Capsule Thoughts: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, feardotcom, Equilibrium, The Evil Dead, Zombieland
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Eva Renzi, Enrico Maria Salerno, Mario Adorf, Renato Romano
Usually, when I solve a mystery thriller long before its secrets are revealed, I get a little sad. I want a mystery movie to keep me guessing until the very end; I like to be surprised. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is about a mysterious killer of women in Rome who starts stalking an American tourist (Tony Musante's Sam) after he witnesses the killer attack a young woman through a huge plate glass window. The identity of the killer is more than a little easy to guess, and to make matters worse, the hero of the story is not very well developed (although Musante makes the most out of the character). Yet somehow, neither the predictable mystery nor the under developed protagonist ruins the film. Sam begins to start his own investigation about the attempted murder, and comes across an assortment of colorful characters, each one more interesting than the last. They include a jailed up pimp who has to add “so long” at the end of every other sentence to keep from stuttering; an association of retired pugilists; and an insane artist who lives in a boarded up home and eats cats. Dario Argento made his directorial debut with this Hitchcockian thriller, and it's quite an impressive debut. He brings an almost painterly visual polish to the film (there is one shot of light shining through an open doorway in an otherwise pitch dark room that is absolutely exquisite) and creates a palpable atmosphere of menace that takes hold from the first frame to the very last. So, while The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not hold too many surprises, the character rich narrative and Argento's superb direction are enough to make the film worth viewing.
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)
FEAR DOT COM
Director: William Malone
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Natascha McElhone, Stephen Rea, Udo Kier, Jeffrey Combs, Amilia Curtis, Nigel Terry, Gesine Cukrowski
Although (barely) buoyed by some terrific Gothic set decoration and hauntingly Expressionist cinematography, courtesy of Christian Sebaldt, Feardotcom is nevertheless a confusing, vile, and interminable horror film that doesn't contain a single scare in the entire film. Directed by William Malone (who made 1999's wretched House on Haunted Hill remake), the story follows New York City detective Mike Reilly (Dorff, turning in the only mildly decent performance in the whole movie) and health inspector Terry Houston (McElhone, a talented actress who is pretty dreadful here) as they investigate a series of deaths in which the victims were found bleeding from several orifices, their faces stuck in horrified grimaces. As it turns out, the victims had visited the titular site exactly two days prior, each of them falling victim to his or her greatest fear. The website is run by a psychopath known as the Doctor (Rea, whose nasal voice here is the most appalling thing in the movie), who broadcasts the live torture of young women on his site. Does he know what the website can do? I don't think he does, but then again, nothing is crystal clear in this movie. People are lured onto the site by a sexy young woman (Cukrowski), who asks you things like "Do you like to watch?" and then kills you if you say yes because you shouldn't like to watch but will for some reason kill you anyway even if you answer no because...I honestly don't know. Filled to the brim with gaping plot holes (we learn that the fear site has hundreds if not thousands of subscribers. Are they dying horrible deaths too? If so, how come we don't hear about them?) and laughable dialogue ("Leave me alone! Where are you?"), the most troubling thing about Feardotcom is the repugnant attitude it has toward women. This is yet another one of those movies where we're asked to be entertained by the sight of young women being tortured, mutilated, asphyxiated, and so on, but it's more stomach-churning than anything. To answer the movie's aforementioned question, "Do you like to watch?": Hell no!
