2005

Land of the Dead (2005, George A. Romero), the director’s cut

While Land of the Dead is almost always an unfortunate misfire, it’s also never an unmitigated disaster. It’s full of missed opportunities, but they’re usually missed because director Romero just can’t crack the scene. And when he doesn’t crack a set piece, he often goes in the entirely different direction; maybe it’s about the budget, which is way too small, maybe it’s not. But it seems like the budget. After the successful opening set piece, there’s no reason to think Romero isn’t going to be able to execute at least the same quality again. And he’s never able to do it, but he also never really tries to do it. Romero front loads the movie; it deflates just when it should be doing the opposite. The characters gradually lose personality and importance. Because it’s time for the adequate but bland zombie action.

The film takes place in the future… the zombies have won, people all grouped in the big cities, the rich people live well, the poor people do not. Romero is shooting Toronto for Pittsburgh with a cinematographer (Miroslaw Baszak) who lights it to look as Canadian as possible. Land lacks any visual personality; the mix of Romero’s composition, Baszak’s flat lighting, Michael Doherty’s fine but bland editing, and Arvinder Grewal’s production design looks less like a post (zombie) apocalyptic vision and more like a pitch reel for one. Same goes for the actors, save Dennis Hopper, who’s just plain terrible. Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy; at best their performances feel like stand-ins for better ones once the project gets the green light. At worst, it’s a charmless lead like Simon Baker, who is more than capable of being charming, Romero just doesn’t seem to realize it. Not in his direction or his script, which gives his actors really bad life stories purely for expository purposes. There’s not just no character development in Land, Romero doesn’t take the time to even establish the characters.

And it’d be fine if the film could have retained the first set piece energy. So Baker, Leguizamo, and Joy all work for Hopper. They leave the city to raid neighboring towns for supplies. Apparently there’s an almost endless amount of neighboring towns to raid; all you have to do is shoot fireworks and the zombies all look up and everything’s jim-dandy—the zombies don’t attack, they watch fireworks. It also allows Romero to set a lot of action at night, which was apparently less expensive and does nothing to help with that lack of personality thing. Only Baker and Joy discover there’s one zombie—Eugene Clark, in the film’s best performance—who doesn’t look up at the fireworks.

The movie ends up being about Clark leading a bunch of zombies to attack the city, where the rich people live in a ritzy skyscraper and Romero only has the money to establish it through a promotional video playing on a TV–Land of the Dead has both too little budget and too much. The tricks and devices Romero uses to cover for not having more money lack inventiveness; there’s a ton of bad CGI composites. Like, a static matte painting would’ve been much better bad. But you do bad CGI composites because they’re cheap. And it shows. And it hurts the movie.

Anyway, while Clark’s leading the slow-moving attack—see, he’s learned how to use objects and can teach other zombies how to use objects so it’s going to be a different kind of zombie attack (only, not really as it turns out but the attack’s immaterial)—Leguizamo has gone rogue and Baker has to track him down, bringing pals Joy and Argento.

Of the three, Argento’s probably best. She’s not good overall—the writing doesn’t allow for it—but she’s got some rather strong moments. She takes the job more seriously than anyone else. Though who knows what’s going through Hopper’s head as he woodenly delivers lines; who knows, maybe Romero did cast him to be a personality-free rich jackass with a goatee. Hopper’s reaction shots to zombies eating flesh look like someone told him to stand still for his picture to be taken. Romero would’ve done better to give Leguizamo that part. To do something to mix it up.

But there’s no mixing it up. Because outside a couple Romero-Dead nods and sufficiently revolting zombie feasting (though Baszak’s lighting makes it look… not fake, but not real), Land of the Dead has less of a pulse than its zombies.

It’s a shame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Michael Doherty; music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; production designer, Arvinder Grewal; produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, and Peter Grunwald; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy), Alan Van Sprang (Brubaker), Phil Fondacaro (Chihuahua), Sasha Roiz (Manolete), Krista Bridges (Motown), Pedro Miguel Arce (Pillsbury), and Eugene Clark (Big Daddy).


