Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pot Secret

Year: 2015
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I am far from a sucker for stoner comedy. Cheech and Chong blow right through me. Apatow’s tittering cronies hardly phase this old square. But when I saw the trailer for American Ultra, it tickled me. This looked like a film that wasn’t just content to pander in goofy munchies antics, but actually engage intelligently and – most importantly – ludicrously with them. I was all in.

Sometimes you take a gamble and it doesn’t pay off. Sometimes you hit it big. Sometimes you bet ten dollars and win back eight dollars. American Ultra was a little like that last one. I will take a perfectly strange film over a perfectly adequate film every time, but when it’s the latter (as American Ultra certainly is), it’s pretty hard to complain about that.

Alas, but I will. I mean, what are blogs for?

But first, the pot. Plot. I mean plot. In American Ultra, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is an unmotivated stoner living with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Unbeknownst to him he is also a sleeper agent. When the government, led by Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), decides to terminate him, his creator Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) rebels. In an effort to save is life, she activates him, but his weed-addled mind doesn’t give him the whole picture. He now has incredible fighting and firearm skills, but no memory of how he acquired them.

You get the picture. Screwup stoner can suddenly pull James Bond moves, but he’s confused and terrified as to why. Really, it’s a great concept. When a cadre of other “assets” arrives to destroy him, he and Phoebe fight back with startling aplomb.

Also Tony Hale is there because he’s awesome.

First off, this film doesn’t earn itself any favors by beginning at the end, a structural gimmick that barely works at the best of times and completely spoils itself at the worst. At the very least, American Ultra finds a middle ground between these two camps with an interesting reversal, but it still has the effect of watching the trailer right before the film. You’re just sitting around waiting for certain shots and situations to appear, not actually focusing on the story or letting it draw you in.

Approaching the film with that bias already in place is far from helpful, considering that American Ultra does everything in its power to prevent you from being drawn in. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a potentially wonderful film being strangled by producers in real time before, but that’s exactly what’s happening here. They engage with the concept like it’s a dead cockroach, buffering the truly buoyant moments with wads of painfully generic action sequences, a mid-film twist that unnecessarily complicates things, and a totally frivolous John Leguizamo cameo. I love the man, but the ham he is asked to sling weighs down the film like an anvil.

I’m sorry, John. I loved you in To Wong Foo.

But beneath that flaky coat of doldrums lies a deeply original, fun action comedy. You can’t pitch a movie as “stoner version of The Bourne Identity” and not have it come out at least a little kooky. Like I said, American Ultra seems oddly restrained in its promise of delivering weed gags atop a genre framework, like an adult hesitating to tell their parents about some mischief they pulled back in high school, but when it clicks it’s intelligent and hilarious. Gags can be simultaneously juvenile and wryly satirical, yet still gut-tickling no matter at which level you choose to receive it.

A lot of these clicking moments can be attributed to the leads, whose chemistry is as perfect as the time that guy accidentally invented matches. I mean, who knew Eisenberg and Stewart were so right for each other? And yeah yeah, Adventureland is a thing, but who actually liked that movie? What makes their casting in American Ultra so brilliant is the routes their careers have taken since that time. Kristen Stewart has stepped onto the reluctantly presented indie pedestal, and Eisenberg has some Oscarbait under his belt.

His progression has allowed them to relax while handling Blockbuster comedy roles, applying newfound skills to their approach. While some might argue that Kristen Stewart playing a stoner is as obvious as Kirk Cameron playing a crazed zealot, she tackles this role with a surprising zeal. A good comedy can be measured by the relative quality of its emotional extremes, and she rides between those tones like she’s in the X Games.

Are those still a thing? I’m not thirteen anymore, so I wouldn’t know.

Jesse Eisenberg matches and exceeds Stewart, completely externalizing the twitchy, anxious frivolity of the script at its best. Most of the film’s funniest moments belong to him, and not just because he plays the protagonist. His portrayal avoids caricature, encapsulating one guy and his tics like a mosquito in amber.

OK, before I bury you under any more similes, let’s wrap this up. American Ultra is a light, pleasant comedy film with action that occasionally rears its head to be clever. It won’t rock your world, but it will cheer you up. What more can you ask for, really? And look at it this way. If you rent this movie, that’s one more excuse not to watch You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. You’re welcome.

TL;DR: American Ultra is a pleasant but unchallenging Hollywood comedy.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 923

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Breaking The Silence

Year: 2001
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman
Run Time: 2 hours 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Following the success of the first entry in the saga of Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (ignoring Manhunter, as is unfortunately so often the case), all was silent on the Lambs front for ten long years. However, following the release of the third novel in the Lecter series by Thomas Harris, Dino De Laurentiis decided to get the lead out and see if there was any blood to squeeze from that long-dormant stone.

He certainly pulled out all the stops, trying to make up for his embarrassment from allowing another company to make Silence of the Lambs after Manhunter proved to be box office plutonium. He got a hot cast: Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Anthony Hopkins resurrecting his iconic, Oscar-winning role. Jodie Foster thumbed her nose at the project, but the chick from The Lost World was up to taking on the mantle of that gorgeously chewy West Virginia accent. This cast was to be wrangled by Ridley Scott, an even bigger name than the original’s Jonathan Demme. What could go wrong?

Apparently, everything.

But more on that in a minute. In order to properly mock Hannibal (the drearily generic moniker worn by both the film and the novel it’s based on), one must understand the plot: It has been ten years since Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, who is, shall we say, a smidge frecklier and more ginger than Jodie Foster) made a name for herself by capturing the Buffalo Bill killer. Following a botched drug bust, she attempts to regain her public standing by helming the continuing search for Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), following evidence presented by the wealthy and disfigured Mason Verger (Gary Oldman buried beneath a pile of Crypt Keeper prosthetics), the cannibalistic psychiatrist’s only surviving victim.

