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Saturday
Mar102012

John Carter (2012)

The Martians' Chronic Ills

A hundred years ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the world to John Carter, a retired Confederate soldier who finds himself transported to Mars and roped into an alien civil war. Burroughs, also the creator of Tarzan, is widely credited with inspiring much of the last century's popular science fiction: George Lucas cites the John Carter stories as one of the seeds of Star Wars.

But I don't care about Edgar Rice Burroughs, and am willing to bet that ninety-five percent of moviegoers wandering into the multiplex this weekend for the opening salvo of Blockbuster Season don't, either. In Disney's John Carter, they'll just see a bloated, boring mess that looks like every other off-brand fantasy movie of the last decade--namely, the Star Wars prequels, crossed with Prince of Persia.

And that's okay. No matter how worked up sci-fi nerds get at "stupid" audiences not appreciating the fact that the John Carter books established most of the clichés they've come to expect in such movies, the fact remains that street cred won't save a film that simply indulges in clichés. Objectively, John Carter is not a terrible movie. It just kind of sits on the screen and asks the audience to believe--along with the characters--that this is a new and thrilling adventure. Sure, there are airships firing multicolored lightning bolts at each other, six-armed warrior-giant Martians, and plenty of elaborate sets. But if you're over the age of twelve and find this thing genuinely interesting, I advise you to rid your diet of lobotomizing agents.

In fact, I'll go a step further and suggest that John Carter actually is a terrible movie, by virtue of the fact that the Mouse House spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to make and market something that is, at best, mediocre. I'll leave the "imagine what good that money could have done in the world" hypothesizing to the experts; purely as a moviegoing experience, it's a damned shame to think that this is the best entertainment that kind of cash can buy.

I'm exhausted just thinking about the film, so I won't bother with any more of a synopsis than what I've already provided. Look at the poster if you need more clues. I will say that the principle cast is incredibly unimpressive. As John Carter, Taylor Kitsch spends much of the film shirtless and growling like Corey Feldman impersonating Wolverine. Lynn Collins plays Dejah Thoris, a headstrong scientist/princess/love interest (SPOILER!), and Willem Dafoe pops up as the voice of a four-armed Martian leader whose main attributes are surliness and the inability to get the main character's name right.

The movie's one bright spot is Mark Strong's turn as Matai Shang, a member of a mysterious alien race who manipulates both sides of Barsoom's civil war to their own nefarious ends. His character is cunning and smarter than everyone else on screen, and it's amusing to watch him interact with people the way a third-grader might polish the glass on his ant farm. When Strong leaves a scene, he takes all interest with him--leaving us trapped with untold more minutes of allegedly rousing action and expository dialogue that reveals absolutely nothing of importance to the overall plot.

I also liked the last five minutes, which take place on Earth and concern Carter's nephew, Edgar (Daryl Sabara). There's a nifty bit of intrigue and imagination that is wholly out of place with the rest of the film; not to mention a closing shot that mirrors one of my favorites from last year, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part One.*

The reason the last few scenes succeed is because they offer what the others don't: developments I hadn't mapped out before sitting down to watch the film. Director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon fail Burroughs' legacy by not giving any clue as to what made his stories so revolutionary. Again, the "he got there first" argument doesn't work in a medium that has been so heavily saturated by imitators. The best thing they could have done was to pay brief homage to the story's roots and then created an entirely new John Carter tale--as well as an entirely new paradigm for mainstream sci-fi blockbusters.

The logical, fiscally responsible answer to this idea is that no studio wants to risk so much money on stories that might genuinely surprise or challenge the "Hey, what's playing?" crowd--not anymore. Maybe if Stanton had stayed true to his Pixar roots and gone with a truly out-there, all-CG cartoon, John Carter might have stood a chance. Instead, sadly, we're left with another 3D-IMAX extravaganza whose inevitable failure will earn it a place in the ever-expanding pantheon of franchise non-starters.

Good riddance.

