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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

SAW IV (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman)

It’s interesting how the Saw series has progressed since James Wan and buddy Leigh Whannel came up with their punk rock homage to Alfred Hitchcock and ‘80s horror. While Part 2 was nothing more than a puzzle box of gore, Part 3 gave audiences (and fans in particular) a nice bit of closure to end things proper. So when Saw IV was announced (a more or less certainty since each installment more than makes its budget back), the question for those in the know was – where could the franchise possibly go? The main character is dead, several of his cohorts on both sides of the law have also kicked the proverbial bucket, and Whannel specifically fashioned the last installment to tie up as many loose threads as possible. So how does this latest sequel deal with such narrative roadblocks? By taking things sideways and backwards, to be exact, broadening the movie’s mythology while laying the foundation for all future films to come.

As the movie opens, Part III has just ended. Jigsaw is indeed dead, and during his autopsy, a tape is found in his stomach. It indicates that the games are not over – in fact, they have only just begun. Almost instantly we meet dedicated cops Rigg and Hoffman. Investigating the death of fellow officer Kerry, who met her end at the hand’s of a deadly rib spreading device, they recognize that Jigsaw must have had help with his crimes – and Amanda was too petite to do the job. This means another accomplish is out there. Obsessed with catching this self-proclaimed ‘scientific terrorist’, Riggs is soon embroiled in the madman’s latest complicated puzzle. Meanwhile, FBI agents Strahm and Perez are called in to oversea the case. Their focus is Jigsaw’s ex-wife, a drug clinic director named Jill. While she may not have information on the continuing crimes, she can definitely shed some light on what made this one time celebrated civil engineer into an unhinged man obsessed with death.

If the original Saw was the kernel of a potential terror universe, Saw IV is, by this time, a series of satellites and lesser celestial bodies bound together by some of the best bloodletting in modern macabre. Call this the “fill in the blank” film, a movie made to specifically address the minor issues still hanging from the previous three installments. While Wan and Whannell didn’t leave too much to work with, new screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (fresh from the Project Greenlight sleeper Feast) flesh out ancillary characters and simultaneous situations while going the prequel route to give returning actor Tobin Bell some intriguing origin scenes. Yes, Saw IV shows us how John Kramer cracked, and the reasoning is pretty intense. His goofy demonic doll is also explained, as is the pig mask and Jigsaw’s mechanical and monetary abilities. Without giving much away, he was a wealthy eccentric, obsessed with moral order and Eastern philosophy, who suffers such a devastating personal loss that he turns on a society he sees as not appreciating life. The devil, as usual, is in the details.

The secondary storyline brings back Swat team leader Rigg (a peripheral person whose been in the last two installments) as the latest catalyst in the main craven cat and mouse, and it’s a tad less successful. Like most of the movie, hints are dropped as to why this policeman is placed inside these brutal, efficient murder machinations, but the connections are cloudy and unclear this time around. In essence, obvious deviants and drug heads are presented to the peace officer in hopes that he will learn the “real” way of helping. Like Donnie Wahlberg’s Eric Matthews, it’s a lax lesson in patience and paying attention. Still, without these vile vignettes, we wouldn’t have many of the saga’s sensational splatter setpieces. It seems like, just when you thought the Saw gang had explored every possible way of folding, spindling, or mutilating the human body, the next sequel comes along and amplifies the sluice.

There is incredibly nauseating stuff here. Jigsaw’s autopsy is an over the top exercise in surgical swashbuckling, while the first few games are fantastically gruesome. Of particular note are moments as when our killer originates his automated tortures (it involves a dope fiend, a trick chair, and a spring loaded face gate made up of butcher knives – tasty!) and a couple connected by large rods penetrating both their bodies. It will be interesting to see how much more graphic the deaths will be come Unrated DVD time. As with the recent release of Saw III, director Darren Lynn Bousman always has some added atrocities up his sleeves. How the MPAA said “yea” to what’s already there is amazing in and of itself. It has to be noted that, unlike previous installments that he’s helmed, the filmmaker goes a little goofy here. Every game sequence is handled with shaky camera jerks and oddball editing beats. While it definitely gives this movie a different style, it can hinder some of the suspense.

