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Sweeney Todd

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The moment this film was announced, theatre freaks and Goths clenched up in anticipation. Tim Burton! Johnny Depp! Really, probably only Guillermo del Toro could come close to being a second viable choice to helm this project. At least we know they will get how very epic and dark Sweeney Todd should be. My companion and I, Sweeney fans who have each worked on a production, could track every change. We could applaud the necessary and difficult cuts (Parlor Songs) and puzzle over the omissions (the chorus part in God, That’s Good). Fans, a spoiler: there is NO chorus part, and it is indeed distracting. That said, because we know were every neon-red drop of blood was meant to fall, the screenplay choices were not troublesome in terms of following the story. I would love to hear from someone not familiar with the show on this.

But how is it, you press urgently. I confess I had trouble because of certain favorite moments being eliminated – an unfair assessment of the film as its own work, I grant. The sets are gorgeous – grungy, dark, evil, stylized, but still solid. The costumes and makeup (save Johnny’s synthetic white streak, wicking away blood like so much rainwater) are richly layered in desaturated squalor and grime. It is a lifeless, dreary London, through which blood boils like, well, a city on fire. (Yes, omitted).

Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both simply too beautiful and young looking to fully inhabit these roles visually. Depp certainly has the wild-eyed intensity that is needed, and Bonham-Carter has the doe-eyed cleverness and wit. Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall as the Beadle? Perfection. Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli – I knew he would nail the quick patter and fey flamboyance, but could he sing it? Yes! My companion had troubles with his overly impeccable accent work (my trouble was with Bonham-Carter’s wispy diction) but he made Pirelli the hilarious rat he needs to be.

Newcomer Jayne Wisener (Johanna) is a china doll of a gal, a slip of a girl who opens her cherubic mouth and gives her “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” solo wings I never knew it had when sung by older voices. Another newcomer, Ed Sanders as Toby, steals the show from the big names by being perfectly earnest and vulnerable and singing his hard songs with real beauty. Finally, as Jonathan, Jamie Campbell Bower seems too young and pretty to be the lovestruck sailor, but his sweet voice helped prop up Sondheim’s difficult score where the amateurs flag a bit. All of these folks, when I saw them listed, seemed far too young, but this film showed me that they were really more age appropriate than the grownups that usually limn their roles on stage.

Oh wait, who am I forgetting? Right, Depp and Bonham-Carter. I confess I am very sad that Depp’s tenor cannot grab you by your crumpet in the same way a full baritone can. The whole score felt like the bass section had been discreetly snuck out of the back door, robbing the instrumentals of much of their oomph. His pitch, his styling, his acting-while-singing is all great, it just felt wan compared to the material. Bonham-Carter’s voice for the most part is soft, reedy, and precisely clipped, not brassy or balls to the wall either. In a duet with Toby, it’s a lovely effect, but in the darkly comic “A Little Priest” (best staging ever!) it lacks gravy. She and Johnny both sang out at one point and I got excited, hoping for more.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it is a musical, but even at its most Broadway, it’s no Oklahoma, It’s dark, dissonant, miserable, and brilliant. Come on, murder, cannibalism, abuse, revenge, depravity, all in song? Burton goes a step further, removing any inorganic group singing and keeping it intimate, close, tiny. At first this drove me bananas. Why do I see a movie of a musical if not to see MORE HOT PIES? But upon spirited reflection with my wise cohort, we found it to be (paradoxically) more centrist despite its extreme themes. Musical-haters don’t have to endure glorious kicklines of strangers (I’m looking at you, Hairspray) and opera lovers can focus on the leads’ close-in performances. Burton also eludes the disease that made his Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory not quite gel.

As an added bonus, if someone sees the movie and then goes to see a stage production, the play will blow their brains open because it won’t be in the shadow of Biggest Production Ever from the silver screen (I’m looking at you, Chicago). Burton’s Sweeney Todd is very different, but it’s a solid movie.

