Criticism, done right, isn’t about destruction; it’s about the pursuit of pleasure and delight and surprise, the seeking of both sensation and meaning, and sharing it with as many people as you can.
This is the one point in the film where RATATOUILLE says something more interesting than “follow your dream.” Food critic Anton Ego (whose nickname is “The Grim Eater”) is portrayed as a comically grim villain throughout most of the film: the reels of ribbon in his typewriter suggest the eye sockets of a skull; his room, seen from above, is in the octagonal shape of a coffin; in fact his pale appearance and gaunt aspect suggest the living dead.
Yet, for all the fun poked at Ego, Bird ultimately presents the food critic as someone whose good opinion is worth having, and there is even a hint (never stated overtly) that the challenge he presents to Remy and Alfredo motivates them to take risks and achieve greatness that might otherwise have eluded them. Perhaps the film’s greatest single moment occurs when their unexpected culinary masterpiece, a dish of simple ratatouille, not only turns the Grim Eater’s frown upside down but also mentally transports him back to his childhood. It’s a wonderful example of how visual imagery can be more than empty flash; it can convey emotions with a poignancy that mere words fail to emulate.
No movie, having achieved this, deserves anything less than high praise. However, that praise should be tempered with a little perspective. And since no one else in the bloody town is willing to offer it, I have. RATATOUILLE is like a restaurant that serves a good main course, but the exquisite desert leaves you feeling that you have enjoyed one of the great culinary experiences of your life.
Walt Disney’s DVD presents the film in a lovely widescreen transfer, with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX and Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English subtitles. To maximize the viewing experience, the disc provides an Audio-Visual set up, with a series of steps to adjust brightness, aspect ratio, color, etc.
Like too many DVDs, RATATOUILLE launches with series of promotional clips and trailers for upcoming feature films and DVDs, including Pixar’s upcoming WALL E. The trailers are nice, but they go on too long.
The DVD menus, like the film’s closing credits, are done in a 2D style of animation that resembles old DePatie-Freleng cartoons.
Besides the film, the disc contains some Bonus Features and two short subjects. The first short, “Lifted,” is a sci-fi spoof of SIGNS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: an alien student driver has difficulty passing the test of levitating a human out the window and into the mother ship.
The second short subject, “Your Friend, The Rat,” is a funny pseudo-documentary hosted by Remy and his brother. Using animation and some film clips, it actually does provide some accurate information about the rodent world. It ends with a hysterically funny disclaimer undermining Remy’s attempts to improve the image of his rat brethren.
Bonus Features include Deleted Scenes and a video featurette. “Fine Food and Film: A Conversation with Brad Bird and Thomas Keller” uses alternating interview clips of filmmaker Bird and restaurateur Keller (a consultant on the film) as parallel artists. It’s an interesting concept but a trifle dull in execution, offering few insights to convince us of its central thesis.
The Deleted Scenes are actually “Abandoned Scenes” – that is, scenes that were scripted but abandoned before being completed. They are presented with a combination of storyboards, rough animation, and temp audio tracks, accompanied by music lifted from the finished film. The first two are sandwiched with video segments of Bird explaining why they were dropped from the film; the third is introduced by producer Brad Lewis and story writer Jim Capobianco.
“Chez Gusteau” is a single-take (a la the opening of TOUCH OF EVIL) that takes us from the streets of Paris, into the restaurant, and through the kitchen, winding up on a shot of Remy looking down through the skylight. Brid dropped the shot because he felt the introduction to Chez Gusteau should be seen from Remy’s point of view. (The opening animation of the DVD menu plays like a condensed version of this shot.)
“Meet Gusteau” is from an earlier draft of the screenplay, which had Chef Gusteau still alive. (In the finished film, Gusteau is dead, appearing only as Remy’s imaginary friend.) It features Gusteau talking with Skinner about the series of name-brand fast-food products that have degraded the Gusteau name. Some of the basic ideas found their way into the revised screenplay, particularly the concept that Alfredo’s toque is translucent, so that Remy can see out when he is hiding on Alfredo’s head. The scene was cut for length.
“First Day” is an earlier version of Alfredo’s first day at work. The basic idea of Remy’s cooking skill saving Alfredo from termination, remains in the finished film, but in this version, Remy hides not under the toque on Alfredo’s head but in a drawer. The story-boarded action seems awkward, with Alfredo continually putting his soup ladle in the drawer so that Remy can sample and improve it.
RATATOUILLE (2007). Directed by Brad Bird; co directed by Jan Pinkava. Screenplay by Brad Bird; story by Bird, Jim Capobianco, Jan Pinkava; addtional story material by Emily Cook, Kathy Greensberg, Bob Peterson. Voices: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Will Arnett, James Remar.
