Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Cinema File #343: "The Raid 2" Review

At the risk of sounding like an elitist, I’ve always felt that to fully enjoy the fruits of American popular culture, one must always be somewhat willfully ignorant of what are all too often their far superior foreign counterparts. For every great piece of American animation for example, or any trippy sci-fi idea that makes a high concept blockbuster feel fresh and original, there is invariably an anime series or movie, or a manga, that has done it better. For every Black Swan there’s a Perfect Blue, for every Inception, a Paprika. On the live action front, the new Indonesian action film The Raid 2, much like its predecessor, seems to exist purely to put American action movies to shame, establishing a new standard of hyper-kinetic badassery that the mainstream can only dismiss entirely, because it can never possibly hope to do anything as good.

If you haven’t seen the original Raid: Redemption, you don’t have to in order to enjoy this new installment (the second in a planned trilogy), but you should still stop reading this right now and check it out anyway, because it’s that good. If you need a reference, the structure of that film was later used for the 2012 comic book adaptation Dredd, pitting one man against an army of criminals in a high rise building all out for his head. The new Raid amps up the narrative interspersed between the fight scenes without taking anything away from them, following the main character from the first film going undercover into a crime syndicate to take down corrupt cops on their payroll. The result is everything that was great about the first movie magnified by characters and a story interesting enough that you can almost care about them as much as the action.

In many ways, The Raid 2 feels like the movie Quentin Tarantino has been trying to make for the last twenty years, or at the very least the authentic irony free movie he’s been ripping off all this time. It’s hyper violent without being silly, slapsticky, or self-aware. It’s more brutal, visceral, and bloody than any action movie you’re likely to see anytime soon, without being gratuitous or exploitative. The film practically dares you to resist pumping your fist every five minutes or so as the outwardly unassuming hero takes on legions of bad guys sometimes ten or twenty at a time, but never in a way that feels over the top or excessive. More impressive, he isn’t the kind of unattainably indestructible brawler of American action cinema, effortlessly cutting through his enemies in time for a quip. He gets hurt, and he just keeps going, and doesn’t need a clever line to punctuate his actions.

Aside from the many faceless thugs serving as cannon fodder, every character in the movie is given something more to work with than the bare minimum superficiality one would ordinarily find in this kind of movie stateside. Even the eccentric villains set up as boss fights are given just a little bit more depth, like the seemingly homeless assassin with the samurai ethic and estranged wife and son, or the two introverted siblings specializing in claw hammers and baseball bats respectively, quirky but not so much that they’re unbelievable, and with just the hint of a back story that doesn’t need to be made explicit to be effective. Another assassin barely has any lines and seems superfluous up until the penultimate fight scene where his character comes into play, but just by watching him fight he becomes more intriguing than most villains given time to monologue about their motives.

Everything about this movie is amazing and ridiculously entertaining from beginning to end, making its domestic box office performance not only a tragic disappointment, but a "Pearls Before Swine" indictment of the American movie going public. Our collective taste for action movies is so badly burned by excessive banality that even Arnold Schwarzenegger can't rile up enough passion to see one in theaters outside of the Expendables, and even then its more about nostalgia and irony than any genuine interest in watching bad asses be bad ass, but when a movie like The Raid 2 comes along, most of us can't be bothered. Its a shame, not because it is simply good, but because it is easily one of the best action movies ever made, so much so that I wonder if it wouldn't transcend its genre into near universal appeal. I literally can't think of anyone that I wouldn't recommend it to. As far as I'm concerned, everyone needs to see this movie. My little old Born Again Christian grandma in Belle Vernon Pennsylvania should see this movie about bloody hand to hand combat amidst an Indonesian gang war, and you should two.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Cinema File #342: "A Haunted House 2" Review

Much of the marketing for the new horror spoof A Haunted House 2 has taken advantage of the "Number 2" designation as a scatological double entendre, no doubt to pre-empt the inevitable attempt by pun happy critics to do the same after watching it. While the original film in this found footage series was still basically terrible, it had a few saving graces that put it just above unwatchable, notably a somewhat sweet relationship between the two main leads that partially mitigated the effects of a parade of annoying and offensive side characters. This new sequel has the opposite issue, with its supporting cast providing the only source for what passes for enjoyment, while the antics of its star wear thin almost as soon as they begin.

A Haunted House 2 presents the ongoing adventures of that supernaturally plagued goofball whose name I couldn't be bothered to learn the last time let alone this time, now with a new family grappling with some slightly different paranormal problems based on whichever horror films have come out since the last go round. It seems a bit odd that the larger structure is still aping the Paranormal Activity franchise considering that this was the first year in some time that we didn't actually get a new one of those, but then maybe the comically Hispanic neighbor is meant to be a parody of the Latin-centric PA spin off The Marked Ones. Or maybe I'm just putting too much thought into this and giving the writers far more credit then they deserve, and its just a flimsy excuse to do a lot of Mexican stereotype jokes staler than Carlos Mencia's career.

