Monday, February 22, 2016

The First Witch Hunter

Year: 2016
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes 
MPAA Rating: R

It’s that time of year again. A wildly hyped arthouse horror film has hit the national stage with triumphant fanfare, ready to receive a merciless box office lashing. Two years ago it was Jennifer Kent’s chilling tale of motherhood gone sour, The Babadook. Then came the methodically crafted, variably successful sexual parable It Follows. This year we have The Witch, a contemplative New England folk tale from first-time director Robert Eggers. While I’m overjoyed that these very small, very cerebral horror films are finding audiences in a big way, setting these films up as “the scariest movie in a generation” destines them to failure and disappointment.

I mean, shouldn’t we have learned by now that Stephen King will give a blurb to pretty much anything? He’d regale a box of Corn Pops as “a triumph of terror” as long as it wasn’t directed by Stanley Kubrick. I’m not attempting to diminish the horror of the Witch in any way, which is very frequently visceral and overwhelming. However, my advice is to approach it devoid of any expectation one way or the other. I would hate to see another solid genre picture suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous hype.

Or by opposing, end its theatrical run.

In The Witch, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest daughter of a British family in colonial New England. They have been banished from the nearby town due to her father William’s (Ralph Ineson) fervent, bordering on maniacal religious beliefs and are now struggling to subsist on a small farm perched on the edge of the forest, a gaping maw of wilderness the children are forbidden to enter. When the baby Samuel is snatched away by an unseen force while under Thomasin’s care, thus begins a period of turmoil and suspicion in the family.

As tensions rise between Thomasin, her father, her distraught mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), her lustful brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the irritating twins Mercy (Ellie Graner) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), they begin to suspect their misfortune may be the result of witchcraft. Does a witch wander the wood, or is the treachery coming from within the family itself?

And will Sabrina ever get to go to the prom with Harvey?

The thing that immediately springs to mind when describing The Witch is that it’s very intentional. By that I mean that every aspect of the film is there for a reason, painstakingly placed to evoke a certain sensation. This is not a director who’s asleep at the wheel. From the color palette to the sparse dialogue to the blighted set design, The Witch can not fail to make an impression. In fact, it’s the first film I’ve personally seen that makes a spectacle of its alternative aspect ratio (1.66:1, shout out to my film nerds), practically screaming for you to notice that it’s just a little off from your standard American theatrical release.

However, intention and reception are very different beasts. While I can clearly see and respect the decision-making behind every aesthetic choice made in The Witch, I for one am not personally inclined to receive their messages in quite the way I’m meant to. Let me clarify. Take The Witch’s color palette, an elegantly bleak, nearly monochrome effort that leaches all color from the frame, leaving behind only a handful of dull greys. It’s an impressive technique, akin to creating a living charcoal sketch, but it fails to capture the eye.

The act of watching The Witch is an act of permanent frustration and struggle to focus on any image in the frame. This is clearly meant to foster a sense of oppression, blurring the lines of reality and driving home the cruel monotony of the family’s stranglehold on Thomasin’s life. However, it’s also a vexing distraction, making it nigh-on impossible to remain  engaged with the story. It constantly draws attention to its own artifice, which is a severe miscalculation in a film so devoted to historical accuracy.

God, that was verbose. Can you tell I’ve been reading Shakespeare again?

One more thing before I stop being so glum about The Witch: As much as I loathe when a film is discredited by its accents, the Yorkshire brogue that these actors spit out is nearly impenetrable, bolstered by the tough steel of their Olde English speech patterns. This is not a detraction, just a warning: Don’t check your brain at the door. You’re going to need it to crack the Enigma Code of the dialogue.

All that said, The Witch is an extremely unique movie that benefits greatly in how it differs from mainstream American horror. It’s a deliberately paced mood piece that aims to shock through barely-glimpsed horrors and unnatural images. Rather than being a jump scare jack-in-the-box, it relies on eerie situations so ontologically wrong that they cause the blood to boil. Mind you, the snowball doesn’t get to clobbering size until it has rolled for quite some time, but the earlier slow boil scenes are so wracked with heightened atmosphere that it proves effective if you have the patience to suffer its visual abrasiveness.

The single element that best sells the mood of the film is the cast, every member of which is uniformly terrific, even – God help me – the children. Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, and Ralph Ineson are equals in off-kilter character building, ramping up the tension with almost unbearably immediate, human performances. But for me, the biggest surprise was Harvey Scrimshaw, who can’t possibly be able to understand all the implications of his character at his tender age, but plays his part to the hilt, nailing every nuance with inhuman precision.

The Witch is an intelligent and visually bold horror film that brings something elegant and classical to the market, and I wish it every success. It’s more exciting to think about than to actually sit through, but for what it’s worth, it’s a bona fide work of art (with all the divisiveness that that entails), an astounding directorial debut for a filmmaker who, if he can keep this up, should land himself a place on every cinephile’s watchlist.

TL;DR: The Witch is a well-crafted, tense work with an intensely frustrating aesthetic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1053

Thursday, February 18, 2016

How To Succeed In Valentine's Day Box Office (Without Really Trying)

Year: 2016
Director: Christian Ditter
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The odds are looking increasingly likely that I’m an idiot. Exhibit A: I watched How to be Single on purpose. To be fair, I had my doubts about its overlong mishmash of a trailer, but one joke in particular really sold me (Of course it’s not in the final cut. Of course.) Plus, in last year’s Valentine smash Fifty Shades of Grey, lead actress Dakota Johnson proved surprisingly adept at wringing intentional laughs from her performance. I was more than pleased that she was given a shot at an actual comedy film and wanted to see how it panned out.

All I can say is that it’s definitely not her fault the movie sucks.

