Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Year: 2016
Director: Andrew Haigh
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

I have a love-hate relationship with Looking, HBO’s gay slice-of-life dramedy series. While the low key atmosphere of the show has provided some of the network’s best material (season 1’s episode-long date focusing on just two cast members and season 2’s funeral are two masterpiece-level half hours), the ensemble is plagued by obnoxious characters (Agustín passed the torch to Patrick after season 1, but he’s still such a Samantha) and long stretches of aimlessness. And then I actually got paid to recap the second season on The Backlot, which tipped the scales a little more toward love.

Anyway, Looking conked its head on its low ratings and swiftly perished, but here’s the thing. HBO actually made good on its promise to conclude the series with a movie, which was greenlit in record time. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that the show’s executive producer who signed on to direct was indie darling Andrew Haigh, of the iconic gay film Weekend and last year’s Oscar-nominated 45 Years. At any rate, we got our movie.

I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, and I’m still not convinced that it really exists.

In Looking: The Movie, our lead character Patrick Murray (Jonathan Groff) returns to San Francisco after nine months. He left abruptly because he decided he needed some space to grow up a little (read: a lot) following a disastrous romantic entanglement with his taken boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) that threw a wrench into his blossoming relationship with the long-suffering Richie (Raúl Castillo), a perfect angel cursed to walk this blasted Earth. He’s in town for his friend Agustín’s wedding to Eddie (Daniel Franzese of f**king Mean Girls), which reunites him with friends Dom (Murray Bartlett), now running a successful chicken window, and Doris (Lauren Weedman), the sassy token straight lady, as well as… Richie and his alcoholic Social Justice Boyfriend, Brady (Chris Perfetti).

Cue lots of contemplative staring as Patrick navigates the weekend, having conversations about life, love, and how not to end up like your parents with a revolving door of old friends and new people he meets along the way. He claims to have learned a lot during his time away, and that he’s no longer such a self-centered neurotic.

But, who are we kidding, we know this is what’s going through his head any time somebody else talks about themselves.

Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick. This is hardly a movie. It’s a triple length season finale, and it does nothing to hide that fact. It would be impossible for a new viewer to zap this onto their screen from HBO Go and understand a single shred of what’s happening. It would be like starting Lost in the middle of that season where the island started time traveling for some reason. But is it a solid series finale? Of course it is.

Appropriately sending off this show that shied away from hyperbole at every turn, Looking: The Movie is neither the best of what the series had to offer nor the worst, though it skews firmly toward the “best” side. Typically plot-lite, it makes the most of its brief resurrection in terms of once again depicting the human experience in all its messy, sexy, disgusting glory. This could easily have been just another drab mumblecore movie about finding oneself and celebrating Doing My Own Thing in a vague, self-satisfied way. I mean, it IS about that, but it finds the human characters trapped in the amber of that particular subgenre.

Like Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List, Looking does a lot of things before it passes on, hitting the wall with every strand of philosophical spaghetti in the pot. It covers such a vast array of thoughts and feelings from a thirtysomething gay man that it’s almost dizzying, but from its immense specificity is born a universal truth. Every single person watching it, be they gay, straight, bi, old, young, drunk, whatever, will find something to latch onto in Looking. It’s a film that holds up a mirror to a black part of life that we’d rather not think about, but treats it with immense warmth and tenderness.

And all this is tucked inside a story with a protagonist so unstable, the film could literally at any moment smash cut to him having sex with whatever man, woman, plant, etc. he’s sharing the frame with at the time.

This movie would be nothing without its cast, though the side characters make much more impression than our main three friends. Patrick is still a bland cypher, Dom is given next to nothing to work with, and Agustín pulls something good out of his wedding jitters, but he’s stuck with the unenviable task of being the focal point for his friends’ hang-ups about relationships. The show has always had problems balancing its leads, and while they’re played well, this plot belongs to whiny ol’ Patrick as he greedily guzzles up the run time.

The true MVP here is, as always, the massively undervalued Lauren Weedman. Typically ignored because her character is only there to flavor a stew with too many carrots, Weedman once again effortlessly delivers an irresistible prickly charm that’s almost Bill Murray-ish while letting her stunted emotions and deep fear of happiness peep through the cracks. She’s marvelous, and while I wish she was given more chance to explore the range I know she’s capable of, she’s a satisfying, grounding presence here. Newcomer Tyne Daly (of Hello, My Name is Doris) is also superb, transforming a stock character (a city hall wedding officiant who bestows some Old Person Relationship Wisdom) into a three-dimensional, thoroughly relatable presence.

This deep understanding of what makes people tick courses through the film in even the smallest characters (save Brady, who contorts into a leering, one-note villain so we can root for Patrick, who proved in season 2 that he’s far from a worthy choice for Richie). This is perhaps best exemplified by Russell Tovey. He returns for only one scene, but it’s a doozy. The most unequivocal “bad person” in the series, here he throws everything out of whack with a subtly emotional performance that’s by far his best Looking work, bar none.

It’s telling that this part of the review is only discussing character, because that’s pretty much all Looking: The Movie has to offer as a piece of cinema. It’s still shackled to the small scale of television, even with a feature length run time. That’s not to say it’s not well put together. Quite the opposite. A scene in a club set to Perfume Genius’ melancholy ode to doomed romance “Hood” is one of the most indelible images Andrew Haigh has ever crafted. But Looking’s low budget and lower expectations hobble it a bit, preventing it from being more than just a very good TV farewell.

TL;DR: Looking: The Movie is a decent, satisfying finale for a show that had its share of problems.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1187

Friday, July 22, 2016

Chew Toy Story

Year: 2016
Director: Yarrow Cheney & Chris Renaud
Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

I have a tenuous relationship with Illumination Entertainment. While I’m down to clown with some Minion mayhem from time to time, I’ve only truly liked one of their movies so far: Despicable Me. Its sequel would have joined the list were it not for the blatant racism and obsessive heteronormativity. And you couldn’t have paid me to go see Hop or The Lorax. I want to like this studio, I really do. I’m ready to see it thrive.