*NOTE: Technically, “Cascade Effect” is a term used in scientific and statistical analysis that studies the impact of castrophic events (whose fall-out creates other catastrophic events, which in turn…etc.). When talking about shared beliefs, “Availability Cascade” is the more proper term, but I have used the two somewhat interchangeably here, for the sake of verbal variety.
Sadly, STORM WARNING is going direct-to-video in the U.S., even though it was one of the best films to screen at last year’s Screamfest film fetival in Hollywood. Here is the press release from distributor Dimension Films:
A “tense tale of terror down under” (All Movie Guide), Storm Warning lands with a fury in an Unrated DVD February 5, 2008 from Genius Products and The Weinstein Company’s Dimension Extreme label. From the director of Urban Legend, Storm Warning won two L.A. Screamfest awards – Best Special Effects and Best Score – when it premiered at the festival in October of 2007. Caught in a massive storm that throws them off course, a young couple is stranded on a remote island where they seek refuge in an abandoned farmhouse. Once there, they soon realize they are not alone and are being held hostage by a group of deranged killers. The film features bloodcurdling performances from Robert Taylor (Rogue, Ned Kelly), Mathew Wilkinson (Ghost Rider) and Nadia Fares (War). Directed by Jamie Blanks (Urban Legend, Valentine), Storm Warning was written by Everett De Roche and was produced by Gary Hamilton (Wolf Creek).
The Storm Warning unrated DVD features an extended version of the film with feature commentary by director Jamie Blanks, writer Everett DeRoche, actor Robert Taylor, cinematographer Karl Von Moller and special FX artist Justin Dix.
You can check out our video of the Q&A session with director Jamie Blanks below, or you can read the transcript here.
Well, it’s official: the Road to Hell is pretty much paved over. Directing duo the Strause Brothers have given interviews in which they expressed their (presumably sincere) intention to return to the dark, scary tone of 1979’s ALIEN, yet ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM is just about as bad as its 2004 predecessor ALIEN VS. PREDATOR. In fact, if the Straus Brothers had truly wanted to remain faithful to the tone of ALIEN, they would not have made ALIENS VS. PREDATOR at all, because there is quite literally nothing in this film that harkens back in any way to Ridley Scott’s tense, atmospheric, and utterly convincing direction; the mindless action aesthetic is pure AVP. To be fair, the new screenplay (by Shane Salemo) jetisons the videogame structure of Paul W. S. Anderson’s AVP script, but eliminating a single flaw is hardly enough to justify another re-hash of an idea that was never much more than a joke to begin with – especially when that idea is so bogged down with inherited baggage and continuity problems that it has little chance yielding a convincing film. The funny thing is that, if the AVP premise had been abandoned in favor of featuring an original monster, this scenario might have yielded a halfway decent (if not to bright) B-movie monster flick. As it is, we just get a muddled mess.
Picking up where ALIEN VS. PREDATOR left off, the new film begins with a fallen Predator giving birth to a chest-burster Alien, which runs rampant on the Predator spaceship, leading to a crash-landing back on Earth, near a small town. Back on the Predator home world, a “Cleaner” sees the result on a view-screen and heads to Earth to wipe out any evidence of the crash. For some reason, the Predator does not use one of those nifty bombs that all Predators seem to have at their disposal for quickly eliminating all traces; instead, he goes about picking off Aliens one by one, disposing of the bodies with acid. (Of course, a single blast would have ended the movie at the five-minute mark, leaving lots of unhappy viewers.) Apparently unable to resist a little recreational killing, the Predator picks off a policeman, skins him, and leaves him hanging from a tree, which pretty much contradicts the whole “leave no traces” plan, but what the hell – this is only a movie, right?
Despite being able to more or less magically pop up wherever there is an Alien (like Jason in the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, he seems to have an off-screen Instant Teleportation Device), the Predator does not do a very good job of cleaing up the mess, which turns into a citywide slaughter before long. The townspeople who are fortunate enough not to die immediately eventually figure out that they need to get out of town before the U.S. government nukes the place. Why the military feels the need to opt for this solution, when they don’t even really know what’s happening in the town, is also left unexplained, as is the motivation for a colonel in the Nation Guard who turns over a Predator weapon to the Weyland-Yutania company, which is supposed to form some kind of continuity link with the previous ALIEN films. (Some defenders of the film insist that “Colonel” is really a government spook, not a military man at all. This leaves the question of how he comes to be in the chain of command, in a postion to order a nuclear strike without Presidential approval, and why there are no repercusions against him when he does.)
