Monday, November 30, 2015

Arrow in the Head: One Flew Over The Dodo's Nest

The time has come! My second official Arrow in the Head review has been posted! I had to throw in a Kate Beckinsale reference to appease my straight audience, but otherwise it’s my bona fide opinion on the 2015 indie release Dementia.

Year: 2015
Director: Mike Testin
Cast: Gene Jones, Kristina Klebe, Hassie Harrison
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Read my review here.

Additional Notes: This really wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s just another one of those films with a plot like a clear day. You can see every twist coming miles in advance, and they’re usually not that satisfying to begin with. As I mentioned before, I hate the movie Session 9 with every fiber of my being despite the fact that it’s pretty widely acclaimed. Dementia kind of reminds me of that film with its rudimentary psychological thriller machinations, so I’m sure somebody will love it. It sure as hell ain’t me though.

There’s basic flaws in its construction of reality (have you ever tried to subtly FaceTime someone? That noise could wake the dead), its continuity, and even its sound mix. The dad character looks and acts more like the daughter’s boyfriend, at least in the opening scene, and the veteran character abruptly shifts his entire personality with no motivation.

Dementia is constantly shifting, but not out of an attempt to create an atmosphere. It literally has no idea what’s going on in its own story and it’s immensely frustrating. But at least it’s better than The Sand.

TL;DR: Dementia is an unfocused, boring attempt at a psychological thriller.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 942

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

To Kill A Mockingjay

Year: 2015
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Run Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

So, here we are at the end of yet another YA franchise, possibly the last teen lit blockbuster for a good long while, unless The 5th Wave pulls a Hail Mary opening weekend. The second half of the obligatorily split finale of the Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay – Part 2 has no right to be as spectacularly bland as it is. The Hunger Games movies had been steadily improving, and when Mockingjay – Part 1 converted the worst half of the most insipid book into a gritty triumph of revolutionary filmmaking that tapped into the sociopolitical id of contemporary American culture, it seemed that the adaptation of the good half could only be a nigh-on masterpiece.

Alas. Katniss giveth and Katniss taketh away.

In case you couldn’t manage to get through the book, here’s the plot. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for the 13 rebelling districts of Panem, a dystopian future America ruled by the iron fist of the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Rebellion leader President Coin (Julianne Moore, whose filmography is a profound mystery) wants to use Katniss as a figurehead, but the proud young girl sneaks off to the front lines to assassinate Snow in revenge for his torture of her Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Oh, and all that iron fist stuff. That too.

In the background, a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) quietly picks at its nails, waiting for somebody to care. Yadda yadda, Katniss, Gale, and Peeta end up infiltrating the war-torn Capitol with fisherman soldier Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and a troop of meatbag soldiers who aren’t sexy teens and can thus explode as needed to prove that the Capitol is indeed a very dangerous place.

Where’s Finnick? Odair he is.

The biggest triumph of Mockingjay – Part 1 is that it toned down literary Katniss’ tendency to screech like a hormonal parrot and break down sobbing in closets, in addition to the inclusion of several major scenes of war and rebellion that were not present in the source material. Inexplicably, despite featuring the exact same cast and crew (I’d be surprised if the end credits weren’t just cut and pasted back in), Mockingjay – Part 2 takes one look at those successes and tells them shove it, happily leaping into the mire of relentless moping and tedium.

I thought this portion of the story would be salvageable because it’s where most of the action takes place, but the painfully devoted adaptation merely results in holding the novel’s most glaring flaws under a 30 foot high microscope. Perhaps the most notorious is the stilted romance angle, which trudges ever onward, asking dazzling feats of chemistry from actors who could hardly care less and never actually giving Katniss a realistic choice between the two. And then there’s her bleating, asinine morality. 

Somehow the girl who wants to rip out Snow’s throat with her bare teeth and [SPOILERS publicly assassinates a woman during a well-attended ceremony] has a problem using TWO bombs against the enemy. I don’t condone any kind of killing and her stance on protecting civilians is airtight, but this sullen, hypocritical mewling is a trademark of an author who has completely lost control of her character. The movie happily hits this point over and over again, signed and dated in triplicate.

It’s all immensely frustrating, but the worst holdover from the novel is that, by focusing on Katniss’ POV, the story is robbed of a climax. The expanded scope of Part 1 gave me hope that Mockingjay would evade the same pitfalls, but alas. Instead of watching a finale, we gag on twenty minutes of slowly softening treacle.

Just in time for the holidays.

The one thing that could have saved Mockingjay – Part 2 is the action that permeates the second act. Despite one genuinely thrilling underground battle, the stakes here are lower than the Mariana Trench. Character deaths are flat and perfunctory, the narrative throughline is more than meaningless, and the film is all too keen to return to those moments of down time so Katniss can wring her hands about her dubious moral compass and which boy she would rather smooch.

Like it’s a hard decision.

However, it’s a disappointment, not a waste of time. If you’ve gotten this far through the series, you might as well finish it off. It won’t hurt you, it might just sting a little bit. Although almost ever shred of its potential is wasted (just like franchise icon Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinkett, whose screentime is so short, it’s almost physically impossible to see her), there is still a great deal of talent poured into realizing this juvenile vision of a futuristic dystopia.

For one, the set design by Philip Messina is a delight, depicting a heavily stylized land of opulent decadence that has been laid to waste with detailed care. The mighty, off-kilter structures that dominate the screen are just as imposing as the sadistic regime they represent, and the empty streets of the comfort class paint a desolately gorgeous pictures.

Never mind the fact that its occupants are just sci-fi hipsters.

The cinematography, by third-timer Jo Willems is also a standout,. Though there are far fewer breathtaking compositions than his previous entries, he almost saves the crappy cop-out climax with some preternaturally beautiful framing that calls the film’s themes to mind far more effectively than its characters’ hemming and hawing.

