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Nighthawks (1981)

NighthawksThis is one of those Sylvester Stallone gems that both seems like it’s gained a respected following, but has never become a high profile hit.  It doesn’t fall into the light hearted fare like Tango & Cash or Demolition Man or the substantive drama of Rocky or First Blood.  Instead, this is a very good gritty cop thriller with a definite 1970’s aesthetic boasting a great performance by Rutger Hauer that foreshadows his acclaimed work in Blade Runner and The HitcherNighthawks has its definite merits, but surely demonstrates why it’s a lesser noted film for Stallone.

When Europe’s most feared terrorist known as Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) explosively announces his presence in Manhattan, two elite undercover NYPD cops (Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) are assigned to stop him before he strikes again.  However, the ruthless terrorist has other plans for the city – and the detectives – as he begins to hold its citizens in the grip of fear.

In the wake of big blockbuster successes like the Rocky and Rambo movies, and films with more flash and crowd pleasing excitement, you can understand how Nighthawks kind of flies under the radar.  It’s very grounded and much more low key.  It is also a slow building film with a focus on the psychological aspects of its main adversaries, and capturing that gritty, urban New York street cop vibe.  Still, within that context, you’ve got a very admirable crime thriller here lead by some strong casting choices across the board.

I really believe Stallone leads this film quite well.  Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a solid cop who doesn’t back down easily.  He takes on crime with intensity and fierce dedication, even if it costs him his marriage or his well being.  Stallone makes DaSilva a tough cop, but one with a morality and heart.  Despite the fallout with his wife, Deke still desires that loving connection, and he won’t become the cold blooded assassin that the British counter-terrorism specialist wants him to become.  Stallone does a solid job keeping DaSilva true to who he is sticking to his principals as a seasoned cop, doing his duty, but doing it his own way.  We see him as a perceptive, smart cop that is dogged in his pursuit of Wulfgar.

As DaSilva’s partner, Detective Sergeant Matthew Fox, Billy Dee Williams entirely carries his own.  Fox can be more even tempered and flexible than DaSilva, allowing for him to keep his more passionate partner grounded and focused.  Billy Dee also has some playful moments adding a few minor moments of levity as, again, a counterbalance to Stallone’s harder edge intensity.  Still, when the situation gets serious, Fox is as solid of a cop as anyone.

Rutger Hauer has shown his talent for brilliance, and Wulfgar is no exception.  He brings a cold, calculating sophistication that forges his gravitas.  When Hauer is on in a film, he captivates your attention with a electrifying presence, and he does that here.  As Wulfgar, he can be frightening because as dedicated as DaSilva is, Wulfgar is equally so to his cause.  You know he’s a sociopathic killer who is a vehement believer in these radical causes.  He’s more than just a hired gun, and that makes him immensely more dangerous.  It’s not about money for him.  He inflicts this death and terror for a political purpose that he believes in, and he is not going to stop.  As the British counter-terrorism specialist says, “He’s only beginning.”

I also have to give some praise to Joe Spinell who portrays Lieutenant Munafo.  While his role is minimal, he’s damn good carrying a commanding weight and authority.  He mainly works opposite Stallone, and keeps the somewhat hot headed DaSilva in line very convincingly.  Of course, Persis Khambatta complements Hauer extremely well as the dangerous, cold-hearted Shakka.  It’s a polar opposite turn from her role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and that is largely welcomed along with her rich, beautiful black hair.

Like I said, this feels entirely like a 1970’s cop film with the gritty style, Earth toned fashions, Stallone’s beard, and sort of a streetwise funky vibe of the score.  It might be an early 80’s film, but you can find plenty of bleed over from the previous decade through to about 1983.  Considering this started out as a second sequel to The French Connection, it’s easy to see why this works so well in that context.  The pacing is methodical lending more towards the dramatic development than excitement.  The film could probably use a little more excitement to ramp up the danger and stakes in the second act, but especially for its time, this was quite good.

Now, Nighthawks surely has a few action set pieces including a great foot chase through the New York streets and into the subway.  However, it is very much a thriller built on suspense and tension.  Stallone and Hauer create this electrifying connection which drives the entire film.  The sequence on the Roosevelt Island tram is a great example of those personalities at conflict enhancing the peril of Wulfgar’s game.  His terrorism is no longer just about a cause, but a game of wits between both men.  Wulfgar toys with DaSilva, bringing him in so close, forcing the Sergeant to look him in the eye time and again, but denying him at choice to fight back.  This results in a nicely solid and taut piece of work.  The ending is superb focusing on a great deal of suspense and imminent peril, but I would think a modern audience might feel it’s not as climactic as it could be.  This ending has become the most memorable aspect of Nighthawks, and it is executed with great care and a few inspired visuals.

As I said, this is a film build as a slow boil thriller than an exciting action ride, and I feel it succeeds at that.  Surely, more could have been done to intensify the narrative and build more momentum going into its climax.  Regardless, I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed Nighthawks.  Stallone does a really solid job complemented well by Billy Dee’s supporting role, and greatly counterbalanced by Rutger Hauer’s chilling brilliance.  If you enjoy the work of either Stallone or Hauer, I definitely believe this is one you should not overlook.  Bruce Malmuth did a fine directing job here, but in a fourteen year career, he never had a breakout hit.  His only other high point was the decently effective Steven Seagal action vehicle Hard to Kill.  With Nighthawks, it’s a nicely solid film that likely won’t blow you away, but may indeed intrigue you through the high quality performances it offers.


Skyfall (2012)

Usually, these introductions are the first thing I write in these reviews, but this time, I had to write the whole thing before collecting my thoughts for this.  I will say that Casino Royale is my favorite James Bond movie to date, and this film did not change that.  The previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace, has been admitted by the handlers of the franchise to be a real misstep that they intended to rectify with this film.  Unfortunately, I do have some points of criticism to levy against Skyfall from a first act that did not grab me to some tonal issues to a prominent character plot point that oddly disappears.  However, overall, the film is masterfully executed with a very strong and deeply personal story with one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen.  So, get ready for one of my infamously long in-depth reviews.  There’s a lot to talk about on both the positive and critical side of things.

007 (Daniel Craig) becomes M’s only ally as MI6 comes under attack, and a mysterious new villain emerges with a diabolical plan.  James Bond’s latest mission has gone horribly awry, resulting in the exposure of several undercover agents, and an all-out attack on M16.  Meanwhile, as M (Judi Dench) plans to relocate the agency, emerging Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) raises concerns about her competence while attempting to usurp her position, and Q (Ben Whishaw) becomes a crucial ally.  Now, the only person who can restore M’s reputation is 007.  Operating in the dark with only field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to guide him, the world’s top secret agent works to root out an enigmatic criminal mastermind and cyber-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem) as a major storm brews on the horizon.

Okay, I do have to start out with how the film had me doubting it first before I get into how it grabbed me.  While the pre-credits sequence has some nice bits, it ultimately left me unsatisfied as it featured next to nothing innovative or rousing that wasn’t spoiled in the trailers.  It has plenty of action, but it just didn’t have a high level of tension or dire circumstances for it to really do much for me.  Of course, things could have turned around if the film had a very inspiring theme song or amazing title sequence.  I have to admit that I just cannot stand the music of Adele.  It bores me and grates on my nerves.  The only reason I’ve heard her music is because it’s part of the mind searing music that plays incessantly at my place of employment.  Her title song for Skyfall could’ve put me to sleep.  It’s a dull thud of a song that offers no vibrancy, beauty, or diversity.  To my ears, it was monotone droning like she didn’t care, and neither did I.  The title sequence itself did nothing for me.  It seemed like an over thought menagerie of random images that had little to no coherence or context.  The digital animation wasn’t very good either.  After you’ve seen the whole film, some of the visuals make sense, but I think the visual tone was drastically off with no clear, direct focus.  I’d sooner take a generic or bland opening title sequence like The Living Daylights or Licence to Kill than one that just gets it all wrong.

From there, the film took a while to energize its plot.  MI6 gets blown up, M is facing bureaucratic pressure from her failures, and Bond comes back worse for wear.  These are surely steps the film needed to take, but it didn’t build momentum.  What finally jump started the film for me was the Shanghai sequence.  Personally, this is the most gorgeous part of the whole film.  Bond stalks Patrice, the man he was chasing at the start of the film, and it is inside a skyscraper which is all lit, at night, by brilliant neon glows reflected in an environment of pure glass.  It’s the most neo noir sequence I’ve seen since Blade Runner, and that is exactly the sort of visual style that excites me.  These visuals set a very captivating, dark, and subversive atmosphere.  The ensuing fight between Bond and the assassin Patrice is excellent.  Glass cracking and shattering all around them created a fantastic visual feast that ends on a very precarious, intriguing, and deadly note.  This beautiful cinematography carries over when Bond travels to Macau to further his investigation with a more Asian aesthetic and golden light saturating every frame.

This beauty and so much more is due to the work of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Alongside director Sam Mendes, he creates a picture with amazing visuals and a very strong, personal scope.  The film does look absolutely stunning with beautiful and powerful compositions, highlighting the dramatic weight and action perfectly.  This is a strong turnaround from the bad shaky cam and quick editing incompetence of Quantum of Solace.  Here, the action is handled with more than competence.  It is handled intelligently never resorting to cheap tricks to make them intense or dangerous.  While some of the desaturated visuals aren’t really stimulating for me, they are dead-on reflections of the bleak and dire tone for this story.  Shots displaying the wide open, cold terrain of Scotland are gorgeous and display plenty of depth.  For me, the visuals really do excel in the darker settings where light and shadow are used to gloriously beautiful effect.  Overall, Deakins continues to solidify his artistic reputation with the immaculate quality of this picture.  What’s most startling is that not one frame of film was used to shoot this movie.  Deakins shot is all digitally, and I challenge anyone to tell the difference between this and a high quality film presentation.  Not once did this strike me as a digitally shot movie, but in retrospect, the bold clarity, especially in those dark environments, could only be produced via a digital format.

Skyfall does go darker and more grim with its story and tone.  While the previous two Daniel Craig outings were gritty, visceral, and personal in nature, this digs so much deeper.  While there is definitely a deeply penetrating personal quality for Bond here, this film takes great advantage of Judi Dench’s M.  Silva is a villain directed at her, specifically.  He challenges everything that she is, decisions she has made which parallel those she has made with Bond, and forces her to confront the consequences of her actions.  However, these are not decisions she regrets or ever thought twice about, but are ones that Silva holds against her for turning him into what he is now.  He feels there’s some penance to be done for them both, but she concretely does not share that sentiment.  Adding in a personal vendetta for the villain makes him immensely more dangerous as he will stop at nothing, will short no extent to see her dead and disgraced.

Javier Bardem creates for us one of the most fascinating and brilliantly conceived villains of the franchise.  The first thing I have to note is Silva’s very obvious homoeroticism.  This is blatantly on display in his first meeting with Bond, and it’s almost like, “I can’t believe they went there.”  It’s just the fact that the filmmakers allowed him to go so far as to where innuendo would not be an appropriate term for his behavior.  Even then, Bond plays along with him for a moment.  It’s a very surprising interaction between them.  Yet, this aspect seems to work for the character giving him a very effeminate and uncomfortable manner reflecting that he is an enemy who knows our heroes intimately.  He knows their secrets, and knows how to exploit every bit of knowledge he has on them.  He wants to get in under their skin and twist them around as badly as he has been.  The sort of A View To A Kill Max Zorin blonde hair on the Spanish Bardem also creates a unique, off-beat style for him.  It further pushes his enigmatic, unpredictable personality which is based in how thoroughly he has planned things out ahead of anyone’s anticipation.  It strikes me now what other people have been talking about with this film’s parallels to The Dark Knight.  That’s exactly the sort of villain the Joker was – unpredictable, intelligent, and a man who thoroughly planned out a complex series of events to get himself exactly where he wanted to be, unexpectedly turning the heroes’ victories into grave failures.  Director Sam Mendes did state that Christopher Nolan’s film did have definite influence on Skyfall, and however you want to take it, I think it was an effective and beneficial influence.  It certainly had impact on the tone and visual quality of the film.

Once again, Daniel Craig gives us a Bond that has depth, and is once again a wounded man.  He portrays these detailed, emotional qualities very well while mixing in some traditional Bond wit and suaveness.  He seems to be very comfortable with this more fleshed out and developed Bond.  Craig excellently balances the fun and charismatic aspects of the character with the more grounded, hardened qualities.  He still projects confidence for the future of the franchise under his tenure.

Although, the wounded man aspect of Bond having clearly lost a step is completely abandoned as soon as Silva is captured less than halfway through the film.  He’s apparently worked through it without showing us, and is more of an aspect by the filmmakers used to subvert Silva once Bond is in his lair.  This is surely not a fault of Craig’s performance, but the fact that the film can only focus on so much for so long.  During the time it is part of the plot, it is very good, and explored with plenty of nuance and emotional depth by Craig.  It’s only a shame that it wasn’t a constant element of the story to give Bond something more to deal with and overcome while battling an enemy that is several steps ahead of everyone while Bond has actually lost a few.  It’s certainly teased with, but it evaporates a few minutes later when Bond single handedly guns down about a half dozen henchman in a matter of seconds.  He’s suddenly back to one hundred percent, and I think that was a missed opportunity that is never properly resolved, just glossed over.

I do like that the filmmakers have increasingly given Judi Dench more to do as M, and made her a more integral part of Bond’s development.  They have a very real and honest relationship that has built up a strong foundation for 007.  Judi Dench is unsurprisingly excellent here.  Skyfall gives her more than ever to work with, for very good reasons, and she handles everything perfectly.  Her scenes opposite Bardem as intriguing and compelling.  It’s great seeing the reverse side of her M who is usually a very confident and tough woman be faced with real fear.  It’s a situation that she’s not capable of dealing with hands-on, but it’s surely not for a lack of trying.  Dench gives a memorable performance that leaves an indelible impact on the franchise.

While Skyfall does have Bond girls, they don’t play a prominent role in the film for very long.  The most forefront of the two is Naomie Harris as Eve.  She develops a seductive relationship with Bond that results in a few very sensual moments.  Harris and Craig have good chemistry, and that is quite important when you reach the film’s ending.  She will be a recurring character, and Harris is quite capable of the role she was given, maybe even overqualified depending on what they do with her.  She does a fine job, but there’s not much for me to comment on without revealing major spoilers.

On the more dangerous side, I really liked what Bérénice Lim Marlohe did with Sévérine, the provocative lady Bond meets in Shanghai and Macau.  Firstly, she is very seductive, a true femme fatale with a wonderful edge and elegance.  That accent is so enrapturing as well, and she really slinks her way through that casino and into Bond’s attention.  Then, Bond digs deeper into her to reveal how truly terrified she is of Silva.  Marlohe sells this petrifying fear so concretely and realistically.  While her role is ultimately rather small in the overall movie, she does an exceptionally stunning job.  And yes, this film has its marvelously sexy moments that are pure Bond bravado and sensuality.  The only thing that wasn’t well put across with this character, which is a definite spoiler, is the certainty of whether or not Silva actually did kill her.  It was far too implied as the moment is handled too artistically, and that we never see her up-close after the gunshot.  I kept thinking she was a loose thread in the film that I was waiting to see tied up at some point.  It’s not like Bond to just stand there to watch someone innocent get murdered when he demonstrates a minute later how entirely capable he is of gunning down and disarming everyone there.  He could’ve save her life and captured Silva at the same time.  Of course, earlier on, Bond stands by as he watches Patrice use a sniper rifle to kill a random somebody.  So, that confused me too.  Thankfully, the internet cleared this issue up for me, and confirmed that Silva did shoot and skill Sévérine.

Moving on, I have zero problems with the casting of Ralph Fiennes.  While my only exposure to his work is Strange Days, that’s more than enough to get me excited for his inclusion here.  His character of Gareth Mallory might seem like a hard ass, a potential bureaucratic adversary, but through the film, he gradually shows that he is more ally than adversary.  He really takes a massive leap forward in the likability factor while protecting M in a firefight.  As always, Fiennes does a remarkable job, and I think the franchise would be well off to keep him around.

Skyfall finally revives the role of Q with a much younger and more soft spoken portrayal by Ben Whishaw.  He feels very authentic showcasing someone that is very highly proficient with modern computers and technology.  He only gives Bond two gadgets – a radio transmitter homing beacon, and a Walther PPK with a sensor that is fitted to 007’s handprint so that only he can use it.  Yet, Q becomes more vital later on when tracking the escaped Silva via security cameras, and then, laying an electronic trail for Silva to follow out to Scotland for the final confrontation.  Whishaw gives us a character that is very modern and highly relatable as a technologically savvy hipster.  While he is more low key than Desmond Llewellyn or John Cleese, he still has plenty of witty exchanges with Bond that are quite enjoyable.  I won’t spoil anything.  However, Skyfall does gives us back all of those Bond regulars at MI6 that have been absent in the Daniel Craig films, and it does it in a very clever and refreshed way.

Now, aside from that pre-credits sequence, which left me a little flat, the action scenes of Skyfall are ultimately very impressive.  Director Sam Mendes had not done anything action oriented before, but he shows a great skill for it here.  Tension and suspense surround them due to the plot driven implications, and that enhances the danger immensely.  Bond gets into plenty of tight situations, but is able to use his confident ingenuity to slip out of them.  Surely, the Shanghai sequence is my favorite of the movie because of its visual style.  However, there is not a sequence with Silva that is not exciting and riveting.  Because he has planned things out so thoroughly and so far in advance, there is an unpredictability to everything he does.  He’s never truly cornered until the very end of the film, and that sells his intelligence and threat level enormously.  There is one massively tense sequence after Silva has escaped that is masterfully done.  Silva springs a surprise on Bond, and gets a long head start towards his goal of killing M.  The tension and emotional peril is at a sharp peak.  What we get is an amazing firefight that manages to a solidly further develop a few characters, and throw all things out of whack for Silva.  This is a brilliantly executed section of the film where anything could happen, and you know it.

The climax is very unconventional for a Bond film where our heroes are holed up in the old Bond family estate named Skyfall.  Setting up traps and secret explosives does both have a classic Bond idea behind it, but with a more gritty, low tech approach.  This is a very long and full sequence that continually ups the scale with larger explosions, more dire situations, and higher tension as Silva closes in on his target.  It really is one of the best action scenes I’ve witnessed this year, and really holds to the visceral style of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.  I found the ending to be very original and effective on many levels.  I didn’t expect this ending, but it was indeed great, regardless.  It has emotional power and resonance for the character of James Bond.  It also sets up new possibilities for Daniel Craig’s run with the character, and does so with a very sly, signature Bond style.

Skyfall is eventually an expertly crafted film that goes deep beneath the surface of its main characters, and takes us to some especially personal places, literally, than I ever expected from a Bond film.  Rarely has much been delved into about James Bond’s family and heritage, but this takes us to where James grew up and tells us many insights into the young man he was before and after his parents tragically died.  It’s great to see the relationship between Bond and M become more personally intertwined, and pay off a lot of what Craig and Dench have done over these three films.

Thus, we have a Bond film that is very different from all others with its more grim, dark tone that focuses on the personal, character driven drama primarily.  All the talent on display is superb in the acting, artistic, and technical departments.  Aside from those first twenty to thirty minutes where the film is unable to gain traction with its plot, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that will undoubtedly be heralded as a success by most.

Perhaps you can anticipate that there is a catch I’m getting to here, and here it is.  For as exquisitely executed as this film is, the element of fun entertainment is not very high.  While I left the theatre very satisfied with what I just saw, on a dramatic and action level, I don’t see myself gravitating towards watching it over and over again like Casino Royale.  Again, while the film has some amazing action, there’s not that thrilling adrenalin rush high that I got with The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, GoldenEye, or Casino Royale.  What allowed for that in those movies, at least, was levity and charm.  It’s all about tone allowing an audience to be invested in the suspense, but being able to rejoice in the elation of triumph.  While Skyfall certainly has its good, fun moments, they are just a few moments.  Because of the grim tone, it’s hard for the film to break free into something that feels enjoyably exciting instead of urgently dire.  It can’t have much fun with itself, and when it tries, it feels distinctly out of place.  Case in point is that whenever the film delves into a moment of quirkiness to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, it really disrupts the film’s generally serious tone.  It takes a self-indulgent step outside of itself to poke fun at the conventions of the franchise.  Some moments are more smoothly handled than others, and it is done immensely better than the fortieth anniversary campiness of Die Another Day.  Yet, while on the run from Silva, Bond takes his vintage Connery era Aston Martin out of storage, and comically threatens to use the ejector seat button on M if she insists on complaining throughout the ride.  It is an entirely extraneous silly bit that would’ve been more in place in Die Another Day, and this film would’ve been just that much more consistently credible without it.  Also, when Bond fights off a trio of bodyguards in the Macau casino, he falls into a pit featuring a CGI komodo dragon.  While it plays only a small part in the scene, a film of its grim, dark tone didn’t need a computer generated lizard in a cheeky humorous bit of dragging a bodyguard off to his death.  This is more self-indulgent behavior to poke fun at the franchise when a real tribute would be the make the best, most consistent film you could.  Don’t dilute the tonal integrity of the film by throwing in these nostalgic gags, please.  It would be like The Dark Knight taking inappropriate moments to pay tribute to the Adam West 1960s Batman television series.  They don’t mesh at all.  Skyfall does slightly self-sabotage itself with its heavy tone in making it very difficult to get enjoyable fun of it.  It is highly thrilling and dramatically powerful, but it cannot ease up on the tone to make things fun without making those moments seem out of place.

For as much as I went on about those last bits, they are not a large part of the film, but they were sore thumbs to me.  Most any Bond film I’ve seen, good or bad, has usually been a fun ride, but as I said, this is a very different style of film for the franchise.  I believe Skyfall is a really damn good movie, but I won’t be saying it’s the best Bond of them all.  Casino Royale still ranks as my favorite for many reasons, which I hope to get to in its own review.  That film meshed the fun and gritty aspects perfectly with enough charisma to make it a rousing adventure with personal and emotional depth to spare.  Skyfall goes fully for the darker tone, and director Sam Mendes executes that tone amazingly well.  The villain we are given is greatly memorable who is fantastically written and brilliantly realized by Javier Bardem.  He’s a far more fascinating enemy than most because of his eccentricities coupled with his very personal and deadly nature.  It’s a villain that makes the film exciting and spontaneous.  You cannot predict what the next turn in the story will be because of him.  There is ultimately even more that could be said and discussed about Skyfall.  However, to boil it down simply, it might not be entirely perfect due to that “worse for wear” Bond storyline vanishing part way through, and the lack of ability to be genuinely fun, but it is a vastly successful film in delivering a bold new direction and tone for the franchise.  While Casino Royale brought James Bond back to a more grounded sensibility, Skyfall simply strips more away for a grittier and bleaker storyline.  It is a vast improvement from Quantum of Solace, but I would hope that the next Bond film eases up on the tone a little to allow for more rousing action and more appropriately fun character dynamics.  I do give Skyfall a very strong endorsement, but I don’t think it is the best of the 007 franchise.


The Omen (2006)

So, thirty years later comes the remake which had one hell of powerful marketing campaign.  Script wise, the film is practically a carbon copy, but does have a few minor alterations and better polished quality.  It’s not a perfect film, but if my opinions of the original weren’t polarizing enough, I can tell you that I liked this 2006 film more in the first fifteen minutes than I did the whole of the 1976 version.

When a Vatican observatory priest sees the appearance of a prophesized comet, the Church is sure that it confirms the eve of the Armageddon.  Meanwhile, the United States President’s godson Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) is informed in the maternity in Rome that his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) has just lost her baby, and she had troubles with her uterus and would not have another pregnancy.  Father Spiletto (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) suggests Robert take another newborn child, who lost his mother, as his own.  Robert accepts the child and gives him the name of Damien.  After a tragic accident, Robert is promoted to U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, but years later, bizarre occurrences begin to center around Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick).  When his nanny commits suicide at his birthday party, a substitute, Mrs. Baylock (Mia Farrow), comes to work and live with the family, but Katherine has come to realize that Damien is evil.  Meanwhile, Robert is contacted by Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite), who tells him that Damien is the son of Devil.  Soon after, photographer Keith Jennings (David Thewlis) shows evidence to Robert that confirm Brennan’s prophetic statements.  Thus, they commit themselves to a journey to discover the truth about Damien, and how to ultimately stop him.

What so immediately engaged me into this remake more than the original is the depth of real emotion and humanity in the performances.  I really do hold Liev Schreiber in high regard.  I think he’s really a fantastic actor with a fine range of talent.  I love that you can see the deep concern he has for his adopted son, but also, the internal conflict he has over the secrets he hides from everyone about Damien.  That knowledge is always in the back of his head, and builds up a sense of guilt as the foretelling words of Father Brennan become truth.  While Schreiber surely doesn’t have the dramatic presence of Gregory Peck, Liev brings something more valuable with that depth of emotion and relatable humanity.  He feels like a man with realistic struggles that define him as a conflicted, sympathetic person who only wished to bring happiness to his family, but brought evil in instead.

This remake wisely strengthens Katherine Thorn’s role.  She is given so much more emotional turmoil to grapple with over her fears about Damien.  Julia Stiles does a hell of a fine job.  Where Lee Remick left me with nothing to say about her performance, Stiles brings a strong breadth of traumatic emotion.  You can feel her pain seep through the screen with a lot of sorrow.  The filmmakers added in a series of surreal and startling dreams for her which are very foreboding as manifestations of her fear.  She is so afraid that there is something grossly wrong with Damien that the thought of this child being born from her psychologically and emotionally damages her.  This creates further turmoil for Robert who does not know how to tell her the truth without damaging her or their marriage further.

The late and very great Pete Postlethwaite does a far more realistic job as Father Brennan.  Instead of coming off as a frayed crazy man, he shows the immense fear and dread in the character.  He’s very much a prophet of doom who sells that sense of doom with every fiber of his terrified being.  It’s not a big splashy performance, but more subtle and foreboding.

I also enjoyed Mia Farrow’s different take on Mrs. Baylock.  She’s very kindly and unassuming, but is actually so nice to the point where it seems like a mentally unhinged disorder.  She makes the character the perfect nanny, to a fault.  Farrow is much more subtle in how she plays the role, making her evil nature less obvious and more subversive.  The performances of both Mia Farrow and Billie Whitelaw are excellent in this role in their respective films, and both work equally as well on different levels.

Unfortunately, David Thewlis’ turn as Keith Jennings is about average.  It’s nothing tremendous, but it services the film decently enough.  Between Thewlis and David Warner in this role, I would certainly choose the latter, even with that bad 1970s hair style he had.  On the whole, the acting in the remake is more dimensional and real instead of the more surface level performances of the original.  With a film that’s more heavy on ideas than plot, it is ultimately the performances which have to carry the film, and convince the audience of the validity of everything that is occurring.

On the down side, it is rather distracting how much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the 1976 original.  I honestly would’ve preferred if the screenwriter freshened it up a little.  You can still stay true to the spirit of the original dialogue without making radical changes.  Say the same thing in a different way is all I suggest.  In fact, this screenplay differed so little from that of the original film, Dan McDermott was not awarded a writing credit by the Writer’s Guild of America for his work on the remake’s script.

One significant addition to this remake that I felt was very effective were the Vatican scenes.  There, a Cardinal recites lines from a prophecy which correlate with real world horrific events.  These events foretell the coming of the son of the Devil.  I would say it’s more than a little controversial to use images of 9/11 to this effect, but one cannot deny the weight those images hold.  It’s a very good sequence that really sets up an ominous feeling that something terribly evil is coming, and it is bookended at the film’s conclusion.

I also like that a scene I felt was poorly handled in the original, where Damien disappears on the Thorns as they take a walk, is revamped into a much more effective scene here.  This time, Katherine pushing Damien on a swing set when she gets pulled away by a cell phone call.  When she turns around a moment later, Damien is suddenly gone, and she realistically panics.  It’s actually Damien playing a mischievous prank on his mom, one seems to take a little pleasure in frightening her with.  It’s a much more realistic and tonally appropriate scene that also strongly establishes Katherine’s deep, motherly concern for him.  The music here appropriately goes for a tone of dread as opposed to the original’s melodramatic punctuation.

This remake of The Omen does look absolutely gorgeous using a rich but restrained color pallet of ambers, blues, and greens.  That coupled with some excellent, shadowy lighting creates a very moody visual atmosphere.  While it might look a little too polished at times, on the whole, it’s a very well shot film.  Director John Moore also made vibrant use of the color red as a signal of supernatural events which you can take or leave at your discretion.  It’s artistic symbolism which I am generally indifferent about.

The score by Marco Beltrami might not be iconic or especially memorable, but it is entirely new and original.  He goes for a more traditional score that enhances mood and emotion instead of bludgeoning you with bombastic music cues.  It highlights the horror very effectively, and solidly supports the various subtle tones of the film.  It is a very good piece of scoring by Beltrami which works immensely better than the overbearing Jerry Goldsmith score for Richard Donner’s original film.  While Goldsmith’s would probably be a rousing listen on its own, apart from the film, Beltrami’s does what a film score is meant to do, and that automatically gets my praise.

Another thing that is mostly quite improved are the death scenes.  The impalement might not yet be perfect, but it is far better executed with quicker timing and stronger impact through use of digital effects.  Katherine’s fall from the balcony, again while not perfect, is vastly improved with a greater sense of the height from and force of which she falls.  The decapitation death is pretty good giving us more gore, but it’s not as elaborate or prolonged of an effect.  I could’ve done with a little less CGI where some of the latter deaths are concerned, but for the dramatic size of them, there really wasn’t much of an alternative for the filmmakers.  Still, many of these deaths did hold more dramatic weight for me between the strength of the performances, and quality of the execution of each one.

On the opposite end of the critique spectrum from the original, the makeup design on this film’s Father Spiletto, the burned priest, is actually taken too far for my tastes.  The extreme look feels out of place in the film evoking some sort of freakish ghoul.  I can imagine it’s hard to present a burned flesh make-up design that is scary without it looking like Freddy Krueger.  However, there must have been a happy medium these filmmakers could’ve gone for that would’ve felt more realistic.  Still, what I can merit this version for over the original that the quality of the make-up is vastly superior.

Enjoyable so, this film actually delivered some suspenseful scares for me.  This is, again, due to the atmosphere director John Moore forged for this picture.  He is able to create some tension leading up to some frightening or traumatic moments.  The characters are genuinely scared, especially Katherine, and become more so as events unfold which solidify their fears.  Also, I mentioned before that there are a series of dream sequences.  They haunt Katherine early on, but eventually, Robert Thorn starts having his own.  I really, really liked these.  They progressively got more creepy and disturbing.  As most dreams do, they are a little hard to read into as what every image means, but on the surface, they showcase very occult and frighteningly evil acts which do feel in line with Damien.  The final one, seen by Robert, is probably the best with some very chilling faces and images startling the Ambassador onward to what he must come to grips with.

I also really like that this Damien seems to be more aware of the power he has as he appears to silently conspire with Mrs. Baylock, at times.  During the zoo scene, he’s aware that the animals are afraid, and likely of him.  He uses his power against a police officer standing guard while Mrs. Baylock is in the next room committing murder.  I will state that Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick doesn’t have as strong of a look as Harvey Stephens did in this same role.  He can appear a little too dour, but he is able to conjure up an eerie, unsettling expression when needed.  He does quite well in the role.  If the original film had been written with this more self-aware Damien, I think Stephens would’ve had an even more effective performance.  In comparison, I think this Damien is better written while the original’s actor just had a consistently better look.

Now, while this remake generally takes the same amount of time for the same series of events to occur, what makes it work better, in my opinion, is the development of emotional depth and turmoil which establish a foreboding atmosphere.  We get characters who are dimensional, and a director who knows how to create an ominous, foreboding tone.  This version of The Omen definitely has a more natural flow of events with the emotional weight carrying the drama and horror along with cohesion.  You feel the tragedy, horror, and emotion pile up from one scene to the next creating dramatic momentum.  It’s interesting that both the 1976 and 2006 versions have about the same runtime, but this remake seems to move along at a smoother, quicker pace.  There are even a few new scenes in the remake, and thus, this film is able to traverse a little more ground in the same amount of time.  While little extra substance is added into the pages of the script, it really are the performances that add the substance.  And while I criticized the 1976 original for taking just as long to develop its plot, the key difference here is that emotional depth which develops the characters, and creates that impending sense of dread that the original sorely lacked.  This film always feels like it is building towards something whether in plot, character, or emotion.  Robert Thorn has internal struggles he’s dealing with which show through in Liev Schreiber’s performance, and we see Katherine’s struggles very outwardly.  The film gives the audience something to invest themselves in as the plot gradually forms.

So, obviously, without question, I do honestly believe that John Moore’s 2006 remake of The Omen is much more effective than the original.  It’s better in vastly more ways than it is not.  Still, while I believe it is a good film, it certainly did not propel The Omen into greatness in my view.  I enjoyed watching this film, and I felt it delivered some very strong, well rounded acting with a real skill for atmosphere and horror.  Yet, if ever someone were to revisit The Omen again, I would really like more substance put into the script, and add in some new ideas that enhance what’s already there.  Develop things further to build more dire urgency into the plot, and make the stakes bigger or, at least, more real.  This remake took some good steps towards that effect, but I think there’s still room for improvement, if ever another filmmaker wants to re-fashion The Omen for a future generation.


The Omen (1976)

The Omen is one of those classic horror films that has received vast amounts of praise over the years.  It was widely heralded upon release, and gained a powerful reputation of horror since then.  It’s also a film that I have never paid much attention to.  I’ve watched it a time or two before, owned the DVD for years, but it’s never really stuck with me.  Six years ago, a remake was released that was almost a carbon copy, but I recall it having some things I liked about it.  Still, I always felt that both versions came off about equal, in their own ways, but that’s an old assessment.  So, on this Halloween, I have decided to take a fair look at both films to judge them apart from and against one another.  Which one do I prefer?  Which one does it better?  I hope I will have an answer at the end of these two reviews.

Robert and Katherine Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) seem to have it all.  They are happily married, and he is the US Ambassador to Great Britain, but they want more than to have children.  When Katharine has a stillborn child, Robert is approached by a priest at the hospital who suggests that they take a healthy newborn whose mother has just died in childbirth.  Without telling his wife, he agrees.  Years later, after relocating to London, strange events – and the ominous warnings of a priest – lead Robert Thorn to believe that the child he took from that Italian hospital is evil incarnate.  The Ambassador is approached by photojournalist Keith Jennings (David Warner) with startling evidence that supports the claims of Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton).  From there, both Thorn and Jennings must take a journey to uncover the truth.

After watching this, what I find striking is that, despite all the great talents and potentially ripe subject matter at hand, this film made barely any impact on me at all.  I can tell you that the film starts me off on the wrong foot with a score that is way too overbearing and obvious, but I will get to that, in depth, later on.  It sets the wrong mood for me right out the gate telling me this is not a film of subtlety, but one of shock moments and broad strokes.  Turns out, that’s exactly what I got.

Early on, there is an extreme lack of suspense or setup to dramatic or horrifying moments such as the nanny’s hanging.  It just happens without any buildup of anticipation or tension, and the traumatic potential is barely dealt with in the aftermath.  Events that should have adverse emotional effects on the characters don’t seem to have lasting impacts.  Even before that, there’s a wholly unnecessary scene where the Thorns are just walking along, and then, freak out when they don’t see Damien trailing behind them.  The score goes melodramatic for a few seconds before they find Damien unharmed just standing around.  The moment served no purpose whatsoever, and it was even handled in a very clunky manner.  The film doesn’t take its time to craft suspense to setup an audience for the chilling moments of horror.  It just sort of drops them in front of you like a bag of bricks.

The thing The Omen really seemed to not take advantage of is building a looming aura.  While there are moments which are strongly implied as being supernatural, that feeling is just fleeting.  We are never given a lasting sense that there is a subversive, sinister force weaving its way through the background.  The film also seemed to lack a natural flow of events in its long first act, and partly because of this, it takes nearly forever to build an atmosphere or sense of perceived direction.  It takes nearly half the film until there’s even a sustained sense of dread or momentum for more than one scene.  In the second half, for a very long stretch of time, Damien’s not even present for the threat of what he is to be sustained.  There’s a simple rule in good storytelling which is “show, don’t tell.”  The film takes more time telling us about what Damien is instead of showing us.  Anything we are shown feels too disjointed due to that lack of natural flow in the story.  Also, I certainly have no qualms about a slow burning film, but it takes until almost the one hour mark before anyone gets motivated into the action of the plot.  Until then, it sort of meanders along with mysterious and murderous things happening, but no one really doing anything in light of them.

This happens when Jennings begins to convey the foreboding details behind Damien.  The notes of Father Brennan about the child, and the startling evidence of the photographs are revealed to Robert Thorn.  These are interesting moments which actually do nicely give us insight into the truth of the matter.  Yet, it could have been used to actually create a foreboding atmosphere of terrible dread and urgency, but there’s barely any atmosphere in this film at all.  I never got a sense of impending doom or urgency at any point in time.  The film becomes so focused on the origins of Damien and what needs to be done about him, almost no time it spent exploring what he’s capable of.  While surely the son of Satan shouldn’t be allowed to live, no time is devoted to conveying what he himself will do if not stopped.  There are obviously forces around Damien causing all this death and tragedy, but he’s barely done anything threatening.  All we get are people repeating the Bible passage about “from the eternal sea he rises,” but no one bothers to translate that into terms a regular person can understand.  It is never put into a real world context.

The priest’s death is a tad ridiculous as he just stands there for several long seconds, waiting for the spire to fall and impale him.  There’s more than enough time for him to run away from it, but he just stands there.  If I look up and see something falling from several stories high about to hit me, I lunge out of the way.  This isn’t nitpicky.  This is challenging the intelligence of the filmmaking on display.  There are any number of better ways to have plotted out and edited that scene for more immediate impact.  At times, such as this one, the filmmakers try to overdramatize these death scenes.  Other times, they under dramatize them to where they have almost no impact at all.  If you want a better example of these sorts of deaths done better, just look at the Final Destination films.

I dearly love the work of the late Jerry Goldsmith.  He was a magnificent composer.  However, when it comes to The Omen, I don’t think I’ve heard a score more devoid of subtlety in my life.  Every single music cue is loud, verbose, and melodramatic to the point of it being obtrusive.  It treats nearly every moment as the biggest dramatic, climactic moment in the film.  It’s well composed, powerful music, but it’s just too over-the-top for my tastes.  It just bludgeons your ears with music.  Moments that are shot and executed with a lot of suspenseful tension are ruined by the blunt instrument of the bombastic score.  People have praised this score as having made the film more terrifying for them.  For me, it kills the mood time and time again, and tries to force more drama upon you than the scene calls for.

Gregory Peck was an immensely acclaimed actor, but I’m a little divided on his performance here.  He does have a very good presence conveying a hefty weight of drama.  However, I feel he overacts in a few too many scenes.  He exaggerates the drama or horror of the moment a little too much, pulling the film out of its grounded sensibilities.  It’s another aspect of the film that could’ve used some more subtlety.  Following further down that path, actor Patrick Troughton pushes his performance as Father Brennan way too over the top into bad B-grade movie territory.  It’s a one dimensional crazy man who is very hard to take seriously.

On the other hand, as always, I think David Warner is excellent.  He’s one of the finest character actors around, and he really handles the role of Jennings with grace and urgency.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen David Warner not give a good performance, and here, he really shows the value and quality he’s consistently brought throughout his career.  Also, Billie Whitelaw is exceptionally good as Mrs. Baylock.  She is effectively creepy with a definite psychotic edge, and a pair of fiercely evil, chilling eyes.  I wouldn’t want that woman roaming around my house.

Harvey Stephens does a fine job as Damien giving him a rather exhuberant fascination that implies his evil.  Although, that evil never really manifests in a knowing way.  It’s more of a screenwriting issue that Damien himself isn’t very active in the plot.  Regardless of that, Harvey mixes both the innocence of a child with an underlying, evil nature.  You can tell there is something not right about the child, and that is effective enough for what the filmmakers were going for.

Unfortunately, I was left with a blank impression of Lee Remick.  She has so very little to do as Katherine Thorn that I just have nothing to say about her performance other than it was okay.  Normally, if I have nothing to say, I say nothing, but I thought it was important to mention this as it ties into a lack of emotional depth in the movie.  That is something I will touch on, again, later.

The effects work is a slightly mixed bag.  Most of the death scenes have very impressive and somewhat elaborate effects.  The decapitation was especially well done.  On the bad side, while people were amazed by the shot of Lee Remick’s fall from the balcony at the time of release, today, it looks comical.  It’s more like something from a parody of the movie than an actual effect to take seriously.  It has absolutely no realistic quality or impact at all.  What would’ve improved it is shooting it at a slower frame to generate more motion blur, and thus, creating a sense of velocity and visceral impact.  Richard Donner might’ve been going for a slow motion approach, but it clearly wasn’t shot in slow motion, just performed in slow motion.  Also, the prosthetic make-up on the burned priest is very primitive by even the standards of the day.  It’s terribly unimpressive work.  These are only minor gripes, but the film doesn’t have a lot of make-up or visual effects to comment on.  That’s neither a good or bad thing, just a statement of fact.

Another real problem I have with this film is that no one is scared out of their minds at any point.  I mean, it is the Anti-Christ, the son of Satan they are dealing with, but never did I feel like anyone was in dreadful fear over this reality.  At least in The Exorcist, the characters were petrified by the fact that they were facing down a demon, and their fear really carried the weight of urgency and threat in that film.  Here, the closest we get is our final moments with Jennings as he tries to convince Robert Thorn that Damien is no innocent child, and that he should be destroyed.  Even then, it’s more a matter of conviction than fright  There is such a lack of emotional depth present in this movie which results in a very mild sense of fear.  This is aside from something like the dogs attacking Thorn and Jennings in the cemetery.  I’m referring to people having a deathly serious fear about Damien.  The characters are more afraid of Mrs. Baylock, the psycho nanny, than the actual spawn of the Devil.  To me, that seems really, really backwards.  He might only be a small child, but if the kid is supposed to be perceived as apocalyptically dangerous, I think our fear should be directed towards him, instead.

While the film does have its potentially shocking moments of brutality and death, I think the scary qualities are entirely religious based, and I have no such beliefs.  I watched this film waiting for it to give me something to be scared or tense about, but nothing ever came.  Even the climax, aside from the violent confrontation with Mrs. Baylock, lacks a driving sense of dramatic intensity.  It would seem that the subject matter is what scared audiences, not so much the execution of the ideas.  I don’t think the style of filmmaking holds up thirty-six years later.  While it’s rather well shot and edited, which I give much credit for to Gilbert Taylor and Stuart Baird, respectively, there’s just a lack of plot cohesion and momentum in The Omen.  This film had talents who were masters at their crafts from Taylor and Baird to Goldsmith, Peck, and Donner, but maybe, this wasn’t the right material for some of them to tackle.  Richard Donner tried to convince himself he was making a psychological suspense thriller instead of a horror movie, apparently because thinking of it as a horror movie made it uninteresting to him.  Obviously, I can’t help but take a serious issue with that point of view.  Yet, what he was trying to make was indeed a horror movie, and I don’t think it’s really his forte as a director.  He knew how to shock an audience, but demonstrated no ability to even attempt to craft suspense.  I think it just comes down to subtlety.  It takes no skill to shock an audience.  To genuinely scare them through atmosphere and suspense requires quite a lot.

Honestly, I didn’t expect The Omen to hit me as this blunt and shallow of a film, and I know there are going to be people reading this shocked at this severe criticism considering the film’s status as a “classic.”  However, no art should ever stand on reputation alone.  Time is not kind to all movies, and some do not stand that test of it.  Not to mention, for someone who has no religious beliefs, I need more than just the ideas this film presents to scare me.  You’ve got to work at it.  You’ve got to earn it, and this film didn’t try hard enough.  The only thing that did stick with me over the years about the movie were my issues with the score, and so, I did go into the film bracing myself for that.  Still, I was willing to give the score a chance to showcase some subtlety, some grace, but there was next to none where it counted.  I really wanted this film to give me something impressive, something that really grabbed me, but it gave me nothing.  I was almost wholly underwhelmed by the 1976 version of The Omen.  At this point, I cannot fathom why I even own this movie beyond the fact that I have it in a beautiful steelbook DVD case.  The creepiest thing in the movie is the last shot of the movie, and I do mean by a very wide margin.


28 Days Later (2002)

It’s a strange thing to be very impressed by a cutting edge movie in the theatre, but then, not watch it again for nine years.  Such is the case for me with 28 Days Later.  I even purchased the DVD a few years ago, and only just now dedicated myself to watching it for this occasion.  Now, the common misconception about this movie is that it is a zombie flick.  While it does have the trappings of one, these people are not zombies, merely human beings who have been infected with a virus that turns them into rage-filled animalistic people.  This film presents a very interesting and clearly expressed departure from that classic subgenre while still baring some resemblance to it.

It has been twenty-eight days since Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier, was knocked off his bike and injured in a car accident.  When he wakes up from his coma, the world has changed.  London is deserted, litter-strewn and grim, and it seems the entire world has disappeared.  The truth, however, is even more horrifying – a devastating psychological virus has been unleashed upon the world, turning the population into blood-crazed psychopaths driven only to kill and destroy the uninfected.  Jim coincidentally joins up with the tough and strong-willed Selena (Naomie Harris), who has become accustomed to the hard reality of survival.  While out-running the savage infected, Jim and Selena add the father and daughter survivors of Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) to their struggle to get out of the city to a military encampment at Manchester, but there, their troubles are just beginning.

This movie was shot on standard definition digital video camcorders, and so, it offers a rather unique visual quality.  Director Danny Boyle even did post-production work to further degrade the picture quality to give it an even rougher look to reflect the film’s harsh reality.  I think this was an immensely successful artistic idea.  The Canon XL1 camera clearly performed well in low light situations allowing the filmmakers to create some strong contrast and atmosphere.  From that digital video quality comes a bleak appearance which dominates the movie, even in broad daylight.  28 Days Later is shot amazingly well with a lot of intense, kinetic camera work heightening the chaos and adrenalin pumping terror.  The cinematography regularly highlights the desolate landscape of London, and shows how isolated these characters are from any semblance of civilization.  The overall tone and visual style is unlike any film I believe I’ve ever seen, and in those dark scenes, this movie can look immensely gorgeous.

This movie doesn’t focus heavily on the intense fury of the infected.  While it does that exceptionally well creating many tense and violent sequences, and making them count when they do occur, it instead takes most of its screentime to focus on its characters, and make the story about their struggles for survival.  We are given strong character building scenes which create an emotional context for the audience.  It let’s us know how this horrific event has affected them, and invests the audience in the depth of those characters.  They are heartfelt and intelligent people that you can come to care about.  On the most part, this is a very well-acted movie with some strong recognizable talents.

This was my first exposure to Cillian Murphy, and he delivers a very grounded and human performance.  He and Naomie Harris really warm to one another as the film goes on, and create a very heartfelt chemistry.  Harris herself slowly peals back the tougher exterior of Selena to ultimately show the vulnerability deep down inside.  She had to be tough to survive, but Jim allows her to show her true self.  Harris displays a wide range of talent in this role that starts out as a self-minded survivalist willing to cut loose anyone at a moment’s notice to a strongly sentimental and hopeful person.

Brendan Gleeson does a fine job making Frank a very wholesome father.  He has a lot of heart, and rarely allows despair or desperation to creep into himself.  He keeps a positive attitude which really boosts the mood of the picture, and gives hope to all of the characters.  Christopher Eccleston turns in a hardened and off-putting performance as Major West, the leader of the military encampment.  He certainly has the presence and authority of a leader, and gradually creates an intimidating foil for our protagonists.

Composer John Murphy created a very aural, almost ethereal score that taps into the hope, sorrow, isolation, and humanity of the film.  It really elicits a wealth of heavy emotion from its ambient style, and never does exactly what you’d expect from a horror movie score.  It’s more about establishing mood than enhancing scares.  Case in point is that the climax is not scored with pounding drums or shrieking strings.  It has a very impending sense of doom with a slow, deliberate rhythm given edge by a rising electric guitar.  The horror is never telegraphed.  There is no musical warning that something terrifying is about the befall our heroes.  One such moment has almost pure silence as an infected child jumps down from above and creeps up behind Jim.  This creates a stronger and more unique suspense that has greater pay-off when the visceral violence hits.  The only other work I know from Murphy is his bleak and very heavy toned Miami Vice film score, and so, it’s nice to experience a different range in his musical abilities with something like this.

I believe that, from one perspective, you could call 28 Days Later a far more realistic and believable sort of zombie movie.  Instead of people rising from the dead, which is an extremely fantastical idea, humanity is being wiped out by a man-made virus that turns the populace into nothing better than mindless creatures.  They scavenge for food by attacking those who are still normally human, and can infect you with just a single drop of blood.  The change is near-instantaneous, and there is no cure, no way of fighting it.  So, while these are not actually zombies at all, this film does take the conventions of that genre, and apply it into a context that we can take with seriousness.  The concept is easy to comprehend and accept, and the imminent fear of infection is something we can all grasp onto.

As opposed to the slow, lumbering characteristics of the classic style of zombies, these fast moving, bloodthirsty infected create the heart pounding urgency and tension that this film required.  Screenwriter Alex Garland cleverly took only the base elements of the zombie movie template, and adapted them into a different sort of horror movie full of immediate danger and frightening excitement.  Again, the film is not about blasting away hordes of ravenous infected humans, but about these characters struggling for survival in a desolate landscape where even those they believe can save them turnout to be no more human than those who have been infected.

The movie does take a more unsettling turn when our protagonists join up with the soldiers.  The fact that they are welcomed there, not out of a pure humanitarian reasons, but for far more traumatic and frightening reasons creates a whole new style of danger and threat.  They are ultimately held captive by Major West, and will be forced against their will to do whatever these soldiers want with them.  Once Jim escapes execution, the film really ramps up the danger and suspense as it practically becomes a horror film version of First Blood.  While Jim is no soldier himself, he takes his fierce determination, and uses it to strategically strike back against these military men in merciless fashion all while more infected run amuck.  Cillian Murphy becomes greatly impressive handling the physical demands fantastically, and adding a fearsome quality to his performance.  Part of what makes the film so effective is that we are not following around a group of highly trained military professionals.  These are average people who do get frightened, and are pushed to their limits.  They are generally no more capable of surviving this situation than you or I, but they never give up on the chance of survival or rescue.  They continually trudge forward through whatever horrors they encounter.

28 Days Later is an excellent horror film that may not be for everyone.  It does have a slow, gradual pace that nearly fills up two hours of runtime.  There is plenty of gore and ravenous violence to go around, but it’s never an onslaught.  The characters are the central piece in the film, and the filmmakers want you invested in them with the horror and action being secondary.  That is not at all a bad thing, but it is something that might not be everyone’s appeal.  The cast features some names that have really come into wide prominence since this film was made such as Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, and I believe that should give you confidence in the quality of the performances and characters.  Danny Boyle really delivered something dark, intense, and innovative for its time that was creatively and commercially successful.  I’ve never been much into the zombie subgenre, but this film smartly took the right ideas from those films and injected them into a very effective and fresh approach.


From Hell (2001)

The benefit of doing Forever Horror Month is that it has forced me to watch films that have been collecting dust in my DVD collection for about a decade.  I saw From Hell theatrically at the discount theatre with a number of my friends in 2001.  I do recall general impressions and plot details from back then including a slight letdown of the film’s conclusion.  Of course, my tastes have certainly matured since that time, and so, it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the film has altered any today.

Set in London of 1888, Jack the Ripper has been running amok in the Whitechapel district murdering and dissecting prostitutes. Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), aided by his partner, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), are on the case to figure out who this serial killer is and why he is killing these women in such a brutal manner. Abberline is an opium addict and when “chasing the dragon” he is able to have visions of the future, a certain psychic ability that allows him to solve cases. As Abberline and Godley investigate the crimes, they become acquainted with the prostitutes who were friends and colleagues of the victims. Abberline begins to fall in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), one of the prostitutes, or as the nobles called them “unfortunates”, being hunted down by Jack the Ripper.  Abberline digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy and attempts to solve the case before Mary Kelly is the next victim.

This was adapted from the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell by the Hughes Brothers – Albert & Allen.  It’s not one I’ve ever read, but the comic book visual aesthetics occasionally show through.  There are striking moments of heavy reds or sickly greens that are very stylized, and do work with the editing approach to those gruesome moments.  The rest of the film is competently shot maintaining a natural look to the time period.  The identity of Jack the Ripper is kept artistically hidden through shadows, shots from behind, and smart framing.  It doesn’t get gimmicky.  It plays scenes out with the Ripper with an imposing, mysterious quality that builds up the threat of him.  It’s very solid work from a director of photography who started out shooting Evil Dead II and later occasionally working with surreal filmmaker David Lynch.

Now, this is a genre that kind of hits me in a pleasant place.  Mixing crime drama with a suspenseful, bloody horror genre just feels like my kind of taste.  The Jack the Ripper case is an iconic one in many peoples’ minds, and this film crafts the investigation and mystery very smartly.  It incorporates some great forensic knowledge which further enhances the quality of Inspector Abberline’s abilities.  This is very important as Jack the Ripper happens to surgically remove various organs from his victims, leaving behind a sickening and horrifying sight.  While the film inevitably takes liberties with the known truth, and hypothesizes about the unknown truths, what we get is tightly and sharply crafted.  It’s a very good script realized by some richly talented filmmakers.

The production design and wardrobe departments did an amazing job.  They seem to have realized the late nineteenth century with beautiful detailed realism.  The wardrobe is especially impressive with the distinct styles given to each character.  This extends to hairstyles and the overall grooming of the actors.  It’s elegant craftsmanship through and through which gives the film its grounded texture.  The filmmakers took great care to reproduce the sights of the murders and the wounds inflicted upon the victims.  While the film lays back on its graphicness for most of its runtime, it does have visceral impact through sharp editing styles and some impressive practical make-up effects.  There is one very graphic throat cutting scene that would likely have many squirming in their seats.  As the film chillingly drives towards its climax, the violence becomes immensely more graphic and disturbing.

Getting down to the performances, I believe Johnny Depp does a very fine piece of work here.  I like the accent he adopts for the role.  Very different from the one he used in Sleepy Hollow or as Captain Jack Sparrow.  He clearly worked on the details very meticulously to bring this intelligent person to life.  While, Frederick Abberline was a real life Inspector for Scotland Yard, the clairvoyance and drug use was reportedly not true about him.  Regardless, the character that is Abberline here is given a good measure of charm and perceptive intelligence.  Depp cautiously balances out Abberline’s assertiveness with the manner of a gentleman.  While he is a man that indulges in less than respectable vices and beliefs, he is still a man that is respected in his profession.  It is an impressively strong and dimensional performance.  Depp leads this film excellently.

Depp also displays a subtle heart and passion opposite Heather Graham.  She inhabits this particularly lower class woman with a lot of spirit and compassion.  While the love between Mary and Frederick is not a major part of the story, it is developed through the building of trust and charm between them.  The chemistry of Graham and Depp is solid and genuine.

Robbie Coltrane does very well as a Police Sergeant who takes his job with a lot of serious weight.  Sergeant Godley is written well as both a consummate street level investigator, and a trusting confidant for Abberline.  It’s a very well rounded performance that instills credibility and faith in Abberline’s unconventional methods for the audience.

The highly revered Ian Holm is also especially strong as the former surgeon Sir William Gull.  He shares some solid scenes with Depp throughout the movie, and delivers a fine dramatic performance that also offers up an intimidating quality late in the film.  He really portrays all facets of the role remarkably well.  All around, this is just a stellar cast with a great depth of talent creating an array of fascinating and realistic characters.  They all make a distinct impression upon an audience.

The affluent pretentiousness of Abberline’s superior, portrayed by Ian Richardson, strikes me funny.  His assertion that no Englishman would be capable of such an act shows how much sensibilities have changed in law enforcement over the decades.  Today, everyone’s a viable suspect, no matter who you are, but back in the 1880s, an educated or even sophisticated person would never be thought of as a violent criminal.  It was preposterous.  Furthermore, his arrogance impedes Abberline’s investigation to the point of obstructing justice.  Unlike Sergeant Godley, he has little faith in Abberline’s deductive abilities.  He cares only for the perception of the investigation, not the truth that it should uncover.  It’s simply another fine detail which exemplifies the era this is set in, and what struggles Abberline has to surmount and combat to prove his theories correct.  It sets a treacherous path that he must walk to expose this gruesome killer.

Ultimately, the Jack the Ripper plotline is resolved in a ghastly psychological manner that has a sort of fitting quality.  Considering, in reality, he was never publicly, definitively identified, the ending to this has to have an air of secrecy.  There’s really no way around that.  So, it couldn’t have ended as a standard crime story with an arrest and conviction.  Still, it lacks any sort of dramatic gratification of justice.  Grisly, unspeakable murders are committed, and for an audience, it demands something equally harsh. It’s sort of a subjective feeling.  If for nothing else, this conclusion just lacks a real punch.

Again, the romantic aspect is gracefully handled, but it can get a little lost amongst the main plotline.  Abberline becomes deeply invested in Mary’s well being, but it’s more of an ancillary story.  It comes and goes in the film never really dominating the characters’ actions too much, but it does surface every now and then when it has relevance.  It possibly could’ve been developed into a fuller part of the film to have more substantive impact.  The conclusion to this story is also a little downbeat.  I’m not sure it was necessary for it to end as it did, but it’s definitely not a bad ending.

So, yes, I think my initial impressions about the film remain about the same.  It has a very good story with plenty of suspense and intelligence, but the pay-off is quite lacking.  Maybe there are those that can appreciate it more than I can, perhaps those that have read the comic book series.  There was more than enough rich talent involved making this a very well made and slightly stylish horror crime mystery.  The Hughes Brothers did a very high quality job with this material, and Johnny Depp puts in a very satisfying lead performance.  While it’s not as quirky as some of his better known roles, this is a nice departure into more serious ground that I did enjoy.  “Do I recommend From Hell?” is the pressing question.  Sure.  While it’s ultimately not as wholly satisfying as desired, it’s still a worthwhile watch for many reasons.  If for nothing else, it’s a respectably well executed moody and chilling piece of horror cinema.