The third of 2008’s first-person-perspective horror outings after Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead, Quarantine uses its aesthetic conceit for a zombie tale that’s not as frightening as it should be, but still better than the average Hollywood scare-a-thon. An adaptation of Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s Spanish-language original [Rec], John Erick Dowdle’s film is a straightforward story of a news reporter, firemen and police officers, and average citizens all trapped by the government in an apartment building wracked by a rabies-like virus that turns the infected into flesh-eating monsters. The gimmick is that the action is viewed through the video lens of local TV reporter Angela’s (Jennifer Carpenter) cameraman (Steve Harris), a by-now hackneyed device which nonetheless pays mild dividends as an immersive technique that successfully creates the illusion that one is an immediate, involved player in the mayhem. Director Dowdle’s sharp framing doesn’t call great attention to itself – a shot of a body plummeting to the floor is a particularly deft example of carefully staged pseudo-verité. When all hell finally breaks loose, Quarantine begins to sputter in part because its scares feel too familiar, and not unruly enough for what’s ostensibly presented as found-footage chaos. What creepiness director Dowdle does generate, though, can be attributed mainly to his shrewd pre-zombie set-up, in which he manages the not-inconsiderable feat of endearingly humanizing his soon-to-be-terrorized protagonists.
Single-minded and suitably rough around the edges, Taken offers B-movie action via a story that plays out like a modern-day version of Hardcore. After a lifetime spent putting his covert-ops job before his family, divorcé Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), in an attempt to rehabilitate his relationship with 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), reluctantly agrees to let her take a trip to Paris. Mere minutes after her arrival, however, she’s snatched by Euroscum, which is bad news for the snatchers, given that Bryan is uniquely equipped to hunt and kill them. Director Pierre Morel (District B13) briskly sets-up and executes his premise, depicting globalization as having created terrifying new hazards for young, pretty, naïve girls, while also understatedly casting Bryan’s tactical skill-sets as akin to parenting. Taken stokes audience (especially male) rage with its little-girl-lost-into-sexual-slavery scenario, then satisfies bloodlust with a series of hectic, brutal fight scenes in which Neeson – looking spry and granite-tough – viciously dispatches hordes of Bosnian, French and Arab capitalist pigs and/or immoral deviants. Morel’s visually chopped-up action would have further benefited from the clean, muscular compositions of his District B13 set pieces, but it’s difficult to quibble with a lean, mean genre flick that has the ability to both thrill and – with a late-act gunshot to an innocent bystander – also surprise.
Among Coraline’s many triumphs is its employment of 3-D as an immersive technique that doesn’t bring the action to you (via gimmicky shots of stuff leaping out at the audience) but, rather, invites you inside the action’s cinematic space. The rich, layered depth of director Henry Selick’s 3-D images provides a purely sensory thrill, amplifying the down-the-rabbit-hole vibe of his story about a young girl named Coraline who escapes her drab regular life by crawling into a parallel one through a small door in her family’s new rented home. Based on a book by Neil Gaiman, whose alternate-reality narrative is analogous to his prior Mirrormask (and, of course, Alice in Wonderland), Selick’s stop-motion-animated story is dark and magical, a saga of adolescent discontent and longing that so dynamically careens between set pieces of elation and dread that one hardly has time to soak in all the twirling, tumbling visual marvels enveloping the screen. What Coraline discovers on the other side of the secret door is a warm, cheery facsimile of her domestic world, where a doting “other mother” lavishes love and attention on her with such glee that Coraline is initially able to overlook the fact that things seem too good to be true, and that her replica parents (and everyone else in sight) has menacing black buttons for eyes. Those button eyes affectingly speak to Coraline’s desire to be seen (and intimate the threat of her other-mother’s gaze), and are emblematic of the chilling, subtly handled means by which Selick evokes primal adolescent fears and anxieties. With sinister surrealism and effervescent showmanship, Coraline spins a fanciful yarn whose every facet seems drawn from its plucky protagonist’s psyche.
Jason returns to theaters this weekend, with a reboot that's shiny, brutal, and - aside from ditching the campiness - not very different from his many other outings. It's far preferable to Confessions of a Shopaholic, but not nearly as good as James Gray's excellent Two Lovers.
Leave it to Woody Allen to muck up a threesome involving Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz. Then again, given that Allen’s recent track record has been uniformly blah – to the point that even bemoaning his fall-from-grace has become a tiresome requirement of critiquing his yearly output – it’s hardly surprising to find Vicky Cristina Barcelona tripping over its faux-salacious selling point. Via narration so heavy on exposition it immediately tips over into self-parody, Allen’s film makes clear, in its opening scene, that best friend protagonists Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are polar opposites, the former a levelheaded yuppie loyal to her responsible fiancé, and the latter a free-spirit sexpot who only knows what she doesn’t want. That these two share no similarities makes their friendship seem like a screenwriting device, but then, everything about Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels that way, with the awful narration and equally unnatural dialogue (Johansson doesn’t utter a single authentic-sounding sentence in the entire film) all defined by their Woody-ness, to the point that one can almost hear him reading the scenes himself off the page. The contrived story involves the duo’s unexpected relationship with a Spanish painter (Javier Bardem) who rocks their world even after inviting into the bedroom his murderous, suicidal ex-wife (an overdoing-it Penélope Cruz). Bardem oozes charm as the impossibly calm, open-minded, seductive artist, but his character, like Cruz’s hysterical nutjob, comes off as a one-note concept, not an actual person. Once again working in a beautiful European locale with which he has no intrinsic connection, Allen’s direction proves blandly impersonal, thereby reducing the proceedings to a travelogue snapshot of Barcelona’s key tourist spots.
David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Them uses, as its basis, [spoilers follow] a killing spree perpetrated by a group of French kids between the ages of 10 and 15. The youthfulness of its villains is, I presume, supposed to make its story more chilling, though the opposite unfortunately holds true. Once it becomes clear that schoolteacher Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and boyfriend Lucas (Michaël Cohen) are being stalked by middle-schoolers, it’s hard not to feel embarrassment for them, two adults who can’t kick the crap out of a bunch of filthy, scampering punks whose main scare tactic is the use of a children’s rattling toy. Then again, Clémentine and Lucas are the types of dim-witted horror protagonists who eagerly separate from each other to investigate areas where they’re bound to be sitting ducks, who scream instead of silently hiding, and who barrel forward with all the thoughtfulness of a donkey tumbling down a flight of stairs. Directors Moreau and Palud stage a thrilling sequence in which the duo escape from their isolated, rural Bucharest house – which is randomly preyed upon by pint-sized hooded attackers in the dead of night – as well as a mildly taut final chase. Yet given that it forces one to root for dolts incapable of properly assessing their traumatic situation, as well as affects a based-on-a-true-story guise while indulging in stale genre clichés (such as an attic room decorated in Halloween-borrowed flapping sheets), the film is mostly an exercise in frustration.
February's release schedule is underwhelming to say the least, meaning that with a few exceptions - such as James Gray's excellent Two Lovers, out next week - don't expect to see much upcoming positivity around these here parts. That certainly holds true for this latest batch of links, which doesn't - unfortunately - feature a review of the promising (but yet-unseen by me) Coraline.