This review was originally printed as part of Hollywood.com's Comic-Con 2012 coverage
A reimagining of the 2000 AD label comic book that inspired Judge Dredd the 1994 Sylvester Stallone action flick that took sci-fi wackiness to new heights Dredd scales back on the futuristic elements and puts an emphasis on the brutality in store for the Judge's criminal victims. In this not-so-distant world a Judge has the power to decide your fate right upon capture — and usually the sentence involves some type of ammunition being fired into the offender's skull. Dredd is a grimy smoldering relentless 90 minutes that manages to inject its in-your-face fight scenes with an unexpected bit of humanity. Shocking considering the buckets of blood spilled during Judge Dredd's warpath which begins from his very first appearance.
This time around Dredd is played by Karl Urban a chiseled beast of a dude who balances the machismo with a healthy dose of one-liner comedy. A great central hero. To investigate a series of murders connected to one of Mega City 1's most notorious crime figureheads Dredd is partnered with an exact opposite: Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby) a new recruit who makes up for her lack of killer instinct with a mutant psychic power. She may not have the throat-ripping capabilities of Dredd but once this girl gets in a baddie's head it's over. Dredd is wary of his new sidekick potential — even more so when the challenge they face reveals itself. Cooped up at the top of a 120+ story building is Ma-Ma (Lena Hedley) whose operation will soon put a new drug — dubbed "Slo-Mo" — in the hands of every Mega City 1 citizen. To stop her Dredd and Cassandra must slay her goons as they ascend the skyscraper. Simple premise lots of bloodshed.
Unlike this year's The Raid which took a similar approach to the non-stop antics of a martial arts film Dredd opts for the slow burn approach. Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) wants us to take a big whiff of every musky apartment in Ma-Ma's "Peach Trees" tower; he wants us to feel every drip of sweat that trickles down Dredd's stubble while the law enforcer waits patiently to attack; he wants us to feel the complete stop of time when the Slo-Mo drug kicks in and even droplets of suddy bath water hang in the air from a splash; and he wants us to feel like we're in the front seat of a Gallagher show when Dredd fires an explosive bullet into the mouth of a henchman and watches the head explode into bits (all in clear and crisp 3D). Dredd is near-fetishistic in its approach to gore – I found myself mouth agape making audible "EEEEEEEEAAAAH" sounds throughout the film — but plays well to the lead character's ferocious nature.
The hyper-style doesn't end with Dredd's unique array of finishing moves either; Cassandra's telepathy is a weapon of the senses that Travis mines for every flashy montage sequence he can squeeze out of it. In one sequence Cassandra uncovers an important clue by subjecting one of Ma-Ma's assailants to mental torture a terrifying whirlwind of imagery of saturated nightmares (if you've ever watched Saw after scarfing down an undercooked burrito you know what I mean). Travis amps "MTV editing" in these sequences an assault to the senses that's just as purposefully grating as the gritty fight sequences.
What makes the whole thing worth watching are the film's two leads. Urban has the thankless task of playing Dredd under the Judge's signature mask — someone obviously forgot to tell the police force of the future that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Urban makes up for it with a spectrum of snarls and a voice that sends chills down the spine. He also knows his way around comedy timing (as evidenced by his equally-impressive performance as Bones in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek) delivering kitschy zingers that click with Dredd's rough and tough world. The yin to his yang Cassandra could have been another helpless female costar who steps in with magical powers when the time is right but Thirlby is the real heart and soul of Dredd breathing compassion into a dimly lit situation and reflecting the grey morality of the entire Judge program. Why are people cool with cops coming in and blowing them away when they see fit? Why is that the new definition of heroism? The script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later Never Let Me Go) is smart to ask those questions and Cassandra is the perfect proxy. Thirlby as adorable as she is plays the gal fierce a sensible kind of Judge that can live side by side with Dredd.
There are a lot of people who won't be able to stomach Dredd partly for the level of violence partly for the consistency and pace of how that violence is unleashed. The small scale and singular location of the action don't allow Dredd to keep the surprises coming. After awhile watching human heads splatter like water balloons becomes taxing and unenjoyable (which some psychologists may say should have been the case in the first place). Hedley does a decent job of making her psychotic Ma-Ma into a wicked villain who deserves her due but without a fleshed out cause and bigger picture implications it's hard to care. Her squad of faceless men are more like punching bags then characters. But over-the-top mayhem has its place and when accompanied by a badass like Dredd and a pumping electronica score it's hard not to cheer when the Judge lays down the gruesome law. Dredd isn't a great film but it's a great Comic-Con film — one worth catching at midnight and screaming your lungs out all in good absurd fun.
Is there such a thing as a successful remake anymore? After seeing Fright Night the answer is (surprisingly) a resounding “Yes.” Craig Gillespie’s shiny reimagining of the 1985 kitsch classic is very much its own movie but like any good spawn it doesn’t forget where it came from.