Overall, Mockingjay- Part 2 is a serviceable popcorn flick, though it’s hardly ever a likable one. Just like Katniss, who packs a dozen arrows for a war, the film leaps into the fray totally unprepared for the trials to come. It caps off the series in a sufficiently basic way so it won’t anger fans, but as an ending to an increasingly promising film franchise, it falls dreadfully flat. I thought I knew why the caged bird sang, but now that chirpy tune has become a solemn funeral march. Goodbye Panem, and good riddance.

TL;DR: Mockingjay - Part 2 is a dull, inadequate end to an exponentially improving franchise.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1038
Reviews In This Series
Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)
Mockingjay - Part 1 (Lawrence, 2014)
Mockingjay - Part 2 (Lawrence, 2015)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Popcorn Kernels: Hell Hath No Fury

As we continue to clear out the wreckage of Halloween, let’s take a couple quick jaunts into the depths of Hell and see what we can dredge up.

Drag Me to Hell

Year: 2009
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Ruth Livier
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

An enterprising young banker denies a gypsy woman her loan and is cursed to be tortured by the Lamia then dragged to hell.

Like most horror icons, Sam Raimi has done all in his power to not actually direct horror movies. After helming the unforgettable Evil Dead trilogy, he moved on to projects like the Kevin Costner baseball treacle For the Love of the Game or the Spider-Man trilogy, all three of which are superhero flicks, but one of which is inexplicably a musical. After years and years of this nonsense, Raimi finally stepped back into the ring with Drag Me to Hell, and the really surprising thing is that it’s freaking awesome.

It pretty strictly adheres to the Evil Dead formula of invoking an ancient evil, being tormented in grotesquely hilarious ways, and then facing an unrelenting denouement, but from the perspective of an older and wiser director. He’s no longer 21 years old, and while in his maturity he has somewhat lost the borderline callous disregard for traditional film language that made his Evil Dead so uncannily kinetic, he has gained a sharper talent for embedding story and character in among his zany showboating.

These characters re still pretty rudimentary, but compared to Ash Williams and his meatbag friends, they’re Chaucer. Alison Lohman’s Christine is set up with a whirlwind flurry in a series of swiftly efficient scenes that paint her personality in bright splashes like Jackson Pollock canvas: she’s timid, eager for promotion, afraid of being branded a country hick, and ashamed of being overweight in her younger years. These qualities come into play again and again throughout the film, so they’re broad but hardly the pointless shading of 80’s cannon fodder that just needs to be differentiated from the next blonde over before she can be exploded into goo.

The dominoes are hardly even in position before the first one topples. Christine is suddenly plunged into an ancient nightmare and for the duration of the first act, it’s legitimately scary. Classic Sam Raimi touches electrify the proceedings (giddily twirling camera, looming silhouettes on faces, you know, the usual) and Drag Me to Hell goes through the motions of an utterly effective horror flick.

That is, until about he midway point. A talking goat and a necrotic mazurka smash the film off its hinges, sending it flying into a classic Raimi fever dream. The subtle and chilling horror jumps screeching into your face, putting Lohman through the Bruce Campbell ringer, smearing her with filth, gore, and excrement, beating her to a pulp with a gypsy corpse, and just generally making a mockery of her attempts at normalcy. It’s buoyantly silly, with enough references to Evil Dead II to be a hearty nod and not a brazen rip-off.

An exquisite blend of gushing camp and bleak fearlessness (they kill a child, for goodness sake), Drag Me to Hell isn’t Raimi’s best film, but it’s certainly a dazzling return to form. Between this and the pilot episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead, I’d say it’s time for the man to ditch the producing game and get back on the horse. And yes, we’re pretending that Oz the Great and Powerful never happened.

Rating: 8/10


Year: 2000
Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley, Frances O'Connor 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

An unloved loser sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for wishes, which invariably go awry.

“Starring Elizabeth Hurley and Brendan Fraser.” Could a phrase possibly be more early 2000’s? How about “comedy where a lead actor performs caricatures in a variety of zany, vaguely racist costumes?” Bedazzled, a remake of the 1967 movies of the same name, is an effortful, ridiculous comedy that reeks of flop sweat. As Brendan Fraser attempts to channel his inner Jim Carrey, jokes are flung out into the audience like wet fish. They can be funny in a nostalgic “the new millennium was so stupid” kind of way, but that’s the only thing that has allowed itself to hold any vestige of esteem past its demographic’s infancy.

OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh. The opening credits are genuinely fantastic. I really mean that. And there is good in Bedazzled, it’s just sandwiched between a whole lot of “wacky” artifice, Sometimes the film stumbles into thickets of such sublime stupidity, that you let your guard down and it can actually tickle you. You absolutely, positively must be in the right sophomore Stifler mood to watch this movie, but it’s entirely possible to enjoy it all the way through.

The biggest setback to the comedy is the smokin’ hot Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil, who gets the film’s funniest lines but delivers them with the nuance and vivacity of a mailbox. I bet she and Rachel Ward are having crumpets in some fantasy realm beyond our understanding, because they share the same vacant, pouty stare. The lines are humorous enough a la carte that they still work, but Hurley does everything in her power to vacuum every last crumb of comedy from them. She is the knife in Bedazzled’s back if you’re not attracted to women, because otherwise she has absolutely zilch to offer.

It’s not like the movie needed help sucking the air out of itself, what with its preponderance of offensive stereotypes. In one fell swoop, Bedazzled knocks down Latinos, gays, and wise old black men. In the fantasy where Fraser becomes a basketball player, I’m legitimately surprised they didn’t put him in blackface. I’m grateful they showed a modicum of restraint, although the hulking albino beanpole he becomes is pretty unsettling just the same. I forgive that scene’s woeful makeup for providing a pretty hilarious lampoon of less-than-erudite players in post-game interviews.

