Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Rob Me Blind

Year: 2016
Director: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

2016 hasn’t been, like, the worst movie year ever. I dug Deadpool. And The Nice Guys was great. There has been some good stuff around the fringes, but the actual summer season has been devastatingly barren. And now here we are in the final days of August, the last weekend that could conceivably be called “Summer.” Kids are returning to school and Hollywood is closing up shop until the holidays, rolling down the shutters with the Jason Statham sequel Mechanic: Resurrection and the R-rated horror feature Don’t Breathe from the director of 2013’s Evil Dead. It doesn’t take a genius to guess which one I went to see.

And it doesn’t take a statistician to properly predict that I was at least minorly disappointed by it.

Don’t Breathe takes place in modern horror’s favorite decrepit haunting ground: Detroit. Rocky (Jane Levy) wants to ditch her alcoholic mother and escape to California with her little sister and/or daughter Diddy (Emma Bercovici). I assumed they were sisters, but a heated ride-home conversation opened me up to a world of possibilities. Rocky and her friends Money (Daniel Zovatto of It Follows) and Alex (Dylan Minnette of Goosebumps) are small-time thieves, but they decide to do one big robbery to fund their travels.

The target? A blind veteran (Stephen Lang), who supposedly received a huge settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident. As you might imagine, things don’t go exactly according to plan, and the trio finds themselves trapped in the house with the vicious man prowling around, using his heightened senses to track them.

Yeah, the blind guy these teens are robbing is the VILLAIN.

I was very curious to see what Fede Alvarez could do with an original horror property. His Evil Dead remake is one of the better examples of the form, converting Raimi’s DIY aesthetic into a slicker but no less gonzo gore epic. Don’t Breathe provided Alvarez with two equally important challenges: 1) To prove that he is a capable filmmaker using his own unique directorial toolbox, and 2) to bring that same sense of breathless, hyperbolic gore and horror to a film that isn’t supernatural and only has a cast of three fleshpiles to choose from.

Alvarez achieves the former with far more confidence than the latter. While he doesn’t introduce too many techniques that aren't cribbed from the Sam Raimi playbook, that’s still a rich and varied resource that he co-opts well. He gets his crane shot jollies out early on, soaring high over the Detroit streets to contrast with the tight claustrophobia of the later scenes. Then his camera is all powerful sinew, slithering behind and around his characters, showing us everything they see and especially highlighting what they don’t, spinning around its prey in a glorious celebration of its own tension. It’s not a stunningly beautiful film, but it uses the camera and jagged slashes of light to ramp up the atmosphere considerably.

Detroit’s general terrifyingness also helps a bunch.

That second challenge is where Alvarez stumbles. Not only does Don’t Breathe shy away from Grand Guignol extravagance, it seems to actively abstain from using the tools that it has set up for itself. In a fabulous early single shot sequence, the film sets up all kinds of dominos (a hidden gun, a fully loaded tool shelf, etc.) that almost entirely slip its mind. Stephen Lang punches a character in the face when there is a hacksaw behind him in that very shot. Why even have it there at all if you’re not going to make bloody use of it?

I do appreciate the film’s willingness to use Dylan Minnette as a cinematic punching bag. But the only time Don’t Breathe goes as over the top as it could (and should) have, harnessing that frenetic, gooey, Evil Dead energy, is in a deeply uncomfortable, shoehorned-in rape sequence. And therein lies the biggest flaw of the whole piece. 

Inflicting bodily harm on women can achieve gross-out horror fun when it’s played the right way. You’re Next put Sharni Vinson through the winger, compounding her badassery with every injury she sustains. And Sam Raimi’s own Drag Me to Hell placed Alison Lohman in the Bruce Campbell role, using her as a slapstick crash test dummy. It can work. It’s all about proper tone management. What happens to Jane Levy in certain sequences of Don’t Breathe fails miserably to capture that. It’s ugly brutalization, as simple as that.

And it’s not like the rest of the film is unimpeachable enough that it can survive this flaw. Rocky’s backstory is marred by emotionally manipulative twaddle, desperately attempting to force feed us empathy for these three unlikeable characters, the cheapness of which is exposed by a dreadful child actress. And Don’t Breathe indulges in that eye-poppingly frustrating rope of beginning in medias res with a clip from the third act, essentially spoiling its own ending and planting a niggling seed of impatience as you wait for the movie to catch up with itself.

Whatever happened to unpredictability?

See? The second I let myself get a smidgen excited about anything this year, it’s just another disappointment ready to rear its ugly head. Don’t Breathe is one of the better disappointments of the year because it’s still a taut, stylish thriller a heart, but it’s one more uneven tile in this summer’s fresco of misery. Before we go, I would like to highlight Lang’s performance, which is viscerally chilling, using a gravelly vocality that cuts like a buzz saw. He stands out in a cast of decent but unproven young actors, and he helps goose the engine of the film when its pacing sputters. So there’s that. I don’t think I’ve felt this down about a 7/10 film before, but 2016’ll do that to ya.

TL;DR: Don't Breathe is a tense thriller without a certain spark to push it over the edge.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1006

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Game of Phones

Year: 2016
Director: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Before I went to see Nerve, I checked to see what some of my favorite reviewers said about it. Seeing how they’re all adult men, it turns out that none of them have actually seen it, making me the sole voice in the teenybopper darkness. I do it all for you.

