Category Archives: 2000s

Dogtooth (2009)

*. Yorgos Lanthimos is a crossover art-film director, making movies that, while weird or surreal or abstract or in some other way experimental, are also tethered to reality and have stories you can follow. The lonelyhearts hotel in The Lobster, for example, is a strange place, but we can recognize the types who find themselves there and we root for the love story between David and the Short Sighted Woman.
*. In a similar way, Dogtooth is a story that not only seems torn from the headlines but it’s one that has gone on to be featured in a number of mainstream thrillers. I call these the bunker horrors, and they include movies like Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, It Comes by Night, and A Quiet Place. The inspiration for this slew of films may have been the Josef Fritzl case, but despite the clear similarities Dogtooth was already in rehearsal before that story broke and Lanthimos says he was unaware of it. Still, the point remains that, while it’s a strange premise, it’s not that far removed from reality. And of course one can think of other movie analogs in play from The Collector to The Village.

*. I’ve remarked in my notes on other bunker horror movies that they feed into an anxiety over how to protect one’s family when the whole world has gone to hell. Dogtooth is a little different, or more in line with Room, in making the bunker a prison kept by an insanely isolationist warden. But his motivation, however twisted, is much the same. My point is just that this isn’t a totally off-the-wall exercise in surrealism. In so far as Dogtooth had a real-life inspiration it was in Lanthimos’s observation on the weirdness of family life in general.
*. Indeed, families aren’t just weird. They constitute their own separate reality. This is true even for those that don’t live in a bunker. Dogtooth underlines this by having the children here being taught a different language and having to follow a bunch of other bizarre customs. It’s all undeniably weird, but I think we’ve all visited homes where the families seem to partially speak a language unique to themselves, and that operate by a set of personal rules that make no sense to outsiders.

*. That much of Dogtooth I can appreciate. And I also like its visual inventiveness and pacing, punctuated as it is with shocking moments. Not all of this, however, do I understand. Take, for example, Lanthimos’s habit of cutting off people’s heads. I don’t mean literally but in terms of his compositions. In an interview he refers to the “really strict framing” he used in shooting the film, but why should that so strictly cut actors off at their shoulders? I can’t think of any good reason. I’m inclined to think it’s connected to his being against actors acting, and his depersonalization of character (which we see expressed in the robotic way he insists lines be delivered, and his use of clothes as uniforms). Then again maybe it has something to do with the blindness motif. I don’t know.
*. There’s a coldness in all this, but then the art house is a cold environment. Also typical of that environment is the fact that Dogtooth lets you read a lot into it. Lanthimos does enjoy his ambiguous open endings, but I wonder how much of that is for a purpose and how much because he just can’t figure out where he wants to go next. The basic point here that the father can only keep a lid on burgeoning teenage sexuality so long before it erupts in violence seems pretty simple to me. Will the younger daughter escape? Or does escape in this context only mean trading in one prison for another that may be even worse (the trunk of the car, or that penitentiary-like work place the father is employed at)? I’ll admit I’m not optimistic.


Swordfish (2001)