In the grand tradition of classic ensemble comedies like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, How to be Single follows the stories of four single women in New York City. Only three of them actually seem to be connected in any meaningful way and only three of them (a different set, naturally) actually get solo scenes, but at least Ashton Kutcher isn’t hanging around. Our de facto lead is Alice (Dakota Johnson), who is taking a break from her college sweetheart Josh (Nicholas Braun) to discover who she really is on her own. At her Big City paralegal job that she never really goes to, she meets Robin (Rebel Wilson), a firecracker-about-town who urges her to embrace singlehood and collect dicks like they’re Pokémon cards.

We also, for some reason, follow Alice’s considerably older/ginger sister Meg (Leslie Mann, and the truly staggering difference between their ages might explain why there is exactly zero parental presence in the film), who is an OB-GYN that (gasp) doesn’t want children! The horror! Of course, after about three minutes of thought, she reverses forty years of steadfast philosophy and decides she actually does want kids. Women, am I right? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t write ‘em as well-rounded, independent characters. She decides to get pregnant with a sperm donor, which gets complicated when she falls for the much-younger Ken (Obvious Child’s Jake Lacy), who has been pursuing her like a hawk on Adderall.

And then there’s Lucy (Alison Brie) who lives above a bar owned by Tom (Anders Holm) and uses his WiFi. Other than the fact that the other ladies know Tom and have existed in this same bar before, she is completely unrelated. She launches a neurotic, algorithmic hunt for The One via online dating sites while the consummate bachelor Tom struggles with his inexplicable feelings for her.

Apparently, how to be single is to be in a relationship, which seems off message.

How to be Single lauds itself as a genre-defying romantic comedy, telling the stories you don’t typically hear on Valentine’s Day and busting tropes left and right. To be fair, there are a decent amount of clichés that are subverted, but they’re all jammed into the final 20 minutes when the filmmakers remembered that some time long before the putrid stretch of Hell that was the production of How to be Single, there was actually a point to all of this. But the tropes they focus on are merely superficial ones, like overused lines or certain visual clues, and fairly ineptly presented ones at that. They totally ignore the egregious cacophony of overused tripe that comprises their own script. Their satire is like popping a pimple when they really should be addressing the flesh-eating bacteria

Because boy, is HtbS full of rankling rom-com idiocies. In fact, it relies almost exclusively on them to make the severely disjointed plot in any way comprehensible. Never mind the fact that only a romantic comedy would make such a f**king John Philip Sousa ticker tape big deal out of being single, or that its central philosophy requires a strict, black-and-white view on relationships that only rarely resembles reality. That just comes with the territory. No, we’re talking huge Deep Impact clichés that slam the audience so hard their fillings rattle.

Let’s list off a couple of the hyperbolically frustrating tropes present in How to be Single and see if you get a Bad Rom-Com Bingo:

  • Pregnant women are hormonal, crazed monsters that will literally eat you if you look at them wrong.
  • Casual sex is a Huge Mistake, even when it’s between two consenting adults with a previous sexual history and clearly stated intentions not to be together long-term.
  • Tom is so devoted to being single that he has developed a relationship-repelling system. He rivals even Barney Stinson in being an actual psychopath, depriving them of food and water until they find a way to escape his Bachelor’s Lair.
  • Alice is such a helpless infant that she can’t figure out how to use her TV remote (it’s 2016, just Google it) and takes an entire film to discover that she can sleep in the middle of the bed.
  • Everything is neatly wrapped up with a sitcommy closing narration.
  • The only black woman in the film is a store patron who sassily shouts “Get it, girl!” from offscreen.
  • All of this culminates in a spot of drama so manufactured, it wouldn’t make it past the rough draft of a soap opera episode.

With these amateurs wielding such powerful clichés, it’s no small wonder they didn’t destroy several careers in the process.

In short, HtbS is even more generic than the conventions it’s attempting to subvert. But honestly, that’s just one twig on the raging bonfire of incompetence. The film cuts between the three major storylines at a machine gun pace, leaving the viewer to piece each shattered fragment of a plot together like Humpty Dumpty, a truly mystifying preponderance of handheld camerawork gives the impression that the cinematographer is either doing jumping jacks or constantly on the verge of passing out from boredom, and the parade of Top 40 hits masquerading as a “soundtrack” frequently drowns out the actual dialogue. Oh, and how could I forget the editing so sloppy that it gives us two St. Patrick’s Days in a row? A movie is bad enough if it has one! It’s an unholy mess, scatterbrained and inept.

However… (I am beyond pleased to be using this word, if only to salvage what remains of my psyche) How to be Single isn’t a 100% guaranteed waste of time. I would never recommend that anyone actually sit down to watch it, but there are a solid set of performances that swoop in to save the day. First off, Dakota Johnson really does prove herself here as a reliable comic actress. She isn’t asked to do much more than clammily stammer at reasonably attractive men, but she anchors her role with an engaging charm ands some truly impeccable line readings.

She’s by far the standout, although everybody involved actually does give it a shot. Jake Lacy is sweet and kooky, Leslie Mann and Alison Brie are sufficient to the point that their characters don’t tip over when they’re speaking, and Rebel Wilson just keeps on trucking with her faithful schtick, though her presence is extravagantly pointless.

How to be Single is the That Awkward Moment of 2016: A subpar, plotless vehicle that features a surprisingly solid cast, and which makes an honestly and nearly successful attempt at redeeming the torpid material.

TL;DR: How to be Single is a choppy, scatterbrained mess that at least is supported by a solid female cast.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1251

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

We Don't Need Another Hero

Year: 2016
Director: Tim Miller
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Say, has anybody noticed that there seems to be quite a few of these superhero pictures coming out lately? In the eight years since Iron Man, Hollywood has essentially converted into one of those baseball pitching machines, lobbing out comic book movies at a steadily increasing clip. Some are home runs (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers) and some are whiffs (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, goddamn Fantastic Four), but at this point superheroes are still a money tree with diamond fruit, and studios will keep shaking it until it’s kindling.

