Thursday, June 30, 2016

Live Every Week Like It's Shark Week

Year: 2016
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

It’s Shark Week, everybody! That time of year where we listen to the Discovery Channel’s lurid aquatic campfire tales and watch endless ad spots for Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (yes, that’s the actual title). But for those whose attention spans are longer, this week we turn to the silver screen for The Shallows, the last genuinely buzzed-about shark movie since… what? Open Water? I’m fairly certain nobody saw Shark Night 3D because not even I bought a ticket, and you know how much I’d love to see Katharine McPhee get devoured by a big ol’ Great White. But I digress. Let’s take a chunk out of that plot.

One blogger goes into the water…

In The Shallows, Nancy (Blake Lively) is an American surfer visiting Mexico after her mom passed away. She dropped out of med school (if I had a dollar for every horror movie character who was in med school, I wouldn’t have to watch this movie before noon to get the $6 discount tickets) and decided to travel to the secret beach her mom surfed at when she found out she was pregnant. While surfing some gnarly swells, a Great White Shark attracted by a dying whale attacks her, taking a chunk out of her leg and leaving her stranded on a rock 200 yards from the shore. Can she rely on her wits, her med school skills, and her nerves to help her survive?

And exactly what skills does her cleavage have to offer?

The obvious comparison here is Jaws, but for me The Shallows is more akin to Gravity. One woman must utilize everything she has to overcome a grave challenge, facing the mounting obstacles with wit and determination in the face of life-altering grief. Only instead of a mother losing her daughter, it’s the other way around. Unlike Gravity, The Shallows was not helmed by visionary director Alfonso Cuarón using technology so bleeding-edge the film had to delay shooting until it was invented. However, it was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose 2005 effort House of Wax was an abomination, but a beautiful, stomach-churning one.

Collet-Serra’s filmography has been a steady drip of B-horror and Liam Neeson growlers, but he has more flair than that pedigree would imply, and he brings it in spades to The Shallows. I suppose it’s not difficult to make the Gold Coast of Australia look beautiful (the Aussie beach was subbed in for Mexico – that’s the real secret), but his early scenes of surfer porn are serenely gorgeous and sublimely chilling, alternating between expansive, gasp-inducing wide shots that dazzle the senses and plunging the camera underwater where the crashing waves give way to foreboding stillness. It’s all silent as the grave, lurking, making sure everybody knows exactly what this poor American tourist is in for

Speaking of beautiful things, The Shallows has what is so far the best integration of modern technology I’ve seen in a feature film. Although a line about Uber is dropped like a sack of potatoes and Nancy gets surreally terrific WiFi at this uninhabited beach, her phone screen is blended perfectly into the frame, appearing almost like a fuzzy, cloudy thought bubble next to her head rather than plonking down the cut-and-paste rectangle that has become S.O.P. for modern films. 

And when she uses FaceTime, the two video screens bounce around the frame, filling negative space and drawing closer together or further apart as dictated by the emotion of the scene. It’s a very clever, organic way to bring in modern tech without stopping the movie in its tracks, and I think it has finally toppled Chef’s three-dimensional Tweets from the throne of best cinematic smartphone depiction. Which is awesome, because I kind of hated that movie.

OK, that’s all well and good, but isn’t there a f**king SHARK in the Shallows?

You’re right, sassy caption. This is a shark movie, however much I’m obsessed with floating squares. Obviously, like in most survival movies, the shark is pretty much incidental. We’re here to see how Blake Lively deals with the situation the shark has trapped her in.

Because even in 2016, every shark movie is living under the shadow of Jaws, the Great White is mainly offscreen or in silhouette until well past the midpoint. The shift between the implied shark and the FX shark is pretty arbitrary and has next to no impact on the plot or tone because Collet-Serra is no Spielberg, but the action we get beyond this point is thoroughly entertaining.

The shark, which I presume to be mostly CGI (certain shots go far beyond presumption, but they’re hardly film breaking), is a credible, weighty threat, and its gnashing, thrashing antics provide an adrenaline spike to this tale of survival. But the effects I really want to talk about are all gore. The Shallows gets away with a surprising amount for a PG-13 film., and Lively’s collected gashes and bruises are a gruesome throwback to the days of Saw-adjacent “bad vacation” films like The Ruins, The Descent, or even House of Wax. It’s kind of refreshing to see a film that isn’t one of the safe, bloodless, haunting pics that are the only things to make it into theaters these days. Subtly realistic and powerfully disgusting, the gore is both a treat for horrorhounds and an important element in the overall story.

So. Sharks are awesome. Bloody gashes are awesome. But the surprising strength of The Shallows is Gossip Girl Blake Lively. Not having had much experience with her, I wasn’t certain she could carry what is more or less a solo film on her back, but she sails through this movie with aplomb. A performance is not great because a sexy actress is willing to look bedraggled with chapped Fury Road lips and bags under her eyes, though I do always admire Hollywoodites willing to go for it. But that’s just one fact of her work here, which isn’t life-changing but is at least magnetic and compelling. I never for one second doubted her bleak plight. Plus, she manages to sell the whole “talking to herself so we get dialogue” bit, even when the script gets a little loopy and obvious.

And this is far from a slight on her, but she’s bolstered by a breakthrough performance from an unexpected co-star: Steven the Seagull. She’s trapped on a rock with the injured bird, which acts both as a dialogue receptacle and a moral sounding bard. 

Nancy’s decision whether or not to snap the bird’s neck and devour it part and parcel is perhaps the most tense moment of the film because the seagull is giving a startlingly charismatic turn. Many, many, many people would cite this scene as evidence that this movie really shows its PG-13 hand, but for once I was so invested in the animal itself that I didn’t mind the toothless delivery. Now that's a performance. The forlorn and sympathetic bird is just doing its own thing and trying to survive, but it quickly becomes a companion, a beacon of hope, and GOD DAMN WHY IS THIS BIRD SUCH A GOOD ACTOR?!

