Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fright Flashback: The Eternal Grinding Of The Hollywood Machine

Welcome back to Fright Flashback, where every week until the end of summer we will visit an older horror film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to an upcoming new release. This week we are anticipating Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, the fifth of the seemingly endless Mission: Impossible movies. In celebration, we'll be revisiting Slumber Party Massacre III, another late sequel in a franchise with a mystifying number of entries.

Year: 1990
Director: Sally Mattison
Cast: Keely Christian, Brittain Frye, 
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The Slumber Party Massacre franchise is an alarming combination of fascinating and frustrating: In short, it is a Roger Corman production. The original Slumber Party Massacre was written as a feminist pastiche of the genre, but filmed totally straight, leaving it clever but muzzled and ladled with a steam helping of nudity in levels heretofore unseen this side of the “Adults Only” curtain. Slumber Party Massacre II drops the parody angle but adds a heavy dose of Krueger-ific dreamscapes and a rock ‘n roll killer that noodles tunes on his guitar (complete with nifty drill bit attachment) before mowing down pillow fighting co-eds, one of whom is the little sister of the original survivor’s neighbor. Hey, it makes more sense than the Terminator coming back as a good guy. Sequels are tough.

Slumber Party Massacre III throws its lot wholeheartedly in with the rest, featuring authentic female behaviors in an almost neoreliast, documentary-like fashion, including spontaneous double stripteases, cookie dough finger licking, and the like. That’s all fine and dandy, really. I love me some unabashed tawdriness in a film. Not everything has to be Gone With the Wind. But in a franchise with such a strong subtextual core – the killer’s drill represents his penis, his killings are psychosexual release, and his death is castration - being saddled with such a abundance of shallow exploitation seems disingenuous. The real clincher though, is that this terminally exploitative franchise has been directed and written by women from the start, the only slasher series in existence to do so.

Being a feminist slasher blogger is like trying to hug a cactus.

Slumber Party Massacre III tells the story of – you guessed it – the 1986 NATO summit. Just kidding. It’s about, of all things, a slumber party. After a fun day of volleyball at the beach (this film very explicitly takes place in the coastal town of Playa Vista – one thing I love about this franchise is that it makes no attempts to hide its (cheap) California roots – it feels like home), a buxom group of guys and gals prepares for the night of their lives. For many of them, it will be their last. 

Let’s Meet the Meat, shall we? There’s Jackie (Keely Christian), the girl hosting the party while her parents are out of town looking at real estate; Frank (David Lawrence), her new boyfriend who looks like a Play-Doh statue of Sam Smith; Tom (David Kriegel), a schlub who sucks at volleyball; Susie (Maria Claire), who has low enough standards to overlook Tom’s total lack of personality; Maria (Maria Ford of the arthouse classic Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls), who looks like Elvira but more corpse-like and with a bigger wig, and has a thing for men over 50; assorted light and dark Meat, overstuffed; and Juliette (Lulu Wilson), who I would call the “slut” character if that title hadn’t already been claimed by literally everybody else.

As the party goes on, the attendees begin to get picked off one by one (and then all at once) by a killer in a clear mask brandishing a power drill. Could it be the creepy lurker, credited only as Weirdo (Yan Birch), who wears a black gi and a hideous blonde goatee that makes me want to break some Entourage DVDs in half, who found the house thanks to an address book that Jackie left at the beach for some inscrutable reason? Or is it the creepy neighbor Morgan (Michael Harris), who spies on the girls with a telescope, walks through unlocked doors at random, peruses anatomy textbooks in his downtime, and who clearly attended the Creepy Suspect seminar of the raw meat-eating Orville Ketchum from Sorority House Massacre II?

Or maybe it’s one of the newcomers to the party: Duncan (David Greenlee), the nerdy outcast who has been shunned by the group, and Ken (Brittain Frye of Hide and Go Shriek), the too-perfect hunk who Juliette met at the beach, whose ex-cop uncle just mysteriously committed suicide.

Also his name makes Ken doll jokes suspiciously easy.

The most striking thing about Slumber Party Massacre III is that for a crappy direct-to-video slasher sequel it actually serves up a pretty decent mystery for a good chunk of the time. This is an entirely new feature. In the first two films, there is absolutely no question that the murders are being perpetrated by Russ Thorn and… Weird Elvis Guy. So it’s doubly unexpected when this DTV 1990 flick with the dialogue about hips and thighs and Barbie commercial performances manages to keep you on the hook for so long. And the mask is genuinely creepy, too! Halfway between The Purge and Alice, Sweet Alice, it’s a slick little number that has no business being anywhere near a dunghill like this.