*. Swordfish is a stupid movie about (supposedly) smart people.
*. John Travolta plays Gabriel, a criminal mastermind. He employs genius hackers like Hugh Jackman’s Stanley (who boasts of a preternatural ability “to see the code in my head, I can’t explain it”). You’d think that with conspirators like these there would be something very clever afoot, but as far as I can tell the only thing going on is a plot to break into a bank’s computer and transfer $9.5 billion into a secret account in Monte Carlo. That’s it. I don’t understand how they were going to get away with it aside from the fact that it all had to do with computers and you can (or at least could in 2001) do anything with computers.
*. Or take the scene where a pair of Gabriel’s henchmen simply walk into the police station and kill the Finnish computer hacker and his lawyer in the interrogation room. On the DVD commentary director Dominic Sena says that he thought that having the thugs just barging into the police station and shooting the two men “wasn’t smart enough.” So he added something “you weren’t expecting,” which is that they get Cheadle’s character out of the interrogation room by way of a prank call and then shoot their victims through the one-way mirror. This made them seem smarter? Really? Does such a laughably improbable hit qualify as smart?
*. So, no, this is not a smart movie. This is a movie where the women are all crazy sexy and cars crash into things and blow up. I mean, a lot of cars blow up. And Halle Berry is served up like a piece of meat. Berry is a very sexy woman, and I have nothing against a bit of cheesecake, but she’s also a good actor and she’s just put on display here for no other reason except to be ogled. She deserved better treatment. It was reported, however, that she was paid $500,000 just to take her top off for her sunbathing scene.
*. Why even bother introducing the character of the senator (Sam Shepard)? I wasn’t sure what his role was in all of this. Sena: “something covert is going on and we just leave it at that.” In the end Travolta has to kill him and all of his henchmen off in the middle act just to get rid of them.
*. Originally Agent Roberts (Don Cheadle) was going to be killed halfway through the movie too. Sena had to argue to keep him in, though to no good purpose. He’s just there to run along behind the action, showing up a bit too late to all the parties.

*. Why is Ginger wearing a wire anyway? I think the point was that it was all a deliberate misdirection of Stanley. But this is another part of the script that really doesn’t stand much looking into. Like how she gets roped into the game of fooling Stanley at the end with her mock-hanging and fake death. How did they know in advance to have that whole bit of theatre ready to go?
*. There were several different or alternate endings included with the DVD. This is usually a bad sign, suggesting an awareness on someone’s part that what they had just wasn’t working. I can see why. I understand they didn’t want the sort of conventional happy ending that Gabriel mocks at the beginning of the film. Plus Sena wanted to show how smart Gabriel is by getting away with it. But the moral calculus is never made clear.
*. I want to be careful what I’m saying here. I have nothing against a heist movie where the bad guys get away. What I object to is a movie where the motivations and morality of the characters remain so opaque.
*. Sena remarks on the commentary that “Travolta is one of the few actors I think who can actually play this sort of disgusting, reprehensible, evil, villainous character and you still like him.” But should we? I mean, he does kill innocent people. A lot of them. But Sera wanted the ending to make it clear that Gabriel truly is a patriot because there isn’t “a glimmer” of this in the rest of the movie. It seems to me that this is leaving things till rather late in the day.
*. Roger Ebert, who is usually a pretty good stand-in for the opinions of the common man (albeit one with a solid understanding of the art and the industry), began his review noting this confusion: “Swordfish looks like the result of a nasty explosion down at the Plot Works. It’s skillfully mounted and fitfully intriguing, but weaves such a tangled web that at the end I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters. There is one person in the movie who is definitely intended to be a hero, but are the villains really villains? Are they even themselves?”
*. Personally, I felt confused by all of the endings. I didn’t really know what Gabriel was up to (was he still working for the government or was he a freelancer?) or why. He just seemed to me like a cocky jerk. Not smart, just arrogant and unaccountably rich. Again: I don’t mind that a heel gets away with it at the end, I’m just unsure of whether or not he was supposed to be a heel. It seems a stretch for me to see him as a hero, even if he is a patriot (which also seems dubious).
*. The car crashes and explosions are really good. It’s about the only positive note I made while I was watching the movie. Apparently I was not alone in being impressed by the fireworks. Producer Joel Silver told Sena that the car blowing up in the parking garage was the best explosion he’d ever seen (and he’d seen a lot). So give credit where it’s due. And the bus flying above the streets of L.A. was spectacular. Aside from that it’s all pretty dumb, and not quite as much fun as it should be.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