The Descent (2005, Neil Marshall)

I want to say nice things about The Descent. Or, more… I wish I could say nice things about The Descent. There are some nice things to say about it–the production values are strong, Marshall’s composition is decent, Sam McCurdy’s photography is good. It’s rarely boring–though it does drag a little. Tedious without being boring. Possibly because the characters are all so unlikable you’re just waiting for them to die off.

The characters are unlikable partially because of director Marshall’s script, partially because of the actors, partially because of Marshall’s “direction” of the actors.

The Descent is about six women who go caving in North Carolina. With the exception of organizer Natalie Mendoza, they’re all either from the British Isles or they’re Scandinavian. They travelled halfway across the globe for this caving trip, because–as the opening of the film recounts–ostensible lead Shauna Macdonald has lost her family in a horrible car accident and she needs to get back to her extreme sports lifestyle.

While horrific, the car accident is also exceptionally contrived. All the character relationships in The Descent are exceptionally contrived. Marshall’s characterizations are razor thin, so having a bunch of bland, sometimes interchangeable actors who he doesn’t give any performance direction contributes a lot to that tediousness I mentioned. Maybe if Macdonald weren’t so wooden. Or Mendoza. But mostly Macdonald. What’s so strange is there are some outliers–Alex Reid, as Macdonald’s BFF, is good. Her character’s still thin, but she’s good. And Saskia Mulder and MyAnna Buring as the Scandinavian sisters are fine. They’re likable. Mendoza, from her first scene, is exceptionally unlikable. Ditto her protege Nora-Jane Noone, though for different reasons. And while Macdonald is supposed to be tragic and sympathetic, it’s in a porcelain doll sense. She’s lost her family, after all.

Something none of the other characters really engage with. Or, in Noone’s case, even seem to know about. Besides Noone, they’re all ostensibly best extreme sports buds. Who have absolutely no chemistry with one another. Mendoza’s an abject sociopath from scene one and there’s no reason anyone–particularly not the characters in the film–would be friends with her, much less trust her to plan a caving trip in Deliverance country.

Noone and Mendoza’s character relationship–and utter lack of onscreen chemistry–is one of Descent’s many deficiencies. Marshall’s script and direction is about moving caricatures from point A to point B. It’s grating.

But The Descent isn’t a Deliverance riff. Well, unless you want to make a lot of mean jokes about Applachian mountain men. See, down in the unexplored cave, the women discover they’re not alone. There are monsters. And so then the women have to inventively–often using their caving gear–fight the monsters.

Marshall borrows action beats from a variety of films–mostly the first couple Alien movies and, thanks to David Julyan’s almost comically derivative score, The Thing. There are some good shots here and there, along with some bad ones (including a jaw-droppingly bad composite), but Marshall, editor Jon Harris, and photographer McCurdy don’t impress. The sets–all the cave interiors are sets–impress. A bit. Not enough to make up for any of the film’s other deficiencies, but they’re good.

Almost anything would’ve improved The Descent. Writing, acting, directing (as far as the performances go). With any of those elements improved, Marshall could’ve been just as derivative and the film would’ve turned out better. Instead, he’s got this derivative film with all sorts of other problems.

Though, really, it’s an absurdly obvious film from the opening titles scene so… none of what follows is actually surprising.

Oh. Right. The lack of jump scares. It seems intentional. At least, I hope it’s intentional. But as a stylistic choice it’s a little weird. They might get the energy up. Nothing else does.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Neil Marshall; director of photography, Sam McCurdy; edited by Jon Harris; music by David Julyan; production designer, Simon Bowles; produced by Christian Colson; released by Pathé Distribution.

Starring Shauna Macdonald (Sarah), Natalie Mendoza (Juno), Alex Reid (Beth), Saskia Mulder (Rebecca), MyAnna Buring (Sam), and Nora-Jane Noone (Holly).


