Sunday, February 27, 2011

Death Race 2 (2010) Unrated review

Overall verdict: 5.5/10

The Good: great action despite small budget, solid production design, clear concise camerawork, stylish

The Bad: almost a clone of its predecessor, under developed characters, little substance

The 2008 Death Race film (itself a remake of the 1975 B movie Death Race 2000) was definitely not avant garde cinema. Critics drided it with mixed to negative reviews. It was a loud, visceral, simple action movie; all style, little substance in the grand Paul WS Anderson tradition. Death Race 2 is the cheap direct to video prequel, not a sequel as the title might seem to imply, and it is just more of the same. Even the main characters looks the same only with different names.

Now fans of the 2008 crash and burn thrill ride of a movie are in for a treat here. In Death Race 2, we discover the origins of the dangerous game; how it went from a simple prison fight caught on camera to a full blown TV ratings dependent gladiatorial combat. And then, to boost ratings, they added cars, a military arsenal and the brutal Death Race was born. Anybody remember the cool sounding masked Driver "Frankenstein" who appeared at the beginning of 2008's Death Race? Well here is his origin story. Before he became the famous Frankenstein, Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) was a getaway car driver for a crime boss Markus Kane (Sean bean). A heist gone wrong landed Carl a life sentence at Terminal island penitentiary, a prison famous for its broadcasts of "Death Match". With ratings of Death Match plummeting, one of the organizers "September Jones" witnesses Carl's driving skills and decides to revamp the games into "Death Race". Nine cars, three rounds, five wins to freedom. The no holds barred car-nage has just begun. As Carl puts his skills to the test, his former boss is planning his death, and he has someone on the inside to do it.

Synopsis sounds familiar? To say that the writers were lazy is an understatement. They basically took the exact same character types from the 2008 film and changed their names to be new characters. In other words, we got all the uninspired lines, one dimensional (and slightly racist) characterization, and minimal character development of the original show, but none of the star power the likes of Jason Stratham and Tyrese Gibson. Star power alone was what made the original character bearable and now with that gone, they are not as interesting to watch. Fans would recognize Robin shou and Frederick Koehler reprising their roles of "14K" and "Lists".

The main attraction here has always been the cars and the carnage. Despite having less than one third of the budget of Paul WS Anderson's 2008 film, Death Race 2 does a wonderful job of replicating all the excitement and adrenaline of the races. Perhaps too good a job as some scenes look 100% copied and pasted from that film complete with similar camera angles, same chain of events and even similar lines of dialog. The cars themselves and the sets do not look as well designed as its predecessor but remember, this took place before the 2008 film, and as such cars get rebuilt and the place gets upgraded as the days go by.

With the target audience being those who loved the brainless 2008 Death Race, Death Race 2 delivers no more than what they expect. If you thought its predecessor was bad, Death Race 2 would not change that impression. It is fun, it is violent, it is a glorified B movie just like Roger Corman's DeathRace 2000 and Paul WS Anderson's remake, and it is surprisingly well shot for a direct-to-video film. Definitely worth at least a rental but do familiarize yourself with the 2008 movie before jumping into this.

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Go For it: if you are a fan of the original 2008 Death Race movie and would like to see the events that led up to that film
Avoid it: if you expect anything deeper or thought provking than simple, straightforward car on car action

Entertainment: A
Story: B-
Acting: C
Characters: C
Replay value: B
"Brains": C-

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Monsters (2010) review

Overall verdict: 8/10

The Good: awesome cast chemistry, impressive visuals despite low budget, solid emotional core, very effecting directing,

The Bad:policital and social commentary ineffectively conveyed, slow moving plot,

Current Availability Status: Coming soon to DVD and blu-ray

The one thing worse than a misleading movie trailer that gives one false expectations, is a misleading movie title.

For a movie entitled "Monsters", there is VERY LITTLE monster appearances. There does not even seem to be a hidden second meaning in the title (a smarter man would make a movie titled "Monsters" and have it refer to the monstrous nature of humans who mete out atrocities on one another.). Therefore, calling this a monster film with a hidden social commentary is stretching it at best. Here is a human interaction drama of two strangers thrown together by unforeseen circumstances, facing unknown dangers against the backdrop of a world at constant war with a race of giant alien squid creatures.

Six years have passed since a NASA space probe brought alien life to earth. The aliens have been quarantined to an "Infected Zone" between Mexico and USA. Into this world comes news photographer Andrew Kaudler who is tasked to safely bring his employer's daughter, Samantha Wynden across the Mexican border back to USA. A series of mishaps leaves them with only the option of traveling through the monster infested zone where danger lurks within the deep jungles. So in what can only be described as a homage to Jurassic Park and Apocalypse Now, the duo take a perilous journey upriver into the heart of the Infected Zone.

Apparently shot on a shoestring budget of barely half a million dollars, "Monsters" would feel like a Discovery Channel travelogue if it were not for the amazing chemistry between the two core characters. This very realistic interplay as the two characters get to learn about each other saves this film from becoming just another road trip flick.

Director Gareth Edwards has a keen talent for maintaining a palpable sense of tension and danger in slower scenes that would otherwise be considered boring in less expert hands. Allowing the camera to linger on a scene while the sound fades until only the haunting musical score is audible serves to add a great emotional impact to such scenes. Edwards uses a very "documentary" style of filming that revels in properly fleshing out the sorry state of a world in constant fear of the unknown and border towns who live in the shadow of death; again, much like a travelogue. There are some hints of jabbing at American immigration policies, USA's reliance on high tech warfare to solve international problems and the intolerance toward "alien" immigrants but these are only hinted at and barely given emphasis. Stuff like "District 9" handled those themes a lot better.

Do not expect a movie the likes of Cloverfield or Godzilla when going to watch "Monsters". It is less like a monster movie and more like a very satisfying, emotional human drama about an unlikely couple bonded together by the desire to return home to their loved ones. We get a look ingo their anguish, their sorrow, their hopes and dreams that they go through along the way. Here is a showcase of the very best of what can be achieved in an independent film, easily besting many of its bigger budgeted counterparts.

(Oh, and there are giant enemy squid creatures conveniently appearing only in murky night time darkness to conceal the low budget CGI rendering.)

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Go For it: if an independent film filled with human drama, tension and a character centered story are your cup of tea
Avoid it: if you are expecting some big action packed monster mash like Godzilla or alien invasions like Independence Day.

Entertainment: B
Story: A-
Acting: A
Characters: A
Replay value: B
"Brains": B-