*. At one point, as things start to get rolling in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Brenda Fraser’s Rick (Ricochet) O’Connell grimly intones “Here we go again.” It’s one of those knowing lines that an audience is supposed to grin at. As the third film in the series, here we are, going again. The joke is that we, like Rick, can now expect more of the same. Is that a good thing?
*. There were only cosmetic changes made to the formula. Oded Fehr didn’t want to come back as Ardeth Bay, figuring (correctly) that his part wouldn’t make any sense in China, so they just went with another guardian figure in Michelle Yeoh. Rachel Weisz also opted out, but Evy is still here, now being played by Maria Bello.
*. I thought the way they switched actors in the Evy part was cleverly done, but it made me wonder how much we were supposed to now see the first two movies as romantic fictions written by Evy the novelist. That was awkward.
*. In most respects though this is “Here we go again.” It’s the same damn story, with the villains waking up the mummy just because that’s what villains do. Again the mummy is the product of some unhappy historical love triangle. Again there’s a sacred book of the dead, this time composed on oracle bones. Again there’s a crazy pilot to move our heroes around quickly. Again there are massive armies clashing in the desert.
*. Roger Ebert actually considered this to be the best of the series. He thought much less of the preceding films than I did. Here’s what he said about The Mummy Returns: “It is a curiosity of movie action that too much of it can be boring. Imagine yourself on a roller coaster for two hours. After the first 10 minutes, the thrills subside. The mistake of The Mummy Returns is to abandon the characters, and to use the plot only as a clothesline for special effects and action sequences.” Fair enough, but doesn’t all of that apply even more so to this film? I would have thought so.
*. For a big budget movie like this I can see them wanting to get the biggest Chinese stars, but Jet Li, whatever his many strengths, isn’t much of a villain. And he doesn’t get a chance to do a lot of martial arts. I think he was miscast.
*. Director Rob Cohen wanted more John Hannah in this film, but I don’t think that’s what he got. Instead they had to make room for the cringe-worthy romance involving the really anti-charismatic Luke Ford as Rick’s son.
*. In some ways this was meant to be a bridge film, with Rick and Evy passing the torch to the next generation of mummy fighters. Apparently there was even some thought given to killing Rick’s character off here. On the commentary track Cohen (who had started the Fast and Furious franchise) mentions the possibility of a fourth film, but it was not to be. Instead, the studio chose to reboot with the launch of the Dark Universe and the Tom Cruise movie The Mummy in 2017. Which was at least something different, if not better.
*. So this was to be the last rodeo. As such it strikes me as both too much and not enough. Too much of more of the same (which was too much in the first place), and not enough that’s really new. I liked the yeti, but now they’re all that I remember.

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

*. It should be clear from my notes on these things that I don’t think there have been many decent mummy movies.
*. There have been a couple of classic treatments that I’d rate as just OK: the initial 1932 Boris Karloff offering and the 1959 Hammer version with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. And then there are two very different films that I still really enjoy: the big-budget 1999 rollercoaster ride starring Brendan Fraser and the low-budget horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep.
*. Purists may want to argue that these last two aren’t “real” mummy movies but I think they fit the bill just fine. They mix in a lot of other stuff with the genre but the basic rules are the same. Bubba Ho-Tep, for example, isn’t just some zombie or vampire. He has personality: dressing up like a cowboy, scribbling graffiti on the walls of the bathroom stall, and cursing a mean streak in hieroglyphics. And the fact that he stays alive by sucking the souls of his victims out from their assholes actually makes as much sense as the business with tana leaves. The soul-eating and -shitting business here is crazy, but has its own coherence, which is more than such mumbo-jumbo often has.
*. As (relatively) colourful a figure as Bubba Ho-Tep is, however, he’s a shadow of the two main characters: a man who thinks he’s Elvis Presley (Bruce Campell) and another who think he’s JFK (Ossie Davis). They both live in a Texas nursing home that the mummy has made his personal happy-hunting ground. So there are three legendary figures whose lives, or afterlives, are coming together at once.