But Bedazzled isn’t finished with us quite yet. We still need to talk about the way it treats the women. Oh, the women! There are brief specters of progressive values here (merely being rich and powerful can’t win someone’s heart, etc.) but the love interest here is never treated as anything other than a vapid, mercurial prize to be won. [SPOILERS] Even once Fraser realizes that he just wants her to be happy and accepts her rejection, he is rewarded for his morality with an exact twin of her. I hate to get too political on movies that are irrevocably from a certain time period, but it’s not exactly on message.

So, here we are. Bedazzled is palatable if and only if you can manage to completely unscrew your brain. It’s problematic and its narrative is nothing more than a sequence of sketches, but if you’re in the mood for a juvenile time capsule flick, look no further.

Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1173

Thursday, November 19, 2015

We Know That It's Probably Magic

Year: 1979
Director: James Frawley
Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

I just made the best decision of my life. Because I’m a huge fan of the Muppets and their new TV show on ABC is just unlawfully good, I decided to drag myself and Sergio through a marathon of their 8 theatrical features, only three of which I have previously seen (and just one of which – Muppets Most Wanted – I have previously reviewed).

Jim Henson’s Muppets have withstood the test of time with grace and flair, bringing their enterprisingly meta comedy to the masses for over half a century. Although The Muppet Movie is not where they got their start (they debuted on Sam and Friends in the ancient year of 1955 and were already three seasons deep in The Muppet Show by the time the movie was released in 1979 – totally incidentally, the same year that Mad Max injected fuel into the engine of action cinema), it’s nevertheless a great place to start: their origin story.

It’s like Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, but only slightly less violent.

The Muppet Movie opens on the World Wide Studios lot, where the Muppets (including Kermit’s terrifyingly waifish nephew) have gathered for a screening of their first film, depicting how the felt-covered crew came into being.

The film rolls and we’re immediately plunged into the single best scene in the history of children’s entertainment: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) sits on a log, strumming a banjo and wistfully crooning the Willliams & Ascher tune “Rainbow Connection,” the ethereal paean to following your dreams that has landed at number 74 on AFI’s 100 Best Movie Songs list, been covered dozens of times by artists including The Carpenters, Weezer, Justin Timberlake, and Kenny Loggins, and caused more teary eyes than a century’s worth of animal dander. “Rainbow Connection” is a goddamn perfect song. This film was, is, and always will be “Rainbow Connection,” and thus can be forgiven if nothing to follow ever adequately reaches those heady heights.

Following his sojourn into unadulterated joy, Kermit meets Bernie (Dom DeLuise), a Hollywood agent who tells him of an upcoming audition for frogs, wanting the opportunity to make millions of people happy, he takes a trip from the swamp to sunny California, making friends along the way and taking them with him. These fine furry folks include failed comedian Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), traveling plumber Gonzo (Dave Goelz), down-home beauty queen miss Piggy (Frank Oz), and the band Electric Mayhem, of whom the only one that matters is Animal (Frank Oz, who I hope got a dozen different paychecks for this).

There’s a lot of hippy-ish free love ride sharing going on, but the gang is pursued by the very un-New Age Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a fried frog legs magnate who will stop at nothing to make Kermit the spokesfrog for his restaurant chain, even if I means killing and stuffing him.

Kiddie flicks used to be DARK, man.

Now, this is a movie from the 70’s, and it more than betrays its vintage. Of the dozen or so cameos that pack this film, today’s kids would only recognize two – Steve Martin and Big Bird. And Sergio and I hardly fared much better, though we at least had heard of everybody featured. Between that and the older, more threadbare puppet designs, The Muppet Movie doesn’t quite bridge the gap to the modern age, though it really doesn’t need to with its universal themes and cheery humor.

The real trouble with The Muppet Movie is that it never truly tells a cohesive story. It’s more a loose string of vignettes with the same broad theme, a problem endemic to many road trip movies (except, oddly, Bride of Chucky). There are some hazardously dull patches on the rocky road from point A to point B, especially any scene featuring Electric Mayhem, who I must admit I’ve never cared for except as an Animal delivery system. This story structure also allows some self-indulgent breaks from tone, like a bizarre and pointless Western interlude (which is almost made up for by the hyperbolically adorable sight of Kermit in spurs and a ten-gallon hat).

The soundtrack has its equal set of rough patches. I know that comparing any song to “Rainbow Connection” is like comparing a glass of water to the Pacific Ocean, but Piggy’s “Never Before, Never Again” is still a bit wan, pepped up only by Frank Oz’s gonzo performance (pun not intended, with all due respect to Dave Goelz). And I think if I badmouth Electric Mayhem one more time, I’ll be run off this blog with torches and pitchforks, so I’ll just say that I wish they’d ended along with the 70’s.

Unfortunately, puppets hardly ever have contract disputes, so we’re stuck with ‘em.

But for all that The Muppet Movie isn’t the greatest film ever made, it’s still an unimpeachably fun motion picture. While the broad-as-a-barn vaudeville comedy stylings might not be everybody’s cup of tea, the humor is so sweet and gentle that it’s impossible to dislike. Plus, several of the cameo performers are downright uproarious, including Mel Brooks in an explosive turn as a sublimely evil German doctor and Steve Martin as an uncouth waiter. Any time they’re pulling their absurdist antics onscreen, the only way you’ll stop laughing is if your lungs fall out.

The real core of The Muppet Movie is its earnest desire for you to have a good time, a goal which it indubitably accomplishes. It has no higher purpose than creating smiles, the simple compositions and unchallenging plot line serving only as a means to an end. But, oh, what an end. Jim Henson’s Muppets have always had an uncanny level of emotional life thanks to their mind-bogglingly terrific puppeteers, but the earnest and sentimental approach to storytelling here is uncannily effective.