Final Grade: 1/2 * (out of ****)
Director: Kurt Wimmer
Cast: Christian Bale, Taye Diggs, Emily Watson, Angus MacFadyen, Sean Bean
A sensationally entertaining shoot-em-up with some interesting and weighty ideas, Equilibrium takes place in a futuristic Orwellian society called Libria, where the residents are made to take a drug called Prozium that is said to suppress human emotion. A third World War broke out, you see, and a father figure of sorts (Sean Pertwee) believes that human feelings are, and always were, a danger to mankind. Emotions, and anything that elicits them (art, music, etc), are now outlawed, and government agents known as Clerics are instructed to keep the balance within the city and eliminate anyone who opposes the law. Christian Bale plays John Preston, a top cleric who misses a couple of doses of Prozium and soon joins a group of resistance fighters to overthrow the government. The action scenes here are absolutely splendid. The Clerics are made to study a fighting style known as Gun-kata, which is a combination of gun play and martial-arts action. The choreography is actually quite thrilling, and director Kurt Wimmer is wise enough to film the action scenes in crisp compositions, so that we can actually see the action as it's happening (the final duel between Bale and MacFadyen is truly entertaining). Yet even without the sensational gun battles, Equilibrium gets by with some thoughtful, well-developed post 9/11 themes of religious fanaticism and how the real danger lies in people's mindless obedience to such radical ideas. The actors are given a daunting task of fleshing out their characters and their personalities without showing too much emotion, and everyone pulls it off rather well (although some of the authority figures have emotional outbursts – – at one point, Taye Diggs says, “I am not the one who is feeling. He is the one who is feeling. THIS IS A MISTAKE!!!” – – I sort of think that was kind of the idea). Of course, Equilibrium is far from a perfect movie -- there is a segment involving two switched guns that didn't quite make sense, and there are admittedly a few glaring continuity errors (one guy gets shot in the face, but when we see his body later on, he doesn't have a scratch on him) -- its virtues are more than strong enough to curtail the inadequacies, and the movie ends up as a solid and consistently engaging sci-fi action spectacle.
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)
THE EVIL DEAD
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Thereasa Tilly
Simply put, The Evil Dead is one of the sickest, goriest, most depraved movies I've ever seen, and you know what, I kind of loved it. The plot - which follows five college friends as they're attacked by an army of demons at an isolated country cabin - seems like nothing more than an excuse for director Sam Raimi to get behind the camera and throw out every cinematic trick in the book. There is no character development and no story to follow, just a director having a blast making a movie. And yet, his joy is so contagious, that you're willing to forgive the movie for not having any substance at all. The Evil Dead is so exuberantly directed and skillfully made that you go along with it without even thinking about it. There is a shot early on of the main characters driving down a dirt road that is scored with the sound of a rickety old porch swing banging against the main cabin, and the results are so ominous that it literally sends a shiver down your spine. There are many creepy elements to The Evil Dead, however the movie is also so cheerfully disgusting and morbid that it's likely to turn off some viewers. I'm warning you now that the movie is gruesome and very offensive (one scene shows a woman sexually assaulted by a tree!), so don't write to me telling me that I recommended the movie and you were offended by it. The Evil Dead is a movie about film making in bad taste, and if you can go along with it, you're bound to leave the movie both screaming and laughing.
Final Grade: *** 1/2 (out of ****)
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigal Breslin, Amber Heard, Bill Murray
Zombieland is an immensely entertaining zombie spoof, with a message. Basically a road movie following four different characters (Woody Harrelson's trigger happy Tallahassee, Jesse Eisenberg's likable Columbus, Emma Stone's Witchita and Abigal Breslin as her little sister Little Rock -- everyone just has nicknames in this movie) as they try to survive an America in which nearly every single citizen is a blood thirsty zombie, the movie seems to suggest that human survival, and not just in a zombie infested, apocalyptic wasteland, depends greatly on human interaction and trust. It's surprisingly handled with intelligence and wit, thanks to the sharp and inventive screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, which admittedly falls victim to a few annoying instances where the characters behave like daft fools (ie the climax involves two characters switching on an entire amusement park in the middle of a zombie infested city. Yeah, that's not drawing attention to yourself). The four peripheral players are all terrific, and like many great movies, some of the best scenes involve the quiet moments between them (the best is a montage where they each take turns driving their yellow hummer). The direction by first timer Ruben Fleischer is flawless, as he brings energy and a giddily exuberant vibe that wins you over from the word go. Overall, Zombieland is an A - entertainment that earns a few extra points thanks to the ingenious segment at Bill Murray's L.A. mansion (the brief cameo the actor himself makes it enough to warrant the movie a recommendation).
Final Grade: *** 1/2 (out of ****)