In fact, Saw IV is much more of a police procedural whodunit than your typical slice and dice serial spree. The plot definitely wants to add further finishing moves on top of what Whannell did last time, and there are more clues and connections than in any edition since the first. This will definitely drive some audiences bonkers. The last thing you want from a horror film is a mandatory need for prior knowledge of personnel and context. This is not a sequel that can be enjoyed by people who’ve never seen the Saw films, and the casual viewer will definitely feel a sense of who/what/where/when/why whiplash. In fact, it’s pretty clear that this is a movie made exclusively for the obsessive and the fanatical. And let’s not forget the mandatory twist at the end. It’s the kind of reveal that takes a moment to sink in, one of those ‘hold on a minute’ instances that ask you to remember what you witnessed before and how it plays into the overall storyline. It’s not that the movie is complicated. Instead, it’s playing a trick on you, and some people don’t like being purposefully played with.

There are also some handy unanswered questions, issues left open and available for Saw V and VI (both already greenlit by Lionsgate). For example, someone gets puppet shrapnel in their face. They are not dead, though they are never addressed again. Someone with a connection to the crimes is given no explanation for their participation. During the first game, we see someone who is never properly introduced or explained, and several ancillary individuals are left stuck in the status quo, obviously positioned as pawns for placement later. Still, those smitten with this particularly potent scary movie monopoly will definitely enjoy Saw IV. It ranks third of the four movies made (Saw and Saw III besting it easily). By this point in the legend, we clearly know how Jigsaw works, what he hoped for with Amanda, and how his apprentice ended up violating his own rules for her own selfish gains. Where everything goes from here should be interesting – if not necessarily iconic. The original Saw series is officially DOA. Long live the new blood breed.


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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (dir. Craig Gillespie)

Though we like to think of ourselves as enlightened and progressive, there is still a part of our inherent human make up that hates to see people alone. From the meddling matchmaking imported from many an immigrant’s old country culture to the current computerized claims of electronic harmony, we function under the foolish belief that individuals aren’t complete until they’re paired up and procreating. Equally disturbing is how readily we dismiss someone’s personal preference, no matter how unusual or outside the considered norm. While some affections can’t be supported, others offer nothing more than shelter from the social storm. Lars Lindstrum suffers from such well-meaning misconstructions. His brother and sister-in-law just want him to be happy. But finding said bliss with a life-size sex aide is another issue all together.

Avoiding cliché while exploiting the obvious comic possibilities of a man’s obsession with a ‘anatomically correct’ love doll, Lars and the Real Girl is a satiric, sentimental jewel. Directed with heart and humor by newcomer Craig Gillespie (whose efforts here feel a billion miles away from his sloppy summer dud Mr. Woodcock), we get an amazing performance from Ryan Gosling, a weirdly evocative narrative that never once strays into sleaze, and a thematic resonance that requires us to look at love through the eyes of the person, not public perception. Our hero is a 27-year-old manchild who lives in the garage of his parent’s old house. Mother long dead and father recently passed, it is up to his older brother Gus to look after him. Taking up residence in the family home, he’s about to be a proud papa. Yet his very pregnant wife Karin can’t help but worry about Lars. He seems lonely without being obvious about it, shy both at work and in the rare occasions he ventures out into the world.

One day, a large crate shows up in the driveway. It’s Bianca, a human-sized figurine typically used by men to satisfy a certain, partner-less, urge. But Lars is not interested in his newfound companion’s carnal capabilities. Instead, he seems to think she’s alive, interacting with her and requesting that others treat her with the same respect they would others in the community. Initially confused, Gus and Karin seek the advice of local doctor and resident psychologist Dagmar. Using the ploy that Bianca needs special medical treatments (she’s from Brazil, after all), our medico starts to slowly unravel Lars’ delusion. Hoping to break his bond with the oversized toy, she suggests everyone treat the doll as a real person. Soon, the whole town is taken with Bianca, and Lars shifts from happy to slightly confused. It’s not just the love they are showing for his gal pal. It’s the emotional outpouring focused toward him as well.