From the heartstring thresher that is “Rainbow Connection” to the open-faced, generous enthusiasm with which Kermit chases his Hollywood dream, The Muppet Movie very frequently taps directly into the human soul. Perhaps no scene is more potently sincere than Gonzo’s solo song “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” a piece that is literally about him wanting to be a stuntman but rings with percussive emotion about optimism, passion, and reaching for he stars. I’d say it’s inhumanly powerful, and I’d be right. It’s muppetly powerful. That unfettered sappiness which never ever feels dishonest is the reason that this film is a classic.

It never hurts to feel like a kid again.

Soon, just like the film’s jaunty recurring theme, we’ll be “Moving Right Along” to later, occasionally better Muppet pictures. But let us never forget the sacrosanct pleasure of watching these good friends get together, even if there were some bumps in the road.

MVP (Most Valuable Puppet): Kermit the Frog

Kermit is usually the straight man (well, straight frog) among his zany friends: but this movie is his and his alone. His earnest desire to make people happy drives this occasionally uneven film with all the Jim Henson sentimentalism he can muster.

TL;DR: The Muppet Movie has its rough patches, but is unfailingly earnest and sentimental.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1207
Reviews In This Series
The Muppet Movie (Frawley, 1979)
The Great Muppet Caper (Henson, 1981)
The Muppets Take Manhattan (Oz, 1984)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, 1992)
Muppet Treasure Island (Henson, 1996)
Muppets from Space (Hill, 1999)
The Muppets (Bobin, 2011)
Muppets Most Wanted (Bobin, 2014)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg or: The Modern Prometheus

Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Technology is evil and we should be afraid of it. This has been a running narrative of filmmaking since the very beginning. Henry Frankenstein learned the consequences of playing God in the 1930’s, 1950’s scientists wreaked havoc in their reckless pursuit of knowledge in nuclear flicks like Godzilla or Them!, and technology usurped humanity in the likes of Demon Seed and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then things got real weird in the 80’s as machines grew self aware in The Terminator, WarGames, and even the crummy slasher Evilspeak.

Then, once we escaped The Matrix, came the Japanese fears of their own accelerated advances in Ringu, Pulse, and One Missed Call. But as society flashes forward in leaps and bounds, so do our celluloid perils. We are no longer afraid of clunky VHS tapes and desktop computers because we’re dealing with tech on a global scale Every computer is connected via the Internet and harm can come to you remotely, whether it be a virus, a catfisher, or merely sustained surveillance. This has been the subject of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and even this month’s Spectre. But while technology’s scope has expanded, our contact is more personal than ever thanks to social media, online shopping records and browser histories.

Ex Machina has entered the room.

In Ex Machina, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer working for an enormously profitable tech company. When the reclusive company owner Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites Caleb to spend the week at his secluded mountain lodge/fortress, he jumps at the chance to meet the great man. He’s surprised to learn that Nathan is a hard-drinking, lascivious man with a strange, glaring intensity, but he’s even more surprised to learn that he has been invited to test Nathan’s new prototype of artificial intelligence, a female android named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

He discovers that Ava has an astonishingly human personality, which causes him to question her artificiality as well as his own identity. When tensions arise in the compound, he must decide whether to side with Ava, who appears to be growing a romantic interest in him, or Nathan, whose intentions seem more and more murky.

I mean, he didn’t even include a “dislike” button.

Forget that Spectre “Christoph Waltz is monitoring our YouTube videos” claptrap, this is the true tech suspense film for our generation. Ex Machina explores our implicit trust of gadgetry within the context of a burgeoning relationship. It’s a more twisted version of Her, a dark attraction that could easily be superimposed with a tech-obsessed dad and Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa. Aa we grow more introverted and cut off our human interaction, technology slowly begins to fill the void. Of course, there are two sides to every modern development, but Ex Machina is an eloquent argument for the opposition.

Ex Machina’s thesis is delicately painted on a visual canvas by writer-director Alex Garland, with an attention to detail that matches his incredibly nuanced script. Working closely with production designer Mark Digby’s stark, modern steel and glass architecture, Garland creates vivid images, utilizing pristine reflections as a recurring motif. The rest of Ex Machina’s aesthetic builds off this cold but impeccably composed photography, coming to life in equal measures during dangerous situations that are flooded with blood red light or reflective moments realized in crisp black and white.

The film moves through space and time like an intricate ballet with a equally mechanical perfection. It does not rush its story, nor does it press its symbolism, some of which is strikingly obvious, but all of which allows the viewer to approach on their own time. One early on reveal is the slightest bit clunky, but the plot otherwise slides powerfully forward like a sinuous snake, fangs bared to deliver the killing blow.

Ex Machina inspires spontaneous poetic rapture in film critics. I apologize for the inconvenience.

The film’s unbearably slippery, sleek aesthetic carries over to the score, which is halfway between the guttural synth of The Guest and Disasterpeace’s electric serenade from It Follows. It’s a hardly original post-Carpenter sound, but it flows through Ex Machina like an electronic river, powering its dark, emotional left.

However, the true centerpiece of Ex Machina is its human, or rather – inhuman element. Alicia Vikander’s performance is a flat-out stunning piece of character creation. Her complex motivations and unnatural physical poise are captured flawlessly by her wide, expressive eyes. Ava is no droning Doctor Who Dalek or monotone sci-fi creation with arms covered in rubber tubing. She is a shaded, detailed being, far more than either of her onscreen companions. And yet she is unmistakably, uncannily artificial. The single best acting moments of the entire film come when her voice acquires a subtly robotic catch in the middle of certain sentences, betraying her fabrication. Just like the rest of the film, it is elegant and unimaginably precise.

