by Steve Habrat
About three years ago, director Robert Schwentke’s geriatric action-comedy RED became a respectable success. It raked in a nice chunk of change, it seemed to charm anyone who went to the theater to see it, and it even went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Picture-Musical or Comedy category. While I found RED to be a fairly entertaining comic book outing, it really didn’t win me over like it did with almost everyone else who ventured to the theater to check out Helen Mirren with a machine gun. The absolute last thing that I thought it needed was a sequel, but apparently Hollywood thought differently. Enter RED 2, an action comedy that practically throws its back out to capture the same small, off-beat charms of the first film in a summer blockbuster season crammed with giant robots, monsters, and other, better superheroes. While new director Dean Parisot may have had his heart in the right place, RED 2 is a sluggish and stale shoot-‘em-up that feels obligated to incorporate every action movie cliché imaginable. The returning cast members sure seem spirited and the newcomers are relishing the idea of spending time with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich, but after a while, all of them start to seem bored, confused, and, much to my horror, a bit winded. Come on, guys, pick it up!
Former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) is trying to live a normal life with his feisty girlfriend, Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker). One day while shopping at Costco, Frank and Sarah bump into paranoid buddy Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich), who warns Frank that there are people after them. Frank dismisses Marvin, and moments later, Marvin’s car is blown up. Sarah and Frank attend Marvin’s funeral, even though Frank is convinced that Marvin is not dead, and afterward, Frank is taken to the Yankee White Facility to be interrogated. While in custody, the Yankee White Facility is attacked by Jack Horton (played by Neal McDonough), who is there to find Frank, but right before Frank is going to be killed, Marvin, who turns out to be alive, saves the day. Frank and Sarah go on the run with Marvin, who explains that they were listed as participants in a secret Cold War mission called “Nightshade,” which revolved around sneaking a nuclear weapon into the Kremlin piece by piece. As it turns out, that mysterious weapon is now in high demand. Just when the trio believes that things can’t get any worse, they learn that their old friend Victoria Winters (played by Helen Mirren) and top contract killer Han Jo-bae (played by Lee Byung-hun) have been hired to kill them. As Frank, Sarah, and Marvin travel the world to clear their names, they come face to face with the beautiful Russian secret agent Katya (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), a deadly assassin called “The Frog” (played by David Thewlis), and the crazy Dr. Edward Bailey (played by Anthony Hopkins), the man responsible for the creation of the weapon.
After getting off to a cloudy start, RED 2 quickly morphs into another seen-it-all-before action comedy. While RED was more humorous than it was flat-out funny, RED 2 can’t seem to deliver a good laugh to save its life. The only one who doesn’t fumble through her one-liners is Mirren, who really knows how to make even the most wooden joke cut like a knife. It is one thing that the jokes come off as lazy, but it’s another when the action can’t seem to ever get your adrenaline pumping. There are the expected car chases through narrow Paris streets, there are the fistfights that are meant to show us that Bruce Willis can still throw a mean right hook, and there are the Gatling-gun shootouts that turn cars and buildings into Swiss cheese, but all of these would-be rushes seem like they were executed by using a how-to manual for action films. The only time that Parisot really adds any personality to all the compact destruction is near the end, when Byung-hun and Mirren hop into a ice blue sports car and swerve around whizzing bullets like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. The entire sequence is anchored by Mirren’s ability to barely raise an eyebrow as cars go flipping end over end behind them. This is basically where the fun begins and ends in RED 2.