*. There are two fortunate consequences of such a bizarre premise. In the first place, it helps deal with a perennial problem mummy movies have that director Don Coscarelli mentions in his commentary. Mummies don’t move that fast, which leaves their victims all too often frozen in terror or screaming and fainting while their fate slowly shuffles toward them. In this case, however, the victims can’t run away because they can’t run. Not that they are shrinking violets anyway. Most of them do want to put up a fight. It’s just that they don’t have enough juice left in their tanks.
*. The second thing I’d note is the neat way the plot reverts the traditional type of story where children become aware of monsters but the adults don’t believe them. In this case it’s the old folks who see the mummy but everybody at the home thinks they’re suffering from dementia. After all, these are guys who think they’re Elvis and JFK. They obviously have rich, childlike imaginary lives.
*. The whole thing was shot on a budget of just over $500,000, which is remarkable. What makes it work is the script, based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale, some great performances (not just Campbell and Davis, but Ella Joyce as well), and Coscarelli’s restraint in not rushing the story. Coscarelli took his time with a shooting schedule of a month on this one, and that’s something that’s reflected in the pace here and the attention to detail. This isn’t a horror movie for teens but one that enjoys the pleasure of good conversation without the interruptions of jump scares.
*. I don’t care for the ending much, which seems awkwardly and almost mawkishly sentimental. Out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the picture anyway. Apparently initial audiences didn’t like the scene where Campbell snaps at Ella Joyce’s nurse, but for me it worked. It grounded Campbell’s character in real emotions and a real situation, which is what I think the story needed.
*. Still, to borrow an image from that ending, the stars were in alignment here. It took someone like Coscarelli and the creative freedom of an independent production to make a movie like this, and through sheer professionalism it all works. Over the years there’s been much talk of a sequel but nothing has materialized. I think that tells you something about just how hard it is to make a good little movie. Much harder than to make a bad big one anyway.

The Mummy Returns (2001)

*. There are a lot of things I like about The Mummy Returns, so let’s start with that. I like the way we pick up some ten years after The Mummy. Rick and Evelyn are happily married and have a plucky but not-too-irritating sprog. For some reason this made me think of Another Thin Man.
*. I also liked several of the set-piece action scenes: the fight on the double-decker bus with the soldier mummies, for example, and the attack by the tribe of mummy pygymies in the jungle. I rolled my eyes at Izzy’s dirigible but, sure, it was fun. And I could appreciate Imhotep pitching himself into hell when realizing that his eternal love hadn’t been worth it after all. It’s hard to think of another movie of this kind where the villain kills himself rather than being destroyed by the hero.
*. I could go through a similar list for things I didn’t like, headlined by the terrible CGI work on the scorpion monster at the end. But overall I think the good parts outweigh the bad. The problem is that they don’t add up to as solid a movie as the first one.

*. I don’t know why so many mummy movies have such bewildering plots. Is it to make up for their stiff and rather dull feature monsters? That would be less necessary here, as Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep is a compelling enough figure on his own, but there’s still way too much going on. For starters, did the film really need all the stuff with the Scorpion King? It seemed to complicate things far more than necessary, and at the end of the day it just confused me. If you awaken the Scorpion King, and then kill him, but only with the ceremonial spear, then you get to command his army, which will allow you to rule the world? Whatever.
*. There’s a lot of unnecessary stuff like this. Another example is the fact that Alex has to get the bracelet off his arm in seven days or he’ll die. The only place this really comes in to play is in the final dash to the pyramid, which hardly seems worth it. It’s just another example of too much going on. There are too many flashbacks, and too much exposition, even for a mummy movie. They really needed to streamline things. Why all the rigmarole about Alex escaping from the train at Karnak when he gets recaptured right away? Just another example.

*. I mentioned in my notes on The Mummy how improbable it was that Imhotep would mistake Rachel Weisz for Patricia Velasquez. In this movie they try to fix things up by bringing Velasquez back and making Weisz’s character into Velasquez’s step-daughter (I think). Also, Rick is now identified as one of the Medjai or bodyguards (because of some tattoo he doesn’t remember getting), which means he’s tasked with protecting Evelyn. Or at least he’s a spiritual descendant or reincarnation of one of these figures. Honestly, it’s just not worth trying to figure out, and I suspect few people even try. But if all they wanted was a flimsy bit of plot to hang the action sequences on they could have got by with a lot less.
*. Trading places. Dwayne Johnson in his first dramatic feature. Still only referred to as “The Rock” by director Stephen Sommers and editor Bob Ducsay on the DVD commentary. He’s just here for his muscles and I don’t believe he even gets a single line. Meanwhile, Brendan Fraser seemed like one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising and most bankable leading men.
*. Was there a curse of The Mummy? This movie did well but the franchise died, leading only to a mongrel sequel (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) and a spin-off for Johnson’s character (The Scorpion King). But Brendan Fraser, as noted, mostly disappeared. Perhaps the mummy’s curse, or the curse of Monkeybone. Stephen Sommers has never lived up to this early promise either, going on to direct Van Helsing and G.I. Joe movies and not much else. Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, Kevin J. O’Connor: they were all great in supporting roles but just followed up with more supporting roles in worse pictures. Rachel Weisz fared best of all, becoming Yorgos Lanthimos’s It girl. But you would have thought with a pair of hits this big much more was to come from these people in terms of mainstream success. So was there a curse after all?