The Fog (2005, Rupert Wainwright), the unrated version

In Rupert Wainwright’s shockingly inept remake, The Fog doesn’t blow, it sucks.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

But The Fog is awful. It’s almost interestingly awful, as Cooper Layne’s screenplay mimics just about every popular mainstream horror movie made in the previous two decades. Since director Wainwright is terrible and not paying attention to the constant ripping off–The Fog, in an impossibly earnest move, rips off the end of The Shining. It’s a rip-off capstone–the movie runs through not just ghost movies and thrillers, Wainwright really wants to be Steven Spielberg.

The script exists to move characters between set pieces. More than once, when the principal actors need to reunite, they just appear nearby. It’s beyond lazy and none of the cast can pull it off, especially not with Wainwright’s direction. There’s not a single good performance in The Fog. At least some of the supporting cast should’ve been tolerable, but no. No one gives a good performance. The “best” performance is Selma Blair. Not because she’s good, but because she’s the only actor who isn’t terrifyingly bad. Leads Maggie Grace and Tom Welling should be hilariously bad, but they aren’t. No one’s willing to laugh at the joke.

Graeme Revell’s music is occasionally almost all right, if a little on the nose. It disappears in the second half, when the more slasher-like action starts.

The special effects are terrible. Wainwright’s composition is terrible. He’s directing for people watching at home. Nathan Hope’s photography doesn’t help things either.

There’s nothing good about this film; it should be far more compelling in its badness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rupert Wainwright; screenplay by Cooper Layne, based on the film written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Nathan Hope; edited by Dennis Virkler; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Michael Diner and Graeme Murray; produced by Hill, David Foster and Carpenter; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Maggie Grace (Elizabeth Williams), Tom Welling (Nick Castle), Selma Blair (Stevie Wayne), DeRay Davis (Spooner), Kenneth Welsh (Tom Malone), Adrian Hough (Father Malone), Sara Botsford (Kathy Williams), Cole Heppell (Andy Wayne), Mary Black (Aunt Connie), Jonathon Young (Dan The Weatherman) and Rade Serbedzija (Captain William Blake).


Doom (2005, Andrzej Bartkowiak), the unrated version

Doom may very well be the worst inoffensive film I’ve ever seen. Director Bartkowiak and his crew redefine ineptness in production values. No one does a good job, everyone does something benignly terrible, whether it’s photographer Tony Pierce-Roberts’s blue hue for everything or composer Clint Mansell’s inability to create tension. It’s all bad.

Bartkowiak has absolutely no ambition for the film. It’s a video game adaptation featuring a lengthy sequence where the protagonist (Karl Urban) “plays the game” and the audience watches. The action in that scene, mimicking the video game, is–in terms of content–better than any of the other action sequences. Instead of translating the game’s content to a film medium, Bartkowiak rips off every popular sci-fi action movie since the late seventies and creates a bunch of Mars-centered nonsense.

It’s pointless. Why bother? Because it’s obvious and bad and it’s sort of compelling to see something where no one tries so nothing can go right or wrong. The blue lighting, for example. How much does it matter? Good lighting wouldn’t make the movie any good, just a little bit more competent. Not even better, because the ineptness is the closest Doom gets to charm.

There’s some decent acting from Deobia Oparei and Razaaq Adoti. Bad acting from Richard Brake and Al Weaver. The three leads–Karl Urban, Rosamund Pike and Dwayne Johnson–are sometimes okay and sometimes bad.

Doom is a terrible film. But the script’s inventively derivative enough to keep it moving.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak; screenplay by Dave Callaham and Wesley Strick, based on a story by Callaham; director of photography, Tony Pierce-Roberts; edited by Derek Brechin; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Stephen Scott; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and John Wells; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Karl Urban (John Grimm), Dwayne Johnson (Sarge), Rosamund Pike (Samantha Grimm), Deobia Oparei (Destroyer), Razaaq Adoti (Duke), Richard Brake (Portman), Al Weaver (The Kid), Brian Steele (Hell Knight), Ben Daniels (Goat), Yao Chin (Mac) and Dexter Fletcher (Pinky).


