Thursday, April 14, 2016

There’s No Such Thing As Safe Sex With A Werewolf

Year: 2005
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Joshua Jackson
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

There’s a reason Wes Craven took a six year break from feature filmmaking after 2005. Two of his films came out that year. One was the excellent airborne thriller Red Eye. The other was Cursed, a Kevin Williamson-penned werewolf thriller. On paper, it’s a match made in Heaven. The duo had previously collaborated on the massively successful Scream trilogy, which reinvented the slasher genre. Why not do the same thing with Craven’s first foray into werewolf mythology?

There was just one little thing in the way… The Weinstein Company. What should have been a nice and easy teenybopper shoot grotesquely stretched into a two and a half year nightmare of reshooting, rewriting, recasting, and general meddlesome nonsense that twisted the film into a wholly unrecognizable form. It started off as a normal movie, but ended up a misshapen monster.

I suppose the real werewolf is the movie itself.

In Cursed, Ellie Myers (Christina Ricci) is a late night talk show producer who takes care of her high school-aged brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg, already Social Networking it up) after their parents died. She is dating Jake (Joshua Jackson), a lothario who is opening a horror-themed club (because Kevin Williamson), and who has been pulling away as of late, much to her chagrin. After Ellie and Jimmy get into a car accident, they witness a young woman (Shannon Elizabeth) being mauled by a giant wolf, and both of them get scratched in the process.

Over the next two days, during the full moon, they begin to exhibit increasingly wolfish tendencies. Ellie is freaked out by her sudden aggression and attraction to blood, but Jimmy has a great time Teen Wolfing it up with his heightened sexual charisma a (AKA flat-ironed hair. This was 2005, after all) and newfound athletic prowess. But a werewolf keeps attacking people around town. Is it one of them? The original wolf that cursed them? Or somebody else entirely?

You know how it is in Hollywood. Every waiter you get is either an aspiring actor or a werewolf.

Although it’s almost impossible to discern a film in the finished product of Cursed, there is a 100-minute block of images and sound in front of us, so let’s talk about it.

The two year delay didn’t help much, but even in 2003 Cursed would have felt way too 90’s. Kevin Williamson’s particular brand of postmodern winking worked in 1996, but sarcasm’s lease hath all too short a date. Cursed is chock full of weird rock band cameos (go Bowling for Soup!), movie references, and too-polished teenspeak, stuff which was getting unfashionable by the time the millennium rolled around, but in the post-Saw period was downright humiliating.

And I hate to say it, but the script just isn’t very good. Obviously, it has been cobbled together from about 19 different drafts, which would explain the jumbled structure, the jerry-rigged romance between Ricci and Jackson, and the two finales in a row that proudly contradict each other. But the script is putrid all the way down to the dialogue, and there just ain’t no excuse for that.

Most of the teen scenes are preoccupied with exuberant homophobia, culminating in this mid-wrestling match gem: “You know the best thing about being a fairy? Getting to fly,” which is deeply offensive on both a personal and a syntactical level. Cursed is packed with this kind of anemic quippage (my personal favorite being “You’re playing games with us… Well, play this!”), finally exhausting Williamson’s seemingly endless reserves of arch wit. It’s telling that he too would retreat from motion pictures for over half a decade following Cursed’s release.

It seems like this film really was… cursed.

Pretty much everything in Cursed is underwhelming, but it’s difficult to pinpoint a central problem within the infinite vicious cycle of blame. The actors are subpar (especially the bland Ricci and Portia de Rossi, who is hideously miscast as an ominous fortune teller) because their characters were crumbling beneath them as the script was cannibalized by the writer, who was working with a harried director, who was being squashed under the pressure of producers, who didn’t like the script, and on and on and on. It’s an unsolvable Sphinx riddle. At this point, it would have been better if it hadn’t gotten a release at all.

All that being true, it must be said that while nothing in Cursed could really be called good, it’s not quite so rotten as I’m making it sound. Sure, it’s a wretched, hybridized monstrosity, but during the bulk of its run time it’s merely mediocre rather than actively terrible. Craven manages to milk some suspense out of several sequences, especially in the initial wolf attack, which features a jump scare that is the single most effective scene in the film. His stalk sequences see him pulling a lot of old tricks out of his toolbag (scraping claws a la Freddy Krueger, things subtly going wrong in an increasingly dream logic manner), but there’s a reason they were put in there in the first place: They work.

Cursed also features a terrific entry in the Craven/Williamson canon of loony killer reveals when the werewolf turns out to be [SPOILERS Judy Greer], who gives the best performance in the film once outed as a psychopath, final proving that there was something comedic lodged in the script that could actually click when a performer got a crack at it. This scene also provides the second best moment of the film, some werewolf body shaming that is deliciously over-the-top and lampoons the Hollywood lifestyle at a level the movie had been feebly attempting to reach for an hour and change.

The only thing that never ever works in Cursed is the werewolf itself, which feels like a pretty big oversight. While the original effects were provided by FX genius Rick Baker, who pulled off An American Werewolf in London without anything remotely resembling the technology of 2003. Yet for some unfathomable reason he was yanked from the project and replaced by KNB, whose work would be plastered over with crappy CGI. To be fair, the computer work here is a smidge better than a lot of recent lazy CGI (here’s lookin’ at you, The Hobbit), but the werewolf looks far too much like Bobo the Bear to be menacing.

Seriously, they could be brothers.

With that, let’s leave Cursed to rot in peace. It’s a pitiful creation that doesn’t deserve all the stellar people who worked on it. It’s not the worst film of Craven’s filmography, but it’s the one where his creativity and humanity are least apparent, which is far more damning than simply being crappy.

