Friday, March 25, 2016

Let Them Eat Beefcake

Year: 2015
Director: Gregory Jacobs
Cast: Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Typically it’s a fantastic thing if a sequel manages to recapture the spirit of the original film. So by those standards, Magic Mike XXL is a perfect movie. Unfortunately, the spirit of Magic Mike (a stripper film largely unconcerned with titillation that endeavors to tell a microcosmic story of the American economy) is pretty much the exact opposite of what the average audience member would want to see. It can be forgiven in the original, thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s sure hand, but director Gregory Jacobs (his longtime producer) is no Soderbergh*.The result is a film full of chiseled hunks in which the only thing that gets stripped off is the meaningful subtext. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

*Steven Soderbergh did shoot and edit this film, but it’s probably in his best interest to downplay his involvement. 

Boy, will we.

First, the plot. In Magic Mike XXL, Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer’s characters asked for too much money have started a show overseas, abandoning the gaggle of strapping strippers known as Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) and that title refers to his personality, not his apparatus; Tarzan (Kevin Nash), an aging, goateed hunk whose lines have doubled now that a quarter of the cast is MIA; Ken (Matt Bomer), the only LGBT character so of course he’s now some kind of sexless vegan chakra worshipper; and Tito (Adam Rodriguez), who clearly doctored his IMDb page to say he as in the first movie because I have not a scrap of memory of him. As one last hurrah, they decide to put on a show at the 2015 Stripper Convention (which everyone they meet has totally heard of, yet still has an attendance of like 80 people) and invite Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) to come along with them on their road trip to scenic Myrtle Beach.

Mike has just broken up with his girlfriend Cody Horn because, actually, what is she even up to? Why couldn’t she do this movie? He decides to come on the trip to, I don’t know, learn about himself or some crap. After their MC, Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias, for some reason) crashes their car, they must scramble to find a new MC and transportation, though they mostly just sidle through some Road Trip vignettes starring the silky smooth stripper palace madame Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith), the hospitable Southern divorcée Nancy (Andie MacDowell), and the most toxically obnoxious hipster trash abortive love interest this side of Dirty Grandpa, Zoe (Amber Heard).

My thoughts and prayers go out to her bracelet foley artist, because every time she moves those bohemian toothpicks she calls arms, it sounds like a f**king wind chime.

Magic Mike XXL has been described as a “hang-out movie,” which is actually pretty accurate. It exactly captures the feeling of hanging out with your older brother and his skater friends, who only tolerate each other because they all do the same thing and are too stoned to actually have anything interesting to say. Manganiello’s character is the biggest offender, because the movie seems convinced that he’s an asshole with a heart of gold when he’s really just a deranged, foul-mouthed property destroyer who should be medicated, if not actively incarcerated. Although, to be fair, he’s the only character in the film with a recognizable personality of any kind, so maybe I should lay off him.

However, Not all of the film is quite so aggravating as those early scenes where tensions rankle beneath the surface of the group for reasons nobody can quite identify. In fact, Magic Mike XXL is a fascinating study in just how empty a feature film can be despite a sprawling run time that tops two hours. All those things that typically define a work of cinema are but dust in the wind. Let’s run MMXXL through the basics, shall we, and see what we come up with.

PLOT: Although some might argue that Magic Mike XXL is the Ballad of a Soldier of Channing Tatum stripper movies, in which a charismatic young swain wanders the countryside improving the lives of people he meets along the way, those people would be fictional. Also wrong. Beyond the first act, there is not a whiff of drama or tension of any kind, and the two potentially romantic subplots are so low key that I’m fairly certain they don’t actually exist. They certainly aren’t resolved by the film’s abrupt ending, which is about as jarring as being hit by a freight train. On the moon.

DIALOGUE: You know that thing Judd Apatow does where he sets the camera down and just lets his actors riff for a bit? That seems to be how this script was written. Very scene is an endless kaleidoscope of mumbled nonsense and halfhearted improve, spiced up by such sterling clunkers as “It’s not bro time, it’s showtime.”

ACTING: It’s not like the script provides much to work with, but every performer seems to be on the verge of passing out. I genuinely admire Channing Tatum (especially in comedies), but he indiscriminately disappoints here, slurring every scene like he just ate a peanut butter sandwich and is trying to lick it off the roof of his mouth. Also, an allegedly comedic drug freak out scene is so underplayed that I was beginning to think I made up the whole thing.

STRIPPING: You know what I love about male strippers? How they never take their pants off. Now, look, I’ve made my peace with the fact that these actors are too successful in their careers to actually whip it out on camera, but in half the performances they don’t even take off their jeans! They must have taken their stripping cues from the movie Burlesque (which couldn’t even be bothered to look up “burlesque” in the dictionary), because nowhere in my universe does strip show  involve a man just taking off his shirt, maybe singing poorly, and then going home.

Oh, also the acts last about ten seconds each, are poorly lit, poorly staged, and very infrequently crop up in the first place. Also, certain performers who shall remain nameless are a tad rusty on their dance moves, and the movie’s keen avoidance of showing them perform only serves to highlight how little he’s actually doing. The producers should refund all the bachelorette parties that made the mistake of going to see this movie in the theaters.


Eh, who needs ‘em?

What I have described thus far is a supremely drab movie. And that’s a very apt description, but there is a certain key factor I’ve neglected to share: When Magic Mike XXL gets going, it is a hilarious titan of crummy filmmaking. Somewhere around the halfway point, when the gang visits Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Pleasure Palace, the film adopts a supposedly reverential tone of female affirmation that goes so wildly awry that it’s magnificently captivating.

Let’s pause a moment and bask in the glory that is Jada’s Xanadu. Shirtless men give lap dances to teeming hordes of women in multiple lushly appointed rooms while they toss an infinite supply of dollar bills in the air like it’s a ticker tape parade. Rome the MC bounces through the rooms at her whim like a pinball, constantly interrupting performances to make loquacious pronouncements to her beaming bevy of “queens” and selecting one lucky, self-conscious lady to be reminded she is beautiful. This is always the skinniest girl in the room. 