Beyond that, most of the satirical juice is rung out of The Conjuring, with a bit of Sinister and Insidious thrown in on the margins. Its a pretty weak slate frankly, especially considering they could have had Oculus and The Quiet Ones if they'd just waited a few months. Does The Purge count? I figure they probably could have done something with that. Yeah, sorry, I guess I can't help but tread a little water here trying to think of the movie this could have been, since it gives me so little to work with on its own. Maybe its because the Scary Movie franchise was revived in the same year as the first A Haunted House and sucked up some of the horror spoof oxygen, but somehow this latest attempt to poke fun at movies we kind of remember but have no real emotional investment in isn't really having the same impact that it used to (which was very little to begin with).

I'll dispense with the obligatory lecture on how far the spoof genre has sunk in the era of Friedberg and Seltzer, except to say that once again the impulse to target specific films rather than more general genre tropes leaves this movie doomed to be dated, ruining whatever jokes you manage to find funny while they're current. Not that you'll have an easy time on that treasure hunt, as moments resembling the few successful attempts at humor in the last film are virtually non-existent here. Instead, we get a few Austin Powers style call backs now run shamelessly into the ground (His dog is dead, hilarious!), and an extended sequence where Marlon Wayans rapes an old timey baby doll, culminating in graphically depicted forced analingus. Ow, my sides are splitting already.

The last one lost any good will it had in the beginning through the introduction of comically stereotypical characters like David Koechner's racist tech guy and Nick Swardson's repressed homosexual medium. If only for the sake of my sanity, the sequel loses all but the least offensive of these with a brief cameo from Cedric The Entertainer's ex-con priest, replacing the worst of them with the always delightful Jaime Presley as a new (I guess if it matters) love interest, an occult expert who continually finds himself in legal trouble over Skype, and a husband and wife team of paranormal investigators tweaking the main antagonists (I'm sorry) heroes, from The Conjuring. These last two are the only solid characters in the entire movie that work, and they should have been the whole movie. If only Wayan's character had been quickly killed off in the first five minutes along with his possessed wife (Spoilers!...oh, who cares?).

With A Haunted House 2, what at one point had just a glimmer of what you might generously call charm now comes across as a lazy (and thankfully unsuccessful) cash grab that in light of its poor box office performance will hopefully not be replicated with a part 3. Its so bad that despite being a committed fan of the kinds of horror movies it targets, or at least horror movies in general, I would fully support a moratorium on the entire horror genre at least for a few years just to deprive these people of the requisite material. To them I can only issue a plea to move on to a genre I have no interest in, like romantic comedies. There's a crap load of them every year, and I'm sure they're still as terrible as they were since the last time I was tricked into watching one. I assume there would be plenty of opportunities to force someone's head into a man's ass at any rate. Actually, you know what, just stop altogether. That's probably better for everyone.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Saturday Night Jive - Episode Nineteen, Jack (And Shit)

This week, in lieu of a new episode, we watch the classic Francis Ford Coppola movie Jack, starring SNL alums Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci himself) and Michael McKean...and also Robin Williams I think. Actually, this was just a flimsy excuse to re-watch a movie from our childhoods and see if it still held up to our now much more, ahem, mature standards. Along the way we ask the tough questions, like just what kind of sexual life this man child could possibly have, and whether or not his own mother secretly wants to fuck him. Enjoy everybody.


Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Dirty Sons Of Pitches - Netflix Commentary For Dinosaur Island (1994)

Well, I'm off today to record this week's Dirty Sons Of Pitches podcast, but in case you missed it, since I didn't post it earlier this week like I usually do, check out last weeks episode, a full length commentary track we did for a movie available on Netflix streaming, the 1994 schlocky soft core Jurassic Park cash grab Dinosaur Island. We find that a much more appropriate title would have been Big Boobied Lady Island, since there are more of them than there are dinosaurs. Enjoy!


Friday, April 25, 2014

The Cinema File #341: "Transcendence" Review

Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, feels like a movie his former boss Christopher Nolan might have passed on before settling on the upcoming Intersteller. It has all the trappings of a Nolan-ish movie with its transhumanistic futurism and pseudo-science underpinning personal stories of love and loss, just missing that essential unifying thing that sets an actual Nolan movie apart from your typical high concept drama. What that thing is has eluded many writers and directors who have tried to ape Nolan's formula since his breakout success, but one would have hoped that his own protege might have had some idea. Instead, we get a tired and mostly predictable anti-technology sci-fi thriller that's low on thrills and so insulting to actual human intelligence that it might just have you rooting for the machines to take over after all.

