Sunday, May 31, 2009


Review: Drag Me to Hell
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

While giddily watching director Sam Raimi's unabashedly-titled “Drag Me to Hell,” I found myself jotting down a lot of exclamations: Shocking! Fun! Icky! Delightfully over-the-top! A return to form for the man who so famously blended horror and hilarity with his cult-favorite “Evil Dead” trilogy, this gruesome funhouse of a film moves, for the most part, with feverish momentum, continually creeping you out while also cracking you up. For all its goo and gore (which we'll get to in a bit), “Drag” is enormously refreshing, a postmodern fright flick that keenly repurposes damn-near every effective fear factor in the book (we'll get to those, too) to pump some much-needed juice into the bone-dry well that is modern horror. Like the “Evil Dead” titles (and, to a certain degree, Wes Craven's original “Scream”), the secret to the success of “Drag” is that it never takes itself too seriously. Its main goal, which it largely achieves, is to entertain the hell out of you. For the hit-or-miss Raimi (who was due for a rebound following his disappointingly jam-packed franchise stain, “Spider-Man 3”), it is a definite hit, albeit not a grand slam.

“Drag” oozes excitement right from the start, when the director (who also co-wrote the original script with brother Ivan) lays down a throwback tone by resurrecting the old-school, “Jaws”-era Universal logo. He proceeds with a killer preface and a great, freaky folklore-ish title sequence, both of which school the audience on an ancient gypsy curse that invokes the Lamia, a demon recycled from Greek mythology that terrorizes its victims for three days before literally yanking them down to you-know-where. It's a wicked spell that will soon be cast upon Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, dead-on), a kind-hearted but ambitious L.A. loan officer who, in an attempt to get ahead at her bank, refuses to extend the home loan of the wrong crotchety old gypsy, one Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver). Publicly humiliated (Christine calls security when she's manhandled by the old woman who's down on all fours, begging for mercy), Mrs. Ganush summons the Lamia and sends it Christine's way, an act that will have the young bank worker running from murderous shadows, orifice-happy insects and all sorts of other waking nightmares faster than she can say, “repossessed.” While her level-headed and wise-cracking psych. prof. boyfriend (played by Justin Long, of all people) waits in the wings of disbelief, Christine enlists the help of a crafty fortune teller (Dileep Rao), desperately trying to save her soul as the minutes race against her.

In addition to providing edge-of-your-seat suspense that elicits as many eventual laughs of relief as it does initial shrieks of terror (thanks in part to Christopher Young's perfect score), Raimi keeps the gross-out gears grinding throughout. Raver's Mrs. Ganush may well be the most disgusting witch the movies have ever seen (Margaret Hamilton's broom-rider is practically angelic by comparison). Even before she gets medieval on Christine, this vile villain tests your stomach with her brown and brittle fingernails, her slimy denchers, her haunting cataract and the coughing up of unnatural gobs of phlegm. She coughs up plenty more as the film progresses, and uses her gums – yes, gums – as weapons more fearsome than a heavy-duty chainsaw. And it doesn't stop there. “Drag” delivers deliriously twisted gags by the dozen, some involving nosebleeds, others involving goats, all involving hand-over-your-mouth gasps and in-spite-of-yourself giggles. It's the kind of material that may leave squeamish viewers spewing their popcorn back into its bag, but for game moviegoers, it's all part of Raimi's thrill-a-second amusement park ride.

Familiar elements pop up all over this flight of phantasmagoric fancy, and, for once, I say that in the most affectionate sense possible. Rather than resorting to the same old, tired scary movie clichés, Raimi reworks countless foundational staples of the genre to create a satisfying entertainment that is both fresh and comfortably recognizable (you can almost envision the director holding test screenings of famous titles and taking notes on what works and what doesn't). Christine, with her white-trash-farm-girl background and woman-in-a-man's-world circumstances, is a reincarnation of Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling if I ever saw one, made all the more palpable in a wild scene that briefly and brazenly makes a barnyard animal the literal source of her demons. To make you jump, squirm and usually both, the screenwriting bros employ ceiling-slamming levitations (“The Excorcist”), muddy swims with corpses (“Poltergeist”), kitty burials (“Pet Sematary”), straight-from-hell silhouettes (“Ghost”), flies (“The Ring”) and strategically placed voices, wind gusts and bumps in the night. Even the concept of the downward-spiral gypsy curse you can't return is borrowed from “Stephen King's Thinner,” and yet Raimi weaves it all together with a knowing, movie-loving joy that's felt and shared.

