Horror

Black Death

The pall of fear and death hangs over thriller-maker Christopher Smith’s “Black Death.” It’s 1348, and we’re in England’s bleak, mist-encircled countryside. The Bubonic Plague stalks the population, killing off entire villages and infecting those who’ve evaded it with constant dread. The Church finds itself losing ground to the Plague as it fails to deliver its followers of their suffering.

For callow monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), the crisis of faith in God is less about the heartless decimation of innocent lives and more about his personal struggle to reconcile his pledge to God with his irresistible love for a woman, Averill (Kimberly Nixon). To keep Averill from the Plague’s clutches, Osmund sends her into the forest while he himself signs on with a band of mercenaries, led by the steely-eyed Ulric (Sean Bean) on a mission for the Church Bishop.

Osmund is tasked with leading Ulric and company to the other side of a mysterious marshland where, as rumor has it, a village untouched by the Plague exists, guarded over by a sorceress, capable of fending off disease and resurrecting the dead. For Ulric, an agent of the Church, the sorceress represents a threat to Christian order and must be eliminated. Hence, once the men arrive at the mystical village, Smith’s film shunts into psychodrama as Ulric and the heretic sorceress, Langvia (Carice Van Houten), circle one another with suspicion and grapple for the hearts and minds of the villagers.

Whether Langvia is truly a sorceress or a charlatan manipulating the gullible villagers with sleight-of-hand is a question weighing on the film’s closing act. It’s a question Osmund faces head-on as he contends with guilt and grief upon realizing that Avrill may have been killed in the forest and Langvia tempts him by offering to bring her back. This issue of what is real, what is illusion and of one’s faith in God amidst so much misery entwine compellingly throughout “Black Death,” and give Dario Poloni’s script its thematic heft.

“Black Death,” rightly so, is not a pretty looking movie; Smith and cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid wash out primary colors, and give their film a coarse, grainy look, befitting the ugliness of their milieu and the brutality of the violence (and, be warned, there’s plenty of it). But “Black Death” is all jitters and quick cuts from the first shot; we hardly get a moment to absorb the mood of pervasive dread and paranoia without being distracted by the jerky, hand-held shooting and restless editing. Smith’s frenetic style is appropriate to the battle scene that takes place midway, but it’s everywhere, creating a sense of anxiety that doesn’t feel organic to the material.

Moreover, when Langvia enters the story, “Black Death” becomes enwrapped in its parlor game regarding her identity, complete with a secretive pagan ritual that feels recycled from every satanic-cult scene ever made, to maintain the sense of terror essential to it plot. The performances are generally sturdy, and while Redmayne’s Osmund is too slight a character to carry the film, Bean compensates with his intense presence. Ulric may be a secondary character here, but Bean owns this movie. His characters’ zealousness, personified by the actor’s grim visage and battle-ready comportment, as well as his commitment to his faith, tested in a painful-to-watch torture sequence, are the driving engines behind Smith’s otherwise sporadically effective film.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Christopher Smith
Written by: Dario Poloni
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice Van Houten, Kimberly Nixon, David Warner, John Lynch, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Tim McInnerny

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Zombieland

It’s a familiar horror-comedy premise: The Zombie Apocalypse. The world is in ruins and overrun with flesh-eating zombies. Among the few scattered human survivors is Columbus (as in Columbus, Ohio; the characters in the film are known for the destinations to which they’re headed), played by Jesse Eisenberg in his typical (and highly effective) dithering mode. He hitches a ride with the loose-cannon Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) along a highway littered with corpses and abandoned vehicles. Columbus and Tallahassee have a testy dynamic — the former being the tentative, always-anxious yin to the latter’s off-kilter, aggressive yang. Soon, the pair is joined by the scheming twosome, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). They form a dysfunctionally amusing clique, fending off hordes of zombies while tearing along in their truck towards a new destination, an amusement park in Los Angeles rumored to be zombie-free (No spoiler: It’s not).

The zombie-based action in Zombieland is old hat. We’ve seen it all before: Zombies attacking recklessly while our human heroes fend them off with shotguns and sharp objects. The comic violence is amusing up to a point after which it’s just a monotonous succession of beheadings and splatter effects; zombie violence is a dangerously one-trick pony and gives this sub-genre a been-there-seen-that vibe. But where Zombieland really shines is in its characters: Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, director Ruben Fleischer and the four-member cast create a group of truly endearing personalities who we enjoy following. Harrelson is in top nutcase mode, playing off perfectly against his exact opposite, embodied in Eisenberg. Stone, playing tough-chick Wichita, is charming, especially as a tentative romance develops between her character and Columbus. In fact, Zombieland’s best scene might be the one in which these two flirt tentatively and warm to each other. Breslin, meanwhile, as the no-nonsense Little Rock has a couple of sharply funny scenes with Eisenberg as well.

