Search
Kicking the Tweets
Saturday
Apr302011

Fast Five (2011)

Brio de Generic

I really enjoyed Fast and Furious, the fourth installment of the motor-heads-and-muscled-hustler series.  It was fun, light, and fast-paced.

And I can’t remember a damned thing about it.

I recall Vin Diesel driving hot cars through desert caves and Michelle Rodriguez’s character dying. But if you were to ask me who the villain was; what he or she wanted; how Diesel and Paul Walker’s characters were involved; or how they saved the day, I’d be utterly stumped.

Even the opening of Fast Five didn’t help remind me that car thief Dominic Torretto (Diesel) had been sent to prison at the end of the last movie: During the opening prison-bus-breakout, I had an awful sense of déjà vu, as if I were watching a scene from one of the earlier installments (though it could have just as easily been from one of the half-dozen other action movies that have pulled off, almost beat for beat, this exact same scene).

Come to think of it, maybe that was the ending of Fast and Furious.

Ugh.

Whatever the case, ex-federal agent Brian O’Connor (Walker) and Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) use their mad skillz and hot ridez to utterly wreck the prison transport. Local news reporters arrive on the scene and claim that no one was killed, and that Torretto was the only person missing.  Right away, the movie lost me. If you can find this scene on YouTube or—God forbid—your local theatre, watch it and ask yourself how everyone on that bus could have survived that particularly heinous flipping, skidding, parts-flying mess.

Also, ask yourself when the last time was that you saw resolution lines across your high-definition television. I’m sidetracking here, but, seriously, this is a movie convention that needs to go. Are news tickers and station logos not enough, or do audiences really need fake resolution-line overlays to avoid getting confused?

Okay, back to the story. We flash forward to Rio de Janeiro, where Toretto has pulled together some of his old crew to steal three impounded cars from a moving train. He also allies himself with members of a local drug cartel who, shockingly, turn out to be untrustworthy. Bullets fly, chumps get stomped, and O’Connor leaps from an exploding train into a convertible driven by Toretto—mere seconds before they would have been clipped by an oncoming bridge.

The subsequent freefall into a river several hundred feet below is what drew me to this movie in the first place. In the trailer, this scene concludes mid-air, with O’Connor bracing to leap out the back and Toretto following suit as he leaves the steering wheel behind. I simply had to know how director Justin Lin planned to get these modern day Duke Boys out of this pickle.

Turns out the answer is really simple: They jump out of the car and fall straight into the water, emerging moments later without so much as a broken bone. Apparently, the duo spent all of their earnings from the last movie’s heist (I assume there was one) to buy their way into the Super Soldier program from the upcoming Captain America film.

O’Connor and Toretto find themselves at the top of drug kingpin Reyes’ (Joaquim de Almeida) enemies list: The car that Mia jacked from the train contains a computer chip that has the dates and locations of Reyes’ entire drug network stored on it. Back at home base, O’Connor suspects one of his oldest friends, Vince (Matt Shulze), of selling them out to Reyes. This did-he/didn’t-he drama ping-pongs back and forth so much that after Vince’s fourth ambiguously sinister close-up, I didn’t care who’d stabbed whom in the back; I just wanted to leave.

About forty minutes into the movie, Fast Five’s plot kicks in. Toretto decides to rob all of Reyes’ safe houses and use the $100 million to make himself and his crew disappear “forever” (we’ll know for sure after the weekend numbers come in).  To pull off this impossible feat, he recruits almost every living cohort from the past four films, along with a new Hot Girl named Gisele (Gal Gadot).

Excepting her and her would-be boyfriend Han (Sung Kang), every member of the gang is comprised of the Hell Naw School of Acting’s alumni board. Seriously, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges do more to regress and corrupt black culture in this movie than the entirety of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (and, no, I’m not suggesting that they “act white”—merely that they act like men in their 30s).

For a few minutes, the prospect of this large crew targeting ten heavily guarded locations in Rio excited me. How would they pull that off, I wondered? Once again, the answer sucks.

