Movie Review: Priest

Hi there!

The Summer 2011 movie season has started even though Spring in Colorado has been one of mixed wind, snow, rain, and sun so far. Thor was fun, and I was hoping Priest with Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, and Maggie Q might continue the trend. Let’s just say I almost walked out after 25 minutes and wish I had so I could have used that time more wisely.

Let’s set the stage before I rip this film up however.

Priest is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where vampires and humankind have always battled for supremacy. People moved to cities with high walls to protect them, but we were losing badly. That is until the Church started finding people with extraordinary abilities who were fast enough to actually battle vampires effectively. This small band of brothers and sisters eventually got them under control. Rather than destroying the vampires however, they decided to put them on reservations and keep them locked up for eternity.

The Priest referred to in the title of the film (Bettany) gets a message from the outpost where his brother is living with his wife and daughter saying that his niece had been kidnapped by the vampires, her mother killed, and Priest’s brother slowly dying. Could he help? Sure, but it would mean turning his back on the Church and going against orders. Sometimes a little disobedience is required, and Priest goes off to save his niece. The Church isn’t happy and sends out four more priests after him, including the Priestess (Maggie Q, TV’s Nikita). And Priest discovers that it’s an old friend who’s taken his niece (Urban, Red, Lord of the Rings trilogy)…

I’ll stop there because I wouldn’t want to spoil the story. Not that you don’t already know all of that from the trailers, but hey.

So what went wrong with this film?

It starts off with an animated sequence that tells a bit of the backstory of the war, the priests, and so on. It has to be the bloodiest animation I’ve seen in quite a while, but it was fine. Suitably dark with a bit of narration to tell us what we need to know. But it quickly became evident that the soundtrack by Christopher Young was going to be a loud, less well written homage to the Conan soundtrack by Basil Poleadoris. That annoyed me throughout the film.

Once we actually meet Priest, it becomes readily apparent that Bettany decided this character wasn’t going to have any emotions at all. Even Urban’s “Black Hat” character only really has one good scene and it appears in the trailers where he’s directing mayhem Joker-style. Christopher Plummer puts in an appearance as Monsignor Orelas, a humorless control freak with little redeeming value.

Honestly the only character remotely likable was Maggie Q’s Priestess. She had the most emotional range of any of the characters and hardly received much screen time for her trouble.

And the vampires themselves were kind of interesting. Eyeless with four legs and big fangs ready to rip a person to shreds. They looked a bit slimy, but hey – they live underground and in the dark. You’d probably be slimy too.

Let me tick off the other things that bugged me. The story is transparent and railroaded. The cinematography has two modes – washed out and white in the desert or salt flats or dark, whether dark outside or underground. When it’s washed out, it’s really washed out. And when it’s dark, it’s dark. The wirework was uninteresting, even as Priest and Black Hat duel on the top of a speeding train. The 3D effects were largely uninteresting and did nothing to advance the plot (such as it was)…

Ultimately I really think the vampires should have won. I highly recommend you avoid Priest and skip it even when it comes out on DVD unless you’re really bored. Let’s hope that the rest of the movie season improves.

I just wish I’d walked out when the first inclination hit. [sigh]

–Fitz

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DVD Review: Legion (2010)

Hi again!

When Legion hit theaters in January 2010, I understood from the trailers what the movie was about. The angel Michael (Paul Bettany) has come to Earth to countermand an order from God to kill all of humankind, including the child that might bring about its salvation. Still in the womb, the child’s mother – a girl named Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) – is working as a waitress at a diner in Paradise Falls, a speck in the middle of nowhere. Michael must save the kid from an army of angels and God’s wrath, or mankind is doomed.

Ah yes, our extermination. We, like the cockroaches we abhor, have spread across the Earth devouring resources and abusing our gift of free will. As Michael says in one scene, “The first time God lost faith in Man he sent a flood. The second time… he sent what you see outside.” Like our world is a giant Etch-a-Sketch and God wants to shake things up to erase us from the planet.

And, like cockroaches, we’re not such an easy race to erase off the map.

Though largely panned by reviewers far and wide, I liked Legion. It doesn’t have the philosophy of The Prophecy from back in the mid-90’s. But it takes a simple premise (The Apocalypse), a chance of redemption (an unwanted child), an interesting battleground (a diner in the middle of nowhere), and shows us angels like we haven’t quite seen them before.