Breakfast on Pluto (2005, Neil Jordan)

Breakfast on Pluto starts with talking robins. They’re subtitled, but talking. Robins can talk–or these two robins can talk (they show up from time to time), in which case they just live a long time. Before the talking robins, who director Jordan uses to keep the viewer off balance, the film opens with Cillian Murphy’s protagonist. During the rougher portions of the film, it’s hard not to think they opened with Murphy–playing a transgender woman in sixties and seventies UK–to give some hope the character isn’t going to have a bad end.

For a while, the film seems to be a distant character study, set against the Irish troubles. While Murphy’s life is separate from the troubles, she keeps getting drug into them. Only when the two collide does the film begins to define itself. Before that moment, Pluto is a connected set of vignettes, as Murphy tries to navigate the world, having a series of adventures (some amusing, some devastating) with various people.

The collision reveals–rather grandiosely–subtle insight into the protagonist. The film never shies away from insight as Murphy moves to London to search for her mother; the later revelation is about the film itself. Pluto is incredibly complex. And without talking robins, one might not digest it properly.

Great supporting turns from Ruth Negga, Liam Neeson, Ian Hart and Steven Waddington. Gavin Friday, Brendan Gleeson and Stephen Rea each have extended, fantastic cameos.

Murphy’s spellbinding.

Jordan crafts a spectacular film with Pluto.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Jordan and Pat McCabe, based on the novel by McCabe; director of photography, Declan Quinn; edited by Tony Lawson; music by Anna Jordan; production designer, Tom Conroy; produced by Alan Moloney, Jordan and Stephen Woolley; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Cillian Murphy (Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden), Stephen Rea (Bertie), Brendan Gleeson (John Joe Kenny), Ruth Negga (Charlie), Laurence Kinlan (Irwin), Ruth McCabe (Ma Braden), Gavin Friday (Billy Hatchett), Steven Waddington (Inspector Routledge), Ian Hart (PC Wallis), Liam Cunningham (1st Biker), Bryan Ferry (Mr. Silky String), Eva Birthistle (Eily Bergin) and Liam Neeson (Father Liam).


Global Frequency (2005, Nelson McCormick)

Maybe “Global Frequency” would work if it weren't so obvious in its attempts to be endearing. John Rogers's script tries to establish character chemistry in the pilot without giving it a chance to actually grow on its own.

For example, good-looking alpha male lead Josh Hopkins teases good-looking demure scientist female lead Jenni Baird and she says she doesn't like it but you can tell she really does. Except Baird's terrible and she and Hopkins have no chemistry. Director McCormick actually has her whip off her glasses when she's perturbed. It's asinine.

Hopkins is actually good. He can get out the goofy dialogue and ground the show in reality.

Unable to ground the show are co-stars Aimee Garcia and Michelle Forbes. McCormick apes Matrix fight scenes for Forbes, who clearly isn't a martial artist and she's also real bored acting in the show. Garcia's endearingly annoying.

It's an inept execution.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Nelson McCormick; teleplay by John Rogers, based on the comic book by Warren Ellis; director of photography, Checco Varese; edited by Michael Schultz; production designers, Linda Del Rosario and Richard Paris; produced by Mark Burnett and Charlie Goldstein.

Starring Josh Hopkins (Sean Flynn), Jenni Baird (Dr. Katrina Finch), Aimee Garcia (Aleph), Brian Jensen (Richard Jenkins), Bill Dow (Oscar Cergeyev) and Michelle Forbes (Miranda Zero).


Bewitched (2005, Nora Ephron)

If there’s anything more horrific than Will Ferrell trying to be a straightedge romantic leading man, Bewitched makes one forget about it. Director Ephron is either completely blind to the complete misfire she’s directing or she just didn’t care. Seeing as she and sister Delia Ephron wrote the script, one has to suspect she actually thought she had something. Some of her direction–straight out of Technicolor musicals–allows supports the idea she thought Bewitched was good work.

She’s very, very wrong.

She also apparently told Nicole Kidman to try to sound like Marilyn Monroe, which is hilarious since Kidman can’t even keep her Australian accent hidden. One wonders if she can walk and chew gum.

There are good things about Bewitched, however. Heather Burns is great in a small part, Shirley Maclaine’s hilarious, John Lindley’s photography is competent.

None of these good things make up for Ephron seemingly telling Ferrell to ad-lib scenes and then choosing his worst takes for the final cut. If the insipid selections in the film–a lot of Bewitched seems like Ferrell’s mocking himself–are the best Ferrell came up with… I can’t even imagine the worst ones.

For such a high concept–witch Kidman stars in a relaunched “Bewitched” series–the Ephron sisters don’t come up with anything good. It should be a no brainer, but they can’t even figure out the concept has to play out im real time.

Particularly terrible are Kristin Chenoweth and Jason Schwartzman. Especially Schwartzman.

It’s heinous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nora Ephron; screenplay by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, based on the television show created by Sol Saks; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Tia Nolan; music by George Fention; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Isabel Bigelow), Will Ferrell (Jack Wyatt), Shirley MacLaine (Iris Smythson), Michael Caine (Nigel Bigelow), Jason Schwartzman (Ritchie), Kristin Chenoweth (Maria Kelly), Heather Burns (Nina), Jim Turner (Larry), Stephen Colbert (Stu Robison), David Alan Grier (Jim Fields), Michael Badalucco (Joey Props), Carole Shelley (Aunt Clara), Katie Finneran (Sheila Wyatt) and Steve Carell (Uncle Arthur).


Aeon Flux (2005, Karyn Kusama)

Karyn Kusama can’t direct action, which hurts Aeon Flux a little bit, but she also can’t keep up the pace of her film. It should be a literal roller coaster–there’s some establishing material, which is nonsense, then the film drops Charlize Theron (as the titular character) in a mission. The mission runs the length of the film.

The film’s constantly stopping and starting. Instead of being a problem, Flux‘s pacing is one of its strongest elements. Well, until the third act.

Really awful narration opens and closes Flux. It’s like no one realized the film actually has a lot of good things about it. Kusama has zero confidence as a director.

In the lead role, Theron’s excellent most of the time. When she’s walking around the cheap sets or acting in front of a blue screen, not so much. The budget apparently didn’t go towards competent CG renderers. But she’s believable and sympathetic, even if Kusama can’t direct her fight scenes.

Marton Csokas’s excellent as the bad guy–and Theron’s love interest. Also good is Sophie Okonedo as her sidekick.

Both Jonny Lee Miller and Frances McDormand are awful.

When he’s not shooting CG, Stuart Dryburgh’s photography is good. Graeme Revell’s score has its moments.

Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script is terribly affected in the dialogue department. But they get a lot of credit for laying groundwork on their revelation moments.

While it could’ve been far better, Flux is reasonably compelling. If one ignores the terrible opening narration.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Karyn Kusama; screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, based the television series created by Peter Chung; director of photography, Stuart Dryburgh; edited by Jeff Gullo, Peter Honness and Plummy Tucker; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by David Gale, Gregory Goodman, Martin Griffin, Gale Anne Hurd and Gary Lucchesi; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charlize Theron (Aeon Flux), Marton Csokas (Trevor Goodchild), Jonny Lee Miller (Oren Goodchild), Sophie Okonedo (Sithandra), Frances McDormand (Handler), Amelia Warner (Una Flux), Caroline Chikezie (Freya), Nikolai Kinski (Claudius) and Pete Postlethwaite (Keeper).


Murder, Take One (2005, Jang Jin)

Usually when I say Korean films effortlessly mix genre, I mean it in a good way. It’s still impressive in Murder, Take One; director Jang definitely makes the final ingredient a surprise, but it’s a questionable choice….

The majority of the film—albeit on a reduced budget—is successful. It’s a police procedural with one caveat, the entire investigation is being broadcast live. It’s unclear why the police department is teaming with the TV producers, but it isn’t particularly important. The case is interesting enough (turning out to be Agatha Christie influenced) and the acting is good. Jang is able to make Murder, Take One feel absurdist, while still reasonably grounded.

Until the end, when he doesn’t just take away from the absurdist nature of the television show, he brings in a whole new element. It doesn’t destroy the film—it just pushes it below the fail line.

The acting is, as I said before, all good. Lead Cha Seung-won takes a while to get going—his first scene is opposite Shin Ha-kyun, who’s a far more nuanced actor—but he eventually turns in a solid performance. Ryu Seong-ryong is good as Cha’s colleague and initial competitor (they’re both racing to solve the case before the TV producers muddle it too much) and Jang gives them a nice arc.

Murder, Take One moves well—the first hour flies past; Jang knows how to plot a procedural. His composition’s decent, though he cuts too fast.

It’s generally okay.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jang Jin; directors of photography, Choi Yun-man and Kim Joon-young; edited by Kim Sang-beom and Kim Jae-beom; music by Han Jae-kwon; produced by Lee Taek-dong; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Cha Seung-won (Choi Yeon-gi), Shin Ha-kyun (Kim Young-hun), Shin Goo (Yun), Park Jung-ah (Han Mu-suk), Jeong Jae-yeong (Bully), Kim Ji-su (Jung Yun-jung), Kim Jin-tae (Oh) and Kong Ho-su (Dr. Han).


The New World (2005, Terrence Malick), the extended cut

Historical fact, or even the attempt at paying lip service to it, is so inconvenient. If there’s a better example than The New World, I’m not familiar with it.

Malick struggles to make it all fit together and he can’t quite make it sync. He has to move from Colin Farrell being the protagonist to Christine Bale. Q’orianka Kilcher gets some focus too, but barely any once Bale arrives.

After Farrell and Kilcher’s romance, it’d be difficult for anyone to properly follow it up. While Malick does get Bale’s best performance from him, the casting is a misstep. Much like James Horner’s score, there’s something off with the casting. Lots of the “name” casting works—obviously, Farrell is excellent, but so are David Thewlis and Wes Studi. Third billed Christopher Plummer is barely in it enough to make an impression.

Much of The New World does not “wow.” It feels like a disjointed period piece from early on—and Horner’s music is an immediate liability—and it actually becomes more interesting in the last act, as Kilcher and Bale head back to 17th century England. Here, Malick starts using Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman before the Rising Sun as a direct influence for how he portrays Kilcher.

A lot of what he does is interesting—none of the Native Americans (including Kilcher’s Pocahontas) are ever referred to by name in dialogue—and the pacing is exquisite.

Malick nearly recovers at the end, but again, tragically, kowtows to the “non-fiction” imperative.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein and Mark Yoshikawa; music by James Horner; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Sarah Green; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Colin Farrell (Captain John Smith), Q’orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas), Christian Bale (John Rolfe), Christopher Plummer (Captain Christopher Newport), August Schellenberg (Chief Powhatan), Wes Studi (Opechancanough), David Thewlis (Edward Wingfield), Yorick van Wageningen (Captain Samuel Argall), Raoul Trujillo (Tomocomo), Janine Duvitski (Mary), Michael Greyeyes (Rupwew), Irene Bedard (Pocahontas’s Mother), Kalani Queypo (Parahunt), Ben Mendelsohn (Ben), Noah Taylor (Selway), Ben Chaplin (Robinson), Eddie Marsan (Eddie), John Savage (Savage), Billy Merasty (Kiskiak) and Jonathan Pryce (King James I).


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