The central section of Zombieland, surprisingly, contains almost no action. It’s an extended interlude that takes place in, of all places, a mansion belonging to Bill Murray, who plays himself and brings to the film its goofiest, most hilarious moments. Dressed as a zombie to “blend in,” Murray has survived the apocalypse and, when he appears before our star-struck group, goes into a virtual stand-up routine, raising the nuttiness bar of Zombieland up one refreshing notch.

The action, especially its tiresome third act consisting of — you guessed it — more zombie mania, is about as dull and predictable as they come in this genre. It’s Zombieland’s delightfully offbeat characters that give the movie its staying power.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Producer-director-writer Paul W.S. Anderson’s unstoppable spinoffs of “Resident Evil,” the megahit humans vs. zombies video-game franchise, continues with “Resident Evil: Afterlife.” It offers the full grab bag of “Matrix”-y effects thrown at your eyeballs over and over again accompanied by a head-pounding fusion of hard rock and techno. In fact, during many scenes in “Afterlife,” I wasn’t sure whether to watch Milla Jovovich do leaps and somersaults in slo-mo while firing bullets and bathed in droplets of rain, or just get up and dance to the soundtrack.

Unsurprisingly, “Afterlife” is being released in both 2D and 3D versions; I saw the 3D, which adds nothing qualitatively to the experience. While if offers some genuinely clever touches initially, “Afterlife” loses steam once Anderson becomes less interested in the story at hand and more on wrapping it up, making sure to set up another sequel.

In terms of visual design, the movie’s opening set inside the expansively futuristic headquarters of the evil Umbrella Corporation (the company that perpetrated the zombie virus) impresses most. Here, Alice (Milla Jovovich), a human with all the emotional register of a mannequin, confronts the company’s CEO, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) – he’s the one sporting the shades and the bad Brit accent – in a no-holds-barred battle that begins indoors and ends in a plane crash from which Alice escapes. Thereafter, the bulk of “Afterlife” follows Alice and cohort Claire’s (Ali Larter) attempts to lead a group of survivors, holed up in a high-rise L.A. prison, to a tanker ship believed to be a safe haven from zombies, just offshore. The sections inside the prison work best as the survivors – ranging from the rangy, Will Smith-esque ex-basketball player Luther West (Boris Kodjoe) to the reptilian movie producer, Bennett (Kim Coates). Anderson, thankfully, slows the story enough to take advantage of his premise’s horror-movie and survivalist drama tropes as issues of betrayal, trust and camaraderie boil to the surface, and suspicions arise that the zombies may be tunneling their way in.

Once the zombies overrun the prison, “Afterlife” switches to action-movie gear from which it never returns, culminating in a finale that’s a pale rehash of the opening. The occasional flashes of imagination aside, “Afterlife” epitomizes what movies written largely by software and marketing committees look like. Diehard fans of the franchise and genre enthusiasts may flock to it, but on its own merits, the movie offers little. To say it’s nothing more than a crass merchandising gimmick would be to acknowledge Hollywood’s openly cynical attitude to story telling and the film business in general. And what’s the point of that?

Grade: C-

Directed by: Paul W. S. Anderson
Written by: Paul W. S. Anderson
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Kim Coates, Shawn Roberts, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Spencer Locke, Boris Kodjoe, Wentworth Miller, Sienna Guillory, Kacey Barnfield, Norman Yeung, Fulvio Cecere

28 Days Later…

Full of post-apocalyptic hysteria and high jinks, 28 Days Later… cries out for a tie-in video game or comic book. Jim (Murphy) wakes up from a coma in his hospital room to discover that everyone is dead, that the city is deserted. Soon after, he learns everyone’s been killed by a mass plague (caused by a virus called “Rage”) that turns its victims into homicidal maniacs. The plague’s few survivors are left to defend themselves against roving and rapacious gangs of Rage zombies. Jim teams up with a tough-as-nails broad and a little girl (whose father succumbed to the disease) and, together, they fight off evil, mindless Rage hordes as well as a small platoon of horny soldiers eager to re-populate the world. Boyle mixes elements of Mad Max and Night of the Living Dead and comes up with a wild cocktail of campy, gory fun. Just don’t scrutinize the plot too seriously; that can kill the buzz.