Further Proof That This Movie Sucks: Not even the fantastic composer Michael Giacchino could pull together a decent score. Like everything else in John Carter, the music is heavy-handed and far too obviously ripped off from other, better movies. I nearly shit myself when I saw his name in the end credits.

*I'm half kidding.

Friday
Mar092012

TerrorVision (1986)

My Pet Monster

I have no idea how people reacted to TerrorVision in 1986, but I suspect modern audiences will see it as an exercise in patience. From the establishing shot of the planet "Pluton"--which is so obviously a cheap, tabletop model that I expected the camera to pan up to a little boy building it--to the Pee Wee's Playhouse level of over-acting on the part of everyone involved, the film begs to be turned off. It's as if writer/director Ted Nicolaou sent a message to his unfortunate viewers, "No, it's okay. We made this thing [to pay off mob debts/fulfill a studio obligation/on a dare]; you don't actually have to sit through it."

Fortunately, my policy against cutting out on movies forced me to watch the whole, wacky mess. Despite its title and eerie poster, TerrorVision isn't strictly a horror film: it's more like an extended episode of HBO's Tales from the Crypt, crossed with the John Ritter movie, Stay Tuned. Throw in a bit of E.T., and there you have it.*

The film stars Diane Franklin and Chad Allen as siblings Suzy and Sherman Putterman. They live with their sex-obsessed parents and survivalist grandfather in a remote California compound. Suzy has a big date with her new, punk-rockin' boyfriend, O.D. (Jonathan Gries), and Sherman is preoccupied with the strange TV signals coming from the family's just-installed satellite dish. These transmissions turn out to be the digitized life-force of an escaped Plutonian monster who uses the power of television to seduce and devour its prey. Most anyone who encounters the creature has their brain sucked out,** reducing them to steaming piles of jelly.

I love that the film is neatly divided in two. The first half centers on Mom and Dad Putterman. Stanley (Gerrit Graham) and Raquel (Mary Woronov) want nothing more than to shoo their daughter out of the house and tuck Sherman away in the bomb shelter with Grampa (Bert Remsen) so they can swing with a sexy, new couple they met on the scene. Their youngest keeps getting in the way, with his stories of monsters and space rays, and Stanley can't stop bragging about his elaborate sex den to Spiro (Alejandro Rey), the Greek stud whom he thinks is interested in bedding his wife. The fact that Spiro is gay turns the first forty minutes of TerrorVision into the kind of Misunderstanding Sitcom that defined the 80s.

I'd hoped against hope that the presence of spunky, adorable kids wouldn't mean the adults were doomed to die. But the parents and their party guests are disposed of in sufficiently dramatic fashion. My heart sank a bit, because Stanley and Raquel are the kind of wildly entertaining, obnoxious freaks that entire franchises are built on. The film quickly switches gears and becomes a kids-and-their-secret-monster story. O.D. and Suzy return home to find everyone melted except Sherman, and eventually come face-to-gruesome-face with the monster. They all but ignore the warnings of an English-speaking space alien to destroy all televisions and satellite receivers "for the next 200 years", and instead devise a scheme to get the monster on television and become rich.

The rest of the movie has to be seen to be believed, and I highly encourage you to do so. Sure, TerrorVision is a gaudy, pre-Joel-Schumacher Joel Schumacher spectacle of outrageous costumes, Bizarro-World lighting and sets, and acting that transports the viewer to an alternate universe where the word "subtlety" has yet to be invented. But what else can one expect from a piece of Me Generation exploitation co-produced by Charles "Evil Bong" Band?

If the movie doesn't give you an aneurism, you'll probably fall in love with it--especially the ending, which is a jaw-dropping bit of nastiness that I didn't expect. I may not care for Nicolaou's sensibilities as a dialogue writer, but he's true to the story's premise and doesn't fudge on seeing it through to the only sensible conclusion. This and John Carl Buechler's disgusting yet quaint practical monster effects make TerrorVision a minor masterpiece of forgotten cinema.