The film’s plot is not born of a novel concept. Las Vegas teenager Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is doing just fine. He managed to shake his nerd image he’s got a hot girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and he even puts the de facto cool kids to shame on occasion. Life’s pretty great until he meets the neighbor: Jerry (Colin Farrell). People are disappearing and Charlie’s old friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has a theory: Jerry’s a vampire. Armed with only the vampirical evidence doled out by Criss Angel reincarnate Peter Vincent (David Tennant) Charlie is forced to defend himself his mother (Toni Collette) and his girlfriend from the silver pointy clutches of Jerry the vampire’s endless blood-lust. And a suspenseful hilarious time ensues.
Fright Night is successful in large part because it keeps things simple. Charlie: good. Jerry: 16 shades of blood-curdling evil. Game set match. It’s scary and gory with a dash of humor – essentially a good old-fashioned senseless horror flick with a glossy big-budget cover. It’s cleverly self-aware and expends great effort to lend a sense of quality to something that promises to be nothing more than a bloody slasher flick. But the bottom line is that it works.
And the cast is big part of that. Farrell’s bloodsucker is the antidote our Twilight-riddled generation so desperately needs; this is what vampires are supposed to be. His twitchy growling yet somehow seductive vampire successfully strikes a precarious balance along the sexy-scary line and while the role doesn’t demand a great deal of Farrell's talent he’s fully committed to his psychotic relentlessly violent character and the result is deliciously despicable.
As for our band of plucky good guys Yelchin is perfectly adequate as our hero. He’s likeable he’s trustworthy and he holds his own amongst onscreen presences that threaten to drown him – Mintz-Plasse Farrell and Tennant are tough acts to outshine. Collette is generally wasted – anyone could play her part but she does what she can with the material she’s dealt. Poots really shines here; it’s almost surprising that she’s able to bring such much power to the typical girlfriend role but she manages to make her character more than just a love interest. But of course the one man who stands above the entire cast is Tennant who’s all but eliminated from the trailers for the film. The former Doctor Who star jumps into the mainstream as Peter Vincent Las Vegas performer and vampire expert extraordinaire and every minute he’s onscreen is comedy gold. His timing delivery stature and expressions are all pitch perfect. His performance alone is worth giving Fright Night two hours of your time.
Of course Gillespie makes some very stark choices with the film. The dark scenes are almost too dark; it takes a few scenes to adjust to the lighting much like being suddenly shut in a dark room. And while it’s probably not great for anyone’s ocular health it really heightens the element of fear. Then there’s the element of 3-D which is thoroughly used throughout. At first it borders on schlocky but when the vampy action gets going everything from blood to holy water to fire comes bursting out of the screen and lends an enjoyable but decidedly B-movie flair to the whole ordeal.
While the story wheels out of control leans heavily on ridiculously convenient solutions and generally has only two goals – fear and bloodshed – the film itself is so much fun that those elements don’t really matter. If you’re looking for something to stimulate your intellect run like hell from this movie but if you want two hours of unadulterated messy creepy fun look no further than Fright Night.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Twenty-eight years ago an enormous alien spaceship arrived on Earth and marooned itself in the sky above Johannesburg South Africa bringing with it hordes of starved emaciated refugees from a distant dying planet. After efforts to assimilate them into South African society failed the vast population of “prawns” — a derogatory nickname inspired their crustacean-like features — were herded en masse into District 9 a massive hastily-constructed refugee camp on the edge of the city that quickly devolved into a shantytown rife with violence prostitution and substance abuse.
The present-day South African government under pressure from its increasingly fed-up human citizens has decided to abandon District 9 and hand over control of the aliens to Multi-National United (MNU) a government security contractor/weapons manufacturer charged with relocating the refugees to a new camp in a more remote area.
In truth the relocation is only a secondary priority to the executives at MNU; their real goal is to unlock the secret of the aliens’ advanced weaponry and use it to reap untold profits in the arms trade. MNU’s efforts have heretofore been thwarted by a design feature on the weapons that restricts their usage to those possessing alien DNA rendering them inoperable by — and thus useless to — humans.
Tasked with leading MNU’s forced migration of the District 9's prawns is Wikus van de Merwe a well-meaning middle manager unaware of the company's true motivations. That changes abruptly however when he's unwittingly exposed to a mysterious DNA-altering substance during a routine sweep of the alien refuge camp. When Wikus begins to undergo a grotesque Fly-like transformation he suddenly finds himself hunted by his former colleagues at MNU who now see him as the key to cracking the code of the prawns’ powerful weapons. Shunned by human society and left with nowhere else to turn he heads back into District 9 where he forms an unlikely alliance with the creatures he’d once worked so hard to marginalize.
