Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I am a fan of genre mash-ups be it of the musical, video game or film variety. Sometimes they’re fun and other times they can be misfires, but I usually find them fascinating regardless. Seth Grahame-Smith seems to enjoy introducing horror elements into his in his novels that are based on either the previous works of others or history. I’ve read two of them so far - “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and enjoyed them both immensely. The former was made into a fun film a few years back. The film based on the latter will be released in February 2016. I attended a test screening a few days before Halloween. 

Zombies have infested 19th century England, and while the war rages on for the survival of humankind the tangled relationships of the young Bennet girls (Lily James, Suki Waterhouse, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady) and their would be suitors (Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Jack Huston, Sam Riley) plays out amongst the bloodshed.
This film, being a mash-up of two different genres (period costume drama and zombie film), can be a tricky prospect to nail. Do you favor one over the other to please the audience? How do you balance the two successfully? Well, Grahame-Smith’s novel, which was a hack of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, managed to balance everything just right and still managed to not take itself too seriously to keep it fun for readers. Thankfully the film adaptation followed suit.

Director Burr Steers (17 Again, Charlie St. Cloud, Igby Goes Down) was the perfect fit for this odd genre-bending flick. He has made the film in a specific style to mimic the Merchant-Ivory period dramas while filling his shots with the goofily over-the-top ultraviolence you’d expect from a modern zombie gorefest. Sure it’s a PG-13 zombie film, but the filmmakers manage to get away with quite a lot of bloodshed. He directs his actors in the same fashion and it works. I wasn’t sure if it would translate at all to a visual medium, but it does in a big, fun way. Congrats Steers!
The script’s adaptation by Steers stays true to the source material and keeps all the major events in tact while pushing aside the minor ones that didn’t do much to advance the story along. The clever situations the characters find themselves in, the witty dialogue and the unexpected humor all shine through. I absolutely adore the way certain conversation topics were swapped out for ones pertaining to the zombie apocalypse. For example, in one scene Elizabeth is being looked down upon by some spoiled high society girls because of the Asian country in which she received her martial arts training (Japan is high class, China is lower class). In the original Austen book I do believe it was the schools these characters could afford to go to that was the topic of the argument. It’s awesome and at times supremely hilarious. I still have problems with the “twist” about the zombies at the halfway point, as well as the fact that some can talk and all that, but sometimes you have to change the rules to make your work stand out from the rest. It doesn’t mean I have to like it though.

The cast is great with only minor quibbles. I really enjoyed the back and forth between Lily James’ (Cinderella, Wrath of the Titans) headstrong Elizabeth and the dour coldness of Sam Riley’s (Maleficent, Control) Mr. Darcy. Sure it gets a little melodramatic at times, but you can thank Jane Austen for that. I also loved Matt Smith’s (Doctor Who, Terminator: Genisys) Mr. Collins. I never knew he was so great at comedy! Seeing Lena Headey and Charles Dance reunited from Game of Thrones here in small roles was rad too. Although I wasn’t fond of Jack Huston’s (Outlander) Mr. Wickham or Douglas Booth’s (Jupiter Ascending) Mr. Bingley. They just seemed… off. Bad casting? Bad direction? Disinterest form the actors? I don’t know, but they didn’t work for me at all.
Costumes, sets, special FX and everything in between is fitting for the time period, if not a little cheap looking. I can’t imagine that the film had a huge budget and it shows at times. Some of the zombie make-up is lame, a coupe of the sets are bargain basement and sometimes it looks as if the costumes during the party scenes were picked up at the local Goodwill. But whatevs. I didn’t mind too much.

What I did have an issue with was the editing. Sure the movie was in an incomplete state (there was a scene that was completely CGI that hadn’t been finished yet and was all undetailed, colorless textures), but I have a feeling that it was already picture locked for the editing. This should change immediately. Some scenes do not flow well, some fade to black at awkward moments and others just seemed to be cut out to shorten the runtime at the cost of the continuity. There is a scene where Elizabeth is reading a letter from Mr. Darcy that is extremely (and overly) dramatic, it fades out and picks back up in the middle of another scene with no context given to make sense of what’s going on or when the scene is taking place in relation to the previous one. I get the feeling that the story spans a few months, so a simple “Day, Month, Year” superimposed over the screen to show when these scenes take place would be immensely helpful. Just sayin’.
And drop the “zombie vision”. It doesn’t work and looks like a cheap filter you can find in After Effects.

I also have to say that for a movie that is partially about martial arts trained girls fighting zombies, when the shit goes down it’s usually pretty lackluster in the choreography department. Sure there is blood and body parts flying all over the place, but the fight scenes leave a lot to be desired.
Regardless, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies completely took me by surprise. I was not anticipating it at all, and the fact that it is being dumped unceremoniously in the dog days of February did nothing to convince me otherwise. This is an April film. A pre-summer mid-level studio film to prime audiences for what is to be unleashed in the world of blockbusters starting in May. It’s that good. Unless the studio is planning on advertising it as a goofy Valentine’s Day film, not unlike Warm Bodies before it. Regardless, it’s better than the release date planned for it.

Fun, charming and clever, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a total blast. It’s like watching a PBS film via SyFy, and I highly recommend you check it out when it hits multiplexes on February 5, 2016.

4 out of 5

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Last Witch Hunter

Vin Diesel can’t catch a break. When he’s not playing the grumbling, family obsessed Dom Toretto in the cash cow Fast and Furious films he stars in nothing but critically panned flops (except in the case of The Pacifier… WTF?!). When the previews for his latest non-Furious project, The Last Witch Hunter, began making the rounds I could tell instantly that this would be yet another in his long line of epic bombs. A horror fantasy action film where Diesel plays an immortal witch slayer that’s partly based on a character he rolled up in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign? Yeah, that’s going to be a tough sell since audiences apparently just want to see him racing cars.

It did bomb. It’s opening weekend it only made a paltry $11m. It cost an estimated $90m. Most of it probably going to Diesel. Yikes.
Personally I’m right there with that majority audience. Outside of the Fast and Furious franchise and the Riddick films (well, maybe not the third one) I usually stay away from Vin Diesel’s endeavors. For instance, I will definitely NOT be seeing the forthcoming xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. Nope. But strangely enough I found The Last Witch Hunter to be a goofily enjoyable time at the movies that serves as the start of a franchise (that will never get a sequel) and also a loose remake of the original Highlander.

Kaulder (Vin Diesel), a hundreds year old witch hunter, must uncover the mystery surrounding the murder of his assistant (Michael Caine) before a rogue dark magic user (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) can resurrect his Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) so she can murder the world. 
Yes, the plot is as cliché as they come. There’s nothing original about it’s twists, developments or execution. But what worked for me was the world building that filled in all the holes surrounding the uninteresting plot threads and dumb character moments. Creatively realized special effects are used to sell the magic (loved that glass shield bit), the rules established for the witching world are fun and novel and everyone involved seems to be having a hell of a good time. Michael Caine included. I feel that this flick falls into the same category as Jupiter Ascending in that it doesn’t have much to offer in the way of storytelling, but when it comes to setting up an awesome environment in which to play there is none finer.

Vin Diesel isn’t much of an actor. He’s more of a presence in his films. And an imposing one at that. Here he comes off a little bit different in that his character of Kaulder has a wicked sense of humor and actually smiles quite a bit when compared to his other roles. He shows that he does actually have a fun charisma outside of Dom Toretto. The rest of the cast is just in orbit of Diesel however, with only Rose Leslie coming close to being on equal character footing. She’s fun to watch, has a sexy Scottish accent and looks like she could be Emma Stone’s twin. I enjoyed her character quite a bit as she was never really a damsel in distress and took matters into her own hands quite often. Michael Caine is Michael Caine. Not that that’s a bad thing. I guess my biggest issue is with Elijah Wood as Kaulder’s new handler, Dolan 37th. He doesn’t have much to do and disappears for a good portion of the film for no apparent reason. It’s a waste of talent as Wood is a fantastic actor and hasn’t received many major screen roles since the Lord of the Rings films. It’s a shame really.
Director Breck Eisner (Sahara, The Crazies) shows a deft hand at getting the spectacle on screen in a cool way, but really should have had his cinematographer light the nighttime scenes more and pull the camera back for the fights. There are times where the action is hard to see and is a mite confusing. Regardless, I liked what I saw and Eisner manages to get his cast to light up the screen and give their all. Like I said, I thought Michael Caine would just look disinterested for the whole film, but it’s the exact opposite. I also would have liked for Eisner to allow the film to breathe a little bit more. It rushes through events so quickly that I felt some of the finer moments were probably left on the cutting room floor.

The make-up and art direction are tops! There are some strikingly designed shots here. Loved the look of the Witch Queen as well as her tree lair. Even the costumes, well... the ones worn by everyone other than Diesel, are cool looking and pretty rad. I did like his armor in the past though.
But it’s not always a block party up in here. The plot has a few leaps in logic that made me cock my head in confusion. Like where did the villain get that “magical item” he’s been after? It kind of comes out of nowhere. And why did he randomly need a sacrifice? Explanations are not in abundance when it comes to certain plot holes.

My biggest gripe is something I brought up in my review of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, and that is the issue of glossing over a character’s injuries in order to keep the film pushing forward. There is a scene where Kaulder is injured in a specific way that it would be impossible for him to continue on with his mission. We even see him sitting in his apartment after being hurt and he is bleeding profusely from his wound and has many deep lacerations on his face. A mere three seconds later (no exaggeration) he is completely healed and is ready to take on his enemies with renewed vigor. WTF?! That always bugs the everloving shit out of me! Did the director/editor think we wouldn’t notice or would forget what had just taken place a couple of scenes beforehand? I have to call bullshit.
And I also have to say that Steve Jablonsky’s score was absolute trash. It’s generic in every respect and did nothing to get me fired up or emotionally connected to anything on screen. I love his scores to the Transformers films, Ender’s Game and The Island. Shit, I even liked some tracks from his A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot score. I’d venture to say that it’s one of his worst.

Regardless, I found The Last Witch Hunter to be a decently enjoyable film that is being shat on for no good reason. Sure it has its faults. Some major ones even. But to me that’s all part of its charm. It’s not a great movie. I’d struggle to even call it a good movie. But it is an entertaining one. And all I ever want is to be entertained by a film.

3 out of 5

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tremors 5: Bloodlines

The original Tremors is one of my favorite monster movies. It’s fast, fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also remarkably well made for a B-movie and features a great cast. I can’t say the same thing about the multitude of DTV sequels and the television spin-off that spawned from this classic. Cheap, repetitive and mostly boring are the three adjectives I’d use to describe the majority of them.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard from this franchise (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins came out in 2004), so I was extremely surprised to see Tremors 5: Bloodlines randomly appear on Netflix. I was apprehensive at first, but eventually caved in to curiosity and gave it a watch.
Burt Gummer (Michael Gross), Graboid hunter extraordinaire and wilderness survival show host, travels to South Africa with his new cameraman (Jamie Kennedy) to stop an infestation from threatening a small village.

Yeah, this is another rehash that’s set in South Africa instead of Texas. It follows the formula to a “T” and doesn’t stray from it one iota. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s good either. This one falls squarely in the middle. I’d say it’s mildly entertaining.
It’s great to see Michael Gross return to play Burt once again, although he isn’t as gun crazy as he has been in the other incarnations. He’s mellowed a bit. That’s fine. I’m okay with it. That shtick is one of the reasons I found some of the sequels, and especially the TV series, kind of annoying. I like that they changed the location to South Africa. Sure it was probably filmed in Arizona, but it gives the movie a more diverse cast and puts Burt into an “out of his element” scenario. Some of the jokes are actually quite funny and the sense of humor is right up there with the better films. But that’s where the positives end.

Jamie Kennedy is as annoying as usual as Burt’s cameraman, Travis. He has this goofy X-Sports thing going on and speaks mainly in douche-bro slang. Plus the development involving Travis and Burt is really dumb and hokey. Most of the action is really cheap and underwhelming. Plus the secondary characters aren’t really developed in any sort of way. Well, the town doctor was rad. Especially when she channeled her inner Katniss Everdeen. The rest not so much. There is no style on display as everything has a washed out and bland look to it. Sure it’s a DTV movie, but that’s no excuse. It might take a couple of minutes more to set up a Dutch angle, but no one behind the camera seemed to be interested in putting in any extra effort to give the visuals a little oomph.
But my biggest issue has to do with how the Graboids have been changed to make them more threatening. In each film the creatures have been altered to set themselves apart from the original. In part two the worm-like Graboids birthed Shriekers. In part three the Shriekers gave birth to Ass Blasters.  In part 4, well, nothing much happened. In part 5 the Ass Blasters bring the life cycle full circle by laying Graboid eggs. But the look of the Graboids has been altered severely. They now look like something out of The Thing as do the Ass Blasters. And now the Worm tentacles that emerge from the Graboid’s gullets are detachable and look like snake versions of the tentacle creatures from Deep Rising. Actually they look EXACTLY like the tentacle creatures from Deep Rising. Did the CGI artists find the models from that movie online and repurpose them here? Ugh. I know that’s an obscure detail to pick on, but I love Deep Rising. And you don’t mess with the design of these classic movie monsters. It’s not a Tremors movie when the Graboids don’t look like Graboids! And since when do they leap out of the ground and perform half twits in midair before landing on a victim and swallowing them whole? Dumb.

And to make matters worse it looks like the producers want to continue this pointless series with Jamie Kennedy as the lead because the whole film has a “passing of the torch” sort of feel to it. No. All the no. Just remake the first movie and get it over with already.
Tremors 5: Bloodlines is fun in spurts, but on the whole it’s a pretty uneventful entry in this highly uneven series. Was anyone really asking for another sequel? I mean, other than Michael Gross? It offers nothing new on top of making some changes that actually angered me. As a fan of the original I have to say that what was done to the creatures was sacrilege. Shriekers and Ass Blasters… fine. Whatever. But changing the main creatures and making them look like monsters from other films? Hell to the no! I hope the series ends here.

1.5 out of 5

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Crimson Peak

This will be a relatively short review. Why? Because I don’t want to go on and on about how much of a disappointment Crimson Peak was to me, and if I don’t reel myself in I will ramble on for far too long.

Crimson Peak follows young bride Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as she moves from America to rural England with her new husband (Tom Hiddleston) and his enigmatic sister (Jessica Chastain) to live in their gothic home which she suspects is haunted.
Yeah, so, Crimson Peak is being billed as a horror movie in the ads but is being called a “gothic romance” by director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth). Believe me when I say that the film is neither of those things. There is no horror and absolutely no romance. It’s a stale affair that reeks of laziness on the parts of all involved.

Del Toro, who I am a HUGE fan of, recycles everything on display from his earlier films. The ghosts look just like the ones in The Devil’s Backbone (except they are red) in the way that they all seem to be seeping fluids as if they are bleeding underwater. One ghost in particular is a carbon copy of the ghostly child from that film complete with the same yellow contact lenses. The story is a mix of The Devil’s Backbone and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which del Toro produced. All the beats are exactly the same!
The script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer, *batteries not included) is so by-the-numbers and clichéd that it broke my brain a little bit. I absolutely couldn’t believe that the same person who came up with Pan’s Labyrinth thought that this uber-predictable farce was going to set the world on fire. I saw every single twist coming a mile away and had worked out what was going on before reaching the halfway point. It’s so cookie cutter that I figured there had to be some kind of morbid twist going on that would slap the audience across the face as one last shock, but nope. It’s lame from beginning to end due to the overused plot devices that we’ve seen in movies for decades. I thought you were more creative than this, Guillermo.

Even the actors don’t seem to give a shit. I’ve always felt that Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) had zero charisma and she proves once again that my opinion definitely is correct with her somnambulant performance here. The usually likable Tom Hiddleston (Thor: The Dark World, The Avengers) just sort of is there to be gawked at by the female audience members (there was at least three instances where I heard a lady behind me say aloud “He is fine!”) because he does nothing here that shows he can do more than play Loki. He shares absolutely no chemistry with Wachikowska, so the “romance” del Toro talks about when describing the movie is a bunch of horseshit. I’ve also never been a fan of Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar) and her turn as the creepy sister here did nothing to change my mind. She does come to life a little in the finale, but it’s too little too late. The three core cast members all look like they would rather be anywhere else that filming this movie. Only Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim, Sons of Anarchy) really seems to be putting his all into the part. He has yet to make it big in feature films and I could tell he wants it so bad that he outperforms everyone here without really trying. Not that it would be hard.
And for all the accolades del Toro gets for the outstanding art direction in his films, Crimson Peak is the blandest, most forgettable looking film he has ever made. If you didn’t tell me that the house set was built specifically for this movie I would have thought they borrowed it from the remake of The Haunting. The only aspect of the design that caught my attention was the contrast of having the white snow being mixed with the red clay that surrounds the house. It looks like the ground is bleeding. Clever, but it’s the only thing that stuck with me.

Shit, even the violence is recycled from his other films!
Disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings about Crimson Peak. I know Guillermo del Toro wanted to make a gothic ghost story that wasn’t set in Spain for American audiences. After seeing this mess I wish he didn’t even try. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, even Cronos, are masterpieces that he made outside the Hollywood system and his talent and creativity shined through them like a spotlight. I don’t know if he was given notes by the studio or if he just wanted to make an “easier” movie after the massive spectacle of Pacific Rim. Whatever the case may be, Pacific Rim was infinitely more entertaining than this drivel. The movie is not scary (I think one “boo” scare caught me off guard), it’s not romantic and it’s definitely not a good film by the lauded director. Gothic, yes. Horror, no.

Maybe we should be thankful Hellboy III might never happen.

1.5 out of 5