Deadpool bills itself as an anti-superhero movie, a saucy, R-rated pastiche that will breathe new life into the hopelessly self-serious format. Seeing how snark is practically a character in Marvel’s Joss Whedon-tinged Phase 2, this isn’t exactly how it works. And Deadpool is a superhero story the same way (500) Days of Summer is a love story. Sure, it’s caustic and self-aware, but it’s more firmly encamped in the genre than it’s willing to admit. Nevertheless, Deadpool is quite easily the best 20th Century Fox Marvel movie in at least a decade.

Let’s rock ‘n roll.

In Deadpool, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a fast-talking mercenary madly in love with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). When he discovers he has terminal cancer, he signs up for an aggressive treatment from the wicked Ajax (Ed Skrein), which activates a latent mutation that gives him miraculous healing powers but scars his face beyond recognition. He narrowly escapes the institution and is now hellbent on finding Ajax, getting a cure, and winning back his lady love. On hand to help are two benchwarmer X-Men, Colossus (Stefan Kupicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand).

Someone in the X-Men publicity department probably got fired for that code name.

Deadpool is a strange beast. Trying to package it under any kind of defining label is like trying to sculpt with butter on an August afternoon. It’s a slippery, misshapen behemoth that desperately strains to break the mold but passes out from exertion before it quite accomplishes that. I have quite a few bones to pick with Deadpool, and I’ll get to them forthwith, but I just that you should know that, for all its braying and its lumpy stature, it’s a damn entertaining film and sometimes that’s all that matters.

First off, let’s discuss that R-rating. This is mostly used for good (if your definition of “good” involves vigorous holiday sex and a solid slate of absurdist gags that I shall dub The Masturbation Variations). It’s bloodier than your average superhero flick, and a strip club scene actually displays topless women As divested as I am of a particular interest in the female anatomy, I always respect realistic depictions of topless bars instead of the sanitized sitcom hellscape of women endlessly gyrating in their bras and panties.

But despite its triumphant heralding of its loosened sexual mores, Deadpool feels oddly tame. Two actresses (the ones who are actually paid good money to be here) have scenes written specifically into the film that require exposed breasts, but they’re demurely obscured. And certain key moments of violence are deliberately sequestered offscreen to the degree that it’s almost impossible to comprehend the action. My question is this: Why include these scenes at all if you’re too afraid to actually engage with them? Aside from Deadpool’s vigorous usage of the F-word like a dog demolishing a new chew toy, there seems to be a discernible reluctance to truly push the envelope. Sure, it’s salacious, but it’s barely American Pie level naughty. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if the movie weren’t so obsessed with announcing how ribald it is.

This is possibly a result of producers having no clue how Deadpool was going to be received and attempting to temper its personality. This cluttered, acerbic tale is halfway to where it wants to be, whether it’s sex, violence, Deadpool’s scar makeup, or even its approach toward women. Trapped in limbo between archetypical damsels in distress and broad-as-hell mistranslated Feminist Manifesto Super Warriors, the female presence in this movie utterly fails to make any impression at all (save Brianna Hildebrand, playing a teen stereotype with unrivaled glee). However, now that Deadpool is raking in Hunger Games numbers, I hope the sequel will be more willing to embrace its rating, settling into the truly unique spectrum the character deserves.

Although I’m undoubtedly a gentleman, I’m not NOT lobbying for full frontal Ryan Reynolds. You know. For equality.

I think you get the picture. Deadpool is a little all over the place. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a shot in the arm. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Oasis, Deadpool is Blink-182, a snotty and hyperactive answer to the superhero doldrums. Its humor is uncommonly divisive, but that’s indubitably a good thing. It’s a facet of the in-your-face gonzo attitude that the film intermittently achieves.

The humor is immature, gloating, wacky, gross, and uncompromising in tis vicious assault on the fourth wall and if you’re not ready for it, it will rub you the wrong way. I’m just saying, if you’re wearing a polo and chinos into the multiplex, this may not be the film for you. But as a childish volcano of sardonic, biting comedy, it’s a remarkably fun ride. Listing jokes is a hallmark of dull criticism, so I shall refrain from doing so, but let’s just say there may or may not be a Deadpool rap song on the soundtrack. It’s rad, and my inner high schooler had a blast.

Deadpool owes everything it has to one Mssr. Ryan Reynolds. He is wholly devoted to the role, harnessing all his inherent charm to sell the ceaseless antics. In the hands of a lesser actor, Deadpool would be garish disaster, but here he supplies an undertone of flinty rage to color the emotionally flavorless aspects of the script. As it sands, he rules the film, clobbering the fourth wall with an elegant Brechtian flourish.

Deadpool’s bouncy tone is captured well in a refreshingly small-scale story that, while overpopulated with comic book movie tropes, allows its characters to breathe without facing some preternaturally epic, sky-gobbling menace. It’s a slick, unstable film that doesn’t visually challenge its audience, but thanks to Reynolds it’s nevertheless a relentless success. Just like The Force Awakens, it leaves the door open for a much better sequel, but its messiness is still a blast of nuclear proportions.

TL;DR: Deadpool has its fair share of problems, but it's so energizingly fun that they're easy to ignore.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1111
Reviews In This Series
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)

Friday, February 12, 2016

So Chic, C'est Freak

Year: 1995
Director: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Jonathan Fuller
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Producer Charles Band, composer Richard Band, director Stuart Gordon, and stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton are the team behind two of my favorite 80’s horror films: Re-Animator and From Beyond. That entire team would band together just once more, on 1995’s Castle Freak, likewise loosely based on an H. P. Lovecraft story (this time “The Outsider”). It’s a recipe for success, but the kitchen it was prepared in wasn’t quite the same.

