Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Some recent DVD reviews:


Resident Evil: Afterlife

As a horror film fan, I suppose some people would be surprised that I hadn't seen any of the three preceding "Resident Evil" films, but I must admit a certain prejudice toward movies based on video games. Those I've seen haven't been very good.

"Resident Evil," though, has been a very successful movie franchise and stars an actress I admire — Milla Jovovich.

If you're like me and are coming to the franchise late, you need to know that Jovovich plays Alice, a woman who has been turned into a superhero due to the experimentation of the Umbrella Corporation, the most sinister of companies. This same group has developed a virus that has turned most of the population into flesh-eating zombies and Alice fights for her survival from both the zombies and the corporation.

In this fourth film, shot in 3-D but released flat on DVD, Alice has had her super powers neutralized by one of the Umbrella Corporation's men, but escapes to try to find "Arcadia," a place where other survivors have gathered to form a zombie-free community. She finds her friend Claire (Ali Larter) along the way as well as a group of people in Los Angeles who have successfully escaped the zombies by making a fortress out of the city's jail.

When they realize Arcadia is a ship docked in the harbor, they try to make their way to it.

Now, what interested me about this film is Jovovich, as she is undoubtedly one of the few female action stars working today. She does a great job with the material, which is pretty thin.

That's the problem with the film. The plot felt stretched and recycled.

Writer and director Paul W.S. Anderson and Jovovich's husband — is not the most precise of directors. There are story elements that are introduced, such as a giant, axe-welding zombie who acts quite differently for no apparent reason that the other zombies, that are pretty inexplicable.

While the "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" films were treated as standalone films with somewhat open endings, this film doesn't have a plot rich enough to use that story-telling technique successfully. The ending comes across as a cheap device.

Despite my crush on Jovovich, I can't recommend this sloppy, tired film.

Crazy Mama/ The Lady in Red

Shout Factory is now releasing a new series of DVDs featuring many of the films produced by Roger Corman during the 1970s and into the early '80s. For geezers such as me, these DVDs will be the cinematic equivalent of junk food nostalgia, while for others younger viewers — they may provide an insight into the careers of some now well-known directors and stars.

These films came at a time when the drive-ins were still a huge force in the movie business and young people were going to movies to see something they couldn't see on television.

Corman, of course, is the director turned producer who has bragged he has never lost money on any film he has made. This might be true. Corman had released dozens of the most unapologetic exploitation films imaginable in every genre.

Filmmakers such as Ron Howard, James Cameron and Joe Dante, among others, received their start from Corman, which is one reason why the veteran producer received an honorary Oscar in 2009.

This double feature presented by Shout Factor can be viewed in "grindhouse" mode, as if you're watching the film in a sleazy urban theater. It adds to the experience.

"Crazy Mama" is director Jonathan Demme's second film. As explained in one of the extras, Demme was able to go from being a publicity agent for United Artists to a director for Corman.

Demme may have won awards for his films such as "Silence of the Lambs," but "Crazy Mama" certainly wouldn't be one of them. Cloris Leachman stars in the 1975 film as Melba, a struggling beauty salon owner who decides to return to her roots in Arkansas when she is evicted.

Her mission is to buy back the farm from which her family was evicted 30 years ago. She has no idea how she is going to do this and along with her daughter, mother, two of her daughter's boyfriends, a dotty senior citizen and a married man she has picked up, she embarks on a series of petty crimes to fund the purchase of the farm.

This film is an amazing mess. One moment it's a broad comedy, while another it's supposed to be a suspenseful crime drama. It's difficult to tell if Demme wants audiences to take any of it seriously.

One should note that winning an Oscar much less being in a hit television show — does not ensure choice cinematic material.

Leachman, though, slogs through the film admirably, trying to make Melba a sympathetic character. I think Demme owes the actress a role in one of his new movies.

"The Lady in Red," from 1979, is a surprisingly effective period film that purports to tell us the life of the young woman who mistakenly betrayed gangster John Dillinger to the FBI.

Pamela Sue Martin plays farm girl Polly Franklin, who winds up working as a prostitute in the early 1930s in Chicago. Although in other films adapting the life of Dillinger, this character is a minor one, this script by John Sayles makes Franklin's story the central one.

Sayles includes social commentary in the film, which also has the prerequisite violence and nudity that exploitation audiences expected. Director Lewis Teague, who went on to helm "The Jewel of the Nile" and "Cujo," among other films, keeps the pace of the film quick and clearly had an eye for period details.

Martin makes her character sympathetic and believable as a young woman trapped by her circumstances.

"The Lady in Red" is a very good example of how the exploitation film could be something more than simply throwaway drive-in fodder.

If you like seeing films that skirted underneath the radar of many critics years ago, check out these releases from Shout Factory.

Easy A

Remember how rumors could tear through a high school? Remember how wrong they usually were? This is the premise of "Easy A," a solid little comedy that shows that even in the era of cell phone and Internet, there has been little advancement when it comes to relationships in high school.

Olive (played with perfection by Emma Stone) is a high school student who flies under the radar. She's a good student and a good girl, but one day her best friend badgers her into saying something she shouldn't have. In an attempt to shut her up, Olive claims that she recently lost her virginity to an older guy going to the local community college.

She really hasn't. She doesn't even have a boy friend. Her best friend, though, can't resist telling people and before long Olive is the girl everyone is talking about and not in a good way.

Guys who acted as if she was invisible, now stare at her. Girls called her names. The high school's Christian group prays for her, when they aren't condemning her.

Olive's reaction to her new found fame is to play it up. If people can't understand she was fibbing, then she will play the part of the school's tart. That decision leads to other repercussions.