Unbeknownst to her, one Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) of the Italian Questura has located the mad doctor in Florence and has chosen to shirk the FBI in favor of Verger’s sizable reward. While Clarice sits in a dark basement placing her thumbs in various orifices and thinking, “Gee I hope somebody finds that Hannibal guy,” the Florincian drama endlessly unspools until Hannibal elects to pay a visit stateside. Clarice tries to catch him while her ambitious rival, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) attempts to shut her down, having been paid off by Verger, who wants Hannibal alive. All the better to be eaten by pigs.

The film differs from the book in three major ways: 1) Hannibal’s backstory is cut for the better, keeping the nature of his cannibalism pure and unfathomable (and not shamefully ludicrous, smh); 2) The ending is altered – keeping more in the tone of the original film (and not being shamefully ludicrous, smh); and 3) literally everything good is liberally excised with a hacksaw. It is this film point that dominates the film, during which – in all but two points – it is shamefully ludicrous.


Let me put it this way: Hannibal is probably the worst decent movie I’ve ever seen. Underneath a sheen of mostly competent visuals and performances lies a rotted-out core, and the stench permeates everything around it. A problem penetrating to the very center of Hannibal is a petty one, but a humdinger nonetheless: Julianne Moore. It would be tough but not unreasonable to get over the fact that they didn’t even bother to dye her hair or that she’s a smidge on the younger side of a decade older than Jodie Foster.

However, the film forces the conceit that Starling’s conversations with Lecter were recorded without her knowledge (an idea completely missing from the novel, for good reason), with the effect that we are forced to hear Moore’s voice clumsily pasted over dialogue from the infinitely superior original film like a child’s macaroni art. This humiliating display forms the chink in Hannibal’s armor, allowing a noxious wave of inadequacy to gush out and flood the rest of the film.

Hannibal is like a jigsaw puzzle of film-breaking problems, not the least of which is shunting Clarice and the FBI aside for a miserably extended stretch while Hannibal and the personality-free Pazzi dodder around Florence discussing art history. While the score that sounds more like the THX logo hum and Gary Oldman’s squawking performance as he scrabbles his way out from under his Master of Disguise turtle makeup duking it out for irritant supremacy, a more insidious army of flaws assembles in the background.

But let’s hit pause on that for a sec. I want you to see that I don’t kid around with my metaphors.

Before we dive back into the dumpster, why don’t we all massage out some of that nerd rage by discussing what’s actually good about Hannibal. Don’t worry, this won’t take long.

In all fairness, the murder sequences are of a piece pretty damn well constructed, especially in a deliciously nasty shot where a cell phone smashes to the ground, leaving us unprepared for the entails that spill down after it. There are a couple cool reversals at play and Hannibal’s tenure in Florence is marked by some intense, unique lighting that makes great use of Sam Raimi’s concept of “scare slashes,” or beams of light that only reveal a thin sliver of action. Generally, all the shooting around Hannibal is pretty incredible, paying him the respect he deserves.

Unfortunately, that same favoring of Hannibal Lecter is the villain’s downfall. His appearance in Silence of the Lambs is concentrated due to the short time he spends on screen, allowing him to maintain an impenetrably evil presence. Here we see the much dreaded cannibal going shopping, talking on a cell phone, and attending the opera. Keeping Hannibal in the spotlight overexposes him, taking the mystery out of his existence and diluting the cunning menace he represents. Hopkins is still an incredible performer, but even he can’t draw tension out of (urp) Hannibal on a carousel.

At this point, a plastic horse would be a scarier bad guy.

Really, at its core, Hannibal is profoundly silly. Silly horror films can be great at times, but coming in the franchise it does, it turns out to be nothing less than insulting. Scene after scene cascades from the gaping maw of this film, each more laughable and more tragic than the last. I won’t go into detail, but trust me when I tell you that the only terrifying thing about Hannibal is its narrative incompetence.

Sure, there’s still Anthony Hopkins and a cocoon of successful cinematography, but Hannibal is a surefire wash. I was warned against this film but watched it anyway due to its franchise connection. So I hardly expect you to heed my warning against this film. But please, if you ever feel the need to visit the twisted tale of Carousel Hannibal and Ginger Clarice, come armed with your sharpest sarcastic barbs.

TL;DR: Hannibal is a polished turd that has no reason to pretend to be related to Silence of the Lambs.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1179
Reviews In This Series
The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)
Hannibal (Scott, 2001)
Red Dragon (Ratner, 2002)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Over The Hill

Year: 1985
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Tamara Stafford, Kevin Spirtas, Michael Berryman
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In 1983, Wes Craven was in dire straits. His debut films The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes were artistically successful but they hardly made him a millionaire. His follow-ups were a score of TV movies and the modestly received Deadly Blessing. And in 1982, he took a bath on Swamp Thing, a mainstream comic book adaptation and an attempt to escape being pigeonholed into low budget horror. He was in dire need of a paycheck.

When the opportunity arose to slap together a cash-in sequel to one of his classic tiles, The Hills Have Eyes Part II was born. Craven has later said that he was so desperate that he would have directed Lassie vs. Godzilla.

He should have directed Lassie vs. Godzilla.

What happened was that this star-crossed sequel ran out of funding, abruptly halted shooting, and the incomplete film was wrenched from Craven. Producers papered flashbacks from the original film over most of the missing bits (though not as obnoxious a number as are present in clip show films like Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2) and said “screw it,” releasing the Frankensteinian hellbeast onto the world without Craven’s approval.

Even with Craven’s approval, this sequel – which draws influence from the ever-popular slasher genre rather than the grindhouse spirit that birthed it – wouldn’t be any good, but by peeking between the lines we can spot the zany experiment the film might have turned out to be. The film is his only attempt at a straight, by-the-numbers slasher and it goes disastrously awry. Even at the best of times, Craven’s concepts were far from straight. So that’s how we ended up with this bizarre, piecemeal aberration:

In The Hills Have Eyes Part II, surviving family member Bobby Carter (Robert Houston) shows up for ten minutes, never to be heard from again even though it’s implied he’ll arrive to save the day. Since his family’s fatal run-in with a mutant desert clan of cannibals, he has joined a dirt biking team, for which he has invented a new brand of turbo fuel. Yeah.