They are then treated with some arrestingly bad shirtless improve rap from Childish Gambino himself (Donald Glover, who in all fairness is rather talented in real life and proves as much in a later musical number. …This movie has so many musical numbers, you guys.) after being asked the exquisitely inane question, “What is your favorite thing?” People apparently shell out the big bucks for this.

This overboiled, garish phantasmagoria so thoroughly misunderstands eroticism that it might just be a masterpiece of dream logic cinema. The otherworldly delights give way to Andie MacDowell’s delightful turn as a salty Southern belle with a preposterous drawl, in which she and her Sex and the City gang tell tales of ex-husbands and flirt with our dear strippers. This scene is unfortunately stolen by a reaction shot of a dialogue-free woman haphazardly mouthing along to a Bryan Adams musical number that goes on about two minutes too long, but MacDowell’s absurd, molasses-accented charisma makes this the best scene in the entire affair.

She’s like Scarlett O’Hara meets Gomer Pyle, and we’re all the better for it.

Now a film this dull can’t be totally saved by a healthy dose of diva mayhem, but it can certainly be elevated. Never forget Magic Mike XXL’s pornish editing in which conversations abruptly fade to the same conversation at a random, equally inconsequential point. Or its oddly profuse use of profanity, which is ever used to bust taboos, but rather as an oddly dark, angry lexicon that in no way fits the movie’s tone. And there’s always that infuriatingly shallow ending that resolves absolutely nothing. However, it’s still possible to have a good time watching this though, as with its predecessor, it’s never the way you’d expect from a movie about male strippers.

TL;DR: Magic Mike XXL is a boring, tremendously inane film that has next to nothing to with with anything, let alone stripping.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1578

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I Think We're Alone Now

Year: 2016
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Can we all just agree that 10 Cloverfield Lane’s alleged connection to the 2008 found footage monster film Cloverfield is a heap of garbage? That would make the rest of this review a whole lot easier. Put a pin in that title, which sounds more like a sequel to 9 Chickweed Lane anyway. Throw a sheet over the viral marketing campaign. And clear a special place in your septic tank for that snake oil salesman J. J. Abrams’ rickety claim that the films are “blood relatives.” And gag me with a spoon.

There. Now doesn’t that feel better?

In 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a young woman on the run from a boyfriend, who runs straight into the arms of somebody much worse. After a car accident, she wakes up in the underground bunker of the surly and intimidating Howard (John Goodman, in his first non-Pixar role as a monster). Howard tells her that there has been an attack on American soil, the air is tainted, and that everybody outside the bunker is dead. Never certain whether or not she should believe the man who is holding her hostage while claiming to have saved her life, he must survive the bunker for as long as possible with Howard and the clueless handyman Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) until she can figure it out.

It’s a real Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt story, to be sure.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a small-scale film by necessity. Three actors, a handful of rooms, and the occasional overhead rumble aren’t exactly the stuff of Cecil B. DeMille style epics. However, the film doesn’t suffer for its smallness. Certain conversations in the film begin to chafe at the limited amount of shots available, but these rough patches are thankfully infrequent.

What the intimate setting truly achieves is a constant tension, an unflagging awareness of Michelle’s lack of privacy. She is trapped with a bipolar lunatic, her three-room world a sinister microcosm of the evils hat might be lurking aboveground. She’s pretty literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. Of course, none of this atmosphere would be quite as effective without the cornerstone of 10 Cloverfield Lane: John Goodman.

Goodman, of course, is a reasonably well-respected actor despite a rather profound lack of leading roles, but here he proves his worth as an endlessly versatile character actor. He dominates the screen, both with his size and sheer personality, exuding a sinister aura that clings to everything it touches. His shifting, sinister performance is far from over-the-top, which could have derailed such a tiny film, instead lurking in that oh so subtle realm of banal evil.

He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, papering a kind face over a bristling maw of anger that constantly lurks beneath the surface. He’s so compelling, in fact, that even when he’s not onscreen, you can still feel his presence looming omnipotently over every scene. Of course, it helps that he has two solid performers to play off of. Winstead is an ever-reliable genre presence who certainly earns her keep, and Gallagher’s dopey kindness provides an excellent foil, but Goodman is the star of the show and by God he earns it.

That’s what you get for finding a stranger in the Alps.

Goodman may be the crux of this operation, but 10 Cloverfield Lane likewise could not have survived without Ramsey Avery’s production design, a perfect evocation of the film’s peculiar tone. The slick metal and sharp edges of the bunker are softened with an outwardly cheery layer of homey, rustic decoration that contrast both with the harshness of the environs and the aggressive gruffness of Howard. It’s a wickedly playful set, one that exquisitely evokes the same dark sense of humor that produced this incredible pairing of music and material in the trailer.

And while the production design might provide a subtle juxtaposition, the sound design is here to remind us that this film can jar us out of our seats. A perilously indelicate combination of stark silence, far-off rumblings, and in-your-face shrillness, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s soundscape pummels you within an inch of your life. It’s nothing less than abrasive poetry designed to startle and to pummel.

All of these elements collide during the film’s best sequence: A game of Taboo that’s more unsettling than anything that’s been seen in theaters this year. It’s an intricate, successful attempt at combining the film’s best assets in a meticulously-crafted moment that’s simultaneously an unnerving character development, a canny switcheroo, and a genuinely threatening perversion of banal family life. It’s pretty much perfect.

And after that paragraph, I don’t feel so bad airing a couple grievances as we close out this review. Obviously, there’s those back-and-forth conversation scenes that can get a little drab, and a couple scenes repeat the same beats a little too close to each other, but for the most part my only real issue is with a rather crude character arc that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is jammed into. Well, that and a pretty dopey climax.