Sleuth (2007)

*. It should have been good, if not great. Anthony Shaffer’s play has a timeless quality about it. Michael Caine and Jude Law are more than capable of holding their own. Harold Pinter did the script and Kenneth Branagh was behind the camera. So what went wrong?
*. To answer that I want to go back to what I said about Deathtrap. Instead of that “timeless quality” Sleuth had that I just mentioned, Deathtrap was very much a film of its time (the early ’80s). The same goes here, with Andrew Wyke’s country manor now being redone as an ultra-modernist dream home that we could never imagine anyone actually living in, complete with a full suite of CCTV cameras (that, curiously, play no part in the plot). Only ten years later it looks silly.
*. Another thing that’s been lost is any sense of Andrew being an author possessed by his genre. Olivier in the original was someone who had trouble separating detective fact from detective fiction, he’d become so steeped in the latter. In both Deathtrap and this film Caine is playing a hack who doesn’t seem that interested in whodunits, which makes his obsessive gamesmanship (in both films) harder to understand.
*. More than this, what’s missing (again, as in Deathtrap) is the sense of fun. In the first Sleuth movie both Andrew and Milo were people who loved playing the game, putting on performances, and besting their rival. Here they just like being mean to each other.
*. The Shaffer/Mankiewicz Sleuth had its dark moments, but was still a comedy. Deathtrap tried to be funny, and maybe it was in 1982, but the jokes haven’t aged. This Sleuth, however, doesn’t even seem to try for laughs. There’s a laboured bit of stale Pinter in the “I’m you, you’re me” scene but aside from that there’s no attempt at levity that I can discern.
*. The homosexual couple in Deathtrap was obviously not a match made in heaven, but it was at least believable and didn’t play to stereotypes. The seduction scene here is, to use the cliché, cringe-inducing. The final third of the film plays the gay angle as something sick, making the nastiness even more distasteful.
*. Distasteful and dull. I mentioned how surprised I was in my notes on the 1972 version that it was so long. This movie is nearly a full hour shorter but actually feels the opposite. The final act (or, in the tennis lingo they use, set) of the original game is disposed of so that the icky and ultimately very boring homosexual angle can be played out, which was more lively and sincere in the original for being left unstated. Here the only thing that happens is that Andrew pretends (or does he?) to fall in love with Milo, who plays along in kittenish fashion until he finally calls Andrew a poofter, which gets him shot. How interesting is any of that?
*. For what it may be worth (and I don’t think it’s worth much in this case) Caine says on the commentary that he thought Andrew only wanted a companion and not a sexual partner in Milo. Hm.I think the sexual angle is played up pretty obviously from the moment he makes his proposition.

*. A proposition, by the way, that Branagh found “touching.” An older man offering to buy a rent boy? I doubt Pinter thought there was anything touching to it.
*. That’s Pinter (interrogating Branagh) appearing in a cameo as the detective on the crime show Andrew is watching on TV. I wasn’t paying much attention and thought it was John Thaw’s Inspector Morse.
*. Branagh wanted to keep things interesting without leaving the confines of the postmodern box of a set he’d constructed, which leads to a lot of irritating camera work. None of it seems natural and it has the effect, I found, of depersonalizing the leads when what should have been driving the film is their personalities. I mean, we don’t even see their faces until about eight minutes in.
*. I’ve mentioned how unnatural the sets and camera work is and I’d say the same about the acting. The way Law in particular uses his body and bellows some of his lines seems very much geared toward playing to a live audience and not to the camera.
*. So Sleuth (1972) is still there, despite Pauline Kael’s saying that only two or three people were still interested in it ten years after it came out. Deathtrap has dated less well but still has some admirers. This movie, however, is already almost entirely forgotten. Which is, I think, probably for the best.