At least this film is honoring the franchise tradition of staunchly defying black or white categorization. But we’re here to attempt to review this rat’s nest, so let’s step back and take a look at the facts:
  • Slumber Party Massacre III is the worst Slumber Party Massacre movie.
The law of diminishing returns strikes again. Never a big budget franchise, this films seems to have been made for less than the cost of a routine nipple reduction surgery (at least, circumstantial evidence seems to prove that this is so), with a series of kills that are either goreless or intimately repetitive, presumably so they could reuse the same prosthetic over and over again.
  • Slumber Party Massacre III is not scary.
Well-crafted scares require a well-crafted, well, anything. Beyond an attack in a car that introduces the drill via the rearview mirror and stages the killing pretty explicitly as a penetrative sexual act, there is an utter lack of style evident in the film. Non sequitur dialogue and bland medium shots smash into one another at regular intervals, occasionally combining serendipitously into something borderline coherent.
  • Slumber Party Massacre III is still… kind of good.
Damn it!

The profoundly vexing thing is that the frequently bad-good campy charms sometimes (though very rarely) shade into genuinely good-good territory. Now what am I supposed to do with that? In addition to the aforementioned first act mystery (which is no Agatha Christie but keeps you guessing for longer than most rote hack ‘n slash whodunits), there are some laugh-out-loud comic relief moments that betray this film’s buried parodic pedigree. I’ll only spoil one of these for you: Frank wants to go check out the basement, but Jackie urges him to take Duncan’s fireplace poker with him.

“Actually, these are tongs.”

OK, maybe you had to be there. But the fact remains that this film is actually a half-decent slumber party flick. You and your friends can place bets on the murderer, shiver (but not too much) at the masked driller killer, laugh yourselves silly at the wooden performances and genuine humor, and shout at dumb characters to not go in the basement when there’s an open sliding glass door twelve feet from you, ya dipstick! And thought the low budget prevents the kills from spilling more than a thimble or so of blood, there’s some extravagantly cheesy compensation, including someone being stabbed with a swordfish and a particularly clever death involving the house’s “For Sale” sign.


Of course, Slumber Party Massacre III still isn’t a good film, as the entirety of the third act labors tirelessly to prove. The killer turns out to be Ken, which is interesting in its own right (the handsome, unassuming killer brings Psycho to mind – plus I like to think of it as backlash against the yuppiefied 80’s), but Frye plays psychosis like a six-year-old having a temper tantrum, and his implied, undernourished molestation backstory gets too dark too quick. After he reveals himself, there are still a good five or six girls still alive, and he begins chasing them around the house in a scene that begins exciting but rapidly deteriorates into a sloppy Caligula of idiocy.

The girls scuttle right past one another as they bleed to death, refusing to render aid or exit through the unblocked front door. Time endlessly unspools as scene after scene ticks by of girls hiding, smashing lamps over Ken’s head, then practically handing his drill back to him and starting it all over again. It’s like the final scene of Halloween, only Jamie Lee Curtis has been lobotomized and it’s played simultaneously on five different screens like one of those a cappella YouTube videos.

Nothing can take away the surprising quality and fun of the first half of Slumber Party Massacre III, but its third act can damn sure try. With some proper editing, this film could have been just as memorable as its wacky brethren, but as it stands, it’s still one big hunk of crap that I can’t say I’m sorry I saw. This unknowable, ineffable franchise is finally finished. It’s been a bumpy ride, but certainly a wild one.

Killer: Ken (Brittain Frye)
Final Girl: Jackie Cassidy (Keely Christian)
Best Kill: Juliette is electrocuted when a vibrator is tossed in the tub. It’s not even hers. She’s borrowing it.
Sign of the Times: Jackie’s jeans have a higher proportion of patches on them than actual denim.
Scariest Moment: The masked killer pursues the Pizza Girl (Marta Kober of Friday the 13th Part 2) down a moonlit street.
Weirdest Moment: After Tom complains that his ankles hurt sometimes, Ken chainsaws his Achilles tendons, admonishing, “Never ever admit your weaknesses.” Somehow, I feel like pretty much everyone has a weakness to being chainsawed in the ankles.
Champion Dialogue: “If you can’t stop your parents from moving, why don’t you just move in with us? My mom wouldn’t notice. She’s going through menopause.”
Body Count: 11; I’m not counting Tom, because unless he bled out through the ankles, he sure as patoot didn’t die.
  1. Sarah is drilled through the back.
  2. Michael is stabbed through the chest with a For Sale sign.
  3. Pizza Girl is drilled in the gut.
  4. Juliette is electrocuted with a vibrator.
  5. Weirdo is stabbed in the mouth with a swordfish.
  6. Duncan is slashed across the stomach with a drill.
  7. Frank dies from being hit in the face somehow.
  8. Janine is drilled in the gut.
  9. Maria is drilled in the gut.
  10. Diana is stabbed to death.
  11. Ken is drilled in the gut.
TL;DR: Slumber Party Massacre III is a bad-good movie with more than occasional glimmers of brilliance.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1837
Reviews In This Series
The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones, 1982)
Slumber Party Massacre II (Brock, 1987)
Slumber Party Massacre III (Mattison, 1990)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Through The Fire And Flames

Year: 2007
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Run Time: 2 hours 18 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The first four Harry Potter movies are like distant relatives overstaying their welcome during the Christmas holidays. They devour the full stock of your pantry (i.e. any working British actor above “street mime” caliber), they keep you up with their excessive snoring (or rather their brobdingnagian run times), and to your consternation, they just keep coming back every year without fail.  They are all jagged, ungainly narrative detritus usually brought back from the brink of stultifying despair on the strength of a veritable army of veteran adult performers and production designers so untouchably brilliant that they could literally murder someone, make their ribcage into a lampshade, and it would be so beautiful that nobody would find any problem with it.

