The Monster

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“Less would be more.”

monsterThere is a time when a film-maker needs to fall out of love with their script, and approach the resulting movie with a cold, critical eye, analyzing every scene with a single question in mind: Is it essential to the story being told? And if the answer isn’t “Yes”, then the scene needs to be ruthlessly excised. If you don’t, then what results is this film, where a good idea, which could have been lean, mean survival horror at its most stripped-down, becomes instead a cumbersome exercise in social drama.

Single mother Kathy (Kazan) is driving teenage daughter Lizzy (Ballentine) to her father, when they hit a wolf that has run out into the middle of the road on a remote country stretch of highway. While injuries are relatively minor, the car is unable to continue, and they have to hang out and wait for a repair truck to show up. However, when it does, and the mechanic is at work beneath their vehicle, the wolf’s corpse vanishes. Lizzy tracks it down in the woods, only to discover it shows signs of having been eaten, leaving her and her mother to wonder: what was bad enough that it could make a wolf run? They’re about to meet the answer.

It’s all the film needs, and when it concentrates on this, Bertino (who directed above-average home-invasion film, The Strangers) crafts a taut, effective work, as mother and daughter have to put aside their differences in the name of fending off the creature. The problem is the film’s insistence on inserting entirely unnecessary flashback scenes. They’re unnecessary because the dysfunctional nature of Kathy is established perfectly well before they have even left the house; everything thereafter is superfluous, and had me suppressing an urge to yell, “Enough, already! We get it!” at the screen.

I also get that the creature is intended to be a metaphor – though whether it’s intended to represent Kathy’s addiction-affected personality or Lizzy’s issues with trust and abandonment, is likely open to discussion. Either way, the mother is the monster in this interpretation; but again, it’s the kind of thing which works best when left for the audience to figure out or not, offering bonus depth if you want it. Here, Bertino seems to prefer whacking the viewer over the head with his subtext, to the point I had to undergo concussion tests.

On the plus side, Ballentine makes for an engaging young heroine, and the monster was laudably done with practical effects rather than CGI; given the relatively small budget, it looks decent enough. If you liked The Babadook – and I wasn’t particularly impressed with that either – then you might look more kindly on this attempt to merge the cerebral and the visceral. Only the latter half worked for me, the former providing more of an annoying distraction than offering any enhancement to the story.

Dir: Bryan Bertino
Star: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine

The Muthers

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“Jolly rogered.”

This is a strange cross-breed between a blaxploitation flick, a pirate movie and a women-in-prison film. Then again, a lot of the seventies films coming out of the Philippines tended to be at least somewhat bizarre, and this is likely no exception. The titular gang are pirates, led by Kelly (Bell) and Anggie (Katon), who roam what appears to be the Caribbean, going by the mention of Santo Domingo, but is actually in the Eastern hemisphere, boarding and robbing unsuspecting vessels, and fighting with a rival band of brigands using their kung-fu skills. However, Kelly’s sister goes missing, and is tracked down to a coffee farm belonging to the evil Monteiro (Carreon), which he runs in the manner of a pre-Civil War Southern plantation. Our heroines go undercover, only to discover getting out will be tougher than getting in.

It starts off in fine form, coming over as a modern, urban version of a sixties swashbuckler, and it’s a shame it didn’t stick to this premise, which would have offered something rather innovative. Instead, from the time Kelly and Anggie – yes, there is apparently an extra “g” in there – show up on the farm, it goes down too well-worn a path, with sadistic guards, fellow inmates who cozy up to their captors, and showers. Lots of showers. After the expected breakout attempts, recaptures and punishments, things eventually end in an equally expected riot, enlivened somewhat by the unexpected return appearance of the rival pirates, as allies of Monteiro,

muthersBoth Bell and Katon had worked with Santiago before, in T.N.T. Jackson and Ebony, Ivory & Jade respectively, and make a decent impression here. I’ve read a few other reviews that rip into this for poor-quality action, yet I can’t say I hated that aspect too much. Sure, there are times, particularly for any acrobatic moments, where the doubling is not exactly well-concealed. But there are other times where they’re putting in their fair share of effort, and should be appreciated for that. It is, if not quite tame, rather less sleazy than some on Santiago’s offerings. At first, I thought this was because I was watching it on Turner Classic Movies (yes, a refreshingly broad definition of “classic”!), but turns out to be fairly mild. Mind you, Bell’s ultra skin-tight top doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination there!

On the whole though, I’d have preferred if it had stuck with the pirate theme present at the beginning, which was a good deal fresher than the rote WiP fodder served up in the middle. Maybe I’m just grumpy because I did lose a bet with the wife: on seeing a guard tower overlooking the workers’ huts, I predicted it would later explode in a giant fireball, as a guard falls from it. I am disappointed to report that this simple pleasure was with-held from me. Sheesh, what is the world coming to, when a film from the golden age of Phillsploitation can’t even deliver on this expectation?

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon, Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy

The Darkest Dawn

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“Illegal aliens”

darkestdawnThis is apparently a sequel to a previous movie about an alien invasion of Earth (and, specifically, the United Kingdom) from the same director, Hungerford. While I haven’t seen it, this likely didn’t impact things too much here; I sense it’s perhaps closer to a separate story, unfolding in the same universe, than a true sequel. It’s the story of teenage sisters Chloe (Leadley) and Sam (Wallis), with the former getting a video camera for her birthday – just in time for said invasion to kick off, with their family being separated in the ensuing chaos. Toting her camera, Chloe and her sibling take shelter, then scurry through the blasted landscape, facing the threat not just of the extra-terrestrials, but renegade bands of survivors. For it also turns out Chloe, specifically her blood, is a key to the resistance. What are the odds?

