Thursday, January 28, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Aw, Screw It

Hello, hello, hello, faithful readers! Normally I do my best to bestow full length reviews on current films, but I am so damn close to clearing my backlog that I can’t resist knocking out some of the less important, less current selections from last year with another slate of mini reviews. There’s got to be a statute of limitations on this kind of thing, right?

In the Heart of the Sea

Year: 2015
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

In the story that inspired Moby Dick, the captain and first mate of a whaling ship pursue a massive white whale that destroys the vessel, leaving the crew stranded.

As helpfully pointed out by Hunter Allen (of Kinemalogue) in the comments on my Muppet Treasure Island review, I’m a hard sell on ship movies. So right off the bat, I was disinclined to adore Ron Howard’s massively ill-advised seafaring epic In the Heart of the Sea.

But you know what I dislike even more than schooners? Movies that use the lazy framing device of an author coaxing a story out of somebody for the express purpose of reminding people that hey, they read this book in middle school, isn’t that neat? This technique can be used well, but here it’s just an excuse to slice the film’s pacing into ribbons in order to bridge plot gaps by using the “storyteller” to handily provide us with an airdrop of exposition and convenient analysis. There is literally zero reason why the Chris Hemsworth storyline couldn’t have stood alone, and the film takes on a lot of water thanks to this decision.

You know what I dislike even more than flimsy framing devices? The fact that Chris Hemsworth can apparently only get roles if they take place either centuries ago or in ultramodern yet inexplicably Medieval cultures. The man has talent, but he’s constantly shunted into stuffy roles with awful hair that clamp down on his range like an iron vise and surround him with such illustrious (read: pale) performers as… That guy from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And maybe wait until his Marvel contract is finished before you strand him on a desert island. With his scraggly beard and perfectly waxed chest, he looks more like a hipster barista than a marooned sailor.

But you know what I dislike even more than Hemsworth’s Buff, Waxed, and Stranded photo shoot? The whale! The CGI technicians do not commit to making this khaki monstrosity seem huge or white or menacing in any way, shape, or form. I’m all for cinematic realism, but would anybody be mad if the whale was a couple yards longer and bone white? If I had to hazard a guess, marine biologists are not in the primary demographic for this flick. Plus, it really doesn’t do anything impeccably beastly other than trawling around after our heroes like it’s Jaws: The Revenge and providing really obvious metaphors to conclude Our Hemsworth’s character arc.

If you don’t particularly mind any of these things, we are not on the same page and you can feel free to check out In the Heart of the Sea. But even putting those gripes aside, it’s still only a blandly functional adventure picture populated with stock characters and depicting oddly brutal animal violence. So have fun with that.

Rating: 5/10


Year: 2015
Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A teen boy moves in next door to R. L. Stine. He befriends the author’s teen daughter, then must team up with the two of them when he accidentally unleashes Stine’s creations upon the town.

Because I am nothing if not a consummate academic, I am much more familiar with the Goosebumps books than the TV show. As such, I had absolutely no nostalgia for any visual R. L. Stine property and came to the Goosebumps film unclouded by expectation. This is the best way to approach it, though I feel that all but the grumpiest among us would be hard-pressed not to have a good time.

Goosebumps might be fashionably generic (new kid in town, single mom, struggling to find place amid wacky mayhem, it’s not exactly Proust), but it enacts those typical plot beats with an energy that at least makes them feel fresh. Dylan Minnette and Amy Ryan forge an excellent mother-son relationship, and the movie’s humor and heart branches out from there. This is primarily a comedy film of course, especially when Jillain Bell (as an eccentric aunt) or Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund (as two inept cops) are on the scene, but there actually is a decent amount of juice in the horror side of things.

The monsters are all rendered with a cartoonish CGI, which in a family film isn’t actually a liability (Mama, eat your heart out), but the effects spring into high gear when they get sucked back into the books from whence they came. Their bodies begin to unravel in a tornado of ink that’s both beautifully rendered and quite gruesome. It’s Goosebumps, so it won’t turn your stomach, but it’s just raw enough to remind you that kids movies can be scary too. Anybody who has seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory can attest to that.

Funny, scary, campy… Sounds like Goosebumps to me! The movie plays with a lot of classic monsters and scenarios, even conjuring up its own wicked twists. It might not be a perfect iteration of the Goosebumps mythos (sometimes the structure of a feature inhibits its ability to evoke some traditional Goosebumps storylines), but it captures the gleefully macabre atmosphere with no shortage of charm.

Oddly enough or perhaps no quite so unexpectedly, even taking into consideration the green teen talent, the weakest link is most obviously Jack Black. He hams it up like he works at a deli, and the taste of flop sweat curdles the tonal mixture a little bit. Goosebumps does exist in a heightened reality, so it makes a game attempt at assimilating his boisterous performance, but there are many moments that he tramples over by pulling faces and generally clowning around. It’s immensely frustrating, but this isn’t a movie about him. It’s about the young generation that loves Goosebumps, and for them the film is mostly a blast.

Rating: 7/10

We Are Your Friends

Year: 2015
Director: Max Joseph
Cast: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A young DJ meets an older producer, igniting a friendship that will lead to love, loss, success, failure, and eventually growing up.

We Are your Friends is not a lucky movie. If no for the box office cavalry of Jem and the Holograms, WAYF would have scored the lowest opening weekend of the entire year. Seeing how I’m obsessed with cinematic failure and Zac Efron is on my celebrity freebie list, I couldn’t rest giving the film a looksie. Boy, am I glad I did.

