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Wednesday
Feb182009

Friday the 13th (2009)

Enhanced But Not Improved

This may be hard for many of you to accept, but Friday the 13th Part Twelve isn’t a very good movie; I know, technically, this is supposed to be Friday-the-13th-Part-One-for-the-Facebook-Generation, but this is one shabby excuse for a reboot (I’d call it more of a re-wet sock). Sure it’s got the requisite blood and boobs, but it also has boredom, a real problem when you’re dabbling in the slasher genre. 

Let’s begin at the beginning. It’s a dark and stormy night at Camp Crystal Lake in the year nineteen-hundred-and-eighty; a desperate camp counselor (denoted by the word “Counselor” written in large block letters across the back of her clingy, drenched shirt) is on the run from a deranged old lady. There’s a confrontation, spliced lazily in with the opening credits, and we get the dinner theatre version of the “Jason-is-my-son-and-today-is-his-birthday” speech. The counselor- who has been running away from this unarmed geriatric troll while carrying a machete- beheads her pursuer and scampers off into the woods. A few quick cuts and credits later, we see a little boy pick up a locket that the old lady had been wearing around her neck (it’s really easy to get off, by the way) and he, too, scampers off into the woods. Yes, this is little Jason Voorhees, alive and well; and if you’re wondering why his mother would go on a killing spree to avenge the drowning death of her clearly un-drowned child, then you’re officially too smart to enjoy this movie. 

Flash forward 29 years to the same woods. A group of randy, good-looking twenty-somethings has set up camp for the night, taking a break from their search for a legendary marijuana crop in the wilds of New Jersey (sounds like the screenwriters found it alright). Because someone in the audience might not have heard of Jason Voorhees, or may have been asleep for the previous five minutes of the film, the legend of Camp Blood is retold; it’s such a sexy tale that the campers go off to their tents and into the woods to “make love”, at which point they are butchered by a grown-up Jason (Derek Mears) wearing a bed sheet over his head. One of the campers, Whitney (Amanda Righetti), is spared and held captive by Jason because she bears a (remarkably unconvincing) resemblance to the picture of Jason’s mother from the locket. Yep, it’s a new century, kids, and Jason Voorhees kidnaps people now. 

Twenty minutes into the movie, “Friday the 13th” appears on the screen in big red letters. 

Six weeks later (stay with me), Whitney’s brother, Clay (Jared Padalecki), shows up in town, looking for leads in her disappearance. We get several scenes of him knocking on doors and being rejected by the locals and the county sheriff, along with extended shots of a new group of campers buying beer and pumping gas. In the film business, these chunks of blood-and-boob-free time are known as “character development”, i.e. “lifeless filler”. Honestly, there’s nothing else to describe here, plot-wise, because you all know the drill. Stalk. Slash. Stalk. Slash. The story’s all by-the-numbers and unfortunately so are the murders. Because the filmmakers wanted to create a modern-day mash-up of the first three (really, four) Fridays, they end up delivering poorly-staged Xeroxes of deaths that were spectacular thirty years ago. There was only one true “jump” moment in the whole picture, and that involved the one scene that wasn’t completely telegraphed from start to finish. And that gets at the heart of what’s so very wrong with this movie. 

Director Marcus Nispel birthed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre update a few years ago, and has essentially remade his remake here; particularly in the latter part of the film, when we’re taken deep into the killer’s lair (Jason Voorhees does not have a lair!), one gets the feeling that the boy Jason did drown years ago, and that Leatherface simply relocated to Jersey and took up hockey. There’s too much intelligence in this Jason, a fact that many are praising, but which took me right out of the experience. Jason has always been a big, dumb, lucky death factory; the argument could be made that this version of the character has yet to become Mindless Zombie Jason, but that’s like making a movie about Darth Vader where he’s not yet become the all-powerful bastard of the universe (oops). If Nispel or his screenwriters had any talent, guts, or imagination, they would have truly rebooted the franchise with a movie featuring Mrs. Voorhees as the killer; they could have explored whatever happened to Mr. Voorhees and tidied up the hole-filled mythology that has plagued the Friday films for decades. But, no, they had to have the guy in the mask wielding the machete; I’m not saying I want my slasher movies to be Memento, but they have to have a reason to exist beyond the easy stuff. After having been shot into space and fighting Freddy Krueger, planting him back in Camp Crystal Lake with the same crop of mentally deficient teenage Spam-shavings seems like a cruel joke (one that’s on us). 

I’d like to close with a brief note about breasts. While it’s true that the new Friday the 13th has an abundance of female nudity, I must confess that nearly all of it had the opposite intended effect on me. The girls were uniformly attractive in this picture, but once their tops came off, I was faced with the oddest pairs of “enhanced” boobage that I’ve seen in quite awhile. Only one actress looked to have dodged the scalpel, but she was part of one of the weirdest, most poorly cut sex scenes in the series’ history. If you think this last paragraph is chauvinistic, you probably have a point; but it’s also the perfect illustration of why Nispel’s Friday is slasher porn for idiots: it opts for flashy freak fare when all that’s needed are the simple pleasures of the real thing(s).

Thursday
Jan152009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Oscar-Mired Wieners, Part Two

A few years ago, I stopped going to the movies during Oscar season; I should clarify by saying that I only went to movies that I was fairly sure had no chance of being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I couldn’t take the over-produced crowd-pleasing nonsense that passed for High Art; you know, movies like Slumdog Millionaire

Blasphemy! How could I have not fallen in love with the moving story of lovable beggar Oliver Twist—sorry, Jamal Malik. I’ll tell you how. Have a look at the film’s poster. You see option “D” in the multi-choice Who Wants To Be A Millionaire question? Well, the movie opens with a similar question and a similar set of options, except that “D” is “It Is Written”. Yes, thirty seconds into the movie, I said, “Oh, fuck” (to myself, of course). What follows is two hours of contrived back-story in which our hero answers a series of Millionaire questions whose answers relate—in chronological order—to his hard-scrabble Indian upbringing. Think of this movie as Forrest Gupta

It’s not all heart-strings and fanfare, though. Director Danny Boyle brings some great touches of savagery to the screen, including peasant children being blinded for the purpose of gaining more charity and Jamal’s torture at the hands of local cops. These scenes hint at a more genuine film, but every grasp is met with a scene-shift into either stereotypes (let’s laugh at the guilty white American tourists!) or falsehoods (what game show would allow the host and contestant to take an un-monitored simultaneous piss-break after the last—and most valuable—question has been asked?)…

This is a shame, too, as the cast is uniformly terrific. Dev Patel in particular plays the grown-up Jamal with passion and wonder; the script, however, paints his character as alternately a kind of autistic rube and a pissy brute that prefers slamming people into walls over reasoned discussion. Anil Kapoor, as the game show host, is sufficiently cheery and exciting; but he is undermined by a late-in-the-story plot involving his unease at being de-throned as the show’s reigning champion (not to mention the fact that he’s apparently some sort of crooked crime boss with enough pull to have the cops torture contestants in between tapings). I don’t know if such things actually occur in Dubai, or if screenwriter Simon Beaufoy is counting on my cultural ignorance to pull one over on me; either way, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t make me believe that these things could happen or should happen…

I also don’t buy Jamal’s undying love for Latika (Frieda Pinto), another street urchin who grows up to be a mobster’s girlfriend and one of the most beautiful women in the world. Jamal pursues her for most of his young life, never quite putting together the fact that she’s been a prostitute for much of hers; the movie doesn’t even attempt to deal with this issue; she’s just, y’know, looking for love and stuff. In Boyle and Beaufoy’s India, the streetwalkers are all well-adjusted, kept women. Okay, maybe that’s unfair, but the film’s utter lack of context gives me nothing to work with, and certainly nothing to care about…

I almost forgot to mention Jamal’s brother, Salim . He’s the Bad Brother (Jamal’s the Good Brother, you see). Salim opts for the glamour and security offered by a life of crime, and his storyline ends on a laughable Scarface-esque note. Shortly after, we’re treated to a wholly out-of-place Bollywood dance number, and I suppose it’s Boyles only measure of restraint that we didn’t see Salim’s bulled-ridden corpse doing the Electric Slide…

Danny Boyle has made two great movies: Trainspotting and Sunshine. While not perfect, they firmly establish the other-worldly qualities of their characters and their lives. Slumdog Millionaire tries to have it both ways: it wants to be both a fairy tale and a gritty slice-of-life culture study. But the script—which, had it been written for the Hollywood studio system, would have been rejected by the B-staff of Full House—never gets on board with either idea. For a film like this to work, one must either remove the contrivances or head at them full-speed with stylistic over-kill. This syrupy pap just made me want to kill myself…

Thursday
Jan152009

The Wrestler, 2008

Oscar-Mired Wieners, Part One

It's a sad state of affairs when the sixth film in a boxing franchise is superior to an alleged tour de force original film about wrestling. But it's gotta be said: Rocky Balboa knocks the shit out of The Wrestler, the new Darren Aronofsky film starring Mickey Rourke that has garnered a lot of Oscar buzz (and recently netted a Golden Globe for its star)...

The Wrestler starts out interestingly enough, walking the audience through the life of professional bruiser Randy "The Ram" Robinson. He's got a hearing aid and a bad case of plastic surgery, and spends two days a week competing in the equivalent of off-off-off-Broadway matches (the other five days are devoted to clerking in a local grocery store). These competitions range from standard bounce-off-the-ropes fights to low-rent cage matches, where the object is to apparently make running stabs at the opponent using several sharp and illegal weapons without blacking out (this constitutes not only a brutal scene, but the only one of true invention in The Wrestler: Aronofsky teases us by beginning with the end of the fight, where The Ram is being treated for several gaping wounds and then flashing back to show--in full Passion of the Christ mode--how he got them; the audience's sighs of relief turn to gasps of horror in one very slick turn). We also see The Ram encouraging young fighters and showing up to micro-conventions to sign autographs for a handful of eager fans. The near-documentary quality of the film's first third promises a gripping look at this failed character...

Unfortunately, Aronofsky went gold-statue fishin' with a tackle box full of Oscar bait, which means The Ram has to have a series of tearful encounters with people as damaged as himself; these generic props are stipper-with-a-heart-of-gold Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and Ram's daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). The Ram wants to go out with Cassidy, but she has a kid and is afraid of getting hurt and...you can fill in the rest with a 99.9% chance of accuracy. Stephanie, who hasn't seen her father in years, is a college student majoring in drama (this is my theory, based on the fact that she has about three minutes of screen time where she's not crying or screaming). These characters derail The Wrestler because they are not given anything to do beyond the demands of the film's trailer. If you are surprised by any of the developments in their storylines, I congratulate you on being a fan of Quantum of Solace. Tomei and Wood are wonderful performers, but there is almost a misogynistic bent to their roles: they are the ingrates, the whores who are unable to prop up our hero in his darkest hour--until it's too late. Spare me...

Back to The Ram. He is offered a re-match against the foe whom he faced in his last big fight, twenty years ago. After suffering a heart attack, he gives up on the match; then he decides to fight after all. He quits his job at the grocery store (in a scene that is supposed to be empowering, but which really makes him look like a dumb, bitter asshole), and, against doctor's orders, enters the ring. By the time the credits rolled, I really hoped that something awful would happen to Randy "The Ram" Robinson. It wasn't just that the movie had let me down, but Rourke's portrayal was so grating, so selfish, that I just couldn't stand to look at him anymore (it's the same reason I couldn't watch any film starring Catherine Keener for about eight years); I suppose this is a testament to Rourke's ability to bring any poorly written character study to life and make it believable, but I want to be able to cheer for the person I'm supposed to like, not hope they die penniless and alone...

Which brings me--at last--back to Rocky Balboa, the perfect sequel. One can easily (and happily) discount the second through fifth installments of the franchise and simply view Rocky and Rocky Balboa as two movies made thirty years apart. Sylvester Stallone imbued in Rocky a desperation to succeed that felt real, and set him in a rough Philly neighborhood that served to keep him down. In Balboa, he's back in that neighborhood after years of fights and personal loss; we know that he retired because of health reasons and opened a restaurant to keep busy and happy; he's estranged from his son, who struggles to make it in the business world and prove that he's more than a famous last name. The movie is filled with actual characters who have arcs and sub-plots of their own. When Rocky enters the ring against an opponent forty years his junior at the end of the film, we know that he's railing against depression and the notion that with age comes softness; in The Wrestler, The Ram comes off as a conceited dumb-ass who can't follow directions...

The key difference between the films--aside from the likability of the main characters--is that The Wrestler provides zero context for its hero's current condition. The Ram was once a major wrestler, with action figures, video games, endorsements, marquee matches. He had to have been a millionaire; twenty years on, he lives in a trailer. Did he gamble away his money? Snort it away? What happened to his family life, what caused the rift with Stephanie? On top of that, are the matches in which he competes legal? Is he part of some underground wrestling network that secretly converts school gyms into Fight Clubs on Saturdays? The movie is so full of questions that it needs an hour's worth of flashbacks just to help me give a shit. It's like watching a Donald Trump biopic in which he's living under the Brooklyn Bridge in the year 2029, hoping against hope to get into a small-business expo--except that we're only given an opening-credits montage showing him building a multi-billion dollar real estate empire; what happened to all the money?

I have no problem with movies like this being made, because they're easily forgettable and tend to remind me of better movies--and why I love them. My beef comes from the hype and praise that boost ticket sales and convince people that they should be moved by drivel that's not good enough for the Hallmark Channel. It's like being stuck in Aronofsky's far superior Requiem for a Dream in which everyone in the wold seems to be dangerously high...

Wednesday
Jan142009

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009)

Coal Miner's Slaughter

This review was written for my friend Chad, the proprietor of Chateau Grrr. If you're a connoisseur of the creepy-cool, be sure to check out his site!

I caught an advanced screening of Lionsgate Films' My Bloody Valentine 3-D, a remake of the lesser-known 1980's slasher flick. With a tag-line like, “Nothing says ‘date movie’ like a 3-D ride to hell,” one might expect a bloody, campy axe-travaganza, and, for the first ten minutes, the picture delivers just that. Opening with a furious montage of newspaper clippings and voice-over, we’re plunged into a horrific incident in a small town, where a mine collapse has stranded several workers. One of the trapped men, Harry Warden, murders his co-workers with a pick-axe in order to conserve oxygen. Harry is rescued and taken to the local hospital, where he awakens from a coma and disembowels of the staff. The entire staff. Enter Sheriff Burke (Tom Atkins), the film’s World-Weary Cop. His opening line—too profane for print, but uproariously awesome—comes from a survey of the carnage, which is so over-the-top as to put Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 to shame. Burke pursues Warden, who has suited up in a spiffy new miner’s outfit—complete with creepy head gear—and made short work of a group of teenagers partying in the mine. It is here that the movie begins to fall apart, a bad sign when it has just crept past the ten minute mark.

At the party, we meet a trio of “teenagers” (okay, maybe they’re supposed to be college-age, but they’re clearly pushing thirty), Tom, Sarah, and Axle, who are caught in a really boring love triangle. Matters get sticky when Harry Warden starts butchering their friends and Tom is left behind. Fortunately, the sheriff and his deputy show up and blast Warden to hell.

Flash forward ten years. Sarah and Axle have married. Tom has returned to town to sell the mine, following his father’s death. He’s greeted with hostility from the locals, who stand to lose everything with the mine shutting down. And wouldn’t ya know it—with Tom’s arrival comes a slew of grisly Harry-Warden-style murders. The rest of the movie plays out as a poor-man’s Scream—with every character a suspect until that character’s death, but without any of the wit, inventive kills or suspense. And that’s the biggest letdown of MBV3D: it sacrifices inventiveness for long, uninspired conversations about lost love and revenge between people who the audience would probably rather see dead anyway. Those with a certain political bent may get a kick out of the murder of a guy who bears a striking resemblance to Joe the Plumber, but otherwise these are embarrassingly pedestrian kills. Not even the sight of a fully-naked blonde girl running around for four minutes elicits much excitement, and that takes a kind of talent and dedication that would’ve better served the screenplay.

Oh, if you’re interested in the true identify of the “Harry Warden” killer, think back to the climax of Friday the 13th: The New Beginning. Yeah, I know. Ouch...

Though this review could be seen as a pan, I’m actually recommending that horror fans check out My Bloody Valentine 3-D. The three-dimensional effects work is truly stunning, beyond the de rigueur pick-axe-to-the-face thrills. The depth-of-field in the (far-too-frequent) dialogue scenes is so rich that you’ll wish all movies could be shot in this way. Speaking of the pick-axe, I’ve officially seen every single way in which someone can be murdered with one of these things. The kills become repetitive after awhile, and anyone not watching the 3-D version will likely wonder what the fuss is all about. It’s thrilling to see a man’s jaw fly past your head, but at the end of the day, I prefer nuance in my butchery.

Note: After the screening, the audience was treated to a surprise Q&A with Tom Atkins (Sheriff Burke), who provided more entertainment than the film in which he stars. Aside from the typical "What have you been up to lately?" and "What was it like to work with John Carpenter?" questions (answers: not much, and fun--though Carpenter is apparently not an "actor's director"), Atkins livened up the session with stories about the worst dates he's ever had and what it was like to meet Vincent Price in a bakery at a young, impressionable age. It was refreshing to hear an actor gush over the low-brow fare that made him famous--his favorite being Night of the Creeps--rather than writing off his genre work as something he did in order to get "legitimate" jobs. Atkins concluded his presentation by telling the audience how dissatisfied he was with MBV's ending. That's right, he actually copped to not liking the finale of the movie he was there to promote; and he was absolutely right about where director Patrick Lussier should have wrapped. He not only suggested that three minutes be chopped off, but also walked us through how the final shot could have been more effectively staged.

Monday
Nov172008

Quantum of Solace (2008)

 

Quandary of Somesuch

Presented here, in no particular order, are twenty-two spoilerific thoughts on the awful Bond 22. If you can watch and enjoy this movie, and rationalize any or all of these points, I congratulate you on being an utterly indiscriminate filmgoer...

1. Eva Green's Vesper Lynd was not only a sexy Bond Girl, she was one of the brightest, and served as a romantic and comic foil for the brutish James Bond. Eva Kurylenko, as Camille, is a conventionally pretty, pouty-faced Girl-Out-For-Vengeance who might as well have been clipped off of a box of L'Oreal hair dye.

2. It is impossible--IMPOSSIBLE--for two people to open a single parachute twenty feet from the ground--while holding onto each other--and walk away without so much as a shattered limb (unless one of those "people" is actually a cut-out from a box of L'Oreal hair dye; even then the odds aren't favorable).

3. James Bond has grown a lot since Casino Royale--specifically, he has grown the ability to fly out of a plane, without a parachute, and attach to another falling body; he even goes so far as to detach from said body and regain his hold.

4. The post-credits fight/chase scene was intercut with a horse race for the sole purpose of fooling the audience into forgetting that they'd seen this exact sequence--minus the excitement and believability--in the post-credits fight/chase scene of Casino Royale.

5. Ditto the scene in which Mathis' body is found in Bond's trunk by a couple of corrupt cops--minus the horse race.

6. Ditto the scene where Bond and Mathis leave behind a beautiful, unsuspecting woman to go on an adventure.

7. The Bond franchise has elimiated the need for spin-off video games, as it has officially become one.

8. The Bond franchise has eliminated the need for a fourth Bourne film, as it has officially become one (in a direct-to-cable kind of way).

9. Jeffrey Wright's Felix Leiter character appears to have been demoted in the couple of weeks since his successful co-takedown of LeChiffre in Casino Royale. He now finds himself working a vague case with a jack-ass superior who wouldn't be out of place in a Naked Gun movie.

10. Jeffrey Wright's Felix Leiter not only has the cool to stand in the middle of a bar that is being raided by an armed tactical squad and take a manly sip of beer, he apparently has ear-drums of steel that prevent him from so much as twitching at the sound of breaking doors and gunfire.

11. The film's villain, Mr. Greene (who--chuckle, chuckle--runs an eco-friendly corporation) is after the world's "most precious resource"; if you didn't immediately surmise that he was talking about water instead of oil, please--PLEASE--stop going to the movies and read a goddamned book.

12. The Bond Lay--as opposed to the Bond Girl--is discovered dead in her bed, drenched from head-to-toe in oil; this is meant to A) symbolize the villains' twisted methods and B) remind the audience of a truly great Bond film, Goldfinger (in the hopes, I suspect, that these nostalgic good feelings help them coast through the next terrible forty-five minutes).

13. The Dead Bond Lay makes no sense, as the villains are after water, not oil.

14. When Bond drops the can of oil at the feet of Mr. Greene and bets that he'll drink it twenty minutes into being stranded in the desert, I was uncertain of whether or not he'd offered the man oil or a can of beer--apparently Bolivian oil comes in six-packs.

15. The can of oil makes no sense, as the villains are after water, not oil.

16. Mr. Greene is a slimy, bug-eyed little shrew for most of the run-time; during the burning-building climax, he becomes Jack Nicholson in The Shining. This is neither explained, nor commented on; neither is...

17. Bond's drawn-out "dilemma" of whether or not to shoot Camille in the head in order to spare her the terror of being burned alive. Neither is...

18. Director Marc Forster's refusal to recall--even in black-and-white flashback, even for a second--the tender moment between Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale's shower scene at the moment when that scene is sloppily re-created in Quantum of Solace shows that he either A) hadn't seen Casino Royale or B) does not understand filmic motifs. Such a cue could not have saved the scene, but it may have provided some distraction from the intelligence-insulting notion that Bond would actually kill someone he liked, even out of mercy.

19. Forster also doesn't understand editing, pacing, or cinematography as they relate to creating suspenseful, easy-to-follow action sequences; which is why his being tapped to direct the film adaptation of World War Z is so depressing.

20. The Quantum of Solace title sequence contains a grating, uninspired song playing over scenes of Daniel Craig stalking a desert of female limbs that morph into sand; he never encounters anyone, but there's a lot of cop-show turning-and-pointing. This goes on for two minutes, and should be taken as a sign that it's okay to get up and leave the theatre.

21. Quantum of Solace is (allegedly) a movie about vengeance, featuring a character who swears he's not out for vengeance. This is usually played as sort of a knowing joke between the protagonist and the audience: we both know the protagonist is out for vengeance, even if other people in the movie don't. In this case, Bond keeps his word and sets in motion a sub-par action movie plot that favors cliches over emotion and sub-text--complete with the trite "give-me-your-gun-and-your-badge" nonsense that immediately precedes Bond's going "rogue". Quantum of Solace is a revenge movie without the revenge, and it makes for a frustrating two hours...

22. The highlight of which was getting to see the trailer for J.J. Abrams' Star Trek on the big screen.

23. {Okay, I lied, this is a twenty-three-point list. Consider it my homage to the deception on behalf of the filmmakers that they would make a quality follow-up to Casino Royale.} The trademark Bond-in-the-sights opening--which was brilliantly handled in the previous picture--is relegated to a pre-closing-credits add-on. It's a nit-pick, but it's also emblematic of everything wrong with this backwards-assed movie. The Bond franchise has regressed about sixteen years; it's once again Brosnan-bad, and I can only hope that this installment fails due to a lack of repeat business by smart people.