There’s a strong sense of Cloverfield here, with the alien threat glimpsed more in passing than directly. The major difference is probably the human element, since the sisters are in peril from other people, as much if not more than from the invaders. Of course, the whole “found footage” thing has been utterly done to death since Blair Witch – and I think even that was vastly over-rated. Here, it adds precious little to proceedings, and there’s not much which could have been done equally as well (or, arguably, better), with an external viewpoint. It has all the usual issues of the genre; most obviously, why the lead character keeps filming, when on multiple occasions common sense and survival instinct would dictate dumping the camera and legging it. But then, a more conventional approach probably would have led to the production costing a great deal more than £40,000 (approx. 1/500th that of Cloverfield).

The two leads are, I believe, YouTube stars rather than professional actresses, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. They do have a natural and unaffected quality, which helps their characters avoid falling into the irritating teenager trap. But they don’t have much more, and any time there is actual acting required – rather than reacting – then they come up short. While the script does give Chloe a decent arc, going from a typically self-obsessed teenage girl into a focused and determined young woman, the climax feels somewhat undercooked. It does not offer the viewer much in the way of resolution, I suspect because writer-director Casson perhaps wants to return to the same milieu in future.

While I wouldn’t be averse to that, I hope Casson (dear God, I just realized he’s only 22 and has already made and had released two cinematic features) stretches his talents into more than the found footage genre, since too often this is merely a crutch for low-budget film-makers, used to excuse away shaky camerawork and improvised dialogue. There’s some evidence of talent visible here, on both sides of the camera – providing you can get past the likely motion sickness this may cause.

Dir: Drew Casson
Star: Bethan Mary Leadley, Cherry Wallis, Stuart Ashen, Drew Casson

Angels With Golden Guns

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“Virgin on the ridiculous.”

The beautifully lurid sleeves above and below probably give you some idea of why this one fell across my TV. They probably also explain the sarcasm dripping from Chris’s lips, during the three minutes she remained in the room. I can’t really argue with her on this one: it’s an entirely incoherent mess, though I have to say, I was entertained somewhat more than the one and a half star rating above would imply. The latter is a reflection of quality, and that I could only recommend this, even in the loosest of terms, to fans of bad movies who are feeling significantly masochistic.

The plot, and I used the term loosely, focuses on a white slavery ring, that seems to specialize in the bulk abduction of models who, in between being rented out to sleazy individuals. are then held in a remote jungle compound, from which there is no escape. We know there is no escape, because they try – quite why the captives don’t wait until the rather more escape-friendly location of their renting-out, is never clear. But, hey, this gives the warden who oversees them the chance to yell a lot, and there is also the opportunity for what may well be the biggest cat-fight in cinema history, so that’s nice. Meanwhile, a detective is also investigating the gang from the other direction – when not pretending to be gay, in a disco sequence which is either extremely tolerant or very homophobic, I’m not sure which.

According to what I’ve read, producer Joseph Lai inherited a film studio which had a lot of abandoned movies in various states of completion, and made his career out of finishing them – usually with little regard for continuity or logic – and marketing the results by focusing heavily on the sizzle. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this, yet it certainly goes a long way towards explaining the results here, which includes a strip version of Play Your Cards Right (Wikipedia advises me that US visitors should read that as Card Sharks). Matters are not helped by English dubbing that seems to have assigned accents at random, and music stolen from other, much better movies – I’m fairly certain Goblin didn’t give Lai permission to use chunks of their score from Suspiria, anyway.

Not that it’s an inappropriate choice, for this does capture a similarly incoherent, dreamlike quality – I suspect less through artistic vision, more a result of scenes that appear completely out of nowhere, bear exactly no relation to anything that has happened, then vanish without any further reference to them or their participants. If Andy Sidaris was Chinese, and entirely out of his gourd on magic mushrooms, this might be the sort of thing which would result. Just do not take that as any kind of recommendation.

Dir: “Pasha” (Shan Pa)
Star: Eva Bisset, Gigi Bovee, Emma Yeung, Hok Nin Lau
a.k.a. Virgin Apocalypse
or Terror in a Woman’s Prison
or, entirely inexplicably, Anger

Resident Evil: The Novels, by S.D. Perry

I will cheerfully confess to never having played any of the Resident Evil video-games at all. Everything I know about its universe, I learned from the films starring Milla Jovovich. It was thus something of a surprise to learn that her character, Alice, was entirely created for the films, and doesn’t appear in the game series at all. That said, there’s a reason why Paul Anderson opted to make his hero a heroine. The series has been emphatic about being thoroughly equal-opportunity in its carnage since 1996. It was then the first game came out, as Biohazard in Japan, offering players a choice between playing as either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine.

With the film series coming to an end (supposedly!), it seemed like a good point to dip into the more “authentic” parts of the universe. I don’t have the time or enthusiasm for the games, but figured the novels, written by S.D. Perry, would fit my lifestyle nicely. There are seven of these, with five being novelizations based on the first five games, along with two original stories, which take place between #1 and #2, and #2 and #3 respectively. While they’re not as thoroughly heroine-centric as the movies, they’re no less equal-opportunity than the games, with Valentine leading a swathe of solid and strong female characters.

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The Umbrella Conspiracy

In the opening book, we follow members of  the S.T.A.R.S. task force, investigating a series of brutal murders on the outskirts of Raccoon City, only to be trapped in a manor house. This turns out to be a research facility for the Umbrella Corporation, abandoned after an accidental release of T-virus and now inhabited by zombies and other unpleasant creatures. These include cannibalistic plants and the “Big Bad”, the Tyrant, the end result of prolonged exposure to the virus.

In terms of spirit, this isn’t dissimilar to the first film, which similarly had a group of soldier types exploring a research complex infested with both monsters and traps, albeit a far larger one. The book’s origins as a game are sometimes clunkily obvious here, with traps and puzzles showing up in the prose here, in ways that would only make sense in a Playstation context. It’s also a little heavy on minute details, such as getting very specific on the layout of the house, which really doesn’t deserve as many words.

