Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 31, 2012

Zack Clopton's 2012 Movie Retrospective

“47 percent of…

ZACK CLOPTON’S 2012 MOVIE RETROSPECTIVE!!!

…will vote for the president no matter what.”

2012 was a year of emotional ups-and-downs. We survived the apocalypse. The presidential election turned out just the way it should have. The Internet defeated SOPA while Pussy Riot was less successful in defeating patriarchal bullshit. Egypt got an election. Lots of people enjoyed the Olympics. Not to mention Grumpy Cat bringing joy to millions.

Sadly, it looks like 2012 will be a year defined by tragedy and violence. Hurricane Sandy wrecked the East Coast’s shit, including my own. Civil war broke out in Syria. A dude ate another dude’s face, starting off a flurry of zombie panic. Some asshole shot an unarmed kid. Some asshole flipped a cruise liner. Earthquakes and tornadoes leveled buildings. Most tragically, not a month passed without a mass shooting. Words can’t describe how upsetting this is.

On a lighter, though still sad note, way too many cool people died this year. I haven’t done a Taps section since 2008 but 2012 truly earned it. Ray Bradbury, Ernest Borgnine, William Finley, and Richard Lynch hit me the hardest. The world is a less interesting place without Charles Durning, Maurice Sendak, Herbert Lom, Tony Scott, Bill Hinzman, Jonathan Frid, Jack Klugman, Michael Clark Duncan, Sherman Hemsley, Carlo Rambaldi, Zalman King, Phyllis Diller, Joel Goldsmith, Don Cornelius, Dick Tufeld, Dick Clark, and even Andy Griffith. Perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay them all is that they filled the lives of complete strangers with hours of joy and entertainment.

Now that we’re all horribly depressed, let’s talk about movies. For film, 2012 was a year of expectations being met. Very few films disappointed me, living up to exactly what I wanted. This might not sound super-duper cool but, at the end of the year, it adds up to a fairly exceptional list. In toto, I saw 79 new releases, meeting my yearly average, which I am hugely happy about, of course. I saw pretty much everything I wanted, except for The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson always manages to slip through my net.

I present you with THE LIST, completely unedited and un-proof read. Read and enjoy. Or don’t. But I’d like it if you did.

FOUR STARS:

1. Cloud Atlas
Each of the segments are very different from the other but each are extremely good. Themes reoccur through time like musical motifs, weaving these divergent stories together. The incredible cast, splendid visuals, and accomplish direction unites a big squishy heart. It’s all about love, guys. A beautifully composed film.

2. The Avengers
Basically, a series of amazingly awesome set-pieces. Something incredible will happen and you’ll think, “There’s no way the movie will top that.” And then it totally does, ten-folds. I don’t think any film has had this much hype beforehand and managed to exceed it. All superheroes movies from here on will be pointless, except for maybe “The Avengers 2.”

3. Django Unchained
Tarrantino’s most entertaining film since “Kill Bill.” The action is intense and glorious, making this the bloodiest western I’ve ever seen. The director’s heaviest dialogue finds a fine resting place in Christoph Waltz’ mouth. When it comes to the racial commentary, it’s hard to say exactly what the filmmaker is getting at, but the results are nothing short of cathartic.

4. The Dark Knight Rises
Possibly the best Batman movie we’ll ever get. The plot is tight and the pacing is fantastic. Anne Hathaway is a perfect Catwoman and Bane is actually a creditable threat. The ending blew my mind. Christopher Nolan wrapped up his trilogy in impressive fashion.

5. Redline
Without question, one of the most beautifully animated films I’ve ever seen. Every frame is like a painting, alive with detail. The racing sequences are insanely energetic, so much so that the rest of the movie kind of has to pale in comparison. Either way, the film is still incredibly fun and a breathtaking piece of art, the kind of film that births fandoms.

6. Moonrise Kingdom
With this story of young love, Wes Anderson injects a lot of creativity and energy into his traditional style. Featuring two fantastic lead performances, typically hilarious deadpan dialogue, energetic direction, and enough absurdity to keep it all interesting, this is one of the filmmaker’s best.

7. The Secret World of Arrietty
As with many Studio Ghibli films, this is a coming of age story in a fantasy setting, centered on a strong young girl, learning about love and how to make her own way. The animation is, naturally, gorgeous and the musical score is enchanting. It invites us into a world full of detail and creativity, while a gentle, soulful heart beats beneath.

8. Ruby Sparks
If you’re a writer or a lovelorn nerd (or both), you should definitely see this perfectly acted, exceedingly smart indie. The film is all about subverting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept. The magic-realism premise provides laughs but the movie fully embraces the darker implications. The ambiguous ending is bound to start conversation.

THREE AND A HALF STARS:

9. Excision
Director Richard Bates can’t quite stick the ending, which is shame because otherwise “Excision” is brilliant. AnnaLynne McCord’s totally glamour-free performance is incredible. The visuals are fresh. The script cuts back and forth between hilarious and sick. The supporting cast is loaded with cult icons. Being inside the head of a sociopathic teen has never been this entertaining.

10. Killer Joe
Matthew McCanaughhey repurposes his swarthy charm to play a calculating, sadistic psychopath. Who knew he had it in him? Beneath the bone-crunching violence and redneck depravity is a streak of jet black humor, intense thrills, and a brutal deconstruction of the patriarchal atomic family model. You’re not going to look at fried chicken the same after this.

11. The Raid: Redemption
The fight choreography is extraordinary, bone crushing and fierce without being incoherent. The action is smartly paced with slower moments, even if this is still almost non-stop violence. Sure, the plot is just a step above a video game but simple themes like brotherhood and betrayal resonate deeply. You’re here for the action and this is thrilling, heart-pumping action at its best.

12. Twixt
Things I like that are in this movie: Gothic atmosphere, nightmares, writer’s angst, horror fiction, Edgar Allen Poe, beautiful young dead girls, guilt, bloody murders, lyrical sequences that maybe don’t add much to the story but sure are nice to watch, visual tricks, irony. I’m not sure if it makes much sense in the end but I sure did like it a lot.

13. Dark Horse
Todd Solondz’ latest tragi-comedy deconstructs the “manchild + love = maturity” premise. Jordon Gelber’s fearless performance is hilarious, cringe-inducing, and heart-breaking, much like the film. The bubblegum soundtrack underlines the themes of loneliness and self-delusion. The increasingly puzzling second half plays like a sad, sweet piece of music… Even if it raises more questions then it answers.

14. The Bay
Barry Levinsten adapts to the horror genre well, making a movie that’s frequently disturbing and quite scary. The gore and disease make-up is shockingly life-like. It knows when to go for the jump scare and when to let your mind fill the gaps. It’s all the scarier because it could actually happen. The lead actress could be better and the documentary style is overdone a few times.

15. V/H/S
Smart, scary stuff. This indie-anthology uses the found footage style in witty, exciting ways. All six of the segments are good to extremely good, with Glen McQuaid’s hugely clever riff on slasher films being my personal favorite. The anthology format forces the directors to cut all the fat, leaving only the spookiest, most effective prime cuts.

16. God Bless America
A cultural satire that’s about more then just shooting annoying people. (Though it’s about that too.) It’s about a culture that supports being an asshole over being considerate. It’s about two extraordinary lead performances. It jokingly asks immoral questions before following those ideas to their darkest conclusions, even if that risks making the audience uncomfortable. You should know in the first two minutes if this movie is for you or not.  

17. Kill List
This British thriller is a little hard to get into. The characters aren’t exactly cuddly. However, the story twists and turns fantastically. I love the way it slowly becomes a genuinely freaky horror film, if the startling burst of extreme violence don’t clue you in first. The last act is surprisingly intense, even if the ending is purposely vague.

18. The Innkeepers
Few modern horror filmmakers are as good at atmosphere as Ti West and none of them are as patient. He introduces us to a cozy world and effortlessly charming lead Sara Paxton, before slowly turning the screws and ramping up the tension. The ending isn’t as scary as it could’ve been but this is a treat for horror fans who like deliberate pacing.

19. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Apocalyptic romantic comedy is often very funny, especially with its frequent indie comedy cameos. I love how some aspects of society keep ticking along right up to the end. Both leads do a good job. The love story shouldn’t work but is so yearningly earnest, you buy into it anyway.

THREE STARS:

20. Wreck-It Ralph
Once again you’ve got a Disney Animated Feature that might not do anything different or new but is still marvelously entertaining because of a hilarious script, whip-smart performances, great chemistry between actors, and visual beauty. What this one also has in its favor are funny video game in-jokes and a surprising willingness not to cop out.

21. Skyfall
Certainly takes its time setting the story up. The first half is a bit slow. Things get much better at the midpoint, leading up to an absolutely fantastic last act. I love the call-backs, references, and reinventions of classic Bond concepts, injecting a little old-school silliness into the gritty Craig-verse, even if I didn’t totally buy Bardem’s supervillain. If nothing else, the movie is beautifully photographed.

22. Prometheus
Despite only being a partial prequel to “Alien,” it does carry that film’s fear of bodily invasion, sexual assault, motherhood, and man discovering things he’s not prepare to handle. A wonderful cast is well suited to some startling sequences, most notable the grotesque and intense cesarean scene. Ridley Scott’s direction mostly overcomes a sloppy, frustrating script.

23. Chronicle
Ostensibly the most realistic take on the “realistic superhero” sub-subgenre, this feels closer to a thriller at times. The found footage angle brings an exciting quality to the action scenes. The strong performances and character-centric screenplay further roots the sci-fi premise in effective reality.

24. Haywire
Gina Carano kicks a lot of ass and proves she’s as strong an actor as any male action star. The grossly overqualified supporting cast helps too. The fight scenes are brutal and nicely acrobatic. Soderberg’s direction is sparse, collected, totally free of any annoying action conventions. The eclectic score confirms this as the indie version of a superspy movie.

25. The Expendables 2
The movie I expected the first one to be. The shaky-cam is (mostly) gone, the ensemble cast is handled better, there’s more humor, and the action scenes still kick ass. I even liked the new, younger characters. My only complaint is that there could have been more: More Van Damme, more Dolph, more over-the-hill action heroes. We shouldn’t ask for too much, I suppose.

26. The Cabin in the Woods
The last thirty minutes are awesome. It’s so awesome that I wish the rest of the movie had used the creativity and energy seen there instead of intentionally giving us a competent, but kind of bland slasher flick. The cast is appealing enough even if the characters aren’t all that developed. The movie is certainly ambitious, creative, and funny, even if it really needed to be more so.

27. Looper
It’s not easy to get pass the hacky premise, the overdone sci-fi/noir slang, or the killer kid but… The whole movie takes stupid things and makes them smart. It’s a shoot-em-up with a heart. It’s a time travel flick that never scientifically considers time travel. It’s not super well written so much as it’s extremely well paced and exciting. A good cast and intriguing direction helps too.

28. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The decision to expand “The Hobbit” into three films is still a questionable one. This first movie is about an hour longer then it needs to be and it’s really easy to tell what stuff was added to pad out the runtime. Jackson still films Middleearth with an astonishing scope, the entire Goblin City sequence at the end is awesome, and Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo.

29. Sound of My Voice
Ambiguity is the word of the day here, as this cult mindset/time travel thriller leaves most everything up to the viewer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the strong acting and decent writing keeps the audience involved to care, even if the questions are unanswered and in service of a ultimately kind of thin script.

30. Brave
Not exactly what I expected. The first half is a rowdy, slapstick comedy before the mother/daughter drama and Scottish mythology takes center stage in the latter half. It’s pretty damn funny, is incredibly beautiful to look at, and features a singularly strong group of characters, even if it’s destined to be remembered as one of Pixar’s lesser efforts.

31. Lockout
Guy Pearce’s sarcastic, frequently hilarious, action-hero turn enlivens routine material. (The story is basically “Escape from New York” IN SPACE!) He has good chemistry with his co-star and the goofy premise is occasionally exploited for its full fun factor. All of this makes the sometimes shaky action scenes, intermittently stagey special effects, and plodding resolution easy to forgive.

32. Compliance
The most unpleasant viewing experience you’re likely to have this year. The filmmaker handles the true story as tastefully as possible, to the point of underselling the intensity. The direction, actors, and music prove just how easily people cave to authority. It never looks down on those involved and the realism quickly has the audience feeling queasy. You’re left hoping you wouldn’t react the same way but secretly dreading you might.

33. ParaNorman
Visually arresting, edgy and funny without being obnoxious, with a lot of horror in-jokes kids are unlikely to catch, a fantastic score, solid voice cast, and a surprising mid-film plot twist. I agree with the message of tolerance but the movie gets overly preachy and didactic with it, while some of the supporting characters are a little broad.

34. Frankenweenie
Mixing classic horror with a “boy and his dog” story hits two large sweet spots for me. The plentiful horror references, gorgeous visuals, and funny gags make up for the film not tackling potentially heavy themes or padding out its short film premise to feature length. Generally speaking though, this is pretty adorable.

35. Men in Black III
A lot better then part two, even if it starts off kind of slow. Tommy Lee Jones is obviously bored out of his mind. As soon as Jay gets back to the sixties, things pick up considerably. Josh Brolin is good, I liked the Grif character, Boris is a good villain, and the final set piece on the space shuttle is exciting.

36. Silent Night
Mostly unrelated “remake” of the classic Christmas slasher flick. Honestly, the scenes that are direct shout-outs to the original are the weakest moments. The main selling point is the over-the-top, very brutal and very bloody murder scenes. There’s an enough campy humor and good old fashion sleaze to get you through the rest. A simple seasonal slasher snack.

37. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Interesting documentary about the greatest sushi chef in the world. The film mostly focuses on the 82-year old’s indomitable work ethic and how his two sons live in his shadows. The preparation of sushi is frequently filmed like a ballet. There’s not quite enough material here for a feature, as the movie wanders in spots at only 82 minutes.

38. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Little Quvenzhane Wallis’ fierce performance is the main reason to check this one out. The movie certainly creates its own world, full of detail, texture, and odd little nuances. I liked the giant prehistoric pigs. However, the pacing falters and the way the film seemingly glorifies poverty gives me pause.

39. The Amazing Spider-Man
It’s a shame that every Spider-Man origin story has to do the Uncle Ben thing. It’s the only element that doesn’t work in this movie. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have great chemistry and their romance forms the emotional backbone of the film. The action scenes are inspired, with lots of creative web slinging, and we finally get a smartass Spidey on-screen.

40. Casa de mi Padre
Telenovelas are full of overheated melodrama. All a parody has to do is ramp up the absurdity. Some gags, like the talking tiger/vision-quest or characters hanging onto their cigarettes and booze even while dying, are inspired. Others, like an extended guitar session or reoccurring stock footage, are less so. Still, enough laughs are packed into the brisk runtime to make it worth it.

41. Bernie
Dark comedy that intercuts documentary-style interviews with scripted portions, leading to some folksy, genuine small-town charm. Jack Black gives one of his best performances and the movie gets some decent laughs out of juxtaposing his super-nice demeanor with his murderous act, not to mention the town’s complete willingness to forgive him.

42. Some Guy Who Kills People
Horror-tinged character study with a sharp, funny script and a primo cast. Karen Black and Barry Bosworth get some of the best lines. The murders are an afterthought. This is more of a story about a depressed, disaffected guy befriending his daughter and getting back into life. The ending totally cops-out.

43. The Devil’s Carnival
With a visual aesthetic somewhere between goth, harlequin, Victorian, steampunk, and hobo, this follow up to “Repo! The Genetic Opera” has surprisingly high production values for such a low budget. The music is excellent, save a song or two. Even with an intentionally fable-like story, the soup is a little thin. It’s only an hour long so a feature probably would have been more rounded. Still, I’d recommend it for the soundtrack. “Repo!” fans will obviously eat it up.

44. Safety Not Guaranteed
In many ways, this is a typical indie-comedy, with its snarky female lead, quirky characters, fey soundtrack, and the uncertainty about the dorky main character. The second act turn is horribly predictable. However, you slowly warm up to Audrey Plaza, the movie is quite funny at times, its time travel premise is rooted in real emotions of regret, and the ending is actually kind of perfect.

45. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky has learned a lot about writing. The film of the book dials back Charlie’s Mary Sue-ness, while maintaining the few kernel of truth, even managing to make the last minute twist sort of work. The questionably overqualified cast helps a lot, Emma Watson’s shaky American accent aside. Expect this to be the favorite wish-fulfillment fantasy of future outcast.

46. Dredd
Count this as something of a surprise. The plot owes a lot to “The Raid” and, while the gritty dystopian aspects of the original comic are properly captured, the satire is totally overlooked. Still, the cast is far better then expected, the action is solid if not always pulse-pounding, and there’s one oddly poetic moment. I would, honestly!, go see a (unlikely) sequel.

47. The Tall Man
Pascal Laugier’s newest movie is full of twists and isn’t what I expected at all. Mainly, it isn’t a horror film. It’s beautifully shot, very moody, and has a solid cast, including an unusually good performance from Jessica Biel. However, I can’t help but feel that the supernatural premise it sets up, and then totally subverts, would have made a creepier, if potentially less interesting, movie.

48. John Carter
Burrough’s Mars comes with a fully-formed universe and the movie doesn’t care if you’re not familiar with it. There’s way too much story here but I kind of admire the ambition and its go-for-broke ridiculousness. The special effects are pretty awesome, the cast is capable, and there are some stand-out moments, like the crawling city or John’s battle with the Green Men.

49. The Man with the Iron Fists
RZA holds his own film back at times. He’s not much of an actor, the script is intentionally convoluted, and the action sometimes feels overly self-aware. Once the story gets going, it leads to some awesomely stylized fight scenes plus a fun, campy performance or two.

50. ATM
Clever variation on the slasher formula. The characters are likable, full-grown adults that go the whole film without making any egregiously stupid mistakes. This is focused more on suspense then gore, which there’s relatively little of. Sure, the premise falls apart if you think about it for more then a minute and the ending’s something of a letdown. Still, this is a solid little thriller.

51. Silent House
The dreaded shaky-cam shows up a few times and the ending is a bummer. The cramped location and fantastic sound design lends some verisimilitude, making effective shocks and occasional actual tension. Elisabeth Olsen’s portrayal of a girl shaken apart by nerves also prevents this from being your typical Hollywood boo-show. Or, at least, an above average one.

52. The Whisperer in Darkness
Probably plays like an extended in-joke to non-Lovecraft nerds. Nicely adapts the author’s tricky prose to the screen, gets the mythology out there without being bogged down by exposition, and keeps the pace running along too. The faux-40s style is appreciated if never wholly convincing.

TWO AND A HALF STARS:

53. The Day
Post-apocalyptic survivors vs. cannibals siege flick has a decent cast, including a very good Ashley Bell, and some diverting action in its last half. The grimy and sometimes overly sadistic visuals are fairly nondistinct though, reminiscent of any other number of films. The profanity-laden dialogue rings false and the characters make dumb decisions for no reason.

54. Intruders
It’s a shame that the lame twist midway through totally undermines what otherwise could have been a really creepy, original horror film. It’s not the fault of the uniformly excellent cast but rather of a screenwriter, once again, being afraid to play a horror premise straight.

55. Detention
Heavy on pop culture references, this oddball horror-comedy (More comedy then horror) is occasionally hilarious, sometimes obnoxious, and has a cute female lead. In addition to murders, it features time travel, UFOs, body swapping, magnetic bears, animals exploding, a fly creature with a TV hand, and the end of the world.

56. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
The jokey premise is played totally straight, which is the main problem. Bekmambetov’s melodramatic direction plays along with this, despite producing at least two stand-out action scenes. The performances and music are all fine but the script, which provides a routine, typical superhero origin story for the unlikeliest of subjects, is what really drags this down.

57. The Watch
Another would-be “Ghostbusters,” this one gets some decent laughs out of its cast’s back-and-forth. Everyone is playing their typical types, especially Vince Vaughn’s vulgar frat boy. Richard Ayoade’s dead-pan delivery helps a lot. The movie is really uninteresting on a scripting level, as the story feels both totally by-the-numbers but also sloppily thrown-together.

58. Jack & Diane
Odd lesbian love story that’s also occasionally a werewolf movie. While both actresses are decent, the overall low-key style makes them hard to read. The movie is a little too leisurely. Surprisingly, the rare times it goes for scares, it actually works quite well. The strange visual cutaways are truly memorable, even if the movie can’t get you as emotionally invested as it clearly wants you to be.

59. Big Miracle
One of the most inoffensive movies I’ve ever seen. The tone is so gentle that the film can’t really sell the one dramatic, potentially very sad moment it has. The cast is wildly overqualified and I like that there aren’t any real bad guys in the script. Turns out everybody really does love whales.

60. The Woman in Black
Despite its classic horror heritage; respected source material, presented under the Hammer banner, Victorian setting, gothic manor, foggy nights; the movie is unwilling to commit to the style. There are far too many shrieking jump-scares and little interest in building atmosphere. I kind of liked the ending and Daniel Radcliffe successfully expands pass his Harry Potter roots. 

61. Dark Shadows
Burton’s adaptation of the campy cult classic can’t balance its wacky parody, darker humor, special effects action, or even simple subplots. It particularly can’t handle its morally ambiguous protagonists. Still, some of the cast does okay, especially Eva Green, and the sets sure are nice.

62. Area 407
“Blair Witch,” with DINOSAURS!, is a dynamite premise but this one can’t escape the typical Found Footage traps. Why don’t the characters put down the camera? We don’t see much. A lot of the runtime is composed of people walking around. Still, it’s not a total wash. The cast is likable enough and there’s a few successful moments, like a great shock-ending.

63. Iron Sky
The most impressive thing about this is that it looks like a big budget Hollywood blockbuster on a fraction of the money. Beyond the great premise (Moon Nazis!), the script doesn’t really have anything insightful to say, instead making fun of obvious targets and limp Bush-era parody. The last minute spin into earnestness is incredibly off-putting.

TWO STARS:

64. Sinister
After a strong first act, featuring a creepy opening and low-key sound design, this succumbs to typical studio horror clichés: Unthreatening “creepy” kids, obnoxious jump scares, jagged editing, characters yelling at each other for no reason, a general lack of subtly. Shit, it even ends on a dark and stormy night! It’s a shame because there is some potentially interesting mythology here.

65. Ghost Rider: The Spirit of Vengeance
Neveldine/Taylor certainly bring some wacked-out hilarity to the fight scenes and Nic Cage is at his maximum level of Cage-ness. However, a budget-saving story device in the last quarter removes the action from the film, leading to a dragging mid-section. There’s a sense of staleness here that even Flaming-Piss and Hell-Jeeps can’t totally shake.

66. Smiley
I’m not sure how terrible the premise, a slasher set in the world of 4chan, is. There are some clever ideas but it’s very hard to take the movie seriously. The two lead girls are cute but once the “is it all in her head or real?” angle shows up, it becomes a bore. The constant jump scares don’t help any, nor does the stupid ending. The killer’s mask is pretty cool.

67. Hick
Rambling drama about Chloe Moretz, far too wiling to embrace her Lolita-image, running away from home and having some fucked-up adventures with white trash nut-jobs. It’s not awful and has a handful of effective moments but the movie never builds any sort of momentum. The filmmakers are hopelessly unsure of what to do with the uncomfortable material.

68. The Sleeper
I appreciate the eighties sensibility, especially the synth score and inexplicable dance scene, but this throw-back slasher is never suspenseful or scary. The gore is light and the focus is on atmosphere, an atmosphere the movie can’t maintain or use properly. The killer is seriously un-threatening. The filmmakers have potential but should focus on an original idea next time.

69. Don’t Go in the Woods
After an hour of decent-but-mostly-forgettable indie-rock and a pissy lead character, this horror-musical remembers the horror part and begins slashing through its cast with abandon. Technically a better made film then the mostly-unrelated 1980 trash-slasher of the same name but I enjoy that one way more. Actor-turned-director Vincent D'Onofrio shouldn’t quit his day job.

70. Chernobyl Diaries
Uninspired “spam in a van” horror flick. When the unlikable or indistinct characters aren’t making bad decisions, they’re wandering around identical, dimly-lit corridors breathing heavily. Even the jump scares lack any potency or energy. The movie wastes real life locations that could’ve been spooky. At least the CGI bear is unexpected.

71. Mirror, Mirror
Buried deep, deep beneath the awful fairy tale puns, lame broad comedy, Julia Robert’s shrill performance, and sleep-inducing pace are some of director Tarsem’s trademark breath-taking visuals and over-the-top costume design. Beyond that and Lily Collin’s general prettiness, there’s nothing to recommend here.

ONE AND A HALF STARS:

72. Breaking the Girls
Agnes Bruckner is probably better then this routine, dull “stalker with a crush” thriller, which seems like an exile from the late nineties, with the way it cribs so much from “Cruel Intentions” and its ilk. The story turns pointlessly from meaningless plot twist to dumb reveal. The movie can’t even deliver on the blatant exploitation it obviously desires.

73. Monster Brawl
As a series of 10-minute internet vignettes, this probably would have worked fine. As a feature? There’s far too much filler and watching actors in sometimes-okay/usually subpar monster make-up throw each other around quickly looses its dubious thrill.

74. Wrath of the Titans
Less a movie and more a series of boss fights. Really lazy writing, bland direction, surprisingly inconsistent special effects. Ares is an incredibly annoying villain. This is about as uninspired as you’d expect a sequel to a bad remake to be. Even the usually shameless Liam Neeson seems embarrassed to be in this.

75. The Moth Diaries
Uniformly dull. The main actresses give flat performances. The story is a jumbled mess, throwing out subplots that never pay off. Strange events and images are treated in such a stale manner that it’s never provocative and frequently almost funny. A totally phoned-in effort from a (formally?) talented filmmaker.

76. Keyhole
Guy Maden lathers the old dark house genre in his typical weirdness. Instead of being a genre experiment, this is boring, irritating art shenanigans. The constant nudity and other attempts at shock are eye-rolling while the senseless story rambles from one pointless sequence to another. Worse yet, you never give a single damn about any of the interchangeable, faceless characters. 

77. The Hunger Games
Takes “Battle Royale” and removes anything interesting. Zero suspense: Focuses on one character that definitely won’t die. No ambiguity: Cast is separated into “good guys” and cartoonish psychopaths. Realism is gone: Its set in a future were everyone dresses like a drag queen or has a dumb name. There’s obvious social commentary (Rich people don’t care about poor people?!), horrible shaky-cam, and a love story so contrived the movie even tells you so.

ONE STAR:

78. Piranha 3DD
John Gulager is a hack. He replaces the original’s chaotic humor with hateful vulgarity and undermines any possible tension with lame jokes, without upping the gore or fun any. The characters are all paper thin and the music is obnoxious. I can’t undersell how gross, stupid, lame, and mirthless this movie is. I hate David Hosselhoff.

79. Mother’s Day
Home invasions are so 2008. No, the characters being stressed doesn’t excuse them doing dramatic stuff because the plot demands it. One asinine twist follows another, as the unlikable cast is forced to do mindless shit. The story splinters in three directions at one point and the ending drags on forever. This is hopelessly dreary, generic remake trash.

-

And that was the year that was. Hope 2012 turned out okay for you guys and, if it didn't, let's hope 2013 is better, huh? I'll be back tomorrow with my most anticipated films of 2013. Until then, enjoy the night!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bangers n' Mash 9: Monster Mashes!

Here's a belated Christmas present. The latest episode of The Bangers n' Mash Show was recorded back in October, where it was much more seasonally appropriate. But we have our own irregular schedule here! JD and I talk about the subgenre we dub Monster Mashes! Those films that take a bunch of unrelated horror characters and concepts and mash 'em all together. We spend most of the show nerding out over "The Monster Squad." We also spoil the shit out of "The Cabin in the Woods" so, if you haven't seen that one, you might want to skip this one.



We spent the last half-hour talking about the conventions we did earlier in the year. (Once again, when we recorded this, that was a lot more recent.) Blog-readers might as well skip that part, since I blatantly rehash everything I said during my two conventions reports here.

I don't know when the next episode will be out but it will hopefully be soon. Expect a flurry of end-of-the-year updates here at Film Thoughts very soon.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2012)

51. Wreck-It Ralph

It took me a while to warm up to “Wreck-It Ralph” in two different ways. When I first heard the premise of a Disney movie set inside the world of video games, about a villain trying to prove himself a hero, I couldn’t help but sigh a little bit. Didn’t sound particularly inspired. Trailers began to hit and, with its cameos of established game characters and absurd sense of humor, this was revealed as something of the video game-version of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” As the critical praise and immediate fan love started to pour in, I actually found myself getting excited for “Wreck-It Ralph.”

Similarly, the movie itself didn’t impress me right out of the gate. The film goes a long way to establishing its world very quickly. The arcade is its own little universe. The eight-bit visuals are cool and John C. Riley’s voice-over is both regretful and amusingly bitter. The way a surge protector power strip becomes a train station struck me as uncommonly clever. It’s not that there’s any particularly egregious about the first act but parts of it definitely feel perfunctory. The Bad Guy Self-Help Group read brilliantly on paper I bet and, if all the jokes that scene hadn’t been plaster over all the trailers and TV spots, I probably would have found it brilliant too. The scenes of Ralph alienating the residents of his own game are fairly predictable, however. At this point the film feels very much like a typical kid’s flick. (Even if a certain part of my brain gets excited just seeing Robotnik and Sonic on the big screen.)

Things pick up once the plot gets really rolling, though still slowly. The Hero’s Duty set-pieces are a pretty spot-on parody of modern first person shooters. Surprising for a quote-unqoute kid’s movie, the movie is still laying down narrative tracks this late in. Important plot points are still emerging and, best of all, we’re introduced to Jane Lynch’s Col. Calhoun character. Lynch spits out hilarious, intentionally ridiculous hard boiled dialogue, biting into every line like a pro. The movie doesn’t spend much time in this setting. (I suppose even a parody of M-rated games are a little too strong for Disney.) The main arc of Ralph taking responsibility for his actions, the Sugar Rush setting, the smartly merged Felix and Col. subplots, all starts to come together.

My main problems with the opening scenes aren’t that they aren’t interesting, so much as they aren’t funny. The humor starts to come with the new setting and, mostly, with Ralph’s interaction with Vanellope. I’ve never been a huge fan of Sarah Silverman’s schtick. “Adorable girl says offensive things” can only go so far. However, her snark, adorableness, and decent delivery find a good home in the character. Silverman and Reiley have a great back and forth, so much so that it wouldn’t surprise me if their dialogue was recorded together. Naturally, the two outsiders form a friendship and each redeems the other. This is expected. What isn’t expected is that the friendship will be so touching. That friendship is inevitably challenged. While that scene arguably pitches the drama at a little too high a level, it’s still very effective. What I’m saying is the character’s relationship forms the entire emotional backbone of the film’s latter half.

Sugar Rush becomes the setting for the rest of the movie. It’s a great playground for the animators. Beyond the vivid colors, the setting is versatile enough to provide plenty of sight gags. Who knew that you could get so many laughs out of candy puns? It’s no surprise that the Sugar Rush racers have become something of a meme in of themselves, since each one is such a unique design. Once the big race starts, what a fantastic device for a finale, you really begin to appreciate how much effort went into crafting this playground. You wouldn’t expect the political dynamics of a video game to be this interesting either. Alan Tudyk, completely unrecognizable with a big queenie voice, does a great job of taking a character, the King of Candyland, who would be impossible to take seriously and turn him into an intimidating villain. The level of seriousness goes up even more for a finale you wouldn’t expect to be as exciting or dark as it is. In addition to that, I think the romance between Fix-It Felix and Col. Calhoun might be the first BDSM relationship in a kid’s movie ever. Expect those two to inspire some freaky fanficiton.

How much I like the movie is probably because my expectations weren’t exactly high. As I’ve made clear, the movie is shockingly likable despite not doing a single damn new thing. I’m not shocked that the internet loves it, given the number of classic gaming in-jokes. You’ve got cameos of Pac-Man, Bowser, practically all the most well-known “Street Fighter” characters, Kano from “Mortal Kombat,” a Dance-Dance Revolution cabinet, Frogger, the Dig Dug guy, a “House of the Dead” zombie, Q-Bert, even down to obscurities like “Battle Toads” Dark Queen and Tapper. Aerith and Sheng-Long are mentioned in blink-and-miss-it graffiti. The Contra Code is a plot point! Even if the public hasn’t quite embraced them to the degree they did in the nineties, I’ve got to say Disney has been on something of a roll with their Animated Features here of late. Let’s see the trend continue. [Grade: B+]

Friday, November 30, 2012

Director Report Card: The Wachowskis (2012)

6. Cloud Atlas
“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult film to summarize. It is, perhaps, the most ambitious film I have ever seen. The Wachowskis have never been one for small ideas. Even in a career defined by arch ambitions, these two took on a project that actually required a third director to bring it fully to the screen. Tom Tykwer, formally of “Run Lola Run” and “Perfume,” another filmmaker well known for films that others wouldn’t dare tackling, was brought in to film half of the movie. The final result is a beautiful film.

In order to talk about “Cloud Atlas,” you’ve really got to compartmentalize its stories and themes. The word “ambitious” comes to mind again when you realize this is practically six very different films woven together. While each of the stories are vastly different to the point of belonging to different genres, themes, ideas, visuals, characters, and actors recur throughout all of them like musical motifs, elegantly appearing over the course of decades. The clopping of horse hooves transitions into the rumbling of the train tracks. A rush of water cuts to another character, separated by years and miles, submerged in water. The title comes from a piece of music presented in the film and, appropriately, the transition from moment to moment are poetic and natural.

1849: A costume drama set on a slave ship crossing the Pacific Ocean. After inspecting a plantation for his father-in-law, Jim Sturgess finds himself suffering from ill health and headaches. His doctor tells him a parasitic worm has dug into his brain. This merely provides a set-up for the segment’s primary premise. A run-away slave, David Gyasi, hides on the boat, Sturgess being his only confidant and friend. Over the course of his journey, he finds himself challenging his assumptions and beliefs, handling impending death and racism.

The first of the Wachowski directed sequences, this one prospers from both high production values and strong performances. While it’s very easy to misuse voice-over narration, “Cloud Atlas” uses it’s nicely throughout. Sturgess’ voice reinforces the segment’s themes without being too obvious about it. Sturgess gives a good performance, jumping back and forth between extremely ill and contemplative. Tom Hanks does a surprising turn as the piece’s villain. Hanks has no problem ugling up and downplaying his natural likability in favor of sleazy villainy. David Gyasi, as the escaped slave, is probably the stand-out player. It would have been easy to fall into the Magical Black Man cliché, and you might be able to make the case it still does, but Gyasi creates a full character with personality and flaws. Without going too far into spoiler territory, Hugo Weaving shows up at the end to deliver a theme-defining monologue in his usual tyrannical hiss. It’s amazing how much sinister intent that actor can sum up with a single line-reading. The direction is strong in some moments, like a sail roping scene that is highly intense, but in other moments the Wachowski’s usually strong action direction actually falters some. A late period struggle is shaky and unfocused. It’s the only really distracting moment.

1936: England on the brink of World War II breaking out, a drama of character. A gay would-be composer runs away from Cambridge, leaving his lover behind, in order to apprentice under a famous composer whom he greatly admires. In letters to his lover, he relates his experiences there. Though the composer is prickly at first, the two eventually become close and collaborate on a piece together, the title-lending Cloud Atlas Sextet. Themes of class relation and racism bubble to the surface again, especially when the composer’s Jewish wife is forced to interact with a Nazi. About at the mid-point, there’s a serious plot point and this segment changes tones quite a bit. The main character is forced on the run from the law again.

The ’36 sequences, the first Tykwer-directed piece, are probably my least favorite. Most of my issues come out of the late period event that forces the latter half of the story in a different direction. It’s the film’s only dishonest moment. A few characters act differently then you’d expect them too. Even then, there are some extraordinary moments. Someone describes a dream of the film’s future events. The main creative break through, when the sextet first comes together, works well. My favorite bit is near the very end, another dream sequence, when two characters destroy a shop full of fine china in slow-motion. Ben Whishaw, as the on-the-run kid, gives a very good performance, showing off a lot of roguish charm. Jim Broadbent gets his first very meaty role in the film as the grouchy composer. Broadbent is a highly versatile actor and he certainly gets to show his chops here. James D’Arcy, playing the lover, does most of his acting with his face. He has little dialogue. I also take a bit of issue with this segment’s ending, which is actually spoiled at the very beginning. It comes a bit out of nowhere and, once again, seems like a dishonest move for the characters.

1973, San Francisco: A journalist, the daughter of a deceased war veteran, is working hard to break out of her mold and find a great, political story. She gets more then she asked for when investigating the murder of a nuclear physicist. (The same character D’Arcy played in ’36, now as an old man.) Very soon, she’s finds herself the target of a hitman, attempting to cover up a conspiracy, an engineered attempt to cause a nuclear disaster.

Tykwer makes up for the weaknesses of the 1936’s sequences with this one, one of my favorites in the film. Once again, the genre shifts, with these moments belonging squarely to the political thriller genre. Halle Berry, an actress who I’ve never been a big fan, gives a surprisingly good performance here as Luisa Rey, an extraordinarily strong female protagonist. This is a woman who literally pulls herself out of a sinking car. There’s a moment when two characters have to fall in love over a very short period of time. This normally wouldn’t work, you’d think, but the performances pull it off. The direction of Hanks’ characters shift in this moment. Keith David, one of my favorites, has a strong supporting role, even if it doesn’t look like it at first. Hugo Weaving is once again called into play a cold, calculating villain. He’s fantastic in it, of course. In the latter half, this becomes a story about two characters being pursued by one character. Legitimate thrills as engineered in small moments, like someone lurking behind a window, and big ones, like the lights going off on a bridge, a car sailing over the edge. There’s a wry sense of humor to this one which never undermines the tension. Instead, it adds a charming quality. As with all of the elements to this film, this easily could have been a fantastic feature on its own.

2012, London: A book publisher, Jim Broadbent in his leading role, suddenly finds himself the center of attention when one of his clients tosses a snobby critic over the ledge of a building. The thuggish author’s brothers track down the publisher for money. That is not what this segment is about. Instead, Broadbent flees to the countryside, hoping to find safe harbor in his brother’s home. It doesn’t go as well as he hoped. Broadbent instead ends up locked inside a nursing home ruled over by a tyrannical nurse. A wacky comedy ensues about a ragtag group of people fighting back against restrains and almost rekindling long lost love.

Once again, I can’t help but point out the tonal shifts here. In most films, cutting back and forth between such diverging tones would be a problem. Brilliantly, “Cloud Atlas” balances it all. The 2012 moments play out with a light, romantic tone. (It’s that romantic tone that honestly ties the whole film together. More on that later.) Broadbent does great in the lead role, playing his indigent British charm to great effect. Hugh Grant, another reoccurring actor, despite being under some not-totally convincing old age make-up, does the best in his collection of roles. Voice-over is used fantastically again. My favorite moment involves a flashback to younger days, which is pays off a dirty joke in surprisingly light-hearted terms. A character who usually only repeats one phrase has a predictable, but still touching, pay-off. Once it’s confirmed that this is a story about misfits coming together for a mission, it really starts to work. The pub brawl climax is both hilarious and appropriately thrown-together.

Moving ahead to 2144, Neo Seoul, Korea: The fast food industry, instead of hiring employees, instead build genetic clones for the minimal work. The dark skylines of Seoul are appropriately dystopic and, in the traditional of “Blade Runner,” the bright colors of advertising billboards try to bloat out the industrial bleakness of the world. Following the death of another waitress, unassuming Sonmi-451 unwittingly becomes the center of a revolution. Whisked away by the revolutionary underground, the evil omniscient corporate overlords attempt to crush the rising tide. Chase scenes, shoot-outs, horrifying revelations, and emotional upheaval follows.

The Wachowskis return to familiar territory with this one, an action-heavy sci-fi story that balances big action set pieces with philosophy. Jim Sturgess, despite some not-totally convincing Asian make-up, reveals himself as a surprising action star. Obviously, the Wachowskis are great at engineering action sequences. And they certainly don’t disappoint. There’s a great close-quarters shoot-out which climaxes with a huge chase scene, over the neon blue freeways of the future. The brothers get to indulge their general love of far-out science fiction, with some of the wild visuals on display here. My favorite is the apartment walls that can be set to any climate.  Unlike the love story in “The Matrix,” the romantic subplot works extremely well. Doona Bae is obviously the center piece here. The story of someone young and naïve being pulled into an amazing destiny is a standard sci-fi premise, but Bae’s sweet, touching performance holds it all together. She has great chemistry with Sturgess, which is good since their romance is the entire emotional heart of the piece. This storyline got perhaps the biggest response out of me, with touching character work and shocking story reveals.

Finally, the distant future: Hawaii, in the wake of an undefined apocalyptic. Culture has splintered into separate classes and tribes. On the island, live peaceful shepherds in villages, worshiping Sonmi from the previous segment. The shepherds are at constant risk from the violent cannibals that live in the woods. In the distance, society continues in some way in a far advanced futuristic world. A nurse visits the island, looking for passage to a forbidden land. Tom Hanks plays Zachary, the seemingly schizophrenic shepherd, the only man who can lead her to where she needs to go. Hugo Weaving continues his villainous role as a spectre, with ghoulish green skin in a bizarre top hat. It’s left ambiguous what exactly Weaving is, delusions or demon.

The biggest obstacle with the far-flung conclusion is that the characters speak in a particular dialect, a degraded English. It takes a while for your ears to tune to the language. Moreso then any other part of the film, “Cloud Atlas” truly creates its own world with this one. The production design is fantastic here, with every hut having a textured, lived-in quality to it. When we climb out of the villages into the mountains, the eye for detail continues. Some spellbinding visuals result here, such as a satellite dish that opens up like a blossom. Probably the most intriguing aspect revolves around Weaving’s demon, a character that tempts, influences, Hank’s simple shepherd. Watching Hanks resist and handle this evil whispers is fascinating. It’s probably Hank’s best performance in the film. Once again, him and Berry have a surprising chemistry. Surprisingly, this story also erupts into action-movie violence near the end, which is very intense and effective. The entire film is tied together with an epilogue set even further in the future.

I can’t imagine what the editors on this film went through. The film truly would not have been as good if the six stories were told in solid blocks. Cutting them together, the main theme here is brilliantly illustrated. Acts of kindness and cruelty ripple throughout time. A brilliant moment comes near the end. In the distance future, a character describes her hope that she will be reunited with her love after death. In the past, her words are mirrored in actions. Casting the same actors in numerous parts are far more then just a gimmick. It’s integral to the movie’s entire point.

My biggest issue with “Cloud Atlas” is that the make-up is wildly inconsistent. When you have men playing women and vice-versa, it can come off as just a little distracting, especially when the character is an important one. Overall, that’s a very minor issue. It’s a real shame that “Cloud Atlas” failed to find an audience at the theater. That it’s over three hour longs certainly didn’t help its case in mall cineplexs. (The length is never an issue, not when there’s this much story to cover.) Well, I loved it. After the divisive “Speed Racer” and “Matrix” sequels, this is bound to put the Wachowskis back on track, I suspect. Though probably a much cheaper one. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bangers n' Mash 8: Ghost Stories

So here's another episode of the podcast nobody likes or listens to that was recorded back in July and I'm only now getting it out. This time JD and I discuss many different films about ghosts, hauntings, and paranormal encounters, while also recounting some personal stories of our own.



The next one definitely should not take as long, unless there's some other fucking disaster which there probably will be. Anyway, thanks for not listening or paying any attention to this shit whatsoever.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
Oddly, a surprising fraction of “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” almost plays like a straight horror film. The character was an odd pick for a Meet the Monsters flick, since Jekyll and Hyde have no previous heritage at Universal. Perhaps this was the studio’s attempt to put their mark on the character. As an adaptation of the frequently told tale, it takes wild liberties with the premise. For starters, Dr. Jekyll is fairly evil as well. He transforms into Mr. Hyde, not out of an attempt to remove his inner evil and temptation, but instead to provide a proper alibi to commit murder! Mr. Hyde is an unrefined monster who never speaks, only growls. Instead of being a general doctor, Dr. Jekyll is specifically a brain surgeon, fond of swapping animal’s brains around. (Producing visuals like a roaring bunny or a mooing chimp.) There is a brief subplot about both Jekyll and Hyde being in love with the female lead that doesn’t really go anywhere. The film is a Victorian period piece and the female lead is a suffragette. Her journey for woman’s right is somewhat undermined by her night job as a can-can dancer. Many moments play like a normal horror film, like the open kill or the chase across the roof tops of London. Bud and Lou don’t even show up until about ten minutes in!

As for the humor, once again, the biggest gags belong to Costello. This entry sees the guys in strictly broad slapstick mode. The funniest moment involves Lou stumbling into a wax museum and being threatened by wax models of Frankenstein’s monster and a disembodied head. The movie makes good use of Lou’s scared reactions. This is the movie’s high point and it starts to drag after this. An odd gag involves Lou drinking one of Jekyll’s potions and turning into a giant mouse. This leads to some amusing back-and-forth. Sadly, in the latter half, the movie starts to focus on the Hyde formula getting out to the general public. Random people dressed as Mr. Hyde jumping out and frightening folks isn’t funny to begin with and continues to be non-amusing when repeated over and over again. The movie trudges along in its second half to the seriously underwhelming ending.

Boris Karloff seems a little bored, playing the two-faced villain bit he’s done many times before. He’s never actually under the Hyde make-up and the stuntman who is really playing the part is as uninspired as the rest of the movie. The film doesn’t do much with the source material, aside from a doctor changing shape and the Victorian setting. Bud and Lou were dropped into the middle of a fairly run-of-the-mill mad doctor/monster on the loose flick. “Abbott and Costello Met Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” showed the Meet the Monsters series sliding out of quality. [5/10]


It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Would you believe I’ve never seen this movie before? I probably missed it simply because it never cropped up on the Friday Night creature feature show back in the day. Considered a classic by sci-fi fans, “It Came From Outer Space” was highly influential, at least at Universal anyway. It revived interest in monster movies in the studio by steering away from the traditional gothic setting towards space aliens and other science fiction concepts. It would birth a whole new wave of sci-fi themed monster and horror films.

With a script from personal idol and science fiction master Ray Bradbury, “It Came From Outer Space” is far from your typical 1950s alien invasion flick. An amateur astrologist spots an asteroid crash into the Arizona desert, what turns out to be an alien space craft. The locals are naturally skeptical and dismiss the guy as a crackpot. The incident even costs his girlfriend her job. He is, of course, right. Instead of reaping terror among the population, the aliens instead kidnap some people and assume their identities, only shopping for supplies to fix their ship and return home.

The film, considering its pedigree, reads more like a great science fiction short story instead of a B-movie. Aliens that don’t want to blow us up or eat us was a new, exciting idea at the time. The visitors might not be evil in intent, but they are monstrous in appearance. The entire conflict of the story steams from the fact that the aliens realize humanity isn’t ready for them, recalling Arthur C. Clark’s “Childhood’s End” or even a little bit of Lovecraft. The visitors are ambiguous, regarding humans the way we regard a spider. The design, with its twitching eyeball and slimy tentacles, a plume of smoke always encircling them, is rather grotesque. I’m sure keeping the creatures off-screen throughout most of the movie was a budgetary decision but it provides an air of mystery. The POV shots, parodied just the other day in “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” in which people scream as an unseen creature barrels down on them, is the movie’s main horrific element. Aside from a death ray and a laser shooting magic wand, there’s little visceral threat here. “It Came from Outer Space” is squarely a sci-fi movie.

It’s still good. Richard Carlson does a good job as the lead character. He’s frustrated that no one believes and seems as unsure of how to react to the visitors as everyone else does. He’s surprisingly nuanced as far as leading men go in films of these types. Barbara Rush is also good as his love interest, similarly conflicted by the situation. Kathleen Hughes’ screaming face made the poster even if her part in the film is quite small. She still looks gorgeous. The climax, which involves a trip into a creepy cave, is quite suspenseful and, like much of the film, undermines your typical expectations.

The short story style carries into the movie’s pacing. It drags a little in the middle. The premise isn’t quite extensive enough to support a feature. “It Came from Outer Space” made a crap load of money at Universal, almost certainly because of its then-innovative 3-D gimmick. (Watched flat, the 3-D effects don’t register much.) Director Jack Arnold would next direct “Creature from the Black Lagoon” which would really throw the floodgates open for the next generation of Universal Monsters. This film is important for that reason alone. [7/10]


And I'm cutting my Universal Mega-thon off there. It's a good stopping place, as the Abbott and Costello team-up flicks meant the end of the classic monsters and "It Came from Outer Space" ushered in the new era of sci-fi/atomic age monster flicks. "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and the rest of the fifties output will have to wait until next year.


Cabin Fever (2002)
Most of my movie-watching time is spent taking in new films. New releases, older movies I’m just seeing for the first time, so on. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy Halloween so much. It’s a time for me to revisit stuff I haven’t seen in a while. Sometimes that’s like visiting old friends. Other times that means reassessing my opinion on films I haven’t seen a while. Thus: “Cabin Fever.” I loved it when I first saw it in the theaters and I don’t think I’ve seen it since then. With the possible exception of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth is the most divisive filmmaker to come out of the horror wave of the last decade. The tide of controversy his “Hostel” films ignited easily overshadowed his first feature.

Roth’s biggest problem is evident through all of his movies. The dude can not write genuine, likable characters. At best, they come off as simple sketches. At worst, they are intensely unpleasant assholes. Case in point: In “Cabin Fever,” characters are separated into two types. Rider Strong and Jordan Ladd are the main characters, defined solely by their relationship to each other. Strong’s Paul is trying to transfer from childhood friend to serious romantic partner to Ladd’s Karen. That’s pretty much it. Their personalities otherwise morph in accordance to the story’s whims. The rest of the main cast is obnoxious, deeply unlikable cartoon characters. Joey Kern’s Jeff spews homoerotic dialogue, does senseless things like shop-lift or shoot animals, and never lets the audience forget for a minute he’s a jockish bonehead. As bad as Jeff is, James DeBello’s Bert is even worse. An opportunistic asshole who doesn’t seem capable of caring for another person, he spends most of his screen time screaming profanity at his friends, begging the question of why he is on this trip with these people. Despite being a massive tool, the guy has an absurdly hot girlfriend in the shape of Cerina Vincent’s Marcy.

Marcy best exemplifies the movie’s biggest issue. The characters lack any common sense. They make wildly bad decisions for no particular reason. If you accidentally shoot a guy, you take him to the hospital and apologize profusely. If a sick person comes to your door, call 9/11. Do not attempt to beat him to death with bats and crowbars. (And stop taking swings if you’re destroying your only mode of transportation.) Most definitely do not set him on fire. If a friend has contacted an aggressive flesh eating virus, locking her in a shed is not advisable. Marcy’s only defining characteristic is her overwhelming sluttiness. When it becomes obvious she has the virus, she decides random, enthusiastic fucking is the only course of action. I know Cerina Vincent is really hot but, if she’s infected with a vicious skin-eating disease, decline her sexual advances. It won’t end well. And, hey, what’s a natural thing to do when a horrible virus is drilling through your layers of dermis? “Shave your legs” is not an appropriate answer. If you see a dead body floating in a reservoir, do not climb down a rickety ladder just to poke it with a stick. Writing characters who are intentionally dumb is one thing. Having your characters do things that no human being would ever do is an entirely different faux-pas. Even the otherwise sensible humans make astonishingly bad decisions.

Roth’s strengths as a writer and director is his surreal sense of humor and an ability of craft sickening horror set-pieces. And that’s why “Cabin Fever” is worth checking out at all. The local redneck characters are bizarre enough to be humorous. Which do you prefer, the blonde hair kid who screams about pancakes and does inexplicable karate moves? The local deputy who highly moans about “parties,” in the face of all sanity? How about the kindly, folksy shop owners who engages in unexpected racist dialogue? (A gag that has a hilarious pay-off at the end.) Even Roth’s aggravating cameo gets a laugh or two. Later on, the harmonica man and a resilient deer appear, to choruses of laughter. As for the horror sequences, some of them are gleefully nasty, like the Bowling Alley Massacre or Strong turning on the trio of invading rednecks, the strong result of a mind weaned on seventies/eighties sleaze-exploitation horror films. Others are body-horror worthy of Cronenberg, like the snap of an ankle or red marks trailing down a back.

Angelo Badalamenti’s score is unnerving and gets under your skin in the same way the movie’s disease does. Roth’s direction is stylish enough. I’m not sure if his horror-nerd homages are endearing or annoying. All the songs on the soundtrack are from “The Last House on the Left.” In any other movie, a lingering shot on your actress’ plump ass would be just that. In a Roth film, it becomes a callback to “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” or “Friday the 13th Part II.” A screwdriver in the ear? “Dawn of the Dead.” Vomiting on somebody? “The Fly.” The Batcave puts in a cameo. Not to mention the entire premise owes a considerably amount to “The Evil Dead.” Roth’s homophobic dialogue is as tin-earred and hard-to-swallow here as it is in “Hostel.” Talking about a dog sticking its nose up your ass isn’t helping your case, Eli.

Still, the parts are greater then the whole. “Cabin Fever” is worth sticking around through for the wacky or sickening moments, even if Roth’s flaws as a writer are all too apparent. The “Thanksgiving” trailer is still the best thing he has ever done. [6.5/10]


So Halloween kind of kicked my ass this year. Aside from the hurricane and a falling tree dampening the festivities, it was a struggle all month to keep up with the daily updates of the blog. Still, I did, more or less, meet my goal. I watched a whopping 102 movies, 4 shorts, and 14 television episodes, dwarfing all previous records. And yet, still, there was a lot of stuff I wanted to get to that I didn't. Next year, my friend. The Jack o' lanterns, bowls of candies, ghoulish costumes and decorations are all put away for another year. Thanks for going on this journey with me, readers. As always, more stuff coming soon, as soon as I get the power turned back on.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 30

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Given that the Invisible Man series had wander into comedy once before, picking him as the next monster to team Bud and Lou with makes sense. “Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man” is nowhere near as funny as the previous film. It’s still pretty amusing.

Bud and Lou are well-suited to their parts as sham detectives, ones that profit off of entrapping customers. Their business quickly puts them in contact with a boxer, on-the-run and framed for murder. A friend of his just happens to have the invisibility formula lying around, apparently willed it by Claude Rains’ original. (Jack Griffin in the original, John Griffin here.) Despite being well warned of the insanity side effects, the boxer immediately mainlines the potion. As to be expected, Bud is drafted as a boxer, while the invisible man does all the actual work, until the real murderer reveals himself.

The movie strikes a decent balance between invisibility gags, Costello’s scared reactions, and the duo’s trademark back-and-forth. Costello’s reactions get the most laughs. When taking the invisible man his clothes, amid a beautiful fog covered forest, Lou slowly becomes aware of the unseen man’s presence. Big laughs come from an early moment where a shrink attempts to hypnotize the stout one, which doesn’t go as expected. The invisibility gags take center stage, as you’d expect. A funny dinner scene involves conflicting orders and floating plates of spaghetti. When a nosy detective walks in on their poker game, the guys take an unexpected route of hiding their invisible roommate. Oddly, most of the boxing stuff falls a little flat. Training in a gym provides some decent laughs but the finale’s boxing match is played surprisingly straight.

As you’d expect, the horror aspect take a backseat. This is a decidedly non-murderous invisible man. The insanity side-effects mostly show through loud speeches about how powerful invisibility makes him. (Which is, you know, true.) The movie gets the guy in bandages and goggles once, mostly out of obligation, since it doesn’t feed into the plot any. The ending is appropriately goofy. I wish Bud had a little more to do in this one. Aside from an early threat to smack Lou around, he’s mostly relegated to a supporting role. At this point, the Meet the Monsters series was still rolling along at an amenable pace. “Meet the Invisible Man” isn’t a masterpiece but is lots of fun. [7/10]


The Black Castle (1952)
One of the purposes of the Universal Classic Horror Mega-thon was to revisit movies I had seen before. Barely. Stuff I had watched in the middle of the night while dozing or while doing homework on my laptop, the DVD playing in the background. Some of these films, like the Inner Sanctum Mysteries or “Tower of London,” I found myself actually enjoying and appreciating far more then before. Some of the movies I found as unengaging and dull as before. “The Black Castle” falls into that category.

Once again: Not a horror movie. For a fact, it’s something of a companion to “The Strange Door” in that both are period revenge melodramas that relegate horror star Boris Karloff (and, in this case, Lon Chaney Jr.) to small supporting roles, with some minor atmosphere or a macabre element here and there. The horror fake-out continues to the opening credits which recycles the overturn from “The Wolf Man” for the umpteenth time. Set in a castle in the Black Forest, a mythic setting that the film doesn’t use much, the story revolves around a sinister count (You know he’s sinister because he wears an eye-patch) plotting revenge against some people who screwed him over in a war in African or something. Our hero, Richard Greene, wanders into the castle unaware of this and subsequently has to escape several death traps. When not having passive-aggressive conversations with the count, he’s wooing Rita Corday’s beautiful countess. Karloff plays a doctor who comes off as malicious at first but eventually is revealed to be a nice guy. Chaney plays a mute, brutish servant, a character type the actor would reprise repeatedly through the end half of his career, mostly because he was slowly dying of throat cancer at this time.

There’s some fog around the castle, especially in the early moments. The Count, in his various journeys through Africa, has amassed a collection of deadly animals. A memorable moment involves a fist fight above a dungeon mote full of crocodiles. Lions and jaguars also show up. The most horrific element involves a drug that induces a death-like state. People laying in coffins, thoughts bouncing around in their still heads is actually sort of frightening. Once again, the movie never really exploits this element. Karloff and Chaney aren’t given much to do. At least “The Strange Door” had Boris kicking some ass. Stephen McNally does all right in the villainous role. Director Nathan Juran would direct numerous sci-fi/fantasy classics in the fifties, like “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “The Deadly Mantis,” “The Brain From Planet Arous,” “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” and “Jack the Giant Killer.” He was better suited to that genre. [5/10]


Final Destination 2 (2003)
I never would have thought that “Final Destination” would become one of the most enduring millennial horror franchises. The original wasn’t a bad movie. It was a clever update of the slasher formula and owed more then a little to “The Omen.” (Both series dispatch their victims through convoluted Rube Goldberg-style accidental death traps.) However, it was horribly earnest and, beyond the wacky death scenes, had nothing much else to offer. I think the only reason the “Final Destination” series has had such longevity is, unlike the “Saws” and “Paranormal Activities,” the series hasn’t burnt itself out with yearly installments. The movies are elaborate enough to force a few years between each installment. The reason I say this is because none of the movies are all that good. Except for this one. (And part five but I’m not talking about that right now.)

And it’s good the same way a “Friday the 13th” sequel is good. From a writing perspective, these movies are… Dumb. The entire premise is dumb. Lots of people survive near death experiences every year and most of them aren’t brutally killed afterwards in ridiculous, contrived manners. There’s a reason that, despite five films being made, none have ever attempt to build any kind of mythology, aside from throwing out more ways to escape “Death’s design” that most certainly don’t work. It’s never been said but can certainly be assumed that the psychic visions that open each film are provided by Death. So why does Death give people these vision with the intention of then brutally murdering them afterwards? Why does Death brutally murder people anyway? It’s Death! He can off you in any way! Why make such a show of it? The only real thing we can gleam from all of this is that the Grim Reaper has an utterly brutal sense of irony and is also a passive aggressive dick hole. Tony Todd’s character shows up every couple of movies to sinisterly hiss some bit of vague misinformation, as if he really knows what’s going on.

So the story is utter nonsense. Like “Friday the 13th," each entry in the series has the same blueprint. Character has vision of horrific accident that gorily kills shitloads of people, some how manages to avoid said accident, him/herself and friend proceed to suffer horrible accidental deaths… Or deaths that seem accidental anyway. Part two is no different. The characters aren’t great. They roughly break down into stereotypes: Final girl, an initially skeptical love interest, stoner guy, snarky chick, Mom, Son, Angry Black Man. Some of the characters get a smidge of personality. Angry Black Man panics nicely. My favorite moment is when Stoner Guy knows he’s the next in line to die. He tells Final Girl to, after he dies, go into his apartment and remove all his drugs and porn, anything that will “break his mom’s heart.” It is a surprisingly touching moment in a movie that otherwise dispenses with any character moments. None of the actors are bad, with one exception: Ali Larter, the returning survivor from the first movie. Holy shit, how did this lady become a star? She’s wooden, wears one slightly constipated expression throughout, and can never make a single line sound convincing. The “Resident Evil” movies clearly deserve her.

None of that matters anyway because the entire movie is built around the death scenes. And, holy cow, they are incredible. The opening freeway pile-up is hugely intense. The motorcyclist sliding across the glass is uncomfortably realistic to anyone who has survived a bike crash. The entire sequence will make you nervous every time you pass a truck hauling logs. It’s a hell of way to open the movie. The kitchen sequence is the first sign of the movie’s darkly humorous wit. It’s an over-the-top, extended game of misdirection that has an amazingly nasty, unpleasant payoff. Characters explode into ludicrous gibs with little provocation. A battering log smears a man into splattered meat. In the best kill in the movie, a teenage kid is squashed by a falling plate of glass, dissipating into an explosion of blood and gore. Person one second, puddle the next. Even for a seasoned gore fan like myself, it’s almost too much. The dark humor shows up again when the Jaws of Life have the opposite effect. My second favorite kills involves a flying barb-wire fence dissecting a guy into four parts. The stunted look on his face is almost hilarious, even if the globs of flailing intestine aren't. The movie never quite tops those moments even if the hospital-set last act rolls along at a decent pace. The gore comedy mentality continues into the final scene, which features a severed limb falling in just the right spot.

And that’s why “Final Destination 2” is awesome. The death scenes are some of the wettest ever put to film and any mean spirit intentions are grinned away by the movie’s dark wit. That’s one of the reasons why three and four disappointed me so much. They returned to the dead serious tone of the first entry. Only five featured the same sick kills and gruesome humor. Hopefully the inevitable part six will continue that tradition. [7.5/10]

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 29

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
I wonder what hardcore fans (They must have existed) thought of this film when it was new. If “Jay and Silent Bob Meet Pinhead” or something similar was released today, you know the fandom would erupt into a shit storm. It was certainly a smart decision for Universal. The monsters were long in decline and Bud and Lou weren’t doing so hot at the box office either. Why not combine two flagging franchise and hope for the best?

It helps that “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” is genuinely funny. Costello’s build-in comic persona is perfect for a monster mash. His character is so oblivious of his surroundings that it becomes easy for him to stumble into crazy trouble. While his reactions start with bold cries for help, as the film goes on, they degrade into mumbled, helpless whimpers. Some things remain funny fifty years after the fact. Early highlights include Dracula’s coffin lid slowly opening and closing in reaction to Lou’s face. The film’s most famous scene is probably the sequence of the two guys running around the castle’s basement, flipping through a secret passageway, always just avoiding the creatures. A comparatively subtle gag near the end has the boys pushing a bed against a door, only for it to be revealed that the door actually opens in the opposite direction.

While the huge slapstick gags are the big cut-up moments, the comedians’ banter proves to be just as funny. The movie mines a lot of humor out of two different, beautiful women being interested in Lou. This causes a lot of jealousy on Bud’s behalf and he frequently asks to take one of the girl’s off his friend’s hands. This doesn’t go as well as he hoped. Of course, the root of the gag is that both ladies are only pursuing the fat guy out of ulterior motives. The straight man not initially believing his friend’s paranormal encounters would be drilled into the ground by the sequels, but the premise still provided a lot of sharp dialogue on the first go-around.

The movie stops shy of making fun of the monsters. Bud walks into Talbot’s apartment, unaware that the Wolfman is right behind him, narrowly avoiding getting slashed to death. The movie follows up on that scene during a forest chase where the werewolf is delayed by a tree branches. In the film’s only atmospheric scene, Bud stumbles upon the Frankenstein monster in a dark, foggy dungeon. None of the Monsters are in tip-top shape. Chaney is as sincere as always, trotting out Talbot’s threadbare nerves and suicidal panic for the umpteenth time. Jack Pierce’s handmade make-up gave way to rubber applications which is very noticeable. While I’ve got nothing against Glenn Strange as the monster, he’s easily the stiffest of all the actors to play the part. At least the film gives him more to do then the previous two outings. Bela Lugosi has aged a lot in the seventeen years between this film and the original “Dracula.” A wrinkly vampire is harder to take seriously, especially when his eyes are still so heavily focused on. Lugosi is allowed a little range here, playing a genial host and mad scientist a few times. It doesn’t exactly help that Dracula fits the mad scientist role a little awkwardly.

The monster purist in me can’t help but feel that Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman meet a somewhat unglamorous final fate here, this being their last canonical appearance. Of course, it’s the fate of all once genuinely frightening figures to eventual become the stuff of comedy. “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” is at least still very funny and treats the monsters respectfully. That’s more then some icons get. [7/10]


The Strange Door (1951)
By 1951, unless it was a comedy, Universal was seemingly done with the horror genre. The golden age of monster movies was long behind us. What passed for a horror movie from the studio at that time was something like “The Strange Door,” a period melodrama with minor horror overtones. It’s not a bad film taken on its own merits but I doubt it will satisfy any monster fans.

Based off a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, the film revolves around one of those convoluted revenge quests. An evil duke, played with over-the-top glee by Charles Laughton, has gone to great pains to torture a former friend. The reasoning behind this elaborate revenge? The guy stole the other guy’s girl. Bros before hoes obviously didn’t apply in the 1500s or whenever this is set. To further his revenge, the duke has chosen a hard-drinking, barroom brawling rapscallion to marry the prisoner’s beautiful daughter. The supporting subplots include a castle full of servants, among them Alan Napier, of Hammer horror and “Batman” fame, and a royal underling to Laughton who is not without guilt. While the captured man, the source of all this revenge, feigns insanity for the duke, his faithful manservant, Boris Karloff, is the only person who knows the truth.

“The Strange Door,” as far as swashbuckling action, royal romance, and castle atmosphere goes, does all right. The opening skirmish in the bar has some decent chandelier swinging, flint-lock firing action. The film’s best moment comes when Richard Stapley and Boris Karloff lay the smack down on a collection of castle guards, knocking them down a spiraling staircase. “Tower of London” had the same novelty of seeing the respected gentlemen of horror trading fisticuffs with random stunt men. Karloff’s performance, while not outside of his wheelhouse, is still pretty good. The heavy lids and shadows of his face play guilt and depression so well. The movie’s climax is when it feels the most like a horror film. Karloff, left for dead in a swamp, drags himself through the waters, the fog rolling overhead. The villain has placed our heroes in one of those shrinking, crushing room that only exist in old movies like this. Karloff confronts the villain, pushing him into the gears that run the machine. Surprisingly morbid stuff. The fog and the dark shadows of the dungeon make for good late night horror viewing.

The other strong aspect in “The Strange Door’s” favor is Charles Laughton’s performance as the baddy. Like many of Laughton’s villain roles, he goes way over the top, chewing the scenery with effortless glee. It’s a lot of fun to watch, especially the moment when he laughs hysterically while clenching the bars of a prison cell. Aside from Laughton and Karloff, the rest of the cast is less notable. Sally Forrest is beautiful as the love interest but the movie asks us to believe that two people who are designed never to fall in love actually fall in love with each other. None of the romantic scenes work. Generally, far too much of “The Strange Door” is composed of old British people talking in rooms. It’s ultimately not a bad film, with nice sets, okay atmosphere, and some fun performances. But it’s not much of a horror film. [6/10]


The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001)
Intentionally making a bad movie seems counterproductive. There have been a number of films over the years that spoof, make fun of, and play off of the low-budget sci-fi B-pictures of the fifties. Some are inspired, some are tedious. “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” which was made with the same budgets Ed Wood had minus inflation, falls on the entertaining side of that equitation, at least for me anyway.

The Ed Wood comparison is apt. Wood is notorious for his miniscule budgets and floppy, incoherent scripts. What actually makes his films preserve aren’t that we can laugh at their lousy production values and shitty scripts. Lots of movies nobody care about have that. What makes his films memorable was Wood’s ear for surreal, oddly quotable dialogue. “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” has a fantastic understanding of that. It’s fair to say the movie’s primary comedic device is the oddball, awkward, frequently hilarious dialogue. “Sometimes my wife forgets she is not a space alien.” “I’ve seen bears do things… Things a bear wouldn’t even do.” “Even as a child, I was always hated by skeletons.” And on and on. This is one of those films were visiting its IMDb quote page before watching it will ruin the fun. (But, in all likelihood, you probably will want to visit that page afterwards.) Unlike say, “Alien Trespass,” the filmmakers also had a grip on the pacing, style, and tone of those fifties B-movies, right down to lag at the end of the second act. The camera hangs onto scenes just a second longer then it should. Music cues cut wildly between scenes. Handheld close-ups are used whenever the monster is about. Clearly this was made by fans. The filmmakers weren’t just making fun of unconvincing special effects or visible wires. (Though it does that a few times as well.) They were trying to replicate the off-kilter tone of the time period and genre. The plot wildly masses together story elements from “It Came From Outer Space,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Invaders from Mars,” “The Blob,” “I Married a Monster from Outer Space,” “Plan 9,” in actuality some of the best films of the era. The score is composed solely of library music.

The movie is generally just fun. In a post-“Avatar” world, naming phlebotinum “Atmospherium” really doesn’t sound any worse then “Unobtainium.” The cast is amazingly game. Andrew Parks and Susan McConnel as the alien couple go for broke as far as physical comedy go. Their uniformly stiff posture and unblinking gazes never disguise for a minute that they are aliens, which is obviously the joke. I especially love how they “bend themselves in half” whenever sitting. Brian Howe as the mad scientist is especially hilarious, with his love-hate relationship with the Lost Skeleton. Jennifer Blaire, providing some decent eye-candy in a skintight body suit, has a lot of fun as Animala, carrying an interesting body language and pronouncing her lines in just an unusual enough way. The whole cast carries the film astonishingly well. The best character isn’t actually played by an actor. I love the Lost Skeleton. His booming psychic voice makes some of the simplest lines hilarious. “I sleep now!” There’s a deadpan to the monotone that makes the more absurd moments even funnier, most notably his passive-aggressive relationship with the mad doctor that brings him to life. (“Stop that giggling. It makes me uncomfortable.”)

Not all the gags work. The scene where numerous characters are giving Betty the housewife psychic suggestions goes on too long. Generally, the repeated gag of people laughing until they stop is repeated one time too many. The scenes of Betty and Paul sharing lunch with the aliens inside their ship is also a victim of the film’s intentionally static pacing. Still, “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” squeezes enough hearty laughs into its short run time to certainly make it worth your while. Always agree. [7/10]