Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Census Bloodbath: The Lady And The Camp

For our Scream 101 episode about this very film, click here.

Year: 1983
Director: Robert Hiltzik
Cast: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1983 was a real weird year for the slasher genre. It was the only year that didn’t feature an appearance from the decade’s three biggest boogeymen. Freddy, Michael, and Jason all gave the year a pass, and not even odd-timing stalwart Leatherface revved his bloody chainsaw. The wholly unrelated Halloween III: Season of the Witch didn’t even land in this year, the most sparsely populated of the slasher golden era. The barest blips of franchise action arrived in the form of Boogeyman II (which is about 50% reconstituted footage from the original, so it hardly counts) and the much-belated homecoming of Norman Bates, Psycho II.

Also, although the year had some truly great moments, only one film earned itself a sequel. The franchise fairy must have been taking a smoke break that year. But let’s take a look at that particular, peculiar entry, which in fact collected two late 80’s DTV sequels, a half-finished fourth entry, and a decades-later resurrection: Sleepaway Camp. While we’re taking a look, let’s ask ourselves one question. Of all the 1983 slasher ventures, did this one above all deserve the sequel hoopla it got?

Short answer: Yes.

Following a boating accident that killed her father and sibling, Angela (Felissa Rose) lives with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and her Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) a sublimely cartoonish dowager. The kids leave to spend the summer at Camp Arawak, where Angela’s habit of never speaking a word and watching activities from the sidelines draws the ire of campground bullies, a wicked counselor, and a sleazy pedophile chef. Her only companions are the fiercely protective Ricky and his friend Paul (Christopher Collet) with whom she develops a sweet infatuation.

When the people who torment Angela wind up dead under increasingly unusual circumstances, even the bad publicity-averse camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin) can see that something truly despicable is going on. But is it Angela offing the bullies or Ricky? Or is it someone else entirely?

Maybe one of the 30-year-old campers, perchance?

The truly surprising thing about Sleepaway Camp (which confounded me on the first viewing as a young Johnny Slasherfan) is that, as much as its title and poster scream that it’s a blatant rip-off of Friday the 13th, it’s patently not that. For one thing, kids’ heads are actually on the chopping block as opposed to merely of-age counselors. But when you boil it down, the only thing Sleepaway Camp has in common with Friday the 13th is its setting, and that’s kind of a given. It’s practically goreless (although with the state of the MPAA in 1983, that was hardly unusual), but it’s also a psychotically sexual journey through the sleazy, queer underbelly of 80’s cinema. If a John Waters film ate a Pedro Almodóvar movie and pooped it out, that would be Sleepaway Camp.

It’s not a well-made motion picture by any stretch of the imagination, but it double dips in 80’s cheese to make up for that fact. Every male character wears cutoffs shorts so tight you can not only see his religion, you can check for tattoos. And when they run out of fabric to chop off the shorts, they move on up to the shirts. The men of this movie make Johnny Depp’s Nightmare on Elm Street crop top look like a dress. And then you have the army of female vamps stalking their way through the film, including Karen Fields’ Judy (who is driven mad by puberty, destroying Godzilla-like anything that obstructs her path to male attention) and Katherine Kamhi’s Meg (a counselor who might be the actual devil).

But even those choice cuts can’t compare to the top shelf prime sirloin of Desiree Gould as Aunt Martha. An electromagnetically compelling screen presence, she perfectly embodies the flat-out insanity of the movie’s best moments. Rapidly alternating between shouting her lines at the stop of her lungs and quietly murmuring to herself, she is thoroughly unpredictable, a nuclear power cell of bad movie magic. She’s like that crazy aunt we all have that shows up for Thanksgiving rolling on molly.

No? Just me?

And to be fair, there are a handful of genuinely good sequences that indicate the presence of a focused, if deranged personality behind the camera. A twirling flashback in an inky void and the razor-sharp sound design of the closing scene are both bone-chilling sequences that boggle the mind, but the single best scene might be the opening credits. As the camera pans over different areas of the empty camp the sound of kids at play blasts over the soundtrack. It creates an exquisitely foreboding atmosphere, reminding you that the lease on Camp Arawak’s summer fun hath all too short a date.

Plus, although the kills are almost entirely offscreen, their use of silhouettes and alternative framing provided a stylized approach that’s, if anything, even more effective. These kills are brutal in practice (drowning, bee stings, curling iron penetration) and they are mercilessly perpetrated on children. By keeping things offscreen, the film avoids being ickier than it already is, and the clawed kabuki hands that indicate death are a startlingly Rashômon-esque touch.

Then there’s the rich vein of queer undertones that powers the film’s every move. People tend to focus on [SPOILERS the reveal that Angela is actually a boy. This is transphobic and sleazy in a way that only the 80’s and early 90’s would allow, but it’s also a nauseatingly surreal moment (accompanied by an inhuman screech) that transcends politics to enter the pantheon of great horror moments).] However, there’s so much more to tap into about parental sexuality, identity formation, and societal pressure that’s present throughout the entire film.

There’s so much there in Sleepaway Camp that a little thing like cinematic ineptitude hardly even factors in. The story might be a loose tangle of spaghetti, a ten minute baseball scene might be shameless padding even by the standards of a genre largely concerned with people standing around in the dark, the acting might remind you of the annual ski at the Law and Order Extras convention, and the keening score might strain so hard to force a mood that it gives itself a hernia, but it’s so devastatingly fun that it leaves an everlasting impression. It’s a demented, entirely idiosyncratic slasher film, and in the context of 1983, that’s an incredibly rare and valuable thing.

Killer: Angela (Felissa Rose)
Final Girl: Not Applicable
Best Kill: As much as I hate to disseminate pro-bee propaganda, the kill where a kid is locked in a bathroom stall with a beehive is just ruthless.
Sign of the Times: It would be easier to list the things that aren't dripping with 80’s cheese.




Scariest Moment: Angela seems to be cradling Paul in her lap, but it’s really his severed head.
Weirdest Moment: A totally acceptable camp activity is playing water balloons on the roof.
Champion Dialogue: “She’s a real carpenter’s dream: Flat as a board and needs a screw!”
Body Count: 8; not including 4 nameless campers dismembered with a hatchet offscreen or a pedophile chef who gets a pot of boiling water dumped on him and survives.
  1. [Angela 1.0 is killed in a boating accident.]
  2. Gay Dad is killed in a boating accident.
  3. Kenny is drowned.
  4. Billy is stung to death by bees.
  5. Meg is stabbed in the back.
  6. Judy is impaled with a curling iron.
  7. Mel is shot in the neck with an arrow.
  8. Paul is decapitated.
TL;DR: Sleepaway Camp is a rollicking, campy good time with a thriving queer undercurrent.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1289
Reviews In This Series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

Monday, May 30, 2016

It's The End Of The World As We Know It

Year: 2016
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence 
Run Time: 2 hours 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I owe a debt of gratitude to the X-Men films. The original trilogy powered me all the way through my childhood, giving me characters to root for and fueling endless playground discussions. I formed a bond with those people and that world, a bond so strong it allowed me to sit through X-Men: Apocalypse in its entirety without rending my hair and running away screaming. I don’t have particularly strong feelings for X-Men: First Class, the progenitor of this prequel cycle, and Days of Future Past was a gargantuan letdown, so I can’t say I had high hopes for Apocalypse, but even those feeble wisps of optimism were dashed into oblivion.

