K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER
Most movie trailers make the film in question look much better than it actually is; the previews for K-19: The Widowmaker don't give any indication how good it actually is.
If, like me, you caught the trailer and were somewhat dreading the latest empty-headed, mid-summer action blockbuster starring Harrison Ford (with a Russian accent, no less!), you might be shocked to learn that the film is more Apollo 13 than Air Force One, a strong, serio-tragic, and surprisingly emotional piece of work. Inspired by true events, the film takes place in 1961 aboard the Russian submarine K-19, nicknamed "The Widowmaker" due to the number of deaths that resulted from its creation. While on its maiden voyage, the K-19 is supposed to launch a missile to prove the Russians' nuclear capabilities to the Americans, but before their ship can return to the Motherland, the crew must not only survive the battle of wills between their volatile commander (Ford) and the more level-headed captain he replaced (Liam Neeson) but what turns out to be the K-19's incredibly shoddy construction, which has led to a leak in its nuclear reactor.
During its first 40 minutes or so, you might find yourself not expecting much from K-19. Though the film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, has a professional sheen and some marvelous photography courtesy of Jeff Cronenweth, we're mired in submarine-movie clichés from the get-go: the gradual introduction of the crew, all of whom have one character trait to keep them from being indistinguishable; the presentation of the sub's geography; the jokey banter among the crew; the first near-calamity that makes the men relieved that "the worst" has already happened. But when the true terrors aboard the ship are revealed following the missile launch, the film takes an unexpectedly engrossing and moving turn; what began as standard, though technically accomplished, action fare soon becomes a truly resonant examination of courage and fear, and as K-19 looks at the missile crisis of the '60s solely through the Russians' point-of-view, it emerges as a surprisingly subversive film from Hollywood's standpoint - we're in the position of unapologetically cheering the Russians, and could you imagine that even being conceivable in Hollywood product a mere 10 years ago?
Ford's and Neeson's earnest acting compensates for their questionable accents, but the real star of this film is Kathryn Bigelow, who never betrays her instincts for putting on a good spectacle while keeping the movie's soulfulness at the forefront; she's as dexterous with intricate sound and visual design as she is with the complexity of the characters' relations, and the nightmare in which they find themselves. K-19: The Widowmaker is square and kind of cornball, but it has been made with tremendous craftmanship and great regard for its subject, and until its overextended epilogue, it gets better and better as it progresses. It's a summertime action pic with both balls and brains.
REIGN OF FIRE and EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS
When it comes to campy movies in which oversized creatures run amok, I'm all for silliness over solemnity, so I was almost stunned to discover I much preferred Reign of Fire, the slightly futuristic dragons-on-the-loose flick, to Eight Legged Freaks, the slightly retrograde huge-arachnids-on-the-loose flick. Both feature the usual trappings of their genre - mediocre-to-shabby effects, logic-free plotting, instantly recognizable character types - but what separates them is their humor. Eight Legged Freaks is so in-your-face about its rib-nudging ridiculousness that it comes off as smug and tiresome, while Reign of Fire invites you to giggle at its inanity without the filmmakers ever addressing it directly; its quasi-seriousness makes it all the funnier.
Set in London circa 2020, Reign of Fire deals with a world where dragons rule the earth, having been accidentally unleashed from their underground lair by a young boy, Quinn, some years earlier. Now, Quinn (played as an adult by Christian Bale) tries to keep the populace safe from annihilation, and gets unwelcome assistance by the gruff blowhard Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) and his squadron of fellow American ass-kickers; between Van Zan's physical threat and Quinn's more cerebral methods, the duo attempts to rid the world of the dragon threat once and for all. Just typing out that plot synopsis made me smile, so simple and goofy is the film's premise, and director Rob Bowman (he of some of the finest installments of The X-Files) manages to continually walk a fine line between the inane and the legitimately thrilling. The film has a seductive, menacing look - particular props go to cinematographer Adrian Biddle - and a grungy, graphic-novel type of atmosphere, which makes its frequent bursts of humor all the more surprising, and welcome. Most of the laughs come courtesy of an energized McConaughey, doing a riff on Robert Shaw's Quint character from Jaws; he's so hyper-macho and cartoonishly rugged that his every appearance makes you grin. (Bale, as The Sensitive One, has a subtler comic style but is equally amusing.) Reign of Fire is stupid, of course, and raises more questions than it answers (uh ... there's only one male dragon out of the hundreds on display?), but it's diverting enough, and occasionally even inspired.
Too bad the same can't be said for Eight Legged Freaks, because it has that great title, and a storyline that's reminiscent of 1989's Tremors, which probably stands as the Citizen Kane of modern-day sub-surface monster movies. In the film, a toxic-waste spill has caused all the spiders in the small, rural town of Prosperity to grow to enormous sizes; soon, the arachnids are cocooning the townsfolk and causing general mayhem, and only a genial miner (David Arquette), the town sheriff (Kari Wuhrer), and her kids (Scott Terra and Scarlett Johansson) can save the day. The movie starts on a high, with a terrific Tom Noonan cameo and a gloriously funny scene in which a mutated spider conducts a largely unseen battle with a family cat while stuck within a living-room wall. (The two creatures shriek and slam each other, Wile E. Coyote-style, into the wall, leaving hilarious indentations in the facade.) And the cast has just the right lightness of touch for the material; coming off best are Arquette, dispensing with most of his "DIAL 1-800-CALL-ATT!!!" obnoxiousness, and Johansson, solidly melancholy as ever. But after about 20 minutes, the film's jokiness starts to become oppressive - the camp level is pushed too far and it goes from cleverly dopey to just plain unfunny - and director Ellory Elkayem's inept staging and the haphazard editing make you realize Eight Legged Freaks isn't a send-up of bad movies so much as it is just a bad movie. It's certainly preferable to current box-office smashes such as Men in Black II or (ugh) Mr. Deeds, but in this particular monster match-up, the dragons easily slay the spiders.