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Saturday
Jul302011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

How the West Was Done (to Death)

If you're eight years old, or if you've never seen a sci-fi movie, please, go see Cowboys & Aliens at once.

Barring that, stay far away. There is literally nothing to see here except talented, iconic actors slumming in a slow-moving collage of other terrible summer blockbusters.

Full disclosure: I had no interest in seeing the film. When the teaser hit several months ago, I pegged it as a run-of-the-mill alien invasion movie that substituted high-rises for dusty saloons. You might assume that I carried my biases into the theatre with me this morning--and you'd be correct; if you doubt that it's impossible to watch any movie prejudice-free, do me a favor and shell out thirteen bucks for The Smurfs in 3D. I expect a full report afterwards, explaining how you were able to completely ignore any ill will its trailers might have inspired.

The best part about walking into something you're ninety-nine percent certain will be awful is that it leaves plenty of room to be won over--unless your intent is to be unflappable. Cowboys & Aliens has a pretty terrific opening five minutes, full of mystery and some bad-ass Western rasslin'. But the moment Daniel Craig walks into the dusty old town that he's destined to save, the movie becomes a by-the-numbers rehash incapable of mustering a single plot twist or interesting character.

Part of the blame lies with screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci; but they're merely the last in a line of nine (yes, nine) scribes who've drafted and revised and punched-up this turkey over the last twelve years. I haven't read the comic book on which the film is based, but I seriously doubt it resembles anything that wound up on-screen. There are so many gifted, starving comics writers in the world that I find it hard to believe this level of hackery would have even made it onto a studio executive's desk (for the sake of argument, we'll forget about Green Lantern). Indeed, I'd bet money that Kurtzman and Orci's greatest contribution to the project was copying and pasting scenes from AFI's top-five Westerns and top-ten sci-fi films into their draft, just to get a shooting script out the door.

We're six paragraphs in. Are you really gonna make me talk about the plot? Okay, here goes:

Aliens attack the Old West. A former criminal and alien abductee (Craig) wakes up with amnesia and a weaponized metal bracelet strapped to his wrist. He uses it to shoot alien ships, who have come to Earth to mine gold and kidnap people (neither motivation is explained). The guy rounds up a rag-tag, reluctant posse, made up of the Earnest Kid (Noah Ringer), the Grumpy Old Man (Harrison Ford), the Token Native American (Adam Beach), and the Nerdy Saloon Owner (Sam Rockwell). Also along for the ride is a good alien posing as the Sexy Something-or-Other (Olivia Wilde)--if you think I've just spoiled a big secret, you've obviously not seen any commercials for this movie.

The posse discovers the aliens' mother ship, which they must penetrate and destroy before it can relay messages to the rest of the fleet (I guess communication systems weren't as high on this species' priority list as wrist-lasers and interstellar mining equipment). While the Man with No Name (actually, it's "Jake Lonergan", but you get the point) and the good alien girl make their way into the heart of the second Death Star, Han Solo and his band of Ewoks fend off stormtroopers in the treacherous woods of Endor. Wait, did I just confuse my movie references again?

No? I'm good?

Okay, let's move on.

Only two things work in this film. One is a scene between Ford and Beach that stands out because it's the only moment of honesty and real acting in this whole mess. The other is an unintentional metaphor that describes the Cowboys & Aliens audience to a "T": Lonergan discovers a dank holding cell in the mother ship in which the abducted townsfolk stand transfixed by a glowing blue light that gradually wipes their memories and turns them into confused vegetables.

Honestly, folks, if you come out of this movie expressing anything but anger and boredom, you may, in fact, be hopeless. From the aliens who look like Resident Evil cast-offs to the one-liners and cutesy situations designed to make cow-people chortle, Cowboys & Aliens is the ultimate in lazy, recycled garbage. I nodded off twice during a 10am screening, once waking up to the sound of a man a few rows away laughing hysterically at a scene where the saloon's fiddle player stops abruptly when the sheriff walks in (the equivalent of a dance-party record-scratch).