MPAA Rating R-graphic bloody violence
Release date 12/21/07
Time in minutes 117
Director Tim Burton
Studio Dreamworks / Warner Brothers

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The Number 23

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Jim Carrey has made many brave choices, as do so many comedians who parlay their comic skills into acting, and The Number 23 is one of them. I am a noisy advocate of his dramatic work, and this first time he attempting a psychological thriller is a departure from his previous excellent choices. Walter Sparrow (Carrey) seems fated to find this clumsy little self-published thriller, which touches things inside him he never dreamed existed. The idea of where this movie ends up is an interesting one, and it could have been a great one but for one minor quibble: some of the plot devices that get him there are absolutely ridiculous. For this I blame Joel Schumacher. Nutty twisty thrillers like Seven or The Silence of the Lambs often require the audience to make insane leaps of logic and suspend their disbelief higher than a musical adaptation of Harry Potter. The trick is making you forget the machinations that brought you that incredibly unlikely conclusion (and then you forgive). The Number 23 drops all kinds of whizzbangers into the story line, all of which could have been forgiven if they weren’t so blatantly swept under the rug, like someone hiding their garbage behind a potted plant when you come to visit.

So, the number 23 has some cosmic significance, or else it’s one of those things that when you look for it you find, but in reality is no more common than any of the other significant numbers in our base 10, 360 degree culture. The calisthenics one must go through in order to come up with this “ever present” number are insulting, but the idea is good enough that you can go with it for the sake of the story. The idea that a number can get inside your head, haunting you, cursing you, has already been embraced and popularized by Lost (and 23 is one of those 6 numbers, so…..) so that is a fun idea being taken in a new direction: instead of being bad luck, it can actually change who you are (into someone evil, perhaps?), which is an interesting plot idea. All good so far.

Joel Schumacher, who if nothing else knows how to make the banal stylish (exhibit A: The Island), takes the real-life cast and casts them as the leads in the book Walter is reading, which is cool, since it’s relevant to how he interprets the book. The fun, stylish part is how over the top cornball pulp he does it all, with swooping zoom shots that transition from one place to another in sexy, push-color ways, hokey crime novel dialogue, and smoldering sexual movement everywhere. It’s neat to see Jim in regular guy mode (never has he been as successful at hiding wacky Jim except in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and then in intense dramatization mode. Sometimes it’s so stylish it’s hackneyed or embarrassing, but most of those moments are in the context of the novel, so we can forgive that as well.

And then the third act starts. Clumsy explanations, ridiculous cover-ups and lack of paper trails (or cell phones) make the real-life people in the story (especially with their old-fashioned names like Agatha and Walter) seem straight out of a gumshoe rag in their primitive inability to manage the events in the backstory. And my god, who names their son Robin Sparrow? It’s like a bad joke. Bud Cort makes an uncredited cameo as a person whose entrance and exit from the story is like a deus ex machina when Zeus takes the day off and lets a temp handle the machina duties. Oh I wish I could tell you the thing that made me the craziest with annoyance, but suffice it to say, you could catch this on HBO and not feel like you missed much except some interesting sound design.

MPAA Rating R- violence, distrubing images, sexuality and language
Release date 2/23/07
Time in minutes 95
Director Joel Schumacher
Studio New Line

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Land of the Dead

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Directed by the granddaddy of the zombie genre, George Romero, Land of the Dead had the potential to be step backward in zombie expectations, or a satisfying new chapter in the genre. It is a viable genre, my friends. Zombie movies have the unique ability to be terrifying, gross, hilarious, and intellectual without diluting any of these qualities. The best zombie movies take what is really a simple formula (boy eats girl, girl eats another boy, boy chases you) and make it new again.

Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead defined what it is to be a zombie movie, and since then countless imitators have shuffled, (or, lately, ran) in his footsteps, hoping to make this very movie. Land of the Dead is old-school: the zombies shuffle, kill with a bite, and stop only when the brain is destroyed. This time, however, Romero’s “hero” is a semi-sentient undead gas station attendant who obeys, yet also stretches, all the zombie rules. This paragon of putrescence is Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) and he makes this land of the dead a whole new ball game.