When last we left our heroes, it was with 2005’s Goblet of Fire, the last stage of Harry Potter’s “childish” phase. That entry was marked by a particularly devout slash and burn approach when it came to the story, leaving the film a smoldering rubble with only Ralph Fiennes standing triumphant amid the flames. But after all that painful slogging, David Yates stepped up to the plates, and like its titular bird, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix rose from the ashes of the franchise, heralding a new dawn for us all.

Plus, it’s the shortest film of the series. Rejoice!

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in case you yourself are a book and haven’t grown self-aware enough to discover the concept of reading, is about the fifteen-year-old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). At the end of last term, he saw the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) rise again, but the paranoid Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) believes that his claims are false, brought on by the promptings of the avaricious headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). This is patently untrue, of course, but he appoints the syrupy and officious Professor Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts to ensure the Ministry’s hold over Hogwarts while he continues his smear campaign on Potter and Dumbledore from the outside.

Torn between the inordinate responsibility he feels toward the Order of the Phoenix (a secret society leading the charge against Voldemort – to which his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) belongs), the very adult bureaucratic and political pressures of the Ministry, the surge of teenage hormones and exam stress that lead to infighting with his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and the sudden urges to storm off and listen to Simple Plan alone in his room, Harry is going to have a very rough year.

Being 15 is just a barrel of dicks, isn’t it?

So a hawk- or particularly talented pigeon-eyed viewer may ask, how exactly does one accomplish the Herculean feat of adapting the doorstopper Order of the Phoenix into the shortest movie of the franchise? And that includes the two films that tackled only half the final book apiece, thank you very much. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg might tell you this or that about writing while standing up or the miraculous powers of lime extract, but the answer is very simple: He actually cared about telling a coherent story that doesn’t rely on a thousand page children’s book to fill in the alarmingly huge gaps that could (and frequently did) fit a grown man.

Mind you, the storytelling of Phoenix is not airtight. Several of its marbles roll irrevocably out of bounds, most notably with the character of Tonks (Natalia Tena) who may well have been a large chocolate gateau for all the purpose she serves the film. But when narrative corners are cut (and with source material as extensive as this, it requires more cutting than a Flock of Seagulls reunion tour), Goldenberg uses pre-established elements (like alternate characters or story beats) to bridge the gaps instead of just skipping past the difficult bits like the faulty record needle of the previous four films.

In addition to the first generally coherent script of the franchise, Order of the Phoenix also boasts a remarkably adept visual schema courtesy of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. As I said before, the films have always had nut-busting production design (a tradition continued here with Stuart Craig’s glittering obsidian Ministry of Magic and the defined yet somehow infinite complexities of the Room of Requirement), but only Goblet of Fire’s encroaching gloom came close to resembling a unifying aesthetic. Here, the knobbly yet prim structure and stolid lighting of Umbridge and her domain contrast sharply with the heavy shadows, vivid blues, and bright slashes of light that define the clutter of Harry’s reality. This helps emphasize the central conflict of the film, between the Ministry’s careful restructuring of the media narrative and the grim reality they’re hoping to conceal from the world at large as well as themselves.

Perhaps my favorite detail of the film, Phoenix in a microcosm, is the mirror in the Room of Requirement, where Harry and his friends secretly practice defensive spells under the nose of the Ministry. Over the course of the film, the mirror begins to fill up with newspaper clippings and photographs depicting the missing and the dead as Voldemort and his Death Eaters continue their wicked work in the shadows. This collection is never explicitly mentioned in the dialogue, but it fleshes out the dangerous and terrifying world that lies in wait outside the walls of the school. It’s subtle, powerful, and entirely visual, and a big part of why Phoenix is the best Potter yet.

Plus, Daniel Radcliffe was 18 at this point and beginning his conversion into a fully weaponized cute person.

So, have we had just about enough of Film Major Brennan for one article? Let’s just tuck him away again until he can wax poetic about slasher sound cues where he can’t hurt anybody. Because Order of the Phoenix is also a remarkably fun movie. It’s dark, brooding, and deals with mature themes, yes, but it’s also a school rebellion flick. There are moments that capture that summer camp rush of subversive mischief, finally giving the caretaker Filch (David Bradley) something genuinely amusing to do, and allowing the ensemble – especially Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and newcomer Luna Lovegood (the incomparably dizzy Evanna Lynch) – to truly inhabit their roles and create a living tapestry to support Harry and his exploits.

The acting is likewise much improved, especially after the discouraging Goblet, which almost led to a series of costly psychotherapy sessions. Emma Watson’s eyebrows still clearly long to be set loose in the untamed wilderness, but as a whole, the trio at the core are improving markedly as they age, and the adult performers are back on track as the fossil fuel that keeps the engine running smoothly.

Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith carry on as always, because they are untouchable denizens of Mount Olympus, Michael Gambon has finally settled into his wizened peak as the powerful but ancient headmaster, and Ralph Fiennes returns with his excellent, bored Drawl of Evil, but two newcomers steal the show. Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as the insane prison escapee Bellatrix Lestrange is like an exploding nail gun, pure menacing power, and Imelda Staunton provides a perfectly pitched, sickeningly sweet performance reminiscent of a genius pantomime villain. You boo and you hiss when she comes on and you love to hate her, but the depths of her wickedness turn your stomach, especially in the showstopping detention scene. 

It’s saying something when Emma McFreaking Thompson turns in the worst performance of your entire adult cast, I’ll just leave it at that.

Please note that I don’t say these things lightly. I’m literally sitting next to a VHS copy of Dead Again as we speak.

However, for all the massive improvements Phoenix amasses upon its predecessors, it’s still weighed down by certain demining flaws. The purely anonymous score by Nicholas Hooper would be damaging enough, but when it shades into out-and-out lyrical rock songs, the film dives directly into the nearest dumpster. And the climactic battle sequence that closes the film alternates between electrifying thriller imagery (and some truly impressive visual effects, especially between Dumbledore and Voldemort) and wimpy light shows hardly more arresting than a game of laser tag. It too frequently slides into camp territory to sell its emotional climax, which it then immediately forgets about anyway. Also there’s a shot where it looks like Voldemort is doing jazz hands.

Let’s just say it’s a bit of a bumpy landing. But it’s the least turbulent Potter thus far, and I could see myself rewatching this one without wanting to stick a fork in an electric eel, so three cheers for Order of the Phoenix!

TL;DR: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a fun, flashy, aesthetically precise film.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1497
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Columbus, 2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Columbus, 2002)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuarón, 2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Beerly Departed

Year: 2015
Director: Tomm Jacobsen, Michael Rousselet, Jon Salmon
Cast: Alec Owen, Patton Oswalt, Greg Sestero
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

In the interest of full disclosure, it might benefit you to know that I donated to the Kickstarter to bring Dude Bro Party Massacre III into this world, and if you believe that this will bias my review, so be it. Also in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I didn’t like the movie very much. I have nobody to blame but myself.

A little bit of background: 5-Second Films is a YouTube comedy group that – for a period of several years – released a short comedy video every single weekday. It was an exercise in bite-sized Internet absurdism, sometimes clunky, sometimes gut-splittingly hilarious. Over time they began to attract the attention of other famous personalities, and they’ve worked with people as varied as BriTANick, TomSka, Weird Al Yankovic, Larry King, and Patton Oswalt.

One of their videos, a short slasher parody about a bunch of exaggerated frat guys, eventually expanded into a full parody trailer. From there they got the idea to make their very first feature film: a full-scale slasher parody ostensibly recorded from a lost midnight movie broadcast in 1989. They’re not the first to have this sort of idea.

Slasher parodies have been attempted before, to varying degrees of success: One of the very first, 1981’s Student Bodies, is a shrill, sophomoric effort, but where it goes right is in skewering the already hoary tropes of the nascent subgenre: overuse of holidays and anniversaries, virginal Final Girls, and desperately gimmicky kills. The 1996 satire Scream perfected this angle, tossing teens who knew the genre inside and out into a typical slasher scenario. And the mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon flipped to script to terrific effect, showing how a wannabe killer manipulates the scenario to create his own movie. On the other hand, where flicks like Scary Movie and its endless bevy of sequels failed lies in an overreliance on cheap pot gags and pop culture references so instantly dated that they even make the Baha Men roll their eyes. This same fate befell films likes Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th and a host of other pseudo-comic bandwagoners.

In short, a slasher parody can be successful, but only to the degree to which it actually genuinely engages with the material it’s parodying. That requires research. That requires dedication. That requires focus. That requires…

More than five seconds.

DBPMIII tells the story of the Delta Bi fraternity, which has survived two previous attacks from Motherface (Olivia Taylor Dudley, known for such classy horror titles as Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Chernobyl Diaries), a hideously burned house mother, and her revenge-seeking daughter. Now somebody else has donned the Motherface mask and slit the throat of the only survivor of the two previous massacres, Brock (Alec Owen). His twin brother Brent (Alec Own) arrives on campus to infiltrate the Delta Bi’s – led by the handsome and totally not too old Derek (Greg Sestero of The Room) – and solve his brother’s murder while the frat parties it up at the old sorority house by the lake.

Meanwhile, the Police Chief (Patton Oswalt – somebody bake this guy some cookies, he’s a damn good friend for agreeing to be in this) sends the nerdy Officer Sminkle (Brian Firenzi) to the lake as a virgin sacrifice to end Motherface’s rampage on the pretense that the Delta Bi’s are secretly bags of oranges and that by bopping them on the nose he can return them to their true form and end Chico’s orange crisis. …Yeah.

I paid for this movie.

