Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 29, 2019

NO ENCORES: Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

1. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Director: Robert Longo

Here in 2019, the genre of cyberpunk is having something of a moment. This is, after all, the year “Blade Runner” and “Akira” were prophecized to take place in. There’s a hotly anticipated video game with the word right in its title coming soon. While big budget releases like “Blade Runner 2099” and “Alita: Battle Angel” haven’t exactly set the box office on fire, they have found passionate fan followings. The last time mainstream studios showed this much interest in cyberpunk was around 1995, when “Johnny Mnemonic” hit theater screens. The film was scripted by William Gibson, father of cyberpunk, and directed by artist and music video creator Robert Longo, making his feature film debut. The film was primed to be a blockbuster, with a 30 million dollar budget and a prime May release date. It was accompanied by tie-ins like a video game, a pinball machine, and an early attempt at internet viral marketing. The film, re-edited at the last minute to be more mainstream, failed at the American box office but was more successful internationally. The experience was so negative that Longo would retire from filmmaking all together.

The film is set in the dystopian future of 2021. (We have a lot of catching up to do in the next two years.) Cities have become burnt-out slums. Mega corporations rule the world. A debilitating virus known as NAS - neuron attenuation syndrome - is ravaging the public. Here we meet Johnny, a mnemonic courier. That’s someone with a hard drive built into their brain, used to discreetly transport hypersensitive information. The latest info dumped into Johnny’s brain is so valuable that many people are ready to kill him to prevent it from getting out. Teaming up with a NAS-afflicted bodyguard named Jane, Johnny goes on the run.

Like a lot of cyberpunk fiction, “Johnny Mnemonic” creates a compelling world to tell its story in. There’s a lot of details quickly presented to viewers here. Aside from concepts like NAS or mnemonic couriers, there’s also details like the Lo-Teks - rebels fighting the power - or PharmaKom - the big drug corporation - to learn about quickly. This world has its own lingo, fashion, drugs, and music. It’s a colorful future, full of casual cyborgs, transgender bodyguards, and super-hacker dolphins. The various rules of operating as a mnemonic courier is quickly prattled at us. These are all concepts that display a lot of imagination. The film’s stellar production design is up to the challenge presented by these concepts, creating a world that’s interesting to look at and inhabit.

While “Johnny Mnemonic’s” world is compelling, that doesn’t mean its story is especially coherent. The script strikes me as hopelessly overstuffed. The film bombards viewers with information but it still isn't enough to clarify everything happening in the story. Character introductions are rushed and blunt, leaving the audience with few ideas of who these people are or what they want. For example, the information that the executive of PharmaKom, played by wildly popular Japanese performer Takeshi Kitano, recently lost a daughter is dumped on us in the most awkward way possible. How the Lo-Teks and other factions weave in and out of the story is unwieldy. There's enough lore and backstory here to occupied a 13 episode anime. Instead of cutting anything, the film just shoves it all in. I'd place some of the blame on Gibson, more accustomed to writing novels than screenplays, but he claims the finished film doesn't resemble his script much. Granted, I watched the 96-minute long American cut of the film. The Japanese cut runs six minutes longer, is supposedly closer to Longo and Gibson’s original vision. Yet its hard to imagine those six minutes flesh things out that much.

More recently, the internet has really come around on Keanu Reeves. We've realized that, even if he certainly has his limitations as an actor, he's still a truly lovable performer. Moreover, he has gotten better with age. Compare his slick, quiet, intimidating performance in the “John Wick” films with his work here. As Johnny Mnemonic, Reaves comes off as somewhat petulant. He plays the part as a stiff jerk throughout most of the film. This may not be Keanu’s fault. Though the script depicts the character as learning to care about more than just himself, that isn’t really conveyed through his actions. However, we do still get occasional glimpses of what an appealing performer Reeves can be. Such as the effortless cool he summons up as Johnny assembles a hacking apparatus. Or during a delightfully over-the-top monologue, where Johnny describes what he feels he’s owed. This shows that Keanu is not a bad actor but a highly entertaining one rarely well-served by Hollywood.

The film does assemble a colorful collection of actors to fill its eccentric world. Such as Udo Kier, who appears as a perfectly sleazier middleman for Johnny, doing his typical Udo-Kier-thing, adding a layer of delicious camp to his scenes. Dolph Lundgren gets second billing but wouldn’t appear in another theatrically released film for fifteen years. Dolph brings his particular delivery to the role of a cyborg street preacher who moonlights as a vicious contract killer, given plenty of chances to deliver campy sermons and be physically intimidating. Ice-T shows up as the leader of the Lo-Teks, bringing the same decent tough guy hustle he showed in the same year’s aesthetically similar “Tank Girl.” Henry Rollins tries out dorkiness and empathy as an underground doctor to some success. Beat Takashi attempts to bring some stoic pathos to an underwritten part. Really, the only weak link in the cast is Dina Meyer, in her film debut. She seems baffled by the film despite playing the secondary lead.

Another thing that’s appealing about “Johnny Mnemonic” was totally unintended by the filmmakers. What once seemed like a high-tech vision of the future is laughably antiquated. The information Johnny carries in his brain hard drive, that is so taxing for his body to contain... is 230 gigabytes. Roughly the storage equivalent of an XBox 360. The film hits most of the laughable predictions of what people thought the future would look like in the nineties. Techno music is everywhere. MiniDisc is a cutting edge storage format. VR headsets are widely used, though not a single game of Beat Saber is played. Naturally, this leads to several garish virtual reality sequences. As much fun as the movie’s way off-base future is, those CGI scenes still look like shit. The climax, where Johnny enters the digital world to best an anti-virus program, is utterly impossible to follow.

Gibson and Longo originally envisioned “Johnny Mnemonic” as a low budget art film. They couldn’t get it funded in that form, forcing the transformation into a big budget action film. Yet it’s very clear that action is not really where Longo’s passion resided. There’s cool ideas here, like the villain utilizing a laser beam garrote to quickly dismember people. Yet the action scenes are not clearly directed. Dead bodies fly into frame suddenly. Most of the big fight scenes take place in blurry close-ups or far off wide shots. And, sometimes, big explosions are randomly inserted into the film. Dolph’s big bad guy is disposed through a very unclear manner. It’s not fair to blame Longo for these oversights, as I’m sure some of this stuff is the result of studio interference, but you can also tell action scenes were not his forte.

