Resident Evil (2002, Paul W.S. Anderson)

Paul W.S. Anderson is beloved by Cinema Scope writers, who have grown increasingly excited since he returned to directing parts 4-6 of this series. I saw part one in theaters and thought it was quite bad, skipping the sequels even though the first ends with a killer setup for future installments. So, rewatching it now looking for glimmers of auteurist excellence, then we’ll see how many more Resident Evils I can get through. But first, let’s hear from the termite-art critics on letterboxd:

Autumn Faust:

Genuinely Romeroesque, Anderson sifts his formal preoccupations through immediate objective… and economic allegory … Anderson’s penchant for repeating shapes and patterns lends itself to depicting an environment of conformity for Milla Jovovich’s Alice to attempt to recover her identity within.

Silent Dawn:

With this first installment, Anderson is not only focused on the classicist nature of the narrative but also developing a deceiving signature, paying attention to movements within spacing while observing how the main characters are affected. However, even “character” is a strong word for Anderson’s world. Besides Alice, stock feelings and conversations are the norm, highlighting a top-down observatory creation that is constantly being manipulated, shifted, and flipped on its head. It’s an evident theme from the beginning sequence – an escaped viral infection and an AI’s deliberately inhumane attempt to control the issue – and it’s pushed further and further through each immaculate scene, an array of delicious, pulpy construction rampaging against abstract, controlled motion.

And now the reality – it’s still a pretty bad movie. The characters have almost no traits, the Prodigy-esque music and ugly CG creatures badly date the film, and the middle half is underlit action with a too-close camera and an occasional Cube-ripoff setpiece or cool-blue flashback. Plotting is weak from the start… I don’t believe for a second that a team of super-soldiers responding to an extreme emergency would take along two amnesiacs and a suspicious rookie cop. But I guess it’s faithful in spirit and visuals to the video game series, and Anderson makes his future wife Milla look rad most of the time.

Our heroes:

I like that instead of CG, they just put gore-sweaters on real dobermans:

Milla Jovovich (Fifth Element) lives in the mansion gateway to an underground Umbrella research lab with her fake husband James Purefoy (High-Rise, John Carter), wakes up with amnesia then is interrupted first by cop Eric Mabius (IMDB trivia: “Eric loves mustard and puts it on everything”) then a team of troops led by Colin Salmon (two James Bond movies in the 90’s, Alien vs. Predator). Colin gets Cube’d early on, then Michelle Rodriguez (Machete, Fast & Furious) takes over as team leader, maintaining her head-down/eyes-up badass pose long after it gets tiring. They’re investigating why the lab’s AI killed everyone – turns out this was to contain a zombie-virus unleashed by Purefoy. It also turns out Milla and Eric were working together to take down Umbrella, but given the apocalyptic wasteland that Milla finds after escaping, the company’s not their biggest problem anymore.

The commentary is great, the actors hanging out and talking shit about movies and video games and getting drunk while Anderson tries in vain to focus on what’s happening onscreen. Milla to Michelle: “Yo-va-vich! How difficult is it, for god’s sake? We made a movie together.”


Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse (2004, Alexander Witt)

When this originally opened (and I skipped it, having not enjoyed the first movie) I didn’t realize the ambition of the full series – you don’t usually use the Apocalypse subtitle in your first sequel. We’re now in the hands of director Witt, who has worked on 50 major movies, getting his start with Bergman and Fassbinder in the late 1970’s. Anderson’s still around as writer and producer, but he was off directing the detestable Alien vs. Predator. This movie looks a hundred times better than the first. There’s sometimes a low-framerate blur-cam on the zombies, making me think they’re compensating for makeup shortcomings, and fights are shot like garbage, but everything else is slick looking with less-horrendous music. Not saying I’m yet convinced of the masterpiece status of the Resident Evil series, but it’s a step in the right direction and I’m actually looking forward to the next episode. The critics disagree: “a disastrous step down”… “atrocious direction”… “mostly incomprehensible.”

Picking up right where we left off, Alice walks out into the ruins of the zombie-infested city. She meets badass supercop Valentine (Sienna Guillory of High-Rise) after Alice drives a motorcycle through a stained-glass window, blows it up in midair and kills the beasts that were terrorizing Valentine’s squad with an array of guns. So, Alice has been upgraded since the first movie, and so has her sidekick (Valentine > Michelle Rodriguez). The two of them will soon team up with Umbrella troop Carlos (Oded Fehr of the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies) and comic relief act LJ (Mike Epps, star of the Uncle Buck TV series).