I suppose it was probably too much to ask that the guys who do five second online videos make a masterpiece 90 minute feature right out of the gate. That’s be like asking a fortune cookie writer to pen the next great American novel. Or asking Michael Bay to make a movie that passes the Bechdel test. But much like their YouTube channel, it hits as often as it misses. DBPMIII is full to the brim with zany experimentation and cinematic risk-taking like no comedy I’ve ever seen, and I wouldn’t trade that sense of gung-ho adventure for the world, but I dearly wish the results were more coherent.

I mean, really? Bags of oranges?

It’s an immensely frustrating film, and a pristine example of Newton’s Third Law of Film Comedies: For every great joke, there is an equal and opposite sucking turd: For every moment that toys with the mechanics of film in an interesting, clever way, there’s a dancing attic robot. For every opening montage that deftly summarizes an infinitely gorier, more hilarious slasher flick that supposedly came before, there’s a bag of oranges. And then the film finally has the f**king audacity to turn its goddamn orange gag into one of the best postmodern surrealist jokes of the entire godforsaken affair and I weep bloody tears of sheer hubris.

God help us all.

The biggest issue with Dude Bro Party Massacre III is that it has no identity. Is it an 80’s slasher parody? Or is it an absurdist Internet comedy film? Being both is not an option. The eras are mutually exclusive. So the film drifts by in a flux of indecision, dipping a toe here and there where it sees fit. I’ve already splanted my flag in support of films that embrace their slasher leanings, and this one is no different. When DBPMIII is operating at its unequivocal best is when it’s wholeheartedly engaging with the genre, like a pan-searingly funny gag poking fun at ominously foreshadowing song lyrics. And the film is at its spoon-gagging worst when it forays into the broad, spasmodic realm of online humor, from whence crawls the film’s most abhorrent character, the beer-crazed party boy who’s so unfunny he sucks the fillings right out of your teeth.

Unfortunately – funny or not – the entire film is unforgivably marred by a flabby second act which is a full, deathless slog populated by an endless parade of useless character moments. Which, ironically, is the single thing that it has most in common with the average 80’s slasher.

At the end of the day, Dude Bro Party Massacre III is not an unfunny film. At any rate, I’d toss it a couple extra points just for an out-of-the-blue Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead reference. But watching it is like panning for gold. To find your nuggets, you have to sift through the silt, and there’s just so damn much of it.

TL;DR: Dude Bro Party Massacre III has its moments, but its attention span is too poor to sustain the hilarity.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1135

Friday, July 24, 2015

Fright Flashback: Teen Adaptations

Welcome back to Fright Flashback, where every week until the end of summer we will visit an older horror film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to an upcoming new release. This week we are anticipating Paper Towns, this summer's hipsterbait John Green adaptation  In celebration, we'll be revisiting I Know What You Did Last Summer, the 1997 Kevin Williamson slasher based on the 1973 suspense novel by Lois Duncan.

Year: 1997
Director: Jim Gillespie
Cast: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze, Jr.
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

You and I have spent so much time poring over slasher dreck from the 80’s, it’s easy to forget that there’s actually been a great deal of cinema history between 1989 and now. I know, right? So between the recent reignition of my Scream marathon and this Fright Flashback entry, I’d like to give you a quick crash course on what it meant to be a horror flick in the late 90’s.

Once 1989 hit and the slasher market crashed for god, horror was in a tough place. Direct-to-video dreck like the Leprechaun sequels were still sticking to the bottom of the genre’s shoe, but true classics like Candyman were few and far between. Then Scream went and changed everything in 1996. All of a sudden, horror was marketable again. All you needed was a cadre of teen stars in tight tops, a handful of self-knowing jokes, and – if he was available, and he was – Kevin Williamson. The floodgates opened, sending films like Scream 2, Halloween H20, Urban Legend, and The Faculty spinning out into the market.

At the forefront of this trend was a little film called I Know What You Did Last Summer, based on a slasher script that was penned by Williamson before Scream but snapped up like a prize piece of sushi following that film’s success.

And buoyed to box office dynamite by Jennifer Love Hewitt’s ample cleavage.

IKWYDLS tells the tale of a group of graduating seniors in Southport, North Carolina. Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe) is a privileged dick, as either of those names might have proven to you; Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is his beauty queen girlfriend with dreams of stardom; Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is her best friend, a down-to-earth (Final Girl), straight-laced Final Girl), straight-A student (Final Girl); and Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), is her boyfriend, who is less privileged than the rest of them, which means that his perfectly bleached tank tops are an inch looser than Barry’s.

Life is hard below the MTV poverty line.

The friends spent the night partying at the beach after the annual Fourth of July celebration and during the drunken ride home they accidentally hit someone. After some frantic arguing – Julie wants to call 911 because Final Girl – they decide to dump the body into the ocean and take this secret to their graves. It turns out that that won’t be too difficult, because the very next summer a psycho in a rain slicker brandishing a hook begins threatening them with notes that read “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and bumping them off one by one. During the year, Julie and her friends have become estranged, but now they must work together to solve the mystery and discover the identity of the murderer… before it’s too late.

Spoiler alert! It’s stupid.

