Friday, October 3, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF "11:14" (2003)

First-time writer & director Greg Marcks' suspenseful crime saga "11:14" (*** out of ****) belongs to a sub-genre of accident movies that feature an ensemble cast in a spatially fractured story that rearranges events to heighten its impact. This is one of those contemporary movies that contain five apparently unrelated plots that all converge at fourteen minutes after eleven P.M with dire results for the participants. Mind you, "11:14" isn't a big, socially-conscious, important movie, but its cast is first-rate, including Patrick Swayze, Barbara Hershey, Hilary Swank, and Henry Thomas. Incidentally, Hilary Swank served as one of the producers on it, and Marcks' directing is sure, certain, and swift with all the action clocking in at a trim 86 minutes. The openingcredits with racing sequences along the streets is visually appealing.

The movie opens with Jack (Henry Thomas of "E.T.") cruising along in his car late one evening without a care in the world when something suddenly springs out of nowhere and smashes into the front of his vehicle. Through the windshield, Jack spots a deer crossing sign. When he climbs out of his car to check the damage, he discovers to his surprise and chagrin that the animal is actually a human body. Hastily, Jack pitches the fifth of liquor that he had been nursing into the nearby woods on the roadside and sets about to dispose of the body. No sooner has he begun this unsavory task than a friendly, helpful, female motorist, Norma (Barbara Hershey of "The Stunt Man") wheels up alongside him and offers to alert the local constabulary with her cell phone. Jack lies and says that he has notified the law already, but Norma points out that the chief of police is her personal friend. She calls in the accident. After Norma has driven away, Jack hurriedly stuffs the stiff into the trunk of his car. Just as Jack is about to drive away, he sees blue lights fill his rear view mirror. Officer Hannagan (Clark Gregg of "One Hour Photo") initially believes that Jack is trying to cart the deer off when he learns to his shock that the body is that of a girl. This has been a trying night for Hannagan who has just made an arrest in a convenience store robbery and his two prisoners in the back of his cruiser.

"11:14" qualifies as one of those movies that you cannot reveal much about it or you wind up blunting the impact. Other story lines include three teens joyriding in their parents' mini-van. One of the sarcastic passengers winds up losing an essential body private part when it is severed from his body in an accident.

This concise and compelling drama with a wealth of irony is worth watching no matter how old you are and it holds up well on repeated viewings. Of course, some of the stuff is incredible, such as the kid who dies when a stone angel in a graveyard falls on his face during intercourse and kills him. Nevertheless, the characters here are very interesting.

Barbara Hershey radiates in an all-too-brief role as Patrick Swayze's wife. Meanwhile, Swayze excels as a father worried about his daughter's amorous exploits and the low-life scum that she dates. "11:14" ranks as one of Swayze's best roles in years. Hilary Swank steals the show as a wacky convenience store clerk who cannot lie even when lying could keep her out of jail. Shawn Hatosy is credible as the agitated boyfriend and Rachel Leigh Cook is superb as Swayze's sexually active daughter.

FILM REVIEW OF "1408" (2007)

Watching the creepy John Cusack horror chiller "1408" (*** out of ****) reminded me of the spooky Jack Nicholson screamer "The Shining," except everything that occurred on a grand scale in an entire hotel in the Nicholson picture is confined to one single room occupancy in the Cusack epic. Not surprisingly, talented Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom of "Derailed" and scenarists Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski took their haunted room opus "1408" from a short story by "Shining" author Stephen King. "1408" concerns a notorious room at the Hotel Dauphin in New York City that nobody spends more than an hour in before they either commit suicide or die from natural causes. Compared with previous haunted house movies, this gripping, white-knuckled adaptation of a Stephen King yarn doesn't break any new ground. Nevertheless, Hafstrom illustrates that with good writing and agile directing 'less' can actually mean 'more.' Actor John Cusack, who has never starred in a throat-throttling tale of terror, is virtually the whole show and his persuasive performance rivals the first-rate computer generated special effects. Hardcore gorehounds may grimace at this PG-13 nail biter because you won't see private body parts hacked up and fed to German Shepherds as in "Hostel: Part II." Basically, "1408" qualifies as a stimulating, old-fashioned horror movie whose psychological plot invites favorable comparison with Rod Serling's venerable TV show "The Twilight Zone"

