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The Purge (2013)

The Purge

by Steve Habrat

After four weeks of hulking action blockbusters, Hollywood has finally decided to take a breather and offer up a smaller scale horror-thriller. On paper and in the Universal Studios boardroom, director James DeMonaco’s The Purge probably sounded like a great idea, but on screen, this politically charged dystopian thriller fails to elaborate on any of the razor sharp ideas it presents in the first half hour of its short-and-sweet runtime. However, credit should be given to The Purge for its attempts to be something deeper than just another home invasion movie. It tries hard and it certainly earns an “A” for effort, but after establishing a sturdy foundation, DeMonaco and his team (look for Michael Bay’s name among the producers) decide to fall back on a bunch of horror movie clichés that should never have stuck their nose in this project. It turns in to a Strangers-meets-Straw Dogs kind of bloodbath all while loosing it’s eerie “what if?” gimmick. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few moments that got the adrenaline pumping when the action kicks in, but these moments few and far between, certainly not enough to retain the film’s edge that it has early on.

The year is 2022, and the United States is ruled by the New Founding Fathers of America. This new party has instituted an annual twelve-hour period called “The Purge,” which legalizes all criminal activity. Many American citizens consider it their patriotic duty to take to the streets to murder and maim, their little contribution to keep the low crime and unemployment rates down, a result of “The Purge.” Among these supporters is James Sandin (played by Ethan Hawke), a wealthy home security salesman who has decided to spend the evening of “The Purge” in with his beautiful wife, Mary (played by Lena Headey), and his two teenage children, Zoey (played by Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (played by Max Burkholder). What begins as just a quiet evening in away from the violence spilling into the streets takes a turn when Charlie spots a bloodied stranger (played by Edwin Hodge) wandering through their neighborhood on their home surveillance cameras. Hearing the man’s cries for help, Charlie decides to unlock the Sandin home security system and give the man shelter. James and Mary are horrified by Charlie’s decision to give the man shelter, but things get even worse when a group of young, wealthy, and masked college students show up outside their door with an array of weapons and issuing an ultimatum through the security system: give them the stranger within the hour or suffer the consequences.

For the first half hour of The Purge, there are plenty of smart ideas thrown around that are built to spark debate. Characters and news media speak of “unleashing the beast,” encouraging each other to parade out into the night and beat, stab, shoot, or torture some innocent soul unable to protect themselves. It is basically class warfare, with the upper class absolutely leveling the less-fortunate competition. There is also plenty of talk about the bloodthirsty animal that resides in each and every one of us, a corked bottle of primal violence that is just waiting to be cracked open. The early sequences certainly do capture our America at this particular moment in time, when class warfare spills into the news and it appears that every other week, some psychotic gunman, the individual no one ever expected, is taking to the streets (or school, or movie theater, or mall) to unleash his-or-her inner beast. In this respect, The Purge works on a very alarming level, but when the film abandons these ideas in favor of a paint-by-numbers home invasion movie, it almost become a bit of a bore. Sure it is tense when the power in the Sandin home is cut and there is a chill to be felt when the masked psychos outside peak into the security cameras and windows, but by this point is has fully embraced the cliché. It’s just jump scares while a character mutters a line of dialogue meant to send a shock wave of thought through the viewer.

The Purge #2

When it comes to the characters, DeMonaco works very hard to let us get to know them inside and out, but some of the acting and the dialogue that he gives them to work with leaves quite a bit to be desired. Hawke is the only familiar face here and he does a great job playing a rich jerk that supports “The Purge” but doesn’t feel the need to participate in it. You’ll certainly get the impression that he realizes some of the performances are lacking, so he is trying even harder to pick up the slack around him. The lesser-known Headey, who appeared in 300 and Dredd, is another stand out. Near the end of the film, she takes the wheel in a firm way, and you won’t be able to deny her evolution from sobbing and trembling to strong and no-nonsense. As far as the Sandin kids are concerned, Kane is cringe worthy as the lovesick teen Zoey, who is dating a guy a few years older than her, and Burkholder is a bit puzzling as the oddball Charlie, who seems to be flirting with a gothic side and bats an eye at the whole idea of “The Purge.” As far as the supporting cast goes, Hodge is passable as the bloodied stranger but he doesn’t really have much to do. Tony Oller shows up as Zoey’s older boyfriend, Henry, who has a surprise of his own in store for the Sandin family. I honestly couldn’t decide who I thought was a worse, Oller or Kane. Rhys Wakefield turns in an amazing villainous role as the leader of the psychos prowling around the house. Just wait until you get a look at his smile. It will freeze your blood.