There’s a multi-threaded storyline, focusing on Redfield and Valentine, but also involving the other members of the S.T.A.R.S. team, and this works better than you might expect. Perry keeps all the balls in the air effectively, and things converge nicely on a rather Aliens-esque finale, the team rushing to escape the facility before it self-destructs. Which probably makes sense, as Perry also wrote several entries based on the Dark Horse Comics Aliens series

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Caliban Cove

The second book takes place between the first and second entries in the game series, rather than being an adaptation. Despite this, it feels similar to the first novel, with another S.T.A.R.S. team – this one not officially sanctioned – investigating another Umbrella facility gone awry. In this case, however, it’s not the result of an accident, but deliberate malfeasance. Rogue biochemist, Dr. Nicholas Griffin, has created a virus which turns humans into zombies, and now is preparing to unleash that virus on the world.

The main heroine is Rebecca Chambers, the teenage biochemist who is the only significant player here carried forward from Book #1. So, I guess she’s playing the Ripley in Aliens role. The “puzzles” the team need to solve barely register: “As I was going to St. Ives…”? Really? Guess Perry didn’t see Die Hard With A Vengeance. The other weakness is the author’s struggles with the action sequences; while these are fine when it’s one-on-one, the depiction of anything involving more participants becomes hopelessly jumbled and confusing.

There are some positive aspects. One perspective provided in the book is that of someone infected by the virus, which is chilling in its depiction of the inexorable loss of control. Some of the monsters are also nicely done, particularly the aquatic Leviathans, whose understated descriptions are quite Lovecraftesque.  Otherwise, though, this feels too much like a retread of its predecessor, in both style and content.

City of the Dead

A novelization of the second game, this introduces two major characters. Along with Claire Redfield, who arrives in Raccoon City seeking her brother, the other hero is Leon Kennedy, a newly-assigned cop. Both are understandably disturbed to find it the epicentre of a zombie outbreak, and have to survive those and a bevy of even nastier monstrosities. There’s also Ada Wong, an independent agent, who has been sent in to obtain a sample of the G-virus, the even more twisted successor to the T-virus.

This is a relatively straightforward tale, simply and effectively told. That said, the Aliens aspects are almost overwhelming. Monster which crawls down your throat, gestates for a bit and then comes out? Check. [The book even calls it, “A chest-bursting parasitic creature. straight out of a sci-fi movie”…] Heroine who ‘adopts’ a little girl who has been scurrying around, trying to survive and hide from the monsters? Check. Frenzied rush to escape, as the location counts down towards complete immolation? Check.

Otherwise, though, it’s not bad at all, even if I could probably also have done without the clunky romantic tension between Kennedy and Wong. I definitely wish they had made this into a movie; Redfield and Wong provide enough action heroine-ness to go around, and the chief human antagonist is also female, Umbrella researcher, Annette Birkin. Perry delivers a solid page-turner, engaging in spectacularly moist prose to describe the creatures now roaming Racoon City.

Underworld

Sadly, not the hoped-for crossover featuring Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale. Instead, it sees a five-person team of former S.T.A.R.S. sent to Utah, where the mysterious Trent tells them a simple retrieval mission awaits. Needless to say, it proves to be anything but, with the team separated. Three members are stranded up top, facing Umbrella security, while two are stuck below, to run a gauntlet through four test areas, stocked with some of Umbrella’s most lethal creations [It’s a little like the simulations in Resident Evil: Retribution, but with different terrain types, rather than different cities]

Indeed, this was disappointingly heroine-light: Leon and John Andrews do most of the heavy lifting, as the pair trapped in the underground complex. Rebecca and Claire are both left up top, and the former is wounded while trying to hide from the security team, so is more an encumbrance than an asset to her colleagues. That only leaves Claire; while brave and resourceful, she’s a civilian, with a civilian’s skill-set, and the ass-kicking which results is inevitably limited in its scope.

Like Caliban Cove, this is a standalone work rather than an adaptation of a game, though the structure of the test areas certainly has the feel of stages, with the “Fossil” at the end undeniably Boss-level. I did enjoy the “first-monster” perspective section, telling events from Fossil’s point of view; it’s a somewhat chilling angle, since its life is “Eat. Sleep. Repeat.” But overall, this would likely have been significantly improved if there had actually been considerably more Selene.

Nemesis

I was surprised to discover in the course of this one, the short time frame over which this all takes place – it’s only about six weeks since the events of the first novel, and we’re already into the fifth installment, based on the third computer game. The central characters here are Jill Valentine, returning from The Umbrella Conspiracy, and new hero, Carlos Olivera, an Umbrella operative who is unaware of the company’s secrets.

The latter is dropped into Raccoon City on a supposed rescue mission, really intended to provide data to the corporation, and it’s not long before he’s the sole survivor of his platoon. Meanwhile, Valentine seeks her own way out, having abandoned her humanitarian efforts, but is trailed by the Nemesis, a particularly unstoppable Umbrella creation programmed to hunt and kill S.T.A.R.S. members. The human villain is another Umbrella soldier Nicholai Ginovaef, a psychopath with his own agenda.