We know all the rules already. Romero isn’t going to waste time developing the universe he has spent so many years creating, no sunny pre-infestation exposition or didactic “Zombie Killing For Dummies” speeches. If this is your first zombie movie, I imagine you can still figure it out. They’re here, they’re smears, get used to it, oh and kill them. Romero has no more reason to explain this Land than Woody Allen has reason to explain the unique craziness of New York City. And awayyyy we go!

Romero’s previous works have also, under the rotting surface, also been about something more. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was about race relations. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was about conformity and consumerism, and Day of the Dead (1985) was about militarism. What is Land of the Dead about, 20 years later? Terrorism? Freedom? Privatizing Social Security? I would say it’s about material distraction, or the chasm between the haves and the have-nots and fringes of society. You have to pay the fiddler his green, right?

Of course, the moment you see Dennis Hopper, you know he’s the Establishment Honcho. (How the Easy have fallen.) I likened him to Rupert Murdoch, but Hopper himself has said he was going for a Donald Rumsfeld vibe. I’m feelin’ it. Hopper’s obvious role aside, the best thing about Land is the lack of clear factions. I mean, yeah, we’re all fighting zombies, but they have a certain victim’s dignity about them next to these fatcats in their fancy tower. What about the underprivileged but still living lower classes? Who’s good, who’s right? It’s often, but not always clear whom to root for, and that level of murk keeps things interesting. Oh yeah and man are there some gross happenings in this one. Romero hasn’t let the kids today show him up one bit.

For those of you who might be searching as we were for the cameos by Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, just look for the Polaroid camera. Land of the Dead is a lot of fun, and grosser than all get out. It’s a blast. Uurrrgggghhhhhh!

MPAA Rating R-violence, gore, language, drug use, brief sexuality
Release date 6/24/05
Time in minutes 93
Director George Romero
Studio Universal Pictures

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Open Water

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I wish I could be the first to assess this genuinely scary movie as The Blair Witch Project in the Caribbean, but I have been beaten to the punch. Everything that worked for Blair Witch (video, small cast, complete isolation in the middle of nowhere) is at play here, with the added implacability of sharks, creatures that exist, for sure and don’t need lasers mounted on their heads to be scary. I don’t know what the Blair Witch is, but I know what sharks are. And they are so, so silent.

Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis are the unfortunate couple who bobbed for most of the film in the water. They are a normal couple, with normal fights and normal stresses, in terribly extraordinary circumstances. You’ve seen the preview, you know they’re bobbing alone and unmissed in the deep blue sea. What you can’t know until you see it is the agonizing buildup of tension, the apprehension that accompanies any change in their situation.

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Ghosts of the Abyss

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This Imax-friendly partially 3-D feature by Jim Cameron’s primary attraction is the first-time ever footage of the inner sanctum of the wreck of the Titanic. No horsey divas warbling over a love story concocted to bring the tragedy home. This is scientists and laypersons with technological wonders seeing where no person has seen for 89 years. After Cameron’s crew innovated methods to incorporate actual wreck footage for his 1997 film, he went back in 2001 with a professional deep sea crew and newly created camera ‘bots for a more in-debth look. If that interests you, you won’t be disappointed. The levels of access are pretty amazing.

Using small, maneuverable remote rovers, the cameras take our eyes deeper into the ship than otherwise possible. It is transfixing to see objects untouched, even undisturbed, by the 12,500 foot plummet to the sea floor. A huge chandelier rig lights the entire scene from above, artificial moonlight on a cold grave. The effect is truly beautiful. Cameron is an experienced filmmaker, not just a facts-only scientist – he wants this to be special. With his narrative film background, he’s smart about his approach to the shoot. They have a miniature model of the wreck to plan their shots and approaches and entries, a 3-D storyboard that we get to see to help us understand what were looking at. Ghostlike apparitions of the passengers strolling along the gangways or shoveling coal into the engines assist with envisoning the scale and function of the dimly lit, corroded debris on the screen. A couple of times, the re-enactments teeter on the cliff of cheese, but nearly always pull back. The accompanying CGI models built from the blueprints also assist us with orientation and comprehension.