We Are Your Friends isn’t ever going to be unearthed as a true buried gem, but taken as the generic coming-of-age story in the modern world that it is, it couldn’t be better. It’s a mini prestige picture, hitting all the beats of larger, more successful films with just enough twists to keep it lively. My single favorite element is the editing, which a voids the temptation to turn the whole thing into an EDM music video, rather creating a slick visual rhythm that jumps off the screen with graphic and text overlaps. It’s an edgy, modern style that has certainly been seen before, most recently in The Big Short, but it’s an exciting cinematic presentation that works wonders for the film. These flashy technical moments unfortunately decrease as the movie foes on, but their presence gives WAYF a spark that never fades.

Also, honestly, the cast is pretty incredible. Wes Bentley is magnetic as a self-destructive mentor, Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal gets his Matthew McConaughey in Wolf of Wall Street moment in the sun, and Zac Efron turns in what is unequivocally the best performance of his career, one that’s tempered, at least slightly layered, and miles away form his standard dreamboat duties.

Please don’t leave this blog thinking We Are Your Friends is a life-changing motion picture, but aside from a bit of an unfocused narrative drive and a deeply generic plot structure, it really ain’t half bad. It’s messy, it’s foolhardy, occasionally deep, and plugged into some great beats; an imperfect love letter to modern youth that doesn’t talk down to them. I genuinely enjoyed this movie. That may or may not be a socially suicidal admission, but it’s the truth. Check it out!

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1468

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Final Frontier

Year: 1999
Director: Tim Hill
Cast: Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Bill Barretta
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

The 90’s were a hard time for the Muppets. Their creator and guiding light Jim Henson had passed away and Disney was mucking about with the property, forcing it to contort into a variety of subpar literary adaptations. At this point in the marathon, I was beginning to feel pretty disheartened. The next film on the list, Muppets from Space, was one of the most maligned features of them all, and all I could do was assume the crash position and hope for the best.

So here I am on the other side, and I’ve come to tell you that not only was Muppets from Space NOT the worst film in the series, I also had a mortifying amount of fun watching it. It’s definitely a far cry from the humanistic anarchy of the Henson era, but the 90’s Muppets finally found a niche they could work with. Taking the blossoming family entertainment tropes (teen culture references, X-Files-esque secret agencies, film-ending dance parties) that would eventually lead to movies like Shrek and its ilk and injecting them with zany Muppet antics, Muppets from Space is a shallow but delightful entry in the franchise.

I live to be controversial.

In Muppets from Space, Gonzo (Dave Goelz) begins receiving alien transmissions that he believes to be from his real family. The others, knowing that he has been feeling lonely and isolated, don’t believe him, but support his efforts to find them. Well, Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and Co. do. Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) only wants to use his story to advance from TV news intern to full blown anchorpig. All the while, Gonzo is being pursued by K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), who wants to vivisect him and prove that aliens exist.

Fox Mulder, eat your heart out.

There is one major difference between Muppets from Space and the literary adaptations that came before it (other than source material and the fact that this film is inexplicably not a musical), and their names are Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) and Bobo the Bear (also Bill Barretta, bless him). These Muppets, two of my personal favorites, are the only two major characters created after Jim Henson’s death (save for the artfully bland Walter of the new movies), and they are the saving grace of 90’s Muppetdom. They’re fun, bright, and silly, and their first-ever film appearances help Muppets from Space rise above the lugubrious mush of its late period peers.

Also back in action are the traditional Muppet cameos, and though their combined wattage isn’t particularly electrifying, the stars are game to really play with the Muppet sandbox. Ray Liotta is the obvious standout as a hypnotized guard, but Kathy Griffin as a security officer who falls for Animal and David Arquette as a wicked lab rat mad scientist speak directly to my heart, if not to the culturally advanced public at large in 2016. The point is, Muppets from Space is the film that finally remembered that the great Muppet films are the ones that play it fast and loose with the porous membrane between fiction and reality and actually have fun along the way.

Muppets from Space is genuinely entertaining, what can I say? The slapstick is less facile, not feeling like it’s straining to please the lowest common denominator (Kids aren’t idiots, they’re just treated like them. It’s easy to get confused), the character dynamics are rich and elastic, and the movie maintains a sense of weightlessness, carrying a spring in its step the whole way through.

That weightless thing is kind of ironic, though, considering that the Muppets never actually go to space in this film.

Obviously, not everything is perfect. There are a startling preponderance of cheesy, punny pop culture references, but they at least feel a little more organic in the warped, transitory atmosphere of this very 90’s film. The vast blanket of pop songs spread across the feature in lieu of musical numbers does nothing to change this feeling. It’s not a classic Muppets feature, with this weird pop culture sugar buzz, but it’s a sprightly good time.

That is, for the most part. There are a couple flaws in Muppets from Space that are about as easy to overlook as Mount Everest. First of all, there are some moments that are – I’ll just come right out and say it – shockingly racist. The magenta Muppet Clifford, with his dreadlocks and his huge lips, has apparently been around for quite some time, but is pulled to the forefront here, to lust after girls named “Shenaynay” and just generally remind people that minstrelsy was a thing. He’s downright unsettling, and the space fish with cartoon Indian accents don’t help the film recover much.

Almost as bad as Clifford and pals (OK, not really, because he’s the worst thing to ever happen to a Muppet feature, and I’m including the time Kermit got hit by a car) is the finale, in which Gonzo’s family greets him with a karaoke rendition of “Celebrate!” by Kool and the Gang. It’s a travesty of biblical proportions, and about as far from “Rainbow Connection” as a hubcap. But that said, in spite of the massive problems hanging off of it like pulsing goiters, Muppets from Space is a largely charming entry in the franchise, giving it one last push before the dawn of the New Age in 2011.

TL;DR: Muppets from Space is excruciatingly 90's, but otherwise a delightful family comedy.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 933
Reviews In This Series
The Muppet Movie (Frawley, 1979)
The Great Muppet Caper (Henson, 1981)
Muppet Treasure Island (Henson, 1996)
Muppets from Space (Hill, 1999)
The Muppets (Bobin, 2011)
Muppets Most Wanted (Bobin, 2014)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

It Ain't A Lemon Party Without Old Dick

Year: 2016
Director: Dan Mazer
Cast: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Would you believe me if I said that Bad Grandpa is the best comedy film I’ve seen in years?

No, neither would I. Aside from the fact that my yearly rewatching of Airplane! would inevitably preclude such a claim, Dirty Grandpa is a swollen hernia poking from the torso of Hollywood. And I’m saying this as a person who actually watched this movie on purpose. It’s perhaps the most January-ish January comedy ever released, lazy and charmless in all the wrong ways. But let’s not beat around the greying bush, let’s dive on into this sucker!

The things I do for you people.

In Dirty Grandpa, Jason (Zac Efron) is a Stepford grandson. He lives a yuppie fantasy, working at his dad’s law firm, wearing sweater vests, and preparing his wedding with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Meredith (Julianne Hough) a controlling shrew so ludicrously unpleasant that she passive aggressives Jason into picking his rehearsal dinner tie color during his grandmother's funeral. When Jason agrees to drive his bereaved grandfather, Dick (Robert De Niro) to Florida for a couple days, the old man reveals that he’s hot to foxtrot and hijacks the trip, taking Jason to Dayton Beach for some raucous carousing with filthy co-ed Linor (Aubrey Plaza) and her friend Shadia (Zoey Deutch), Jason’s high school classmate with whom he has an instant rapport. 

Oh, they also have a gay friend who’s about as reductive a stereotype as poor Meredith (though without being actively sociopathic), but he’s also black so De Niro can have a two for one deal on offensive material that screenwriters think old people can get away with. They get to Daytona, De Niro makes approximately one kiloton of vulgar jokes that are only intermittently recognizable as humor, and then more plot attempts to happen at the very end.

Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get it up!

The thing about Dirty Grandpa is that it so obviously adheres to the male bonding sex comedy formula that it literally doesn’t even need to go through the motions. You can so intimately understand where the plot is going from the very first scene that it almost feels like you’ve watched an entire film even when it only skims through the story at its broadest points. Much in the same way that Julianne Hough’s shrieking beast of a character exists solely to make the boring, kind of deluded Shadia seem desirable in comparison, the plot falls back on lazy comedy movie stereotypes so it seems like it actually exists.

So with the plot comfortably out of the way, Dirty Grandpa frees itself up to crap all over Robert De Niro’s legacy. Hell, it craps all over Zac Efron's legacy. The High School Musical trilogy doesn’t deserve this. How does Dirty Grandpa’s humor suck? Let me count the ways…

1) Are you a minority? Screw you.

Mind you, Dirty Grandpa’s “old people are racist and homophobic and ableist and make rape jokes apparently” shtick is less prevalent than some of its illustrious peers, but when it crops up, it’s all the more painful for its halfhearted commitment to its abrasiveness. They seem to think that they can render gags that are both insanely offense and stale acceptable by having a character point out just how offensive they are. Nice try, Dirty Grandpa, but you can’t cover your ass. It’s swaying gently in the wind, exposed to the elements. Speaking of, this kicks in at about the 20-minute mark, at which point the twelve people in my theater are reduced to six.

2) “Sandra Bullock in Gravity” gags

Certain one-liners just drift through the void of the film, haphazardly colliding into scenes at the most inopportune times. My current working theory is that the original draft underwent a heavy rewrite, but the script editor forgot to delete certain lines, leaving them jammed into the middle of scenes like rocks diverting a stream. That’s the only possible explanation for the mind-boggling preponderance of non sequiturs that crash into the middle of otherwise unassuming scenes.

3) Grandpa is a felon

In the middle of his wacky erotic rampage across the Florida coast, nobody seems to notice that Grandpa Dick is a straight-up psychopath. When an old man assaults a guy with an improvised beer cannon that inverts his nose, that’s not the time to sigh and go, “Oh, Pop-Pop.” That dude belongs in freaking jail for that and many other violet criminal acts that are treated like the mayhem caused by a toddler. There is more or less a pile of steaming bodies in this guy’s wake.

4) They break the laws of physics to force jokes to work.

There’s a scene that requires a stuffed animal that is manifestly present on the ground to not be there, so it vanishes without a trace. There’s a scene that forgot it could have been set up an hour ago, so a hacker on a moped materializes from thin air to bridge the gap. Almost every scene has a square joke being rammed into a round hole, because nobody realized that, if they took the time to sand the edges, it would actually fit the way it was supposed to.

5) There’s a grandpa rapping scene.

Yes, this is that kind of movie.

The dream of the 90’s is alive and well.

Not only is the humor scraped off the bottom of a crusty plunger, it’s not even presented well. The editing hops, skips, and jumps around dialogue actively destroying punchlines by cutting around lines and arbitrarily inserting over-the-shoulder shots in a manner so conspicuous that I suspect no cast member could actually complete a take without breaking down into heaving sobs and cursing their agent’s name, forcing the scene to be cobbled together in ADR. The editing has the rhythm of a drunk woodpecker and it totally obliterates most of the film’s potential.

But do you want to know the absolute worst thing about Dirty Grandpa? It has some damn hilarious scenes, Mind you, there’s as widely scattered as M&M’s in cheap trail mix, but they’re there. These moments are almost exclusively provided by Adam Pally as Jason’s indecorous cousin and Jason Mantzoukas as the friendly neighborhood drug dealer. My sense of moral integrity wants to believe that their lines were entirely improvised, but I’ll be fair and give credit to the screenwriter for allowing these two characters their moment in the sun. Frequently, their scenes are actively gut-busting and quotable, which makes the film even more disappointing because here’s actually a reason to endure the cinematic napalm that forms the remainder of its runtime.

The one other savior of Dirty Grandpa is Aubrey Plaza, who is delightful for about 75 percent of the time. When she’s forced to flirt with De Niro, her discomfort is palpable, especially taking into consideration the film’s weird aversion to actually depicting sexuality despite its rampant vulgarity (as far as I can recall, there’s not a single topless woman in the movie, and the film’s only scene of the sex act is between two people who are more or less fully clothed and evidently plan on using their own underwear as contraception.) 

Well, there you have it. Even Dirty Grandpa doesn’t want to watch Dirty Grandpa. So why should you?

TL;DR: Dirty Grandpa is a lazy, wheezing waste of your time.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1246

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Hugh Glass And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Year: 2015
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
Run Time: 2 hours 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s Oscar season, so it’s easy to get swept up in the prestige picture fever. But now, more than ever, should be the time to make bold statements. To defy the status quo. To admit that I really didn’t like The Revenant. Like, at all. To be fair, so far the collected works of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu have pretty much confounded me, so it might be possible to pass it off as a genetic thing. This is a filmmaker with whom I have a deep, personal disconnection. So now is the time to remind you that all Popcorn Culture scores (and, let’s admit it, ALL critic scores) are entirely subjective. So feel free to disagree. I’m happy to be a voice for the minority.

Bear with me.

In The Revenant, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a scout for a group of 1800’s frontiersmen collecting pelts in the Louisiana Purchase territory. The team is led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, and don’t try to pronounce that if you don’t have the appropriate safety gear) and includes Glass’ Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the perilously Southern John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). After Glass is quite rudely mauled by a bear, he is left for dead in the wilderness (after like an hour, because Iñárritu missed the lesson in film school that said each page of the script shouldn't last 20 minutes). He is then forced to battle his way across the frozen tundra, fighting for survival despite his injuries, the elements, and roaming bands of vicious savages, not to mention the Frenchmen.

If Leo doesn’t win the Oscar for this, he will literally eat a man.

Now, I may not have liked this movie, but I never said it wasn’t well-realized. The frozen landscapes of Canada and Southern Argentina are photographed with a sinister beauty, displaying an eye for capturing the starkest, most unearthly formations of barren trees and rocks that nature could possibly provide. Emmanuel Lubeski is on hand to knock out some of those famous long takes, most notably in an exquisitely choreographed battle between the natives and the frontiersmen. And speaking of that battle, the special effects in The Revenant are phenomenal, without a doubt the best thing in the film.

You see, The Revenant is a gory, visceral movie, sometimes unbearably brutal in is carnage. The makeup effects that achieve this are spectacularly conceived and – with the small exception of certain shots of the bear – completely seamless. When The Revenant combines these grotesquely realistic kills with its sweeping long takes, it operates at its fullest, most breathtaking capacity.

Also, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance leaves nothing to complain about. I wouldn’t say I was bowled over, but I would hardly begrudge him the Oscar, especially considering that his only real competition in this year’s weak slate is returning crownee Eddie Redmayne. Leo is asked to carry this movie on his back, and in order to do so he must relinquish his star power and embrace his feral side, which he certainly commits to. It’s a stripped-down, raw performance that might just be the best in his wholly adequate career.

I mean, other than his role in Critters 3, obviously.

Yes, I’m aware I just listed a lot of good things about The Revenant. And that’s why it’s in the awards conversation. It’s not a bad film. But there’s a difference between being well-realized and actually telling a good story. The technical aspects, which are inarguably pristine, are only half the battle. And The Revenant can only be described as a battle, between austere art cinema and Iñárritu’s staggering auteurist pomposity.

For one thing, the film is too goddamn long. If it filled its time with original, essential scenes, it wouldn’t feel like such a slog, but Iñárritu insists on returning over and over again to a bluntly metaphorical dream sequence/flashback that would make even Terrence Malick blush. The film’s theme is constantly repeated via these flashbacks and eventually a broken record voiceover that begins to act like a psychic cheese grater, shaving away every layer of your patience one scrape at a time.

The surreal imagery these sequences insist upon don’t exactly help, especially considering that all but one shot feels just like student filmmaker masturbation. It’s sickeningly ostentatious and it carves a huge chunk out of the effectiveness of the rest of the film’s realism and austerity.

I want Leo fighting the elements, not Tree of Life 2: Full Throttle.

Another problem with the urgency with which impatiently metaphorical imagery seeps into the film is that there’s next to no consistency in how cold it is at any given time. There is a clear progression to Glass’s interaction with the weather, but the film loses track of its visual representation in the midst of plugging in as many shots of sweeping grandeur as possible.

However, all this pales in comparison to the film’s biggest flaw, which is unfortunately my beloved Tom Hardy. He gives his performance in such a ludicrously pronounced Southern accent that it’s nigh-on impossible to understand even fifty percent of what he’s saying. Between this and his Dark Night Rises performance as Bane, I’m not entirely convinced that he’s not doing this on purpose. It’s like watching a foreign film, where the language barrier is so dense that you can’t even tell if it’s a good performance or not. He’s kind of like the anthropomorphic representation of the film itself: a well-meaning effort towards prestige that completely obfuscates its original intentions beneath a thick layer of unintelligible nonsense.

No, I did not like The Revenant. It’s totally OK if you did. There’s a lot there. But from where I’m standing, this is Iñárritu’s second strained, mangled Oscarbait effort in as many years.

TL;DR: The Revenant is an arduous, pretentious watch that is well-realized but not enough to salvage a good story.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1002

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ain't It Funny In A Rich Man's World

Year: 2015
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Three of Michael Lewis’ books  have been made into movies. The Blind Side was a stultifying ordeal, and Moneyball was… OK, I’ve never seen Moneyball. But the fact remains that these are very serious, Oscar-nominated-type dramas. So, who would you get to direct the next one, about the people who bet against the housing market before its collapse in 2008? Someone prestigious, probably. Richard Linklater? Ridley Scott? The Academy’s class pet, Alenjandro G. Iñárritu? Those are all fine choices, but the director the producers attached has made all the difference: Adam McKay.

Yes, the man helming this economic Oscarbait is none other than the director of Anchorman, Stepbrothers, and The Other Guys, not to mention the co-creator of Funny or Die. We now live in a world where it actually would have made sense if Will Ferrell had cameoed in The Big Short. Even more incredible, McKay is probably the best decision they could have made.

The worst is dyeing Ryan Gosling’s hair, but let’s find it in our hearts to forgive them.

Let’s get into it, shall we? In The Big Short, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers that the housing market is an enormous bubble, ready to burst at any moment. He creates a system that allows him to short the market, betting against its success. The banks think he’s crazy and graciously accept his free money. However, others catch wind of his scheme and think he might be onto something, including Deutsche Bank bond salesman Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), mercurial hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), two young hedge funders who team up with their retired mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). They too decide to short the market and wait patiently for the whole thing to collapse.

It’s about as morally dubious as it sounds.

The Big Short has two major hurdles. First, people could give half a crap about economics. Second, this is entirely based on a true story, one which is as open-ended and multifaceted as that nasty reality thing tends to be. The first is handled with aplomb, utilizing a Brechtian approach to engage the audience with its less-than appealing content. By that, I mean the movie – via the supple mouthpiece of Ryan Gosling – speaks directly to the audience, explaining the necessary information with some truly great cutaway gags and first-person comments on how the story actually played out.

This could easily have become a played-out gimmick, but it stays fresh and light, transforming hard economic theory into light, playful banter. Unfortunately, this freshness doesn’t necessarily apply to the “realistic” faux-documentary shooting style, in which the handheld photography, rack focuses, and quick pans get old faster than a ripe pear. It’s not too pervasive an issue, and you do get familiar enough with the aesthetic to just ignore it. But the cinema verite approach doesn’t exactly mesh with the Brechtian meta humor, which utilizes the artifice of film in a surreal and enlightening way, something that’s harder to highlight when the images are straining so hard to be gritty and real. It’s kind of like if someone hired the cinematographer from Precious to shoot a Muppet movie. It just doesn’t gel.

So yes, I’ll knock off a point or two for that, but it’s where The Big Short overcomes its second hurdle that the film really blossoms. As a plot, the film is pretty straightforward. Men predict, investigate, and outsmart the housing crisis. There’s not a lot of humanity there. Obviously a cast almost exclusively composed of awards season heavy hitters helps out some (Carell is probably the biggest takeaway as a man hiding his shattered soul beneath a shell of sheer bravado, but Pitt is an excellent conduit for both comic relief and serious political themes, Gosling is sharp and snappy as our de facto narrator, relative newcomers Magaro and Wittrock hold their own, and Bale does his Bale thing politely in the corner), but where The Big Short really hits its mark is in depicting the culture AROUND the housing bubble.

You know, the one that doesn’t exactly hit the jackpot during the whole shebang.

The film builds its real story in the nooks and crannies around the A-plot, especially in the transitions between years leading to the collapse. Every single edit in these interstitial scenes is fixated on one thing, highlighting the vacant, shallow, consumerist pop culture that has distracted everybody from their impending doom. [MEDIUM SPOILERS Their construction blends perfectly with the celebrity cameos that are used to explain economic theories. They function both as fun gags and an indictment of a culture that needs this kind of thing to be able to notice the hard facts.] It’s a lacerating satire that brings a dry textbook to life in the middle of a doomed culture. The Big Short is nothing less than an economic horror film, and an extremely effective one at that.

It’s funny, it’s terrifying, and it’s utterly unique, a combination it never could have accomplished without a director like Adam McKay. He balances his tones with impressive acuity, imbuing even generic-sounding scenes with an idiosyncratic twist. Perhaps the single best moment in the film is a scene as simple as a set of people leaving a convention. Observing the differences in their appearance, demeanor, and the cars they drive provides an eerily stunning insight into their characters and their world. It’s a film littered with gems like these, and because of that it’s without a doubt the best based-on-a-true-story flick of the year.

TL;DR: The Big Short is a captivating, innovative exploration of a seemingly dry concept.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 968

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Who's There?

Year: 2015
Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Oh, Eli Roth. After a long period of anxious waiting, we have been blessed with two of your movies in the same year. What could we possibly say but thank you? And how generous of you to present us with the rare opportunity of sneaking a glimpse into your vast spectrum of work by having those films be the best in your career (the 6 out of 10 cannibal throwback The Green Inferno) and the worst (freaking Knock Knock)! So very kind!

Kalloo! Kalay! Kill me!

In Knock Knock, devoted family man Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) is spending Father’s Day weekend at home alone while his wife and kids are on vacation. He hopes to spend his time finishing up an important architecture project because he’s an important architect, but when two young women seek refuge during a rainstorm, he feels compelled to help them out. Their names are Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, AKA Mrs. Eli Roth) and Bell (Ana de Armas), and they attempt to repay his generosity with a hot, steamy shower threesome. He puts up a good fight, but ultimately caves to their feminine wiles.

In the morning, the girls have changed. They run around wrecking the house, generally acting like six-year-olds and refusing to leave. Eventually they get bored and start to torture him in a variety of creative (see: not actually effective) ways, including blasting loud music, destroying his wife’s artwork, and giving him a Bill & Ted haircut.

