Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I See You Shiva With Anticipation

Year: 2014
Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

There are three types of indie movies. 1) Films which showcase a brilliant artist who is given short shrift in Hollywood for no good reason. 2) Films which showcase a dreadful artist who is given short shrift in Hollywood for a very good reason. And 3) Films that attempt to be indie and meaningful because they know that's cool now, but they're directed by the guy who did Real Steel and Cheaper by the Dozen.

Guess which category This Is Where I Leave You falls under. 

Now I'm not saying that director Shawn Levy is a terrible artist. No way no how. I'm just saying that his pedigree (which also includes The Internship and all three Night at the Museum films) in no way prepares him to treat this film's material with the delicacy that its demanding tonal shifts deserve. It would take a lot of skill to finesse the low key dramedy of Jonathan Tropper's source novel into even mildly diverting cinema, and Levy just doesn't have the practice.

Well, I guess Ben Stiller and his museum buddies are KIND of like a dysfunctional Jewish family.

This Is Where I Leave You tells the story of the Altman family, which is brought together by the death of a patriarch. His last wish was his wife and kids to sit shiva, forcing them to remain in proximity with one another for the first time in years. 

The most important member of this family (in terms of screen time, not interest) is Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a bitter man who just discovered that his wife was cheating on him with his boss. This causes some super indie problems for him, because he has exactly followed his plan for how his life should be, but it isn't bringing him happiness. A chance encounter with Penny (Rose Byrne), an old flame, reminds him that sometimes love can be messy, especially if you're in a movie that premiered at TIFF.

The rest of his family includes Wendy (Tina Fey), who has a kid and is married to a neglectful businessman despite the fact that she's in love with a brain-damaged neighbor inexplicably named Horry (Timothy Olyphant); Paul (Corey Stoll), who is a straight-laced square failing to have a baby with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn); Phillip (Adam Driver), who is the baby of the family, a hopeless lothario, and a perennial screwup who somehow convinced a beautiful psychiatrist named Tracy (Connie Britton) to fall in love with him; and their mother Hillary (Jane Fonda), who just got a boob job. 

Yay! Isn't it gross when old people show interest in sex? Judd certainly seems to think so, according to the immense amount of screentime spent on him staring at his mother's chest in revulsion.

Them old broads be crazy, amirite?

It's certainly exciting to see a depiction of the interactions and customs of a Jewish family in the modern, secular world. But it would be more exciting if most of them were actually Jewish or gave half a flying Pop-Tart about the implications of their minority faith on the subtext. 

There's a smattering of funny, charming moments, largely thanks to the abundance of funny, charming actors. And the drama is handily handled (to coin a nifty phrase), especially by Fey and Bateman, who have the heaviest of burdens on their shoulders. But despite the best efforts of the cast (all of whom are genuinely enjoyable save for Driver's perplexing emphasis on shouting his lines and Byrne's hard swallowing of her natural Australian accent), This Is Where I Leave You falls flat as a pancake.

In all fairness to Rose Byrne, who I love, her character is so indie vanilla that I can't imagine what else there would be to do other than babble lines in half-cocked American. You gotta make things enjoyable for yourself.

The biggest problem with the film is that it has no idea what to do with its prodigious cast. The performers are all proven talents with mid-level star power just dripping off of them, but the plot only has the attention span for at most three protagonists. The sprawling number of celebrities in the background steals focus from the characters that we're supposed to care about, and the imbalanced plot threads prevent us from caring about them in the first place. It's a lose-lose situation. 

Basically, this film is what would have happened if, instead of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins had cast the entire line-up of Saturday Night Live. There are so many balls being juggled here that some of them just roll away without anybody noticing.

Characters twirl in and out of existence, vanishing from this dimension until they're needed for the next forced plot point. Several of the siblings' significant others are banished to purgatory early on, only to be trotted out on special occasions. And I'm pretty sure Connie Britton's character died of neglect, locked in an upstairs closet. The only consistent presence is a potty-training toddler, who is incidentally the most compelling of the bunch.

This isn't even a third of the cast of this tiny tiny film.

Overall, This Is Where I Leave You is just too generic to be worth the hassle. There's endless heavy-handed exposition laced conversations, routine characterizations, and nothing new to say about the state of the American family. Been there, done that. There is one great sequence where the siblings repeat a series of cordial platitudes to guests at a funeral that highlights the repetitive dullness and constant lying that these types of polite gatherings require.

But beyond that, the film doesn't attempt to do anything more than exist as a piece of disposable cinema. Miss this film, and don't bother calling it on its birthday.