If this movie really was the End Times for this franchise, I can’t say I’d be upset.

In X-Men: Apocalypse, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are happily running a school for mutants. It’s the 1980’s and the student body has received an influx of familiar faces: laser-eyed Scott Summer (Tye Sheridan) AKA Cyclops (although in typical comic book movie fashion, they go ahead and assume you already knew that), the telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and the fireworky Jubilee (Lana Condor), who the movie is even less interested in than I am. They are joined by the teleporting blue demon Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is brought to the school by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), shape-shifted into the form of Jennifer Lawrence, who rescued him from a mutant dogfighting ring led by a cross between Wily Wonka and Liza Minnelli from Cabaret.

Mystique brings bad news. After a personal tragedy, Magneto (Michael Fassbender, who mails in this performance) has resurfaced. The X-Men must band together, yadda yadda, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is back so we can pretend Charles isn’t super gay for Magneto, and so on. Also, the better Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is back. If you’re allergic to names in parentheses, you may want to skip this next paragraph.

Moira witnessed a cult resurrecting En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the mythical first mutant who is so powerful [sic] that he thinks he’s a god. He’s also called Apocalypse (gasp), but again the movie doesn’t see fit to divulge that apparently classified information. Apocalypse needs four horsemen to serve him, so he sets about gathering the strongest mutants in the world. Or, bar that, the first ones he bumps into: weather-controlling teen Storm (Alexandra Shipp), bewinged Angel (Ben Hardy), psychic sword lady(?) Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto. This arbitrary gaggle of mutants teleports around the world, power posing and generally wreaking havoc. Speaking of, Havok (Lucas Till) is in this movie too, for so long you’d actually think he was an important character. So yeah. The horsemen power pose and kill some people and, like, control the first or something, because they want to tear down this world and build a new one.

But mostly they just indulge in their hobby of recreating Backstreet Boys album covers.

From what I’ve been told, the Apocalypse run is kind of a big deal in the comics. An ancient, hyperpowered, megalomaniacal menace, Apocalypse is a formidable foe on paper (literally). But in the film, other than kicking up some monochromatic dust storms and tearing apart two or so sterile, humanless cities, the worst thing this omnipotent übermutant does is make James McAvoy go bald. He’s about as menacing as a kitten in a teacup, and the superb Oscar Isaac is totally buried beneath a metric ton of makeup and shouted dialogue more plum than his skin tone.

The musical score might cut itself open and bleed itself dry impressing upon you the monumental significance of what you’re witnessing, but there’s barely a shred of doubt that this pompous Blue Man Group reject will be destroyed by the power of friendship or whatever. X-Men suffers the same way Civil War does with a preponderance of overpowered characters (Jean Grey is this entry’s Scarlet Witch, pretty much any solving any story problem with her endless array of talents, then hanging around twiddling her thumbs so we can try to care about the outcome of a bout between two far weaker characters), rendering any conflict pretty much useless the second the movie decides it has gone on long enough. But boy oh boy, does Apocalypse really deliberate before making that decision.

Clocking in at around 144 minutes of disconnected vignettes about any of a half million different characters, Apocalypse really struggles to find a personality. Sometimes it’s a sprawling superhero adventure. Other times it’s a wacky high school comedy about mismatched teens. But mostly it’s a dreary, deafening plea to be taken seriously. Honestly, when did comic book movies stop trying to be fun? One bungled Wolverine cameo later, and the film has depleted every last resource at its disposal. Then there’s an hour of flailing before the end credits mercifully inter the godforsaken mess.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from X-Men, it’s that dead things rarely stay that way.

The movie isn’t exactly helped by a visibly exhausted cast. The teens try their hardest to punch up their hokey storyline, but the only adult who even seems to be aware they’re on a movie set is James McAvoy. Rose Byrne performs her thankless role with the brute efficiency of a machine, Jennifer Lawrence falls back on prickly Katniss-isms, and Michael Fassbender is a million miles away. His palpable desire to be anywhere else does little to sell a forced family tragedy shoehorned in to give him a bit of insta-motivation, and it certainly doesn’t render palatable an exceedingly tasteless scene set at Auschwitz.

Although, truth be told, Magneto is mostly played by a CGI Ken doll being dragged around the screen. You can practically see the mouse pointer. That’s right, this entry continues the venerable tradition of rendering its mutants with special effects that were outdated in the WarGames era. They’re lucky a large theme of the movie is Mystique and Beast resisting their powers, because their SFX budget begins and ends with one (1) set of metal wings and maybe a handful of explosions. The rest is an X-Men: Evolution cartoon-level of work. The winking humor about how third sequels always suck can’t save the ruthlessly disastrous aesthetic of Apocalypse.

Now that I’ve purged my bile, I will submit that there are maybe a smattering of good things about the movie. McAvoy provides some solid first act comic relief, the teens are sufficiently likeable, and the crummy sub-Big Bang Theory opening credits that zoom through history’s greatest hits feature an exploding swastika, which is pretty righteous. And of course, there’s the obligatory Quicksilver slo-mo scene, which is shameless, pandering, inexcusably lazy, and still the best thing in the whole damn movie.

When Evan Peters makes more of an impression than Michael Fassbender, you know something has gone terribly wrong. And indeed it has. Many volumes of somethings. Unfathomable depths of somethings. It’s far from the worst movie out this year, or even this month, but it is a solemn disappointment.

TL;DR: X-Men Apocalypse is a sprawling, inept mess that wastes a bevy of talented performers.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1210
Reviews In This Series
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2: X-Men United (Singer, 2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Arrow in the Head: Upstairs Downstairs

Year: 2016
Director: David Farr
Cast: Clémence Poésy, David Morrissey, Stephen Campbell Moore 
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Read my full review of The Ones Below at Arrow in the Head.

The Ones Below has the worst opening credits I’ve ever seen on a movie that’s claiming to be professional. My student film had better opening credits. Hell, the Animorphs fan film I made in third grade on Windows Movie Maker has better opening credits (for the record, they were scored by Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”). Now, the rest of the film manages the microscopic feat of looking more professional than its credits, but the fact that it doesn’t go above and beyond that initial level of apathy is damning.

