Thursday, June 28, 2018

Life, Uh...

Year: 2018
Director: J. A. Bayona
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall
Run Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies in the history of cinema, so I don't know whether that makes it shocking or completely understandable that I felt no interest in checking out Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. The fifth entry in the long-running blockbuster franchise is about as far from that original film as you can get while still being about CGI dinosaurs. Jurassic Park has more in common with When Harry Met Sally than Fallen Kingdom.

Approach with caution.

So, Fallen Kingdom picks up several years after Jurassic World. Dinosaurs are living in peace on Isla Nublar following the destruction of the theme park, but a volcanic eruption threatens their survival. Dinosaur rights activist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) are sent to the island on a rescue mission by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), a proxy for John Hammond's former business partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). Because you can never trust the rich, in real life and especially the movies, this trip may not be as kosher as it seems.

Along for the ride are sharp-tongued paleobiologist Zia (Daniella Pineda) and wimpy tech dweeb Franklin (Justice Smith), as well as what the movie paints as years of emotional baggage and sexual tension between Owen and Claire, even though it's just thin air. Also there's a little girl (Isabella Sermon) running around, because what's a Jurassic Park movie without an unnecessary child character?

Better.

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is a phenomenally dumb movie that takes the franchise in a phenomenally dumb direction that paints future Jurassic directors into a corner, forcing them to make a phenomenally dumb movie as well, whenever that should come down the pike. It's so dumb that its dumbness is literally infecting the future. Its dumbness has slipped out of the timestream, and not even Doctor Who can stop it.

Sometimes this dumbness is used to its advantage, like how every shot of Claire begins at her sensible shoes and pans up, throwing a hilariously overbearing number of winks at the "high heels in the jungle" controversy. Mostly it is used to its detriment, like the rapidly fluctuating number of guards around at any given time when our heroes need to sneak around the bad guy's lair that totally diminish any tension or stakes because they're never around when plot stuff needs to happen. 

Sometimes Fallen Kingdom hits the bad-good strides I was hoping for, including a sterling moment where Bryce Dallas Howard shrieks the word "Chair!" with a hurricane-blast of emotion like she was gunning for that clip to end up on her Oscar reel. In fact, she's frequently too good for the material, but in the completely wrong direction, turning random lines into scenery-obliterating grenades of diva drama that would make Gone with the Wind blush. 

"These raptors will never be hungry again!"

While Howard is busy either giving the best or the worst performance in the movie, the rest of the cast just flounders around, drowning in a sea of unmotivated decision-making, inscrutable dialogue, and CGI mayhem. Chris Pratt seems devoted to being as bland a male cypher as possible, and a heap of character actors dawdle around the edges with nothing in particular to do. And don't get me started on Jeff Goldblum, who I don't particularly like on a good day, and who is positively catatonic in his one-scene cameo.

The only person who seems to have actually showed up to work is J. A. Bayona, who directs the crap out of the movie. Not out of the actors, mind you. But as far as the imagery goes, Bayona is the second best director to ever touch one of these movies. His composition of light and shadow is frequently exquisite, especially in the bizarre turn the film takes toward gothic mansion horror in the third act. He directs the movie like a German expressionist masterpiece, only instead of using the implication to drive the horror, you also get to see a whole lot of CGI dino-monster.

If this were any other movie, I'd call that the best of both worlds. But Fallen Kingdom isn't the best of anything. Bayona really is working it (to the extent that I'd even recommend seeing this movie, just to bask in the way he captures the feeling of majesty and awe that Spielberg so capably honed in the original film), but it's still a dumb, milquetoast popcorn epic that doesn't have a lot to offer in terms of narrative, character, acting, fun, or much of anything a person would come to this movie for.

I mean, I came for the visual references to Nosferatu, but I ain't your average bear.

Oh, and the score isn't even good. John Williams' iconic themes are mostly shelved in favor of a bizarre choral piece that shrieks in your face how big and important every scene in the movie is. It's the movie in a nutshell: Fallen Kingdom tries very hard to be a lot of different things, and it fails in a lot of spectacular ways. The things that work really work, but if you made a list of those things, it would fit on a Post-It note.

TL;DR: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a bland nothing of a popcorn flick, although its director clearly has his head in the game.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 916
Reviews In This Series
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997)
Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001)
Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Bayona, 2018)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Census Flashback: South Of The Border

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the most necessary sequel ever conceived, I'll be reviewing La muerte del chacal, a film that hails from that franchise's domain: the nation of Mexico.

Year: 1984
Director: Pedro Galindo III
Cast: Mario Almada, Fernando Almada, Cristina Molina 
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

I don't know if you're aware of this, but Census Bloodbath is a pretty comprehensive project. In the process of watching every slasher movie the 80's ever churned out, we are gonna cross a lot of borders and oceans. The thing is... If you're watching a bootleg of an obscure foreign film from three and a half decades ago, it turns out that you can't just switch on the subtitles. So yes, I did watch La muerte del chacal (AKA Death of the Jackal) in its original language, and let me tell you - my great grades in AP Spanish don't really carry over into watching a poor VHS rip, so some nuance may have been lost in the process.

Luckily, much like with the previous film I had to watch this way (the 1980 Italian flick Trhauma), the strict adherence to slasher formula makes it pretty damn easy to get the gist of every single scene whether or not you specifically understand the lines being spoken. But I do want you to take this review with a grain of salt, because I certainly didn't watch this under the ideal conditions.