The true strength of RED lied with its all-star cast of energetic veterans who really made the film something worth talking about. While the cast of RED 2 is clearly having a good time with each other, their performances are a mixed bag. As far as the returning cast members go, Willis is the one headlining the mayhem and he looks to be right at home while doing it. He jumps, shoots, kicks, punches, and bleeds like a champion, but as the story progresses, he almost seems to be loosing interest in saving the world for the hundredth time. As Marvin, Malkovich dials back some of his acid-flashback craziness, which is a shame because his character relied on the idea that he had more than a few screws loose. Parker is clearly enjoying the fact that she is surrounded by a handful of legends, but she probably gives the laziest performance in the entire film. She basically just constantly gets mad at Frank for having dated Katya several years earlier. Mirren probably gives the best performance of the film as Victoria, who doesn’t remotely seem phased by anything going on around her. As far as the newcomers are concerned, Jones is here to give the film a bit more sex appeal. She is vampy and fun, but we are barely given the chance to get to know her character. Byung-hun turns up as the usual unstoppable hitman who can, you guessed it, kill someone with almost ANYTHING. It appears that Malkovich handed all of his crazy pills over to Hopkins, who jolly-goods his way through a crackers performance as Dr. Edward Bailey. Rounding out the cast is Neal McDonough as Jack Horton, the most boring bad guy ever. Seriously, he even has a boring name!
While the original RED had quite a few positives working in its favor, the film found success mostly because it was released during a slow month at the box office. The film came out at the end of October, with absolutely no competition whatsoever. RED 2 has been released in the middle of July, on a weekend that is usually reserved for a major studio release that is sure to make close to $100 million. It is surrounded by epic releases that almost dwarf it and make it seem like a wimpy effort. While it could be argued that RED 2 offers a nice change of pace from the usual superhero movies and alien invasion blockbusters, the film is still trying to be an action movie without bringing anything new to the table, which is really a shame. Overall, RED 2 isn’t a particularly awful film, but it is one made with absolutely no artistic vision. The tone is flat, the plot is dull, the action recycled, and the acting all over the place. Maybe if the studio shot for a release date earlier in the year or later this fall, these issues may not have been as noticeable. If there is a RED 3 in the works, which I’m sure that there is, maybe they should start rethinking it or hire a director willing to shake things up a bit.
by Steve Habrat
If there is one thing in this world that makes absolutely no sense to me, it is when Hollywood decides to remake a classic horror film and do a shot-by-shot redo of the film. We saw it happen with Gus Van Sant’s color remake of Psycho and we all know how THAT one turned out (if you can believe it, one of my film professors though it was brilliant…). In 2006, Hollywood got the bright idea to revisit director Richard Donner’s 1976 demonic thriller The Omen, one of the best horror films to emerge from the heyday of gritty, blood-under-the-nails horror. The film may have been one of the countless imitators made in the wake of such demonic horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist but The Omen remains one of the titans of this subgenre because of its lingering post-Watergate chill and its bleak inverted-crucifix conclusion that practically leaves your heart pounding out of your chest. Basically, the original is a must for die-hard fans of horror. I can’t say the same about the absolutely pointless and flat post 9/11 update. Made to be released on 6/6/06 (I’m being serious), The Omen 2006 attempts to use horrific current events (9/11, Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami) as its gloomy backdrop but then does little else new or exciting with the story. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this one. Absolutely nothing has been changed.
For those who are not familiar with The Omen, I’ll provide a brief plot synopsis. After American diplomat Robert Thorn (Played by Leiv Schreiber) is told that his newborn son died shortly after birth, the distraught Robert grapples with how to break the news to his wife, Katherine (Played by Julia Stiles). The hospital’s priest suggests that Robert adopt another newborn child whose mother died during childbirth and has no other living family member. To spare Katherine the pain, Robert accepts this offer and the Thorn’s raise the child, Damien, as their own. Five years pass and Robert is made Deputy Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the Thorns begin a new, lavish life in London. Everything is great for the Thorns but soon a serious of bizarre events begin to surround Damien (Played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). After a horrific suicide at Damien’s fifth birthday party, Robert is approached by Father Brennan (Played by Peter Postlewaite), who claims to have information on Damien’s birthmother. As the events grow more and more disturbing, Robert is forced to humor Father Brennan and he begins searching for more information on the boy. He gets help from a spooked photographer named Keith Jennings (Played by David Thewlis), who may be marked for death. Meanwhile, a mysterious new nanny named Mrs. Baylock (Played by Mia Farrow) has come to the Thorn household and begun watching over Damien, protecting him at any cost.