You see, there’s a sea change coming, and this will put Illumination on a path either to greatness or to ruin. We’re living in a post-Minions world. After the Despicable Me spinoff raked in over one billion dollars (that’s far from an exaggeration), these little yellow ragamuffins have become a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Illumination recognizes that they are sitting on what could be this generation’s Mickey Mouse, so they’re lassoing that bronco and seeing how far they can ride it. The Minions now inform the look and feel of the company’s entire output (including their studio logo, which highlights the “MIN  ION” in the company name), even appearing in a comic short preceding Illumination’s latest box office bulldozer, The Secret Life of Pets.

That’s the movie we’re here to talk about, and we shall. In one minute. The commitment to Minion style comedy and animation will make Illumination’s output a more coherent whole, which is definitely a good thing. But there’s an extremely high chance of them flying too close to the sun. What I’m seeing with Pets makes me extremely nervous. But only time will tell.

They’re already used up five of their nine lives, so they’ve got to be careful.

In The Secret Life of Pets, something in your home can secretly speak when you’re not looking! How novel! Those things in particular are pets, and our lead pet is Max (kid favorite Louis C. K.), a dog owned by Katie (Ellie Kemper). When Katie gets a second dog, the enormous mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max’s jealousy leads them into a fight while on a walk, which gets them captured by animal control. They embark on a long, arduous journey to get home, meeting a tribe of abandoned pets led by the sadistic bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart, who I’m pretty sure is contractually obligated to be in every movie ever made). Meanwhile, a rescue attempt is led by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a neighbor dog with a massive crush on Max.

Will our unlikely pair make it home, having discovered a newfound friendship along the way?!

What the f**k do YOU think?

The Secret Life of Pets relies entirely on one major human personality trait that I lack entirely: an affinity for the animal kingdom. If you’re what is colloquially known as a “dog person,” this movie will magnetically draw your attention and admiration. But it’s the Dane Cook of pet-based movies, observing animal behavior without finding anything to say about it. There could be a very interesting comedy here about how pets operate in a world that wasn’t built for them, but the screenplay seems content to relax in the “dogs sure do love to walk in circles before they lie down, don’t they?” register. This is a movie that required four distinct people to write it, and Lord knows what they did all day. It doesn’t require a Jane Goodall level of research to reach the conclusion that cats like to chase laser dots.

Then again, this movie is lazy in every way, shape, and form, including some ways, shapes, and forms that haven’t even been invented yet. Combining the premise of Toy Story with the plot of Homeward Bound and the characters of Flushed Away, this is a movie that could only have been marketed to children, because anyone over the age of six has already seen it a thousand times before. I understand that I am not in the major demographic for this film, and that’s fine. But if you’re looking for an animated animal movie with a lazy premise, why not go straight to the source and watch Finding Dory again? Don’t waste you or your child’s time with this unbecoming nonentity.

Come to think of it, does anybody with a kid actually read my blog, besides my parents? Hello out there!

I think I laughed twice at The Secret Life of Pets, which is honestly more than I expected, so kudos to them. Kevin Hart’s presence is such a massive roadblock to my personal sense of humor that I’m genuinely delighted I had any fun at all. 

This flick is all over the place, frantically darting down every avenue of comedy it can. The roster includes poop jokes, a pratfall interlude that slams the brakes on the plot so abruptly that you’re tossed from your seat, and deeply weird cribs  from classic films as varied as Grease, The Lost World, and freaking Some Like It Hot. So I was bound to like something in this schizophrenic fantasia of comedy stylings. Pets also carries out the Minions manifesto of being inexplicably violent for a kids’ movie, trotting out some incredibly unkind slapstick and even literally killing off a character in pursuit of a gag.

There’s a surprising amount of death coursing around the edges of this film, but it’s not treated in the gloopy tragic mien of Pixar. In fact, it’s barely acknowledged at all, because Pets ignores the arcs of nearly every major character in its feverish race toward the finish line. It’s such a cursory, tossed-off product trafficking in only the hoariest cof lichés that it’s vaguely insulting.

So… Welcome back, Illumination! Maybe stick to Minion movies. The Secret Life of Pets is exactly what happens when the sugar rush sophomoric humor of the Minions is undiluted by other tones, then stripped of the retro, stylistic sheen that has always surrounded them. It ain’t pretty, it ain’t memorable, it ain’t anything. I hope and pray that another Despicable Me is right around the corner, because the new age of Illumination is looking unpromisingly like the old age.

TL;DR: The Secret Life of Pets is a boring, lazy movie without much drive.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1054

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Christmas In July: Slay Bells Ring, Are You Listening?

Year: 2012
Director: Steven C. Miller
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Jaime King, Donal Logue
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Yeah, they remade Silent Night, Deadly Night. It’s one that kind of slipped through the cracks, late to the remake party in 2012. Although the retitled Silent Night is a loose remake if there ever was one (and boy have there been a few), it shares enough elements with the original (like a Santa killer punishing the naughty, which some of the sequels couldn’t even manage, as well as an antler-based kill, a child gifted with a bloody weapon, etc.) that it at least proves that the original was on its mind, as opposed to the Sex Kitten romps of Prom Night and Sorority Row. That’s by far the best thing I can say about it, because – keeping in tone with the rest of the franchise – it kinda really sucks.

I’m so glad I’m finished with these garbage fires they called movies.