Maybe he attended Seagulliard.

All in all, The Shallows is a pleasant surprise. It could have easily been as shallow as its title (a surfing montage and a featured Sia song certainly feint in that direction), but it’ really a thrilling, beautifully shot, simple, yet lasting survival piece. The emotional resonance is quick and dirty, but the thrills are non-stop summer gold. This is a rare shark film in that I’ not embarrassed putting it in the conversation with Jaws, although it’s obviously far slighter. But it capture that summer movie magic of being afraid to go into the water, and I kind of adore it for that.

TL;DR: The Shallows is a fun, lively (pun absolutely intended) shark attack movie.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1331

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Help, I've Fallen In Love And I Can't Get Up!

Year: 2016
Director: Michael Showalter
Cast: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly 
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I’m pretty familiar with the work of Michael Showalter in the context of his partnership with David Wain, which produced the cult classic, all-over-the-place, summer camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer, the grotesquely underrated rom-com parody They Came Together, and the dull, overstuffed Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. While I mostly adore their work, it has always been plagued by unsightly flaws and a certain lack of focus. So I was intrigued by Hello, My Name is Doris, which was directed and co-written by Showalter without Wain’s influence. When he’s separated from the herd, what comic qualities does Showalter possess?

Well, the focus seems to be his at the very least.

In Hello, My Name is Doris, Doris (Sally Field) is a quirky older woman working at an anonymous cubicle job. After her mother passes away, she is forced to face her hoarding habits by her brother and his money-grubbing wife, who wants to sell the house Doris and her mother lived in. Things start to look up hen she meets the new guy at work: John (Max Greenfield), a pretty young thang who she fantasizes about constantly.

After some light Internet fraud and Facebook stalking with the help of her BFF Roz’s (Tyne Daly) granddaughter Vivian (Isabella Acres), she befriends John and hits it off with his hipster friends, who dig her weird outfits and quirky worldview. These experiences give her a new lease on life, but is she a fool for pursuing John, or is there something there?

Will he see the heart of gold beneath the visor?

The thing about Hello, My Name is Doris is that it’s a dismayingly generic paint-by-numbers romantic comedy. As much as I adore the fact that this is a movie that admits that people over 60 have romantic struggles, human emotions, and – most importantly – sex drives, the alternative protagonist here doesn’t prevent the movie from plugging her into a been-there done-that formula. Apparently David Wain is the out-there goofball of the team, because the film is as steadfastly mundane as it’s possible to be.

I swear, this film hits so many romantic comedy tropes, you could black out a chick flick cliché bingo card in 20 minutes flat. We get the sassy best friend who exists to cause a brief pit stop of drama at the end of the second act, the precocious teen helper monkey, a Manic Pixie Dream Guy who unwittingly helps the lead work out her personal issues with romance and her lifestyle… Doris is not a comedy pioneer, just a sad woman in a situation we’ve seen a billion times, even if the film fudges the specifics to be a little more kooky.

The reason this boring plot works on any level is unequivocally Sally Field. Not only does she bring her substantial acting chops to the film’s handful of dramatic scenes (which would be unjustified and melodramatic if she weren’t there to ground them in something authentic and human), she’s clearly having a good time in the role. Her obvious enthusiasm for this stereotypical part that she’ll probably never be given another opportunity to play makes Hello, My Name is Doris a sparkling soap bubble, a fun romp down a well-trod path.

And, truth be told, I probably own this outfit.

Probably, the part of Hello, My Name is Doris that brings the most to the table (other than Sally Field) is its skewering of hipster culture. Perfectly personified by fun. and bleachers’ Jack Antonoff (who’s dating Lena Dunham, which might be the most hipster thing you can do) as the ingeniously pretentious electro musician Baby Goya, the hyper-trendy modern subculture is depicted as a terrifying horde of über-progressive fashionaistas who speak like they just stepped out of a Lewis Carroll poem. The film doesn’t find too much to say about the group, but it utilizes some of their arch ridiculousness to provide a modern edge to the comedy that blends well with Doris’ search for something new, vibrant, and maybe a little bit scary.

And then there’s Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, and Rich Sommer as Doris’ self-involved, venal Greek chorus of coworkers, who combine their comic talents into a whirling vortex of yuppie nonsense. They’re not in the movie nearly as frequently as they should be, but they help ump the comedy along when the plot flags, which happens altogether too frequently.

You see, despite a solid cast and some decently funny observational humor, Hello, My Name is Doris can barely justify its existence. The thin plot gets exhausted by the hour mark, and though the film leaves a good impression by closing on a dynamic high note, there are large portions that are – quite frankly – deeply uninteresting. So far, I’m not on Team Showalter on this one, though I dig the work his casting director is doing.

TL;DR: Hello, My Name is Doris is a sweet, well-acted, but deeply unoriginal romance.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 849

Monday, June 27, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Who You Gonna Call?

When the remake of Ghostbusters is nigh, what else is there to do than catch up on a zeitgeist franchise of the sort we just don't seem to have anymore?

Ghostbusters (For our Scream 101 episode about this very film, click here.)

Year: 1984
Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver 
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A trio of out-of-work paranormal scientists open a business busting ghosts, only to stumble upon an ancient demon bent on ending the world inside from of their client’s fridges.

It’s impossible to approach a review of Ghostbusters without a great deal of baggage. You can try to check as much of it as possible, but you’re at the very least still stuck with your carry-on. The obscenely popular horror comedy was so ingrained into the hearts and minds of those who were growing up or even alive in the 80’s, the remnants of Ghostbusters have drifted down from generation to generation like a Jungian cultural memory. 

I could make “don’t cross the streams” jokes long before I was old enough for my parents to even consider renting me Ghostbusters. And if you can show me any American alive today who does have at least a rudimentary working knowledge of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, I will show you an amnesiac. My spell check even knows that "Ghostbusters" is a word. Ghostbusters is an innate, primordial piece of cinema, and that’s the reason that the backlash against the remake has reached such shrieking, ludicrous heights.