Nothing in Jon Favreau's film suggests that anyone was interested in more than a strong opening weekend and blu-ray sales. The irony is that Cowboys & Aliens is too dull to be cynical, but it only exists because Universal Pictures had an early-August slot to fill, and because Steven Spielberg is going for some kind of Executive-Producer world record. What began life as a pun matured into a comic book and died as a feeble, shriveled thing that only morons would call a movie.

Note: If you're looking for two far-better spins on the Western genre, check out Joss Whedon's Serenity and The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. One successfully blends traditional Western motifs with inspiring and imaginitive science-fiction elements; the other is a violent, introspective look at late-20th century crime as seen through the eyes of aging lawmen.

Friday
Jul292011

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) Home Video Review

Bust-Seller

It's been awhile since a movie has taken such a dramatic nosedive off the quality cliff. In the Mouth of Madness begins as an eerie story about a vanished horror author and the insurance investigator dispatched to retrieve him, and ends as an unnofficial attempt to shoehorn the most horror clichés into a single motion picture.

From stray dogs to creepy kids to a small, off-the-map New England town where secrets are as prevalent the looming, Gothic church, director John Carpenter and screenwriter Michael De Luca hit every mile-marker on the Stephen King Highway. Frequent detours into H.P. Lovecraft territory only serve to highlight their de minimis ambition and inept execution.

Book publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) hires professional truth-sniffer John Trent (Sam Neill) to find the company's star author before the release of his new novel. Harglow sends one of his editors, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), along for the trip. As they leave town, news reports trickle in of people going crazy after having read the work of Sutter Cane, this universe's most prolific horror writer. Too bad for Trent and Linda, they've recently consumed a large amount of Cane's work, and their journey becomes fraught with bad dreams, waking nightmares, and a perception of reality that's as fluid as the drool creeping down my slack mouth as I write this.

Is it possible to spoil this movie? Do you, my trusted reader--for whom I have all the respect in the world--have any doubt about Cane's secret? As film lovers, or at least as people who have seen more than three horror movies in our lifetime, we know that the author has channeled the powers of dark forces older than time; forces so grotesque as to be beyond mankind's ability to even understand how horribly slimy and tentacle-y they are. We know that Trent will go insane (partially thanks to the bookends in which he's interviewed by a cop in an asylum), and that the nature of reality itself will be unreliable.

It takes a deft touch to pull off a movie like this. Unfortunately, John Carpenter lost whatever chops he had well before the 90s. Earlier, I said that the movie takes a nosedive, meaning that at some point I thought the story had promise. The first twenty minutes are pretty good, but very quickly it becomes apparent that Carpenter and De Luca aren't commenting on King's and Lovecraft's tropes--they're relying on them as shorthand to make a cheap thriller. We see oozing, alien monsters on the painted covers of Sutter Cane's novels, but when the "unnamable, unfathomable creatures" manifest in real life, they're clumsy, generic puppets who might easily be imagined by anyone (a shame, too, because they were created by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, widely considered the masters of modern practical effects). The filmmakers also underscore every creepy moment through needless repetition: we get at least five shots of a painting in which the figures keep shifting, as if Carpenter wanted to make sure anyone who might've gotten up for a bathroom break would have ample chances to be scared shitless.

Had the filmmakers decided to follow the great mystery they'd set up in the beginning to its most effective conclusion, In the Mouth of Madness might have been something special. Trent and Linda should never have found Sutter Cane. But they do, and it turns out to be Jurgen Prochnow, who phones in a calm-lunatic performance while looking an awful lot like Neil Gaiman (I should clarify: the way Neil Gaiman looks today). Once Cane shows up, the suspense and the ride are over, and the rest of the movie becomes about melting faces and melodrama (Carmen is unbelievably bad here--there's nothing left of the awesome, aloof actress who rocked as Fright Night Part 2's vampire queen).

Only Sam Neill makes it out of the movie with dignity intact (okay, Heston fares well, too, benefiting from limited screen time and leftover Moses cred). He has so much fun with the Trent character that he'd go on to play a similar version of him in Event Horizon a few years later (or, as I like to call it, In the Mouth of Madness...in Space!). But everyone else is wasted here. John Glover, David Warner, Bernie Casey--they all show up for a few minutes each, doing glorified Featured Player work before slinking back off the screen. If the names in the opening credits get you as excited as they did me, please re-calibrate your expectations.

(The biggest surprise is a brief appearance by a very young Hayden Christensen as a not-so-creepy kid; surprising because there's no indication of the franchise-wrecking awfulness that he'd grow into at puberty.)

The only way to call In the Mouth of Madness a success is to take the view that Carpenter and De Luca have created a ninety-minute meta-commentary on crappy Stephen King adaptations. If that's the case, then I stand up and salute both men on a job more-than-well-done. But I suspect that, like Sutter Cane, they were driven by darker forces--ancient, evil spirits whose goal is not to enrich peoples' minds, but to drain both their wallets and collective imagination.

Wednesday
Jul272011

Hackers (1995) Home Video Review

Flashback(slash)

In its description of Hackers, Netflix uses the phrase, "dated, campy thriller." I'll let "campy" slide: The word implies intentional cheese and melodrama, and it's hard for me to tell if the filmmakers are making fun of their audience or just desperately, ineffectively trying to relate to them.

But, dated?

Surely not! Why, Hackers is a very timely movie--though its relevance may not extend past this week.

I found three weird coincidences that range from brain-tickling to mind-blowing, and I'd like to share them with you:

1. The film takes place in 1995 and centers on a group of teenage computer geniuses who mistakenly hack the system of a mega-corporation; they uncover a plot by its security and technology officers to embezzle $25 million using a worm that takes a small bite of every transaction the company makes (think Office Space, or Superman III). Hackers' characters pontificate (a lot) on the dissolution of nation-states and group identities in general, promoting the idea of the hacker as a one-man army with no allegiance to anyone but him- or herself; it's an eerie precursor not only to modern attitudes about warfare, but also the advent of "social" media.

2. Marc Anthony--who just this week separated from J.Lo--randomly pops up as an eager FBI agent.

3. In an English class scene, several students write their favorite quotes from literature on the blackboard. One is by Allen Ginsburg.

Okay, only the first point may mean anything to people other than me. But, honestly, there's not a whole lot to talk about regarding Hackers. It's a hybrid of WarGames and Empire Records that's more noticeable for its soon-to-breakout cast than anything going on in the screenplay.

Jonny Lee Miller plays Dade Murphy, a (ahem) high school student who moves to New York with his mother during senior year. He's just come off a seven-year, court-mandated restriction from using any kind of computer or touch-tone phone (at age eleven, he hacked thousands of computers in a single day and was busted by a SWAT team). Like any addict, Dade immediately starts cooking, virtually invading a local television station and messing with its scheduling system. He gets booted out by a rival hacker with the handle "Acid Burn", and laments no longer being top dog.

Dade is an outcast at his new school, whose students look like they raided the closets of David Lee Roth and Eddie Vedder. He tries to get in with the cool crowd, run by the alluring Kate (Angelina Jolie), and finds himself wading through a nest of quirky, good-natured cyber-pirates. It doesn't take long for one of the kids to stumble across the embezzlement scheme; the weaselly technology officer, Eugene "The Plague" Belford (Fisher Stevens) has him arrested and then tailed on release. Before long, the whole gang is implicated and Belford devises a plan to frame them for stealing the money while protecting his worm from discovery (this all ties into an extraneous sub-plot about capsizing oil tankers, but even mentioning it is going one step too far).

The cast is serviceable, with Jolie being the main stand-out. It's easy to see how she built an amazing career on those swollen, alley-fight lips and darling Pixie haircut; but she affects a pseudo-British accent that drove me nuts. It weaves in and out of her speech like a Madonna press conference with sound-equipment issues, and it's hard to follow what she's saying because the way she says everything is so distracting. This is the exact inverse problem with Miller, who actually is British. Why Dade couldn't have just been an transfer student from London, I'll never know. His American accent is so bizarre that it forms a blockade between dialogue and performance. It's an egregious waste of a great, young talent who would go on to dazzle as Sick Boy in Trainspotting the following year.

Matthew Lillard pops up as one of the hacker kids, doing his annoying Jim-Carrey-on-meth-and-Fruit-Loops thing. A practically pre-teen Jesse Bradford plays the boy who lands everyone in trouble--his main character trait is being nervous and smoking two cigarettes at the same time (one in each hand). Lorraine Bracco plays Belford's co-conspirator as a nervous, catty dimwit; I'm guessing she left Hackers off her demo reel when auditioning for The Sopranos. Speaking of Belford, Fisher Stevens is, I think, one of the top three reasons this movie earned a reputation for being cheesy. He's a skateboard-riding, Jolt-chugging nerd with a Zod complex (that's not a typo), whose unintentionally hilarious, off-key attempts at being intimidating belong in movies like Blank Check or Home Alone 3.

My biggest gripe with Hackers isn't the so-so-so-dated computer graphics or the quaint, mid-90s "rebel" costuming, artistry, and stabs at shattering cultural taboos. No, it's just over-long and not nearly as exciting as it should be. We get too many speeches and too many diversions from the main story (such as an extended sequence where the kids "prank" the lead federal investigator by messing with and eventually erasing his virtual identity--not so much funny as really terrifying in the ease and joy with which they go about their work). A movie like this needs either great stakes, a great villain, or great writing--none of which can be found in Rafael Moreu's screenplay.

The failsafe, of course, is interesting direction, but Iain Softley also comes up short, with the exception of a neat take on the done-to-death birds-eye-view-of-Manhattan shot--in which the buildings morph into towers on a circuit board. Softley tries to spice up the dull story by including swirling representations of data streams and taking the audience inside the world of the computer; but the result is a puzzling hybrid of Tron and The Matrix: I was more interested in the lightning storms rocking the hard drive than the boring plight of Dade and his Scooby Gang.

Hackers is an cute snapshot of a very specific point in the development of both film and technology. We can laugh now at the teens' snobbery (Wow! They can carry entire computers around in their backpacks!) and seemingly incompatible earnestness--despite a bitchy, parents-just-don't-understand attitude, at least they aren't gunning each other down between classes. Because home computing and the Internet as we know them today were still in their infancy (okay, maybe they were toddlers by '95), the movie may have had a certain "Oooh" factor on release. Looking back, however, the breakthroughs that everyone touted at the time are as giggle-worthy as seeing corded telephones in 1970s films. That's why a solid story and a great, well-used cast are so important in creating durable entertainment. Fads come and go, but not even time can delete a true classic.

Monday
Jul252011

Howl (2010)

Beat, Not Beaten

I own Howl, the slim book of Allen Ginsberg poetry on which Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's slim biopic of the author is based--but I've never read it all the way through. It begins with vivid, raging flourishes of rebellion and sadness and escalates into a literary soup that I just couldn't wade through. Sad, but true--my "Never Walk Out" policy doesn't extend to books; even really short ones.

Which is why I'm so glad I watched Howl. The directors both revel in the art-house melange of the big-star, loose-narrative snapshots that came before (Basquiat, Factory Girl) and rise above it, creating three distinct movies in one without sacrificing the integrity of the individual pieces. Howl is part interview-reenactment, part courtroom drama, and part animated interpretation of the titular poem as read by James Franco playing Ginsburg in 1955.

Like the book, the film started to lose me early on. Franco's affected bombast during the poetry reading contrasts starkly with the nasal introspection of the interview section (during which he sports a Sharpie-marker beard that's almost as distracting as his capital-A Acting). And the animation--while a really cool blend of 2D and 3D art styles that runs the gamut from realism to impressionism--is so consumed by phallic imagery that it plays as desperate instead of celebratory.

Yes, Allen Ginsburg was gay. And Howl, the poem, is packed with cocks and assholes and idealized young men; not exactly Community Standards reading in the mid-50s, which leads to a trial that Ginsberg himself sits out. City Lights Books publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) stands accused of distributing obscene materials. His attorney, Jake Ehrlick (Jon Hamm), cooly examines witnesses and asks a lot of reasonable questions about literary precedents--none of which impresses prosecutor Ralph MacIntosh (David Strathairn), who just wants to sweep under the rug a book he publicly admits he doesn't understand.

These scenarios unspool, intertwine, and double-back on each other, with voice-over from the fantastical, jazz-infused cartoons popping up as lines used in evidence and as motifs in Ginsburg's flashbacks to his early years with a struggling writer named Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and closeted womanizer Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott). As the words supersede the visuals, various vignettes from the different sections give them rich and devastating context. A brief allusion to Ginsburg's mother being in an insane asylum fuels memories of both a troubled childhood and the poet's own time in a psych ward, where he meets Howl's muse, writer Paul Solomon (the audience never meets Solomon, who, like any good muse, remains elusive).

The further I fell into Ginsburg's world of rejection, redemption and obsessive writing, the more I bought Franco as the character--his goofy, papers-waiving, coffee-house revolutionary schtick stopped bothering me. I have no idea whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of the poet, or if Franco sought to play a version of the man's spirit. Whatever the case, I came to believe in this Allen Ginsburg (but not the beard; never the beard).

Just as important as the interviews--which take us inside the mind of a gentle artist who spent most of his life unable to express himself physically or creatively because of family and societal pressures--are the courtroom volleys between MacIntosh and Ehrlich. It's not a big leap to guess A) who wins and B) who's side the movie is on, but two things really surprised me about these scenes.

First, the questions posed by both sides are damned good. The filmmakers work through their characters to force the audience to consider our own notions about art, quality, obscenity, and beauty. All of these serve to help the court decide whether or not what Ferlinghetti is accused of selling has any merit, and that central question informs a good deal of both the picture and the poem.

Take my issue with the overly abundant penis imagery. The movie asks if it's necessary; and, if it's unnecessary, is there anything wrong with that--or am I just projecting my own discomfort onto a work of art? My short answer is "no", that I just got annoyed with so many dicks being shoved in my face (ahem); but Epstein and Friedman offer a series of key mental exercises that can apply to issues we deal with in everyday life, no matter how sure we may be of our own methods for reckoning with them.

Second, I loved the fact that even though MacIntosh represents stodgy, Conservative thinking, he's not painted as a Bible-thumping hick or a firebrand. He's simply a man who neither comprehends nor accepts the vast cultural change that's coming his way (if Ginsberg made him dyspeptic, I imagine Lenny Bruce would have positively killed him). He's a good man who fights a battle with outmoded weapons. On the other side of the aisle, Ehrlich doesn't seem particularly interested in Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg--he comes across as a lover of free expression, and will drag out every ugly example of such in order to save it from frightened reactionaries.

Howl may appear to be a limousine-liberal vanity project--hell, maybe it is--but it's also a fine work of art that employs heavy-hitting performers, aesthetically bold animation, and a cereberally engaging thesis to create a truly moving experience. It made me want to write, to draw, to sing--and to finally finish reading Howl.

Sunday
Jul242011

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) Home Video Review

Meatier than the Original

I'd never intended to see Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever because it's a direct-to-video sequel to a horror movie I only kind of enjoyed. But on a recent episode of the Double Feature podcast, I learned that the film was directed by Ti West, who made the eerie and inventive The House of the Devil. That was the only push I needed to watch it right away.

For me, the only thing that made the original Cabin Fever memorable was the way in which it ran a standard-issue, kids-in-a-cabin movie completely off the rails in the last twenty minutes. The film, like its characters, appeared to succumb to a high fever and a flesh-eating virus. It blacked out and stumbled drunkenly for clues, vomiting up sickly green visions of a rabbit mascot. I didn't fully understand what Eli Roth was getting at with his movie until I saw what West and screenwriter Joshua Malkin did with theirs.

The story picks up almost exactly where part one left off, with Paul (Rider Strong) trying to make it out of the woods where he and his now-dead friends contracted a mysterious, deadly disease. Even with a swollen, dissolving face and limbs that peel off on the branches he runs by, Paul makes it to an open road--across which he is quickly splattered by a school bus.

Instead of treating this like a Friday the 13th sequel and bringing in another hapless crew of kids to discover the infested cabin, West and Malkin focus on the high school where that bus was headed. Following a trippy, animated introduction that traces the virus's journey from the woods to a bottled-water processing center, we find ourselves embroiled in pre-prom drama with geeky outcasts John (Noah Segan) and Alex (Rusty Kelley) scrambling for dates in order to avoid a sad horror-movie marathon with their slightly more pathetic friends.

John pines for his dream girl, the smart and unavailable Cassie (Alexi Wasser) while dodging her abusive boyfriend, Marc (Marc Senter). Alex settles for a bathroom-stall blowjob from a recently dumped tart; too bad for him that A) she has braces and B) she washes him out of her mouth using a bottle of infected water that she'd been nursing before they got together.

For half the run-time, Cabin Fever 2 plays like an anti-homage to 80s horror movies, specifically, Night of the Creeps. The tired character pairings, prank set-ups, and dressing-up montages are all there, but West employs a charming, cavalier attitude towards them. His actors are so naturalistic as to appear untrained; they're all really interesting to look at--in any other movie of this kind, Wasser would have been cast as the gangly nerd-girl instead of the hot hero chick. Add to this at least one cut where the music is delayed by a few seconds, as well as the film's nauseous palette, and it's hard to escape the feeling that West and company are trying to deconstruct high-school horror movies while also making one that's intentionally bad (and, perhaps, inspired in its badness).

By the time the dance rolls around, the virus has manifested in a number of people. The harder they try to conceal their pale skin, bubbling sores or detaching finger nails, the more they come into contact with other people--resulting in blood-piss in the punch bowl, some ill-fated swimming-pool sex, and a panic that puts Carrie's climax to shame. You see, the students' problem isn't just the disease, it's also the mysterious agency that's descended on their school to contain it.

We never learn if the men with the rubber suits, gas masks, and assault rifles are from the government or a private, corporate militia, but their mandate is clear: Keep the virus from spreading. This means chaining the school doors, shooting the principal in the face, and doing room-to-room sweeps to kill anything that moves. Of course, our three protagonists find themselves trapped in the school. What's surprising is how soon their situation becomes absolutely hopeless. While ducking the assassins, John and Cassie run into Marc, who's gone murderously insane. Alex has deteriorated to the point where he can barely see or stand because his penis is oozing pus. John also contracts the disease, leading to a spectacular wood shop-revival of The Evil Dead 2's shed scene.

The thing that separates Cabin Fever 2 from other films of its kind is West and Malkin's uncompromising vision of their characters. They take Eli Roth's naturalistic world view to the nth degree, punishing even the most virtuous players with horrifying fates--in fact turning them into harbingers of human extinction. The omniscient force who uses the virus as its grim reaper hates humanity simply for being human, and revels in heartbreaking scenes of cruelty and unfairness that are as likely to turn your stomach as the gore. The sequel also channels the goofy, tone-shifting quality of the original into a story that doesn't feel nearly as random (aside from the blowjob girl's coda, which feels tacked on and belabored, even though it ties nicely into the closing animated sequence).

I also love the fact that John and Marc are played by actors who look so similar that they're interchangeable aside from hair length and (sometimes) the tone of their delivery. It's a subtle cue that the filmmakers know that their audience only showed up for the violence--as is the fact that John is a mostly passive character--until he flips out on Cassie and gives a whining, angry speech right out of The Breakfast Club. A further nod to the genre's absurdity is the appearance of Mark Borchardt, who chronicled his own exploits in cheap horror filmmaking in the documentary American Movie. He pops up as the cousin of a clueless local deputy (Giuseppe Andrews) and through his awkward, non-actor delivery solidifies West's thesis that earnestness goes a long way in creating art, but it doesn't always result in good art--which, when viewed through the right, cracked lens, can be the most entertaining kind of art (until it is inevitably, necessarily, destroyed by smart-ass, genius fans).

If Ti West professed his love for spooky 80s horror movies with The House of the Devil, he screams his affection for low-budget gore flicks from the mountain tops here. Cabin Fever 2 is part homage, part analysis, part evisceration of a lifetime of guilty pleasures--all rolled into one of the coolest, most bizarre and uncomfortable horror films I've seen in years. You may actually hate yourself after watching it.

Believe it or not, that's really high praise.