But that’s not enough to sink what is a very well-constructed ship. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an excellent, original exercise in small-scale psychological drama and it’s a superb way to spend a night out. Try not to come to it with any expectations based on that majestically idiotic title, and you’ll be golden.

TL;DR: 10 Cloverfield Lane is a solid, tense little film.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 927
Reviews In This Series
10 Cloverfield Lane (Trachtenberg, 2016)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Half Full, Half Empty

Welcome to our newest slate of mini reviews, about a horror-comedy with a plot that contains pretty much everything that exists and a drama that contains almost nothing.

Freaks of Nature 

Year: 2015
Director: Robbie Pickering
Cast: Nicholas Braun, Mackenzie Davis, Josh Fadem 
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Social tension arises in a town where humans live with monsters when aliens arrive. A vampire, a zombie, and a human from the local high school must team up to save their community.

Right off the bat, Freaks of Nature commits an egregious movie sin. It jams us in medias res into an action-packed scene, then pauses. Whereupon a dopey voiceover asks “How did I get here? To explain that, let’s go back to the beginning.” Now, in the comments of my American Ultra review, friend Hunter argued that several great movies begin this way. I can’t fault him for being right, but since those movies came out, this technique has increasingly been used by lazy filmmakers in cheap movies to get around the fact that their beginning just isn’t very strong.

And boy howdy does Freaks of Nature have a weak beginning. Then again, it has a weak mostly everything. But the intro that dumps a barrel of character actors who have played high schoolers for a dozen years into a pile and halfheartedly develops the world around them while they attempt to untangle themselves isn’t exactly stirring. The worst thing is that Freaks of Nature has a fun, zany concept in fact, the original title was –appropriately – Kitchen Sink), but the lackadaisical treatment it receives from the powers that be is downright discouraging.

If every scene had the subtlety of the moment where zombieism is used as a metaphor for a rebellious teen turning to marijuana, Freaks of Nature would be a post-John Hughes masterpiece. If every scene were as funny as the inexplicable cameo from Werner Herzog, Freaks of Nature would obliterate the competition for AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Horror Comedies list. You can see where I’m going with this. Freaks of Nature rarely rises above the bare minimum requirements to be a film comedy, content to sulk in a low key atmosphere for the bulk of its run time.

Far more frequent than its peaks are its valets. Joan Cusack is wasted in a role that feels like it was written for one of those American Pie spin-offs, the only thread holding up Vanessa Hudgens’ utterly empty performance is the fact that her character is supposed to look high most of the time, and the rules this universe are quickly decimated by a series of deus ex machina throwaway lines. It’s a threadbare slog with an infuriatingly disingenuous ending, supported by character relationships that are held together with scotch tape and chewing gum, in pursuit of a Zootopia-esque moral about tolerance and diversity that completely fails to catch.

It’s all the worse for the fact that this concept with this cast could have really accomplished something great. As it stands, it’s a barely-there trifle that immediately evaporates from your mind upon the closing credits.

Rating: 5/10

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Year: 2011
Director: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A young woman escapes the cult she has lived in for two years and attempts to live a normal life with her sisters and brother-in-law.

With a title like that, is there any way Martha Marcy May Marlene couldn't be a ponderous indie flick? Hailed as the triumphant debut of the mythical third Olsen sister (the one who could actually act), it made a splash on the festival circuit, much like the similarly dour Jennifer Lawrence showcase Winter’s Bone. If you know my tastes at all, this isn’t exactly a recipe for success.

I did enjoy MMMM, but its glories are fleeting. The film splits its time between a harrowing portrayal of cult life (in flashback) and a harrowing portrayal of reintegration into a society that might be just as flawed, but it’s too distracted by its own seriousness to actually tell a complete, satisfying story. As an exercise in curating atmosphere, it’s excellent, but when they tried to put the narrative gear into drive, they forgot to depress the clutch and stalled the whole thing. 

Anyone else here drive a stick shift? No? Just me?

Let’s focus on the cult half. Here we have a dazzlingly intimate portrayal of how a charismatic charlatan (played to the hilt by a leering John Hawkes) can warp weak minds into serving his sick vision. It’s chilling in its naturalism, living in the subtle interplay between human begins rather than relying on some over-the-top, teeth gnashing villain. MMMM knows that the Manson-esque figures that lurk in the shadows of our world deliver their message with sickly sweet honey, killing you with kindness. It’s even more unbearable for its relatability.

Then there’s the other half. Olsen certainly delivers a suitably broken performance, but her sullen deliveries are no match for Sarah Paulson, as a brittle, selfish woman who strives to help her sister more out of a sense of duty than any actual emotional attachment. Her bind subscription to the tenets of society is just as dangerous as her sister’s brainwashed ideals, and her layered performance reveals things to the audience that even her character doesn’t know.

So these, two cloven segments both work on their own right, but they never synthesize into a coherent whole. The stunted narrative is just a carousel of human misery, content not to be anything more. Elizabeth Olsen is bedraggled before and she is bedraggled after, but it doesn’t seem to making a statement through that. It feels like the first act to a much more interesting story, but as it stands it is still a reliably enthralling mood piece. 

The experience of watching the movie is somewhat akin to cracking open a Kinder egg and discovering that there's no prize inside. It's a disappointing feeling, but you still have the chocolate so it's not like you can complain. It’s even acceptable despite a soundscape that feels like it was edited on Garageband. Don’t run to your Amazon queue to watch it, but it wouldn’t be so bad if it fell into your lap.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1056

Monday, March 14, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Dead Islands

Now that I’ve finally whittled down my backlog to nothing, I’m free to be a movie glutton once more, necessitating another set of mini reviews. These two pieces are about island-set zombie films, both screened for Zombie History Month on the Scream 101 podcast.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (Listen to the Scream 101 episode here.)