Beowulf (2007)

*. Wow. Ray Winstone has been working out. He’s looking pretty buff, even seven years after Sexy Beast.
*. I’m kidding. That’s not Ray. And that’s not Angelina Jolie, pumped (or pimped) up to look like the target demographic’s idea of an ideal woman. This is an animated film. And how you feel about that will determine what you think about the movie.
*. This is a shame, as there was an interesting script here, written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. As soon as we see Anthony Hopkins appear as a drunken Hrothgar we know they’re not going to be too reverent to the source material. This might even be a bit of fun, along the lines of what Sean Connery did with the 1984 film they made out of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sword of the Valiant.
*. But then there’s the 3D and the CGI and all the rest of the stuff to make us think we’re only watching another video game. On the DVD box there’s a pull quote from Leonard Maltin calling it “cutting-edge moviemaking,” and I suppose it was in 2007. But nothing dates you faster than being on the cutting edge.
*. Ten years later, the look can fairly be called retro. Some elements, like the swimming scenes and the horses, are especially bad. Meanwhile, the bodies don’t move naturally at all and the faces look airbrushed and Photoshopped of all expression.
*. So while I’d like to say there’s more to this Beowulf than just the look, the look is so distracting and overwhelming that any other commentary is sort of pointless.
*. Even the script fails to live up to its initial promise. I thought changing the tone of the Old English poem made sense in places, and that’s all they did in the first half of the film. But then things just go crazy. Grendel is Hrothgar’s love child. Grendel’s mom then seduces Beowulf, who becomes the new king of the Danes after Hrothgar kills himself. The dragon turns out to be the spawn of Beowulf and Grendel’s mom. The whole thing is turned into an Anglo-Saxon soap opera.
*. That’s is too bad. This could have been an interesting cast if they’d been given the chance to do some acting, and there’s some cleverness sprinkled throughout (like introducing bits of Old English in various places, and making Grendel’s mom into a richer and more suggestive figure). But at the end of the day it really is just a cartoon, and not one that was made in a style that has worn well. At the time it was reasonably well received but I doubt many people watch it today. Ten years from now I suspect it will be totally forgotten.

Beowulf & Grendel (2005)

*. At the beginning of the group DVD commentary on Beowulf & Grendel a couple of interesting things are said.
*. I’ll start with writer Andrew Rai Berzins, who says that he was drawn to the Beowulf story in part because it “had never been filmed.” Actually, it had been filmed twice just five years earlier: as The 13th Warrior and Beowulf. Now both of these were loose adaptations, with the former being a more realistic version of the legend based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead and the latter a post-apocalyptic fantasy starring Christopher Lambert, but they were still the Beowulf story. Given how much is changed in this telling I don’t think they can say they were the first and it’s hard to believe Berzins wasn’t aware of the others (from other things he says on the commentary it seems pretty clear that he was). [Note: Berzins responds in the comments below.]
*. The second thing I found interesting is when director Sturla Gunnarsson says that his initial inspiration for the film was the Icelandic landscape, which he describes as being a character in the film. I can see that, and if you’ve got a crush on such a landscape I guess there are only so many different stories that are going to work with it. Beowulf was one. Not because Iceland looks like Denmark, but because it makes such a wonderful fantasy backdrop.