TL;DR: This Is Where I Leave You is dull and generic, but has a decently sized slate of charming actors.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1005

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Women In Horror Month: Fashion Victims

When I was coming up with ideas for celebrating Women in Horror Month, my mind kept wandering to the 80's, because that's just how I'm wired. I guess I was born with a legwarmer in my mouth. Anyway, when one thinks specifically of women in 80's horror, it's hard to see past the Mount Everest of teased hair and shoulder pads, so I decided to pay tribute to some of the most indelible fashions of the decade, as presented on the catwalk of horror (I call dibs on that movie name).

The Ten Best-Dressed Eighties Ladies

#10 Kim (Prom Night)

Inflicted Actress: Jamie Lee Curtis
Year: 1980

OK, this outfit isn't truly special until you see it in motion during a three minute disco sequence crammed into the middle of a pretty run-of-the-mill slasher film. But Jamie Lee's ringlets combined with the ineffable puffiness of that Pepto pink dress keep legions of fans coming back to Prom Night, a dull film which really should be overshadowed by its brain-dead, endlessly bizarre sequels.

#9 Denise (Splatter University)

Inflicted Actress: Denise Texeira
Year: 1984

Splatter University is low on this list - as it should be on any list - because it's too low-fi to actually afford any provocative (read: non-beige) costumes. But Denise's spiked fingerless gloves and fire engine red hair that threatens to engulf her entire head like the creature from The Blob form an irresistible axis of evil.

#8 Debbie (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master)

Inflicted Actress: Brooke Theiss
Year: 1988

Among all the high school stereotypes presented in this film (jock, nerd, outsider, etc.), Debbie's is the only label that could only have existed in 1988: Workout Queen. Although she's only shown lifting weights (good for her, though - bustin' gender barriers), you just know she spends every weekend sweatin' it to the oldies in her headband and aerobic sneakers. Add in the nails and that chained belt and you've got yourself a recipe for instant success.

#7 Sara (Sorority House Massacre)

Inflicted Actress: Pamela Ross
Year: 1986

The unequivocal best scene in Sorority House Massacre is when the sorority girls try on their rich friend's clothes, resulting in an endless montage of the girls wearing different-colored baggy pantsuits. But even the gauzy garishness of that scene is outmatched by Sara's midriff-revealing fruitsplosion, which makes her look more like a Fantasy Island desk clerk than an actual human university student.

#6 Diane/Blaze (New Year's Evil)

Inflicted Actress: Roz Kelly
Year: 1980

As any aging music host knows, it's tough to keep up with the shifting trends of youth culture. But for Blaze - wife, mother, and patron saint of crappy New Wave rock - it's as easy as slipping into her hot pink aluminum foil minidress and accompanying choker.

#5 Jess (Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II)

Inflicted Actress: Beth Gondek
Year: 1987

I told you Prom Night is always gonna be inevitably overshadowed by its much weirder sequels. Jess is living proof of just how far fashion had gone down the rabbit hole in the seven years since the beginning of the decade. Her mismatched astrological earrings fit exactly imperfectly with each carefully clashing layer upon layer of endless cloth that drapes her trembling frame. I'm surprised her bones don't just snap under the weight, but I have a sneaking suspicion that her hair is aerodynamically designed to prevent her from falling over.

#4 J.J. (Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan)

Inflicted Actress: Saffron Henderson
Year: 1989

She almost made it. Poor J. J. almost escaped the decade before Jason's resurrection dragged her and her bubblegum guitar and her patent leather jacket and her broom bristle Joan Jett bangs out into the open ocean... and certain doom.

#3 Violet (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning)

Inflicted Actress: Tiffany Helm
Year: 1985

For a movie supposedly set a full decade after the mid-80's set Final Chapter, A New Beginning doesn't do much in the way of makeup, hair, dancing, and music to even vaguely attempt to paw at futurism. Violet gets the worst of it, looking in every scene like she was just mugged by a Go-Go's video. Even her death is mired in 80's garbage - she dies doing the robot, for crying out loud! If you chug a New Coke before bed and sleep with a Rubik's Cube under your pillow, Violet is who you'll be dreaming about.

#2 Samantha (Night of the Comet)

Inflicted Actress: Kelli Maroney
Year: 1984

The Valley Girl Chic sweater wouldn't be too much of an imposition, but toss on those Cindy Crawford ringlets pulled so tight that she looks like a 40-year-old Target manager and you've got yourself a nuclear meltdown of a fashion disaster. We're gonna have to call in the EPA on this one.

#1 April (Killer Party)

Inflicted Actress: Danielle Kiraly
Year: 1986

Even if you can forget the fact that she's at a drive-in, the most 80's thing about April is everything. I can't quite recall the details of this scene, but I'm more certain than anything I've ever known that she is wearing roller skates in the bottom half of this picture. The song may go "April, you're no fool," but whoever dressed her certainly is.

