Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
A stark Alaskan setting greatly elevates David Slade´s 30 Days of Night, which won´t win any new converts but should delight horror & gore fans with excellent production values and some imaginative bloodletting. With icy snow-covered landscapes and isolated locale reminiscent of both the original The Thing and John Carpenter´s 1981 remake, film takes place in the tiny town of Barrow, which is preparing for their annual 30 days of darkness – the sun will stay beneath the horizon for a calendar month, and anyone who wishes to see it before then better make that last flight out of town (of course, in reality Barrow, Alaska still gets a few hours of “half light” during the these days, and there are still daily flights – but these are, I suppose, acceptable deviations used to create atmosphere).
Josh Harnett stars as sheriff Eben Oleson, currently investigating a pile of torched mobile phones and butchered dogs on the last day of light; apparently, stranger Ben Foster (quickly carving out a niche as a drooling psycho) was responsible, and as soon as the town is plunged into darkness, the vampires come out to play (Pitch Black, anyone?). But apart from the fact that sunlight kills ‘em, they´re more like zombies, and the film quickly becomes another trapped-in-a-(fill in the blank) movie, specifically recalling 28 Days Later and 2004´s Dawn of the Dead remake. Not that that´s a bad thing: as a trapped-in-an-Alaskan- town-without-light-and-attacked-by-vampires film, it delivers the goods; it´s tense and exciting, with little more plot than watching the pack of survivors dwindle, and they´ve fit as much gore in here as possible in an R-rated movie. There´s zero human element, however, as supporting characters exist purely to be killed, and Eben, brother Jake (Mark Rendell), and estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) simply lack the emotional depth required for us to care about these characters. Action scenes are awkwardly edited with war-movie confusion, creative violence disappearing into an array of splatter on the screen. Still, the creatures are nicely designed and effectively creepy – particularly Danny Huston as the leader of the bunch. Pic should please anyone with a blood & snow fetish.
Perfectly acceptable Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake (the fourth film version, all based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney) for the first two-thirds, until post-production tampering topped with a ridiculous happy ending kick in and sink the whole thing. Nicole Kidman stars as Carol Bennell, Washington, D.C. psychiatrist and single mother who begins to suspect that the people around her aren´t the people around her. That is, they´ve been taken over by alien parasites that control their minds and attempt to take over the world (for reasons unknown). Researchers played by Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright are soon on the case, quickly inventing a solution to the problem. Of course, despite the characters in the movie not having a clue for the first half of the film, the audience is all-too-aware that these emotionless drones are no good, whether they´ve been taken over by the parasites or not; how about a Body Snatcher with some pizzazz, a little flair? An alien parasite with personality? The original 1956 film ended so memorably with Kevin McCarthy´s Dr. Bennell ranting on the streets, unaware of who to trust; a perfect reflection of cold-war era paranoia. Terrorism paranoia would have made a perfect footnote to this film, and director Hirschbiegel had – I believe – intended to go in this direction; the ending we´re actually given, however, only reflects upon car chases, explosions, and test screening audience pandering. The film couldn´t be more confused about itself. An uncredited James McTeigue was apparently brought in for massive reshoots, with the Wachowski Bros. script doctoring; if the producers are happy with their version of the film, one wonders why they hired the director of The Downfall in the first place.
Richly detailed and expertly produced, if hellishly long and unbearably slow, Robert De Niro´s The Good Shepherd reaches a certain level of admiration even if it´s – at times – quite difficult to sit through. Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson, head of covert CIA operations during the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961; as the operation fails and he searches a mole, we look at the major events of his life, from his father´s suicide to his strained relationship with his own son, most of it transpiring during the rise of the Central Intelligence Agency. But these CIA men (played by Damon, De Niro, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, etc.) are so entirely lacking in emotional depth that we may as well be watching the Agent Smith clones from The Matrix Revolutions. Supporting players come off best, and often lend the film a human element sorely missing from the characters central to the plot: these include Tammy Blanchard as Wilson´s deaf girlfriend, Angelina Jolie as his wife, Joe Pesci as a Hyman Roth-like Miami businessman (albeit extremely brief, it´s his first film role in eight years), and a pair of potential Russian agents played by John Sessions and Oleg Shtefanko. There are a number of terrific scenes, including an extended interrogation where LSD is employed; those interested in the history of the CIA will find a lot of value here. Others may be bored to tears.
Michael Moore´s latest feature contains most of the strengths and weakness of his other recent work; it´s topical, debate-inciting, and immensely entertaining, with Moore´s average-guy charm and wit elevating the otherwise serious subject matter of the failings of the US health care system. Yet, as in Fahrenheit 9/11, he´s preaching to choir – and to that choir, there´s nothing new here: Moore opens by telling us how awful the system is in the US, and then proceeds to hammer that point home during the next two hours. There are trips to Britain, France, and even Cuba – where 9/11 volunteers suffering lung problems receive the medication they need but cannot afford in the US, during the groan-inducingly sensationalistic but depressingly realistic climax of the movie. Still, it´s an entirely admirable film that can (hopefully) reach a large enough audience to further expose the US health care problem; potentially, non-US audiences will find the film more interesting. Modern-day documentaries have polarized audiences, who seem to respond more to the message of the film than the actual filmmaking; whatever your politics, however, Moore´s films have always entertained.
Also opening: the eco-warning documentary The 11th Hour, from directors Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners. Doc was co-produced, co-written, and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Screening at Světozor from 1.11, at Villages Cinemas Anděl from 5.11.
And: check out the Palace Film Fest at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům (31.10 – 7.11 in Prague; 7.11 – 14.11 in Brno at Palace Cinemas Velký Špalíček), which focuses on 2007´s award-winning films, and features a special look at the work of director Quentin Tarantino. Most of the films screening have already opened in Czech cinemas, but some that haven´t include Julie Taymor´s Across the Universe, Andrew Dominik´s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Robert Redford´s Lions for Lambs, Michael Davis´ Shoot ‘Em Up, and Resident Evil: Extinction (wait…what´s this doing here?) Full schedule at www.palacefilmfestival.cz.