TL;DR: Cursed is an endlessly fiddled-with film that wouldn’t have been good in its original form.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1150

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Riches Get Stiches

Year: 2016
Director: Ben Falcone
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Melissa McCarthy is the most important force in modern cinema. OK, maybe that was a wee bit of “this review needs a hook” exaggeration, but she’s certainly in the Top 10. As a cultural figure, she is proving that a woman can lead and, more importantly, succeed in a vulgar film comedy. This might seem like a trivial thing to attach so much importance to, but it’s far from it. She’s opening up a dialogue about women in cinema, sexual agency, and body image, and the best thing is that she’s a genuinely  funny performer. 2015’s Spy may have been the first film to truly get her as a lead, but her continued success speaks volumes.

Of course, every major cinematic icon has their follies. Marlon Brando had The Island of Dr. Moreau. Al Pacino was in Gigli. Robert De Niro perpetrated Dirty Grandpa upon the world. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s a reason this discussion is cropping up at the beginning of a review for The Boss. I would scarcely say that the film is as egregious a misstep as the cinematic bile that is Dirty Grandpa, but – you know what? Let’s pick this up in a second. Time to hit the plot.

Let’s crack this puppy open and drink that sweet, sweet story nectar.

In The Boss, Michelle Darnell (Melissa McCarthy) is a grotesquely wealthy woman who doesn’t respect her hardworking assistant Claire (Kristen Bell). Her life gets a bit of the old switcheroo when her ex-lover/business rival Reynault (Peter Dinklage) exposes her for insider trading, sending her to jail and stripping her assets. She is reluctantly taken in by Claire and her daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson), but on a visit to Rachel’s to Totally Not Girl Scouts meeting she gets an idea. With Claire’s help she creates Darnell’s Darlings, a troupe of young women who sell brownies. And thus begins the epic journey of a rich lady gettin’ rich again.

But will she be rich with money or… (drumroll) friendship?

The thing about The Boss is that it’s not terrible, especially not to the degree that critics have been implying. It’s merely generic, which can be just as damning. Here, your average Melissa McCarthy profanity is grafted onto the most sundry family comedy plot imaginable the point that it’s pretty much for no one. It’s too vulgar for the kids who can sit through this kind of plot on the regular and it’s too toothless and predictable for the over 17 crowd. Take out all the F-bombs and sex jokes and you’ve got yourself a Hilary Duff vehicle.

However, I do respect The Boss for being the second McCarthy film in a row that doesn’t mock her weight of integrate it into her character. In fact, she’s playing a highly successful and fashionable woman, which is light years ahead of her previous filmography. Although Michelle Darnell has a predilection for turtlenecks so awful they provide strong evidence for the necessity of capitol punishment, she is a character worthy of Melissa McCarthy, though she’s not in a film that can really support her.

If Ghostbusters doesn’t prove to be the best McCarthy film this year, something will have gone terribly wrong.

For what it is, The Boss is totally fine. While the plot plods along the path everybody knew it would set on from the first frame, the comedy – always a subjective affair – does a decent job of keeping audiences occupied. We get a bit of the old fish out of water gambit, mocking the cluelessness of the rich (Occupy Hollywood!), and some classic “let’s dump the hot blonde in a chunky sweater and call her unattractive!” The best material comes from Tyler Labine, the James Corden-esque love interest for Kristen Bell who brings a much-needed dose of warm, earnest comedy in a register that is actually a little unexpected. For once.

The only comedic element that well and truly rankles is the physical comedy, which follows the recent trend of upsettingly punishing slapstick. Good physical comedy, like The Three Stooges, works well because it exists in a heightened cartoon reality here the characters aren’t actually in physical danger. The Boss is not a prime example of good physical comedy. A little girl fight scene almost gets there, because the filmmakers knew they needed to tiptoe around that one, but Ms. Darnell is run through the wringer, slammed into walls and down concrete stairs with deadly force, the sound design doubling down on sickening thuds and crunches. They’re more like UFC fights than gags, which totally undermines any potential laughs whatsoever.

So much of The Boss is a swing and a miss (an aborted Kathy Bates cameo literally has her abruptly exiting a scene on a galloping horse, there’s a full rap performance, and the climax is a hypercolor nightmare of violent nonsense), but the same genericness that keeps it from being truly great likewise prevents it from totally sucking. It’s a buffer of blandness.

While I should pan The Boss for a woeful misrepresentation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a gory movie, cutting between two scenes 45 minutes apart like I wouldn’t f**king notice, there’s enough good here to earn a qualified positive score. Labine is excellent and hopefully this film allows him to reach a wider audience, Ella Anderson is one of the better child actors in recent memory, and the easy emotional beats are far from taxing. If you’re looking for an unstressful time at the movies, you’ve come to the right place. Otherwise, maybe don’t bother with this one.

TL;DR: The Boss is a defanged Melissa McCarthy vehicle that doesn’t really have a place with any audience.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 977

Monday, April 11, 2016

Census Bloodbath: Oy, Oy, Oy

Year: 1981
Director: Terry Bourke
Cast: Chard Hayward, Louise Howitt, Deborah Coulls
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

If Australian filmmaking is kind of like the eager younger brother of Hollywood, full of loony ideas but without the same level of means to achieve them (not that that stopped The Road Warrior from blowing every film ever made right out of the water), Australian horror is Hollywood’s deranged cousin who pins cats to his dartboard. I love me some Aussie shockers, from the modern classic The Babadook to the underrated backwoods satire 100 Bloody Acres, and the country’s contributions to the slasher genre re particularly interesting.