Bill Paxton, as the slightly nervous and funny everyman character he developed in Aliens, injects the human response into the experience. He’s not a deep-sea diver or a scientist, nor is he legendary control freak Cameron. He’s just a regular guy with an actor’s training who adds the layman feel and commentary, an effective addition.

Cameron also knows he audience cannot possibly feel the awe the crew was feeling upon being only six feet from the historical artifacts. To compensate, he unwisely gives us shot after shot from the outside of the Mir diving modules of the people inside, peering out with wonder. It’s a Spielbergian thing to do – except Cameron has already shown the real prize. Reaction shots (as Spielberg uses them) build anticipation before you seen the amazing thing eliciting the reaction. Showing a microbiologist goggling at the sunken treasure is just depriving the audience of what they now know they are missing. It fills us with envy, not wonder.

The rovers’ cameras are standard video, so we end up with crisp, gorgeous 3D film shots of Paxton going, “whoa” and grainy superimposed shots of the real show. This is of course an inevitable difficulty with the rovers, but why compound the discordance? At one point, the crew is discussing some of what they saw that day, and one guy talk about seeing a perfect shoe on a ledge. We never get to see this shoe, and that sums up the one real issue with this film: we get a very strong sense of the profundity of the experience for this small group privileged enough to go, and only a taste of the many tantalizing glimpses seen by them.

The film borders on awe-inspiring, borders on wondrous, but unfortunately, Cameron’s attempts to cop Spielberg’s sense of magic made the film fall sadly short. However, the footage you do see really is spectacular, so if it interests you at all, I recommend you see it on the big screen.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 4/11/03
Time in minutes 45
Director james Cameron
Studio Walt Disney Pictures

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fear dot com

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One of the greatest tragedies of some substandard movies is when one element is executed so well, so competently, so effectively – but the rest of the film is a laughable mish mosh of crap and silliness. This is what viewers of feardotcom will suffer.

First: The stuff that works. These people worked hard and deserve recognition (and are the reason the film isn’t relegated to Avoid At All Costs status), and heaven knows they probably won’t get it anywhere else but here. The premise is that there is a website called feardotcom.com (not www.fear.com, but www.feardotcom.com, which is stupid, but I am sure there was some licensing problem) which contains horrifying imagery, and 48 hours after one views this site, one dies a pretty unpleasant “natural” death, generally having to do with one’s worst fears. For example, an arachnophobe would be fatally bitten by a spider, or some such. When in doubt, a quick and dirty brain hemorrhage will do the trick.

Anyway, in the world of cinema, such conceits can be accepted, just like we accept the Matrix and alternate universes where Mel Gibson remains single into his 40’s. The site itself is a horrifying live-feed torture-and-snuff show, run by a known serial killer, known as The Doctor (Stephen Rea), with pretty intense graphics and disturbing, heebie-jeebie-arousing stuff. This, while perversely twisted, is actually executed (no pun intended) in the film brilliantly. No real gore, no actual violence is shown, yet it’s more disturbing than any moment in Silence of the Lambs or The Cell. And the “website” is also very spooky and cool. Bravo to the filmmakers for creating such a deeply terrifying cinematic invention. There is also a level deeper than just “evil doctor makes snuff site that kills,” which is a little corny but at least it’s trying.

However, the problem lies in the rest of the film. The dialogue is painful and motiveless, but nothing unexpected. See, Stephen Dorff (already a bad sign) is like, a cop, right, who knows the serial killer’s name and MO, gets letters from him every day, yet is unable to catch him. No doubt, a maniac with the web capabilities and bandwidth that The Doctor has, would have a paper trail. Don’t rent “Dorff on Policework” any time soon. Seriously, if he had watched 3 episodes of Barney Miller before taking this role, he would have been infinitely more convincing. Waving his gun around anywhere but where it could be useful, stumbling through a crime scene, and of course, his determination to find the culprit by becoming a victim are just examples. Not only did the audience groan and snicker, they laughed, hooted, and tsked. Once he calls in the forensic programmer, it was all over.

