Thursday, February 28, 2019

Tears For Fears: Scare-editary

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2004
Director: Lorena Villareal
Cast: Miguel Rodarte, Elizabeth Ávila, Francisco Gattorno
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

The thing about La Llorona is that, as the ghost of a woman who cries all the time, it's very easy to paint her as a stereotype of female hysteria and embrace lots of very bad clichés about "how women are," rather than as the literal metaphysical embodiment of pure grief. We've seen this before and we'll see it again, but 2004's Las Lloronas breaks the mold in a very special way. It's the first film on the list to be directed by a woman (one who gets special thanks in the credits of Roma, no less), and as usually does with this type of story in a male-driven art form, it makes a world of difference.

Not that there's NOT a lot of crying.

Las Lloronas tells the story of three generations of women who are all descended from the original Llorona (for those who need a reminder - a woman who was spurned by her husband and drowned her children in retaliation) and are cursed to have their male children die during an eclipse. Lucía (Elizabeth Ávila) has just returned to her hometown with a newborn son and deadbeat husband in tow. While her husband is off trying to do business with her uncle (something about digging wells, even though the water in the town is contaminated - metaphor alert!), she reunites with her ex-boyfriend Luis (Rodrigo Mejía) and her not-really cousin Hernán (Miguel Rodarte, the only person in this movie I'd heard of before, but I suppose that's not really saying much - he's famous though, is what I'm trying to get across), both of whom are deeply, madly in love with her.

As the eclipse draws near, tensions boil to a head for Lucía as her loveless marriage crumbles and her mother - spurred on by her grandmother's grim tarot readings - descends into madness, worried sick for her grandson and certain that submerging him in the river will save him from the curse. Similar drama emerges for her cousin Diana (Elizabeth Valdez), who unexpectedly bears a son days before the eclipse is due.

It turns out it's still difficult to find good screenshots for obscure Mexican horror. Who knew?

Now, let's make one thing clear. Director/co-writer Lorena Villarreal is absolutely not interested in making a horror film. She positions La Llorona and her curse as an ancestral burden in the way that Hereditary was totally attempting to, and uses it as fuel for what amounts to folklore-tinged, feature-length telenovela. It's not interested in cheap scares because it's not interested in scares at all. 

This is the stuff of pure melodrama, and just like all the purest drugs it's wholly intoxicating. There are guns pointing every which way, multiple counts of incest, secret dalliances and business dealings, backstory revelations, and all sorts of plotty threads to wrap you up in the film. The men are all gorgeous (especially Rodarte, who looks good now as a silver fox, but was quite the stunner when he was young), the soundtrack is a string of bangers (as you can see in the poster above, this movie was even promoting the presence of the track "Bandido" by Ana Bárbara, a selling point which I fully endorse), and it's really the ultimate treat a soap opera fan might want.

But, even more importantly, Las Lloronas has heart. Villareal has taken one look at the legend and cut right through it to its political core, telling a story of women being battered and bruised by the patriarchy - sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically. The men in their lives die or leave or torment them time and again, and the noble burden of women is to suffer, survive, and thrive with what little they're given from a world that isn't built for them to succeed. The actresses who bring this story to life are superb, especially for this budget level, and by the time the film hits its grand finale I was fully sobbing on my couch from the pure, unadulterated feeling of it all.

This movie truly makes you BECOME La LLorona.

Las Lloronas isn't perfect, and I'm not trying to convince you it is. Its pacing is quite deliberate, and  if you come in expecting it to be a creepy horror story this will hit you especially hard. And there are a lot of cutaways to various psychic visions that are a little too repetitive, even if they are stylish and are the only moments that feature the actual Llorona, presented as a faraway figure tinged with a bit of a J-horror feel in her look and the motion of the camera watching her.

But all in all, it was a stunning effort, pumping every ounce of potential from its extremely low budget. Though I will say that this is one of those recommendations where I feel inclined to attach a grain of salt. If you aren't as inclined to melodrama and regional storytelling as I am, there's probably not much for you here. But if you're ready to receive it, Las Lloronas has a lot to give. 