With its difficult to follow story, “Johnny Mnemonic” is best experienced if you just let it wash over you. As a delivery system for ridiculous characters, goofy visuals, and neat production design, it’s fairly entertaining. It is clear that this outcome fell short of Gibson and Longo’s vision. (Though I am curious if that Japanese cut is a significantly stronger film.) I can’t blame the guy for deciding movie making wasn’t for him after the difficult production. Of course, we all know that Keanu would eventually star in a successful cyberpunk action film loosely adapted from William Gibson’s writing, albeit in an unofficial capacity. As a campier prototype for “The Matrix,” “Johnny Mnemonic” does have its moments, even if it’s tricky for me to fully recommend it. [6.5/10]

Thursday, March 28, 2019

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Radioland Murders (1994)

The overwhelming majority of films George Lucas has had a hand in shows his love of the retro aesthetic. It’s evident in the boomer nostalgia of “American Graffiti,” the classic serial homages in “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” and even in the fairy tale settings of “Willow” and “Strange Magic.” So it’s not surprising Lucas would have an interest in the vintage radio programs of the thirties and forties. What is surprising is that Lucas convinced a major movie studio to spend 15 million dollars on an extended love letter to the beyond-antiqued format of radio. Conceived by Lucas around the same time as “American Graffiti,” its premise retro even then, “Radioland Murders” would simmer in Development Hell until the early nineties. Unsurprisingly, a screwball comedy homage about the magic of radio would fail to connect with Generation X audiences. After bombing at the box office, “Radioland Murders” would fade quickly from memory. So why do I own it?

The year is 1939 and a brand new radio station is opening in Chicago. WBN is having its share of problems on opening night. All the scripts are being re-written at the last minute, from a writer staff that is over-stressed and underpaid. The owner is determined to impress potential sponsors. Head writer Richard Nederson and assistant director Penny Hendersen are married but are planing on divorcing, which only adds to the stress of the situation. The night gets harder for everyone when people begin dying. A trumpet player dies of an apparent poisoning. One of the directors is found hanged. Soon, it becomes apparent a murderer is afoot. And Richard is being framed for the crime.

Not content being a homage to one bygone genres, “Radioland Murders” is also a throwback to the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. Drawing a lot of inspiration from Abbott and Costello flick, “Who Done It?,” “Radioland Murders” manages to successfully capture the particular atmosphere of that time and place. There's fast-paced dialogue, belligerent sexual tension between the male and female leads, lots of broad slapstick, and a murder/mystery plot resolved in the goofiest way possible. Contributing largely to this aesthetic is an excellent production design, which is probably where most of that budget went. The costumes, as well as the look and feels of all the sets, perfectly capture the appearance of forties cinema.

George Lucas spent most of the eighties more as a hands-on producer/idea-man than an actual director. That wouldn't change with “Radioland Murders,” as actual directorial duties would be handled over to British slapstick specialist Mel Smith. Smith seems to be in his element here. “Radioland Murders” is pretty amusing, for the most part. Scott Michael Campbell's Billy, the station's pageboy, is constantly being abused by the various circumstances in the film, a good contrast to his endlessly upbeat attitude. The foley man, played by an entertainingly eccentric Christopher Lloyd, is constantly up to weird business in a dark room. A big sequence devoted to Billy Barty singing “That Old Black Magic” goes nicely off the rails. One of the funniest scenes has the scripts for a soap opera and a jungle adventure show being mixed up, the actresses rolling with it without pause. Not all the slapstick works. The big physical gags tend to overstay their welcome. A scene involving a fire hose and another where Brian Benben swings off a huge sign are a little too much.

A big reason why “Radioland Murders” works is its extremely game cast. Brian Benben has the exact quality ideal for this type of comedy, goofy but never mugging, relatable but never boring. He also has nice chemistry with Mary Stuart Masterson, who similarly seems like a spitfire, brassy broad right out of the time period. The supporting cast is peppered with recognizable names. Michael Lerner is hilarious as a no-nonsense police detective, unaware of how ridiculous he has. Bobcat Goldthwait brings his nicely high-strung act to the role of one of the writers. Jeffrey Tambor is amusingly ridiculous as a philandering director. Dylan Baker got some laughs as an inexperienced detective way out of his element. Stephen Tobolowsky has a nice dry streak suited to this material. Aside from familiar faces like Ned Beatty, Michael McKean, and Corbin Bernsen, the film also includes cameos from actual radio stars like George Burns and Rosemary Clooney.

Why Do I Own This?: We finally reach the point in the existence of Film Thoughts and my Why Do I Own This? column where I'm covering stuff I bought specifically to review for this blog. Back in 2015, I did a George Lucas Director Report Card and I originally planned it to be more ambitious. I wanted to also cover “Red Tails,” that “Clone Wars” animated movie, and, yes, “Radioland Murders.” As usually happens, I ran out of time and ended up cutting a few reviews. This kind of thing happens all the time, if you hadn't guessed.

Ultimately, though, I don't regret owning “Radioland Murders.” Yes, it's not a super memorable movie nor is it an overlooked masterpiece. However, it is a pretty amusing throwback to a long ago format and genres nobody thinks much about anymore. It is a fluffy and pleasant experience that can be easily enjoyed. Onto the “Keep” pile it goes! [7/10]

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

NO ENCORES: Nothing but Trouble (1991)

1. Nothing But Trouble
Director: Dan Aykroyd

Dan Aykroyd is an actor and comedian with a writer's spirit. The dude loves to build up elaborate mythologies around his creation. This is the same guy who originally envisioned “Ghostbusters” as an epic full of time-travel, alternate dimensions, and giant monsters. His commitment to the on-going lore of the Blues Brothers is such that he refuses to let that series die peacefully. His real-life belief in spiritualism, UFOs, and conspiracy theories – which extends to him hosting a cheesy “X-Files” rip-off in the late nineties or hocking vodka in skull-shaped bottles – represents a self-made mythology around himself. So it's odd that Aykroyd has never tried directing a movie... Except that one time he did.

