By G. Michael Dobbs
A Hollywood blockbuster and two blasts from the past are featured in this week's DVD review column.
Resident Evil: Afterlife
As a horror film fan, I suppose some people would be surprised that I hadn't seen any of the three preceding "Resident Evil" films, but I must admit a certain prejudice toward movies based on video games. Those I've seen haven't been very good.
"Resident Evil," though, has been a very successful movie franchise and stars an actress I admire Milla Jovovich.
If you're like me and are coming to the franchise late, you need to know that Jovovich plays Alice, a woman who has been turned into a superhero due to the experimentation of the Umbrella Corporation, the most sinister of companies. This same group has developed a virus that has turned most of the population into flesh-eating zombies and Alice fights for her survival from both the zombies and the corporation.
In this fourth film, shot in 3-D but released flat on DVD, Alice has had her super powers neutralized by one of the Umbrella Corporation's men, but escapes to try to find "Arcadia," a place where other survivors have gathered to form a zombie-free community. She finds her friend Claire (Ali Larter) along the way as well as a group of people in Los Angeles who have successfully escaped the zombies by making a fortress out of the city's jail.
When they realize Arcadia is a ship docked in the harbor, they try to make their way to it.
Now, what interested me about this film is Jovovich, as she is undoubtedly one of the few female action stars working today. She does a great job with the material, which is pretty thin.
That's the problem with the film. The plot felt stretched and recycled.
Writer and director Paul W.S. Anderson and Jovovich's husband is not the most precise of directors. There are story elements that are introduced, such as a giant, axe-welding zombie who acts quite differently for no apparent reason that the other zombies, that are pretty inexplicable.
While the "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" films were treated as standalone films with somewhat open endings, this film doesn't have a plot rich enough to use that story-telling technique successfully. The ending comes across as a cheap device.
Despite my crush on Jovovich, I can't recommend this sloppy, tired film.
Crazy Mama/ The Lady in Red
Shout Factory is now releasing a new series of DVDs featuring many of the films produced by Roger Corman during the 1970s and into the early '80s. For geezers such as me, these DVDs will be the cinematic equivalent of junk food nostalgia, while for others younger viewers they may provide an insight into the careers of some now well-known directors and stars.
These films came at a time when the drive-ins were still a huge force in the movie business and young people were going to movies to see something they couldn't see on television.
Corman, of course, is the director turned producer who has bragged he has never lost money on any film he has made. This might be true. Corman had released dozens of the most unapologetic exploitation films imaginable in every genre.
Filmmakers such as Ron Howard, James Cameron and Joe Dante, among others, received their start from Corman, which is one reason why the veteran producer received an honorary Oscar in 2009.
This double feature presented by Shout Factor can be viewed in "grindhouse" mode, as if you're watching the film in a sleazy urban theater. It adds to the experience.
"Crazy Mama" is director Jonathan Demme's second film. As explained in one of the extras, Demme was able to go from being a publicity agent for United Artists to a director for Corman.
Demme may have won awards for his films such as "Silence of the Lambs," but "Crazy Mama" certainly wouldn't be one of them. Cloris Leachman stars in the 1975 film as Melba, a struggling beauty salon owner who decides to return to her roots in Arkansas when she is evicted.
Her mission is to buy back the farm from which her family was evicted 30 years ago. She has no idea how she is going to do this and along with her daughter, mother, two of her daughter's boyfriends, a dotty senior citizen and a married man she has picked up, she embarks on a series of petty crimes to fund the purchase of the farm.
This film is an amazing mess. One moment it's a broad comedy, while another it's supposed to be a suspenseful crime drama. It's difficult to tell if Demme wants audiences to take any of it seriously.
One should note that winning an Oscar much less being in a hit television show does not ensure choice cinematic material.
Leachman, though, slogs through the film admirably, trying to make Melba a sympathetic character. I think Demme owes the actress a role in one of his new movies.
"The Lady in Red," from 1979, is a surprisingly effective period film that purports to tell us the life of the young woman who mistakenly betrayed gangster John Dillinger to the FBI.
Pamela Sue Martin plays farm girl Polly Franklin, who winds up working as a prostitute in the early 1930s in Chicago. Although in other films adapting the life of Dillinger, this character is a minor one, this script by John Sayles makes Franklin's story the central one.
Sayles includes social commentary in the film, which also has the prerequisite violence and nudity that exploitation audiences expected. Director Lewis Teague, who went on to helm "The Jewel of the Nile" and "Cujo," among other films, keeps the pace of the film quick and clearly had an eye for period details.
Martin makes her character sympathetic and believable as a young woman trapped by her circumstances.
"The Lady in Red" is a very good example of how the exploitation film could be something more than simply throwaway drive-in fodder.
If you like seeing films that skirted underneath the radar of many critics years ago, check out these releases from Shout Factory.
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