If we’re speaking to the film’s raison detre: namely, delivering prepackaged babes straining at the seams of their crop tops before safely kicking the bucket so that blood drips pretty from their pouty Dawson’s Creek 3-episode-arc lips, IKWYDLS is a sterling success. As a bona fide slasher whodunit flick, however, it does have its flaws. Against all odds.

Having been written before Scream, the film largely lacks the arch-ironic spin that characterized most of the slashers of this period. That isn’t necessarily a liability, but it does leave it ill-equipped to process the layers of urban legend that penetrate the central story or engage with it at any level other than face value. Not to be outdone, that exact goal would be fulfilled by the Jared Leto slasher Urban Legend the very next year, but IKWDLS wastes too much potential on an underexplored premise that leaves it stuck with a killer who looks alarmingly like the Gorton’s fisherman.

I know what you breaded last summer.

On top of its generally thinner screenplay, the core mystery is insipid gruel, hopelessly extending the run time with its watery trivialities. When the film takes a break from terrorizing its teens to let Julie put on her Nancy Drew knickers and galumph around sleuthing in backwater townships, the pacing grinds to a screeching halt. Although these scenes introduce us to Anne Heche, who delivers the most nuanced, dependable performance of the lot, the plot they serve is an uninterested, nonsensical slog. And I do realize it’s difficult to provide decent motivations for the sorts of body counts we’re used to looking at in slasher flicks, but SPOILERS [isn’t it more satisfying to get revenge for your murder if you’re actually been… you know, murdered? It seems a bit beside the point if you’ve actually been alive the whole time. Water under the bridge and all that.]

And of course, existing as it does smack dab in the middle of the Teen Soap slasher trend, the actual horror in this horror film is remarkably tame. The stalk sequences aren’t particularly well thought-out (run perpendicular to the car chasing you, Ryan Phillippe! Did that shower you just took fog your brain up as well?), the killer obviously attended the Jason TakesManhattan School of Teleportation, and there’s nothing particularly gory worth mentioning beyond the first kill. There are a handful of surprisingly nifty jump scares, but mostly the film is content to be blandly functional.

It’s so hard to stay friends after high school.

But it ain’t all bad. Though admittedly not all of this may be on purpose, IKWYDLS can still be a pretty fun teen romp when it wants to be. 90’s garbage punk blares on the soundtrack, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s breasts enormous breasts threaten to swallow every gaudy necklace she wears, Ryan Phillippe’s shirts get bigger with every passing scene like he’s the Incredible Shrinking Man, and Kevin Williamson’s arch dialogue reminds you of just how smart you and your friends thought you were in high school.

And, hey. It’s trying. There’s only one truly memorable shot (the killer viewed upside down from a victim’s perspective) amid the generically slick cinematography, but somebody obviously fought to include it. And the idea of Freddie Prinze, Jr. in abject poverty might be laughable but the idea of class disparity isn’t just a throwaway line. It’s about as sincere as an Oscar acceptance speech begging for world peace, but at least it’s trying to open a dialogue. In a slasher movie! You gotta have a little respect for the sheer mad audacity.

Of the core teen cast, only Sarah Michelle Gellar turns in a performance worth truly commending (Love Hewitt seems to be attempting to blink her lines in Morse code and I’m fairly certainly Prinze, Jr. forgot to take out his retainer before shooting), forming some genuine chemistry with her castmates, but they all make for a believable bunch when it comes down to brass tacks. At least they all seem to appropriate age within a reliable margin of error, which is more than I can say for even the best of the 80’s slashers.

At the end of the day, I won’t be popping this flick into my DVD player every time summer rolls around. It’s not eminently rewatchable, like even the worst of its Scream brethren. But every now and again, it’s a decent frothy 90’s delicacy, as long as you can survive the fiddly mystery bits. Watch it at a party so you won’t feel embarrassed taking over it.

Body Count: 5
  1. Max is hooked in the chin.
  2. Barry is slashed to death with a hook.
  3. Policeman is hooked in the gut. 
  4. Elsa has her throat slashed with a hook.
  5. Helen is slashed to death with a hook. 
TL;DR: I Know What You Did Last Summer is empty-headed, but benign.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1378
Reviews In This Series
I Know What You Did Last Summer (Gillespie, 1997)
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (Cannon, 1998)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Tiny

Year: 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Ant-Man is a punchline. A superhero who can make himself really tiny? He’s the Aquaman of the Avengers. It’s like when you’re at a restaurant and ask for a Coke and they say, “I’m sorry, we only have Ant-Man.” At least, that’s been the online dialogue among non-comic book fans. But guess what? Guardians of the Galaxy took a property that literally two and a half people cared about and converted it into a media juggernaut, so why not Ant-Man?

Enter Edgar Wright. …Exit Edgar Wright. Leave the keys to the guy who made Bring It On and Yes Man (I’ve never ever heard of that superhero). Suffice it so say, Ant-Man isn’t quite the sterling success that Guardians was, though it packs some punch in a very similar, if slightly watered down manner: trump up an achingly generic storyline with a heavy dose of good-natured humor and hope for the best.