So far we’ve visited the psychosexual vista of the stagebound slasher Nightmares, the rural charms of the sci-fi tinged Strange Behavior, and the superb roadside thriller machinations of Road Games, so I was certainly excited to see what the idiosyncratically titled Lady Stay Dead had to offer. As it turns out, Australian slashers in the early 80’s also had some grindhouse grime to shake off before they got to the good stuff. However, Lady Stay Dead may be a milquetoast bucket of sleaze, but there’s still something interesting lurking in the background.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

In Lady Stay Dead, Gordon Mason (Chard Hayward) is a man with such vice they named him twice. He’s the handyman for successful singer/actress Marie Coleby (Deborah Coulls). She’s a stuck-up diva who treats him like dirt, but that doesn’t stop his sick obsession that eventually leads him to rape and murder her. His day gets even worse when Marie’s sister Jenny Nolan (Louise Howitt) arrives for a weekend visit at the starlet’s beachside villa. After an unsuccessful attempt to hide his crimes, he traps Jenny inside the house, preparing for another square meal of murder.

Part of a mentally imbalanced breakfast.

Before I say anything remotely nice about the film (and any nice comments will certainly be remote), I want to make it clear that this is a rape-murder slasher, the most abhorrent incarnation of the subgenre. There’s only one rape scene, but it’s pretty discomfiting, although the real brutality lies in its extravagantly poor staging. Luckily, the awful, blunt editing and dubious composition of the scene tempers the blow of its violent misogyny, but this is not a movie you want to go into unprepared.

The greatest triumph of Lady Stay Dead is that it can never keep track of its genre for more than like twenty minutes, so before long it shifts away from gruesome grindhouse to a psychological thriller, then home invasion, then – for some reason – wacky police action thriller.

Lead actor Chad Hayward handles these abrupt transitions with the deftness of a concrete butterfly. Although he fitfully improves as the film goes on and adopts a less gritty tone that’s more open to his wanly camp stylings, he already tanked his performance around the five minute mark when he first opened his mouth, so it’s not like he could have gotten any worse. When we’re forced to spend alone time with him, which occurs most often in the first act, Lady Stay Dead is nothing but a monotonous smear underscored by bleating Lifetime romantic thriller music.

Talk about making a good first impression, am I right?

However, once the home invasion element kicks in, Lady Stay Dead has a secret weapon up its sleeve. It’s more of a butter knife than a machete, but it’s a weapon nonetheless. Jenny Nolan, who has been singularly unprepossessing up to this point, suddenly morphs into a frustratingly awesome Final Girl extraordinaire. Much like Jennifer Holmes in The Demon before her, she gives a survival effort so stupendous, it’s actively infuriating because now you have a reason to consider rewatching this dreadful movie. She just goes to town on Mason, wailing on him with a metal rod she rips out of the fireplace, scalding him with boiling water, and even dragging his own rake into his chest in a bloody tug of war.

Her Xena phase doesn’t last long, because – this being one o’ them violence against women pictures – we can’t have anything like empowerment sneaking up on us. But before she turns into a blubbering pile of hormones and hands the reins to a male cop who can wield his penis to save the day, she puts up a hell of a fight. This genuinely enjoyable fifteen minutes then folds into a bonkers finale that delights in its own ineptitude, which is equally enthralling in its lunatic ambition I shall avoid spoiling the manifold splendors of this sequence, because its unexpectedness is the only thing that makes it worthwhile, but let’s just say “Keystone Cops meets Scarface” isn’t a wholly inaccurate description.

Honestly, a good 45 minutes of Lady Stay Dead is passable to excellent trash entertainment, but it’s impossible to overcome that initial slump. Especially when that slump is such a dozy, vulgar mess in which the scariest moment is a smash cut to a kettle whistling.

Lady Stay Dead strains to capture the fading echoes of Halloween’s success, forcing its killer into endless visual quotations of the iconic Michael Myers, but no dice. I’m sorry, but “whistling dude” doesn’t carry the same impact and weight as “faceless scion of pure evil.” The film is fun enough to bear but haggard enough that you’re ashamed of liking anything in it. It’s a match made in Hell, which is pretty much where Lady Stay Dead belongs. Let it stay dead, because there’s no need to dig this one up for your next movie night.

Killer: Gordon Mason (Chard Hayward)
Final Girl: Jenny Nolan (Louise Howitt)
Best Kill: After Officer Clyde’s partner is shot in the back but miraculously survives, a Molotov cocktail accidentally rolls down the lawn toward him, lighting him on fire.
Sign of the Times: When Gordon drowns Marie, like 60 pounds of costume jewelry sink to the bottom of the fish tank.
Scariest Moment: The trash bag holding Marie’s body splits open of its own accord.
Weirdest Moment: The same Molotov cocktail that kills the cop also sets a boat on fire, sending off sparks that are very clearly colored fireworks.
Champion Dialogue: Drown, ya animal! Drown!”
Body Count: 6
  1. Marie Coleby is drowned in a fish tank.
  2. Cilla the Dog is shot.
  3. Billy is struck in the head offscreen.
  4. Cop is shot in the back, then set aflame.
  5. Officer Clyde is killed offscreen.
  6. Gordon Mason is hit with a motorcycle, then shot.

TL;DR: Lady Stay Dead is a bland, dull, greasy slasher that is redeemed only by an insane third act.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1109

Friday, April 8, 2016

Men In Tights

Year: 2016
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams
Run Time: 2 hours 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

F**k Christopher Nolan, am I right? The man is pretty much solely responsible for the current whiplash dichotomy in superhero movies today. It’s either the peppy smirking of the Marvel empire or the dour bleakness of DC, and that’s entirely the result of the success of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. And while I admit the first two are good films, the gritty superhero genre already folded up its own ass with the uniquely baffling Dark Knight Rises. Yet they keep on pumping this crap out.