In Silent Night, Deputy Aubrey Bradimore (Jaime King) is forced to work on Christmas Eve when her coworker fails to show up. A line is dropped about this being her first Christmas without her husband, and by “dropped” I mean “hurled off a cliff” because this is literally never mentioned again. Together, she and Sheriff Cooper (Malcolm McDowell, essentially reprising his role as the scenery-masticating Dr. Loomis in Rob Zombie’s Halloween) discover that a killer dressed as Santa Claus has been rampaging through their little town of Cryer, Wisconsin punishing the naughty. This being a slasher movie (a subgenre we finally return to after two hyperbolically bizarre detours), Cooper elects not to call the FBI and handle the threat on his own.

Their search is hampered by a parade in which nearly every able-bodied adult man in town is asked to don a Santa suit, but they narrow down the suspects to a group of bad Santas that would make Fred Claus proud, including a wandering vagrant and a local coke dealer.

You’d think they’d find the killer with ease, considering he’s wearing giant steampunk goggles, but you would be wrong.

To be fair, Silent Night has a lot in common with SNDN1. It’s just as mean-spirited and poorly acted, but it lacks that veneer of 80’s charm that makes the original an enduring mainstay of the slasher genre. While SNDN featured a few too many rape scenes for my taste, it was a loopy, idiosyncratic film that told a strangely detailed, unwittingly compelling story about the societal ills that molded our apple-cheeked Santa killer. Silent Night just pulls a reverse Rob Zombie, stripping away the villain’s backstory and filling in that extra run time with an extra helping of nasty-minded sleaze.

There’s just something deeply depressing about watching a horde of wooden, amateur hour performers get chopped up in 2012 rather than 1984. It might just be the buffer of time making the legwarmered, permed 80’s seem a couple degrees askew from reality, but I think I can blame two movies in particular: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 for igniting the remake boom, and Scream for rendering it basically impossible to make a straightforward slasher ever again. By virtue of being a remake, a movie openly challenges the original film with the unspoken claim that it will either be better or at least satisfyingly different. When it is neither, it doubles down on disappointment. And Silent Night is neither in a spectacularly unpleasant way.

This movie is just plain vicious. In addition to being callously exploitative (a topless woman runs around for what feels like hours before being fed into a wood chipper; while slasher movies are best known for boobs and blood, titillation and mutilation are actually pretty rarely in the same frame save for the sleazier entries – The Prowler, Bloody Moon, etc.), it’s horribly misguided.

Horror films always need to walk on eggshells when it comes to killing a child, and while certain slashers have succeeded (SNDN among them), the death of a minor here is despicably prolonged, involving electrocuting her with a cattle prod until she stars foaming at the mouth before finishing her off. It is at this point where the over-the-top violence of Silent Night crosses the line. Hell, it throws a tarp over the line hoping you won’t notice, and dashes right on over it. Its obscene, boundary-free eagerness for butchery is vaguely sickening.

And I’m someone who watched Maniac without batting an eye.

I will, however, give Silent Night points for its occasional doses of pure, inexplicable lunacy.  There’s certainly a whiff of bad-good charm around Malcolm McDowell’s flagrant disinterest in the project, but by far my favorite scene belongs to the pre-slaughtered 13-year-old- girl and her mom. The spoiled little brat knocks her mother’s heart medication to the floor (!) and demands “F**k church! I want to go to the mall!” instantly becoming the most compellingly unlikeable child this side of Veruca Salt. She’s awesome. And then of course we have a whole scene lit with red and green emergency lights like it’s a Saw holiday special, and then there’s the fact that every time Jaime King walks through her impossibly idyllic small town, greeting everyone she sees and smiling at the whirl of Christmas activity, you expect her to burst into song à la Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

As you well know, I am a sucker for crazy camp, so this goes a long way toward helping me survive the dismal disarray of the rest of the film. And to be fair, there is some incredible gore that would be a real treat if Silent Night hadn’t poisoned the well by frontloading its most distasteful killings. A gushing leg wound and a head split by an axe are two particularly convincing Grand Guignol effects of the highest order.

The movie would at least be a passable horror roller coaster if it weren’t for the out-of-control tone that nose dives into torture porny grunge every chance it gets. Or the story that aimlessly wanders around, sloughing off subplots like a snake shedding its skin. Or the anonymous killer performer that lumbers around like a plumber who just soiled his pants. Ugh, what a waste. I’m terribly disappointed to end our Christmas in July segment like this, but Silent Night is just another abortive holiday thriller with enough potential energy to keep me on the hook, but not enough ambition and drive to do anything with it.

TL;DR: Silent Night is a thoroughly unpleasant, mean-spirited watch.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1094
Reviews In This Series
Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier Jr., 1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (Harry, 1987)
Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (Hellman, 1989)
Silent Night, Deadly Night IV: Initiation (Yuzna, 1990)
Silent Night, Deadly Night V: The Toy Maker (Kitrosser, 1991)
Silent Night (Miller, 2012)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Trouble In Paradise

Year: 2016
Director: Jake Szymanski
Cast: Zac Efron, Adam Devine, Anna Kendrick
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Zac Efron is killing it this year. He’s starred in no fewer than three R-Rated comedies in 2016 (four, if The Disaster Artist is ever set free from the James Franco vault), and with heartthrobs like him, quantity is always more important than quality. Which is great news, because the only semi-decent movie he’s been in all year is Neighbors 2. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates isn’t as flagrantly despicable as Dirty Grandpa, but there’s no universe where I’d call it a “good” movie.

I mean, come on! He only takes his shirt off ONCE!

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates takes place in a world where the phrase “wedding date” is used in casual conversation waaaaaay more frequently than our own. Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave Stangle (Zac Efron) are brothers who love themselves a good debauch. When their parents (Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) force them to bring dates to their sister Jeanie’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) Hawaii wedding in order to curtail their antics, they put out a Craigslist ad looking for nice girls to bring so they don’t ruin the wedding. The ad goes viral (this part actually happened in real life) and they end up on Wendy Williams, where they catch the eye of local girls-about-town Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick).