That is to say, Ghostbusters adopts such a revered position in the pop culture idiom, it’s difficult to walk up to that hallowed door and nail your Theses there for all to see. But what can a lowly blogger do but try to say true to himself? Here goes: Ghostbusters has flaws. Deep-seated, crippling flaws that loudly announce themselves while the world plugs its ears. Does that mean it’s not a good comedy film? Hell no! In fact, it’s a great comedy film. But as a holistic narrative piece, it can occasionally be a bit of a shambles.

Born as it is from the minds of extremely talented sketch comedians, the deliciously high concept of Ghostbusters (underemployed scientists become a modern, macabre twist on New York exterminators) is populated by a handful of wacky, paper-thin characters not suited for the long-term scrutiny of a feature film. More a collection of (admittedly funny) tics and mannerisms than fully rounded personalities, it’s extremely challenging to get a sense of what makes them tick and how the dynamics of their relationships operate. 

Comedy is a genre uniquely suited to contain these types of characters (and Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis especially have the chops to pull it off), but there’s just no excuse for a character like Winston Zeddmore (played by Ernie Hudson), who shows up halfway through the film, integrates himself into the group offscreen, says and does next to nothing that can be perceived as funny on the visual or aural spectrum, and then is arbitrarily handed the climax’s closing line. This guy is a non-entity, there’s no discernible reason for his presence in the film (other than the fact that the casting director probably looked around at lunch and realized there was not a single black person on set), and he doesn’t even have the decency to make us laugh. The producers really should send Mr. Hudson a fruit basket or something, because he is well and truly f**ked by this film.

Similarly vexing is Sigourney Weaver’s Dana, who gets plenty to do when she’s possessed by the demonic Zool, but it hardly more than set decoration in human form. Ghostbusters is haunted by this kind of half-finished feeling (and in fact there are some effects shots that literally weren’t completed by the deadline), with a heavy sprinkling of sedate hang-out scenes, a ghost BJ scene clearly shoehorned in for… personal reasons, and an altogether too easy climax.

But even a half-finished Ghostbusters is an incredible one. The state-of-the-art effects are designed with the gleeful creativity of a fairy tale yet are just dangerous enough to earn the horror half of that horror-comedy hyphenate. And there’s no denying that this cast assembled some of the brightest comic minds of the 1980’s, delivering an endless conveyor belt of quotable dialogue with some of the keenest, most off-kilter readings in the business. Ghostbusters is a tremendously funny movie and yes, that really is the only thing that matters.

Rating: 7/10

Ghostbusters II

Year: 1989
Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The now defunct Ghostbusters must reunite when an underground river of ectoplasm and an ancient Sumerian spirit threaten to destroy New York.

Ghostbusters II is kind of a miracle sequel, if only for the fact that it managed to reteam the director, writers, and entire cast (down to the bit parts) five years down the road after the original became a massive hit, spawning an empire of merchandise, imitators, and a cartoon series. For that fact alone, we must thank Ghostbusters II, but bringing back that crew brought back their particular set of problems, with a handful of new ones for flavor.

For starters, despite expanded screentime for both, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver are still treated like tagalong little siblings that the movie just doesn’t have time to deal with right now. We see Hudson in the opening, where we’re shown what the former Ghostbusters are up to, but in the climactic first act trial scene that predicates their reformation, he vanishes in a puff of ectoplasm. He continues this Houdini act throughout Ghostbusters II, reappearing only when it would look cool for there to be four beams of light instead of three. 

And Sigourney Weaver is yoked to a particularly unforgiving role: divorced single mother/damsel in distress. All she’s asked to do is coo at a baby, waltz about in a towel, and be just strong enough that she can resist Venkman’s advances until she is broken in like a horse. It sucks to be an actress in an 80’s comedy, don’t it? She is trapped in this insipid part, which commits the egregious sequel sin of breaking her up with Bill Murray just so we can see their inexplicable romance blossom yet again in the exact same pattern. Whee…

And then there’s Rick Moranis. His performance in Ghostbusters is perhaps my favorite of the bunch, and he continues to excel here. But his character is shoehorned in so poorly that he hangs from the film like a throbbing goiter, a constant reminder that what you’re watching is entirely pointless, a ramshackle artifice created only to capitalize on the brand of a lifetime.

Naturally, the third act also has the same problems, depicting a generic evil threat with no discernible stakes that’s defeated in about 2.5 seconds flat. And the film has the audacity to tack on a nauseating “power of positive thinking” vibe to the whole thing. At least the desperate Stay-Puft substitute (an animated Statue of Liberty stomping its way through the street of New York) is achieved with some tremendously convincing special effects.

In fact, all the effects here are particularly well-rendered. Five years of technological development and time to actually complete the work does wonders for Ghostbusters II. Although the ghosts are much safer and more Henson-esque this time around (thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the Ghostbusters cartoon), there are actually multiple ghosts busted in this movie, wreaking convincing havoc about town with lavish detail. In this respect and this respect only, Ghostbusters II is a vast improvement over the original.

But, like I said before, the whole point of Ghostbusters is to make us laugh, and this sequel doesn’t quite cut mustard. Although Murray and Ramis still punch up their material with effortlessly kooky line readings and franchise newcomer Peter MacNicol is delightfully camp as an improbably accented museum curator, the script just isn’t up to snuff. It falls back on too much weak slapstick (especially where the river of slime is involved), awkward improv, and ill-thought-out plotting. It’s a very messy film that has little reason to exist, and while there’s still a spark of what the original has to offer, it’s not really worth your time.

Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1397
Reviews In This Series
Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)
Ghostbusters II (Reitman, 1989)
Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Sequel-Itis

In which we write mini reviews of films that explore the dichotomy of movie sequels. Both follow flicks released in 2000. One’s a bigger, better improvement and the other is a no good, scum-sucking disappointment that let its nascent franchise wither on the vine.

X2: X-Men United

Year: 2003
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry 
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The X-Men and Magneto’s team of evil mutants must join forces to combat a bigger evil: a crazed colonel hellbent on destroying all mutantkind.

If you remember, Bryan Singer’s 2000 film X-Men was a slight but politically aware superhero movie that was fun but no masterpiece. What makes his followup X2 the pinnacle of the series is that it removes the slightness, but as close as it gets, it’s still no masterpiece. Beefing up the already sprawling number of X-Men with the teleporting Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming, rocking flawless blue makeup), the gender-bent Wolverine Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu of Friday the 3th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan – got skeletons in your closet? Let me remove those for you.) and expanded roles for teen polar opposites Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, wistful sigh), the cast is even more cumbersome but the political context is even more charged, coming in the wake of September 11th, 2001.

In X2, America is on the verge of Civil War as humans have become increasingly more aware (and afraid) of the mutants living among them. X2 puts all its cards on the table in the opening scene, in which Nightcrawler attempts to assassinate the president to promote Mutant rights. Not only is it a stunning action sequence on the bleeding edge of film technology at the time, it’s a heady parallel to both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. The embers of political subtext (namely, gay rights) in X-Men have become a blazing inferno in the edgy paranoid grip of a post-9/11 society.

X2 maintains this social statement from frame one, though its intelligence flags at certain points. It’s astonishing that a film that contains a visual metaphor so complex as the scene where Professor X freezes all the humans at a museum right next to the exhibit depicting motionless Cro-Magnon figurines (indicating that humans are no longer the next big thing in evolution) could also be so wickedly unconvinced of its audience’s IQ that it needs Mystique to flash her eyes yellow in a place where she could easily be compromised just so we can know that it’s her in that dude’s body. But hey, this is Hollywood. Why should they have faith in us? We keep paying to see Transformers movies.

X2’s problem isn’t the occasional pandering, but rather the fact that its eyes are bigger than its screenplay. So many characters are crammed into these 2 hours that major players routinely vanish for half hours a time, and the movie heavily relies on X-Men to provide character backstories. Jean Grey and Cyclops get barely anything to do, Rogue has so little reason to be there that she’s literally tossed out of a plane, and Nightcrawler is shuffled to the back after we learn his tragic backstory, only to be called off the bench when the movie needs some deus ex machina, stat. The only new character given any real depth is its villain, Brian Cox’s Col. William Stryker.

But aside from that, X2 is even more fun and action-packed than the first. The fight sequences show a surer hand behind the camera, and the characters’ powers (especially Iceman) are far more integrated into both their fight choreography and their daily lives (Rogue blowing out ice cold breath after kissing Iceman is a playful, sexy detail that X1 could never have dreamed of). Plus returning arch-nemesis Ian McKellen is clearly having a ball here. His Magneto is alternately sassy, sardonic, and pure evil. He’s a joy to watch, and when McKellen is having a great time, you’re guaranteed one as well.

Rating: 8/10

American Psycho II: All-American Girl

Year: 2002
Director: Morgan J. Freeman
Cast: Mila Kunis, William Shatner, Geraint Wyn Davies 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Rachel Newman (geddit?) murders her competitors for a sought-after TA position that will help her get into Quantico.

Could there be a more pointless sequel than American Psycho II? Well, Psycho II, I guess, but by all accounts that one’s actually OK. Let me rephrase that: Could there be a more pointless American Psycho sequel than American Psycho II: All-American Girl? Where the original was a cutting satire of yuppie consumerism and the pointless conformity of Wall Street, the sequel is about a quippy college student mowing down hardbodies so she can work for William Shatner. It might have been more at home in the 90’s alongside the likes of post-Freddy killers like the leprechaun, but it certainly has no place in 2002, poised at the very cutting edge of the torture porn zeitgeist. It’s an unnecessary, silly, and shallow slasher in a way that American Psycho is patently not.

Lucky for me, I have made a life out of enjoying silly and shallow slasher outcasts. Although American Psycho II still isn’t very good when you cut down to the core of it, it’s like Legally Blonde gone berserk, and I have room for that in my black, twisted heart. The novelty of seeing a wet-behind-the-ears Mila Kunis gnaw on a role that she has less than no grip on (her deep psychoses is mostly represented by a bunch of squinting) opposite an earth-shatteringly Shatnerian performance (ol’ Billy hisses every line like a syphilitic snake and It. Is. Sublime.) is certainly enough to power me through the duller parts, which this movie boasts in abundance.

The bloated second act is a repetitive slog of bloodless murder, apathetic alt-rock, and anemic puns livened up only by Robin Dunne as Brian, an entitled rich kid who’s hyperbolically venal and has the ill-advised hots for Mila Kunis. And he’s barely in it. This overly long portion of the film is a damn shame because, without it, American Psycho II would be a bad sequel magnum opus.

The opening act, which features a recast Patrick Bateman (Michael Kremko) being murdered by a little girl (yeah, sure) while Mila Kunis narrates, describing how she thinks they wrote a book about him (ha, ha), is a poppy, exciting chunk of early 2000’s schlock. Mila Kunis prowls the quad in a leather jacket and faces off against a lonely career counselor who has named her cat Ricky Martin. It’s a monster of pure innocence, cluelessly racking up scenes of hideously outdated trends and endearingly dim dialogue (Do you want to catch a bite to eat, maybe some dinner?”).

Then there’s the finale, which majestically unspools for a solid half hour after the plot has already ended, layering twist upon nonsensical twist atop a preternaturally straightforward story like an out-of-control soft serve machine. This is the act where we meet Rachel Newman’s mother, a blithering, incessantly complaining old hag ripped straight from the sweat-soaked pages of The Room (she even has a non sequitur line about breast cancer. What a time to be alive.) The interplay between this banshee and her crusty, leering husband is the stuff of f**king legend, a bad movie gold mine of biblical proportions.

