Sunday, July 15, 2007

Episode 49

1408 - Mike Enslin (John Cusack) makes a living writing about ghosts, or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof. He travels around the United States visiting locales that are supposedly haunted and proceeds to investigate the truth behind these claims. After several years and several books spent searching for a real live (or dead, as it were) ghost, he receives a postcard in the mail from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City with a message on the back reading simply "Don't enter 1408". Intrigued by the message, Enslin travels to the hotel and asks to stay in room 1408, only to be ushered into the company of hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). Olin refuses to let Mike, or anyone else for that matter, stay in room 1408. When Mike persists, Olin goes into detail as to why the room is off limits, describing the numerous deaths that have occurred in the room. Not a superstitious man, Enslin continues to insist that he be allowed to stay in the room, and due to a slight legality, is eventually allowed access. His stay in room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel begins innocently enough. The room is a little creepy, and a quick ultraviolet scan of the room uncovers traces of a large amount of blood, but nothing overly horrifying. Before long, however, Mike Enslin the skeptic may be forced to become Mike Enslin the believer. As the night continues, more and more supernatural occurrences rake at Enslin's sanity until it is clear that only one of the two will survive until morning: Mike or room 1408. Much like John Cusack's character in this film, I was a skeptic going into the theater. Unlike Mike Enslin though, who didn't believe in the existence of ghosts, I was skeptical that 1408 would be a good movie. The trailers for the film showed a lot of Enslin's daughter (Jasmine Anthony), which gave me the impression that this would be another in a long line of recent horror movies to revolve around creepy little children. I am happy to report that this is not the case. The back story of Enslin and his dead daughter is told in a refreshing way throughout the film instead of being crammed into the opening like I thought it would. As it turns out, it is the way that 1408 breaks free from the stereotypes of every other scary movie that really makes it worthwhile. This film does not try to make you jump with cheap scares the way that your average horror film does, but instead attempts to fill you with a deep-seeded feeling of dread, which it does with some degree of success. Outside of the style of the film and it's storytelling, the thing that really makes this movie is the performance of John Cusack. I am not usually a Cusack-supporter, but he really impressed me in 1408. The film is, after all, essentially ninety minutes of Cusack locked in an evil room by himself with no other actors to interact with. Though this could be said about any film, a poor performance of the lead role in 1408 would have absolutely crippled this movie. This is more true for 1408 than most films, though, because for the majority of the running time the only character we get to see is the lead. That doesn't mean that there are no worthy supporting roles, though. Samuel L. Jackson, who is only in the movie for about ten minutes, provides some of the best scenes in the entire film. He has become a pop culture icon based on his outrageous personality in such films as Snakes On A Plane, but parts like Gerald Olin are the ones in which Jackson really shines. Though Cusack carried the film well on his own, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wanted to see more of Jackson's character. As for the scares themselves, as I said, they are meant to disturb more than shock. In this regard 1408 delivers with some truly eerie and suspenseful moments. There are a few startling events though, that may make you jump. The only variable remaining, then, is the ending. It is not uncommon for a good scary movie to have a horrible ending, which is honestly what I was expecting from 1408. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. 1408 has, in my opinion, the perfect ending to the events that occur in the plot. I was genuinely pleased with the closure we get from the film. All in all, I found 1408, which had all the odds stacked against it, to be an entertaining, original, and rewarding moviegoing experience. If you've grown tired of horror movies because of their stagnant repetition in recent years, 1408 is the movie for you.

United 93 - United 93 is the story of one of the four planes hijacked on September 11, 2001. As everyone knows, two of these planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, NY and a third was flown into the Pentagon. The fourth, which this film is concerned with, crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The plot follows several different groups of people through the events of the day, leading up to the crash. Most notably the viewer is shown the stories of the passengers of the flight, the terrorists who hijacked it, and a group of airport employees. After the hijackers take control of flight 93, a group of passengers band together to attempt to take back control of the aircraft, which eventually results in the plane going down. Sorry to spoil the climax, but I'm sure everyone knew how it was going to end anyway. I find myself on the fence regarding the film United 93. It was an interesting, engrossing experience, but it certainly had it's flaws. First of all, the film felt more like a documentary than a movie. We are never given enough time with or background on any particular characters to allow us to grow attached to them. The story jumps around so much that there's never a chance to breath and really get to know anyone. It would have been tough to make a standard Hollywood film out of the events of this movie because of the subject matter, but I just felt as though it didn't necessarily make for a good narrative. Another problem that I had with United 93 is probably one that some people may be offended by. I know how this sounds, but I honestly felt like the film was too sappy. Near the climax of United 93, right before the passengers of the plane are about to make a stand against the hijackers, a large number of them begin to use the air phones to call their loved ones so they can exchange teary good-byes in case they should not make it back alive. I'm not clear on whether or not this actually happened on 9/11, but regardless of whether it did or not, it felt as though director Paul Greengrass was trying harder to wrench tears out of the audience than he was to actually tell the story. I'm not saying that scenes like this should have been dropped entirely, but I really felt like they were a bit overdone. This is a touchy subject because we're talking about real people and events here, but let's be honest for a moment. If this were a film made pre-9/11 and these scenes were kept intact, they would have been essentially included in poor taste. If it weren't based on real events there would be no room for the majority of the emotional tension that is involved in the ending of this movie, and what this all really comes down to is that while I thought United 93 did a good job of telling it's story, I don't feel like it was completely successful as a motion picture. The film was shot beautifully and dramatically and kept a very good pace for the majority of the running time, but as a movie I thought that it was a bit lacking. Like I said, it would almost make for a better documentary than a feature film. This is, of course, just my opinion. I can imagine that if I personally knew someone involved in the tragedy of 9/11, or more specifically the actual United flight 93, that I would have a different opinion on some of these topics, but as an average movie-goer (like most of the individuals watching this movie are), I didn't come away having greatly enjoyed watching it.

Kickboxer - Eric Sloane (Dennis Alexio) is the reigning heavyweight kickboxing champion in the United States of America. Desiring to meet a worthy new opponent, Eric and his brother Kurt (Jean Claude Van Damme) travel to Bangkok, Thailand, the birthplace of kickboxing. Just before Eric is scheduled to go up against the local champion, Tong Po (Michel Qissi), Kurt sees him training in another room and realizes that his brother has no chance of beating him. He tries to warn Eric, but he refuses to listen and enters the ring. After a severe beating from Tong Po, Eric's back is broken, paralyzing him from the waist down. In the wake of this tragic event, Kurt vows to get revenge on Tong Po, and seeks out the assistance of the reclusive martial arts master Xian Chow (Dennis Chan). Xian accepts Kurt's request for training, and over the next few months Kurt not only becomes a great fighter, but falls in love with Xian's niece, Mylee (Rochelle Ashana). Finally the day of Kurt's fight with Tong Po has arrived, but the rules have suddenly changed. First, it is announced that the battle will take place out of the ring, and instead in an ancient cavern. Second, the fighters will wear hemp gloves covered in shards of broken glass. Third, Eric has been kidnapped by Tong Po's representatives, who plan to kill him if Kurt either defeats Tong Po or doesn't last until the final round. The tension rises as the fight begins and a secret rescue mission is planned to free Eric, but will he be recovered in time for Kurt to protect his honor? Make no mistakes...Kickboxer is a terrible movie. It essentially takes the plot of Karate Kid and throws all of the character development and heart right out the window. Jean Claude is essentially an older Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Michel Ossi is a less interesting Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and Xian Chow is a sad substitute for Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Not to mention, the acting is absolutely horrible. While I've enjoyed Van Damme in such films as Universal Soldier, Timecop, and Maximum Risk, his character in Kickboxer is a hollow shell of a man. Kurt and his brother exude no real emotions, and there were often moments over the course of the movie when I felt as though I was watching a poorly acted student film. The only person to give a reasonably multi-dimensional performance was Haskell Anderson as Winston Taylor, the comic relief and an old friend of Xian's. I'm sure that nothing I've said about the lack of plot or quality acting has come as a surprise to anyone, but a complete surprise to me was the final fight scene between Kurt and Tong Po. The movie had been so horrible up to this point that I was shocked to find that the filming and execution of the climactic battle was actually pretty good (albeit WAY over the top). We're not talking The Matrix good or anything, but it was really exciting and engrossing (something which can't be said for the rest of the film). In a way, the final fight scene almost makes up for having to sit through an hour and a half of garbage to get there. Watch Kickboxer with a couple of friends and have a good laugh at it's many weaknesses, but don't expect to get much more out of this movie-viewing experience.

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