*. The raw power of the setting gives the film both an otherworldly and realistic texture. This fits with the overall approach of the film, which was not to use any CGI. In other words it’s the opposite of the Robert Zemeckis animated Beowulf that would come out just a couple of years later.
*. Saying this is a more “realistic” and less mythical Beowulf doesn’t mean it’s any more faithful an adaptation. This is very much a modern re-interpretation, as I think you would expect. If you know the poem there actually isn’t much there to work with in terms of character. So Beowulf is a bit more conflicted here, while Grendel is given a more complicated back story. He’s a troll now, with Shakespeare’s Caliban as his literary model.

*. I was fine with most of the changes, and with the use of “fuck” throughout the script, and lines like “I tell you the troll must be one tough prick.” Some reviewers didn’t like this, but I don’t know what their objections were based on. How was it anachronistic? Nobody in the Middle Ages in this part of the world was speaking English anyway. I agree with Gunnarsson that it’s a silly convention that everyone in such historical epics deliver Shakespeherian lines.
*. I didn’t care for the character of the Good Witch Selma, and boy does Sarah Polley seem uninterested in the part. I think she’s a good actor, but she often looks like she’s bored by the roles she plays.
*. The movie has a wonderful big-screen look to it, and there are a lot of other things I enjoyed (like the script, in general, and Gerard Butler’s all-too-human Beowulf). But it doesn’t add up to a film I love. Perhaps because all the revisions take the story away from its roots in an essential way that The 13th Warrior and Zemeckis’s film didn’t (I should add here that I much prefer this film to Zemeckis’s, though I’d rank The 13th Warrior higher).
*. What I mean is that Beowulf is an action story and this movie doesn’t do action well. The fight scenes are quick, dark, and uninteresting, and the half-humanization of Grendel undercuts the heroic man vs. monster mythos.
*. A final note on the commentary. Berzins remarks that the way the film ends, with the child of Grendel and Selma being allowed to live, was introduced because they wanted to leave things open for a sequel. Really! Like Beowulf & the Son of Grendel. Or maybe Grendel: The Revenge. That’s incredible, but I didn’t get the sense Berzins was joking. [Note: Berzin expands on this point in his comment below.] My own take on the ending was that they just wanted to suggest the heroic-age revenge cycle of violence was doomed to continue. I think that’s the way I’ll continue to think of it. The idea of a sequel is too diminishing.

1408 (2007)

*. It’s not called Stephen King’s 1408, as movies based on his writings often are. It certainly applies here, because even though there were some significant changes made to his story (in particular the removal of Mike’s brother and the greater significance given to his daughter), this is so recognizably King territory it probably should have carried the brand label.
*. I say that not because of elements like the ledge walk from Cat’s Eye or the way Room 1408 at the Dolphin echoes Room 237 at the Overlook. These are just part of King’s stock-in-trade, and given that the story started out as a sort of finger exercise that he couldn’t let go of they’re not surprising.
*. Instead of that I’d point to more basic stuff. There are, for example, what are King essentials: the burnt-out writer battling personal demons, the inadequate defence of the threatened family, and the denigration of religion while insisting upon a sort of providential force in the universe that makes sure things never turn out all bad. With all of these you know you’re in King territory.
*. I thought there would be more of the Ghostbusters angle to it, as part of the inspiration was apparently a real-life paranormal investigator. We see author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) with a couple of gadgets for detecting spooks, and when he first enters 1408 he declares an intention to “Encylopedia Brown this bitch,” but in the end he doesn’t do much with his toys. Instead he falls apart with the first manifestations of evil and reaches for his bottle of 57 Deaths.
*. I also thought that they were going to play up the limitations of shooting most of the film in a single confined space, but since Room 1408 has the supernatural ability to change dimensions this goes out the window along with the lamps and jumping ghosts.
*. Nice to see Samuel L. Jackson, in what is little more than a cameo, taking a more restrained approach. I’ve gotten so used to seeing him playing crazy caricatures that I was taken aback, in a good way. Even if I don’t really understand his character.
*. I guess whatever you think of Mr. Olin is going to be coloured by which ending you get. I believe there were four: a theatrical version and three alternate endings. I think I’ve seen two. But it doesn’t make much difference because (as I’ve said before) if you have two, or three, or four endings then you really don’t have any ending at all.
*. 1408 is what I call a good little picture. It’s not violent or even all that scary but tries to be more of a character study. There’s not enough information for this to work (what was Mike’s relationship with his father?) and John Cusack seems a bit overwhelmed at times, but I think that overall it does what it sets out to do pretty well. If it never rises above that modest level then that’s no big thing. Most films don’t achieve so much.