Like the best kind of movies, Lars and the Real Girl effortlessly moves from hilarious to earnest without us really knowing it. We giggle at Gosling, all goofball mannerisms and awkward personal tics, as he projects his naïve romantic feelings on his plastic paramour, and nod knowingly as Patricia Clarkson’s patient shrink gets to the bottom of many of his deep rooted problems. Like Ordinary People populated by eccentrics, this is really a film about discovering one’s inner strength, and understanding the need for human companionship. Lars’ belligerent brother (a nice turn by the seemingly omnipresent Paul Schnieder) just wants a pill to turn his relative back to normal. But it is he who has one of the story’s biggest epiphanies, realizing the role he played in sequestering his sibling. Wife Karin (a lovely Emily Mortimer) sees things more simply. Whatever makes Lars happy is what’s best. Of course, it would be nice if it weren’t inanimate and shrouded in smut.

As with most surreal stories like this, the background is populated with dozens of idiosyncratic individuals, from the local hairdresser who wants to give Bianca a makeover, to the matronly know-it-all who calls out the populace when they initially want to reject Lars and his new companion. This mother figure also plays a prominent role in the film’s last act, helping everyone deal with a sudden, sad change in events. Perhaps most important, there is an actual human being who cares for Lars, a genial if slightly silly girl named Margo. As played by Kelli Garner in a completely unglamorous turn, we see the decency and concern the character carries. While she’s a natural match for our addled adult, how they get together—IF they do - becomes one of the movie’s more endearing elements.

In fact, this whole film is like a massive down comforter fresh from the drier and fluffy as a cuddly kitten. Golsing may be pitching his performance a tad too far over into introvert mode, but he’s a solid, stoic figure, a man made up of several psychological missteps—so many, in fact, that Gillespie wisely concentrates on a chosen few. Clearly, Lars is devastated from the loss of his mother (who died giving birth to him) and the accompanying fade of his father. Gus was a cold caretaker at best, and the resulting distance has become a chasm. Fears revolving abandonment, childbirth, the responsibilities of being alone, and the overreaching pressure to play nice in the world of adults are constantly projected on Bianca, Lars’ imaginary conversations saying more than any direct confrontation. The town’s reaction to his several thousand dollar therapy device is just the icing on an already sweet and satisfying cake.

Clarkson’s role here is also unique. Unlike your typical psychologist that probes and prods, her character’s style is subtle and very effective. The talks she has with Lars are more about filling in the blanks the overgrown boy leaves when discussing subjects than prying information out of him. There is a real sense of compassion voiced, something that gives the film a genial yet genuine gravitas. She wants her patient to open up, but not at the expense of what makes him so special. It’s a shame that all therapy can’t be this successful. As stated before, the premise initially plays as wildly incongruous and slightly slapstick. It’s a dude dating a sex toy, after all. But as Lars and the Real Girl progresses, we find ourselves celebrating right along with the rest of the town. They really do love this strangely iconic figure—and so do we.

It’s a shame then that this loveable little sleeper won’t be experienced by more people. Even with the name change (the female figure is sold under the trademarked ‘RealDoll’ label), there will be those who see an adult novelty sitting aside a grown man and assume this is some scandalous sex farce. Others will be disappointed when they learn that there is very little controversy involved. Recently, North One Television in Britain aired a documentary about four men who all have what they consider to be legitimate relationships with their own versions of Lars’ love interest. It was a creepy, and ultimately depressing exposé. Craig Gillespie has managed to avoid any and all inappropriateness to deliver one of 2007’s most endearing films. Lars and the Real Girl is a real gem.

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Friday, Oct 26, 2007


Wes Anderson makes cinematic novels—episodic, heavily reliant on subplot and subtext, and filled with quirky characters that seem to work best when fully plotted out on paper. Indeed, films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou have often been accused of being better in bits than as a sum of all their perculiar parts. Part of the problem is audience perception. They’re used to seeing people as pawns, cogs in a mainstream mechanism moving robotically from setpiece A to denouement B. Another is aesthetic inconsistency. Within Anderson’s brilliant flourishes are occasional moments of lax detail. While his work has been potent, and very provocative, few could call it perfect—until now. The Darjeeling Limited is an Anderson epiphany. Finally, within the context of a single storyline, the writer/director has found a flawless premise and three equally ideal characters to carry it across.

The Whitman Brothers have not seen each other since their wealthy father’s funeral one year ago. Hoping to bring them back together as a family, oldest sibling Francis (Owen Wilson) books a month long train trip across India. While the problem prone Peter (Adrien Brody) relishes the idea (he’s escaping from pressing commitments on the home front), writer/lothario Jack (Jason Schwartzman) just wants to get to Italy to reconnect with his demanding girlfriend. Once all three hop on the title express, their dad’s special made Louis Vitton baggage in tow, they find themselves immersed in several levels of intrigue. Some of it is personal (rivalries, onboard romance, personal problems) while others involve the spiritual, the cultural, and the karmic. In fact, it is clear that all three Whitmans could use some significant healing. Each carries their own steamer trunk full of unanswered questions and unresolved expectations. Maybe reconnecting with their mother, who left the brood to seek solace in a far off nunnery, will sooth their ongoing struggles?

Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest. Sure, there will be those who see Anderson’s trademark quirks, his moments of forced magic realism and out of the blue character shifts and claim the same old self indulgent designs. And within his previous settings—a private school, a New York apartment, an oceanic research vessel—such strategies did indeed appear downright excessive. But within the context of India, a mysterious nation with its own inherent eccentricities and extremes, Anderson finds a totally complementary venue. In a country where seemingly anything can happen, where faith folds itself neatly into the fabric of everyday life in a manner so seamless that it’s almost indecipherable, the idea of three wayward men seeking interpersonal salvation doesn’t seem quite so quixotic. The way Anderson portrays it, it’s standard operating procedure in such a pulsing, overpopulated locale.

Beginning with a short film backstory (the ITunes treat Hotel Chevalier, now attached to all theatrical prints) which provides insight into Jack’s plight, and ending on one of those cinematic notes that continue to resonate long after the movie is over, The Darjeeling Limited is not a complicated movie. It’s not out to use intricate character details and dense sibling rivalries and conflicts to create its meaning. Instead, Anderson embraces the road movie contrivance—characterization reflected in the reaction his players have to various individuals they meet along the way—to broaden the span of his implications. This results in a film that feels wistful and feathery at first, only to trick us halfway through into becoming part of the brothers’ inner journey. By the end, we understand the pain felt by Francis, the disconnect experienced by Peter, and Jack’s longing to simply get lost.

This is a film of faces, and Anderson outdoes himself here, projecting all of his actors in the best possible cinematic light. Wilson, forced to wear a ridiculous set of bandages throughout most of the movie, is the personification of theater’s bifurcated dramatics. When he’s donning his medical mask, he’s a clever comic contrivance. But the moment he removes the gauze, giving us a horrifying glimpse at what lies beneath, it’s so tragic as to take one’s breath away. While he plays the mensch, Francis is the foundation of his family—and this entire film. Peter, played expertly by Brody, is like Narcissis fixated on his outward appearance to others. Every action he takes, every emotion he expresses, seems purposefully offered to make him and his overreaching angst feel appreciated. Longtime Anderson accomplice Schwartzman, on the other hand, is instinct inferred. He sits back and lets the others mull the meaning of things, functioning on impulse and his sense of superiority when the muse strikes. 

Together, they’re like the Three Stooges on muscle relaxers, irony substituting for eye pokes and face slaps. While the vignette-oriented approach of the storytelling might turn some off, it really is necessary if Darjeeling is to achieve its aims. It’s not just an exterior travelogue. In fact, we see very little of India proper. Instead, it’s all controlled closed sets and vast open spaces. What Anderson wants to show us is that life is made up of tiny events, each one connecting to the other to form a pyramid of potential. Sometimes, the result is clarity. In other instances, it’s hurt. And then there are those unconscionably rare scenarios where you achieve balance—the pain finds its place and the closure brings peace. It’s what we hope the Whitman boys can achieve. Even when faced with temptation and tragedy, they tend to come off as spoiled brats. Yet through the course of the film, we actually watch them grow. They shed layer after layer of pent up animosity, and suddenly start acting like brothers again.