Although my tolerance is waning for YA adaptations, especially single shot throwaways attempting to surf on the wake of Hunger Games, there was something that drew me to Nerve: directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. the Catfish documentarians who co-directed Paranormal Activity 3 and 4. Although I’m wobbly on one of those movies and actively hate the other, I love when low budget horror directors are given a chance to helm a big Hollywood feature, especially when it’s in such a random genre. And I don’t know what it says about them, but Nerve is definitely their best work.

Although, with Paranormal Activity 4 on your CV, a Transformers movie would count as your best work.

In Nerve, timid teen Vee (Emma Roberts) is fed up with her life. She’s sick of her domineering cheerleader best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) – yeah, this is one of those movies where a girl who looks like Emma Roberts is supposed to be nerdy and undesirable – an her overprotective mom (Juliette Lewis) who hasn’t been the same since her older brother died. Trying to overcome her fear of taking risks, she signs up for Nerve, a user-generated dare game where she can win money for filming herself doing wild stunts like kissing strangers or sneaking into expensive stores. This will help her both get out of her shell and earn enough to go to her dream college.

Through the game she meets Ian (Dave Franco), another player who she teams up with, helping her gain watchers and rise up the charts. However, the further she gets, the more dangerous her dares become, and she begins to discover there’s a sick truth behind the game and those who participate in it.

It’s basically Pokémon Go with more nudity and violence.

Nerve is definitely a teen movie, no two ways about it. Anyone who’s been on this planet for more than a decade and a half will scoff at the hyperbolic drama and the best friend’s unrequited love, but it’s the same crap we all fell for back in the day. If that stuff isn’t for you, then it’s not for you, but let me tell you this: I have no idea where Joost and Schulman are pulling this kind of visual artistry from, but it’s not only the most kinetic and exciting movie of their career, it might just be the most aesthetically stunning YA movie since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Now, I’m a sucker for a movie with a bold color scheme and a movie with unique integration of modern technology, but Nerve does both here in a way that manages to stay true to the inscrutable media whims of modern teen culture while remaining an enticing work of cinema. A lot of the slick cinematography and self-consciously hip soundtrack feels like they cracked open MTV and sprinkled it on top of everything, but that kind of pandering is a staple of these types of movies (“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” might be regarded as a classic, but there’s no denying it was birthed from that very same impulse) and I wouldn’t be rid of it for the world.

Clearly, I’ve gotten myself a little riled up so let me cut to the chase. Nerve’s production design (courtesy of Chris Trujillo of f**king Stranger Things) is a splendid treat, full of lavish, exuberantly excessive neon that turns the world into a bright, candy-colored technological wonderland which perfectly suits the thrumming synth score. The visual style complements this well, diving through, around, and into phone and computer screens and using digital flags to track players’ progress around the city, turning the act of using technology into something interactive and stimulating. Nerve’s world is just ours, but turned up to 11, which is perfect for its slightly fantastical premise.

ie. That someone could be playing a game on their phone all night and not run out of battery.

Nerve actually has a solid theme as well, about how online anonymity can turn people into monsters. It’s a little heavy-handed, but it’s a very relevant topic in modern teen culture that actually wasn’t present in the source novel at all (or so I’ve been told). This means that the filmmakers made a set of very conscious choices while adapting the 2012 book into a current text. This isn’t just an audiobook with visuals, it’s a unique piece of work that people actually put thought into making.

And if we set aside that heavy Brennan-y analysis, Nerve is still a fun thrill ride. With snappy dialogue, surprisingly tense action, and a mostly game cast (first time performer/white rapper Machine Gun Kelly is camp as all Hell), it’s a bubblegum splash of a story.

Of course, the third act is idiotic drivel, but at least they made it this far. When the story gets bogged down in Darknet technobabble, it loses a lot of its momentum. But if a gymnast doesn’t stick the landing, that doesn’t mean they didn’t still give a terrific, nail-biting performance. Nerve isn’t an all-out classic of teen cinema, but it’s a delightful breath of fresh air in an unremittingly dour summer.

TL;DR: Nerve is an exciting, colorful, cotton candy playground.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 947

Friday, August 26, 2016

Arrow in the Head: Killer? I Hardly Know Her!

Year: 2016
Director: Billy O'Brien
Cast: Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Max Records 
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Read my full review at Arrow in the Head.

Additional Notes: I really thought this would be the one to break my streak. Of all the films I’ve watched and reviewed for Arrow in the Head, only one of them has received over a 5/10. This is what some might call “paying one’s dues,” but I don’t want all the readers to assume I’m some movie-hating Debbie Downer. I was excited, because I Am Not a Serial Killer was getting some decent buzz on the festival circuit. It just goes to show, you really never can trust festivals.

I have literally no idea why this movie has received such positive notices, to the point that I would suspect bribery if the movie had any money to speak of. It’s a devastatingly boring, pretentious piece of work that should have been 90 minutes long, if it had to exist at all. Don’t waste your time on this one. You’re not getting paid to do it.

TL;DR: I Am Not a Serial Killer is a miserably pretentious slog.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count:939

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Captain's Slog: Stardate Summer 2016

Year: 2016
Director: Justin Lin
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban 
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. I have never seen a single episode of any Star Trek series. Hardcore sci-fi fandom is a little above my pay grade. However, I have seen J. J. Abrams’ 2009 lens flare expo Star Trek, so I feel perfectly capable of reviewing Star Trek Beyond, the reason I’ve gathered you here today. However, I’m not certain Star Trek Beyond is capable of being reviewed, because it’s the most Movie movie I’ve ever encountered.

It might as well be called Captain Whiteguy and the MacGuffin Adventure.