This film is cheap. So cheap that it couldn’t afford a fake computer operating system that looks more modern than, say, WarGames. For god’s sake, there are actual f**king green polygons up in this beast. It’s stunning how little they attempted to stretch their budget to any degree. As I stated, this works for its haphazard tonal approach, but it’s genuinely embarrassing.

There are some subtleties in the story that I appreciate, allowing the viewer to actively make connections and attempt to guess what’s going on, but a blatantly derivative third act makes the whole affair retroactively even duller. Any and all of the movie’s sputtering buildup is squandered by this bleating, overlong, too obvious finale. It’s a mark of a bad film that my guesses as to what was happening were always more entertaining than what it eventually turned out to be. 

There’s enough good in The Ones Below to make it bearable, but who the hell needs to watch a bearable film? Watch Rosemary’s Baby. Watch Inside. Hell, watch Annabelle for a better time with a pregnant horror protagonist. If you feel the need to check out The Ones Below for yourself, just don’t blame me.

TL;DR: The Ones Below has a solid ensemble, but is too cheap and generic to be worthwhile.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 937

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Girls Next Door

Year: 2016
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you may recall, the frat comedy Neighbors landed on my Top 10 list of 2014. It’s a movie that really resonated with me, what with my love of college movies and shirtless Zac Efrons. But more than that, it was a definite surprise: a genuinely funny comedy that was from the Apatow school of filmmaking yet had a hilarious woman up front and center with the man-children. That woman was, of course, Rose Byrne, who proved in neighbors what she would cement in stone and toss into the river with Spy: that she is a tremendously gifted comic talent, capable of delivering outrageous punchlines with deadpan certainty.

As you might imagine, I brought a lot of baggage to Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I won’t say the movie completely hefted the load, but it certainly called over a bellboy to pick up a suitcase or two and help me upstairs. But enough with this needlessly elaborate metaphor! Let’s let the movie answer for itself.

Well-spoken, Neighbors 2.

In Neighbors 2, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are living a quiet life (literally quiet since the frat next door moved out) with their daughter. When Kelly gets pregnant, they decide to move into a bigger home, but they skimp on the escrow, meaning that they have 30 days to keep the potential buyers convinced that they’re making the right decision, or else they will end up with two homes and empty bank accounts.

Unfortunately, as is wont to happen in comedy sequels, this is the exact time that a group of hard-partying sorority girls led by Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) decide to move in next door, frustrated by the American university system’s refusal to allow sororities to throw parties in official sorority houses. They are being mentored by Teddy (Zac Efron), the ex-frat president who is trying to find a place where he belongs now that his friends are all growing up, getting careers and fiancés and whatnot.

Now that we’ve plugged the requisite “man-child who needs to learn to grow up” into the Apatowian formula, let’s get this review rolling.

Basically, the fulcrum on which Neighbors 2 is balanced is sexism: what it is, how it works, what to do if you get it. This is most likely a knee-jerk response to Ann Hornaday’s wildly misguided claim that films like Neighbors promoted misogyny, more or less directly leading to the tragic shooting at UC Santa Barbara back in 2014. Obviously, I’m not here to defend Judd Apatow’s work as un-misogynist, having leveled that complaint against the man myself, but Neighbors (a production in which Apatow held no official role) was very unfairly caught in the crossfire.

However, the film’s use of feminist themes and lessons give depth to what is otherwise a pretty standard comedy sequel plot. It allows its protagonists a new avenue in which to grow rather than undoing their previous character arcs, thus continuing their story in a satisfying, organic manner. One drawback to this approach is a rather overstuffed cast list (between the Radners, the real estate people, the frat bros, the sorority girls, and the crammed-in cameos that waste returning players like Lisa Kudrow, the population of Neighbors 2 is higher than my hometown’s), but that’s a small price to pay for an actually interesting comedy part 2.

One admirably strange side effect of this approach is that it evokes the work of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. His films, including the famous Battleship Potemkin, have no discernible characters - focusing on the exploits of the collective rather than the individual. And such is the case here. Rather than any one character rising from the pack, it’s just an old collective vs. a young collective. This is not a compliment, but it’s too odd to be quite as frustrating as it could be.

However, the fact does remain that the sorority sisters, as the only major characters that are entirely new to the film, are given no opportunity to develop a real backstory or personality. The character moments for anyone are few and far between, but the girls really do get the short end of the stick, acting as mouthpieces for the film’s feminist themes rather than genuine, unique personalities, skating through a plot that we’ve seen a million times and thus doesn’t feel the need to go into too much detail.

Chloë Grace Moretz does manage some interesting work, ingraining her overconfident bravado with a vulnerable fear about finally being out on her own for the first time and not really understanding how the world works. But overall, her performance falls back a little too often on hers standard, shouted line readings to really assert itself.

By the way, if possible, I’d like some kind of plaque to acknowledge that I’m the first person to ever compare a Zac Efron movie to Battleship Potemkin.

I suppose that, buried beneath the dissertation on sexism, there’s a comedy movie in there somewhere, so let’s talk about it. Neighbors 2 opens with a surprisingly delightful scene that adds a fresh tag onto a totally predictable joke, breathing new life into its gross-out humor and proving that this sequel will have the exact same crude sensibility that made it such a gonzo comedy the first time around.

Obviously, the humor is a notch or so lower than the original, such is the price of sequeldom. But all things considered, Neighbors 2 is a bit of triumph, maintaining much of its comic potency thanks to Rose Byrne’s continuing excellence in the field of machete sharp comic timing and Zac Efron’s continuing willingness to poke fun at himself, adding an element of giddy darkness to his role this time around. If Dirty Grandpa didn’t hang on his filmography like a malignant lump, I might say hew was improving by the year.

There are a lot of genuine laughs in Neighbors 2, especially if your sense of humor is as sophomoric as mine tends to be in my shameful heart of hearts. Only one gag truly rankles, a bit on police racism that scrapes across the film like a jagged edge, capsizing the comedy’s tone with a whiff of too-grim hyperviolence. But other than that, neighbors is a peculiarly solid sequel, never matching its predecessor but always defeating the middling expectations of a comedy continuation.

TL;DR: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is an excellent continuation of the original film that's a little too overstuffed to have any real characters but nevertheless funny.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1104
Reviews In This Series
Neighbors (Stoller, 2014)
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Stoller, 2016)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Cardboard Science: Tentacruel

Year: 1955
Director: Robert Gordon
Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis
Run Time: 1 hour 19 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

So, I guess I’m a fair weather friend. This third chapter in Cardboard Science, my crossover with Hunter Allen of Kinemalogue, was supposed to be released in October… Whoops. Let’s just pretend I was trying to beat last year’s record (when I posted my final, belated review in December). Please be so kind as to check out his Census Bloodbath features on Terror Train, The House on Sorority Row, and Killer Party. I owe him that much for not e-mailing me anthrax.