The Strangers (2008)

*. “Inspired by true events.” Well, if you think about it, what isn’t? Even the Iliad and Odyssey could make such a claim, not to mention every fiction since.
*. The Strangers suggests something more, telling us by way of a pre-credit voiceover that “there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year” and that this is one of them. Don’t think about that too hard.
*. As far as I’ve been able to determine, it’s just the usual come-on. In other words, it’s total bullshit. The voice doing the voiceover actually sounds a bit like John Larroquette at the beginning of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, making his similarly bogus declaration in tones just as earnest. Texas Chain Saw Massacre was, perhaps, based on the totally unrelated story of Ed Gein, the same source crime as for Psycho. In this case writer-director Brian Bertino may have been thinking of the Manson murders, or, as he has claimed, some childhood incident, but really it could have been “inspired” by just about anything.
*. Critics also compared The Strangers to the French film Them, which was another movie inspired by true events, only in that case I think there was a bit more of a connection. The bottom line however is that this is just another home invasion thriller and it isn’t based on anything at all aside from the genre formula.
*. It’s not my favourite horror sub-genre. Even when they’re well done I don’t really like any of these movies, and they’re rarely well done. Funny Games was disturbing but at least it tried to do something a little different with the basic concept of the psychos knocking on the door of a happy, well-off family staying in a semi-remote home or cottage. Haneke’s film gave you something to talk about after. The Strangers . . . not so much.
*. There is literally nothing at all new here. There are things that go bump in the night. Kristen is left alone and then relieved when James returns, who at first doesn’t believe her about the people in masks. Then they are both terrorized. He tries to go for help, without her, telling her that “I’ll be fine.” Yeah. He isn’t. There is a failed rescue attempt by a friend of James that you know is going to fail, and exactly how it is going to fail, five minutes before it plays itself out. How many times do we have to see this Stephen King staple? I think it’s a plot element that can safely be retired now.

*. Kristen screams out “Why are you doing this to us?” Not once, not twice, but three times. Maybe more. I think James says it at one point too. I lost count. Once, I hardly need to say, would have been more than enough. We get the point. The masked killers are psychos. None of this makes any sense or has any purpose. That’s life.
*. One can only take so much cliché. Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) aren’t total morons but they’re pretty darn close. But it was when Kristen fell and twisted her ankle and had to crawl through the woods that I went from being bored with The Strangers to actively hating it.
*. Early on, Kristen decides to don the modern uniform of the last girl: jeans and a tank-top, with a flannel shirt to stay warm. But for some reason she feels that, despite the cold, shoes are unnecessary, even when running around outside. Which is when she falls and of course twists her ankle so she can’t run but can only limp and crawl away from the bad guys. You know the drill.
*. How was this even sold as a screenplay? It runs just 86 minutes and it’s well padded at that. I honestly don’t see where there’s anything to the script beyond an 8-10 page treatment. Indeed, you could pitch this movie in a single sentence — a young couple is terrorized by a trio of masked home invaders — and aside from that what would you add? Even the action/suspense sequences where there is no dialogue are very simple. As I’ve already laid out, it’s pure formula without a single twist to the set-up or any part of the plot.
*. Every now and then you get the sense of an actor who just doesn’t want to be in a movie. Boy did I get that feeling with Scott Speedman here.
*. As you would expect in this enlightened age of horror the ending is nihilistic and cruel. It is also, however, dull and anticlimactic. There’s no horror or tension or drama to it at all. And the final jump scare is both another cliché and stupid to boot. If the film’s “brutal events . . . are still not entirely known,” then how could there be a survivor? Or maybe Kristen is just giving us the twitch of the death nerve. I didn’t care. This movie is garbage and is too lazy to even try to be anything else.