I love so much about this movie’s bookending sequences that I feel bad rating it so poorly, but that middle third is so staunchly unimpressive that it drags its many glittering gems into the muck like a safe tossed into the Boston Harbor.

Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1272
Reviews In This Series
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2: X-Men United (Singer, 2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)

American Psycho (Harron, 2000)
American Psycho II: All-American Girl (Freeman, 2002)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Popcorn Culture: Banderas de Manos

Man, Sergio and I are just plowing through the filmography of Pedro Almodóvar Here are two mini-reviews of flicks starring a psychotic Antonio Banderas. Check it out.

The Law of Desire (La Ley del Deseo)

Year: 1987
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Eusebio Poncela, Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas 
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: NC-17

A promiscuous gay film director brings home the wrong fan: A jealous, psycho who will stop at nothing to make sure he’s his ONLY lover.

Pedro Almodóvar is a genius. A colorful, frenetic, dazzling presence behind the camera. An overwhelming personality that radiates love and fun even if you’re not enjoying a particular movie all that much. The way Almodóvar crosses and transcends genre boundaries, it was inevitable that I would stumble across one that doesn’t hit my sweet spot, though that doesn’t mean it’s not a work of art. The film in question is Law of Desire, which grafts the director’s loopy, nebulous storytelling style onto a thriller framework. It can’t be argued that the result isn’t visually spectacular, but the presence of such a tautly defined genre casts the director’s storytelling idiosyncrasies under a harsh spotlight.

To be fair, everything I love about Almodóvar is here in spades: His surreal interstitials (like a gorgeous shot of cocaine falling over a movie script like snow), his effortlessly kinky sexual deviancy, and most of all his intricately woven thread of unshakeable humor. The comedy is not so prevalent as Volver or Mujeres (the latter of which is an out-and-out farce), but it’s no less electric. Humor is mostly relegated to supporting players Carmen Maura (an Almodóvar stalwart from Day 1) and Manuela Velasco (star of my beloved [REC], who is very young in this film but no less talented) leaving Banderas and top-biller Eusebio Poncela to make do with a heap of straight drama (and by that I certainly don’t mean “heterosexual”) that doesn’t mesh as well with the cozy, silly aesthetic as it could have.

There are still some tremendously solid components to this part of the film, notably the subtext about a filmmaker who wants to direct his own life but finds out that life has different plans. But this is largely derailed by a goody third act amnesia plot point that’s perhaps even more frivolous than the similar moment in The Muppets Take Manhattan (yeah, that movie got dark).

It’s an undeniable achievement in filmmaking (remembering the driving scene that matches a car with the lead’s flaring emotions still sends a chill down my spine,), but the story is just to weak to hold up the weight of Almodóvar’s visual prowess. The film crumples in upon itself in the third act, but let’s remember that a disappointment within the context of this director’s filmography would be the magnum opus of most anybody else.

Rating: 6/10

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Átame)

Year: 1989
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Victoria Abril, Antonio Banderas, Loles León
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: NC-17

A newly released mental patient kidnaps his favorite movie star and ties her up in her apartment to make a case for why she should marry him.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is essentially a bold-faced challenge to anybody who thought that Law of Desire was too kinky. It might boast the shallowest, most straightforward narrative I’ve seen in one of his films, but that doesn’t stop it from being a sexually dynamic, uproariously silly, sublimely weird erotic thriller. It suffers from the los of Carmen Maura (the up-for-anything actress who stopped working with Almodóvar for 18 years after a tough experience on the set of his previous film, Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios), but what female lead Victoria Abril lacks in personality, she makes up for in wounded vulnerability.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an intriguing evolution from Law of Desire, upgrading the sympathy for its villain along with the depth and complexity of Antonio Banderas’ performance. While the story may not have as many twists and turns, it shows a heretofore unseen focus on developing one particular character, showcasing Banderas as the true movie star he is. The really interesting thing about the cut-and-dry plot keeping the villain in the spotlight is that the film is unmistakably an entry in the horror genre. You don’t just hire The Thing composer Ennio Morricone by accident.

Of course, Almodóvar can’t keep his finger on any one genre for more than about 20 seconds, but the horror influence is certainly felt. So far, every single movie of his that I’ve seen has either been explicitly about cinema or features a character who works in the film industry, but this is his first to center almost entirely over the production of a B-horror film. Again, this is certainly no coincidence. His passion for the subject bleeds around the edges of the frame, and these scenes on the movie set number among his most effortlessly funny material.

I can’t stress enough that the story itself is a touch weaker than it could have been, but I’ll be damned if h doesn’t pull out the stops everywhere else. The foreshadowing in the script is dense and satisfying, and a recurring shot from the film-within-the-film is a woefully perfect cinematic image (a body swinging on a rope that resembles the pendulum of a grandfather clock). Plus, his characters, even the ones that only appear in a single scene, are given startling emotional depth. They’re like stepping into a puddle only to realize that your foot has plunged into a pothole.

Almodóvar just loves people, even the crazy ones. Especially the crazy ones. As wacky, kinky, and violent as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! gets, it remains a warm-hearted tribute to the best in humanity, it’s also a fearless depiction of sexual deviancy with an extended, iconic (for those who know about this kind of thing) lovemaking sequence that’s erotic because it’s not erotic. It’s perhaps the most real, human sexual act hat’s ever been committed to celluloid. It reflects his European sensibilities in a perfect, divisive (NC-17, anyone?) manifesto. Sex is messed up, gross, fumbling, and beautiful. And it certainly doesn’t have to be a big deal.