The hard-drinking duo fake being respectable so they can econ their way into an all-expenses-paid Hawaii vacation. Antics ensue and they’re at least a little less racist and homophobic than Dirty Grandpa.

So there’s that.

Obviously, that’s a high bar for offensiveness, so Mike and Dave still has plenty of room to muck about in frivolous bigotry and general stereotyping. I will say this: The stereotypes they use here are some deep cuts, so your average moviegoer won’t’ have as much of a problem with them as I do, but that doesn’t make them any less ill-advised. We get a predatory lesbian, a black side character who only acts as a hype man for the white people’s antics, a genuinely baffling cross-dressing sequence that would have been stale in the 90’s, and Kumail Nanjiani’s first truly bothersome Indian role. But they do depict an interracial wedding and restrict themselves to only one joke about it, so they get a gold star for that, I guess.

Honestly, I’d be able to overlook these patches of cliché crassness if there was anything else in the movie to latch onto. The comedy is a relaxing, genial sort that keeps you comfortably above the boredom line without actually reaching for any big laughs. While it’s certainly diverting, it’s far from memorable. It’s not bad, it just immediately slips from your mind like a fistful of sardines.

The comedy here does what every establishing shot shows: coasts. All four of the leads here are charismatic young stars and that counts for a lot, but they lean heavily on their established personas to do all the work here. Devine is the sputtering, half-improvised jackass. Efron chugs along with his surprisingly sharp comic timing and his baby doll eyes that never seem to focus on anything. His mouth and body move, but his eyes just stare vacantly into the middle distance like he’s having an apocalyptic premonition. It’s kind of frightening. And then of course there’s Plaza with her sardonic bravado. Only Kendrick is creating any sort of character here, but the role is a meek little dishrag that doesn’t bring anything particularly interesting to the table.

It’s like if you put a chipmunk’s brain in a human body.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is just too easygoing. It lets its performers noodle around while the spinning plates of the plot fall to the floor one by one and shatter into a million pieces, using exhausted clichés to rush through an ill-thought-out scenario (of course Zac Efron dreams of being a graphic novel artist). The central conceit (bad girls faking being good girls) loses gas long before the midpoint, sputtering and stalling after about two and a half scenes (in fact, this slippery conceit is eerily similar to Efron’s earlier easily-distracted opus That Awkward Moment). If Charles Lindbergh had tried to fly across the Atlantic using Mike and Dave, he would have crashed in the New York Harbor.And then the final 20 minutes pretend we’ve been watching an actual story the whole time and drown us in a deluge of unearned character development.

Oh, and did I mention this film indulges in some of the most frustrating trends of modern comedy? We get some of that alarmingly violent slapstick that non-Paul Feigs love to dole out on Melissa McCarthy. Then there’s a lovely selection of half-hearted post-Hangover gross-out body humor. Oh, and then there’s a dash of sitcom setups just for bland flavor (they don’t realizes their microphones are on! What a pickle!). And the film’s occasional feints toward absurdism wither make less than no sense or completely dismantle a character (The script never does manage to establish whether Dave is a drooling idiot or the vastly more intelligent straight man for his brother’s antics. Maybe it’s both, come to think of it.) Like I said, it’s enjoyable enough, but it’s just so unambitious.

So, all in all, Mike an Dave Need Wedding Dates isn’t, like, a deplorable waste of your time. Just a milquetoast one. And it’s still the second best Efron comedy of the year, so if you loved Dirty Grandpa, have at it. You have my blessing, though I mostly feel like cursing that I spent money on this.

*This has nothing to do with Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, but it’s far more interesting. I was doing a spot of research on Lindbergh, and a glance at the list of his children led me through a mind-boggling array of discoveries. After fathering six children by his wife, it was discovered on his deathbed that he had seven more children spread between three secret families. Two of his secret European brides were SISTERS. He didn’t cross the Atlantic to break records, he just wanted to get some. It’s like an American Pie prequel up in here.

TL;DR: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is mildly amusing, so it's never a chore, but it fails entirely to impress.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1067

Monday, July 18, 2016

I Ain't Afraid Of No Girls

Year: 2016
Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Man alive, am I glad the remake of Ghostbusters is in theaters so people can finally shut up about it. This needlessly divisive remake has had the one-two punch of taking on the mantle of a virulently nostalgic property and igniting the raging misogyny of certain online cave dwellers, so it has not been a fun time being a member of the horror community. 

As pointless and awful as many remakes are, I’m always willing to give them a chance. Especially when they’re from the team behind Spy, my favorite comedy of last year. Not to mention the fact that Ghostbusters is an iconic franchise with a series of major narrative flaws spiderwebbing across its surface, making it a more or less perfect property to update, if we have to reboot movies at all.

Hollywood certainly seems to enjoy it.

Ghostbusters doesn’t recreate the original plot so much as it sets it back to square one with different characters and sees where they go from there. These characters are Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a meek doctor of particle physics who has attempted to suppress her belief in the paranormal in a weak stab at getting tenure; Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), her high school best friend and a true believer who has dedicated her life to paranormal research; Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), a dubiously sane engineer with an anarchistic flair for creating extremely dangerous, untested machinery; and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a subway worker who is the Ghostbusters’ first client and quickly becomes a part of the team.

As the Ghostbusters jet around New York City investigating apparitions, spirits, and grim grinning ghosts, they realize that a sinister someone is creating devices the amplify paranormal activity (which might explain why it got five sequels). They must figure out his plan and stop him before it’s too late.

Probably how most people felt when they heard this film was in development.

Is Ghostbusters better than the original? No. If you’re here on a hate odyssey, this is your cue to stop reading.