The horror!

In case you were wondering if the inherent misogyny present in the “women are wicked vixens who will seduce and destroy you” storyline would be Eli Roth’s only calling card, rest assured. He finds plenty of time to call things “gay” and “retarded” because his movies exist in an alternate universe where it is permanently 2006. Also, apparently Bubble Tape is sexy there. It’s a strange and frightening place.

And in case you were worried Knock Knock would have too much plot, never fear! It has almost none. At least, none that could happen to a non-lobotomized, rational human being who has a cause-and-effect sort of relationship with the universe. The plot is almost exclusively driven by people who make the single worst decision possible in every given situation, sometimes even attempting a solution so far removed from the realm of logic that it wasn’t even apparent as an option. The leverage the girls hold over Evan is nonexistent, his attempts to overtake them are farcically feeble, and the veritable cornucopia of opportunities to redeem himself are blatantly ignored. It plays out like a sitcom, where the problem could be solved if only every character didn’t have the emotional and analytical range of a toddler.

Actually, that’s rude. I’m sorry for saying that about you, toddlers.

Of course, the plot being the withered trunk that it is, was it ever likely that the dialogue would properly sprout into lush, verdant foliage? No, the script was never going to be particularly good, but the level of its inadequacy feels like an active attack on the audience. It’s like linguistic napalm, obliterating every brain cell in its path. 

Ranging from the obvious (“You’re hurting me!”) to the ludicrous (“As an architect, obviously I believe that fate occurs according to one’s own design.”), Knock Knock’s screenplay is full of choice pockets of unintentional hilarity. This all culminates in a Keanu monologue of such titanic atrocity, performed with all the sputtering, red-faced bravado of a drunk auctioneer, that it’s a damn human rights violation that it hasn’t already become a widespread YouTube meme. 

I will, however, allow the script one reprieve. The punchline to the entire thing is pure gold, almost worth sitting through 90 minutes of feckless shouting. Of course, it’s instantly followed by the single worst comic quip in the entire film, so that esteem flies right through the window and back into the dumpster where it belongs.

My one apology for this across-the-board pan is that I genuinely don’t think Eli Roth is a bad director. I’m not a fan of his films, but that’s largely thanks to their Spring Break Daytona Beach 1999 content. It’s two weeks of sweaty, drunk frat bellowing concentrated into one solid lump, but that doesn’t mean it looks bad. Much like Roth himself, the questionable content is delivered in a remarkably handsome package. The imagery in Knock Knock isn’t full of meaning or subtext or any gay crap like that, but it’s crisp, colorful, and cleanly presented. Roth really knows how to squeeze a clean looking product out of his budget, and not even my angry ranting can take that away from him.

TL;DR: Knock Knock is an ineptly-told story that wouldn't be worth watching even if it wasn't.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 812

Monday, January 18, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Moonage Daydreams


Year: 1986
Director: Jim Henson
Cast: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Dave Goelz
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

When a young woman accidentally banishes her baby brother to the goblin kingdom, she must work her way through a fantastical labyrinth to save him.

Obviously, Labyrinth made its way into my screening schedule due to the untimely passing of rock icon David Bowie, but it’s also a very appropriate interlude during the midpoint of my Muppet marathon. The last feature film directed by Jim Henson, Labyrinth is one of the final puzzle pieces in a career dedicated to converting the truly bizarre into the mainstream. The narrative of Labyrinth is piecemeal, part Alice in Wonderland, part Wizard of Oz, with the linguistic cunning of The Phantom Tollbooth, but beneath the vignettes of Jennifer Connelly’s journey there’s a dark, intelligent mind pulsing, constantly bursting forth with fresh, nutty ideas.

In the broadest sense, Labyrinth is about growing up and learning to share with/care for another human being. But Labyrinth is also about the poisonous behavior of clinging to material possessions, the unreliability of the rules by which one perceives the universe, and Jim Henson showing off just how devilishly creative he could truly be. The creature designs that erupt across the screen are feverish triumphs of character creation. 

From large to small, every monster, goblin, anthropomorphic door knocker, cockney worm, etc., etc., etc. has a personality and a detailed, idiosyncratic look. My personal favorites are the lichen-covered stone “Helping Hands” that guard the oubliette, and the trash ladies who roam the dump with their prized possessions piled on their backs, but every single creature has the potential to be somebody’s favorite for any number of equally sound reasons.

Labyrinth is confidently stylish and almost irritatingly large scale. The goblin battle in the third act somehow manages to wrangle puppets, life size monster suits, Jennifer Connelly, a dog, and rolling boulders all together in a dazzling, balletic display, sometimes all in the same shot. Labyrinth’s is a sumptuously realized world that took meticulous care and boundless creativity to produce, something Henson possessed in spades.

But above all else, Labyrinth is thoroughly weird. This is kind of unavoidable that features David Bowie in a lead role and lets him do the music, but that ain’t even the half of it. It’s a brain-bubbling stew of fantasy iconography, 80’s sludge pop, spontaneous reggae numbers, and Bowie music video interludes. Just like the titular labyrinth itself, it’s impossible to predict what’s around the next corner, which is why it’s pretty much perfect for kids and their frayed attention spans. 

There are moments where I must throw my hands up and admit that I have no idea what’s going on or why (like the totally pointless, nonsensical, masterpiece of a song “Magic Dance”), but whatever the reason, it’s relentlessly captivating stuff.

Rating: 8/10

The Beyond

For our podcast episode about The Beyond (including a lengthy Bowie tribute at the beginning and end), click here.

Year: 1981
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: X

A young woman inherits a Louisiana hotel, only to discoer that it is built over one of the seven entrances to Hell.