This is not the best movie about La Llorona, because it's only about her insofar as she provides a theme and a framing narrative. But this is the movie I've enjoyed most so far in this marathon, one that has been an unusually satisfactory and rewarding series to begin with.

TL;DR: Las Lloronas is less a horror film and more a melodrama, but it's a spectacular melodrama.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 963

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Some Of It Is Just Really Dumb

Year: 2009
Director: John Putch
Cast: Bug Hall, Kevin M. Horton, Eugene Levy
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Have I fallen behind on my American Pie Presents marathon? Yes, absolutely. Did I do this because I got distracted by other, better marathons? Certainly. Do I still feel an urgent obligation to finish what I started, because I am a mad completist? Of course, have you met me?

My sincerest apologies to women everywhere.

American Pie Presents: The Book of Love, which is at the time of writing the final spinoff on our roster, is essentially as much of a remake of the original American Pie as its possible to be. We follow best friends Rob (Bug Hall), Nathan (Kevin M. Horton), and Marshall "Lube" Lubetsky (Brandon Hardesty) - of course that nickname had to appear at some point in this franchise, and naturally he's the only character with a foregrounded last name in order to facilitate this - as they navigate tricky high school relationships. Also floating around them is another Stifler they pulled out of a hat. This one is called Scott (John Patrick Jordan).

They discover the fabled Book of Love in the school library, but only after it's severely damaged by a flood. They have a lot of sexy hijinks trying to interpret what it says, but eventually they decide to reconstruct it with the help of its original creator. And guess just who that might be...

If they had made any more of these, we'd be learning that Eugene Levy was the inventor of the pie, or the first person in history to masturbate, or something.

The Book of Love is neither the worst or the best of these four movies. Of course, the whole spinoff quadrilogy exists in the very narrow strait between 3/10 and 4/10, so these rankings are entirely relative. It benefits from being stretched across the structure of the original film, which has the built-in finale of the young men discovering how abhorrent their behavior up till now had been. Naturally this is a pale imitation with even more questionable content, but that inevitable end point drags it up a point by the skin of its teeth.

Unfortunately, the hijinks this time around - when they're not being hideously offensive and perpetuating the idea that women need to be tricked or cajoled into sex - are just plain boring. This entire film is a snoozefest, which is perhaps exemplified by that obligatory Eugene Levy cameo. His stuff in these spinoffs hasn't been funny, but the previous entries at least had the decency to include him in something that wasn't just an endless montage that eats up what feels like a quarter of the run time and is chockablock with the best, most dated cameos a direct-to-video sequel could pull in the late 2000's (see: Bret Michaels, Dustin Diamond, and... C. Thomas Howell?).

Also K-Fed plays a Canadian border agent, so their casting level is somewhere between Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Rehab.

Honestly the only casting decision that implies they had any idea at all what they were doing is the fact that software schlock director (and auteur of Chopping Mall) Jim Wynorski plays a small role. This is an implicit stamp of approval for the film like John Waters appearing in Seed of Chucky, though the Wynorski brand is on a tier waaaaaaay lower than Waters, for obvious reasons.

As for the non-famouses we see here (there's also a lesser Arquette rattling around), they're all pretty damn crummy. The three leads are blander than vanilla-essenced white bread, and John Patrick Jordan's Stifler impression is the worst of the franchise - he just chatters flatly and loudly, punctuating his speech with hyena screeches of laughter. It doesn't help that this is by far the worst written member of the Stifler clan, with dialogue toward women that is actively evil and an eventual comeuppance that is both deeply upsetting and terribly rendered (*trigger warning* he's raped by a CGI caribou that looks like an escapee from Zoo Tycoon - why anybody thought this should be a scene in a high school sex comedy I'll never know).

The only times where the film seems to actually be aware it's attempting to be entertaining are in the rich fantasy world of one of the three characters (if you think I remember which, your faith in my attention span after four of these things is much too high). He has Scrubs-esque flashes of imagination that are usually gross but at least provide something visually distinct every now and again.