As if The Purge’s reluctance to follow through with its ideas, the abundance of clichés, and the lifeless performances weren’t enough to keep the film down, the script itself is loaded with one perplexing moment after another. What exactly is the deal with Charlie? At times he seemed to disapprove of “The Purge” and then there are moments when he seemed fascinated by it. And why weren’t James and Mary a bit more concerned about their daughter’s safety when she ran off after Charlie let the stranger in? Am I the only one who got the impression that they weren’t too worried about finding her? And how about that twist ending that you can see coming a mile away if you just pay attention to that peculiar moment during the opening moments of the film? To me, this was all very distracting and poorly thought out on DeMonaco’s part. Overall, you have to commend the filmmakers desire to attempt something fresh and say something about this moment in America, but when the psychos start trying to break in, the film plays out like every other—and better—home invasion movie we’ve seen before. It borrows heavily from The Strangers and the remake of Straw Dogs and it embraces an avalanche of wearisome horror movie clichés that should have been purged from the genre years ago. Hmmm maybe that is why it is called The Purge. Maybe DeMonaco is purging horror of all these frustrating clichés. Yeah, that is pretty unlikely.

Grade: C  

Dredd 3D (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Ever since Dredd 3D premiered at the July San Diego Comic Con, surprisingly positive word of mouth has been spreading through the internet faster than SLO-MO inhalers across Mega-City One, something that is very shocking because action films released in September tend to be pretty lousy. Infinitely better than it has any right to be, Dredd 3D is a lean and mean superhero exercise that is both thoughtfully constructed by its director, Peter Travis, and also a thoughtful experience on the viewers part, something this comic book fan certainly didn’t expect. Travis seems to understand that many may not be so welcoming of Judge Dredd, especially after what Sylvester Stallone did to the character back in 1995. Well, you can all breathe a sigh of relief because there is no Rob Schneider here. While Dredd 3D didn’t blow me away like I hoped it would, I still found the film to be a relentlessly entertaining thrill ride that packs some unique action sequences, dazzling slow-motion shots that look fantastic in 3D, and a gritty aesthetic that resembles both 28 Days Later and District 9. And then there is Karl Urban as the man himself, Judge Dredd, a closed-book badass who is insanely likable even if we never do get to see his face or learn much of anything about him. I should also add that he certainly has a way with one-liners.

Set in the grimy future, America is now an irradiated wasteland known as the Cursed Earth. On the east coast, there exists a massive walled city known as Mega-City One, a violent metropolis that is ravaged by crime and an addictive new drug called SLO-MO, which slows the users perception of reality to 1% its normal speed. The only order in the chaos are Judges of the Hall of Justice, urban cops who posses the authority to act as judge, jury, and executioner. The nastiest and toughest of all the Judges is Dredd (Played by Karl Urban), who is asked by the Chief Judge (Played by Rakie Ayola) to train rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Played by Olivia Thirlby). While Anderson failed her examination by three points, she was still allowed to join the force due to her powerful psychic abilities that are a result of genetic mutation. Dredd reluctantly agrees to take the rookie under his wing and the two respond to an atrocious murder in a massive housing block called Peach Trees, a place where Judges rarely go. While investigating the murders, Dredd and Anderson discover that the massive slum is controlled by sadistic drug lord Ma-Ma (Played by Lena Headey) and her clan of killers. After Dredd and Anderson arrest one of Ma-Ma’s high-ranking clan members, the gang overtakes the slum’s security center and locks the two Judges inside the 200-storey structure. With ammo low and nowhere to hide, Ma-Ma unleashes a relentless army of killers who will stop at nothing to kill Dredd and Anderson.

