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Taking the Bait

Leave-him-to-television director D.J. Caruso’s second feature (after The Salton Sea) — about the tracking of a serial killer whose M.O. involves literally defacing his victims, assuming their identities and scaring the bejeezus out of Ethan Hawke — contains one good scene at the very beginning and, later on, a decent scare. (There’s also one of filmdom’s great howlers, intentional or otherwise, inked onto a cocktail napkin.) The rest of Taking Lives is an editorial salvage job, a hopeful if incoherent stringing together of scary-movie clichés both modern (a sickening accretion of forensics horrors, some very sloppy housekeeping) and antiquated (bookshelves that open onto secret passages, an evil twin). Angelina Jolie, as a footnote to Clarice Starling, holds her head very still for an hour or so, flashing her eyes to let us know how observant a CSI she is, then shows a whole lot of passion — or whatever that was in the final act — in the hope that someone may call it acting. (Back when she was pickier about her roles, it really was.) Meanwhile, thanks to the miracle of Canadian outsourcing, there’s plenty of barely comprehensible French-accented dialogue and a pointless chase through the Montreal Jazz Festival. Plus: a genuinely nasty intrusion by Kiefer Sutherland as . . . what’s his name? McGuffin! Actually, the only thing vaguely Hitchcockian about these proceedings is Philip Glass’ stab at Herrmann-esque.

Still, there’s that one good scene — the same scene that (introduced by Jolie Angelina herself) has been airing at Yahoo! Movies all week, a scene so vastly superior in quality and tone to the rest of Taking Lives that it (sotto voce) may as well have been made by someone else. And say, for the sake of argument, that this 8-minute clip was made by someone else (though, of course, you know and we know that it absolutely, positively wasn’t). Would you trust Warner Bros. to own up? And if they didn’t bait and switch this time (and listen carefully now: I’ll beat the crap out of anyone who says they did), and this first volley of intact little teasers proves to be an effective marketing technique for otherwise ineffective “product” . . . Well, I mean, can you seriously imagine that it will take very long for Warner Bros. (or rather, some vastly less ethical studio) to try it out “just once” and thus establish a lucrative precedent?

Just asking.

Meanwhile, for the rather more entertaining Universal release Dawn of the Dead — the snazzy pre-credit sequence of which had its promotional airing Monday night on the USA network — the problem is not so much sustaining a tone as it is deciding upon one. In George R. Romero’s logistics-heavy genre classic (like its remake, about a handful of survivors waiting out a zombie apocalypse amid the consumer comforts of an abandoned shopping mall), the living dead were slow, off-balance and distractible. Half the excitement was waiting to see who’d get careless enough to get caught. Then came the apparently indissoluble marriage of speed metal and faster-moving zombies, from Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead right on up through the post-Aronofsky scritch-scratch of 28 Days Later, and brother, you’d better run like hell and leave the tactical thinking to untrustworthy men in combat fatigues. The new Dawn of, from car-commercial director Zack Snyder and screenwriter (and Troma alumnus) James Gunn, mixes up these modes, skimps on exposition, stirs in a few too many survivors, and thereby invites confusion. Boredom even. Still, the principal cast (Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, ER’s Mekhi Phifer and Wendigo’s Jake Weber) is better than it has any right to be, the flesh-eating ghouls are more fun than a barrel of Marilyn Manson, and there are lots of giddily gruesome details — including some first-rate chain-saw action — along the way. And besides, of all the people who noted that Romero’s original was boring, how many were actually complaining?

—Ron Stringer

 

The feature-length versions of Dawn of the Dead and Taking Lives open citywide on Friday.

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