OK, now that the angries are gone, I’m safe to tell you that the remake is actually pretty good! As it should be. This is Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy, not some anonymous music video director and Tiger Beat’s plastic Teen of the Week. Just like the original four Busters, these ladies weren’t chosen because they were sexy, of-the-now superstars. There’s a reason they didn’t cast Margot Robbie, Gal Gadot, Olivia Munn, and hell, Jennifer Lawrence, why not. They cast genuinely funny women who can sell a joke like it’s a Pokémon Go in-app purchase.

And Ghostbusters really is funny. That’s its greatest strength, which is probably good news considering it’s a comedy film. Obviously, humor is in the gut of the beholder, and the jokes are in a vastly, almost unrecognizably different vein from the original, but there’s a lot of great stuff at work here. Chris Hemsworth is an obvious standout because every line he’s given is a joke, but his ditzy receptionist nabs the best scene in the movie, a job interview-cum-Abbott and Costello routine that is delivered with diamond-sharp comic timing. Kate McKinnon is also a magnetic presence, presenting a spectacularly offbeat, unpredictable set of line readings that are always bizarrely fascinating. 

Probably the best overall performance is Wiig’s, because she effortlessly finds the po-faced wackiness in her straight-woman character while maintaining enough of an emotional throughline that she provides us an easy access point to the more out-there characters and developments.

Everyone else is good too, but I can’t just copy-paste the cast list here and call it a review.

Ghostbusters is very funny from beginning to end, but here’s the thing. At a certain point in the second act, it kind of stops trying to be funny. When the jokes come, they’re mostly just as solid, but during the course of its typically vast Feigian run time it slowly starts to kind of take itself seriously, presenting lots of ghostly action and the series’ traditional deus ex machina climax with hardly a glimmer of irony.

Then it attempts to tie a goopy little bow around everything with a series of character moments that strain to pump raw emotion from a one-dimensional well. These characters are great to watch as they quip and bounce off one another, but only Erin and Abby’s arcs have any meat on their bones. Everyone else is far too weak to support the more dramatic turn the film abruptly shifts into in the middle of the finale. Hell, even Erin and Abby are given a scene so heavy with melodrama and a wailing Schindler’s List score that it topples face-first into the dirt.

But after a bit, Ghostbusters remembers what it is and course corrects. It never fully recovers from that massive hit, but it’s still a sprightly, amusing popcorn picture. Once again, the trailers for this Feig comedy dreadfully undersold what it had to offer, so while it was better than I worried it might be, it wasn’t really as great as I’d hoped. Oh sure, it’s unique and hilarious enough to stand on its own two feet in the Ghostbusters canon and its fun cameos mostly avoid incessant pandering (mostly), but it’s not a resounding success to the tune of a Spy or a Bridesmaids.

The only thing I will concede to the haters is that the FallOut Boy cover of the Ghostbusters thing is truly dreadful (they also donated the worst song of 2014 to Big Hero 6), but the filmmakers know what’s up and they give Ray Parker, Jr. more than enough airtime. Anyway, go see it! It’s a dizzy, fun summer movie the likes of which haven’t really been packing multiplexes this year.

TL;DR: Ghostbusters is a wholly decent remake that isn't better than original but offers a unique enough entry to be worth watching.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1003
Reviews In This Series
Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)
Ghostbusters II (Reitman, 1989)
Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Christmas In July: Round Yon Victim Mother And Child

Year: 1991
Director: Martin Kitrosser
Cast: William Thorne, Jane Higginson, Van Quattro
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As we continue our July event of pretending that it’s not so hot outside that your steak cooks itself while you’re walking home from the store, we also reach a very important point in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise: the end. We're not finished -we still have the remake to look forward to with a mixture of vague optimism and extreme suspicion - but the contiguous franchise ends here in 1991 with Silent Night, Deadly Night V: The Toy Maker, only 7 years after the original controversial flick hit theaters. 

To quickly recap, Part IV: Initiation obliterated the series’ already senile continuity by presenting a story with no killer Santa that wasn’t even obviously set on Christmas. But it hardly matters, because the series hasn’t had a rating above the 5/10 line since Part 2, and that one was most just recut footage of the much better original. We’re barely looking at a Sorority House Massacre quality average.

Although The Toy Maker is – pretty predictably – a stinker, it does feel a little more like a traditional Silent Night, Deadly Night film. The plot actually centers on Christmas and holiday-related activities, there’s a clip from the previous movie haphazardly sandwiched in (this time, it’s Silent Night, Deadly Night-ception as the TV plays the clip from Part 4 where Clint Howard is watching a clip from Part 3 – stop the world, I wanna get off), and the talent both behind and in front of the camera is startlingly overqualified.

No, I’m not talking about Clint Howard and Neith Hunter, who cameo as characters with the same names as their Part 4 counterparts, as if anyone was actually enough of a fan of that movie to be excited. I’m talking director Martin Kitrosser, Quentin Tarantino’s go-to script supervisor. I’m talking effects shaman Screaming Mad George, back for a second helping. I’m talking f**king Mickey goddamn Rooney!

What is even happening at this point?

So, the plot, shall we? Young Derek (William Thorne) loses his father when a wrapped present that arrives on the stoop turns out to be an evil killer toy, this franchise’s answer to the popularity of Puptpermaster, but accomplished more cheaply (which is saying something). He is traumatized and goes mute, while his mother Sarah (Jane Higginson) attempts to deal with her grief and coax him into talking with various Christmas-related surprises, unaware of how her husband actually died.

Then there’s the roughly 900 splinter plots birthed from their story. Noah (Tracy Fraim) is a department store Santa who we see tinkering with nefarious Christmas goodies in his motel room, goodies that can be seen terrorizing neighborhood children. He is also snooping on the local toy store, Petto’s. That name is supposed to be a pun on the name “Gepetto,” but I only ever heard it as “Pedo’s,” which was mildly alarming. He owner of the shop is Joe Petto (why, Mickey Rooney, why?), a friend of Sarah’s. He has a teen son named Pino (Brian Bremer of Pumpkinhead), who never does anything explicitly bad, but always seems to lurk creepily around the edges of the frame, talking in a nasal whine like he’s Buster Bluth or something.

But seriously, Mickey Rooney is in this. I’m not playing around here.

The one truly valuable thing about SNDN 5 is that it’s quite firmly established in the 90’s (Derek’s best friend dresses like he got oversized hand-me-downs from his older brother. And his older brother is Shaq.), but it still manages to capture the lunatic 80’s high concept spirit of films like Puppetmaster or Halloween III: Season of the Witch. It’s a rare thing to find a film so genuine and sincere in the era of waning slasher rip-offs, angsty vampires, and winking post-Scream know-it-alls, so let’s take a moment to appreciate that.

OK, moment over. This movie sucks. It’s a cheap direct-to-video crock that overpromises and underdelivers. Its weird affinity to Part 4 (cemented by some shared cast and crew) just means that they’re reheating the leftovers, and everything good about that dish was already pretty bland. Part 5 continues that film’s theme of slathering screeching music over totally banal sequences in the hopes that you might be too distracted by a date (or these days, a phone) to notice that nothing remotely scary is actually happening. This movie is another thin, useless lump carelessly slapped together by everyone but Screaming Mad George.

And he really must have been screaming mad, because he’s given fart-all to do here. Although his effects are still the best part of the movie, they look plasticky and cheap, through no fault of their own. This is what happens when you’re asked to bring kids’ toys to life. It’s a hazard of the job (although there’s no excuse for a shoddy, halfhearted, larger piece that shows up in the third act). 

There’s at least a shred of creativity here (an evil Santa doll with a revolving head that plays Jingle Bells until it switches to a fanged face and blares a funeral march is by far my favorite thing in the movie), but these scenes are far more slashery than the MPAA-deceiving body horror of Part 4, and as such have the bajeezus cut out of them. Every last drop of blood is sponged from this movie, so as an effects showcase there’s no way these crummy dime store monstrosities can hold a Citronella candle to the dripping insect nightmare appendages that torture Neith Hunter in Initiation.

But her performance is back to torture us, so that’s cool, I guess.

The performances are more nondescript than Part 4, which I suppose makes them better, and Mickey Rooney at least instills an endearing warmth into the film in his opening scene (he never manages to shed his palpable discomfort when he’s asked to be sinister in any way, shape, or form). But it’s not like anybody could have performed this dialogue well. Sarah and a nurse share a Room-esque greeting, two teens are forced through a sausage grinder of unpronounceable slang, and the material crumbles form everyone’s mouths like mothballs.

The one thing I can cling to is that, especially in the third act, things get real weird in an invigorating burst of camp. The film inexplicably careens into soap opera melodrama and psychosexual absurdism, dragging its million disparate plot points into a miasma of aborted twists, fascinating sex scenes that defy physics and logic, and a charming lack of self-awareness. This reaches a shrieking crescendo with a reveal that can be predicted from the first frame of the film, yet is carried out in the most batsh*t way imaginable. And then the film abruptly ends at an arbitrary point, just like last time.

[HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERS: I didn’t want to spoil any of the delicious, gooey weirdness on tap here, but screw it. Who’s ever gonna watch this film anyway? This movie ends with a sitcom-style warm smile when Derek asks who the strange man who saved their lives is. This man is his real father, a reveal treated with the bizarrely sincere under-reaction of “kids say the darndest things, don’t they?”]

Anyway, Silent Night, Deadly Night V: The Toy Maker isn’t the worst of the bunch, but that’s hardly cause for celebration. This movie can’t match the dizzy heights of Part 4, and that one was a steaming turd. It’s no wonder that after this, the franchise didn’t see the light of day until 2012.

TL;DR: Silent Night, Deadly Night V: The Toy Maker is at least a return to Christmas-themed horror, but is a weak swing and a major miss for this ancient franchise.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1296
Reviews In This Series
Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier Jr., 1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (Harry, 1986)
Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (Hellman, 1989)
Silent Night, Deadly Night IV: Initiation (Yuzna, 1990)
Silent Night, Deadly Night V: The Toy Maker (Kitrosser, 1991
Silent Night (Miller, 2012)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Where Did You Come From, Where Did You Go?

Year: 2016
Director: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead 
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

We must always allow a movie its concept, that core flight of fancy that lays the groundwork for its plot. Sure, some concepts are more of a slight against decency, but since when did decency ever make much sense? You’d think a farting corpse would be much less offensive and controversial than one that rises from the grave to devour the flesh of the living, but The Walking Dead’s ratings proudly announce that they’re not. So, there you go. Decency be damned. Those that condemn Swiss Army Man as “that Farting Corpse Movie” are entirely missing the point. It’s a wonderful, beautiful hilarious, elegant, intelligent… Farting Corpse Movie.

I mean, a spade’s still a spade.

So, the flatulent cadaver in question belongs to Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). One day he washes up on the shore of a desert island just when the stranded Hank (Paul Dano) is about to give up and kill himself. Many farts later, Hank discovers that Manny’s gas can propel him through water, so he rides him like a jet ski to the mainland. Thus begins a journey to find home, where Hank discovers that Manny has many wonderful, helpful properties that allow him to act as an axe, a thermos, a compass, a gun, and much more. 

He’s mildly phased when Manny begins to talk, but is ecstatic to have a companion. He begins to teach Manny about what it means to be a human, but slowly realizes that maybe he doesn’t actually know. His life before this was empty, friendless, sad, and kinda creepy. He stalked a girl he sees on the bus (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and sent e-cards to his dad, and that’s about it. So it takes the friendship of a dead person to help him feel truly alive.

You know, just like in ALL movies with fart jokes.