Shockingly brutal and the very definition of tough, Dredd 3D never allows the action to get too out of hand or take over the film completely. There are a number of hard-hitting action scenes that do satisfy but the brooding mood in between these sequences is what really keeps us on our toes. Travis smartly builds suspense around the fact that our protagonists have their backs against the wall and ammo is scarce. Dredd and Anderson have to constantly pause to fully assess the situation that they find themselves in and devise a plan to quietly slip by the endless waves of trigger-happy gangsters who wish to make Ma-Ma proud. Some may deem that disappointing or, dare I say, boring, but it does make for a number of tense sequences that will have you chewing on your fingernails. Dredd 3D also finds a bit of relevancy in the inclusion of SLO-MO, the drug that is rapidly spreading through Mega-City One like cancer. Any time the drug or its terrifying side effects are mentioned, you can’t help but think of all the new drugs that have been making their way into the hands of America’s youth today (bath salts, 2C-I). Don’t worry, Dredd 3D isn’t a full on anti-drug commercial with an inflated budget, but it does get you thinking and there is nothing wrong with that.

Then we have Karl Urban’s awesomely gruff Dredd, who conceals his mug behind that mean-looking helmet and allows his mouth to droop into a scruffy frown. Dredd is incredibly fascinating even if we virtually know nothing about him. At one point, Anderson uses her psychic abilities to discover that Dredd is hiding some pain and anger underneath that cool helmet but we never learn what that pain and anger stems from. Dredd can also be darkly hilarious, especially when a couple of young wannabe thugs decide they are going to confront him. Anderson certainly has her fair share of emotional baggage and she ends up with even more as she trains to be a full on Judge. As the situations she faces become more and more disturbing, doubt begins to set in. Then there is Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma, one of the most fun comic book movie villains I’ve seen in quite a while. She nearly steals the show with her junkie slump, her hacked hair, her rotten teeth, and scarred face. She is eerily calm as she aims a Gatling gun at Dredd and mows down countless innocent bystanders. She is truly a villain that you want to see Dredd confront and execute. Believe me.

At a slim and trim ninety minutes, there is never a dull moment in Dredd 3D. There is countless glimmering slow motion shots that find bullets barreling through faces as blood and brain bits come dancing out of the screen at us. One scene finds the camera acting as the POV of one of Ma-Ma’s victims as they tumble 200-stories to their death. If you suffer from acrophobia, you may want to close your eyes during that particular scene. There is one sequence that finds Anderson entering the mind of one of Ma-Ma’s thugs and I will warn you, it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. The film does seem to run out of steam at the end, especially during the final showdown between Ma-Ma and Dredd. You fully expect there to be plenty of fireworks but it is a fairly calm confrontation that leaves the viewer wanting a little more. You’d at least expect Ma-Ma to put up more of a fight, especially since she is so sadistic through the other eighty minutes of the film. Still, Dredd 3D makes good use of its R-rating and it certainly doesn’t hesitate to deliver on all the blood, guts, and gore you can handle. The film also had a pretty effective score; a thumping industrial beat from Paul Leonard-Morgan that uses filthy synths to compliment the decaying steel of Peach Trees. With Mega-City One being such a sprawling metropolis, I firmly believe that we haven’t seen the last of Urban’s Dredd. There is plenty more to explore with this character and I hope that he gets a follow up. Overall, if you’re sick of the Resident Evil franchise and looking for some edgy action to shake you out of your early fall ennui, Dredd 3D will do the trick.

Grade: B+ 

300 (2007)

by Steve Habrat

Severed heads as high art? Welcome to the world of Zack Snyder’s 300, a chiseled slice of masculinity based on the comic series by Frank Miller that enjoys shouting at the top of its lungs over the endless swirl of slaughter at its center. Considered the ultimate “guy movie”, 300 looks like a painting that has sprung to spitting and snarling life as CGI blood splashes across the sea of clanking swords. This carnage is beautiful, this battle a barreling ballet of firm defiance and ferocity but one that we have seen previous times in countless other period epics of this sort, here it just boasts an extra layer of gloss. 300 sells itself on the idea that it is going to rethink that sword-and-sandals epic and to an extent it does, that is if any of what 300 has to offer came as a surprise to the audience. It is hard to believe that Snyder and Warner Bros. would be so eager to show us everything their film had to offer before we have even seen it but that is the sad truth about 300. If you saw the trailer for the movie, you basically saw the best parts of this picture. The only thing you are missing out on is the severed limbs that dance across the screen and a soft-core sex scene that further earns the R-rating for nudity. Let’s be honest here, you are not coming into this film to hear any of these beefcakes deliver their lines. You came to this party for the sex and violence, now get in line.

