[Movie Review] Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus

Starring: Deborah Gibson, Lorenzo Lamas, Sean Lawlor, Dean Kreyling

Director: Jack Perez

Genre: Sci-Fi

Cert: 15

Released: 2009

The Asylum are some collection of chancers.  The film studio are famous for taking current blockbusters and cranking out their own version; or “mockbusters” as they have been dubbed.  “Transmorphers“, “Snakes on a Train“, “The Terminators“, “I Am Omega” and “2012 Doomsday” can all be easily reconciled with recent movies, even by those with only a passing interest in cinema.  A relatively small budget – probably considerably less than a million dollars – means that no one should expect to see familiar faces, quality writing or editing, or mind-blowing special effects.  But it matters not – it’s said that three months after release (occasionally in theatres but typically on DVD and cable) the movies usually break even.

“Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus” generated more buzz than usual, partly because of its unsubtle title and partly because of its viral trailer which sees a very big shark jump 30,000 feet in the air and chew on a passenger jet. You have to admit – that’s genius.

On face value that’s probably as far as the genius goes.  The plot is fairly standard stuff.  Marine scientist Emma (80s cutie Debbie Gibson) is filming underwater when she gets caught up in a military experiment that inadvertently frees two prehistoric creatures – a megalodon and a very big octopus – frozen in a glacier.  Some time later an off-shore oil drilling facility is destroyed by the octopus, bringing it to the attention of the government who bring Emma, her old college professor Lamar Sanders (Lawlor) and Japanese scientist Dr. Seiji Shimada (Vic Chao) in to assist with capturing the creature.  They reveal a videotape (filmed by Emma) to government official Allan Baxter (Lamas) that shows the two creatures swimming away from the glacier and, together with the military team, they set about trying to find a way to capture the dangerous sea creatures before they kill a lot of people.

There are two ways that low-budget special-effect driven movies can go: they can ham it up for laughs or they can take themselves seriously.  The Asylum usually go for the latter.

It is of course an abomination in just about every respect.  The sequences involving the shark and octopus (it’s not a squid, repeat, it’s not a squid) are – I would suspect for budget reasons – deliberately short and make no attempt to generate any drama.  The script and direction (from Jack Perez, director of the well-received “La Cucaracha“) is insipid and flat respectively although he is not helped by the atrocious editing.  The acting is mainly awful although there is something likeable about Gibson who is the most competent on show.  Lorenzo Lamas (looking well for a man in his fifties) is more wooden than I remember him from “Renegade” and my fellow countryman Sean Lawlor (sort of a cross between Colm Meaney and Dennis Hopper) swings from being fine (when shouting) to dreadful (when not shouting).

In spite of all that I have certainly seen worse movies than this.  For all their shortfalls (and they do spit these movies out in a few months from conception to wrap) The Asylum have got the production fundamentals down and if they can get their hands on a good script they can probably produce some good direct-do-DVD movies.  This, obviously, is not one.


[Movie Review] The Happening

The HappeningStarring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo

Director: M Night Shyamalan

Genre: Sci-Fi

Cert: 15

Released: 2008

My only ambition for “The Happening”, having failed to sit through director M Night Shyamalan’s previous outings “The Village” and “Lady in the Water”, was to see the closing credits roll .  The decreasing level of entertainment derived from Shyamalan’s work (which started so well with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”) has been utterly alarming.  But with a strong cast on board for “The Happening” and a mysterious premise (as is typical) my hopes were a little higher than in recent years.

Science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is teaching his classroom about “unexplained acts of nature” when news breaks that people in New York’s Central Park have started committing suicide in broad daylight.  As the unexplained phenomenon starts spreading across the city, Elliot, his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow-teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), board a train to Philadelphia only for it to stop permanently in the tiny town of Filbert because the conductor has lost contact with “everyone”.

The train passengers learn that the phenomenon has continued to spread across the north-east so everybody starts to flee.  Julian decides to get a lift to Princeton where his wife has headed so he leaves Jess with Elliot and Alma.  They meet a colourful couple (Frank Collison and Victoria Clark) who suspect that it is the plants, trees and bushes that are attacking man because they have the ability to do so (apparently).  It soon becomes clear that they are running out of places to go and after meeting several more groups of refugees they start a trek across the countryside on foot in an effort to escape this “act of nature”.