Grade: B

Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Alex Garland
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Noah Huntley, Brendan Gleeson

Shaun of the Dead

A piss-poor attempt to spoof what is already a spoof: the zombie flick. So, even conceptually, this is a difficult, if not an altogether ill-advised, idea to pull off. The first half-hour is full of goofy moments whose humor, tonally, doffs its cap to Romero as well as to Peter Jackson (Dead Alive) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead). In its peripheral sense of paranoia, it’s set up to resemble Danny Boyle’s infinitely better 28 Days Later….

Unfortunately, the movie settles into a lazy rhythm of recycled antics, and I found myself just marking the minutes as Shaun (Pegg) and his ragtag group of blandly interesting/funny friends hole up in a pub as zombies mob the streets. One labored moment after another follows as Shaun reconciles with his stepfather and with his girlfriend (even as one of her roommates confesses to always having being in love with her). These shenanigans are simply not that humorous nor entertaining, because they’ve been done with so much more energy and insanity in the past (even Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead from 1985 is loonier and scarier). Pedestrian direction and script sap what anarchic fun this movie could’ve been, a more apt title for which might have been Yawn of the Dead.

Grade: C-

Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Nicola Cunningham

Pan’s Labyrinth

Over and above the consistently solid performances from a talented cast, the real star of Pan’s Labyrinth is writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s imagination. His work is a captivating, albeit unstable, blend of anti-Fascist social commentary and a visually sumptuous childhood fable. In the wake of WWII and the devastating Spanish Civil War, it’s easy to see why Ofelia (Baquero) prefers to keep her mind absorbed in fairy tales, though she’s closely attuned to the sufferings of the widowed and now re-married and pregnant mother (Gil).

Along with her mother, Ofelia comes to live with her new father, Vidal (López), the commanding officer of a Fascist regiment, at a remote villa. The sprawling estate doubles as Vidal’s residence and his headquarters for launching raids against anti-Fascist partisans plotting insurgency in the local mountains. To say Vidal is a brutal S.O.B. would be an understatement; del Toro goes out of his way time and again to show just how much Vidal relishes killing and inflicting pain on his enemies. He’s the furthest thing from the warm-hearted father figure for the solemn Ofelia who promptly spends most of her time at her mother’s bedside while the latter tries to see herself through a difficult pregnancy. But all is not what it seems in this household: Under Vidal’s nose, there are elements allied to the insurgency and who stealthily give food and aid to the rebels ensconced in the surrounding forest. Among them is Mercedes (Verdú), the earthy housemaid and the sister to the leader of the rebels, who, in her own modest and desperate way, hopes to thwart Vidal and his Fascists’ machinations. Also aiding this scrappy underground is Ferreiro (Angulo), the noble and stalwart doctor in Vidal’s employ and charged with tending to Ofelia’s mother.

With this intrigue as her backdrop, Ofelia begins to realize that something of far grander importance is afoot, for abutting the villa is an ancient labyrinth, long in disrepair, but which proves to be a gateway to a fantastical realm. Led into the labyrinth by a sprite, Ofelia finds the labyrinth guarded by a faun, Pan (Jones). Jones’s delicious performance keeps us guessing whether Pan is an agent of good or evil as the fabulous creature informs Ofelia that she is a long-lost princess, and that he, along with an entire kingdom, have long waited for her return. Pan tells her she can regain her place on her throne only by successfully carrying out a series of dangerous tasks. Steeled now by a sense of purpose that takes her away from her unendurable life, Ofelia signs on for the mission.

Ofelia’s travails, which include confrontations with a monstrous toad and with a ghoul with a fetish for eating children, have the expressionist spookiness of the best children’s fables. That this is an original work of the imagination, as opposed to an adaptation of an already well-established literary work, is a testament to the del Toro’s marvelous resources as as storyteller. The writer-director interweaves Ofelia’s story with parallel plotlines involving Vidal, Mercedes, and the anti-Fascist partisans and, later, the fate of Ofelia’s newborn brother.

Pan’s Labyrinth is saturated with bursts of bloodshed which blanket the film all-too-evenly and, hence, feel gratuitous. We’re never sure which story — Ofelia’s fantastical adventures or the grim wartime intrigues surrounding her– del Toro wishes to foreground. In a story like this, with both literal and allegorical components, the latter often comments on the former. But nowhere do we find a moral and thematic counterpoint to the acts of violence since both storylines involve equal doses of morbid savagery. Ofelia’s story doesn’t especially contain any insights about childhood innocence and selflessness that would enrich Vidal’s shows of brutality with added poignancy. Everything here, whether real or fantastic, seems equally brutal and lacking in intellectual shaping through.

