(On DVD, October 2017) Even at a time when we think we’ve seen it all with vampire movies, there’s a curious energy at play in The Lost Boys, which improbably blends comic tropes with a theme taken from Peter Pan in order to deliver a rather good horror-comedy. The idea of an idyllic Californian-coast town being home to a small group of vampires and becoming “the murder capital of the world” is amusing enough. But then there’s the protagonist falling in with bad influences, his brother getting acquainted with wannabe vampire killers who do end up being right, the mom hooking up with a suspiciously menacing shop owner … there are a lot of spinning plates here, and they all seem to belong to a slightly different genre. Surprisingly, it works—although there’s some freedom in clarifying that the film is not meant to be scrutinized too closely. Under Joel Shumacher’s direction, The Lost Boys is fast-paced, stylistically moody, generally enjoyable and, at times, an intriguing time capsule of mid-eighties conventions. The opening act is great, the middle act is good, but the third act does get a bit conventional, although still enjoyable in its own way. Jamie Gertz plays a convincing love interest, while Corey Haim and Jason Patric each have their own movie as brothers. Still, the highlight is a very young-looking Keifer Sutherland as the leader of the vampire pack. The themes are slight, but at least there’s something there that goes beyond the usual conventions of vampire movies until then. For the rest, The Lost Boys is a movie that has, through sheer daring and genre-blending, aged very well. It’s still worth a look, long after the vampire boom has come, gone and come back again.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) A quick look though this site will show that I have nothing against Paul W.S. Anderson’s blend of action theatrics and simplistic screenplays. It doesn’t always work (Soldier, ugh), but then again it sometimes does in carefully controlled doses (Event Horizon, the Resident Evil series). So it is that his Pompeii puts fancy CGI makeup on the familiar body of a catastrophe film and produces something far blander than we’d hoped for. It’s clear that, for all of the usual hollywoodization of the true story of Pompeii’s volcanic destruction, a lot of work has been spent making the film historically credible. The re-creation of a roman city is impressive, and publicity surrounding the film assures us that the city’s geography is as historically faithful as modern research allows. Still, that level of attention to detail doesn’t amount to much when the film’s broad dramatic plot seems lifted from so many familiar sources. Here’s the brave low-class hero; here’s the forbidden love interest; here’s the despicable villain. (Kit Harrington is just boring as the hero, while Emily Browning goes through the motion as the re-rigueur heroine. It’s Keifer Sutherland who gets the best performance as a delightfully villainous senator) Much of the first hour is interminable as the plot pieces (as thin as they may be) are brought on the table and placed to dramatic effect once the volcano starts erupting. Things do predictably pick up once the catastrophe starts, and there’s some undeniable visual interest in seeing a city being destroyed with fiery rocks once Vesuvius shows what it’s capable of doing. The action sequences are staged with skill, making Pompeii fitfully entertaining. There’s a bit of unusual audacity in the ending, but it doesn’t come with the emotional punch that the filmmakers were hoping for –I’m not sure you can combine camp and pathos in the same vehicle. Pompeii may come complete with a 3D version, but it’s a surprisingly old-fashion sword-and-sandal catastrophe film, built from familiar plot templates and boring until the destruction starts. There’s worse out there, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find better.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Melancholia, but I expected it to be interesting. “Dogme 95” director Lars von Trier isn’t usually associated with science-fiction or special effects, so seeing him handle a spectacular end-of-the-world disaster film had its own particular fascination. There’s little in Melancholia that’s conventional, of course: it opens with a series of exquisitely photographed slow-motion portraits expressing the film that will follow. Then we’re boldly thrown into an hour-long dramatic first section that seldom even acknowledges the ultimate science-fictional aims of the film. This first hour is all about a young woman getting married and causing/suffering the worst day of her life. The key to Melancholia is the idea that depressed people cope well with apocalyptic situations. After that, the dramatic dynamics of second half of the film, describing in an intimate setting the reaction to impending disaster, makes perfect sense: The depressive is unaffected, the rational shatters under stress, the normal retreats into shock and the innocent isn’t aware of what’s going on. It may be a frustratingly slow film, but it’s more than occasionally beautiful in its own way, and it forces actors such as Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland to show some real acting capabilities. (Particularly Dunst, too-often dismissed in more superficial roles.) For SF fans, it’s fascinating to see how carefully von Trier limits his scope: isolated location, four characters, scientific jargon that acknowledges the hard-science behind the scenario while using it for more fanciful purposes. It’s also a revealing take on material that would be treated far differently in a pure-genre film. Best seen on a small screen with plenty of distractions on-hand (it is a rather slow-paced film, and often skips over connective material), Melancholia nonetheless has its own languid appeal, a cozy catastrophe brought to the screen and an intimate exploration of a subject that, handled more conventionally, would seem downright ordinary.