300 begins with a flashback narrated by Dilios (Played by David Wenham), a Spartan solider, who explains the back-story and training of Leonidas, the man who would become king of Sparta. The back-story details the fierce training that a Spartan child goes through, molding them into hardened warriors hungry for battle and victory. The film then flashes ahead and introduces us to adult Leonidas (Played by Gerard Butler), who is now the valiant king of Sparta. One peaceful day, a Persian messenger rides into Sparta and demands that all of the people of Sparta submit to God-King Xerxes (Played by Rodrigo Santoro). King Leonidas and his wife, Queen Gorgo (Played by Lena Headey), refuse to submit to the God-King and his loyal group of Spartan soldiers kick the messenger and his accompanying soldiers down the biggest well you have ever laid eyes on. Leonidas knows that murdering the messenger has provoked a Persian attack so he seeks out the Ephors, a corrupt group of leprosy-ridden priests who have to give to okay for war. The Ephors refuse to give their blessing to Leonidas and facing annihilation at the hands of the Persians, the brave King rounds up 300 of his bravest and strongest soldiers to meet the Persians at Thermopylae, where the Persians’ numbers will count for nothing against the Spartan’s superior fighting techniques. Meanwhile, Gorgo has to deal with corrupt politicians behind the walls of Sparta.

The ultimate exercise in visual brawn over screenplay brain, 300 gets far despite not having much going on upstairs. It is no secret that many have viewed 300 as a conservative comment on the War on Terror and as you look closer, it is easy to see how history has been used to mirror present day realities. The problem with 300 is that it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful to say about the War on Terror and instead glorifies the art of war, putting more emphasis on the art than the horrors of battle. 300 also seems to exists to feed the masculine egos of all the alpha males who hang on every shriek that erupts from the mouths of the Spartans. Anyone who lacks chest hair practically grows some instantly just by touching the DVD case. And while there is some flexing action to be found, most of the fighting has been already glimpsed in the spirited trailer that almost everyone has seen. There is some fun to be had in the montages of combat but it becomes a bit redundant and meaningless as the Spartans hack their way through one eccentric clan after another. It begins to feel like a video game after a while, complete with boss rounds.

The one thing I have to praise Snyder for is the way that he casts a group of unknown actors and actresses. This allows the characters of 300 to really come to life rather than be overshadowed by a familiar face that is plastered all over the tabloids. Gerard Butler disappears into the role of King Leonidas and now it is hard for me to take him seriously in other roles that he tackles. A blessing and a curse, I’m afraid. Butler does do a pretty good job with the one–dimensional role that Snyder dumps on him. All the role requires is a perfect physique and the ability to yell really loud. Luckily, Butler becomes a teeth-gritting force that does allow affection to bleed through his masculine intensity. Lena Headey is present for eye-candy but she insists on have the strength of twenty Spartan men, which is welcome in this sea of alpha males. Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes is asked to portray the God-King as an ostentatious ruler who is clearly a homosexual. While I understand he is supposed to be the villain here, you can’t help but pick up on negative light shed on his sexuality, which further adds to the conservative reading of the film. The other familiar face is Michael Fassbender as Stelios, an eager warrior who gets the film’s coolest line. Naturally, he is a standout here, which should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with him.

While it may rethink the sword-and-sandals epic visually, 300 doesn’t do much for narrative but you don’t really care. There is plenty here to entertain you for its two hour runtime and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The battle between the masked Immortals and the Spartans is the highlight of the film and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see the superior fighting style of the Spartans (they brag about it enough!). Still, you can’t help but yearn for more flesh and blood authenticity in all the artificiality but what you see is what you get. You will also long for some sort of a surprise but very few will come your way, so don’t hold your breath. Grabbing history by the hair, dousing it in comic book colors, and then doing a bit of lazy rewiring, Snyder takes a step back from the incisive filmmaking and storytelling that he showed us with his spry remake of Dawn of the Dead. With 300, he just can’t seem to shake his obsessive infatuation with the eye candy and that is the ultimate disappointment. Still, you’ll root for these 300 Spartans until the very end even if you know the outcome. So sit back, crack open a PBR, and marvel at the many ways that severed heads can spin through the air.

Grade: B-

300 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.