But we’re here now, and that’s what matters. Previously on Cardboard Science, I covered the laughable body snatcher flick The Brain from Planet Arous and the surprisingly well-scripted cheesefest The Giant Claw. So far I’ve enjoyed every one of the five films he’s made me watch in the past two years (save the enervating, gee whiz Invaders from Mars), but I’ve yet to find one that truly resonated with me. But now, It Came from Beneath the Sea… Well, it’s not one of those either, but it’s the best of the bunch. Although it suffers from many of the pitfalls endemic to 50’s sci-fi, its strengths are much greater than I could have imagined.

A caveat before we jump in. Unfortunately, I was not able to view the film as originally intended. If, in fact, anybody was intended to watch these things at all. The copy I got my grubby hands on was colorized from the black-and-white original, which certainly has a number of subtle effects on the finished product, not the least of which is an unsolicited alteration of the effects provided by genius movie magician Ray Harryhausen. Fortunately, the colorization was actually quite skillfully achieved. In fact, save for a slight green tint on certain scenes, it was seamless. And I’m constantly in awe of what they were able to achieve when coloring shots of rippling ocean waves. All in all, the adverse effect is negligible but certainly worth mentioning.

It’s not like I needed to be reminded what color the freaking Golden Gate Bridge is.

In It Came from Beneath the Sea, nuclear submarine commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey) encounters a strange blip on the radar that knocks into his ship, leaving behind a huge chunk of organic, irradiated matter. Top marine biologists Dr. John Carter – not of Mars, unfortunately – (Donald Curtis) and Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) are called in to investigate, and discover that the culprit is a giant octopus. Thus begins a long period of sciencing, investigation, and tepid love triangling before the creature lays siege to San Francisco and the team must find a way to stop it.

Con: No more Golden Gate Bridge. Pro: A lifetime supply of calamari.

For the bulk of tis run time, It Came from beneath the Sea is your typical B-movie. More of a science procedural than a rollicking monster flick, you’ve got to earn that giant octopus by sitting through endless didactic scenes of researchers explaining their findings using as many smart-sounding words as the screenwriters could find while flipping through an encyclopedia. It’s charming in its retro, totally oblivious way (and its trendy obsession with the H-bomb and nuclear fallout), but it’s about as enlightening as attending a particle physics seminar hosted by Homer Simpson.

Usually, this is the part where we’re meant to engage with the characters the most. And while I enjoy the proto-feminist discussion prompted by the presence of a female scientist (which I do find remarkable, considering that these movies almost always feature a female scientist so it’s hardly unprecedented, though she’s usually only there for smooching purposes) as well as its anti-romantic ending, the wan love triangle just doesn’t rev my engine. In fact, it hardly revs theirs, because I’m not sure Dr. Carter is even aware that he’s in one. It feels so wrong to say this, but the characterization and dialogue hardly reaches the level of The Giant Claw. At least, in its first act.

To be fair, by any other comparison, It Came from Beneath the Sea makes The Giant Claw look like a crackerjack commercial.

Of course, there are still some unambiguously great moments in this portion of the film. A little bit of psychological espionage livens up the whole affair, and one flirtation in particular is the most hilariously blatant sexual metaphor I’ve ever seen. Professor Joyce fondles a particularly phallic graduated cylinder she has picked up from a lab table while talking to Pete. It’s downright naughty and I adore it.

So all this is decent, if a bit predictable. But then. Oh boy, the third act really kicks it into gear as the monstrous cephalopod goes on the warpath, taking a chunk out of the Golden Gate Bridge before rampaging around the Embarcadero district. And for a movie that couldn’t hire extras for a restaurant so it used shadows on the wall to imply a dance floor, these creature effects are top notch. Of course, Harryhausen is a household name for a reason, but his work here is particularly impressive.

The stop motion animation is a little jittery here and there, but in terms of organic, convincing design and large scale carnage, it crushes the giant ants from Them! under its boot. It boils the overgrown fowl of The Giant Claw and uses the bones to pick its teeth. The wisest brains from Planet Arous couldn’t even conceive this kind of material. Making up for its disappointingly infrequent appearances in the first hour, the octopus crushes cars, destroys buildings, and fells dozens of humans with one tentacular swoop in an unprecedented swath of destruction. The composite animation here is delectable, putting the creature in the frame with living breathing people and – with the exception of just one bum shot – looking pristine while doing it.

Suddenly, every single stiff, melodramatic frame of film you had to work through to get here is worth it. The finale of this film is the most fun I’ve had in any Cardboard Science feature, and though there have been films with stronger scripts, this is the first entry I would leap to recommend with eight sucker-covered thumbs up.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Remember that lesson in science class where they taught you how to identify an unknown radioactive substance by moving fish from one tank to another, then peering into a microscope? Yeah, me neither.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • The navy men stop to have a frank conversation about Mac’s infertility fears in the middle of being attacked by a giant octopus. All hail the American Family!
  • Professor Joyce is a new breed of woman who carves her own path in a man’s world and doesn’t take “no” for an answer. At least, according to Dr. John Carter, who explains this to us (because who would listen to a woman?) as she shrieks and crumples into a ball.
Sensawunda:
  • Some B-roll footage shows a plane taking off while billowing voluminous plumes of smoke. Did those things run on f**king coal?
  • Dr. Carter just happens to have a handy balloon in his pocket, in case he needs to explain cephalopod skull structures. Maybe he moonlights as a clown.
TL;DR: It Came From Beneath the Sea is a decent 50's B-flick until the grand finale, which is an out-and-out masterpiece of Harryhausen movie magic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1249
Reviews In This Series
The Giant Claw (Popcorn Culture - Sears, 1957)
The Brain from Planet Arous (Popcorn Culture - Hertz, 1957)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (Popcorn Culture - Gordon, 1955)
Terror Train (Kinemalogue - Spottiswoode, 1980)
The House on Sorority Row (Kinemalogue - Rosman, 1983)
Killer Party (Kinemalogue - Fruet, 1986)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Sick Women

This set of mini reviews will cover a multitude of films I’ve seen recently about women who are under the weather, whether it’s a contagious bug, a nervous breakdown, or a psychological corkscrew.

Contagion


Year: 2011
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A lethal viral pathogen is quickly spreading across the world and authorities scramble to find its source, discover a cure, and decide who to save first.

There’s no single more effective moment in Contagion than its opening shot: A pale Gwyneth Paltrow coughs and sniffles in an airport lounge. The title card “Day 2” appears in ominous, blood red font. This is not the beginning of our story. We don’t know how or why, but it has already begun and there is no escape until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. Now that's how you open a movie!

I’m an easy lay for viral outbreak movies. As a card-carrying germophobe, I had a knot in my stomach for nearly the entire duration of the movie. It freaked me out more than every horror movie I’ve watched this movie, combined. And while I appreciate any film that can generate a physical reaction in its audience, I am NOT an easy lay for positive reviews. And as tense as Contagion may be, it’s an astoundingly messy movie.