The thing is, when a Marvel movie is bad, at least it still has a sense of fun (it’s no coincidence that Marvel’s biggest recent failure, the Fox-produced abortion Fantastic Four, is also the darkest film in their slate). There’s a bit of that comic booky cotton candy flavor that at least makes it bearable. Unfortunately, “fun” is a four-letter word when we’re in Zack Snyder’s wheelhouse, even when presenting a team-up that has been caramelizing in comic book fans’ fevered imaginations for half a century: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The court case of the century.

In BvS, Batman (Ben Affleck) is the vigilante alter ego of Bruce Wayne, a wealthy playboy whose company was turned to rubble during the highly destructive Zod battle at the end of Man of Steel. He has since vowed revenge on the caped crusader what wrought this devastation. Batman lives in Gotham, a crime-riddled city located just across the river from the bustling Metropolis, in a lunatic bit of comic book world-building that has no place in this relentlessly serious film.

Metropolis is the home of Superman (Henry Cavill), who works as a reporter for the Daily Planet as his alter ego Clark Kent. His elaborate disguise, a pair of glasses, is even more ridiculous considering that even wearing a suit and a nerdy tie, Cavill looks like a WWE wrestler crammed into a tube sock. Anyway, Superman has a distaste for batman because he’s been running around f**king branding people like he’s Immortan Joe. I think that’s fair.

Anyway, when Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) – who sucks at everything she tries to do, constantly tripping into life-threatening situations – gets a hard-hitting interview with a Middle Eastern crime boss (her first and only question: “Are you a terrorist?” Now that’s journalism!), things go south and Superman saves her. For some reason totally obscured by a poorly edited action sequence, Superman is blamed for several deaths and called to trial by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) as the public begins to doubt their trust in this literal superman who could crush their skulls without breaking a sweat if he wants to.

This crisis is being whipped into a frenzy by wealthy magnate Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is the screenwriter’s mouthpiece for approximately a quarter of a billion twitchy monologues about the stunted themes the film tries to force on us about power and man’s goodness or whatever. Also Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shows up to toss in some Justice League promo, but she has fewer than twenty lines and exists solely to be hit by things, only to swing her hair in sexy slomo as the dust clears to reveal that she’s indestructible.

Go feminism!

Oh man, where the hell do I begin? I suppose we should start with the obvious controversy: Ben Affleck as Batman. The masses were certainly upset by this decision, but I have no beef with the man. He turns in a solid world-weary performance, and he’s about as impossibly, gay porn buff as Cavill so at least our heroes match.

The real problem is that the actual character of Batman is spectacularly ill-defined. Other than a needless repetition of his “dead parents” backstory, this Batman is nothing but a haphazard collection of iconography the film assumes we already know (Alfred, batmobile, Bat signal, etc.). But this ain’t a continuation of Christian Bale’s character. This is an entirely new personality that we are given no face time with because this is through and through just a Superman sequel. But Affleck? No, he’s not even a blip on the radar of the tremendously bad things this movie provides in spades.

While we’re on the topic of casting, let’s talk Lex Luthor. Jesse Eisenberg is not Lex Luthor. And I don’t mean that in the “oh, he’s not bald, oh he’s too young” wailing tone of the hopelessly obsessed comic canon advocates. I mean he’s the single worst casting choice made by a major motion picture studio in perhaps a dozen years. And I actually like Jesse Eisenberg. But his work here is a plumb embarrassing retread of his Mark Zuckerberg persona (The Social Network weighs heavily on Luthor’s characterization in this universe) performed via a weak Robin Williams impersonation, rapidly shifting from silly voice to silly voice in a palsied, irritating frenzy, sometimes just kind of yipping like a Chihuahua for no reason. It’s bad, you guys.

He makes Kylo Ren look like genius casting.

It’s not like any of the cast is up to any truly great work (Cavill contents himself with strangled teeth-gnashing, Adams is profoundly boring – though she’s given zilch to do, and a random extra gives a portentous line reading with all the misplaced emphasis of a second grader attempting to read Shakespeare aloud), but Eisenberg sinks every scene like a cement brick. It doesn’t exactly help that the film hangs on his every word like it’s the divine gospel.

Actually, that’s a problem inherent to the entire film, and to Zack Snyder’s career if you think about it. Whether Batman is decrypting a hard drive or Lois is checking into a hotel, the film treats it like The Single Most Important Thing That Has Ever Happened. My problems with this are twofold. 1) They ignore the actual most important scene (Superman cooking breakfast shirtless), and 2) if everything is important, nothing is important. Junkie XL’s percussive score worked for Mad Max: Fury Road because every frame of that movie is the most exciting thing ever filmed. But here it just drives home how unimpressive nearly everything you’re watching actually is.

And boy is this film just a pile of unimpressive nonsense. When it’s not overexplaining itself like you’re 8 years old (“I need Kryptonite. I’ve got to get back to Gotham. Because that’s where the Kryptonite is.”), it’s launching into an inscrutable barrage of gobbledygook that is either forced promo for Justice League films three years down the line or one of a million useless dream sequences that endlessly repeat the film’s puerile themes. 

And the action scenes for which the film was ostensibly created are too-dark jumbles of half-hearted punching with absolutely no juice. Plus, you know how people complain about Hollywood movies being all explosions and no plot? Well, if you took every explosion from one of those movies and crammed them together, you would have a single frame of Batman v Superman, which at certain points seems to take place in a whirling firestorm. You sometimes can’t even see the action through the smokescreen of orange and yellow flames.

Let’s take a moment to relax and realize that the substandard action makes sense when you remember that the movie is actually just gay porn.