The gang raids one of the safe houses and sets fire to several million dollars. This freaks Reyes out so much that he immediately calls for all of his money to be shipped to a single state-of-the-art vault inside the local police headquarters. This means that the next hour-plus is a gear-head version of Ocean’s Eleven, with lots of tedious training and driving exercises leading up to the climax’s Big Heist. You’ve seen bits of the finale in the trailer: Toretto and O’Brian anchor the safe to two cars via steel cables, yanking it out of the cop-shop and right into a high-speed chase.

I can’t say much about that penultimate twenty-minute stretch.  Like every other scene in Fast Five, the tension registers at exactly zero on the Thrill Meter (and dips into the negative on the Imagination Scale). No major player is ever placed in mortal danger (which gives the fourth movie an instant leg-up over this one; more on that in a moment), and there’s so much CG in every action scene that I found myself marveling more at the shoddy digital face replacement than caring about what horrific collision would next leave our heroes unscathed. Maybe it’s the actors’ desperate attempts to look and feel 25 a decade after a fluke blockbuster launched their careers; maybe it’s the fact that practical stunt work is going the way of the Gremlin; whatever the case, I was thoroughly bored during two-plus hours of “non-stop action.”

The only bright spot—and this should really tell you something—is Dwayne Johnson’s turn as Hobbs, the ultra-buff, no-nonsense fed who’s brought in to take Toretto down.  His Sergeant Slaughter line delivery and look-right-through-you eyes made him a magnetizing figure, and I wondered how great it would’ve been—how original for this franchise—if we’d followed him in his pursuit of Toretto’s gang, rather than following Toretto’s gang as they avoid him and his team of mercenaries. Johnson is especially charismatic when compared to the film's second lead, Walker, who, when he's not reciting his lines like Zack Morris on Ambien he appears to be waiting for the director to call "Action!"

That brings me to two big issues I have with Fast Five and, to an extent, the franchise in general. These movies have always romanticized Toretto and his street-racers-turned-criminal-masterminds. It’s most striking here, as they destroy half of Rio in their quest to steal lots of money. I guess the moral distinction is that they’re not as bad as Reyes, but I wonder if the bystanders at the climax would’ve noticed a difference.

Busy sidewalks, office buildings, and streets are demolished by flying cars and a multi-ton safe clanging about like the fist of God. Because these characters have been established as lovable rogues, their anti-establishment violence and theft can safely be called a “fun, action-filled romp” instead of a “polarizing terrorist thriller.”

My second problem is that the Fast formula of having the hot-pursuit cop team up with the criminals at the end has gotten really, really old. Particularly since you have “The Rock” playing Toretto’s nemesis, I figured there’d be an epic fight to the finish somewhere in the film.  But soon after a manly brawl that would’ve been impressive had I not just seen it in The Expendables (along with a number of other story beats), Hobbs switches sides for about half a day in order to bring down Reyes.  Emerging victorious, he issues the standard “24-hour head start” warning, allowing all the “good guys” to escape with their crazy fortunes.

Either the authorities in this reality need to start screening their candidates more effectively, or they should just appoint Toretto as head of the FBI.

A funny thing happened during the end credits, though. After having been awake for nearly twenty-one hours, I was in no mood to fight my way through packs of giggling, meandering teenagers; so I sat still and checked my phone for new e-mails. A couple minutes later, the hard-driving rock music stopped and a mid-credits coda popped up on the screen.

Turn away now if you’re not into spoilers.

We see Hobbs behind his desk at the police station. His colleague, agent Fuentes (Eva Mendes, reprising her role from the hilariously homoerotic 2 Fast 2 Furious) asks him to look at a report detailing a massive car heist in Germany. He says he’s not interested unless Toretto is involved. She convinces him to peruse the folder anyway; a few pages in, we get a close-up of Michelle Rodriguez as Toretto’s allegedly deceased girlfriend, Letty.

With Fuentes’ ominous line, “Do you believe in ghosts?” and the subsequent cut to black, Lin and writers Chris Morgan and Gary Scott guaranteed that I’d be in a theatre for the opening of Fast Six: The Good, The Bad and The Furious.

Call me a sucker, but that moment—the only surprising one in more than two hours—held real promise.  I’m giving these movies one more chance, and then I’m out.