It’s telling that the film’s best moment is its opening shot, because once Contagion’s innumerable characters and subplots kick in, they weigh the film down like so many anchors. The broad, multi-perspective view of an epidemic is certainly an intriguing and tense approach, but the film’s overall structure suffers, narrative logistics cracking under the weight of a metric ton of stars. Contagion’s desperate attempts to weld together storylines involving Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude law, John Hawkes, Brian Cranston, and Elliott Gould lead to a waterlogged conclusion that haphazardly drops subplots to bail out a slowly sinking narrative. It’s the Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day of viral outbreak movies.

Contagion is a roller coaster; a rip-roaring thrill ride that leaves you entirely unchanged upon its completion, if a little nauseous. Its shallowness isn’t necessarily a fault, even if its relentlessly purple dialogue is (“should I call someone?” “Call everyone!”). It does have some shaky thematic throughlines about the indignities of the class system and how fear and rumor spreads just as quickly as disease, but for the most part it’s just a slick, by-the-numbers thriller. When it finally ends with a pointless explanation of the virus’s origin, it’s hard to feel like the movie has accomplished anything, but it was definitely a wild ride.

Pro-Tip: Contagion is patently NOT a date movie. Potential suitors, avoid at all costs.

Rating: 7/10

Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios

Year: 1988
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An actress jilted by her co-star boyfriend tempts to deal with her break-up while a friend on the run from the law, her lover’s ex-wife, his son, and his son’s fiancée unexpectedly arrive at her apartment.

Sergio and I were so taken with Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver that we more or less instantly followed it up with Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios/Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a much earlier entry in his filmography that also stars the inimitable Carmen Maura (it was also the one that capsized their creative partnership, and in fact they wouldn’t work together at all until the 18-years-later Volver, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose). Although it’s another female-led comedy with dark themes that allows its protagonist license to be venal and selfish, Mujeres could hardly be more different from Volver.

Where his 2006 effort is a confident, fantastical treatise on the beauty and wonder of life, Mujeres is an out-and-out farce of gran proportions, a wacky, door-slamming effort in the vein of classic stage works like Noises Off. There’s the obvious contributing factor that it mostly takes place in a single location once the second act kicks in, but it’s also a loony jaunt jam-packed with delightfully cartoonish characters. Once again, Almodóvar delivers an effervescent comedy that transcends language barriers with a solid undercurrent of emotion and artistry.

You see, the women in this film aren’t just on the verge of a nervous breakdown due to their over-the-top situations. They are real life women trying to get by in the face of life’s incalculable unfairness. Their struggles are palpable and their exaggerated reactions blameless. Essentially every problem they face is the result of men carelessly using them like playthings, and the entire arc of the film reflects main character Pepa’s growth into independent womanhood. Not only is it a passionate and exuberant feminist tract, it’s a god damn work of art.

There is perhaps no film scene of the entire year that matches the dreamy magnum opus of this film’s opening, played out through a retro film scene followed by Ivan – the man who caused all this trouble – providing dubbed Spanish dialogue for another movie. The eclectic collection of shots in the film within the film depict him declaring his undying love for a multitude of international women (including an American stereotype I can’t say I’ve ever come across – a baton-twirling cheerleader), followed by an outpouring of dubbed emotion over a muted film track, in which the woman silently flaps her lips in response to his declarations. It’s a genius setup that clearly implies how Ivan (and, by extent, the world) views and ignores women, as well as how trapped they find themselves by his words. It’s a powerful, beautiful piece, and it’s followed by 80 minutes of vivacious, neon farce.

It’s a stylized, wacky, sexy romp that turns a comic relief cabdriver (he’s a relief from the comedy because he’s marginally less funny than the other characters) into an exquisitely precise longform punchline. This film is women against the world, and they grab it by the horns, toss it through a plate glass window, and keep it laughing so hard it passes out. I’ve only seen two of his films so far, but Pedro Almodóvar is swiftly becoming one of my favorite directors.

Rating: 10/10

Heathers


Year: 1989
Director: Michael Lemann
Cast: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A teen girl is seduced by a new boy in town, who convinces her to murder the popular kids at her high school.

I’ve always viewed Heathers as an alternative teen classic, a late period bit of counterprogramming to the overly earnest John Hughes cycle, but I personally hadn’t seen the film since the first time I watched it, at a very young age. Given distance and a new perspective, Heathers is much better and a hell of a lot worse than I thought. Its themes have only gotten more potent and many moments are unequivocally brilliant, bleeding-edge satire, but to get to them you have to sift through a heap of late 80’s detritus.

The first act is a gauntlet to prove that you’re worthy of the film’s brilliance; a cheap, stagey spectacle of overbaked dialogue that almost certainly made a young Diablo Cody swoon. It’s a vexing half hour of hip, snappy teens spouting avant garbage about spokes in their menstrual cycle, reigned over by a truly dreadful, soul-curdling non-performance from Kim Walker as the Queen Bee Heather Chandler. But once you’ve broken through that vexing permafrost, you hit pay dirt.

Heathers is a delicious dark comedy that could only have been made in 1989 – that sweet spot in the wake of the slasher boom but pre-Columbine – and its true core of pitch-black humor activates with Heather Chandler’s death, which also conveniently rids the cast of its weakest link. After this, the film snaps like a slingshot, launching into a wry satire detailing what happens when a vapid, venal student body that is used to violently lashing out more out of a sense of stir-craziness than righting actual wrongs comes into contact with a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool psychopath. This is a society where suicide (faked or otherwise) is the great equalizer, an alternapunk wasteland of superficial nihilists who will fake true emotion if it gets them on TV, where life only gains meaning once it’s extinguished.

It’s unspeakably grim, but also uproariously funny. Watching these teen movie archetypes marching through their stages of non-grief is a hilariously biting indictment of apathetic teen culture, balanced out by the earnest Winona Ryder resisting her seduction over to the Dark Side (represented by Christian Slater, copping Urkel’s nasal whine). She is the one point of light in this world of careless parents, thin-skinned teens, and inept cops, and her dance with the Devil has surprising emotional weight. Her turning point into genuine heroine for hope comes in the film’s most brilliantly twisted moment: a guilt-stricken Ryder burns her palm with the car’s cigarette lighter and Slater grabs her hand, not to comfort her, but to use it to light his cigarette.

