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Sunday
Dec182011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

The Dizzying Holiday Miracle

There's no shortage of Internet speculation as to why so many people have stopped going to the movies. High ticket prices, rude patrons, and the diminishing returns of franchises, comic-book adaptations, and over-long CGI spectacles that can be viewed at home in three months' time for a fraction of the price have, in large part, kept people out of the multiplexes. Today, I'm happy to report that you have a reason to get your ass to the theatre and pay the big-big-big-screen upcharge: His name is Brad Bird, and he directed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

The film won't hit wide release until Wednesday, but that doesn't matter. It's showing in IMAX now, and if you have an IMAX-enabled theatre in your area (or even a LIE-MAX*), you owe it to yourself not to settle. On top of the fact that Robert Elswit's cinematography is like a high-def travelogue with explosions, you won't fully grasp the impressiveness of Tom Cruise's well-publicized adventures on the outer walls of Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper unless you see it the way it was meant to be seen. In case you hadn't heard, Cruise did his own stunts for this sequence; given the building's mirrored surface and lack of evident filmmaking equipment in the shots, I can't imagine there was a lot in the way of safety nets available.

But one doesn't go to a theatre to watch ten minutes of a movie (discounting, of course the yahoos who only wanted to see this film for the eight-minute Dark Knight Rises prequel playing in front of it). Fortunately, Ghost Protocol is a fun, inventive action movie from end to end, with a grade-school-simple plot that goes humorously awry at nearly every turn.

Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, the suave, globe-trotting head spy of the United States' Impossible Mission Force (IMF). The film opens with his being broken out of a a Russian prison by former-technician-turned-field-agent, Benji (Simon Pegg), and an agent new to the series, Jane (Paula Patton). Aided by bombs and security-override equipment, Hunt--along with a contact he'd made on the inside--fights his way to freedom through a riot.

On the outside, he learns that a former Russian official named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) plans to purchase launch codes for a stolen nuclear missile. In a matter of hours, the IMF team breaks into the Kremlin to steal the codes, only to find that they've been shadowed by the villain's agents--who blow up the Kremlin to cover their tracks. Russian Intelligence officer Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov) finds the reversible jacket that Hunt had used to pose as a general and uses it to pin the bombing on the U.S.

Following the film's third or fourth narrow escape, Hunt finds himself in a van with the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) and an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner). They inform him of the political fallout, namely that the IMF has been liquidated and Hunt's skeleton crew are on their own. The Secretary, believing Hunt was set up, gives him directions to a safe house (actually a safe train car) before being shot through the head during an assault on the van.

Much of this can be seen in Ghost Protocol's trailer, so please don't think I've spoiled anything. Without giving more away, I'll say that the rest of the film involves Hunt, Benji, Jane, and Brandt chasing down Hendricks' associates without the help of the IMF resources they'd always taken for granted. For instance the reason Hunt has to scale the outside of Burj Khalifa is because he can't call a technician at headquarters to remotely disable key fire walls; he has to climb several storeys up and over, and cut through glass.** In fact, the film's main villain isn't the nihilistic Russian, it's absentee Tech Support. Though Hunt and company still have a lot to work with, they must rely on relatively low-tech means of tracking their prey (i.e. good, old-fashioned detective work and cunning).

Unlike most mega-budget actioners, this film offers the perfect combination of direction, writing, and performance. This is the role Tom Cruise was born to play. It allows him to be serious without tiptoeing into melodrama, and funny in reaction to the ridiculousness of his situations and/or bickering crew. As crews go, this is the first time in the Mission Impossible series where everyone gels. Pegg, Patton, and Renner have terrific chemistry; they feel like the world's smartest misfit eighth-graders, with Cruise as the ultra-cool kid with a driver's license. That's not to say that Cruise steals the movie; Ghost Protocol is very much an ensemble piece where everyone gets a moment to shine--but not in a way that screams out, "This is (INSERT NAME HERE)'s Moment to Shine!".***

When I first heard that Brad Bird had been tapped to helm this film, I became worried. The award-winning animation director has made only one film that I love, The Iron Giant, and two that I despise, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

Yep, that last line deserves a paragraph break. Read it again, and then decide if you still care about what I think of Ghost Protocol.

Still with me? Good. Please understand that my problems with those films are mostly centered on the writing, and not the directing or medium-redefining leaps that Pixar made in rendering and animation. I was bored to tears by the respective superhero clichés and Tom and Jerry shenanigans, but I still appreciate both films as art--art that I may look at again, but not for a long, long time.

Bird's background in cartoons serves him very well in his live-action debut. His eye for staging action and instructing his performers on how best to exaggerate their physicality for maximum comedic/dramatic effect is...um...incredible. And I can't be sure if this was in the screenplay, but the Kremlin hallway sequence feels like a high-tech tribute to a Bugs Bunny gag. And I absolutely loved it.

The picture's crown jewel, of course, is the Dubai scene. Bird and Elswit provide a perfect sense of scale and danger here, both in the shooting and in the tech mishaps that befall Hunt on the mini-mission. Knowing that Cruise was actually a few feet of metal and fabric away from plummeting to his death added a realism and intensity to the scene that can't be understated. Yes, it takes place in the middle of the movie, but I still gasped several times--this may be due to the shock of not having seen an impressive, non-CGI-enhanced stunt since, probably, Casino Royale.

My last bit of praise goes to writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, though I have a couple of major gripes with them. I didn't think it possible for more life to be injected into this franchise, but they've created a fresh world full of tense and interesting situations for these characters to chew their way out of. They wisely don't complicate matters for the sake of making their film appear smarter than it is. Instead, they let minor complications lead to larger ones, and then step back to watch their characters react. I also love their decision to make Hendricks a background villain. He has maybe four lines of dialogue in the whole film, outside of footage from a years-old press conference in which he lays out his motivations.

Now to the problems. Skip ahead two paragraphs to avoid a major spoiler. It is revealed late in the picture that Hunt was sent to the Russian prison for executing the six thugs who murdered his wife (Michelle Monaghan) while the two were on vacation. We later learn that Brandt had been assigned to shadow Mrs. Hunt, but in a moment of neglect allowed her to be kidnapped. Hunt doesn't know Brandt's secret, leading to Ghost Protocol's most tense relationship.

Sadly, criminally, Appelbaum and Nemec decide that the film needs not just a happy ending, but a happy ending that no one should have been clamoring for in the first place: Hunt's wife, it turns out, is still alive. They'd faked her death in Russia to keep her identity safe while hubby was out dashing around the world. The prison incident was a ruse to acquire intel for another mission (or something). With this cuddly coda, the writers drain one of the film's most gut-wrenching scenes of all meaning. It's disgusting.

Okay, you can look now. My second issue with the screenplay concerns what may or may not be a keen bit of propaganda on the part of the filmmakers. There's a weird, pervasive attitude on the part of Hunt and his organization regarding the rights and sovereignty of the foreigners they spend most of the movie dealing with. I know I was supposed to be thrilled by the opening prison riot, for example, but all I could think of was how horrible it must have been for those guards and inmates to be beaten half to death by one another--all so that a dashing American spy could make a cool exit. At one point, I thought Hunt had decided to break up the fight and help the guards put everyone back in their cells; no, he just needed to retrieve his contact and split.

There's also the small but very telling matter of the IMF Secretary's warning to Hunt, which goes, I believe, like so: "As of right now, you're a suspected terrorist, which, in the eyes of our government means 'terrorist'". In light of the soon-to-be-ratified NDAA, this cool, throw-away line takes on a greater and darker significance. The message, essentially, is that if Ethan and his team are caught by the feds, they'll either be shot on sight or thrown into a hole with no chance to make their case. Luckily, the Secretary is a good dude, so we don't have to worry about watching Ethan Hunt Escapes from Guantanamo Bay.

Politics aside, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a surprising and exciting adventure that even the series' harshest critics will probably enjoy. It's no secret that Hollywood saves its best pictures for the end-of-the-year Awards Season, and it's nice to see that this goes for blockbusters, too. The film could've been lost in the summer shuffle of robots and superheroes. Thankfully, Paramount held back and gave us an early holiday gift.

*Some AMC Theatres claim to have IMAX theatres. But for anyone who's been to an actual IMAX auditorium--say, at Chicago's Navy Pier--you'll know instantly that these suburban shams are just really, really big screens (as opposed to "My God, I can barely take in the whole image in front of me, and I'm in the twentieth row"-sized screens). Hence, the nickname "LIE_MAX". I saw Ghost Protocol in LIE-MAX, and still got vertigo during the Dubai sequence.

**It's curious that a hotel/business center with "military grade security"--including lasers in the elevator shafts and cameras absolutely everywhere--would not have some kind of sensors in place to indicate that several windows have been removed. This is one of maybe three minor details that don't quite add up; in fairness, I may have missed the writers covering their tracks within the characters' disposable technobabble.

***My one critique is of Patton, who seems really out of place in an early dramatic scene. It's weird, too, because she was so terrific in Precious. There's a timidity in the way she cries, as if she's unsure of how realistic to go in the fourth Mission Impossible movie. Had I not been familiar with her previous work, I might have pegged this moment as just plain awful. That aside, she's a terrific addition to the series, and someone I really hope becomes a recurring player (small chance, given the franchise's penchant for boys'-club behavior).

Saturday
Dec172011

Young Adult (2011)

The Land of Milk and Honey (and Kentacohuts)

Walking out of Young Adult, I heard two high school girls complaining. Their conversation began with an annoyed, "Was that supposed to be, like, an indie film or something?" and devolved into a series of confused whining sounds that, I suppose, passes for communication in younger circles (think Louis C.K. impersonating bar hotties).

This made me happier than you can imagine--happier, even, than the movie itself. Like my fellow audience members, I went in expecting Juno 2. I emerged with the proud feeling of having witnessed the fruits of Diablo Cody's first successful screenplay and Jason Reitman's first solid movie.

Yes, I'm one of those people: the handful who thought Juno and Jennifer's Body were clumsy, desperate attempts to capture a youth culture that had long since passed the author by. I also thought Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air were terrific premises bogged down by unwarranted seriousness and unwarranted silliness, respectively. This cluster of films represents, to me, the work of this generation's two most overrated talents.

I should say, "represented", because I finally understand what all the fuss is about. Young Adult is both artists' most mature and entertaining work, and it's sure to piss off anyone who goes to see it based on the trailer. While this is being sold as Charlize Theron's drunken misadventures in trying to win back her high school boyfriend from the clutches of marriage and fatherhood, the movie is a serious look at how living in the past can cripple one's ability to have a future.

Theron plays Mavis Gary, the ghost-writer of a once-successful series of young-adult novels concerning the life and times of privileged high-schoolers. While struggling to begin the last book, she receives a birth announcement from her old flame, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Divorced, drunk, and depressed, Mavis heads from the "big city" of Minneapolis to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, determined to recapture the romance and magic of her glory days. After settling into a hotel, Mavis heads to a bar where she runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate who's still as geeky as Mavis is goddess-y.

Over drinks, Mavis confides in Matt, spilling her plans to convince Buddy that his wife and kid will be just fine without him. Matt is sufficiently horrified and spends the rest of the film acting as both confidante and ill-at-ease shoulder-angel, futilely nudging her away from being a home-wrecker. But Mavis presses on, shedding the Diet Coke-accessorized, puffy-eyes-and-sweat-pants look for the plucked, spritzed, and mani-pedi-ed armor of a driven seductress. Buddy, she thinks, doesn't have a chance.

But he does have a wife, and a terrific one at that. Beth (the charming and understated Elizabeth Reaser) is a hip, loving mother who plays drums in a bar-band called Nipple Confusion with other new moms. Buddy is clearly in love with her and in love with being a dad--facts that Mavis refuses to accept. This plot point alone would be enough to make Young Adult worthwhile. Most movies of this kind (including Juno) introduce phony back-doors to the central love triangle; I'd fully expected for Buddy to be at least tempted by Mavis' advances and relentless critiques of suburban malaise; I'd also expected Beth to turn out to be an unsympathetic character, thus giving the audience a reason to cheer on Buddy's infidelity--or at least to understand it--and paint Mavis as a damaged hero.

In a bold and mature move, Cody paints Mavis into a corner, forcing her to deal with the bitterness and layers of facade she's constructed over the decades. The double-whammy occurs during a climactic scene where Mavis has coffee with Matt's sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe). The shy girl who'd looked up to Mavis in high school is now a shy nurse in a nowhere town who dreams of being rescued. Her astute deconstruction of Mercury and the small, pathetic lives of its inhabitants provides Mavis with the hammer to break down the last barrier to her future. With a triumphant "Fuck Mercury!" she packs up her car and begins anew.

The lesson here isn't that the suburbs are torturously lame. In fact, with the exception of Sandra (and, to a certain extent, Matt), everyone in Mercury seems content to live quiet lives surrounded by family and friends. The beautiful and popular Mavis always felt like she was meant for better things. She moved to a bigger city and launched a writing career, but stalled in Minneapolis and got lured by money and convenience into writing 178 books about high school. Like the people she despises most in the world, Mavis settled--just on a slightly larger scale, and without the benefit of anyone to share her life with. By the time the credits roll, we're left feeling that maybe she'll graduate to an even bigger city and use her creativity to write more satisfying material--but, true to character, it's only a feeling.

Young Adult is a brilliant film on every level. Cody shows more restraint than ever, favoring spirited dialogue delivered by smart characters over quip-heavy snark from precocious teens (thus adding potency to the handful of pop-cult references* that inevitably spring up). For his part, the best part of Reitman's direction is that he stays out of the story's way. Most of his films suffer, I think, from "Look at How Socially Aware I Am" syndrome, but this movie's subject matter lends itself to a more stripped-down, intimate approach. I love the opening credits, by the way, which shows the inner workings of the cassette player in Mavis' car during the drive to Mercury. In a clever bit of thematic irony, new images of the machinery fade into each other even as Mavis rewinds the tape to play the same song over and over and over again.

But the real champions here are Theron and Oswalt. Theron hasn't been as visible in the last few years, and Young Adult is a touching reminder of how great an actress she can be. Though Mavis is a mostly unsympathetic character, she's played as a wildly insecure person grasping at her cracking, protective persona. None of this would matter if Theron weren't utterly convincing as a loser. Typically, when beautiful, famous actresses dress down for a part that will inevitably lead to a glamorous transformation, we can still see that there's a gorgeous woman underneath. I didn't think of Mavis Gary as Charlize Theron for a second; she goes full-schlub here in demeanor and appearance.

And Patton Oswalt continues to impress in roles that are more dramatic than comedic. Big Fan was one of my favorite films of 2009, and he's a big reason that Young Adult will likely make this year's list. He brings a poetic, defeated pathos to the whiskey-brewing, action-figure-modifying Matt, whose inability to move on from a high school tragedy mirrors Mavis' own struggle. Like most of the film's humor, Oswalt's job as comic relief skews to the angry and relatable. He and Theron make for the year's oddest but most perfect movie duo, and I could easily have watched three hours of their characters just chatting about their problems over drinks.

Young Adult reminds me of another similarly themed feature from earlier this year, Bad Teacher. Its protagonist was also an attractive, devious gold-digger of sorts, but the movie gave no indication as to why the audience should care about her happiness. Packed with cheap jokes and bawdy cartoon characters, it dragged on for way too long while saying absolutely nothing. Honestly, I'd expected as much from this movie, and am elated to report that I was very, very wrong. Young Adult has the look, cast, and plot of a mainstream comedy but the battered, beating heart of, like, an indie film.

*Like the "Kentacohut" of this review's title--FYI, that's the hip abbreviation for KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combination restaurants.

Friday
Dec162011

A Haunting in Salem (2011)

A Plea for Terribly Great Filmmaking

In lieu of a traditional review for A Haunting in Salem, please enjoy this open letter to director Shane Van Dyke:

Dear Shane:

I hope you don't mind if I use your first name. Though we've never met, you truly are dear to my heart. The numerous hours of entertainment you've given me in the last year are, I believe, cosmic proof that we are kindred explorers on a journey to find the apex of mind-blowing cinema.

Your skills as an actor, writer, and director are unparalleled. Never in my brief life as a film critic have I seen one person place such a distinctive stamp of awfulness on so many movies. Please, don't take that as a slam. I am truly grateful to have seen Titanic 2, Transmorphers: Fall of Man, and The Day the Earth Stopped. Some call them direct-to-video knock-offs of mainstream blockbusters. I call them windows to the soul of our greatest living artist.

A couple days ago, my dear friend, Bryan, asked if I would review all of your films--it's tempting, but as a young filmmaker, you don't have nearly the output to satiate my appetite. I like to spread your movies out in my viewing queue and give them the sacred time they deserve, so Paranormal Entity and 6 Guns will have to wait a few months.

But something has changed, Shane, and you need to turn your life around before it's too late. Yesterday, I watched your latest feature, A Haunting in Salem. As with all Asylum productions, the movie features unbelievably shitty cover art,* cheesy, Intro-to-Computer-Graphics opening titles, and a handful of head-scratching flourishes (the sound of birds chirping during an establishing fly-over of the Massachusetts woods, for instance). But it quickly became clear that H. Perry Horton's story of a family moving into a house haunted by witch spirits was nothing more than a standard-issue "B" horror movie. With all due respect, sir, you do not make "B" horror movies. The name "Shane Van Dyke" is synonymous with "F-", and you need to get back on track.

Let's start with the film's style. Each SVD classic that I've seen has been notable for looking embarrassingly cheap. The green-screen and compositing work often feels incomplete at best and hand-drawn at worst. But A Haunting in Salem looks like it was filmed with a state-of-the-art high-def camera (not surprising, since I see that there's a 3D blu-ray version available). There's also a startling lack of computer-generated effects here; all of the scares, gore, and stunts appear to have been handled practically.

The scene where a sheriff's deputy is found strung up by wires in front of the house is pretty creepy. Earlier, you pulled off a jump-scare involving patriarch Wayne Downs (Bill Oberst Jr.) removing a sheet from what he thinks is a piece of furniture. Because you placed something genuinely eerie under that sheet, I was startled by a moment that I've snored through a hundred times before.

Perhaps your biggest sin is assembling this great cast. Sure, each family member acts as if they're in completely different movies, but they inhabit these alternate realities wonderfully. As the put-upon parents, Oberst and Courtney Abbiati make a fascinating couple. He looks to be about twenty years older than her, and the fact that they have two teenage kids implies a reeeally inappropriate courtship. Their son, Kyle (Nicholas Harsin), and daughter, Alli (Jenna Stone), seem trapped in mid-90s TV movies about coming out of the closet and struggling with drugs/eating disorders, respectively. Everyone is believable in their roles, even if those roles aren't believably strung together.

You and Horton pack every horror-movie cliché into this thing, but because A Haunting in Salem is so (dare I say it?) competently directed, I was bored throughout much of the movie--a stark contrast from the side-splitting laugh-o-ramas you're known to deliver. You even up the ante with the climax, a surprisingly brutal downer that betrays the feel-good-escapism of most films destined to wind up in a 2-for-1 Big Lots bin. In these scenes, Stone is just plain great as Possessed Alli. Through a combination of cool hair and makeup and a sufficiently off-kilter performance, she even overcomes the scene-killing bit of SVD magic wherein you give her a broken-Playskool-microphone "demon voice".

It's a bad sign for any Asylum film when I can only point to one hilariously egregious problem. In this case, it's the two scenes where people are thrown out of the house's top-floor window--despite the shattering-glass sound effects, there's not a shard to be seen either on the ground or in the shots of the dummies flying through the air. That's terrific. That's what I expect from Shane Van Dyke.

But it looks like you're starting to mature as a filmmaker. That, sir, just cannot stand. I argue with people all the time about my shunning of films like The Muppets and Hugo as being bad, boring entertainment--while sincerely and enthusiastically recommending your movies. As I've explained ad nauseam, there are two types of bad film. The first is one in which every story beat, character development and line of dialogue can be predicted by minute five. Yes, this includes mega-budget blockbusters by reputable writers and directors. It's especially offensive in their case, because they're often able to cover their hackneyed tracks with expensive visuals (the "Shiny Objects" theory).

The second kind of film--namely, yours--is bad on every traditional level, but in very untraditional ways. Most micro-budget sci-fi/horror movies feature cheap visuals and bad actors. But you treat your movies as if you've got all the money in the world. Your love of every project shines through in a completely uncynical, non-self-aware way. You're a 21st-Century Ed Wood. It's impossible to watch a SVD production and not be in awe of the fact that every single decision is not only bad, but the worst of any option available. It takes a keen eye and a gargantuan heart to make films that play like brilliant genre parodies--films in which boredom never enters the equation.

I don't know if you've started taking film classes or are simply paying attention to master filmmakers. Whatever the case, I implore you to stop before becoming just another work-for-hire schlock director--or, worse yet, a good director. The world is a better place for having the unique, Shane Van Dyke brand of taste-defying creativity in it. Gifts such as yours should not be squandered on making good movies.

With all the love, hope, and respect in the universe, I remain...

Sincerely,

Ian Simmons

*Browsing the Netflix Instant menu, your latest films never take more than a few seconds to announce themselves. Incidentally, I love the fact that the house in the artwork looks nothing like the house in the movie.

Monday
Dec122011

Paul's House (2011)

The Evil of Banality

Stand-up comics learn their craft on-stage. Sure, they might grow up watching old episodes of Evening at the Improv or recreating bits from Steve Martin, Bill Hicks or Mitch Hedberg in their bedrooms, but it's not until they stand behind a microphone under a hot light in front of a handful of paying customers that their act truly takes shape. From experimenting with crowd work to tweaking rhythms to figuring out how certain jokes play to different audiences, the very nature of stand-up involves learning on the job--in public.

Does the same apply to filmmaking? I didn't used to think so. Once, the only way to shoot, screen, and distribute a movie was to have the backing of a major studio. Today, cameras are cheap, festivals all over the world invite young auteurs to show their stuff, and the Internet has made it possible to instantly share or sell any work of art to an infinite audience. The up-side is that moviemaking is no longer the purview of the gods. The downside is that every third person in America thinks they're a writer/director.

Which brings me to Paul's House. Adam Mient's seventy-minute psychological thriller shows a lot of promise, but is crippled by a lack of refinement--refinement one might find either in film school or in deep, independent movie scrutiny. I was alternately fascinated and pissed off while watching this, and couldn't help but wonder if Mient had screened his work-in-progress for people, or if he'd toiled in a vacuum and debuted his first draft as the final draft.

Vic Avis stars as Paul, a lumpy suburbanite who's gone off his meds. He skips work to fastidiously clean his house and engage in screaming matches with whoever it is that he has locked in a basement bedroom. The voice (Mient) taunts Paul, alternately pleading to be let out and warning him that the cops are only moments away from hauling his crazy ass to jail. Over the course of a couple days, we see Paul scrub his countertops, arrange magazines, and perfectly set out silverware in preparation for a TV-dinner dinner. Occasionally, he flashes back to stalking episodes involving his newly-exed girlfriend (Jessica Carrillo), but ninety-nine percent of Paul's House takes place inside Paul's house.

I love the idea of the movie. There's a great Edgar Allan Poe vibe to Paul's story, and Mient does an uncomfortably good job of depicting OCD. Avis brings a naturalism to the physical manifestation of Paul's obsessions that--combined with Mient's alternately quick and snail-slow editing--make for a viewing experience that's as frustrating as it is fascinating. It's a pure filmmaking expression of what's going on inside the main character's itchy mind.

Unfortunately, Paul's House is not a silent film. Every time the characters speak, the narrative coolness of the silent material is flushed down the toilet. It could be argued that because Paul is a Midwestern character that, yes, both his own voice and the voice he hears behind the door could, reasonably, have thick Midwestern accents. Intellectually, I get it. But as an audience member watching a movie, I wanted nothing more than to shut the sound off. Vic fares slightly better than Mient, mostly because of the good will established with his physicality (part of which, admittedly, is his uncanny resemblance to Re-Animator star Jeffrey Combs).

But the director should have hired an actual voice actor to pull off the scary presence behind the door. He's so bad that I had to tune the performance out and focus strictly on the words; as scripted, the dialogue is pretty good--but the delivery has the flat, working-class tone of a half-interested plumber running lines (Mient's poor inflection made it impossible for me to tell when the voice was sincerely crying for help and when it was mocking Paul).

The film's other major issue is its resolution (avoid spoilers by skipping to the last paragraph). Paul decides to confront the person in his basement and sets up an elaborate rig involving two chairs, a shotgun, stuffed animals and dental floss. On busting into the room, he sees a number of random items--including his girlfriend's cell phone--but no people. Of course, he backs into the tripwire he'd just made and is quickly blown away. The final shot of the movie shows a pair of legs standing beside his dead body.

It's a puzzling conclusion that suggests Mient either didn't know how to wrap up his story or that he didn't have the tools to express his ideas clearly. Leading up to this moment, the movie presents three contradictory possibilities:

1. Paul actually has someone locked in a room in his basement.

2. Paul has gone around the bend and holed himself up in his house.

3. Paul's house is haunted.

The last point refers back to the TV-dinner scene, where Paul comes back to the table from the microwave to find that someone has tampered with his perfectly arranged knife, fork, and spoon. This is the movie's one truly chilling moment, as it throws a curve-ball into a script that had been--up to then--firmly set to wind up in the predictable realms of possibilities one and two. Had this not been an isolated incident, it might have been easier to assume Paul was just imagining things--but the phantom silverware is the only instance of Paul's seeing things that might not be there.

Sadly, Mient implies that all three options are simultaneously true--a cruel joke that betrays the filmmaker/audience contract ("We promise to take your film seriously if you promise not to needlessly jerk us around").

Paul's House should have been a half-hour silent film. Mient could have said everything he needed to say in a short-form piece, as well as enhanced Avis' performance by only showing half of it. A near-perfect expression of what this film might have been can be seen in this fifty-seven-second trailer. The full feature only hints at that level of selectivity, and I'm sure that if Mient had workshopped the movie (or workshopped it more heavily), he would've had a minor masterpiece rather than a misfire.

Getting back to my original point, Paul's House is the kind of early, experimental film that David Letterman might dig up to embarrass Martin Scorsese. Not that Mient has anything to be embarrassed about. This film is an intermittently promising sketch that suggests its creator has better things within him that will manifest down the road. Unlike stand-up comedy and theatre, film is a static medium; unless you're George Lucas, endlessly toying with and re-releasing old material, chances are you will only get one shot to impress or disappoint an audience--so every project that's made available for public display counts, big-time. Mient needs more practice* and more outside opinions at each stage before creating something that deserves to be let out of the basement.

*Case in point: the opening and closing titles on Paul's House look like they were created in 1995. The dual arts of font-work and transitions are never more appreciated than when they're executed poorly. I couldn't focus on the establishing shots of the house because I was so distracted by the inconsistent typefaces, colors, and strokes, as well as the weird swipes and out-of-proportion text. And though it's on the way out, proper grammar is not dead yet--apostrophes are critical in letting people know you care.

Sunday
Dec112011

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2011)

Radnecks

Throwbacks are the new remakes. Apparently, Hollywood wised up to the fact that they've milked every halfway recognizable franchise/brand dry and must now resort to selling feelings. The phenomenon gestated in the horror genre, with movies like Hatchet and The House of the Devil,* and is being field tested in mainstream blockbusters. The recent mega-budgeted Hugo and The Muppets aren't so much movies as they are advertisements for nostalgia disguised as movies. They offer nothing original, but their pretty pictures and numerous references to yesteryear buy enough good will from starving audiences that they don't have to.

Fortunately, Eli Craig's amazing new film Tucker & Dale vs. Evil offers a shining example of how to make throwbacks work. He understands that the key to any successful homage is to not copy great art, but to honor it while creating something original. Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson pull off an impressive hat-trick here by also delivering a nearly spot-on horror-comedy that has more heart and lead chemistry than most "legit" movies. The filmmakers triumph in taking up the Shaun of the Dead mantle where so many others have failed.

The premise is a genre-film version of Three's Company: a group of obnoxious college kids heads to a remote Appalachian cabin, where they encounter what they believe to be a murderous redneck duo; through a series of hilarious misunderstandings, the kids end up offing themselves in ways that make the clueless good-old-boys look like serial killers. In one scene, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) takes a chainsaw to a pile of branches in order to make fire wood; he accidentally cuts into a beehive and the ensuing swarm sends him racing through the woods, screaming and twirling his chainsaw madly about; one of the students (who'd been sneaking up on Tucker and Dale's summer cabin) sees the freaked out, dirty hillbilly and runs for his life--straight into an enormous, chest-splitting tree branch.

During a late-night skinny-dip, one of the kids, Allison (Katrina Bowden), is so startled to see Tucker and Dale fishing that she falls and hits her head on a rock. The men get her into their boat and take her back to the cabin to help treat the wound. Later, they leave a hasty message for Allison's friends carved into a tree trunk ("We got ur friend"), which leads to a series of hilarious, ill-fated rescue attempts. All the while, Dale (Tyler Labine) and Allison begin the world's strangest, most endearing courtship--which is punctuated by more incidents of the poor girl cracking her head and passing out.

While this may sound like a thin gag stretched thinner over ninety minutes, Tucker & Dale is consistently original and interesting. Most movies like this are so frustrating because every problem could potentially be resolved with a simple conversation. Craig and Jurgenson stage that conversation, with the key players sitting down for some Earl Grey tea. Some are nursing fresh wounds, others simply bruised egos, but everyone has the chance to air their grievances and start over. It's here that the film takes another sharp turn and establishes the "evil" that our heroes must face; the threat's ludicrousness doesn't make it any less menacing, and the movie's third act relies on the emotional connections the characters have established--along with the audience's connection to the characters--to see us through what could have bee a typical kill-or-be-killed showdown.

Like Edgar Wright before them, Craig and Jurgenson understand that both components of the horror-comedy sub-genre are equally important. Tucker & Dale is never scary, but it's tense and graphic enough to resemble a classic 80s-style slasher film. The filmmakers layer a truly touching and funny bromance and a budding romance onto this template and play things out to their logical conclusions. The writing is top-notch, as is the acting (except for the first ten minutes; more on that in a moment), and even if you've never seen a horror film, I suspect you'll be affected and amused. This could have easily gone the route of Dumb Southerner/Dumb Frat Kids humor, but Tucker & Dale feels like a reaction to the legions of movies that think they're more clever than they actually are.

My one complaint is that the opening ten minutes are absolutely terrible. That's a weird thing to put in a positive review, but the fact that Tucker & Dale rebounds from such a problematic start is a testament to its greatness. The beginning suffers from a severe rhythm disorder that's hard to peg. The best I can do is give an example of what doesn't work:

As the college kids speed down a country road in their van, one of them pops up from the back seat and says, urgently, "Guys! We've got a serious problem here!" Everyone turns and asks, "What's wrong?"

The girl says, "We're out of beer!", which prompts everyone to scream and convulse in a way that I haven't seen since I stopped watching iCarly. A significant tonal shift happens shortly after this embarrassing minute, leading me to wonder if the screenwriters made some kind of Awesome Writing pact with the devil after churning out a handful of pages.

Yep, it's pretty awful. But if you stick with the movie, you'll discover one of the funniest, most surprising comedies of the year. And while I love what Tudyk and Labine do with the Tucker and Dale characters, I don't need to see a sequel (I haven't heard of one, in case you're wondering, but damn near everything is franchise-ready these days). I would rather Craig and Jurgenson follow the Wright model of using his Hollywood capital to make mind-bending, inventive new films (I may disagree on the success of Wright's subsequent movies, but I admire the hell out of his work ethic and passion).

Warning: the following statement is ridiculous:

Every filmmaker and every studio executive needs to watch Tucker & Dale vs. Evil for an entertaining but very serious lesson in how to do things right.

Here's a movie that proudly displays its roots but doesn't use them as a crutch to slack off on the story. It's a crime that this was shelved for three years and then had to slink onto home video after a few special screenings. But I'm not surprised; rare films like this remind audiences of what giving a shit looks like--if the world were full of Tucker & Dales, studios might have to spend more money on screenplays than special effects. And that's just silly, right?

*I don't mean to disparriage Ti West's masterpiece by mentioning it in the company of Hatchet. The House of the Devil, like Tucker & Dale, is also a nostalgia piece that does wonderful things with the genre.