You're slowly stalking down the darkened hallway of a baroque mansion, only the shuffle of your footsteps breaking the thick silence, until that odd creak of indeterminate origin causes you to stop and focus on what you can't see beyond the drab, dingy walls. Your senses are attuned as the survival instinct winds every nerve in your body tighter than the cables of a suspension bridge.
But it's not until you furtively turn the corner into a moonlit, dusty, reading room that you hear the dry moans and see your friend and team member lying on the floor, chest torn open, a frozen look of abject terror locked in his unseeing eyes as you stare into the rictus maw that still spews his last drops of blood. Then you hear the wet sounds of chewing.
Someone (or something) is bent over him, rending hunks of flesh and glistening organs with its mottled, decaying hands. Pausing as it senses your presence, you raise your S.T.A.R.S. issued .45 automatic as the thing slowly turns to you revealing its blood-soaked, desiccated visage and sunken dead eyes that widen reflexively at the recognition of fresh meat. As it rises to attack, you take aim and feel the gun reassuringly kick as you unload two rounds into its face, watching with relief as the bullets blow the undead hell-spawns skull into a blossom of bloody chunks that paints the walls in sticky grue.
In the silence after the explosion of gunfire, you feel the tendrils of dread tickling the back of your neck as you begin to hear more moans in the distance -- and then the one right behind you.
Resident Evil was a goddamn scary game. Pop it in late at night, turn off the lights, turn up the surround sound and let the tension of sneaking around the abandoned mansion that once housed the Umbrella Corporation's secret, and terrible, human tests of the T-virus take hold. It was a masterpiece of creepy atmosphere, bizarre dystopia-tinged storylines, opaque puzzles and was loaded with ever more mutated and threatening abominations that lusted to kill you in increasingly gruesome ways.
The movies have never been like this. The best of them, the original Paul W.S. Anderson written and directed, Resident Evil, was still little more than a loose assemblage of the first two games' storylines and settings (the mansion, Umbrella's underground facility, Raccoon City) combined with some of the creatures and visual nods to the games look.
But Anderson added a new protagonist, Alice (Milla Jovovich), and changed the tone from eerie atmosphere to slickly derivative action. As the series progressed (under different directors), it went its own way from the games, getting dumber and more nonsensical with each entry -- a feat, considering how convoluted the games' mythology is.
With the fourth installment, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Anderson has returned to the director's chair and the result is the best Resident Evil film since the highly mediocre first. Is that praise? I don't even know, anymore.
It opens well as the T-virus powered Alice (Jovovich) -- utilizing clones of herself introduced in the third film -- assaults the Tokyo base of Umbrella Corporation in order to kill Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), the evil head of the multinational, biotech firm. Wesker escapes but Alice is right on his tail. Unfortunately Wesker injects Alice with an antidote to the T-virus -- a virus which normally turns its victims into zombies or worse, but which in Alice has augmented her general lethalness with some superhuman powers, like laying everything to waste with nothing but a steely stare -- though the antidote seems to have no effect on her knack for near invincibility. The chopper goes down in a fireball, which she, of course, survives.
Jump forward a few months and Alice is flying to Alaska to find "Arcadia," a last bastion of the uninfected (again introduced at the end of the third film). When she arrives she finds only a field of aircraft, and abandoned helicopter on the beach and the amnesiac Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), Alice's friend from ... just see the third movie.
Reunited, they fly back down the coast and discover a small group of survivors holed up inside a Los Angeles prison that's surrounded by hordes of undead.
Alice, newly in touch with her humanity plans to break them out and lead them to Arcadia, and salvation.
Anderson hasn't really changed and all his strengths and weaknesses are on display here; mostly the weaknesses.
Hopping from Japan to Alaska to L.A., you get the sense that he thinks keeping the story moving means literally traveling from one place to the next to gloss over the linear, mechanized narrative (which could be charitably described as a nod to the linearity of video game levels themselves, I suppose).
While he has an eye for slick-shot composition, Anderson relies (as always) too heavily on heads up-style graphical flourishes to describe locations, situations or evil eyes in the sky that seem to dog Alice's every move from some Umbrella-owned satellite. Speaking of Alice, she starts the film documenting her search for Arcadia with a video camera in a confessional style, an annoying device for lazy exposition that consistently brought the narrative to a halt (and which gets dropped as soon as its usefulness is outlived).