Probably.

Correction: After having listened to the newest episode of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, I was reminded that Gal Gadot actually appeared in the fourth film.  Much like the opening jail-bus breakout, I had no memory of her involvement in the series; which is either a testament to the interchangeability of these characters or a sign of my impending senility.  Let's call it a draw.

Saturday
Apr232011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

Corporate Shrill

"If you do a commercial, there's a price on your head.  Everything you say is suspect, and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink."
--Bill Hicks
 
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I found Morgan Spurlock's documentary about pervasive corporate advertising, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, to be so profoundly depressing that I staggered from the theatre and couldn't figure out where I was for fifteen minutes after it was over.
 
This is the most upsetting movie I've seen in years; not because of the subject matter, but because I felt betrayed and assaulted by the film itself--and by its director.  I hesitate to even call this a documentary, or even a film, as it is so blatantly and proudly a ninety-minute commercial for second- and third-tier brands (and, ultimately, for itself), that any ideals about art or information become irrelevant by the end of the first scene.
 
Spurlock's 2004 debut, Super Size Me, was a Michael-Moore-lite stunt doc in which he--as subject and director--ate nothing but fast food for thirty days.  By chronicling the effects of self-pollution, he illustrated just how dangerous the convenient, brightly packaged foods Americans take for granted can really be.  I gave the film a pass because, though I found it a tad slim on mental nutrition, Spurlock was such an engaging and forceful personality that I suspected Super Size Me would be the rocky start to a promising career.
 
Next came 2008's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?; a tiresome, simplistic movie made for people who pay absolutely no attention to world affairs.  Once again playing the central figure in his own story, Spurlock delivered a ghastly, shrugging "Muslims-Are-People-Too" message that was, ironically, more Chicken McNugget than Chicken Cordon Bleu.
 
So, going into The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, I was partially looking for news about the sinister tactics marketers use to sell products in the multimedia age, and partially looking to tilt the "Is Morgan Spurlock a Good Documentarian?" scale.
 
Let me make something clear: This is not a movie about sinister corporations.  It's a multi-brand vanity project working through an identity crisis and a false premise.  Spurlock would have you believe that the cute notion of his trying to find corporate sponsors to fund his movie about corporate/media influence is the framework for a meaningful film.  But that framework is just about the whole movie.  Aside from a visit to a town that outlawed outdoor advertising and a brief visit with Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader (more on him later), The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a series of interviews between Spurlock and prospective donors.
 
If your idea of a good time is turning your theatre seat into a virtual place at a corporate boardroom table and listening to stuffy, unimaginative people drone on about brand identity and multi-platform promotions--with each meeting perfectly framed so that the interchangeable products' posters and sample displays are visible at all times--then you'll probably get a kick out of this thing.
 
However, if you find such an idea distasteful, along with the notion that Spurlock would present himself as an aw-shucks outsider who finds the whole process ridiculous--only to indulge in his donor-masters' every whim--then stay far, far away.  This is meta-filmmaking, to be sure, but it is also unaware meta-filmmaking, which can be dangerous.
 
"But how can a movie be dangerous, especially when it's really funny?"
 
That's a great question, with two answers.  The first is that neither Spurlock nor his movie are particularly funny.  There are plenty of comedic moments in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, but many of them are simply distractions that keep us from learning anything.  Michael Moore, who I mentioned earlier, knows how to inject humor into his documentaries in ways that both amuse the audience and advance his agenda; whether or not you agree with his politics and tactics, Moore's ability to connect with viewers is undeniable.  There aren't enough takeaways in Spurlock's movies--especially this one--to start a stimulating conversation, let alone a revolution.
 
The second answer is that Spurlock spends a lot of time making fun of the companies he's getting money from and "wrestling" with the notion of selling out; but he laments his phony rock-and-a-hard-place position while swigging from a bottle of POM Wonderful juice.  When someone goes out of their way to perfectly light and present that which they're allegedly rebelling against, they are no longer the detached, ironic hero railing against the machine; they're a pitch-person.  The danger lies in increasingly passive audiences' inability to distinguish between sincere discontent and the most clever product placement in history.
 