Naturally, Anderson saves the best for last. For Francis, finding their mother stands as a personal holy grail. It may explain his self-destructive streak (which may or may not have lead to his injuries). As the Earth mother matron with a seemingly selfish view of charity, Angelica Houston owns the screen. Wrinkles showing and hair cropped and graying, she’s like Mother Teresa’s oversexed twin. Her story is shrouded in shadows and hints, yet her actions belie everything we eventually learn. Her lack of altruism, especially when it comes to the boys she bore, becomes one of Darjeeling’s best moments. Even as the ending suggests a newfound bond and a freedom from the past, there are unanswered questions in abundance. For anyone wondering how this director constantly gets cast alongside those who play in prose, such open ended narrative dynamics illustrate the point perfectly. Anderson wants his audiences to absorb and then reflect on what they’ve seen. In many ways, his movies are like interactive journeys into human nature.

While Hotel Chevalier is stilted and purposefully static (and very necessary to our understanding of what will come next), The Darjeeling Limited is a classic curry covered confection. It seems superficially sublime, only to underscore its surface with deep, philosophical power. It’s about never wanting to grow up, and discovering that responsibility ain’t so bad. It’s like listening to a beautiful song and then realizing the lyrics describe a particularly disturbing issue. Anderson may be continuously labeled as strange and unconventional, but there is something most critics can’t deny. He is a master of the medium he is so frequently called out over, and The Darjeeling Limited is both a wonderful rebuttal, and recognizable explanation, for such fractured feelings.

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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

LUST, CAUTION (dir. Ang Lee)

Ang Lee has had an amazing career behind the camera. Seemingly unphased by sudden shifts in subject matter, he’s tackled everything from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), ‘70s relationships (The Ice Storm), Civil War strife (Ride with the Devil), mystical Chinese wire-fu mythos (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and full blown Hollywood popcorn fare (Hulk). He even owns an Oscar for bringing a solemn, sensitive touch to the gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. Yet aside from Tiger, and his first few films, Lee has seldom focused on his Asian heritage. Indeed, some have suggested that he purposely avoids it in order to not be stereotyped by the Hollywood studios. It really shouldn’t be a concern. Even when he decides to work in his native land, as with this year’s exceptional Se, jie (translation: Lust, Caution), his vision and attention to detail set him far above any limits wrongfully inferred from his nationality.

Dealing with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II, and a band of student resistance fighters hoping to assassinate a high profile collaborator, much has been made of the film’s current NC-17 MPAA rating. Yet reducing this epic drama to a series of purposefully graphic sexual moments undermines nearly two hours of pristine narrative. It takes everything Lee establishes between his leads, all the political and personal intrigue involved, the endless sequences of mindless Mahjong, and one incorrigible girl’s coming of age, and labels it lewd and lascivious, two words far removed from Lust, Caution’s motives. Dealing with the Eros up front, Lee is clearly using it as connection and escape, a means of having his ideologically opposite characters sync up and learn the power of sacrifice and the suffering inside the human heart.

It seems strange that a story which starts off within standard espionage paradigms would end up playing out this way. When first we meet the young and naïve Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei, absolutely amazing), she’s a wide eyed youth exploring the world for the first time. Taken in by a group of university radicals, she initially thinks making a stand means giving a good performance in a propaganda play. But when the gang targets Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chi Wai), a Chinese national working with the enemy as part of their police/prison system, she bites off more than she is capable of eschewing. The plan is simple—Jiazhi will pass herself off as a merchant’s wife, befriend Mrs. Yee (a radiant Joan Chen) and allow herself to be seduced by the notoriously adulterous adversary.

Naturally, this initial plan has its flaws, and years later, Jiazhi is recruited again, this time by better organized underground forces. With money behind her mission, and a strange inner desire to complete the cause this time around, our heroine falls into a highly erotic and physically brutal relationship with Yee. In the meanwhile, former student leader and current covert operative Kuang Yu Min waits for the proper moment to strike. His silent longing for Jiazhi is becoming a problem, though. In between, we learn about the day to day life of people under enemy rule, the complex class structures and idleness of ladies who lunch, and the blinding power of ideology, its egotistical draw, and friendless final consequence.