Enter the dame, Natascha McElhone, who, as an unspecified employee of the Department of Health, has less street cred than Dorff but at least she has an excuse; she also happens to be more resourceful and uses both sides of her brain at the same time to solve the case. Every time these two hapless yahoos are on screen, the movie is tedious and almost-funny. When the Doctor or the website lady (a Sharon Stonesque blonde who apparently wants you to watch her be hurt, but then kills you) are on screen, the movie is genuinely scary.

MPAA Rating R for grisly torture, nudity and language
Release date 8/30/02
Time in minutes 98
Director William Malone
Studio Warner Bros

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Signs

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I am pleased to report that the incredibly effective music in the preview is in the film, a rarity. Also some of the takes used in the preview aren’t as good as the ones in the film; saving the effective stuff for the Real Show. My summary: Not as good as the Sixth Sense but much better than Unbreakable.

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Scream 3

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Despite the online film criticism community being locked out of press screenings of this movie (despite assurances that we would not post until opening day) by wicked Dimension Films, I still went to see it on opening weekend. Maybe it was the lack of internet-generated buzz that made the seats so empty! Maybe it was fear of a Nightmare on Elm Street-style debacle that kept them away. Me personally, I thought it was a hoot, as did my companion.

Quick note: So, I could have had a third companion, who had only seen Scream 1, but he did not groove on the meta-fictional irony of the first movie. Having been unimpressed by the first, he did not see the second. My companion who did come in pointed out that meta-creation is best appreciated by those who appreciate the original genre in the first place. That made sense. So keep in mind that I dig “real” horror movies and I think Scream 2 was the best of the three. Scream 3 is meta meta meta! Without giving any details, let’s say it’s impossible to describe some of the crazy surrealism of the movie. A close approximation would be Sean Connery playing the bad guy in a new James Bond film and talking about the actor named Sean Connery. It’s more than just a wink-wink cameo, though, it would be like, Indy’s hat and whip showing up on President Harrison Ford’s desk in Air Force Two.

Scream 3 reunites some of the old gang (even a posthumous cameo from Jamie Kennedy, the lovable video store clerk from Scream 1 & 2) while Hollywood makes a franchise loosely based on the original true story (sound familiar?). The nudge nudge aspect of that joke is that Hollywood knows it takes a real story and makes its own monster out of it…witness Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. So, Stab 3 is not based on real life events, as Stab1 was. I promise, this sounds like I am giving away stuff but I am so not! Therefore, there are no rules to be broken – no sequel rules as in 2; no classic horror rules as in 1. Thence the super-meta. Basically it was fun and not dissatisfying, but the meta sort of overwhelmed the story after a while. Me, I dig that play-within-a-play stuff, but it doesn’t make for big visceral scares.

Long-missed Parker Posey plays the actress playing Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox)- and oh my god she cracked me up! Parker’s Waiting for Guffman alum Matt Keeslar plays Deputy Dewey (you know, the role played by real life Mr. Courtney Cox David Arquette) but I don’t think that their actor characters were supposed to be dating…should have been, though. Keeslar, formerly known as Box Office Poison With A Bad Agent, seems to have taken some dialect instruction and gotten a new agent! Yay Matt! Forgive him the mustache, it’s all for art. Seinfeld’s Puddy, Jenny McCarthy (perfect) and some newish faces (Scott Foley, Patrick Dempsey, Deon Richmond) help fill out the cast roster and body count. Now, keep in mind, we have to keep track of all the living Scream 1/2 survivors (Sidney, Cotton, Gale, Dewey) as well as the actors who play them and other characters that die/died – as well as keep up with the back story. So this is no brainless horror film with a bunch of Hollywood inside gags (though they are there too)…

And, in keeping with the Scream franchise in general, no real nudity at all!