Inspired by personal experiences and his dreams, and a jovial screening of “Hellraiser,” Dan Akyroyd wrote a horror/comedy. After John Hughes, John Landis, and Ivan Reitman declined, Akyroyd decided to direct himself. Old friends Chevy Chase and John Candy, despite neither liking the script, agreed to star. Filming was amicable but went wildly over budget. Negative test screenings saw the movie re-titled from “Valkenvania,” Aykroyd's preferred title, to the far more generic “Nothing But Trouble.” In hopes of attracting a larger audience, graphic gore was cut from the film, taking it from an R to a PG-13 rating. It didn't work. “Nothing But Trouble” flopped hard at the box office, grossing only eight million against a forty million dollar budget. More extreme were the reviews, many of which named the film the worst of the year. Roger Ebert hated it so much, he refuse to write a traditional review. This infamy only made me more curious. Surely, I wondered as I popped in the DVD, it can't be that bad?

Chris Thorne, a successful financial publisher in Manhattan, is bored with his life. He experiences an unexpected spark when running into Diane Lightson, a comely lawyer, at a party. He agrees to drive her to Atlantic City the next morning, as an excuse to get closer to her. After two of Chris’ obnoxious friends tag along, Fausto and Renaldo, the day is already ruined. Things get much worst when Chris takes a detour off the New Jersey turnpike into the impoverished village of Valkenvania. Caught speeding by a local cop, the foursome is dragged to an elaborate courthouse. There, they face the 106-year old town judge, Alvin Valkenheiser. The group is led further into the maze-like building, encountering more of the inbred Valkenheiser family, and uncovering a hundred year old murder mystery.

Looking at “Nothing But Trouble,” one can see familiar outlines. The movie belongs to a long horror tradition of a road trip going awry, of one wrong turn thrusting people into a nightmarish scenario. Most prominently, its story of a group of yuppies having car trouble and ending up in a creepy house with a weird family recalls “The Old Dark House” and modern descendants like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” There are elements of gothic horror, with the sprawling manner full of secret passageways, an incestuous brood, and a small town with a dark secret. The backwoods weirdos and house full of bones also brings “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” to mind. Akyroyd was clearly drawing from real life legends as well. Valkenvania is slowly being consumed by an undying coal fire burning underneath the town, an obvious reference to Centralia, Pennsylvania. Setting this story of inbred psychoses in the New Jersey backwoods, instead of the traditional Southern setting for such stories, was probably a reference to the Kallikak family.

As much as “Nothing But Trouble” nods at traditional horror concepts, the film never actually attempts to be scary. There’s plenty of horrific ideas in the film. The Valkenheiser family has been murdering any undesirables that pass through their town since the 1800s, the bones piling in and around the courthouse. They do this by sending victims through a giant razor-filled machine/rollercoaster called Mr. Bonestripper. Yet none of this is played for shocks or tension. Instead, “Nothing but Trouble” is an unerringly grotesque motion picture experience. The centennial Alvin is among cinema’s nastiest looking old men. His nose has rotten away and his leg pops up. A true puker of a scene involves him eating rotten-looking hot dogs, covered in disgusting condiments and delivered by toy train. Then there’s Bobo and Debbull, hideously ugly, moronic adult babies that enter late into the film. They blabber like fools, their fat bodies jiggling. There’s a lot of farting, screaming, occasional burping, and groddy substances in “Nothing but Trouble.”

None of it’s scary, just gross. “Nothing but Trouble” fails on the comedy side of the horror/comedy equation as well. This is a startlingly laughless movie. There are attempts at jokes. Fausto and his sister are obnoxiously petty Brazilians, a stereotype I was previously unfamiliar with. The aggravation they cause Chris is obviously meant to be humorous. So is a series of events that conclude with Chris getting married to Eldona, a huge mute woman played by John Candy in drag. The movie clearly confuses loud with funny, such as a random moment where Judge Valkenheiser jumps up from the bench and starts shouting nonsense.

Some of the comedic elements are so desperate for a laugh they come off as almost pathetic. Such as a fast-paced montage of Chevy Chase on a slide or the last scene, a cartoonish gag where someone leaves a perfectly shaped hole in the wall after running through it. Overdone slapstick is present in any scene involving the Bonestripper. In-between moments like this and wacky sound effects being inserted at random, it’s clear Aykroyd was eager to make people laugh. He fails every time. You know things are bad when one of the few semi-funny moments in the film is an extended cameo from Digital Underground. Humpty Hump’s complete bafflement at what’s happening around him made me chuckle and their musical number injects some energy.

It’s apparent that Aykroyd’s strength as a writer is his incredible imagination. However, expansive collection of ideas usually needs someone else to pare it down into a coherent, manageable whole. It’s very apparent no one filled that position on “Nothing But Trouble.” In fact, the writing is pretty sloppy here. For every semi-effective moment, like Chris and Diane stumbling upon a room full of newspaper stories related to the various murders, there’s another that barely contributes to the story at all. Like John Candy’s patrol cop, Dennis, pulling over a group of coked-up nuts that end up in the Bonestripper. (The leader of which is played by an Diceman-like Daniel Baldwin.) Sometimes, things happen in the story with barely any explanation. Dennis, Fausto, and Renalda disappear half-way through the film and are never mentioned again, save for a minor scene at the very end. Chris is saved from the Bonestripper when the machine fails for no apparent reason. After the heroes escape and bring the military to Valkenheiser, there’s a big twist that probably should’ve come much sooner. Narratively, “Nothing but Trouble” is a mess.

As objectively bad as “Nothing but Trouble” is, as clearly as it fails in its goal, there’s something fascinating about the film. The Valkenheiser’s universe is deeply unappealing but it is clearly defined. “Nothing but Trouble’s” world is lived-in, thought-out, and reflects the personalities of the people who exist there. You can see this in the movie’s genuinely impressive production design. A lot of time and talent went into creating this movie’s sets and locations. The courthouse is full of trap doors, secret slides, hidden tunnels, piles of bones. One of the film’s better moments involves a wall sliding into place until someone is nearly crushed. Behind the house is a huge scrapyard, including a coliseum made of stacked-up cars. The make-up effects, especially those used to create Alvin or the adult baby twins, are very well done. They move realistically and you get an idea of how they smell just from looking at them. It’s not a pleasant thought at all but the effects team did an excellent job creating these characters.

The cast seems made up of people who have little-to-no investment in the material and those that had way too much. Aykroyd originally wanted to play Chris but the studio insisted on Chevy Chase instead. Chase was supposedly combative throughout filming. This disinterest is evident in his performance, which seems bored and irritated. The only time Chase’s acting is effective is when Chris shows his self-loathing side. Read into that what you will. John Candy also doesn’t seem that interested in being here. He plays Dennis the cop as a stiff guy that is slightly unhinged but generally reasonable. It’s a boring performance. As Eldona, Dennis’ twin sister, he doesn’t speak but makes a series of easily read – if uninteresting – facial expressions.

In the “way too invested” column is Aykroyd himself. As Judge Valkenheiser, Dan seems to relish getting to play a totally insane, completely grotesque character. He unleashes all of his most broad tendencies as an actor. Aykroyd also plays Bobo, one of the adult babies, and is similarly unhinged there. Though not buried under any heavy make-up, Taylor Negron and Bertila Damas are similarly over-the-top as the Brazilian siblings. Valri Bromfield, usually wielding guns of some sort, also spends her screentime shrieking and yelling like a crazy person. About the only actor in “Nothing But Trouble” that is never visibly bored nor going totally nuts is Demi Moore as Diane. She acts like an actual human, having some decent chemistry with Chase and even coming off as sweet in her scenes with the adult babies.

“Nothing but Trouble” is unquestionably a bad movie, for reasons that are readily apparent. Yet it is an interesting bad movie. Ultimately, Aykroyd’s film is too aggressively weird to be boring. In fact, the freaks in this freak show are so convincingly created that you can’t help but be kind of intrigued by them. A good movie – probably a good horror movie, probably not a good comedy – could have easily been made from these parts. I’m not surprised the movie has found some defenders. You can easily imagine this one as an influence on Rob Zombie. Why Aykroyd never directed again is easy to guess. Directing while playing two roles in heavy make-up was a tall order and then, of course, the movie bombed hard. Yet “Nothing but Trouble” is a absorbing failure not totally without value. [6/10]

Monday, March 25, 2019

Director Report Card: James Gunn (2017)

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

It feels weird to refer to anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a billion dollar success story and the most profitable franchise in cinematic history, as “risky.” Yet the original “Guardians of the Galaxy” really did seem like a weirder, nerdier superhero film when it was first announced. That it would become a huge hit and one of the MCU’s hottest titles shows the quality of the first one and how savvy Disney’s marketing is. Thus, the sequel was hotly anticipated and work started on a part two quickly. The studio’s confidence in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” was evident when it received the plum first Friday in May release date, generally regarded as the kick-off to summer movie season. Audiences ate it up again, James Gunn’s unlikely ascent to the Hollywood A-list being ensured.

In the months since the end of the first “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Peter Quill and his make-shift family has only grown more renowned. The Guardians are hired by the Sovereign, a haughty alien empire, to protect some special batteries. When Rocket instead steals the batteries, they are pursued by the Sovereign. A strange man appears to save the Guardians, whose ship is still destroyed in the attack. The man introduces himself as Ego, a living planet, and Star-Lord’s long-lost father. Peter – accompanied by Gamora, Drax, and Ego’s assistant Mantis – is taken to Ego’s world and discovers his destiny... Which is not what he expected. Meanwhile, Rocket forms an uneasy alliance with Yondu and Nebula seeks out her sister.

If the first “Guardians” was about a group of heartbroken oddballs finding solace with each other, the sequel is about the cost of that make-shift family. Rocket’s irresponsible and selfish actions kick off most of the story, the cast learning to forgive him – and Rocket forgiving himself for his self-destructive actions – is the story’s emotional core. If Peter Quill was still grappling with the death of his mother in the first film, here, he’s faced with his father and a troubling legacy. He has to grapple with the difference between the perfect father fatherless sons imagine and the grim reality... Before accepting the easily overlooked truth in front of him. This theme, forgiveness and acceptance among make-shift families, extends to every subplot. The idea is solidified with an ending scene where infant-like Baby Groot, the youngest member of the Guardians family, passes between everyone’s arms, embracing each of them.

If what Gunn has said about his own childhood is any indication, “Vol. 2” is an even more personal film than the first. Yet it also has a similar issue with having to juggle a lot of characters, each with their own subplots and history. “Guardians 2” is a heavily plotted movie, with four or five story threads viewers have to keep track of. It’s also a movie of divergent tones, whipping from wacky comedy to comic book action to quirky drama. That the movie still works extremely well is a testament to its quality. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” comes dangerously close to shaking apart at times but somehow holds everything together in a very pleasing way.

Yet the wider scope does allow for Gunn to indulge in even more cosmic weirdness this time around. This is a mainstream blockbuster where the main antagonist is a living planet, after all. I guess if audiences accepted a tree and a raccoon as lovable characters, that's not any more outrageous. Ego only becomes a more odd character as we learn more about him, Kurt Russell's body being blown apart and reforming on camera. A giant brain puts in an appearance, along with tentacles of energy and huge, rocky faces. The Ravagers get an expanded role, the weird and ugly space-mercenaries getting even more screen time. Over the course of the film, we visit the genetically perfected world of the Sovereign and a pleasure planet occupied by robot prostitutes. When Star-Lord says “I”m going to make some weird shit” at one point, you can almost imagine Gunn saying the same thing to the Disney execs.

The film's far-out comic book concepts and outrageous humor cross over clearly in one sequence. In order to reach Ego as quickly as possible, Rocket passes Yondu's ship through fifty star-gates. This results in everyone's faces distorting wildly as they scream in agony. (That's also where Stan Lee's cameo, confirming a popular fan theory about the Watchers, is dropped.) The sequel certainly doesn't back from the original's ribald and referential humor. There's a running gag about Drax's nipples after all. There's a long, hilarious discussion about Ego's penis. One scene has Baby Groot retrieving a series of more unlikely items. A similar and even funnier moment has the big battle pausing so Star-Lord can ask around for a piece of tape. That seem irrelevance is evident in small but very successful gags, like Ayesha's royal carpet roller getting stuck for a minute. Some of the gags, like that revolving around a unripened space fruit, are so absurd they almost don't work. As with the first film, Gunn manages to make pop culture more meaningful. He derives pathos from a David Hasselhoff shout-out, turns Pac-Man into a crowdpleaser, and makes a Mary Poppins homage a delightfully sweet moment.

If “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is densely plotted, with an overly large cast, the film was obviously aware of it. In order to balance an ensemble that is sometimes pushed in too many directions, Gunn thinks of a pretty orderly solution. The film largely pairs up its various characters in teams of two. Rocket and Yondu are teamed together for long portions of the story. Drax and Mantis end up bonding in unexpected ways. Gamora and Nebula meet up, their sisterly rival rising to a different level. This leaves Star-Lord and Ego to drive most of the plot's major beats. It's a smart decision, the movie compartmentalizing its large cast, keeping thing orderly, preventing some of the unsteady screenwriting that was present in the first.