I suppose the biggest flaw of Batman v Superman is that it’s at odds with itself, attempting to be both a superhero battle film and a hoo-rah teamup Justice League prequel. The reason there’s almost zero motivation to their fight is that they have less than half a movie before they have to be BFFs, [SPOILERS which would explain Batman’s on-a-dime turnaround during the patently ridiculous scene where he discovers that Superman also has a mom named Martha. That’s even more embarrassing to write down than it was to watch.]

This weakens the already thin characterizations, leaving us with nothing but a bombastic sludge of dreary overexertion, filled with deeply unthreatening villains, a preponderance of sloooooow ominous zooms, and a rich undercurrent of misogyny that may or may not especially hate Asian women for no discernible reason.

Oh, and because this is leading to an Avengers-style team movie, we have a handful of attempts at quips and winking barbs that either fall flat from the get-go (like the syntactically spurious “Firm grip. You should not pick a fight with this person.”) or were so clearly retrofitted to be in the trailer that they reek of flop sweat (the famous “Is she with you?” “I thought she was with you!” exchange re: Wonder Woman actively defies pre-established plot mechanics).

But I suppose I should say something nice about the film before I get the hell out of here. The opening credits are pretty. Well, not the actual font, which is punishingly bland, but the sequence that they play over has some interesting visuals. And a couple images that deify Superman actually deserve the film’s pretentions of grandeur. But the single best thing about the film was that it definitely didn’t feel 2 ½ hours long, so I must have enjoyed it on some level. Right?

There’s a scene in Batman v Superman where a woman discovers a jar of piss on her desk, which causes her to babble incoherently. I couldn’t think of a more perfect analogy for this review. Don’t see Batman v Superman if you can help it. Don’t let my sacrifice go to waste.

TL;DR: Batman v Superman isn’t the worst superhero flick ever made, but that doesn’t mean it’s not infuriating.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1608
Reviews In This Series
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Arrow in the Head: Mos Deaf

Year: 2016
Director: Mike Falnagan
Cast: John Gallagher Jr., Kate Siegel, Michael Trucco
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Read my full review of Hush at Arrow in the Head.

Additional Notes: OK, phew. We’re safe from prying eyes. Here are some closing thoughts on Hush, which is by far the best film I’ve ever been asked to watch for Arrow in the Head. It almost feels like I’ve been promoted. I stand by my review (I mean, obviously – I wrote it), but I’d like to expand on a couple things I didn’t have space for.

First, the killings are few and far between, but they tend to have a brutality that certainly lingers in the mind. There’s not a ton in the way of gore, and much of it is comfortably kept in shadow, but the actual act of killing (no, not the dreary documentary) is generally well-captured, tense stuff that feels like it could belong in any number of quality original movies.

Second, the film actually has a subdued but prominent sense of humor in its dialogue scenes that works wonders at sneaking its characters into your heart. And when it’s Kate Siegel’s moment to transform into a femme fatale badass, she’s pretty freaking awesome.

Hush is probably the best possible version of itself that it can be, though I kind of wish for its sake that it were something different, because then it might be a real work of art. Mike Flanagan is two for two on movies with great concepts that I really want to like but can’t muster up an overwhelming enthusiasm for.

TL;DR: Hush is a generic but totally decent survival thriller.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 920

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Census Bloodbath: It's The Not-So-Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Year: 1988
Director: Stan Winston
Cast: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D'Aquino
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1988. The year before the unironic slasher genre died its final death. In this No Man’s Land of cinema, slashers had to go weird or go home. Very few bona fide classics were born from this desperate time (though I must confess I’m partial to American Gothic and Cheerleader Camp). The only two non-Freddy/Michael/Jason movies from the entire year that still carry any shred of public respect are, naturally, also two of the last 80’s slashers to actually spawn franchises: Child’s Play and Pumpkinhead.

We’ve already talked Chucky to death, so let’s take a gander at that latter, more nebulous franchise. Pumpkinhead has three sequels, though none of them were released in theaters and a whopping two were produced for TV. There’s a reason for this sprawling but dismal legacy: Pumpkinhead boasts a terrific, instantly iconic villain, but now matter how hard it tries, it just ain’t a great movie.

But let’s pause for the plot before we bring that zinger in for the spike.

In Pumpkinhead, grocery store owner Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen – and it’s impossible not to think they’re calling him “Ed Hardy”) is living a peaceful country life out in the sticks with his son Billy (Matthew Hurley). Their rural idyll is disrupted when a group of teenage dirt biking city slickers comes to town, because this is 1988 and they just don’t make horror movies without a heaping platter of Meat. Let’s dish ‘em out.

We have Chris (Jeff East of Deadly Blessing), a dopey fella with a curly tangle of hair; Tracy (Cynthia Bain), one of those annoying girls who brings her camera everywhere and constantly forces people to pose for pictures; Maggie (Kerry Remsen of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2), who is an empty shell of a human being with the single character trait of being vaguely religious; Steve (Joel Hoffman of Slumber Party Massacre II), who rocks a tangerine sweatband; Joel (John D’Aquino), a leather jacketed douche with a probation officer and a heart of stone; and Kim (Kimberly Ross), who exists, at least according to the film’s IMDb page.

After Joel accidentally runs over Billy with his dirt bike, killing him, Ed seeks revenge, enlisting the witch haggis (Florence Schauffler) to help him raise Pumpkinhead, a local avenging demon who is sent on the warpath to wipe out the teens.

Actually, one of those would definitely come in handy in my neighborhood.

The obvious thing to bring up at the top of a Pumpkinhead review is that it was directed by one Stan Winston, the special effects wizard behind all your favorite things: Terminator, Jurassic Park, Aliens, Predator, Iron Man, Edward Scissorhands… When it comes to lifelike creatures from the pits of Hell or the far reaches of science, he’s your guy. Pumpkinhead is his first of only two directorial efforts, and you get the sense that he rather dearly wishes the human actors on set were made of latex and hydraulics, because he doesn’t seem to want anything to do with them otherwise.