Dr. Will Caster is an expert in artificial intelligence who finds himself transformed into one after he's shot and eventually killed by a group of Neo-Luddite terrorists attempting to avert the Singularity. Now, there's a lot of stupid to unpack in that sentence, so let's start from the beginning. As the title suggests, the theme of the day is transhumanism, the melding of man and machine that leads to the creation of a new kind of life form, based around the idea that the next stage of human evolution is technological rather than biological. That is, unless the stupid apes who fear what they don't understand see it coming soon enough to shoot grenades at it. Yes, this is another one of those modern, technophobic Chicken Little movies in the grand tradition of The Terminator and, perhaps more to the point since its also terrible, The Net. After Spike Jonze so cleverly inverted this trope just last year in his excellent romantic comedy Her, to see the "A.I. is always Evil" gimmick trotted out so obviously so soon is more than a little disheartening, especially with so much talent involved here.

But wait, before we get too far into just how much this movie screws up its main premise, we have to talk about the villains, or maybe the heroes, of the movie, depending on where you fall on the idea of a Cloud based computer consciousness conquering the world by insidiously helping people and solving all their problems. Neo Luddite isn't a term I just pulled out of thin air, its actually used in the movie to describe the terrorists, and when I said Caster was "shot and eventually killed," I refer of course to the bullet that just grazes him, but happens to be laced with a radioactive isotope that poisons him, because, you know, just having better aim wasn't an option. Are you fucking kidding me? Anti-technology terrorist? Basically, all the Y2K idiots and pop culture junkies on the Internet who conflate the Singularity with Skynet are gonna pick up guns and start infiltrating technology sectors to assassinate scientists? I assume this is right after the hipsters unite and stage a revolution against the Man.

What's even worse is that the movie never knows who's side it wants you to take, and eventually settles on validating their stupid naive worldview because it doesn't have the balls to actually say that technology surpassing human intelligence might just actually be a good thing. We're meant to get HAL vibes right away as the computerized Caster seems just a bit off, playing in that uncanny valley on purpose to sow distrust as the film bounces back and forth on whether or not he's truly him, or just a digital approximation. Except the question doesn't ever become relevant to the action and is just cast off by the end. The real problem with the "A.I. as villain" concept is that here, the big bad computer doesn't actually do anything evil. They try to tack on a body snatcher subplot with nanobot fueled hybrids, but they come off more like advanced humans than robots with human faces, and once the cavalry rolls in, we're just supposed to take it as a given that their doing the right thing, and the only thing they can do, even though that means shutting down all technology and reducing the planet back to a pre-industrial age in the process.

That's not a spoiler by the way, even though it sounds like one and in any other movie would be. It really should be a spoiler actually, except that Transcendence makes the cardinal mistake of starting off with a flash forward that blows the ending for no other reason than to create a sense of foreboding dread and possibly set us up to think the evil machine caused this, so we'll hate and fear it as the humans do up until the point where we realize they stupidly did it to themselves for no reason. The nano-infected hybrids are linked, implying a Borg like collective, but no more so than social media links us today, and the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks of just letting this A.I. thing do what its doing. Seriously, Robo-Caster's grand plan is to revolutionize nano-technology to heal people and the environment, and apparently this is so devious a scheme that it requires all of us to give up our technology in favor of our freedom to die of diseases previously easily curable. If that's the choice, resistance isn't just futile, its counter intuitive, and you can sign me up for assimilation.

I want to say just by virtue of the director's obvious talent and the larger ideas the movie could have exploited, that Transcendence could have been so much better than it is, but the more I go over it in my head, the more depressed I become as I am forced to accept that this is probably the best treatment of this kind of material we're ever going to get, at least in a mainstream, big budget Hollywood movie. Outside of William Gibson novels and the odd anime here and there, the themes this movie tries so haphazardly to explore are maybe just a bit too complicated for the soulless process of reducing every idea to its lowest, most commercial friendly common denominator. Ironically enough, had Nolan actually been at the helm both as writer and director, he might have been the one person with enough cache built up to actually do it justice, but apparently he was too busy helping Zack Snyder ruin Superman to deal with such heady topics. Oh well, maybe when we achieve our next level of consciousness as one with the machine, we'll be able to figure out how to make this story work. Until then, vote Skynet.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Cinema File #340: "Sabotage" Review

I know I'm a little late with this one, but I just saw the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Sabotage. What's that you say? You forgot that Sabotage was even a thing? Well, you'd be forgiven if you did, seeing as how it came and went from American theaters almost as fast as Spike Lee's Old Boy. This movie represents the third consecutive bomb for Arnold Schwarzenegger since he left the Kali-fornia governor's mansion, and its really a shame too, because while none of them have been necessarily great on the order of his best work (as if anything could be), they've all been much better than the bad press surrounding them. Sabotage is admittedly the weakest by far of this Trilogy of Financial Disappointment, but that's not to say there isn't a lot to like, if not love about this testosterone heavy crime thriller.

Sabotage follows a crew of rough and tumble undercover DEA agents who try to skim ten million dollars from a pile of confiscated drug money only to be double crossed by one of their own, and later find themselves being murdered one by one. The Agatha Christie-esque "And Then There Were None" structure would ordinarily demand a premium on characterization so that the targets are interesting enough to care about before they die, and if the film could be said to have one major flaw, its that outside of Schwarzenegger as the team's beleaguered captain and maybe the lone female member, there isn't a lot to differentiate between these jocky misfits. I found myself referring to them by their past roles more than anything, Guy from LOST, Guy from How I Met Your Mother, Guy from Pacific Rim, and so on.