I didn't want to have to say this, but there are a few things that cause “Drag” to, well, drag, especially when it hits its third act. First there's Long's character, an obligatory male skeptic whose bone-headed lines (like, “I don't know what I believe in anymore,” and obvious shrink-y nods to Freud and Jung) cramp the movie's madcap style. Conversely, Raimi takes too many liberties in a reigns-free séance scene with Oscar nominee Adriana Barrazza (“Babel”) that proves even a movie as on-the-surface fun as this can be made to look shallow. Most unforgivable is a late-in-the-game twist that isn't a twist at all for anyone who's been paying even the slightest bit of attention. The film tries to trick you and fails, and once you know where it's going, the grip-the-armrest gas it so furiously burned until said point starts to run out. Compared to lesser thrillers (meaning most of them), “Drag” still advances with vigor, and an on-the-nose ending earns big redemptive points, but a rollercoaster with no brakes would have been more exciting. These criticisms, though, are pointed out like smudges on a framed photo that's stop-and-stare excellent. Because Raimi's latest, while not perfect, can easily be called a new horror classic.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Review: Angels & Demons
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In Dan Brown's bestselling, church-rattling book series, “Angels & Demons” (a treasure hunt that unfolds across Rome and amidst a war between religion and science) precedes “The Da Vinci Code” (a treasure hunt that unfolds across Paris and unearths a discrepancy between religion and – more or less – art). In the opportunistic land of Hollywood, this chronological detail didn't fly, since “Da Vinci” became the (much) more profitable installment and therefore the (much) more tempting text to cash in on and adapt first. In the dark confines of the theater, the sequential switcheroo doesn't make a lick of a difference, since both conspiratorial stories operate independently of one another. The link is Robert Langdon, Brown's Harvard symbologist hero played in both films with well-read Regular Joe agility by Tom Hanks. One of the reasons that “Angels,” also directed by “Da Vinci” helmer Ron Howard, is better than its cinematic predecessor is that Langdon's backstory and idiosyncrasies – claustrophobia, swimming for exercise, Mickey Mouse wrist watch – have already been introduced, thus shaving off the long-winded explanations of at least one narrative element. Unfortunately, in a movie that throws more elaborate, far-fetched data at the audience than an entire season of “MythBusters,” one trim ain't enough.

While Brown may not be the greatest wordsmith, no one can accuse him of not doing his homework. His books are bursting with historical facts and controversial theories that, on the page, coalesce to create complex thrillers that compel and provoke. Effectively communicating that same discourse in a visual medium, however, is another story, and despite the efforts of skilled screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, “Angels,” like “Da Vinci,” packs way too much information into its feature-length running time and becomes terribly verbose as a result.

The movie follows Langdon to Vatican City where, in the thick of electing the next Pope (the last one suffered a fatal stroke), the Catholic church needs the American professor to decipher the clues of a cryptic threat from the Illuminati, an ancient, Vatican-hating brotherhood of scientists who've kidnapped and promised to kill the four cardinals most favored to inherit the papacy. You see, the Illuminati – whom, the text purports, included bigwigs like Galileo and Bernini – aren't too fond of how the Vatican has attempted to quell scientific progress throughout history (such as murdering scientists), and they're now determined to literally destroy the Catholic epicenter once and for all. Enter Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer of “Munich”), a particle physicist from the real-life Swiss research facility CERN who's partially responsible for an incredible breakthrough – the production of antimatter, a made-from-nothing “God particle” that may represent the bridge between science and faith. Highly unstable, the antimatter has fallen into the hands of the Illuminati, and unless Langdon and Vetra can solve the puzzle and find the volatile substance in time, the Illuminati will use it to blow Vatican City to Kingdom Come.

The first half of “Angels” is unforgivably talkative, desperate to get the viewer up to speed on the many key points of Brown's densely researched tome as quickly as possible. The crash course I just gave on antimatter isn't much less than what's offered in the film, and it's delivered during a sequence that's also busy introducing skeptical Swiss Guard Commander Richter (an un-engaging Stellan Skarsgård), figuring out how to find those cardinals and showcasing Langdon's conveniently-timed scholarly epiphanies. It's not that the material is confusing, per se, it's that it's too vast and requires too much suspension of disbelief to be taken seriously in compressed form. And you can forget about character development – this movie doesn't have time for it. Though dexterously played by Zurer, Vetra is simply a woman with a title and a profession: she's given no human qualities to make her relatable or sympathetic. Fine actors Ewan McGregor and Armin Mueller-Stahl provide noble flesh as acting church head Camerlengo Patrick McKenna and old-school Cardinal Strauss, respectively, but the preoccupied script never allows the characters to be anything more than skin-deep. Langdon is in good shape, of course, this being his second outing and all, and Hanks, who finds the fulcrum on which to balance the book nerd with the bro-man, gives the audience something to latch on to. "Angels" needs a Tom Hanks – an everyman to bring its relentless, implausible jargon down to Earth.

The second half is much more successful for, once the board is set, the pieces can finally move. The most fun to be had in these movies – and in Brown's books – is following the clues and solving the mystery, and Howard does a far better job staging the action this time around. Salvatore Totino's inexplicably choppy, handheld camerawork is a wee bit distracting, but there's plenty of great scenery, as “Angels” visits many of the hottest sites in Rome and Vatican City (including the Pantheon, the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Castel Sant'Angelo). Within that scenery, Howard presents some truly intense moments, namely those that surround the (potential) slayings of the four kidnapped cardinals. There's also an awe-inspiring, surprisingly beautiful bit set in and above St. Peter's Square, wherein the fate of the Vatican is decided and Howard's considerable skills as a filmmaker are best exhibited. (His skills are less evident when Hans Zimmer's laughably thunderous score invades, imbuing “Angels” with an “isn't this exciting?” self-importance it hasn't exactly earned.)

It's well-known that the Christian right is none-too-thrilled with Brown's stories, whether they're topping the New York Times bestseller list or the weekend box-office grosses. Brown's subject matter, which often challenges the fabric and traditions of the Catholic church, tends to shake up those unwilling to explore what truths may exist outside what's written in the Bible. Theologically, “Da Vinci,” with its detailed implications regarding Christ's bloodline, spawned more controversy (and thus, more interest). Dramatically, “Angels,” with its core story about the physical destruction of the Vatican and all its historical and artistic assets, is more intriguing because there's more at stake. But religious zealots needn't fear about either of the screen adaptations of Brown's work: both of them prove but one thing, and it isn't Brown's hot-button hypotheses – it's that his books shouldn't be made into films.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Review: Star Trek
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

I am no Trekkie. To me, William Shatner is not Captain Kirk, but Denny Crane; Patrick Stewart is not Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but Professor X; and George Takei is not Mr. Sulu, but that Japanese guy who made coming out of the closet more middle age-friendly. Be it the original '60s TV series, the films, or “The Next Generation,” for whatever reason (generation gap? Klingon aversion?), my geek feelers never sensed to follow any of the paths of the U.S.S. Enterprise. But even if your “Trek” knowledge, like mine, basically begins and ends with societally ingrained phrases like “beam me up, Scotty” and “live long and prosper,” you should still, like I did, have an absolute blast watching director J.J. Abrams's smart, accessible and highly energetic re-imagining of creator Gene Roddenberry's classic story and characters. And while I can't say for sure, I'd imagine that those with a penchant for pointy ears, crowded convention halls and slightly awkward hand gestures will be very pleased as well.

Abrams, as most people know, is the Emmy-winning creator of “Lost” (another pop culture phenomenon for which I missed the proverbial boat). While his name may always be synonymous with television (he's also the man behind popular shows like “Felicity,” “Alias” and, more recently, “Fringe”), Abrams reveals himself to be a world-class action movie maker with “Star Trek,” a superior sci-fi extravaganza that's light years beyond his previous directorial effort, 2006's Tom Cruise vehicle, “Mission: Impossible III.” Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers,” “The Island”) falter a bit with a hammy opening prologue but, from there, the crackerjack team's franchise retread takes off like a rocket, chronicling the early days of the famous Enterprise crew in a style that is at once intelligent and ceaselessly action-packed.

Set about a decade before the original series (though time is certainly bendable here), it introduces the audience to slightly younger, significantly prettier versions of the Starfleet Academy graduates that so many viewers already know and love. There's James Kirk (Chris Pine of “Smokin' Aces”), a hotheaded womanizer from Iowa who's destined to follow in his father's footsteps and become a hero of the outer space-exploring Federation. Then there's Spock (Zachary Quinto of NBC's “Heroes”), a half-human, half-Vulcan genius from the other side of the galaxy who's got his own familial issues and who's the first of his kind to be accepted into Starfleet. The initial rivalry and eventual camaraderie of these two opposing characters is appropriately and effectively the film's leading dramatic focus; however, due attention is also paid to the familiar cadets who join them on the Enterprise's maiden voyage. We meet Uhura (Zoe Saldana of “Vantage Point”), a beautiful and brainy communications officer who's hit on by Kirk but only has mascara-lined eyes for Spock; Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban of “The Lord of the Rings” films), Kirk's medical officer buddy with a strong conscience and a deadpan delivery; young Russian officer Chekhov (Anton Yelchin of “Charlie Bartlett”), who's aces in a tight spot; Enterprise helmsman Sulu (John Cho of “Harold and Kumar” fame), who's surprisingly skilled in hand-to-hand combat; and, of course, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg of “Hot Fuzz”), the ship's chief engineer who knows a thing or two about teleportation.

Assembled by veteran captain Christopher Pike (veteran actor Bruce Greenwood), these diverse personalities must band together to save the universe from Nero (Eric Bana of “Munich”), a tattooed, serpent-like Romulan with a personal vendetta and a powerful weapon that can vanquish entire planets in the blink of an eye. There's plenty more contained within this exciting story, such as time travel and a seamless guest appearance by fan favorite Leonard Nimoy, but I'll leave the rest of the plot details to the adventurous moviegoers. More important are the ways in which Abrams and company have crafted, piece by thrilling piece, a savvy summer movie for everyone. I found myself continuously impressed by how well this film balances strong storytelling, fine acting and quick-witted dialogue with nearly non-stop action and mind-blowing special effects. Like “The West Wing” meets “Starship Troopers,” it communicates its intricate exposition amidst its eye-popping sequences, rarely compromising one for the other and emerging as that scarce genre film that's as clever as it is cool. Though mildly mystifying at times, the convoluted exchanges between characters are not nerdy and pretentious (as I had feared), but erudite, articulate and exceedingly well played by every member of this inordinately talented cast. With their physical likenesses to the original actors as mere gravy, Pine, Saldana, Urban and Quinto, especially, reach high above what one would expect to find here, creating genuine tension and characterization in an arena that's notoriously susceptible to flat, weightless fluff. It's safe to assume that each of these stars will soon see their careers ascend with warp speed in and outside of this series.

No expense is spared in the look of “Star Trek,” as Abrams also proves himself an adroit orchestrator of intense visual fascination. The detailed environments, production design and CGI call to mind the work of James Cameron and Peter Jackson, providing engaging imagery that's as much a living part of the film as the actors. The sharply-cut setpieces are first-rate as well, namely a spectacular segment that takes place within the planet Vulcan's atmosphere and includes skydiving, sword fighting, and some serious flame-throwing. Toss in Daniel Mindel's tireless, scenery-scanning camera work and Michael Giacchino's rousing, retro score, and you've got one awesome sensory experience. Even the neat, normally reprehensible bow that Abrams wraps his movie up with seems such a note-perfect nod to the “Trek” legacy that die-hard fans may very well weep. So am I a Trekkie after all? I wouldn't go that far. But with the inevitable sequels on the horizon, you can bet I'll boldly go wherever this cast and crew are headed.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
2 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Poor Hugh Jackman. The muscular multi-tasker may be the reigning Sexiest Man Alive and a rousing Oscar emcee, but he just can't seem to land a decent movie these days. Last year, he endured back-to-back duds, starring in the the toothless erotic thriller “Deception” and “Australia,” Baz Luhrmann's overstuffed Down Under epic that tanked with critics and audiences. Now, as executive producer and star, he stands at the center of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” a clunky spin-off/reboot of 20th Century Fox's blockbuster “X-Men” franchise. You don't need to be a super-geek to know that Wolverine, that metal-clawed mutant with a ferocious disposition, is both the veritable king of the uncannily gifted X-Men and one of the most popular characters in Stan Lee's entire Marvel Universe. He's also the character that, in 2000's “X-Men,” catapulted Jackman from relative obscurity to household name status. The 40-year-old Aussie wears the role of Wolverine like an impermeable (and very hairy) second skin, one he's donned for two progressively profitable sequels. This petty, built-to-make-a-buck backstory of the X-MVP makes the original trilogy's weakest chapter, Brett Ratner's “X-Men: The Last Stand,” look like a slam-dunk. Nothing more than a base-level actioner, it's a whopping disservice to the character, to the fans and, most and worst of all, to Jackman.

You can't really condemn the actor/producer for putting his name behind a project that recounts the roots of his signature screen counterpart. However, when watching this film, you also can't help but wonder: amidst all the gym visits and bulking regimens that turned him into a mean machine of rock-solid muscle, did Jackman even bother to read the script? “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” – an ultra-specific title that makes one long for the simple numbers of the “Spider-Man” installments – might as well be called “Wolverine for Dummies.” Attempting to explain the source(s) of Wolverine's world-famous rage, it begins with an awfully cheesy prologue set in 1845 Canada wherein two of the worst child actors you're likely to see this year portray young versions of James Howlett (aka Logan, aka Wolverine) and Victor Creed (aka Sabretooth), half brothers endowed with similar superhuman abilities (hyper-keen senses, rapid regenerative powers, long life, retractable fingernails). Bound by tragedy (Logan accidentally kills his father with his newly-discovered “bone claws”), the boys run away to join the Army and grow up to be Jackman and Liev Schreiber. After serving together in the Civil War, both World Wars and Vietnam, the unbreakable bros are recruited to a mutant special ops team by Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston), an older version of whom was played by Brian Cox in Brian Singer's far superior “X2.” When Stryker orders his men – who also include the samurai swordsman Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) and the teleporter Wraith (Will.I.Am. of The Black Eyed Peas) – to murder innocents, Victor obeys but Logan quits, solidifying the pair's long-brewing rivalry and the movie's major conflict.

“Wolverine” further examines a legendary bit of comic book lore that was teased at in both “X-Men” and “X2.” Following his departure from the military, Logan retreats to the Canadian Rockies where he finds seclusion, grunt work, and love in the arms of Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), a pretty schoolteacher who helps him cope with his inner demons. But when his past comes back to bite him and Kayla is killed, Logan goes berserk and signs up for Weapon X, Stryker's cloak-and-dagger program that transforms mutants into mindless killers. Logan sticks around for all the killer amenities (indestructible metal skeleton, his trademark triple-butcher-blade talons), but escapes before the mindless part can take effect, thus making enemies with basically everyone. More armed and dangerous than ever, he begins seeking revenge on those enemies, and we watch as the dots connect to set up the events depicted in the first “X-Men” movie, a process that's about as scintillating as a child's paint-by-number exercise.

There are a few lines of dialogue that are so clichéd, even beyond parody, that they should be outlawed in Hollywood. One is “look what the cat dragged in,” another is “we didn't sign up for this” and the worst is “I'm so cold,” painfully uttered by a character about to kick the bucket. All three phrases pop up in “Wolverine,” and they're a good indicator of the rest of the bottom-rung screenplay by David Benioff (“Troy”) and Skip Woods (“Hitman”). The banter in this flick is easy, common and devoid of ingenuity, and no amount of actor gravitas could make it anything but. Not that there's whole a lot of gravitas to go around in the first place. Reynolds, who shows up early on and then factors into the climax, confirms once and for all that he's a single-note performer, whose buffed-up physique may have expanded his resume but whose dramatic range is still limited to dimwitted class clowns. Since acting isn't his chief vocation, I won't be too hard on rapper Will.I.Am., but let's just say the casting director's shot at being hip by hiring a musician backfired big time. Taylor Kitsch (NBC's “Friday Night Lights”), who portrays fan favorite Gambit in the film's second half, doesn't appear long enough to warrant many criticisms, but certainly doesn't make a strong impression. Schreiber, who also played a brutal brother type in last year's “Defiance,” and Huston, a dependable supporting thesp, seem to hover above the material, eagerly awaiting their paychecks. And Jackman, who's given very little to do other than scream, fight and break stuff, looks a bit like an alien in his own movie, leaping from one predestined scuffle to another. By the time the credits rolled, I, a self-professed X-fan, felt less familiar with the title character than I did going in.

About a month before the film's opening date, an unfinished cut of “Wolverine” was leaked online, causing Fox execs to rightfully panic about box office takes. I haven't seen the viral video version, but the final draft that made it to screen can't be much better. Routinely directed by Gavin Hood (the Oscar-winner “Tsotsi”), the movie boasts nothing special. Its action scenes, which are initiated at every possible opportunity, are far too ordinary and tedious to be put on such showy, “look what we can do” display. And in a movie like this, if even the action and effects are unimpressive, what's left to enjoy? Jackman currently has eight films in development. Let's hope at least one of them allows him to polish up his street cred. Meanwhile, the folks at Fox have announced a 2011 release date for “X-Men Origins: Magneto.” Let's hope the tale of the supervillain has more bite than that of the superhero.