Also – exactly one disappointingly brief ab shot.

Ant-Man tells the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a cat burglar trying to turn his life around after his release from San Quentin. He’s working hard to be a good role model for his daughter, but it’s tough to find work as an ex-con. He’s sent on a job that turns out to be an elaborate set-up by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, looking just as confused to see himself here as I am), who has invented a suit that can shrink the size of the wearer while increasing their strength. This suit is controlled by the Pym particle. Only Hank knows the formula to this particle, which is also a liquid because science. Also he can mind control ants, because why not.

Hank enlists Scott to work with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to help him perform an elaborate heist and shut down the operation of Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has taken over Pym’s company to develop a shrink suit called the Yellowjacket, which he plans to sell to HYDRA, which is basically the Marvel equivalent of Osama bin laden presents the Nazi Party. If this suit falls into the wrong hands, it’s somehow even worse than Iron Man’s suit, which can shoot nuclear warheads out of its ass. Because ants. Or something.

I’m so sorry, Hunter.

The biggest liability – and the biggest strength – of Ant-Man lies in just how inconsequential it really is. It knows it’s a story you’ve heard a quintillion times before and it knows it’s just a breadcrumb on the trail to Avengers XD: Montezuma’s Revenge or what have you, so when it takes the liberty of not taking itself so seriously, it soars. Ant-Man is a film with a tremendous sense of humor, both about itself (and its stature among its epic superhero peers) and within itself. It’s a genuinely funny movie, much like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, though admittedly most of its best lines are disproportionately handed to the terrific Michael Peña (as Scott’s best friend Luis).

But when Ant-Man isn’t laughing, it’s unrepentantly mechanical. Characters repeatedly show off their grotesquely inflated single behavioral traits like some kind of low rent freak show, trying not to trip over the hypnotically gargantuan foreshadowing scattered haphazardly at their feet. Character motives bend and snap in ways that put Elle Woods to shame, all in the service of ladling the audience with as much steamy, nutritious Marvel Cinematic Universe exposition as they can handle. The highest number of the most affordable cameos jockey for position among the actual storyline, which at this point is so overgrown and choked out that the establishing shots are practically subliminal and the entire second act has been converted into one incoherent montage,

Although, to be fair, I’m pretty sure that’s technically a genre now.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly serviceable. Those who love Marvel will get a kick out of connecting the dots. And those who just want Ant-Man only have to unfocus their eyes during a couple key moments to keep themselves pure. There’s a dash of political commentary, a surprising playfulness in the infrequent action sequences incorporating the balletic exchanging of sizes, and the questionable creature CGI is easily overlooked by the film’s jocular tone. No, the only truly, egregiously bad thing about Ant-Man is Evangeline Lilly’s hair, which she has clearly stolen from Bryce Dallas Howard’s sacrificial wig altar on the Jurassic World set.

It’s the only possible explanation.

But the fact remains that Ant-Man is a lark. It’s a fun, occasionally clever sugar rush, but it’s not Marvel filmmaking at its finest. It’s worth a watch for the humor, but absolutely do not go into it expecting anything other than a tinier version of everything you’ve already seen before. By every definition of that word.

TL;DR: Ant-Man is a funny, but inconsequentially generic entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Sure. Why not beat the heat? Just beat it at matinee prices.
Word Count: 850
Reviews In This Series
Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Holey Grail

Year: 2005
Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Run Time: 2 hours 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

We’re halfway there! As I revisit the fourth of the eight films of the Harry Potter franchise, which I have not watched since graduating high school and, subsequently, film school, I have come to an interesting and I daresay valuable midpoint conclusion: Don’t grow up. 

Of the first four Harry Potter films, the best of them (which, in my opinion at least, is unambiguously Prisoner of Azkaban) is still a muddled, conflict-free pile of dizzy aesthetic that leaves itself unguarded to quite justifiable attacks about its misuse of inveterate British actors as overqualified set dressing and being easily outshone by its own children’s choir. It’s a sorry lot, to say the least.

But we shall sally forth and hope that somebody somewhere along the line figures out how the hell to makes British teenagers interesting. You’d think magic would do it, but you would be wrong.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in case you’re an emu who found this page open on a safari-er’s lost iPad and have never heard of one of those “book” things, is about the 14-year-old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). What he really needs to do is get a haircut, but what he does instead is attend the Quidditch World Cup with his BFFs Ron (Rupert Grin) and Hermione (Emma Watson). An attack by Death Eaters – supporters of the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, but not until much, much later) – cuts the event short and casts a pall over the kids’ return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, quite literally, in fact.

The dominating aesthetic of Goblet of Fire is gloom, and it creeps in around the edges of every frame. Dull blues, searing oranges, and dreary greys loom everywhere you look. It’s a rather striking statement, especially combined with the sudden intimacy of the sets. Cast sizes are smaller, excesses are toned down, and in general it lends to a feeling of the film closing in on you, by far the single most effective cinematic achievement Goblet can boast.