What the film lacks in interesting characters it makes up for in, well, not much really. It's weird; as much as I definitely came away from the movie with a mostly positive impression, thinking back on it now, I can't really pin point exactly what it was that I liked about it, and every time I try to focus on one element or another, only the flaws are memorable. Maybe there's just something about the raw, shaky cam thrill ride attitude, but then I normally hate that kind of thing in movies. The mystery is fun when its set up, but as it goes along, it gets too distracted from the main point of a once loyal crew torn apart, going off on tangents and misdirects introducing red herrings that are so obvious they only end up feeling like cheats. By the time the truth is finally revealed, its almost perfunctory, and then only an excuse for a final twist that barely qualifies as one to anyone even halfway paying attention. I'm not even sure why its called Sabotage, though it was changed from Ten and Breacher, both of which would have made a lot more sense in retrospect.

So why would I still recommend this movie despite its many, seemingly unavoidable structural flaws? Well, because its fucking Arnold Schwarzenegger, that's why. I know, its shallow, stupid, and probably motivated more by nostalgia than anything, and the fact that I recognize this doesn't make it less self-indulgent, but I guess there's still just a part of me that can't hate a movie that gives me Arnie with a gun in his hand kicking ass and taking names. This he does, with more gusto than you would expect for someone his age, once again proving his metal as an action star even though no one's paying attention anymore. Look at that picture right above this paragraph, with him all squinty and shit. You know he's just getting ready to kick somebody's ass, and its gonna be awesome. Every second he's on screen, which is thankfully the majority of the film as you would imagine, is delightful, and the last scene of the movie features him exclusively in a coda that almost by itself makes the rest of the film worth it.

More than anything else, Sabotage prompts one to reflect upon the once blockbuster career of the action icon at the helm and wonder just where he might go from here. Clearly, the lack of enthusiasm for his post-political film work has more to do with changing demographics and film going tastes than any apparent diminished capacity on Arnold's part, but then where does that leave him going forward? Today we like our action heroes firmly nestled in comic book franchises, and we all know how that turned out the last time he tried one of those, so it seems to me the only plausible alternative is a return to the genre that originally made him great: Danny Devito comedies. Or maybe barring that, some heady action-oriented Science Fiction. You know, assuming Triplets with Eddie Murphy somehow doesn't work out (and no, that's not a joke - that's actually happening).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Cinema File #339: "Oculus" Review

Horror movies come in waves. You never get just one slasher movie or one body horror movie, you get a few great original ones and then a billion imitators, and then those imitators mate, mutate, and replicate with the other sub-genres until the word derivative loses all of its meaning. Hopefully we've just about reached the tail end of the last big wave of found footage movies, and the next big thing in horror seems to be taking its cues from last year's surprising hit The Conjuring with old school throw backs to the haunted house movies of the sixties and seventies. The new horror gem Oculus fits well into this old is new mold while at the same time bending it with a novel non-linear structure, resulting in something that feels both classic and innovative at the same time, providing a blueprint for the coming years that I for one hope others try to follow.

The story follows two separate time lines chronicling the troubled lives of two siblings who lost their parents and their sanity in a battle against a cursed mirror, only to risk losing what little they have left years later as they seek revenge against the mysterious object. Almost from the very beginning, there is an entry point for this movie that is sure to turn off those more comfortable with a traditional narrative structure, as it begins to bounce between the past and the present with no overt cues other than the respective ages of the actors, which only becomes more muddled when the mirror starts skewing our perception of past and present, along with everything else. That's how it gets you, tricking you into seeing what it wants you to see, eventually driving you mad so that you will be more likely to meet a violent end and find yourself, or rather your spirit, trapped as one of its haunting reflections. At least that's what I think is going on. The movie is fairly light on concrete exposition, which only makes it that much more fun to experience.

What little information we get comes from a deranged and unreliable source, specifically the charismatic as all hell Karen Gillan as sister sibling Kaylie, who has spent her life since the death of her parents obsessing over how to prove the supernatural nature of the mirror before destroying it once and for all. Her lovably mad performance is the highlight of the movie, which ingeniously twists the final girl trope by making her survival only the first chapter of a larger and ultimately more tragic story. Her brother, recently released from a psych ward, has convinced himself that none of it was real, and his insistent protests and appeals to reason represent perhaps the first dogged skeptic in a horror movie that I didn't want to punch in the face for their stupidity. The conflict between these two characters never feels forced or contrived, and when the shit hits the fan and there's no denying the truth that this mirror really is something evil, everyone is on board, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're any better off.