The plot absurdities ensure that the film is completely incapable of generating genuine suspense – you simply cannot take it seriously. Matters are hardly helped by the cast of characters. Early on, there are a few nice touches between old friends Dallas (Pasquale) and Morales (Ortiz): the former is now an ex-con, the latter the local sheriff, but they try to get along, like a pale version of the cop-criminal duos who used to populate old Warner Brothers gangster movies in the 1930s. Unfortunately, for the rest of the cast, we get a parade of non-entities who all seem lifted from a bad slasher film, including a some high school thugs and a hot chick who strips down to her mismatched bathing suit.
Some – if not all – of this might have been forgiven if the film had at least been fun in a mindless kind of way, but the action seldom if ever works. Although R-rated, ALIENS VS. PREDATOR serves up nothing in the way of memorable shocks. There is not a single decent scare in the film, and even the bloody violence seldom generates any excitement. Although the film is, thankfully, not drowned in cartoony computer-generated imagery, the Strause Brothers shoot most of the monster scenes in blurry tight shots that render the action almost unintelligible. You frquently lose track of which monster is killing the humans, and almost as soon realize that you do not care.
Things are hardly helped by the introduction of a Pred-Alien, a hybrid of the two species. Sticking the ugly Predator face on one of the Aliens simply reminds us of how special was the original H. R. Giger design fir ALIEN; the attempt to improve on it proves there are times when one should leave well enough alone.
As bad as the new design is, the function of the hybrid Pred-Alien is even worse. It does little to make it stand out from the other Aliens, so that it feels like little more than a gratuitous conceit – a lame writer’s device: the Pred-Alien can apparently skip the Face-Hugger stage of Alien life-cycle by planting chest-bursters directly into pregnant women. Thus the script seeks to justify the otherwise unaccountable number of aliens that show up in the town in such a very short time.
The biggest mistake is a holdover from the first AVP: both films seem to think that Predators are cool and audiences will enjoy watching them kill lots of Aliens. (Greg Strause even called the Predator the “star of this movie.”) The problem is that the Predators are loathsomely decadent beings who kill for the fun of it; it is entirely their fault that this Alien menace is unleashed on Earth, and the only reasonable response would be to want to see any any and all Predators suffer a big Karmic payback for their atrocities.
Unfortunately, with only one Predator in the film, the script (rather predictably) has to avoid killing its “hero,” denying the audience the best form of satisfaction they could desire. When the final wrestling match takes place, it is too little, too late, and the outcome weasles out by offering a draw, as if afraid of alienating fans of one or the other franchise. You can forgive a monster movie for not providing a great plot, but at the very least it should have the nerve to deliver some all-out monster action instead of tippy-toeing like a frightened amateur afraid of setting off a minefield.
ALIENS VS. PREDATOR is a lifeless recycling not only of the franchises that lend their names on the marquee, but also of several other classic horror films. With its small band of survivors fighting off the encroaching menace, it recalls John Carpenter films like ASSAULT ON PRECINT 13 and GHOSTS OF MARS. George Romero’s THE CRAZIES provides the template for a tale of local residents trying to escape a small town before the government-sanctioned purge results in the deaths of everyone within the borders. And RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD provides the sinister government-sanctioned method of nipping the menace in the bud. Although familiar, these plot devices are resilient enough to form the basis for a decent action-horror flick. Too bad the script didn’t just leave out the titular monster in favor of doing something a little more original.
In at least one interview, Colin Strause said that the Predator “Cleaner” was nicknamed “Wolf” on set, after the Harvey Keitel character in PULP FICTION. This overlooks the fact that Wolf was based on a character that Keitel had played in THE PROFESSIONAL, a remake of LA FEMME NIKITA, which featured “Victor the Cleaner,” played by Jean Reno. Victor’s method of disposing of bodies (with acid) is far more similar to the Predator’s actions than anything that Wolf does in PULP FICTION. ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (20th Century Fox, 2007). Directed by Colin Strause and Greg Strause. Written by Shane Salemo. Cast: Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, John Ortiz, Johnny Lewis, Ariel Gade, Kristen Hager, Sam Trammell, Robert Joy, David Paetkau, Tom Woodruff Jr, Ian Whyte.
“What if it [The Rage Virus] comes back again?”–Major Scarlett
“We kill it.”–General Stone
The geopolitical allegory is biting (no pun intended!), bleak and[mordant. A U.S.-led NATO force enters an England transformed by the “Rage Virus” into an empty, ravaged wasteland. The victims of the virus have all died of starvation, the infected bodies have been disposed of, and it appears the man-made pestilence has run its course. The military, now operating from a safe Green Zone, has brought in 15,000 refugees to repopulate the British Isles.