But you know what doesn't need subtitles? Screaming.

So, as far as I can tell, La muerte del chacal tells the story of The Jackal, a serial killer terrorizing the sexy young women of a Mexican town (which, through a bizarre and amusing set of circumstances and tax laws, was shot in Texas). Sheriff Bob (Mario Almada, who also appeared in the film's quasi-sequel Masacre en Rio Grande) is hot on the trail, but before he gets his man a great deal of strippers, horny teens, and various bystanders are felled by the Jackal's awesome sword cane and his two Doberman sidekicks.

Also, like most people you shouldn't trust, he lives in a boat.

Would it shock you if I told you that this film was low budget? It shouldn't, if you've been paying attention. Films made for foreign markets don't land huge sums, and slasher films never do, in any market. But brilliance can thrive in the cheapie environment, and while I wouldn't call La muerte brilliant per se, it definitely has a unique filmmaking quality that can't be denied.

It actually operates in a similar manner to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, utilizing a choppy and erratic editing structure that on the surface seems amateurish but (intentionally or not) drives an eerie chill deep into your bones with its off-kilter glory. Especially in the opening sequences, which depicts the murders of two weirdly middle-aged horny couples in a shipyard, after each kill we get a glimpse of a window closing that doesn't directly correspond to any action in the scene itself, but feels like a grim final note that gets more and more creepy. Also, exactly like Chain Saw, there are random unmotivated shots of the moon that slice through the film at inappropriate times, jamming a shot of adrenaline into otherwise routine proceedings.

Also, there's a boat chase in the middle of the movie, where the watercraft zoom along in wickedly fast motion like they're cars in Mad Max, which is just rad as hell.

I know I'm not making this sound great, but I promise it works. And there are some shots that are just plain great too, so let me make my case with those instead. There's a scene after the killer has escaped from the asylum (about halfway through the killer is caught, and the film suddenly, inexplicably becomes its own sequel), where he's standing in his hospital gown staring up at an apartment building in a beautiful shot that mimics the best of both The Exorcist and Halloween

Actually, the killer's appearance in general is some tremendously exciting slasher material. He cuts a striking giallo-esque figure with his black gloves and identity-obscuring Zorro hat, and his weapon of choice is utterly classy and itching to be iconic. Check it out for yourself:

 So spooky!

I can even follow the movie for the ride when it transitions from a giallo into a telenovela in the third act (although I do not know what the killer's true identity turned out to be, because I couldn't keep people's names straight for the life of me, and he was one of many identical old men in the film).

So honestly, I enjoyed a lot of my time with La muerte del chacal. But if I end the review here, you're going to be very confused about the score I gave this film at the bottom of the page. You see, as much good as there is here in terms of outsider filmmaking, there's not a ton of good as a slasher qua slashers. 

For one thing, the kills aren't tremendously impressive. Most are offscreen, and none are bloody. The weapon is neat, but we don't see it in action quite enough for it to be truly memorable. And the fact that the killer uses dogs to hunt his victims is an interesting twist on the format (albeit one used to better effect in 1981's Madhouse), but it's extremely difficult to pull off a convincing mauling in a film at this budget level.

The worst slasher sin La muerte del chacal commits is the fact that it's a police procedural, my least favorite of the sub-subgenres I've come across over the course of this project. Having the protagonist being a policeman chasing the killer prevents you from ever getting to know the victims or caring about their fates. After each murder you just return to the cop, and you only ever get a minute or two with the new victims before they're dead, so it's hard to be scared. Also, there's no denying how regressive the gender politics in the movie are, especially when there is no Final Girl to even out the score.

One last thing is that we don't find out the killer's identity through the Sheriff's ingenuity and hard work. The film just decides to show us the killer's face during a murder sequence at about the place in the plot that you'd need to find out who it was. It's a lazy storytelling technique, and one that's compounded by the fact that I could not remember what character I was looking at. 

So all in all, while I found a lot to like here (and even I can't believe I compared it to that many classics of low budget cinema), it's just not the type of film that really nails me to my seat. I'm glad I've seen it, but it probably won't stick with me for longer than it takes to post this review and have done with it.

Killer: The Jackal
Final Girl: I guess Sheriff Bob's wife? This is a police procedural slasher, which kind of throws a wrench in this section.
Best Kill: A woman in her bathrobe (I have no idea how she relates to the plot, but keeping in mind that this is a slasher movie, she probably doesn't) is stabbed through the neck so forcefully that it pins her to the wall, hanging several inches above the ground.
Sign of the Times: The secretary in the police station has a major side pony that becomes its own separate character in the scene.
Scariest Moment: A woman wanders into a room on the boat that is full of bodies hanging on hooks.
Weirdest Moment: No fewer than three women decide to explore an old rusty boat in their high heels like they're regular Bryce Dallas Howards.
Champion Dialogue: N/A
Body Count: 15; and yes, I'm including the dogs because their deaths are probably the most slasherific of the bunch.
  1. Man is mauled by a dog.
  2. Woman is killed offscreen.
  3. Man is stabbed in the neck with a sword.
  4. Woman is impaled with a sword.
  5. Woman is pulled into a closet and killed.
  6. Stripper is impaled with a sword.
  7. Man dies in a boat explosion.
  8. Captain dies offscreen.
  9. Mistress is stabbed in the neck.
  10. Orderly has his neck broken.
  11. Security Guard has his head slammed into iron bars.
  12. Mama has her throat slashed offscreen.
  13. Woman is stabbed through the neck.
  14. Doberman #1 is smashed against a wall and thrown overboard.
  15. Doberman #2 is shot.
TL;DR: La muerte del chacal is a shabby but visually intriguing shocker with a few tricks up its sleeve.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1482

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Popcorn Kernels: Get To Da Choppa!