Directed by Justin Lin of the Fast and/or Furious franchise, for the first time in this new continuity the screen is actually visible, but you kind of wish it wasn’t. Or at least, you don’t need it to be, because every beat is exactly as predictable and nonsensical as every other sci-fi/fantasy adventure in the past 40 years. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is getting weary of space travel, probably because he still doesn’t have a  love interest, and this film is all about slam-jammin’ forced romances into every nook and cranny. 

He is considering stepping down and letting Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) take the lead of his crew: sassy doctor Bones (Karl Urban), visibly bored Spock love interest Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), outrageously Scottish engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote this film), totally organically gay pilot Sulu (John Cho), and I’m-not-actually-sure-what-he-does Chekov (Anton Yelchin, may he rest in peace). But before Kirk calls it quits, he’ll go on One Last Mission.

Guess how that goes. The USS Enterprise is dealt a devastating blow by the forces of Krall (Idris Elba) who desperately seeks the MacGuffin they have on the ship for no good reason. They crash land on an uncharted planet and must survive the wilderness, relocate the rest of their team, and stop Krall from wreaking wicked, MacGuffiny havoc on a nearby federation base, which the movie stops dead for five minutes to show us the majesty of, even though it looks almost exactly like an M.C. Escher version of that city from the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Zoe Saldana was probably having flashbacks.

The Star Trek franchise is finally free of its lens flare prison. Praise Roddenberry! But nature abhors a vacuum, and so does Hollywood. So they’ve replaced J. J. Abrams’ shiny crutch with a truly shocking profusion of camera spins. The frame rotates this way and that like the DP used a Lazy Susan instead of a tripod, even using spinning shots as reactions to other spinning shots. It’s like being strapped to a windmill and it’s massively unpleasant.

A frustrating aesthetic is a bad starting point when your movie is this numbingly generic, because once you break through that crust there’s nothing really worth digesting on the inside. It feels like a story written with a randomized cliché generator (which might be thanks to the dozen or so studios that collaborated on this film), mixing personal favorites like “they’ve been watching us this whole time,” the convenient injury that’s only debilitating when the plot needs drama, and the Big Evil Thing in the Sky over a City, mixed with some Abrams Star Trek standbys like people having long conversations while their ship is being actively destroyed, and ludicrous technobabble monologues split between a dozen people to keep things snappy.

It’s the “celebrity PSA” method of screenwriting.

Unfortunately, Star Trek Beyond opens on one of its strongest sequence, an adventure-of-the-week scenario that depicts Captain Kirk doing his best Jason Bateman impression in a silly popcorn movie diplomatic mission. From here, you would assume that the movie will be full of frothy summer fun, but it quickly devolves once more into dour, self-serious didacticism. That unabashed goofiness returns in spurts, especially in the interplay between Spock and Bones (the only time Quinto is given anything to do other than being the film’s conduit for mourning Leonard Nimoy), but for the most part Beyond is just one more plodding downer in a summer heavy with them.

It finally loosens up for a pair of decent action sequences in the preamble to the finale, and the heavy-handed climax does do some fun (if geographically vexing) things with antigravity, but it’s too little too late for a film that already had a slippery grasp on merely being middling

It’s a thoroughly watchable CGI-laden blockbuster for the majority of its runtime, especially thanks to a charming new character played by Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella, but when Star Trek Beyond is bad, it’s atrocious. The dialogue is so wooden I’m surprised the actors’ mouths didn’t get splinters, and certain scenes are so overloaded with crashing, screeching sound effects that the words are plumb inaudible. But when you’re watching the crew tear through a bundle of half-assed video game levels, I suppose the script isn’t all that necessary.

Star Trek beyond may have shucked off the visually despicable deficiencies of the tyrant J. J. Abrams, but the franchise is left a shallow husk of itself. I suppose it’s too late to warn you away, but man what a miserable move year this is shaping up to be.

TL;DR: Star Trek Beyond is a hideously generic, mildly diverting blockbuster.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 894
Reviews In This Series
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Beyond (Lin, 2016)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Only 90's Kids Will Get It


Welcome back to our regularly scheduled program of mid-length mini-reviews! Today we’re playing catch-up on two B-list entries in quintessential 90’s genres: teen movies and post-Scream horror!

Never Been Kissed


Year: 1999
Director: Raja Gosnell
Cast: Drew Barrymore, David Arquette, Michael Vartan
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A reporter goes undercover at the local high school for a story, but gets distracted by her attempt to reset her loser reputation and a budding romance with a handsome teacher.

Never Been Kissed is one of those movies that rom-com fans should never ever revisit. Not because it’s terrible, but because in retrospect it’s deeply inappropriate. A lot of rom-coms glorify behaviors like stalking, going after taken men, or rushing into marriages, but this is the only one I’m aware of where the central relationship is between a teacher and someone who he believes to be 17. And the other spoke on that love triangle is between the undercover reporter and somebody who’s actually 17. This movie shouldn’t be allowed within 50 feet of a high schooler’s collection.

If you try to ignore that by focusing on the sparsely dotted line of morality where you know that she secretly is of age, the rest of the movie still isn’t a terrific entry in the genre, but it’s pleasant enough. It’s definitely a hang-out movie, allowing charming stars Drew Barrymore, David Arquette (who I will always love, so sue me), Molly Shannon (in an excellent and rare role as a woman who’s actually on top of things – especially in bed), John C. Reilly, and Octavia Spencer (who is still paying her dues by playing the role she would play in every movie for a decade and change: the coworker who goes “Mmhmm!”) to sit back, relax, and have fun, without getting tripped up by anything as gauche as a plot.

