Kicking the Tweets

Back to School (1986)

Trumped-up Melon

"When logic fails, don't lose your head. You just turn to me instead. Hold on, baby, now here we go back to school."

--Jude Cole, Back to School

Last week, J. Matthew Turner's video thesis "The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully" became a minor Internet sensation. Yes, many have pointed out that How I Met Your Mother covered similar territory years ago, but the sitcom didn't do as deep a dive into the sociopathy of beloved 80s icon Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as Turner did. It's not so much an amusing piece as a head-scratching one, an off-angle examination of fictitious events that many of us grew up believing were heroic--but which come off as downright creepy when switching sneakers with the "villain".

Coincidentally, I revisited Back to School a few nights ago, thanks to a rabbit hole of nostalgia that began with my son starting kindergarten and ended with an earworm of Jude Cole's title song. I hadn't watched the movie in twenty years, but it was such a childhood staple that random scenes still pop to mind like the Triple Dent Gum commercial from Inside Out. As it turns out, I really didn't know Back to School at all, and that Rodney Dangerfield's Thornton Melon character--once a hilariously flippant idol--has a lot in common with people I've grown to despise.

There's a lot to love about Alan Metter's film. A clever twist on the prevalent snobs-versus-slobs comedies that dominated the 80s, Back to School tweaks convention by making its chief institution-thwarting screw-up a wealthy businessman. Food-and-fun-obsessed Thornton Melon gained national prominence with a chain of "Tall & Fat" stores, and has parlayed his success into other ventures such as real estate and toys ("Melon Patch Kids are not adopted--they're abandoned!"). On the down side, Thornton must contend with a cheating second wife, an estranged son who's away at college, and an endless rotation of dinner parties attended by well-to-do stiffs who likely cannot relate to his own humble beginnings.

One evening, Thornton snaps and heads to the fictitious, picturesque Grand Lakes University. On arrival, he learns that his son, Jason (Keith Gordon) is not the star swimmer or ace academic he'd been led to believe. The out-of-place teen is one the verge of dropping out, in fact, when his father decides the best way to help is to enroll in the school. Thornton's boisterous, cavalier, say-what-comes-to-mind demeanor makes him an instant success among the students The faculty are divided between those who appreciate a shaking up of stuffy tradition (Sally Kellerman's hip Lit professor, Diane Turner), and those who believe stuffy tradition must be maintained at all costs (Paxton Whitehead's Economics professor, Philip Barbay).

Barbay's protestations to the Dean (Ned Beatty) are drowned out just as surely as the subplot involving Jason's journey from bullied towel boy to dream-chasing ladies'-man. This is Thornton's show, through and through. Yes, Jason gets up the nerve to ask out Brainy Babe on Campus, Valerie Desmond (Terry Farrell), and also to confront snooty swim team captain Chaz (William Zabka, also the ostensible heavy from The Karate Kid's), but these scenes feels like commercial breaks in a standup special.

And don't look too close at this love triangle, or you'll find it obtuse: maybe I've been jaded by age, but I can't understand what Valerie sees in Chaz, what Chaz sees in Valerie, or why Jason sees either as an intimidating force--aside from purely superficial concerns (Sweet, Hot Girl; Mean, Buff Guy; Scrawny Nerd). The actors do quite well with the limited material, but that material feels less integral than it does like mass-appeal desperation.

The problem with handing the show over to Dangerfield is that Thornton Melon isn't the easiest protagonist to get behind. His intentions may be noble, but his actions are indistinguishable from the kind of person Chaz might grow into if he ever develops a sense of humor. His entitlement compels him to not only buy an unearned Grand Lakes admission, but to disrupt every single class with jokes and tirades about how his teachers know nothing of the real world. He enlists his driver/bodyguard, Lou (Burt Young), to create a diversion during Registration Day so that he and his son can get first pick of their classes.* Melon also recruits the local police to bring cases of beer to his raucous campus party (which, I'm sure, had a strict ID-checking apparatus in place) and hires professional scientists, astrophysicists, and Kurt Vonnegut himself to write all of his papers.