Wes Craven directs. This can be good or bad, depending on where you stand. Some of his stuff are classics (Nightmare on Elm Street, the Scream franchise), some are…well, Shocker and The Hills Have Eyes 2. I think he did a good job keeping all the story lines straight, but kind of went for the very gratuitous “get on with it” murder spree that flaws all straight horror franchises. I could say it was intentional and ironic, but it felt messier than Scream 2. The laughs were comparable but the suspense was diminished in 3. He did get a tad heavy handed with his various red herrings, but is partially vindicated for one stupid fax sequence by using Heather Matarazzo as a cameo.

So, go see it. It’s fun. See if you can spot the “homages” also known as “satirical rip-offs.”

MPAA Rating R for strong horror violence and language.
Release date 2/4/00
Time in minutes 116
Director Wes Craven
Studio Dimension Films

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Deep Blue Sea (1999)

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Smart sharks. Stupid filmmakers. During the credits, the cursed name of Akiva Goldsman came up, and I knew I was in trouble. The man who wrote and produced the vomitous Lost in Space and wrote the execrable Batman Forever/Batman & Robin – this is a man who needs to be eaten by a smart shark. Samuel L. Jackson’s 3rd movie that even he couldn’t save (Fandom Menace and Sphere). Mr. Jackson wins the award for most un-freaking-expected moment in the whole movie. If you have no intention of seeing it, write me and ask me about it. I’d hate to spoil it, it (and super hunk Thomas Jane) were the only things worth seeing – but they were worth seeing enough to rate the movie “catch it on HBO.”

To the writers’ credit, a lot of what is said about sharks is true. Basically, sharks are the sexiest wonders of evolution in the world. After 65 million years, they have evolved into a perfect carnivorous machine. The cockroach, the coelocanth, and the shark will all kick our Darwinian butts come…the Darwinian equivalent of Judgment Day, but we have reduced them to goofy, inane set pieces in a movie that does little more than prove the Hollywood theory that Movies Made On Water (With The Notable Exception Of Titanic) Never Profit.

Poor underappreciated Renny Harlin. I have yet to hate a movie he has directed. He makes these expensive, epic movies (Cutthroat Island, anyone?) with terrific sequences and incredible stunt work and visuals and pacing and then people crab about the dialogue. Someone please raise your hand: Who saw Cliffhanger expecting the dialogue from a Coen brothers movie? He doesn’t know much about the English language: After a computerized explanation of the brain research they were doing I actually thought, “Hey, I bet this would be easy to translate into any language.” Harlin does know about the language of action sequences. He should get into Kung Fu John Woo Jackie Chan type movies, whose script shortcomings American audiences are more ready to forgive. Long Kiss Goodnight is *awesome!* His action scenes in Deep Blue Sea, even if you have no idea how they could possibly be relevant to the plot, are totally full-blown pro. I was gripping my seat and freaking out in a scene with a helicopter.

Oh heavens but the whole script is pretty dang dumb. Visually exciting but D-U-M. Why enlarge the shark’s brains when you could, uh, use more sharks? Why harvest a “lot” when you could harvest a little and synthesize? Why explain to the sub-cretinous popcorn-chomping masses through digitally enhanced instant gratification what the heck all this brain talk is leading up to? My friends out there in the neuroscience field, please don’t see this movie at all. You will go mad. (Note to my frequent readers: I really, truly am friends with rocket scientists, neuroscientists, sexy-accented foreigners, actors, movie people, swordfighters, and all these other folk I frequently reference. I am their friends solely to boost my career and make me look cooler in my reviews. Right guys? Guys?)

The set is very cool. Catch it on HBO, have some friends over and play MST3K during the silly parts (watch for that gratuitous disrobing!), and admire that set. The dialogue doesn’t string together well, but the geography of that complicated set does. Remember in Armageddon how the Mir was all jumbled and you couldn’t tell where anyone was without the little LCD? Deep Blue Sea (soon to be known around the studios as Deep Red Ink) somehow avoided that editing trap. The sharks are pretty cool looking, someone gets to ask Samuel L. Jackson if he is “The Man,” (to which the answer is, of course, affirmative), and Thomas Jane is HOT – despite being that skanky mustached guy in Boogie Nights. And that girl Saffron Burrows (*there’s* a porn name for you!) is cute too, I guess. Sexual tension – you bet – between LL Cool J and his parrot, that is.