So, yes. Definitely a waste of time. Don't see any of these movies, but especially don't waste your time getting all the way to the end, because you will not be rewarded.

TL;DR: American Pie Presents: The Book of Love is a pale imitation of American Pie, but American Pie was a pretty good movie to be a pale imitation of.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 829
Reviews In This Series
American Pie (Weitz, 1999)
American Pie 2 (Rogers, 2001)
American Wedding (Dylan, 2003)
American Pie Presents: Band Camp (Rash, 2005)
American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (Nussbaum, 2006)
American Pie Presents: Beta House (Waller, 2007)
American Pie Presents: The Book of Love (Putch, 2009)
American Reunion (Hurwitz & Schlossberg, 2012)

Friday, February 22, 2019

Tears For Fears: El Cuerpo Del Deseo

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

A caveat: I had to watch this film in unsubtitled Spanish, which I'm not entirely fluent in despite what my AP testing certificate says. Thus there may be some nuance lost by me not understanding 75% of the dialogue, but honestly probably not as much as you'd think.

Year: 1991
Director: César Miguel Rondón
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

For all intents and purposes, the movie I'm about to review does not exist. There is no entry for 1991's La Llorona on Letterboxd or IMDb (a service so thorough that even my student short film is on there). There are no reviews for it anywhere I can find. Literally the only evidence that it exists is the fact that I watched it on Amazon Prime and it obviously didn't just play a blank screen for an hour and a half.

Depending on who you ask (and there are not a lot of people to ask), director César Miguel Rondón is either a novelist or a producer of telenovelas, possibly both. But my instincts steer me toward the latter, because La Llorona 1991 is produced exactly like a low budget novela, down to the fact that every twenty minutes or so it fades to black and opens back up with a title card. But whoever he is, and whatever this movie happens to be, I've vowed to review them all, so review it I must.

There are also no images of this movie online, because see above. So imagine that these delicious conchas are a high-res screengrab from a film that totally exists.

OK, so as far as I can figure it, the plot is as follows. Fisherman Ismael is married to the beautiful Cayita, and they have a child together. He cheats on her with the bruja Carmelina, who uses her magic powers to ensnare men, but when he leaves the witch vows revenge. She calls up a storm to kill Ismael, and a year later arranges for a jealous man to murder Cayita's new lover while she burns down her home with the child inside. 

Cut to an unspecified amount of time later. We're in the city instead of a fishing village, and this is where I really start to lose the plot. A businessman is cheating on his wife and has visions of Cayita (whether or not he's the jealous lover who murdered her boyfriend, all grown up, is entirely unclear to me - but it's my working theory). She has now become La Llorona, and haunts him with visions of a wailing hag to I guess convince him to go back to his wife or something.

Honestly, it reminded me of the telenovela La Rosa de Guadalupe, in which a magical flower solves the problems of a different dysfunctional family every episode. This could have been a backdoor pilot for a procedural where La Llorona fixes ailing marriages. A show I absolutely would have watched.

Now let's make one thing absolutely clear. This film is cheap as all get out. It's self-evidently a regional production (probably for television) that managed to wriggle its way onto Amazon, and as such doesn't have two crew members to rub together. So it obviously wasn't going to be particularly great to begin with, but the regional quality does give it a certain spark in the opening act. 

La Llorona takes place in a very specific location, one which does not get a lot of play in the mainstream media. The fishing village in which it was shot is every bit as important to the movie as the wildly gesticulating cast. Sure, the sea breeze is tossing everybody's hair around in every scene and screwing up the audio, but its sense of place is completely authentic. This isn't a movie set; it's a slice of a real, wholly unique place that is exciting to explore.

Unfortunately, the people who are exploring it aren't exactly stellar filmmakers. I've already mentioned the wind, but certain key scenes are framed conspicuously behind, say, a row of people making a fishing net. Again, a fun glimpse into the daily life around this area, but when you can only see a quarter of the film's actual action, it doesn't make for a smooth viewing experience. And the actors do their absolute best with the material, but it's obvious that they're untrained. The performances perk up any time the script lurches into full-tilt melodrama and they get to writhe in the surf and wail for three uninterrupted minutes, but otherwise it's an unremarkable cast all around.