The first act takes up about half the film, and if we didn’t already know the title, we wouldn’t know Barrymore’s character was a kiss virgin until about ten minutes before the closing credits. Although we definitely could have deduced as much, thanks to their preposterously extreme efforts to plausibly nerdify the charming young actress, which include her clomping around with her back hunched like a hungover Igor, wearing what can only be described as knitted maternity clothes, and sporting lips more chapped than Blake Lively’s at the end of The Shallows.

The movie is actually really careless with its best element, that of an adult attempting to rewrite her high school life and learning how much things have changed. It could have been 21 Jump Street, but its utter lack of focus makes the plot a sub-Cinderella Story wash. While the humor is decent (my favorite jokes in the film are a handful of absurdist visual gags that slam into the film completely out of nowhere), the structure is both directionless (the third act monologue – as played by her story in the newspaper – is equally as confused about what it’s supposed to be saying as we are. At any rate, it’s certainly too vague and diary-ish to actually be a good article in a real paper) and deeply stupid (Love Interest is actively upset that she’s not 17, so she makes a grand romantic gesture… forcing him to kiss her in front of a stadium full of people like a goddamn psychopath). Not to mention icky. While charming, Never Been Kissed is a deeply flawed movie that you won’t want to take home to mom.

TL;DR: 6/10

Phantoms
Year: 1998
Director: Joe Chappelle
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rose McGowan, Joanna Going 
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A small-town doctor and her little sister arrive home and discover that half the townspeople are dead and the rest are missing. They are haunted by strange visions as they team up with the sheriff and his team to try and survive the night.

With a movie that came out two years after Scream that stars Rose McGowan and other teen favorites and boasts one of those lazy group photo posters, you’d think you know exactly what you’re getting. You’d be very wrong, because Phantoms ain’t no dime-a-dozen quippy slasher. This is an adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel, one of his most underrated tomes of the macabre. Of course, being a Dean Koontz movie comes with its own set of rules. Mainly, it sucks.

Stephen King must have sold his soul to some Lovecraftian film gods, because it’s utter hogwash that he’s given us Carrie, The Shining, Misery, and so on, and the best we get from Koontz is Watchers 3.

So yes, despite being adapted from one of my favorite novels, Phantoms is a cinematic compost heap. Setting aside what they changed from the source material (everything) and how that affected the story (poorly), approaching Phantoms as a film taken on its own is still a miserable, pointless endeavor. Trying to find something good to say about it is like trying to decide which fart smells the best. At the end of the day, you’re still smelling farts.

A bizarre attempt to remake The Thing on a Ghost Cat budget, Phantoms is an effects-driven horror film without the effects. It finds so many ways around showing any sort of gore or grotesquerie (including, but not limited to, POV shots and those obnoxious film negative flash cuts that we all the rage in the 90’s) that it’s only when the characters start arbitrarily spouting F-words in the third act that you realize it wasn’t cut for TV.

And it’s not like the people on set can't act (hell, Peter O’Toole is in the bloody thing). It’s just that they’re not acting. A babyfaced Ben Affleck flounders in a tough-guy sheriff role that makes him look like a second grader playing dressup, Rose McGowan’s not asked to do anything other than be an asshole and stand in the corner, and Peter O’Toole is about fifty years past his prime. Their bored underreactions and the film’s careless editing mean that not a single shock gag lands.

When a lineup of cardboard characters is hastily shuffled through a randomly sawn-off handful of plot beats, it’s hard to get a foothold. The film sprints toward the finish line before you can even begin to care about what’s going on, despite the atmospheric eeriness of exactly two sequences.

To make a long, boring story short, Phantoms is an embarrassment to a subgenre that produced films like Valentine and Urban Legends: Bloody Mary. Steer clear of it, not that you’ll need to put much effort into that.

TL;DR: 6/10
Word Count: 1108

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Cleanup On Aisle 69

Year: 2016
Director: Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon
Cast: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I can take or leave Seth Rogen. When he’s doing Neighbors or plying himself in The Comeback, I’m all in. When he’s working with Judd Apatow, I’m 50/50. I’ve never disliked a performance of his, nor have I been utterly enamored of one. But when it comes down to his producing and writing choices, I can’t deny that he’s hit his stride. While I haven’t adored every movie in his recent string of films (This is the End, The Interview, Neighbors 2), he’s unafraid of being conceptually audacious, and I have heaps of respect for that.

Which brings us to the latest entry in his oeuvre: Sausage Party, an R-rated twist on the Pixar ethos. While he comedy’s juvenile at best, the script has no right to be as thematically sharp and satirical as it is. He can put one more notch in his belt because, no paper, this one’s another win.

Butcher paper, that is.

In Sausage Party, the food in the grocery store is sentient, and all they want is to be taken home to the Great Beyond by us, the Gods. They believe we will grant them an eternity of happiness and sensual pleasure. However, when Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) is returned by a customer having become a shuddering wreck, hot dog Frank (Seth Rogen) begins to have doubts about the Great Beyond. His antics cause him and his devout bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig) to fall out of their cart, forced to find their home aisle before they lose their freshness.