In which we review the Predator trilogy, because the forces of my life have conspired to make it a requirement to watch it. Keep an eye out for my Dread Central column and Geek K.O. podcast appearance, both about this franchise, both coming soon!

Predator


Year: 1987
Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall 
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An elite military squad on a mission in the Central American jungle runs afoul of a bloodthirsty alien creature bent on hunting them down.

Predator sure is a boy movie, innit? This whole franchise has definitely been one of the biggest gaps in my genre film knowledge, and it probably stems all the way back to the fact that I didn't play with toy trucks as a tot. This movie is the cinema equivalent of a blue onesie patterned with footballs, assigning a great deal of meaning to the sheer act of existing as a biological male. We get doting closeups of biceps flexing during arm wrestling (mid-air arm wrestling I might add, the lamest way to go about that particular display), lots of sweaty yelling in sleeveless/fabricless/shameless military vests, and a whopping one female character who has maybe two lines.

You don't hire Arnold Schwarzenegger by accident. Predator knew what it was doing and it sure as hell went and did it. But I do have to say... The man certainly cuts a striking figure onscreen, but he's a liability the second he opens his mouth. And I'm not talking about his accent. Look, I super duper knew the man couldn't act, but watching Predator, it's not so much something you know as something you feel deep in your bones; a primordial, ancestral revulsion that leaves you quivering in your seat.

Simply put, Schwarzenegger is an enormous liability in this movie (in every sense of the word "enormous"). He has way too much dialogue that isn't quippy one liners, which he shoves out through gritted teeth like a constipated school principal. The rest of the cast is fine, although the only reason anybody but Shane Black is here is to wear a vest that shows off their biceps.

Honestly, I found Predator pretty boring. The non-action scenes are numerous and entirely indistinguishable. People mutter nonsense in an endless expanse of green jungle while walking around with machetes. It's not compelling visually or narratively, it just exists, in much wider swaths than one might hope. The action itself is totally fine though, especially when the gore quotient amps up about halfway through.

However, there is no denying that the Predator itself is an unholy triumph of monster-making ingenuity. Stan Winston sure as hell knew what he was doing when he put together the wholly inhuman look of the creature, both masked and unmasked. With the mask on, he cuts the figure of a space-age knight, and with it off he's an unnaturally fleshy collection of organic odds and ends that you just believe. That is the true triumph of Predator, and the reason the movie earned itself (god) five additional movies at this point. You don't get that without a cool monster, no way no how.

Rating: 5/10

Predator 2
Year: 1990
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Kevin Peter Hall 
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

This time, Los Angeles!

Because L.A. is the urban jungle, geddit?

That's about as deep as Predator 2 ever gets, not really utilizing its arbitrary near-future setting to make much commentary other than "things is violent in the cities." Instead, we get a Predator film grafted onto a Lethal Weapon as Danny Glover stalks through the LA streets taking the law into his own hands when the titular extraterrestrial gets in the middle of a gang war that tears through the city streets. This is emphatically not a bad thing.

Sure, Predator 2 is stupid, but so is Predator 1, and at least this movie has a kick-ass lady cop with actual dialogue. This is probably the only time director Stephen Hopkins has actually improved a franchise, but I'll take it. Predator 2 is weirdly demure in its violence (the 90's were a rough time for gorehounds), but the action is varied and fun (an early street shootout has some delightful stunt car work), kicking up the energy with its loony antics. And the dialogue scenes benefit from actors with actual charisma, including the reliably weird Gary Busey and the sniveling worm that is every character Bill Paxton played in late 80's.

The Predator's weaponry has also received an upgrade, and although his invisibility booster is still annoyingly on-the-fritz (I understand he needs to be invisible for a long time because that's expensive as hell otherwise, but the brief glimpses we get of the Predator early on are annoyingly obvious audience pandering), his new space arsenal is a creative expansion of the universe of the first film. Here, the design team turns traditional hunting weapons like nets and spears into alien weapons of mass murderization, combining the primitive with the high tech in a satisfyingly brutal way.

As always, the Predator is the most important element of this film, and they do get it right. Sure, it's an empty 90's action flick, but that's a sweet spot for bad-good cinema, so you won't catch me complaining.

Rating: 6/10

Predators


Year: 2010
Director: Nimród Antal
Cast: Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne, Topher Grace
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A group of strangers find themselves fighting for their lives on a Predator hunting reserve.

Is Predator the only trilogy that improves as it goes along? OK, probably nobody would agree with me, but I've finally found an entry in this franchise that I like! Predators is a delightful popcorn thriller, dumping a fistful of character actors (also including Walton Goggins, Mahershala Ali, and Danny Trejo),  into a scenario that's part Cube, part Lost, and full of Predator mayhem. Yes, these folks are also randomly wandering through a jungle, but this time there's actually a mystery to solve outside of "what is shooting us with lasers?"