You see, in the nine long years between 1986’s From Beyond and Castel Freak, Charles Band’s Empire Pictures folded, giving way to his new company, Full Moon Productions. Now, Empire wasn’t exactly a gleaming, state-of-the-art facility (Ghoulies and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama aren’t exactly the products of a four star enterprise), but it produced a string of solid horror features like Crawlspace and Intruder. Full Moon on the other hand, is notable almost entirely for grimy swill with the budget of a handful of croutons. The company behind the endlessly sprawling Puppet Master and Gingerdead Man franchises, it’s pretty much the only studio that could actually make Empire seem prestigious.

How does this affect the success of Castle Freak? Well, we’re about to find out.

Spoiler: There’s a reason you haven’t heard of Castle Freak.

In Castle Freak, John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs) discovers that he has inherited an Italian castle from a long-lost aunt. He takes his wife Susan (Barbara Crampton) and their blind daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) along while he inventories the contents. He and Susan have been on bad terms since he killed their five-year-old son and blinded their daughter in a drunk driving accident. He has since gotten his “#1 Dad” mug revoked, but it does not help in the slightest that a Freak (Jonathan Fuller) who has been chained up in the basement has gotten loose and is committing foul murders that John is being blamed for.

It’s your classic Hitchcock setup.

Alright, no more beating around the bush. The drop in quality between Gordon’s Empire work and Castle Freak is so steep it’s not even fair. The budget severely curtails the director’s signature gooey grossness (although the gore that remains is anything but chaste) and the movie reeks of cheapness like a Big Lots perfume department. The cast is small, the props are ratty (especially noteworthy is a silver platter with a dull plastic sheen that would feel more at home in a Barbie playset), and the locations feel very stagebound. That last factor is very odd, considering that the film was shot in an actual castle owned by Charles Band because of course he owns a castle, but the plain walls, low ceilings, and general lack of grandeur (we only see about 6 of what are purportedly 150 rooms) make the whole thing feel like it could have been shot in a trailer park.

However, despite its blatant inferiority, Castle Freak has a few very unique compensations. Because Gordon’s gore is cut off at the knees, so to speak, the film blossoms in other areas. You see, Castle Freak is actually a pretty solid little family drama. Three-dimensional characters aren’t exactly a hallmark of the Re-Animator franchise, so the taut but effective relationships that are trotted out here are quite a lovely surprise. The finale is a little reductive and diminishes the two strong female characters into babbling damsels in distress, but the way the drama is developed is very organic and raw.

It’s not introduced all at once, but in slow dollops that turn up the heat on the pressure cooker. The family seems perfectly happy and normal until, drop by drop, a series of subtle revelations taint the water. The film doesn’t spell everything out, allowing the audience to make connections and really engage with the storyline. And the characters are sufficiently fleshed-out to the degree that every single one of them is identifiable and worth rooting for. It’s nothing complex, but it is solid and satisfying storytelling.

The beauty of Popcorn Culture is that this heavy structural analysis is bestowed upon a film where a Castle Freak bites off a hooker’s boob.

The true benefit of this meatier drama is that Barbara Crampton gives her best performance of her time with Stuart Gordon, possibly of her career. Thanks to her, and Fuller’s menacing, lumbering presence as the titular Freak, there’s an added layer of suspense and fear that likewise aren’t present in Gordon’s superior but not quite abjectly terrifying works.

So there really is a lot going for Castle Freak as a cheapie horror picture. It’s certainly a masterpiece among its unimpressive Full Moon brethren. But where the other films triumphed with goofy, enormous gore gags, Castle Freak is limited to a handful of vaguely realized kills that are creatively naughty (ie. the aforementioned boobectomy) but far from satisfying to hardcore gorehounds. If the drama had a less desultory ending I could forgive the film more, but as it stands it’s a cheap, visually uninteresting motion picture without a deep end. Just when you think it’ll go further, it remains shallow all the way to the other side.

TL;DR: Castle Freak doesn't hold a candle to Stuart Gordon's other H. P. love craft adaptations, but it has some meaty drama and solid tension.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 902

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Is There A Word Yet For Old Friends Who've Just Met?

Year: 2011
Director: James Bobin
Cast: Amy Adams, Jason Segel, Chris Cooper
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

At last, it has come to this. Although the last film in the extant theatrical Muppet franchise is technically 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted, I reviewed that film when it first came out. So that leaves us with 2011’s The Muppets as the finale of this long-winded retrospective. Really, it couldn’t be more serendipitous. We’re finishing in the very place where my deep-seated love for the Muppets began.

The Muppets took such a hold on me that I saw it twice in the theater and even wrote a glowing review of it on an ancient, prehistoric blog that has long since washed away on the tides of the Internet. One boy who couldn’t care less about Jim Henson and his legacy walked into the theater, and out came a man with a heart made of felt.

Thank you for taking this journey with me.

In The Muppets, Gary (Jason Segel) is happily dating Mary (Amy Adams), and they’re heading to the tropical paradise known as Los Angeles for their tenth anniversary. But there’s one small problem. One very small, ping-pong ball-eyed problem. His name is Walter (Peter Linz) and he’s Gary’s tagalong little brother/puppet. Mary is mildly perturbed that he will be joining them, but bears it with good, Amy Adams-esque grace. However, during a visit to the run-down Muppet Studios, thing get about as un-romantic as they could possibly be. Walter learns that wicked oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning on razing the Muppet Studio and Theater to drill for oil unless the Muppets can raise enough money in one week to buy it back.

There’s only one way to do that, and it’s getting the gang back together. With the help of one Mr. The Frog (Steve Whitmire), they gather up the old crew, including Animal (Eric Jacobson, taking over for Frank Oz, who was finally broken by Muppets from Space), Gonzo (the steadfast Dave Goelz), Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson), and the reluctant Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson , who seems to have made a pretty solid career move). The Muppets are unsure if they’re still relevant to modern audiences, but they give it the old college try (and they actually did go to college in Muppets Take Manhattan, so it works) and put on a show.