If Dario Argento is Italian horror’s Steven Spielberg, Lucio Fulci is its Roland Emmerich. He’s artful in his own way, but he goes straight for the jugular instead of tooling around with wastes of time like prestige, theme, or that bane of cinema, subtlety. In The Beyond, bad things happen because it’s Hell, dammit. Why are you trying to think things through when a man’s face is being pelted with glass?

The Beyond might not have much of a way with words (Or plot. Or logic.), but as a living gallery of excruciating pain, it’s undeniable. Continuing his lifelong vendetta against the human eye (this guy must have Un Chien Andalou as his screensaver… Film student humor!), he finds ever more extravagant ways to gouge, pluck, skewer, and otherwise inconvenience that accursed white orb. And that’s just the bedrock of an elaborately layered system of gore, from bloody falls to crucifixions to freaking tarantulas devouring a face. It’s an 80’s Italian film, so the effects don’t necessarily hold up, but they’re so gruesome that they bypass your brain’s reality cortex and dive straight for the “I’m gonna throw up” lobe.

The Beyond is a breathtaking gonzo gorefest, the ultimate visceral experience that horror filmmaking can provide. Its approach to gore can be easily summed up by one of its scenes, in which a woman is dissolved by acid, a wave of fluid sending her decaying body across the floor as a viscous, red foam. The Beyond is exactly that, an implacable crimson tidal wave threating to overtake you. 

Even amidst all this killing, Fulci never forgets to properly represent Italian horror, stylishly juxtaposing his kill scenes with moments of bucolic serenity, doubling down on the rapid cuts, rack focuses, and extreme close-ups so you’re incapable of forgetting which country is sponsoring this particular nightmare.

My only real issues with The Beyond are its slippery pacing and its climax. The dubiously dubbed dialogue scenes tend to drag like a 2 by 4 nailed to the back of a Hot Wheel car. There’s only so much momentum you can get out of wood. And the third act culminates in a bizarrely shoved-in, molasses-paced zombie sequence that seems like (and is) an ill thought-out studio note. Those two flaws combine with enough heft to knock The Beyond down a peg, but it’s still an exciting, revelatory, deliciously wicked motion picture.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 933

Friday, January 15, 2016

Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle Of Dumb

Year: 1996
Director: Brian Henson
Cast: Tim Curry, Billy Connolly, Jennifer Saunders
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

Following Jim Henson’s death in 1990, the Muppet franchise was set adrift on a choppy tide. The first theatrical feature since that dreadful day was The Muppet Christmas Carol, a mildly entertaining literary adaptation that sidelined the Muppets. It didn’t do half bad at the box office, and considering that this was during the early period of Disney’s flirtation with the property, the soul-crushing corporation squeezed that felt to see if they could get even more blood to drip out. Thus, Muppet Treasure Island was born, made on the exact same model but proving to be ever so much worse.

And I actually LIKE classic literature.

The plot, obviously, is pretty much just Treasure Island with a few (too few) Muppety spins on the seafaring tale. Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop), Rizzo the Rat (Steve Whitmire), and Gonzo (Dave Goelz) live sad, lonely lives as servants at an inn when a dying patron leaves them with a treasure map. Seeking adventure on the high seas, they set sail with the wealthy but spacey Squire Trelawny [Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz)] and Captain Smollett [Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire)]. When the treacherous Long John Silver (Tim Curry) steals the map and kidnaps Jim, they must journey to the island where the treasure is buried to save Jim and stop Silver and his band of pirates.

This was back in the day when pirates did cool swashbuckling things instead of just torrenting Expendables movies.

Hey, remember when I had a severe problem with The Muppet Christmas Carol shunting the A-list Muppets into tertiary roles? Well, Muppet Treasure Island is a vast improvement. The A-list Muppets are shunted into secondary roles this time. Progress! Once again, the dream team (by somebody’s definition) of Gonzo and Rizzo take the remaining leads and prove for the second time that they don’t have the capacity to drive a Muppet feature all on their own. It’s not like I have a problem with Tim Curry (or the previous venture’s Michael Caine, for that matter), but human performances are light years less compelling than the alchemic magic that brings the Muppets to life. And as for Kevin Bishop? Oh, we’ll get to him later.

Muppet humor generally thrives on postmodern meta winks and nudge, but there’s a very crucial limit to their self-referentiality. As much as they will admit that they’re putting on a show or making a movie, the Muppets will never ever make reference to the fact that they are puppets. Because they aren’t. They are living, breathing creatures that play characters and put on shows for your amusement. The idea that the Muppets are a fictional construct rubs against the very grain of the magical material. That’s why the opening credits read “Kermit the Frog as Captain Smollett” and poor Steve Whitmire is relegated to the closing crawl.

Muppet Treasure Island doesn’t violate this rule, thank Henson, but with Disney pulling the strings they come knife-edge close. The Big Mouse is so proud of its acquisition that it can’t help but drop a couple anachronistic references to itself in the script. Oops, did I say “drop?”? I meant “propel at cannonball force, reducing the script to tatters.” Such obvious, clunky homage to the company is a vulgar challenge to the purity of the Muppet universe. It’s not like kids will notice, but if we’ve learned anything about me during these past few months, it’s that I take my Muppets very seriously.

Swedish Chef and Jason Voorhees. It’s a good thing I’m already dating someone, because my profile would melt’s servers.

But my intense analytical ranting is far from the only issue with Muppet Treasure Island’s humor. It runs into the typical 90’s Muppet pitfalls, favoring cheap slapstick, crappy pop culture references, and sanitized kiddy gags over the anarchist family humor of previous entries. Frankly, it’s not funny. And the weak adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s source novel is hardly compelling enough to compensate for this titanic deficiency. Because of this, Muppet Treasure Island is unequivocally the worst Muppet film, though as a member of that particular class, it is saved from being a particularly abhorrent example of family filmmaking.