Gleeson and Isaac also have their moments of glory (especially the latter, whose larger-than-life portrayal is ineffably unnerving), but this is Vikander’s show through and through. She is Ex Machina in a microcosm: incredibly calculated and accomplished, hiding a dark secret behind a modern, accessible exterior. It’s an exciting, atmospheric watch. Don’t bring the DVD along on a date night, but the next time it rains (which might be never, here in California), put on your thinking cap and pop it in. Just make sure your phone is shut off, or Siri might get jealous.

TL;DR: Ex Machina is a sleek, chilling technological thriller with razor sharp subtext.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 943

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Popcorn Kernels: Crown Jules

Alright, mini reviews are going to be a thing that happens from here on out. Although I will lavish my usual extended attention on marathons, current flicks, and Census Bloodbath features, I just don’t have the constitution to pen epic treatises about every single film I see anymore. I remain committed to reviewing everything that passes through these eyes, but not quite in the obscene quantity of previous months. That said, let’s hit the town with a pair of alternative Julia Roberts flicks for the sophisticated palate.

Erin Brockovich
Year: 2000
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart
Run Time: 2 hours 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The true story of a poor single mom who endeavors to provide legal help for a town being poisoned by a nearby factory.

Frequent readers will know that biopics really aren’t my cup of tea. If I want to step into a movie to escape boring reality, I don’t want to be forced to sit through anybody else’s boring reality, no matter how loud they shouted in the 90’s. Maybe that’s reductive, but for me truth is lamer than fiction. At least as a general rule of thumb.

That said, Erin Brockovich is pretty OK. Is it about half an hour too long? Definitely. Is it self-indulgent? Sure. Does Aaron Eckhart work in the role of a mutton chopped biker daddy? Hell no! But, like her or not, Julia Roberts is a damn movie star. She holds sway over the camera like a mystical snake charmer, no matter what role she has taken on.

This role in particular is a real boon to her talents. Breaking from her America’s Sweetheart persona, Roberts’ Brockovich is no apple pie-baking princess. She’s a crass, vulgar woman who dresses to show off her body and doesn’t take no guff from nobody. But she is also a woman of depth and compassion who makes great personal sacrifices for people in need, recognizing that same need in her own past. The film is a truly intriguing character study of a woman who refuses to let the world change her and pushes back against the polite, civilized society that is content to sit idly by while the citizens of a small town waste away of cancer and other maladies.

Roberts pours her heart into her depiction of this woman, proudly wearing her flaws on her sleeve. It’s a brave and open performance that never indulges in the jingoistic sentimentalism of many biopics. Moments like Erin discovering that she has missed her child’s first word are raw and real without a Hollywood gloss. It’s about as gritty and intense as that other Aaron Eckhart movie, come to think of it.

Director Steven Soderbergh, who I must confess I’ve never had any particular affection for, captures this story with an Americana flair that’s gorgeous, if a little needless. The preponderance of suffuse backlight and American Beauty-esque electronica make the whole affair seem like an ethereal dream, and the jaundiced yellow that inexplicably infects every one of his films provides an appealing counterpoint to the cool blue nighttime scenes. I wouldn’t argue that the aesthetic serves the story for better or for worse, but at least it’s nice to look at.

So, yeah. A pretty good biopic. By my standards, that makes it a classic of the form. While I shan’t be revisiting this film anytime soon, or – if I can get away with it – ever, I don’t regret the wand’ring hours I spent with one Miss Brockovich.

Rating: 7/10

Sleeping with the Enemy

Year: 1991
Director: Joseph Ruben
Cast: Julia Roberts, Patrick Bergin, Kevin Anderson
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After a woman fakes her own death to escape her abusive husband, he doggedly pursues her while she tries to establish a new life.

Every year for Halloween, Sergio and I have a double feature of spooky movies. Each of us gets to choose one, and Sergio’s pick this year was Sleeping with the Enemy, the Julia Roberts thriller. I reluctantly conceded to this decision, because the alternative was Titanic. Let’s just say my hand was forced. However, you can imagine my surprise when the 1991 flick betrayed more than a little carryover from the tropes and traditions of the slasher genre, which had hit rock bottom with a resounding splat but two years earlier.

While Sleeping with the Enemy is about as far as you can get from a body count movie (in an unlikely turn of events, even the obvious cannon fodder character is spared), the film draws from the spiritual core of the horror subgenre. While it’s essentially a character drama with a little raw tension for flavor, it’s cut from the same thematic cloth as flicks like Friday the 13th or Prom Night: What if a relentless, all too real stalker was hellbent on tearing your life- and your body – apart.?

To achieve this atmosphere, Sleeping with the Enemy rummages through the slasher’s bag of tricks. Even in innocuous scenes, the filmmakers continuously impose a sense that Julia Roberts’ Laura Burney is being watched. Sam Raimi-esque steadicam slinks around her home, reminding audiences of the unnerving POV shots from serial killers like Michael Myers and his brood. Many scenes also end by slowly pulling away from the action, a move that horror-savvy viewers instinctively expect to telegraph a lurking killer abruptly lurching into the frame. 

The stalker is even given a distinctive calling card – he wears Laura’s wedding ring on his pinky finger next to his own, a gracefully creepy touch that does wonders for the heart rate. And the finale scene is practically pulled from the pages of Scream, which would jab an adrenaline shot into the dead slasher’s heart five yeas hence.

This is all rather effective, because although the tools come from a lowly and unloved genre, they had become a major facet of the cinematic lexicon. By reimagining them in a more respectable context, it tapped into their cultural power to bring fear to an entirely new audience. Of course, the primary goal of Sleeping with the Enemy isn’t terrifying the audience, but it does pack a more spine-tingling punch than the average thriller potboiler.