The effects of the "monster" in this movie are subtle, just tweaking the way a person sees the world around them, creeping into their mind gradually and exploiting their own vices and weaknesses to eventually break them down. And it always wins, because it makes the rules. Even when you think you have it on the ropes or think you're free of it, that's only because that's what it wants you to think. Kaylie thinks she has it figured out and goes to great lengths to both defend herself against its tricks, but also turn them against it, leading to a sort of cat and mouse game that's more clever and successful than you would think considering one of the participants is an inanimate object without voice or movement. Thankfully, the movie knows how to parallel form with substance, creating an atmosphere where watching the movie places the audience into the same experience as the protagonists, unable to tell their left from their right, completely at the mercy of a nefarious controller. The movie leads you through the same psychological obstacle course as the mirror does its victims, employing misdirection at every turn until what should have been obvious smacks you right in the head.

Oculus is that rare horror film like last year's brilliant del Toro produced Mama that stays within the wheelhouse of what you would expect just enough to make you comfortable, but then uses the margins to go deeper and farther into a larger world you didn't know you wanted to play in. With Mama, that was a world of dark fantasy, while here the edges have the distinct feel of an original Japanese horror film, abstract and built upon performance, imagery, and sensory experience over obtrusive mythology or exposition. We don't need a flashback to show how the mirror was forged by demons or etched from the glass of a lightning strike on the beach of Roanoke island, or any other equally stupid origin story. The mirror just is, and you have to deal with it or let it take you down, and even if you try to deal, chances are it will still take you down. Further sequels will no doubt dispel a lot of this treasured mystery in favor of some silly and unnecessary explanation, but in the meantime, this presumably inaugural effort stands on its own as one of the best mainstream released horror movies in the last few years.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Saturday Night Jive: Episode Eighteen - Almost Heroes

Hey gang, check out a new episode of my podcast Saturday Night Jive! This week, without a new episode of SNL, we talk about SNL alum Chris Farley's last film Almost Heroes, which is almost halfway decent, but still pretty shitty. We're on the look out for body doubles, questioning director Christopher Guest's choices, and generally finding ourselves off topic discussing what movie we'll do next, because this one's so boring to talk about. Enjoy.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Cinema File #338: "Bears" Review

Since 2008, the Disneynature imprint has been producing a series of nature documentaries featuring startlingly beautiful imagery paired with some of the most cloyingly cute footage of exotic animals you'll ever see. Its last foray into the untamed world brought us Chimpanzee, the story of a chimp in search of a new family who finds a fraternal/paternal bond with an older male. Perhaps in recognition of the higher estrogen production of this genre's likely audience, their new film Bears is targeted squarely at the soccer mom set, or maybe if the Sarah Palin line is still culturally relevant, the mama grizzles. If you're into this kinda thing enough to shell out money for a ticket, you'll no doubt be along for the ride as this mama bear protects her cubs against the sometimes harsh but always visually captivating perils of her domain. If not, you probably have very little reason to bother.

This is the first one of these Disneynature movies I've seen, at least in the modern era anyway. The only Disney nature documentary prior to this that I have experience with is the infamous White Wilderness, known for its deliberately cruel treatment of the animals it depicted, wherein the filmmakers decided to start throwing lemmings off of cliffs when they wouldn't fall willingly, cementing the long standing myth of boom and bust suicide. One hopes that they've cleaned up their act by now, or at the very least, that any attempt to exploit their subjects in this case would only end hilariously a la Grizzly Man. Then again, while I can't see them forcing bears to do anything they don't want to do, the film is no less manipulative in its attempt at turning this instinctual annual migration into a relatable story. I assume this is the norm, but the anthropomorphizing of these giant forest dwelling monsters is a bit on the nose, owed in no small part to John C. Reilly's exuberant narration.

Maybe I'm just cynical, but as soon as we start giving the bears names, least of all names like Skye, Amber, and fucking Scout, while this might be a convenient entry point for most people who want to see these animals with human traits, it just completely takes me out of the movie. Its not just that its pandering, but its completely unnecessary and really a distraction from what could have been a much more somber and mature piece. Much like the recent Walking With Dinosaurs, this is a beautiful visual experience ruined by the need to alleviate the boredom of people who can't just watch nature in all its glory without some goofy voice in the background spoon feeding them a heartwarming interpretation of the events on screen. The movie would have worked even as a story without the prompting or the silly voices Reilly often uses for the young cubs, and would have ultimately proved more solemn and majestic, befitting the creatures on display.

For the record, and much to my surprise and delight, its not all mushy motherhood and cute kids at play. There are more than a few bears in Bears, notably an entire B story dedicated to a whole tribe of them that is mostly male dominated, and it features quite a few epic bear on bear fights to keep husbands, fathers, and precocious young boys in the audience from falling asleep. Just enough maybe, as at its core, this is a movie designed to function basically as Mom Porn, inspiring every mother in the theater to see themselves in Skye's dogged tough love approach to protecting her children. Or at least, that's what the movie wants you to take away from it as it ascribes motives to these characters they couldn't possibly have, and coincidentally finds one of the bear families that manages to actually find enough food to survive, as opposed to the many that presumably don't, or the many that would lose one of the kids along the way to a hungry wolf or cannibalistic bear.