What I admired about the film is that Olive is a sensible, positive kid from a loving family who makes a mistake and eventually learns from it. Stone is one of my favorite new actors, especially after her performance in "Zombieland."

Director Will Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal have created a realistic, endearing and funny teen movie.

Vengeance

If it's made in Hong Kong, I'll give it a try and this 2009 film, just coming out on DVD, is one that is in many ways worth watching.

Legendary French singer and actor Johnny Hallyday plays Costello, a successful chef and restaurant owner who comes to Macau in response to the murder of his son-in-law and grandchildren. Only his daughter has survived the attack.

Hallyday plays Costello with the barest of emotions and expressions, but he makes it clear that this is not a man to mess with. When it's clear the police are not moving fast enough to solve the crime, he decided to take action.

He is, though, a stranger in a strange land and being in the right place at the right time gives him the allies he needs.

Costello witnesses a contract murder carried out by a gang of three men. He goes to the police to view a line-up and even though the cops have one of the trio, Costello doesn't give him up.

It's his way to find the men he needs men who know the local underworld. The trio accepts his offer and finds the men who killed Costello's family. The story doesn't end there.

Two twists in the film provide the audience with questions about the nature of vengeance and whether or not Costello's efforts were worth the price.

Director Johnnie Ito is a guy who is willing to throw some traditional and non-tradition ingredients into his dish, including a French star who is probably not too familiar to his core market.

The taciturn Hallyday looks like he has had one too many plastic surgeries and his minimalist acting style is at first a bit off-putting. His performance eventually grew on me, especially in the second half of the film.

Ito cast two Hong Kong superstars into the film Anthony Wong and Simon Yam. Wong plays the leader of the men recruited by Costello and does it with great cool. Yam is George Fung, the mobster who ordered the hit on Costello's family.

I enjoyed the stylish film that ends not with a satisfyingly violent conclusion to the story but rather with a contemplative note.

Looking for a crime drama that's different? Check out "Vengeance."

Despicable Me

I had wanted to see this film in the theaters, but the time to do so eluded me and now I've caught up with it on DVD and I'm glad I did.

The trend in animation lately is to present the story in computer animation as the medium and 3-D as the marketing point. Although simply using computer generated imagery (CGI) is no guarantee of a quality film, at this time the medium is dominating the industry.

I do miss the artistry of hand-drawn animation or the realism that traditional stop motion brings to a film, but in the right hands, CGI is fine. I thoroughly enjoyed "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," and this film joins them as a movie both adults and kids can enjoy over and over.

Gru is a criminal mastermind who yearns to be the most successful evil genius in the world. When he comes up with a plan to shrink the moon to hold it for ransom, he is stopped in his tracks by Vector, a younger super villain on the rise.

In order to obtain the shrink ray Vector has, Gru uses three orphan girls as cover for the robbery. The three girls, though, have an effect on Gru he did not expect.

The film opens with a wonderfully twisted sequence that defines Gru. He encounters a little boy who is upset that he has dropped his ice cream cone. Gru cheers him up by twisting up a balloon animal and gives it to the boy. As soon as the kid is happy, Gru punctures the balloon.

To see this professionally evil guy change is the heart of the movie. It never gets bogged down in sentiment and there is much humor created by Gru's minions -- little yellow pill-shaped guys who make the various things he needs to carry out his plans.

I saw the film flat and it works just fine. I really think the current 3-D hysteria is vastly unnecessary.

The voice performances are quite good and Steve Carrell gives Gru a great "foreign" sound. I did think it was silly for the producers to bring in someone as talented as Julie Andrews for literally a handful of lines as Gru's mom. What's the point? Any number of voice actors could have done that.

That's a minor gripe. This is an animated film adults shouldn't dread watching.

Doghouse

It has been said, "Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery" and I think there is some little love note to "Shaun of the Dead" in this new zombie horror comedy from Great Britain.

Lucky for horror fans, the producers of "Doghouse" have come up with enough twists to keep the film fresh.

Stephen Graham -- currently seen as Al Capone on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" -- is Vince.

Vince used to be quite the ladies' man until his marriage and now that he is depressed over his up-coming divorce, his friends have decided to undertake a road trip for all of them to re-assert their single maleness.

All of them are in lousy relationships with women and naturally they don't blame themselves.

So where to go but a remote village where women outnumber the men and they would be the new roosters in the henhouse?

Except this village is the site for an experiment that has turned all of the women into cannibalistic zombies who only attack men.

While "Shaun of the Dead" was a vastly superior film that could be enjoyed by non-horror film fans, "Doghouse" is marketed to a crowd that likes their films "moister."

There are plenty of blood and guts, humor and genuine surprises to keep things interesting; although the movie has one of the worst endings I've seen in a long time.

Not for everyone, horror fans should welcome "Doghouse".

Billy The Exterminator, Seasons One and Two

Just in time for the holidays are these two collections of the television series that details the professional adventures of a Louisiana exterminator.

A high concept, indeed.

Billy Bretherton was featured in two episodes of "Dirty Jobs," and he was clearly charismatic enough that producers at A&E decided he could carry his own show.

Billy and his family tackle any number of critters and what makes him different -- I assume -- from his peers is they don't dress as if they are roadies for a heavy metal band.

Billy likes his bleached spiked hair, his studded bracelets and black ensembles and goes to work removing alligators, wrestling opossums and mixing it up with raccoons as if he had just shopped at Hot Topic.

Despite his clownish look, he takes his profession seriously and drops a variety of factoids throughout the show.

He clearly tries to make the show educational and there is a theme of "I'm a professional; don't try this at home" running throughout it.

I like the show, but if you are bothered by legions of cockroaches, a beehive as big as a shed, bats, rats and other small beasts, you might want to consider watching something else.

© 2011 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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