Plus, as much as I abhor humans stealing lead roles from Muppets, Tim Curry really is pretty phenomenal. As a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it’s a delight to see him back in a musical, even if he only taps about half of that gonzo Dr. Frank-N-Furter charisma. Kevin Bishop, on the other hand… (See? I told you we’d get back to him.) As a child actor in the 1990’s, he just plain wasn’t going to be good. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to the direction of young actors back then, and he’s just one of dozens who got lost in the shuffle. Look, if Jurassic Park couldn’t do it, Muppet Treasure Island was just not going to stack up.

The truly disastrous element of his hammy, exaggerate performance is his singing voice, which really couldn’t be helped. As kids of a certain age are wont to do, Bishop underwent puberty during the course of the film’s production, forcing sound engineers to use early demo recording of his songs. The result is an overly filtered, Paris Hilton-esque whine that exists in a sonic universe that is light years away from the rest of the cast. It’s distracting, sometimes ear-splitting, and the songs weren’t really that good in the first place. No offense to the arbitrary calypso free-for-all number Cabin Fever,” but there’s nothing here that’s worthy of licking the boots of “Rainbow Connection” or “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.”

Hell, it even makes me kind of miss Electric Mayhem.

Muppet Treasure Island was the nadir of this marathon, so thankfully things are uphill from here. Disney would drop the property before picking it up for good and finally deciding what the hell to do with it. And the 90’s were well on their way to folding into the culture of the new millennium. Good riddance.

TL;DR: Muppet Treasure Island is a flimsy excuse for a Muppet picture.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1033
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, 1991)
Muppet Treasure Island (Henson, 1996)
Muppets from Space (Hill, 1999)
The Muppets (Bobin, 2011)
Muppets Most Wanted (Bobin, 2014)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Snorty Forties

Year: 2015
Director: Jason Moore
Cast: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Hey, remember Sisters? It’s that movie that you haven’t seen yet because it came out the same day as Star Wars. Well, it happened, and the triumphant reunion of comedy soul sisters Amy Poehler and Tina Fey has commenced. Throw in newly minted comedy star John Cena, the director of Pitch Perfect, and a massive quantity of cast members hemorrhaged from Saturday Night Live, and you have a movie that couldn’t help but be funny in spit of itself. Unfortunately, it’s almost exclusively funny in spite of itself, but this is 2016. We takes what we gets.

I mean, between this and, say, Ride Along 2, it’s not exactly Sophie’s Choice.

Sisters tells the story of the Ellis sisters, Maura (Amy Poehler) and Kate (Tina Fey). Maura is a nurse who has her life together, except for the fact that she’s still reeling from a messy divorce. Kate is an abrasive screw-up with no home, no job, and a teen daughter (Madison Davenport) who gets fed up with her and has been living away from home for several months, not telling her mom where she is. Which Kate gets angsty about rather than calling the cops, because this movie was written by somebody who clearly doesn’t have children, or possibly is only vaguely aware that people tend to care about the smaller humans that grow inside them.

Anyway, the sisters find out that their parents (James Brolin and Dianne West in what might not be the laziest performances of their careers, but certainly the drunkest) are selling their childhood home and decide to throw one last house party to relive the glory days of high school. Maura hopes to let her tightly wound hair down and get with hunky neighbor James (Ike Barinholtz) while Kate is looking to forget her troubles before she has to face her sad, 30 Rock-less reality once more.


As a story, Sisters is pretty routine. Two different people learn to accept one another’s realities and face the challenges of growing up. It’s not Shakespeare. Actually… Come to think of it, it’s kind of like Taming of the Shrew. There’s nothing new under the sun, man. It gets points for going with a climax far different than the course of the movie was suggesting, but it loses those points immediately because that climax is idiotic and raises the stakes ludicrously high for a party comedy. Plus, it’s mighty embarrassing when the predictable ending you don’t go with is actually better.

As a scripted comedy, Sisters is pretty routine. There are a series of gross-out gags, somebody accidentally ingests way too much of a certain nasal narcotic, and hijinks ensue. Comedy thrives on the unexpected, and there’s a crippling drought of surprise to be found in the film’s comedic structure. And while I’m thinking about it, the denouement is as idiotic as the climax, so there’s that.

Don’t you just love movies where you can fall asleep for the final half hour and not miss anything?

As a string of gags, Sisters is not pretty routine. Betcha you weren’t expecting that. While the structure is unambitious swill, the moments where it lets the cast breathe and be themselves produce a bevy of bite-sized gags that are invariably the best thing about the movie. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are comic sweethearts for a reason, and when they can break from the script and scrounge up loose laughs, it absolutely works. Sparkling improvisations and clever line readings pepper Sisters, rendering it funnier than it really ought to be.

A lot of the film’s best comedy comes from the juxtaposition of men and women in their 40’s in a typically high school-based narrative style. You’d think those would be the entire point of the movie, but you would be wrong. Luckily, converting what should have been front and center into a sort of stunted B-story concentrates those moments into fewer but stronger nuggets. It’s like an Easter egg hunt for laughs. There might be long segments of searching, but when one appears, it’s always received with a burst of elation. Also, it is way the hell too long.

Without its cast (especially Bobby Moynihan, Maya Rudolph, and John Cena), Sisters would be lost in the dark. But it just goes to show how much the right group of people can elevate flat material. Unfortunately, that material is, necessarily, still wholly present in the film, which is why Sisters is charming but mostly a dud. Have it on in the background while you’re folding laundry or something. It’s amusing but it doesn’t demand your full attention.

TL;DR: Sisters is an unambitious comedy saved by a strong cast.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 801