This scene(and in fact this entire movie) basically defines the entirety of Almodóvar’s sexy, lighthearted, fearless filmography. So, yeah. Don’t write it off just because the A-plot is a wee bit thin.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1075

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Census Bloodbath: Feta Sleaze

Year: 1981
Director: Joe D'Amato (as Peter Newton)
Cast: George Eastman, Annie Belle, Edmund Purdom
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

As we inch toward the dregs of Census Bloodbath in 1981, we’ll be seeing that, despite its reputation for being the Golden Year for slasher cinema, there’s still plenty of crap to go around. This was the slasher genre, after all. It’s not exactly renowned for its consistency and integrity, even in the early days. And there’s perhaps no genre in cinema history more prone to lapses in integrity than 80’s Italian horror, which is where we find ourselves right now.

Today’s topic of discussion is the Joe D’Amato flick Absurd, also sold as Rosso Sangue (Red Blood). Also sold as Horrible. Also sold as Monster Hunter. Also sold as Zombie 6. But mostly sold as Anthropophagus 2, the supposed sequel to Anthropophagus, a movie I quite like. For that reason only, I was jazzed for Absurd.

I should have known better.

In Absurd, two Greeks descend upon small town “America” without explanation during the night of the Big Football Game. One of these is Father Andres (Edmund Purdom, who made bad movie history as the Dean in Pieces), a priest who also studies biochemistry. The other is Mikos Stenopolis (George Eastman), a bloodthirsty killer with the power to heal dead tissue and coagulate his blood like, crazy fast, so wounds don’t hurt him or something. Science! It’s worth noting that he almost never actually uses this power, because they don’t have the budget to manage such extravagance. This is just a pseudoscience explanation for his Michael Myers strength.

We don’t know why this now officially superhuman Michael Myers and his perhaps even more useless Dr. Loomis appear in this small town, nor do we care. The Halloween riffing doesn’t end there (they literally call him the Boogeyman) as Mikos ditches the hospital and closes in on the Bennett home where a babysitter is taking care of the kids while their parents are out watching the Big Game, which has more or less incapacitated the entire police force as well. Not that the active officer Sgt. Engelman (Charles Borromel) is much help anyway. He spends most of his time asking the priest to recite exposition over and over again and then not investigating things until it’s already too late.

Anyway, these kids are Katia (Katya Berger) and Willy (Kasimir Berger). Katia is bedridden with a brace to correct her spinal column (rendering her as helpless as the deaf, mute, and blind Jennifer Jason Leigh in the same year’s Eyes of a Stranger), and Willy has a full time job being the most annoying child eve put onscreen, constantly whining and defying the instructions of every single adult trying to keep him alive.

If the goal was to make you sympathize with Mikos’ urge to kill children, it worked.

After finally watching Absurd/Anthropophagus 2, I feel like one of its alternate titles would fit the movie better: Horrible. Although there is a heaping helping of hilarious “Italians faking America” gimcrackery and some truly inexplicable bad-good scenes (one of my favorites is a surgery scene where the doctor snips vaguely at some intestines with scissors, frantically switching pairs of scissors once every .25 seconds like he’s doing a challenge on The Amazing Race), Joe D’Amato is working very hard to earn his reputation as Most Boring Italian Director.

What I have long come to associate with Italian horror is a certain reluctance to adhere to a straightforward plot but a masterful sense of composing surreal, horrifying cinematic images. D’Amato is the opposite. Absurd’s plot is an extravagantly cavalier rip-off of Halloween (besting even He Knows You’re Alone, which essentially cribs John Carpenter’s entire score wholesale), chugging flatly through a Babysitters in Peril subroutine with nary a narrative fillip in sight. 

So it’s at least comprehensible, but it comes at the expense of anything interesting to look at. D’Amato (also credited as cinematographer) shoots his scenes like they’re horses with broken legs. The devastatingly frequent woodland shots are brutally inelegant, murky, and ill-framed (trees tend to block half the action, because who has time to plan ahead when the director is heading two departments), and the interiors are lit like somebody told a sitcom lighting designer to achieve a “Walmart ambience.”

It’s not fair to compare Absurd to Anthropophagus (it’s also pointlessly romantic, considering that the only thing this “sequel” shares with that film is its director, star, and a certain predilection for disembowelment.), but this movie couldn’t even dream of achieving one iota of that film’s class, beauty, and elegance.

Remember, that’s the movie where a pregnant woman gets her fetus ripped out.

Absurd is just plain bad. No matter how much the score squeals, desperately proclaiming its terror, it can’t punch up the deathly dull chase scenes that perforate Absurd’s already tenuous pacing. There’s a chase scene between a hobbling handicapped girl and a blinded killer and it’s still the fastest, most action-packed moment in the film. Plus, the gore that’s meant to be Absurd’s shot in the arm curbs its creativity, limiting its especially grotesque kills like it’s on a blood-free diet. And the kills we actually get (most notably a wholly useless character getting his head split open by a band saw) are full of bungled close-ups so extreme you can’t tell whether you’re looking at flesh, bone, or maybe just the wall.

And don’t even get me started on the acting! Edmund Purdom is tedious as the useless priest, his only trick being holding his hand feebly to his collar in a sickly approximation of pious shock. But even worse is Kasimir Berger as Willy, who alternates between reading his lines like a robot whose batteries have just been removed and shrieking at the top of his lungs. Everybody else reaches a median of overly showy woodenness that the at least blends into the background.

Like I said, there are some campy fun moments sprinkled throughout like garnishes, almost apologizing for what you had to sit through to get to them: the biker gang that drives back and forth down the same street like they’re stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop and the enormous suit of armor replete with battle ax decorating this rural Southern home are but two of the inane delights you can come to expect from D’Amato’s anti-masterpiece, but they’re hardly worth the hour and change of relentlessly boring, pallid horror they’re ensconced in.