This detachment fuels the entire film, giving it an edgy boost that overcomes its feeble first act and shoddy production design(although I do love the blue neon light used to denote nighttime and one shot of a chase scene through the misty woods is a warped, expressionistic marvel). Eventually this delves into a patently silly climax that I recognized as goofily inferior even when I was a kid, but for the bulk of its run time, Heathers is a sharp, dynamic, demented flick that’s totally worth ritual rewatching, a proto-Fight Club for the angsty teen set.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1623

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

When Tony Comes Marching Home

Year: 2016
Director: Anthony & Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson
Run Time: 2 hours 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Captain America: Civil War is one of those frustrating movies that renders film criticism even more useless than it already is. A negative review is but a fragile echo in the void while Marvel plows through their stacks of money with a bulldozer. And a positive review is extravagantly pointless, because you know you’ve seen the goddamn thing. But I watched it, and I’m morally obligated to give my two cents. Why not have some fun with this exuberantly pointless exercise?

I’m not a regular blog. I’m a cool blog.

So, Captain America. The Avenger that nobody would give a flying fart about if he weren’t played by the human mountain we call Chris Evans. Full disclosure, I haven’t seen the first two Cap movies, but I’ve been on my roommate’s Tumblr page enough to grasp the gist of things. The constant between the films (aside from a set of wholly bland villains) is Captain Steve Rogers and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and the fact that the series is essentially a longform exploration of male friendship is by far the most interesting thing about it. Oh, also Cap’s friend Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is there, though he hardly finds a convincing reason for his presence. A third wheel is a third wheel, even if you’ve got a bird suit.

Bucky has been brainwashed by the Nazis Hydra to become the Winter Soldier, a mindless assassin who carries out their wickedest deeds when read a special passage from a Dr. Seuss-esque red book. Tensions have already been rising between the Avengers when, following a botched mission, the government decides to regulate the team, having them answer to the UN. Because nothing streamlines saving the world like handing the reins to international bureaucracy. This effort is spearheaded by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Iron Man himself.

When Bucky lands himself in the sights of the coalition, an already dubious Steve assembles a team of MCU cameos to help him save his friend and also the world (from the requisite milquetoast villain, Zemo – played by Daniel Brühl), defying the UN Accords. Iron Man assembles his own team, including an olive branch from Sony: Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

Meanwhile, Hulk and Thor are vacationing in the Poconos.

It’s intriguing that both of this year’s major superhero mash-ups (Civil War and Batman v Superman, and please allow me to extend my humblest apologies for bringing up that crapfest again) directly grapple with the collateral damage caused by superhero brawls. It’s an important conversation to be having, in terms of the depiction of onscreen violence, but I can hardly think of a less exciting tend for comic book movies. It’s just one step above that stultifying superhero standby of “I must resist using my powers because they’re bad (and we can’t afford the special effects).”

And do you want to know the worst thing? In terms of directly addressing the repercussions of their own violent content, Batman v Superman is actually the superior film. Only in that regard, mind you, but talk about a plot twist. That movie, while incomprehensible, actually had high stakes and some clear consequences. In Civil War, the Accords are pretty inconsequential, just a garnish for a massive action sequence between two sides chosen as arbitrarily as a game of dodgeball.

Civil War plays it way too safe, and the supposedly grand, operatic plot beats feel like they’re tiptoeing on eggshells, not wanting to throw a wrench in Phase 3 with anything as gauche as [SPOILERS a major character death or even a stubbed toe. They refuse to even allow ludicrously minor characters like War Machine (Don Cheadle) the dignity of being bumped off to raise the stakes, no matter how clearly he super duper died in the film. And so help me God, if I don’t get to see Thanos crack open Vision’s (Paul Bettany) stupid, didactic Klaatu forehead before the end of Phase 3, I’m going to rip myself in half.] All I’m asking for is that a storyline as grand and sweeping as Civil War be treated with a little more gravity than Thor’s latest bubble bath.

Well, maybe I’m overextending myself expecting gravity from this guy.

OK, I’m calming down. Though Civil War fails to reach the heights of the raging maelstrom promised by the comics, the trailers, and the advance reviews, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. But as a piece of popcorn superhero mayhem, the film largely delivers. Frankly, the one-on-one action sequences between Captain America and Iron Man pull so many punches that they end up smacking themselves in the face (and yes, a hardcore moment that is almost instantly retconned counts as a pulled punch), but when our other heroes get in on the fun, the movie gets a shot in the arm.

Where Civil War truly triumphs is its ensemble action, which is an astonishing feat of character juggling. The ubiquity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is helpful, precluding the film from having to reiterate backstories for returning characters like the spuriously-accented Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the expert agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), or the sharpshooter Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, and I am pleased as punch to report that his appearance got the biggest applause from my audience), but the script stays true to their personalities and longform arcs.

It manages this while also introducing two entirely new heroes to the pack: the vengeful Wakandan prince Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the snotty teen Spider-Man in his third cinematic iteration. I’m deeply concerned to admit that I actually enjoyed Tom Holland in the role, because I sure as hell don’t want to shell out money for an umpteenth Spidey flick.

The guy has more regenerations than a Time Lord.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. The movie doesn’t get as distracted by its massive smorgasbord of superheroes as I do. In a jam-packed chase sequence as well as the inevitable showdown between both teams in a massive airfield, Civil War effortlessly weaves an infinitum of motivations, personalities, and character struggles into one seamless, breathtaking tapestry. The only hero who doesn’t get his fair share of the pie is Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who’s just here to have fun. Although, considering the cotton candy froth that his film turned out to be, I guess that’s still staying true to Ant-Man’s mission statement.

Plus, despite the stakes being dismayingly low on the grand narrative scale, these fight scenes are filled with little moments that will sock you in the gut. One scene in particular with a helicopter stopped my heart for a second.

OK, TWO scenes in particular with a helicopter.

The relative intensity with Russo brothers bring to the action also serves to give the Whedon-tinged dialogue more comedic punch when it does arrive. This is a transitional film between two Marvel phases with two distinct personalities, and tonally it’s an excellent midpoint between the both of them. So while I found myself immensely frustrated by large portions of this overlong film (this is no empty complaint – I could slice half an hour off this behemoth and never miss it – including two, count ‘em, two romances so chaste they feel vacuum sealed), it’s still an excellent entry in the overall Marvel canon. Enough that I can confidently proclaim that, whatever happens, Doctor Strange will still be the worst MCU flick out this year.

TL;DR: Captain America: Civil War is a grand achievement in unwieldy ensemble filmmaking, but plays it too safe to be a superhero classic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1286
Reviews In This Series
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Stuff 'N Things

I watched some things and wrote down what I thought about them. Here you go.

Arachnophobia


Year: 1990
Director: Frank Marshall
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, John Goodman
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A big city doctor moves his family to a sleepy rural town and struggles to make ends meet. It doesn’t help that a venomous spider infestation has descended upon the town and is killing all his patients.