It’s decent enough, and good to see Valentine again, who kicks ass solidly. Its origins as a game occasionally remain too obvious – the laser cannon sure is convenient! – though at least the puzzle aspects are more restrained. Ginovaef is a nasty piece of work, especially disturbing since much of it is told from his perspective. Something of a shame he doesn’t get the deserved comeuppance, at the hands of Jill, since the game is played largely from her perspective (Olivera being a helpful NPC). Though Perry probably should have skipped the feeble attempt to explain her tube-top and miniskirt costume. “Mobility”? Suuuuuure…

Code: Veronica

Looked like earlier entries in the series were building toward a raid by the ex-S.T.A.R.S. on Umbrella’s European headquarters. But this entry leaps over it entirely, and the subsequent capture of Claire Redfield, and begins with her locked up on Rockfort Island, a remote corporation outpost in the Southern Hemisphere. The facility descends into chaos after a T-virus outbreak, and she is set free by a sympathetic employee, to fend for herself among the weaponized creatures roaming the isle. They’re overseen by Alfred Ashford, who’d be described by any passing psychiatrist as “batshit crazy”; she teams up with another prisoner, the even younger Steve Burnside. Cue romantic tension…

You sense even Perry is becoming jaded by the repetitive nature of the source material. Early on, Claire quips to herself, “What’s a biohazardous disaster without a crazy or two?”, and later, Steve wonders, “Keys and emblems and proofs and submarines; it was a wonder [Umbrella employees] ever got shit done.” However, Redfield’s return is as welcome as Valentine’s was – pity the game makers never saw fit to team them up. And if the nature of Alfred’s insanity will come as absolutely no shock to anyone who has seen Psycho, the story here then layers an additional level of horror on top, rescuing it from the over-obvious.

It felt like the novel is going to end at the 3/4 point, but the plot suddenly diverts to Antarctica for a final section. Claire’s brother, Chris, shows up at Rockfort in search of her, then ends up near the South Pole as well, where we get the grand finale, which seems tacked on. Again, hard to blame Perry for this, and likely not her fault either that, despite being the last novel chronologically, it offers very little in the way of a true conclusion.

Zero Hour

Hang on, didn’t you say Code Veronica was the last novel? Ah, important word there: “chronologically”. For Perry finished off the series with another novel, which comes at the beginning; it covers the first S.T.A.R.S team to come into contact with the results of the T-virus, whose ‘chopper goes does in the woods near Raccoon City. In particular, it’s the story of Rebecca Chambers, then on her first mission. She comes across a train which has been attacked by persons or creatures unknown, and also Billy Coen, a prisoner and former soldier who escaped while being taken to an impending execution.

On balance, I should probably have read this one in its position at the beginning. If there’s not much lost, I was aware Rebecca survived to appear in the subsequent entries, and Coen is nowhere to be found, so there wasn’t much tension here. However, the small cast – there is hardly anyone else present – does mean Perry has the chance to give the characters more depth than some entries in the series. The Coen/Chambers pairing is a good one too, matching up brawn and brains respectively, and I didn’t even mind the inevitable unresolved sexual tension too much.

What I particularly liked was the sense of vulnerability that we get from Chambers. She isn’t an unstoppable ass-kicking machine – frankly, after the preceding novels have left the score S.T.A.R.S 6, Umbrella 0, that’s a refreshing breath of fresh air. It left me wishing I’d seen more of her in the series.

All told, even as someone who has never so much as picked up one of the games, I generally found the novels entertaining. They’re a fast, easy read: my main criticism would be they’re too loyal to the puzzle-solving aspects. These may be an intrinsic part of the game experience, but fail to transfer at all well on to the printed page. But the books do offer a potential route forward for the film franchise, if they decide to continue with it, on past the “final chapter”.

Perhaps the main criticism from existing fans is the way they diverted from the games, but these novels do show, a more faithful adaptation can work as entertainment. There would still need to be some adjustments – tone down the puzzle solving and probably find out a way to limit the need for multiple perspectives too. But there’s little doubt that the characters, situations and monsters offer plenty of cinematic scope, and CGI has improved enough since the original movie in 2002, it is now capable of doing the creatures justice. If Sony opt to reboot, they could go back to Zero Hour, introducing Rebecca, then move into The Umbrella Conspiracy for the rest of the S.T.A.R.S. team. It would be a seam of fresh material, and one potentially also embraced by those “long-suffering” game fans.

“My name is Alice. And I remember everything”: Re-viewing Resident Evil 1-5

With the sixth (and final?) installment in everyone’s #1 zombie-killing video-game adaptation franchise now in cinemas, it seemed a good time to go back and re-view the previous five installments, stretching back almost fifteen years. The original film came out so long ago, I wasn’t actually married. Damn. Now, however, I am. Which is why, one weekend in January, Chris and I ordered out for pizza, ensured the pillows were adequately fluffed and settled in on the couch for a marathon of maximum Umbrella mayhem. How have they stood the test of time? Here are our current takes on the series, preceded by summaries of our original reviews and a link to the full thing. But first, let’s warm up and refresh our memory with the trailers:

Resident Evil (2002)

“You’re all going to die down here!”

What we said then (3½ stars). “Not as good as it could have been, with even the most undemanding viewer able to imagine improvements. Yet, as an action/SF/horror film goes, it’s not bad at all, with very little slack or let-up. The virus is released in the first two minutes, and it’s pretty much non-stop from there on, with plenty going on. Jovovich looks the part, and the final shot has me anticipating the sequel, in a kind of Evil Dead 2 way, with her character getting totally medieval on the zombies’ asses. We can but hope.”

What we say now. This has stood up very well in 15 years, not least because it’s more practical effects than primitive CGI e.g. the zombie dogs. It’s worth remembering that, when it came out, zombies were not in fashion. This was before The Walking Dead, before World War Z; heck, it was even before the Dawn of the Dead remake. Indeed, it’s 40 minutes here before the first zombie shows up, and another 10 before Alice, as we know her, is born. Still, Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez) stands in well during the early going, the character being perfectly suited to Rodriguez’s sneer. She also gets the best line in the film. After fighting off an early corpse, thanks to Rain’s torrent of automatic fire, J.D. says “I shot her five times. How was she still standing?”, to which Rain replies, “Bitch isn’t standing now. ”

At this point, the makers were stating it was a “prequel” to the games, with Jovovich in effect playing the role of Jill Valentine. Not so sure about that, given subsequent flims, but it’s hard to deny the influence of the final sequence: Alice waking up in a hospital bed, to discover the zombie apocalypse, was also used in both 28 Days Later and the first ep of TWD. There was an alternate ending shot, with her going into Umbrella HQ, but I’m glad they went with the one used, which has an absolutely spectacular final shot, zooming back from her over a devastated city. The makers certainly extracted their bang for every penny of the $35 million budget, and the industrial soundtrack, including both Front Line Assembly and Nine Inch Nails, is perfect. Current rating: upgraded to **** and our seal of approval.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

“I’m good – but I’m not THAT good.”

