Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Zack Clopton's 2016 Film Retrospective

“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.  Grab them by...

ZACK CLOPTON'S 2016 FILM RETROSPECTIVE!!!

2016 was a massive dumpster fire, personally and publicly. In America, it was a year characterized by a shit show of an election, which concluded with America electing a racist, sociopathic, clearly unqualified bag of orange dog shit president. Abroad, there was war and terror and global misalignment. A staggering number of creative, beloved people died and I'm counting my grandmother in that number. I was suffering from emotional burnout for at least seven, probably more, months out of the year.

I feel like Film Thoughts suffered from my bad mood. Looking at the numbers, I still posted more this year then in any prior year. Assuming you count my Harry Potter retrospective in November, I completed eight Report Cards, my best number since Film Thoughts' inception, in addition to several month long events. I launched a new feature in April, called No Encores. However, I personally feel like I let you guys down, as I didn't keep up with my other features throughout the year. At this point, all I can do is promise to do better in 2017.

I know we're all eager to move on but I have to look back one more time. At the movies, you see. For, as huge of a shit burger as this previous year was, the cinema still remain fairly strong. A number of films surprised me with how much I loved them. Even the disappointments usually held up to a baseline quality. It wasn't a great year for blockbusters but I dug up plenty of indie flicks to love.

In keeping with 2016 sucking, my yearly average of total new releases watched was the lowest it's been in two years. I topped out with 80. This is hugely disappointing for me but, I suppose, that's still a lot of hours wasted. Below is THE LIST, ranking every new release I saw in 2016 from most favorite to most hated. I worked hard on this so read it, goddamn it.










FOUR STARS:

1. Darling
A triumph of tone and a display for Lauren Ashley Carter. Her unforgettable eyes convey astonishing emotion. Her unraveling makes an ideal center of “Darling’s” storm. The black-and-white photography puts you in an exaggerated dream world. The editing is broken glass harsh, the sound design stark. The deliberate ambiguity immerses the viewer in this unsettling world.

2. Trash Fire
Richard Bates Jr. returns to his favorite subjects: Dysfunctional families, deviant sexuality, physical deformity. Add a dollop of religious repression and you've got a damn work of genius. The script walks a fine line, keeping the characters' caustic without making them unlikable. The cast is uniformly excellent while the story takes some genuinely shocking turns. See it!

3. Swiss Army Man
For all its bizarre humor – much of which is hilariously absurd and agreeably scatological – the film eventually reveals itself as a fable about the value of life, the power of friendship, and the difference between who we really are and what we want to be. Add two disarmingly charming lead performances and a brilliantly creative, homemade outlook to make a future cult classic.

4. The Handmaiden
Each perspective change takes you deeper into the film's world, the twisting tale constantly re-contextualizing its own events. Themes of class division and complicated thoughts on erotica serve a story ultimately about two bad-ass women besting those that oppress them. Brilliantly fluid direction and an impish sense of humor tie together a great cinematic experience.

5. The Neon Demon
Refn makes his point about modeling. Fanning's virtuous heroine absorbs its vile philosophies. This surface obsessed industry will consume those it desires. But it's an awfully pretty movie, often abandoning narrative for searing visuals. Within the symmetrical world, grotesque violence is introduced. This contrast with the attractive surface, showing ugliness lurking beneath beauty.

6. Green Room
A blood soaked punk rock thrill ride. Even the early scenes have a jittery unease, before the situation constantly escalates. The violence is brutal but blunt, the gore shocking the audience. Anton Yelchin panics well, Imogeen Poots is dryly sarcastic, and Patrick Stewart calmly orders executions. Through the unrelenting intensity, Saulnier sneaks in moments of humor or pathos.

7. The Nice Guys
Shane Black makes the most of the seventies setting, rolling together the environmental movement, porno chic, and, hilariously, anxieties about Richard Nixon and killer bees. The dialogue is highly quotable and hilarious, delivered by two great actors at the top of their games. Watching the plot unfold is so much fun, the film finding new ways to surprise and entertain us.

8. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika pushes its house style to new levels, creating a visually immersive masterpiece. The film overflows with creative ideas, from dancing paper and giant eyeballs to leaf boats and monster skeletons. Beginning as a fantasy rich legend, it evolves into a fable about how we tell stories to keep our loved ones alive. It also, surprisingly, features some of the best action scenes of the year.

9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Ricky Baker is one of the break-out characters of the year, the center of this absolutely charming road trip movie. The film successfully switches genres – low-key comedy to backwoods adventure to chase picture – while staying hilarious throughout, finding new ways to make the viewer laugh. A consistently funny cast finalizes what is sure to be a future cult classic.

10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Absolutely the most fun I had in a movie theater all year. The superior sequel ditches the lame stuff from the first one, keeps what was good, and features amusingly over-the-top action.
Most importantly, it finally brings long awaited elements from the cartoon – Bebop and Rocksteady, the Technodrome, motherfucking Krang! - to the big screen.










THREE AND A HALF STARS:

11. Deadpool
Say what you will about the Deadpool character but this movie perfectly captures him. This is the part Ryan Reynolds was born to play. The action scenes are creative while the script benefits from a tighter focus. The film is packed start-to-finish with hilarious lines and scenarios. That chaotic humor characterizes the entire film, a hugely entertaining experience.

12. Elle
Michele is a very complicated character, as is the movie around her. She doesn't respond to her assault as a passive victim but rather a fully formed person, complex and thoughtful. Paul Verhoven directs the attack scenes with the brutality you'd expect of him, contrasting with the grace with which he makes the rest of the film.

13. The Monster
Extremely intense creature feature, putting two vulnerable characters into an increasingly bad situation. The pitch black direction helps up the suspense. The beast is primarily brought to life through practical effects, making it a visceral threat. The two lead performances root the viewer emotionally, making this as much a story about parenthood as a claustrophobic monster movie.

14. Zootopia
“Zootopia” has lots of laughs, great lead characters, some thrills, a few surprises, great animation, and a timely moral about the ways prejudice pushes us apart.. It's a buddy cop movie of sorts, the strong-willed bunny and the conman fox learning to love one another, with a surprisingly involving mystery. The titular city is an impressive creation.

15. Wiener-Dog
Themes about death, choice, and belonging wind through all four segments. Solondz’ script alternates between cruel and his impish sense of humor. Such as a hilarious intermission. The deeply ironic humor stands side-by-side with probing questions about the futility of existence. Yet his empathy for the suffering of damaged humans – and innocent dogs – grounds the stories.

16. Moana
An almost archetypal story of a princess rebelling against tradition, that leans a little too hard on Chosen One cliches, but is a lot of fun, beautifully animated, wonderfully performed, with some great songs. Maui is a lovable creation, hiding his insecurities behind a boisterous personality. Jemaine Clement as a glam rock crab monster is the clear highlight of the movie for me.

17. Star Trek Beyond
Returns “Trek” to its pulpy adventure roots. Focuses on characters and makes the smart decision to pair off most of the pivotal cast members, including Scotty with Sofia Boutella's exciting Jaylah. The villain's motivation is a bit contrived. The action direction is shaky at first but eventually makes way for some of the best ship battles in the franchise's history.

18. Emelie
Disturbing thriller that heads in increasingly creepy directions. The viewer is forced to watch, seasick, as another unnerving event happens. Sarah Bolger plays an eerily plausible sociopath while Joshua Rush is endearingly tough. The script packs the runtime full of memorable struggles and sickening reveals. This clever streak runs out before the end but I still enjoyed this one a lot.

19. I Am Not a Serial Killer
The less you know about this moody YA adaptation, the better. There's a big shock about a half-hour in that totally caught me off-guard. Max Records is a fascinatingly conflicted protagonist while Christopher Lloyd is both surprisingly scary and deeply sympathetic as the villain. The tension builds nicely throughout the film, to a low-key ending that still feels earned.

20. The Bronze
Hope Ann Greggory may be my favorite new character of the year. A foul-mouth, obnoxious, woman-child, the film clearly outlines the root of her anti-social antics, making the audience relate to her plight. Her vulgar dialogue is highly quotable and her bad behavior is frequently amusing. The addition of a great supporting cast and an unforgettable sex scene seals the deal.