Plus, if you add in the interesting cast of characters – Michael (Bettany, Iron Man 2, The Da Vinci Code), simple mechanic/protector Jeep Hanson (Lucas Black, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), inner-city tough guy Kyle (Tyrese Gibson, Death Race, 2 Fast 2 Furious), unlikely mother-to-be Charlie (Palicki, TV’s Supernatural), Dad simply trying to get to Christmas Howard Anderson (Jon Tenney, TV’s Brothers & Sisters and The Closer), bitchy wife Sandra (Kate Walsh, TV’s Private Practice), bratty wild child Audrey (Willa Holland, TV’s Gossip Girl and The O.C.), ex-military fry cook Percy (Charles S. Dutton, TV’s Roc, Alien 3), diner owner Bob Hanson (Dennis Quaid, Pandorum, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra)… and one ticked off angel Gabriel (Kevin Durand, Robin Hood (2010), X-Men Origins: Wolverine)…

Honestly there were so many different demographics represented by the population of the diner and its visitors that it was the perfect place to stage a heavenly battle. Anybody who thinks America isn’t diverse hasn’t been watching our movies I guess!

Now I know there are those people who didn’t like this film. I get it. It’s certainly not perfect. And it does get a little preachy and take itself too seriously from time to time. But this is an extremely visual film co-written and directed by a visual effects guy – Scott Stewart. Stewart has been involved at The Orphanage and ILM doing visual effects since the mid-1990s on such movies as Mars Attacks!, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Superman Returns, and others. So it came as no surprise to me that this would be an effects-heavy film.

What did surprise me was how old school many of the effects were. Yes, we had scenes where peoples’ faces were vibrating as they were possessed by angels and where characters like the Ice Cream Man (played beautifully and far too short by Doug Jones – Hellboy, Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Pan’s Labyrinth and many others) transformed into grotesque beings attacking the diner. But then you had more subtle scenes with lightning and fog where you’d catch brief glimpses of the hordes of possessed beings in the dark and simple explosions as gunfire, gasoline, and vehicles met briefly to light the night.

Is this a film for you to think deeply about your own mortality? No. Definitely not. Is it a film to enjoy as you learn bits and pieces about the battle and watch as cool effects grace the screen? Yes. Definitely. If you’re looking for deeper spiritual or philosophical discussions, I recommend you check out The Prophecy and its sequels.

Included with the DVD are three short extras – “Creating the Apocalypse,” “Humanity’s Last Line of Defense,” and “From Pixels to Picture.”

“Creating the Apocalypse” provided a great segment about how they made Jones into the Ice Cream Man. What a process… With four prostheses, Jones ran from the ice cream truck towards the diner and jumped into the air. How he was able to pull that off is beyond me. Hearing Jones talk about the preparation alone was worth watching. The cast and crew seemed to appreciate his efforts even though he was just in that one scene. I have to admit to being more freaked out by the mechanical baby that was built for the film than the Ice Cream Man. At a bit more than 23 minutes, this is a very detailed look behind the scenes at how they did some of the movie magic.

Where the last feature dealt with the effects, “Humanity’s Last Line of Defense” focuses on the ensemble of actors. It’s quite obvious that the director and crew wanted to have the best group of actors they could get for these roles. It’s kind of fun to think that Bettany really wanted to be in an action film and fire machine guns. The mutual respect and admiration between the cast and crew was obvious as you hear Quaid, Bettany, Gibson, and others talk on set.

And in “From Pixels to Picture” you get a better understanding of the amazing efforts that went into the visual effects not only in post-production, but during the production on set. These visual engineers had some serious challenges integrating live action stunts with computer generated effects to create a number of seamless scenes. Between Gladys, the crazy possessed old lady on the ceiling, and the swarm of flies as they try to drive a character to the hospital, they did a great job in merging old school matte paintings, light, and shadow, with CG for the film.

Legion is definitely not for everybody. It’s rated R for bloody violence and language. But I found it to be an entertaining mix of religion, horror, and story. Be sure to check it out on DVD and VOD today!

This article first appeared on BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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