But I digress. This year, Hogwarts is playing host to the Triwizard Tournament, an international championship between the wizarding schools of Durmstrang – a Bulgarian school represented by the champion Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) -, Beauxbatons  - a French school whose champion is Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy) – and Hogwarts – as represented by Cedric Diggory (the pale white, ice cold, impossibly fast and strong Robert Pattinson). This is the first time in many years that the notoriously dangerous tournament has been played, because the Ministry of Magic has figured that, between the rampaging troll three years ago, then those pesky attempted basilisk murders, then the repeated break-ins by a convicted killer, Hogwarts is, like, totally chill now.

Naturally, dark forces set to work almost immediately and Harry is forced against his will to enter the tournament, facing the trio of deadly tasks and set on a path that will, unbeknownst to him, eventually lead to the resurrection of Lord Voldemort himself.

It’s not that much worse than finals, really.

There is a certain challenge inherent in adapting a 700 page book into a film that won’t rupture children’s bladders. I’m aware of that, but Goblet of Fire plows through the plot at a blistering pace. It clips a subplot here, an entire story branch there, mowing down characters and story beats like a mad slasher. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for some ruthlessly efficiency editing, but the mad pruning that takes place here has the curiously dissonant effect of simultaneously removing far too much to let any of the scenes breathe, choking out any emotion or wonder, and leaving too many loose ends haphazardly jammed in (merely because they were things that happened in the book), hopelessly bereft of any connective tissue. If you can come up with any justifiable reason for Rita Skeeter, the Quidditch World Cup, or the Yule Ball to be in this movie, you are a far better filmmaker than I. Or Steve Kloves. Oh, and the film is too damn long, but complaining about that at this point s like trying to drain the ocean with a funnel.

As the film is sprinting along through its slapdash parade of half-digested scenes, it’s a miracle that it even finds the time to alight upon something so aesthetically present as the “closing-in gloom” I mentioned above, so it should come as no surprise that Goblet of Fire does absolutely nothing else cinematically surprising for the remainder of its duration. It might be literally too much to expect even anonymous directing from the man behind Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, so I guess we should consider ourselves lucky the film turned out as stylistically responsible as it did. It might be stuffy, awkward, and overlong, but this was 2005 after all. Even the actors’ hair was like that.

The Hot Topic generation will be the death of us all.

Actually, in many ways Goblet of Fire is very similar to puberty: It’s a bumbling, creaking shift to a more grown-up stage in the Harry Potter franchise, replete with barely understood mood swings, a vague, foggy idea of how girls work, and a supreme lack of humor about itself. Where Azkaban had a sprightly, fun fairy tale quality woven throughout, Goblet of Fire is just plain dour, only saved by two splendid comic scenes performed by Shirley Henderson (Returning as the freewheeling avalanche of self pity that is Moaning Myrtle) and – bizarrely – Alan Rickman, the franchise’s patron saint of pregnant pauses and nasal wickedness.

This pair of performances is two-thirds of a trio that forms the Holy Trinity of Goblet of Fire. For, in the finale, they are joined by Ralph Fiennes, whose Lord Voldemort is a tiger caged in a barely human body; fluid, powerful, and unspeakably evil. His make-up is flawless, his performance doubly so, but he comes too late to repair the deep tissue damage that he film has already suffered at the hands of his co-stars and his scene is marred by perhaps the film’s single worst use of the audience’s knowledge of the novel as a narrative crutch.

About those co-stars: The trio of child actors at the core of the series have been remarkably inconsistent as they’ve been passed from director to director like cheery British hot potatoes, but Goblet might just be their lowest point. Emma Watson’s eyebrows seem to have become sentient, living a completely separate and perfectly happy life atop her head, wriggling about without a care in the world, Daniel Radcliffe jerks about like a wind-up monkey clashing his cymbals together, and Rupert Grint vanishes for long stretches of the film, allowing one to forget that he was there in the first place. 

The adults hardly fare better. Michael Gambon in particular is making me look like an idiot for expressing ill-remembered faith in him several reviews ago as he dashes about barking random lines like a child playing with a new toy, and Roger Lloyd Pack (as ministry official Barty Crouch) fills what the slashed script has suddenly rendered an empty characters with twitched wiggling. 

It’s like he’s his own private sign language interpreter.

It’s unambiguously unimpressive to say the least, though at least the action sequences are blanketed in the best CGI of the series to date. In fact, a flying scene with Harry and a dragon zipping around the turrets of Hogwarts castle is a spectacularly seamless moment and perhaps the best single sustained effects sequence in the entire first half of the franchise.

All in all, Goblet of Fire isn’t a total wash, and it never ever sinks to the tedious depths of Chris Columbus at his most taxidermic, but it’s an uneven, anonymous movie, and that goes against the grain of everything that Harry Potter needs to be.

Excuse me while I go cry nerd tears, because this one was my favorite book. Until next tie, I’m forever yours in Potterdom. For better or for worse. Usually worse, I’m afraid.

TL;DR: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an uneven movie spiked by a gloomy, mature aesthetic and a trio of stellar performances.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1380
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Columbus, 2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Columbus, 2002)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuarón, 2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009)