*. Do you ever read those notices that come with a film’s rating? I sometimes wonder if they’re taken from a generic list or if someone actually writes original copy for the warnings that go in the little box. For Mission: Impossible III we get the following: “Intense scenes of frenetic violence and menace.”
*. The reason I mention this, aside from it being kind of cute in its laconic way, is that it made me think of director J. J. Abrams. In the first two Mission: Impossible movies the directors — Brian De Palma for Mission: Impossible and John Woo for Mission: Impossible II — were known for their signature styles. Indeed I think they were hired in large part for their style. Which brings us to Abrams (David Fincher had been the first choice, which would have taken the conversation in a different direction I’m sure). Tom Cruise had been binge-watching Alias and was “blown away.” For his part, Abrams was ready make the jump from TV and go on to become one of the biggest names in franchise filmmaking in the twenty-first century. Bu what is the Abrams style? I wonder if we can do any better than “Intense scenes of frenetic violence and menace.”
*. Well, maybe we can add a bit to that. Abrams is an action director and he knows how to keep things moving. I don’t really think of him as setting up specific action sequences, as the action has an almost seamless flow throughout most of his films. Put another way, it’s common to describe the story in such movies as just a laundry line to hang the stunts and explosions on but in Mission: Impossible III the line is so flimsy as to be only a thread. There’s a MacGuffin in the form of something called the Rabbit’s Foot but we never even find out what the hell it is. Now that’s a MacGuffin! There’s a good turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman (again not a first choice) as the villain, but who the hell is he anyway? He’s just the villain, meaning the guy who wants the MacGuffin. No attempt is made to flesh any of this out. All we do is run, run, run from place to place.
*. Which leaves us with the stunts and explosions. If this is the real Abrams then it’s pretty generic, something that has probably contributed to his becoming such an in-demand director. As David Edelstein observed in his review of this film, “he [Abrams] doesn’t have much personality of his own to get in the way.” But it looks great. Or it looks really expensive. It’s curious though that the climactic fight between Ethan Hunt and Davian is so low rent, especially compared to earlier scenes like the helicopter chase through the windmills and the final battles at the end of the previous movies. Perhaps they were running short of cash. Stranger things have happened.
*. The action picks up some time well after the last movie, with Ethan Hunt settled down as an agent trainer and even thinking of getting hitched. Why Tom Cruise keeps playing a romantic lead is beyond me. As I’ve remarked many times before, he is determinedly asexual. He is incapable of projecting sexuality. But I guess part of the burden of being a leading man is being able to pull your shirt off in a sexy way and make love up against a wall.
*. In the face of all this breathless action there isn’t much time for carping. It’s very slick. Once it gets going it doesn’t take its foot off the gas. Things blow up “real good,” as they used to say on SCTV’s Farm Film Report. People go flying through the air. Tom Cruise still isn’t much in the acting department, but then Ethan Hunt isn’t really a character in any meaningful sense. We visit some exotic locales, see some expensive cars, and wind up pretty much right where we started. Ready to reload and go again.
*. Though promoted as M:I – 2, in the title as it appears on screen they use Roman numerals. Why? I don’t know. A touch of class? It’s a movie thing.
*. Brian De Palma out, John Woo in. I’m sure they knew exactly what they were getting from Woo, and they got it. Tom Cruise told Woo that all he wanted was his “style,” so if Mission: Impossible was a De Palma film, and it was, Part II is pure Woo. There are slow motion action scenes. There are people firing two guns at once. There are people jumping through the air firing their gun. There are people jumping through the air firing two guns at once. There are people firing guns out of cars, out of helicopters, off of motorcycles. He even brought his damn pigeons with him. You can’t get any more Woo than that.
*. Whatever happened to John Woo? I guess by this time his routine was wearing thin and, from the evidence, he didn’t have any other tricks up his sleeve. He was a bit of a hot property in action films in the ’90s, but after that things seem to have petered out, at least in Hollywood.
*. I don’t like this movie as much as the first Mission: Impossible, but I don’t blame Woo. The action isn’t bad, in its far-fetched way. If you don’t mind all the rubber face masks being pulled off like people removing a jacket I don’t see any reason to object to the jousting on motorbikes. Or the guys firing two guns at once. I think I’ve mentioned before about how unrealistic this is. Has anyone, ever, in any sort of a tactical situation, fired two pistols at once? What would be the point?