Predators throws a lot of bizarre, dime-store Annihilation imagery at its characters before it reveals what's actually going on (given the title of the movie, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out), and the dynamics of the characters as they're funneled through a gauntlet of sheer revulsion and terror is a fun way to spend the plotty bits. And the cast really is game for bringing these crude, one-dimensional characters to life. Goggins channels his skills at chaotic evil, Trejo does his Trejo thing, I actually really like Topher Grace and he turns in some solid comic relief, and Adrien Brody gains 25 pounds of muscle and dang if that isn't a good distraction from how boring his character is.

Predators does fall apart somewhere in the middle of the third act, where the plot starts taking twists and turns that come out of nowhere to jostle the movie off its track, then vanish without a trace. But before that it's a tremendously satisfying one-time watch. Its subtext about how all the human beings themselves are "predators" falls flat too, but I can't say I expected much to start with, and at least it's trying something.

Then there's the Predators themselves! The design of the new Super-Predator isn't a particularly inspiring piece of work, but for the most part the film uses improved CGI to smooth out the very few rough edges of the classic design, and this is the first movie where the Predator's heat vision isn't incredibly crude and annoying. You can actually see what the Predator is seeing instead of chunky blobs of red and yellow that you can assume are Arnold Schwarzenegger because the blob has biceps. 

All in all, Predators did it for me, and I'm not ashamed to admit that. At this rate, Predator 6: The Predating is gonna be an out-and-out masterpiece!

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1337
Reviews In This Series
Predator (McTiernan, 1987)
Predator 2 (Hopkins, 1990)
AvP: Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Strause & Strause, 2007)
Predators (Antal, 2010)
The Predator (Black, 2018)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Census Flashback: Doing All The Old Bits

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which has hired Jeff Goldblum to recite every line ever spoken in the previous films, I'll be reviewing Boogeyman II, a sequel that is mostly comprised of flashbacks to the original 1980 supernatural slasher.

Year: 1983
Director: Bruce Starr
Cast: Suzanna Love, Ulli Lommel, Shannah Hall
Run Time: 1 hour 19 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The clip show slasher is a grand tradition of the subgenre, helping out sequels that ran out of money across the board from The Hills Have Eyes Part II to Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2. To my knowledge, Boogeyman II AKA Revenge of the Boogeyman, one of Britain's infamous Video Nasties,  is the first of them. This is partially because its original film came out so early in the slasher Golden Age, and partially because arthouse dropout director Ulli Lommel really didn't want to make this movie.

Pictured: Lommel's face during the pitch meeting.

So what did old Lommel do to make a quick buck? He slapped together a ton of old footage from the original, mediocre killer mirror slasher, and whipped up a scathingly meta script with wife/star Suzanna Love. The footage they added was clearly shot as quickly and with as little equipment as possible (my guess is three days, tops), bada bing bada boom.

The story revolves around Lacey (Love), the survivor of the first film, visiting her childhood friend Bonnie Lombard (Shannah Hall, who also shares co-writer credit) in Hollywood, where she lives with her pretentious director husband Mickey (Lommel himself). After telling the story of the killer mirror in excruciating detail for the first fifty minutes or so, she reveals that she has brought a shard of said mirror with her, and it begins wreaking havoc upon the Hollywood hob-knobbers who have gathered at the Lombards' party and want to make a movie out of Lacey's story.

This image returns once more to strike fear into the hearts of men and women alike! Quiver in abject terror! 

Much like Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 before it, Boogeyman II actually negates any reason to watch the original film. It cuts out all the boring bits in favor of the showstopping kills, which were by a wiiiiiide margin the only reason to watch. Unfortunately, it also does this to its own narrative, whatever thirty-some minutes of it that we get. It's a nonstop Lazy Susan of murder sequences, strung together with maybe three or four lines like a bad community theater musical revue show. Although honestly, that honestly doesn't disqualify it from being a good slasher movie.

What does disqualify it is that these murder sequences in no way have the creativity or impact of the original film. The kills are always presented in pairs, choppily cutting between the two players in a way that makes it entirely unclear what is happening, and to whom. Not to mention the fact that the cinematography is murky as hell and the gore is practically nonexistent. It's dark, cheap, and unsatisfying, like a can of generic-brand grocery store beer. 

Then there's the fact that every man in the movie is a Harvey Weinstein, with each kill introduced by some producer or other attempting to trade sex for a role in a movie that hasn't even been greenlit yet. That has aged even worse than the practically obligatory regressive sexual politics present in the average 80's slasher.

It must be so fun to be a woman.

So yes. Boogeyman II is almost entirely void of artistic merit. Almost. You see, Ulli Lommel's disenchantment with Hollywood bleeds through every frame, starting with the fact the he cast himself as the reluctant, put-upon director. Every character on this film's platter of Meat is a grotesque caricature of the L.A. lifestyle, spouting hilariously vain, clueless dialogue that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Barry

In the few seconds we're given to breathe between kills, Boogeyman II is a savage satire, frequently funny on its own merits, with enough memorable screenwriting pearls that my shortlist of Champion Dialogue quotes was longer than the body count. The shallow, callous way that these Beverly Hills types treat Lacey and attempt to manipulate her trauma for their own gain is kind of magnetically funny, in a twisted, pitch black kind of way.

Sure, it's still a piece of crap. We're introduced to these characters as they step into frame (lit from below like they're telling a spooky campfire story) and recite their names one by one. They teleport around the party and die while in conversation with people we've never seen them interact with before. They name drop Halloween and Blow Out like they have a snowball's chance in Hell of ever being favorably compared to either. I'm not here to say Boogeyman II is a masterpiece. But for a 75-minute fluffball slasher, I feel like I got more than my money's worth. (It probably doesn't hurt that the soundtrack liberally indulges in the first film's license of tracks from the D.C. New Wave band 4 Out of 5 Doctors, my absolute favorite slasher movie party band.)

Mind you, I didn't actually spend any money to watch this movie, but the sentiment remains. The film would have even dragged itself over the threshold to a positive score if the kills had been any good at all. But I enjoyed spending the time with my favorite parts of the original while indulging in a few genuine chuckles, a privilege that very few slashers can afford a discerning viewer. Not that it encounters many of those.

Killer: The Mirror
Final Girl: Lacey (Suzanna Love)
Sign of the Times: The world was apparently clamoring for a sequel to The Boogeyman.
Best Kill: There's a lot of phallic imagery to choose from here, but I'm partial to the one where a man gets an electric toothbrush shoved down his esophagus.


Scariest Moment: The child's toys come to life all around him while he sleeps.
Weirdest Moment: The dialogue turns all echoey for a poolside conversation about goblins between a child clearly dubbed with an adult's voice and the German servant.
Champion Dialogue: "Without people, there wouldn't be... anybody."
Body Count: 18; 8 of which are from the previous film.
  1. Mom's Lover is stabbed in the back in flashback.
  2. Woman is stabbed in the throat with scissors in flashback.
  3. Boy has his neck crushed in a window in flashback.
  4. Woman is hit in the face with a medicine cabinet in flashback.
  5. Boy is impaled in the back of the neck in flashback.
  6. Girl is impaled on the same spike in flashback.
  7. Lacey's Husband has his face melt in flashback.
  8. Elderly Priest is killed during an exorcism in flashback.
  9. Sally is weed whacked.
  10. Sandor is killed by hedge clippers.
  11. Producer gets choked with an electric toothbrush.
  12. Brunette gets her face covered in shaving cream, which somehow kills her.
  13. Bernie is hung with a garden hose.
  14. Blonde gets spanked by a ladder, which shoves her mouth onto an exhaust pipe.
  15. Priscilla has her neck crushed with barbecue tongs.
  16. Jim is corkscrewed.
  17. Joseph is drowned.
  18. Bonnie dies in a car explosion.
TL;DR: Boogeyman II is almost completely devoid of artistic merit, but as a nuts and bolts body count movie, it's weirdly satisfying.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1250
Reviews In This Series
The Boogeyman (Lommel, 1980)
Boogeyman II (Starr, 1983)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Mr. Mom, Who Was Bitten By A Radioactive Mom And Now Has All The Powers Of A Mom

Year: 2018
Director: Brad Bird
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A quick caveat: That epilepsy warning is no joke. I have a photosensitivity, so the strobe effect that dominates three scenes lasting one to two minutes each prevented me from watching a certain portion of the film. Maybe those were the worst scenes in the movie or the best, but at any rate they don't factor into my review except for sound design I guess.

It's been fourteen years since the superhero family The Incredibles first graced cinema screens. It would probably suffice to say that the superhero movie landscape has changed since then, so I was interested in seeing how well the film played against the inundated landscape of the Marvel cinematic universe and its sickly basement-dwelling cousin the DC extended universe. Probably to its advantage, it doesn't change its stylized retro sci-fi gleam one bit. We sure get a lot of superheroes but we're still not getting that.

Angle-wise, there's just SO much going on here.

Incredibles 2 picks up literally the second the previous entry left off, with the Incredible family - superstrong dad Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), stretchy mom Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), force field-creating invisible girl Violet (Sarah Vowell), and super fast Dash (Huck Milner) - stopping an attack by the villainous Underminer (John Ratzenberger). However, the destruction caused by this effort hasn't helped the public perception of "supers," and the law enforcing the illegalization of superpowers is holding fast.

That is, until Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) puts his hat in the ring. The wealthy telecommunications magnate is a fan of supers and has put together a plan with his inventor sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) to hire Elastigirl for an underground PR campaign showing the world just how necessary superheroics are. While she heads off to the nearest metropolis to begin work, Mr. Incredible is left at home with the kids, which would be overwhelming even if the baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) wasn't developing, oh, every power in existence.

Conveniently, this Elastigirl gig is timed with the rise of the Screenslaver, a freaky masked villain who uses screens to hypnotize people and is hellbent on tearing a lazy public away from the television they seem to worship. She sets off to stop the Screenslaver while Bob stays home with the kids. You know, just like the woke cinema classic Mr. Mom!

This is also maybe the freakiest thing ever included in a Pixar movie and they literally made two movies about monsters.

I obviously wasn't super sold on the Mr. Mom angle the trailers made apparent. It still reeks of the mentality that women in the workforce is a bizarre novelty and that men are dumb cavemen idiots who can't parent their own children. The most recent incarnation of this story was that soul-bleachingly mediocre Matt LeBlanc sitcom Man with a Plan, so I can't say I had high hopes.

Luckily, Incredibles 2 doesn't foreground the gender normative elements I was worried it would. It tells a story of the universal struggle to be a parent, with the chaos of having a newborn baby amplified by Jack Jack's powers. He can multiply his body, set the house on fire if he doesn't get a cookie, and his atomic sneezes send him phasing through various walls and ceilings. He's uncontainable and every parent's literal nightmare.

Naturally, he continues to be the best part of the film, and his mini-fight scene with a raccoon is maybe the best superhero moment in cinema this decade. But the other characters are all given a lot to do, with the exception of maybe Dash, whose energy generates a whole lot of fun, but it's all sugar and no substance. But yes, once again the family is at the center of the film, their characters and dynamics being the primary driving force of the story, aided and abetted by all the useful metaphors that superheroics can provide.

I'm not a regular mom. I'm a cool mom.

But although they're certainly not the crux of the story, those crime-fighting sequences really are exciting. They run the gamut from Spider-Man 2 setpieces to James Bond high camp villainy to good ole "capable people work together to prevent a disaster," and it's probably the best choreographed and edited animated action in American cinema, followed far behind by maybe Big Hero 6 and almost nothing else. Incredibles 2 is so fun and splashy that it makes you forget that we've already gotten a Black Panther, an Infinity War, and a Deadpool 2 within the past eight seconds. It's popcorn movie magic at its finest, using the limitless imagination of animation to deliver some impossibly dazzling stunts.

It maybe lacks the depth of the original film's more concrete, well-thought-out storyline, but I'd be hard-pressed to look at this year's slate of summer films and see anything that will be remotely as exciting and fist-pumping as this triumph, the best non-Toy Story Pixar sequel to date, and most likely in perpetuity.

A Note on the Short Film Bao: I'm obviously very glad that Pixar has started to realize that other cultures can and should be represented in animation, and this video about an anthropomorphic dumpling is certainly working Pixar's formula in a unique way - from its soft, stylized character designs to its casually magical, circular narrative. It's certainly very cute and a lively dialogue-free effort in visual storytelling, but I found the central metaphor to be more than a little bit ruined by the narrative turn it takes in the end, which for me undermined the story I thought I was watching. But nevertheless, a worthwhile effort that is no "Piper" but it's certainly no "Lava," so I'll take that middle ground any day. 7/10

TL;DR: Incredibles 2 is the best non-Toy Story sequel Pixar has ever made.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 988
Reviews In This Series
Incredibles 2 (Bird, 2018)

Monday, June 18, 2018

Reviewing Jane: To Be Fond Of Dancing Is A Certain Step Towards Falling In Love

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 2004
Director: Grinder Chadha
Cast: Martin Henderson, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Nadira Babbar
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

I was a bit nervous going into Bride & Prejudice, a movie that announces its strict adherence to adapting the Jane Austen novel by only changing one letter in the title. As you may have noticed, I've sat through more than my share of Prides and Prejudices lately, and I wasn't certain I could stomach another straight adaptation right at this moment. But I do it all for you, readers who accidentally stumbled across this review while Googling pornographic videos. And I sure am glad I did. Let's get into it.

My face when pressing play.

Bride & Prejudice transplants Jane Austen's most famous love story from Regency era England to modern (read: mid-2000's) India, specifically the small town of Amritsar. Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is one of four sisters dominated by a mother (Nadira Babbar) who is obsessed with marrying them off. When a rich American-Indian named Balraj (Naveen Andrews) returns home for a friend's wedding, Lalita's sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) falls head over heels for him.

Along for the ride is Balraj's white friend William Darcy (Martin Henderson of, weirdly, The Strangers: Prey at Night), a pompous hotel magnate who strikes up a tentative flirtation with Lalita despite his evident distaste for the non-American customs of Amritsar and the interference of hot young thang Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies), with whom he has a sordid past.

Very distracting interference...

I have made the point before that a Jane Austen movie is only as good as its dance scenes. Balls and dancing are integral to her work and understanding the characters and their dynamics, and any movie that gets this will rise to the top. Bride & Prejudice not only understands this, it translates it into the hypercolored musical world of Bollywood, in which music and dance are just as essential, if not more. Combining these two storytelling modes is a genius fit, and not only does it frame the Pride narrative in a unique and engaging way, it brings Western cinema the best Bollywood numbers it has ever (and probably will ever) received.

The opening dance number, which is set during a traditional Indian wedding, is a glossy spectacle that lasts for a full five minutes, effortlessly introducing you to the characters in the midst of a shimmering, jaw-dropping marathon of choreography that will leave you transfixed. No other number in the film is quite as good as this, but they all maintain its level of fizzy, summertime fun. The design of this movie is exquisite too, really indulging in the brightest fabrics and flowiest garments the nation has to offer.

The Indian setting doesn't just provide the genre, either. Chadha and her co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges utilize the culture to really dig deep and engage with Austen's narrative at its highest level, adding layers about arranged marriage and imperialism that the author wouldn't have dared to tackle so boldly in her time.

And then there's that other thing Austen would never have dared to do, which is the way Chadha wields the female gaze like a broadsword, populating the movie with scantily clad, wide-shouldered men to gaze at in awe and wonder.

As lovingly giffed by the good, thirsty folks who run the Internet.

Sure, Bride & Prejudice has its flaws. A lot of the glossier sequences get all 2004 all over the place and end up looking like the "Stars Are Blind" music video on loop. And the story really loses its dramatic thrust in the first act, its modernization of the source novel's events finally losing its grip and undercutting a key event by muddying up the character motivations and preventing the lovers' final reunion from being particularly satisfying. Even worse, this reunion is presented via the worst, most awkward middle school hug you've ever seen, lovingly plastered across the screen in sloooooow moooooootioooooon.

But who could possibly complain for long when faced with a movie this bright, funny, and thoroughly charming? Bride & Prejudice is a winning update of Jane Austen that blends witty satire with hard-hitting modern truths about culture clash and true love. And that dancing! Slumdog Millionaire might have the most widely known Bollywood number in modern memory, but Bride & Prejudice has "Jai Ho!" beat by a couple dozen country miles. It's an exquisite, uncompromising blend of cinematic traditions that has its cake and swallows it whole, too.

TL;DR: Bride & Prejudice is one page short of a full book, but it's an enormously entertaining translation of Jane Austen's most overplayed novel.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 805
Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)
Christmas at Pemberley Manor (Theys, 2018)
Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe (McBrearty, 2018)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Census Flashback: Toxic Masculinity

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of The Incredibles, which weirdly seems to be a remake of Mr. Mom featuring superheroes, I'll be reviewing Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy, another sequel with a twisted sense of fatherhood.

Year: 1989
Director: Jeff Burr
Cast: Terry O'Quinn, Meg Foster, Caroline Williams
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

If there's one subgenre and time period in the world that would guarantee a sequel to an even mildly successful film, it was the slasher movie in the 1980's. If we could get a Death Nurse 2 or a Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls, it's certainly not surprising that the 1987 Hitchcockian thriller The Stepfather got a follow-up entry two years later. In fact, nothing is surprising about Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy, except the fact that it's maybe even sorta kinda good.

Also, maybe we should arrange another remake with Stanley Tucci, just sayin'.

You may recall that the previous Stepfather ended with the titular family-stealing slasher dying, but since when has that ever stopped a good horror villain? Terry O'Quinn returns to the franchise with a hand-waving scene that reveals he just got a nasty scar from being stabbed in the heart, 'twas only a flesh wound! Anyway, we catch up with him in a psych ward in Puget Sound (a psych ward which has a buzz saw that they let the patients use, because mental health care competency has apparently taken some huge strides between the 80's and now), a location which he easily escapes to build a new life for himself down in Loma Linda, California.

While he makes moves on Carol (Meg Foster), the lovely divorcée across the street, and attempts to assimilate himself into the lives of her and her son Todd (Jonathan Brandis), he must face obstacles to his new nuclear family. These obstacles include Carol's deadbeat ex-husband Phil (Mitchell Lawrence) and the nosy postal worker neighbor Matty (Caroline Williams of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). 

And who WOULDN'T want to fill the gap in this holy trinity?

By the very nature of being a sequel, Stepfather 2 inherently subverts the plot of the original. Whereas that film was a thriller of domestic paranoia, following Jill Schoelen's efforts to expose the man in her house whom she suspects is a crazy evil killer man, in this film we sure as hell know he's a crazy evil killer man. Thus it becomes almost Psycho III-esque, where the tension transfers from siding with the victims and worrying about their fates to sympathizing with the killer himself. You watch as he attempts to rebuild his life and tie up any loose ends to his perfect marital bliss, and you're biting your knuckles along with him as various wrinkles threaten that delicate balance.

Plus, since the slasher subgenre had gotten more of its claws into the franchise, this is also accompanied by a bump in the body count, easily doubling the previous effort. You won't catch me complaining about that. Although the original Stepfather is certainly one of the more respectable 80's efforts, it's not one that particularly spoke to me, so I don't mind it being beefed up with some popcorn chills and spills.

Mind you, even the improved kill-pacing of this entry still doesn't provide for many particularly memorable murders. Stepfather 2 is a deeply generic slasher through and through, and the well of blood the genre had to offer had long since dried up by 1989. The film demurely hides its gore behind tasteful pans to pools of blood, as if that was what would get the goat of any audience member sitting in the theater for a movie with the subtitle Make Room for Daddy. Stepfather 2's refusal to cop to being a tawdry B-picture prevents it from rising too far above being merely "good," but for 1989, it was probably the best case scenario if we're being honest.

Though the fact that I can't really find a screenshot more eye-catching than this should speak volumes.

All that said, this is probably the best horror film director Jeff Burr ever made (though with the chopped-to-hell Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III kicking it right there on the CV, there's not a ton of competition). There are fun little moments like the neighborhood group therapy that devolves into a catty gossip session, or the Stepfather's quasi-Freddy quips that are funny yet still grounded enough in his character that they don't break whatever reality this film could conjure.

Plus, in the third act Stepfather 2 becomes an actually good film, depicting a wedding chapel battle that sees every piece of the Stepfather's story falling apart in a massive crescendo of confusion as Carol and Todd (who aren't as fleshed-out as they should have been) really coming into their own as a family unit amid a flurry of exciting, well-staged action.

Stepfather 2 isn't really anything more than a generic slasher, but it's like eating a cookie from a box you got at the grocery store. It isn't delicious, but it hits the spot. It checks all the boxes of what a movie like this needs to have, even if it isn't as bloody or as sexy as it could have been.

Killer: The Stepfather (Terry O'Quinn)
Final Girl: Carol Grayland (Meg Foster)
Best Kill: The doctor who gets a shiv in the back of the neck is the only gore moment that in any way feels even next door to showstopping.
Sign of the Times: The Stepfather scouts potential wives using a videotape dating service.
Scariest Moment: In the heat of the moment, Carol makes out with the Stepfather's giant chest scar.
Weirdest Moment: While eating cereal, the Stepfather takes a moment to lean his ear close to the snapping, crackling, and popping and grin to himself.
Champion Dialogue: "He likes me to hum when I kiss him down below."
Body Count: 6
  1. Dr. Danvers is shivved in the back of the neck.
  2. Smith is bludgeoned with his nightstick.
  3. Random Dude has his hands smashed in a trunk and is killed offscreen.
  4. Phil is slashed to death with a broken bottle.
  5. Matty is strangled with a cloth bathrobe tie.
  6. The Stepfather gets the claw end of a hammer buried in his chest.
TL;DR: Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy is a surprisingly decent late slasher sequel.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1090
Reviews In This Series
The Stepfather (Ruben, 1987)
Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy (Burr, 1989)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

I Took A Pill To Ibiza

Year: 2018
Director: Alex Richanbach
Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Vanessa Bayer, Phoebe Robinson
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

Netflix is swiftly hemorrhaging credibility with a lot of their creative choices lately, but a quick and easy way to cauterize that wound is to stop making feature films. Sure, if we eliminated that department, we wouldn't get Gerald's Game or Okja, but I'd gladly trade those titles if it meant we could stop Adam Sandler's latest string of hate crimes against the art form, or whatever the hell Bright was supposed to be. As you can probably guess from these ruminations, the Netflix original film Ibiza, she was not too good.

For one thing, it should have been titled "Croatia," because ain't nobody got Spain budgets here.

In Ibiza, three best gal friends head to... Ibiza. Stick-in-the-mud Harper (Gillian Jacobs) has been sent on assignment by her boss (Michaela Watkins) at a PR firm to land a sangria account (yeah, sure), and her two roommates have insisted on tagging along: Leah (Phoebe Robinson) is The Black One and Nikki (Vanessa Bayer) is Vanessa Bayer. The girls drag Harper to a club, where they meet Leo West (Richard Madden), a Scottish man who is so hot that it's not even a dealbreaker that he's an EDM DJ.

Some sort of bland hijinks ensue (the only upside of these being that we get to see a shirtless Miguel Ángel Silvestre, who is objectively the most attractive man in the world) which prevent their planned meeting, so the girls conspire to meet him at his concert in Ibiza the next night, even though Harper has an incredibly important meeting the following morning. Can they have their debauchery cake and eat it too?

And does anybody care?

I don't mean to be too harsh on the movie, but it certainly invites it: Ibiza is like a textbook on exactly what's wrong with modern comedy filmmaking. It's abnormally focused on partying as both humor and plot point (it is neither), the script largely doesn't exist because the film is mostly improv, and the title is f**king boring as sh*t. The current films from the Apatow family can sometimes still be strong in spite of these limitations, but let's just say that Ibiza doesn't have the same strong guiding hand at the wheel as a Paul Feig or even a Nicholas Stoller.

In fact, Ibiza might be the closest a comedy has come to not even being a movie at all. It's more like a basic white girl posting a vacation video on YouTube. Let me paint you a picture of almost every scene in the movie: two to three women and maybe (hopefully) a shirtless man babble incoherently at each other for three minutes, the awkward pauses in their improvised dialogue absolutely not being smoothed over by the film's utter lack of score, until an EDM song cranks up and we pan across shots of random revelers jumping up and down for about ninety seconds until the next scene can begin. That's about all we get.

Luckily, one of those improvisers is Vanessa Bayer, the secret weapon of the past several seasons of SNL. Her comedy is of a quieter, subtler sort than her cohort Kate McKinnon, who probably could have saved a movie like this with her surreally manic energy, but it's always pleasant to be around. She at least drags Ibiza onto a track of potentially being redeemed for existing in the first place. 

With great comic power comes great responsibility.

And that's not to say anything bad about Gillian Jacobs or Phoebe Robinson, but the former is forced into a heterosexual comedy of romantic fumblings that the movie assumes we care about because they're hot and white, and the latter has literally not a single character trait to grapple with. They wander through the movie with flashlights, searching desperately for anything that might be funny. They occasionally trip over something charming, and that's exactly where Ibiza finds its almost subliminal thrum of pleasantness.

There is something to praise about the movie, I suppose, though naturally it's faint praise. As a story about women with sex drives, directed by a gay man, there is plenty of male objectification and (possibly) more importantly, a vigorously progressive approach to sex, flirtation, and consent. Those things don't make a masterpiece, but it's like watching a bad movie while wrapped in a warm blanket. It's not good, but it's comfortable, and sometimes that's enough.

TL;DR: Ibiza is a noodly non-movie that's vaguely charming and that's all it has to lean on.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 765