Yeah, that's a pretentious thing to say; an impossible standard for most films to live up to. But what the hell? I've seen maybe three films as strange as this one. I don't mean movies that are deliberately bizarre, but those whose very existence is a puzzle that I'm not sure I want solved. TerrorVision is a hodgepodge of genres, tones, acting styles, and messages that bounce off each other like errant TV signals. They re-assemble on the screen, but are further fractured upon transmission to the human brain. If that's not a screaming-from-the-mountaintops endorsement, I don't know what is.

*If E.T. were a homicidal mutant.

**Strangely, there's very little gore in this "R"-rated movie; most of the eviscerations involve green goo instead of red blood.

Wednesday
Mar072012

Better Off Undead (2007)

The Slacking Dead

I don't know if John Pata's decision to make his debut film, Better Off Undead, a short was prompted by vision or simply a lack of funds. Either way, he made the right choice. At twenty-nine-minutes the story of zombies overrunning Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is well-executed enough that its weaker elements don't wear out the movie's welcome.

Let's get those "weaker elements" out of the way, before moving on to the good stuff. As with most small-scale indies I've seen, Better Off Undead suffers from a lack of actors in roles that call for them. Of the three slacker youths who make up the main cast, only one of them doesn't appear to get a migraine every time he tries to come off as, I'm sure, a version of who he really is. That would be Drew Schuldt as Marcus, the sarcastic douchebag who settles in for the zombie apocalypse by hanging out in a room wallpapered with horror-movie posters and swigging liberally from a bottle of Jack.

His friends, Chris (Dale DeVries) and Evan (Jordan Brown), are too freaked out to do anything but follow the one plan that doesn't involve getting eaten, so much of the movie is spent sitting around, wondering how to spend their copious free time. This is primarily a dialogue movie that's been dusted with gore; it's Shaun of the Dead by way of Kevin Smith--which is a fine thing to aspire to, but only if the performers can handle the dialogue and comedy.

DeVries and Brown aren't terrible, but they work way too hard at being casual. Schuldt fares slightly better, but--and please don't take this as regional prejudice--his thick Wisconsin accent fails the rat-a-tat, comedic sophistication of Pata's words. I had the same experience watching these guys as I did the Oscars' Best Screenplay category, where the Academy showed a split-screen scene of each nominated film next to its corresponding script page. To appreciate Better Off Undead, I had to mentally separate the words from the performers, which is never a good sign.

Fortunately, there's so much more to love about the film that, by the end, the main cast's foibles become almost charming.** They say the best way to make a movie is to write/film what you know, with the meager resources at your disposal. Pata may not have a lot of experience with flesh-eating-monster invasions, but he's familiar as hell with Oshkosh. He pulls off the terrific feat of painting a town as both oppressively boring and really cool to look at. The opening credits scene alone is worth the price of admission, zooming from a murder scene through the streets and into a cool apartment that sits on top of a comic book store.

Even if this were a travelogue of aimless twenty-somethings, and not a zombie film, Better Off Undead would still be fascinating. Pata and cinematographer Colin Crowley shoot everything with what Sean Cunningham calls "film school" angles; sometimes to great effect, and sometimes with eye-rolling results (the keys-opening-the-door montage springs to mind--very Clerks). They also capture local flavor in a way that seems cool to this outsider, but which the movie's characters likely have no appreciation for. It's sort of a "found art" approach to filmmaking that I liked just as much as the action.

Nope, you read that right: I said "action". The movie's other great strength is its slow-burn approach to zombie mayhem. The guys are safe inside Marcus' room, but once they venture out into the daylight, things devolve quickly. Though zombies get hold of the cast one-by-one through a series of silly mistakes and ineptitude on the part of the living, there's real terror in the attacks--a claustrophobic helplessness stemming from the fact that these guys are often so close to freedom. This is a key component to any great zombie story, and Pata and Crowley deliver, big-time.

This movie is far from perfect, but as a calling card for a promising, ambitious director, it can't be beat. Pata displays his influences a little too proudly at times, but he has the chops and heart to elevate most of his homages above mere imitation. Though it came out when zombies merely nibbling on pop culture, Better of Undead will, I suspect, engage fans who've all but succumbed to "walker" fatigue.