It’s time to get things started.

The Muppets operates primarily on nostalgia, much in the vein of the recent explosion of revival media: Arrested Development, The X-Files, Fuller House, Terminator: Genisys, Jurassic World… The list goes on and on, but The Muppets stands out for two reasons in particular. Primarily, it got here first. But it’s also one of the only films to use that nostalgia as more than a gimmick, weaving it into the very thematic structure of the film. The Muppets have always been particularly devoted to self-referentiality, so it’s no surprise that its structure is so well-integrated with its reason for being. But the only other recent film that even comes close to achieving that level of metatextual awareness is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is pretty explicitly about Star Wars fanboys/girls getting to have their own space adventure. And I think we can agree that, at least thematically speaking, it ain’t a patch on The Muppets.

Yes, there is a large part of The Muppets devoted to recreating and or fawning over classic moments from The Muppet Show and their previous theatrical features (Muppets from Space, tragically, does not get a shout-out), but it’s also about the act of nostalgia and whether or not the Good Ol’ Days can be resurrected in the cynical modern world. It takes a good hard look at the Muppet legacy, only using rose-colored glasses where Muppet Treasure Island is concerned. This oddly unfiltered scrutiny is married to a ludicrously cheery tone that should work but effortlessly, ineffably does. It’s just one more facet of the inestimable magic of the Muppets.

Someday we’ll find it, the Muppet connection.

Even if The Muppets operates in large part as a nostalgia piece, it does have a charming, original story to tell. Gary, Mary, and Walter’s storyline is shoved roughly aside when the A-list Muppets are reunited, but their characters are painted in such broad strokes that they can withstand the hit. The blankness of their characters is not a liability because they act as the channel through which the audience gains exclusive front row seats to the “real live” Muppets. They perform a vital function, and they do it with grace and good cheer. Walter’s inherent blandness (and boy, is he ever the most boring Muppet ever cooked, all drab flesh tones with a limp flop of hair) would become an issue in Muppets Most Wanted, but in the context of this story, he’s an excellent bridge between the human and Muppet world, as this film more than any other seeks to explore that relationship.

By far the best original contribution to the film is its musical numbers, by Flight of the Conchords vet Bret McKenzie. Although Tex Richman’s rap is a little too 90’s for my taste, compositions like the deeply silly crooner “Man or Muppet” and the rousing opening number “Life’s a Happy Song” are tremendously satisfying. And Kermit’s solo number, the doleful, yearning “Pictures in My Head” is the single best Muppet performance since “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” way back when in 1979. The music and its tone fit the Muppet ensemble perfectly – sprightly yet wistful; full of dreams, humanity, and list for life’s ups and downs.

Really, The Muppets is a perfectly imperfect evocation of the anarchist Muppet comedy credo. The pacing might be a smidge wonky, and the variety show performances have a tendency to lean toward the twee, but this is a welcome whirligig of meta movie humor, offbeat celebrity cameos, and a deep, abiding love for the world and the people in it, even the bad folks. It’s an excellent vehicle for the Muppet renaissance we’ve thankfully found ourselves in, a grand introduction for new fans, and a fond love letter to old ones. It’s the most consistent, wholly coherent and entertaining Muppet feature film ever released, and I thank it from the bottom of my heart for pulling our felt-covered friends smack dab into the middle of the pop culture conversation once more.

TL;DR: The Muppets is an excellent, self-reflective revival of a classic family franchise.
Rating: 10/10, which it probably doesn’t deserve, but I couldn’t care less.
Word Count: 1098
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)

Friday, February 5, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Runners-Up

In my quest for Oscar nominees, I’ve come across a couple flicks that didn’t quite manage to snag the coveted Best Picture slot. Here are my mini-reviews. These are their stories.

The Danish Girl

Year: 2015
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In 1920’s Denmark, celebrated painter Einar Wegener begins to transition into a woman (Lili Elbe), becoming a transgender pioneer while attempting to maintain a relationship with his wife Gerda. Incidentally, it’s almost impossible to pick the right pronoun when somebody is transitioning mid-sentence. Somebody should get on that.

Tom Hooper is the arthouse counterpart to Tobe Hooper. Both men with dubiously inconsistent directing prowess, they’ve managed to stumble their way into wide acclaim and the occasional masterpiece. While Tobe might be more of a household name thanks to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist, Tom has earned himself a ludicrously high number of Oscar nominations. It’s up to you to decide which fate is better. So here we have The Danish Girl, his follow-up to The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, and the Oscarbaitiest film of his career to date, which is saying something.

Let me tell you right off the bat, the man’s direction is quite distinctly one of the worst things about the film, which is actually pretty decent, all things considered. Stagey and far too focused on geometry rather than human emotion, Hooper’s work stifles the film while keeping the audience at arm’s length. He frames people behind objects to an almost obnoxious degree, as though deliberately baiting viewers to call him out. It’s a load of distracting nonsense that obscures what could be a fun, lush melodrama. 

The material is already so far from reality (based on a book that’s a fictional account of the lives of Lili and Gerda, it is two planes removed from the truth, which is more interesting but light-years less angsty) that a truly wonderful over-the-top weepy could have been born from The Danish Girl. However, as it stands, the film is just a dry vehicle for two incredibly strong performances. If you think of stars Eddie Redmayne an Alicia Vikander (fresh from her starmaking turn in Ex Machina) as a work of art, the film itself is just a particularly ostentatious frame in which they are being displayed.

As far as the co-stars have terrific, bristling chemistry together, their individual performances are even better. Eddie Redmayne really is a triumph here, playing a real person rather than a dramatic type. There is one moment early on in the movie where his breath catches nervously upon being discovered. It’s a microscopic moment, but it took my breath away. Even more notable for her subtlety, Vikander holds her own, frequently hoisting the movie on her back and carrying it single-handedly across the finish line. For all that Redmayne is spectacular, Vikander is steadfast and never flickers. This is partially the script and partially her performance, but The Danish Girl is primarily her story and for good reason.