Alas, nothing exists in a vacuum, and in spite of the sleek sanctuaries, surveillance cameras, vigilant snipers, firepower and hi-tech security smarts, chaos lies in wait. The occupation forces – faced with a horrific viral resurgence and an inability, in a pinch, to distinguish “The Friendlies” from the rabid, slavering brutes – loses control of the situation which quickly turns into a quagmire of escalating horror, violence, and death. Sound familiar?
Even if 28 WEEKS LATER does tip its hat to current events, the chilling reverberations of the movie’s social commentary is actually secondary to director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s singular feat of crafting a sequel that is nearly as accomplished as the original 28 DAYS LATER (helmed by Danny Boyle, who is on board as producer this time). Clocking in at a speedy and relatively trim 99 minutes, 28 WEEKS LATER is a compelling entry in the Apocalypse Cinema Sweepstakes, scoring as yet another frenetic, grieving meditation on the death throes of a civilization. Juggling themes such as cowardice, moral abrogation, selfless heroism, survival, government incompetence and hubris, Fresnadillo’s film (scripted by four writers, including the director himself) is more than just a bloody, kinetic zombie relay. Even so, horror buffs who are looking for no more than loads of gore are not likely to be disappointed.
28 WEEKS LATER is, if nothing else, a fairly affecting piece about Family. Germaine to that statement, the film’s prologue starts with a band of survivors holed up in a countryside manor (the ending of the first film). A married couple, Don (Robert Carlyle) and Alice (Catherine McCormack), and four other people, attempt to ride out the catastrophe as they hide from “The Infected.” A young boy arrives with the plague hordes in tow, and in the ensuing chaos – a terrifying, masterfully-edited sequence of rapid-fire hand-held shots – Don abandons Alice to the attackers, manages to outrace the virus-infected zombies, and grabs a motor boat to make his way to the U.S.-held Green Zone. Don’s act of abandonment will have unforeseen future consequences.
Later, Don, now a maintenance (or “Section”) officer in the militarized safety zone, is reunited with his two children, Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and Tammy (Imogen Poots), who had been sent out of the country by their parents. The kids want to know what happened to Mom, and Don gives his children a judiciously edited version of the truth (in other words, he lies). When the kids defy quarantine to go back to their old house for photos of their mother, they find Alice alive and hiding in the attic. Subsequently, the chief medical officer, Major Scarlett (Rose Byrne) discovers that Alice, though infected by the Rage Virus, is immune to its effects: she is a carrier who might carry the possibility of an antidote in her blood (this is a bit of a nod to CHILDREN OF MEN). When a misplaced act of contrition leads to a new outbreak of the virus, Scarlett and a sympathetic sniper, Sgt. Doyle (Jeremy Renner) try to save the kids (who might also be immune) from both The Infected and the army, who are now directed to enforce a “Code Red” plan to wipe out all remaining (non-occupation force) survivors.
This leads to what is without a doubt the film’s most potent, politically-charged scene, in which the army snipers, instructed to take out The Infected raging among the panic stricken refugees, start blasting into the crowd, trying to surgically remove the fleet-footed “zombies” (the speed of the disease’s turnover time is one of the nifty things about the original film’s conception: it takes less than a half-minute for force and law to come crashing down). In a short while, the chaos grows beyond their control, and the Green Zone’s General Stone (Idris Elba) upgrades the mission to Code Red, instructing the riflemen to take down everything that moves. The scope of the scene’s horror, waste and sadness seems so plugged into the current war in Iraq, that I kept expecting the film to cut away to a blond Fox Network talking-head talking about scheduled “surges” to bring the Rage Virus into check. It is probably the movie’s best moment, though the movie – as hi-charged as the running, snarling sickies – doesn’t make a misstep either in its action or bromides. The scene is a powerful summation of the horrors and atrocities that The Forces of Order can thrust upon those they are enjoined to protect when the veneer of that order starts to break down: the imposition of force always invites chaos.
The political jabs aside, the movie is, in its sum, less about drawing comparisons to The Iraq War, then delivering a ferocious, heart-thumping Survival Run that quickly limns a nation’s doom, snagging us as much via the finely drawn, sympathetic characters as the pace and cutting. Surprisingly, 28 WEEKS LATER, is touchingly, chillingly, Pro Family. One man’s (understandably) tragic moment of character failure, and subsequent desire for forgiveness, ultimately leads to his destruction, and insures that the only way he can reunite with his family, is through horror and death. The movie’s focus on one family, brings the apocalypse down to a human level, building to the only conclusion the film could truly reach. The shaky camera coda at the very end almost seems a little redundant: the movie could have ended with the helicopter ride over The English Channel. The first film’s sense of immediacy is nicely maintained by the contrast of the kids’ surrogate parent (Scarlett and Doyle)’s all-too-human efforts to save them, while real Dad (Don’s a cagey, resourceful zombie paterfamilias, capable of evading snipers and napalm strikes) dogs them in a combination of parental instinct and homicidal fury. Poor Don, riddled first by by guilt and then by a spirit-vanquishing contagion, just wants to see his kids.