21. Finding Dory
Seeing these characters again is delightful and the film is packed full of belly laughs. The new additions are equally lovable, especially the neurotic septopus. For an animated comedy, this is really tightly plotted with some satisfyingly big action set pieces. Because this is Pixar, there's also an equal amount of touching emotion.

22. Doctor Strange
Oh sure, the Marvel formula is present. The protagonist is a humbled asshole. The villain is forgettable, even with a talented actor in the role. Sequel hooks are overdone. Who cares? The cast is great, especially the perfect Cumberbatch and Swinson. The trippy visuals are a joy and the conclusion puts an interesting spin on the traditional showdown between good and evil.

23. Shin Godzilla
The strangest Godzilla movie yet, as much a satire about bureaucratic oversight as a giant monster movie. The pacing is odd, cutting between long talky sequences and scenes of massive destruction. Godzilla’s appearance is grotesque, staggeringly strong. Hideki Anno's direction is characterized by a documentary like urgency. A fascinating, powerful, at times frustrating film.

24. They Look Like People
Horror indie that puts the viewer into the brain of a schizophrenic, crafting foreboding voices and an enveloping, unnerving paranoia. When the explicit horror sequences appear, they're suitably disturbing. The funny lead performances cause the audience to become invested in the story. The “Is it or isn't it?” ending builds in intensity and leads to a surprisingly concrete ending.

25. Tower
By combining interviews with survivors and reenactments, this documentary helps the viewer understand what living through the Charles Whitman shooting must be like. The re-telling playing out in nearly real time contributes to this intense feeling. The animated approach adds a surreal layer, emphasizing how awful this event felt as it was happening.

26. X-Men: Apocalypse
Maybe the most comic book-y comic book movie yet made. It has the massive stakes and massive cast of a major crossover event. Despite the apocalypse promised in its title, the film maintains a free-wheeling sense of fun, constantly topping its previous huge set pieces.










THREE STARS:

27. Under the Shadow
Iranian horror flick that does the jump scare right, by building up a suitable atmosphere of dread and never revealing too much. It's not just the shadow the main character lives under but the tension of being in a war zone and stifling religious repression. This gives the monster at the center greater meaning, which is further supported by clever effects and good performances.

28. Hangman
Found footage horror flicks may be played out but this one is genuinely spooky. It directly comments on surveillance state concerns that most films just hint at. The acting from the observed family is effectively naturalistic. The killer is incredibly creepy, displaying some very disturbing behavior. The directors cook up some very unnerving scenarios.

29. 10 Cloverfield Lane
By deconstructing the “cozy apocalypse” genre, the viewer and characters question if they can trust Howard, before it’s reveal how unsafe he is. Winstead shows a real steel and on-her-feet ingenuity. Goodman is simultaneously avuncular, unstable, and sympathetic. Tension builds throughout, through board games and bunker doors, before an ending that catches you off-guard.

30. De Palma
Nearly two hours of Brian De Palma talking about his life, career, and his movies. And it's awesome. The director frankly discusses his successes, his failures, his influences, his divisive reputation among critics, his run-ins with censors, and some surprising insight into his personal life. Through it out, De Palma emerges as a self-aware, funny, down-to-earth kind of guy.

31. Pete’s Dragon
A real tearjerker, that approaches its story with a calm, understanding eye. The result is a story about growth and love,  Refreshingly, there's no real villains in the story, only people too wrapped up in their own bias. Most importantly, Elliot is a super lovable dragon and a beautifully convincing special effect.

32. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusader
Adam and Burt sound a little tired but this captures the spirit of the TV show well. The in-jokes – cameos from multiple Catwomen, call-outs to future iterations of Batman – are hilarious. The plot is the right kind of ridiculous, allowing for cameos from multiple villains and giving Adam West a chance to ham it up even more. Not all the jokes hit but, overall, this is really fun.

33. Siren
Expansion of the best segment from “V/H/S” has some interesting ideas, like the Satanic nightclub and memory-sucking leeches. The visual effects of the siren's song or a sequence without sound are inventive. Mostly, I liked how the film made its monster sympathetic without compromising her monstrous nature.  Could've done without that epilogue though...

34. Holy Hell
Fascinating documentary about a cult made by former cult members. The film runs you through the experience: The infatuation with a spiritual leader. The joy of communal living. The slow realization that this man is a liar. The exit following sexual abuse allegations. The people who were there tell the tale, drawing the audience into a very strange, ultimately traumatic experience.

35. The Witch
A fantastic overall tone of dread and fear is generated. The director has an amazing grasp of tension. Several individual sequences, involving unfortunate babies or crows, are terrifying. The ending raises some tantalizing questions. However, I'm not sure it holds together as a whole. This one will require a second viewing. Black Phillip was awesome though.

36. The Corpse of Anna Fritz
Grisly Brazilian thriller that, by killing off its most reasonable character first, leaves the audience in a morally uncertain area. Who do you root for? The unrepentant rapist or the slightly remorseful rapist? A number of tense scenarios follow, the title character nearly escaping her captives several time. The shock ending features a blunt but totally appropriate action. 

37. Sausage Party
Consistently produces chuckles and is occasionally hysterical. The film primarily has three jokes up its sleeve: An unending vulgar streak, which is sometimes amusing; absurd pop culture parody, which is often hilarious; and a crass satire of religion and cultural stereotypes, which is hit or miss. It’s uneven but worth it for the musical number, the orgy, and the Meat Loaf cameo.

38. Antibirth
Effectively captures the constantly stoned or drunk headspace of its characters. The increasingly nasty body horror is nicely gross, even if the more surreal attempts at horror don't quite succeed. The work of the lead actresses, especially a gleefully profane Natasha Lyonne and Meg Tilly, bring a lot of humor the proceedings. The plot is nonsense though the ending is enjoyably nuts.

39. Southbound
Each new segment in this horror anthology is better then the one before it. The grisly, hospital set black comedy is my favorite, along with the “girl band versus sitcom Satanists” story and concluding home invasion sequence. Patrick Horvath's “Jailbreak” has its moments but lacks a clear direction. The opening tale has some solid effects but not too much else going for it.

40. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
A “Star Wars” movie that emphasizes the war, tackling some complex themes while still delivering on blockbuster expectations. Lovable supporting characters like a wheezy Forest Whitaker, a warrior monk, or a sarcastic droid are more interesting then the flat protagonists.
It also clears up a long standing plot hole in the original.

41. Edge of Winter
Conceptually, this is great. The conflict between the redneck father and the sensitive son discusses the ways masculinity has changed. Joel Kinnaman is sympathetic but still dangerous as the unhinged father. All of this makes it a bummer that the script is so predictable, that the story escalates in such obvious ways. But, hey, a third of a good movie is still something notable.
 
42. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Yes, some fantastic beasts are on display. Sequences devoted to the interior of a magical suitcase, a horny rhino monster, or a size-shifting feathered serpent are the film's best. They're certainly more interesting then the generic evil wizard or the CGI destruction storm. Eddie Redmanye’s acting is as obnoxiously showy as ever but a lovable supporting cast makes up for a lot.

43. Tallulah
Uneven dramedy anchored by some great performances. Ellen Page is funny and melancholic, while Allison Janney provides reasonable banter. Watching the titular character enter bad situations and try to lie her way out begins as humorous but quickly becomes desperately sad. The film is powerful if a little scattershot, which the overly vague ending is a symptom of.

44. The Shallows
Preposterous thriller that features a psycho shark, an easily predictable character arc about survival, melodramatic direction, and a ridiculous climax. This isn’t a problem as the film quickly hooks the viewer. The shark makes an awesome adversary. The attacks are viscerally composed. Throw in an animal sidekick named Steven Seagull and you’ve got a pleasantly thrilling flick.

45. Captain America: Civil War
There's a dozen major characters. Several are prominent newcomers, such as a pitch-perfect Spider-Man, a contrivted Black Panther, and a super lame take on Baron Zemo. Not to mention the Accords subplot, which is mostly besides the point. The ending is too clever for tits own good. Yes, the cast remains awesome and the action scenes, especially that airport fight, are cool.

46. Nina Forever
This one runs with the metaphor of an undying relationship in a more sophisticated way then previous “zombie girlfriend” movies. The cruelness and grisliness of the dead girl is played up, as is how kinky a zombie will make your sex life. The meaning wanders off before the end but a handful of powerful scenes, clarifying the theme of grief, tie the movie together.

