Man's Fragile Nature Examined In THE EXPERIMENT

The things people do for money. While not much has previously been known about Adrian Brody’s new direct-to-DVD film THE EXPERIMENT, this week saw the release of it’s 1st trailer…and boy is it a doozie!
THE EXPERIMENT – based loosely on the infamous 1971 Stanford prison experiment as well as the 2001 German film DAS EXPERIMENT – follows 26 men as they sign up for a unique psychological experiment. They are each placed within a prison and divided up into two groups – Prisoners and Guards. Should any violence occur during the experiment, the red light will flash signaling the end of the event and no pay for anyone. Not much else can be said that cannot be gleaned from the trailer, save to say that this probably won’t be described as “The feel good comedy of the year”. Despite the Direct-to-DVD status, the film boasts a very strong cast including Clifton Collins, Jr. (CAPOTE), Forest Whitaker (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND), Maggie Grace (LOST, TAKEN), and Fisher Stevens (LOST).
The DVD release date has been set for September 21st, 2010.

Alpha And Omega theatrical release

alpha_and_omega_poster05ALPHA AND OMEGA tells the story of Kate & Humphrey, two wolves living amongst their pack in the wilds of Canada. Kate is an alpha, dominant and driven to succeed; Humphrey is an omega and quite content to live in the moment. One day, while briefly separated from their pack, the wolves are caught by a park ranger and relocated to Idaho. Desperate to return home, the two embark on a journey where they must learn to depend on one another to survive.
Starring the voices of Hayden Panettiere as Kate and Justin Long as Humphrey. The supporting cast includes the voices of Danny Glover, Dennis Hopper, and Christina Ricci. Directed by Anthony Bell and Ben Gluck.
Release Date: September 17th, 2010


'Let Me In' – Trailer

Here’s the international trailer for LET ME IN, the new version of Sweden’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel.
LET ME IN stars Chloe Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins, Cara Buono, Jimmy ‘Jax’ Pinchak, and Sasha Barrese .
Written and directed by Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD).
Due in theaters October 1st from Hammer Film Productions and Overture Films.
A new vampire film from the resurrected Hammer… Could be interesting.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror review

Birdemic: Shock and TerrorThere are the classics of bad cinema – PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, THE ROBOT MONSTER, THE GIANT CLAW – and the contemporary examples – BATTLEFIELD EARTH, HOWARD THE DUCK, TROLL 2, and everything by Uwe Boll.
The art of making a bad film is akin to paving the road to hell: it starts out with the best intentions and leads us to perdition, due to hubris or delusion or lack of talent or, ideally, all three. The auteurs of these “masterpieces” are mostly oblivious to the horror that they have unleashed, totally lacking the insight or objectivity to look beyond their own ego and their crazed desire to become the next Spielberg.
No Spielberg here, or even Ed Wood, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR ‘s director James Nguyen stands alone in creating the perfect storm of badness. While most other bad movies have some redeeming features – a good soundtrack, cinematography, tight editing or a passable performance by an actor, his film has none of these.
BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR is unrelentingly bad in every aspect. The audio mix is horrible with sound cutting in and out constantly and dialogue that is often unintelligible. The cameraman can barely keep things in frame and constantly uses crane shots and dolly moves just to remind us he is there. Not to mention the pointless pans across restaurant walls and empty vistas. The editing is beyond sloppy, with shots clipped before they are over and others left pointlessly long.
BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERRORThe music is an odd mix of library tracks that are totally out of sync with the action on the screen; sounding at times like the score of a 1950’s social hygiene film and at other times like a 1970’s porno film. The “terrifying” special effects are clip art animations of flocks of birds which appear to be on an endless loop. Some effects, such as a forest fire, actually end before the action on the screen does.
Imagine our excitement as our heroes fight off a bird attack with coat hangers – which has to be the most thrilling use of a cinematic coat hanger since Faye Dunaway wielded one in MOMMY DEAREST. Or how about one of the heroes constantly firing a machine gun that magically never runs out of ammo? Or the fact that there appears to be an apocalypse going on that has not affected the background traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway? Or a film that doesn’t conclude, it just stops? BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR has all of this and more.
For the first ten minutes of BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR, Nguyen appears to have a fetishist’s obsession with the blue Mustang the hero drives, and drives, and drives, and drives. Of course, this is out of sync with the film’s overall message of global warming. Once the credits have ended and the blue Mustang is safely parked, we finally meet our hero, Rod, who then burns up the next few minutes walking and walking and walking… Of course, after meeting Rod (played by Alan Bagh – in a performance that redefines inept) I began to wish we could go back to Rod driving or walking again, anything to relieve the pain.
Now it doesn’t help that the script by Nguyen is crammed with dialogue so wooden you could fashion an ark from it. Rod, you see, works as a high level salesman in a billion dollar software company, something we instantly believe when we see Rod’s tacky work cubicle. Rod is also a lonely guy, hardly surprising once you see him coming on to his love interest Nathalie (played by Whitney Moore). His romantic style is a cross between a stalker and a serial killer, and he couldn’t be any more sinister if he carved a cross into his forehead with a razorblade and invited his best gal out for a night of creepy crawling.
Moore appears to be a more capable actress, though her focus seems to be “get this over with”. The rest of the cast is just as wooden and even more forgettable. There are a couple of doctor types who pop up to warn us of the dire effects of global warming, after the birds go crazy and start pecking eyes out and slashing throats.

Romantic leads Ron and
Whitney Moore and Alan Bagh

BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR is half over before the bird action begins, so that we can experience in excruciating detail the budding romance between Rod and Nathalie. Guess which half of the film is more horrifying.
Now, to be fair, this is a bad film, and it shouldn’t be subjected to the standards that you would apply to the latest Hollywood megaplex product – JONAH HEX, anyone? No, a different standard applies here, and the audience knows it. They savour every bad piece of acting and dialogue, plot absurdity, and amateurish camera move.
BIRDEMIC SHOCK AND TERROR has to be seen with an audience, preferably a large one, lubricated on beer and weed. It felt like a flashback to the midnight screenings of my youth, watching THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.
Or maybe the Toronto audience I saw it with just needed a release after a very strange week of earthquakes, tornados, and G20 rioting in the streets. We needed the hilarious badness of BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR to calm us down and refocus us on what is really important in life: a deliciously bad movie that delivers more laughs than Adam Sandler’s latest.


BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR (2008). Written and directed by James Nguyen. Cast: Alan Bagh, Whitney Moore, Tippi Hedren, Janae Caster, Colton Osborne.

Book of Eli on DVD: The Use and Abuse of Religion

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The recent release of THE BOOK OF ELI (2010) on DVD provides an opportunity for a reassessment of important elements within its story. Viewers with religious convictions have interpreted the film in strongly positive and negative terms; however, another reading is plausible that avoids these extremes. Taking into account its late-modern-Western and post-9/11 context, THE BOOK OF ELI may be interpreted as a film that urges caution in the use of religion by both its practitioners and the irreligious – who variously objectify religion and justify violence in fundamentalist fashion while failing to heed the message of religion or recognize its power as a form of social control and a tool for oppression. This review will address these elements, which appear to be overlooked in many reviews of the movie.
THE BOOK OF ELI is the latest example of Hollywood (and popular culture’s) continued fascination with and exploration of the post-apocalypse. Blending genre elements from the Western and action films, the story follows a man (Denzel Washington), who lives in a near-future world ravaged by nuclear war. He is on a personal mission to carry a book, which he holds sacred, to the West Coast. Along the way, he stops for water in a town under the leadership of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), an oppressive and violent man who rules with an iron fist. Carnegie is looking for a book with the power to control people and expand his power; his search dovetails with Eli’s mission to protect the same book in his westward journey. The resulting conflict sets the stage for the rest of the film, with post-apocalyptic elements providing the backdrop and context for the exploration of religious themes.
As the narrative unfolds, we learn that after the war Washington’s character (who only at the end of the film do we learn is named Eli) responded to an internal voice that told him where to dig in the rubble for an important item. There he found the book, more specifically a Bible, around which the story circulates. The voice also told Eli that it was his mission to carry the book West and that he would be given divine protection in his travels. THE BOOK OF ELI provides a number of examples of Eli’s devotion to his faith and his calling, such as prayer over his food, daily Bible reading, and the quotation of biblical verses, even in connection with the slaying of his enemies.
Before considering an alternative reading to the pro- and anti-Christian readings of the film prevalent in many commentaries, a few words are in order about the possibilities related to someone actually thinking they could be the recipients of divine revelation in a period of great social upheaval, such as the post-apocalyptic scenario of this film. While skeptics will be doubtful of any such possibilities in the assumption of the absence of the supernatural or the transcendent, even so, sociological evidence exists that can account for such beliefs. Noted sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, in his discussion of revelators in new religious movements and major world religions, notes that “all successful religious movements arise in response to crises.” He goes further and develops a proposition from this idea, stating that, “During periods of social crisis, the number of persons who receive novel revelations and the number willing to accept such revelations are maximized.”
In THE BOOK OF ELI, we are led to believe that religion has largely disappeared since most of the previous generations of religious people have died, and at some point at least the Bible if not all religious Scriptures have been destroyed; however, the post-apocalyptic scenario certainly provides the social context of extreme crisis wherein people would be receptive to the possibility of personal revelation. As this plays out in the film, it is not so much the surviving humans who are looking to hear the divine, but rather Eli himself who hears the inner voice which for him provides a strong sense of divine vocation. Understood as developing in a context of social crisis, it is not so much Eli’s understanding of divine vocation that is problematic, but his actions that come as a result. Eli’s actions as a man of religious devotion, often violent ones, have resulted in different interpretations of the film, and in light of this they deserve further exploration.
A sampling of the reviews and commentary on THE BOOK OF ELI by those with religious convictions, particularly those with a Judeo-Christian orientation, reveals diverse interpretations of the film in regards to its relationship to Christianity. On the one hand, there are those who take exception to the film, seeing it as incorporating a strongly anti-Christian caricature; on the other hand there are those who see the film as sympathetic to Christianity (one website even going so far as to describe it as “positively Christian”).
In my view both of these readings are problematic. For starters, THE BOOK OF ELI is not presenting Eli as a Christian. Although he reads from the Bible, and gives thanks for his meals, the name of Christ is never once invoked in the film. Instead, Eli prays to “the Lord” and closes his prayers with a simple “Amen.” In this way his brand of religious devotion may be understood as a generic brand of Judeo-Christian theism rather than a specific expression of Christianity. If the film does not present the Christian faith and the actions of a devoted Christian, then it is difficult to see how the film could be construed as either pro- or anti-Christian.
If these popular readings may be inaccurate, then what reading might better account for various elements of the film? I suggest that, instead, THE BOOK OF ELI should be understood as a critique of the misuse of religion by skeptics and religious devotees alike. First, consider the late-modern and post-9/11 context of the film. Late modernity, or postmodernity, often includes critique of dominant cultural narratives, including religious ones. In addition, we live in a post-9/11 world, where religious tensions and violence around the world exert a constant influence in our lives. When these two considerations come together, it is plausible that the cultural context out of which THE BOOK OF ELI has arisen is one that attempts to critique prominent religious narratives, particularly those that have led to violence.
This leads to my second consideration, and that is the ways in which religion is used by the two principle characters in THE BOOK OF ELI. On the one hand, we have Carnegie, a violent man who seems to have no religious convictions of his own but who seeks a Bible because he recognizes its potential for expanding his power over others. In one scene he shouts to his cronies that “It’s not a book, it’s a weapon!” Here we have a character who seeks to use an important aspect of a religious tradition in order to gain control over “the weak and desperate,” but not as an important part of his heartfelt religious pathway. As the villain of the film it is clear that viewers are to recognize the illegitimacy of Carnegie’s (mis)use of religion.
However, there is a second major character for whom religion is significant: Eli. While his use of religion is presented more positively, it is not without its difficulties. Eli is a lone hero with a divine mission who must do everything he can to protect the holy book as he carries it West. In a post-apocalyptic world where people are fighting for their lives, Eli’s mission results in mayhem and violence for those who try to kill him and steal his belongings, including the Bible. Not only is Eli prone to violence in his mission, perhaps understandable in the survivalist context, but his violence is selective.
In one scene Eli sees a man and a woman traveling who are accosted by a roving gang affiliated with Carnegie. The man is killed and the woman is violently raped. Eli is moved by this viciousness, but he tells himself that he has his mission and that the violence taking place around him is not his concern. So in the case of Eli we have a man of religious devotion who is driven to great violence to protect a religious object, but who is not driven to “love his neighbor as himself” to the extent that his faith compels him to assist those suffering around him. Thus, while Carnegie’s use of religion is clearly problematic, Eli’s is as well, perhaps more so in light of his religious devotion.
For those who may dispute this interpretation of Eli’s actions, Eli himself seems to come to understand that his own faith missed the mark. Near the conclusion of THE BOOK OF ELI, after Eli has lost the book to Carnegie, he is rescued by his traveling companion Solara, to whom he acknowledges that he was so caught up in protecting the Bible that he failed to live its message. Eli’s religious faith was focused on the externals, that of protecting a sacred item of Scripture, often leading to grotesque violence, perhaps necessary at times; in the process, he failed to internalize the essence of his religion and, in so doing, turned a blind eye to the suffering around him that he might have been able to alleviate.
Viewed from this perspective, THE BOOK OF ELI may be read as not so much articulating a pro-Christian or anti-Christian message. Rrather, arising out of a critique of religious narratives of our time that often incorporate violence and neglect marginalized, this film may be read as one that cautions against the abuse of religion by believers and non-believers alike. For those willing to stretch themselves in their consideration of religion, from whatever their personal frameworks, THE BOOK OF ELI provides some interesting aspects for personal reflection.
The DVD and Blu-ray discs of  THE BOOK OF ELI include a handful of special features. The standard version of the DVD is disappointing in that its bonus material is limited to some additional scenes and an animated tale that develops the storyline further. The Blu-ray Combo Pack includes more – not only the additional scenes and animated story, but also explorations of other aspects of the story related to Eli’s journey and post-apocalyptic, as well as a soundtrack for the film.



Jonah Hex: Summer's Biggest Bomb?

Jonah Hex (2010)JONAH HEX may not turn out to be the worst blockbuster that Hollywood inflicts upon us this summer, but it certainly seems likely to be the most disappointing. Not disappointing because it was filled with potential, but disappointing because it fails to deliver even the cheap thrills, over-hyped action heroics, and pre-fabricated melodrama that – at a bare minimum – passes for entertainment in this kind of film. This is one, dull ride across the range that will have viewers running home in search of HIGH-PLAINS DRIFTER, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, and even THE CROW – just as a reminder that there is a way to do this kind of genre piece right.
The film starts with a clever opening cue – the Warner Brothers theme played on electric slide guitar, lending a Western feel to the familiar notes – but with a modern edge. This echo of Ennio Morricone (who scored Sergio Leone’s great Italian Westerns) is the first and last time we will feel any sense of anticipation in JONAH HEX, because anticipation requires a narrative confidence that this film utterly lacks. The pacing is weirdly schizophrenic – a fact that becomes evident in the opening prologue.
The first problem is that the prologue should not even exist. Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) should be introduced as a man of mystery, but the film seems afraid of letting us figure out his back story along the way, so instead it is spelled out in an opening montage, with helpful voice over from the character.

Jonah Hex
Turnbull (John Malkovich) torches Jonah's home.

Unfortunately, the sequence is oddly truncated, as if the filmmakers were even more afraid that we might be bummed out if Hex’s personal tragedy were actually allowed to register on an emotional level. So what we get is the telegraph version: Hex family killed stop Hex face branded stop Hex recovers from near death stop Hex now able to communicate with dead stop Hex becomes bounty hunter full stop. Consequently, the scene leaves us cold, and later flashbacks, filling in the missing details, comes a bit late to hit us with emotional impact – it’s a re-run of what we already know, and it’s too late to make us care.
If this opening miscalculation were just a matter of the film getting off to a shaky start, we could try to forget it and move on, but the sequence turns out to be symptomatic of the rest of JONAH HEX, which feels like an all-out assault on narrative coherency. It’s as if Nicolas Roeg got stuck with a boring work-for-hire assignment and decided to sabotage the production with his patented fee-association montage approach.
Or more likely, the film feels eerily reminiscent of THE INVASION (2007), the adaptation of Jack Finny’s The Body Snatchers that the Warner Brothers studio turned over to the Wachowski Brothers in post-production. JONA HEX features the same sort of editorial trickery, with different scenes intercut in a way that confuses the timeline in the hope of compressing exposition and visuals into one big – though not very finely threaded – knot.


Jonah Hex
In a plot devil reminiscent of PUSHING DAISIES, Jonah Hex briefly revives the dead to get information

JONAH HEX is supposed to be two films in one: it’s a Western about a bounty hunter out for revenge, and it’s a horror- fantasy about a man who stopped just short of death’s door and now has some kind of connection with those on the other side, manifested in the ability to briefly resurrect the dead for interrogation purposes. But more than that JONAH HEX feels like a movie that was shot twice, and the editors could not decide which pieces to use, so they intercut both of them. JONAH HEX Take One was apparently about a loner cowboy whose only companions were a horse and a dog, and it ended with Hex and his enemy Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) duking it out in the desert. JONAH HEX Take Two gives Hex a sometimes girlfriend, a hooker with a heart of gold named Lilah (Megan Fox) and ends with Hex and Turbull duking it out aboard an iron-clad vessel.
The two fight-to-the-death scenes with Hex and Turnbull are intercut, the justification (provided in voice over) being that the desert sequence is a near-death hallucination, to which Jonah is flashing back. As if that two-fer were not enough, there is also a double ending: in one, Jonah and Lilah walk away together, into a beautifully rendered cloudy blue sky; in the other, Jonah rides off into the desert, with his horse and dog, but without Lilah.
It is weirdly symptomatic of JONAH HEX’s mangled macho ethos that the scene with the dog – in fact Jonah’s relationship with the animal – is far more moving than the one with Lilah. In fact, the dog’s has a few good moments that leave us wanting more. The canine is introduced as if it will feature prominently: Hex evens the odds with some idiots who are tormenting the creature, which shows its gratitude by following him of its own accord. And then…nothing. The poor pup’s apparently abbreviated role suggests one of those old time co-stars whose best scenes were cut out to salvage the vanity of the headliner afraid of being upstaged.
Whether JONAH HEX was in fact largely reshot and recut, I cannot say, but I certainly hope it was – because I would hate to think that the film was designed from the ground up to be this way. For all the talk of CLASH OF THE TITANS being radically revised at the last minute, the seams that show are relatively forgivable. In JONAH HEX, however, the film feels stitched together like a bad mad scientist’s experiment.
For one thing, Fox’s character looks shoe-horned into the film at random intervals. At one point she kills a paying customer; the next time we see her, it’s as if the incident never happened. (Sure, we know the creep deserved it, but are we really supposed to believe the local sheriff, not to mention the guys’ family, would just give her a pass?) She’s a kick-ass girl except when the script needs her to be easily abducted by Burke (Michael Fassbender) so that Turnbull can use her as bait to lure Jonah Hex into a trap.
Weirdly, Turnbull doesn’t follow up on this plan; instead, Hex shows up of his own accord, leading to an unintentionally hilarious bit. Turnbull, who has been delivering his standard-issue evil-villain-victory-speech to his men on the deck of his iron-clad ship, suddenly produces Lilah out of nowhere, like a poker player revealing an ace up his sleeve. What the… did he have her hidden in his overcoat, or what? (And by the way, how did Burke know that Jonah loved Lilah? Should we even care, when the screenwriters plainly don’t?)
In time honored tradition of movie villains, Turbull doesn’t kill Jonah when he has the chance (even though he has ordered Hex’s death in the past). No, in a hilarious piece of lip-service screenwriting, Turnbull says he wants Hex to see his moment of triumph – and then locks up Hex and Lilah below decks, from which vantage point, Turbull’s triumph will not be visible (although it will of course, give Hex and Lilah ample opportunity to escape).
Jonah Hex (2010)jonah hex ironclad
This leads to a lengthy but not particularly exciting climax filled with enough idiocy to make you wonder whether JONAH HEX isn’t some kind of extremely well-disguised self-parody. The U.S. government sends a boat to intercept Turnbull, but in a plot development that sounds like something out of THE WILD, WILD WEST, Turnbull is in possession of a super secret sci-fi type weapon. Said weapon was designed for but never built by the government; the U.S. government knows he has it and has seen the destruction it has wrought, but the U.S. officers sent to intercept him basically shrug when he opens fire, and simply wait to be obliterated.
This leaves it up to Jonah and Lilah to save the day. Fortunately, the “nation-killer” weapon has been deliberately designed with a feature that gives the heroes time to stop it. For reasons that would occur only to a screenwriter, the multi-barrel cannon fires off half a dozen rounds that land harmlessly, until a final “trigger” round is fired – and of course, the trigger takes a long time to roll down the conveyor belt before being loaded. This is every bit as silly as it sounds.
This indifferent approach to even the semblance of continuity and common sense perfectly encapsulate the narrative strategy of JONAH HEX. It’s as if the filmmaker thought up some random scenes they wanted to see and simply stitched them altogether for their own – certainly not our – enjoyment.