Just like these poor brown conchas. Too generic and similar to be as arresting as the other ones.

So there is some good about the film, but unfortunately every micrometer of what makes it interesting is lost the second the plot pivots into the city. We're treated to a lot of flatly lit, poorly decorated interiors, an endlessly repetitive story populated by boring characters who do nothing, and the all-too infrequent scare sequences showing off the extreme limitations of the effects (the final reveal of La Llorona shows that the rubbery mask does have a couple patches that look like grotesque scabby skin, which definitely turns the stomach, but otherwise this is dime store Halloween nonsense).

It feels like the film has tacked its own sequel onto the back, and it proves the theory of diminishing returns beyond a shadow of a doubt. And the returns were microscopic to begin with. La Llorona is a tedious slog that only redeems itself by accident. Nothing that was intentionally put onscreen here is interesting in the slightest. Plus, this is the first film in the lineup so far that really leans into the parts of the Llorona legend (the parts that it deigns to take at all - this is another extremely loose adaptation) that seem powerfully sexist and reductive. In the wrong hands, this material is just a diatribe against female hysteria, and these hands, well they ain't right. 

TL;DR: La Llorona is a melodramatic heap of nonsense, and while the melodrama can be fun on occasion, the nonsense certainly isn't at all.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1053

Monday, February 18, 2019

Tears For Fears: Tears In The Witch House

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 1963
Director: Rafael Baledón
Cast: Rosita Arenas, Abel Salazar, Rita Macedo
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

I suppose you could say the cinematic Llorona boom began in in the 1960's. Although it wouldn't really catch hold until the turn of the millennium (when digital filmmaking made regional cinema much easier to produce), the several decade-long gap between Llorona films ended here, with 1960's La Llorona being followed almost immediately by La maldición de la Llorona AKA The Curse of the Crying Woman (the English-translated titles always end up sounding like Billy Wilder comedies). It came out in either 1961 or 1963 depending on who you ask, but this is the first one that really gained traction in America at all, given the fact that it has a credited translator and "American director" on the awful English dub I was forced to watch.

And as we know, America has the best taste in foreign cinema.

The Curse of the Crying Woman begins in true gothic style, with a young woman Amelia (Rosita Arenas) and her husband Jaime (Abel Salazar) arriving by horse-drawn carriage at the house of her estranged aunt Selma (Rita Macedo), who has mysteriously invited them after a sixteen year silence. After a series of creepy events occur, they learn that Selma has pledged herself to her ancestor, a powerful bruja known as The Wailing Witch (Beatriz Bustamante). She wants Amelia to join their ranks, resurrecting the Witch (who cries because she has exchanged her soul for immortality and pledged herself to evil and suffering) and turning to the dark side at the stroke of midnight on her 23rd birthday.

Also some randos die because they need to drink blood or whatever. It's a whole thing.

If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that this plot summary has jack all to do with la Llorona. And you're quite right, imaginary reader. There is no ghost, there are no drowned kids (seriously, we're 0 for 4 on the drowned kids so far), and there's only a little bit of crying. I think this is what we here in America call a "rip-off." Rather than a faithful (or even reasonably informed) take on the Llorona legend, this is a hodgepodge of Old Dark House tropes tossed in a Yahtzee cup and dumped all over the frame.

Fortunately most of these things are pretty fun, in a 60's B-movie kind of way. This film is all about the things that go bump in the night, and around every corner of the mansion is a strange deformed beast, a rotting corpse, or a mirror that shows not all is quite as it seems. If William Castle had been making movies in Mexico, this is exactly what he would have churned out.

Plus, the effects that bring these clichés to life are honestly pretty great. There is some terrific mirror-work here (even if the "reflections" don't always match the motions exactly), the monster lurking in the attic (don't ask) has deliciously macabre mottled skin, the moment where the sky behind Amelia lights up with glowing eyes is a surreal slice of expressionistic horror, and when Aunt Selma assumes witch form (with empty eye sockets and a wicked grin), it's a skin-crawling image.

She doesn't need eyes to see that you're freaked out.

This film also continues the Llorona tradition of being surprisingly nasty for the time period. It's not gory per se, but the opening scene involves a knife being thrown into somebody's chest and a woman's neck being run over with a wagon wheel. It's just implication, sure, but it's brutal implication. 

Unfortunately, even though this film embraces its genre elements well, the characters who are thrown up against these elements are a complete waste of time. When God was handing out character traits, Jaime must have been playing hooky. And Amelia is a completely reactive protagonist, wandering blankly around and being shocked at various things until the movie just sort of ends around her. And what an egregiously dull ending it is! A film that's at least on paper all about the power struggle between two women ends with a fistfight between the men in their lives (a monstrous ex-husband and a scarred butler, to be precise), following a scene that's just five minutes of Amelia sloooooowly tugging on a saber with absolutely no musical underscore.

And this comes after a second act that keeps circling back around to Selma explaining her evil plan over and over again to anybody within earshot. The Curse of the Crying Woman has an incredibly thin, repetitive narrative that desperately stretches on and on to hit feature length. At least it has one saving grace in the form of Rita Macedo. Although the English dub completely obliterates an important facet in judging performance, she still shines as the lip-smacking evil vamp. She has a movie-star face that demands the attention of the lens, and a delectable combination of elegant poise and deep commitment to the silliness of her role. She's a great joy to watch, as is a lot of the haunted house routine she puts her victims through, so it's not like the movie's a waste of time. It's just... you know. Not the best. What're you gonna do?

TL;DR: The Curse of the Crying Woman is a fun hodgepodge of familiar 60's horror clichés, but it's not a great Llorona movie and it completely fails to stick the landing.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 941

Friday, February 8, 2019

Tears For Fears: Scary Poppins

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 1960
Director: René Cardona
Cast: María Elena Marqués, Eduardo Fajardo, Luz María Aguilar 
Run Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

As far as I can tell, there was a pretty substantial gap between Llorona appearances in cinema after her auspicious debut in 1933. In fact, she wouldn't grace movie screens again until 27 years later, in another movie with the exact same title: 1960's La Llorona. It's also essentially a remake of the first film, or at the very least is structured very conspicuously in the exact same way. But like all remakes, this gives us a chance to look at the same story from two angles in two very different lenses, and isn't that literally the whole point we're doing this?

Not that there's a "point" to anything I do on this blog, but this one feels especially exciting for some reason.

In this iteration of La Llorona, a young couple - Margarita Montes (Luz María Aguilar) and Felipe Arnáiz (Mauricio Garcés) - gets married despite the protestations of Margarita's father Don Gerardo (Carlos López Moctezuma). When Margarita becomes unreasonably attached to their son Jorgito (Marina Banquells), never wanting to leave his side, Don Gerardo tells Felipe the legend of La Llorona and her curse upon his family.

La Llorona was once Luisa del Carmen (María Elena Marqués), a mixed race woman seduced by a Spanish settler named Don Nuño de Montes Claros (Eduardo Fajardo). He abandoned her for his Spanish fiancée, but not before leaving her with two children. She stabs them both in a rage (this is where we can most see how this is likely a remake of the 1933 film rather than a restaging of the same myth, because typically La Llorona drowns her children rather than stabbing them) and vows to kill the firstborn of all of his descendants before they turn five years old.

Wouldn't you know it, but the Arnáiz family gets a new nanny, and she looks an awful lot like this Llorona lady we were just talking about, and she doesn't seem to take the safety of the child very seriously...

If Mary Poppins had eyes this steely, the Banks kids would have run in the opposite direction.

You might recall that the thing I loved the most about the 1933 La Llorona was the fact that it depicted the spirit as a sort of paranormal vengeance for indigenous Mexicans against their conquerors, and that political spirit is continued here. There is certainly less specifically indigenous iconography, but race is more freely and spiritedly discussed in the dialogue, and oh the dialogue is leaps and bounds ahead. 1960's Llorona brims with poetry, with certain scenes feeling almost Shakespearean in nature. It's even beautiful translated into English, and there are a handful of lines that definitely left me reeling through sheer stylization.