Lance Henriksen does a fine job, which is par for the course, and Florence Schauffler is clearly having a blast as the reliably creepy Haggis, but the Teen Meat here is especially lean. Nobody has a distinct personality, to the point that I actually had to struggle to find ways to described them back there in the plot section. Me! I find characters to care about in Friday the 13th movies, for God’s sake! These flavorless teens are portrayed by a bevy of actors that crowd listlessly around the set like a school of minnows. And don’t even get me started on the crowd of overactors playing the hillbillies around town. With Pumpkinhead, you’re constantly trapped between too much and not enough.

It certainly speaks to Stan Winston’s priorities that Pumpkinhead, a demonic presence motivated solely by revenge, has gallons more charisma than all the people in the film combined. Of course, his design is genius, with enlarged bone spurs at the shoulders, knobbly clawlike hands, and a head halfway between a Xenomorph and the inside of a cantaloupe. He smirks, drools, and lumbers around in enough shadow that his reality is unquestionable, and unquestionably grotesque. His scenes are the only ones that really sing with anything like tension, humor, or really any emotion whatsoever, which is no small feat for what is essentially just a dude in a rubber suit.

Godzilla, eat your heart out.

I think Pumpkinhead would be a much better movie if it weren’t a teen slasher. All the elements are there: a terrific monster, a folkloric parable on the price of revenge, and a heartbreakingly sweet father-son relationship (Billy’s death may or may not have drawn a tear or two from tis hardened horror hound’s eye). Hell, it even has the hella rad exchange “God damn you!” “He already has…” This could have been a bona fide classic.

Unfortunately, even though the genre was dying off, nobody in the late 80’s could possibly be allowed to make a cerebral supernatural flick without some of that sweet, sweet teen killin’. The body count is rather clumsily jammed into a twenty minute segment of the third act, mowing down tissue paper teens in a rather pretty but unmoving display of bloodshed that, for all this film’s effects budget, is positively miserly when it comes to dishing out the gore. It’s dissatisfying and it defies the laws of cinematic geography and logic, but even more dismaying, it’s just dull. In the wise words of Sergio, “this would be better if it was worse.” At least then we’d be able to laugh at it.

It’s a real shame Pumpkinhead turns in such a wan, empty effort at storytelling and performance because – visually speaking – Stan Winston is up to some great work here, along with The Ring cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Winston’s woods explode with otherworldly blues and blacks, the interiors smeared with blood red. Light, color, and smoke perform an elegant dance across the frame, especially during the scenes that take place in Haggis’ hut or the abandoned, blasted-out church tucked into the wilderness. It’s a genuinely beautiful movie, if a little too pop arty to be truly timeless.

I thank Pumpkinhead for delivering a deliciously strange, otherworldly villain in the titular demon, but I’ll never feel the need to visit its arid patch ever again. There’s enough in there to more-or-less require a one time viewing from horror fans, but it’s ultimately a heady disappointment.

Killer: Pumpkinhead (Tom Woodruff Jr.)
Final Girl: Tracy (Cynthia Bain)
Best Kill: Joel is impaled on his own shotgun. You gotta love kills that use weapons in unintended ways, and Joel certainly deserved one.
Sign of the Times: Steve’s death is indicated by a bloody headband hanging from a tree branch.
Scariest Moment: Pumpkinhead creeps around outside the window of the cabin while Maggie prays.
Weirdest Moment: While on a grocery stop, Joel instantly decides it’s a good time to go dirt biking.
Champion Dialogue: “If you wanna stay here and play with the vegetables, that’s fine with me.”
Body Count: 7; Not including Pumpkinhead, because y’all know that sucker’s got three sequels.
  1. Prologue Man is eviscerated by Pumpkinhead.
  2. Billy Harley is run over by a dirt bike.
  3. Steve is eviscerated by Pumpkinhead.
  4. Maggie is eviscerated by Pumpkinhead.
  5. Kim is dropped out of a tree.
  6. Joel is impaled on a riddle.
  7. Ed Harley is shot to death.
TL;DR: Pumpkinhead is a disappointingly empty supernatural slasher that doesn't deserve its terrific villain.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1276

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Census Bloodbath: Motorin', What's Your Price For Fright?

Well, this is awkward, isn’t it? As I got busier and my free time drifted away into the mist, I’ve at least been able to keep up a reasonably steady diet of movie watching and reviewing. However, several ongoing features are begging for completion, and I still haven’t rectified my unforgivable sin of leaving October’s Cardboard Science feature on a cliffhanger. However, as my health, my finances, and my schedule begin to level out, I shall once more give a grasping attempt to catch up with myself, starting with the resurrection of my most popular feature (in polls conducted on me’s everywhere): Census Bloodbath.

Year: 1986
Director: Robert Harmon
Cast: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1986 was a weird year for slasher movies. They had already died their first death following the video boom of the early 80’s, been resurrected by Wes Craven’s 1984 masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street, and had a brief supernatural vogue before dwindling once more, more or less immediately. 1986 catches the tail end of that second cycle, in the period of the decade where the perms were at their biggest and the legs at their warmest. This was the age where the slashers were really flexing their muscles to try and rise above the rest of the pack. Seeing that the year bore three separate slashers that took place on April Fool’s Day, I wouldn’t say this was entirely successful.