Shameless Plug via Full Disclosure: I'll get a chance to see how John Pata has matured as a filmmaker at the end of the month, when I attend the premiere of his new movie, Dead Weight (it debuts in Oshkosh, naturally). Look for a review of that film, as well as an interview with Pata and co-writer/director Adam Bartlett, in April.

*Which the guys were doing before the outbreak, anyway, so boredom is obviously not a problem for this crew.

**Almost.

Monday
Mar052012

Project X (2012)

HD Entropy

We've seen this formula over and over and over again: a dweeby teenage boy throws a crazy party while his parents are away. He pines for the hottest girl in school--who will, of course, be in attendance--though he'll inevitably wind up with the unconventionally attractive girl he's known since kindergarten. Oh, and he's also saddled with two sociallly inept best friends who want nothing more in life than to get laid before graduation.

There are variations on this formula, usually involving the number of idiot friends and the technical detail of whether our scrawny hero hosts or merely attends the blow-out--but it's still a formula that probably should've died after Superbad came out.

Apparently, no one sent that memo to Hangover producer Todd Phillips or first-time director Nima Nourizadeh. Their new movie, Project X, is the premise's ninetieth iteration, as well as this decade's nine-thousandth found-footage-style movie--complete with a pre-story apology from Warner Brothers to everyone affected by its characters' actions.

So, how does one cope with a film they've seen hundreds of times? If it's as effective and hilarious as Project X, the solution involves nothing more than sitting back and absorbing the drunken-party movie to end all drunken-party movies. To be clear: I find the behavior presented here to be inexcusable and unpleasant to the extreme. If the creators' idea of modern teen life are even remotely accurate, I think it's time to seriously consider an American Battle Royale program. But if you leave all sense of propriety, morality, and hope for the future at the concession stand, this movie may just blow your mind.

I've already summarized the plot generically, but knowing the characters' names will better help you follow along. Thomas (Thomas Mann) is our protagonist. Costa (Oliver Cooper) is his wiseass, wannabe-player best friend. JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) is their overweight, overly cautious whipping boy. Costa recruits an outcast named Dax (Dax Flame) to record every moment of their wild weekend--from the parents leaving town, to Thomas' ongoing Betty-and-Veronica struggle between class queen Alexis (Alexis Knapp) and the girl he's destined to marry, Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton).

If you've seen the trailers, you might think this is nothing more than an hour-and-a-half of pathetically gratuitous Facebook photos set to motion and filthy hip-hop. It totally is, and Project X wears its lack of character development, purpose, and moral grounding proudly on a torn, vomit-soaked sleeve. The heroes are caustic assholes to each other and to Thomas' unfortunate neighbors: a pre-pubescent security guards uses a taser on one of them. The partiers are selfish, clueless, and utterly lacking in pride (as evidenced by unquestioned obeissance of Costa's poolside "Naked Chicks Only" sign). In short, Project X is a peek inside the mind of what many scared adults and media moguls would have you believe is the average American teenager.

I haven't been a teen for a long time. But even if I was one today, I doubt I would've enjoyed this party. It's just way too out of control. I loved watching it, though; more to the point, I loved watching screenwriters Matt Drake and Michael Bacall carry on the underhanded tradition Phillips began in his criminally understood and underappreciated Hangover sequel: the filmmakers seem to hate their characters as much as the adult audience hates their actions. Project X is about punishment, not heroism. Sure, the guys get laid, stoned, and incredibly popular, but at the expense of their college funds, freedom, and God knows how many brain cells.

Their elated feelings are very much "in the moment", with cold, stark reality waiting just around the corner. The cute text-on-screen blurbs that close out the film are meant to elicit giggles--and they do--but if you pay attention to what's really going on, Phillips and company have rewarded the protagonists' single night of debauchery with a lifetime of misery--or at least potential subservience to those who were cool enough to keep their acts together. But, again, in the moment, we are allowed to share in the joys that come from diving off a roof into a pool with a head full of Ecstacy and a freshly spent penis.