So clearly there is more to Lust, Caution than nudity and philosophical pillow talk. What Lee really wants to explore here is the notion of commitment, of how the fortunes (and fantasies) of many can land squarely on the shoulders of a single, easily swayed young woman. Wang Jiazhi will be our guide through all the subterfuge and strategizing, taking her role in stride while missing most of the big picture—at least, at first. The film is actually set up in two totally insular acts. Part one can best be described as misguided youthfulness exposed. Part two is maturity marred by personal/political obstacles. At the start, it is clear that Jiazhi is seduced by the implied power she carries—sexually as well as covertly. Her entire presence is the precept upon which the assassination’s success rests. Yet when plotted by individuals incapable of such calculated brutality, things turn sloppy and strained. The last scene of the film’s first hour is like a literal rite of passage. Everyone, including our heroine, must survive this surprise trial by fire—or find themselves at the business end of a bullet.

When we catch up with the characters later, life has taken some interesting twists. Jiazhi’s situation is so dire that we initially believe she’s returning to the Resistance to improve her impoverished lot. But then Lee tricks us, making the situation less about money and more about emotion. When they knew each other before, Yee and the pert object of his desire danced around their feelings in an ill-advised game of interpersonal defensiveness. By the time they meet again, desperation has become part of the ruse. Yee needs this young woman to feel alive again, and she is eager for his shelter, his power, and his control. Together, they become psychologically and physically bound, and the necessity of the relationship controls everything that happens. Clearly Lust, Caution will not end happily. Stories like these never do. But Lee leaves enough room in his narrative for lots of interpretation. We can see what happens to these characters as tragic, or we can view it as a necessary part of destiny—especially in the fragile existence of wartime.

There are some minor qualms here and there. Lee is a little too leisurely in getting to his points on several occasions. He is obviously pacing this film to magnify the scope. WWII is in the air constantly, but rarely shown. Period detail is prevalent, but aside from a random comment or two, we recognize that this story could be set in any era. It’s not merely indicative of Japan’s dominance of the Pacific in the 1940s. It could be a tale told within coming Communist rule, modern openness, or ancient feudal law. The key is the concept of oppression and treason tacked onto standard human needs like love and acceptance. Even the supporting characters do their duty as part of some perceived nationalistic need. It is only when they miscalculate and come up short that their efforts are recognized by those truly facing the enemy.

With acting that argues for the pure art of performance (both leads are exceptional) and a luxuriant visual drive, Lee has concocted a masterwork out of catty gossip, naked fury, and misplaced patriotism. While some will feel his previous works better illustrate his gift of cinema, Lust, Caution creates an unmatched statement of cinematic wisdom all its own. Clearly calculated to be both scandalous and soft, aggressive and astute, the director confirms his continued award-winning status. Recognition from his peers has done little to dull Lee’s need to explore and provoke. This slow, simmering drama may be the antithesis of a typical spy thriller, but it’s definitely this director’s aesthetic all the way.

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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007

30 DAYS OF NIGHT (dir. David Slade)

Nothing is more aggravating—from an audience/critic/film fan perspective—than a good idea done half-assed. Religious allegories usually come up short because they are afraid to tackle the outright dogma dictated by the material, while up until recently, action films were addled by the technological limits placed on the writer/director’s logistical imagination. In the genre realm, sci-fi and horror suffer equally. Again, until CGI stepped up cinema’s visual game, realizing spacey, speculative ideas was all motion control and matte paintings. But in the realm of fright, something more sinister is stifling successful scares—a real lack of vision on both sides of the camera. The re-vampire tale 30 Days of Night won’t be doing anything to change that anytime soon.

This is a failed fright flick that is so inspired by Stephen King that the famous horror scribe should consider suing. You’d have to be blind as a kind of you-know-what not to see it: the strangely evocative setting; the stranger who arrives with portents of doom; the sudden disappearance of most of the population; a group of survivors huddled together, narrative self-sacrifice just around the corner for most of them; a last act standoff involving human bravery and some manner of supernatural deus ex machine. If that rundown doesn’t remind you of The Stand, Storm of the Century, Desperation, The Mist, or several other of the Maine man’s macabres, you haven’t been paying attention to genre fiction the last 30 years. This isn’t a homage—it’s downright literary heresy.