Jonah HexPresumably no one is sidling up to JONAH HEX hoping to enjoy a sophisticated story. But the film fails to deliver even the basic popcorn entertainment. Jimmy Hayward cannot direct action. The big set-pieces just lie there. He is equally unable to capture that Sergio Leone feel of the calm before the storm, the delicious anticipation of violence, when the hero will finally deliver the payback so richly deserved.
Hayward doesn’t know how to modulate his effects to suit the ups and downs of the story; sure, his cinematographer captures some great outdoor scenery, but it’s never used to set a tone or establish a mood that will underline the drama. JONAH HEX feels shot-by-numbers, but Hayward seems to have used the same numbers over and over. For instance, footage of Hex riding across the open range exhibits a generic quality, as if it were all shot on a single day and intercut at random throughout the film. Whether Jonah is heading to meet Lilah or to  track down Turnbull, he always rides at the same pace, and with the same expression.
In a desperate effort to enliven this leaden lack of exciting gunplay, Marco Beltrami’s dramatic score is intermixed with metaloid music by Mastadon. More and more we’re hearing this type of aural assault used to hype trailers (e.g., THE WOLF MAN), but this is one of the first times it has crept into the actual film, which should have stuck closer to the Morricone template.


jonah-hex-photo20Josh Brolin certainly looks the part of Jonah Hex. He gets off a good line here or there, responding to the oft-asked question, “What happened to your face?” And his awkward response to the unexpected loyalty of the dog he rescued (“I don’t know what to say to you”) is endearing. Unfortunately, the voice over robs him of the mystery that such a character should maintain; we should read his pain buried somewhere deep behind his eyes, not hear it spoken to us directly. And the makeup doesn’t work as well as it should. Not that it looks bad, but it never becomes a part of the performance the way that, for example, Heath Ledger made use of the Joker’s scarred mouth.
Malkovich is too good to phone it in, but this is as close as I ever want to see him get. The script’s one moderately interesting idea is making Turbull the 19th century equivalent of a terrorist (the word doesn’t even exist in English, forcing President Grant [a very sincere Aidan Quinn] to resort to a Spansish coinage adopted by Turnbull’s Mexican comrades). But Turnbull is under-motivated. He hates the North, but it’s not clear that he really wants to help the South (in one of those obligatory movie-villain scenes, he kills an ally for no other reason than to remind us that he is the villain). And Malkovich doesn’t bother trying to find anything underneath the man’s skin that will make him anything more than the cardboard character that the script has given him.
Jonah HexIn a development so unexpected it almost makes JONAH HEX worth seeing, Malkovich is overshadowed (even if only briefly) by Fox, who manages to show one decent glimmer of human warmth in a scene with Jonah, letting us know she really loves him (unlike her other clients). It’s almost enough to make you expect something interesting from her character, before she descends to being plot device. (Note to director Hayward: If you’re going to put Fox into that corset, you might as well try to generate a little heat with her character instead of presenting her with all the appeal of a barely noticed fashion accessory.)
The real scene-stealer is Michael Fassbender, as the crazy Irish, violence-loving henchmen to Turnbull. As much as we’re supposed to hate him for being a homicidal thrill killer, his joy de guerre is the film’s bright spot. You wonder if the filmmakers feel the same way, because they are absolutely unable to wring any satisfaction out of his death scene, which plays almost like something that was edited for television.


Jonah HexAs scrambled as the narrative of JONAH HEX is, even more scrambled is the underlying attitude toward the character. Hex fought for the South, and turned against his comrades only when his commanding officer (Turnbull) ordered attacks on civilian targets, including a hospital. This led to a fatal shoot-out with Turnbull’s son, Jeb (an uncredited Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who has one of the best moments when Hex briefly resurrects him to get information on father Turnbull’s whereabouts). Jonah Hex’s change-of-heart regarding the righteousness of the war he was fighting could have been a powerful sequence; alas, it is not shown. It is simply referenced to allow Hex off the hook for fighting on the wrong side of the Civil War, without coming to terms with what the fight was about.
In case this sounds like over-interpretation, the closing credit crawl for JONAH HEX ends with a folk song whose chorus proclaims the singer is proud to be a rebel who fought the Union; he’s sorry only about losing. Is the singer speaking for Jonah Hex? If not, why put the song in at all, especially at the very end, when most viewers will have left the theatre? Is this a shout-out to anyone with lingering resentments over the Civil War?

Jonah Hex
See? This proves the film is not endorsing racism.

Lest we conclude that JONAH HEX is endorsing racist sentiments, the filmmakers includes an official Hollywood disclaimer in the form of the token black man from whom Hex purchases weapons. In case the mere presence of this character were not enough to absolve Hex, our token character delivers dialogue insisting that Hex wasn’t for slavery and wasn’t for sessesion; he just didn’t like the government telling him what to do. This makes no sense (after all, the South had a government that told Hex to put on a uniform and fight the North). It’s just an embarrassing form of pandering to the tea-baggers in the audience: Sure I’m sorry the South lost the war that abolished slavery, and now that a black man is in the oval office, I’d like to secede, but that doesn’t mean I’m racist.
Once again, liberal Hollywood turns out not to be so liberal.
JONAH HEX (June 18, 2010). Directed by Jimmy Hayward, Screenplay by Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor; story by William Farmer and Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, based on the DC Comics character by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga. Cast: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnet, John Gallagher Jr., Tom Wopat, Michael Shannon, Wes Bentley, Julia Jones, Luke James Fleischmann, Rio Hackford, Aidan Quinn.