My one gripe with the movie is the filmmakers' decision to ignore the corner they paint themselves into. Costa uses a brilliant bit of pseudo-lawyering to turn away a couple of idiot cops early on, but a couple hours later, the party has spilled out into Thomas' whole street. Lawns and cars have been taken over, and the music can be heard, I'm sure, a mile away. But it isn't until Thomas flips off a news helicopter that more squad cars show up. I'm pretty sure they would've been on the scene long before the riot unit was even considered.

Oh, did I mention that Project X's climax is a full-on rubber-bullets-and-flash-grenades war-zone Granted, it's kicked off by an insane drug dealer (Rick Shapiro) wielding a flame thrower--but there are definitely kids in police crossfire by the time aerial units begin bombing the neighborhood with water to save it. The penultimate ten minutes of this film look like the climax of Can't Hardly Wait, filtered through CNN coverage of The Occupy Movement or last year's Arab Spring. Even the weird loner kid, Dax, takes on darker tones in light of several recent school shootings. But in the tradition of great, black comedy, Project X makes the unthinkably disturbing gut-bustingly funny.

With a little re-jiggering, Project X could take place in the same universe as Josh Trank's Chronicle, another exaggerated, faux-found-footage exploration of teen culture. That film had a bit more going for it in terms of conventional narrative structure, but both movies deal with the consequences of power and how young people, especially, have little understanding of what wielding it actually means.

That message is buried deeply in Project X, but it's still apparent through all the chandalier-busting, balls-punching debauchery. I'm not going to attack the movie, as others have, as potentially planting seeds of destruction in impressionable minds. Just as Porky's didn't lead to rampant nudity on high school campuses and the Friday the 13th franchise didn't spawn legions of backwoods butchers, Project X is not going to compel anyone to destroy property--unless that notion was already bubbling up to the surface. I'm more concerned with Act of Valor's influence over teen audiences than this disposable, dark comedy.

This movie isn't for everyone, but dismissing it sight-unseen is unfair. As such films go, Project X is executed very well, acting as a metaphor for out-of-control hormones, frustration, and uncertainty. It's a beatiful memorial to innocence and a bleak heralding of adulthood's bland, routinized death march. Despite my sympathies, though, I'd call the cops on these little monsters in a heartbeat.

Saturday
Mar032012

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Scurry Movie 

I watched The Secret of NIMH several times as a kid, but I had no memory of it until yesterday. That's very telling. I'm surprised my parents let me see it once, let alone repeatedly. Despite the cute, spunky field mice characters and Dom DeLuise's turn as a clumsy crow, Don Bluth's cartoon about rogue, intelligent lab rats has all the markings of a fantasy/horror film.

The story begins in a cave, where an ancient rat named Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) speaks to an old, dead friend. He writes in a book, and the words sparkle with pixie dust. He caresses a large medallion with a red crystal in the middle, which reflects his large, pupil-free eyes. Between this scene and the truly frightening United Artists logo that preceded it, I began to wonder if I'd put on the right movie.

We cut to a cinderblock on the outskirts of a farm, where field mouse/single mom, Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), lives with her small family.* Her life is a series of near-death experiences, populated by mostly unfriendly animals who either want to dismiss or kill her. An old doctor named Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) grudgingly gives her some healing herbs to treat her youngest son's illness. The wise Great Owl (John Carradine) can't provide secrets to her husband's mysterious life without scaring her half to death. And then there's the farm cat, Dragon, a hulking beast who terrorizes every creature in sight.

On top of all this, Brisby's home is in danger of being destroyed when the farmer plows his field. She seeks the wisdom of Nicodemus, who has formed an elaborate rat colony underneath the thorn bush in the farmer's front yard. Her visit coincides with a council meeting, in which the scheming Jenner (Paul Shenar) rallies his colleagues to continue syphoning electricity from the farmhouse--while Nicodemus and the head of his royal guard, Justin (Peter Strauss), argue for relocating to a valley, where they can rebuild as an independent society.

Mrs. Brisby is greeted with suspicion by some and awe by others. She learns that her late husband, Jonathan, was an icon of rodent liberation. Years earlier, he and a small number of mice and rats escaped the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) after being injected with drugs that boosted their intelligence to human levels. Nicodemus agrees to help move the Brisby family as the colony's last act on the farm. It's a dangerous, multi-layered process, which Jenner uses as the opportunity for a devastating power play.

I really liked The Secret of NIMH, which is disappointing because I started out loving it. This is a questionable family film, packed with spooky imagery, murder, and a hopeful, positivity-in-a-world-of-assholes vibe that I really appreciated. Brisby's love for her family is really touching, and I dug the bizarre, inter-species flirtation between her and Jeremy the crow (DeLuise).

Setting the story aside, the artistry of Bluth's team is top-notch. From the candle-lighting that opens the film to the moving-day scene in which rain drips down elabrate ropes and pulleys, mixing with pools of mud, the hand-drawn feats put a good deal of Pixar's stuff to shame. Don't get me wrong: I love Pixar, but to me there's a significant difference between innovating and working through problems via traditional animation and tweaking models with code and slider settings. Advances towards computer-generated realism are terrific, I'm sure, for the people working on such films, but as an audience member, it just looks like showing off. It may be possible to build a fully functioning ATM machine using only hydroelectric power and popsicle sticks, but what's the point?

Sorry. Rant over. It's just that looking at the strain of those pulleys reminded me that nothing in The Adventures of Tintin came close to creating that sense of gravity and excitement.

Okay--rant really over now.

My big problem with The Secret of NIMH can best be described by a term coined by Blake Snyder in his screenwriting book, Save the Cat!: "Double Mumbo Jumbo". Essentially, this phenomenon occurs when a movie asks the audience to make two or more giant leaps of faith/logic within the confines of the reality it has established. In this case, I'll buy that NIMH's meddling with rodent brains created a new race of creatures with the ability to talk and build hinged doors and power grids. But Bluth and co-writers John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman, and Will Finn (adapting Robert C. O'Brien's novel) go two steps beyond by A) introducing magic into the equation, and B) fudging the origin of their characters' intelligence.

I'll start with the second point. In a flashback, we see men rounding up various animals for delivery to NIMH. The creatures all have dumb, black eyes--except for the apes, who look at least semi-aware of what's going on. The movie's conceit is that, over time, the lab's injections made the animals smart enough to escape, and to fashion clothes and sophisticated language. None of this explains why Mrs. Brisby is able to carry on conversations or sport her tattered, red cloak. Unless she was the child of one of the NIMH rats, she and all her farm-field cohorts should be pre-NIMH oblivious.

Yet, we're asked to believe that she and Jonathan met and started a family after he escaped the lab. It makes about as much sense as the film's use of mysticism. I'm don't know what chemical one injects into an animal to give it psychic powers or the ability to conjure otherworldly talents, but the geniuses at NIMH apparently do. The movie's last act turns into a fantasy free-for-all, with Jenner and Justin engaging in a fight to the death, wearing what look to be costumes from an elementary school production of Robin Hood. Meanwhile, Mrs. Brisby uses the medallion to lift the fallen cinder block out of a mud pit (which gave me flashbacks to both The Empire Strikes Back and Transformers: The Movie).

Those of you who grew up with and cherish The Secret of NIMH may think these are stupid nitpicks. Far be it from me to steal the magic from anyone's youth, but this film cheats left and right. Did Bluth and company not think their premise was strong enough to carry a feature? My understanding of the book is that it was hocus-pocus-free, yet still beloved by millions of children. Maybe it was a trope of the era, in which kids'-movie creators thought everything needed artificial spicing-up. The one thing I'll grant Pixar is that they'd be able to pull off a terrific NIMH adaptation, storywise, without falling back on intelligence-insulting gimmicks to move things along.

Seeing as 2D animation is pretty much dead, though, a Bluth-style remake of NIMH, written by the geniuses behind Up, say, will have to remain my own, private fantasy. In reality, I'm stuck with a gorgeous, spooky, little picture that broke out of its cage much, much too soon.

*For you trivia geeks: two of her children are voiced by Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty.