House of Wax


For a movie with such dull clichés as a roadkill- roasting country bumpkin, a killer that won’t die, young people making stupid decisions and a town “that’s not on any map”, the new “House of Wax” could have been worse. But for anybody who has seen that kind of stuff before, and done better, this is just your basic slasher film with the volume once again cranked up to deafening levels. In the 1953 horror classic, Vincent Price played an obsessive curator with a deadly secret: he restocked his wax museum with real bodies after a fire intentionnally set by an associate destroyed his life’s work and left him badly scarred. That film rightfully became a seminal piece of horror in the spirit of the Phantom of the Opera and solidified the potential of the disfigured and/or vengeful madman as an horror icon. Now “House of Wax” is “reimagined” with a megaplex-friendly cast headlined by Elisha Cuthbert (“The Girl Next Door”), Chad Michael Murray (TV’s One Tree Hill) and Paris Hilton (“One Night in Paris”), in this new film by first-time director Jaume Collet-Serra.

Shot in the Australian countryside but set somewhere in the Louisiana sticks (no alligators appear, although it would have spiced things up), the movie introduces us to six young people on their way to a college football game in Baton Rouge. Along for the ride are twins Carly and Nick (Cuthbert and Murray), horny couple Paige and Blake (Hilton and Robert Ri’chard), Carly’s boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) and a camera-toting friend of Nick (Jon Abrahams). There’s some sibling resentment between Carly, who’s looking forward to an internship at InStyle magazine in New York City, and her rebellious brother who did time for car theft and feels his sister has been designated as the good twin.

Since Wade needs a new fan belt for his car, a scary-looking dimwit who might have been an extra on “Wrong Turn” takes him and Carly to Ambrose, a small town so desolate the road doesn’t quite get there. This fact should be a strong hint that 1) you shouldn’t stick around in these parts and 2) you might be doomed anyway. And this is what Carly starts fearing when Wade never comes out of the house he entered to go to the bathroom. She soon discovers that Ambrose has been turned into a town of wax by twin brothers with a troubled past, hinted at in a nondescript prologue, and will need to fight alongside her brother to stop the madness.

Padalecki struggles with a feebly written role, a problem that befalls several characters including the murderous brothers both played by Brian Van Holt. Hilton doesn’t look as out of place as you’d expect in this bunch while the extremely cute Cuthbert is OK as the tough chick, even though I’d still prefer Jessica Biel from TCM ’03 or Eliza Dushku from “Wrong Turn” by my side in fighting evil forces.

The ending disappointingly follows the box-office driven notion that you must leave the door open for a sequel, but the way it’s done here is especially perfunctory and unconvincing. Part of the reason why I liked “Wrong Turn” and appreciated elements of “House of a 1000 Corpses” is that they had no final twist (the former) or were at least stylish about their last images (the latter and also the ’03 version of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). But this is a secondary flaw because the script from Chad and Carey Hayes, who are twins themselves, has no shortage of stupid or stilted lines, and the role of Nick’s hang-around friend is unnecessary even by movie sidekick standards. Where the film excels is in the production design, with knife handles and a conjoined twins sculpture coming to mind, and in the out-of-control intensity of the climactic fire. There are a few nice touches of organ music at some point but it isn’t long before they get drowned out by industrial music or death metal, whatever they call this insufferable noise, leaving us with little to wax poetic about.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

A Lot Like Love


With “A Lot Like Love”, Ashton Kutcher continues the process of moving beyond his Kelso persona, begun with “The Butterfly Effect” and neatly furthered recently with “Guess Who”, by co-starring in a superbly charming film that’s nothing less than a gem in its genre. Still, it doesn’t do complete justice to the film to label it a romantic comedy because it spills over from those parameters in such lovely ways, being just as much an observation of the lives of two people and what it is that brings them together. Here’s a film with a leisurely pace that doesn’t have you looking at your watch but instead makes you even more interested in what happens next.

The leads are played by Kutcher and the beautiful Amanda Peet. They look like they’re having fun, they have great chemistry and the story, spanning roughly six years in the lives of two young people who are meant to be together, pulls you in right away. Oliver (Kutcher) and Emily (Peet) first meet on a flight from L.A. to New York. They lock eyes at the terminal, and once aboard, in the blink of an eye she joins him in the bathroom and they become members of the mile-high club. Once in the Big Apple, they continue to spend time together, and Oliver is informed that not playing the guitar is strike two, and then that his astrological sign is strike three. What could the first strike have been? Finding out is only one of the many rewards of staying tuned as the characters go their separate ways, find themselves in relationships and also try to be successful in their professional lives.

“A Lot Like Love” refreshingly approaches characters and situations without resorting to histrionics or straining to get easy laughs when bright smiles are more satisfying. The picture is full of moments handled in a way that rings true. For example, an eventful overnight stay at a national park ends with a level-headed admonition from a state trooper in the morning- nobody screams, nobody is humiliated, life goes on. Earlier, a gentle old lady on a train asks Oliver if he’d like to sit next to his “girlfriend” whom he has only known for a few hours. Oliver actually does what feels right: he says he’d like that very much, appreciates the offer and switches seats. The filmmakers ask the audience to invest time in caring about the characters, and that narrative approach works wonders in Colin Patrick Lynch’s screenplay.

Ty Giordano, as Oliver’s down-to-earth deaf brother, Kal Penn, last seen going to White Castle with Harold, Kathryn Hahn and Ali Larter contribute supporting performances in a production admirably paced by director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls). The trailer and TV ads give a misleading glimpse of Oliver’s rendition of Bon Jovi’s I’ll be There for You. In context and in its entirety, the scene is much richer than those spots would lead you to believe, and it’s a nice nod to the great 1989 film “Say Anything”, which made superb use of Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. Another obvious influence is “When Harry Met Sally”, although in the broader outline because the steps to love are different here. There’s an underplayed scene at Oliver’s place, involving a framed photograph, that’s a subtle echo of the part in WHMS where Bruno Kirby’s writer character is both surprised and flattered when something he wrote is quoted back to him.

Kutcher, who’s gaining credibility with every role, is a fine screen partner for Peet, who’s effortlessly charismatic in a way that “The Whole Nine Yards” could only suggest. They inhabit characters that seem to enjoy not only each other’s company, but also life itself. There’s a bit at a pancake restaurant where Emily makes nostril ornaments out of giant straws. When Oliver responds with similar tomfoolery a bit later, the fun is not in the action itself but in the other person’s bubbly reaction to how silly it is, and the same words apply to their wildly enjoyable sing-along of Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now. Perhaps the greatest trick Kutcher ever pulled was to make us believe he was nothing more than a doofus on That 70’s Show or a dude asking where his car was. Maybe, just maybe, he had us Punk’d all along.

Review by J-F Tremblay

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous


I can summarize my opinion of “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous” with a moment from the film itself. After a cheesy wordplay from a beauty consultant named Joel falls completely flat, the character, played by Diedrich Bader, just sighs loudly at the joke’s ineffectiveness. And we as an audience can only share his sentiment after watching this uninspired sequel, which comes four years and three months after “Miss Congeniality”.

Whereas MC was mild fun redeemed in good part by the beautiful Sandra Bullock, MC2 is just middling, and that’s being generous. It begins three weeks after the first film, where FBI agent Gracie Hart (Bullock) saved the day at the Miss United States pageant. It now seems she’s so well known that everybody in New York City recognizes her in public (that pageant’s telecast must have had record-setting ratings). This state of affairs makes Gracie a liability in special operations, and so she’s given a choice by her boss (Ernie Hudson): either she becomes a paper-pusher or she agrees to become “the new face of the FBI”, where she’ll blissfully smile her way through talk show appearances and book signings.

The screenwriter is Marc Lawrence, who must be a favorite of Bullock: he also wrote MC, “Forces of Nature” and “Two Weeks Notice”, one of the wittiest and most engaging romantic comedies of recent years. He couldn’t resist recycling some of the ideas of the first film, although with strongly diminishing returns. For example, what was once mildly amusing, like Gracie demonstrating self-defence on Benjamin Bratt, becomes tired slapstick with Regis Philbin as the victim. And the female bonding doesn’t convince much. You see, Gracie is given a partner-bodyguard in agent Sam Fuller (Regina King), who got transferred from the Chicago office because of anger management issues. Lots of clashes ensue before some sudden experience-sharing bring the two women closer. And wouldn’t you know it, these two gals will need to work as a team when it is learned that Miss Unites States, that girl Cheryl (Heather Burns) whom Gracie befriended, has been kidnapped for ransom in Las Vegas, along with emcee Stan Fields (William Shatner), by a couple of redneck brothers. Following a chain of events too rushed or silly to explain, Gracie, Sam and Joel are on their way to the glitzy town in the desert. As part of the investigation, Gracie finds herself part of a drag show in which she wears a flamboyant costume with shades of pink and yellow that may have been handpicked or rather pawpicked by Barney the dinosaur (here’s a good candidate for a Where Are They Now- so we can avoid that place at all cost). The colorful and, I must say, very sexy stagewear comes courtesy of costume designer Deena Appel, who has had ample experience with flashy clothes by working on all three Austin Powers movies.

The costume’s hot, but with its feeble attempts at humor and haphazard plot, MC2 simply shows that female buddy movies can be just as cloying as the lesser examples of their male equivalent. For one thing, the role of Joel is completely unnecessary. All through both movies, Gracie maintains her no-nonsense attitude but sort of embraces her feminity more. Why in the world would she need a pale copy of the stylist that was played by the great Michael Caine? The girl can take care of herself. And the screenplay jumps from moment to moment as if in a hurry to set up whatever setback is headed Gracie’s way, whether it be the mess at the bank where everybody knows her or the Las Vegas bureau chief (Treat Williams) who wants her off the case and on the next flight out of town.

Director John Pasquin has helmed feel-good fare like “The Santa Clause” and “Jungle 2 Jungle”, and you would think that with a likable and energetic lead like Bullock the result could be a charmer. But that would demand a much better and more coherent story than this. For the most part, “Miss Congeniality 2” feels just as fake as those Tina Turner impersonators.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Hostage


In “Hostage”, Bruce Willis plays former LAPD hostage negotiator Jeff Talley, who moved to a small town in Ventura County after his decisions in a hostage crisis one year before failed to save lives. Talley is forced back to duties he thought were behind him when his estranged wife and daughter are taken hostage by hooded criminals who badly want a specific DVD which is in the hands of accountant Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak). Complicating matters, to say the very least, is that Smith, his teenage daughter and young son have themselves been taken hostage by three young men who at first were there only to steal a car.

Inside the Smith house, holding Jennifer and young Tommy captive, are Dennis (Jonathan Tucker), his younger brother Kevin (Marshall Allman) and Mars (Ben Foster). They’re like a three-headed monster with each head pulling in different directions. Dennis, the one who talks on the phone with Talley, thinks he’s in charge. He veers toward having a conscience, but his self-preservation instinct (and the huge sum of money he finds in the house) makes him react in hostile ways. Kevin is basically a decent guy who fell in with the wrong crowd: he realizes the horror of what they’re doing and wants it to end before it gets any worse. There’s a crucial moment where what Kevin does (or rather doesn’t do) tells us a lot about his character. But the true leader and combustible element is Mars, a sadistic sociopath who makes things go from worse to very ugly when he shoots and kills a cop who showed up to check if everything was all right following a silent alarm triggered by Tommy (Jimmy Bennett).

Smith’s residence is outfitted with surveillance cameras and an extensive network of secret passageways, and the latter are eventually the setting for an escape attempt that rivals the intensity of the best horror films. It is just one example of director Florent Siri’s ability to maintain and elevate the nervous mood that invaded the film as soon as the initial hostage crisis in L.A. started getting out of Talley’s control.

“Hostage” is an adaptation of the eponymous Robert Crais novel, where it’s clearly established who the criminals threatening Talley’s family are and what is at stake for them. Screenwriter Doug Richardson definitely made some changes here and there, but the psychology and behaviour patterns of the characters are essentially respected.

The opening credits sequence is pretty nifty and the photography of Giovanni Coltallecci is superb, with some intense close-ups and artful use of darkness and shadows. Siri’s dynamic direction benefits from a classic performance by Willis that brings to mind some of his more layered roles like “The Sixth Sense” and a personal favorite of mine, “Unbreakable”. Willis, playing a man with a lot on his conscience, projects a believable mix of vulnerability and resolve. The way he lowers his voice, for example during his exchanges with the gutsy Tommy, or the way he pauses when dealing with other police forces or an ambulance technician, successfully convey the nerve-testing circumstances his character is in. Also of note is the chilling performance of Foster, who takes a meaty role and makes a memorable psycho out of it. As far as hostage movies go, I’d still recommend the gripping “The Negotiator”, but “Hostage” is a stylish and very well done entry into the genre.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Constantine


I expect some mysticism when a movie has a character called Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), a nightclub owner whose attire is part pimp and part voodoo priest. I also hope for a sense of mystery and danger in an ambitious tale about redemption, exorcisms and the Spear of Destiny. I loved the story of “Constantine” even though those expectations weren’t quite fulfilled, but I believe it might have benefited from a darker tone.

Constantine, you may or may not know (the latter is more likely), is John Constantine, a demon-fighting mystic part of the Vertigo branch of DC Comics, where he’s British and blond. I knew little about him beyond that, so I’m writing as a film fan commenting on the film version, where the cynical, self-involved and chain-smoking Constantine is played by Keanu Reeves. His performance is interesting, and I enjoyed the world-weary, dry delivery. Here’s a character who’s not trying to win a popularity contest. He won’t hold that elevator door for you, but you sure want him around if somebody’s been overtaken by evil forces.

“Constantine” holds that God and the Devil made a wager for the souls of all mankind. They can have no direct contact with humans, but are allowed “influence peddlers”, half-breeds who may try to steer us one way of another. John was born with the gift- or curse- of being able to see these half-breeds. Horrified by these sightings, he once took his own life. And according to Catholicism, the act of suicide is a mortal sin preventing entry to Heaven, and as such John had a glimpse of where he would end up: Hell. Determined to escape that damnation, he’s been doggedly performing exorcisms, with gizmos including a dragon’s breath shooter (!), to earn his way to the divine gates. He gets a new sense of urgency when he learns he’s dying of lung cancer, and the plot also has Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) going to John in an attempt to find out what really happened to her twin sister. It seems as though she killed herself, but Angela refuses to believe it.

The movie is the feature debut of Francis Lawrence, who has directed several videos for performers including Britney Spears, Shakira and the Black Eyed Peas. He demonstrates some film noir stylings, but the tone isn’t quite there to classify the movie as film noir. Some inspired shots of a darkened Los Angeles and the atmospheric score by Brian Tyler and Klaus Badelt help position the film in a heightened sense of reality, and the depiction of Hell is rather impressive. Yet the role of its chief denizen Satan (Peter Stormare) borders on grotesque when it should be the epitome of fearsome. But I will concede that within the theology as presented by the film, the dual twist of his confrontation with John is simply brilliant.

Weisz contributes an excellent performance as Angela, her intensity adding depth to her character at every crucial turn. Weisz and Reeves have co-starred before, in the mediocre 1996 conspiracy thriller “Chain Reaction”, where she was basically a damsel in distress. This time there’s room for some chemistry between them, and it works. Also noteworthy is Shia LaBeouf as John’s self-teaching apprentice and cab driver. “Constantine” is not captivating, but it has a few neat turns and some inspired visuals.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Assault on Precinct 13


In “Training Day”, Ethan Hawke was a rookie cop who, when told he had to decide whether to be a wolf or to be a sheep, chose to be the shepherd. Now, in “Assault on Precinct 13”, a semi-remake of the 1976 John Carpenter film, Hawke again plays somebody who deals with both the attacker and the attacked. He plays Jake Roenick, a Detroit desk sergeant who took refuge in these functions after an undercover sting operation he headed eight months before turned deadly for two of his colleagues.

A major snowstorm is raging as the film begins but on this New Year’s Eve, the mood is celebratory inside Precinct 13, which is next to a forest whose density will vary depending on the needs of the plot. Inside the building, which is to be shut down, we also meet a veteran cop who unexpectedly announces he’ll soon retire, a flirty secretary who thinks about sex all the time (Drea de Matteo) and, a bit later on, a psychologist named Alex played by the stunning Maria Bello.

They think it will be a quiet night, but a van taking criminals to jail is rerouted to their precinct because of the hazardous driving conditions. This bunch of bad apples is of course a motley crew, consisting namely of counterfeiter Smiley (Ja Rule), who talks in the third person, junkie Beck (John Leguizamo), who can’t shut up and keeps blaming the System, and crime kingpin Marion Bishop. The latter’s ruthless and quiet authority is so well embodied by Laurence Fishburne it’s a wonder the filmmakers left in extraneous exposition like mentioning he’s “notorious for his brutal execution methods”. But this is just the beginning: they’re soon besieged by corrupt cops with the deadliest of intentions, some of them so heavily armed that I wondered if I hadn’t walked in on a sneak peek of Halo: The Movie. I feel it is best for the enjoyment of those who’ll take a chance on the film to leave the plot description at that.

There are excellent performances from Fishburne, Hawke and Bello, but I wish Frenchman director Jean-François Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco would be equally praiseworthy. In the tense environment where this film takes place, it’s a good thing to feel like there’s always the potential of something happening just beyond the frame, within some boundaries of realism. But at least three times, a character enters the picture so suddenly that any wider of a shot would clearly reveal how unlikely it would be for things to turn out that way. The failed sting operation and the initial precinct attack also show Richet going overboard with the quick cutting and dizzying camera moves.

DeMonaco’s dialogue is sometimes both cliché-ridden and weirdly original. Consider the scene where a character mentions Greek philosophy to explain a supposed parallel between loving and dying. This same scene ends with the following exchange…Character 1: “It’s really quiet out there now”. Character 2: “Yeah… that’s what worries me.” The rationale used by Gabriel Byrne’s character to continue the siege is also priceless. Byrne, perhaps not believing the enormities he has to say, acts with detachment and only puts life into his inflection during the final showdown. On the positive side, there is something captivating about the battle of wits between Roenick and Bishop, and you may agree that the door is left open for a sequel in an interesting way.

In Carpenter’s film, which echoed the core struggle of “Night of the Living Dead” more than the story of the more often mentioned “Rio Bravo”, the precinct attackers were shot dead, often right by the windows, and that was that. Here Richet seems to consider deaths (the violent kind) as recurring tableaux. He seems fond of a particular shot of blood slowly streaming from a forehead-located gunshot, as if trying to express some morbid poetry about it. I wasn’t too crazy about one of his previous films, “Ma 6-T va cracker”, which to me was little more than wild, senseless demonstrations of violence halted with idle talk from the disaffected youth of the inner city. This new “Assault”, while a decent police thriller, suffers from the same problem. A whole lot of people get killed and a whole lot of stuff is destroyed, but not much sense is made of it all.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Racing Stripes


Near the end of “Racing Stripes”, something extremely pleasant happened. It was one of those rare moments, so damn charming, that connect you to a whole other reality which is called, in grownup terms, the target audience of that movie. As two adorable little girls no older than 4 or 5 years old stood clapping and screaming “Go Stripes! Go Stripes!” at the top of their little lungs, I experienced through them all of the magic of that timeworn movie formula known as the final big race.

What “Racing Stripes” attempts to do, it does with flair and only a few false notes. It is certainly comparable to “Babe”, its obvious predecessor. Both films develop out of the same belief: that just because you’re different doesn’t mean you can’t do a specific thing. Here we have the story of Stripes, the little zebra that could. We find ourselves in Kentucky, where a traveling circus mistakenly leaves behind a baby zebra. Looking miserable under torrential rain in his wicker basket, he is picked up by Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood), a corn farmer who stopped training champion racehorses after his wife had a fatal accident while training one. Nolan’s daughter Channing (Raising Helen’s Hayden Panettiere) immediately falls for the little guy, who, oblivious to his zebra nature, dreams of being a racehorse when he sees the racetrack just beyond the Walsh farm. But over there, horses like Trenton’s Pride (voiced by Joshua Jackson) keep telling him he can never become one and mock his efforts, and Channing is laughed at when she brings Stripes to the track, where she does cleanup duty.

As in “Babe”, several other talking animals are on hand and the voice talent is a masterstroke. There’s wise old goat Franny (Whoopi Goldberg), a Shetland pony called Tucker (Dustin Hoffman) and mafia-escaping pelican Goose (Joe Pantoliano), who’s in hiding because he had a disagreement with his family over whether to whack him. Goose’s arrival is pretty eventful, full of funny trash-talking about his new surroundings (he says even Old MacDonald wouldn’t want this farm!), and by the time we’re through he’ll have thrown in a few other cultural and film references. And as it seems even zebras need companionship, a white filly named Sandy (Mandy Moore) takes a liking to Stripes (Frankie Muniz) while refusing the advances of Trenton’s Pride. Think of it as the head cheerleader choosing the eager underdog over the star quarterback.

On the annoying side are two scatological flies voiced by Steve Harvey and the terminally irritating David Spade. Most of their interventions are as pleasant as fingernails on a chalkboard, and I also didn’t get why after all this time (at least three years go by in the film), Stripes expresses such surprise when he’s informed two thirds of the way through that he’s actually a zebra. Didn’t anybody tell him? I’m also unsure Nolan’s prize trophies and pictures would be placed in a barn, however well-protected.

But those are minor problems in a very enjoyable film. Director Frederick du Chau (“Quest for Camelot”), a Belgian with an extensive background in animation, displays a sure hand in his first live-action feature. The pacing is good, and his film reaches a visual pinnacle with the staging of the “Blue Moon Race”, which is poetically tinted with the aforementioned color. He also doesn’t let potentially maudlin elements like Nolan holding back her daughter’s dream of horse (or zebra) racing – and his eventual acceptance and encouragement of that goal – overwhelm the picture.

As I expressed in my opening paragraph, I have a good feeling kids will love Stripes, both the character and the film, and adults will as well if they only let themselves. Fans of “Rocky IV”, which I’m unashamed to confess to being, will also find odd similarities in the training sequences of Trenton’s Pride and Stripes, particularly the use of Ivan Drago-like technology for the former and of old-fashioned techniques for the latter. To continue in the vein of over-the-top patriotic movies, as “Team America” told us, even “Rocky” had a montage. Now people, even zebras get a montage, and it’s a winner.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

2004’s Best & Worst by Jean-François Tremblay

1. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi): as thrilling for its love story as for its chronicle of a superhero’s inner and outer struggles, this is a shining example of vintage Sam Raimi filmmaking. Working from a great script, Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire do a fantastic job of navigating their characters’ emotions.
2. Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro): I’m a sucker for quotes like this one: “Hey you on the other side (Hell)…let her go, because for her… for her I’ll cross over… and then you’ll be sorry.” A wildly entertaining adaptation of a most interesting comic book.
3. The Blue Butterfly (Léa Pool): a truly engaging story about the pursuit of dreams that’s also a beautifully shot presentation of the colorful insects and butterflies of the rainforest.
4. Open Water (Chris Kentis): an unblinking tale about helplessness and the deep-seated fears that arise when events spiral way beyond our control.
5. Finding Neverland (Marc Forster): what a beautifully thoughtful film. The perfectly restrained performances of Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet anchor a finely detailed portrait of life and death framed by one man’s creative endeavor.
6. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran): a visual masterpiece that’s full of surprises, this retro sci-fi adventure makes you feel like you’re on an exciting trip to undiscovered locales.
7. The Chronicles of Riddick (David Twohy): it’s great to look at, it has an interesting and well-developed mythology and it features a great role for Vin Diesel. I was honestly surprised it didn’t do better.
8. Secret Window (David Koepp): this excellent psychological thriller makes the most of its strong supporting performances and wraps up with a masterful finale.
9. Anchorman (Adam McKay): What happens to Baxter the dog, and his side-splitting triumphant return, was some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever seen. Add Will Ferrell at his best and some hilarious sight gags and you have the funniest movie of the year.
10. The Punisher (Jonathan Hensleigh): a terrific journey to the potential darkness of the human heart, this slice of vigilante justice features a strong performance by Thomas Jane and a really cool voice-over closing statement by the title character.

Honorable mentions

Everything about the charming Les Aimants, plus the powerful finish of Friday Night Lights, the originality of Napoleon Dynamite, the sharp writing of Mean Girls, the romance and cinematography of The Notebook, the energy of The Incredibles, the banter and sweetness of Wimbledon, the frenzied pace of Cellular, the many great laughs of Team America and Dodgeball as well as the costumes of Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale in Van Helsing..

Worst 5

1. Catwoman: a dismal failure on virtually every level, notably the mystical “island of the cats” scene where Patience becomes Catwoman and the utter lack of believable interaction between Halle Berry and Benjamin Bratt.
2. The Village: M. Night Shyamalan’s latest was a huge disappointment, a poor metaphor for insular fears of the big, bad outside world that belabors its point with irritating gravity.
3. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: a vaguely surrealistic, thoroughly boring and emotionally remote dud with a rarely more annoying Jim Carrey.
4. After the Sunset: this is a movie with no real beginning, not much development beyond yet another one of those ridiculously hi-tech diamond heist and no ending to speak of. It just plays itself out in all-embracing irrelevance.
5. Christmas with the Kranks: Jamie Lee Curtis’ shrieking and overacting takes the cake from a wide selection of truly bad elements, starting with the awful characterizations and moronic plot twists.

By Jean-François Tremblay
END

Blade: Trinity


“Sooner or later, the thirst always wins…”
Such is the plight of the vampires, to live through the ages in search of the new blood that keeps them alive. In the first film, the vampire hunter known as Blade (Wesley Snipes) fought a renegade neck-biter whose ambitions for vampire world dominance didn’t sit well with the we-must-stay-in-the-shadows mentality of his kind’s governing body. In “Blade II”, the Daywalker reluctantly joined the enemy as part of a group trying to stop a new breed of vampires that fed on humans and vampires alike. Both films were suitably dark but, except for a few scenes in the first one, didn’t really involve ordinary humans.

The common threads were how strongly Snipes inhabited the title role of a lone fighter, even as part of Blade II’s Bloodpack (where he was somehow humanized through his caring attitude towards the Nyssa character), and the top-notch fight choreography. We now have the excellent “Blade: Trinity”, with the guy who wrote the first two films, David S. Goyer, as writer and director. The fights are just as thrilling as ever, but an interesting aspect is that the mood is lightened thanks to the arrival of new character Hannibal King (“Van Wilder” star and Alanis Morissette fiancé Ryan Reynolds). Goyer didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken and made a fun and exciting movie, with the added value of a wide scope that he explores with the expert touch of somebody who has a first-hand grasp of the material.

The film opens in the Syrian Desert, where a bunch of vampires loosely led by Danica Talos (Parker Posey looking like a low-grade black magic priestess) are successful in finding the alpha-vampire, the ancestor of the race known as Drake (the modern name of Dracula). The vampires hope that through him they can become daywalkers as well (like Blade, he is immune to sunlight). Drake (Dominic Purcell) is initially angry about being unearthed, looking with disdain at this lesser, diluted breed of blood lovers, but he eventually accepts to go after the threat that is Blade and sets up their cataclysmic confrontation.

Through Blade’s mentor, weapons purveyor and father figure Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), we were told in the first film that vampires controlled the police and that Vampire Nation had a number of “familiars”, humans who worked for them. This idea is furthered in “Trinity” with an elaborate car chase sequence that ends with Blade killing a human and Talos filming the deed as part of a frame-up. As a result, Blade is portrayed as a dangerous psychopath in the media. He is later caught and taken into custody by FBI agents with a secret, but is rescued by the able-bodied Nightstalkers team of Hannibal and Whistler’s daughter Abigail, with whom he teams up after initial reluctance.

The humour of Hannibal falls flat in his early lines but becomes more dynamic and effective as the film progresses. His main enemy, other than a “turned” Pomeranian, is WWE star Triple H, who gets to do a few wrestling-inspired power moves. The beautiful Jessica Biel (well-know for her role in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake but also excellent in her first film, the thoughtful 1997 drama “Ulee’s Gold”) plays Abigail with all of the agility, strength and poise required. She also benefits from an especially cool character introduction at a dimly lit train station, and I especially liked her powerful bow and her neat-looking U.V. laser arc.

Visually there are nice shots of the urban skyline of an unspecified metropolis (the film was shot in Vancouver) and a breathtaking high-rise foot chase between Blade and Drake. And from a story standpoint, some valid questions about vampirism are answered by Blade and Abigail’s discovery of a blood farming facility that the vampires developed as a more efficient way of getting what they need. I also liked how Blade was confronted with his half-human, half-vampire nature. When a little girl asks him why he takes the serum that keeps the thirst at bay, he replies “Because there is something bad inside of me… This keeps it from getting out.”

“Blade: Trinity” remains a dark film, only this time it makes us care more about its main character and it offers an involving connection to our world.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Saw


“Saw” is certainly the most disturbing horror film since Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” to have a North American mainstream release. It’s the first film from two Australian college buddies, director James Wan and screenwriter-actor Leigh Whannell, and what they’ve come up with is extremely intense and definitely not for everybody.

This movie is also an interesting case study of the different evaluations of provincial ratings boards. Here in Quebec the film is rated 13 and over with the mention “Violence”. That’s like saying “Friday Night Lights” has football. Compare this with the more thorough (and, I feel, more appropriate) Ontario rating, where it is rated 18-A with the following mentions: frightening scenes, gory scenes and disturbing content, all of which very true. I’m not going to make judgment calls on the readiness or not of our 14 year-olds to see a film like “Saw”, but I was quite surprised nonetheless by the Quebec rating.

The film begins in near-total darkness and maintains a grim look throughout. We find ourselves in the filthy bathroom of a run-down industrial building, where two men wake up ankle-chained to pipes at opposing ends of the room, not knowing why or how they got there. There’s Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), a surgeon, and Adam (Whannell), a high-strung photographer. Lying halfway between them in a pool of blood is a corpse with a tape recorder in one hand and a gun in the other. Finding tapes in their pockets, the men play them and discover the nightmare is only beginning as an electronically-deepened voice explains the rules of a sadistic game: if Dr Gordon fails to kill Adam within a specified timeframe, the former’s kidnapped wife and young daughter will die.

The story is then told mostly through flashbacks where we see Det. Tapp (Danny Glover) on the trail of a serial killer nicknamed Jigsaw for the puzzle piece shapes he burns onto his victims. We learn that in similar fashion to “Seven”, this killer is a moral arbiter who judges whose lives shouldn’t be allowed to go on unpunished. He says he’s “sick of people who don’t appreciate their blessings”, devising elaborately evil predicaments where he doesn’t commit the murderous acts himself but watches his victims inflict death upon themselves out of an understandable inability to escape them.

I mentioned the film is not for everyone. There are several uncomfortable moments, none more disturbing than what happens to Dr. Gordon’s family and how it is shown. But the maniac’s hideout will give horror buffs the chills they came to experience, for example by using that ominous dummy with the creepy mask to moralize the only victim who survived (Shawnee Smith in a stunningly convincing depiction of pure terror). As far as performances go, I’m truly puzzled at the many critics who found Elwes’ acting horrible. There’s some overacting there but I found him quite focused and absolutely believable, and Whannell does a very decent job as Adam.

In what is probably one twist too many, tough, there’s a trick ending that’s meant to shock you, and it may have its intended effect for a few seconds. But when you try to make sense of it, it just seems illogical, far-fetched or badly explained, take your pick. The eardrums-assaulting industrial music score and accelerated-motion shots in the pursuit of the killer make for an unnerving experience, but those who wish to see raw terror presented without compromise will be served. The nightmarish and twisted imagery of “Saw” doesn’t inherently make it memorable, but its sheer intensity makes it work as an unrelenting horror thriller.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay