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Thursday
Apr252013

Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal (2012)

The Long, Dark Snack-Time of the Soul

Some movies defy categorization. Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal has been called a "dark comedy", but I'm not sure that's right. Despite the cute title and intermittent gore, it's not a "horror comedy", either--at least not in the way you might think of such films. Yes, it's about a frustrated Danish painter who takes a teaching job in middle-of-nowhere Canada, only to discover that his new roommate is a sort of REM-sleep werewolf. But writer/director Boris Rodriquez embraces his characters' weird reality, delivering a film so absurd, terrifying, cute, and heartbreaking that I'd hoped to find out it was a docudrama.

Thure Lindhardt is Lars, our washed-up artist hero. He hasn't produced anything of note in a decade, to the chagrin of his slimy agent, Ronny (Stephen McHattie), but is treated like a celebrity at the Koda Lake Art School. A cross between Summer School and Footloose, Lars' first day on the job involves a bad encounter with a cop; a crush on the teacher one classroom over (Georgina Reilly); and a run-in with an uptight slime-ball of a faculty member (Peter Michael Dillon). As soon as Eddie (Dylan Smith) enters the picture, though, predictability jumps head-first out the window.

Eddie is a large, mute mope whose wealthy aunt's financial support keeps the troubled school's doors open. In exchange, the staff allow Eddie to sit quietly in the back of various classes, where he paints spooky, childish watercolors. The aunt passes away suddenly, and Lars volunteers to let Eddie stay with him in the spirit of making a good first impression on his new co-workers.

During their first night together, Lars awakens to find his roommate naked in the woods with a mouth smeared in blood and a shredded rabbit carcass nearby. As the days wear on, Eddie's unconscious and unholy appetite evolves to bigger and bigger animals until--well, you probably get the idea. Why doesn't Lars call the police on this lunatic? I'll leave that for you to discover; suffice it to say, I wondered the same thing for quite awhile, and the answer is brilliant and honest in a way I didn't expect.

I referred to Eddie as a "werewolf" earlier, and though he doesn't sprout over-grown canines and excess body hair, his place in the bigger story will feel very familiar to horror fans. Fortunately, the movie is about Lars, and about what Eddie awakens in him. The "terrorizing the town" stuff is effectively yucky and pretty funny, but I really responded to Lars' struggle to make a comeback amidst (and thanks to) the chaos in his life. Either Rodriguez spent a lot of time around painters in researching this character, or being a filmmaker is a very similar kind of creative obsession--either way, his portrait of Lars will speak loudly to anyone who's ever found themselves at the mercy of uncontrollable creative urges (pay attention to the tools Lars uses when painting masterpieces we're never privy to, and how they correlate to his particular successes and failures; it's but a thread in Rodriguez's keenly observed, lovingly woven tapestry).

With a different cast, this movie would be pretty good. But Lindhardt, Reilly, and Smith make the production special. With an angelic face that looks like a genetic mash-up of Jonny Lee Miller and Rutger Hauer, Lindhardt reveals Lars to be a deeply troubled egotist masquerading as a decent, humble guy. As Lesley the love interest, Reilly brings vulnerability to a role that, at first glance, is no weightier than...well, a character best described as "Lesley the love interest."

As the film's titular "monster", Smith crushes with a performance that never lets the audience doubt him for a second. It's a tired truth that in every comedy or horror film featuring a character who is called out as being mute, they will inevitably say something cute or important before the end credits. Not here. In a bravura performance similar to Andrew Sensenig's in Upstream Color, Smith creates Eddie solely out of body language and masterful facial manipulations that suggest he'd spent his whole life having to relate to people in frustrated silence.

Given my lousy track record with indie genre films lately, I expected nothing out of this thing called Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal; serves me right for judging a movie by its title. The picture is as hard to pin down as the movies I consider to be its spiritual forebears, Election and World's Greatest Dad. It's a great addition to the pantheon of teachers-in-midlife-crises movies, full of rich characters, tricky situations, and the hard questions that don't seem like much until we stop laughing long enough ask them of ourselves.

Attention Chicagoans! If you'd like to catch Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal on the big screen (and you definitely should), it opens tomorrow night at The Music Box Theatre on Southport. Check out their Web site for more information.

Tuesday
Apr232013

The Lords of Salem (2013)

Six Feet Under the Influence

I'm one of maybe a dozen people on the planet who thought Rob Zombie's Halloween 2 was a great movie. Relentlessly mean, graphic as hell, and filled with just enough bizarre imagery and unreliable narrative to plunge the audience into survivor's shock, the film is much more terrifying and entertaining than its predecessor. Still, it's one of the most reviled sequels in history; one of the most hated remakes, too. Horror fans, and even Zombie himself, waited anxiously for the rocker/auteur's return to original material. After having seen The Lords of Salem, I'm still waiting.

The only substantive difference between this movie and Suspiria is its setting. Instead of a ballet school run by witches, Zombie tortures his heroine, Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), in a crappy Massachusetts apartment building--that's run by witches. The rest of the film is a naked homage to Dario Argento's horror classic, complete with moodiness, melodrama and a deliberately vague narrative whose brittle skeleton can barely support all the pseudo-trippy, narcissistic imagery. It's the equivalent of someone expecting praise for having tattooed The Mona Lisa on their face: sure it's art, but it's also pointless, dumb, and unoriginal.

One of the many things that separates Zombie from Argento is his bizarre need to flesh out his characters through back-story rather than forward momentum (see also 2007's Halloween). Heidi is one-third of a late-night-radio Zoo Crew. And she's a former crack addict. And she's descended from a famous witch-hunting Puritan named Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine). And she's been stringing along one of her co-hosts, romantically. And on and on and on.

Were any of these points exploited to even a quarter of their dramatic potential, Zombie may have been onto something. But he's far too in love with creating eerie images to trifle with story. For the record, I'd be okay with that if the images were new, legitimately eerie, or conveyed some kind of message beyond the tired, "It means whatever you want it to mean, maaaan" laziness of uninspired, desperate artists everywhere (see also Terrence Malick).

Zombie teases us with a sub-plot involving occult-studies author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), who runs afoul of the coven protecting Heidi during their plan to resurrect...another coven. Though he screams "Sacrificial Lamb" from frame one, Davison at least gives us some recognizably adult behavior--especially compared to Heidi who, as played by Mrs. Zombie, is little more than a sullen, tatted-up ne'er-to-well with bad white-girl dreads and zero charisma.* As alternately bubbly and deadly serious ladies of the dark, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, and Patricia Quinn are delightful, and I would have rather watched ninety minutes of them toying with Matthias than re-watching Zombie's third (at least) iteration of the "straight-laced-authority-figure-duped-by-seemingly-innocent-killers" scene.**

Another bright spot is Meg Foster, who commits so fully to her role as the centuries-old spirit of a witch that it's downright shameful Zombie didn't give her anything cool to do or interesting to say. There's only so much babbling about "trampling on the cross" and defying "God, the greatest liar of them all" one can endure before the dialogue starts to sound like a polemic against people who'll never bother with this movie anyway.

Worse yet, Foster is used more as a prop than a person; her ghastly, rotting image pops up here and there, always accompanied by a bombastic "Ooooh, Scary" audio cue. A bolder choice would have been to pull the score from these scenes completely, letting us discover the horrifying thing by the pantry for ourselves.

I'd intended to write more about the dopey, would-be boyfriend; the cursed record that possesses the native women of Salem; and the Anti-Christ who looks like a cross between a face-hugger and the face-hugger version of The Thing, but my memory of this movie has already evaporated into a dense fog of boredom. The long and short of it is, Rob Zombie is a talented filmmaker who knows a lot about horror-movie history. These factors allow him to successfully approximate his nostalgia, but they also prevent him (in this case, anyway) from bringing anything new to the table.

Quentin Tarantino is the modern-day master of homage, but you needn't even look to him for an example of influences informing original material rather than substituting for it. Arguably, Zombie merely updated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a circus aesthetic in his feature debut, House of 1,000 Corpses. But the sequel, The Devil's Rejects, took his trio of murderous lunatics on a bizarre road trip and turned them into unlikely protagonists in the process. Whether or not you agree with the subject matter, there's little denying the ideas, energy, and joy behind Zombie's filmography. By contrast, The Lords of Salem plays like a trip through a museum where the paintings are printed on laser paper and the floor is carpeted with quicksand.

*It'd be a stretch to find sympathy for a twenty-something protagonist who looks and acts this way. Heidi is at least twice that age, and we're given no reason to believe she's up to the task of defeating evil--unless the key to defeating evil is winning "Employee of the Month" at Hot Topic.

**In fairness, this is the best scene in the movie--likely because Zombie has spent over a decade honing it.

Sunday
Apr212013

Meet Dave (2008)

Alien Concept

Who could have predicted that one of the few bright spots in a miserable week would be Meet Dave? I put on Brian Robbins' spectacular 2008 flop expecting more abuse along the lines of The Love Guru, but wound up (mostly) loving it.

Don't worry: you didn't overlook a hidden gem five years ago by skipping this in favor of The Dark Knight. As a comedy, Meet Dave isn't very good; as an Eddie Murphy comedy, it fares even worse. Fortunately, it's neither of those things. This is a family film, and those require a different set of criteria in order to appreciate their charms.

Think back to the movies you loved growing up. Kids of my generation can hold our nostalgic heads high when gushing over The Empire Strikes Back or The Goonies. But a lot of not-so-epic entertainment was also successfully packaged and sold to us, precisely because we weren't old enough to know better. I can't rationalize my love of Superman III without mentioning how many times my seven-year-old self watched it on HBO. Watching Meet Dave, I thought, "This is really earnest and kind of amusing, and I would have loved it as a kid."

Murphy stars as Captain, the very proper, non-descript leader of an alien exploration crew. He and his team visit Earth in search of a device they've misplaced: a metallic orb lodged inside a meteorite that will drain the planet of its salt and sustain their home world for generations. The aliens look and talk just like human beings. But because they're less than an inch tall, they get around in a massive starship that, to the outside world, looks a lot like Eddie Murphy in a sharp, white suit.

The ship adopts the name "Dave", and as the crew struggles to pick up the nuances of human interaction, we see it walk awkwardly, stare inappropriately at strangers, and butcher casual conversation to the point of rudeness. This endears Dave to Josh (Austyn Myers), a kid whose mother, Gina (Elizabeth Banks), accidentally ran him over. Josh is a weird, sensitive kid, and so responds to Dave's sincere inability to relate to people.

From here, Meet Dave sails on in exactly the manner you'd likely expect it to. Or maybe not. For every "Dave helps Josh stand up to the school bully" storyline, there's a far more interesting turn of events where the guy (Marc Blucas) courting single-mother Gina doesn't turn out to be a huge, jealous tool. I also like screenwriters Rob Greenberg and Bill Corbett's idea that the human spirit is a sort of airborne virus: within days of walking around New York City, Captain and crew begin shedding their buttoned-up ways in favor of compassion for the race they've come to kill. The change comes not through immersion in pop culture, but rather as an allergic reaction to the planet--which is neat and unexpected.

The cast is definitely game, and features what we can now look back on as chock-full of up-and-comers. Banks was tip-toeing into stardom in 2008, as was Ed Helms, who plays Captain's mutinous second-in-command. Mike O'Malley and Scott Caan also pop up as a pair of bickering cops, and it's fun to see them bring their specific, actorly "things" to a kids' movie. Granted, all this hindsight musing would not have been possible had I reviewed the film on release, but I figure I'm in the majority of people who saw (or will have seen) it after its theatrical run. Regardless of the mental IMDb game Meet Dave offers, everyone came to play here--even Murphy, who, by all rights, could have just phoned in his performance long-distance.

It's not all fun and games, though. As a parent, there's a particular sub-plot that I would be tempted to either skip through or discuss heavily if I ever show this movie to my son. One of the alien crew members (Pat Kilbane) comes out as gay during his sojourn on Earth. There's nothing wrong with that, but the portrayal is swishy to the point of being offensive, and I had a hard time justifying the performance or the part as written. For a movie that goes out of its way to subtly tweak audience expectations, the flamboyant creature who discovers a fondness for scarves and makeovers is a disappointing detour into caricature.

Contrast this with what may or may not be a cleverly disguised war metaphor, and the laziness is even more baffling. With some minor tonal adjustments, Meet Dave could have been a dark sci-fi allegory for the Iraq War (slow your rolling eyes, kids; remember, this was the summer of 2008). A technologically advanced power invades a seemingly backwater civilization it doesn't understand in order to steal its most precious natural resource. The invaders put on a smiling face, even as they plan to leave a chaotic, dying shell in their wake. Because this is a family film, we get the requisite happy ending. But there's a refreshing undercurrent of darkness that kept me wondering, "What if...?"

Again, if you're over the age of twelve, there's probably very little for you here. But as children's entertainment, Meet Dave is enjoyable, cute, and exceptionally well-produced. The picture bombed hard, costing $60 million and grossing just under $12 million, and you really can see every dollar on screen. From the whiz-bang tour of Dave's complex engineering systems to the warm interior design of the ship's bridge, it's clear that a lot of thought went into making this an actual movie rather than a dumb special-effects show.

Wednesday
Apr172013

Oblivion (2013)

Head Trip-up

Oblivion is as difficult to review as it is to describe. The rarest of gorgeous sci-fi spectacles, Joseph Kosinski's post-apocalypse head-scratcher kept me curious from start to finish, even as it gave my eyes plenty of neat, shiny objects to follow around the screen. Stepping back, it's easy to see this as an expertly stitched patchwork of Wall-E, The Matrix, and another film whose very mention will give everything else away--but the strong performances and legitimately awe-inspiring visuals at least made the movie feel unique.

In the year 2073, Earth is a radioactive wasteland. Mankind used nukes in fending off an alien invasion, and was forced to evacuate the planet after winning the war. All that's left is a "mop-up crew" comprised of Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). Their mission is to oversee a network of processing stations that converts water into energy for use on the Titan moon colony. They make daily reports to a Mission Control operator named Sally (Melissa Leo), and do their best to avoid alien troops still lurking about the desert formerly known as Manhattan.

Though Jack and Victoria are a couple, Jack has visions of a life before the war--before, ostensibly, his own birth. His dreams are haunted by a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), whom he later discovers in the real-life wreckage of a NASA escape pod. Her arrival slowly turns the key on a delicious conspiracy that I won't spoil. Suffice it to say, Oblivion tackles issues of identity, trust, and the cinematic omnipresence of Morgan Freeman in ways that may surprise you--even if you've seen many of its elements in other films.

The principal actors are all terrific. It's hard to say if Cruise has matured as an actor, but he's become adept at playing brooding, haunted characters. He exudes leading-man charisma; makes a convincing action star; and can do furrowed-brow-intensity like few others. The Jack he plays here (as opposed to the Jack from Jack Reacher or Rock of Ages' Stacee Jaxx) is also sentimental and inquisitive, which doesn't bode well for his superiors' plan for abandoning Earth; few other performers could have kept me invested as his quest grew twistier and headier.

For their part Kurylenko and Riseborough bring more to Julia and Victoria than what I imagine was on the page. Their characters are mysteries and obstacles, respectively, and serve primarily to push Jack along on his quest to learn the truth about himself, the war, and the ominous Mission Control station orbiting Earth. These actresses create strong, memorable characters from comic-book heroines in the same way that Cruise elevates Jack just slightly above the prototypical sci-fi loner/hero.

I'd love to tell you exactly how Julia and Victoria stand out as characters, but that would involve cutting past several layers of the delectable Bloomin' Onion of a narrative Kosinski and co-writers Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt (adapting Kosinski and Arvid Nelson's unpublished graphic novel of the same name) have served up. Much like Trance, there are a few rough patches, story-wise, that I had a hard time getting through; unlike that movie, I doubt these stretches will be as challenging the second time around. Kosinski and company keep the switched-on audience members guessing and second-guessing and re-evaluating for the whole two hours. With the exception of the movie's final reveal, I appreciated every new development the filmmakers threw at me. And, believe me, Oblivion is like movie dodgeball.

I will say that all the head games made it difficult for me to build a strong emotional connection to the story. Oblivion is a great brain teaser, but it's a bit cold in the heart department. The characters are obviously damaged and looking for deeper connections, but so, I'd argue, is the screenplay. Everyone invests heavily in their roles, but in the end, I think all the desert-hopping, revelation pile-ons, and gunplay clutter the emotional landscape Kosinski so desperately wants us to explore.

As for his actual landscapes...wow. If you only manage to see one big-budget movie in theatres this season, you must make it Oblivion. That may sound like a cheesy poster-blurb, but I mean it sincerely. I caught this last night at Chicago's Navy Pier IMAX and was transported to a thoroughly well-conceived and exquisitely realized war-torn Earth. This is a masterwork of production design, costuming, and digital effects that stirred my long-dormant, child-like wonder. Turning off your brain at Oblivion would be a crime, but if you're interested in seeing it strictly for the visuals, I completely understand.

It's hard to believe this is only Kosinski's second feature (and that his first was the pretty-but-execrable TRON: Legacy). This is fun, thrilling, grown-up sci-fi that may bore fans looking for a non-stop, futuristic shoot-'em-up. But by leaving expectations at the ticket counter, you may just find one of your favorite movies of the year waiting inside. I did, and were it not for a couple of narrative pitfalls, I'd likely proclaim my love for Oblivion. For now, let's just say we're dating and things are looking up.

Tuesday
Apr162013

The Love Guru (2008)

The Shame of a Nation

It was hard enough thinking of something interesting to say about The Love Guru before yesterday's Boston Marathon bombing; now it's nearly impossible.

How does a fictitious, kooky mystic's lame comedic struggles with an inferiority complex and a chastity belt compare to a national tragedy that left numerous people dead and disfigured? There are a thousand snarky answers, many of which will become knee-slappers as the years push on and we inevitably forget the horror we're feeling right now.* But there is a legitimate connection:

The marathon is one of mankind's last recognized testaments to its pursuit of excellence. All over the planet, people push their bodies and minds beyond limits most of us don't know we have--for the sole purpose of running 26.2 miles in a single stretch. Armchair athletes and couch potatoes may dismiss these races as "just a bunch of fitness nuts running around the city", but they don't take into account the discipline, long-term commitment, and enlightenment that separate these competitors from half-marathoners or basement-treadmill enthusiasts.

Running is the most solitary, the most Zen, of the competitive sports (besides, I guess, racecar driving--but that's more about the pit crew and the machine than the product pitch-man behind the wheel). Marathoners compete against hundreds of other hungry contestants, but their only real adversary is the clock: they are pursued by their last, best time; the thing guarding the goal at the end of the field is a Frankenstein monster of their own creation, a phantom at best, fashioned by doubt and fatigue. But even the newest runners plow through with an unconscious and un-self-conscious joy that most of us haven't felt since childhood; a joy that comes from running around outside, just for the hell of it.

The greatest truth a runner understands is that rewards must be earned. Endorphins don't kick in until the hard work begins, and there's no greater rush than knowing you are a leaner, more efficient, better version of the You that hadn't yet decided to get moving. There are no shortcuts in the marathon, and all the privilege, special equipment, and press in the world won't magically make a champion out of a wimp.

The same can't be said for Mike Myers, who co-wrote and starred in The Love Guru. I had to turn off this unbearable, 86-minute test of will at the hour mark due to sheer boredom. Personal pride forced me to finish the movie the next day, and I still had to watch the previous 15 minutes to recall the unfunny events that led to my turning it off. I honestly had no idea what had happened, so forgettable was the material.

Myers plays himself playing an Indian stereotype named Guru Pitka. That's problem number one with this flick: not for a second did I see a main character with a distinct persona; it was all just Myers parading around in elaborate robes, spouting aphorisms in a cartoon accent from behind a costume-shop beard. Pitka/Myers' dream in life is to be a more recognizable pop icon than Deepak Chopra--which involves becoming famous enough to appear on Oprah (yes, yes, there are several rhyming name gags in the movie).

Pitka/Myers' agent, Dick Pants (John Oliver), says that if he can get the star player on the Toronto Maple Leafs (Romany Malco) to reunite with his estranged wife (Meagan Goode), the story will make him star-worthy enough for a guest spot on Miss O's couch. Matters get complicated when the Leafs' manager, Jane (Jessica Alba), does...something or other.

Look, there's no point in recounting more plot details here. Justin Timberlake shows up as a well-endowed, French-Canadian goalie (giving Myers and co-writer Graham Gordy ample opportunity to mock both the French and Canadians). The cast brims with random celebrity cameos ranging from Val Kilmer to Kanye West to Mariska Hargitay. But by the time you get to the two elephants humping on the ice during the Stanley Cup finals, any semblance of story has likely washed away like hangover puke down the garbage disposal.

This movie cost $62,000,000 to make. That's a tent-pole movie in 2008 dollars, and I can't believe anyone would let this offensively stale mess out the door. I'd wager most of that cost came from stars' salaries and the ridiculously opulent sets and costumes, but I can't fault the performers or the artisans. Who wouldn't show up for a paycheck with that many zeroes on the end of it? Hell, maybe they had a great time on set. Maybe they actually thought the script was funny. I also can't fault director Marco Schnabel--mostly because there's nothing about his work here to suggest he did anything other than shoot what was on the page. He couldn't help it if the page was covered in shit.

The point of all this is, in light of yesterday's events, I'm having a hard time living in a world where things like The Love Guru are allowed to exist. I should take it as a hopeful sign, perhaps, that the movie was a global failure and all but signaled the end of Myers' career (the occasional Shrek project aside). He can't be held accountable for my feelings regarding an incident that happened five years after his movie came out.

But he should be ashamed for not using his resources and influence to push that great comedic mind beyond the limits of laziness that have plagued his contemporaries for decades. I don't know Myers personally, but I have a hard time believing he would actually watch a movie like The Love Guru--which makes his participation in its creation all the more disgusting; it'd be like Gordon Ramsay putting his name on a special-edition Whopper.

I've got to cleanse myself of this tragedy (the Boston thing, too). If nothing else, The Love Guru is a gross, firm reminder of our responsibility to do the best with what we've got in the short time we're allowed to live and play on this Earth. Anything less is an affront to those whose quest for actualization is cut far, far too short.

*Don't believe me? I assume you haven't seen last year's blockbuster comedy, Ted.