Thanks for hanging out during this year's Women in Horror Month extravaganza! Stay tuned for next year, where things are gonna get really crazy (In that I don't have school and can actually write more than one post every 94 days)!
Word Count: 914

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Love Is A Battlefield

Year: 2015
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Fifty Shades of Grey is one of only two wide-release movies this year so far directed by a woman (the other is Selma, which was released in early January after bombing its Oscar-qualifying run in November). So there's that.

It's also the first movie ever to be based on a fanfiction. At least, the first movie not made in a Minnesota basement. It's true. E. L. James, author of the wildly successful smut trilogy, originally wrote it for the characters of Edward and Bella from Twilight, which explains the Washington setting, the romanticization of stalker behavior, and the deceased romantic lead.

Oh wait. This just in - the character of Christian Grey is, in fact, performed by a living man. Please excuse my mistake, it's a little hard to tell.

I thought it was a Weekend at Bernie's-type situation.

If you've been on the Internet for more than twelve seconds over the past couple weeks, you probably know the intricacies of the plot more intimately than your own name, but humor me for a second while I run through it. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a dowdy lit student who travels to Seattle on the behalf of her under-the-weather journalist roommate (Eloise Mumford) to interview business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). After tripping into the room and crashing to the floor like she's in an X-Games adaptation of a Katherine Heigl movie, she piques his attention. 

As she fumbles with the pre-printed sheet of interview questions, he hands her a pencil of such prodigious size and girth that it stretches the limits of phallic symbolism, ripping the space-time continuum and sucking Jamie Dornan's penis into a black hole, preventing it from ever being shown onscreen. Of course Miss Steele sucks on the pencil, which she doesn't even need because she's using a recorder. Also she never actually asks more than two questions, requiring him to send his answers in an email. 

The reason I've spent so much time describing this one scene is that it's a perfect representation of the themes and motifs of the entire film. Namely: wildly misguided sexual imagery, the insipid non-structure of the plot, and a mysterious predilection for 90's technology. 

I mean, really. Anastasia is the last woman on earth still using a flip phone, and Christian sends her more emails than a Nigerian prince. I suppose we shouldn't expect technological realism from a 51-year-old fanfiction smut author who worked under the name "Snowqueen's Icedragon," but presumably screenwriter Kelly Marcel (of Saving Mr. Banks) has met actual humans that don't sport frosted blonde tips and Walkmen. It's a mystery far more vexing and intriguing than the wan drama that plays out during the film's overlong running time.

What are his motivations? What lies behind those eyes? Where did he get that jacket?

Anyway, Christian eventually reveals to Anna that he is a dom, the controlling partner in a BDSM relationship (which, if you're truly interested in the topic, is far better explored... well, anywhere else, but especially here). He wants her to sign a contract and become his willing submissive partner, turning over the decision-making in their sexual relationship to him and allowing him to punish her with flogs, ropes, and other toys from his "playroom."

The bulk of the film is about Anastasia testing the limits of her willingness to enter into this type of relationship with a man as aesthetically stimulating as Christian Grey. 

According to the philosophy of Russian Formalism, there are four categories into which the functions of human action fall: the practical (serving immediate use), the theoretical (serving general or unspecified use), the symbolic (serving in the place of another object or activity), and the aesthetic (serving no purpose whatsoever, existing for themselves for pure contemplation and perception). In order for an object to achieve true artistic value, it must first divorce itself from all useful attributes to attain the status of pure aesthetic. Considering that his character has no practical use (his motivations and desires in no way shape the plot), theoretical use (he has no value to other people, serving only his needs), or symbolic use (the idea of characters serving a "theme" is beyond the scope of E. L. James' literary prowess), he is an object of pure aesthetic. Therefore, Fifty Shades of Grey is a work of art. Just a little tidbit to bust out when you're cruising the bars.

The book (unfortunately the first in a trilogy) is notorious for two things. 1) Depicting a typical abusive relationship tarted up as vanilla BDSM erotica, and 2) terrible, terrible writing depicting a variety of superfluous sex acts (including something unspeakable with a tampon) sprinkled with phrases like "inner goddess" and "double crap." It's misleading, malnourished dreck, but it's provocative dreck and as such has a huge following.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the film adaptation tones down both of these aspects. In the plus column, Christian Grey is still a controlling, manipulative boyfriend, but the film shifts the tone a long way away from idealizing abuse. The downside is that, in turning down the volume on every single characterizing aspect of the book (especially the atrocious parts), they removed any particular reason to see it.

People came to see some godawful smut, dammit, not some watered-down trifle with little sex, vaguely cheesy but unfunny dialogue ("laters, baby"), and non-starter drama. I always expected there to be walkouts when I went to see this film in the theater, but not because it was so extravagantly boring.

The sex scenes are sparse, repetitive, and framed with absolutely no sense of danger. And when we're not watching Grey lightly spank Anna with his silk flog du jour (literally the only thing he does, despite his playroom wall looking like the dental tools from Little Shop of Horrors), we're feasting our eyes on leaden, conflict-free drama like "I'm going to visit my mom" or "let's fly in this impractical helicopter to an Ellie Goulding song" or "Rita Ora has two lines in this movie," all rendered through exhausting spinning camera shots.

"Let's have vague, thrusty, barely R-rated sex."

By far the film's biggest fault is its complete lack of sex appeal. Fifty Shades of Grey is almost anti-erotic, and I don't just mean in the "BDSM is unappealing to many people" kind of way. Johnson and Dornan strip down at regular intervals to hump like mindless, alabaster automatons going through the motions to make their sacrifice to the gods and goddesses of softcore bondage. Their lack of chemistry is downright appalling. Mother Theresa has had dreams more erotic than this film.

Now, let's be fair to Jamie Dornan - the character of Christian Grey is more or less impossible to play. This role could vanquish even the most accomplished actor. This man has no past or future, and no particular reason to be drawn to this specific woman. He is literally just a penis, which, incidentally, he is not allowed to show. It's a conundrum.

I want to make it clear that I'm not blaming him for the failures of this film as either a work of cinema or a tawdry piece of erotica. No, that buck should be passed directly to Hollywood, who robbed the source material of its already extremely limited appeal in an attempt to force it into a toothless, mass-appeal framework.

The whiteness! It burns!

But do you want to know the really sad thing about Fifty Shades of Grey? It's really not that bad. It might be a terrible adaptation of a terrible book, but that double negative means that it's at least something you can be capable of sitting through. It may be boring, unerotic, and bland, but it's not, like, the worst thing ever. Which, in some eyes (mine), would have made it the best thing ever. It's noncommittal in both directions, so it's even more completely useless.

The one bright spark to come out of this whole sodden mess is an unexpected talent: Dakota Johnson. She has a quiet spark that brings a bubbling humor to Anastasia Steele, anchoring the film in a decently pleasurable register for a surprising amount of time. I can honestly say that I would rewatch the film for the sole purpose of seeing her cast her spell, particularly in Anna's unforgettable drunk scene.

Oh, also there's exactly one impeccably shot moment - a meeting in which Anna and Christian discuss the contract, silhouetted through a soft red light that's unmistakably beautiful.

Oh, and they do a much better job of making Anna seem dowdy and average than they ever managed to do with Bella Swan. So that's something.

Look at me, I'm a human woman!

All things considered, Fifty Shades of Grey has enough to just barely squeak by as a non-hateable experience. But it's an utter failure at each and every feat it attempts. It's not offensive or sinful, as its puerile declaimers are saying. But it's also completely devoid of even the erratic, warped spark of its source material. One to miss.

TL;DR: Fifty Shades of Grey is non-erotic and dull, but spruced up somewhat by Dakota Johnson's lively performance.
Rating: 4/10
Should I Spend Money On This? It made enough. Leave the poor thing alone.
Word Count: 1563
Reviews In This Series
Fifty Shades of Grey (Taylor-Johnson, 2015)
Fifty Shades Darker (Foley, 2017)
Fifty Shades Freed (Foley, 2018)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

This Franchise Has Gone Straight To Hell

WARNING: This film is batsh*t insane and this review contains spoilers for many key WTF moments. If you are the one person in the world who has genuine interest in watching the ninth Friday the 13th film sight unseen, leave now or forever hold your peace.

Year: 1993
Director: Adam Marcus
Cast: John D. LeMay, Kari Keegan, Kane Hodder
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's the early 90's. You are a New Line Entertainment executive. After Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan flopped miserably in 1989, Paramount decided to up sticks and sell you the rights to the franchise. The Friday the 13th title has been sucked dry by one too many trips to the well, but you think you can squeeze one last droplet of box office gold out of the Voorhees name. What do you do?

Was your answer "stick a stake in the franchise by turning Jason into a Lovecraftian hell demon, keeping Kane Hodder offscreen for as long as possible, claiming it's the final film, then sending Jason to space a decade later"? If not, congratulations. You are not a New Line Entertainment executive in the early 90's. Though maybe you should have been.

In this scenario, Jason represents the F13 series and the other guy represents what New Line did to it.

Wanting to bring a little bit of that New Line charm by injecting some Nightmare into a cut-and-dry franchise, they completely lost sight of why anybody wanted to watch the damn things in the first place. Jason Goes to Hell is insane enough to be worth spending some time with, but it's about as far away from a Friday the 13th film that a flick with a double digit body count can be.

The film opens reasonably enough. A young woman drives up to a cabin on the edge of Crystal Lake, fixes a broken light bulb, then steps into the shower. Considering when last we left our dear Jason (Kane Hodder), he was a nuclear waste-infected dead child in the Manhattan sewer system, one might reasonably expect some incredibly bizarre Rube Goldbergian chain of events to bring him back to life. One is about to experience the first of many disappointments as Jason shows up alive and well for no apparent reason, other than the fact that he really really hates it when a woman commits the cardinal sin of owning breasts.

He chases her through a laundry list of slasher clichés, teleports in front of her in the woods, and... she dives into the bushes, whereupon the hockey-masked behemoth is promptly blown up by the FBI.

This is but a taste test of the weirdness yet to come.

I think it's interesting that the FBI realizes the only way to lure Jason is to send a lithe female agent to a cabin to open and close a medicine cabinet a couple times, but the rest of the film ignores this kind of genre-savvy quality. Anyway, during Jason's autopsy his heart begins beating again, possibly because he finally learned the true meaning of Christmas. Falling into an age-old slasher trope, the coroner picks up the heart and takes a huge bite out of it - wait what? I think that violates the Hippocratic oath.

What all this boils down to is that Jason is a body-hopping demon worm who needs to find a member of the Voorhees bloodline to be reborn, temporarily occupying other bodies on his quest for resurrection. If he gets to slice up some horny campers along the way, all the better. Life is about little detours. 

All of this insane exposition is handily explained to us by Creighton Duke (Steven Williams), a bounty hunter with an open mind who has been following Jason for years. A sleazy TV shock jock named Robert Campbell (Steven Culp) offers Duke a hefty sum to bring down Voorhees once and for all. Or at least until the sequel gets greenlit.

Action converges onto the town of Crystal Lake, where "Jason Is Dead" celebrations are ramping up at the local diner, courtesy of local business owner Joey (Rusty Schwimmer) and her totally straight husband Shelby (Leslie Jordan, who is basically the gay equivalent of Danny DeVito). When Jason (in the body of the sheriff, his hockey-masked self only revealed in reflections) murders a waitress named Diana (Erin Gray), her daughter Jessica (Kari Keegan) rushes to town, bringing her boyfriend Robert and new baby in tow. 

When will my reflection show who I am inside?

Jessica's baby daddy Steven (John D. LeMay, the only person to appear in the Friday the 13th TV show and one of the films, ring a ding ding) is accused of Diana's murder, but I'm more concerned with his sense of style. His glasses, voice, chin, and hair paint him as a stereotypical high school nerd, but he seems to be about 30 and wears a letterman jacket so I honestly have no clue what's going on with him. I know I shouldn't be concerned with Steven's hypothetical archetype when the townspeople are being murdered by a Lovecraftian worm demon, but just look at this.





Muppet Baby Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It's like all the male characters of The Breakfast Club were in a horrific automobile accident and the doctors combined all the surviving parts into one dead-eyed monstrosity.

Regardless of Steven's classification, the film lumbers along its loopy way, weaving through three entirely separate genres: along with the Clive Barker-esque supernatural shenanigans, the writers also see fit to toss in a traditional Friday the 13th replete with naked campers (and ample male ass - progressive!), as well as a small town family soap drama. This is not a storytelling format the ceaselessly formulaic franchise is equipped to handle. Jason Goes to Hell is hardly good enough to tackle one of these genres with full steam, but with so many disparate threads to keep track of, it lolls drunkenly back and forth with a plodding monotony.

There is a large cast to provide a suitable body count, but most of the deaths are cheap and general (if I see one more body smeared with blood but lacking a discernible slash wound, I might just grab a machete myself), and the film can't even keep track of its protagonists, let alone the minor characters. The baby subplot is an enormous waste of time with no impact on the narrative in any way (in fact, the central couple walks away from the rubble after the climactic showdown, having apparently forgotten that there was a small human accompanying them before), and random characters fulfill requirements of the plot with absolutely no motivation or agency. This occurs most execrably in a scene where Joey's teen son provides Steven with a getaway car out of the blue, a moment so unfounded that it accidentally shoots the script off into the avant-garde. 

And I'm beyond questioning why Jason performs his killing on the people he does, but way too many victims are outside of his range of focus. It's just distracting.

There are only two genuinely good moments in the entire film. The first operates on a cinematic level, in which Jason is lit by a car's blinker lights. The second operates with humor, during an exchange between Steven and his cop friend on the side of the road. Other than that, Jason Goes to Hell is a downright mess at a fundamental level.

Did you think I'd let you escape without seeing the gross demon worm?