Brenda wants her journey to lead her home, and Frank wants his journey to lead to the truth. They’re joined by Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz) and Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton), two walking stereotypes that act out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for some godforsaken reason. Also there’s Barry (Michael Cera), a stunted hot dog who has seen the truth about the Great Beyond – that kitchens are essentially less-fun Jigsaw traps for groceries – and struggles to return to the store to warn his friend. Oh, and a douchey Douche (Nick Kroll) wants to destroy Frank and Brenda for accidentally bending his nozzle.

I don’t know whether it’s the fault of the middling-at-best, horrifyingly-inelegant-at-worst animation or my blissful ignorance, but I definitely thought he was a toilet brush for like 15 minutes.

Do you think cartoon characters cussing is the funniest thing in the world? Then you should just pre-order your special edition quadruple disc Blu-Ray now, because you are going to love the s**t out of Sausage Party. As expected, the film has one foot firmly plated in the sophomoric at all times, but it’s the other foot that’s going interesting places.

This whole script is a feature-length allegory about the creation of religion, the horrible things it makes people to to one another and themselves, and why we shouldn’t be so quick to cast judgment on people who subscribes to different belief systems than us. Also, the moral is that raging hedonism is our only defense against our inevitable mortality, so it’s pretty much like Toy Story 3. I know, right? You got your subtext all over my R-rated comedy! How did this get in here? It’s an incredibly clever story that has heck-all to do with naughty hijinks, but whatever. I’m there.

It’s to the point that I can actually see somebody’s life philosophy changing to some degree after a screening of Sausage Party. As alarming as that sounds, that honestly might just be a good thing. I’m physically upset by how deeply I respect the intellectual cogs spinning behind the movie’s colorful cartoon façade. And then, of course, the rest of the movie is mostly super racist.

Thanks, everybody. I was getting too deep into liking this movie.

Not only is the humor desperately crude, which I’m fine with, it gives in to its urge to pattern every ethnic food after the most revolting racial stereotypes that can be produced by a screenwriting cabal of white dudes. Shock humor is all well and god, and the film does manage to convert the hideously insensitive Lavash and Bagel arc into something sweet and then appropriately twisted, however most of the racial humor is not only distasteful, but kind of lazy.

It doesn’t take more than a teaspoon of thought to make Grits (Craig Robinson) an angry black stereotype or to name your Native American liquor character (Bill Hader, why) firewater. So it’s pointless as well as disrespectful. This is humor that’s older than anyone reading this, and it’s certainly not funny today, if it ever was to begin with.

I’m terribly sorry to have such bad news to report about that aspect of the humor, because a lot of Sausage Party is really fun. When it goes whole hog depicting violence or sexuality, the film is at its best, and I’m not just saying this as a horror fan. Watching a film so gleefully unafraid to push the envelope of Hollywood sensibilities is a massively liberating experience. It’s certainly not for everyone, but as a cartoon about food, it’s enough degrees separated form human experience that even non-gorehounds should be able to get a kick out of it.

So much of Sausage Party is fun and intelligent and so much of it is crass and low-rent that it’s difficult to synthesize a proper score for the monstrosity. What I’ll say is this: Go see t if you have a high threshold for fratty, tasteless comedy. If you don’t, who cares. Have a nice day.

TL;DR: Sausage Party is mostly irreverent, weirdly intelligent fun despite its unfortunately prevalent racism.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 962

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Blood On The Tracks

Year: 2016
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Cast: Yoo Gong, Dong-seok Ma, Soo-An Kim
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

I’ve seen an assload of zombie movies, from Romero’s Dead series to Fulci’s Zombie to Warm Bodies. I’ve probably seen just as many rage zombie movies, starting with 28 Days Later, and spreading like wildfire to 28 Weeks Later, the [REC] and Quarantine franchises, World War Z, and so on. The South Korean zombie flick Train to Busan has seen all those movies too. Every character archetype and plot beat seems intensely familiar, but sometimes a genre movie is just a genre movie. And sometimes that genre movie is a triple corkscrew, anti-gravity roller coaster ride just the same.

Who knew trains could be so fun?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before Workaholic fund manager Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) only cares about himself. When his young daughter Soo-An (Soo-An Kim) insists he take her to Busan to visit her mother (his ex-wife) on her birthday, he reluctantly agrees. Fortunately for him, that early morning train might just be the safest place that day, because pretty much the second they depart, a full-scale rage zombie apocalypse descends upon the city.

Unfortunately for the train, one of the last passengers to come aboard has been bitten. The virus quickly spreads through the train, leaving only a handful of survivors huddled in the last car, hurtling across the landscape in a cramped tube of herky jerky, B-boying zombies. These final humans include Seok Woo and Soo-An, as well as an expecting couple, a pair of elderly sisters, a fraction of a baseball team, a rattled hobo, and a self-serving corporate stooge.  Seok Woo fights to save himself while Soo-An does her best to help the others. The group desperately tries to make their way to Busan, which might just be the last safe place left.

But what kind of life are you really leading if the entrance to the bathroom is blocked?

Like I said, there ain’t nothing new under the undead sun. Any seasoned horror viewer could tell you exactly who is going to die and at what point in the story with at least 90% accuracy from frame one. But who the hell cares about plot mechanics when your heart is racing like you just chugged a gallon of Jolt?

As a close-quarters zombie thrill ride, Train to Busan has everything an adrenaline junkie could want: creative setups for new attacks that don’t just limit themselves to one car, people turning against one another, and clearly defined rules for the zombies that allow our characters to develop strategies and learn from their past mistakes.