However, 1986 also saw the release of a different beast that accomplished that separation effortlessly, using the by now well-known slasher idiom to create an entirely different horror tale, hybridizing the subgenre with the popcorn action-thriller antics that were spreading across cinemaplexes like a virus: This movie was known only as… The Hitcher. Now, The Hitcher wouldn’t be the first quasi-slasher to take on Duel-esque roadside thrills (the 1981 gem Road Games beat it to the punch), but it’s certainly one of the more successful action slashers in the business. 

I mean, it’s no Terminator, but what is?

In The Hitcher, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is a young Chicago native taking a driveaway car to San Diego, where he intends to start a new life. Maybe. The Hitcher isn’t exactly a repository of character details, but then again what 80’s horror or action film really is? At any rate, he’s driving along the dark Texas highways and decides to pick up a hitchhiker to keep him awake.

He certainly made the right choice, because after picking up John Rider (Rutger Hauer), he may never sleep again. The hitcher turns out to be a vicious roadside serial killer and Jim narrowly escapes with his life. But he’s hardly in the clear – thus begins a dangerous game of cat and mouse as the Hitcher torments Jim along his journey, framing the boy for a series of grisly murders. It’s up to Jim and roadside diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh, making her second Census Bloodbath appearance after Eyes of a Stranger) to prove his increasingly dubious innocence.

And if having great hair is a crime, he’s certainly not innocent.

The Hitcher starts off with a bang, plunging us almost immediately into gut-wrenching thrills. Hell, this is a movie where a toddler gets murdered in the first twenty minutes. It might be offscreen, but it doesn’t pull any punches when setting up our pal Hitch as a Bad, Bad Dude. He is evil incarnate, and though he might never vanish into thin air or otherwise show any signs of supernatural hijinks, it wouldn’t take much arguing to convince me that he’s the actual Devil. And the film opens with his most solid, sustained presence: a solid 10 minutes of torment that makes the skin crawl.

Whether you respond to Jim’s hopeless predicament, the stiletto-sharp screenwriting, the enclosed space, or Hauer’s uncomfortably serene performance, there is something in this scene to make you rethink ever getting in your car again. It’s the single strongest moment in the film, clocking you in the jaw before the plot even has time to warm up.

Now, that means the rest of the movie can never quite live up to this moment, but it sure as hell tries. Hauer’s inscrutable menace propels the tension whenever he reappears, and the increasing desperation of Jim’s situation means that the pace never really flags, but the increased focus on Jim and Nash allows some flab to creep in.

Slowly and subtly, like the fourth week of a diet plan.

C. Thomas Howell’s performance is just a wee tad cheesier than my taste, so spending any alone time with him is like putting on a Paul McCartney solo record. You don’t hate it, but you wish the other guys were still around. Plus, his lack of character depth doesn’t lend as much to the story as The Hitcher’s. An unknowable villain is scary. An unknowable protagonist is just frustrating. Jim’s blankness lends to its general urban legend-y air, but once the movie ditches nail-biting, close-up horror for bullets and car chases, there’s no way to get purchase on his character, making it a chore to even pretend to care about his fate.

Oh yeah, did I mention how many car chases there are in The Hitcher? I already said it was an action-thriller hybrid, but the sheer amount of car chasing, car crashing, bullet ricocheting mayhem here comes totally out of left field. The second a freaking helicopter comes hurtling onscreen, the 80’s have fully asserted themselves on the film, and my estimated budget shoots off the charts. The fact that this level of action is present at all in a slasher is pretty unprecedented, which certainly makes the film an intriguing curio, but the repetitive, over-the-top nature of these scenes causes the film to stall quite a bit during its second act, sputtering and coughing exhaust before it hits the right gear with its gonzo finale.

But oh, what a finale! Although the film’s gore level never hits a lofty peak (most kills are offscreen, and the ones that aren’t are pretty tame – even by 1986’s downright Puritanical standards), its viciousness returns with gale force. It exits the way it came in, leaving a wicked taste on the tongue that won’t quite scrub out.

I suppose that I should mention the artistry of certain moments: the slanted shafts of light cutting through the frame, the elegant photography of the dusty terrain (as should be expected from DP John Seale, who later shot Mad Max: F**king Fury Road), the lone dog walking through the empty police station, turning the scene into a waking, Craven-esque nightmare… but more than its generally being well put-together, The Hitcher leaves you with a sense of being genuinely unsafe, something totally unique in the realm of 1980’s slasher cinema. It’s a wonky entry in the genre, to be sure, but a lasting one. 

Killer: The Hitcher (Rutger Hauer)
Final Girl: Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell)
Best Kill: Poor Jennifer Jason Leigh. That's gonna hurt worse than being snubbed by the Oscars this year.

Sign of the Times: Listen to thirty seconds of this nonsense.

Scariest Moment: The Hitcher tells Jim he'll leave him alone if he says four words: "I want to die."
Weirdest Moment: Jim is eating french fries, but one of them turns out to be a finger.
Champion Dialogue: "Actually we're all from Mars around here, we keep our spaceship out back."
Body Count: 13; not including a potential truck passenger that may have been briefly glimpsed in a sandstorm, as well as five squad cars and one helicopter that crash, presumably killing their occupants.
  1. Father is murdered offscreen.
  2. Mother is murdered offscreen.
  3. Child is murdered offscreen.
  4. Truck Driver is murdered offscreen.
  5. Cop #1 is stabbed to death offscreen.
  6. Cop #2 is stabbed to death offscreen.
  7. Cop #3 is stabbed to death offscreen. 
  8. Cop #4 is shot.
  9. Cop #5 is shot.
  10. Nash is ripped in half between two trucks.
  11. Cop #6 is shot.
  12. Cop #7 is shot.
  13. The Hitcher is shot through the chest. 
TL;DR: The Hitcher is a gritty slasher action-thriller, and that's the least of its charms.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1367

Monday, April 4, 2016

Disneython: Whistle While You Work

Year: 1937
Supervising Director: David Hand
Cast: Adriana Caselotti, Harry Stockwell, Lucille La Verne
Run Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: Approved

So, knowing my penchant for totally following through on marathons and finishing them 100% on time, Sergio and I have decided to embark on a chronological expedition through the Walt Disney animated feature films canon, which currently numbers 54 and will certainly have risen before we get even close to finishing. As you can imagine, this will probably be a typically sporadic and unevenly paced marathon, especially when we arrive in the black holes of the Disney filmography that include flicks like Saludos Amigos or Oliver & Company.