*. The real blame lies elsewhere. The usually reliable Robert Towne mailed it in with the script. In his defence, apparently he was just told to come up with some thread to hang the action sequences on. Even so, the plot, characters, and situations are all generic. Similarities to Notorious were frequently pointed out. The dialogue is awful. I don’t think the villain has one good line. Ethan Hunt has a love interest (Thandie Newton) who is basically just a Bond girl. The bad guy, played by Dougray Scott, is totally forgettable but for his honest expression of thinking with his cock. Hunt has a couple of sidekicks: Ving Rhames, who would stick around for the rest of the series working with computers, and John Polson. who . . . can fly a helicopter? Honestly, why is he even in this movie?
*. Also taking some share of blame is Tom Cruise. I liked him in the first movie, but here he is back playing Tom Cruise. He’s grinning and smirking (to the point where the villain even has to criticize him for it), and tossing about his gorgeous long locks like he’s in a shampoo commercial. He is also, as usual, incapable of providing any romantic chemistry. What is it about this guy that he projects so little sexuality? Antonia Quirke: “Cruise is flavourless, frictionless, a vacuum. His Hunt has no characteristics whatsoever, not even recently divorced or giving up smoking. Trying to grasp him, or even root for him, the mind skitters like a spider in a sink.”
*. Apparently Woo’s first cut ran three-and-a-half hours. I can’t imagine. Did they leave out more things blowing up? More pigeons? As it is, this is a dull movie that just sort of moves from one set-piece scene to the next with very little connecting tissue. Much of it is overblown, even operatic, which is fine as far as the stunts and explosions go but is silly elsewhere. Thandie Newton standing on a cliff just made me roll my eyes. So thanks very much Mr. De Palma and Mr. Woo. You at least delivered as promised. Next up, that hot new kid from television, J. J. Abrams.
*. In my initial notes on Pandorum I scribbled something about how it seemed like Event Horizon except that it actually made sense. Yes it’s a contrived plot, but if you grant the basic premise I thought it held together pretty well.
*. Re-watching the film and then listening to the commentary with director Christian Alvart and producer Jeremy Bolt I started to have a few doubts on this score. Little holes started showing up. For example, I was wondering how Bower got away from the first Hunter. He’s clearly captured and dragged off unconscious, but the next time we see him he’s escaped. Was a scene cut? There’s no mention of this on the commentary and it confused me. [Note: Christian Alvart wrote to correct me in the comments below.]
*. But I had bigger surprises in store. I was wrong about a lot of what was going on in this movie the first time I saw it. For example, I always figured “Payton” knew what was going on and wasn’t suffering from the same memory loss Bower was. Had I not been paying attention, or was it that confusing? Probably a bit of both. In my defence, the explanation provided by Leland is pretty loopy and Dennis Quaid’s character is too erratic to follow at times (was he just crazy, or did he have some rational motivation?). Even now I can only say I have a general idea of what’s going on, and I’m less sure it all makes sense. It did, however, keep me interested, which is something few such movies do. And it was never as downright ridiculous as Event Horizon.
*. For some reason there was a big gap between the critical response (they hated it) and audience ratings (which were decent, though the box office was disappointing). I’m a little surprised by the poor critical reception. It seems a lot of reviewers found it overly derivative. But while all of the individual elements are familiar, I thought they were well put together in an interesting story that had a few exciting moments. It’s not a great movie, but I think it’s better than average for its genre.
*. The poster (and DVD box cover) is quite striking, with tubes and cables going into a guy’s mouth and eye sockets. But I wasn’t sure what it had to do with the movie. When the crew members are in hypersleep they’re hooked up to IVs and wear masks, but that’s it. I felt cheated.
*. The Hunters are OK though, and I liked their back story. It was also fun to have a couple of good fight scenes with them, even if they’re edited all to hell. It’s a very dark movie, which normally bugs me but I didn’t mind so much in this case.
*. There were plans for a prequel and sequel but nothing has materialized yet, probably because of the disappointing box office I mentioned. That’s fine by me. I think it works well as a standalone. It’s not a movie I’d run out and recommend, but at the same time it deserves to be a bit better known.