James Gunn has said Rocket is the member of the Guardians he relates the most too. In light of recent actions, you can't help but see some parallels, in the way that Rocket's self-loathing manifests in him pushing his loved ones with bad decisions. His pairing with Yondu seems odd at first. The film does an extraordinary thing where it manages to clarify Rocket's flaws and his connection with Yondu through one monologue. That moment, where Yondu lays out his own past, is among the film's most emotional. It's also a display for Michael Rooker's acting. Rising from a small supporting role, Rooker turns the space-redneck into a surprisingly parental and sincere person.

Another lovable addition to the cast is Pom Klementieff as Mantis. An insectoid empath, Klementieff makes Mantis a lovably innocent character. Unacquainted with social interaction and human emotion – which has been largely interpreted as a metaphor for being on the spectrum – Mantis is adorable. This is a source of comedy, such as the way she bluntly explains her powers, but also for pathos. This is most clear in her unlikely pairing with Drax. Dave Bautista's ability for deadpan comedy is utilized even more this time. Yet there's also a stillness to his performance. Such as the brilliant moment where, when talking about his deceased wife and daughter, Mantis – who experiences emotions through tactile connection – touches his shoulders. She breaks down in tears but Drax, who has lived with this pain for years, simply stares off at the sun.

In the previous film, Gamora and Nebula's subplot was the only clunker. Freed of having to set up Thanos, who is referenced here but never seen, the relationship between the sisters can be focused on. Nebula grows from a typical supervillain to another wounded soul, someone traumatized by her psychotic upbringing at Thanos' hands, who resents the better loved sister. In fact, Nebula – performed by a hard-as-nails Karen Gillain, who growls most of her dialogue – eventually emerges as an unlikely member of the team. How she makes peace with Gamora near the end is especially sweet. Zoe Saldana still works best when bouncing off other characters. Such as the scenes, comedic and romantic, she shares with Peter.

In recent years, Marvel took steps to fix their perceived lack of good villains. Kurt Russell's Ego would prove to be another quality bad guy. Russell is immensely likable, of course. He's the kind of dad any boy would want, ruggedly masculine but also funny, wise, and sensitive. That's the exact kind of charm Russell has built his entire career on. This is, of course, before the extent of Ego's villainy is revealed. His plot – expand his existence to planets all over the galaxy, wiping out millions of lives – is standard comic book evil. Yet Russell and the film makes sure to clarify Ego's humanity. He's motivated by very relatable emotions. He doesn't want to be alone. He wants his life to have meaning. As Quill turns on him, as his plot falls apart, he's even shown fearing death in a very human way.

As Star-Lord, Chris Pratt still mostly plays the part as a quibbing man-child, though his pain and insecurities are still close to his chest. In order to disguise the Ego twist, Elizabeth Debicki's Ayesha was reported as the film's main villain. That wouldn't have been as interesting, though Debicki is pretty good as a regal alien with a carefully constructed outward attitude. A veneer which falls apart more and more as the Guardians continuously stymie her plans. Sean Gunn, the director's brother, gets a bigger role as Yondu's right hand man, Kraglin. In fact, Gunn even gets a few moments of genuine emotion to himself, with a well-placed cry of remorse. Another secondary villain is Taserface, played as fantastically unaware of his own ridiculousness by Chris Sullivan.

While the characters and comedy are the main reason to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” it is a big budget action movie. And a pretty good one at that. The opening fight with the rainbow spewing interdimensional beast is well executed, concluding with the delirious shot of Drax slashing away at the beast's inside. The chase through a quantum asteroid field, another really crazy idea, is satisfyingly intense. Since it was so cool last time, we get a longer sequence devoted to Yondu taking out tons of dudes with his magic arrow. In its final act, “Vol. 2” becomes a bit excessive with its CGI action. In the interior of Ego's planet, there's lots of energy blasts and rocky tentacles. It all becomes a bit too much, though it is certainly never hard to follow.

After the chart-topping success of the original, Gunn admitted that there was some pressure on him to replicate the success of the first film's soundtrack. There aren't as many crowd-pleasing hits here. Glenn Campbell, Sam Cooke and “Lake Shore Drive” don't make as much of an impression on the viewer. However, Gunn still makes great use of some numbers here. The dance party opening of ELO's “Mr. Blue Sky” perfectly captures the effervescent joy of Baby Groot. The team separating and Quill going off with Ego is cut around the percussion and bass of “The Chain” brilliantly. The same can be said of “Come a Little Bit Closer,” an unlikely number to score Yondu's massacre of his former team to. But the best use of songs in the film belong to “Brandy” by Looking Glass, a bit of cheese reclaimed as an emotional checkpoint for the hero, and Cat Steven's “Father and Son.” That last one is on the nose but, fuck it, it works fantastically.

Gunn clearly loves playing in this corner of the Marvel Universe. In fact, he might love it a little too much. While “Guardians Vol. 2” is steady in its story focus, the film does go a little over-the-top with the sequel hooks. The film introduces most of the original 1969 Guardians of the Galaxy team as Yondu's original Ravagers team. It casts well-known actors like Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, and Ving Rhames in the parts, so the audience is certain these guys are important. The subplot with the Sovereign serves its purpose but was likely chosen to set up the next movie's antagonist, who happens to be a major player in cosmic Marvel history. None of this stuff bugs me. In fact, I think it's all pretty fun. Yet it's also a largely inessential addition to a story that stood well enough without all this stuff.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” on account of being a sequel, doesn't have the exact freshness of the original. While it is flawed, it might also be a better written and structured film than the first. Regardless of where it stands in your ranking of Marvel movies, the sequel is still an absolute delight. The cast is having a ball, it's hilarious, hugely imaginative, and an effectively emotional motion picture. It has all the stuff I go to movies for and a dancing tree baby. Gunn continuous to make hugely ambitious and highly personal art even within the realm of 200 million dollar superhero movies. [Grade: A-]

I had to re-write the end of this Director Report Card a few days before I started posting. For a while there, it seemed like Disney kicked James Gunn out of the director's chair for "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," following alt-right trolls acting in bad faith and digging up some tasteless Twitter jokes Gunn made ten years ago. This threw the third "Guardians" film into crisis, Disney pulling it from its future release schedule. Some members of the cast considered walking. Some wondered if the movie itself was basically cancelled. In the turmoil, Gunn seemed to jump ship, waltzing over to Marvel's Distinguished Competition to direct the "Suicide Squad" sequel/reboot.

Instead, a week or two ago, it was announced that Disney re-hired Gunn to make "Guardians Vol. 3" again. Apparently, he had been quietly re-hired quite a while ago, the official announcement being held off until the controversy died down a bit. Amusingly, this does not mean Gunn is leaving "The Suicide Squad" behind either. Apparently, he's going to write/direct the DC ensemble superhero movie about a group of misfits – from the sounds of it, Gunn's line-up is heavy on unconventional characters, recalling "The Specials" – before going back to Marvel to write/direct an ensemble superhero movie about a group of misfits.

What a strange time to be alive. While I obviously love and enjoy Gunn's superhero works, I do hope he returns to weirder, smaller movies some day. I think he probably will, as that sensibility still directs his big budget stuff. Anyway, that concludes my latest Director Report Card. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Director Report Card: James Gunn (2014)

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

James Gunn was probably an unexpected choice to direct a big budget Marvel superhero movie. “Slither” bombed and “Super” was widely disliked by the few people who saw it. Either Gunn is really good at networking or he made a great impression with the right people. (Joss Whedon is apparently a fan so I'm betting the latter played a role.) Then again, the superhero movie Gunn got hired onto wasn't your typical Marvel property. This wasn't a relatively well-known character, like Captain America or the Hulk. This was the Guardians of the Galaxy, a C-list team of cosmic heroes. Having bounced around since 1969, they didn't get even sort of popular until a completely new line-up was introduced in 2008.  The quirky combination really paid off. “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a massive hit, widely beloved, and quickly became a defining movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 1988, as his mother dies of brain cancer, ten year old Peter Quill is abducted by aliens. Twenty-six years later, Quill has grown into the cosmic outlaw Star-Lord. While chasing the Orb, an artifact of immense power, he crosses paths with Gamora – daughter of omnicidal titan Thanos – and partners Rocket Raccoon and tree-creature Groot. In prison, they form a loose team with literal-minded warrior Drax. They are pursued by Ronan the Accuser, a religious extremist aligned with Thanos and determined to destroy the planet Xandar. Along the way, the Orb changing hands several times, the unlikely team become the heroic Guardians of the Galaxy.

Up until this point, all of the Marvel movies were based on Earth. “Guardians of the Galaxy” would open up a previously unseen cosmic corner of the universe. This gave Gunn, a highly imaginative filmmaker, a playground like no other to operate in. So, yes, this is a 200 million dollar movie with a talking raccoon and a tree-monster with a limited vocabulary as its heroes. The film is steeped in Marvel lore, truly introducing then-obscure concepts like Thanos, the Kree, the Nova Corp, and the Infinity Stones. Every crowd shot is full of weird looking aliens or creatures. Part of the movie takes place within the head of a dead giant. In other words, this is deep-nerd shit that is also deeply weird. There's a reason why some seriously speculated that this might be Marvel's first flop. Instead, the audience was receptive to the wide-open world and crazy ideas the film presented.

Of course, the Guardians being weird and obscure doubtlessly worked in the film's favor. It's unlikely that Disney/Marvel would've allowed James Gunn to make the Avengers so totally his own. Gunn's aesthetic mostly comes through via the film's highly irrelevant sense of humor. This is, after all, a superhero epic with a jizz joke in it. There's a lot of jokes along that lines, including a space-raccoon pawing at his crotch, the sudden deployment of a middle finger, nobody being one hundred percent a dick, or a robot-leg being snatched for no reason. Running jokes about “Footloose” are highly unexpected, as are moments where the simple act of standing up becomes hilarious. The movie's hilarious streak is such that it can casually introduce the likes of Howard the Duck or Cosmo the Spacedog like it's no big deal. I attribute the film's wide ranging success largely to its fantastic sense of humor.

And getting to that point probably wasn't easy. The first act of “Guardians of the Galaxy” is its messiest. Getting all of these characters together quickly, each one with their own convoluted origins, is tricky. Star-Lord is the de-facto protagonist, Rocket and Groot speak for themselves and don't need much explanation. Drax's backstory is quickly explained. Gamora and Nebula, meanwhile, get the worst of it. There's a lot of convoluted stuff here, involving Thanos and Ronan's backgrounds. The whole movie has a slight problem, juggling its individual needs with all the established lore of the Marvel universe. While the plot is never hard to follow, you can sometimes get a little lost about where everyone is from or where they are going.

But it doesn't really matter much. The cosmic connections of the Guardians aren't really important anyway. What truly bonds these characters are their mutual statuses as heartbroken losers. Quill has never processed the death of his mother. Drax is still avenging his wife and child's murders. Rocket suffered cruel experiments most of his life. Gamora was raised by one of the universe's biggest supervillains. Each one of them are, in their own way, broken. It is this element that links them together. It takes a lot to establish a cast as feeling like family just within one two hour long movie. “Guardians of the Galaxy” pulls it off, creating lovable, wounded characters that you believe as a lovable unit.

Something else that differentiates “Guardians of the Galaxy” from typical superhero movies is how rift it is with nostalgic signifies. Quill's collection of seventies Top 40 pop hits accompanies him everywhere he goes. He peppers his dialogue with other eighties call-backs, “Who's the Boss?,” “Alf,” and Troll dolls just being some others. Yet this isn't just the movie trying to get some cheap laughs or nods of recognition by shouting something most people in the audience will know. “Guardians” struggles with what nostalgia actually means. Peter's arrested development, his boyish obsessions and consequences-free womanizing, are linked directly to the loss he suffered in childhood. These things are escapes from the hurt that still wounds him. He's not bad for relying on this stuff. It's a part of who he is. But it's not exactly healthy either.

It's sort of hard to realize its only been four years since Chris Pratt was transformed from the schlubby guy on “Parks and Rec” to a superstar headlining two different billion dollar franchises. Yet, watching “Guardians of the Galaxy,” it's easy to see how that happened. Pratt is so damn appealing as Peter Quill. He's obviously extremely handsome. Yet his easy-going comedic persona makes him incredibly likable. He's believable as an action hero, accessible as a hurt man-child, and really funny. It's no surprise that Star-Lord, a character with a long and convoluted history that never connected much with fans, was totally re-written to resemble his film counterpart after this.