47. Elvis & Nixon
Interestingly, neither the main actors go out of their way to mimic the historical duo. Instead, Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey are allowed to weird it up as two of America's most surreal figures. The movie doesn't have much else going for it – the script is a wisp, the supporting characters are shadows – but two lovable performers having fun is sometimes all you need.

48. The Night Stalker
Can't quite shake its TV movie roots and the protagonist's kinky sex subplot is unnecessary. As a doorway into Richard Ramirez' mind, it's interesting and bolstered by an excellent Lou Diamond Phillips performance. (And a surprisingly sincere portrayal of Satanism.) The film eventually circles around to a powerful point about the power of influence in our lives.

49. Blair Witch
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett grasps the scariest thing about the original – getting lost in the woods – and add lots more temporal displacement, gnarly gore, a fantastically claustrophobic sequence, and more likable characters. The film eventually overdoes the stick people and shows too much in its last act but this is a fine Hollywood boo show and a worthy sequel.

50. Ghostbusters
Takes a while to find its comedic rhythm. Wiig and McCarthy are fine but the supporting players shine. Kate McKinnon has a comedic energy all her own. Leslie Jones strikes me as the break-out talent. Chris Hemsworth plays an exceedingly eccentric simpleton. The ghosts look amazing. Slimer gets a girlfriend. Paul Feig’s direction is ill suited to an effects driven film.

51. Into the Forest
Survivalist drama that focuses on small but vivid character interaction and an acute sense of isolated atmosphere. Rachel Leigh Cook and Ellen Page's performances are thoughtful. The very slow pace hinders the film, making the bigger dramatic moments seem almost random. The final act reveals this as a feminist allegory, about escaping a crumbling, sexist society.

52. Hardcore Henry
As a series of high impact action scenes, this is initially and periodically thrilling, though eventually exhausting. The humor helps, especially a campy performance from Sharlto Copley. The unimportant plot is either satirizing video game cliches – including the misogyny – or playing them straight, depending on how much credit you're willing to give the filmmakers.

53. Sun Choke
Compellingly strange story about obsession, madness, and new age medicine. I wish the film exclusively focused on the bizarre relationship between Barbara Crampton as the abusive nurse and Sarah Hagan as the ill girl. Their scenes prove more compelling then _'s descent into abstract, overly vague craziness. There are still some effectively squirmy sequences of horror though.

54. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Director Osgood Perkins creates a foreboding tone, making the film a compelling exercise in mood. Ruth Wilson's lead performance is fittingly twitchy. The voice over provides an appropriately novel-like feel, the film clearly getting at the interaction between reality and fiction. But I have no clue what the fuck any of it means and the pace is far too mellow.

55. The Blackout Experiments
Documentary about an extreme “horror attraction” that is more like a cross between elaborate performance art and a BDSM session. The interviews with “survivors” attempt to unravel the power of catharsis over trauma, even if you're mostly left wondering why anyone would subject themselves to simulated torture. The peaks into the Blackout experience are bracing though.

56. Justice League vs. Teen Titans
Watching the dynamics among the Titans is the most entertaining thing about this one, which is overall pretty forgettable. The script cheats, as you'd expect, to get to that titular fight but, like most of the action here, it's fun while it lasts. As hard as the story tries, it can't overcome Damian Wayne's inherent dickishness. That sequel hook is pretty inciting though.










TWO AND A HALF STARS:

57. Camino
Sticking Zoe Bell in a survival thriller was a smart idea, even if her transformation from victim to bad ass strains credibility. When focused on the violent, prolonged confrontations, the film meets its goals. However, the script eventually falls into a repetitive pattern, the musical score is distracting, and the artier touches seem disconnected from the rest of the film.

58. The Eyes of My Mother
Gorgeous black-and-white photography props up an intermittently interesting psychological horror narrative. While the stark sound design sometimes produces chills, the distant approach ultimately alienates the viewer. The glimpses we get into the deranged protagonist's mind are fascinating, as is the gnarly gore, but the shrug of a conclusion leads to a weak ending.

59. Lights Out
Expanding a short into a feature is tricky. The short’s visual gimmick is grafted it to a populist ghost story narrative. Sandberg stretches his techniques to their breaking point. It also struggles to build a mythology out of nothing. Diana's shadowy behavior is clearly a metaphor for mental illness. Any comment the film might have about how depression is decidedly shallow.

60. Suicide Squad
The narrative problems are serious. the pacing is all over the place, the visuals are ugly, and the soundtrack is intrusive.. Joker and Harley's relation playing out as a straight-up romance is hopelessly fucked up. Cast is decent, the action is solid, I laughed and had some fun. At the very least, it's better then “Batman v. Superman.”

61. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Filters a number of popular ideas through Tim Burton’s sensibilities, drowning them in gothic atmosphere and quirky humor. Yet all the spooky touches, like stop motion skeletons, couldn’t disguise the stock parts script. Asa Butterfield is a snore. Eva Green displays a rakish smile but disappears midway through. Most of the peculiar children are just gimmicks.

62. Midnight Special
Beginning this chase story in the middle was a smart way to draw the audience in. Sadly, and despite the very talented cast, the characters prove too thin to be compelling. As the script shifts its focus from the cult to the boy's increasingly vague abilities, the audience's interest starts to drift. Some exciting visuals draw you back by the end, yet “Midnight Special” remains uneven.

63. The Jungle Book
Unlike previous live action adaptations of Disney cartoons, this does something different. The film features many of the flaws common in blockbusters – a “chosen one” story arc, over-reliance on CGI, distracting handheld direction, a sequel ready open-ending – but inspired casting choices, like Christopher Walken as King Louie and Bill Murray as Baloo, makes this worth seeing.

64. Phantasm: Ravager
Despite attempts to re-center the franchise around the fear of death, this is ultimately disappointing. Dangling plot points are awkwardly wrapped up. The mythology is briefly built upon but another sequel hook is in place of a definitive ending. Watching Reggie screw around and fight monsters will always be fun. But “Ravager” can’t stand up against fan expectations.

65. Last Girl Standing
I was with this horror indie, which discusses PTSD through a slasher film metaphor, up until its final twenty minutes. Before then, I appreciated the performances and the patient pacing, even if the attempts at horror movie shocks are undercooked. That twist cheapens the meaning of everything that came before and is mildly insulting to survivors.










TWO STARS:

66. Hush
The brilliant premise – a deaf/mute woman stalked by a Michael Myers-like killer – is quickly reduced to a gimmick, only being utilized in a few scenes. Director Mike Flannigan spoils this by having the killer reveal his face and talk. Which makes this a mildly compelling thriller about two strong personalities fighting. The performances are fine but the story quickly gets repetitive.

67. The Conjuring 2
Another handsomely produced James Wan ghost fest. He ramps the jump scares, loud noises, and spooky kids way the fuck up, This means genuine scares, sudden Crooked Man appearances aside, are rarely found. Aside from the Warren  rhapsodizing and Catholic propaganda, it's also way too long. The atmosphere is okay but this is passable horror fare, at best.

68. Carnage Park
An extended act in homage that starts strong but eventually becomes directionless. The gore is impressive but, once the bank robbers get capped, this becomes an endless chase flick. While I enjoy Ashley Bell's performance, far too much of the film is devoted to her wandering the desert. The climax takes place in total darkness, leaving the viewer shrugging.

69. The Mind’s Eye
Low budget riff on “Scanners” that compensates for its lack of scope with an abundance of cheap gore. I appreciate the colorful direction and synth-driven score. The cast is loaded full of talented performers but the characters are thin and the lead actor is a bore. The script has few ideas, beginning as a chase story before becoming a series of repetitive fight scenes.

70. Regression
If you're familiar with the facts surrounding the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria, you can guess this one's twist ending. The repeated nightmare sequences are mildly effective but quickly loose their punch. The performances are hammy, even from usually reliable actors. All together, this is the text book definition of an underachieving, pseudo-intellectual thriller.

71. Don’t Breathe
The script uses the impoverished setting as dour window dressing on a standard genre story. The teen antiheroes’ behavior is excused and the blind man is one-dimensional, Stephen Lang giving an odd performance. Alvarez can set up a decent jump scare, involving a tenacious Rottweiler or cracking glass, but that’s all this surprisingly vapid jump scare machine has going for it.

72. Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Essentially, the film has its two heroes acting foolishly in order to make that titular fight happen.
Superman is self-loathing, Batman is a sociopath. Wonder Woman is cool but she's barely in it. Lex Luthor is obviously insane. Zack Snyder made this so it's dour, ponderous, sloppily plotted, misses the point of its source material, and is more concerned with cool visuals then reason.

73. The Invitation
I have no problem with slow burn horror but this takes forever to get to the point. The cast is too large, making it impossible to care about the characters or the theme of moving past loss. You can't get involved with the slowly bubbling tension for the same reason. The attack scenes, when they finally come, are satisfying but get capped off with a huge “fuck you” of an ending.

74. 31
A distillation of Rob Zombie’s style. He piles on the profane dialogue, white trash grotesquery, inane shock tactics, and in-your-face crassness. This is a bummer, as the film does feature a decent cast, including a disturbing Richard Brake performance. Add some obnoxious shaky-cam direction and a needlessly nihilistic ending to get a lame, deeply unpleasant viewing experience.

75. Nine Lives
Well, I laughed exactly once. Which was one more laugh then I was expecting. Yes, this is exactly as dire as you'd expect. It's mostly unfunny CGI cat antics with a bored sounding Kevin Spacey reading puns over them. The “selfish businessman learns to appreciate his family” is as cliched as can be and takes an off-puttingly morbid turn in the last act.










ONE AND A HALF STARS:

76. Cell
“Cell” presents its zombies in a ridiculous manner. They seize, gyrate, and release bizarre audio feedback sounds. How the zombies act shift from scene to scene. The climax borders on incoherent. It squanders more-or-less all the potential its premise has and doesn’t give a talented cast nearly enough to do. Instead, the movie quickly collapses into goofiness and clich├ęs.

77. Holidays
One of the few anthologies were every single segment is a stinker. Like too many indie horror films of this type, several of the shorts are weird for weird's sake. Most of them, like Kevin Smith's pathetic Halloween segment, have little to do with their chosen holidays. The few that come close to being decent – Father's Day, Christmas – blow it with underwhelming endings.

ONE STAR:

78. Aimy in a Cage
Meet Aimy, the year's most annoying new character. She spends the entire movie screaming her head off and being as obnoxious as possible. The rest of the movie is as in-your-face with its excessive weirdness and abrasive writing. Yeah, the set design and music are kind of interesting but that in no ways justifies the headache you'll get. The shit I watch for Crispin Glover, I swear...

79. Yoga Hosers
Whoever introduced Kevin Smith to pot needs a kick in the balls. The script combines a bunch of haphazard bullshit: Phone-obsessed protagonists who talk in obnoxious teen lingo, tired Canada jokes, incredibly annoying villains, random Satanists, painfully unfunny celebrity impersonations, yoga fighting, mean-spirited critic bashing, and an utterly nonsensical last act.

HALF A STAR:

80. The Greasy Strangler
Sets out to be the most aesthetically unpleasant film ever and largely succeeds. All the disgusting antics – grotesque nudity, close-ups of bodily byproducts – are in service only of obnoxious cringe comedy. The constant repetition of dialogue and intentionally wooden acting is as nearly stomach turning. But congratulations to the filmmakers for meeting in their simpering goal.

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Well, it's over now. Both the year and this retrospective, I mean. I know these lists are very long and, as always, I graciously thank anyone who has read through the entire thing.  Words can't begin to describe how thankful I am for everyone who reads what I write or listens to what I say on my podcasts. Thank you all so much for being one of the things about 2016 that didn't blow utter chunks.

As has become the tradition by now, come back tomorrow for a list of the films I'm most anticipating in 2017. See you on the other side, dear readers.

Friday, December 30, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)


When Disney acquired Lucas Films a while ago, the Mouse Factory made its intentions clear from the beginning. They were going to get the most out of that billion dollars they spent. In addition to the sequel trilogy, the studio was going to make an apparently endless number of spin-off films. While movies revolving around fan favorites like Yoda or Boba Fett were rumored, the first of these so-called anthology films was destined to be “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The proposition of working in the “Star Wars” universe was apparently enough to lure Gareth Edwards away from one dream gig – the “Godzilla” sequel – to another. While some wondered if there was enough public interest in the non-Skywalker corners of George Lucas' universe, the box office receipts for “Rogue One” suggests Disney will be making these spin-off movies for a while.

Beginning weeks before “A New Hope,” Edwards' film follows the band of Rebellion soldiers who retrieved the plans for the Death Star, making the heroic campaign shown in Episode IV possible. The Alliance seeks Jyn Erso, the daughter of a scientist who has been kidnapped by the Empire to build a planet destroying weapon. Jyn is used to contact Saw Gerera, a Rebel extremist who has kidnapped a defecting Empire pilot carrying an important message. The message is from Jyn's father. He has built a secret, intentional flaw into this Death Star, giving the Alliance a chance to destroy the massive weapon. (This neatly clears up a long lingering plot hole in the original film.) Jyn, joining forces with a ragtag group of rebels, attempts to deliver this message to the Alliance's strongest fighters before the Empire destroys them.

The biggest benefit of the “Star Wars” anthology series is allowing filmmakers to play in this universe without being beholden to the franchise rules. We could get “Star Wars” movies in different genres, with less uncertain outcomes and more complex characters. “Rogue One” is, for example, a “Star Wars” movie that emphasizes the war. It shows the rebellion against the Empire from the perspective of the grunts in the trenches. Lives are lost. Loyalties are uncertain. Some characters are atoning for their crimes, as Jyn carries the weight of her father's actions. While hope is repeatedly mentioned as the film's theme, sacrifice strikes me as the more pertinent idea. Perhaps the hope stems from those willing to put their lives on the line to save millions more.

In his previous films, “Monsters” and “Godzilla,” Gareth Edwards showed an impressive visual sense. Edwards is excellent at placing elaborate CGI special effects in extra-wide frames. He shoots from the ground up, towards towering giants or outstretched landscapes. This visual sense is well utilized in “Rogue One.” An early shot shows Imperial troopers walking across a wide field of blowing glass. Later, a fleet of AT-ATs break through the fog, not unlike the MUTOs in “Godzilla.” These same tendencies make Edwards an ideal pick for “Rogue One,” a film set in a fantastic universe that focuses on grounded, ordinary individuals.

“Rogue One” shares many of the strengths of “Godzilla” but some of the flaws too. As in Edwards' kaiju epic, the most interesting characters tend to occupy the supporting roles. This isn't necessary a knock against Felicity Jones or Diego Luna. Jones has a brassy strength while also doing well during the emotional scenes. Luna, meanwhile, is good at inserting humor during some of the film's most intense sequences. Yet the supporting cast still proves the most interesting. Forest Whitaker layers his performance with wheezes and twitches but remains singularly sinister. Alan Tudyk practically steals the film as K-2SO, a sarcastic droid who doesn't make his resentment of humanity any secret.

Disney has prided itself on the diversity in “Rogue One's” casting. This is, after all, a big budget tent pole release starring a woman. A Mexican, black, Pakistani, and two Chinese actors fill the other major roles. The last two are of particular interest to me. Donnie Yen, long established as one of the biggest Hong Kong action stars, finally seems like he's breaking through to the American market with this one. He plays Chirrut, a blind swordsman-style mystic who prides himself on his bond with the Force. It's a good fit for Yen, showing his quiet humor, monk-like grace, and aptitude for ass-kicking. Jiang Wen is equally impressive as Baze Malbus, Chirrut's platonic life partner. Unlike his warrior monk friend, Baze prefers a massive machine gun. Wen plays off of Yen excellently, the pointed but friendly banter between the two being a high-light of the film.

As an action movie, “Rogue One” doesn't disappoint either. Edwards emphasizes the war movie tone with an early battle on a desert planet. It's a close-quarters fight, taking places between tight corridors. The audience feels the impact of the explosions, as insurgents stumble off walkways and blast through walls. The second big action scene takes place in a downpour. The constant rain helps up the tension for what is ultimately a stand-off. That build-up pays off nicely, amid bombings and dying confessions. The film's entire latter half is set on Scarif, the tropical planet containing the Death Star plans. It's an effective climax, with a compelling climb up a tower as its key sequence. Yet the men on the ground, fighting and dying, center the big conflict.