Year: 1988
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Dennis Alan is sent to Haiti to search for a drug that supposedly brings the dead back to life and gets himself embroiled in voodoo rituals and wicked politics along the way.

And thus continues my unstructured marathon to fill in the gaps of my Wes Craven viewing following his tragic passing. The Serpent and the Rainbow is one of the biggest titles I had not yet seen (the film community isn’t exactly clamoring to reclaim Cursed), and it’s one I missed due to a chronic disinterest in the subject matter. My first exposure to cinematic voodoo was I Walked with a Zombie, a stultifying affair that did not leave me slavering for more. However, I’m happy to say that my experience this time around was exceedingly pleasant.

Another factor that made me dubious was the fact that Craven didn’t write the script himself, something that only seemed to work with the Scream movies. That may have been the case, but this material (including the nonfiction book it was based on) is so compatible with his sensibilities that it’s no mystery why he chose to pursue it. The film was hobbled by an immensely difficult production (while the final product was a Wes Craven movie, the behind-the-scenes struggles could have made a great Hitchcock thriller), but it’s just as idiosyncratic as any of the director’s 80’s flicks.

The Serpent and the Rainbow has one of the loosest narratives in Craven’s career (remember this is the man who wrote Shocker), but this allows him to work at a level of pure style that’s undeniably effective. His obsession with nightmares continues full force here, but his “rubber reality” is far less intrusive than it had been in his non-Freddy flicks (not to throw Shocker under the bus again, but…). It arises organically from the material, steeped in mysticism and illicit drug use as it is, providing a stunningly eerie atmosphere and some of his best imagery ever. One nightmare sequence, which features Bill Pullman trapped in a coffin that’s slowly filing with blood, is a masterpiece of dream logic that’s as visually arresting and viscerally intense as anything in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

The scenes set in reality are hardly less jarring. Two violent moments are particularly stomach-churning (let’s just say Bill Pullman’s family jewels are put on display in a bad part of town), and a third act collision between the upper-crust white world of Boston and voodoo principles is a gleefully dark spectacle that calls to mind the best of Sam Raimi.

Moments like these peppers the film, making up for the near total lack of a plot with their boundlessly creative saging. You see, thanks to behind-the-scenes shenanigans, The Serpent and the Rainbow has some gaping narrative holes that are papered over with an intrusive Blade Runner Director’s Cut-esque voiceover. It’s like the missing jigsaw pieces of the film are filled in with random bits from the Maltese Falcon puzzle. There are definitely some solid themes present, including a Craven trademark – science vs. faith – but the film’s structure is less Empire State Building and more Leaning Tower of Pisa.

These plot flaws crop up especially during the rushed finale, when the truly menacing political tyranny/voodoo master morphs into a dime store Freddy Krueger and is defeated pretty much instantly by some deus ex stupida faux-mystical nonsense. As you can see, the film is far from perfect, but as a gallery for a talented cinematic mind working at full steam, it’s tremendously effective. Imagery from The Serpent and the Rainbow will stick with me forever, even as the actual story has already faded to a miniscule blip on my mind’s horizon.

Rating: 7/10

Zombie (Listen to the Scream 101 episode here.)

Year: 1979
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Anne Bowles is distraught when her father’s boat washes up in the New York harbor. She teams up with a reporter and two vacationers to find the island where he disappeared, whereupon they are attacked by a plague of zombies.

Zombie is both the second Lucio Fulci film I’ve screened for the podcast and the second I’ve seen in my life. Obviously my frame of reference is not vast, but here’s my fast and loose takeaway. The Beyond is better, but Zombie really whet my appetite for further Fulci exploration. One of the first Italian zombie flicks to burst from the gates after the massive success of Dawn of the Dead (recut in Italy by Dario Argento and titled Zombi, hence this unofficial sequel’s Italian title – Zombi 2), Zombie set the precedent for the years of gore and undead mayhem to follow.

Though Zombie doesn’t feature as much of the inimitable Fulci style as his other works, it starts off with a bang- quite literally. The very first shot mimics the end of The Great Train Robbery. A gun is pointed directly at the camera, pausing menacingly before it shoots a covered figure in the head. Before any credits, characters, dialogue, or discernible locations have been introduced, Zombie has already made an indelible mark, proving itself as a violent, jarring movie from the get-go.

Of course, it takes a long time for Zombie to regain that momentum, entering as it does the “setup” part of the first act. In a traditional movie, this is the section where we meet the characters and discover their personalities, goals, and conflicts. In a Fulci movie, it’s where we watch meatbags prepare to head to the place where they are destined to get punctured. Zombie’s setup is a particularly drawn-out one, mindlessly wasting valuable minutes on Fulci’s biggest weakness: characters. Tisa Farrow may have a Mia in her bloodline, but her go-to trick of bulging her eyes and pretending her head is slowly filling with helium does little to offset the stolid blandness of the obviously-too-old male lead Ian McCulloch, whom the movie strains to pretend is a strapping hero type.

However, once the engine revs up after a couple sputtering stalls (including a scene where a zombie fights a shark that defies the laws of movie physics by somehow being kinda boring), Zombie kicks into high gear. The red tempera paint flows freely as the undead rise for a solid half hour of zombie carnage. A siege on a hospital gets a little repetitive, but if there’s one thing you can’t say about Fulci, it’s that he lacks diversity in his violence. We get neck biting, arm ripping, head splitting, and the iconic “splinter through the eye” sequence, which has the weakest effects in the whole film, but by the point they arrive, you have already been sold by the tension and that dazzling shot of the eye in alarmingly close proximity to impalement.

The gore isn’t the vast smorgasbord that The Beyond presents, but if anything the film is even more Italian. The movie literally stops in its tracks for some topless scuba diving, and a showering woman is thoughtfully reflected at all angles by a thoughtfully placed vanity. This is a crass, over-the-top, exploitative husk of a film that occasionally slips into a sort of feverish artistry (a scene where the characters realize they’re camped in a graveyard is a deliciously slow-drip spine tingle, and certain shots –a vertical angle through a boat’s sails, a shaft of light on a wall widening as a door creaks open… - are undeniably suave), and that’s the perfect evocation of the Fulci cinematic philosophy.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1335

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Would That It Were So Simple

Year: 2016
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

An apology for the delay in getting this review out for the new Coen brothers venture Hail, Caesar!. Incidentally, I started reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar around the same time I watched it and held back on the off chance that the play would allow me more insight into the film. It didn’t. My ulterior motive was that maybe the extra time would allow me to fully sort out my complex and twisted feelings about the film. It didn’t. So now here we are, a little too late and with nothing to show for it.

So it goes.

In Hail, Caesar! Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer in the 1950’s, keeping the raucous stars out of trouble and – more importantly – out of the newspapers. While scandals and drama erupt from all corners – pregnant Brooklyn nymphette DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), snooping twin journalists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), uptight British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), down-home Western star turned leading man Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and charming, some might say magical, musical star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) – he must balance his work, his Catholic morals, and an intriguing new job offer.

But first he must find Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star, who has just been kidnapped and held for ransom by the enigmatic conglomerate The Future.

I know that was a short description, but there is somehow both more and less pot in Hail, Caesar! than I described, so I figured I found a happy medium.

What stands out about Hail, Caesar! (other than the fact that it sends my computer’s grammar checker into a sputtering rage) is that it utterly defies classification. It’s alternately a screwball comedy, a throwback musical, a crisis of faith story, a satirical economic treatise, and a pastiche of Old Hollywood, sometimes all at once. Some of these elements are much better than others, though the vast majority of them are geared toward the funnier end of the spectrum. Which is good news because Hail, Caesar! is at its strongest when it’s fishing for laughs.

There are some truly amazing comedy moments in Hail, Caesar!, scenes that allow a talented cast to obliterate their comfort zones in order to achieve something truly magnificent. Tilda Swinton excels, grounding a cartoonish concept in deliriously silly reality (and between this and Trainwreck, she really ought to consider making the leap to comedy full time), Ralph Fiennes gets a rare opportunity to show his lighter side, exquisitely maneuvering through an uproarious Abbot and Costello homage, and “newcomer” Alden Ehrenreich (critics like to pretend he wasn’t in Beautiful Creatures) deftly navigates his scenes with a  dopey incalculable charm. Ehrenreich handily makes a bigger impression than megastar George Clooney or Josh Brolin, though to be fair they are saddled with two of the dullest characters in the script.

Also, he’s purdy.

The second greatest strength of Hail, Caesar! is its two original musical numbers, which perfectly recreate and comment on the filmmaking of the 1950’s. The swimming pool number featuring Scarlett Johansson is the lesser of the two, though it features impeccable costume design. I don’t know why I seem to have a physical inability to appreciate swim-dance sequences (Miss Piggy’s in The Great Muppet Caper similarly vexed me), but a scene I have absolutely no reservations about is Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing sailor number “No Dames.”

In addition to being the flamboyant, homo-erotic spectacle that has charmed many reviewers, it’s a downright perfect dance routine. It’s a stunning, delightful number that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gene Kelly environment, utilizing every last element of its seaside pub setting with gusto. Like, it’s funny or whatever, but its brilliant choreography should not be sidelined by its subtext. It’s a glorious, sparkling diamond in the crown of Hail, Caesar!’s comedy.

And then of course, everything falls apart. Hail, Caesar! is, from its opening frame, an exceedingly scatterbrained motion picture, but at sometime around the point that Frances McDormand teleports into the film for about thirty seconds to indulge in a  spot of harebrained physical comedy, the movie’s incohesiveness begins to set in like a rot. The film’s characters (especially McDormand and Jonah Hill’s Joseph Silverman) are but vapors, haphazardly colliding with the plot at random intervals and disappearing for huge chunks of time, sometimes never appearing again, swallowed by the ether. Plot points, story threads and themes similarly circulate, bobbing up and down in the overcrowded stew.

Let's take another quick look, shall we?

However towering the film’s comedic highs are (including a boardroom religious debate that’s downright untouchable), they’re too precarious to maintain, sending it tumbling down again and again. Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens indulging in cinematic gluttony and choking out their own ideas by cramming in as much pseudo-religious imagery, economic theory, and jerry-rigged philosophy as they can get their hands on. It’s a distracting mess that prevents access to some of the truly great subtext bubbling beneath the surface.

As much as I dearly want to extol it to the high heavens, I can’t get past its crazed, half-baked presentation. It’s like a crazy, politically abrasive uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. You have no choice but to love it at least a little (especially if you’re a fan of classic Hollywood cinema), but spending more than five minutes at a time with it is immensely taxing.I’m Brennan I do the click clack clickity clackity click click clack on my compy. Click Clack. Bathroom break. Clickly Clacky. Art. 
TL;DR: Hail, Caesar! is a messy comedy with some truly outstanding moments that are mired in impenetrable messiness.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 960

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Born To Be Wild

Year: 2016
Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, & Jared Bush
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba 
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Friends, furries, countrymen… Lend me your ears. On my third anniversary with a certain Disneyphile, I had occasion to attend the opening night of Zootopia, the newest film from Disney Animation’s CGI wing (which, let’s face it, is not as good, but Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, and Big Hero 6 soften the blow). Frankly, I was not sold by the deeply unimpressive trailer, which frontloaded a sloth gag as old and creaky as Gandalf’s knees, and the improbably high Rotten Tomatoes score only served to make me more suspicious. However, I am pleased to announce that I come bearing good news! But first… the plot.

AKA: The part in between the constantly replaying Shakira song.