The other great discovery of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” most surprisingly, is Dave Bautista as Drax. We all just thought he was another hunk-of-beef pro-wrestler. His previous turns in stuff like “Man with the Iron Fists” did little to dissuade that notion. As Drax, Bautista creates a hilarious and immensely likable character. His literal mind makes Drax a great source of comedy, his inability to understand metaphors being a rich source of jokes. Bautista's totally straight-faced delivery utterly sells these lines. That comedy helps sell what otherwise might've just been another tough guy hero looking to avenge a fallen family.

The break-out characters, even more than any of the other characters, were obviously Rocket and Groot. Yes, at one point, people feared a talking space-raccoon and a soft-spoken tree-man were “too weird” for the mainstream. Hard to believe that now that both are among Marvel's most beloved characters. Yet its not just their memorable gimmicks and cuddly appearances that make Rocket and Groot lovable. Both are the secret hearts of the team. Groot only says three words, delivered by Vin Diesal's distinctive growl, but each are packed with so much meaning.  He's the immediately empathetic core of the film. Rocket may be a bad-ass with a giant gun but he wears his fears on his fuzzy sleeves. Bradley Cooper's voice work is similarly strong. The partnership between the two, especially how it plays out, cements the love beneath this sci-fi tale.

Of the main Guardians, Gamora doubtlessly has the least interesting subplot. Her emotional core is connected to a largely off-screen villain we wouldn't really get to know until 2018. The sisterly rivalry with Nebula is similarly underwritten, the blue-skinned alien never quite coming into her own as a character here. Zoe Saldana's performance is strong, as she projects an appealing, no-nonsense toughness. Yet the character only really comes to life when interacting with Quill. It ultimately doesn't matter too much, the character works and the film is a delight, but the scenes expounding on Gamora's background are definitely the slower-going ones.

In fact, the intergalactic politics in the story are not what made people love the film. Ronan the Accuser is a character with a long history in the comics, having fought the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. As an antagonistic force in the film, he totally serves his purpose. His fanatical desire to destroy innocents, delivered grimly by a growling Lee Pace, provides a proper obstacle for the heroes. There's even some interesting parallels to Islamic extremism to be seen there. Yet Ronan is still a bit of a blank villain. He's a big evil dude who wants to kill everything but doesn't have much in the way of a personality.

The movie's supporting cast is loaded too. Gunn regular Michael Rooker gets a juicy role as Yondu. A founding member of the Guardians in the comics, the proud archer is turned into a weirdo redneck space-pirate here. And it totally works, Rooker's oddly paternal warmth mixing nicely with Yondu's grittier appearance. John C. Riley's role as a wholesome Nova Corps. member may be small but it perfectly utilizes Riley's special brand of warmth. Glenn Close, who has admitted she took the part of Nova Prime for the money, still brings some class and dignity to the role. While Benicio del Toro has the job of delivering exposition during one of the film's more convoluted stop-offs, he does bring a certain degree of style to the part.

James Gunn has clearly never handled action scenes of this scale before. Not that the action in “Guardians” is bad. It's actually really good. Quill's rocket boots are utilized in creative ways. The siege on Ronan's ship in the last act features lots of cool moments, like the Milano's dramatic entrance or Groot discovering how deadly he can be. Yondu's magic arrow emerges from the film as one of pop culture's coolest weapons. Yet you also don't see the same degree of Gunn's visual sense that you saw in “Super.” The spaceship-heavy action scenes, while still really cool, were directed more by the special effects team than anyone else. Mostly, Gunn's style emerges from brief rough-zoom on Drax or the occasional leap towards the audience.

Since “Guardian's” release, there have been several attempts to emulate its soundtrack. Admittedly, scoring a sci-fi comic book flick to classic pop/rock radio shouldn't work. You wouldn't expect schlock like “The Pina Colada Song” or “Hooked on a Feeling” to have any pathos inside them. Yet Gunn digs under these bubblegum tunes, finding deeper meaning. Gunn's directorial vision especially come through in catchy scenes set to numbers like the Runaways' “Cherry Bomb” or “Come and Get Your Love.” He even taps into the unexpected haunting beauty of something like 10cc's “I'm Not in Love” or “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” While the Five Stairsteps and the Jackson 5 provide the perfect note to take things out on. Tyler Bates' score is pretty good too, it must be said.

“Guardians of the Galaxy's” pop culture spanning success can be seen in how much it would influence future Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings. The cosmic tones of “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Avengers: Infinity Wars” or “Captain Marvel” likely would have played out very differently if Rocket and Groot hadn't gone there first. Though the film isn't without some bumpy story turns or underwritten decisions, it is ultimately an utter joy from beginning to end. By letting his imagination run wild, and letting him do what he pleased with less known characters, James Gunn became maybe Marvel's most distinct and lovable auteur. [Grade: A]

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Director Report Card: James Gunn (2010)

2. Super

There was something in the air at the end of the last decade. Superhero movies had been around long enough that it was apparent they weren't going away. Yet the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which cemented cape movies as the crowning filmic trend of our time, was just getting started. Nevertheless, there was a brief period where a bunch of people had the same idea: What if a real person became a superhero? From 2008 to 2010, indies like “Special,” “Defendor,” “Boy Wonder,” and “Griff the Invisible” came out. Definitive deconstructed superhero text “Watchmen” hit theaters in 2009 while 2010's “Kick-Ass” made the biggest impression on audiences. Coming shortly after that was “Super,” James Gunn's long-simmering – he started writing the script in 2002 – follow-up to “Slither.” Unfairly compared to the glossier “Kick-Ass” at the time, Gunn's film won divisive reviews and didn't find much of an audience. But I'm here to tell you that “Super” isn't just the best film of this particular wave of superhero flicks. It's one of the best superhero movies period.

Frank Darbo has lived a life of misery and humiliation. He believes he’s only had two perfect moments: A brief instance where he helped a police officer catch a fleeing criminal and when he married his wife, Sarah. A recovering addict, Sarah has slowly been getting back into drugs and eventually leaves Frank for her dealer, Jacques. This breaks Frank. In his desperation, he seems to have a vision from God, inspiring him to become a superhero named the Crimson Bolt. Armed with a simple pipe wrench, he goes about brutally bashing small time crooks – or anyone he deems in violation of the rules – with “rescuing” Sarah being his ultimate goal. Frank’s way in over his head, of course. After befriending an unhinged comic book clerk named Libbie, who self-appoints as his sidekick, his journey only grows more disturbing.