Another reason the “Star Wars” anthology series is an exciting proposition for long time fans is that it allows us to revisit characters we haven't seen in a while. “Rogue One” features brief cameos from C-P30, Walrus Man, and Admiral Ackbar's entire race. Somewhat controversially, Disney hasn't even let the boundaries of death and age keep them from using certain characters. Yes, Peter Cushing has been, somewhat appropriately, Frankensteined back to life. While the CGI used to recreate Moff Tarkin is eerily convincing, Disney weirdly didn't get a pitch perfect sound-alike. Most prominently, “Rogue One” gives “Star Wars” fans something they've been wanting to see for years: Darth Vader, being a bad-ass and tearing shit up. I suspect the gratuitous Vaderation at the end might have been the result of a reshoot, as it occurs after the story is essentially over. But there's no denying that it's an immensely satisfying sequence of brutal violence.

Some have been happy to declare “Rogue One” superior to “The Force Awakens.” Some have even called it the best “Star Wars” movie since “The Empire Strikes Back.” I think it's too early for sweeping declarations like that. However, it has been quite some time since the series has attempted to tackle complex themes, while still delivering on blockbuster expectations. Gareth Edwards is getting good at that, even if weak protagonists continue to be an issue of his. Ambitious, occasionally powerful, and uniformly well made, “Rogue One” certainly exceeds any expectations. [7/10]

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2016) Part 2


55. Moana

When it comes to Disney's Animated Features, I'm a traditionalist. I like it when the studio tackles fairy tales and princesses, with lots of songs and dances. So I met the announcement of “Moana” with excitement. Applying the Disney Princess formula to Polynesian mythology was an interesting idea, even if it was hardly the first time the studio set a film in Hawaii. The world of gods and monsters potentially provided new opportunities for the Mouse Factory. And while I'll always miss hand-drawn animation, I knew all that water was going to look pretty in the studio's signature CG style. Does the film live up to my expectations?

Set long ago in the Hawaiian islands, “Moana” follows the titular young girl. Her father hopes Moana will become the chief of her community. The girl, on the other hand, wishes to become a sailor. Her community has lived on this island for years. The villagers rarely sail beyond the reef that surrounds the land mass, fearing the wild ocean too much. Soon, a strange disease grips the lands and seas. The fruit rots on the vine. The nets bring up no fish. Moana believes that an ancient prophecy, involving legendary demi-god Maui and destructive volcano deity Te Ki, is the key to solving this problem. When she disobeys dad and sets sail, she discovers how right she is. Now, Maui and Moana most put aside their differences to save the island.

I'm not the only one fond of Disney's well-trotted formula. “Moana” is an almost archetypal story of a princess rebelling against tradition. The titular character is comparable to previous princesses, like Jasmine, Ariel, and Mulan. As in those films, Moana's father insist she follow a traditional path. He wants her to stay in a secure location. The girl, on the other hand, has other ideas. She sneaks away and heads out on a journey. Moana's dad nearly recreates the sequence of King Triton destroying Ariel's secret collection, when he threatens to burn the boats Moana has discovered. Like Belle, Moana feels a responsibility to her family but is drawn towards adventure. “Moana” isn't derivative so much as it happily follows the footsteps laid out before it.

I'm actually fine with this. The commitment to formula is noticeable but never distracting. What is concerning is how “Moana” handles probably the most overused story turn in modern fantasy fiction. I'm talking about Moana being the Chosen One. She is literally picked by the ocean when she's a baby. The ocean isn't just a metaphorical force. It's a physical character. Throughout the film, Moana falls into a body of water, just for an animated wave to push her back onto dry land. This is most egregious during the film's climax, when the moving wave rescues the girl. The film tries to save this, by animating this magical wave as another cutesy sidekick. It still strikes me as an overly literal, disappointingly easy writing decision.

Despite this issue, Moana is still an impressively realized character. She has more agency then many of the previously cited Disney Princesses. She has an incredible force of will. Once she has a mission in mind, she refuses to waver. Moana is determined to achieve her goal and nothing will stop her. Yet she's also a thoughtful, feeling character. Sailing past the reef isn't a decision that she makes easily. She considers the affect of her actions on her family and community. She's strong but allowed to be vulnerable, tough but in over her head. Auli'i Cravalho, a widely touted new discovery, gives a vital, powerful vocal performance.

In the post-Lasseter era, Disney makes sure their animated features appeal equally to both young girls and young boys. So there's usually some funny, adventurous male hero accompanying the female protagonist. It was Flynn Rider in “Tangled,” Kristoff in “Frozen,” and Nick in “Zootopia.” In “Moana,” this role falls to Maui. A notable figure in Hawaiian mythology, he's a lovable creation. He luxuriates in his godly accomplishment, painted all over his body in tattoos. One of these tattoos even comes to life, frequently interacting with Maui, as his own sidekick. He's boisterous, a braggart, and initially motivated entirely by selfish impulses. He's never unlikable though, thanks to the vocal performance of Dwayne Johnson. Considering he's the most prominent Polynesian actor in Hollywood, it was inevitable that Johnson appeared in the film. Since Johnson has a boundless charm, he's well suited to the role. Yet Maui has a hidden side, an insecurity, all of his epic deeds motivated by a desire for acceptance. How he overcomes this flaw is easy to guess but satisfying to watch.

“Moana” has its share of laughs too. In addition to the cartoonish wave that helps her out, Moana has two animal sidekicks. The first of which is Pua, an adorable pet pig that clowns around on the island with her. The second of which is Heihei, a very eccentric rooster. The bird frequently stumbles into trouble, walking cluelessly off the boat. Maui's reaction to meeting the bird is to fatten him up, for an eventual meal. The biggest laugh in the film occurs when the demi-god is attempting a moment of sincerity... While his top half is still transmogrified into a shark. His slow realization of this is priceless. “Moanan's” sense of humor is even occasionally impish, like when the princess realizes exactly what a stream of warm water is.

The visuals in “Moana” are, of course, gorgeous. The endless sea of crystal clear, blue water is a feast for the eyes. Inside of these magnificent colors, the film composes a series of memorable action sequences. The best of which has Moana and Maui's tiny boat being beset by pirates. Not ordinary pirates. Instead, they are funny creatures, wearing brilliantly painted tribal masks and wearing coconut shells for armor. The set piece builds, piling more inconveniences in the heroes' paths. The two leap around the attackers, the camera swinging around with them. That sense of motion is carried throughout the film, the action scenes brought to life with speed and energy. (No wonder the previous “Mad Max” movie was an inspiration to the filmmakers.)

For “Frozen,” Disney drafted a pair of Broadway song-smiths to craft the film's music. While hugely popular, I found their work to be mixed. A similarly hot stage writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda of this “Hamilton” thing people won't shut up about, was picked to write the songs for “Moana.” So I was skeptical. The first musical number, establishing Moana's village and the people in it, didn't strike me was great. It's a little heavy on the exposition and comic relief goofiness. “How Far I Go” is clearly destined to be the film's breakout hit. It's Moana's “I Want” song and obviously owes a debt to “Let It Go.” And it's not bad, though I find the lyrics to be slightly awkward and the film reprises it one time too many.

However, the music picks up a lot after that. “We Know the Way” happily mixes traditional Hawaiian music with show tune glitz, making a catchy and impactful song. Maui's introductory number, “You're Welcome,” is one of my favorite songs from the film. Though it's clear Dwayne Johnson's singing voice has limitations, the lyrics are funny, the melody is unforgettable, and the accompanying animation is gorgeous. “I Am Moana” leans a little heavily on the schmaltz but still makes a power display for Crahalvo's voice. Miranda, it must be said, doesn't make the mistake the “Frozen” writers did. All the songs keep the story moving forward.

These other songs are good but they aren't my favorite musical number in the film. For that matter, one sequence in “Moana” stands head and shoulders above the others. While looking to retrieve Maui's magical fish hook, the heroes dive into a weirdo pocket dimension. Down there, the ocean floats above their heads. Monsters, like multi-eyed bat creatures and eel-like monstrosities, attack the heroes. At the center of this scene is Tamatoa, a giant crab monster covered in gold, with the distinct voice of Jemaine Clement. He then sings a glam rock number about how fabulous he is. Yes, Jemaine is doing his Bowie impersonation. And, yes, it's absolutely amazing. “How Far I Go” is going to get the Oscar nomination but “Shiny” is clearly the awesome-est number in the film.

There's really only one time that “Moana's” sheer commitment to the Disney formula is frustrating. It's the end of the second act, that story beat that can be poorly handled so easily. Moana and Maui have seemingly failed their mission. The heroes have run out of hope, forcing them to summon up the strength to complete the task at hand. In order to facilitate this, the film drags Moana's dead grandmother back into the story. It's a little too on the nose and draws attention to what is always a tricky part of an adventure movie.

You'll notice I haven't talked very much about “Moana's” primary villain. The bad guys in Disney cartoons are usually highly memorable. “Moana,” however, casts a personified natural disaster as its adversary. Te Ka is living lava. The character has no personality, voice, or drive beyond a generalized desire for destruction. It only appears in two or three scenes. “Moana” is going somewhere with this. In Hawaiian culture, volcanoes are destructive. They are also a symbol of rebirth, revitalizing the soil and creating new land. Te Ka, and the secret the villain hides, directly represents this. It's a little more complex then just a bad guy doing bad things.

“Moana” is obviously a crowd-pleaser. Its box office clearly shows that. The movie is a lot of fun, beautifully animated, wonderfully performed, with some great songs. Its strict reliance on formula is both interesting and frustrating, at times. Compared to Disney's modern day princess epics, I liked it better then “Frozen” but found it trailed behind “Tangled” and “The Princess and the Frog.” Yet “Zootopia” has unexpectedly emerged as the fresher, funnier Disney Animated Feature of the year. That's not a knock on “Moana,” which is still a fine motion picture. [Grade: B]

Sunday, December 25, 2016

NO ENCORES: Christmas in Connecticut (1992)


1. Christmas in Connecticut (1992)
Director: Arnold Schwarzenegger

2016's Christmas movie marathon began with “Christmas in Connecticut” and so it ends with “Christmas in Connecticut.” I've made no secret of my fandom of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like many actors, Schwarzenegger decided he wanted to try directing. Considering how controlling Arnold has always been of his image, I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner. The year was 1992, when the Austrian superstar was at the height of his popularity and success. At that point, he probably could've directed any type of movie. For some reason, Arnold's feature directing debut was a straight-to-cable remake of a mostly forgotten Christmas flick from the forties. Aside from a mediocre episode of “Tales from the Crypt,” it is Schwarzenegger's only directorial credit.

Schwarzenegger's “Christmas in Connecticut” attempts to update the original's premise for the cynical nineties. Barbara Stanwyck's Elizabeth Lane becomes Dyan Cannon's Elizabeth Blane. Instead of being a famous food writer, now she's the host of a popular cooking show. But Elizabeth is still a fraud, who is good at smiling for the camera but can't actually cook. Jefferson Jones transforms from a war hero to a park ranger, who daringly rescued a missing boy during a blizzard. Jones' cabin burns down and Blane's cookbook is the only surviving artifact. This gives Elizabeth's sleazy manager an idea. Jones will be invited onto a live Christmas special, where Blane will cook a meal for a “family” made up of actors. What nobody counted on was Elizabeth and Jones falling for each other, causing the cracks in the deception to show.

Some of the changes the remake makes are reasonable. Elizabeth shifting from a popular author to a television personality is a perfect update. A live Christmas broadcast props up the elaborate lie better. The remake sensibly cuts the love triangles, missing babies, and police chases present in the original. It keeps a few key scenes, involving a bathed infant and a flipped pancake. Yet some of the other choices seem odd. Changing Jones into a heroic park ranger, instead of a lauded hero, unnecessarily complicates the story. Making Jones a liar too – he isn't actually a fan of Elizabeth's cook books – makes for a nice thematic parallel on paper. In execution, it makes both lead characters seem like jerks. And that live broadcast conclusion? It comes off as more cartoonish then intense.

What made the original “Christmas in Connecticut” so likable was the chemistry between Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. The remake slots Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson into the same parts. Cannon has decent comedic timing, showing an amusing energy during the film's more manic moments. Kristofferson doesn't have Morgan's leading man charm. Instead, he employs the stoic toughness seen in most of his acting. Dyan and Kris play off of each other decently. They share a convincing smile or kiss occasionally. Ultimately, the script brings the two together in a way that isn't natural. Krisofferson's acceptance of the deception is too easy.

On the comedy end of things, Arnold's “Christmas in Connecticut” has nothing on the original. The screwball humor of the original is replaced with a collection of shrill supporting characters. Sydney Greenstreet and Reginald Gardiner's characters are combined into Tony Curtis' Alexander Yardley. Curtis crudely, grossly hits on Cannon throughout the film, while generally mugging it up. The actors recreated to be Elizabeth's family are all obnoxious characters. Such as the method actor playing her son-in-law. He's currently prepping to play a serial killer and gruffly mumbles sinister things at inappropriate times. Or the annoying son-of-a-bitch playing the grandson, a chubby kid who screams constantly, shoots people with a squirt gun, and accepts bribes for good behavior. His big act during the ending involves puking on-screen and wrecking a Christmas tree.

The script creates cheesy bonding moments for Elizabeth and Jefferson. Such as a botched hunting trip, which lays down some dramatic cards too early. They cut down a Christmas tree together, in an especially treacly moment full of slow-motion. Scenes devoted to dancing or sled riding are equally contrived. The actors are okay but the film lingers too much on these moments, raising the stakes to artificial, syrupy levels. There's none of the light humor or genuine chemistry that made the 1944 version successful. In its place are eye-roll worthy moments of overly cheesy romance.

How does Arnold Schwarzenegger fare as a director? Not too hot. His visual composition is fairly flat. There's not too much cinematic about the remake. 1992's "Christmas in Connecticut" often feels like the cheap television affair it was. The director frequently peppers scenes with slow motion, montages, and close-ups. These moments are backed up by an incredibly chintzy musical score, which just emphasizes how corny the film is. I don't know if the decision to contrast broad comedy with goopy romance was Arnold's idea but his ham-fisted execution certainly didn't help any. Perhaps uncontrollably, Schwarzenegger included several in-jokes about his career.  Arnold has a brief cameo, the film pausing to linger on his immediately recognizable voice. “Twins” is seen on television in the background. The most prominent, and groan worthy, in-joke involves a character donning sunglasses and a leather jacket before croaking “I'll be back.”

It's not like “Christmas in Connecticut” was an untouchable classic. It was an entertaining, likable flick with room for improvement. A remake could've been really cool. But the 1992 “Christmas in Connecticut” aims low, underwhelming the audience in just about every way. It doesn't even match the original's Christmas-y atmosphere. Arnold Schwarzenegger, god love him, doesn't show much aptitude for directing. So it's probably best he would never helmed another feature film. [5/10]

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 24


The Hebrew Hammer (2003)

When it comes to movies specifically about Hanukkah, one's options are limited. I really didn't feel like exposing myself to “Eight Crazy Nights” this year and the likes of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “A Serious Man” are more about the overall Jewish experiences, then singularly the Festival of Lights. But that's when I remembered “The Hebrew Hammer.” I remember seeing the film advertised on Comedy Central years ago. The premise – a Jewish take on the blaxploitation genre – sounded amusing. Considering the shabbat of Hanukkah fell on Christmas Eve this year, a film directly about the conflict between the eight night feast and the Christmas season seemed like ideal viewing.

Mordechai Jefferson Carver is the Hebrew Hammer. His Hasidic Jewish upbringing made him a target of bullying as a kid. As an adult, he's reinvented himself as a tough guy private eye, making the world safe for all his Semitic brothers and sisters. The Jewish Justice League requires his specific set of skills. Santa's virulently racist son, Damian Claus, has murdered his father. As the new Santa, Damian plans on wiping out Hanukkah and any other holiday that threatens Christmas' dominance of the winter months.

“The Hebrew Hammer” is a parody of blaxploitation films through the lens of Jewish culture, “Undercover Brother” by way of Woody Allen. The mash-up proves surprisingly versatile. Mordechai is usually backed by a funky soundtrack... Which mixes in Klezmer fiddles.  His theme song is clearly patterned after Shaft's. His uniform of choice is a silken trench coat outfitted with a kippah and tallit. Probably the trade mark scene of the film has the Hammer taking out a bar full of Neo-Nazis, after declaring “Shabbat shalom, motherfuckers!” An especially amusing sequence has Mordechai seducing his love interest, which he does by promising her a stable home, a child, and a private school education for the hypothetical offspring.

Accordingly, “The Hebrew Hammer” both embraces and mocks Jewish stereotypes for its humor. Mordechai's mother guilts him into saving Hanukkah. These Jewish guilt superpowers end up saving the day. In order to be granted access to the Jewish Justice League's headquarter, he has to prove his Jewishness. Which entails revealing his circumcision and, in one of my favorite jokes in the film, complain excessively. Another hilarious sequence has the Hebrew Hammer going undercover as a gentile, in order to meet Santa at K-Mart. He adopts a super stiff posture and is tempted by a bacon cheeseburgers. I suppose these gags are super obvious but, I don't know, they made me laugh pretty hard.

While a happy sense of absurdity characterizes most of the film, some of its gags border the uncomfortable. Among the Jewish Justice League is someone responsible for overseeing the Jewish Controlled Media. Damian Claus regales Christian children with stories of blood libel. The Hebrew Hammer is rendered powerless once the sun sets on the sabbath. A specific slur is used a few times, by both Mordechai's allies and enemies. I get what the film is doing – ironically mocking anti-Semitic stereotypes – but it's not quite clever enough to pull it off. A subplot concerning a group of militant Kwanzaa celebrators comes a little too close to being offensive. Some of the jokes just aren't funny. Like Tony Cox's appearance as an elf who happens to be a pimp or Mordechai's mother having an incontinent pet cat.

The script is a little bumpy but the cast helps sell even some of the lamer gags. Adam Goldberg, who I recognize from “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” stars as Mordechai. Goldberg's blend of neurotic self-loathing and assured macho fervor is the perfect mix required for this part. The much underappreciated Judy Greer co-stars as Esther, who alternates between being the straight man to Goldberg's antics and being his fawning love interest. The script transition isn't quite there but Greer is funny. Andy Dick's coked-out manic activity is well suited to the villainous role of Damian Claus. The character might not totally work but Mario Van Peebles is perfectly tuned as the leader of the black militants. His dad cameos, one of several homages to “Sweetback Sweetback's Baadassssss Song.”

“The Hebrew Hammer's” minuscule budget is evident at times, as most of the film takes place in a series of warehouses. Like a lot of parodies, the film's energy runs low before the ending. Despite its flaws, “The Hebrew Hammer” is an enjoyable cult classic. Goldberg and writer/director Jonathan Kesselman have been trying to get a sequel made, about the Hebrew Hammer fighting a time-traveling Hitler, for a while now. It looks like production has stalled but, if that ever surfaces, I'll be very likely to give it a look. [7/10]



Rugrats: A Rugrats Chanukah

It might be hard to believe now but, once upon a time, “Rugrats” was a genuine kid show phenomenon. I was at just the right age to be swept up in the craze. My parents, on the other hand, fucking hated this show. Watching now as an adult, I can see why “Rugrats” was so repellent to my mom. The character designs are hideous. The humor combines overly crude poo-and-snot jokes with obnoxious “baby-ified” pronunciations of common words. “Rugrats” is, however, one of the first kid cartoons I can think of to really draw attention to its characters' Jewish roots. The special episodes devoted to Jewish holidays probably introduced a whole generation of gentile kids to Passover and Hanukkah.

That's cool. Whether or not I could stomach an entire episode of “Rugrats” as an adult is another question all together. Many of the gags in “A Rugrats Channukah” are a bit hard to stomach. The babies imagining themselves as the Maccabees is cringe-worthy, as are barely-there gags like the events of the Torah being shown as a kid's pop-up book. The babies' objective for this episode revolves around them mishearing “meaning” as “meanie,” which is dumb. The episode also features a lot of Angelica, easily one of the most obnoxious characters in nineties children broadcasting. Her goal, searching through the synagogue for a TV so she can watch a toy-centric Christmas special, typifies what a little bitch she is. (Though I was amused by her describing Hanukkah as the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when all the best TV specials are on.)

However, I did get a few laughs out of “A Rugrats Chanukah.” The B-plot concerns Tommy's Russian Jew grandparents, especially Grandpa Boris' long-standing rivalry with Schlomo. This comes to a peak during the Hanukkah play. The two eventually put aside their differences, in order to tell the story of the first Hanukkah to the kids. The Hanukkah festival setting for the second half provides some nice gags. Such as a guy dressed as a dreidel falling over, causing a by-stander to declare he's won. Later, the same dreidel guy declares he's got a broken “shin.” Both of those moments made me laugh harder then they probably should've. So “Rugrats” isn't really on my wavelength any more but the educational aspect is interesting. [5/10]


Friday, December 23, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: The Santa Clause (1994)


Recently, I was having a conversation about movies that were clearly conceived as titles first and screenplays second. “The Santa Clause” came to mind immediately. The premise, of a deadbeat dad becoming Santa Claus, is staggeringly high concept. The film came out when I was just a kid and I remember the trailers and TV spots vividly. As people my age are prone to do, “The Santa Clause” is sometimes regarded as a nostalgic, holiday classic. Even as a kid, I never much cared for this one. I think I rented it, watched it once, and have rarely returned to it. It certainly isn't a perennial Christmas favorite in my house. And yet, for reasons I will soon explain, the film resides in my DVD collection. If I'm not a fan of “The Santa Clause,” why do I own it?

Meet Scott Calvin, a successful toy company executive, a recent divorcee, and father of six year old Charlie. Scott isn't a fan of his ex-wife's new boyfriend, a psychologist, and worries about the effect the hyper-rational man is having on the boy. For one example, Charlie is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. While staying with his dad over the holidays, the boy witnesses Santa first hand. After investigating, Scott sees him too. The gift giver falls from the roof, seemingly perishing. Scott is convinced to put on the suit and soon finds himself assuming the duties of Santa Claus. Over the next year, Calvin slowly transforms into the symbol of Christmas, his ex-wife increasingly disturbed by his seasonal obsession.

“The Santa Clause” hit theaters in 1994, around the third or fourth season of “Home Improvement.” This was around the time, one assumes, that Tim Allen's star power was at its highest. Slotting the stand-up turned Tool Man into a family-friendly holiday comedy like this made a lot of sense financially. The film's box office success proves that. However, Allen's sarcasm heavy comedy style seems like an odd fit for a Christmas movie. At the beginning, Scott Calvin is an asshole. He constantly undermines his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend in various mean-spirited ways. Weirdly, Judge Reinhold doesn't play the character as a bad guy. He's actually rather reasonable, if a little stiff. Yet we're meant to sympathize with Scott. Allen's character is often overly curt with his son as well. When he's forced into the Santa position, he grumpily goes through the motions, irritated and grouchy. This is rather at odds with the saccharine tone the film is going for.

In truth, “The Santa Clause” raises some unsettling questions. This is, one must admit, a Christmas movie that begins with Santa Claus falling to his death. The elves, upon meeting Calvin, seem unaffected by the previous Santa's passing. Does the Claus position change hands often? Does it always happen via violent death? Upon donning the suit, Scott's body undergoes a drastic transformation. He puts on weight and grows a beard. That's weird but the way his personality is assimilated by the Santa persona is far creepier. Calvin becomes naturally jolly and develops a love for everything Christmas-y. This is lousy screenwriting – the protagonist overcomes his problems through outside influences, instead of personal growth – but also odd. This is less like a clause and more like a curse, passed from one victim to the next. Weirder still, the film runs with some of these disturbing connotations, when Scott essentially kidnaps his son. Even though the police pursue him, the ex-wife ultimately doesn't press charges. In fact, she grants him anytime visitation rights!

“The Santa Clause” begins with sardonic one-liners but quickly gives way to typical holiday movie schmaltz. When visiting the North Pole, the protagonist meets a legion of elves, played by child actors in make-up. They drink perfect hot coco and are gifted magical snow globes. The production design is admittedly impressive but the story rushes into this development, leaving the characters and audience confused. Even though he just got the gig, the elves are loyal to the new Santa. One especially lame sequence is devoted to them donning jet packs and rescuing the guy from police custody. (Even though, I must point out again, he actually did commit the crime of kidnapping.) By the last act, all the farting reindeer and fat jokes have disappeared, replaced by an undistinguished message about the magic of Christmas and forgiveness.

Why Do I Own This?: I actually have a good answer to this question, for once. The film was, at some point, gifted to me by a relative. And not a distant relative either but the type that came to visit frequently. The type that would actually check to see if I kept the gift she had given me. Essentially, I've been guilted into keeping a film I don't especially like. Hopefully, I'll still find a covert way to make the DVD disappear, some day. As for “The Santa Clause” itself, it's a mediocre flick. I suspect nostalgia, and frequent television screenings, plays the biggest role in whatever reputation it has as a December classic. Thankfully, I don't own any of the two dire looking sequels, so I won't have to review them at any point in the future. [5/10]

Christmas 2016: December 22


Jack Frost (1997)

During the late nineties, video store shelves were flooded with cheaply produced horror flicks, movies made expressly for the straight-to-video market. “Jack Frost” would probably be as forgotten as most of these flicks if a few things didn't gift it some infamy. Firstly, its ridiculous premise – a killer snowman – wouldn't go unnoticed by some horror fans. Secondly, it was released on video around the same time as an identically entitled family film with a similar premise, leading to some amusing mix-ups. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the VHS box had an eye-catching holographic cover. “Jack Frost's” cult following is most apparent in its recent reissue on Blu Ray, from the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome.

After a lengthy manhunt, serial killer Jack Frost has been apprehended. Around Christmas time, the police cruiser carrying him towards execution collides with a truck hulling an experimental acid. The acid fuses Frost's genetic structure with the snow around him. The serial killer is reborn as an animated snowman, able to shift from a liquid to a solid at will. Jack returns to the small town of Snowmonton, to take his revenge on the sheriff responsible for his capture. Along the way, he reeks plenty of holiday-flavored mayhem.

“Jack Frost” is, of course, a completely ridiculous movie. This is most apparent in its titular villain. A killer snowman is a premise that, perhaps, could've been salvaged, if made by an especially gifted filmmaker. Director Michael Cooney, probably because of the meager budget he had to work with, wasn't that guy. The evil snowlem is brought to life through a very unconvincing suit. Jack looks more like a twisted Pillsbury Dough Boy then a snowman. It's even worst when he has to move, which is usually accomplished by the snowman stiffly shuffling around. The thing's arms barely move. Then again, the movie never attempts to turn Frost into a serious threat. The filmmakers knew he was silly. Accordingly, Jack mostly speaks in snowman or Christmas related puns.

So “Jack Frost” goes for humor, more often then not. How else are you suppose to respond to an evil snowman shoving an ax handle down a guy's throat or smashing a woman's face into a box of Christmas ornaments? Or, for that matter, cracking ice puns while shooting icicles at someone? The most notorious moment occurs when Jack sneaks into a young Shannon Elizabeth's bathtub, leading to a rape scene that would be offensive if it wasn't so ridiculous. Yet the film's more obvious attempts at humor tend to fall flat. Such as a reoccuring gag about snowballs or the protagonist's son baking anti-freeze into his cookies. A moment when the snowman's body is mixed up is especially baffling. The awful special effects lead to some unintentional laughs, such as when the snowman awkwardly decapitates a schoolyard bully.

As you'd expect, the acting in “Jack Frost” is quite terrible. The film begins with a ridiculous bit of narration, a faux British uncle telling Jack's story to an unconvincingly voiced little girl. Scott McDonald plays the title lending villain. As a human, he mugs furiously. As a snowman, he broadly delivers a series of increasingly dumb snow puns. Christopher Allport as the heroic sheriff is attempting to take the material seriously, though you can see he's struggling to do so. Stephen Mendel plays Agent Manners, an FBI agent pursuing Frost. Mendel is attempting to play the part as a serio-comic bad-ass. He gets a few laughs but his performance is mostly too tongue in cheek, even for a movie like this. Every other actor in the film is awful, even those that would attain some future fame, like Shannon Elizabeth.

“Jack Frost” ladles on the Christmas atmosphere, except for one element you might expect. Apparently, the movie was filmed during an unseasonably hot winter. Meaning there's very little snow in this movie about a snowman. Once you see this, that the little amount of snow on-screen is clearly fake, it becomes impossible not to notice. The filmmakers would work around this problem for the sequel – yes, there's a sequel – by setting the story in a tropical setting. I'm not sure how that works and, I'm sure you're sad to know, I won't get to part two this December. As for the original “Jack Frost,” it's an entirely ridiculous attempt at a horror/comedy but isn't without its brain dead charms. [6/10]



Jack Frost (1979)

If I have accomplished nothing else this December, I have cleared up a few blind spots concerning the various Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. 1979's “Jack Frost” is another one I've seen advertised for years but have never actually sat down and watched before. Considering his supporting parts in previous stories, I guess it was about time Rankin/Bass gave the frosty sprite his own special. “Jack Frost” follows the titular winter spirit. After a young lass expresses an affection for the invisible entity, Frost requests his dad, the powerful Father Winter, grant him human form. If Jack can find a horse, a house, and a wife before spring, he'll stay human. If not, he'll return to his intangible form. Unlucky for Jack, his quest for person hood runs into a local petty tyrant subjugating the village of January Junction.

Plot wise, “Jack Frost” recalls various legends about fairies falling in love with humans. This being Rankin/Bass, the studio had to put their own suitably bizarre spin on the material. Jack Frost resides in a kingdom in the sky, cohabiting with other wintry sprites. Father Winter is powerful enough to control the weather but, strangely, takes his orders from a singing, dancing groundhog. That groundhog narrates the special, despite his loose connection to the rest of the story. Pardon-Me Pete, because the studio didn't want to mention Punxsutawney for some reason, is voiced by a lisping Buddy Hackett. Pete periodically interrupts the story to sing or narrate some more.

Among the sky-dwelling sprites are tailors who cut out the individual snowflakes and a troupe of dancing “snow gypsies.” After Jack transforms into a person, two of the above are sent to Earth to keep an eye on the guy. This is but one way the special undermines its own protagonist. Jack Frost is a surprisingly ineffective hero. He makes one attempt to scale the villain's icy fortress, quickly giving up after sliding off the slick wall. Later, while attempting to rescue his love interest, Jack is captured by the same bad guy. (The girl, meanwhile, is rescued by Sir Ravenal, an Arthurian knight who enters the story halfway through.) He gives up his humanity, becoming a sprite again, to escape. Upon returning to Earth, he basically lucks into everything he needs to save the day. In what could've been a tragic turn, the girl ultimately rejects Jack's romantic offers in favor of the knight. In effect, not letting Frost get the girl just makes him look even more like an ineffective ninny.

And what of that bad guy? Like the Burgermeister from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Kubla Kraus is an asshole dictator who lords over a small town. (Both are voiced by Paul Frees, which would be notable if Paul Frees hadn't voiced ten thousand other cartoon characters.) Instead of barking weird laws, Kubla Kraus simply illegally taxes the residents until they have no money at all. Because he's such a miserable asshole, the villain has no friends. To make up for this, he has built a legion of steampunk servants and companions. The weirdest of which is a hand puppet named Dummy. The relationship between the bad guy and his ventriloquism-themed partner is disturbingly similar to Mr. Garrison and Mr. Hat from “South Park.” Like every other Rankin?Bass villain, Kraus is also a buffoon, undone by his own foolishness as much by the hero's actions.

There's not too much to recommend about “Jack Frost.” The musical numbers aren't very memorable. Pardon-Me-Pete gets a number about Groundhog's Day, which totally derails the story and even makes you question the film's status as a Christmas special. The title song, “Jack Frost is Here,” has an obnoxious chorus. The bad guy's “There's the Rub” is as odd as the character is. “Jack Frost” is definitely mid-tier Rankin/Bass and not as good as “Rudolph” or “Frosty.” No, the special doesn't explain how Frost became a bad guy in “Frosty's Winter Wonderland,” not that I was expecting it to do that. [5/10]