The story the film does focus on telling is a simple one; that of a woman struggling to take her life back from the talons of a manipulative and wicked man. The opening sequence, which depicts her loveless marriage, is a harrowing ordeal and a distressingly realistic portrayal of domestic abuse, but it’s what follows that is even more heart-wrenching. Laura struggles to trust again, tentatively entering a relationship with her drama professor neighbor (both bear bafflingly curly manes of hair that I constantly worry will get stuck together like Velcro), but fearful of intimacy and the knowledge that at any moment her husband might find her. As a  character study of a damaged woman attempting to heal, it’s not bad, although it does shade into queasy Hallmark treacle at times.

The middle third is perhaps not quite as visceral or impactful as it could be and a late reveal is silliness of the highest order, but overall, Sleeping with the Enemy is a thrillingly functional paranoid drama. There’s a reason it isn’t remembered with the lurid fondness of a Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction, but it’s definitely an unpolished gem that’s worth a second look.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1238

Monday, November 16, 2015

International Woman Of Mystery

Year: 2015
Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jude Law
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Is it just me, or are Apatow comedies better when he’s not actually directing them? So far, I’d say the best to come from his stable are pretty unequivocally Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids and Nick Stoller’s Neighbors. Feig’s most recent bout in the ring isn’t exactly proving me wrong. Spy, his newest Melissa McCarthy vehicle, might just be the apotheosis of everything that that collective has been working toward: a brash, fearless, and fun genre exercise that blows everything that came before it right on out of the water.

Hell, it even blows itself out of the water.

Spy tells the story of CIA agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a timid woman who squanders her potential by working behind a desk, providing navigation for the inexplicably British Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), on whom she has a crush the size of a moon-destroying rocket. When one of his missions is compromised by the wicked heiress Reina (Rose Byrne), the CIA discovers that she knows the identities of all their active agents. In desperation, they send Susan after her, because she’s unrecognizable.

Thus begins a heartwarming tale of a mousy pushover stepping into the spotlight to become the butt-kicking superspy she always knew she could be. Well, in time. First she must fight her way through a series of wacky hijinks, aided by her coworker and friend Nancy (Miranda Hart).

Who I recognized from this awesome Mamma Mia! parody because I’m cultured.

Spy is, to put it lightly, an experience. It’s a female-led Austin Powers that - like Bridesmaids – isn’t FOR women. It’s WITH women for EVERYONE. And there really is something for everybody here. The raunchy comedy is spliced onto a legitimate action thriller that devotes as much attention to high octane spy escapades as it does to belly laughs.

While we’re on the subject of bellies, I really have to commend this film for not using McCarthy’s weight as a punchline. She’s a remarkably talented comic actress, but previous vehicles for her like the abhorrent Identity Thief center her character and humor entirely around her weight It’s crass, it’s unfair, and it’s dreadfully boring.

In Spy, her character has her fair share of flaws, but her size isn’t even a factor in her initial lack of appeal. In fact, the only joke that could really be considered a fat joke is just a pratfall. The truly unfortunate thing is that the trailers latched onto that scene like it was a slice of toast bearing the face of the Virgin Mary, hopelessly misrepresenting the film and causing me to skip it in theaters. Hence, this egregiously late review.

But I have since rectified my mistake, and I am here to tell you that, if you haven’t seen Spy, you’re missing out. Humor is entirely subjective, of course, but the fact that both Sergio and I found Spy to be the funniest movie of the year should tell you something. We’re hardly ever on the same page.

Hell, that guy loves Winter’s Bone, which is as far from being a Brennan movie as a Rob Zombie reboot of Grease.

Spy’s humor comes from a variety of places: spy parody, McCarthy improve, Apatowian gross-out antics, and secondhand embarrassment all jockey for position. But in addition to McCarthy, who is a reliably bankable humorist, big chuckles come form two unexpected performers. First of all, Rose Byrne  - who is already well on her way to comic superstardom thanks to her being the single best element of Neighbors – is incontestably hilarious as the spoiled and evil antagonist with a heart of gold leaf. Her performance is so consistently out of left field that she always keeps you on your toes.

But the true lightning in a bottle standout of Spy is one Jason Statham, as McCarthy’s careless and vain coworker who tails her incognito as she attempts to covertly carry out her mission. He distills the essence of every Jason Statham character into one stiletto sharp caricature, blowing his typical badass bravado tremendously out of proportion. It’s a genius portrayal, a character with infinite confidence in his own abilities without actually being any help at all. He is not always served well by the Apatow-standard editing, which just lets him keep going and neglects to trim his one-liners to an appropriate amount. I call this the “quip tsunami” technique, and while hilarious at time, it’s less controlled here than in similar films. Nevertheless, Statham is a sparkling presence in an already uncontrollably fun movie.

The best thing about Spy is that, even if you utterly detest the comedy, you can tune it out and still have a one hundred percent functional spy picture. The action is ludicrous and over-the-top, but it’s not like you’ll get anything different if you shell out for Spectre. And this way you don’t have to pretend to care about Bond’s awkward, fumbling chemistry with his wallpaper love interest. It’s a win-win! Spy’s action benefits from a truly staggering budget for a comedy, which allows it to indulge in just as much globetrotting splendor as the best of the best.

With the humor of a Bridesmaids and the absurd, slightly inappropriate swashbuckling of an Octopussy, Spy is just plain a fun time at the movies. The best of the constantly improving McCarthy-Feig pictures, Spy actually gives me high hopes for the new Ghostbusters. Sleuth it out of Redbox and snag yourself a good time!

TL;DR: Spy is an excellent, female led comedy that combines Bondian thrills with uproarious comedy.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 941

Friday, November 13, 2015

This Honky Grandma Be Trippin'

Year: 2015
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

M. Night Shyamalan. A once proud director whose name has since become a punchline not even Fozzie Bear could screw up. After helming one of my favorite horror flicks of all time, The Sixth Sense, he took a break from filmmaking. Though, that isn’t to say he quit directing. After a string of increasingly mediocre twist pictures, he began one of history’s longest sustained barrages of box office duds, smashing his credibility to smithereens with high profile dreck like The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth.

So here we sit, a good decade between us and his last remotely appealing film. Enter Jason Blum. Given free reign and an appropriately miniscule budget, our M. Night is afforded one last chance to get his groove back: the found footage thriller The Visit. So, did it work? Let’s journey over the river and through the woods to find out.

To grandmother’s Blumhouse we go.

In The Visit, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is making a documentary. A young film buff, she has decided to record herself and her younger brother Tim (Ed Oxenbould) while they spend a week at their grandparents’ isolated farmhouse. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from her parents for 15 years, so Becca is hoping that this trip  - which also allows mom to spend some quality time with her new boyfriend – will be an opportunity to both meet her grandparents and attempt to rebuild a long-burned bridge.

Almost immediately, things take a turn for the wacked-out. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are outwardly kind and charming. But after 9:30 PM, Nana takes after her famous cookies and goes a little nuts, rattling ferociously around the house in the nude. Becca’s borderline compulsive instinct to chalk things up to “old people, am I right?” quickly wears thin as the serene winter visit quickly descends into nightmare.

Don’t mind the creaking. It’s just an old house.

If you take only one thing from this review, make it this: In spite of obvious deficiencies, The Visit is Shyamalan’s best work in a decade and change. It also leaves the distinct impression of a writer-director endeavoring to regain his instincts, not always succeeding but slowly earning back his goodwill. The seasoned Shyamalan watcher (I’m sorry, by the way) will notice DNA of his favorite themes lodged within The Visit like pineapples in an upside–down cake. There’s the obligatory twist, of course, though he knows by now that he needs to pull back from the showboating endings that defined and capsized his middling works.

We also get a return to his Signs standby of child characters with ludicrously specific quirks that – of course – come into play in the finale (“I’ve compulsively memorized every song in the Taylor Swift discography! Gee, I sure hope those junior high girls outside stop trying to murder us.”). This trope, she does not work too well. It’s blatantly telegraphed and it makes less than no sense, but just like the wan family drama laced through the whole thing, you can tell he’s trying and it’s hard to begrudge him of that. Plus, after the hot dog speech in The Happening, I’m not exactly fazed by a couple dud payoffs. At least what I’m watching physically resembles a motion picture.

There’s some scattered slick patches of ineptitude spread throughout The Visit: exposition that’s indicated with huge neon lettering, idiotic character decisions at every turn, intentionally inaccurate language used to obfuscate a twist, and a strong sense that the script dearly wished it took place in the 90’s. But these are flaws The Visit comes by naturally and genuinely. It might be far from perfection, but it’s a totally serviceable found footage feature with a delightful mixture of spooky and kooky.

And just a little ooky.

I’m legitimately astonished at how much fun I had watching The Visit. In fact, it might be the perfect coda to the found footage fad, which hit a resurgence with Paranormal Activity and died a lonely death with Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, nor could it, but it utilizes its perspective in a satisfying manner, even physically incorporating the camera into the action, a trick I haven’t seen since the only good moment in the abysmal 2008 remake Quarantine.

The slightly misaligned shots offer the merest whiff of realism, allowing the scare gags (which follow Paranormal Activity’s recurring nightly pattern) to creep under your skin a little at a time. The slow boil shocks are generally effective, utilizing offscreen space well and offering a glimpse into a world just slightly to the left of normal. For a while, the “it’s just a creaky old grandma” excuses are even believable. The tension builds and builds, deftly playing with the audience. In one of my favorite scenes, a scare is revealed to be something mundane until a subtle last minute reversal clues you into the fact that something is terribly wrong here. You’ll know it when you see it, and that kind of moment proves that Shyamalan might just be back on track to give us nightmares again.

The most unexpected joy to be found in The Visit is that it’s funny. It’s not Sam Raimi slapstick hilarity, but a kind of down-home quiet humor permeates the film. I suppose this tone should have been expected from the casting of Kathryn Hahn, one of our generation’s most underrated comic actresses, but it melds so perfectly with the darker horror elements that you almost don’t even notice it’s there. It’s just a subtle undertone in the background that flavors the world of the film with another shade of reality. They do occasionally derail into nightmarishly goofy territory that would make Adam Sandler blush (no spoilers, but if you’re familiar with the Pokérap, you’ll get some disconcerting déjà vu), but for the most part, the balance is pitch perfect.

The Visit’s surprisingly quality can largely be attributed to the performers, who sell the hell out of a somewhat silly conceit. Oxenbould somehow inhabits an utterly smackable character and makes him into the film’s best comic asset, DeJonge shows some remarkable nuance, subtly altering her performance to shift between reality and when she’s vamping for the camera, and both the grandparents give remarkably unsettling physical performances that somehow evoke both kindly grandparents and looming birds of prey.

There’s really a lot to like about The Visit. It’s an impure jewel, to be certain, but a jewel just the same. With this enticing blend of found footage frights and childlike comic antics, Shyamalan has achieved the impossible: I’m actually excited for his next film.

TL;DR: The Visit is Shyamalan's best film in a decade.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1139

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Spy Another Day

Year: 2015
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz
Run Time:  2 hours 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Now, please keep in mind that I haven’t watched a James Bond movie since I was 14, so maybe they’re all brainless and repetitive and I had too much in common with them to notice. But considering that Goldfinger flits by at 1 hour and 50 minutes and the superspy’s latest effort – Spectre – rolls in creaking and groaning at 2 ½ hours, I daresay the original films didn’t take themselves quite so seriously.

Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself. Spectre is the 24th entry in the James Bond franchise, the fourth for Daniel Craig since Casino Royale rejuvenated the series back in 2006. It’s also the first to appear on the pages of this blog, and it makes a game attempt to ensure that it’s the last. I have enough fondness for the previous entries that I look forward to reviewing them one day, but Spectre’s strip-mining of Bond’s past glories is a recipe for half-baked rehash that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Coming soon: the Popcorn Culture Cookbook.

I’m going to streamline the plot as much as possible, because to go into detail would require an atlas, unflagging interest in the high-end car industry, and several gallons of Absolut. Here goes: James Bond (Daniel Craig) is an MI6 agent investigating an evil syndicate known as Spectre led by the shadowy Hans Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), based on a clue left for him by the late M (Dame Judi Dench, in a cameo that she could have done from her living room).

Meanwhile, the current M (Ralph Fiennes, who I do believe was just trying to tear England apart with a group of wizard Nazis, so this is awkward) is battling through tangles of red tape thanks to C (Andrew Scott), a government official who wants to shut down MI6 and commence surveillance of the world’s digital traffic in alliance with several major world powers, bringing espionage into the 21st century. It is up to M, his secretary Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and gadget guru Q (Ben Whishaw) to preserve the old ways and avoid going the way of the Walkman.

Oh, also Bond hooks up with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a previous bad guy who we’re expected to remember. They scoot across the globe, sticking together even though they have the chemistry of Elton John and a pair of sensible slacks.

I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words, how wonderful life is now you’re – eh, who are you again?

Spectre is a dense amalgamation of previous Bond films, both within the Craig tetralogy and the franchise as a whole, coming full circle within the reboot continuity while reintroducing classic characters and concepts. But as much as it’s beholden to the letter of the James Bond traditions, it fundamentally fails to capture the spirit, which flits away like a butterfly, always in sight but just out of reach.

Take the opening pre-credits scene. Bond takes a woman into his Mexico City hotel room, tells her he’ll be right back, and slips out the window. Thus ensues an explosive action sequence, taking Bond through crumbling mortar, the thrumming Dia de Los Muertos parade, and into the air over a teeming mass of bodies while a percussive drum beat smashes into and merges with the classic James Bond theme.

It’s stylish, high octane perfection, but instead of Bond dusting off, casually adjusting his tie, and returning triumphantly to his lady, we cut immediately into Sam Smith warbling “Writing’s on the Wall” over a singularly uninspired credits sequence. Look, as much as Bond’s I Love Lucy chocolate conveyor belt of conquests is haphazardly misogynistic, it’s all part of the came charm of his character, and the missing button from that scene cuts Spectre off at the knees.

Plus, that lady probably racked up thousands in minibar charges while abandoned in that room for hours.

Admittedly there are a handful of moments that embrace the campy appeal of the character, many of which are pretty unequivocally the best moments in the film. However, the degree to which you are asked to turn your brain off is in direct conflict with the length and girth of the stick up Spectre’s ass. In grand Christopher Nolan tradition, Spectre shrouds itself in dark, gritty realism that blocks out the fun factor as effectively as a smothering layer of gold paint. In fact, the Dark Knight gloomsmith was actually approached to direct this film, so that should tell you where returning director Sam Mendes’ (of American Beauty, somehow) ambitions lay.

The amount of time Spectre spends on its knees kissing your boots, begging, groveling for you to take it seriously is its very downfall. It’s never a good idea to approach a Bond flick with an eye for realism, but with this particular entry – and its plot holes big enough to host bar mitzvahs in – it’s cinematic suicide. The second you boot up your brain, the threadbare patchwork of the plot unravels in your hands, leaving you to stare in perplexion at a disheveled mass of thread.

Of course, this is a spy movie, so a certain amount of narrative tomfoolery is permitted (arbitrary countdowns, Rube Goldberg death traps that permit the hero ample time to escape, and the like). It’s all in good fun, but Spectre’s deficiencies sink much deeper than the average espionage flick. Characters mysteriously vanish never to be heard from again, plot points are introduced but never followed up on, and many of the blistering actions sequences take place in preternaturally empty environs. Spectre’s Ghost Train rivals even Halloween II’s Silent Hospital in terms of normally bustling locations that appear to have been abruptly abandoned, leaving only the core cast and maybe a handsome porter for decoration. It’s like they filmed on the Bermuda Triangle or something.

Or maybe the European extras were just all on vacation.

There’s a lot wrong with Spectre, nearly all of which is showcased in the interminable third act (when only two trailers played before this film, I knew it was a portent of doom for my bladder). A vast majority of the plot is pointless wheel spinning and wearisome monologues that leave your adrenal glands parched and shriveled. 

Perhaps it would work better if it balanced on a different central couple, because the crude archetype that Madeleine is brutally crammed into during the finale is hardly appropriate for her character or her shallow relationship with Bond. Watching her blankly go through the motions of a more developed plot only draws attention to the anemic characterizations that populate the film.

Christoph Waltz gives a game attempt at overcoming the peculiar inadequacies of his character, who is rejected from the plot like a bad skin graft. But there is only so much menace he can breathe into the banal, chinos-clad villain with sharply defined motivation but a wicked plan so vague that one can only assume he’s working from a first draft.

But there’s one thing I haven’t talked about: the action. It isn’t particularly original, but it’s as dazzling as altogether too much money can buy. There’s only so many times I can watch a secret agent discover a hidden door or punch an indestructible henchman (this time a totally wasted Dave Bautista) in the face, but this is the one element where Spectre totally embraces its over-the-top pedigree. Armed with his pistol that has the range of a rifle and the delicacy of a dart, Bond sweeps through the massive, inexplicably varied setpieces with relative aplomb.

It’s not enough to fully redeem the film form its monotonous, triumphantly silly depths, but it’s a totally adequate night at the movies. It will hold your attention more often than not, and in today’s climate sometimes that’s the best you can get. If you come into Spectre with an open mind, it does give you some bang for its buck. While 300 million bangs can be exhausting, it’s still quite a spectacle to behold.

TL;DR: Spectre is an acceptable trifle, but a plodding, unsatisfying James Bond movie.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1367