There are many better films that The Danish Girl could have been, but at least the one that it is has some incredible elements. And Amber Heard doesn’t have enough scenes to be a distraction, even though her skill has much improved in the decade since All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Thank goodness for small favors. So really, the movie succeeds in spite of Hooper and there’s absolutely no question why The Danish Girl is leading the Oscar acting categories yet notably absent from Best Picture.

Rating: 6/10


Year: 2015
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper 
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A young woman puts her life’s savings on the line to pursue her dream: inventing things that improve the lives of others and selling them on QVC.

I’ve been compromised. After avoiding the twee-looking ensemble exploits of David O. Russell’s two previous Oscar-nominated films, I finally caved and watched Joy. Although it’s more of a Jennifer Lawrence showcase than anything, it’s nevertheless the third of a decreasingly prestigious bunch. We don’t have much time, so let’s get into it.

For the first half of its run time, Joy is – let’s be frank – uncompromisingly messy. A nervous attempt at evoking the fairy tale charm of Amélie, it’s too clammy and self-serious to pull off that live action cartoon feeling. This section is filled to the brim with broad characterizations, meta narration, and metaphors so clunky that you couldn’t even sell them for scrap. One in particular, a deranged and obvious cicada metaphor that treats the insects like metamorphosing butterflies, is actually rejected by the film itself in a line explicitly decrying its presence.

Even the technical aspects come crumbling down around Joy’s first act. The pacing goes haywire, leaping through scenes at a breakneck speed, the young actress playing Joy’s daughter (oh yeah, Jennifer Lawrence’s character is both named Joy and a mother of two – roll with me, here) seems to be actively attempting to tank her scenes with a dizzy, blank-faced performance, and there’s a flubbed line reading that somehow managed to avoid getting excised despite being in glaring need of another take. It’s amateurish at best, hopelessly pandering at worst.

The film finally pulls itself together with the introduction of Bradley Cooper’s character, who gets an entrance that treats him like an actual king. With all the fanfare his appearance gets, you’d think that Joy had resurrected Elvis. It’s deeply mystifying, but Cooper does a terrific job injecting the proceedings with raw, unfiltered life, finally giving Lawrence something concrete to play off. Up to this point, she’s been performing in a vacuum and she finally gets to blossom, giving her role an anxious, immediate humanity.

Joy’s newfound coherence and quality doesn’t make it an exquisite film – a series of obligatory and profoundly hollow melodrama beats see to that. But the film finally comes into its own, finishing off its lot with engaging pizzazz, even managing to make a QVC infomercial breathe with crackling energy. Here, the camera is actually awake, transforming its initial lunatic aspirations into a more straightforward and satisfying story.

All in all, Joy isn’t terribly recommendable, though it’s a light enough trifle that it’s not a trial to sit through. The vastly improved second half effectively cancels out the first half’s muddled tangle, resulting in a film that leaves exactly no impression. I’ll take this over a bad impression any day, but I can’t help but wish I got more out of it.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1107

Thursday, February 4, 2016

That Which Is Indistinguishable From Garbage

Year: 2015
Director: Josh Trank
Cast: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan 
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

There are drawbacks to Marvel Studios owning the world. Aside from the obvious (cookie cutter superheroes flooding the market to the point of extinction), there are far more nefarious issues lurking in the shadows. The few properties that aren’t held in the iron first of Disney-Marvel are being desperately clawed away from that IP tractor beam by the companies that own them. In the attempt to avoid their lease running out and hold onto those rights, studios like Fox and Sony must continue making movies to renew their grip and defy the seven year copyright expiration date. That’s why we’re getting crap like the third Spider-Man reboot. Sinister, isn’t it?

If you combine that spirit of making movies for the sake of being able to make that same movie at a later date with the supremely dubious attitude of Chronicle director Josh Trank, you get a real spectacle of garbage. It’s called Fantastic Four, and I screened it for your reading pleasure. Here we go.

Heaven help me.

In the not-too-distant present, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a wunderkind prodigy who accidentally cracks interdimensional travel for a science fair project. He is taken to the Baxter Institute, where he develops a full scale transporter with manic pixie dream scientist Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her hot rod-racing brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and their totally friendly ignore the name compatriot Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). On their first trip to the alternate dimension, Reed invites childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), his ever-present sidekick.

Obviously, the mission goes wrong, Von Doom falls off a cliff, and the remaining four return safely, but not before being mutated into inhuman monsters. And by that I mean embarrassingly cheap CGI. They are taken to a base where they can learn to use their powers, Von Doom shows up, they have a brief preliminary battle, and… oh, was that it? The movie doesn’t so much end as shut off at the 100 minute mark.

Not that I’m complaining it wasn’t longer.

Where oh where do I begin? Fantastic Four is such a heaving mass of missteps that one major problem doesn’t immediately leap out, so maybe I’ll start with some good things about the movie. In brief (as if it could be otherwise), the beginning wasn’t downright terrible. I mean it was poorly written, ham-fisted, awkwardly paced, and implied that The Thing got his beloved catch phrase by imitating his violent older brother and is thus locked in a dangerous cycle of abuse, but it was decently entertaining, y’know. In fact, my initial enjoyment had my esteem for the film stubbornly plateauing at a solid 4/10 until the film exploded like an all-dynamite chemistry set. And the kid actor casting is pretty remarkable, showcasing two young boys who look more or less exactly like Miles Teller and Jamie Bell. So there’s that.