It’s a shocker that’s constantly evolving, throwing out new challenges, new locations, and new combinations of characters in an ever-changing mass of jangled nerves. When it comes to depicting zombie mayhem, everything goes right. The slick cinematography is crisp and kinetic, with the occasional serenely gorgeous shot thrown in for flavor, the social commentary is jus the right amount of obvious, and the zombie actors manage to make the old trick of twitching and snarling seem horrifyingly, ontologically wrong. Plus, the requisite comic relief, is, to my taste, genuinely funny. I could watch a movie about these characters having a totally uneventful trip to Busan and still have a heap of fun.

The zombies are just the bloody cherry on top.

That’s not to say the movie’s perfect. Like many a Korean genre flick, it’s a wee bit overlong. There’s only so many “You go on! I’ll stay behind!” scenes I can watch without wanting to dive onto the tracks in front of the titular train. Not to mention there’s a spot right around the 90 minute mark that could, with a microscopic tweak, be a perfect ending that accomplishes the same tone. Fortunately, what follows that scene is the film’s best sequence, lending the third act an explosive second wind that obliterates all doubts about the film’s pacing. The emotional beats, especially in this segment, have a tendency to lean toward the schmaltzy, but I can forgive such a high-intensity film for winging its drama right on over the top.

This is a textbook example of how to do a horror movie right. Train to Busan takes a simple premise, a single goal, and a handful of stock characters, and works with that framework to rattle you out of your seat. It’s pure sensation, with enough intelligence to eradicate the artificial aftertaste of some popcorn thrillers. There’s a reason it has quickly risen to become the 15th highest-grossing film in Korean cinema history. Across all cultures, across all creeds, all we want is a good spook-‘em-up, and Train to Busan delivers in spades.

TL;DR: Train to Busan works within an exceedingly generic framework, but it has an undeniable sizzling energy.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 806

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Killing Joke

Year: 2016
Director: David Ayer
Cast: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie 
Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

With three women (only one of them white), two African-American men, a Hispanic, and a Native American playing major roles, Suicide Squad is easily the most diverse Hollywood film of the entire year. Which is a damn shame, because Suicide Squad shouldn’t be the most anything. Obviously, I love that fact that DC’s other properties are challenging Zach Snyder’s faintly misogynist White Dude-iverse, and Suicide Squad is head and shoulders above Batman v Superman’s soul-sucking chaos, but it’s still – you know – not that good.

Shall I count the ways Suicide Squad is only OK?

Well, here’s the plot. Governmentperson Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has initiated a project that will team the world’s strongest supervillains (only one and a half of which actually seem to have superpowers) to defend the world from extreme threats against their will. This motley crew is Deadshot (Will Smith) a trigger-happy assassin whose one weakness is his love for his daughter, cue the orchestra; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the unpredictable right-hand woman of The Joker (Jared Leto), who needs no introduction nor is he given one; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a ludicrous Australian stereotype who frustratingly turns out to be one of the best characters in the movie; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a hot-tempered gangbanger who can shoot flames from his hands; and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is a C.H.U.D.

Then the movie tosses in its two most racially offensive characters at the last second, hoping we won’t notice: the stoic Native American Slipknot, who is not affiliated with the shock rock band and is actually like a good climber or something who cares, and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a Japanese swordswoman who is tasked with protecting Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the soldier helming this operation.

And what is this operation, exactly? Stopping the Enchantress, an ancient being possessing the body of Flag’s One True Love, Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), who slept late on the day God was handing out cool superhero names. Enchantress is supposedly creating a machine to take over the world, but she mostly just belly dances in front of a pillar of magic for an hour.

Does our team band together despite their evilness to fight through a series of video game levels until they reach the belly dancing endboss and learn a little something about friendship along the way?

You bet your sweet bippy they do.

While Suicide Squad is the most fun movie of DC’s pale shadow of the MCU thanks to its relaxation of the “absolutely no jokes” mandate, it’s a movie that essentially only serves to remind you of other, better movies. It’s like a slightly grimmer Oscar clip reel.

The quickest comparison that spring to mind is Guardians of the Galaxy, thanks to Suicide Squad’s constant pilfering from the classic rock songbook. Both films even feature Norman Greenbaum’s existentially irritating “Spirit in the Sky.” But Suicide Squad lacks GotG’s ironic sense of juxtaposition, landing more in Bratz: The Movie territory by slamming on a new record every time the mood shits, which is about every 12 seconds. It so desperately wants you to know how Very Very Cool it is, but it’s about as impressive as a junior high student in a Queen T-shirt.

I should know. I’ve been one.

When you dive deeper into the film, the comparisons get even bolder and more inscrutable. The flick I found to be most on my mind while watching Suicide Squad was Ghostbusters. Obviously, I’m not accusing it of ripping off a movie that came out weeks earlier, but the similarities are stunning and say a lot about the current state of studio cinema. First we have the poppy color scheme full of radioactive greens, reds, and blues that’s by far the most exciting visual element of the whole shebang. As the plot progresses, the palette becomes more muted, drab, and impossible to differentiate, but the intro is an eye candy sugar rush, full of comic booky and refreshing color extremes.

Then there’s the less kind comparisons, like the forced subplot about creating your own family that has the emotional resonance of a cinderblock, or the idiotic third act where the plan revolves around using a bomb to reverse magic because science(?).

You might have noticed a pattern here, in that everything good tends to degrade the closer we get to the finale. That’s because the third act is the film’s closest approximation of the Batman v Superman manifesto, meaning it’s drab, stupid, and all too full of itself. We’re treated to some suuuuuper slooooow action that attempts to hide its juvenile simplicity beneath a veil of keening orchestral grandeur. And the already spotty dialogue (“We locked him in a hole and threw away the hole.”) completely gives up the gun at this point, so characters shout the plot at each other in between winking comments about how EVIL and BAD they are.