The Phantom airs Sunday on SyFy Channel

ThePhantom_leapSci-Fi Wire is featuring a 17-picture gallery of photos from THE PHANTOM mini-series.
Here’s Ryan Carnes (DOCTOR WHO), or more likely his stuntman, taking a flying leap. This is the “high-tech” replacement for The Phantom’s well-known costume.
All four hours are being shown this Sunday, June 20th, starting at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
The TV film from RHI Entertainment (SyFy’s FLASH GORDON) also features Isabella Rossellini (ALIAS) and Cas Anvar (PUNISHER: WAR ZONE).
It was written by Daniel Knauf (CARNIVÁLE) and Charles H. Knauf, and directed by Paolo Barzman (DR.JEKYLL & MR. HYDE, 2008).
Why does this ‘modern take’ on the legendary ‘Ghost Who Walks’ remind me of of that TV movie where The Hulk meets Daredevil (Rex Smith)?
TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK (1989), for those who want to look it up.
ThePhantom_CU The Phantom Ryan Carnes as Chris Moore, Ivan Smith as Dr. Baboor Isabella Rossellini as Dr. Bella Lithia, Cas Anvar as Raatib Singh Cameron Goodman as Renny Davidson Ryan Carnes as Chris Moore Kit Walker the Phantom surrounded by natives Ryan Carnes as Chris Moore in Phantom suit The Phantom Sandrine Holt as Guran

Splice: Science Fiction Film Review

Splice (2009)

Vincenzo Natali’s gene-splicing drama is this year’s MOON – a thoughtful little movie guaranteed to be the best filmed science fiction of the summer.

Serious cinematic science fiction is such a rarity these days that it sometimes seems like an endangered species, replaced by big-budget blockbusters about robots from outer space blowing stuff up; however, every once in a while a film arrives in theatres to remind us that thoughtful, intelligent genre cinema has not gone the way of the dinosaur. Last year, it was Duncan Jones’ MOON; this year, it is Vincenzo Natali’s SPLICE. In fact, I am going to go so far as to bestow virtually the exact same praise I lavished on MOON last year: I won’t say that SPLICE is guaranteed to be the best science fiction film of the summer (there may be other, even more engaging entertainments on the way), but strictly speaking, there can be little doubt that it will be this season’s best filmed science fiction – a motion picture that uses its premise to raise intriguing questions about the moral implications of scientific progress, without resorting to a simplistic formula about mad scientists and monsters run amok.
The story follows a pair of scientistswho splice genetic material from different animals to create hybrids that may provide cures to livestock diseases. Confronted by their corporate master’s decision to give up gene-splicing in favor of producing a patentable medicine, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) secretly take their experiment to the next level by including humans DNA in the mix. The resulting embryo grows at an unexpectedly accelerated rate, emerging as a strange – but surprisingly cute – little creature with wickedly poisonous tail. Clive wants to destroys the monster, but Elsa overrules him. As the creature matures it takes on more human characteristics, engendering a paternalistic reaction (for both good and bad) in the two scientists. Named Dren (“nerd” spelled backwards, N.E.R.D. being the acronym for Elsa and Clive’s company), the creature continues to move quickly through its life-cycle, rapidly reaching what looks like the equivalence of adolescence, including a dawning sexual interest in Clive.

Scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sara Polley)
Scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sara Polley)

With scientists named Clive (after Colin Clive who played the titular mad scientist in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN) and Elsa (after Elsa Lanchester, who played the titular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1935), Nataliand co-screenwriter Antoinette Terry Bryant are clearly tipping their hat to classic horror films, but the inspiration for SPLICE seems to extend father back, all the way to the literary source novel by Mary Shelly. Although often pegged as science fiction, Shelly’s Frankenstein is almost totally bereft of science; it’s really more a metaphor for the hubris of a careless parent who begets life without considering the consequences. In the same way, SPLICE portrays Elsa and Clive less as mad scientists than as a pair of parents who cannot quite come to terms with their “problem” child.
The problem that Dren represents hangs over the film like a cloud, raising troubling moral questions that cannot easily be answered. Her existence leads to the isolation of the wished-for livestock medicine, but is that enough to justify an experiment that creates a new life form? Is Dren simply an experimental subject, to be terminated when the experiment is complete, or does her quasi-human nature grant her the same right to life that everyone else enjoys? What is the greater obligation for Elsa and Clive – to their scientific progeny or to the human race?
Dren (Delphine Chaneac) feasts on a recent kill
Dren (Delphine Chaneac) feasts on a recent kill

This last question is perhaps the most disturbing, because Dren, in the tradition of Frankenstein’s creation, elicits our sympathy even while we realize that she is potentially dangerous. And not just on a person-to-person level because of her lethal tail: she represents a new and unknown species, one that grows at an alarming rate; unleashed upon the world at large, there is no way of knowing how catastrophic the consequences may be.
Fortunately, these issues provide a solid thematic foundation without weighing down the story, which remains focused on Elsa and Clive’s struggle to negotiate the mess they have created – a mess that is partly scientific but also largely personal. Elsa never wanted to give birth herself, so this is her alternate method of having a child; unfortunately, she is burdened with  the residue of an unhappy mother-daughter relationship, which starts to surface in her dealings with Dren. Clive is initially hostile to Dren, but as she matures, and as Else becomes less sympathetic to her “daughter,” Clive swings to Dren’s side.
With scientific objectivity thrown out the window, Elsa and Clive plunge into a personal psycho-drama of their own, fraught with jealousy and a power struggle, culminating in a sequence that is certain to be much remembered: Clive finally succumbs to Dren’s seductive charms. The vague hints of incest and bestiality (she is in a sense his daughter, and she is not fully human) provide an underlying ick factor to a scene that is otherwise filled with a mondo bizarro sense of wonder (sprouting wings, Dren looks almost as angelic as orgasmic), and yet as incredible as the action is, it remains grounded in a believable reality (Elsa catches them in the act – a scene that could occur in any domestic drama).
As a horror-thriller, SPLICE does not fully deliver on the promise of its trailers (which are cut together to suggest a more traditional monster-on-the-loose scenario). Dren is a fascinating character (a wonderful combination of CGI and Delphine Chaneac’s performance), but she is not as threatening as SIL in SPECIES. Natali does not build the tension to unbearable levels. Instead, he focuses on the drama, and the real horror of the piece is moral rather than visceral. The real triumph here is that, if you were to read about a real-life Elsa and Clive in a newspaper article, you would probably want them thrown in jail for life. By telling their story from the inside, Natali confronts you with some serious issues that are not easy to resolve. As we stride into the future, technology will force us to confront these same issues in real life. One of the important roles of the artist is to offer little signposts warning us of the future so that we may be prepared for when it arrives in reality. SPLICE does that better than any film since MOON.
Dren and Elsa
Dren and Elsa

SPLICE (2009). Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Written by Vincenzo Natali and Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Gaylor. Cast: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu.