Directed by John Moore, The Omen 2006 is shot like a gothic music video and frantically edited together to imitate a strobe light. It’s incredibly stylish and symbolically obvious (the color red surrounds Damien everywhere he goes) to the point where all you can do is roll your eyes. The death scenes are overly grisly and amped up to outdo the chilling sudden demises found in the original film. The sets look like leftovers from David Fincher’s Seven and when an ominous mood fails Moore, he just clouds up the sky and allows a little thunder and lightning to make things creepy or simply dims the light in places where he shouldn’t. He also falls back on shaky camera shots in the hopes that it makes the scene just a tad more interesting. Outside of exploiting real life disasters as the rise of the antichrist, Moore and screenwriter David Seltzer inject a series of bizarre hallucinations and nightmares suffered by Katherine. They are composed of blinding reds and whites as demons in ceremonial robes stalk Katherine in baroque bathrooms and red clad Damien waves a noose around. These scenes are brought to us in rapid fire flashes that are accompanied by loud bangs on the soundtrack, which Moore assumes automatically makes them scary. To the jittery horror viewer, this may all be extremely terrifying but to those of us who are seasoned veterans, it’s all very cheap and lazy.
If the movie itself isn’t dull enough, the acting doesn’t really do much to spice things up. Schreiber and Stiles are grossly miscast in their roles and look laughable compared to the original’s Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Schreiber looks stuffy and uncomfortable trying to prevent the rise of the antichrist while Stiles seems too young and bored as she sulks after their demon seed. Davey-Fitzpatrick could rank as one of the worst child actors to hit the screen in quite some time. He fails to really shake us up like he should. Moore instructs him to glare at everyone like they refused to buy him a toy he so desperately wanted. Things really get laughable at the end when Moore asks him to turn from distant child into thrashing demon. He looks like he is throwing a phony temper tantrum and it is downright awful. Postlewaite works his ass off as the perpetually terrified Father Brennan but there is just too little of him to really save this junk heap. Thewlis is likable enough as Jennings, a photographer who captures some sinister photographs. He makes up for the stiff and out-of-place Schreiber but the two just don’t have the chemistry that they should. Rounding out the main players is Farrow, who seems to be having a devilishly good time as Mrs. Baylock. She gives the film the suspense and unease that it so desperately wants.
As if the lack of any surprises and lukewarm performances wasn’t enough, The Omen is littered with glaring screw-ups in the script. Near the climax of the film, Robert receives news that someone very close to him has mysteriously died and upon learning that news, Robert tells Keith that he wants Damien dead. In the next scene, Robert goes to see a mysterious priest who instructs him on how to kill the child. As the priest explains the ritual, the distraught ambassador becomes sick to his stomach and claims that he cannot kill a child. Perhaps he forgot his previous statement? There are plenty more “What the hell?” moments like this to be found throughout the film so make sure you are prepared. As someone who admires the original film and appreciates its slow build-up, I say skip this utterly pointless remake and seek out the original. Somehow, it is more realistic and it’s all the more chilling due to its gritty presentation. If you are determined to see the modern interpretation, well, I suppose if you are in the market for a nap, this one will help put you to sleep.
The Omen 2006 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After a string of producing gigs this past summer, Steven Spielberg jumps behind the camera and gives us War Horse, one half of his directorial efforts this past holiday season (The other is The Adventures of Tintin). War Horse, based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a finely polished Oscar vehicle that lures out the tears while also bringing families together and making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Spielberg, you sly dog, you! Put your notion that War Horse is just a big budget Hallmark movie that should have been straight to video on the back burner and embrace this sweeping, innocent tale that makes you, the viewer, feel like it is being told to you by your expert storytelling uncle next to a flickering fire on a snowy night. Like any good story, it does take a little while for War Horse to really hit its stride, but when World War I breaks out, the film really draws us in and gets intimate with our easy emotions. War Horse is unabashedly old fashioned, but that actually adds to the event and sent my enjoyment of the film through the roof.