Carlos and LJ:

Meanwhile, with the city overrun, Umbrella is trying to rescue lead viral scientist Dr. Ashford (Benmont in Dead Man, Lord Portley-Rind in The Boxtrolls), who refuses to comply unless they also rescue his missing daughter, so Alice, still technically an employee, is put on that task. And Umbrella is happily using the chaos to test their new mega-mutant (formerly Eric from part one, now a bazooka/chaingun-wielding guy in a rubber cenobite suit, which is a huuuge step up from the CGI in part one), having him target city police for some reason.

Very videogamey – check out the ammo count in the corner:

Dudes hide their zombie bites then turn on their friends at inopportune times – this is gonna happen in all the movies, isn’t it? We’ve got a cowboy sniper cop, a corporate baddie named Major Cain (Thomas Kretschmann of Argento’s Dracula 3D), a reporter who gets eaten by children and a nuclear blast. Milla now has super-rabbit jump skills, and once she runs straight down the side of a building – it’s cable-assisted, but still great.

The movie ends even more cynically than the first – after the company destroys the entire city to contain the outbreak, a reporter’s tape documenting the truth behind the infections gets out, but it’s dismissed as fake news. Alice is captured again in a new city/lab, might now be a clone and has obtained Scanner powers, and after her friends break her out, her eyes flash with the Umbrella logo.


Resident Evil 3: Extinction (2007, Russell Mulcahy)

So this is when the series gets good. An early action scene is shot like hot garbage, with the action shot way too close and disorienting edits, but things improve later on. The look and plot are now ripping off Mad Max since the t-virus has turned the planet into a desert shithole, while in the subterranean Umbrella labs they’re ripping off Day of the Dead, trying to domesticate captured zombies. I love how the tech in futuristic movies work – they use Ericsson flip phones and point-and-shoot cameras, but they also hologram-teleconference into meetings. I guess Anderson was busy prepping his dumb Death Race remake, so now we’ve got music-video vet Mulcahy with the first feature of his I’ve watched since Highlander 2: The Quickening.

Carlos and Claire:

A band of survivors led by Claire (Ali Larter of the Final Destination movies) and including Carlos and LJ from the previous movie (but not Valentine – the actress was in Eragon around this time) search for gasoline and survivors in a truck convoy, avoiding the zombie-filled larger cities. There’s also a cowboy sniper in the group – wasn’t there just a cowboy sniper in the last movie? In a probable reference to the video game series, whenever these guys need some item, it’s located in a creepy dark passageway full of hidden zombies. Superpsychic Alice roams alone, traveling by night to avoid Umbrella detection. When they team up, she’s visited by the AI girl from part one, making a welcome return, and the crew fights off a cloud of zombie crows. Carlos gets bit and kamikazes a zombie horde… LJ gets bit too, but he’s the guy in this movie who will hide it until too late.

Firestarter Alice, taking care of the killer crows situation:

Underground, Alice’s evil-scientist father-figure Iain Glen (Tomb Raider, Game of Thrones) is using Alice’s blood to transform other zombies, and also cloning new Alices and running them through fatal tests. When the higher-ups get tired of Glen abusing his authority (using Sneakers tactics) and murder him, he arises as a super-mutant with hentai-tentacle powers and goes on a spree until Alice breaks in and lures him into the Cube chamber. Claire and the few convoy survivors are helicoptering to the last outpost of humanity in Alaska, while Alice has got herself an empty facility, hundreds of Alice clones, and the locations of the other Umbrella bases.

Autumn again:

Eschewing the comparatively innocent side characters, the film ends by reaffirming the overarching series conflict between Alice and Umbrella, only this time, discerning the moral high ground between the two is much more complex task. If Umbrella wins, they’ll exert even more control over the new world they rebuild. If Alice wins, “the cure” isn’t found … it’s possible an organization dedicating itself to the restoration of mankind will have been destroyed by a peeved rogue.

AM/PM (1999, Sarah Morris)

Montage of nicely photographed moments within and above a city (Vegas?), somewhat recalling Broadway By Light with the closeups on signage and unique framings of familiar city objects… “the disorienting world of corporate hotels and casinos which utilise and redefine the spectacle in relation to architecture,” per an official description. Each scene of urban life has its own little MIDI song.


Capital (2000, Sarah Morris)

Opens in a parking lot, then moves to things we don’t associate as much with the word capital – Washington DC pedestrians, police, mail sorting, the newspaper. I assume we see Bill Clinton get out of a helicopter, but the picture quality on my copy is worse than ever so I can’t be positive. Finally an edit from a restaurant called The Prime Rib to a close-up of cash money, that’s the capital I’m talkin’ about. The music changes just as frequently as the other film, but here it’s darker and less dance-beatsy. I preferred Henry Hills’ take, called Money… or I’d gladly rewatch AM/PM with the soundtrack from this one. Sarah has made a bunch more movies since these. Her cinematographer moved on to Leprechaun 6: Back 2 tha Hood and the Teen Wolf TV series.