In Zootopia, animals have evolved past their savage, wild ways. Predators and prey now live in harmony, doing all the fun things that people do, like taxes and Tinder and eating ice cream, only furrier. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a small town bunny with a dream, to serve and protect the citizens of the bustling metropolis Zootopia as a member of the police force. The first bunny on the force, she doesn’t fit in with her burly, aggressive coworkers and gets stuck on parking detail. Overeager to pursue justice rather than follow orders, she ends up on the bad side of Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), who gives her 48 hours to solve a missing mammal case, or else her badge is revoked.

Her unlikely partner in this endeavor is the con-man (or rather, con-fox) Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), at which point Zootopia promptly becomes, against all odds, a buddy cop movie. In the process of their investigation, Nick and Judy discover a vast and dangerous conspiracy that will challenge everything they know about the world… and themselves.

AKA: The people who aren’t Shakira.

If you have seen any amount of promo for Zootopia, you might assume (reasonably) that the film is some sort of animated sloth delivery system, but you would be wrong. As hard as they’re pushing those side characters to sell sloth plushies, the bulk of the movie is blissfully free of their musty antics (why they’ve zeroed in on the sloth when a blissed-out yak and a heart-meltingly adorable fennec fox have more, and stronger, screen time is beyond me, but I guess I should pull an Elsa and let it go). What the trailers completely fail to communicate is that Zootopia is an ingeniously crafted modern fable that takes the form of a hardboiled mystery procedural, something I feel was pretty vital to mention. But alas, this is not a review of the Disney publicity department, so let’s move on.

You guys know I love me some world-building, and Zootopia has it in spades. There is one intractable conceptual problem, in that the anthropomorphic citizenry frequently refer to themselves being animals to excuse certain behaviors. However, in a world with no humans, the concept of an “animal” as a wild or uncivilized creature couldn’t exist. That is, unless Zootopia takes place on a post-human extinction Earth, Planet of the Apes style. But I digress. Wildly.

When you’re presented with the concept “animals doing people things,” it’s pretty easy to come up with a half dozen gags off the top of your head. It’s a gimme concept. However, I’m delighted to report that the filmmakers were far from lazy when constructing their animal utopia. In addition to a series of clever but typical gags about animal behavior (wolves love to howl, lemmings have a tendency to be followers, goddamn sloths are slow), Zootopia really digs into a fresh concept: What are the implications of a society composed of hundreds of different animal species? What habitats would they need? What municipal structures would be necessary to foster inter-species cooperation?

Zootopia has its most fun when it is exploring these concepts through delirious visual gags and gorgeous city structures, fostered by the feverishly creative, lush environs courtesy of production designers David Goetz and Dan Cooper. It’s a well thought-out universe, the result of meticulous study, and an excellent breeding ground for the film’s Big Ol’ Message. Zootopia has a strong moral, an appropriately modern treatise/racial allegory about diversity, cooperation, and prejudice that would be obnoxiously preachy in any other movie. However, it is so organically developed through characters and their environments that it becomes even stronger for it, as intrinsic and natural to the film’s universe as fluffy bunnies.

It’s also, like, and important message or whatever, but world-building, you guys.

It really is a fun time at the movies, consistently enjoyable for children and adults alike. I always respect family entertainment that has a brain in its head, and Zootopia is a very sharp, deliberate film with a real sense of purpose. It’s a creative mix of seemingly disparate genres, a wacky yet sometimes dangerous romp with actual stakes, and it teaches you not to be so rude to parking enforcers. It’s a win-win-win!

That said, the tsunami of critical adoration this film ha been receiving is bonkers. It’s a solid, sweet family film, but not even The Shawshank Redemption has a 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. For all its genuine quality, it’s still a new age animated movie, with all the inane pop culture references and slyly inappropriate “for the parents” jokes that that entails. These moments are of a slightly higher caliber than your typical kids fodder, but Zootopia isn’t free from those pitfalls.

I would give the film an unqualified recommendation to anybody with two eyes and heart, but it isn’t the second coming of Pixar. Not that a movie need to be that in order to be pretty damn remarkable.

TL;DR: Zootopia is a fun, smart exercise in children's filmmaking with a solid, ironically human message.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 985

Monday, March 7, 2016

Arrow In The Head: Do Not Disturb

My third Arrow in the Head review has surfaced, and it's for a movie that was actually released to theaters! It's like I'm famous or something.

Year: 2016
Director: Johannes Roberts
Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Javier Botet
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Check out my full review here!

Additional Notes: When my editor assigned this film to me, he apologized in advance if it ended up sucking. I told him that with reviews of The Sand and Dementia already under my belt, this movie was practically Citizen Kane. I was right, at least in the sense that it ended up being crazy boring. I thought an Indian-set supernatural flick might have something unique to offer, but I was dreadfully wrong. At least it’s kind of fascinating in the sense that it unwittingly acknowledges Hinduism as the One True Religion while obscuring its tenets into oblivion beneath a generic, Catholic-lite possession story.

The Other Side of the Door is chock full of clichéd nonsense: lots of shadowy figures pointing at spooky things and seemingly innocuous children with their faces turned away from the camera that the movie pretend you can’t predict are gonna be revealed to be creepy. We even black out our paranormal bingo cards with a ghost-sensing dog and a mystical ethnic servant. It’s an embarrassment of riches!

In my review, I mentioned the film’s ear-bleeding ADR, but let me get into devilish detail. Dog growling is superimposed over a happily wagging tail, and that’s just the beginning. Creepy observers keep making a strange chant that constantly fails to match their lips (it’s more than a little like an Ariana Grande music video), but these people are so strictly non-supernatural that the sound only emphasizes how haphazardly conceived the film is. It’s a dull slog that devolves into a sloppy and confusing third act. One to avoid.

TL;DR: The Other Side of the Door is a bland, milquetoast venture that's hardly worth anyone's time.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1169

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Glamour And Glitter, Fashion And Fame

Year: 2015
Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Juliette Lewis
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

As is so often necessary in this modern Hollywood epoch of renewing and rebooting old properties, I must lead with a disclaimer. I have never seen the popular 80’s cartoon series Jem, from which the film Jem and the Holograms is loosely adapted. From what I’ve heard, hardcore fans of the show would have been better off pretending they’ve never seen it either if they wanted to avoid a deadly clot of frustration. Although, all things considered, the statistical likelihood that anybody reading this has actually watched the film is extremely low.

You see, Jem and the Holograms is now the record holder for worst wide release opening weekend of 2015, the fourth worst of all time (it’s only behind Delgo, The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, and the genuinely embarrassing Saw 10th anniversary re-release). It made back approximately half its production budget and was pulled from cinemas after just two mortifying weeks. And even if you’re someone who wanted to see it (a demographic of pretty much just me), you couldn’t. It took me five different Redbox excursions to actually find the disc, and the exuberantly misinformed idea to price the retail DVD at $20+ could be the subject of the next Michael Lewis book. This kind of high profile disaster is music to my bad movie-loving ears, so of course I had to give it a look. Here’s my field report.

After procuring a pink wig and covering my natural scent by rolling in a pile of glitter, the Holograms are finally beginning to accept me as one of their own.

In Jem and the Holograms, Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) is your average teen girl from the “least likely” place ever: The Valley. After her father passed away, she and her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) moved in with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald for some reason) and became a part of her Polly Pocket Dream house family. Bailey owns a costume shop (because nobody in this universe is, like, a dentist or something), and her foster daughters Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) are a fashionista and a gearhead respectively. Nobody seems to be interested in Netflix or videogames or have homework to do.

Yadda yadda yadda, Molly Ringwald is about to get evicted because the costume shop business ain’t what it used to be. But! After Jerrica puts on a wig and makeup and performs a song as Jem, which gets uploaded to YouTube, she becomes a viral sensation. Because if movies are to be believed, literally anything uploaded to the Internet will spread like wildfire, something this blog provides evidence against. She is being courted by record executive Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), and the money she’s offering could pay their bills! Jem insists that her sisters come along to be her band, and thus begins a month-long rocket to superstardom. The buzz from the original acoustic video is so huge that they already have a national fanbase based on that one song. Naturally, nothing they play is ever acoustic ever again.

But! Erica wants Jem to be a solo artist for some ill-defined reason. Will this cause a rift between her and her sisters? Will her secret Jem identity consume her soul? Will she ever get to make out with Erica’s super hot son Rio (Ryan Guzman), with whom she has so little chemistry that their atoms seem to actively repel one another? Also! Her dead dad left behind a robot called Synergy, which is leading her on an epic musical scavenger hunt across LA to learn about herself and her values or some crap.

Yeah, that sci-fi element sure worked its way into the story organically. What a triumph of naturalistic storytelling!

The truly weird thing about Jem and the Holograms is that it’s still manifestly a Blumhouse picture. Along with cherry-picking the rhythm of Whiplash and the teen savvy of Unfriended, with some occasional dips into the scavenged source material of Paranormal Activity, it also features some prominent new cast members from the Blumhouse stable: The Boy Next Door’s Ryan Guzman and Insidious: Chapter 3’s Stefanie Scott and Hayley Kiyoko. Plus, the entire film – a relatively massive budget for them – takes place on about six sets, spending at least an entire half hour in just a single suburban house. It’s an extremely odd effect, like watching a Disney Channel Original Movie being strangled before your eyes.

The whole film exists in this perpetual limbo, trapped between the extravagant glitzy lunacy it strives for and the low key realism it can afford. Normally I would watch a movie with an over-the-top teen angst girlgroup boilerplate plot that gets frequently derailed by an inexplicable subplot and abruptly swerves into a heist movie for a couple scenes in the third act and call it a fever dream masterpiece. However, the camp quality is cut off at the knees by the too-serious production, at least until the robot hums to life and overloads the system, sending the movie into its bizarre plot seizures.

You see, no matter how tempered the actual content frequently finds itself, the way it is presented is patently deranged. A solid years worth of story is compressed into less than a month, so any time a character mentions “that day by the pier” (yesterday) or “all this time” (one week), it’s an inexhaustible well of unintentional comedy. Drama arises offscreen and gets resolved instantly, sometimes within seconds, plot device explode into the frame without even considering being set up, and shots from the perspective of a security camera constantly undermine every last ounce of tension.

Also, dad apparently forgot that Kimber existed when setting up his Jigsaw-esque scavenger hunt.

Do you see the bind I find myself in? Jem is mostly not a good movie. Aubrey Peeples is a kind of non-presence, delivering a voiceover narration as devoid of nuance or emotion as a concrete brick, and the other girls are spunky but only vaguely etched out (and Aurora Perrineau might as well be an extra for all the focus she’s given), so there’s really nothing concrete in the A-plot to grab onto. However, a much livelier piece of bubblegum trash is constantly oozing out around the edges.

This movie is jam-packed (or should I say Jem-packed? No. I shouldn’t.) with microscopic appearances from actors I really adore (including Party Down’s Ryan Hansen, looking like an actual adult – a handsome adult), hilariously vacant and catchy pop music masquerading as True Art with a Message, and messily overstaged musical performances that only perpendicularly intersect with reality. And did I mention there’s a dress-up montage with people nodding or shaking their head to outfits, presented completely unironically? All while they’re supposed to be at a location across LA in 20 minutes? It’s magical. 

All this is ruled over by Juliette Lewis vamping her bones out of their sockets. She acts like she’s actually in the Jem cartoon, sashaying through every set with the hyperbolic malice of an evil queen, even before she is revealed in any way to be an antagonist. Shes utterly captivating any second she’s onscreen, and if every element of the film were keyed up to her level, Jem would be an instant cult classic.