Melon's casual corruption naturally creeps into the behavior of those around him, even muddying Grand Lakes' victory during the film's climactic swim meet. When Chaz fakes an injury to torpedo his own team's chances of winning, the coach (M. Emmet Walsh) enlists Thornton to compete in his place. In addition to being a successful businessman, Melon was once a professional diver--a fact the coach doesn't mention to the judges when lying about having misplaced the form with his alternate's information. I'm pretty sure that enlisting a seasoned pro to rig a college sporting event is a bad guys' tactic. Is there any doubt Thornton (or at least Jason) would have called "bullshit" if the rival school had pulled the same stunt?

Taken by themselves, these episodes are very funny, but as a whole, they speak to a warped culture of influence that I'm not sure Thornton would (or could) endorse if his own actions were laid out before him. He constantly tells Jason (as his father often told him) that, "in life, you can do anything you wanna do"--unless, Back to School subconsciously tells us, your interests don't align with wisecracking rich guys whose popularity hinges on buying everyone textbooks and booze.

Thank God for Sally Kellerman. Her Professor Turner is the key to helping Thornton understand that there's more to life than cheating and skirting inconvenient responsibilities. She's also one of the few characters who stands up to Thornton,** though her free-spirit demeanor becomes a tad questionable later in the film. She's dating Philip, you see, before Thornton shows up. She's so taken by his wit and charisma that she stands her boyfriend up to spend the night with Thornton. Thanks to screenplay conventions, she becomes indignant when finding Thornton in a hot tub full of girls, and then take him back when he professes...whatever comes closest to love in his mind.

The other Internet sensation that Back to School reminded me of last week was Presidential hopeful and walking 80s hangover Donald Trump. Brash, opinionated, and concerned only with his own (huge, fantastic, amazing) orbit, it's hard to accept him as anything but a cartoon character--a very wealthy and entitled cartoon character. He's an aspirational figure, for sure, appealing to the poor who want his opportunities and to the rich who want their opportunities protected from the poor at all costs. He's Thornton Melon, minus the jokes and zero-hour self-awareness.

*Lou also throws the first punch in a bar brawl that sees him beating the crap out of the football team--a fight, it should be noticed, that started when one of Jason's friends doused everyone at the pep rally in green paint.

**And the only female character whom the film draws with a fine-haired brush. Valerie is a passive love object, and the others are scantily clad coeds--one of whom Thornton accidentally encounters in the shower. She's understandably terrified of the leering old man poking around her sorority house, and I'd wager that dread is compounded when, after jokingly apologizing for his error, he pops his head back in the stall and yells, "You're perfect!"


Sinister 2 (2015)

Lifetime Presents: Evil Dead, Jr.

James Ransone is one of the few reasons to watch Sinister 2. He's also a symptom of its myriad problems. The actor had a minor role in 2012's Sinister, a refreshingly adult spin on horror's creepy-kid and found-footage sub-genres. Here, he takes center stage in a film that has fooled itself into thinking it needs to exist, beyond making a few quick bucks.

The first time out, true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) sought help from a goofy cop nicknamed "Deputy So & So" (Ransone) to deal with strange goings-on inside his family's new home. In the sequel, Oswalt is long dead, and his confidante has been kicked off the force. Ex-Deputy So & So now spends his day as a part-time private eye and a full-time hunter of the child-snatching demon Bughuul (Nicholas King). While preparing to burn down a haunted farmhouse, he discovers that a single mother (Shannyn Sossamon) and her two young boys (real-life brothers Robert Daniel and Dartanian Sloan) have secretly moved in to escape from an abusive husband/father (Lea Coco). 

Writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill have built an elaborate and darkly beautiful domino scheme, but they forgot to check all the angles--resulting in unfortunate collisions that render their whole setup pointless. Sinister 2 touches on the very real horrors of domestic violence, just as the first film made Oswalt's struggles with insignificance even more compelling than Bughuul's army of demented ghost kids. Instead of focusing on Sossamon, though, we're left with the comedic foil from Part One, reimagined as a well-intentioned but ill-equipped hero. Shining the spotlight on Ex-Deputy So & So's aw-shucks demeanor and scared-of-his-shadow pratfalls only draws attention to the fact that Ransone looks like Christian Bale riffing on Bruce Campbell's Ash character from Evil Dead 2.

Honestly, I didn't mind this distraction, but the dichotomy contributes heavily to Sinister 2's tonal schizophrenia. There are four movies competing for ninety minutes of our attention. Individually, three of them might be worthwhile. Forcibly packaged as a whole, they're oil and water:

The first of these films is a classic domestic-abuse thriller, wherein an abusive-jerk husband tries to intimidate his estranged wife into reconciliation. We get the requisite flashbacks to hitting incidents, a pants-wetting episode, and a couple of truly menacing appearances from Dear Old Dad to remind us of the stakes. Take out the supernatural element, and Sinister 2 is Firstborn, or any Lifetime-esque movie of the last thirty years.

The second film is a riff on Evil Dead 2, with a hapless, handsome dude shakily staring down the forces of darkness. Ransone performs admirably here, but jumping between comedic reactions to darkened-hallway terrors and a sincere romance with Sossamon (not to mention a straight-up dramatic encounter with her character's ex) makes for unsure footing to say the least. Ransone is an expressive actor, and a sympathetic one, as is Jim Carrey--but I wouldn't want to see Ace Ventura: Pet Detective ruined by a heartfelt monologue about bullying.

Third, we have a very Stephen King subplot about the young brothers' relationship with Bughuul's legion of ghost children. Led by the authoritative and charismatic Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann), the gang must convince one of the siblings to watch a series of twisted home movies depicting grisly murders. This will complete a spell, compelling them to kill their own family and become eternal servants of the dark overlord (and resulting in another film to be discovered by an unlucky clan). The writers capture peer pressure quite well, and Sinister 2's young actors are uniformly great; Milo is a creepy, underhanded little bastard who could easily assume the Tracy Flick role in a gender-swapped remake of Election. A nickel's worth of free advice, though: don't think too hard about the King connection, or else you'll see a lot of Children of the Corn in these characters and events.

The fourth movie is a hollow franchise picture aimed at audiences who don't care about story--the same crowd who zoned out during Saw in between the "brutal" death trap sequences. Sinister 2 continues the motif of home-movie homicides laid out in the first picture, with rapidly diminishing returns. The order of events is the same: family enjoys themselves while being secretly filmed; family drinks spiked Kool-Aid at dinner; family wakes up bound, gagged, and stuck in an awful situation; family dies horribly. The first film made the audience work for their chills, combining degraded film-stock with weird perspectives and brilliant hand-to-mouth editing techniques. Here, we just wait for the ghoulishness at the end of a predictable cycle. One family awakens immersed in water and tied to electrical wires; another wakes up strapped into dentists' chairs; and on and on. We know the drill is coming because we know the drill.

I'm not sure how much blame to place on director Ciarán Foy, the writers, or Blumhouse Productions, whose trademark low-budget/big-returns operation has become a disappointing McScare-formula factory. Sinister 2 looks polished, where the first film looked unearthed. All the frights are telegraphed and paid off with soundtrack bombast. And the downright bleak and hugely satisfying ending of Part One has been replaced with a direct-to-video jump scare containing as much dramatic tension as it does logic.

Which brings me full-circle back to Ransone. Had Deputy So & So remained a series footnote, had Cargill and Derrickson stuck to their Ghost Story for Adults guns, and had the franchise stamp been applied with a lighter touch (or not at all), the film might have stood a chance. That's a mouthful of caveats, I know, but the whole thing feels like a series of half-measures and concessions. As a huge fan of the original, I felt as deceived and betrayed as one of Bughuul's damned, sullen children--forced to watch the same wholly avoidable sins repeat themselves forever and ever and ever.


American Ultra (2015)

Low Times

The last half-decade is a blur. Between my day-job, critic-job, and family-man responsibilities, it’s a struggle to keep details straight, or to even stay connected with any non-anxious emotions. The greatest casualty of this unchecked momentum is perspective, and it took an unforgivably lousy movie to slam the brakes and help me appreciate that A) my son starts kindergarten next week, and B) my mom has cancer. I knew both of these things, of course, but I didn’t feel them until halfway through American Ultra, an ugly, unending, and unnecessary distraction from everything that’s good in the world.

Don’t be fooled by the film's pedigree. Yes, Max Landis wrote it; yes, it stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Walton Goggins, and Connie Britton; yes, director Nima Nourizadeh’s previous film, Project X, was a massive hit. But this film about a small-town stoner (Eisenberg) who must fight off CIA operatives when he realizes he, himself, is a deactivated killer, languishes in a desert of derivation. American Ultra will test moviegoers’ patience as they hope against hope for something original to happen.

There are too many problems to discuss and not enough reason to discuss them. So please indulge me in addressing three big offenders:

1. Misogyny is the new Pet Murder. Early in the film, a slimy CIA middle-manager (Topher Grace, reprising his roles from Predators and Spider-Man 3) berates a former colleague (Britton) over whom he now has authority by calling her a bitch. This opens the door to a series of nasty, run-time-spanning insults aimed not at the agent’s performance, but at her femininity itself. Landis lazily employs a broad-strokes approach to painting his villain, the way other filmmakers might make the bad guy shoot an animal. He avoids the hard work of crafting strings-pulling subtlety, and instead conjures a hateful, over-the-top corporate-climber type who would’ve been denied an internship in the Langley mail room.

2. John Doe Genre. Based on its creators’ previous films, American Ultra should have been, if not special, at least entertaining. Project X provided a gleefully sadistic nail in the coffin for the Wild Teen Party sub-genre, escalating the exploits of three unlikable high schoolers past merely stealing beer or losing their virginity and into a realm that can best be described as the 9/11 of house parties. For his part, Landis elevated Chronicle from a mere mash-up of comic-book movies and found-footage flicks into a grim commentary on omnipresent media, domestic abuse, and friendship.

American Ultra is both Nourizadeh and Landis’ sophomore effort, and I was surprised to find that instead of being taken to places I’d never been, the film is a rickety tour bus ride through every place I’ve been, cinematically. The aimless-lovers-taking-on-colorful-hitmen-and-feds was perfected in True Romance. The travails of amnesiac spies have been well documented in the Bourne franchise. And Jesse Eisenberg already played a stoner-turned-reluctant-hero in 30 Minutes or Less. Instead of going bigger, weirder, or funnier, the filmmakers rely on conscience-free violence and rhythm-free vulgarity to mask their inspiration-free plot.

3. The Great Unknowns. Jesse Eisenberg is too serious and established an actor to play a convincing stoner. Even at his most spaced out, his eyes betray an intelligence that suggests he spent a lot of time embedded with burn-outs to get their mannerisms down just right. His 30 Minutes or Less character also smoked a lot of weed, true, but he was also keenly aware of his own smarts; he was sour and unapplied, as opposed to the allegedly mousy convenience store clerk Eisenberg plays this time out. Imagine a still-unknown Brad Pitt playing this part by channeling his Floyd character from True Romance performance. On a dime, we'd witness (and believe) a truly hapless pothead morphing into the cool, collected Sexiest Man Alive.

Like Ant-Man, American Ultra is packed with actors whose filmographies clash dramatically with their characters in ways that make this project feel like an alimony/pool-money gig. Only Goggins, as a certifiably insane hunk of government muscle, is allowed a moment to elevate the material beyond its bloody pre-teen-fantasy clichés (in a too-brief scene that happens way too late). Ironically, the film might have benefited from placing lesser-known talents at the fore—but without big names attached to it, I doubt Landis’ script would've made it off the shelf.

I attended the advance screening of American Ultra after work on Tuesday. It was downtown, which meant catching a train, which meant not driving home to read my son bedtime stories. It also meant not calling to check on mom (in case you’re wondering, I don’t consider that a public-transit conversation). I’ve justified these kinds of necessary but unfortunate sacrifices as occupational hazards in being a spare-time film critic. But movies like this make me wonder if anyone involved in making them realizes just how precious time really is, how fleeting.

On the plus side, I met a new film critic named Emmanuel after the screening, and had a great conversation with another critic friend, David, as we made the long, rain-soaked trek back to the North Side. For the second time that evening, my perspective shifted. In this rejuvenated state, I vowed to slow down, to love more, and to tell as many people as possible to stay the hell away from American Ultra.


Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World (2015)

Deep Spaces

When it comes to movies, I often wonder if I've been registered for some cosmic version of the Amazon Wish List. In the last few years, documentary filmmakers have put together beautiful, intimate portraits of the artists and writers I grew up admiring. Between Gonzo (Hunter S. Thompson), For No Good Reason (Ralph Steadman), Jodorowsky's Dune,* and now Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World,** my geek verite film festival is complete--and there's not a stinker in the bunch. Dark Star is the capper, an oddly joyous look at a man who didn't so much channel his dark side as report back from it.

"Dark" may be the wrong word, even though we're talking about the visionary designer of Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott's alien. Sure, one might glance at a series of Giger paintings and decide that his motif of phallus-domed babies worshipping glassy-eyed, biomechanoid sex goddesses is the work of the devil, but that's a superficial assessment; the painter's aesthetic is so chilling in its layers, depth, and realism, that the works appear to be photographs from another dimension--a dimension in which bodies and architecture meld into shapes that give us the willies. That's evil only insofar as the viewer considers the new and the strange to be antithetical to God, ostensibly the same omnipotent God who made Giger's work possible.

Writer/director Belinda Sallin establishes her theme of otherworldly sanctuary from the get-go, guiding us through Zürich woods and up to a nondescript house with "No 1" spray-painted on the front door. Inside, the familiar greenery gives way to a different aesthetic entirely: a hoarder's paradise of paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and furniture whose uniform design sensibilities feel completely foreign but no less natural. Giger's home is a labyrinthine series of staircases and small, black-painted rooms. The bathtub overflows with books, and his dining room looks like Ed Debevic's on LV-426.

Like latter-day Hunter Thompson, Giger hosts friends and family at his home. People buzz about, talking about this project or that, putting books in front of him to sign and talking to the camera about how influential the Oscar-winning artist was in supporting their own creative efforts. Sallin drops in archival footage of a slim, young Giger, dressed all in black and radiating intensity from his piercing, low-brow eyes. We see him working on massive paintings, and sculpting costumes and sets on Alien, all with mad, whipping gestures that seem at once out of control and precisely honed from decades of training. It's a stark contrast to the modern-day Giger, who looks to have suffered a stroke. His intensity bursts against a frail, shambling body with less and less capacity to serve his visions.

I don't want to ruin the film's insights, as you should have the benefit of rediscovering Giger's work armed with Sallin's new and fascinating context. One of the benefits of this new wave of loving, obsessive documentaries is that the camera pans, pauses, hovers, and zooms in on details as we listen to the creators (or those that knew them) talk about incidents that became themes, and ask questions that can only be answered by scrutinizing the work. Dark Star is part immersive art lecture, part portal into the gentle but troubled soul of a man whose art still elicits suspicions, assumptions, and debate. Before watching this movie, I'd partially written off Giger as a repetitive genius, a master craftsman who'd simply stuck with a style. Dark Star pushed me down the rabbit hole, forcing me to appreciate the finest, hidden details and meaning in a way that even the fanciest books or prints couldn't do justice.

Giger died shortly after wrapping the film, but Sallin doesn't make a big deal of it--in keeping, I suspect, with what the artist would have wanted. When asked about mortality towards the end of the film, Giger staunchly proclaimed that this life is all we have, and that he was content to have squeezed every ounce of experience and creativity from it. The film closes with Giger getting up quietly from a lively dinner party and shuffling off into some dark corner of his house; perhaps to sleep; perhaps to take another snapshot of his reality that will inevitably make us question our own.

*In truth, I had no idea who Alejandro Jodorowsky was before watching the movie. But his failed adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel involved a fantasy-football league of my childhood heroes--including H.R. Giger.

**The title at the beginning of the film actually translates to "H.R. Giger's Universe", which would have been a much more accurate and exciting name for this release.


The Iron Ministry (2014)

Rail Against the Machine

What do you get when you cross 2001: A Space Odyssey with Snowpiercer and real life? The answer is The Iron Ministry, J.P. Sniadecki's daring documentary about the Chinese railway system. The film travels seamlessly through different parts of a long cross-country train, capturing class and cultural conflicts (both stated and implied), and zeroing in on everyday sights and sounds to the point of abstraction--creating an alien landscape marked by dashes of familiarity.

That abstraction is absolute, and begins with a few minutes of pitch darkness. Just as Kubrick planted the seeds of dread and wonder in his audience with 2001's powerful opening orchestration, Sniadecki (aided by Ernst Karel) gives us a score made wholly of ambient noise. Soon, the black screen pulsates, giving way to metal lungs, a heart, and the hundreds of harmonious parts pushing this beast forward. 

Sniadecki introduces organic life in much the same way Clive Barker did in Hellraiser: we see people picking through bloody, leathery clumps of meat, sorting the good bits from the waste in a cold, nondescript environment. What's particularly chilling here is that this takes place on a commuter train, between cars. We move away gradually, getting a peek at people of various means and age groups, all packed in so tight that many sleep either standing up or contorted into such unnatural shapes as to become living art objects.

It's not all doom and gloom on this voyage. The opposite end is sparse, pristine, almost luxurious. Passengers stretch out in spacious sleepers, or stare blankly into their smart phones while seated at polished booths in the restaurant car. We don't hear much from the well-to-do section. In fact, Sniadecki is kicked out by security early on, while merely passing through the car with his camera.

The Iron Ministry's stories all come from the lower and middle-class citizenry. From college students' cautious critiques of the corporate landscape; to factory workers' associating their government's aggressive railroad expansion with a Tibetan prophecy about iron dragons and horses overrunning the land; to an encounter between a pair of young Chinese Muslims and their curious fellow travelers, Sniadecki weaves commentary into his dream-like profile of men and machines.

I don't know if it's a spoiler to say that Sniadecki captured his footage between 2011 and 2013. That information would have been helpful to me at the start of the film, but it came at the very end. At issue, for me, is the degree to which The Iron Ministry is an immersive experience. As a switched-on audience member, I appreciated the director's bonkers visual sensibilities, but found the narrative coincidences a bit much to stomach. Knowing how the film was put together, at the outset, might have prepared me for the unsettling (just shy of obnoxious) amount of soapboxing rumbling just beneath all the artistry.

It's difficult to imagine another side to the story Sniadecki's imagery tells. But I have a feeling his implied "Eat the Rich" message could be worked at a different angle, using the same footage, were a filmmaker to start at the opposite end of the train (so to speak). When we pull into our final stop, Sniadecki trades in the serene, green countryside for traffic jams, crowded skylines, and pollution so thick that I reflexively took a deep breath. It's a jarring and effective transition that contrasts nicely with the film's opening moments.

The Iron Ministry doesn't go off the rails to the same degree as Snowpiercer, but both movies suffer from over-editorializing on the part of the filmmakers. It works best as a series of artfully packaged snapshots, a nature special in which Sniadecki zooms in on a segment of our species to examine the customs and technology that have at once advanced us and held us back from realizing our true potential. This approach leaves the film itself open to criticism, with the omniscient editor's eye inserting meaning and context that the pure imagery might have done (and done better) on its own. Though the passengers' interactions are great, I wonder how much more powerful the film would have been without dialogue--without "scenes", culled from years of footage and dropped in at the right moments for maximum dramatic effect. I appreciate Sniadecki's heart and talents, but there were times on this journey when I wanted to get off at an earlier stop.

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