And that’s all, folks. There is literally nothing else in the film that is refreshing, entertaining, interesting, or even fundamentally functional in any way, shape, or form. Fantastic Four is a dour, grim exercise in seeing just how much expoisition a  single film can withstand without actually sustaining a plot. There are a lot of comic book movies with flaccid, overlong origin stories but Fantastic Four ups the ante by 1) repeating essentially the same beats of the 2005 Fantastic 4, and 2) sucking every last bit of light or comic booky joy out of the proceedings. It reeks of gritty flop sweat, straining for gravitas while displaying a deadly allergy to fun. It’s the absolute nadir of the Nolanization of superhero cinema, and if any film manages to steal that title from it, we’ll just have to call it quits on the whole Hollywood thing.

Here’s looking at you, Batman v. Superman.

It’s a story sad tell, but I’ll briefly run by you through my FF experience so you can understand the gravity of the situation. (Incidentally, the film’s initials are exactly the sound that will come out of my mouth if I ever find out that this is getting a sequel.)

I survived the abysmal script. As a veteran bad movie fan, I’m inoculated even against such atrocities as “I’m adopted.” “I know how that feels. Because I wish I was adopted.” Or Mr. Fantastic (who, never, by the way, actually receives that moniker over the course of this, his origin story) marveling that the university library has chemistry books from the 1950’s. You know, way back when they knew way less about chemistry. Hooray? I could ignore the fact that Sue Storm is an expert in all fields of science or that Von Doom apparently thinks they’ll be taking a trip to the fourth dimension, which any idiot who has even brushed by a stack of sci-fi novels know is time, not the ineptly-titled Earth Zero (fewer calories, same polluted taste).

I could suffer through the pacing, which uses time like a hopscotch board, leaping through days, months, and even years for no discernible reason. And I sustained myself through the special effects, which across the board looked like a World of Warcraft beta test save for one instance. Mr. Fantastic’s stretching is rendered in such a photorealistic way that you’ll wish you had bought popcorn so you could have a barf bag readily available. The one time the effects actually rise to the challenge is the moment the film needed to be most cartoonish.

Are they doing this to us on purpose?

I received this movie with enough patience to earn immediate canonization, but the third act broke me. I snapped like a West Side Story ensemble member. In the climax of the film (if you could call it that), the dialogue whips into a frenzied maelstrom in which Miles Teller narrates the wicked doings of the returned Doctor Doom and the script makes a belated, misguided effort to spice up the action with some quips that fall flatter than an Iowa cornfield.  The pacing makes an effort to make up for its previous doldrums by zipping through the battle at lightning speed. I guarantee that there are hardly fifteen minutes between Dr. Doom’s reintroduction and ultimate demise, which the Fantastic Four effect through some hitherto unknown variant of “teamwork” that involves pretty much everyone standing around and watching while the villain more or less defeats himself before quietly expiring.

The wailing Marco Beltrami score bleats and bellows as if there were an actual triumph buried somewhere under the confused dross, reminding everyone that it’s been there the whole time, echoing the movie’s terribleness in sonic form. Then the movie just sort of… ends, brutally chopping its crude character arcs to the quick while resolutely failing to actually resolve anything.

Did I even mention that the cinematography lovingly details every scar and blemish on the actors’ faces? Unless it was intentional, in any other movie, this rough handling would be an element so egregious that it would be the main crux of my review. But here it’s just one more instrument in a shrieking symphony of incompetence. Fantastic Four is a brutalized, beastly little movie, neither delivering thrills nor interesting characters, brainlessly repeating a story we’ve already seen.

If it were a thought exercise to see how a movie could be even worse without Jessica Alba, I would commend it. But these actors don’t deserve this treatment, this material doesn’t deserve this treatment, and you especially don’t deserve any of this. Stay very far away from Fantastic Four if you know what’s good for you.

TL;DR: Fantastic Four is a steaming pile of garbage, and it really doesn't matter whose fault it is.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1298

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Globe Theatre

Year: 2015
Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams
Run Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

For a while, the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar was a little film called Spotlight, directed by the guy who made the second most recent crappy Adam Sandler movie. (Whether or not you worked on a slasher, I will dig those skeletons out of your closet.) Seeing as how Oscarbait heavyhitters and Brennan Klein get along about as well as the Brody family and great white sharks, I didn’t immediately rush out to see it.

However, during a harebrained attempt to screen all the nominees before the Academy Awards, I found myself at a late night screening of Spotlight. Lo and behold, it wasn’t as tortuous as I imagined it might be.

Even taking into account my allergy to true stories.

Spotlight is a dramatization of the real life reporters who uncovered the molestation scandal in the Catholic church. Geez, when will Tom McCarthy stop making these light-hearted comedies? Spotlight is the name of the crack investigation team of the Boston Globe, which has just been bought out by the Times, bringing new editor Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) to the table. As a non-Bostonian and therefore non-Catholic, he pretty quickly sniffs out a rat in a recent hushed-up spot of drama in the local church. He decides to shine Spotlight on the case.

Thus three reporters, the work-obsessed Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), lapsed Catholic Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and guy who won’t get into the Oscar reel Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), as well as their editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton, who probably feels demoed, because he has the sidekickiest alter ego name ever written) get embroiled in the scandal and soon discover that there is corruption in the church that rises all the way to the top. They seek out victims of molestation and proof of the church’ negligence toward addressing the problem while facing enormous pressure from the church and the community to back off.

But if there’s one thing I learned from just Like Heaven, it’s that Mark Ruffalo doesn’t back off from ANYTHING.

Spotlight really is quite good. It’s a crisp, efficient film with a brisk pace and a quiet charm. I suppose that’s a counterintuitive way to describe a movie with such dark subject matter, but Spotlight goes very far out of its way to defang the material, honing in on the nitty gritty of journalistic investigation rather than the actual horrors behind closed doors. It wants to be a triumphant film rather than a bleak one, and the safe packaging of the scandal might make it a far less urgent and necessary piece, but it’s at least a palatable one.