WHO’S IN IT?
Nobody you’d recognize unless you happen to be a devotee of South African cinema. District 9’s Johannesburg-born director Neill Blomkamp opted to use a cast composed entirely of actors from his home country with mostly excellent results. Leading the way is newcomer Sharlto Copley lending wit and pathos to the role of overwhelmed corporate whipping boy Wikus van de Merwe. Reminiscent of both The Office’s Michael Scott and Flight of the Conchords’ Murray Hewitt Wikus is the unlikeliest of sci-fi heroes which is one of the reasons why the film is such an unexpected delight.
District 9 takes an attractive premise and approaches it from an unconventional angle resulting in a wildly entertaining sci-fi satire that melds bits and pieces of The Fly Midnight Run Starship Troopers Enemy Mine Alien Nation and TV’s Cops. It’s a disparate combination to say the least yet somehow it works.
With the help of producer Peter Jackson and the many visual effects artisans at his disposal director Blomkamp packs the modestly-budgeted District 9 with an impressive mix of CGI and creature effects — especially during the film’s balls-out climax a mind-blowing blood-soaked battle sequence that will have audiences simultaneously cheering and cringing.
There’s little subtlety to District 9’s political commentary — a presumably deliberate artistic decision given the film’s satirical bent. Nevertheless it can get a tad annoying at times. The plot features an abundance of wild tonal shifts some of which are pulled off more successfully than others. In the lead role Copley occasionally betrays his acting inexperience by overdoing it with his delivery.
The climactic battle scene in which Wikus dons a massive Halo-esque battle suit and turns the tables on his pursuers is absolutely nuts — in a good way. However younger views and those with delicate stomachs may find the carnage-filled sequence rife with exploding heads and severed limbs somewhat unsettling.
According to producer Jackson District 9 cost around $30 million to make — a paltry sum by today’s action-movie standards. The production budget of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in comparison came in at a reported $175 million.
Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place their father (Philip Bosco) is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to well death the old man officially needs to be looked after and that’s where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn’t plan on however is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery mortality each other and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away. Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages you’d think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course it’s merely two of today’s very best actors giving par-for-the-course flawless performances. In so doing they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety solo or together Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken even when she tries to convince herself otherwise but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia. It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ last--and only other--feature-length film the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills which has given her plenty of time to think grow older and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages a movie that addresses everything you don’t want to but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy never obnoxious never sappy and always astutely observed. It’s her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning light on pretense and contrivance.
Premonition’s premise is so implausible it’s really hard to get emotionally involved in the film—although this is something it desperately wants you to do. Instead you spend most of your time just trying to figure out why this woman Linda Hanson (Bullock) is running around like a crazy person waking up one day to find her husband Jim (Julian McMahon) is dead and then the next that he’s still alive. It’s exhausting frankly. On Thursday she’s told Jim has died in a horrible car accident the day before. Then she wakes up and it’s Tuesday finding Jim is still alive and well—and possibly having an affair with a co-worker. Then she wakes up on Saturday and it’s the day of the funeral. WTF? Of course in volleying back and forth through this week from hell Linda is forced to look at her tired marriage and somehow preserve everything that she and Jim have built together before it’s too late. Oh it’s too late all right. Too late to care what happens. Bullock is a fine actress when she tries her hand at something more serious such as Infamous or Crash—heck we’ll even throw in 28 Days. Of course we prefer her to be the cute and fun Miss Congeniality of the big screen but we understand her need to stretch a bit. However this thriller stuff really isn’t her forte (remember Murder By Numbers?) especially when she looks about as confused as we are on why she’s even in this movie. And what’s with her compulsion to star in movies about time jumping? Her last movie Lake House although considered a middling hit has the same elements albeit in a far more romantic milieu. Whatever the reason Premonition fails to tap into any of Bullock’s more innate qualities leaving her floundering like a boat lost at sea. And everyone else in the movie acts as mere window dressing including Nip/Tuck’s McMahon as the faltering and ultimately doomed hubby. Just a big waste of talent. Oh man I really would have liked to sit in on this pitch meeting with the studio execs. Screenwriter Bill Kelly whose claim to fame up to this point has been the stellar Blast From the Past must have walked in and said “Do I have a mind bender for you! ” and proceeded to try to explain the mess that is Premonition. And oddly enough those execs bought it. Still it seems the studio may not have had a lot of faith in the movie despite reigning in Ms. Bullock—they hired a no-name German director Mennan Yapo to take the helm. All this inexperience clearly shows in almost every frame of the movie. Muddled camera work shoddy dialogue lingering and unnecessary moments of Linda lying in bed in various positions nothing about Premonition makes sense. Not even the title since Linda really isn’t experiencing a premonition but more a trip through the space-time continuum. Now if this were an episode of Star Trek...