While Anderson stages the action fairly well, and manages a sense of scope (particularly in the opening assault sequence which was the film's best set piece) he drowns his visual aesthetic in highly derivative tropes, a liberal mixture of The Matrix -- no Paul, we've never seen "bullet time" before -- Silent Hill games and nods to its own source iconography (the crows and undead dogs, among others).
And of course, since it's in 3D, he throws everything from bullets to skull fragments to sunglasses directly at the camera, while plot holes you can drive a freight train through culminate in a non-ending ending that makes it clear the filmmakers will milk this franchise of every last drop of viability before it shuffles off like a zombie into straight-to-DVD oblivion.
Performances are variable in quality. Jovovich is fine in every sense of the word, and I like the character of Alice -- one of the few bankable and convincing female asskickers in mainstream films. She lets a little bit of her personality seep through (the most noticeable effect of the T-virus antidote), and was not as disappointingly stoic and one dimensional as in much of the last two films.
Ali Larter seemed to be sleep walking through this, while the usually decent Kim Coates (of Silent Hill, no less) chews scenery as the cartoonishly detestable Bennett, a joke character aimed at Hollywood producers.
Wentworth Miller was solid as Chris, an incarcerated soldier who holds the key to escape from the prison, while Shawn Roberts as Wesker pulls off the amazing feat of being a real human who looks like he was rendered with state of the art CG. His quasi-Agent Smith delivery (another seeming nod to The Matrix) is actually just Roberts doing a dead on impersonation of the Wesker from the video games. Unfortunately, it's funny, since the voice acting in the games is notoriously bad.
This might sound like a long list of dissatisfaction (and the fact is this isn't a particularly good film), but Resident Evil: Afterlife is relatively fun if you don't think about it too deeply, and Anderson does generate some moments of tension and visual glory (both of which occur during the fairly effective prison shower attack). The cast seems to be having fun, which goes a long way after the film's disjointed, near tepid first act. Overall this outing is an improvement, particularly over the dull and vapid third film, but your level of enjoyment here probably rides on the heights of your expectations.
The game is always better. We used to say that about books.
Writer/director and Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson has crafted a small, odd, jumbled film with his philosophically tinged, THC fueled, Leaves of Grass.
Edward Norton plays dual roles as identical twins Bill and Brady Kincaid. Bill is an Ivy League star at Brown University who is lured back to his rural roots in the Oklahoma backwoods by his brother Brady, a large scale pot grower who needs to enlist Bill as an alibi in a crime he's planned. Bill's been gone for years, being estranged from the eccentric side of the family, so Brady fakes his own death to get Bill to come home for the funeral.
Of course, Bill is none too happy to have been tricked, but he gets sucked in by Brady's desperation -- he's in debt to a ruthless drug kingpin (Richard Dreyfuss) -- and also the lyrical charms of his old childhood friend, Janet (Keri Russell), and Bill winds up taking part in Brady's scheme, despite his better judgment. That's when things get ugly.
The centerpiece of Leaves of Grass is Norton's performance and he does a wonderful job of delineating the personalities of Bill and Brady, while meticulously choreographing his delivery to seamlessly interact with himself. That said, those personalities are written stereotypically, particularly in how Brady embodies all the most obvious traits of a redneck pot grower (i.e. dumb as dirt until it comes to the science of hydroponics).
Keri Russell is waifish and whip-smart as Janet, and her arc in the film with Bill was the most enjoyable, while Susan Sarandon is predictably world-weary as the brothers flinty and distant mother. Tim Blake Nelson even shows up as Brady's best friend, Rick.
Nelson has crafted a narrative that has a lackadaisical charm, embodied in the twin performances by the empathetic and compulsively watchable Norton; a mélange of philosophical navel-gazing concerning God and free will, family drama, romance, stoner-comedy and crime film. Taken in parts they can be clever, sweet, fitfully funny, dramatic or shocking.
But taken as a whole, the film is tonally jarring and feels unformed, like a conglomeration of ideas that never fully find their through line.
Leaves of Grass owes an obvious debt to the sensibilities of the Coen Brothers, particularly with its mix of sometimes disparate genres, oddball characters, surprising violence and regional eccentricities. While that has its charms the film never assembles them into something as polished or believable as the Coen's best work.
As a stony, affectionately antagonistic treatise on the place of his birth, though, Nelson has crafted an ode to its place in his heart and it's hard not to respect that.
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