What we said then (4 stars). “There seemed to be two kinds of reviews for this: those who ‘get’ what’s intended here, and those who clearly don’t… How you react will likely be similarly split; given you’re on this site, I suspect the odds are in favour of Apocalypse, for its strong intuitive grasp of the ingredients necessary in a good action heroine, and its delivery thereof. Sure, the plot is some way short of perfect, and more/better-filmed fights would have been welcome, but the makers do a sound job of distracting you from the flaws, and there’s enough worthwhile stuff that will stick in your mind, to put it in the top quarter of this summer’s popcorn flicks.”

What we say now. If the original movie was Alien, this one is Aliens, upping the ante largely by vastly multiplying the number of enemies. The scope here is much broader: instead of the claustrophobic feel of a small group in an underground complex, it takes place across an entire city, and it’s not just Alice vs. zombies, she’s also taking on the human soldiers of Umbrella. Since she is the sole intact survivor of part one, we get a slew of new characters, including two from the game, in Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr); the former is particularly iconic in her costume. There’s also L.J. (Mike Epps), who adds occasional comic moments almost entirely missing from the original; not sure if that’s a plus or not.

Alice is now a fully-fledged and hardcore heroine, apparent right from her arrival, crashing through a church window on her motorbike, and capable of snapping her own dislocated finger back into place, with little more than a roll of the eyes. It’s a near-constant stream of action, offering a relentless adrenaline buzz to the viewer, although less adrenaline would have been welcome during Alice’s final fight with nemesis, which degenerates into a choppily-edited mess. And, really: who decided it was a good idea to go through a cemetery during a zombie apocalypse? Still, between Alice and Jill, this remains a two-for-one action heroine special, and can only be appreciated as such. Current rating: holds steady at ****.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

“Good thing I like a challenge.”

What we said then (3 stars). “S’ok. Mulcahy is no stranger to franchise cinema, having done the first couple of Highlander films, and the harsh desert lighting and exterior landscape is a nice contrast to the usual, dark, claustrophobic approach adopted by most Z-flicks. His experience is of particular use in the action sequences, where he does a better job of avoiding the cinematic excesses, in which Alexander Witt indulged, too frequently, last time up. The script is merely workmanlike: it feels too much like a series of cool set-pieces joined in the editing bay, rather than springing organically from the storyline.”

What we say now. I was confused by the opening, and wondered if I’d accidentally put the first film back in the DVD player. For I hadn’t seen this since its cinematic release, and it starts off by re-running the very beginning. Once that was established, we get Ian Glen as the villain – and he’s much needed, offering us a real human “villain” for the first time, and giving Umbrella a face of evil in Dr. Isaacs. The main problem is, Alice has now been imbued with superpowers. Speed and strength, I don’t mind, but telekinesis and the ability to block fire? What is this, X-Men: Extinction? Though clearly the main influence here is Mad Max, right down to Alice’s post-apocalypse chic of a long coat – plus, for no real reason beyond coolness, stockings and suspenders.

This film also absorbs the modern fondness for “fast zombies”, with the main set-piece taking on a slew of Umbrella-enhanced sprinters. While decent, and with an impressive depiction of Las Vegas, it’s likely placed too early in the movie, as nothing thereafter comes close. The only other sequence which might stick in the mind is an attack on a convoy of survivors by zombiefied crows, so I guess you can add The Birds to the list of influences here. I did like the “Pit O’ Millas”, the discards resulting from Dr. Isaacs’s experiments, and am surprised it took them three movies to use White Rabbit on the soundtrack, given its obvious Alice-ness. But Claire Redfield is disappointingly bland, and Alice’s increasing abilities cause way more problems than they solve. Current rating: dropped to **½, though likely a little above that, rather than above.

10 Iconic Sequences from Resident Evil 1-5

These are my picks for the most franchise-defining set pieces from each film. I aimed for two from each, but #3 was so weak, it could only manage a single entry (and that, barely!), so I pulled in an extra one from #4. These are not necessarily the “best” moments. For example, Alice’s fight against the zombie dogs in the original film, is memorable more because it’s the first time we’ve seen her kick ass. It was also that moment in the trailer which sold me on the movie. But having watched all five films in the last 24 hours, these are what stick in my mind.

  1. Alice enters the church (Resident Evil: Apocalypse)
  2. Alice vs. Zombie Dogs (Resident Evil)
  3. Million Milla March (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  4. Alice vs. Jill (Resident Evil: Retribution)
  5. Tokyo sequence (Resident Evil: Retribution)
  6. Running down that wall (Resident Evil: Apocalypse)
  7. The laser corridor (Resident Evil)
  8. Roof-top escape (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  9. Alice and Claire vs. the Axman (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  10. Las Vegas ambush (Resident Evil: Extinction)

The play-list below includes all ten of these. Please enjoy. :)

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

“Do you know who I am?”

What we said then (3 stars). “There’s way too much moving about in underground darkness here, and elements are lobbed in from the video game, which make no sense in the context of the movie… Nor is there much feeling of threat to the characters, who cheat death with blithe abandon – the sense of “anyone can die, at any time” present in the original is all but gone… [But] the action, is, as usual for the series, solid – meaning this is, overall, just worth the 92 minutes of your time it will take up.”

