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Wednesday
Mar032010

The Crazies, 2010

Hell is Other People

In the last few years, two kinds of movie have run their course: zombie films and horror remakes. Sadly, like the walking dead, neither seems to know when to give up the ghost. So imagine how astonished I was to have walked out of Breck Eisner’s update of George Romero’s The Crazies last night, feeling uplifted and satisfied. Maybe it’s because this is based on a little-known cult film, or because the story’s monsters aren’t technically zombies; either way, the movie feels—for the most part—like original horror, and I’m all about going for a ride I haven’t taken before.

Set in Ogden Marsh, Iowa, The Crazies tells the story of David and Judy Dutton (Timoty Olyphant and Radha Mitchell), the town’s sheriff and doctor, respectively; they’re happily married, and recently found out they’re expecting a baby. What they weren’t expecting was a downed government cargo plane that crashed in a nearby swamp, leaking a biochemical weapon into the Ogden Marsh water supply. When people drink the tainted water, they go murderously insane. The trailer might lead you to believe that this is another “town-besieged-by-zombies” movie, and it kind of is, but mostly isn’t. In the Romero tradition, it’s about human relationships, incompetent and untrustworthy government, and everyday fears magnified to the nth degree.

Seriously, it’s not a zombie movie. In fact, the military sweeps into town very early after the madness breaks out and evacuates all of Ogden Marsh. David and his deputy, Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), return to rescue Judy, who’s been improperly diagnosed as being a crazy-in-waiting, and locked up in the high-school-turned-mental-hospital. For the rest of the movie, the small band of survivors—and a few other people who pop in and out—must make their way to the town limits and avoid trigger-happy soldiers as well as the few crazies who weren’t swept up or executed in the raid. There are no ghoulish hoards here; no scenes of people boarding up doors; and no re-animated corpses, either—when a crazy gets shot in the head, that’s it for them.

Two things make this a very successful movie. The first is that the screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright goes far in establishing the small town community of Ogden Marsh. Tired archetypes are scrapped in favor of natural characters that one might encounter on a trip through the heartland. It would have been so easy to paint David Dutton as either a macho hero or a down-on-his-luck shlub in need of redemption, but as written—and as performed by Olyphant—he’s a perfectly average guy who likes the people for whom he keeps the peace. And those people aren’t portrayed as rubes, either, which is also refreshing. The normalcy of the townspeople makes what happens with the weapons spill both tragic and terrifying.

The second selling point is Eisner’s direction. I’d be surprised if he hasn’t watched a lot of horror movies, because he seems to go out of his way to avoid the genre’s sillier cliches and fake-outs. He gradually turns up the heat on his characters and lets the story unfold naturally. The Crazies is not a showy picture, but rather one that creates genuine suspense. Eisner’s gift is that he doesn’t cheapen that tension with flashes of gore or pointless jump-scares; more often than not, there is no “payoff” for the build-up.

A prime example is an early scene in which a woman goes into a barn, where her husband has started up the thresher at three in the morning. The way the camera fetishizes the gleaming, whirring blades and switches between wide shots of the machine and close-ups of the woman, the outcome is inevitable, right? Not in this case. I won’t spoil what happens, but it’s a great use of direction and mis-direction.

Granted, I didn’t love The Crazies; though I liked it a lot. There are a few moments where Eisner calls back some of the scares that worked in earlier scenes, but to a lesser effect. Also, I don’t buy the film’s climax at all. Then again, I’m neither an expert in geography, physics, nor small-grade nuclear weapons; suffice it to say, if you bought the idea of a refrigerator shielding Indiana Jones from the effects of an atomic bomb, you’ll probably be okay with this film’s final action scene. In fact, it is followed by an effective ending that almost made up for the previous two minutes. Then again, this is followed by a credits-sequence coda that makes absolutely zero sense, and feels like a studio executive’s note. These are nitpicks that mostly bothered me after I’d left the theatre; while the movie was going on, I was full on-board with the story and the suspense.

It’s ironic that George Romero has released two zombie movies in the last five years—with one in the can, awaiting release—and neither of them are as good as two remakes of his earlier works. The new version of The Crazies and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead update from 2004 prove that remakes—or re-imaginings, or whatever the hell market researchers are calling them this afternoon—don’t have to be lowest-common-denominator bores. These two films, though not original ideas, have distinct voices and are aimed, I think, at moviegoers who don’t necessarily love horror movies. Eisner and Snyder know that thrillers should thrill, and not get weighed down in confused political messages or special effects (they also have a penchant for opening their movies with Johnny Cash songs). If only more remakes were about vision rather than brand recognition, I think we’d see an ironic end to the argument that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt.

Note: My dear friend Meghan made me aware of a phenomenon whereby some moviegoers require a bit of "liquid courage" before going to see horror films--I guess it keeps the nerves from getting too rattled. For my money, I'd say The Crazies is a two-shots-of-Patron motion picture.

Sunday
Feb282010

Couples Retreat, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Have I Got a Long Way to Run

Couples Retreat is a pretty terrible movie, but not for the reasons I’d suspected when I sat down to watch it the other night. I’d avoided it in theatres due to the negative word-of-mouth, but figured it was worth a rental. The best endorsement I can give is that you should wait for it to come on cable, and keep flipping channels.

The premise is sitcom-simple: four couples with varying degrees of marital troubles agree to vacation together at an all-inclusive Caribbean resort. Three of the four don’t realize that with the free drinks and massages come mandatory marriage counseling sessions and trust building exercises. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen the set-ups for all the gags: the buff yoga instructor with the inappropriate moves; the shark attack that Vince Vaughn blows out of proportion; the wacky marriage counselors. This is the Mad Libs of Hollywood studio comedies, except without the chuckles or edgy humor.

What’s interesting about Couples Retreat is that the first hour is kind of engaging. It fails as comedy, but the dialogue between the spouses sounds like real people working out real issues. It reminded me of a lighter version of another Vaughn film, The Breakup, which I loved for its willingness to challenge the audience by luring them in under the pretense of wacky comedy and then bombarding them with an occasionally funny but ultimately depressing look at modern relationships. There’s a sliver of that in Couples Retreat, but hour two is nothing but masturbation jokes and gay masseuse gags.

Another thing I found fascinating was that the cast all played one-dimensional stereotypes who, when combined together, actually formed one believably messed-up couple. It was like watching the John Cusack thriller Identity, except set in the tropics and (unfortunately) without all the killing. You’ve got the high school football hero and head cheerleader couple, living unhappily ever after; you’ve got the over-achieving power couple who prefer spreadsheets to bed sheets; you’ve got the older guy rebounding from a failed marriage with a party girl twenty years his junior; and you’ve got the normal couple with kids and mild communications issues. On second thought, forget what I said about believability. These folks are all cartoons.

The movie’s only selling point is the cast, but the script doesn’t serve them well at all. Watching Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau in Swingers was a hilarious revelation of male bonding; here, they’re just doing bits and collecting paychecks. Kristen Bell was spunky and smart on the underrated TV show Veronica Mars. Couples Retreat reduces her to the neurotic shrew that can’t get pregnant. And Jason Bateman just revives his role from Hancock, which was a third-generation Xerox of his role on Arrested Development to begin with. The cast look like they’re having fun—and who wouldn’t, shooting a movie in paradise—but it’s more important that the audience enjoy themselves; otherwise you end up with movies like this and Ocean’s Twelve.

In the end, Couples Retreat is a joyless, silly waste of time. If you find the idea of Jean Reno popping up as the resort owner, prancing around in a Speedo and generally “being French” to be knee-slapping hilarity, then you’re just the rube this movie is aimed at. If, on the other hand, you’re offended and bored by easy cultural stereotypes and fictitious gender paradigms, you’ll want to look elsewhere for an evening of laughs.

Sunday
Feb282010

Cop Out, 2010

Beat Downer

A wonderful thing happened this week: the Clerks blu-ray dropped from a ridiculous $24.99 to a more reasonable $14.99—keep in mind, this is the Amazon.com price, and not the $40 retail amount. Because of this, I was finally able to pick up one of my favorite movies and enjoy it in high definition. And, yes, it’s rough watching parts of it now, as the increased resolution makes all of the “charming” low-budget defects seem absolutely garish; but the new transfer also offers a wealth of new detail in the picture. On top of that, the disc is packed with great extras, and two versions of the movie.

The best part of watching Clerks is reminiscing about that magical period in the mid-90s when a small group of independent directors were discovered; auteurs whose unconventional storytelling methods would shake up Hollywood and help define the industry into the next century. The same way Robert Rodriquez broke the mold of action films with El Mariachi and Desperado and Quentin Tarantino bent the sprawling Academy epic to his exploitation- and pop-culture-loving will, Kevin Smith re-invigorated comedy with his movie about two convenience store clerks who swear at customers and complain about their sorry lives.

Smith’s raunch got people’s attention, but the earnestness of his characters and their love of alternative and geek culture built him an audience; he was a filthy Woody Allen whose films pointed out that the hum-drum slapstick of Chris Farley movies was not only unfunny, but also not the only game in town. He wrote and shot in a style that was lackadaisical but honest, at least for the hyper-intelligent, directionless, and middle-class of his generation. Kevin Smith masked real-world fears in blowjob jokes and Star Wars analogies, demonstrating that comedy could tickle the funny bone without fat people running into lamp posts, and tug at the heart strings without resorting to teary close-ups or overwrought violins on the soundtrack.

Kevin Smith should be fucking ashamed of his latest film, Cop Out.

My wife and I watched it the other night, and while we were busy not laughing, we looked at each other in horrified disbelief at the unfunny tragedy unfolding on-screen. This is the first movie Smith has directed that he did not also write, but I’m really, really curious as to what he saw in the abysmal screenplay by Robb and Mark Cullen. To call this either an homage to or a send-up of 80s cop movies is to understand neither 80s cop movies nor the concept of satire. For one thing, classics like Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon were exciting and had compelling lead characters; for another, satires are typically funny. So, why was I both unmoved and not amused during Cop Out’s nearly two-hour run time?

Maybe it’s because Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan were unconvincing as New York cops; partners, in fact, of nine years. Willis has the beleaguered-police-officer thing down, but Morgan’s dropped-on-his-head man-child shtick doesn’t lend itself to this story; especially when we see him doing actual police work, it’s hard to accept that his superiors would not have had him committed, let alone keep him on the payroll for nearly a decade.

This is not a farce, like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. In that kind of movie, it’s okay for one of the heroes to be an obnoxious, borderline mentally disturbed freak—because the whole point of the story is to watch the world react to them. Cop Out is allegedly grounded in reality; the two detectives find themselves embroiled in a war with a Mexican drug dealer whose crew deals with failure in their ranks by shooting people in the back of the head and then cutting out their tongues so that they can’t confess their sins in the afterlife (this, by the way, was the only interesting idea in the movie, but I’m sure the screenwriters just Googled “cool gang-banger shit” and copied the entry into their screenplay).

Tracy Morgan is fun to watch on 30 Rock, which is a deft TV comedy that allows him to throw weird tantrums and speak in non-sequiturs. Sadly, the Cullens’ screenplay thinks that the best use of his abilities is to drop him into a four-minute-long interrogation scene where he mumbles and thrashes about, spewing tough-guy lines from movies—while Bruce Willis stands on the other side of the two-way glass, saying the movies’ names out loud for the benefit of the zombies in the audience (please, don’t hurt yourself laughing when Morgan says, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” and Willis says, “I haven’t seen that one.”). The majority of Morgan's scenes drag on and on and on, laugh-free.

Cop Out is a real tragedy, as it’s packed with interesting actors who’ve all been great in better roles. Guillermo Diaz played a meaner, more realistic version of a drug lord on the Showtime drama, Weeds. Seann William Scott shows up as a drug addict who helps/hassles our heroes; unfortunately, he leaves his Steve Stifler character from American Pie behind, with no personality or spark in its absence. The great Kevin Pollak turns up, too, as a rival cop, and I wished really hard that we could have left the main bozos behind and just followed his character for the rest of the movie. The only actor who came away unscathed was Jason Lee, as the new husband of the Willis character’s ex-wife; is it bad that I was on his side after his diatribe about how much a loser Willis is?

It just occurred to me that I’ve not spent any time discussing the plot of Cop Out.

Let’s get back to that Clerks blu-ray. The movie is still very funny and heartfelt and, most importantly, it has a unique voice. That voice came from a director who would never pay money to see a movie like Cop Out. He would surely consider it a generic, soulless grab at attention and relevance from someone who needed weed-and-mortgage money after his last work of passion flopped at the box office. Kevin Smith needs to funnel all of the dirty cash he made off this picture into another original work and release it independently. He needs to reconnect with the hungry, young rebel with something to say and more to give; the creator of Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and, truly, one of my favorite sequels, Clerks 2. Those movies were memorable. The only thing I’ll remember about Cop Out was that it came out the same week Clerks went on sale.

Friday
Feb262010

The Howling, 1981 (Home Video Review)

I Don't Believe in Modern Horror

The Howling is the second horror movie from 1981 that I’ve watched this week. I don’t know what was going on with the genre back then but damn, could we stand to learn some lessons.

For starters, this is a werewolf movie in which we don’t see a werewolf until it’s nearly half over. The Howling begins as a stylized crime picture in which serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) lures TV reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) into a peep show booth. The cops and Karen’s news crew monitor her movements, but something goes wrong and the sting turns bloody. At her psychiatrist’s request (Patrick Macnee), Karen and her husband take a vacation at his wooded recovery retreat. There, they meet colorful locals, New Age hippies, and one sultry nymphomaniac. Karen also begins to have visions of bizarre, hairy half-men, and hears wolves howling in the night.

The rest of the story isn’t particularly revolutionary—at least not today—but the acting, script and direction make The Howling a great, weird horror thriller. It’s part monster movie, part black comedy; a style director Joe Dante would continue to hone in his segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie , Explorers, and his most famous film, Gremlins.

Take the scene in which another reporter, Terry (Belinda Balaski), sneaks into the retreat to dig up a file on Eddie Quist, who was also under the care of the psychiatrist. She talks to her boyfriend on the phone while rifling through a file cabinet, and grows increasingly frustrated when the documents she needs don’t turn up. Suddenly, a giant clawed hand reaches into frame, handing Terry a file folder; she looks up to see a nine-foot monster standing in front of her. It’s a solid jump scare, but it’s also ridiculous—and, since this is the first time we see what the werewolf really looks like, it’s also kind of terrifying. The beast strangles and mangles Terry, a character to whom we’ve grown to like. The moment of her death feels tragic—until it’s undermined by a cut back to the boyfriend on the other end of the phone, who’s got a copy of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl sitting on his desk (he may have also been drinking Wolf coffee).

The offbeat storytelling is enhanced by Dante’s visual style, which feels inspired by the EC Comics of the 50s. The Howling is all skewed angles, dramatic close-ups, and a rich color palette that—when combined with his use of both extreme shadows and haunting twilight haze—give the movie a dreamlike quality.

It also helps that there are so many great faces and inspired cameos in the film. Monster movie fans and character-actor groupies will flip when they recognize Roger Corman, Slim Pickens, Forrest Ackerman, and Dick Miller (side note: is Dick Miller the best character actor in the history of film? Even though he plays a variation of the same guy in almost every movie, he manages to bring some new, indefinable thing to his roles that never fails to make me smile). All of the actors Dante chose bring a larger-than-life quality to the movie; they all look like they jumped out of a comic book and onto the screen. This serves to not only keep us involved in what’s going on, but also allows us to join Karen on her descent into paranoia. That’s not to say that the supporting performances are parodies—I really believed that half the cast was nuts.

The Howling came out in the same year as An American Werewolf in London, and shares that film’s reputation for groundbreaking transformation effects. I won’t compare the two right now, as it’s been awhile since I saw the other film, but I will say that effects master Rob Bottin took a different approach than I’d expected. Besides the requisite skin stretching and snout morphing, Bottin added a bubbling effect that looked alternately creepy and dodgy. And while I appreciate that this was in part an effects showcase, I think the transformations took up a bit too much screen time.

I don’t know when Hollywood lost its magic in regards to horror films (probably around the same time as The Howling III: The Marsupials), but what passes for great genre filmmaking has been on the decline for almost thirty years. It’s a disgrace that someone could put out a bloated, bloodless cash-in like The Wolfman remake and call it a horror movie; The Howling is a lean ninety minutes of scary fun, starring adults and written for them.

In fact, I think The Howling should be re-released in theatres today, in place of The Wolfman. You wouldn’t need to re-cast it or cut it; just put the movie out again. Promote it heavily, and watch people go nuts. Sure, MGM would probably farm out some effects touch-ups to Lucasfilm—there are sequences in which the werewolves in the movie are actually cartoons—but much of the practical work still holds up. This movie is so original and smart that I don’t think modern audiences would know what hit them.

Sunday
Feb212010

Shutter Island, 2010

It's Exactly What You Think

Martin Scorsese should be very proud. His latest film, Shutter Island, is the best psychological thriller or 1995.

That’s not a typo, and this isn’t necessarily a negative review. The movie, while at times creepy, well acted, and fun to watch, feels like it came out fifteen years too late. In the post-Usual Suspects, post-Sixth Sense age, a great “twist” ending has to be spectacular, and not something that is all but given away in the trailer. I prayed going into this movie that I would be wrong, and that Scorsese had only pretended to telegraph Shutter Island’s big mystery in the previews; sadly, I could have guessed (in fact, did) all of the movie’s “secrets” before the title card appeared on-screen

But maybe I’m suffering from a case of “having seen too many movies”. I get that a lot. I’ve recently begun asking those who say that to me whether or not they would ever accuse someone of having read too many books. Digression aside, I’d like for you to play a game with me. Please read the synopsis below and see if you can figure out the big Shutter Island surprise.

The year is 1954. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal from Boston whos’ called out to a remote mental asylum to investigate the disappearance of a patient. A former soldier who helped liberate Dachau, Teddy has constant flashbacks to the war; he also hallucinates a great deal, seeing visions of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who burned to death in an apartment fire a few years earlier.

He also has a new partner on the assignment, named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), whose main job is to take notes and eye Teddy suspiciously. The two men interview the staff and the head of the hospital, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, who has, thankfully, taken up acting again), but no one will say anything about the missing patient or the mysterious note she left—which alludes to there being one more patient on the island than has been officially recorded.

If you’re like me, what’s going through your mind right now is similar to what I thought after having watched this premise be established in the trailer: “No way. There has to be more to it than that, right? I mean, they’ve just told me that Teddy is a patient at the hospital having delusions of being a detective!” Well, there’s a little more to it than that, but the film’s twisty-er story points are just nuances of the inevitable. So if you’re looking for a brain-bender, stay off this island.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to recommend here. As I said before, the actors are almost uniformly top-notch. Because we’re dealing with Martin Scorsese, we know the movie will be filled with great faces and better performances. DiCaprio fares better with his Boston accent than Mel Gibson in the recent Edge of Darkness; and his gradual unraveling is fun to behold, if a tad melodramatic in parts. Mark Ruffalo is great as Chuck. He injects this non-role with a quiet, everyman quality that balances DiCaprio’s manic eyes and hands. But the best roles in Shutter Island are those of the supporting cast. Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, and Robin Bartlett make this movie believable—possible, even. They play the wardens and the nutcases; in a movie like this, truly unnerving characters can keep the madhouse from simply being a funhouse.

The one exception in the cast is Michelle Williams, who plays her scenes as an off-her-meds Alice Kramden, by way of Cliff Clavin from Cheers. Seriously, she was better on Dawson’s Creek.

Shutter Island has a lot going for it visually, too, but—and this is the strange part—the movie is undermined by Scorsese’s poor choice of visual technique. Teddy’s visions and memories of the concentration camp are poetic short stories that we glimpse and piece together as the “A” story progresses. These aren’t typical movie flashbacks; they’re kaleidoscopic nightmares filtered through regret and suppressed rage. However, they’re undermined by Scorsese’s puzzling over-use of green-screen in just about every other scene. I still can’t figure out what the director was going for; even in scenes where two characters are talking against a nondescript wall, the edges around their shoulders and heads show the slight fuzziness of a mediocre composite job. While images of piled bodies and reanimating corpses are suitably chilling, I was most upset by the fact that most of Shutter Island looks like it was filmed in a parking lot.

This problem almost ruins the film’s atmosphere, but not nearly as much as the music does. The instrumentals of the opening ten minutes build and build, climaxing in a hammer-in-the-face barrage of ominous noise as Teddy and Chuck walk through the gates of the asylum. This is the most egregious instance, but there are several other moments where the music over-sells moments that would have been more effective with no accompaniment. Nearly every emotion and story beat in Shutter Island is spelled out before anything significant happens, and it’s an insulting distraction.

On a related note, it is quite funny that the “big twist” is literally spelled out for the audience on a whiteboard. Teddy comes unglued and bursts into Dr. Cawley’s office with a shotgun, convinced he’s uncovered a huge government conspiracy; Cawley reveals that Teddy is suffering from delusions brought on by severe mental trauma (I won’t give those specifics away), and the proof is in a pair of names that are anagrams for two other names. I won’t spoil those, either, but the surprise won’t be too startling to anyone who thought, “Hmm, that character’s got a weird name; I wonder if it’ll mean anything later on?”

Shutter Island is ultimately a noble failure. It kept me going for a good chunk of the running time (about 45 minutes could have been excised from the middle), hopeful that my initial theory would be proven wrong. I’ll never watch it again, and for me that’s not the mark of a good film. I think it’s a tremendous waste of talent, time, and money. Had Scorsese gone a step further and shown Teddy not to be crazy, to have been, in fact, the victim of the conspiracy instead of the fabricator of it, this movie may have been closer to something special. As it stands, the movie’s greatest shocking twist is that there isn’t one.