It’s true that Swiss Army Man is frequently sophomoric and never stops being deeply weird, but it’s a movie that explicitly deals with the concept of weirdness in a way that most indie shock flicks wouldn’t even dream of. It blows up the idea, deeply examines the societal structures that dictate normality, finds them wanting, then tears off in a refreshingly bold direction. At its core, Swiss Army Man is a member of a hallowed, ancient genre (the male buddy comedy), but it remixes that conceit into something dazzling and original.

Although the basic plot structure adheres to that surprisingly mundane formula, there is no point at which Swiss Army Man stops pushing the envelope. It is a scatological, explicit, vaguely homoerotic adventure that drags you up and down your scale of emotions and plunks you down at the end, bewildered and exhausted yet strangely satisfied. This is a definition-defying movie, entirely open to interpretation yet nevertheless presenting a solid, identifiable story. It’s an enormously cumbersome task to describe it, but I feel an urgent need to push on because it struck a chord deep within me.

Like most viewers with the fortitude to soldier past the opening ten minutes (a sequence almost entirely centered upon farting – the easily-shocked don’t possess the strength required to break through that hardened crust to find the comedy crème-brûlée hiding beneath), I felt a deep, primordial, almost involuntary connection to Swiss Army Man that I can’t quite put my finger on. Not that I particularly want to. I’m perfectly content that my feelings are as tangled, perplexing, and ineffable as the movie itself. 

But the fact remains that Swiss Army Man is an intensely emotional, intelligent journey that it has absolutely no right to be. But the weirdness of its concept is exactly what opens it up to a whole new level of philosophical discourse.

Yeah, I used the phrase “philosophical discourse” in this review. I’m as shocked as you that it came up.

Alright, I think that I’ve got all my babbling out. Let’s talk for a bit about solid facts that we can actually quantify. Like this one: The score for Swiss Army Man has instantly risen into my Top Ten movie scores of all time.* 

It’s an incredibly important facet of the film’s atmosphere, an eclectic, mostly a cappella work that is integrated with the onscreen action so thoroughly that the characters literally interact with it. Their actions, dialogue, and the snippets of cultural detritus that make up their worldview are all incorporated into this stunning, bright score that’s simultaneously a soaring celebration of the film’s sense of adventure and a reflection of the ramshackle facsimile of the world that Hank has created around himself, composed of bits and pieces of litter he has found in nature. It’s the first score I’ve heard in a long time that feels like a vital and integral part of the narrative alongside driving the emotion of the scenes. Also, it accomplishes the impossible by transmogrifying f**king “Cotton Eyed Joe” into a hauntingly beautiful melody. There’s some straight-up black magic going on here.

I will not go into detail about myself tearing up over “Cotton Eyed Joe,” but I will close this rapturous segment with the idea that this music (especially a song entitled “Montage”) calls a lot of attention to the artifice of Swiss Army Man, which performs a manifestly important service. By reminding us that this is all a work of fiction, it allows us to escape that constant dithering between what is real, what is fake, and whether Manny is imaginary or not. It’s all imaginary. This is just a movie, after all. That frank admission cuts through the BS and brings you up close and personal with the actual content.

Speaking of black magic, Swiss Army Man would not work whatsoever if it weren’t for the herculean efforts of Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano, whose fearless performances propel the comedy into the stratosphere. On the most fundamental level, the fact that they commit enough to allow us to believe in what’s happening to them is astounding. Then they craft an emotional throughline around that core, another Sisyphean task. Then they have the gall to make it funny?

*For the record, that Top Ten also includes a fair bit of John Williams, maybe some Carpenter, and definitely Jim Dooley’s score for Pushing Daisies, which I’m well aware is not a movie, but I could not care less.

God damn it guys, leave some talent for the rest of us.

Radcliffe is downright perfect, maintaining his corpselike stiffness while creating an emotionally resonant character and precisely modulating his voice to capture the innocent wonder and fish-out-of-water hilarity of a corpse discovering the world for the first (or is it second?) time. It’s a physically, vocally, tonally unsurpassable work, and he does it all in an accent that isn’t even his own. While his body shakes with farts. And a prosthetic erection wiggles around in his jeans. Honestly, it’s a miracle any performer played this role, let alone Harry Potter. 

Dano is likewise superb, but his character falls into a much more recognizable vein (for the purposes of the film’s commentary on the sad, vaguely repulsive, self-serious lives of the young adults that inevitably populate these types of movies), so his performance is intentionally a bit less noticeable.

These two actors power-charge the giddy tone of this ridiculous, beautiful movie, so much so that they even survive its terrible ending. There is perhaps no way this movie could have ended in a proper, satisfying way, but the overlong finale is a little too intent on flooding Hank’s world with actual reality, then scuttling it all once more. It’s an ending that provides too little and too much explanation, defying an important set of character dynamics to return to the now-faded shock value of its opening. But other than that, Swiss Army Man is an incredible piece of work that defies Hollywood’s strict storytelling structure, reinventing the wheel of a hoary, predictable comedy genre in an innovative and intensely compelling way.

TL;DR: Swiss Army Man is a blissfully weird, surprisingly beautiful movie.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1361

Friday, July 8, 2016

Census Bloodbath: Spring (Psychotic) Break!

Year: 1981
Director: Romano Scavolini
Cast: Baird Stafford, Sharon Smith, C.J. Cooke 
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Hoping to erase the aftertaste of Absurd from my mouth, I decided to pop in the next 1981 slasher on the list, the notorious Video Nasty Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (primarily known in most territories as Nightmare, but who could possibly prefer that title?). I made a huge mistake. Despite the massive controversy around this particular film at the time, it’s practically a clone of that Joe D’Amato disasterpiece. It’s a Video Nasty from an Italian director with an interminably boring run time interspersed by too few gory blowout scenes, featuring a supernaturally inept police force and a young boy you dearly want to smack upside the head, played by an actor with the same name as his character.