Baquero proves herself an assured and guileless young actress. As Ofelia, she holds her ground confidently against del Toro’s visual energy as well as against the formidable López. Along with Ray Winstone (The Departed, Cold Mountain) and Ian McShane (Deadwood), López proves here (together with his work in Dirty Pretty Things) that he can play a villain as chilling as they come.

Grade: B

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo, César Vea

28 Weeks Later

In this worthy follow-up to Danny Boyle’s deliriously entertaining 28 Days Later, a tentative peace has settled upon Britain. The virus that, in the first film, transformed the nation’s people into blood-crazed zombies appears to have been wiped out; no new case has been reported for months. A part of London is set aside by the U.S. Army as a quarantined safe zone for plague survivors so that they can re-enter the city, and try to resume something like normal lives within the hyper-alert and germ-free military state. Into this bio-fortified environment, stationed with heavily-armed soldiers, writer-director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, and his co-writers Rowan Joffe, Jesús Olmo, Enrique López Lavigne, introduce a rogue: A carrier of the Rage Virus, the haggard Alice (Catherine McCormack) who shows no symptoms of her illness, but capable of infecting others. The flip-side, though, is that her immunity could point the way for the U.S. Army researchers to finding a vaccine.

Whatever hope Alice’s presence does raise among the medical staff, though, disintegrates in a maelstrom of blood, flesh, and much screaming, as the woman quickly infects the locals. If you’re familiar with the first film, you know that this virus has virtually no incubation period — it acts a bit like wild sex without the foreplay — and almost instantaneously renders its victims into gluttonous predators. That said, the safe zone is soon reduced to massacre and mayhem as soldiers are ordered to hunt down and indiscriminately kill the safe-zone’s occupants. Navigating this landscape of trigger-happy soldiers and blood-crazed zombies are Alice’s children — Tammy and Andy (Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton). As Army medic (Rose Byrne), and soldier (Jeremy Renner) join ranks to protect the children — who could’ve inherited their mother’s immunity — and get them out of the country, 28 Weeks Later begins thematically recall last year’s Children of Men in which Clive Owen’s beleagured Everyman tried to shunt a mother-child pair out of a similarly hostile, apolcalyptic environment. What also resonates is the underlying and powerful sense of metaphor: The asinine logic of combating a virus becomes a poignant stand-in for our own nonsensical War on Terror — both fights in which the real enemy resides within, not without.

Coincidence or not, the visual aesthetic and energy of Fresnadillo’s film bears a striking resemblance to Cuarón’s — both use a pallette of dull and desaturated colors, as if the colors itself were weary of the worlds they’re inhabiting. Fresnadillo’s camerawork, like that in Children of Men, is jittery, so restless and panicky, in fact, that you think it might burst forth from the screen. It’s the director’s deft and sylish hand with this material that makes 28 Weeks such a refreshing jolt, plying a genre routinely deadened by sub-par slasher-fests. The exhilaration evident in the smartly-cut action sequences, the glances at pathos in the sequences of loss, betrayal, guilt, and abandonment underscore Fresnadillo’s considerable directorial powers; the man is taking his job seriously and at full-steam, never condescending to it. And we benefit from that as an audience, and, I’ve no doubt, Fresnadillo will benefit career-wise.

The performances are suitably intense. Robert Carlyle turns in dramatically the most riveting, playing the children’s father, haunted by feelings of guilt and cowardice after abandoning his family in order to save his own life. Poots and Mackintosh are both game for the punishing frights their characters are put through. And Byrne and Renner, as the only trustworthy adults in the whole picture, make for a plucky and resourceful pair. Too bad, then, and this is the movie’s most serious flaw, that Fresnadillo and company’s script dispenses with its characters so summarily. All too easily, characters are picked off, violently yanked from the narrative before they’ve had the chance to fully develop — this is in contrast to Psycho, a film famous for eliminating a key character, which took time to carefully delineate said character before she stepped foot inside that notorious shower. What Fresnadillo and company so carefully create in 28 Weeks’ first half shows signs of rapidly and sloppily unraveling in the second as slaughter becomes indiscriminate, and staged for cleverness rather than for story — as our compact group races towards asylum, indeed, towards a forced climax that feels abrupt, and designed to accomodate yet another sequel. Considering the general quality of this film and its predecessor, though, this is one critic game for another go.

Grade: B

Directed by: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Written by: Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Jesús Olmo, Enrique López Lavigne
Cast: Robert Carlyle, Catherine McCormack, Amanda Walker, Jeremy Renner, Harold Perrineau, Rose Byrne, Imogen Poots, Mackintosh Muggleton