Spurlock takes this a step further by joking to various spokespeople that he'll gladly place a 30-second commercial smack-dab in the middle of his film, for the right price.  At least, I thought he was joking.  But, no, there are three spots in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, each more disturbing than the last.  Worse yet, there's nothing controversial or subversive about the ads; they're the same bland crap that DVRs were made to erase from our lives.
 
Towards the end, Spurlock says that the only solution to the problem (a problem, mind you, that he doesn't bother to explain all the components or negative effects of in the course of 90 minutes) is to get back to nature, to find a place where there is no advertising.  Inevitably, he says this while walking along a stream with his son, in what turns out to be a commercial for waterproof shoes.
 
These are the same shoes that he presents to consumer advocate and perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Earlier in the film, Nader talks about the lack of truth in advertising and seems generally run down by the all-powerful machine.  He perks up, though, when he gets those shoes; so I guess the message is marketing and advertising are evil except when schwag enters the picture.
 
Had this been a real movie, I might have learned about the history of advertising; the influence of celebrity endorsements on brands and consumers; the challenges corporations face in an increasingly crowded marketplace; and what can be done to change our collective mental landscape--if anything (one consumer-advocate-group member suggested, without a hint of irony, placing pop-ups on TV shows to let the viewer know they're being marketed to).  But because this is a Morgan Spurlock movie, all I got was a lot of mugging; some half-baked scenes involving companies' use of brain-scanning technology in targeting their consumers' habits and desires (!); and stimulus overload from an hour-and-a-half of non-stop "Buy Me!" pleas.
 
If you love headaches and feeling like there's no hope against the onslaught of glossy, brain-dead media, check out The Greatest Movie Ever Sold!
 
How's that for an endorsement?
Friday
Apr222011

Super (2011)

We Don't Need Another Antihero

Someone once said that the best way to deal with a bad movie is to make a good one.  Writer/director James Gunn seems to believe that the opposite is true.

Last year, I declared Kick-Ass to be the greatest superhero movie of all time.  While it may not have been everyone's cup of tea, I thought it did a fantastic job of commenting on the genre; delving into the psychological damage that might cause an ordinary citizen to become a vigilante; and, most importantly, providing an exciting moviegoing experience.  It had the polish of Superman Returns and the conflicted heart of Taxi Driver, and I thought to myself, "This is definitive.  There's nothing else left to say."

Unfortunately, strangely, we now have Super to contend with.  I don't know when this movie went into production--whether Gunn and co. worked in unknowing parallel to Kick-Ass, or if they saw Matthew Vaughn's film and figured they could one-up it.  Whatever the case, I watched an ugly, pointless and hopelessly derivative movie last night that unfolded like a theory in need of being proved wrong.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a chubby loser who flips burgers by day and draws kindergarten-quality pictures by night.  When his waitress wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), leaves him for a sharply dressed drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank descends further into self-loathing depression.  He wants to get her back, but is so socially awkward that he doesn't know where to begin (not surprising, given the level of cluelessness that drew him to Sarah in the first place).  One day, God reaches down from heaven and touches Frank's brain, imbuing him with the courage to become a costumed vigilante.  Frank figures he'll start by foiling small-time evil and work his way up to rescuing Sarah from Jacques' compound.

Inspired by a religious superhero named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) that he sees on the religious-programming channel, and with the unknowing guidance of local comics-shop employee, Libby (Ellen Page), Frank becomes The Crimson Bolt.  He stitches together a flimsy red costume and takes to the streets to beat up drug dealers, child molesters and people who cut in line at movie theatres with a giant, red wrench.

The first cracked skull not only spews forth a good deal of blood, it also unleashes Super's biggest problem: A lack of distinct tone.  The first half-hour is an icky schadenfreude comedy, where the big laughs are supposed to come from how pathetic all of the characters are; it's a shaky premise aimed to please twenty-somethings' innate feelings of invincibility and superiority--which is fine, I guess, but there's nothing particularly original or even amusing going on.  In many ways, the beginning of Super is like the entirety of Juno (which also starred Page and featured Wilson): A movie so in love with its own indie cred and so over the notion of likable or engaging characters that all we're left with is ironic baby-talk (The Crimson Bolt's motto is "Shut up, Crime!") and 1960s-Batman-style sound-effects pop-ups in the style of home-room notebook doodles.

From the first wrench-blow on, Super becomes Natural Born Killers, minus the charismatic leads.  Libby joins Frank as his kid sidekick, Boltie.  Their first joint act of heroism: A home invasion where they beat a guy nearly to death because he keyed one of Libby's friends' car.  Ha, ha, ha, audience!  The joke's on you: Libby made the whole thing up because she got bored waiting around for crime to happen.

Wait, why aren't you laughing?  Squares.

Frank has doubts about his partner's mental state, but, damn, does she look hot in her little yellow-and-green costume! Given Page's petite, boyish frame, I'm not surprised Gunn made a point of calling out the fact that Libby is 22; even knowing that, there's a sick undercurrent of reverse-child-rape here--particularly in the scene where Libby forces herself on Frank in one of the lamest, most disgusting "No, no, I can't" sex scenes I've ever watched.

In addition to their budding sexual relationship, Frank and Libby become expert weapons-makers, trading in wrenches for knife-launching arm gauntlets, pipe bombs, and handguns (it's quite a turn-around for Frank, given his earlier inability to spell Jacques' name correctly and an apparent ignorance of/lack of access to the Internet).  Indeed, the climactic raid on Jacques' compound, during which Sarah is raped by a visiting drug lord in an upstairs bedroom (hugs!), The Crimson Bolt and Libby stab, explode, shotgun, and maim henchmen and inner-circle heavies with the relish of an eight-year-old pulling wings off a fly. There's absolutely no one to cheer for and nothing to anticipate, except the end credits.

Before we can get there, though, we must endure a bizarre and undeserved coda where we learn that Sara leaves Frank a couple of months after the daring rescue (which left everyone else--including Libby--dead).  She gets her life together and has four great kids with a swell guy.  Frank, meanwhile, is still just Frank; sitting on a bed, waiting patiently and dumbly for death--except now he's got a bit more self-esteem (I think).  The last three minutes are so antithetical to everything else in the film that it feels like a huge cop-out; this is largely due to the fact that we never figure out whether or not Sarah deserves to be happy.  For much of the film, she's strung out, and her other big development is leaving Frank for a drug dealer.  It's like the bullshit ending of Sucker Punch, where we learn that we weren't really watching Baby Doll's story; or the myth that New Jack City and Scarface are actually anti-drug movies.

Believe it or not, I think Super could have been a great film.  Had Gunn brought all of his sub-text to the surface and made a dark, bloody drama about mentally disturbed people fighting crime, he might have lived up to the one minute of greatness in his film (it's a fascinating mini-speech Frank gives to Jacques, right before stabbing him in the neck repeatedly).  Instead, he cloaks his message in the the pre-faded Misfits t-shirt of the indie comedy and relies on audience recognition of his wacky cast to carry him over his screenplay's morally dubious pitfalls.

I won't say too much about the cast--which seems to have been mostly drafted from a table reading of Gunn's first mainstream movie, Slither--but I can state, difinitively, that I never want to see Ellen Page in a movie ever again.  She's done, okay?  She made her mark playing a cloying teen in Juno.  She tried playing a grownup in Inception; didn't work.  She did the psycho-nympho thing here with results both laughable and terrifying.  Her shrill, shruggy, Jodie-Foster-with-Aspergers shtick has stunk up enough films that she just needs to take her corduroy-covered ball and go home.

Whew!  Sorry about that.  I feel better now.

The main difference between Super and Kick-Ass is that the latter's heroes were good-intentioned people who saw vigilantism as the only way to stick up for regular citizens oppressed by urban crime. Super is all about sad, unstable, and unlikable characters working out their issues through violence with the excuse that their actions are making a difference.  It could be argued that the Kick-Ass heroes do the same thing, but you have to dig deeper to find the evidence--whereas Super wears its illness on its blood-stained sleeve.

Kick-Ass also had a fun, comic-book-movie spirit to it.  Hit Girl's fight scenes were raucous rock videos of creative choreography and cartoonish violence.  Super goes for grit and realism, and winds up feeling more like a snuff film than a document of bravery.  It takes a deft storyteller to have it both ways, and Gunn is not gifted enough to pull it off (at least not here, which is surprising, because I loved Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, which Gunn scripted).  With Super, Gunn goes back to his low-rent roots as a Troma Films writer; everything is exploitation and tits.  But I don't recall Troma films being this mean-spirited; they were low-budget splat-fests, sure, but their purpose was not to make the audience want to kill themselves.

Right now, I can't recall a bigger waste of talent, time, and limited resources as Super.  It's the kind of movie that, were it a comic book, would decry the corporate soullessness of the slick Marvel and DC rags, and bask in the credibility and charm of its own stained, crinkled, stapled-at-a-kitchen-table "realness".  But here are two things to keep in mind: There have been some inspired issues of Superman, and John Wayne Gacy used to work as a clown.

Thursday
Apr212011

Who's the Caboose? (1997) Home Video Review

When People Stop Being Polite and Start Getting Real

Some people don't believe in evil.  I know it exists because I've seen its effects firsthand--most recently in the lack of a proper release for the 1997 indie comedy Who's the Caboose?.  Whatever confluence of personality, finance, or perceived audience taste that kept this film from mass distribution until last week (!) is surely the work of malignant forces.

A lot of people, I imagine, will come to this movie for the novelty of seeing some of today's most influential comedians in early roles; Who's the Caboose may be the comedy-nerd equivalent of George Lucas' infamous original cut of Star Wars.  But even if you have no idea who Todd Barry, Marc Maron or Andy Kindler are (shame on you, by the way), the film's big draw is that it's both hilarious and way ahead of its time.

In the mid-90s, director Sam Seder and co-writer Charles Fisher set out to make a stinging parody of superficial Hollywood culture and the subversive influence of media on consumers.  That's a lot of heady talk for "Boy and Girl Set out to Make it Big in L.A. and Get Chewed Up by the System."  Shot mockumentary-style, a camera crew follows aspiring actress Susan (Sarah Silverman) and her performance-artist boyfriend Max (Seder) from New York to California as Susan tries to make a name for herself during pilot season; which, as is explained to us, is the period between January and April when TV studios develop all of their sitcoms for the fall season (the documentary within the movie was originally supposed to be about disease in the homeless community; the details of this transition, and its implications later, are simply awesome).

Over the course of 120 days, Susan goes on countless auditions where she laments the fact that all the best-written parts go to men, and everything else goes to blonde, big-breasted women--which she is decidedly not (at one point, one of Susan's CAA reps scolds her for not having shaved what the agency considers her embarrassingly hairy arms).  Meahwhile, Max begins a bizarre ride from tag-along to toast-of-the-town thanks to the sly machinations of entertainment lawyer Ken Fold (H. Jon Benjamin).  Susan and Max encounter lots of wacky personalities on the West Coast, from a bitter, raging actor/caterer (David Cross); to the schmoozing bombshell who shows up at every one of Susan's auditions and sweeps casting directors off their feet (Laura Kightlinger); to Susan's obsessed-with-himself manager, Jason Reemer (Andy Dick).

This is a variation on one of the movies' oldest setups.  But what sets Who's the Caboose apart is Seder and Fisher's 14-year-old crystal ball.  The mid-to-late-90s saw the birth of reality television with The Real World; the exploitation of reality television with the smash-hit film Reality Bites; and the dawn of the mockumentary as we know it, with Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (okay, technically This is Spinal Tap pre-dates Guffman, but Guffman opened the floodgates).  Seder and Fisher were able to cobble these elements together and predict--with stunning accuracy--the reality genre's continued popularity, co-opting, and inevitable corporate distortion a decade early.

Susan begins dating a guy named TV's John Devlin (John Barnett) whose every appearance on camera is accompanied by a title card that reads, "John Devlin, Star of Bachelor Pad (TM)".  The Ken Fold character is a prototype of Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold from Entourage: A hyper, cut-throat worm who can land a development deal with two simultaneous five-minute phone calls.  The most interesting part in the movie is the role of Cary (Cary Prusa), a delivery guy who talks his way into hosting much of the latter portion of the documentary; his is the classic waiter-looking-for-a-break character, but in the age of the ever-present camera, he's able to cultivate a TV career in about 48 hours.  The reality depicted in Who's the Caboose reminded me a lot of MTV's The Hills: Both feature marginally talented people attempting to exploit their supposed relatability and create a personality brand; they perfect the art of acting like themselves instead of perfecting the art of acting.

In addition to the filmmakers' brilliant observations, Who's the Caboose is also highly enjoyable as a comedy.  I got three solid, out-loud laughs; that's not a lot for a comedy, but I think my brain was so engaged by the excellent material that I was in a state of shock for most of the run-time--in other words, the movie was literally so funny I forgot to laugh.  Like Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner, Seder knows the value of a well-placed camera.  There are some terrific gags that I won't spoil (they involve an elevator, a therapy session, and a tennis court) in which the frame's keen misdirection leads to a wonderful payoff that you'll be thinking about well into the following scenes.

But, hey, cameras aren't comedians.  Fortunately, there are a ton of them in this movie--many of whom act against type (at least the type they've become famous for in the years since Who's the Caboose was made).  This is Sarah Silverman's best role.  I think she's really funny as a stand-up, and I dig her caustic personality in films and on TV, but Susan is her most complex and fully formed character.  She's a pseudo-innocent, a pretty nice person with some spunk; this tiny crack of imperfection widens throughout the movie, causing her lots of trouble, then success, then (maybe) trouble again.

Andy Dick surprised the hell out of me.  Sure, he plays a variation on his Wacky Boss character, but his last scene made me empathize with him.  His is an exaggerated personality, but not wholly cartoonish one; he seems like a decent guy who's been so caught up in the wheels of the glitz machine that he has no idea how ridiculous he's become.

And Sam Seder!  I can only imagine the rom-com leading man he might have been, had Who's the Caboose found a proper fan base.  He's so good in this movie, alternating between artistic and smarmy that I couldn't take my eyes off him.  Like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting or Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Seder plays Max as a lovable scumbag who will make you root for him even as you're hoping he fails.  Today, Seder has parlayed that charm and social acumen into a career as a political commentator, and you can play a fascinating game of "What If" by pondering the alternate universe in which Who's the Caboose was the Reality Bites of its generation instead of, well, Reality Bites.

I can't recommend this movie enough.  Though, I'll qualify that by saying the film may not be for everyone.  This isn't necessarily as raucous or accessible a comedy as Best in Show; Who's the Caboose is more like the British version of The Office than its American counterpart, if that means anything to you. Some folks don't like movies about movies or the whiny exploits of Hollywood hangers-on; I get the feeling Seder and Fisher didn't either, when they made this film; which is why this is such a must-see.

Tuesday
Apr192011

Night of the Demons (2009)

 

Turning Tricks

Maybe I'm feeling generous.  Or maybe the last thirty-six hours of severe existential depression have numbed me to the point where I can't even work up the will to hate a crappy horror remake.

Perhaps it's something else.

Could it be that Adam Gierasch's Night of the Demons is actually a good movie?  Well, no, but it's not terrible, either.  It's rare that I find middle ground with modern horror films.  Usually, I eiher love them or want to burn every print in circulation.  But this movie is different.  There's a lot of bad here, and not much good; but a lot of the bad is really entertaining.

I only saw the original Night of the Demonsonce, when I was thirteen.  I don't remember a lot about it, but director Kevin S. Tenney spiced up Joe Augustyn's story about teens holding a Halloween seance in an old, scary house with some pretty iconic scenes.  From Linnea Quigleydisappearing a pink lipstick into her nipple, to the end sequence where a cranky old man eats an apple pie baked with razor blades, the movie was truly wicked and somewhat imaginative.