Palatable is about all Spotlight is, but it does it very well. Other than effectively recreating the overlit hubbub of a newspaper office (you know this is a period piece because newspapers are still hiring), the cinematography only makes the leap into greatness once, during a shot of an interview dominated by a hulking church, which drives home the sense of creeping oppression the film strives to build. The rest is completely adequate, but it matches Spotlight’s true nature: a standard retelling of an important story rather than an essential work of cinema art.

Every element of Spotlight functions like this: bright, strong, and utterly typical. The music is jaunty, inviting, and appropriately somber when the time comes. The editing gets us from scene to scene at a steady clip. The characters are brutally functional, their lives outside of the office painted in brush strokes ten feet wide. It’s as precise and impersonal as clockwork.

Remember analog clocks? That really takes me back.

The most human aspect of Spotlight is, quelle surprise, the performers. Keaton, McAdams, and James perform roughly what is expected of them and Ruffalo gets his opportunity to shout his way into an Oscar nomination, but the real beating heart of Spotlight lies in its peripheral characters. Liev Schreiber manages to humanize a rather stifling archetypical role (the perfect, unflagging voice of reason/mentor) by exposing his nerves and flaws through vocal tics and precise control over his tone, and Stanley Tucci devours a rather meaty role even further on the sidelines. But the real driving force of Spotlight is the ensemble of relative unknowns portraying adult survivors of molestation. Without their commitment and talent, the emotional core of Spotlight would be null and void.

So, Spotlight has plenty of ups and plenty of downs, though the lower threshold of its downs is still pretty high. It’s a clean, safe presentation of a taboo topic and a showcase for performances just begging to be nominated. But does it deserve Best Picture? Oh, hell no.

TL;DR: Spotlight is an efficient and brisk film that never flags, but isn't exactly an artistic masterwork.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 816

Monday, February 1, 2016

If You've Seen One, You've Seen A Doll

Year: 2016
Director: William Brent Bell
Cast: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, James Russell 
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I was actually really excited to see The Boy, believe it or not. In hindsight, I should have been deterred by that January release date, but the trailer made the movie look too damn awesome to pass up. Trailers can be tricky that way. As it stands, The Boy can be added to the pile of killer doll movies that have some juice but don’t quite land.

At least the stench of Annabelle is so overpowering that The Boy smells like primroses in comparison.

In The Boy, an American girl does what many American girls aspire to do and moves to Britain. This particular American girl is Greta Evans (played by British actress Lauren Cohan, because there’s nothing that directors love more than saddling performers with foreign accents on their home turf), a woman who is escaping a poisonous relationship by taking a job as a nanny for the Heelshires, a well-heeled couple who have a young son named Brahms. The only trouble is, Brahms is a porcelain doll. Following an unfortunate fire way back when in 1991 (man, we’re getting old), the grieving parents have kept this doll as a reminder of their lost son.

Greta takes the job, assuming that it’ll be a piece of cake because the couple seems to be a few apples short of a bushel. However, when the Heelshires leave her alone with Brahms for three months, she quickly realizes that their bushel is perhaps fuller than she anticipated. Sometimes the doll moves when she’s not looking, and a series of strange nocturnal events leave her rattled. Could the doll possibly be alive? Or is she just going crazy?

Is Mattel facing a hell of a recall?

First off, I must say that The Boy is extremely well photographed (and with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Daniel Pearl behind the camera, it pretty much had to be). On its budget, it could hardly attempt any truly daring shots, but within the wheelhouse of standard supernatural horror, it has a palatably gothic atmosphere. Combined with the elegant severity of the production design, this makes for a very pretty package in which to present the film.

Unfortunately, the quality of the camerawork has very little to do with how good the script is, and The Boy’s script is by far its weakest element. Let us introduce into the discussion a certain doll. No, not our precious Brahms. I’m referring to a creepy clown doll nestled among his toys in his room, which receives a series of tender, loving close-ups throughout the film. There is absolutely no reason for this superfluous doll. We’ve already got one creepy doll on our hands, and unless we’ve got a Puppetmaster situation on our hands, we have very little reason to believe we should be concerned about this particular clown.

In fact, its very presence (an the fact that it’s actually introduced to the film first) undercuts the effectiveness of the main doll. I know creepy dolls are very common horror movie window dressing, but this inconsistency of vision is a real problem with The Boy.

Of course, most optometrists tend to flounder when your eyes are marbles, but that doesn’t mean you should never get your vision checked.

The Boy is inconsistent in plot, tone, and even pacing nearly every step of the way. A character revelation made halfway through provides an intriguing thematic well that is almost instantly ignored and the level to which Greta descends into madness varies wildly from scene to scene, and sometimes even from shot to shot.

In between these lurches and starts, The Boy’s thin screenplay is papered over with a nauseatingly endless litany of scenes in which characters hear something spooky and slowly turn around. With the sheer amount of low speed spinning that fills the screen, you’d think you were watching an amateur ballet rehearsal. Also, two scenes within twenty minutes of each other are fake-out dream sequences, a cinematic felony so egregious that I need to immediately change the subject so I don’t snap my keyboard in half in a fit of rage.

So, how about hat third act? It’s still nothing particularly special, but it presents an intriguing enough angle that it lifts the film partially out of its dreary doldrums. And I must say that the final shot is a particularly classy way to end a cheapozoid horror picture. Really, The Boy is nowhere near as abysmal as it could have been, though this could hardly be considered a recommendation.

Here’s what I’ll leave you with. The Boy is not an exceedingly egregious waste of your time if you want to take a horror-loving significant other/sibling/grandparent/pastor out for a treat. It’s much prettier than it needs to be, and it perks up after a generic but competent first hour. There should be enough there to slake your thirst for an entertaining diversion. Don’t expect derisive laughs, really don’t expect big screams, and just let it wash over you. If all else fails, imagine that it’s a harrowing documentary about a woman who’s in an abusive relationship with a doll. That’s what I did.

TL;DR: The Boy is an inconsistent blah that picks up during its last half hour.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 898