Killer: Mikos Stenopolis (George Eastman)
Final Girl: Katia Bennett (Katya Berger)
Best Kill: The nurse is drilled in the temple using a magic bit that extends like Pinocchio’s nose all the way through her head.
Sign of the Times: Emily’s hair makes her look like a botched Annie Lennox clone.
Scariest Moment: The town drunk laughs maniacally after handing Emily something she dropped.
Weirdest Moment: The Forrests enjoy the game while chowing down on that classic, All-American football snack: spaghetti.
Champion Dialogue: “We’re just going down the road. After all, it’s not as if we’re leaving for South America.”
Body Count: 7
  1. Nurse is drilled in the temple.
  2. Mechanic has his skull sawed in half.
  3. Biker is strangled.
  4. Peggy is pickaxed in the head.
  5. Emily has her head stuffed in the oven and is stabbed in the neck with scissors.
  6. Father Andres is strangled.
  7. Mikos Stenopolis is decapitated with a battle axe.
TL;DR: Absurd is a tedious, occasionally unintentionally silly slog.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1247

Monday, June 20, 2016

Just Keep Swimming

Year: 2016
Director: Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane
Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

So, Pixar. Not something that has been talked about frequently on Popcorn Culture despite its prominence in the blogger’s childhood. Let’s get into it, shall we? The groundbreaking studio that combines digital animation with humor and heart has been in a very weird creative space lately. As every animation studio and their mother have hopped on the computer-generated train (including Pixar’s literal parent, the Disney company), Pixar has been having a harder and harder time keeping their heads above the creative water.

Obviously, with films like Up and Toy Story 3 in their recent repertoire, Pixar hasn’t exactly fallen behind the curve, but for every glittering gem they produce they’ve also been bogged down by patently anonymous entries like Brave and (god help us) The Good Dinosaur, or lesser franchise fare like Cars 2 or Monsters University. Their most recent feature Inside Out has definitely boosted their credibility once more (seriously, let’s just pretend The Good Dinosaur doesn’t exist – it’s easy because I guarantee you haven’t seen it), but in the buildup to Finding Dory it was hard not to be a little nervous.

A thirteen-years-later sequel to one of their most beloved films that also acts as a  spin-off about an endearing sidekick with a one-note personality? That’s like mixing a bowl of plastic explosives using a stick of dynamite. It’s a recipe for disaster. But here we are. It has arrived. It’s in theaters, ripping through the box office like a money-devouring golem. So… How is it?

You’ll find out after this word from our sponsors.

In Finding Dory, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is a blue tang suffering from short-term memory loss. After helping the clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) find his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing the original actor, who is like 80 years old by this point), memories begin to surface of her own parents (Diane Keaton & Eugene Levy, who at this point has been an onscreen father to pretty much every living actor). She sets out to find them, but her slippery memory provides a mounting challenge. She, Marlin, and Nemo end up at a marine research institute, a  rehabilitation center/aquarium where Dory was born. The adventure might not be as large-scale as the cross-country trek of Finding Nemo, but travelling between he exhibits is tougher than it sounds when you’re just a lil fish with a spotty memory.

When Dory and the clownfish get separated, she must rely on new and old friends like Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a nearsighted whale shark, Hank (Ed O’Neill), a grumpy octopus, and – eventually – herself.

There might be other fish in the sea, but none of them are quite like Dory.

As with any review of a Pixar feature, we must begin with a slight interruption to discuss The Short. This short in particular, “Piper,” is such a vast improvement upon last year’s treacly mess “Lava” that just the first frame is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. Set at a beach, where a baby sand piper is learning how to hunt for food while facing its fear of the ocean, it’s a stunning piece of work. The story is lean, simple, and charming, but the animation is the true standout, an unparalleled achievement in photorealistic digital imaging that consigns all competitors into oblivion. The ocean… The feathering on the birds… The sand! Oh, I could rhapsodize about that perfectly replicated sand for hours. It’s a beautiful piece, capturing the look and feel of reality while delicately blending it with the rounded edges and welcoming cuteness of a cartoon. It’s brilliant and I won’t hear a word against it.

Now, about that pesky movie it’s attached to. Honestly, it’s pretty good. Pixar isn’t knocking on the door of a second Golden Age, but they’re at least not coasting anymore. Finding Dory is playing in the shallows, but it’s having a lot of fun. With its small-scale setting comes small-scale themes (plenty of family movie standbys: the power of friendship and/or family, believing in oneself, all that good stuff) and small-scale characters (the only new character given any depth whatsoever is the surly Hank, who is welded onto an Odd Couple arc older than cinema itself), but it’s still bursting with energy like a 5-year-old who figured out the child locks on the Oreo cupboard.

Perhaps the most significant thing about Finding Dory is that it’s practically immune to sequelitis. Although there are a handful of intensely pandering moments (we get an origin story for the “Just Keep Swimming” song, which is about as patently useless as finding out how Professor X went bald), this movie isn’t just a Finding Nemo greatest hits collection. Returning characters are integrated fairly well into the new story in places where they organically belong. OK, a cameo by the surfer turtles is a little unpleasant, but justified. And the movie never really figures out what to do with Marlin and Nemo until the third act. But we’re thankfully not forced through a gauntlet of grotesqueries, with doppelgänger scenes visiting the vegetarian sharks, the aquarium escapees, the dentist’s daughter, and so on. Finding Dory is well aware of its history and its universe, but it rarely feels the need to repeat itself.

Which is ironic, considering that’s pretty much Dory’s M.O.

So much of Finding Dory is new, and while none of it is quite on the level of the original plot and characters, could it ever be? The new side characters here are bright and fun even if they’re not so engaging, and a pair of lounging sea lions are an excellent substitute for the much-beloved seagulls. And everything that isn’t new is classic Pixar, which ain’t a bad place to be. There’s plenty of humor derived from the anthropomorphic nature of our inhuman leads, depicting in increasingly wacky ways how one might reasonably travel through the various sectors of an aquarium when one isn’t exactly inclined to breathing air.