They shot this movie at the Fox Studios in Baja, aka the Titanic tank, also home to In Dreams, and you know what? Not just using logic, mind you, that the most kick ass water-tank would be home to every water movie ever made from here on out (avoiding Waterworld’s budget-escalating set losses) – but you can just freaking TELL when people are in that tank. The water is crystalline, it’s lit from below, and even when it’s murky, it’s clean. Guys: install fish.

MPAA Rating R for graphic shark attacks, language.
Release date 7/28/99
Time in minutes 105
Director Renny Harlin
Studio Warner Brothers

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The Haunting

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I should say right off the bat that I did not see the original film, The Haunting of Hill House, and I am assured by several people that the original is better (how often is it not?). However, the original does not have THX and by gum they don’t have THIS house. This movie is worth seeing just for the house and for the sound design. I haven’t been this aurally impressed since The Ghost And The Darkness. (Whatever you may think of that film, it was as deserving of its sound Oscar as Saving Private Ryan) Some people go to a huge, insanely huge, amazing gorgeous, impossibly immaculate house in the middle of nowhere and have the wits scared out of them. That’s all you need to know. I was plenty scared during a good portion of this movie – more scared than I was at any time by The Blair Witch Project (but not as enthralled, if that makes sense). If there was an Oscar to be given to Locations, this movie should win it. It had BETTER be nominated for Production Design, oh my lord!

Liam Neeson sleepwalks through his role as the psychologist who has led them all here. Catherine Zeta-Jones pigeonholes her exquisite self as a sexually confident Uber-babe with more moxie than manifestness. Owen Wilson sticks his battered nose into a goodly portion of trouble most of the movie and, like Zeta-Jones, is kind of unimportant. Lili Taylor is the star of this movie – and despite having to shoulder the brunt of the inevitable goofiness attendant in any ghost story, she really comes as close as anyone can to making us believe at least her part of it. Certainly, much of the haunting implicit in the title is expressed via computer, but it’s not as over blown as The Mummy was. Well, until the end. But a great deal of the effects are or look like real things rather than computer things – blowing curtains and the like. I appreciated, from a design perspective, most of how the haunting of Hill House was portrayed. Some things are left for me to rationalize, like the silly, wooden monologue about the house by the housekeeper – I think there was a reason and I think I know what it was but I think it was left on the cutting room floor by mistake. C’est la vie.

I mentioned the sound design earlier. This house, this amazing house which, not unlike the crashed alien craft in Alien, seems to have its own biology and life, breathes. All the time. It’s not a draft, it’s not rumbling score pushing the mood, it’s this great alpha wave or delta wave or something, tickling your bones from within with its low, grumbly register and sleepy rhythm. It’s freaking cool man, and it really added to the enjoyment of the movie overall for me. OK, so some set piece scenes kind of just happen and no big deal – but then seeming throwaway scenes pick up the ball and keep you interested. Sure, Liam leaned on the base of a huge marble column and the foam that shielded a fall against that column gave a little. OK, the various images of the late owner of Hill House are…uh…operatically over the top to the point of drawing laughs from the audience. So what! It’s exciting, the sound grabs your ankles under your chair and Taylor’s performance keeps you interested until the very end when you are just marking time until Zeta-Jone’s blouse falls off. Which it doesn’t, guys, sorry. But by then you have invested over 100 minutes in the film, you should see it through. Man that house is amazing. Every door, every chaise, every light fixture, every statue, every room’s floor! The floors alone should win an Oscar.

My friend, who had seen it before I had, made a very wise observation: Zeta-Jones is stunningly beautiful, but once you get used to her, she is just kind of there. Taylor, who is non-standard in appearance in general, looks more beautiful even in scenes with Zeta-Jones because she is *acting* so well. Not that Zeta-Jones is a weak performer, but her character has nothing to do. Ultimately your eyes are naturally drawn to Taylor instead of that hot Welsh lady.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/23/99
Time in minutes 112
Director Jan de Bont
Studio Dreamworks