So yeah, I loved it.

A slasher in the post-grindhouse sex monster vein of Maniac or Don’t Go in the House, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is one of the last vestiges of an exploitation genre I’m happy to see died off by the mid-80’s. George Tatum (Baird Stafford) is in an institution because his vivid nightmares (linked to a traumatic memory of seeing his dad in the throes of S&M passion before murdering him and his lover with a handy axe) fling him into homicidal rages. Once his pompous doctors are convinced that they have rehabilitated him, they release him onto the streets of New York City, where he more or less immediately begins killing again. Good work, team.

Seemingly arbitrarily, Tatum steals a car to drive down to Daytona Beach (woohoo!) and stalk single mother Susan Temper (Sharon Smith), her lover Bob (Mik Cribben), and her brood of children, the only relevant one of which is C.J. (C.J. Cooke). C.J. is the kind of prankster imp that only exists in slasher films like a serial killer and fake his own stabbing. You know, the classics. C.J.’s malfeasance inevitably provokes his mother into a tempestuous rag that’s shrill and kind of hilarious to watch as she tuckers herself out.

So. WHY is Tatum stalking this family? HOW can he be stopped? WHEN will C.J.’s family finally believe his boy-who-cried-wolf story of a man following them around? And WHO the f**k cares?

Certainly not me. I’m actively rooting for this twerp to meet his maker.

I was briefly jazzed about this movie after seeing Tom Savini’s name in the credits, but even without knowing about the controversy surrounding that (I found out later that Savini was falsely credited after giving the film a cursory consultation and not much more), I could have told you it was a sham. I’m a huge Savini fan, and while I recognize that some of his effects have aged better than others, he would never have tossed together something so chintzy and artificial as Nightmares’ throat-slitting scene, with its neck that looks one degree down from papier-mâché. 

This film’s gonzo gore sequences are the reason it’s revered in certain horror circles, but personally I feel that its notoriety outweighs its delivery. I have a certain admiration for the effects supervisor’s penchant for melodramatic, gushing geysers of blood, but the kills are too routine for this type of slasher (throat slashing, beheading, strangling, and is it alarming that these feel boring to me? Perhaps it’s best not to think about it) and they’re rendered spectacularly poorly. When they’re rendered at all. 

Much like Absurd (which is an apt comparison, not just because it’s the most recent one I watched), the notorious gore is oddly demure, leading to a frustratingly large proportion of offscreen kills or murder sequences that are edited so poorly that you can’t see who is being killed or how. Why is certainly beyond me, because as much as these filmmakers attempt to create sympathy for the killer, their screenwriting textbook must have had gum on the chapter about character development, because anything even resembling a real human being is suspiciously absent.

Because of this film’s post-grindhouse mien, our two protagonists are the killer himself and his most obvious counterpart: the unpredictable, devilish, and easily threatened C.J. Because George Tatum has no motive that’s visible to the human eye (we won’t find out what his deal is until the final frames in a tossed-off moment that is both predictable and sublimely idiotic), following him is a wash, and any time we switch over to C.J.’s perspective, we’re dunked in an ice cold barrel of hatred because he’s the worst human being ever to walk this godforsaken planet. Speaking in a shrill whine that only dogs can hear, he prowls through the film like a Terminator programmed to perform only the most annoying acts his human form is capable of. So that's a bust, and everybody else in the film is a slackly acted, one-dimensional blob that doesn’t even have a solid stereotype to cling to.

Only Susan stands out from the crowd, and that’s just because she tends to lose track of her lines halfway through saying tem.

There’s not much there to redeem Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. The best moment in the film is a montage where various local radio station intros track Tatum’s progress down the coast toward Daytona. So the bar isn’t terribly high. There’s some mildly amusing camp simmering in the background (the doctor pursuing Tatum is as comically inept as Wile E. Coyote, there’s a particularly prominent example of an 80’s Movie Magic computer, and the film screeches to a halt to spoil the ending of Antonioni’s Blow-Up for no particular reason) and an early nightmare sequence displays some giallo-esque surrealism, but the movie’s ineptitude is a weighty juggernaut that crushes all pleasure.

When it’s not being grim and grimy, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is either listlessly repeating its key flashback scene, displaying some of the least erotic bumping and grinding ever put to film (the babysitter’s boyfriend tilts back and forth on her pelvis like a rocking horse), or pounding us with incomprehensible, amateurish gore. I have no clue why this film gleans any sort of respect from otherwise sane horror fans. It’s a boring, impotent dribble of blood and it ought to be put away for good.

Killer: George Tatum (Baird Stafford)
Final Girl: I guess C.J. Temper (C.J. Cooke)
Best Kill: S&M mistress’s decapitation is a delightfully lurid affair, with her neck spurting blood like a fire hose.
Sign of the Times: Susan entices the babysitter to come over by offering her the high, high price of $20 for two hours. That’s literally minimum wage at this point.
Scariest Moment: While taking pictures of the house for a realtor, Susan and Bob notice that in one of the Polaroids, there’s  man’s silhouette in the window.
Weirdest Moment: When young George Tatum walks in on his dad having sex, he’s wearing a bow tie for some reason.

Seriously, does he work at a catering company or something?

Champion Dialogue: “What if you marry her? Will you be my father or something like that?”
Body Count: 8; including the killer and 2 in a flashback, which is a startlingly low number for a 1981 joint.
  1. Mr. Tatum’s lover is decapitated by an axe.
  2. Mr. Tatum is axed in the forehead.
  3. Barbara has her throat slit.
  4. Candy is killed some damn way.
  5. Tony is killed offscreen.
  6. Joey is garroted.
  7. Cathy is hacked to death with a claw hammer.
  8. George Tatum is shot.
TL;DR: Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is a boring, tawdry slasher that doesn't deserve the notoriety it has achieved.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1267