And then of course, there’s the obligatory part that takes a machete to the heartstrings. The emotional moments in the climax feel a wee bit rote, but any time you’re treated to a flashback of young Dory with her parents, you’re going to wish you had gills, because otherwise you’re going to down in saltwater tears. Baby Dory is so devastatingly adorable and her separation from her parents is so straight-up brutal that the combined cuteness and sadness will overload our system.

I’m pretty sure renting your kid a Pixar movie qualifies as child abuse.

All in all, it’s a cleverly organized, silly movie about overcoming your disabilities and discovering your inner strength. The title Finding Dory isn’t just a franchise tie-in it’s a thematic manifesto. Whether or not it’s a truly great Pixar movie is beside the point. It’s a very good one, and we should be happy it’s around.

TL;DR: Finding Dory is a fun, energetic sequel that stays true to its story even if it's dealing with shallower material than its predecessor.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1190

Friday, June 17, 2016

Claw of Desire

Year: 2016
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Lobster is a preposterously divisive movie. The two movie review blogs I follow religiously gave it a 10/10 and a 0/10 respectively. The patrons at the theater I work at either walk out halfway through or come back for second and third helpings. It’s like – for lack of a better comparison – seafood. Some people despise the taste, but others can’t get enough. So with all this debate raging, of course I had to dive in there for myself and see what all the hubbub was about. 

Did I enjoy The Lobster? No. Do I regret it? Well, mostly.

I’m not allergic to shellfish, but I might be allergic to art films.

In The Lobster, love is mandated by law. Newly single people in The City are sent to The Hotel, where they must find a mate within 45 days or else they are turned into an animal. They also must hunt single refugees known as Loners who live in The Woods. If my disdain for all these oh-so futuristic capital letters isn’t already palpable, let me make it clear that the only thing stopping me from vomiting all over my keyboard right now is the fact that I really don’t feel like cleaning it.

One of these single people is David (Colin Farrell), a schlubby man whose wife has left him. While he struggles to find someone with whom he shares a Defining Characteristic, he ends up desperately pairing with a psychopath (Angeliki Papoulia) before escaping to The Woods and striking up a furtive courtship with Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), igniting the ire of the strictly anti-partnership Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux).

Another thing I absolutely adore is movies that don’t give their characters proper names. More, please!

I see what The Lobster is doing. I really do.  A society that focuses so fundamentally and grotesquely on pair-bonding is shallow and conformist, with no wiggle room to be an individual. In terms of achieving the film’s intended effect of muting all personality from its characters and design, it’s a masterpiece of intention. The ensemble is perfectly cast, especially Colin Farrell, who intimately understands the mechanics of his severely isolated role and knows how best to wring comedy from the character when he can.

The world-building of this incredibly unique setting is likewise terrific, dumping you in with no context and allowing you to uncover the depths of detail as the movie progresses. It’s not quite as rich in history as the production design of a Mad Max: Fury Road, but it gets the job done with ethereal efficiency. And the beginning is an absolute winner, slamming you into the story with a gonzo, out-of-context image that leaves you slavering for more (although, the more you learn about this film’s world, the less sense this scene makes).

So while I see the point of The Lobster and understand the polished mechanics that make it tick, that doesn’t mean I see why anybody would find themselves entertained by this droning didacticism.

Ooh, burn! This Lobster is getting BOILED!

The Lobster is so subdued that it practically fades out of existence. It’s like absurdism on tranquilizers, the monotonous performances and color scheme relentlessly pounding your brain with a sledgehammer of boredom. It’s got the pace of a Kubrick film, the flatly literal dialogue of Invention of Lying, and the music of a murder mystery, the atonal shrieks only highlighting how uninteresting everything you’re watching actually is.

For the entire film, it feels like you’re in a doctor’s waiting room, wondering if they’ve forgotten about you. Then as soon as there’s a knock on the door and you perk up, the film ends. After all, they can’t let us get too excited, or else we’ll start to think this is a fun movie. As much as The Lobster claims to be a black comedy, it does everything in its power to stile any and all joy. The scattered chuckles that escape are almost incidental, owing to the fact that there really is a great concept at the heart of this story. Only one singular moment made me laugh out loud, and I get the sense that the movie actively lamented my enjoyment, because it immediately doubled down on ponderous contemplation and a liberal slathering of slow motion.

Seriously, entire scenes of The Lobster are slomo. Not just key action moments (ha! Like it has any), but full minutes. Minutes upon minutes of pretentious napalm, obliterating the pacing and tearing the storyline to shreds. Watching The Lobster is like being trapped in a nightmare. Your feet move like molasses as you run toward an exit that glides further and further away. And anytime something even microscopically interesting happens, it’s immediately chucked from the film like so much dead weight. The biggest conflict in the movie (between the Loners and The Hotel) is never resolved. Even though we see the two sides briefly clash, these scenes are immediately forgotten and never followed up on.

It’s like listening to your grandfather tell a story.

The most extravagantly frustrating thing about The Lobster is that every now and then it shows flashes of asthmatic brilliance. It never exerts itself too much, but the occasional brutality nestled in this world of soft apathy is jarring and gut-wrenching in a magnificent way. One scene depicting the crowd’s blasé reaction to a particularly maudlin act of self-harm is coldly stunning, like an ice-chilled scalpel slicing down your spine. And then of course the film returns to flatly droning about how to properly launder a stain or the comparative weight of different sports equipment.

I GET IT. I do. But The Lobster really needs to take a chill pill. It’s so far up its own ass that it can see daylight. Everything good about the film (and there really is a lot of potential here) is quietly smothered with a scratchy, off-white pillow. I can see why this movie appeals to the Lonely Heart cinephiles of the world, but care as little about The Lobster as it does about me, or any of humanity for that matter.

TL;DR: The Lobster is a monotonous ordeal that stifles a pretty excellent absurdist premise.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1055