Oh yeah, that's right, the movie implies that bears regularly resort to cannibalism when they can't find enough salmon, which for my money would have made for a much better movie. Speaking of better ways to do this movie, I couldn't help but feel like this might have been a lot more heartwarming if it were called Disneynature's Salmon, but apparently the emotional journey of the noble fish to reclaim their birthplace and propagate their family, swimming against the current in a metaphor for the uphill battle we all face in life was deemed less interesting than the plight of the giant furry beasts who try to eat them along the way. Kind of depressing in retrospect, but hey look, cute bear cubs! I hope they make it, otherwise the large and seemingly well stocked film crew observing them might come across like dicks for just watching them die and not helping them out in any way. Happy Easter everybody.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cinema File 337: "The Occupants" Review

One of my favorite movies of 2013 was a little low budget horror flick called Haunter, directed by Vincenzo Natali of Cube and Splice fame. The great thing about the movie was how it managed to be so original in a sub-genre of horror movies where almost every possible permutation has been done to death (no pun intended). Ghost stories are hard, even when you're not doing something new and just trying to get the basics right, so to see both done so well was such a pleasant surprise. The Occupants is the first ghost movie I've seen in 2014, and while its unfair to compare two otherwise unrelated films, I can't help but feel even more underwhelmed than I might have been without the comparison.

The Occupants is the story of a young couple living in a new house with their new baby who suddenly find themselves besieged by the home's previous owners, a family of ghosts apparently killed by a rage-aholic father who now seems keen on adding the new tenants to his clan. The first thing that attracted me to this film was the cast, a better than average assortment of interesting character actors led by How I Met Your Mother's Cristin Miloti and Artie The Strongest Man In The World himself Toby Huss as the villainous patriarch. Add to that James Urbaniak, the voice of Dr. Thaddeus Venture on the Venture Bros. and it seemed like there had to be something to this to set it apart from the typical throwaway fare. Regrettably, there isn't much.

The film's major structural flaw is in just how rote and predictable the story is. There's what seems like an interesting twist just after the first reveal of the ghosts, that the protagonist's experience counseling troubled families convinces her to stay and help them rather than flee in terror, but what could have been a novel plot point proves to be just a flimsy pretext to keep the couple in the house when they have no reason to stay. It might have worked had they not established the newborn baby, which just makes their decision reckless rather than sympathetic. Had they cut the kid from the script and followed through with the idea of a social worker using her skills to mediate the issues of hostile ghosts, this might have been something interesting enough to sit through, but its never brought up again.

Instead, the movie is basically a tired retread of every trope you can think of in a haunted house movie, lazily trotted out one after the other in that way that suggests the producers don't really like these kinds of movies enough to pay tribute to them, and are really just making a horror movie because they think its an easy property to sell. The aforementioned cast all do their best, but their talents are mostly wasted. Miloti's big anime eyes would seem like the perfect fit for a horror movie heroine, and Urbaniak is able to pull off unassuming charm and creepy deviance in equal measure, but neither actor is utilized enough. The biggest disappointment is Huss, who barely gets any screen time, and when he is there, its mostly just to growl and then disappear a second later.

And I didn't even get to the ending. Without spoiling it too much, The Occupants ends with what we used to call a Shayamalan-esque silly twist before even he got sick of using them, and even by that standard, its a pretty bad one. I won't give it away except to say that the movie cycles through all the other possible explanations for the ghostly phenomenon other than it being actual ghosts, and then settles on the least interesting one, with such a lame and obvious connection to what we thought we knew about them that I wouldn't be surprised if it was tacked on after an even more boring and terrible ending was found not to work as well. I try to go easy on low budget horror given the limitations these filmmakers often face, but there's no excuse for failing this badly at the basics. Avoid this movie at all costs.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Cinema File #336: "Best Night Ever" Review

When living on the coasts, one does not condemn the hurricane for its destructive power, nor the twister that tears through a town unsafely nestled right at the center of Tornado Alley. California has its earthquakes, Seattle has its rain, London has its fog, and American Cinema has Friedberg and Seltzer. To rail against them after all this time, or to expect anything more than the lowest common denominator, is an exercise in futility. You can't stop them, and unless you feel obligated to review movies on a regular bases, your best chance is to just try and avoid them at all costs. Their latest film, to the extent that you can call what these people do filmmaking, is called Best Night Ever. If you still decide to waste your time with it as I did, the irony of this title will only become apparent in hindsight, as you begin to realize just how badly this movie has affected the rest of your day.