However, I am excited for Popcorn Culture to explore realms that aren’t full of blood and guts, though sometimes they’re no less terrifying. Now, I’ve already reviewed three films in the canon (Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia) so that lightens the load somewhat, though I may attempt to revisit them by the time we reach that end of the marathon. But that’s business for another time.

Today we’re visiting the film that started it all, and by “all” I mean “literally everything we know about feature animation today”: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

You’ve probably never heard of it.

On top of being the first American feature length animated film ever, being one of the most successful films in the Depression’s stunted economy, and altering the craft of animation forever, Snow White is a very important film for the Disney company itself. Not only was it their first film to be based on a well-known fairy tale, completely obliterating any popular knowledge of the original version, but it was also the first Disney film to center on a princess. There was no way to know how important this factor would be for the Disney filmography, and in fact it wouldn’t be known for over a decade, but the Princess would soon come to dominate Disney animation for better, for worse, and forever.

So what of that landmark princess? As if you didn’t know, Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) is the fairest maid in all the land, a fact which ignites the jealous fury of the Evil Queen (Lucille La Verne). The Queen hires a Hunstsman (Chris Hemsworth Stuart Buchanan) to murder Snow White, but he gets cold feet upon witnessing her purity and urges her to run away into the woods. There she finds a hut inhabited by seven dwarfs, where she is allowed to stay in exchange for cooking and cleaning and forehead kisses.

When the Queen discovers this, she disguises herself as an Old Hag (Disney was never a particularly progressive company, let’s get that out of the way right now) and feeds her a poison apple, sending Snow White into a sleep of death, from which what dreams may come must give us pause. The only cure is Love’s First Kiss, so it’s a good thing she didn’t ho it up with that charming Prince she met back in Act One. Incidentally, the phrase “True Love’s Kiss” is never uttered in Snow White, leaving at least one shred of Disney iconography for a later film.

See? We’re learning already!

Although Snow White seemed to already have a grip on pretty much everything that defined Disney animation, it’s still the first of its kind and as such has its share of rough patches. First off, it has a child’s attention span, never spending more than a minute on any major plot point, yet taking obscenely long detours for such consequential scenes as “the Dwarves wash their hands” or “post-dinner hoedown.” The pacing is sloppy at best and the deus ex machina in the climax would make even J. K. Rowling blush.

Plus, although their costumes are iconic even to this day (for good reason), the designs of the two primary human characters are undeniably crude. While the company had a handle on anthropomorphic animals and fantasy creatures, creating something meant to resemble a human being posed a bit of a problem for them, giving us a slightly drunk-looking cherub of a princess and a drag queen monarch with a rictus grin.

I half expect her to start lip syncing to “Dreamgirls.”

Nonetheless, despite its uncertain ground as a narrative piece, as a work of animation, it is utterly exquisite (with that one obvious exception). The Disney visual sensibility is acutely present here, with a relentless surge of playful, creative imagery that constantly prods the line between cartoon realism and Looney Tunes absurdist antics. Snow White stays firmly entrenched in a quasi-realistic fantasy mode, but the animated medium truly allows it to push the envelope to develop the tone of each scene, from the unmitigated spookiness of the vaguely humanoid dark forest to the subtle visual joking present in the interplay between the animals of the forest.

Snow White also pushed the envelope of exactly what could be achieved with hand-drawn animation, There is a constant array of shots of water, just to prove that they’re possible, whether it’s a splash, a bubble, or Snow White’s rippling reflection in a wishing well. The animators were constantly challenged to capture real-life physics and experiences, including a fluttering bed sheet that is downright gorgeous.

Overall, Snow White is slightly better as a trendsetter rather than an actual narrative film, but oh what a trendsetter it was. It’s a timeless, iconic piece of work that completely earns its massive, multi-generation defining legacy with a lighthearted, technical superb pizzazz.

Sergio's Corner: Well I assume that Brennan has clued you in on the sheer impact this one film had for the Walt Disney Company as well as the lives everyone born in western culture here thereafter. So without further ado I will include a brief synopsis of my thoughts on what was originally known as “Disney’s Folly”.

Snow White is Disney’s first princess and don’t let her lack of a chin in the original cartoons fool you, she is Disney royalty to be sure. With a voice of a Vargas girl and a body to match, Snow White really embodied the time period she was born out of. She was delicate, pristine, and willing to perform all household chores without the promise of matrimony--- now there’s a keeper. All joking aside, Disney’s first movie about his first princess isn’t really about Snow, no, it’s about the Dwarves… or little people. Though they don’t get top billing, Disney’s seven little men certainly get more screen time and (in the case of Grumpy) more character development than Snow ever did. 

They make the movie come alive and help move it along more so than Snow ever could, seeing as how she only ever helps usher the plot by singing or cleaning. Though these seven little men are stunted by their descriptor, it makes them no less magical nor less memorable. They are proof that in Hollywood there are no small parts, only small actors, quite literally. They are also the reason that I rate this film as highly as I do because otherwise this film would dissipate into the vapidity that is Snow White’s character. 

Sergio's Rating: 7/10

TL;DR: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a masterful animated film that changed the game forever.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1213