In Gierasch's version, only the lipstick gag survives.  Everything else is a competent mash-up of Evil Dead 2 and Hellraiser: Hellworld, (though "competent" is a strange word to apply here).  This time, the old, scary house is the site of a debaucherous rave thrown by Internet sensation Angela (Shannon Elizabeth).  Her best friend Suzanne (Bobbi Sue Luther) brings along Lily (Diora Baird) and Maddie (Monica Keena), who's trying to get over her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend Colin (Edward Furlong).  The girls meet up with Jason (John F. Beach) and Dex (Michael Copon) at the soiree, and there is much drinking, dancing, and bathroom screwing.

Before long, the cops break up the party.  Our seven heroes evade detection during the raid and manage to stay behind after everyone leaves.  Too bad for them, an evil cadre of seven demons has been awakened from a hidden room in the basement, and if they can possess each of the partyers before dawn, they will gain dominion over our world.  Coincidentally, possession in this universe works much like an STD, and the monsters breeze through most of the kids in about ten minutes via the magic of straight kisses, lesbian kisses and, um, anal sex (I doubt the Jersey Shore gang would've lasted two minutes in this house).

I was surprised at how quickly the film disposed of its characters, leaving only three of them (Maddie, Jason, and Colin) to fend off razor-toothed, oozing creatures for much of the run-time.  Night of the Demonsis the only horror film with a thirty-five-minute climax that I can recall.  A good chunk of this takes place in an upstairs bedroom in which the survivors hole up.  The house, you see, was the site of a similar massacre in the 1920s, and the sole survivor, one of the estate's maids, scribbled protective runes all over the walls.  We're never told how the maid knew to write these symbols and messages; nor do we understand how Maddie is able to read them well enough to provide the demons' elaborate back-story; hell, we don't even get an explanation as to where Edward Furlong has been hiding since American History X, so I guess the message here is "just go with it."

As it turns out, this involves blatantly ripping off scenes from Evil Dead 2.  And I'd have no problem dismissing Night of the Demonsas just the four-thousandth failed experiment in horror-comedy were it not for the sequence immediately following the lipstick-boob scare.  Lily shows her new trick to Jason (one-upping the original film by pulling the lipstick out of her blood-sopped miniskirt) and a moment later, he stumbles out to the living room in a daze.  In a wonderful deadpan, he polls his friends about normal and abnormal behavior.  It's a terrific, unexpected break between scares that's aided by John Beach's resemblance--in appearance and demeanor--to John Krasinski's "Jim" character on NBC's The Office.

In fact, one of the reasons the climax works so well is that each member of the surviving trio has something quirky going on.  Edward Furlong plays Colin as if he'd eaten nineteen sub sandwiches before auditioning for Michael J. Fox's role in The Frighteners.  And Monica Keena does her best Smart-Girl/Tough-Girl impression, fighting through the fact that she looks ridiculous holding a shotgun (her lips' bee-sting-or-Botox look doesn't help).  Night of the Demonsconfirms that the best way to keep people interested in a not-that-great horror movie is to have them watch three complete oddballs try to survive supernatural enemies--a theory I first kicked around while watching From Beyond.

Pretty much everything works here except the whole demon storyline.  Much of that blame falls to the effects team, who alternate half-assed CG morphs with half-assed practical effects, resulting in monster makeup that is fully assed.  I also could've done without the house's backstory, which we see glimpses of in sepia-toned, silent-movie flashbacks (complete with dialogue cards!).  It's kind of clever, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the filmmakers used this gimmick in order to keep their target audience from falling asleep during the few scenes where characters don't sport tattoos and fishnets.

Tangent: If anyone has seen this movie, would you please write inand tell me how old you think these characters are supposed to be? I know most of the actors are in their 30s, but they dress like desperate-to-fit-in 20-somethings and act like teenagers.  I'm puzzled.

What the hell kind of recommendation is this?  It's a solid one.  Why notwatch this movie?  It isn't groundbreaking, but so many elements fail in so many interesting ways that I doubt you'll be bored. The weirdness kept my mind from drifting, and if I have one real complaint it's the lack of gallows humor that made the original's ending so great.

Then again, I'm the guy who was cheered up by the Night of the Demons remake.  So please use your best judgment before pressing "Play".