What we say now. This saw the return of Paul W.S. Anderson to the series, and wisely, opts rapidly to discard the angle which saw our heroine gaining ever-increasing superpowers. I totally loved the attack on Umbrella HQ by multiple Alice clones – what I call the Million Milla March – which lifts copiously from both The Matrix and the original Aeon Flux animations. Indeed, The Matrix is a source in other ways, not least Arnold Wesker (Shawn Roberts), who clearly is inspired heavily by Agent Smith. This and the other lifts here are a bit too obvious to work: the zombie dogs v2.0 are straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and obnoxious asshole Bennett Sinclair (Kim Coates) is likely too close to Steve Marcus in the Dawn of the Dead remake. Even the use of a prison as a sanctuary from zombies was previously done a few years earlier, in The Walking Dead comics.

I note the walking pace of Evil‘s zombies continues to accelerate, here without any Umbrella tampering. But generally, this is on most solid ground when working with its own content, such as the Axman, who makes a ferocious foe for Claire and Alice (despite far too much slo-mo!). It was the first of the series to be made in 3D, and a lot of the shots used by Anderson make that very obvious, though I didn’t mind that too much. For someone supposedly back to being human again, Alice still seems to be insanely competent, best illustrated in an impressive escape off a roof-top infested with zombies. It even ends on the most hopeful note of any of the series so f… Er, never mind, scratch that. My mistake. Current rating: Upped to ***½; this was rather more impressive than I remembered it.

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

“Congratulations. You’re officially a badass.”

What we said then (4 stars). “This is the best Resident Evil movie in eight years. It may not be anything significant in the plot department. There are not hidden depths or great moments of character revelation. But it does contain entirely acceptable amounts of Milla Jovovich Kicking Righteous Ass, and succeeds as an entertainment spectacle, almost entirely due to this. Though actually, this is almost a “greatest hits” package, especially in terms of participants.”

What we say now. Feels like Anderson has largely given up in terms of trying to attract new fans, with a start that’s deliberately confusing, from an opening that plays out in reverse, through Alice’s new suburban life. It also introduces, without explanation, game elements such as characters Leon Kennedy and Ada Wong, and the Las Plagas parasites. But if you’ve been along for the ride since the beginning, this is a blast. It brings in new influences, most obviously Aliens (Alice protecting a pseudo-daughter) and Blade Runner (Ada telling her, “You were one of the 50 basic models”). It’s good to see favourite characters from earlier films return, such as Rain Ocampo or Carlos Olivera, and the cloning concept allows for nice variations. Not all Rains, for example, are on Alice’s side, though you know the concept of our heroine as a happy home-maker is not one built to last.

The scenario, involving a giant Umbrella testing area of different environments, seems a bit contrived, but there was something very similar in the Resident Evil: Underworld novel. I’ll let it slide, since this offers scope for a host of spectacular set-pieces. In terms of pure hand-to-hand fighting, the Tokyo sequence may be close to the best in the series, but the film likely sprays more rounds of ammunition around than any other entry too. It’s also great to see Alice go toe-to-toe against Jill Valentine, harking back to the “But I’m not that good” comment from Apocalypse. In some ways, the gap between the games and the movies has never been greater, with this abandoning almost all creepiness for loud, rambunctious battles. However, this is so solidly entertaining, I’d be hard pushed to call that any kind of a bad thing. Current rating: retains every bit of its ****.

So, what have we learned? Generally, to answer the question asked in the intro, the films have stood the test of time surprisingly well. Video-game adaptations remain problematic for Hollywood (Assassin’s Creed says hello), and the longevity and sheer number of Resident Evil films is almost unsurpassed. I think it’s because Anderson and his team have never felt under an obligation to be “true” to the games. While that may have alienated a chunk of the core fans, it has allowed the makers to focus on a more important task: making entertaining films, for there are aspects of the games which simply would not work on-screen, such as the puzzle-solving. They were also wise to concentrate heavily on practical effects, which tend to last better than CGI.

Not to say there haven’t been mis-steps – the mid-series diversion giving Alice super-powers would be the worst of these. But at its best – and I’d order the series #5, #2, #1, #4, #3, from top to bottom – it is excellent entertainment, that looks far slicker than many films with far bigger budgets, and the focus throughout has generally been on what matters. Which is: a great heroine who kicks ass, with (The Hunger Games please note) no love-triangles and virtually zero romantic interest. It seems Milla Jovovich is certain the sixth movie will be her final chapter, at least. If so, it seems only appropriate to finish by saying: So long, Milla – and thanks for all the mayhem.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

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“Sometimes I feel like this has been my whole life.”

We’d skipped the last two installments at the movies, having been burned by part three, but after the excellent content of #5, and since this was likely to be our last chance, Chris and I made it a “dinner and a movie” thing on Saturday. Was disturbed by how many kids there were for this R-rated film – hell, even a couple of babes in arms, whom I’m sure loved the non-stop violence. I guess it was deemed kid-friendly by their parents, with this one getting its MPAA rating just “for sequences of violence throughout,” rather than anything truly corrupting, such as momentary Milla mammarage. Cutely, the feature was preceded by a quick personal message from director and star, thanking us for their support of the series. Yeah, it’s utterly meaningless, but nice to be appreciated.

Onto the movie, which I think probably would have been better received by us as a stand-alone entry, if we hadn’t watched parts 1-5 last weekend. #QuickPlug: re-reviews of all those to follow later this week. For there seems to be an awful lot of ret-conning going on, in particular for the Red Queen, played here by Milla’s daugher, Ever. Not only is her origin story drastically revised from Apocalypse, there’s also a new, Robocop-esque rule that she can’t harm Umbrella employees. [I note that Anderson even lifts the same escape clause used by Verhoeven] Must be Red Queen v1.1, because all the workers at the Hive she killed in the original movie, didn’t seem to benefit from this protection…

The story sees Alice (Jovovich) returning to Raccoon City, seeking the airborne antidote she discovers – from of all people, the Red Queen, little Miss Laser Corridor herself – was created by Umbrella. If Alice can release it into the wild, it will take out all the T-virus infected. Which is a bit of a problem since, don’t forget, the list includes our heroine herself. Standing in her way is Dr. Isaacs (Glen), who has set his plan in motion to exterminate the last remaining pockets of humanity and complete his apocalyptic vision thing, along with a massive swarm of zombies he’s leading back to the Hive. On Alice’s side are a few of those final survivors, including Claire Redfield (Larter) and Abigail (Rose), adding extra girls-with-guns firepower – as if it were really necessary here.

The main problem is this: editor Doobie White really should lay off the caffeine. I don’t think it’s Anderson’s problem, as Retribution was perfectly fine in this area, but the hand-to-hand fights look like they were edited by putting them through a highly enthusiastic wood-chipper. They stay just about on this side of incoherent, but you don’t so much watch these, as experience them on a subliminal level. Maybe it’s a result of protagonists Jovovich and Glen being in their forties and mid-50’s respectively: I know if I was appearing in an action movie, you’d certainly have to edit the hell out of me to look good! But it’s still annoying as hell. The best sequence is when the camera sits back a bit and we can actually appreciate Alice, dangling from an underpass, as she beats up a posse of hapless Umbrella drones (below).

Due to this, the film is at is most effective in other areas, mostly when going wide and giving us a look at the bigger picture, specifically the sheer scope of the devastation and conflict. There’s a couple of scenes where I think the zombie count may have surpassed World War Z, and that volume is undeniably impressive. It requires, naturally, equally large-scale defense and the sequence where the humans create multiple waterfalls of fire is startling and striking. An an aside, I note the film cost only $40 million, which is $25m less than last time, and little more than the price-tag for the original, 15 years ago. Anderson is clearly great at getting bang per buck, and if the box-office reception was lukewarm in North America, the film has already almost made its cost back in Japan alone.

I also was glad to see Glen back, and just as in #3, he brings a human face to the evil corporation. [Yes, he died at the end of that one. No, it’s not a problem.] I envisage a long career for him, in the mode of Charles Dance and Alan Rickman, being the go-to guy whenever a film needs a solidly British villain. Here, he gets to show a couple of facets, both coldly calculating and manically psychotic, and is fun to watch in both. But, of course, it’s Milla’s show, and she also gets to do a bit more than you might expect: if you ever wondered what she’ll look like in her seventies, this movie will answer your question. Though going by how little she seems to have changed over the decade and a half of the series, if she looked exactly the same at that age, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Otherwise, she has become Alice, adopting a world-weary stare here, reminiscent of our cat when we annoy him. It seems to say, “I could get violent, but you’re just not worth the effort,” while she re-enacts some of the series’s greatest hits, such as the laser corridor, or a whole pack of zombie dogs (well, more dog-shaped things, to be honest). Is there closure for Alice? Yes, although not as much as I would have liked. The film had a chance to draw a line under itself in permanent marker, and allow Milla to go off into the happy suburban life her character briefly enjoyed in #5. Sadly, the script doesn’t quite have the courage to do that; let’s just say, if Mr. and Mrs. Anderson need an extra wing on the mansion the franchise’s profits has bought them, it won’t be impossible.

All told, if you’ve got this far in the series, you’re not likely to be disappointed, except by the over-active editing. If you haven’t, this is certainly not going to convince you of its merits. And that’s okay too.

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Milla Jovovich, Ian Glen, Ali Larter, Ruby Rose

The Resident Evil animated films

residentevilanimeThe Milla Jovovich series are not the only films set in the Resident Evil universe. There have also been two feature-length computer animated movies: Degeneration was released in 2008, and Damnation four years later. A third, Vendetta, is scheduled to be released in Japan this spring. While made in Japan, with a Japanese director and crew, the voice cast are English-speaking. As with the novels, the stories and characters are in line with the universe of the computer games, rather than the live-action features, and tend to occupy spots in the timeline between the entries in the game series. Therefore, there’s no Alice, but the animated films contain their fair share of strong heroines and, of course, action.

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Resident Evil: Degeneration

degenerationThere’s a new EvilCorp in town, and its name is WilPharma, as we learn during the montage of news stories which opens this. In game terms, the film takes place after the events of “Resident Evil 4”, which saw the dismantling of the Umbrella Corporation. Its assets and research naturally proved too valuable to destroy, and WilPharma has taken over, with the announced goal of developing a vaccine for the troublesome T-virus. However, some dubious medical research in India leads to the company being targeted by protestors from TerraSave. It’s one such demo, at the Harvardville Airport, that kicks things off, as a plane of infected subjects crashes into the terminal, where Senator Davis is trying to avoid the protestors. TerraSave’s Claire Redfield (Court) finds herself trapped with the Senator, before they’re rescued by a team of soldiers including Angela Miller (Bailey) and Leon S. Kennedy (Mercier).

Claire goes to the WiiPharma research facility, at the invitation of researcher Frederic Downing, and discovers they have the even more lethal G-virus being studied. There is… oh, dammit, let’s just call it “quite a lot more plot”, involving WiiPharma’s efforts to sell the virus as a bioweapon to General Grande; Angela’s brother, Curtis (Smith) an ecoterrorist who deliberately injects himself with the G-virus; and the true identity of the mastermind behind it all. It’s probably too much to be crammed into 98 minutes, especially when you also have to fit in copious amounts of action. The second half, in particular, is more or less one long action sequence, with Angela and Leon trying to survive in the facility. It’s a change of focus, since Redfield was the main protagonist during the first half, becoming the guardian of a friend’s child during the attack at the airport, maybe reflecting her switch to pacifism (albeit pacifism of an oddly bad-ass kind!).

Being CG, and of a 2008 vintage, the animation is good at doing what 2008-era CG was good at, which is movement rather than emotion – as you’d probably also expect from a film produced by a video-game studio. The sequences and shots where the camera is swooping in and around the battle participants, are sometimes spectacularly good, and in general, while in motion, this is effective and exciting. Beyond the technical, its problems are more a plot which lurches from frantic action set pieces to expository lumps, and seems to rely too much on viewers being familiar with the characters and creatures from the games. But it has to be said, WiiPharma certainly seem to have a better handle on the proper use of containment mechanisms than Umbrella ever managed…

Dir: Makoto Kamiya
Star: Alyson Court, Paul Mercier, Laura Bailey, Roger Craig Smith

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Resident Evil: Damnation

adawong-jpgIncluded here largely for completeness, since the action heroine content likely would fall a little short of qualification on its own. Not that it’s entirely lacking, as the video at the bottom shows. But it’s definitely more a vehicle for Leon S. Kennedy (Mercer/Dorman). Which brings me to one of the odd things here: that is not a typo, it’s a double-credit for the character, because two different actors played the role, one providing the voice, the other the source for the motion-captured animation. Not sure I’ve seen that before.

Anyway, Kennedy finds himself dumped into the middle of a former Warsaw Pact satellite nation, the Eastern Slav Republic, which is being torn apart by a struggle between Government forces, under President Svetlana Belikova (Lee/Lee), and rebel groups. Both sides are making use of B.O.W’s, Bio-Organic Weapons, which have now been developed to such an extent that humans can now mind-control some of the creatures, using a parasitic organism called Plaga – albeit not without some unpleasant effects. Meanwhile Ada Wong (Taylor/Andersen) – hang on, last time I saw her, she was dying in one of the novels? – is trying to insert herself into Belikova’s circle, with her own agenda in mind. It all builds to an extended battle, pitting Leon and rebel commander, Alexander Kozachenko (Wittenberg/Earnest), along with the Lickers the latter controls, against the monstrous Tyrants fighting on behalf of Belikova.

This is particularly well done, a lengthy, escalating sequence of animated carnage, even if it does require something of a deus ex machina to show up at the end. It’s clear that animation has progressed markedly since the first movie, and this film takes full advantage of those improvements in its action scenes. For the purposes of this site, I’d really like to have seen more of Wong, whose moral ambivalence is intriguing; I reached the end, and still didn’t know on whose side she was supposed to be. [She does show up in RE: Retribution, played by Li BingBing, albeit dubbed there too]. The scene below, where she goes hand-to-hand with President Belikova, is a lot of fun – Belikova certainly counts as one of the more hard-core politicians I’ve seen! Bet she could kick Hillary Clinton’s ass…

And that is as close to politics as I’m ever going to get o

Dir: Makoto Kamiya
Star (voice): Matthew Mercer, Dave Wittenberg, Courtenay Taylor, Wendee Lee
Star (motion-capture): Kevin Dorman, David Earnest, Jolene Andersen, Melinda Lee

Calamity Jane’s Revenge

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“Talk is cheap. VERY cheap…”

calamityTwo stars might actually be a bit generous, on an objective scale. But I confess to possessing a soft spot for low-budget films made with passion, even if the results fall short. The most obvious deficiency here is the location shooting. Outside of an opening scene with a few ramshackle houses, the entire film takes place in a forest. Seriously, the closest thereafter we get to seeing any other buildings, is two people leaning up against a fence… in the middle of the woods. Maybe they should have called it Calamity Jane: The Wilderness Years, and set viewer expectations appropriately.

It’s a revenge story, which we join in progress, with the husband of Jane (Ryan), no mean legend himself, Wild Bill Hickok, having already been gunned down. She’s now on the trail of the men responsible, who have split up and need to be tracked down individually. Complicating matters, one of the culprits is now accompanied by a kidnap victim, Fay (Gomez), whom Jane initially attempts to leave behind, but eventually agrees to help out. Additionally, Jane is being tracked by the new sheriff of Deadwood, along with renowned tracker, Colorado Charlie Utter (former WWE star Snow, which was an unexpected surprise). Will she be able to finish her mission of vengeance before the forces of law catch up with her?

And, more importantly, will the viewer be able to finish this movie, before unconsciousness catches up with them? Because the pacing on this leaves a great deal to be desired, without any real sense of building toward a climax. The film instead ambles its way through the trees, giving you two minutes of action, then 15 minutes of chit-chat. Rinse. Repeat. Forest. It’s not actually badly acted: Ryan has some presence, and Snow is certainly no worse than some others from the WWE who have stepped in front of the camera (looking at you, John Cena…). But the paucity of the resources available also leads to action more befitting a school playground, in which when people get shot, they fall over clutching their chest, without ever any apparent injury. Could the budget truly not stretch to a couple of bottles of fake blood?

On the technical side, it’s has its moments, with some impressive drone (I’m guessing) shots, capturing the epic grandeur of the mountains. These do, however, seem somewhat at odd with the static approach taken for the rest of the film. Couto seems to have tried his hand at various genres over the years, from horror to family films; while I guess he’s to be commended for that, it perhaps helps explains why this feels so generic. If you’re short on budget, you need to make up for this in other, inexpensive ways, from imagination to risk-taking. Unfortunately, Couto appears more concerned with playing it safe, and there’s precious little here that will stick in the viewer’s brain past the end credits.

Dir: Henrique Couto
Star: Erin R. Ryan, Al Snow, Julia Gomez, Adam Scott Clevenger