Best Night Ever is remarkable in that it is the first Friedberg/Seltzer joint not to rely on their tried and true “spoof” formula of rapid-fire pop culture references in place of jokes. Then again, to even use the term spoof to describe their work is arguably an insult to the once great tradition pioneered by Mel Brooks and the Abrams brothers, but it is a necessary distinction to make if only to highlight the one reason why anyone might be even morbidly curious enough to see their latest film. Allow me to assuage this curiosity before it kills your cat: Best Night Ever is not in any way elevated by its comparatively original script. Of course, original is a relative term, as the movie is basically an amalgamated mockbuster of Bridesmaids, The Hangover, and Spring Breakers, just not explicit enough to be considered a parody of any of those far superior movies.

Yes, that's right, while one would think it would be logistically impossible to craft a worse movie than Spring Breakers without Vince Offer involved in the production, Friedberg and Seltzer have somehow found a way. The loose assortment of unfunny vignettes that some might mistake for a story follows four female friends on a raucous Vegas vacation centered around a bachelorette party gone horribly wrong. Our four leads are barely characters, differentiated only by name, hair color, and the one cliche trait that defines them (bossy, slutty, free spirited, and boring respectively), and not one of them grows or changes in any way to justify spending any time with them. At least with the spoof format, half the work is already done in terms of characterization and story, so the fact that they were always so lazy with the second half was a little more bearable. Here, the complete lack of effort has nothing even recognizable let alone interesting to hinge on or expand upon.

Not that you'd really want it to. The pretense of anyone giving a shit would only make this movie presumptuous considering how boldly it wears its complete lack of effort on its sleeve. Lengthy montages of the girls partying in clubs with no attempts at jokes involved, even longer set ups when they do try for an occasional gag that are so tiresome they ruin any potential enjoyment in the punchline, and an entire sequence depicting the most depressing example of fun ever depicted on screen in a scavenger hunt game are but a few of the things that await you if you're brave or stupid enough to venture into this world. There are moments where the movie feels like it wants to explode in some absurd way, but then oddly pulls back, as if it was for some reason important to establish a reality to the film in which not all things are possible, which makes the third act escalation into crime and naked wrestling seem more out of place than surprising.

Don't get your hopes up. When I refer to naked wrestling, of course I mean the comically fat and homely variety. While this is the kind of low budget exploitative trash that would typically not be complete without some or all of the leading quartet getting naked, this never happens, and I'm not sure whether to commend the production for their restraint on this point, or just once again note that they're doing it wrong. Oh, and did I mention that its found footage? This genre of all genres that is so easy to do but so hard to do well, the siren song of hacks and band wagon jumping simpletons, would in retrospect seem like the logical choice for Friedberg and Seltzer's first foray into non-spoof film. They're cheap, easy, and benefit from such low standards. And of course they don't even meet them! The implausibility of the format, the where and why of camera placement, is perhaps more egregious here than ever before, as if it was less a creative decision as it was a practical one to disguise just what terrible visual storytellers they are.

As if we didn't know this by now already. Best Night Ever is less a reflection of its title as it is a reflection of the poem by Saint John of the Cross, a long dark night of the soul, just without the salvation at the end. Its 90 minutes that feels like an eternity you will never get back, its only saving grace being the fact that its paltry release so soon after the similarly small release of The Starving Games indicates that this just might be the last we ever hear from these two cynical, talentless morons. Or at the very least, perhaps from now on, their movies will only get more and more obscure to the point where we won't even hear about them until the few DVD copies printed are out of stock, presumably sold as insulation or kindling. Okay, probably not, but a guy can dream can't he? Better that than suffering through another nightmare from the makers of Disaster Movie.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Dirty Sons Of Pitches Episode 80! Now Available!

Yo! Shove some of this podcast all up into your face. This week on the Dirty Sons Of Pitches we talk Ghost movies, Ghostbusters 3 pitches, and probably some other stuff as well, I don't really remember. Vaguely recall something about lab grown vaginas, but that could have been a lot of these casts. Enjoy.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Saturday Night Jive! Episode 17! Anna Kendrick and Seth Rogen

Check out the latest episode of my SNL podcast Saturday Night Jive! This week we recap the last two episodes of the show, finding two episodes in a row with plenty to like and plenty to be pissed off about. We also talk Healthcare enrollment lapses, strange new beers, and whether or not a Don Novello cameo is enough to justify watching a movie for an off week episode, among other things. Enjoy.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Cinema File #335: "Rio 2" Review

Right next to my regular theater, there's a little curio shop that sells the kind of things that I can not fathom ever wanting to buy: incense, fancy oils, animal figurines, and other assorted nature nut merch. I imagine this place will be getting a lot more foot traffic in the next couple of weeks as the target audience for Rio 2 comes out of the wood work. It has everything they'd want, cute jungle critters, forgettably cheery songs for them to dance to, and an environmentalist message shallow enough that it makes people who care feel good about themselves without actually expecting them to do anything. Sure, outside of its niche its not very good, but if you're into this sort of thing, well, your life is probably pretty sad as it is, so who am I to begrudge you your entertainment?