The Wolfman (2010) – DVD Review

Rick Bakers makeup for the 2009 remake of the 1941 classic.
Rick Baker's makeup for the 2009 remake of the 1941 classic.
The unrated director’s cut of THE WOLFMAN offers few improvements and creates a glaring continuity problem.

When this Gothic horror show howled into theatres this past February, it was with a certain amount of baggage, being a remake of one of Universal Pictures’ most fondly remembered monster movies from the 1940s. Over the past couple decades, Universal has shown an interest in mining their classic horror legacy (which dates back to the silent era) for new chills and/or revenue dollars, releasing restored prints of old titles to art houses in the ’90s under the “Universal Horror” banner and later packaging the titles into various DVD releases (“The Legacy Collection,” the “Classic Monsters Collection,” etc.), often loaded with lovely bonus features. Unfortunately, Universal’s previous attempts to resurrect their long dormant monsters for modern audiences, with THE MUMMY (1999), its sequels, and VAN HELSING (2000), turned out to be (financially successful) artistic disappointments that betrayed the Gothic horror legacy by opting for action-adventure heroics, hyped with lots of computer-generated effects but few real scares. THE WOLF MAN, it was devoutly to be wished, would correct this mistake, hewing closer to the source material. The remake does successfully recreate the template of the 1941 original; sadly, it does so in the wrong way. The DVD and Blu-ray release of an unrated director’s cut allows a second chance to assess the results; curious fans will want to check out the longer version, but it offers few if any improvements and creates a glaring continuity problem.

Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins
Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins

What the 2010 THE WOLFMAN has going for it is production value and atmosphere; what it lacks is a compelling, original vision. With contributions from production designer Rick Heinrichs, composer Danny Elfman, and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, all of whom worked on the similarly spooky SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999), THE WOLFMAN feels like an ersatz Tim Burton production, without the director’s unique eye to fashion these contributions into macabre visual poetry. Instead, we get the competent but prosaic work of Joe Johnston (JURASSIC PARK III); he knows how to get the story in the camera, but he doesn’t know how to imbue it with the uncanny resonance that will send shudders up your spine.
In this regard, THE WOLFMAN is a too faithful recreation of what Universal Pictures was doing in the 1940s: the 1930s’ Golden Age of Horror had past, and the company was recycling old ideas, with great technical achievements still in place (sets, special effects, makeup) but without distinctive directors (such as James Whale and Tod Browning), who could add a recognizable personal touch. THE WOLFMAN (1941) was very much of this mold, competently executed by producer-director George Waggner but not necessarily inspired. What saves the black-and-white film from mediocrity is the tragic trajectory of doomed protagonist Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), a likable, even ebullient man whose life goes to hell after he is bitten by a werewolf.
The WOLFMAN remake updates the atmospherics, replacing black-and-white photography with color but utilizing a muted, almost desaturated palate that captures a similar kind of almost Expressionistic atmosphere. The sets and costumes are marvelous. Rick Baker’s makeup is a worthy tribute to the Jack Pierce’s work in the old film, recognizably similar but updated and improved. The computer-generated imagery is not as out-of-place as it might have been (although the werewolves running on all fours are not particularly impressive.) For fans of old-fashioned Gothic horror, the movie looks like a dream come true – or rather, a deliciously delightful nightmare of fog-bound moors and ancestral manses, layered so thick with sinister ambiance that you can almost taste it.
A werewolf on the roof tops - an homage to CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF
A werewolf on the roof tops - an homage to CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF

And yet, THE WOLFMAN is a curiously hollow and unmoving experience. The screenplay is muddled in its attempt to expand upon the original, throwing in bits and pieces lifted not only from the 1941 film but also Universal’s earlier THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) – which featured a conflict between two werewolves – and Hammer Films’ later CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) – which had its lycanthrope running across rooftops while pursued by a mob at street level (not to mention the fact the WOLF MAN’s star Benicio Del Toro resembles CURSE’s Oliver Reed much more than Lon Chaney Jr). Even Inspector Abberline, the real-life detective previously played by Johnny Depp in FROM HELL, shows up.
Although a successful Shakespearean actor, Del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot is dour from the beginning, a far cry from the happy-go-lucky character portrayed by Chaney. This interpretation is dictated by the script (which gives Lawrence a childhood tragedy in the form of his mother’s death, followed by bad blood between him and his father, played by Anthony Hopkins), but it robs the story of any visible arc: things looks bad from the beginning, and they pretty much stay that way, with no ray of sunshine to offer any hope. Yes, this is supposed to be a tragedy about a doomed man, but you at least want the audience to feel the sense of a potentially happy life lost to unfortunate circumstances. Instead, the manifest inevitability robs the narrative of any suspense, warning us to never fully identify with Talbot and empathize with his plight. Without that dramatic involvement, the movie is just so many pretty moving pictures.


When THE WOLF MAN was in theatres, word leaked that the film had been heavily re-edited (the original 2009 release date had been pushed back, giving more time for post-production tinkering). It was hoped that a more complete version would fill in the emotional gaps needed to make the story more compelling. Unfortunately, this proves not to be the case.
Now available on DVD and Blu-ray, the extended cut (called the “unrated version” on screen and the “unrated director’s cut” on the box art) restores a few expository scenes and several moments of bloodshed, but it does little to solve the problems inherent in the theatrical version. THE WOLFMAN remains a dour downer from beginning to end, one that never invites you into its world, forcing you to watch events at arm’s length, with the ironic result that it feels more distant from us than the 1941 film does decades after its release.

One of many atmospheric images
Instead of ending with a glimpse of claw...

In a restored scene, we get an early glimpse of the first werewolf.
... we get a restored glimpse of the werewolf attacker.