Mike Enslin (John Cusack of "Identity") has acquired a 'ghost buster' reputation for the books he has written where he exposes haunted houses with supernatural apparitions as hoaxes. Mike doesn't believe in ghosts, but he is as game as he is curious. One day a postcard arrives about the Hotel Dauphin and its room 1408. He tries to register at the Dauphin to spend a night in the room, but the innkeepers refuse to accommodate our hero. Enslin's publisher Sam Farrell (Tony Shalhoub of TV's "Monk") threatens the hotel with a civil rights lawsuit. Halfheartedly, hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson of "Snakes on a Plane") allows Mike to check in, but not before he enlightens the author about 1408's tragic history. Earlier, Mike had discovered in his research that 4 people killed themselves in 1408, but Olin surprises him with more revelations. Fifty-six other guests died from natural causes after they stayed in 1408. One of Olin's maids gouged out her eyes out when he left her unattended in the room for a few minutes. Predictably, Mike dismisses Olin's admonitions as hokum. He points out that he has been at some of the worst nightmare palaces in the U.S. and proved that none were haunted. Mike's skepticism doesn't get him very far after he shuts the door to 1408 and settles in for the evening. Less than twenty minutes later strange things transpire. The AM-FM clock radio begins an hour-long countdown and the classic top-40 Carpenter's tune "We've Only Just Begun" splits his eardrums. No matter how many times that Mike shuts off or unplugs the AM-FM clock radio, the possessed appliance recovers. Mike finally goes over the edge when a window inexplicably slams down on his hand and draws blood. Mike decides it's time to bail, but he's too late. When he tries to unlock the door from the inside with the key, the keyhole devours the key and the knob snaps off in Mike's fist when he yanks on it.

"Derailed" director Mike Hafstrom relies on imagination rather than blood and gore to frighten the fiddlesticks out of you in ''1408." Of course, he resorts to the time-honored horror movie tactics of having something leap out at you without warning, but he doesn't plow this tactic into the ground. Moreover, he refrains from harrowing depictions of axe-wielding felons on chopping sprees. There are several moments in "1408" when it appears as if nothing is occurring in the quaint hotel room. For example, Mike uses his laptop to instant message his ex-wife Lily (Mary McCormack of "Mystery, Alaska," who lives in Manhattan, to tell her about his predicament. However, after the N.Y.P.D. investigates, they inform Lily that they found nobody in room 1408. At another point, Mike tries desperately to escape from the room by climbing out onto the ledge, but what he sees outside scares him so badly that he returns to the room. Not long afterward, Mike has hallucinations that his young daughter Katie (newcomer Jasmine Jessica Anthony) who died from cancer has come back to console him. Is Mike going insane? Does evil really dwell in the hotel? "1408" emerges as one of the better horror movies about demonic hotels. Hafstrom's suspenseful 94-minute saga surpasses the half-baked Ashley Judd psycho drama "Bug," splashes less blood and gore than Eli Roth's "Hostel: Part II," and puts its hero through more mind-blowing ordeals than Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson faced in their own off-beat serial killers-in-a-hotel-room thriller "Vacancy." Altogether, "1408" is one eerie creep show that delivers the shivers without sickening you with its skullduggery.