He wants to try and sell the fuel at their next race, but when he discovers it’s located in the same tract of desert where his family was murdered, he has a mental breakdown and decides not to go. He leaves the team in the care of his maybe girlfriend Rachel (Janus Blythe), the now-civilized daughter of the cannibal clan.

This hasn’t happened in quite some time, so it is with considerable relish that I invite you to Meet the Meat: The dirt biking team includes Harry (Peter Frechette), the requisite prankster who kicks it first; Hulk (John Laughlin), who has a bandana and no other distinguishing traits; Jane (Colleen Riley of Deadly Blessing), Harry’s girlfriend who takes a shower; Sue (Penny Johnson) and Foster (Willard Pugh), the Token Black Couple containing the Dude Who Acts Astonished Every Time He Sees Boobs Even Though He’s In A Committed Sexual Relationship And Has Presumably Dealt With Them Before; Roy (the delightful Kevin Spirtas of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood), the team leader whose body really goes with his outfit; and Cass (Tamara Stafford), Roy’s girlfriend, a beautiful blind psychic. Yeah.

This bundle of textbook slasher archetypes (minus Cass, of course) decides to take a shortcut through the desert, as they’re all running late because they forgot it was daylight savings time. Yeah. When they run out of gas, they are fallen upon by surviving cannibal Pluto (Michael Berryman), now led by his uncle, the Reaper (John Bloom). Thus ensues a night of murder, mayhem, dogs having flashbacks, and dirt bike chases through the sandy mountains.


As you have probably gathered, this movie is pretty damn weird. While Craven’s supernatural-hewing instincts would lead him to create one of the most immortal horror icons the world has ever seen, this script seems to have been collected from all the crumpled balls of paper that lay scattered beneath his brainstorming desk. Mind you, there’s a lot in this film that Craven can’t be blamed for thanks to its half-finished nature (i.e. Bobby’s abortive inclusion and an extremely murky fate for Rachel, who is knocked unconscious, whereupon the script forgets about her and apparently leaves her to die), but he’s not exactly off the hook.

There’s plenty in this film that just plain isn’t very good. The pacing is maddeningly off-kilter and the main character vanishes for at least half an hour, the dialogue is stale and frequently laughable (i.e. this sick burn, used to taunt the killer out of hiding: “The Reaper sucks!”), and every single aspect of the script feels like an unpolished first draft. Which, in all probability, it was. But that still can’t excuse the frustrating inability to light the African-American cast members at night, allowing their edges to spill off into the inky blackness, leaving only leering Cheshire Cat grins behind.

And don’t even get me started on the score by Jasonsmith Harry Manfredini, who I quite enjoy, but spends his tenure here shamelessly ripping off his own Friday the 13th score. Or the escape plan, which involves lighting a ring of fire and then running through it. Or Pluto’s modernized outfit, which looks like he’s readying for a community theater production of Davy Crockett 2065.

I’m simultaneously relieved and heartbroken they never made Hills Have Eyes III, which was reportedly going to be set in space.

But for all its considerable deficit, The Hills Have Eyes Part II is more than a little fun. It’s tremendously goofy and impossible to take seriously, but coming to it as a slasher connoisseur, it’s a hoot. If you can mentally separate your expectations of Craven from the proceedings, you can kick back and gawk at the cheesy slasher mayhem, dirt biking, the awkward reveal of Cass’s blindness midway through the movie (as we’ll discover, surprise blind characters will turn out to be a kind of motif in the more lunatic Craven entries), and the fact that the dog – Beast – puts up a better offence than the humans do, even pushing Pluto off a cliff like he’s the evil queen in Snow White.

It’s a haggard morsel of a film, but plumped with some classic bad-good nonsense. And there are a handful of crumbs in the film that manage to muster up tension, largely related to the cherry red dungeon of horrors in the basement and the fact that Cass must use every sense but sight to escape her tormenters. And once the body count gets going, it rockets up at a steady clip. So even though it’s malnourished pabulum, at least it’s over quickly.

The Hills Have Eyes Part II has next to nothing to offer the civilized viewer, unless they want a more or less firsthand account of the poisonous effect of desperation and studio tampering on the art form of cinema. But while its position as a cautionary tale is stronger than its entertainment value, there are still some wisps of bizarre joy to be milked from this engine running on fumes. Don’t watch it without removing your brain and placing it on a cool shelf a safe distance from the screen. Or better yet, just don’t watch it.

Killer: Reaper (John Bloom) and Pluto (Michael Berryman)
Final Girl: Cass (Tamara Stafford)
Best Kill: Beast pushes Pluto off a cliff.
Sign of the Times: Foster asserts that it ain’t natural to be in a place without a disco. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t live into the 90’s.
Scariest Moment: Cass discovers the bodies of her friends, but she has to touch them all to “see” them.
Weirdest Moment: Dog flashback! Come on!
Champion Dialogue: “All he does is growl at rocks – his mother must be a thoroughbred cement mix or something.”
Body Count: 7
  1. Harry is crushed by a falling boulder.
  2. Hulk is impaled on a spear.
  3. Foster is dragged under the bus.
  4. Jane is hugged to death.
  5. Sue has her throat slit.
  6. Pluto falls off a cliff.
  7. Reaper falls down a mineshaft.
TL;DR: The Hills Have Eyes Part II is an inept, slapdash cash-in sequel.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1387
Reviews In This Series
The Hills Have Eyes (Craven, 1977)
The Hills Have Eyes Part II (Craven, 1985)

Friday, September 25, 2015

I Eat Cannibals, Pt. 1

Year: 2015
Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Aaron Burns
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I like to think of myself as somewhat of a horror authority. The couple odd hundred reviews I have catalogued right here should back me up a little bit on that statement. But I must confess, I find myself a bit flummoxed by The Green Inferno, which is a heavy concoction of areas in which I hold microscopically little expertise.

First and foremost, The Green Inferno is a cannibal film in the vein of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust (which also holds the distinction of being the first found footage film). The only cannibal film I’ve ever seen is the quasi-slasher Anthropophagus, which I admittedly adore, but isn’t quite in the same savage vein. Second and… secondmost, The Green Inferno is an Eli Roth film. I hate to admit my modern horror illiteracy, but I’ve never seen a single frame of footage from a Roth picture before this.

Both of these factors contributed to the film being pulled from its initial 2013 release, presumably because the studios balked at attempting to market such a hardcore production. So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself sickeningly horrified exactly no times. What I should have been prepared for – had I been more Roth-ducated going into the film – is what I got: a cinematically sound, skillfully rendered, erratically xenophobic frat boy Facebook rant.

Is it even possible to be racist against Peruvians? Do white people know Peru exists?

During its drawn out, doomed journey from the backwaters of 2013 to now, The Green Inferno has sought to tell us the tale of another doomed journey. College student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) actually starts paying attention in humanities class and decides to join an activist group on campus, against the better judgment of her roommate Kaycee (singer Sky Ferreira, whose eyelids must be made of lead – either that or she was lightly clubbed before each take). And by better judgment, I mean: “activism is gay.” Did I mention that every single line of hers is essentially just Eli Roth shouting his Twitter feed into your eardrums through a megaphone? She’s the toxic younger cousin of the Mary Sue characters: Douchey Sue.

Anyway, Justine decides to join the activists on a trip to Peru to stop a construction crew form destroying the forest and murdering an ancient, untouched civilization in the Amazon. To my considerable displeasure, Kaycee does not go with her, preventing us the delights of watching her get ripped apart by cannibals. However, this means that she’s in less of the movie. It’s a fair trade. The demonstration is a success, but when Justine’s life is endangered in the process, she loses faith in the group’s leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy). Needles to say, on the way home, their plane goes down and they end up being captured by the very civilization they were attempting to protect, who turnout to be a tribe of murderous cannibals.

How come the foreigners in these films are never just lonely accountants or something?

Some might say the big problem with The Green Inferno is that its subject matter is inherently fraught with wildly inappropriate race relations. While I will take a stab at tackling this topic a little later on, this could fill a freaking ten-page thesis, so for the sake of brevity and the spirit of exploitation, let’s forgive our cannibal film its cannibal plot line. The real issue here is that The Green Inferno is light years from being as visceral and shocking as it imagines that it is, which is a profoundly irritating fact.

It must be said that the gore effects provided by Greg Nicotero (of The Walking Dead) and his crew are the A-level work of masters of the craft allowed to do some really exciting, fun stuff that tests the resilience of the American censorship board. It’s top-notch splotch. But the atrocities that they’re called upon to render aren’t too far removed from the zombie mincemeat that audiences get pumped into their homes every week on TV. Maybe we’re just being desensitized, but there’s only one violent sequence in the film that will ultimately challenge the intestinal integrity of a tried-and-true horror veteran.

Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the gore is superb. The film wouldn’t have a severed leg to stand on without it, and two sequences in particular are the best in the film on the strength of well-timed effects. It’s the smugness I can’t tolerate. Even a scatological scene – the last bastion of the desperately controversial – lacks the guts to really sell the grimness of its scenario. A Hangover movie would take more risks with a scene like that. Not that it’s a bad thing to be dissimilar to a Hangover flick, but you get the picture. This movie wouldn’t have you running to join a nunnery.

That said, it’s sure to scare the straws right out of all those junior high-ers’ venti passion teas.

This is the course that most of The Green Inferno takes: wildly competent, but without enough juice to push it over the edge. The Amazonian location photography is lush and beautiful, if a bit workmanlike, the surprising sense of humor is a frequently welcome presence is a bit too attuned to gay jokes and fat-shaming for my liking, and the pacing is brisk without anything particularly eventful pushing it forward. It is but it isn’t, all the way across the finish line.

At least the acting is pretty consistent. With one glaring (literally) exception, every actor in the film is at the very least a credible screen presence. The true standouts are the villagers, portrayed by a real lost Amazonian tribe with chilling vérite, bolstered by only two professional performers. I daresay it’s a compelling argument that we should stop casting pop stars in projects when a group of people who had literally never seen a movie before turn in better, more enthralling performances. On top of all this, Lorenza Izzo is openly superb, endowing her character with a warmth and light that exquisitely empties into hollow desperation.

The combined efforts of the cast somewhat elevate the stock flatness of the characters themselves, but come on. This is The Green Inferno. Something was going to have to come along and temper hat nearly unadulterated praise.

You know how I hate to be the bearer of bad news.

The Green Inferno is contemporary horror in a nutshell: Sometimes funny, sometimes gross, never dull, and never scary. Overall, it’s a half-decent thrill ride, but it’s slackly slick throughout.

So now comes the moment of truth. Is this film xenophobic? Obviously a solid argument can be made that all films in this vein inherently are. But this is Eli Roth, after all, and he prefers a general smattering of misanthropy for flavor, and the people who really come out worst here are the activists themselves. Don’t come into this film expecting a well-thought-out treatise on the plight of ancient tribes, but it’s not quite as bad as you might expect in terms of treating indigenous tribes as savages. His malformed opinions about social justice in the Internet era end up slipping and spewing bile out of both ends, but in general he vaguely tends toward intimation that hey, these cannibals, they’re people too.

After all, you know what they say.

You are what you eat.

TL;DR: The Green Inferno is a gory, decently fun, but shallow film that wastes its potential.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? If you're not a jaded horror nerd like me and you're ready for some blood, go for it.
Word Count: 1284

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Murder Most Foal

For our podcast episode about this film, please click here.

Year: 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In the history of the Academy Awards, only four horror films have been nominated for Best Picture: The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense. It’s a paltry group at best with several entries only dubiously included in the genre, and only one of them has won. That triumphant film would be The Silence of the Lambs, based on the Thomas Harris novel of the same name.

The question that remains is this: Does The Silence of the Lambs deserve to be that one? And despite my unequivocal love for The Sixth Sense, my answer would have to be yes.

I would like to thank the FBI Academy…

In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, of hit films from pretty much every decade since she was born, as well as circuitous Golden Globe speeches) is an FBI trainee who is plucked from her studies at Quantico by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), director of the Behavioral Science department. She is sent into a Baltimore asylum to confront the notorious cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in order to get him to fill out an analytical questionnaire.

In their meeting, Hannibal offers Clarice an opportunity to get a psychological profile of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a serial killer who has been abducting and skinning women while rudely evading capture – in exchange for information about herself. Soon after, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the daughter of a U. S. Senator, is abducted by Buffalo Bill. With only three days to save her, Clarice begins a series of grisly sessions with Lecter where he gives her a series of clues to the murderer’s identity after psychologically tormenting her for a bit.

It’s kind of like speed dating but less ruthless.

The stunning thing about Silence of the Lambs is that these conversations, spaced throughout the movie in five minute chunks, manage to be even more frightening than all the severed heads, bottomless pits, and suits made of women’s skin in the rest of the film combined. Under the guiding hand of skilled non-horror director Jonathan Demme (whose most recent credit is the charming Meryl Streep musical family drama Ricki & The Flash), the film sings, no pun intended. His sequences are so well crafted that its hard to believe he’s a human being and not just an anthropomorphic camera.

Every aspect of the film is eerily stunning, from the production design (courtesy of Kristi Zea, most notably the glass panel in the place of iron bars in Hannibal’s cell, which diminishes the sense of distance between them) to the sound mixing (wind howls in the background of an indoor scene while Clarice tells her titular lamb story) and the cinematography itself (in that same scene, Lecter’s face dominates the screen in extreme close-up; people are shot talking directly to the camera while Clarice is shot at an angle, to promote identification with her character). This is a director who knows what he’s doing working with a team of dedicated, creative people (including legendary costume designer Colleen Atwood, who designed Hannibal’s iconic mask and has helped shape Tim Burton’s career from the very beginning), and that’s a combination you just don’t get very often in horror cinema.

Usually, it’s a director who has two days to complete shooting and a crew that has a higher percentage of cocaine in their bodies than human tissue.

When you’re dealing with a film where the technique itself is almost more terrifying than the content, it becomes difficult to think rationally. The tense atmosphere ratchets up into a shrieking roar to the point that one can be freaked out by a clanging metal drawer or a reflection in glass. In a way, it’s an atypical horror film because it doesn’t overplay its hand on the gory shock elements in favor of a mystery-based crime story. But in another way it’s the perfect horror film because it generates a perpetual sense of dread organically from the characters and their situations. And that dread sticks with you until the bitter end.

Like I said, this effect could not have been achieved without a team of talented people working at all cylinders. But one of the most integral portions of that crew is the cast. Every single core actor brings their all to Silence of the Lambs, most notably – for obvious reasons – Anthony Hopkins.

His performance of the factory refined evil of Hannibal Lecter is light years away from the over-the-top villainy that another actor might have brought to the role (Sidebar: Could you imagine, say, Kiefer Sutherland as Hannibal the Cannibal? You’re welcome). In fact, he’s so far under the top that he might as well be in a pit like Catherine Martin. This is a character so comfortable with his dark nature that he wears it like a favorite cardigan, making sure it’s neatly pressed and delicately removing any loose strings. Hopkins is reserved, polite, and playful, a terrifying combination with Hannibal’s wicked deeds, turbo powered by his merciless creativity in discovering new and improved ways to strip off his humanity (like the now immortal fluttering tongue noise that transforms shim into a coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike).

Not so subtle but equally terrifying is Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill. His performance is the antithesis of Lecter, a man about to burst at the seams (it’s a good thing he’s got some extra skin handy). Ted Levine’s acting is so monstrously Other, so exquisitely different from anything that had ever been seen before that it’s unsettling even when he’s not mockingly screeching down at his captive in the basement. And lying exactly between these polar opposite villains is Jodie Foster, who tends to be ignored amid the maelstrom of pure lunacy around her. However, she too is – as the kids say – killing it, forming a layered personality behind the façade of cool confidence that Clarice uses as a shield. Especially in her conversations with Hannibal Lecter, minute reactions demonstrate her intelligence, her ambition, and her fear that she’s in way over her head.

Mind you, that last reaction can be provoked from merely sitting in a room with Anthony Hopkins.

Foster’s performance informs one of the film’s subtler motifs. As a woman in a “man’s field,” she constantly faces discrimination and condescension, and she is constantly hit on by the large, predatory men that surround her. Man can’t look past her dainty surface to see the strength that lies beneath, and that is their downfall. Only three men can see her as she is under the skin, all of whom are integral in her pursuit of Buffalo Bill.

The first is her boss Jack Crawford, who sets her up with Hannibal Lecter. The second is Lecter himself, whose interests have transcended far beyond the sexual. And the third is Buffalo Bill himself, who understands the importance of skin more than anyone. Foster navigates this man-eat-woman world (in some cases, literally) with resigned familiarity, never using it to her advantage or giving up her own identity. The strength she gives Clarice is her own and it shows.

There are many more factors that go into making this film an indelible classic, including the make-up (which rarely gets to show off gore but renders what it can with gruesome realism) and the screenwriting (there are more classic lines in this film than there are lines at Disneyland), but in an effort to prevent this review from merely transcribing the film’s credits, I shall wrap up here.

While The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t connect with me personally at quite the intimate level that the novel it’s based on does, it’s still a treasure of a film. It is a remarkable confluence of geniuses in their field. So does it deserve that Oscar? Hell yeah, it does.

TL;DR: The Silence of the Lambs is a spectacular horror film that deserves every accolade it has received.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1352
Reviews In This Series
The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)
Hannibal (Scott, 2001)
Red Dragon (Ratner, 2002)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Fetish Dolls

Year: 1998
Director: Ronny Yu
Cast: Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Katherine Heigl
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Child’s Play series has always been kinda funny. Even the straight-faced original film had a couple comic moments, like when Chucky is insulted by an elderly couple on the elevator. And while I hold the fervent belief that a good director can make anything scary (hell, The Ring and The Babadook make videotapes and children’s books terrifying – it can be done), the “killer doll menaces people five times his size” thing is a little tough to take seriously.

So when 1998’s Bride of Chucky made the leap into full-on horror comedy, I accepted it with open arms. By acknowledging and embracing the fact that Chucky as a villain is more than a little campy, the film opened itself up to a world of twisted humor that ended up being even darker than the staunchly horrific entries.

What allowed Chucky to enter this territory (aside from Don Manicini’s slow drift across genre lines), was the release of Scream in 1996. Following the success of that slasher satire, a tidal wave of postmodern self-referential killfests crashed into theaters, including I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Halloween: H20, and the inevitable Scream 2. While Bride of Chucky is a banner-waving member of this crowd, it’s also one of the very best because it largely eschews the temptation to carve up a gaggle of airbrushed teens in favor of a dazzling tragicomic love story.

It’s the Weekend of slashers.

In Bride of Chucky, Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) is a serial killer groupie. Over the past ten years, she has dated a series of quasi-murderous nutcases, but none can hold a séance candle to her ex, the Lakeshore Strangler Charles Lee Ray. Since his death in 1988 (and the Child’s Play franchise’s ignominious death in 1991), she has been searching for the doll into which he transferred his soul. After bribing a cop to steal the doll from an evidence depository (which includes a razor-tipped glove and a hockey mask, because 1998) and killing him, she stitches him back together for a slick, creepy new makeover, and resurrects him. Chucky (Brad Dourif) just got lucky.

They immediately start arguing, of course, because relationships that begin with homicide are not exemplars of calm debate, and Tiffany winds up dead, with her soul transferred into a doll. They decide to find new bodies using an amulet buried in Chucky’s grave (one that could have really come in handy three films ago, no?) and hitch a ride with eloping teens Jade (Katherine Heigl, who likes to pretend this movie doesn’t exist) and Jesse (Nick Stabile, who likes to pretend we know he exists), killing anybody who gets in their way. On the road, they rekindle their romance over a shared love of assaulting people with sharp objects.

I think these two are gonna make it.

What sets Bride of Chucky apart from the rest of the post-Scream fodder is that it’s actually funny. While its dark, uncouth sense of humor may not be palatable to all viewers, the film is a modern success story of combining big guffaws and gruesome murder in a wholly organic way. The self-referential gags are likewise incisive and not too overbearing, enthusiastically lampooning itself by playing with the idea that, since he went dormant in 1991, the horror genre has left Chucky and his traditional slice ‘n dice antics behind. There’s perhaps a tad too much emphasis on name-dropping the 80’s considering that only one Child’s Play entry was actually released during that decade, but the film knows where it stands in the new wave of horror, and by embracing that it perfectly adapts to the postmodern trend.

It’s perhaps not as beefy in the scare department, but what the film lacks in genuine terror it makes up for with an atmosphere so perilously dark that Christopher Nolan could happily shoot a Batman film in it. Think early Tim Burton: grand gothic silliness that relentlessly retains that elusive creep factor while still allowing you to sleep at night. It’s as if they slapped Dracula’s favorite Instagram filter over everything, turning outsized suburban abodes into imposing cathedrals and seedy motels into Eurosleaze abysses of doom.

Really, it’s the road trip comedy Charles Manson has been waiting for.

Of course, the seven years advanced effects likewise had major influence over the film’s quality. Finally, Chucky’s lips actually have a semblance of orchestrating his dialogue. Praise be to Kevin Yagher Productions! And although the sight of Chucky running in his adorable little booties will never ever scrape up a scream, the enhanced animatronic work prevents the interactions between two dolls that drive the film from looking like a Punch and Judy puppet show. No, these dolls are capable of genuine emotional expression (well, mostly homicidal rage) and personality, and their love story never feels like anything less than two absolutely real people. Maybe with a bit of extensive plastic surgery, but still. They steal the show and they deserve to have it.

It also doesn’t hurt that the overarching story of Bride of Chucky is the most coherent, developed, and emotionally satisfying of the franchise. With the motivation for killing each victim firmly set in a narratively satisfying capacity, this streamlines the obligatory bloody mayhem and allows four-time screenwriter Don Mancini plenty of slack to explore beyond the shallow slasher mold.

Pitting two couples against each other in a showdown for survival, he indicts both distrust within relationships (Jade and Jesses both think that the other is the killer) and the self-deception and blind optimism that allows people to stay with a poisonous partner (à la Tiffany’s lament, “Why can’t I be with one of the real Good Guys?). Both couples become committed (either through marriage or voodoo possession of a plastic object - which is legally binding in several states) over the course of the film, but the one that survives is the one where their love for each other trumps their love for themselves.

I wasn’t kidding when I called Bride of Chucky a romance. Hell, it’s a tighter rom-com than My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Typically the driving force behind these films is the pedal-to-the-metal performance by Brad Dourif. He’s just as good as ever, but he’s met his match in Jennifer Tilly. Her disarming helium voice, her effortless sensuality, and her dippy charm make her perfect for the new direction of the franchise. She utterly inhabits the in-person comedy bits, allowing her amateur murderer side to show cracks beneath her calm, cool exterior. And when her work transfers to voiceover only, she’s equal parts sweet and wicked, making an indelible mark on an already terrific film.

Bride of Chucky is a couple notches short of a masterpiece, especially with the fact that the entire plot centers around a MacGuffin that’s uneasily shoved into the franchise formula. But it’s the magnum opus of a series that was never perfect yet always consistently entertaining. If you only have the stomach for one killer doll picture, I urge you to pick this one. You won’t regret it. And at the very least, you can make Katherine Heigl rom-com jokes the whole time.

Body Count: 12; including the killers because damn does this series not care about mortality.
  1. Cop is stabbed through the back of the throat.
  2. Damien is smothered with a pillow.
  3. Warren is shot in the face with nails and stabbed.
  4. Needlenose dies in a car explosion.
  5. Alex and
  6. Russ are pierced with shards of falling mirror.
  7. David is hit by a truck.
  8. Motorhome Guy and
  9. Motorhome Lady are killed offscreen.
  10. Gravedigger is shot.
  11. Tiffany is stabbed in the chest.
  12. Chucky is shot to death.
TL;DR: Bride of Chucky is a beautifully silly, creepy romance for the ages.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1309
Reviews In This Series
Child's Play (Holland, 1988)
Child's Play 2 (Lafia, 1990)
Child's Play 3 (Bender, 1991)
Bride of Chucky (Yu, 1998)
Seed of Chucky (Mancini, 2004)
Curse of Chucky (Mancini, 2013)

Friday, September 18, 2015

What Have I Done?

You might remember my spring cleaning period, where I unloaded a barrage of mini-reviews (well, if seven paragraphs still counts as "mini") to slough off the weight of just how many films I had seen that I still needed to review. You may remember this because it was literally a week ago. Well, guess what? Even though I still need to finish off my Chucky and Wes Craven marathons and tackle the current movies I've seen this month before the Halloween season comes crashing down in earnest, I went ahead and watched three more movies this week. I've made a huge mistake.

Year: 2014
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A young drummer takes a class with an angry, abusive teacher in an attempt to push himself to be the best.

It’s not often that my interests intersect with the year’s Oscar noms (The House on Sorority Row was snubbed!), but just last year a miracle happened. The scrappy horror production company Blumhouse took a break from making piles of money to assist in the creation of Whiplash, which went on to sweep all the Academy Awards categories that nobody particularly cares about. Despite its minted status as an Oscar flick, it still has the stylistic trademarks of a Blumhouse production, and that’s what makes it a fascinating watch.

The limited sets, small cast, and stylistic experiments typical to low budget horror filmmaking are all reinterpreted to this new genre, which is admittedly a horror story in its own right. Centering primarily on Miles Teller’s ingénue Andrew and J. K. Simmons’ domineering professor Fletcher, these two become locked in an emotionally brutal and occasionally violent enterprise: turning Andrew into one of the greats. This brutishly simple story requires a lot of its audience, asking if the pursuit of fame and talent is truly worth the price one must pay.

The plot is straightforward as all hell, which allows director Damien Chazelle free range in visually portraying it. He doesn’t go institutionally crazy with that freedom, but he taps directly into the film’s adrenal gland, sending shock waves of pure electricity through the audience. I suppose it goes without saying that the cinematography and editing adhere to the beat of the music played in the film, but there’s so much more than that to chew on.

The yellow, underlit music room casts a sickly pall on all who inhabit its space, red blood splashes vividly onto stark white drums, and the rapid cuts abruptly stand stock still to emphasize intense moments. There is no act of cinematic upheaval more profoundly affecting in Whiplash than its fearless finale, an audacious sprint to the finish line that combines rapid whip-pans, whirlwind cutting, and oppressively extreme close-ups in a mesmerizing effort that instills the feeling that the action is happening so fast, the film can’t even keep up with itself. When it finally lets up the sense of release is so drastic that you’re forced to sit there a minute, processing in stunned awe.

It’s a cool film, with two unforgettable actors behind wheel. Miles Teller finally breaks free from his Zac Efron/Skylar Astin twentysomething hell to deliver a well-rounded character that portrays raw, open-faced ambition in a frankly alarming but thoroughly committed manner. His fire is matched with panache by J. K. Simmons’ powerful hurricane of a performance, swinging from stone-faced impenetrability to spittle-flying rage beast. It’s stunning, nuanced stuff that simultaneously humanizes the characters yet exposes their darkest flaws.

The best thing about this crackling, angry film is its awareness of how insulated its world is. After all the fighting, screaming, bleeding, crying, and chair throwing (that music room has the world’s most resilient walls – definitely call their contractor next time you need remodeling done), it’s still only jazz. Time and again, the film reminds the characters just how little everybody else in the world cares about jazz. It leaves you with a bittersweet taste and compels you to consider the consequences of the sacrifices people make for their art. It’s a daring, kinetic picture and more horrifying than half the Blumhouse stock. Check it out!

Rating: 8/10

House of Wax
Year: 2005
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Chad Michael Murray, Elisha Cuthbert, Jared Padalecki
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A group of college students on a road trip get stranded in a town with a house of wax run by two maniacal brothers who murder tourists and turn them into wax figures.

2005 was such a barren wasteland for horror that we ended up with House of Wax, a remake of a remake. But, although it’s hardy a cinematic triumph, House of Wax is intriguing for several reasons. First, it is a reinterpretation of a classic Vincent Price property in the immediate wake of the zeitgeist hit Saw. Second, it’s actually a pretty beautifully shot little movie despite its host of remake calling cards, like uselessly pretty actors, a nigh-on nonsensical plot, and drama that’s shallower than a dorm shower.

Let’s linger on that first one, shall we? Where the Vincent Price flick was of sanitized 1950’s vintage, the new House of Wax was born into a meaner epoch, smack dab in the middle of the rise of torture porn. As a result, there are obviously much more prolonged and miserable scenes of people being chained to giant metal contraptions and whatnot. Really, it comes with the territory. But the striking thing about House of Wax’s new grim perspective is the artistry put into rendering the gore as realistically as possible.

From close-up grue like superglued lips and peeling wax skin to the realistically bloody aftermath of punches and blows, House of Wax makes an art form of turning the stomach. And the biggest showstopper of the film transcends even the gooey carnage, abuilding made entirely of wax melting to the ground. It’s visually arresting stuff, and if I rated films solely on effects, House of Wax would be an unequivocal 10/10.

Unfortunately I rate films on a variety of criteria, and in nearly every other respect, House of Wax fails spectacularly. One of the film’s most notable deficits is the acting. Featuring a notorious performance by the self-indulgent heiress Paris Hilton, the stakes become ludicrously low as she fails to entirely convince that she isn’t already made of wax. Any performer in the world would look like Brando when compared to Little Miss Trust Fund, but by golly do her co-stars push to give her a run for her money.

To be fair, providing motivation for the mountain of dumb-ass white horror character decisions that comprise the plot (“Let’s wander into a closed house of wax! And take a ride from a stranger whose car is decorated with rodent carcasses And then go home and floss with a rusty chain saw!” At one point, a hapless teen literally runs into a wall.) would be a challenge for Stella Adler herself. But wet-behind-the-ears stars Elisha Cuthbert and Jared Padalecki flail to find any sort of purchase on the impenetrable blocks of dialogue and Chad Michael Murray’s strained attempts to portray an “edgy” and “hard” criminal type just one year after A Cinderella Story are flecked with flop sweat and patchy stubble.

The basic story structure starts off interesting, splitting up the core cast between widely disparate locations, but it devolves into an aimless piece that reliably and impressively fails to follow through on the tortured seedlings of themes it attempts to plant, like the idea of two sets of twins facing off (Cuthbert and Murray are ostensibly siblings, although her brunette weave – probably mandated to accentuate Hilton’s golden tresses – isn’t doing her any favors) or small town vs. city living.

Luckily, as I mentioned before, the film is kind of disproportionately gorgeous, with dizzying, roving camera shots that highlight the moody gothic lighting scheme. It’s unfair, really, because the quality cinematography (as well as the terrific gore) prevents me from unequivocally panning the film like I urgently desire to. The acting might be dramatic backwash, the killer might look suspiciously like Tommy Wiseau, and the plot might be risibly coherent – bordering on absurdism – but there’s just enough to make it a remotely pleasing remake. Yay!

Rating: 5/10

Obvious Child
Year: 2014
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A heartbroken comedian sleeps with a cute stranger and discovers that she’s pregnant.

Whatever else it may be, Obvious Child is a charming film. It is also a romantic comedy, no matter how much its glowing reviews attempt to push and prod it into a  more agreeable shape. Along with that genre comes a bricklike tome of rules and conventions that the film does a great deal to subvert, but it can only do so much.

For a lot of the time, Obvious Child is astoundingly typical: a drunken montage of leaving voicemails on the ex’s phone, the sassy gay friend who can hardly keep from gagging on the arch dialogue jammed with ultrahip slang words that haven’t even been invented yet, a protagonist that spins world-shattering problems out of a situation that could easily be cleared up with a thirty-second conversation… It’s sweet, but you’ve had this dessert before. If it’s not Jenny Slate, it’s Julia Roberts, Katherine Heigl, Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz, Meg Ryan, Marilyn Monroe.

But the thing is, it is Jenny Slate. And it is Gillian Robesspierre, directing and adapting a feature version of her 2009 short film. And where the film breaks from romantic comedy convention, it breaks hard and fast like an unleashed puppy. [MID-FILM SPOILERS ABOUND IN THE REMAINDER OF THIS REVIEW] Where Obvious Child could easily have been a female-centric Knocked Up riff, it bites down and takes the risk to discuss what that film was too terrified to contemplate: what if abortion really is the right decision in some cases?

Telling even a dopey, generic story with that backdrop is a bracingly fresh approach, and Obvious Child’s social impact is practically limitless. It juggles all the trials of that decision (weighing your options, deciding to tell the father, examining one’s own moral principles) in a raw, straightforward manner without dropping the cheery torches of humor and new love. 

I just wish it were a tad funnier, you know? It’s never unfunny, but a lot of the humor is far from groundbreaking. Thinking back, there’s only one line that legitimately stuck with me and a couple of the more vulgar scenarios tickled, but the bulk of the film is deliberately low key and indie chic. It’s as if they didn’t have the budget to cover the medical expenses of keeping people in stitches.

Luckily, Jenny Slate manages to keep it all together. Her performance is unequivocal proof that, in order to be a good comedian, you must be a deft storyteller. So much of the film requires her to wring humor from moments of genuine emotion and she fearlessly bares her soul for the good of the story, always keeping herself comfortably far from flying over the top and turning into an SNL sketch.

Her character takes “flawed protagonist” to an almost surreal level (and her best friend/foil Gaby Hoffman – who gladly drops everything and does Jenny’s job while she mopes in a box – is clearly a figure from high medieval fantasy), but she manages to cobble a likeable, effervescent presence from the wreckage. And when all is said and done, the films speeds by like a hamster on crack.

It’s a lopsided flick, but as a first directorial effort it’s spectacular. There are certainly kinks to work out, but Robespierre is a woman to watch out for. She has delivered a tight, silly, emotionally honest flick that goes for the jugular of typical social norms. It might not have you rolling on the floor, but it’s important, well crafted, and – most of all – just darn pleasant.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 2010