But that's not to say La Llorona isn't visually poetic as well. It generally wields a much stronger air of filmmaking competence (a couple scenes do drag - especially a honeymoon montage that is just wide shots of water sports that go on for what feels like 20 minutes - but the pace is otherwise swift and the shots don't cut off every performer at the hairline), but there are certain moments where the film springs to life.

I want to speak about one shot in particular, which takes place immediately after the death of La Llorona's children and before she is executed by an angry mob (a scene that itself overwhelms you with sheer excess, shrieking the existential horror of its own existence through its heightened soundscape). When the mob first catches wind of her misdeeds, they become one teeming mass of grasping clawlike hands whirling around her emotionless face. She remains calm and poised in the venomous afterglow of her murder, glamorous and wicked and horrible, and the shot in question is unspeakably gorgeous work that would have made any arthouse director of the time instantly jealous.

I will think about this shot for years to come. It's not the only strong work on the part of the cinematography but it's certainly the most striking, and a powerful argument for the existence of this film merely on its own merits. But there's a lot of other stuff to like too, how lucky we are!

The third act certainly can't bring itself to repeat the glorious, horrifying highs of the second, devolving into an almost cartoonish comedy of errors about La Llorona's repeated failed attempts to murder a child. But the thing is, I like this section almost as much, even if it's for totally different reasons. This is the stuff of pure melodrama, chock full of oversized reaction shots, extreme close-ups on crazed eyes, and cackling behind the backs of clueless parents.

Both of these acts are lifted entirely on the back of María Elena Marqués, who gives a performance that swings between effortlessly subtle (a prolonged shot where she transforms into an old hag is so quiet and understated you almost wouldn't even notice it until the very end) and pitched to the rafters (she's basically Wile E. Coyote in the end). This is perfect, because this film takes it upon itself to be much more of a psychological portrait than the previous entry. Sure, it gets lost down some avenues of paranormal mumbo jumbo, but this is a Llorona who was already flawed as a human. The primary new wrinkle here is that she detests her children because she blames them of the man who left, a man they can't help but remind her of. The film spends a lot more time with her than before, shading her as less of a stock hysterical female and more of an actual rounded character. Well, "rounded" for a character that is literally still the spiritual embodiment of perpetual female suffering.

In the end, I honestly don't think La Llorona feels like a single consistent piece. And I wish they had continued down the road of making it a tremendously affecting bit of emotional, artistic dread. But I'm certainly pleased with what I have instead. It's a fun, wild ride, and the best Llorona movie I've encountered so far. I hope we get a movie down the line that embodies everything I know this character can be, but until the moment we find it (if it ever comes), this is a perfectly acceptable substitute with a lot to love.

TL;DR: La Llorona is a tonally inconsistent film, but both of the tones it takes on are satisfying in their own way.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1125

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

What A Rush

Year: 2007
Director: Andrew Waller
Cast: John White, Christopher McDonald, Eugene Levy
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Yup, they kept making these and I'm gonna keep reviewing em. This is the circle of hell I have designed for myself. American Pie Presents: Beta House, which came just a year after The Naked Mile is the only one of the Pie spinoff movies to be a direct sequel, so at least there's that. And it's a sequel to the only film to show even a glimmer of potential, so I'm glad they recognized what they had for that oh so brief time.

Plus, the intervening year at least gave everyone a chance to become just that much hotter.

So, here returns Erik Stifler (John White) and his friend Cooze (Jake Siegel), now at Generic College and ready to rush Beta, the frat run by Erik's cousin Dwight (Steve Talley), his right-hand-man Bull (Dan Petronijevic), and previously unseen party boy Wesley (Jonathan Keltz). We follow their romantic travails with a variety of sorority babes (Erik's girlfriend Tracy, around whom the entire previous film revolved, has dumped him unceremoniously offscreen), but meanwhile things start to heat up with a nerdy rival frat run by tech geek Edgar (Tyrone Savage), who want to see those dumb jocks kicked off campus.

I can't say I blame them.

One thing Beta House benefits from is the fact that almost all the previous cast members have returned. I wouldn't say this is because any of them were particularly good, but we already have a relationship with these characters. Even if that relationship is "they didn't really make an impression on me," it's still easier to jump into this movie without having to meet a whole new slate of bland frat boys.

Of course, this being the same cast of characters also exposes us to their innumerable flaws. Beta House has a fearsomely long run of transphobic jokes to replace (most of) the jokes at the expense of little people that defined The Naked Mile, and there continues to be absolutely no reason that anybody should want to hang out with or engage in sexual congress with Dwight Stifler.

Unfortunately, beyond basic recognition of the people involved, the plot is radically un-engaging. The frat rivalry forms the central spine of the narrative, but the movie must have severe scoliosis, because that plot thread swerves out of reach in favor of a bunch of pointless romantic (read: "sexy") vignettes about all the boys and their raunchy escapades. When the plot finally kicks in with half an hour to go, it's not much better, using a frat Olympic games as an excuse to insert a chain of (admittedly decent) gross-out gags rather than gather actual narrative momentum.

And I think I just liked the beautiful pool more than the challenges themselves.

The gags here were never going to be good, but most of them are built on foundations that make zero sense, and anybody with lived experience beyond high school graduation will instantly clock about a thousand tiny problems with the premise. Fortunately, that excludes the entire demographic of this movie's audience. But seriously, there is an entire scene about how easy it is to make a grown man ejaculate in his pants (spoiler alert: these men clearly have a medical problem), and also a lot of gags revolve around a co-ed bathroom, which just wouldn't happen. It's not a thing, I promise.

And Eugene Levy is really just in this movie, isn't he? I always expect him to show up for a scene and then peace out, but he keeps coming back again and again and again, in further degradation of his established character (apparently now he's a frat legend with a wild sexual history). To be fair, he certainly only spent maybe two days on set, but they really milk every second out of him that they can, and it just resolutely refuses to work.

Beta House is exactly in line with this entire franchise: just watchable enough to be a meaningless diversion, but not worth a single lick of your time. But on the bright side, there's only one of these left! Why am I doing this! Dear Lord, tell me why!

TL;DR: American Pie Presents: Beta House is a pointless, aimless, vulgar movie.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 725
Reviews In This Series
American Pie (Weitz, 1999)
American Pie 2 (Rogers, 2001)
American Wedding (Dylan, 2003)
American Pie Presents: Band Camp (Rash, 2005)
American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (Nussbaum, 2006)
American Pie Presents: Beta House (Waller, 2007)
American Pie Presents: The Book of Love (Putch, 2009)
American Reunion (Hurwitz & Schlossberg, 2012)

Friday, February 1, 2019

Reviewing Jane: What A Shame, For I Dearly Love To Laugh

In which we review every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 2001
Director: Sharon Maguire
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

When I announced that I would be doing a marathon of films inspired by the works of Jane Austen, I had quite a few friends eagerly ask if Bridget Jones's Diary would be included. And of course it would be! The famous British rom-com, based on the bestseller by Helen Fielding, is notoriously a riff on Pride and Prejudice, because people who love Jane Austen still haven't read more than the one book apparently. I was excited to finally catch up with this film, which is one I had never seen until this point. But as we shall learn, apparently I was in the right to postpone it as long as possible.

Pictured: Me, rightfully, hiding from this franchise.

In Bridget Jones's Diary, a thirtysomething "singleton" named Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger, adopting a superbly flawed British accent) begins a diary for New Year's, documenting her efforts to lose weight, drink less, and find herself a man. While the diary is obvious an important framing conceit for the novel, it's more or less completely forgotten after a couple scenes, after two men almost instantly throw themselves at her. The first being her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant, who also appeared in Sense and Sensibility), a charming rake who between this and Love, Actually is the king of British rom-coms about inappropriate office relationships.

The second man is a divorced lawyer, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth, and did you know he played another prominent Darcy? I don't remember in what, but it definitely rings a bell...) with whom she has a terrible first impression. And that's about it. The two men orbit her as she gets drunk repeatedly and makes a fool of herself, and eventually she ends up with one of them. 

Because the love triangle between Wickham, Lizzy, and Darcy is TOTALLY the thing one thinks of first when one remembers Pride and Prejudice.

OK, first things first. Naming a character "Darcy" does not a Jane Austen movie make. There is no attempt at lining this story up with the original text beyond the idea that it's possible to fall in love with someone even if they don't seem particularly nice at first. It's an even lazier adaptation than Unleashing Mr. Darcy, and that was a Hallmark movie about dog shows, for shit's sake. No, much more than Jane Austen, this film reminds me of a text from a different titanic literary figure: Roger Ebert and his tome I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.

Sifting through the elements of Bridget Jones's Diary that make it a colossal irritant is a Herculean task, but let's throw a dart and pick an element at random. Like, say, the soundtrack, which at every turn makes the most immediately obvious choice like a Suicide Squad for the on-the-couch-with-Ben-and-Jerry's set. We begin with the requisite needle drop of "All by Myself," the anthem of single people in rom-coms, but "It's Raining Men," Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and two separate instances of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" likewise flog subtlety to death. And then a scene with Bridget's mom is scored by "Me and Mrs. Jones" and you snap the DVD in half and throw it out the window.

This movie is marred at all levels by a complete lack of creativity. Plot beats so predictable you can convince your friends you're Nostradamus? Check. A character we're supposed to believe is "fat" and undesirable even though she weighs less than anybody you've seen all day? Check. A sexless and encouraging gay best friend (James Callis of Austenland, the only Austen connection this movie wasn't trying to milk for all it was worth, if only because the film hadn't been made yet)? Check.

What was Colin Firth's motivation for being in this movie? Check.

Bridget Jones is dramatically inert, with the men in her life not so much causing conflict as jockeying into position at the random whims of the screenwriter, one after the other. It doesn't help that Grant and Firth are both coasting entirely on their established screen personas and not locking into anything actually compelling or interesting about their characters on paper. The single biggest moment of tension in the movie involves Darcy running out on Bridget after reading her diary, a moment of drama more forced and drummed-up than a Bachelor promo on ABC which deflates within seconds in service of a "romantic" explanation featuring behavior that no human being on Earth would consider appropriate.

But the real problem is that the film is also comedically inert. The two biggest joke setpieces involve the most ludicrous contrivances just as a launchpad for aimless jokes with flabby, cliché punchlines (the most egregious being a party where the women are meant to dress like tarts, only the theme changed at the last minute so Bridget is dressed very sexy at what is now a genteel garden party - somehow this is shocking to a group of people who were perfectly willing to dress like tarts to begin with, if only the theme hadn't changed). The "humor" otherwise leans on its R-rating to do the heavy-lifting, scattering pointless F-bombs in every direction.

And this is a comedy movie from 2001, so of course there are the obligatory casual racist jokes and weird sexual assault overtones. Hooray!

Maybe this could all have been salvaged if the protagonist was in any way worth rooting for. While Renée Zellweger does her best despite drowning in that accent (in fact, I think she must be the only reason anybody liked this movie in the first place), Bridget Jones isn't a relatable mess. She's an abhorrent prick who drinks like a fish, misreads every possible social cue and rule of decorum, spits out homophobic insults, and makes sure she's the victim in every situation, even if she's the one who orchestrated her own downfall.

This movie was a real trial to get through, is what I'm saying. The only redeeming quality I can think of is that there's one point where her diary entries are displayed on the neon signs in Piccadilly Circus, a clever visual cue that reminds one of just how flat and boring the rest of the movie looks. So no. Not a good time, my friends.

TL;DR: Bridget Jones's Diary is a tedious, irritating lurch through the most odious rom-com tropes.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1102
Reviews In This Series
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron, 2004)

Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Pride and Prejudice (miniseries - Langton, 1995)
Bridget Jones' Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (Black, 2001)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)
Christmas at Pemberley Manor (Theys, 2018)
Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe (McBrearty, 2018)