28 WEEKS, while just as dismal in tone as Boyle’s film, is, much more fast-paced. Shorn of all those shots of Cillian Murphy wandering a deserted London, the story starts in turbo mode, builds tension within the sterile safety environ, goes into overdrive, and, in the main, never eases up. The use of shaky hand-held cameras to film The Infected attacks – a signature move since 28 DAYS LATER and the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake – may seem a bit over-used, but it still ratchets the suspense by giving us fleeting glimpses of the drooling, clawing, crimson-eyed marauders. Fresnadillo, whose first film, INTACTO, included a scene of blindfolded, hand-bound characters running through a forest to prove their worthiness to “The God of Luck” (Max von Sydow) sure knows how to film people running in mortal peril.
The visual effects by David Abbott and the digital crew convincingly portray a London bereft of human habitation. Enrique Chediak’s cinematography burnishes every scene, whether it’s a sudden burst of sunlight, bright as a solar flare, into a dark and boarded up haven, or the impersonal menace of flame-thrower-wielding soldiers materializing out of the white haze of a gas attack.
The performances are more than solid. Byrne and Renner are warm, likeable, human, and heroic, and even The Kids are great: there’s no Cute Factor in this film.
The occasional splashy, whigged-out sequence aside (there is a helicopter monster mow-down that apes the GRINDHOUSE “Planet Terror” ‘copter slaughter), the horror and the “Got Ya!” moments succeed when they’re presented on a more scaled-down and intimate level. The movie’s most terrifying scene, Don’s infection through Alice’s kiss of forgiveness, goes from the relief of reconciliation, to surprise, to grief, to violent horror – the emotions sold by the intimate staging and by composer John Murphy’s mournful scoring. There is real pathos in the way this flawed but caring man (Carlyle gives a nuanced, conflicted performance) has his soul destroyed in mere seconds.
The movie also offers a nail-biting suspense piece as the kids and Byrne make a pitch-dark subway journey, shot from the point of Byrne using Doyle’s sniper-scope to guide her charges through tunnels filled with decomposing corpses. While the scene is more than a little derivative of a similar sequence in THE DESCENT, it provides the chills and expected payoff. Maybe the defining, prophetic moment of impending societal collapse is neatly encapsulated at the start when the refugees, taking a tram to their new hermetically sealed haven, are reassured of its security and creature comforts by the cheery female U.S. soldier acting as tour guide. She tells them The Green Zone has a general store, canteen, and “even a pub” to the nervous laughter of the folks on board.
You know right then, that Doomsday is on the rise.
The DVD is in English 5.1, with Dolby English, French, and Spanish Surround. Bonus features include deleted scenes, featurettes, and audio commentary by Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and co-scripter E. L. Lavigne.
The Deleted Scenes include:
THE CANTEEN (Scene 29). This fleshes out an earlier (silent), passed over encounter between Don, Andy and Tammy and Major Scarlett within the Green Zone’s canteen. The scene, cut by Fresnadillo because it was a “stop in the rhythm,” doesn’t add much to the overall story.
ANDY’S DREAM (Scene 166/167), is a fantasy sequence set in the subway near the end, in which Andy, having been attacked by Don, flees his sister and imagines meeting his mother on a subway train.
Other bonus features include:
THE INFECTED: Inter-cut with (mainly humorous) interviews with members of the cast, and “Movement Advisor” Paul Kasey, this behind-the-scenes segment showcases the preparation, training, make-up for the extras playing the victims of the Rage Virus. Commentary by Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner, Catherine McCormack, Robert Carlyle, Imogen Poots, Mackintosh Muggleston, Idris Elba, and Costume director Jane Petrie.
GETTING INTO THE ACTION: This includes various action shots and commentary by members of the cast as well as Producer Andrew MacDonald and Co-Producer Danny Boyle, the director of 28 DAYS LATER. Boyle was actually injured filming some 2nd-unit footage, which included the film’s opening scenes, with the attack on the country manor and Don’s escape.
28 WEEKS LATER(Fox Atomic , 2007). Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Written by Rowan Joffee, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, E. L.. Lavigne, Jesus Olmo. Cast: Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner, Mackintosh Muggleton, Imogen Poots.