The extended version begins with a modern mockup of Universal’s 1940s black-and-white logo, instead of the contemporary color one seen in theatres. The first editorial change occurs during the prologue, which is extended past the point when Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells) flees in panic after being attacked by a briefly glimpsed creature. Whereas the theatrical version faded out on a wide angle shot of Ben running away in the background while a werewolf’s clawed hand filled the right hand side of the frame in foreground, the unrated cut shows Ben collapsing before the mausoleum and looking up in horror, followed by a reverse angle shot of a werewolf lunging at the camera. It’s a little too early in the running time to reveal the monster. Also the creature’s appearance has been fudged slightly: seen later, Rick Baker’s makeup for the monsters tries to suggest the human countenance underneath; what’s seen here is a more generic werewolf, in order to main the mystery of who is hiding beneath the fur.
As before, the prologue segues to the WOLFMAN’s opening title*, followed by a scene of Lawrence Talbot on stage. In the theatrical version, this was part of a montage that quickly set the story in motion, with Ben’s fiance Gwen (Emily Blunt) writing a letter to Lawrence, seeking help in finding out what happened to his brother. In the unrated cut, Gwen actually shows up back stage after the performance to see Lawrence in person. He demurs, because he is contracted for another thirty performances, but then changes his mind without any negative consequences (guess that contract wasn’t so iron-clad).
Max Von Sydow as the mysterious man with the wolf-head cane
Max Von Sydow as the mysterious man with the wolf-head cane

On the way back to the ancestral home, we see another restored scene, this time of Lawrence waking up in a train car to find himself in the presence of an old man (played in an unbilled cameo by the always wonderful Max Von Sydow), who insists on making a present of a wolf’s-headed cane. As intriguing as the scene is, it raises expectations that go unfulfilled: the almost magical presence of Sydow’s character  (he appears and disappears while Talbot is asleep) suggests an angel bequeathing a special gift that will play a crucial part in the later proceedings; although the cane is used in the final werewolf battle, it doesn’t tip the scales one way or the other, so it’s easy to see why the set-up scene (figuratively loading a gun to be fired in the third act) was omitted.
From this point forward, the unrated cut of THE WOLFMAN more or less follows the theatrical version, with a few additional bits of dialogue here and there (the locals have more to say in the tavern, and we see more of the awkward domestic situation at Talbot hall). In London, Lawrence buys a boy’s entire stack of newspapers to prevent anyone from seeing his wanted picture on the front page. Plus, there is more blood spatter and somewhat more lingering takes during the scenes of graphic mayhem. Although it’s hard to fault a film about a savage monster for depicting that savagery upon screen, the gore feels a bit misplaced in this old-fashioned milieu, and it has a “neither here nor there” quality about it: too graphic for fans of classic horror, too mild for the hard-core gorehounds.
There is also a slightly generic quality about the mutilation. There is no particular reason for a werewolf to be knocking peoples heads off; it’s just an over-the-top monster moment. It would have been nice if someone had figured out something more specific: What does a werewolf want: the blood of its victims, or their flesh, or just carnage for its own sake? And how would a hybrid monster – half-man and half-wolf – go about achieving this? (There is a sly joke with makeup man Rick Baker appearing briefly as an armed villager killed by the werewolf; had the film resorted to gratuitously gory evisceration at this point, instead of a mere flash, the humor would have been magnified several fold.)
In another restored scene, Gwen (Emily Blunt) asks for assistance from Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) in person
In another restored scene, Gwen (Emily Blunt) asks for assistance from Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) in person

The the most glaring problem with the unrated cut is not carnage but continuity. The theatrical version cleverly used Gwen’s letter, delivered in voice over layered on top of a montage of Lawrence heading home, to compress the opening exposition into half a minute of screen time. The extended version adds unnecessary scenes that take over seven minutes to achieve the same results, and the inclusion of Gwen’s backstage scene with Lawrence creates an embarrassing gaffe: after Lawrence returns home, there remain at least two dialogue references to his having been summoned by Gwen’s letter, when we have clearly seen him summoned by her in person (and in fact the letter does not exist in this cut).
In the end, the unrated cut of THE WOLFMAN remains much the same as the theatrical cut: a glossy, good-looking production that never fully delivers on its promise of resurrecting one of the great movie monsters for a modern audience. Horror fans will find it worth watching, and even casual viewers may get a kick out of seeing Oscar winners Del Toro and Hopkins indulging in an old-fashioned genre piece. We just wish that the results had lived up to their potential, creating a new millennium version of an old monster that would reignite interest in the form and launch a whole new cycle of Gothic horror thrillers.


click to purchase
click to purchase

Universal’s DVD of THE WOLFMAN includes both the R-rated theatrical version (1 hour and 43 minutes) and the unrated version (1 hour and 59 minutes). Both fit on one side of a single disc, using branching technology (there is a warning that the unrated director’s cut may cause problems for older DVD players). Both versions are divided into the same 20 chapter stops with the same titles, offering no indication of where to look for restored footage.
The Anamorphic Widescreen transfer (1.85) captures THE WOLF MAN’s atmospheric beauty. The audio offers options in English for Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo; in French DOlby Digital 5.1 Surround; and in Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. (There is also Descriptive Video Service on the Theatrical version only.) Subtitle options include Spanish, French, and English for the hearing-impaired.

In a deleted scene, Lawrence crashes a costume party
In a deleted scene, Lawrence crashes a costume party

Much of THE WOLFMAN’s missing material shows up not in the unrated cut but in the Deleted and Extended Scenes section, which is the DVD’s only bonus features. This includes five sequences:

  1. Lawrence Talks with Glen. This is a short dialogue between the two characters, which takes place before the villagers’ first (unsuccessful) attempt to seize Lawrence. Lawrence thanks Gwen for nursing him through his illness, and Gwen expresses concern that she is the cause of all that has gone wrong (which turns out to be true when we realize that Sir John killed Ben to keep him from marrying Gwen and taking her away).
  2. Singh’s Story. Brief additional dialogue: in the scene wherein Lawrence finds Singh’s silver bullets, the servant explains his loyalty to Sir John by recounting the English’s lord’s saving his life.
  3. Extended Mausoleaum Transformation. We get a longer look at Lawrence’s change from man to werewolf, including shots of him crawling up the stairs out of the mausoleum.
  4. Extended London Chase. Lawrence Talbot’s escape and brief race across the rooftops of London is one of the film’s highlights. The longer version contains a silly interlude with the Wolf Man crashing a costume party; while he approaches a female singer (who is apparently blind), the guests fail to notice that he’s a real monster – until he bites one in the skull. The scene seems to be suggesting something about the Wolf Man (he is clearly interested in the singer but he does not immediately attack her) but what? That music soothes the savage breast? Perhaps this is supposed to offer a suggestion that, later in the film, Gwen may stand some chance of taming his wild impulses?
  5. Extended Final Fight. Not much more action here; mostly, it’s more pauses between the action as the dueling werewolves catch their breath and/or size each other up.

click to purchase
click to purchase

Universal’s Blu-ray disc offers a high-def transfer of the theatrical version and the unrated version, with English tracks in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and English DVS Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, plus the French and Spanish 5.1 Surround mixes heard on the DVD. In addition to the Deleted and Extended Scenes, there are several bonus features exclusive to the Blu-ray release:

  • Two alternate endings
  • Return of the Wolf Man: a featurette on remaking the classic
  • The Beast Maker: a profile of Rick Baker
  • Transformation Secrets: a look at the visual effects
  • The Wolfman Unleashed: the team behind the stunts and action
  • Digital Copy
  • Take Control: Rick Baker, effects producer Karne Murphy-Mundel, and cinematographer Shelly Johnson reveal details of the filmmaking process.
  • Werewolf Legacy, Legend and Lore: a virtual tour through Universals’ Wolf Man films.
  • BD Live and Pocket Blu: access additional content and apps through an internet-connected player or your smartphones, including a high-def streaming version of the 1941 version of THE WOLF MAN

With a sticker emblazoned on the DVD box, touting the WOLFMAN’s availability on Blu-ray, it is clear that Universal Pictures is pushing the format. But was it necessary to release a DVD minus  bonus features that would, not so long ago, have been no-brainers for inclusion? Yes, Blu-ray can do things that DVD cannot, but that is no reason to omit alternate endings and featurettes that could have been included. As in the days when Hollywood was phasing out the laserdisc, it seems that additional bonus features are being used as leverage to force consumers to adopt the new format, whether they like it or not.
UPDATE: Apparently, there is an exclusive two-disc DVD available at Best Buy, which includes some (but not all) of the extra features from the Blu-ray.

  • The WOLFMAN’s closing credits were clearly designed to go up front, right after the opening title: they tease us with animated imagery (such as medical-type drawings of hair growing out of folicles) that was meant to whet our appetite for the horrors to come. Seen at the end of the film, the imagery is anti-climactic.

Lawrence transforms - with CGI assistance.
Lawrence transforms - with CGI assistance.

THE WOLF MAN (February 2010 theatrical release; June 1 home video release ). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, based on the 1941 film “The Wolf Man,” written by Curt Siodmak. Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Roger Frost, Simon Merrells, Max Von Sydow (unrated cut only).

Daybreakers (2010)

DAYBREAKERS is a film of glistening surfaces – modern architecture, billboards, automobiles – all lit in the subdued hues that “heaven to gaudy day denies.” Set mostly at night, this science-fiction-horror film shares some stylistic affinity with DARK CITY (1998), which also used a cinefantastique premise to justify taking old school film noir aesthetics to dazzling new extremes. From the opening montage of an empty city, awaiting the awakening of the vampirized populace, the film looks like a production designer’s dream, as the camera glides over city streets, bus stops, and advertisement posters, inviting us into this strange, new, yet oddly familiar world. It’s an effective strategy that seduces you into engaging with the film, but there is a pitfall: the ultra-cool world of night is so beguiling that one barely regrets the loss of daylight, robbing the the story (a quest to find a cure for vampirism) of at least some of its dramatic impetus. Fortunately, this is a small price to pay for enjoying the visual pleasures on display.
Basically a riff on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, DAYBREAKERSexpands upon a concept suggested by, but never fully explored in, Richard Matheson’s novel or its filmic adaptations: that of a vampire society. In this future, the majority of the Earth’s population has been transformed into blood-drinkers by a plague. The few remaining non-vampires are stored like the human batteries in The Matrix, slowly drained of their remaining drops of life, which are served in increasingly diluted portions at the equivalent of coffee bars. As the blood shortage grows more dire, hungry consumers begin to riot. Meanwhile Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a scientist working for the world’s biggest blood supplier, works round the clock, searching for a cure. But does his boss, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) really want a cure, or would he prefer to retain a permanently addicted customer-base, hopefully fed upon a synthesized substitute?
The plot runs on some fairly familiar fuel: Dalton abandons his company to form an alliance with an underground group of humans, one of whom, Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe) has mysteriously recovered from vampirism. Dalton’s former friends, family and allies think him a turncoat, and in a typical display of dramatic irony it is his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) who is charged with bringing him back into the fold. Can Dalton find a cure; and even if he can, will the public be willing to surrender immortality? And if they do surrender, will it be without a bloody, climactic fight? (If you guessed no to the last question, you win.)
Fortunately, the plot mechanics are in the service of an intriguing idea. Taking a science fiction approach to the material, instead of focusing only on the horror of blood-drinking, writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierig use vampirism as a metaphor for capitalism. Without ever turning DAYBREAKERS into a simple-minded screed (a la the recent FURRY VENGEANCE), they use their story to offer satiric commentary on consumer culture and the corporate overlords the nuture and feed it. In a way, the film is less about the allure of immortality than it is about the laws of supply and demand, depleting natural resources until artificial ones must be used instead – at much higher cost, because they can be patented, and when the natural stuff is gone, the consumer has no choice but to buy the alternative, at whatever price.
Although the battle lines initially seem clearly drawn, the screenplay offers a few nice character touches that prevent the story from slipping into a simple “us versus them” scenario; these nods toward character development also help keep the drama alive, so that the film does not slip into being a thinly disguised anti-capitalist manifesto. Particularly touching is brother Frankie’s late revelation about what he vampirized his older brother (he was frightened by the thought of living on without him), which engenders unexpected sympathy for a previously one-note Judas character, so that we actually feel a pang of regret over his ultimate fate.

Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe
Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe

In keeping with DAYBREAKERS’ film noir style, the performances tended to be muted, almost to the point of being dour. Neil does a good job at projecting the smiling good-guy facade of a cut-throat businessman, and Hawke seems tailor-made for his role; there’s not a lot of depth required of him, but he makes the surface look interesting.
The exception is Dafoe, whose “Elvis” Cormac character is supposed to breathe some life into the proceedings. A working-class auto detailer (he used to make a living customizing cars to protect drivers from sunlight), Cormac is a bit one-note (we’re supposed to like him because he’s straight-forward and he loves his classic cars), but Dafoe is a good enough actor to make us like him even though he is little more than a generic type.
The critical mass missing from this equation is the joy of sunshine and warmth, the thrill of rolling down the convertible top and letting the wind rush through your hair as you race down a long road on a sunny day. The Spierig Brothers more or less take for granted the superiority of ordinary human life over the vampire’s night-time existence, so much so that they never bother to sell the idea emotionally. When Dalton finally effects his cure, it works as a plot point, but we don’t really feel it in our gut the way we should. Like many artists who work in the realm of cinefantastique, they seem better at exploring the darkness than bathing in the light. The result is a good film, not a great one. Perhaps next time out, they can strike the perfect balance between (in Byon’s words) “all that’s best, of dark and bright.”

DAYBREAKERS (copyright 2009, released January 8, 2010). Written and directed by the Spierig Bothers (Michael and Peter). Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Mungo McKay, Emma Randal, Michael Dorman.