War Horse begins with the birth of a beautiful thoroughbred horse and grows up being admired by Albert Narracott (Played by Jeremy Irvine). A few years pass and Albert’s father Ted Narracott (Played by Peter Mullan) ends up at a horse auction where he is looking for a horse to plow his fields. He finds himself hypnotized by the horse’s beauty and ends up biding all of his money for the horse and brings it home to his horrified wife Rose (Played by Emily Watson) and the delighted Albert. Albert convinces his mother to allow him to keep the horse and train it. He ends up naming the horse Joey and the two bond instantly. Soon, Ted’s landlord Lyons (Played by David Thewlis) comes knocking for rent, but due to the high price Ted paid for Joey, he is unable to come up with the money. Albert agrees to train Joey to plow the fields so that his father can come up with the money owed to Lyons. Shortly after their agreement, World War I breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army for the amount he owes Lyons. Distraught and furious, Albert volunteers for the army to find Joey and be reunited with him. This takes both Joey and Albert on an adventure they will never forget across lush countryside and bombed out no-mans-lands.
Relentlessly sentimental with emotional cues from John Williams’ majestic score, War Horse is pure Oscar gold that will effortlessly nab a Best Picture nomination by the Academy. Trust me, I’m not complaining about that as I absolutely bought every cheap emotional tug this film sold me. The message is as simple as they get, Spielberg once again praying for peace and begging us to all get along. This time, he uses a regal beast in the form of Joey to send this message. Many may also quickly label the film nothing but child’s play, but that only lasts for the first forty minutes of the movie. Once World War I breaks out, War Horse shifts from wispy children’s tale to muddy and weary war film. Spielberg makes these transitions fluently and he more than makes up for the slow opening by molding a crowd pleasing ending that will add fuel to the fire for those who dislike the blockbuster director and satisfy those who enjoy his work (People like me). One sequence at the end is absolutely stunning and spellbinding, forcing enemies to work together. I will reveal no more than that.
If the film somehow doesn’t nab a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, the actors surely will. Emily Watson’s Rose conveys infinite amounts of hope, support, and affection with a stare. Her eyes really sell her character and she gets some of the films sappiest lines, ones that will really tickle the fans of the Best Adapted Screenplay department. Tom Hiddleston shows up as the gracious Captain Nicholls. His commiseration for Albert’s heartbreak really makes his character memorable. I’ve always found Hiddleston to be able to really morph into his characters he takes on and Captain Nicholls is no different. Niels Arestrup shows up as a French grandfather who radiates with warmth. Mullan’s Ted is a haunted soul; one who has been exposed to the horrors life has to offer. But War Horse really benefits from the performance by Jeremy Irvine as Albert. His love for Joey is unbearably authentic and his dedication for his family can’t be matched. He is old fashioned and cheesy at times, but it fits for a project like this.
Spielberg crafts war sequences that rival what he produced in Saving Private Ryan and they truly are rousing. A tracking shot in the trenches shows us petrified yet proud young men laying down their lives for their country. His cinematography is crisp, spotless, and his scope is extensive and detailed. His battle scenes are bloodless, appropriate for young viewers and a bit easier to swallow compared to his gruesome battles in Saving Private Ryan. A scene involving barbed wire wrapped around a galloping Joey may frighten some young viewers and make adults cringe at the sight. War Horse does effectively show us how pointless war can really be. Are we really any different than our enemies? They have normal lives, professions, and names. Just like us. Condemn him for taking the easy route but Spielberg has found an effective route nonetheless.
War Horse is a must see for craftsmanship alone, a piece for viewers to marvel at the big budget ingenuity, classic storytelling, and proficient performances. The relatively unknown actors give the film a hearty does of vigor. They become real to the viewer versus the alienation of seeing a well-known star. Its message will undoubtedly get lost in the crowd of countless films preaching the same message of hope and unity, but in a way, I feel like some of the blame rests on the shoulders of Michael Morpurgo’s story. Despite some of its clichés, War Horse is a magnificent film and pure Spielberg. Much like the ambiance of War Horse, Spielberg may be starting to become a little traditionalist himself but a little old fashioned conservatism every now and again never hurt anyone. War Horse really finds its stride in the traditional vein of filmmaking.