90’s horror gets a bad rap. Sure, the dried-out slasher genre was puking out flicks like Leprechaun or The Ice Cream Man until Scream course-corrected everything, but as loathe as I am to admit it, the slasher genre isn’t the only thing going on in horror. That period saw the urban gothic masterpiece Candyman, the surreal thriller Jacob’s Ladder, and Peter Jackson’s cult gore classic Dead Alive. And then there’s a little 1990 film called Arachnophobia with its foot in two worlds.

The 80’s are represented by the ambassadorship of actors Julian Sands (of Warlock) and Harley Jane Kozak (of The House on Sorority Row, and I’m pleased to announce that I officially earned my horror nerd card when I squealed upon seeing her name in the opening credits), but the 90’s are revving up with a more Amblin-esque adventure-horror roller coaster vibe. There’s not a lot of gore (though some of the spider bite effects are memorably grotesque), but that 80’s staple is traded for some impressive puppetry, animatronics, and spider wrangling used to render a tangible, more-or-less wholly realistic menace. Mind you, Arachnophobia doesn’t necessarily seek to scare, but rather provide adrenaline spikes in a safe, fun environment. It’s  a creepy crawly campfire story.

Of course, the plot itself is as formulaic as an algebra test. There’s the requisite interesting drama (small town conservatives vs. an open-minded doctor with a stroke of bad luck) that is dropped entirely for a third act monsterpalooza, the supposed expert who immediately kicks the bucket, and a character arc so obvious it could be seen from space. However, none of that matters because the film is just so damn fun it’s hard to care about anything else.

Arachnophobia is a jack-in-the-box of thrills and spills, milking every last ounce of spine-tingle out of humanity’s collective disgust for spiders. It might seem like an easy job to make somebody afraid of an eight-legged monstrosity leaping out at them, but there’s more to it than that. The scares in Arachnophobia are impeccably crafted, playful tricks and treats. There are a lot of close calls, unnoticed crawling horrors, and the like. That’s enough to make you want to hug a can of Raid, but the scene where a spider descends on two little girls singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” while a knocked-over doll’s eyes slowly open is an out and out masterpiece moment of horror filmmaking. This movie isn’t creepy by accident.

Incidentally, it’s also not funny by accident. There’s quite a bit of strong comic relief here that helps ingratiate you with the film’s small town vibe. The biggest risk the film takes is including John Goodman as a pseudo-autistic, drawling exterminator, but his performance is so sharply timed (and his screen time so discreetly limited), that it unequivocally works. So there you have it. Arachnophobia is sunny. Arachnophobia is scary. It might be a little overfamiliar, but who really cares?

Rating: 8/10

Volver


Year: 200
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: R

A young mom strains to handle the pressures of work, family, illness, gossip, incest, murder, and her mother returning from the grave. You know, the usual.

Pedro Almodóvar is an international film icon, but I’ve never seen a single one of his films before Volver. I know, I know, I’m a terrible person. I think we’ve established this by now. But even Volver, which is about as late-period Almodóvar as it gets, still brims with the energy, color, and life that his work is known for, making me all the more excited to revisit his earlier films. He share with George Miller the ability to still make films with the artistic and creative energy of a young man.

What’s really striking about Volver is how effortlessly it blends some surreally dark subject matter with its exploration of colorful life as it characters examine their pasts and analyze their futures. It’s an intensely optimistic film that doesn’t flinch from acknowledging life’s trials and tribulation. Consider Penélope Cruz’s Raimunda. In any other film, this single mom struggling to make ends meet would be a beatific saint (*cough cough Chocolat*), but she’s more Erin Brockovich than anything. Volver allows her to have human flaws: She’s a selfish, short-sighted, fiery woman who needs to learn and grow just as much as any of the other characters.

What Volver lacks in a strictly structured plot it makes up for in supremely well-realized human characters and a dazzling fantasy esthetic. Penélope Cruz is obviously a heavy hitter here (she won an Oscar while speaking a foreign language, for crying out loud), imbuing Raimunda with a sharp wit and maintaining a sympathetic character despite her obvious flaws and incomprehensible beauty. But the rest of the ensemble is equally committed to the film’s zany tone, especially Lola Dueñas as Soledad, Raimunda’s frumpy little sister. Her charming, almost nuclear awkwardness powers the film’s sentimentality and humor, and her line readings are always skin-crawlingly perfect.

These performances work in conjunction with the films stylized, boldly colorful universe to create a sugar-coated treat. Almodóvar’s confident filmmaking floods the frame with bold reds and the film’s warmth extends deep into your own soul. The delicate imagery is both whip-smart and just plain beautiful and the humor transcends the language barrier. What more could you want from the guy?

Rating: 9/10

Brooklyn


Year: 2015
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

In the 1950’s, a young Irish immigrant is torn between building a new life (and love) in New York City and missing her family and friends back home.

Brooklyn is less a movie than it is a Norman Rockwell painting of 1950’s New York done up in dreamy pastels, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s an uncannily pleasant motion picture: a darling comedy that knows it’s a low stakes trifle and thrives in that knowledge.

Without the burden of high-strung drama and Oscar reel theatrics, Brooklyn gives itself plenty of room to breathe. Every character in the ensemble is given their moment in the sun, and while not a one of them is particularly complex to any degree (save Ronan’s Eílis), they are fleshed-out, lived-in roles from the romantic leads (one boy to represent scrappy, forward-looking America, the other to represent the ginger Hell of sticking with what’s familiar all the way own to the bit parts, like Eílis’s coworkers and her fellow lodgers.

Brooklyn’s truest strength is the rigorous detail put into its exquisite costume design, sense of location, and color palette, but the glue that holds it all together is the chemistry between Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen. Ronan’s entire career has basically been long-winded proof that she can lead a film, but Cohen’s charismatic young swain Tony is an admirable standout for two reasons.

First, he takes a painfully static, goo goo-eyed, John Corbett in My Big Fat Greek Wedding character and turns him into an adorable, intensely compelling figure with just a twitch of his eyebrow. He says he based his performance on a cute little puppy dog, and this might just be the single finest acting choice in the history of cinema.

Second, I really hate Emory Cohen. Every time he appeared on Smash, I would joke that he was on tranquilizers. He landed my Worst Actor of 2013 slot for his role in The Place Beyond the Pines. And yet he managed to obliterate years of professional disdain in one fell swoop. I’m actually excited to see his next film, which - if you know me well - is about as shocking as Scrooge McDuck donating his swimming pool of gold coins to charity.

So yes, Brooklyn earns my esteem. Hard. It’s not a challenging motion picture, but since when does every movie need to be so edgy? It’s a silly, somewhat emotional good time, like a good piece of saltwater taffy.

Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1408

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: I'm A Classic Man

In which a weekend of classic film viewing is deconstructed with a set of mini reviews.

Rashômon


Year: 1950
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The murder of a samurai is depicted through the wildly varied perspectives of four witnesses.