As The Flames Rose (Joao Rui Guerra da Mata)

A new version of Cocteau’s The Human Voice (a copy of which sits prominently on our protagonist’s nightstand) with excellent photography, theatrical lighting changes and fun greenscreen trickery. The lead (only) actor is João Pedro Rodrigues, Guerra da Mata’s codirector on Last Time I Saw Macao, talking on the phone with a longtime lover soon after their breakup, on the day of a huge (real) 1988 fire in Lisbon that destroyed shops and offices and apartments. Joao watches the news coverage on TV, and sometimes his body or his entire room gets overlaid with flame imagery while he sadly discusses the day’s events and the crumbled relationship with his ex. After hanging up, he puts on a James Blake record (in 1988, ahead of his time).

Mouseover to give Joao a new view from his window:
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Beauty and the Beat (Yann Le Quellec)

Rosalba puts on the red shoes and starts dancing uncontrollably, and I thought for sure there’d be a connection but no, the premise is that she cannot keep from dancing when she hears music, a condition she tries to hide while working as a Paris tour guide. Her driver has a crush on her, invites her on a date, but is obsessed with Northern Soul records. I guess her secret gets out – anyway there’s lots of music and dancing, and that is fine. He was Serge Bozon, director of La France, and she (clearly) is a professional dancer.


Chemin Faisant (Georges Schwizgebel)

Drawings with great texture, the lines transforming into new scenes while rhythmic music plays. I know that sentence would describe thousands of animated shorts, but it’s all I got. “Through paintings that interact on the principle of Russian dolls, we are drawn along the swirling path of the thoughts of a pilgrim, a solitary walker,” says a description online.


Overseas (Suwichakornpong & Somunjarn)

Some handheld followcam action as a young woman in Thailand goes to work as a squid sorter. After work she gets a ride to the police station to report a rape, to obtain a police report for a legal abortion. The cop, who looks to be about 15, is kind of a dick. Codirector Anocha Suwichakornpong made By The Time It Gets Dark, which I heard good things about last year.

Cowritten by Lawrence Block, longtime mystery writer once adapted by Oliver Stone for a film directed by Hal Ashby! This is his first screenwriting credit. Cinematography by Iranian Darius Khondji, who shot a lot of other visually-distinctive stuff like the Caro/Jeunet films, The Beach and Panic Room.

Norah Jones is dumped by her boyfriend, leaves her keys at the cafe for him in the hands of Jude Law. Talks to JL every night over blueberry pie, starts to like him, one night she takes “the long way” across the street to his cafe and goes on a year-long trip across the country, getting waitressing and bartending jobs, saving up for a car and writing poor Jude Law lots of postcards but never giving a return address.

First major stop is in a Memphis bar where cop David Strathairn (Good Luck and Good Night, Mother Night) pines for his separated wife Rachel Weisz (The Fountain) and drinks and drinks. Violence escalates, he dies in a car crash, Rachel is sad and Norah is outta there. Then somewhere in Nevada, a casino where Norah gives all her money to Natalie Portman with NP’s nice car as collateral. NP tries to teach a convoluted lesson about mistrust by faking that she lost all the money, giving up her car and having Norah drive them both to Vegas to see NP’s dying (oops, dead) father, but the lesson doesn’t come off very well.

With both of her extended stays in foreign cities and attempts to make new friends having ended in death and sadness, Norah comes home to NYC, where Jude has decided to let go of his ex-girlfriend Cat Power (on account of her being an unconvincing actress in her only scene) and the two are free to fall in love in their own distinctive way (bonding over security-cam videos, eating too much pie, Norah falling asleep and Jude kissing her without permission). A sweet ending.

So the story is kinda muddled, though the characters are all pretty strong (if a bit unbelievable and cliched) but the movie flows more or less like a WKW film, with slow-motion and emotional edit/flashbacks, a dreamy pop soundtrack (Ry Cooder, Otis Redding, “The Greatest” played three times, and a touch of Yumeji’s theme when Jude first falls for Norah). Strong colors, close-ups without establishing shots, the camera like a hazy memory lingering behind glass and slowly creeping behind obstructions, but focus always sharp. Glad I was warned not to expect too much, but I ended up liking it a whole lot.