Rio 2 is the (long awaited?) follow up to 2011's Rio, a movie apparently successful enough to merit a sequel, but obscure enough that even an animation nerd such as myself forgot it was a thing until its sequel was announced. I never saw the first movie, but from what I gather, it followed a domesticated Blue Macaw named Blue, once thought the last of his kind, romancing and starting a family with a newly discovered wild female. This new adventure finds the whole blue bird family on a vacation to the Amazon Rain forest to investigate reports of even more Blue Macaw sightings, where they find a whole tribe of them that causes the city slicker Blue to struggle with life in the state of nature. As much as I'm tempted to trot out my Thomas Hobbes and call the movie nasty, brutish, and short, Rio 2 isn't quite that bad, but then its not that good either, and at a time when animated movies seem to be getting better and better every year, being just okay just doesn't feel like enough anymore.

This is the kind of animated kids film that was no doubt built at the script level by committee, which to be fair is the case with most of them, but in this case, it really shows. I'm sure the wacky rapping bird's antics scored positively with test audiences, but for the life of me I can't remember what if any bearing he or his many, many unnecessary sidekicks had on the plot. Then again, plot doesn't seem to be the thing this movie was ever designed to showcase, as its really just a flimsy framework for a play list of some of the least memorable songs you'll ever hear, as a background beat to watch pretty birds of various sizes, shapes, and colors fly around in formation. I didn't see this in 3D, but I can't help but think the visuals popping out at your face were more important to the filmmakers than anything you might have gotten with the regular 2D showing. Or you could just get really high. That would probably make all the swirling colors really fun too.

Its a shame that the story is given such short shrift, as I can actually see it working really well if it was given just a little more focus. The idea of a relationship built on the premise that the two involved are the last of their kind, only to have this assumption and their romantic stability thrown out the window with the introduction of familial and cultural rivals is complex enough that I can almost picture the better movie this could have been. Of course, bird-centric cuckoldry isn't exactly fun for the whole family, so this idea is soon scrapped for a more mainstream Meet The Parents-esque fish out of water series of awkward moments in which Blue fails to measure up to his wild analogs. Again, could have worked, but just as I settle into a groove and start to think the movie is going somewhere interesting, it pivots into whatever the most obvious cliche is associated with that thread and then moves on to the next thing. Did you think Blue's arbitrarily introduced talent for bouncing blueberries might be relevant later? You'd be right, and you still won't give a crap.

The best element of the movie by far is the cadre of villains, or at least one of the two cadres, led by Flight of the Concords' Jemaine Clement as an absurdly theatrical Cockatoo out for revenge against Blue and his family for their causing him to lose his ability to fly in the last movie. I get this from a flashback, and while its not interesting enough to compel me to watch the original, its enough to keep me interested in the character, who is more entertaining than any other character in the movie, and somehow more engaging the less baring he has on the plot. Though he's technically the villain, his plan is barely significant to anything, but its enough that he can cackle maniacally and be delightfully full of himself whenever he's on screen. By the halfway point I desperately wanted the entire movie to be about him and his would-be paramour, a naively evil and strangely amorous poisonous frog played by Kristen Chenoweth, I assume cast only to allow for a weird interlude where she belts out a love song with all the passion of a Wicked alum.

Oh, and the other bad guys are loggers. I point this out only to once again rail at the stupidity of environmentalist messages in kids movies designed for mass market commercial appeal. Call it The Ferngully Paradox, wherein a movie wants to have a "Save The Rain forest" stance, but in the context of a property expected to inspire Happy Meal toys created by the fast food industry. So, instead of pointing out that the biggest threat to the rain forest is represented by clear cutting for factory farms to make the burgers that go into Happy Meals, we get an enemy we can all hate from the safety of our white American privilege, conveniently amorphous enough that we'd never think to actually take a real stand by, say, boycotting the places where we get Happy Meals. Sorry, didn't mean to get on a soapbox there, and don't take that to mean that I'm not every bit the consumerist fast food junkie this movie and every other movie ever made wants me to be, but I just happen to find deflating hypocrisy just as tasty as a Big Mac.

So anyway, Rio 2 is a movie, I guess. Sorry again, but there's only so much enthusiasm I can muster at this point. In a few months, LAIKA studios will bring us The Boxtrolls, and the little wonder starved kid inside me will no doubt be brought to life again by the magic of animated film. In the meantime, for most people, this is a decent if somewhat hollow way to pass the time. My grandmother, who devotes an entire room in her house to her birds, will almost certainly enjoy its aesthetic as I can only assume she enjoyed the first one. If you are also one to risk rare and exotic diseases in the care of our winged friends, or just like the idea of them fluttering around bouncing Brazil nuts on their beaks, than this is the movie for you. And why shouldn't you get one? I get like five comic book movies a year, and I'm too much of a geek to even appreciate them. Go nuts. Bird it up, or whatever. Okay, now it sounds like I'm intimating that you have sex with birds, and you probably don't. But if you do, you'll really love Rio 2. A lot.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...