*. There’s a scene that occurs around halfway through Super Troopers that is obviously meant to tell us something about the kind of movie it is. As part of their investigation into a marijuana smuggling operation, the state police (or troopers) have to do some research into a cartoon monkey character that is being used as a brand for the illegal drugs. When one of them asks the senior trooper if he’s watched any of the monkey cartoons he says that he has but that “there’s nothing there.” Maybe, it is suggested, he should take another look.
*. What this means is that he should watch the monkey cartoon while stoned. This the troopers all do, and they laugh hysterically at it while picking up some important clues. You get the point. All you need to do in order to have a good time watching a silly cartoon in a language you don’t even understand is to light up beforehand. If you don’t, “there’s nothing there.”
*. This is a not-so-subtle defence of Super Troopers. It’s “stoner comedy,” which means not only that it’s about people who get drunk and take drugs but that if you’re not stoned or drunk yourself you’re not going to be able to fully appreciate it. This also goes some way to explaining the enormous gap on the various review aggregator sites between critical scores and audience rankings. One assumes the people who call Super Troopers the “best movie EVER!!!” are on drugs.
*. I did not laugh at Super Troopers. In fact, I don’t think I even smiled at it much. This surprised me, as I was in the mood and really looking forward to it. But I was not high. So I came away thinking there was nothing there.
*. That’s not to say I hated it. There’s nothing much to hate. In fact, I was surprised at how little reaction I had to Super Troopers. The Broken Lizard group started off as a band of college comedians and they perform the kind of dopey humour that I didn’t enjoy much even when I was in school. It’s fitting that the film ends up at a frat party, because in a way that’s where it started, and indeed where it was all along. Frat parties were something I tried to avoid when I was in university, and which I only have painful memories of today.
*. So the question then becomes why I didn’t hate it. Here I have to confess to a very odd response. I felt sorry for this movie. It seems so obviously the work of a bunch of guys who really don’t know what they’re doing. I was watching people who aren’t very funny trying to be funny, and that’s just sad. The smiles Super Troopers did raise were smiles of pity at the overall incompetence on display. This is my only way of understanding the oft-cited “likeability” of the cast. I didn’t want to laugh at them so I tried to laugh with them. But even that didn’t really work.
*. I praised Pitch Black (retitled The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black when it came out on DVD) for its simple story and how it made do with a relatively small budget. The Chronicles of Riddick quintupled that budget in telling a story so complicated I was lost halfway through the introductory voiceover. I did not like it at all.
*. I often wonder, when I don’t have anything else to wonder about, how movies with so much action can be so boring. When the Necromongers attack the planet Helion Prime it just seems to drag on forever, with the bright flashing lights only there to induce seizures. And none of this has any point. We know what’s going to happen at this point in the story and I just wanted them to get on with it.
*. The plot here is both bog simple and bewildering. The Blue Meanies (or Necromongers) are taking over the universe. These guys are the usual medieval warriors who have somehow found themselves aboard starships. They wield giant battle axes and dress in armour. As it turns out, there has been a prophecy that our man Richard (Don’t call him Dick) Riddick is the chosen one, meaning the only guy who will be able to stop them.
*. So much, so familiar. But layered on to this is a game of power politics being played among the Necromonger elite and Riddick’s journey to a prison planet to save the now grown-up girl he rescued in the previous movie.
*. I should say that the version of this film I saw was the director’s cut, which included some 15 minutes of material that hadn’t been part of the theatrical release. I don’t see where this could have helped. If ever there were a case of too much and not enough, this film is it.
*. Dame Judi Dench as Aereon, which sounds like a piece of exercise equipment. Actually she’s an air elemental. I was kind of surprised to see her showing up on Helion Prime, but I guess Sir Alec Guinness lived for a while on Tatooine. These distinguished names fit well with the whole Masterpiece Theatre brand of SF, where fantasy elements play such a big role (Dench is basically a fairy queen here, and in Star Wars Guinness was a knight). There’s a long history of this in SF, going back to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels and Frank Herbert’s Dune books.
*. For a “triple-max” prison, the penal pits on the planet Crematoria are rather slackly guarded aren’t they? They have what? Five guards keeping watch over a giant hole in the ground?