That’s not to say the rest of the movie isn’t stupid. It’s very stupid. Will Smith is forced to attempt to pull sympathy out of a shot of him staring at a little girl mannequin, for crying out loud but it’s popcorn movie stupid, full of decent enough – if forgettable – action, and a bristling set of hard-nosed character dynamics.

Some harder than others.

There are a smattering of other similarities, including Ju-On (Enchantress’ emerging from Dr. Moon’s body is achieved in an elegantly creepy effect), Lights Out (Enchantress’ whole deal), and Deadpool (who knew we’d get two separate superhero movies this year that cover the difficult topic of unicorn fetishes?), but do you know one movie Suicide Squad DOESN’T want to draw comparison to? The Dark Knight.

Unfortunately, Jared Leto is here to remind us that Heath Ledger was really great in the role. Many people have played The Joker before and many will after, and they all bring something different to the role. Leto, however, is playing Heath Ledger. And not well. It doesn’t help that he’s asked to perform the film’s most dizzily inane  material in a series of grotesquely bad flashbacks that actively undo Harley Quinn’s character.

Luckily, he’s barely in it. And the people we do spend time with are actually pretty decent. Will Smith is far and away the best addition to the cast, wringing a wry humanity from a traditional badass role. Jai Courtney also makes a particular impression, packing so much personality into Captain Boomerang that it makes up for every other bland cypher he’s been asked to play in franchise pictures. And obviously the talk of the town is beloved character Harley Quinn, but while Margot Robbie brings a playful, electric charm to the role, she’s written with such grating insincerity that her relentless quipping is like being clubbed in the cerebral cortex. And there’s only so many times I can watch a hot woman kick ass while everybody gapes at her in astonishment. She’s a good fighter, get over it.

I think the character could blossom with a better screenwriter behind her, but for now she’s an abortive standout, trapped between her undeniable energy and the film’s single worst storyline. So, you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have Suicide Squad. It’s not as bad as the detractors would have you believe, merely a little dunderheaded, but it’s certainly no argument for more DC comic book movies.

TL;DR: Suicide Squad is less stupid and more fun than Batman v Superman, but it's still no triumph.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1273
Reviews In This Series
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Q2 Review Purge: Volume 3

You saw this coming, didn’t you? Underestimate my backlog once, shame on me. Underestimate my backlog twice, shame on YOU. Here’s the third and final (?) set of mini-mini reviews as I reboot my system and get back on track.

All About My Mother
Year: 1999
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Candela Peña
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After her son dies, Manuela travels to Barcelona to tell his father, helping an aging actress, a transgender hooker, and a pregnant nun along the way.

You might not be able to tell from that synopsis, but All About My Mother is pure Oscarbait through and through. There was a period in Almodóvar’s career where he was on his hands and knees begging for the Academy to take him seriously, and this film is smack dab in the middle of it. Naturally, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Always the staunch Oscar contrarian, I must contest that All About My Mother is far from the director’s best work (winners are rarely as good as their competitors, as evidenced by the fact that his masterpiece Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown lost to Pelle the Conqueror). Although there is some delightful comic relief from the talented transgender actress Antonia San Juan, the movie takes itself way too seriously.

While Almodóvar admittedly crafts some stunning imagers and weaves in a tapestry of parallels between the film’s wide variety of mothers, trying to find the line between reality and fiction, All About My Mother is one of Almodóvar’s few films that feels typical. It might push the envelope with its depiction of gender and sexuality, but it’s just an Oscar tearjerker, yanking its characters through sad sad situations so they can spout elegant monologues at the drop of a hat. Obviously it’s far from a bad movie (I don’t think Almodóvar has made one of those), but it just doesn’t make an impression, which is usually what he’s best at.

Rating: 6/10


Talk to Her
Year: 2002
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Rosario Flores, Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Two men become friends at a hospital while caring for their loved ones, who are both in comas.

If you thought All About My Mother was Oscarbaity, wait till you get a load of Talk to Her! A movie so wildly overbearing that even the Oscars were a little put off, shuffling it into the Best Original Screenplay category, it’s by far the least funny Almodóvar movie I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot at this point. What I admire most about the director is his ability to draw comedy from even the most dire of situations, but here he sets all that aside and doubles down on the sincerity, to muted effect.

It lacks the serene beauty of All About My Mother, though if anything its intricate web of metaphor is even more complex. The film is about transition and metamorphosis, two disparate halves coming together to form a whole. It maybe goes without saying that this theme results in the most f**ked-up Almodóvar relationship yet: the friendship between the lover of a female bullfighter and the lonely stalker of a beautiful young dancer. The queer overtones prevalent in his filmography are almost entirely absent, stripping away all veneer to showcase a story about two people bonding.

Unfortunately, Talk to Her trips over itself in the third act, pointlessly extending the plot for some melodramatic waffling. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in Almodóvar’s work, but when it lacks so much of his signature style, it also lacks the charm that allows you to cling to the bull’s back. Talk to Her bucks and you go flying, which is an extremely disappointing outcome.

Rating: 6/10


The Lives of Others
Year: 2006
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch
Run Time: 2 hour 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An East Berlin secret police agent tasked to bug the apartment of a suspected dissident finds himself wrapped up in the man’s life as he listens from the attic.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and those who make historical movies are almost always talking about the present. It’s no mistake that The Lives of Others came out during the time of the Patriot Act and America’s surveillance controversy. And it’s certainly no mistake that the film is set in 1984.