To offer any more plot synopsis would really be stretching my own patience.  The basic premise of this movie is that something unexplained is happening and the onus seems to be on the constantly-confused looking Mark Wahlberg to use his grounding in science to figure it out (it’s a good thing the main protagonist wasn’t a gym teacher or deli counter salesperson or else we’d have gotten nowhere).

I admire Shyamalan as a director but his writing has left a lot to be desired recently.  Just because he writes science-fiction doesn’t mean the film has to be devoid of logic and fact.  Mark Wahlberg is done over twice by being badly miscast and being given some absolutely ludicrous dialogue that is more about pushing the writer’s spiritual agenda than making a believable movie.  How many science teachers talk about the different “energy” colours that can be recorded by camera or “acts of nature” that we’ll never fully understand?   This flies completely in the face of what science is all about.

Then there’s the neuroticism of Alma, distant from Elliot and distracted by constant phone calls from someone called Joey.  The ensuing focus on her relationship with Elliot predictably becomes the tool that Shyamalan uses to drive home the central message.  It’s all very poorly acted and full of improbable scenes.

By the end (which somehow feels empty in spite of being well-crafted) your complete indifference for the central characters only amplify what a poor, unfocused mess this movie is.  Shyamalan made two cracking films (plus a slight nod of the cap to “Signs”) before strangling his visual ideas with ludicrously boring scripts.

How good was it to see Alan Ruck though?


[Movie Review] I Am Legend

I Am LegendStarring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith

Director: Francis Lawrence

Genre: Sci-Fi

Cert: 15

Released: 2007 



I try not to feel intimidated by films with big casts, budgets and reputations.  “I Am Legend” is one such film – a $150m budget with a $585m box-office gross and starring Hollywood’s most bankable star, Will Smith.  I shook the underwhelming ghost of “I, Robot” from my head and settled down to watch an apocalyptic nightmare unfold… apparently. 

It’s 2009 and Dr Krippen (Emma Thompson) announces on TV that she has cured cancer.  Three years later and things aren’t quite so rosy.  The cure for cancer (basically a re-engineered measles virus) mutated and became an airborne virus that killed 5.4 billion people.  Of those who lived a small percentage were found to be immune but a far larger percentage were not – they transformed in to an animalistic, primal race that prowl the streets at night as they are sensitive to sunlight.  

The assumption is that the immune were slaughtered by the infected and the last remaining human on earth appears to be army scientist, Robert Neville (Will Smith), who remained in New York City to try and reverse the effects of the virus.  Through flashbacks we note that he had his wife and daughter (Salli Richardson and Willow Smith) transported out of New York three years earlier and now has only his German Shepherd, Samantha, for company.

During the day he leaves his safehouse to try and capture infected humans (Darkseekers) so that he can perform tests on them in his underground laboratory and try to find a cure.  At night he sleeps in a bath tub with the lights off and all his windows and doors boarded up as the infected remainder of the human race prowl the streets looking for prey. 

Neville knows he must find an answer soon and, if he does, what is his motivation?  Everyone else is dead.  What is left for him?  

“I Am Legend” (based on a 1954 science fiction novel by Richard Matheson) certainly requires a bit more engagement than your standard zombie film.  In other words, this isn’t “Resident Evil”.  While the movie has been criticised for deviating from the book’s plot, it does recreate a bleak apocalyptic vision and has a narrative that expands beyond the typical big-budget blueprint.

Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) has by no means a simple task on his hands given the storied project he inherited (numerous actors, directors and scripts have been lined up and abandoned since the mid 90s).  What he has presented is a watchable but uneventful action movie with heart.  

Smith, as always, plays his role well (he’s not your typical scientist but I guess casting Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti didn’t appeal to the producers).  He engages during the numerous silent scenes and his relationship with Samantha, the only “living” creature he gets to interact with, is affecting.  I was reminded of Tom Hanks’ “Castaway” film in the sense that his character must try to overcome a long-term lack of human interaction by interacting with inanimate objects (Smith’s character does so with mannequins).  

But there are issues with the way the story is told.  If you haven’t read the preview blurb then you might be confused.  Neville watches old news clips that relate the initial breakout of the virus but I’m sure it took some people time to twig that these were historical reports.  The flashbacks tell some of the story but leave an awful lot of information out.  For example, there is no focus on the actual spread of the virus, how it manifested itself, the devastation it caused (a prequel covering these issues is provisionally slated for a 2011 release).  

The film takes an unlikely turn and then showers us with an unsubtle Christian subtext which is an instant turn off for me.

“I Am Legend” works for a while but just at the time you expect something to happen, it just kind of ends.  Shame.


[Movie Review] Next

NextStarring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, Peter Falk
Director: Lee Tamahori
Genre: Sci-Fi
Cert: 15
Released: 2007

Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage, who it seems has appeared in every movie for the last five years) is a Vegas magician whose corny, low-key act doesn’t seem to raise many eyebrows around town. But FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) is a keen observer because she suspects there’s more to it than an “act”.

And she’s right. Johnson can see any event two minutes in to the future as long as that event impacts his own life. For Ferris it’s a matter of life and death as she’s got international terrorists with a nuclear warhead (obviously) and she wants Johnson to track down its exact location before it is detonated.

But Johnson doesn’t fancy it and he goes on the run with Liz (Jessica Biel), a local stranger who for a reason unknown to him enables him to see much further in to the future than he otherwise could. Johnson wants to know why but with the FBI and the terrorists trying to track him down, will he live long enough to discover?

“Next” is borderline diabolical and features a cast who know they are starring in a hell of a turkey. Nic Cage rolls out his jaded, slack-jawed character and even the few moving scenes he and Biel share are trite. Julianne Moore – one of my favourite Hollywood ladies – is only short of rolling her eyes as she wrestles with weary lines and a director in Lee Tamahori who is unable to breathe life in to what turns out to be a disappointgly linear story. Peter Falk appears for a couple of minutes and it’s great to see the old boy who is 81 this year.

The whole thing is almost a plot-hole in itself but in its defence the final ten minutes go some way to giving a tiny level of satisfaction.


[Movie Review] Serenity

00240_001Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk
Director: Joss Whedon
Genre: Sci-Fi
Cert: 15
Released: 2005

After losing an inter-galactic war to The Alliance, a crew of rebels, captained by Mal (Fillion), drift through space in their spaceship, Serenity, making money from occasional robberies. Since aiding their doctor, Simon (Maher), rescue his psychic sister, River (Glau), from The Alliance they have been keeping a low profile. It soon becomes apparent that River knows something The Alliance don’t want anyone else to know and, led by a mysterious operative (Ejiofor), they will go to any lengths to get her back. The code word “Miranda” unlocks part of the mystery but Mal must put a value on doing the right thing.

“Serenity” could have gone unnoticed given its humble beginnings of a cancelled TV show – “Firefly” – with low ratings. Writer/director Joss Whedon stayed loyal to the show’s characters, hiring the nine main actors for the movie version. The downside of this is that the transition to the big screen does not always work given that the cast is largely a stereotypical ragtag collection. Having said that, it’s no worse than other films of this ilk (“Alien Versus Predator”, “Aliens”, “Event Horizon” etc).

Whedon should be praised for maximising the relatively humble $40m budget that Universal gave him (indeed the movie barely broke even). The space scenes are believable, the cinematography is a triumph and the pacing of the script (which he wrote) is just about spot on. The plot won’t tax you but the payoff is satisfying and in Nathan Fillion Whedon has a surprisingly strong main character who grows in stature as the movie goes on.

Probably one of the better Sci-Fi movies of recent times.


[Movie Review] White Noise

White NoiseStarring: Michael Keaton, Deborah Kara Unger, Ian McNeice, Sarah Strange, Chandra West
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 15
Released: 2004

Michael Keaton reappears from whatever cryogenic career-freeze he indulged in over the last few years to take the lead in yet another of those appealing spooky movies that everyone loves to watch. Think “Ghost”, “Stir of Echoes” and a touch of “The Ring” and you’ve got “White Noise” down pretty good.

After his writer wife Anna (West – “The Salton Sea”) dies in an accident one night, architect John Rivers (Keaton – “Batman”, “Beetlejuice”) spends the following months piecing his life back together again. After her death, a stranger called Raymond Price (McNiece – “From Hell”, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) tells him that Anna has contacted him from “the other side”. Although he dismisses Raymond at first, eerie calls from Anna’s switched-off mobile phone cause John to have a re-think.

He goes to see Raymond who tells him about EVP, an unexplained phenomena in which the dead seemingly contact the living through everyday technology like TVs and radio. He plays simple messages from Anna and intrigues John so much that he starts attempting to record his own EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena). Before long he’s hearing disturbing voices and receiving messages that he interprets as his opportunity to help people who are in trouble. He befriends one of Raymond’s other clients, Sarah (Unger – “The Salton Sea”, “The Game”), and while they investigate the phenomena they begin to realise that there is something more sinister at work.

Even Batman is finding it spooky.Michael Keaton is a somewhat niche actor who appeals to just about everyone – housewives (“Pacific Heights”), students (“Batman”), film buffs (“The Paper”) and families (“Beetlejuice”, “Jack Frost”). Likeable though he is, he doesn’t always add a layer to movies that come up short like, say, Rutger Hauer or Christopher Walken can. The whole cast of “White Noise” is clearly struggling to take anything dramatic out of the B-class script and Keaton just seems downright bored.

Director Geoffrey Sax has done little in the way of big screen action before and while he throws in the usual goose-pimple moments (effective panning, use of mirrors and shadows) he probably fails to elevate the script to where it needed to go. I was amused, like “The Ring”, at the use of “static” sounds and visual throughout the movie. As a kid, before the advent of 24 hour television, I always remember always being spooked out by static on TV. Even the radio static at 5am before programs started on some channels used to unsettle me a bit. Indeed maybe Sax is hoping that this focus will have the affect on me as a grown up. it doesn’t.

But more importantly, as the storyline itself unfolds, the eventual direction is something of a disappointment. There is the odd minor-league cliffhanger but the thrills are short-lived and not very memorable.

By no means a write-off of a movie but there are many better supernatural thrillers and therefore this one is somewhat redundant.


[Movie Review] AVP: Alien vs Predator

Alien vs. PredatorStarring: Lance Henriksen, Raoul Bova, Sanaa Lathan, Ewen Bremner, Tommy Flanagan
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Genre: Horror
Cert: 15
Released: 2004

Charles Weyland (Henriksen), a rich industrialist, has spotted peculiar thermal activity in Antartica via one of his satellite systems. He believes that an ancient pyramid lies thousands of feet under the ice and puts together a team of archaeologists to investigate. Alexa Woods (Lathan) leads the team that includes historian Sebastian (Bova), scientist Graeme (Bremner) and rough-and-ready thermal miner Verheiden (Flanagan). Basically it’s your standard collection of movie stereotypes (c.f. “The Core”, “Event Horizon”, um, “Predator” and “Alien”!).

Predator was always my favourite - the ultimate Rastafarian Alien.When they get there they find an abandoned whaling station from which all occupiers went missing in 1904. Even more bizarrely they find a newly-drilled underground route – a route that, according to satellite technology, didn’t exist 24 hours earlier. When the team go down they discover that Weyland was right – it is a pyramid. But what they don’t know is that it is home of an ancient alien species.

To be frank, it didn’t work. They had years to get this right, and it didn’t work. Director Paul Anderson was not a name that filled you with much hope for the outcome. Outside of the occasionally excellent “Resident Evil” his handling of big-screen movies has been moderate to say the least. In “Alien vs Preadtor” he struggles to elevate the action to anything resembling the brilliance of the first couple of Alien films or “Predator”.

The effects haven’t moved on all that much from the original “Predator” nearly twenty years ago. Now maybe that’s a conscious decision, to make the movie in the same spirit as the much loved 1987 version. To me it was a little disappointing not to have the Predator doing some cool new stuff or to enhance his presence in some way. The jungle, and even the city setting of the second movie, were far more exciting than the ancient pyramid that this one is set in.

Overall this movie is hard to talk-up. Worth a watch but more out of interest and for completist reasons than anything else. A sequel might happen but it’s time to wake up, Hollywood!