For the sake of clarity, here’s what happens. In the town of Barrow, Alaska, the sun disappears once a year for an entire month. The majority of the population takes off for more hospitable climes, leaving Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), a few of his deputies, and random individuals as caretakers of the one-horse burg. Through a standard storyline contrivance, Eben’s soon to be ex-wife misses her helicopter connection and winds up stuck in the city as well. Similarly, a series of freak incidents (cellphone bonfires, the death of all the sled dogs) has the remaining inhabitants a little unsettled. After he arrests the plot catalyst—a creepy outsider spewing omens of evil—some rather nasty neckbiters show up. For reasons that are explained but never fully fathomable, these creatures want to use the area as a foundation for future frights. It’s up to the soon to be survivors to rally together and save the day.

Don’t let those without a historical perspective in horror sell you otherwise—there is NOTHING new about this abysmally dull movie. The monsters are all carved from the same post-modern Euro-trash idea of evil, speaking a strange Eastern Bloc version of Klingon to prove how peculiar they are. Our hero is a good hearted man whose been misunderstood by everyone around him—including his wandering eye whore of a wife. The police station is manned by members of the Oleson family, including an all knowing granny and an apprentice hero adolescent brother, and the rest of Barrow is overloaded with quirky, shortcut backstory (loner, ex-con, secret yellowbelly) plot pawns. Put them on the cinematic equivalent of a Tru-Action Vibrating Football Game and watch them roam around randomly for 100 mind numbing minutes.

Granted, director David Slade, famed for helming music videos for the likes of Aphex Twin, Stone Temple Pilots, and Tori Amos, gives it the old film school try (though nothing here resembles the tripwire work he achieved with his Hitchcockian pedophilia thriller Hard Candy). There’s one particular shot, framed overhead and looking down at the town, that does a delightful job of following the blood-soaked melee between the vampires and their victims as it moves from building to building. There is also an excellent sequence where a snow plow takes on a collection of these throat tearing creeps. But for the most part, 30 Days of Night is extended scenes of dull dialogue that avoids anything remotely resembling context or clarity. Barrow itself seems locked in intriguing traditions and sunlight stifled rituals, but we learn little about such logistics.

Even worse, the characters are all cut from the same slab of uninteresting scary film sheetrock. Hartnett is supposed to be a good hearted, misunderstood figure, and his performance perfectly captures such a status. He is, without a doubt, the best thing about the movie. On the other hand, Melissa George misses the mark so many times as Stella Oleson that we keep waiting for the blood suckers to lock onto an artery and start sipping. She jumps from callous to conqueror—sometimes in the same sentence. As for the rest of the cast, it’s a who’s THAT collection of semi-recognizable faces, most notably Ben Foster as the Renfield without a cause and Nathaniel Lees as the local power plant operator. As for the villains, 30 Days does want them to be more than dimensionless fear factors, but aside from their Goth gang with dental issues design, they’re just a joke. The only thing frightening about their sudden appearance is their utter lack of purpose. Aside from the spraying of blood and ersatz-eternal darkness, we have no idea why Barrow, and why now.

Sadly, Slade and his crew aren’t providing answers. All they can manage is a little telegraphed gore (when we see a massive garbage shredder during the opening set-up, we just know a bad guy is doing a header into those mechanical teeth) and some inconsistent character interaction. There is a last act decapitation that’s incredibly brutal, and the finale will satisfy those who like their fisticuffs nice and noxious, but when you can’t get excited about the overall offal being offered, you know your spook show is failing. It could be the fact that we could care less who lives and who dies. No one character leaves enough of an impression to earn our consideration. Even worse, the vampires are just plain dopey. When they start infighting and squabbling in their native tongue (and they can speak broken English, mind you), you just want to slap them.

Again, it all comes down to uneven execution and subject matter redundancy. Halfway through this supposed reinvention of the genre, you’ll be wondering when Pennywise the Clown will show up. Of course, if and when he does, Slade and his scripters won’t do much with him. While some can argue over the less than faithful adaptation from the original graphic novel source material and complain that Hollywood loves to rip the teeth out of any and all horror efforts, 30 Days of Night suffers from many more motion picture maladies other than merely getting lost in translation. A town trapped in endless night being overrun by vampires has a nice revisionist ring to it. It also sounds like an installment from Hammer’s Vault of Horror (“Midnight Mess”, anyone?). Whatever the case, any novelty is short lived and inconsequential. There’s more blight than night here. 

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