I was very excited to watch Rashômon. As a film school graduate, I’m always happy to fill in the gaps of my classic cinema education, and this was an egregious one. Before Rashômon, I had ever seen a film by celebrated Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Now that I have seen one… Either I made the wrong choice or I’m just not a fan of Kurosawa.

Now, I understand what Rashômon is doing. It’s a parable on the truth, and how we all experience reality from different perspectives that we may ever be able to synthesize into one coherent fact. As I digested the film, I began to develop an appreciation for how this idea was presented (in the trial during which the 3 perspectives on the story were told, we never see the judge The witnesses speak directly to the camera because we, the audience, are meant to be the ultimate judge). It is and will always be an interesting message, but that doesn’t mean it’s an interesting film.

It can’t help its profoundly boxy aspect ratio, but its capacity to be cinematic is severely stunted, warding off the delicate imagery that Kurosawa is reportedly known for. It also can’t help the tenets and morals of feudal Japan, the time period in which this story takes place. However, the systematic sexism with which the film treats its sole female character is deplorable, and the fact the she is either punished for being raped or submits wholeheartedly to her attacker makes me want to scrub my skin with steel wool.

I understand that, as a modern critic, these complaints lack the context of Japanese culture and film technology in 1950 and as such are somewhat invalid. But you know what isn’t invalid? Rashômon is kind of a snoozefest. We’re treated to a stroll through the woods that lasts what feels like a half hour, and the endlessly repeated stories might differ wildly in the details, but the follow the same, plodding, over-formal structure, endlessly repeating it into oblivion.

Again, I recognize the qualities that helped make Rashômon a respected classic. Some of the stylized imagery is dazzling (a half-destroyed temple and the clawed hands of a murdered man stand out particularly) and a scene of a medium channeling the victim’s spirit to get is testimony is certainly disconcerting. I also love Toshiro Mifune’s acting choice to five his criminal a tic of rubbing his neck to imply that he is flea-bitten and mangy. However, the presentation is stultifying, constantly shifting back and forth between three superfluous layers of storytelling and constantly recycling itself, unspooling more and more officious narrative rigidity as it goes along.

Rating: 6/10

The Constant Gardener

Year: 2005
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Hubert Koundé
Run Time: 2 hours 9 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A timid diplomat uncovers a vast conspiracy that links the British government to illegal African drug testing while investigating his wife’s murder.

Good thing it’s chic to disapprove of Oscar nominations now, because otherwise I think this blog might get me lynched. Let’s throw more kindling on that rage fire, shall we? The Constant Gardener, sitting pretty at four nominations and one win, is a monumentally obnoxious motion picture. It doesn’t reflect well on film critics to toss around dismissive, subjective words like “pretentious,” but The Constant Gardener is a film that strains very hard to impress its audience with visual acrobatics rather than actually compelling content.

It’s an arid, emotionally vacant film that underplays each and every beat of an interesting if not action-packed storyline in favor of a wholly disingenuous third world misery porn scenario. Every single aching moment of this didactic white guilt extravaganza grinds your face into its Important Message, liberally slathering the frame with overexposed whites to remind you that this is Art. It’s so insecure that it feels the need to restate its themes in a mortifyingly on-the-nose wrap-up speech, actively defying its misguided impulse to tell its story in non-chronological order, filling in details only on a need to know basis.

Of course, by this point the film is already hopelessly muddled. I’d say The Constant Gardener loses track of its own storyline about once every twenty minutes, requiring it to send us through another kaleidoscopic barrage of weak metaphors before it gets back on tis feet. But enough complaining. There are enough annoying arthouse films out there to fill an encyclopedia, and this is hardly the worst of them.

There are several points where The Constant Gardener does actually succeed. It manages to pull the rug out from under you several times during Fiennes’ investigation, although it never manages to convince you these characters are worth caring about. And during the third act, there are some excellent visual representations of all-consuming paranoia, especially during a scene with a motorcycle in Germany. The Constant Gardener might be a haphazard affair, yet it does have at least a dollop of verve. But it’s not the sharp political thriller it thinks it is. It’s a self-consciously artsy film that strives for aesthetic greatness but mostly just ends up cutting off Ralph Fiennes at the hairline.

Rating: 5/10

Year: 2007
Director: Sean McNamara
Cast: Skyler Shaye, Janel Parrish, Logan Browning
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The Bratz must maintain their friendship despite a clique-obsessed class president’s attempts to separate them.

What makes any movie a masterpiece can vary wildly across cultures, mindsets, and time periods. Critics hated The Shining when it came out, but now it’s hailed as a classic film. Ditto Citizen Kane. Ditto John Carpenter’s The Thing. No film is set in stone. So, keeping that in mind, please allow me to submit Bratz: The Movie as a bona fide masterpiece of world cinema. A stakes-lite wish-fulfillment teen movie based on a popular line of skanky dolls, Bratz might not be an obvious candidate for this title, but let me assure you. In terms of pure, unintentionally comedic, hyper-earnest, mind-boggling insanity, no movie even comes close to Bratz. The film is a glittering absurdist prank against art that challenges everything we know about the craft of cinema.

You don’t watch Bratz. You experience it. It’s a pastiche of high school movies that tosses every established tenet of narrative filmmaking out the window, so there is literally no way to predict what may be coming around the corner. This makes Bratz a careening adventure through a vision of human life as interpreted by an outsider. I don’t know whether the film was made by Martians or just people who had never interacted with teens, Hispanics, principals, cheerleaders, nerds, or girls before, but it presents a fascinating, demented way to view the world.

This is a universe where Hispanic households have mariachi bands practicing in their living room. Where high school bears prison-like signs reading “OBEY,” “SUBMIT,” and “NO LITTERING.” Where that same high school has a principal who 1) receives a grotesquely enormous salary, and 2) is played by Jon Voight. I could go on and on, and in fact my notes on this movie last a good five pages, but I’ll be brief.

Bratz is obviously not a good movie. The four Bratz are defined only by their race, and the de facto protagonist – Hispanic Brat Yasmin – is by far the weakest performer. Also, Bratz strains to convince us she can sing despite clear evidence to the contrary. But the movie shifts gears as often as its soundtrack (which contains, by my count, 29 distinct songs, from sub-Simple Plan moperock to straight-up opera, and that’s a rate of one song at least every four minutes), lending the film a whirlwind pace to the effect that you never spend too much down time with the Bratz. It’s difficult to hate them, because they’re always sprinting on to the next cotton candy coated activity, whether it be an alarmingly violent food fight or a rundown of school cliques that includes – mysteriously – “disco dorks” and a set of mimes.

At every turn, Bratz so eagerly defies logic with random cutaways, inscrutable production design choices, and over-the-top teen mayhem that it overrides the system, something that only the very best bad movies can do. I’m forced by my formula to assign a numerical score to this film, but I urge you to ignore it and seek out Bratz, even if you must go to the ends of the Earth to find a copy.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1467