The film is only saved (and slightly, at that) by its pure commitment to the inexplicable. Some gore gags surrounding Jason's body-swapping are truly unbelievable moments that need to be seen to be believed. And every new plot point, homoerotic shaving scene, diner shootout, or musical kazoo sting slathered onto the complicated screenplay like too much barbecue sauce furthers the tremendous, indecent weirdness of the entire thing. It's not quite bizarre enough to reach a truly bad-good register, and it inexcusably wastes Kane Hodder, who is the best thing to ever happen to the godforsaken franchise. But it's at the very least watchable, and for a film this unequivocally broken, that's a very very good thing.

Killer: Jason Voorhees, the Body Hopping Demon Worm (Kane Hodder)
Final Girl: Jessica Kimble (Kari Keegan)
Best Kill: As Deborah has sex with her boyfriend, she is impaled with a spike and split in half. That's what you get for not using a condom.
Sign of the Times: The wordless, copyright-free "rock" music that Steven listens to in the car uses actual guitars.
Scariest Moment: After Jason abandons Josh's body, it disintegrates into a gooey puddle of nightmares.
Weirdest Moment: A police officer checks someone's wrist pulse and announces "He's breathing!"
Champion Dialogue: "That makes me think of a little girl in a pink dress sticking a hot dog through a donut."
Body Count: 23; not including five more Jason-style murders that were reported on American Case File.
  1. Coroner is possessed and disposed of.
  2. Coroner's Assistant is pushed into a metal grate and stabbed with a probe. 
  3. Security Guard is killed offscreen.
  4. Mullet Security Guard is killed offscreen.
  5. Alexis is slashed with a straight razor.
  6. Deborah is stabbed in the back with a barbed wire spike and ripped in half.
  7. Luke is killed offscreen.
  8. Edna gets her head slammed in a car door.
  9. Josh is possessed by Jason and messily disposed of.
  10. Diana has a knife thrown into her back.
  11. Robert is possessed and impaled on a barbecue skewer.
  12. Officer Ryan has her head bashed against a locker.
  13. Officer Mark and
  14. Officer Brian have their heads smashed together.
  15. Ward's arm is broken and he dies because he's a loser.
  16. Diner Patron #1 is crushed against the counter.
  17. Diner Patron #2 is shot with a shotgun.
  18.  Shelby has his face cooked in a deep fryer.
  19. Joey gets her face bashed in.
  20. Vicki is impaled on a barbecue skewer and has her head crushed.
  21. Randy is possessed, then gets his neck sliced with a machete.
  22. Creighton Duke is hugged to death.
  23. Jason Voorhees is stabbed with a ceremonial dagger and finally dragged to Hell. 
TL;DR: Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday is tremendously weird, which is the irrevocably broken film's saving grace.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1719
Reviews In This Series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Women In Horror Month: Mother Dearest

Happy Friday the 13th, everybody! It's a very special day in a very special month, so let's continue our celebration of women in horror in style! One of the few things that only the women of the world can do is bear children (at least until Apple develops an app for that). Over the years, mothers in horror have been badass defenders of their brood, memorably loony zealots, or out-and-out evil masterminds.

Let's raise a glass to the best and the worst of these reproducing rebels!

Ten Memorable Horror Moms

#10 Rosemary Woodhouse (Rosemary's Baby)

Played by: Mia Farrow
Children: Satan

I would be remiss for not including Roman Polanski's epic horror tale of betrayal and pregnancy on this list. Surprisingly, having a life form growing inside you like a parasite isn't always a good thing, and Rosemary's Baby draws on a woman's very real fears of her own body and its potential. However, Rosemary barely deals with the child itself, mostly reacting to the wicked ministrations of her neighbors. For this reason she isn't too high up on the list, but she is far and away the most recognizable mother in cinema history.

#9 Pamela Voorhees (Friday the 13th)

Played by: Betsy Palmer
Children: Jason (Ari Lehman)

The inspiration for today's Friday the 13th-themed article, Pamela Voorhees is an unstoppable mack truck of a woman in a cable-knit sweater. Although her revenge for her son's drowning seems a little silly in the light of a dozen sequels proving his rather peculiar inability to die, she's the perfect mom, defending the memory of her son by mowing down inattentive camp counselors. In the process, she is also protecting the other children in the town from the same fate that befell her poor Jason. In the horror world, motivations are usually very narrow and selfish, so Pamela deserves mad respect for expanding her scope. She's like the Bill Gates Foundation of the slasher world.

#8 Margaret White (Carrie)

Played by: Piper Laurie
Children: Carrie (Sissy Spacek)

When people think Carrie, their minds usually jump to blood. Whether it's the period in the gym showers or the bucket of pig's blood, the scenes that stick in the mind are generally Carrie-centric. But without Margaret White's operatic insanity, Carrie would just be a meek weirdo with an embarrassing prom photo. Piper Laurie's performance as her brutal, insane mother can bring any right-minded horror fan into a state of near-religious ecstasy.

#7 Mother (Psycho)

Played by: Virginia Gregg, Jeanette Nolan, & Paul Jasmin
Children: Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)

Is it possible to spoil a movie that's nearly 60 years old? I think the statute of limitations on this one has run out, but nevertheless I'll shy away from revealing anything other than this domineering presence over the life of motel owner Norman Bates has led to one of the most unforgettable classics of slasher cinema. Forget Bates Motel. All the uptight mothering you can ever wish for is right here, stalking the halls and purging them of nosy cityfolk.

#6 Sarah (The Descent)

Played by: Shauna Macdonald
Children: Jessica (Molly Kayll)

There are few films more inextricably linked with the idea of motherhood than The Descent. After the unfortunate death of her daughter in an automobile accident, Sarah is trapped underground during a spelunking expedition. Fighting for survival, Sarah taps into her savage grizzly mama instincts and loses herself entirely, escaping her grief through rebirth as a ferocious, blood-drenched woman of the dark.

#5 Chris MacNeil (The Exorcist)

Played by: Ellen Burstyn
Children: Regan (Linda Blair)

Chris MacNeil is an actress who throws away her career in order to protect her daughter's health. She opts out of her next movie to provide full-time care for the possibly mentally-ill, definitely demonically-possessed Reagan, putting her kid's welfare over her own personal dreams of fame and success. Although she is unfortunately sidelined in the third act, Chris MacNeil is personally responsible for saving the life of her daughter after a lengthy, harrowing few months of suffering in an ill-lit Georgetown apartment. You'd think nothing would be worse than the pain of childbirth. Try cleaning up pea soup vomit while a demon tosses wardrobes at you. Motherhood is tough, but Chris is tougher.

#4 Lynn Sear (The Sixth Sense)

Played by: Toni Collette
Children: Cole (Haley Joel Osment)

The Sixth Sense is the only horror movie that consistently makes me cry, and it's due entirely to Toni Collettes's powerhouse performance. Lynn Sear is a harried single mom at the center of a domestic drama, with no idea about her son's traumatizing ghostly encounters. All she knows is that Cole is shutting himself out from the world, and she works tirelessly to make sure that he gets the care and love that he needs. She might not see dead people, but she's the most important, grounded character in M. Night Shyamalan's one truly great film.

#3 Amelia (The Babadook)

Played by: Essie Davis
Children: Samuel (Noah Wiseman)

The Babadook is a new entry into the classic horror pantheon, but it's a doozy. Exploring the taboo side of motherhood through Amelia's extreme dislike of her irritating son Samuel, it brings dark new ideas into the conversation. Amelia is doing her best to raise Sam on her own, but the titular storybook monster threatens to swallow her whole, and the fate of her family rests on her ability to deflect his sinister persuasion. Essie Davis brings a raw energy to one of the most original, deeply disturbing horror moms of all time.

#2 Mrs. Slater (The House on Sorority Row)

Played by: Lois Kelso Hunt
Children: Eric (Charles Serio)

The House on Sorority Row is typically viewed as a second-tier slasher film, but Mrs. Slater's suspended-in-time fixation with her long-lost son is so simultaneously tragic and chilling that it launches the film up to the top of my esteem. Channeling her energies into being a house mother, Mrs. Slater's years of misplaced emotion has soured her natural affection into something bitter and magnetic. Her transformation is the emotional fixing point of a surprisingly well-made mid-80's slashfest.

#1 Heather Langenkamp (Wes Craven's New Nightmare)

Played by: Heather Langenkamp
Children: Dylan (Miko Hughes)

Heather Langenkamp, playing herself in Wes Craven's meta masterpiece, is far and away the best screen mom ever to wage war against the darkness outside the four walls of her suburban idyll. When Freddy Krueger attempts to push into the real world through her son's dreams, Heather does everything in her power to keep him safe. She alternates between soft and mothering (like when she sews up Dylan's slashed stuffed T-Rex) and hardened badass (like when she rips through a hospital's security squad to keep them from sedating him) like a damn pro. I don't know many other moms who would sprint across a busy freeway to protect their son from a dream demon hiding in the moon. OK, that probably doesn't happen to your average mother, but Heather has what it takes to win the gold.
Word Count: 1167

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Grim Fairy Tales

Year: 2014
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, James Corden
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The transition from stage to screen is not an easy one. Musicals rely on the energy of the audience, so pre-packaging a living and breathing live show into one endlessly reusable piece is a tricky endeavor. Sometimes it's a successfully thrilling conversion (Little Shop of Horrors, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), sometimes it's downright repugnant (Bye Bye Birdie, The Phantom of the Opera), and sometimes it's a magnificently slapdash spectacle of glitter and misguided cameos (Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!). Into the Woods, adapted from Steven Sondheim's 1986 stage show, is a little bit of all three, though it survives on the strength of one of the most effective celebrity casts in recent memory.

I'm definitely not being biased by Chris Pine's hair. Definitely.

Into the Woods combines several different fairy tales into one dark, cohesive tapestry about coming of age, parenthood, exploring the world outside one's humdrum life, and learning to accept responsibility. The cast of familiar characters includes Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Prince Charming (Chris Pine), who meet at a ball under magical circumstances against the wishes of an Evil Stepmother (Christine Baranski); Jack (Daniel Huttlestone of Les Misérables) and his Beanstalk of Opportunity; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who encounters a Wolf (Johnny Depp) on the way to her grandmother's house; and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), trapped up in her tower patiently waiting to let her hair down for the right Prince (Billy Magnussen).

When a childless Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) learn of a curse placed upon their household by the Witch (Meryl Streep) next door, they set off on an adventure to find four magical objects to reverse the spell before three nights pass. On their journey, they split up and regroup and encounter various other characters making their merry way through the woods. It's basically one of those chase scenes from Scooby Doo, with characters popping in and out of closets and running into one another all across the forest.

Also like Scooby Doo, there's a creepy live action dog.

As a medium for showcasing the syncopated rhythms and delicate wordplay of Sondheim's compositions with crispness and clarity, Into the Woods is an unequivocal success. Although the cast is star-studded, many of them have previously proven themselves as vocal talents in films or on the Great White Way: Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski in Mamma Mia!, Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect, Lilla Crawford in Annie... And Johnny Depp? Well, he really isn't in very much of the film.

And the newcomers are of a piece startlingly suited for the challenge. Emily Blunt has a clear, chirpy voice that isn't tested by overly-challenging pieces, and Chris Pine has a rich, dreamy baritone that really needs to be taken advantage of in larger roles. Or at least televised karaoke pajama parties.

The film shines brightest during its first half, during which the fairy tales are enacted in fairly traditional, but uniquely overlapping nature. The cheerful chaos of the characters' various collisions is upbeat and energetic, mixed with some highly theatrical (and occasionally suspension of disbelief-shattering) lighting, staging, and costume design, especially in the otherwise unprepossessing Wolf sequence.

I mean, it's hard to make the Little Red tale look drab. *coughcoughAmandaSeyfried*

The actors feel most comfortable when they're embracing the "Whee! It's a musical!" aspect of these scenes. Not that any of them are untalented in other registers, but fairy tale characters rely on broad stereotypes and tonally the performers can find their match with ease. Chris Pine is dashing, Anna Kendrick is woebegone, Lilla Crawford is brash and outgoing. Wham bam, thank you ma'am. 

The sheer amount of fun they must be having just pours from the screen. Every one of the film's best sequences comes from this pure joy: the sprawling and fantastical opening number, Cinderella's spritely dash from the Prince, Little Red's encounter with the Baker, and the dashing, hilarious, campy idiocy of "Agony," the Princes' duet and the unimpeachable high-water mark of the entire show.

I suppose I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Meryl Streep's Oscar-nominated performance as the Witch, but there's not much there to talk about. Streep is a treasure, of course, but her old crone is not much more than an over-the-top, crack-addled spinster. To be fair, that's what the role calls for, but she's not exactly punishing herself to find the core of her character. But she has a superb belt and knocks all of her songs out of the park and that's more than I could ever ask for.

A superb belt, yes, but a superb dress and wig, too.

However, once the film makes a drastic tonal shift into the darker side of the fairy tale universe, the film loses its mooring. The performers strain to find purpose and the music dries up, becoming both less frequent and more self-serious. It is here that the Disneyfication of the show takes full effect as the film shies away from the original show's more morbid plot points.

The third act drags like an anchor as the company tones down the death, sex, and violence, removes some key scenes entirely, and plods on through to its now unmotivated conclusion. Frankly, the final third is an unholy mess, pushing a stone over the film's well of lively buoyancy and letting it die an ignominious subterranean death.

The film strains to reach the finish line and sputters, coughs, and dies three feet from the ribbon. The finale song, cut down to a wanly fading overdubbed monstrosity, is more like a funeral knell than a full-circle denouement. 

But all in all, the film ain't half bad. If you can stomach the unappetizing finale, Into the Woods is worth your time, especially if you've never expereinced the joy of seeing the show staged live. Despite its watered-down ambitions, it really is the next best thing. The cast is remarkably game to bring the songs to life, the setting is charmingly serene, and the music will be playing in your head all week. Maybe just take a nap when you hit the 90-minute mark.

TL;DR: Into the Woods is a lively fun musical that is brought down by a tampered-with finale.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1058