The Lives of Others is a thriller about sitting down, about the sociopolitical intrigue that can change lives and enact deaths without stepping out from behind a desk. It’s a terrifying snapshot of a bleak reality that has existed, does exist, and will exist. In essence, it’s a very German film.

However, despite its dour setting and even more dour production design, dripping with greys and mottled greens, The Lives of Others is a story of hope. About the flowers that can grow in the cracks of the concrete. This is thanks in large part to Ulrich Mühe, whose stony visage captures every last chink in his armor as he learns that the people he has been victimizing are actual human beings. The Lives of Others is a terrifying film about bureaucracy and a reassuring one about humankind. It’s not often that something like that comes from a film set in historic Germany (unless Spielberg is involved), and The Lives of Others is a powerful break from the mold.

Rating: 8/10


Star Trek
Year: 2009
Director: J. J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg
Run Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The Star Fleet rebel James T. Kirk finds himself on a stranded student vessel facing the alien threat that killed his father.

I know it’s a popular joke to make fun of J. J. Abrams’ use of lens flares, but I’d never until now experienced them for myself. The legends were true. Star Trek 2009 is an ocular freak show. People have counted, there’s literally a lens flare every 12 seconds on average. It’s like standing on the red carpet at the Oscars for two hours. Every single heroic shot is marred by these hideous distractions. They even go off in quiet, indoor scenes with no discernible light source. The lens flares will make your eyes water far more than any of the drama.

But there’s a movie beneath all that digital tampering, so let’s talk about it. As an origin story for a franchise I have not one shred of nostalgia for, it does a decent job of telling its own story. This could be a movie about James T. Bumblefart overcoming great odds as a cadet, and it would still be a coherent, engaging yarn. And there would be even less reason for Zoe Saldana to be there, because Uhura’s extremely discomfiting romance with Commander Spock happens entirely backstage.

As an exercise in J. J. Abrams crashing his CGI action figures into each other, Star Trek is a fun popcorn adventure, if a little beholden to the Star Wars standby of having important battles take place over yawning chasms. There’s only one scene that reaches the dizzy heights of summer fun I was hoping for (Bones follows Kirk, injecting him with a variety of wacky vaccinations to stabilize him as he attempts to deliver an important message) as the film tends toward the over-serious, but it’s never dull.

And Chris Pine is honestly a terrific choice, giving young Kirk a frat boy braggadocio that puts his flaws on his sleeve while retaining his natural charm. Star Trek’s a swing and a hit, even if it’s not a home run. Those lens flares can rot in Hell.

Rating: 6/10


Mamma Mia!
Year: 2008
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A young woman wants to invite her dad to her wedding on a Greek Isle. Only she doesn’t know which of three men it is, so she invites them all. Then they sing a bunch of ABBA songs.

The Mamma Mia! title card appears as a young girl runs screaming through a cloud of sparkles. That should pretty much tell you all you need to know about it. Mamma Mia! is loud, stupid, deranged, and I love it from the bottom of my heart.

While Mamma Mia! attempts to harness the glittery camp of attending a Broadway musical or a disco show, it frequently swings over the top into wholly unintentional bad-good delight, then back around the horn again into genuine fun. It spins around and around again between these two registers like a gymnast on the horizontal bars, afraid to let go and stick the landing. And stick the landing Mamma Mia! doesn’t, backloading about 90 ballads that suck the energy out of the third act, leaving it so ravaged that not even “Take a Chance On Me” (the most perfect pop song of the 70’s) can resuscitate it.

But despite its sputtering denouement, I love both angles from which Mamma Mia! approaches its content. For all the too-bright lighting that makes every location look like a sitcom set and the herky jerky variance in quality between the celebrity singers (Meryl Streep is at the top with a shockingly good belt, and Pierce Brosnan flounders at the bottom, sounding like Fozzie Bear in the middle of getting his tonsils removed) there’s a genuinely good vin running through it all, like the Greek chorus that resurrects an ancient form of theater to great effect, the bubblegum disco magic of “Super Trouper,” or the beach party sizzle that underscores “Lay All Your Love On Me.”

At the end of the day, Mamma Mia! is a movie that makes me sublimely happy. It is great and it is terrible, frequently at the same time, but it never stops being tremendous fun to watch.

Rating: Please don't make me do this. 7/10? 9/10? 5/10? 9/10. Don't hold me to that.

Last Night
Year: 2010
Director: Massy Tadjedin
Cast: Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A wife and husband both find themselves faced with the opportunity to cheat while he’s away on a business trip.

Last Night is one of those ponderous indie dramas that’s so excessively low key it would easily have been a TV movie. Or a commercial. With minimal sets, a tiny cast, and an abundance of agonizing close-ups, there’s nothing that screams “feature film.” To be frank there’s nothing to look at whatsoever.

Much like Looking: The Movie, Last Night is mostly composed of a string of conversations rather than any real incident. This is fine, especially when the conversation is as thought-provoking as it is. But the inhuman frankness and eloquence of these conversations make it screamingly apparent that the dialogue is Written. Luckily the actors that perform this series of treatises are well suited to the job.

Keira Knightley and Guillame Canet are a better match than Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes (though Mendes shades a surprising amount of depth onto a thankless sex symbol role), but for the most part Last Night is well-delivered, if coldly intellectual drama.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1882
Reviews In This Series
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Beyond (Lin, 2016)