As it stands, Jem and the Holograms is a generic, vaguely manic shell of a pop musical, scraped clean of meaning. Juliette Lewis and a shirtless Ryan Guzman edge it just enough over the line to recommend it, but it’s a movie you catch on TV, not one that you own. However, it must be said that it’s certainly not worse than most of the crap that gets foisted on the viewing audience on a weekly basis. Hell, it’s a whole lot better than Sinister 2. It didn’t deserve its box office whipping, but hopefully its martyrdom will help it find the right home on DVD. As soon as it ends up in dollar bins. That home is not with me, but it so could have been with just one or two adjustments.

TL;DR: Jem and the Holograms isn't the campy thrill ride it could have been, but it's fun enough in its ludicrous messiness.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1386

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Children, Have You Ever Met The Boogeyman Before?

Year: 2015
Director: Ciarán Foy
Cast: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I had reasonably high hopes for Sinister 2. The first one was somewhat of a leaden affair with a twist that assumed we either slept through most of the first half and/or had a subhuman IQ, but the trailer at least made its sequel look like a tighter flick with less expository baggage. And that’s why they should hire trailer editors to actually edit the movies, because that’s the exact opposite of what happened.

And once again my horror movie optimism is battered mercilessly. My inner Pollyanna is on life support.

Sinister 2 isn’t so much a continuation of the first film as a direct assault on its established mythology. Ex-Deputy So-And-So (James Ransone), the film’s only returning character, is now a private detective who, in his spare time, is finding properties that have been haunted by the evil child-corrupting demon Bughuul and burning them down. As he approaches a supposedly abandoned house in Illinois, he learns it is being inhabited by Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) and her twin sons Dylan (Robert Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), who are on the run from an abusive father.

Of course, Bughuul has targeted the kids, despite his established MO actually placing him somewhere near California, according to Sinister. The spirits of his captured children are hard at work corrupting the boys by showing them nasty home video footage of them murdering their families, supposedly flipping the script and displaying Sinister’s plotline from the child’s perspective rather than the parent’s, even though it really doesn’t make much sense at all. The kids are led by Milo (Lucas Zumann), who looks like the preppy dude from The Purge if he was a decade younger.

And skipped a couple acing lessons.

I think the biggest tragedy of Sinister 2 is that it actually could have been a pretty great film. All the ingredients are there: a dysfunctional family, an eerie parallel for abuse, rival twins with split devotions, and a possible treatise on how holding a camera can separate us from moral culpability, à la Nightcrawler. The sculpture is hiding in that chunk of marble, but someone down the line forgot to pack the chisel, leaving them to make do with a handy sledgehammer.

In the Blumhouse canon, Sinister 2 is Thor: The Dark World. Following a rote original that didn’t really bring anything new to the table, it’s a sequel that looks and acts like all of the other movies, yet to an astonishing degree is pretty thoroughly an unmitigated failure. Now, Marvel’s lows are considerably higher than Blumhouse’s, so let’s not get carried away with that comparison, but it needs to be said that Sinister 2 is pointless to the degree that it actually compromises the meager quality of the original.

Which, as you may recall, isn’t even a movie I enjoyed as much as freaking Unfriended.

Everything good about the original is twisted into an unrecognizable shape and the malformed lumps that marred it are now diamond hard kidney stones squeezing through the urethra of your mind. Exhibit A: The genuinely bone-chilling murder tapes have been perverted into a dull slog of deaths that are well-rendered, but either too ordinary to be memorable (freezing to death) or so ludicrously outré it feels like Baz Luhrmann guest directed them (an alligator leaps from a swamp to devour a hanging family). Gone is the uncanny, haunting imagery. In its place is workmanlike efficiency and a genuine confusion about how the first movie actually functioned.

And that was something I actually liked. Don’t even get me started on how the original’s dumbass predictable twist is actually repeated as though it were a new revelation instead of something that has been patently obvious since the trailer back in 2012. Or how the shoddy, disjointed climax is now just a catwalk of annoying horror tropes that aren’t even necessarily from Sinister’s subgenre. Or how… You know what? If I don’t stop here, I may never stop.

Step one is admitting you have a problem with Sinister 2.

Sinister 2 isn’t the worst horror movie ever made (as if anything could ever beat Zombie Diaries 2: World of the Dead), but it’s just such a programmatic slog that it ceases to be scary in any way, shape, or form. Of course, it’s mainly asking us to be spooked by fully lit children with ash smeared on their faces and a demonic symbol dripping Flash-animated Goosebumps blood on a laptop (apparently the ancient demon Bughuul has been taking computer classes), so there’s that. 

But even the famous Blumhouse jump scares are telegraphed entire reels ahead of time, require characters to perform sublimely idiotic acts in order to manifest, and just generally reek of pallid flop sweat. Plus a bunch of kids make the “shh” motion approximately 900,000 times because it’ll look cool in the trailer, and not out of any actual need to be quiet. One little girl ghost actually does it twice in thirty seconds to a kid who hasn’t discernibly moved. It’s about as exciting as a tall glass of Tab.

The one saving grace of Sinister 2 is James Ransone, who gracefully makes the transition from wisecracking comic relief to bedraggled hero. His character scenes are genuinely funny, and his presence provides a real human anchor for the cardboard goings-on. In fact, none of the actors, especially Shannyn Sossamon, do a bad job. It’s just that their motivations are so murky they tend to flounder with their characters.

My advice would be to not even bother with the Sinister franchise. The first one is just barely good enough for a recommend, and if the series continues in the way it’s headed, it’s already well past its prime (which peaked somewhere in the series’ first three minutes). You’d be better off with the Insidious movies, even taking into account the second film’s general execrableness. Anything is preferable to this plodding, drab nonsense.

TL;DR; Sinister 2 is a dumb sequel that actively makes the mediocre original worse.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1023
Reviews In This Series
Sinister (Derrickson, 2012)
Sinister 2 (Foy, 2015)