*. No point saying anything more. This is generic, confusing, overproduced, and overwritten. The fight scenes are so fiercely edited it’s hard to make out what is happening. The design elements are kitsch fantasy and seem reliant on plastic forms. Colm Feore is a talented actor but hopeless in a role that demands something less.
*. I could barely finish watching it, especially at the inflated running time. Vin Diesel again seems intent on underplaying the role of Riddick to the point of near invisibility, aside from flexing his giant arms. When you think about it, the Riddick movies are a bit of an oddity as a franchise. They didn’t do great box office (making most of their money on DVD sales) and weren’t well received critically. And yet the series continued. Some things are hard to explain.
*. It seems strange to me that people want to do effects-driven SF-action movies on a low budget. If there’s any genre that needs to have some money thrown at it to work, this is it.
*. All the more credit then to Pitch Black, a low-budget SF film that still manages to (mostly) work. Though even the label of “low-budget” has to be considered as relative to the genre. $23 million was still a good chunk of change in 2000.
*. Most of the money doesn’t show up on screen. The aliens don’t look good, neither all that original nor very convincing. They look like CGI. Their RaptorVision, and Riddick’s night vision, are both surprisingly vague. How can they see anything in all that blur?
*. But mostly the limitations of the budget are concealed (if that’s the right word) by director David Twohy jerking the camera around and doing lots of rapid cutting. Which makes you sort of give up on what’s going on after a while.
*. The plot, as simple and formulaic as it is, works pretty well. A spaceship of pilgrims (and one convict who is being transported) crash lands on a remote planet. The only remaining life on this desert world are giant carnivorous raptors that only come out at night. As bad luck would have it, the planet is about to go into eclipse. And on a dark planet the man with specially augmented eyeballs — that would be the convict Riddick — is king.
*. Like I say, it’s simple enough. The crash survivors have to work together to repair a spaceship they find at an abandoned mining colony before the bat creatures kill them all. Despite its premise there isn’t a lot of suspense, but there’s enough action to keep things moving along. And there’s even a twist at the end that honestly surprised me.
*. You could think of it as the film that launched Vin Diesel to stardom. Or that might have been The Fast and the Furious (out the next year). As with most action icons, he really can’t act. At all. But he has that quality that makes him the center of attention, whatever else might be going on. Despite his build he also has a peaceful demeanour that’s an odd fit for this character. I mean, we know Riddick is actually a good guy, but he just doesn’t seem that dangerous.
*. Well, better to have audiences find you inherently likeable than mean. It’s a quality that would serve Diesel in good stead in the coming years, as he would effectively become a man of two franchises. Even if he was to be eventually buried by both under an avalanche of bigger budgets, more effects, and brighter star power. As the next film up in the series would prove, this was not progress.
*. Alien set on a run-down Irish dairy farm. Talk about cold comfort. But well, why not?
*. I should maybe say here that I grew up on a dairy farm, not far removed from the way this one is drawn (a nicer house, a more primitive barn). So for me Isolation has an added resonance. I haven’t felt such a sense of personal familiarity watching a movie since Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.
*. The idea here is that a down-on-his-luck farmer (played by John Lynch) has allowed a research company to do some shady (and officially unauthorized) experiments on his herd. I must have missed it, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly it was that Bovine Genetics Technology was up to. I don’t see the point in simply making cows more fertile, as a dairy cow’s only real value is to give milk. The dairy industry doesn’t want, or need, more cows. They want more milk, which is not the same thing. In any event, the experiment has disastrous results and soon the farm has a monster on the loose.
*. Director Billy O’Brien is making one of those monster movies where the monster’s appearance is concealed by way of fast cutting, extreme closeups, and disco lighting. In fact he plays this game out all the way to the end. Even after the movie was over I had no clear idea of what the monster looked like. A giant shrimp? That’s the best I can do. Which means I can understand why O’Brien wanted to keep it hidden. One can also understand why so many critics thought the film failed to live up to its promise. You live by the tease, you die by the tease (or by the reveal).
*. The defining element of Isolation is muck. An evocative word, muck. Here it stands for the mud the farmyard is slick with (because it’s always drizzling rain in Ireland), the lagoon of slurry or liquid manure, the odd pools of filthy water in the barns, the trail of slime left by the monster, and the gouts of blood that go springing forth from its victims. It’s a movie more than half-submerged in muck. Right from the first scene we’re up to our elbows and over our gum boots in it.
*. This, and the welcome use of practical effects over a lot of CGI, gives Isolation a distinct and authentic texture, which helps conceal the fact that it’s a pretty standard monster movie. Points awarded, however, for having so many cows around.
*. Why is it that horror movies so often require an idiot plot? They’re best known for being used in slasher films, but even here the idiot-plot element is introduced. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Dan (the farmer) thought it a good idea to drive his tractor into the shit pit. Of course, the tractor stalls out and he has to trudge back, knowing that there’s something in that foul bog with him. But he knew how deep the slurry was and must have known he couldn’t drive into it. What makes this worse is the fact that the scene was so unnecessary. The script could have found some other way to get us there.
*. Not a big movie, or one that stands out much from the field, but competently done and well paced. And while it’s not all that different from the usual monster fare, it’s different enough to be worth a look. At least for those of us, in Frost’s phrase, versed in country things and with a bit of muck still stuck on our boots.
*. As I’ve noted before, the films in the Children of the Corn franchise are all basically standalone features, with no narrative continuity. Despite this, the credits always state that the films are “based on the story by Stephen King.” Which is nonsense. In this one, however, they change the credit to “based on characters created by Stephen King.” This, however, is even worse. What characters? None of the characters in the original story are even referred to in this film. So what does this mean?
*. As with the previous film, Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return, there are hints of potential. I like the surreal Hampton Arms hotel, which is plopped down right in the middle of a corn field. The set design is nice, conjuring up a Twin Peaks atmosphere. But after a few minutes you realize the director, Guy Magar, has shot his bolt. His bag of tricks consists of (1) a lot of Dutch tilts, even when they make no sense (as when they’re presented as being from a character’s point of view); (2) crazy Bava lighting, splashing reds and blues and greens on the screen; and (3) some dreadful CGI. None of this is scary, or in any way effective, and its overuse becomes tiresome.
*. Almost as tiresome as the heroine’s screams. I know screaming is what the final girl is supposed to do a lot of, but at the end of this movie I was yelling at Jaimie (Claudette Mink) to shut up. She was giving me a headache.
*. There aren’t even any good kills. One guy is thrown from the top of a building but we never see him land, or are even shown his body afterwards. A cranky guy in a wheelchair is thrown down a stairwell. Again we never see the impact or the splat shot. Compare the wheelchair kill in Children of the Corn II, which was a highlight for this series. And finally another guy simply has a heart attack when seeing the kids scares him to death. This is all very dull.
*. Since the hotel is surrounded by corn fields, why do the children have to grow the magic corn in a basement lab? And why is the psycho guy only growing tomatoes down there? I was expecting a somewhat greener crop.
*. I always try to find something nice to say about even the worst movies, so I’ll give a nod here to Michael Ironside. It was great to see him again. But . . . playing a priest? That is some insane casting. He’s also a totally superfluous character who simply disappears after reciting a bit of unnecessary exposition. A point which leads me to add that even at only 82 minutes there isn’t a lot of substance here.
*. Why Revelation? I guess every mystery story has something that ends up being revealed, but I think they just picked it because it was in the Bible and it sounded cool.
*. It really is a mystery to me how this franchise kept going for so long. This entry only had a budget of $2.5 million, but that’s still something and it rates a better movie than this. I don’t know if this is the worst film in the series — that would be a very hard call, in my opinion — but even fans of such dreck should take a hard pass.
*. Maybe Rowan Atkinson’s brand of humour doesn’t translate well to the big screen. I think he’s a funny guy, but this movie, much like Bean (1997), didn’t make me laugh.
*. Was it just old? Heaven knows they’ve been sending up James Bond since about a week after Dr. No premiered in 1962. So this is awfully familiar ground. It’s about as far from an original premise as you can get.
*. Or maybe it’s too light. In addition to being a tired premise, Johnny English doesn’t have much of an edge. Most of the gags are conventional, playing off Atkinson mistakenly being in the wrong place (the funeral, the hospital) at the wrong time. There’s nothing shocking or clever going on, and indeed most of it is strained and obvious. The chase with the Aston Martin suspended in a sling, for example, or Johnny climbing up to the castle through the poop chute.
*. I suppose I could be accused of being a grump here, but Atkinson himself apparently didn’t think much of the film, calling it “five good jokes and a lot of longueurs.” That’s more good jokes than I counted, but maybe I wasn’t as bored by the longueurs.
*. What might have saved it was a good turn by John Malkovich as the villainous Pascal Sauvage. Sometimes a dramatic actor strikes comic gold when they get to ham it up in a comic role. Think George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove or Jack Palance in City Slickers. But that doesn’t happen here. Despite being fluent in French, Malkovich makes a very unconvincing Frenchman and I didn’t enjoy him at all. And even though you expect a scheme for world domination to be ridiculous, his actually has about three different parts to it, none of which make any sense.
*. Nevertheless it did well enough to spawn a couple of well-spaced out sequels: Johnny English Reborn (2011) and Johnny English Strikes Again (2018). Proof, if any more were needed, that you can’t go to this particular well too often.
*. I mentioned in my notes on Bride of Chucky how odd it was that one person, Don Mancini, had stayed in control of the franchise for so long, as screenwriter and, debuting in this film, director. Though I think of this film and Bride of Chucky as constituting a linked pair of films within the franchise, it’s the first to be credited as “a Don Mancini film.”
*. As with many horror franchises, self-referential humour was increasingly being introduced into the series, to the point where it has in this film completely taken over. This is a comedy horror, which you would guess as soon as you saw the animated conception sequence under the opening titles.
*. I’ve never been a big fan of horror comedy or comedy horror because it usually falls uncomfortably in-between the two genres, being neither funny nor scary. I’m afraid that’s pretty much what happens here as well.
*. As far as the humour goes the idea was to do it as a satire of domestic dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People, much as Bride of Chucky had been a parody of a rom-com. This isn’t a bad place to start, as it is kind of fun seeing Chucky and Tiffany arguing over the gender of their transchild Glen or Glenda (Billy Boyd). Also up for grabs: Can Chucky be domesticated? Can Tiffany go straight?
*. Most of the humour though comes by way of meta-humour or in-jokes. This is a movie packed with nods to other horror movies (including previous films in the series) and references to pop culture that haven’t aged well. It even gets to the point where Chucky hacks his way through a door with an axe and can’t think of anything to say the connection is so obvious it doesn’t even have to be stated. The joke is that Chucky doesn’t say “Here’s Chucky!”
*. According to Mancini the self-referentiality was supposed to be “not precious” but “irreverent.” I’m not sure I understand the distinction, but in so far as I think I do the approach seems more precious (light and joking) than irreverent in Seed of Chucky. And I’ll just add that there is too much of it.
*. The plot is also a bit sketchy. Why is Glen in England, and why are so many characters speaking with a British accent? Because it was a UK co-production and they got financial support for using British talent. Which is the practical explanation, but doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Why are the dolls all stamped Made in Japan when they were being manufactured in the U.S. in the previous movies? I guess productions was outsourced at some point. Why bother with the character of the limo driver at all? What exactly is going on at the end with all the body and soul-swapping? I remain confused.
*. No time need be spent talking about the horror part of the film. This isn’t a scary movie and I don’t think it even tries very hard in that regard. What’s more disappointing, especially for such a film as this, is that there isn’t even a lot of imagination on display when it comes to the killing. Really there’s just one good decapitation scene and that’s it.
*. Fans were understandably upset. You can play around a bit with the formula, but you can’t make fun of it. I think Seed of Chucky takes things as far as they could go in this direction, after which there was nothing left to do with these characters. Mancini was going to have to press the reset button on the franchise and take a step back with Curse of Chucky, the next film up.
*. I give credit to it for trying to do something different and for making all three dolls into real characters. But while this is a creative franchise that has gone in various unexpected directions, I didn’t care for this instalment. That may be because it’s just not my thing, or perhaps because it didn’t deliver enough shock value (despite the presence of Chucky fan John Waters). For what it is, though, it’s pretty well done for a low-budget, late-in-the-franchise flick. Usually by this point a series would be played out, but Chucky still had some surprises up his sleeve.