'Black Lightning'


Timur Bekmambetov is lining up to direct a U.S. remake of this Russian-language blockbuster he produced last year. It's easy to see why: Aside from the subtitles and the Cyrillic script over everything, this is as Hollywood as 'Spider-Man'

But that's the biggest risk for the upcoming remake, because it shares more than just a sense of scale with that origin story. Our Peter Parker, Dima (Grigoriy Dobrygin), is a typical Muscovite teen, enrolled at the university and daydreaming about the new girl in his class. For his birthday, his dad buys him a car, but it's not the souped-up Mercedes he'd been hoping for. Instead, it's a beat-up old Volga that he's embarrassed to take anywhere.

The car is Dima's spider bite, because it has a special secret: The product of a long-abandoned science experiment into superfuel, the car can fly. A ruthless businessman tells Dima he should use his advantages to get ahead and refuse to offer help to strangers, a mantra he adopts until his over-eagerness to make a fast buck means he's not around to save his father when a street thug kills him. With great power comes great responsibility, and so Dima channels his grief, and supercar, into crime fighting. But there's one man who knows the power the car contains and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

The plot might veer this way and that from the Spider-Man origin, but the similarities are uncanny to the point of distraction, and on a Hollywood scale will be all the more noticeable. And unlike Bekmambetov's earlier 'Night Watch' and 'Day Watch,' which gave us blockbuster scale with a uniquely Russian bent, here director Dmitry Kiselev delivers a much more conventional blockbuster that seems to be going out of its way to ape Hollywood.

But while it's more than a little derivative, 'Black Lightning' is also supremely entertaining. Moscow provides an original backdrop for a film of this scale -- a fact Summit Entertainment will be hoping to trade on when next year's 3-D sci-fi spectacular 'The Darkest Hour' sets itself in the city -- and the cast embraces the idiosyncratic humor and superhero melodrama with aplomb.

'The Reef'

In the style of 'Open Water,' Aussie shark thriller 'The Reef' strands a group of friends in the middle of the ocean when their luxury yacht capsizes on some coral. The stage is set when the most experienced sailor amongst them announces that if they swim due north they'll hit land.

His hired shipmate disagrees, too terrified of what lurks beneath the surface to take the plunge. So off they set, leaving him behind, and -- surprise, surprise -- sharks start turning up.

If 'Open Water' worked, it was because it made the endurance trial of being stranded at sea so relentlessly real. 'The Reef' aspires to no such pedigree, preferring instead to set a slasher movie underwater and make the shark into Freddy Krueger. At first it's a fear of what might be out there, then an errant fin thrashing in the distance, and then a full-on sighting. Before long the shark's made contact, and it's no spoiler to say he's happy with the menu choices.

Who knows if it's the same shark tracking our hapless heroes to the end. Who cares? The film certainly doesn't. Ostensibly, "inspired by true events," as every Aussie horror flick seems to claim to be, its credibility comes into question when it serves up a posse of the least interesting victims imaginable. When the extent of the character development is some awkward and unspecified sexual history between the two main protagonists, it's a struggle to care what happens to them.

'Jaws' made the shark a character in its own right -- it's why so many people refer to the shark as "Jaws" even though it's never named in the movie. 'The Reef' can't even get its human characters right, so its attempt to turn the shark -- or sharks -- into a proper villain falls flat. There might be water in every shot, but 'The Reef' is never more than a damp squib.



'John Carpenter's The Ward'

It'd be a pleasure to report that John Carpenter's first film as a director in nine years was the sort of unmissable horror treat we've longed for all these years. While it may not be as bad as his last effort, 'Ghosts of Mars,' it's still a far cry from the genre-defining work of his earlier career.

The trouble is it's just so familiar. Strip away Carpenter's name and there's nothing to make the movie stand out. Led by an uninspiring performance by Amber Heard, it's the same psychiatric hospital ghost story we've seen a million times before.

Without the weight Carpenter's name carries, that wouldn't be so bad. The jump scares come when you most expect them, but still pack a punch, and it's the sort of teen horror film that almost needs to fill screens to keep the Friday night date crowd busy. But when his name is not just above the title but in it, there's a bold statement of intent being made that the film just can't fulfill.

And considering this isn't penned by Carpenter, who's at his best when he's working with his own material ('The Thing' -- written by Burt Lancaster's son Bill -- aside), it's a wonder his name is in the title at all. The script isn't good enough to claim, and the director's pedigree leaves you waiting for a satisfying end to make the journey worthwhile, but it never comes.

The film's most interesting character -- 'Mad Men' star Jared Harris's psych doctor -- is also its least developed, while Heard's fellow inmates, who become a central focus of the film after the first reel, are the sort of cookie-cutter nut-jobs that always ruin films of this subgenre.

It's sad news to report for a director who was once such a force in horror. But if there's anything worthwhile to take from 'The Ward,' it's in minor flourishes that have Carpenter's stamp on them. They're not enough to make the film worthwhile as a whole, but they give enough hope that in the future, perhaps with his own material, Carpenter may surprise us yet.