FILM REVIEW OF "10,000 B.C." (2007)

The romantic fantasy adventure "10,000 B.C." (** out of ****) resembles a gentler, kinder, younger version of Mel Gibson's bloodthirsty, R-rated "Apocalypto." Predictable for all of its generic 109 minutes, this derivative PG-13 epic qualifies as little more than slickly-made hokum for teens that haven't seen better movies. The scenic "10,000 B.C." borrows bits and pieces from "The Jungle Book," "Braveheart," "Mysterious Island," the John Wayne western "The Searchers," and "The Chronicles of Narnia." The impressive computer-generated special effects that recreate the era impart more depth than the simple-minded screenplay by "Independence Day" writer & director Roland Emmerich and co-scribe Harald Kloser. The most exciting scenes depict ersatz larger-than-life animals. First, huge woolly mammoths go on the rampage twice with suspenseful results. These brutes boast tusks the size of tree branches and resemble the offspring of a prehistoric Mastodon and the "Sesame Street" critter Mr. Snuffleupagus. Later, a saber-tooth tiger confronts our hero in a pit and they eyeball each other. This shallow, occasionally amusing, formulaic Mesolithic melodrama chronicles a teenaged warrior's efforts to rescue his sweetheart from a marauding band of savage horsemen. These marauders ride for a personage called 'the Almighty,' and this pseudo-deity has one village after another enslaved as labor for his pyramid-building schemes.

"10,000 B.C." opens with actor Omar Sharif narrating the story. Sharif's narration clarifies nothing that anybody with half of a brain couldn't have figured out alone. Anyway, the story occurs in the prehistoric past in the Valley of Yagahi where native hunters have raised families for generations. This tribe of hunters depends on killing great shaggy mammoths that provide them with meat, fuel, clothing, and building materials in the same way either the buffalo served the Plains Indians or whales served Eskimo tribes. Times, however, are changing, and the biggest change occurs when Yagahi hunters find the lost child, the lone survivor of a slain people, and usher her into their camp. The tribal spirit woman, Old Mother (Mona Hammond of "Dr. Who: The Rise of the Cybermen"), embraces young, blue-eyed Evolet (nubile Camilla Belle of "Practical Magic") and experiences a glimpse of the frightening future. Old Mother prophesizes that Evolet will assume a prominent role in the tribe's destiny. She also proclaims that a champion will arise to wed Evolet and lead their people.

As a child, the hero D'Leh (Steven Strait of "Undiscovered") struggles with prejudice. His father abandoned the tribe without explanation and so D'Leh is an object of scorn by all but the warrior Tic'Tic (Cliff Curtis of "Blow") who promised D'Leh's dad that he'd raise him like his own son. As children, D'Leh and Evolet fall in love, and our hero vows to never leave her. Later, when he learns that Evolet will be forced to marry the best hunter, D'Leh resolves to defeat his competitors. He slays the biggest mammoth more by luck than skill and claims not only the prized tribal white spear but also Evolet. Eventually, D'Leh confesses and gives up both Evolet and the spear. Before they can elope, a horde of treacherous brigands known as 'the four-legged demons' for the horses that they ride when they attack the Yagahi village and take prisoners. Later, D'Leh has a close encounter with a sacred saber-toothed tiger and lives to tell about it. He assembles a multiethnic, army of African warriors to follow him to the villain's riverside setting. The Almighty, an unseen Goliath in a veil, has scores of mastodons employed to pull the gigantic stones up ramps into place. Our heroes infiltrate the slave camp and incite a rebellion.

Some scenes seem inadvertently funny. For example, when the villainous slavers drive the villagers into a sea of high grass, the carnivores that they encounter look hilarious. They look like the offspring of the T-Rex from "Jurassic Park" and the giant goofy chicken in the Jules Verne movie "Mysterious Island." Meanwhile, director Roland Emmerich deliberately chose to have the heroes speak in English while the villains snarl in a guttural dialect that requires subtitles. Happily, Burt Reynolds look-alike Stephen Strait and Elizabeth Taylor look-alike Camilla Belle make a convincing couple, but their romance is strictly your typical boy-gets-gal, boy-loses-gal, and then boy-wins-gal back. Sadly, "10,000 B.C." breaks no new ground with either its storytelling or its stunts. Altogether, the storytelling is bland to the point of being generic and the stunts are as tame as the violence is bloodless.