What makes “Super” especially subversive is that it’s not really about superheroes at all. Frank is not a comics fan. Seemingly his only previous exposure to masked heroics is a cheap Christian television show called the Holy Avenger. “Super” is not paying homage to Marvel and DC the same way “Slither” did to eighties horror. Gunn’s main inspiration for “Super” was likely his 2007 divorce from actress Jenna Fischer. The film is all about the masculine sense of loss felt at the abrupt end of a relationship. Specifically, Frank is grappling with his male entitlement, saying Sarah belongs to him and must be returned. That his “acts of heroism” largely involves beating petty criminals to bloody pulps with a wrench draws his mentally instability, and the absurdity of the entire superhero premise, into sharper focus. “Super” paints becoming a superhero as an act of toxic masculinity and insanity. By circumnavigating most of the specifics of the superhero, “Super” ends up being more insightful about the genre than most other films attempting to deconstruct it.

Frank is also, the movie repeatedly points out, pathetic. He’s not very smart. The opening montage shows the crueler humiliations from his life, including his prom date sleeping with the photographer. He makes childish crayon drawings and seems pretty clueless about his wife’s wants and needs. Yet there is also a startling humanity to his patheticness. After Sarah leaves, he gets on his knees and prays to God. He tears himself down, calling himself stupid and ugly. Rainn Wilson ugly-cries through the bracing monologue, making what could’ve been a cruel joke into a touching display of utter vulnerability. “Super” in general, and Wilson specifically, are totally sincere in their depiction of Frank as a not-bad person that is completely broken down by the sense of loss in his life.

As serious as “Super” takes Frank, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a source of humor. “Super” is a really funny movie and a big source of that is Frank’s strangeness as a character. A gag the film successfully returns to is how bad he is at lying. While trying to do research for his crime fighting quest, he wears an obviously fake beard. When the librarian calls him on this, he doubles down in claiming the beard is real. Later, a police detective comes for a standard visit to Frank’s house, which the would-be hero makes more suspicious by his shifty behavior. His attempts to cover this up just makes him look more guilty. Later, while talking about the Crimson Bolt with a co-worker, Frank changes his opinion and doubles back several times, to the co-worker’s bafflement. Rainn Wilson’s utter commitment to Frank’s half-assed attempts at lying makes this running gag way funnier than it would’ve been otherwise.

Another source of humor is how divine inspiration plays a role in Frank’s quest. Early on, he rather nonchalantly drops the revelation that he's received visions from God his entire life. That he never second-guesses the source of these visions says a lot about Frank's grasp on reality. The way Gunn portrays these visions adds to the comedy. Demonic faces are crudely pasted over the faces of evil-doers, their voices digitally distorted in bizarre ways. This leads up to the biggest freak-out in the film, the elaborate vision of God's finger touching Frank's brain and planting the idea of a becoming a superhero, with the assistant of some naughty tentacles and a paint-roller. An audaciously hilarious moment, Gunn also makes sure the audience doesn't take this presentation at face value. Frank's holy vision is inspired by bad television. The tentacles come from a bit of hentai he crosses on cable. Everything else, meanwhile, is boosted by a super low-budget “Bibleman” style television series, Gunn perfectly imitating the crude production values of such a series. It's pretty clear that Gunn is painting the steadfast motivations of various superheroes – Batman's quest against crime, for example – as ridiculous and impractical concepts.

Among the film's most biting criticism of comic book fandom, and its most entertaining character, is Libbie. Libbie has a boundless youthful energy, randomly doing handstands or crouching behind a desk. She has no filter, mocking Frank's name after specifically asking him not to mock her's or dropping offensive language. The twist is that Libbie isn't merely a quirky female character in an indie movie. She's a full-blown sadistic psychopath, who derives clear glee from hurting people and with zero regard for traditional morality. She takes way too much pleasure in viciously exterminating criminals, treating life-and-death like a game. Bringing this difficult character to life is Ellen Page at her most breathtakingly gorgeous. Ellen easily nails the limitless enthusiasm of Libbie while never betraying her child-like psychosis. Libbie is a very dangerous person but doesn't consider it a big deal at all, a contrast Page fantastically realizes.

That Libbie is a dangerous nut that does and says whatever she wants paints a pretty clear picture of what a superheroic sidekick would be in real life: A lunatic, a thrill-seeker, or both. (She's also in her twenties, a bit old for a “kid” sidekick.) “Super” continues to slyly mocks the superhero traditions throughout. Frank's weapon is not a high-tech suit of armor or specially made batarangs. It's just a plain old pipe wrench. His costume is an ugly mishmash of material woven together by someone with no experience in needlework. The pithiest catchphrase he can muster is “Shut up crime!,” a juvenile statement screamed with the conviction of a madman. He spends most of his patrols hanging out and waiting for something to happen, which it rarely does. When he does fight, it ends in one of two ways. Either he's embarrassed or seriously injured during combat... Or he bashes unsuspecting people into unconsciousness with a wrench. His incompetence and humiliation play as absurd comedy, with the severe beatings he hands out – Gunn's violence is gloriously R-rated – his victims rolling out as especially dark humor.

The severity of the movie's violence is, in fact, preparing the audience for what's to come. There's an intentional and hard tonal shift in the movie's last act. While taking the fight to Jacques' compound, wearing armor and wielding weapons, reality ensues. Libbie has her head suddenly, graphically blown off. Frank becomes a hardened executioner, blowing away limbs with bombs and killing goons at point-blank range as they beg for mercy. Gunn adds comic book sound effects over these acts of realistic violence, drawing the contrast between real life murder and comic book action into sharp relief. Yet the brutality of the last act is amazingly effective on its own, “Super” transforming into a disturbing crime film totally assured of its convictions. It's an amazing gut-punch of a switch, the thoroughly disarmed audience drawn completely into a brutal and ugly finale.

That tonal shift left a bad taste in many people's mouths. That's not the only element of “Super” that'll make you uncomfortable. Much of the film's comedy is what we'd call “problematic” today. Offensive slurs, once part of the common nerd vernacular but now rendered verboten in today's climate, are flung around easily. The bad guys and supporting cast members often talk in the kind of outrageous language familiar from Gunn's Troma days. Yet the most offensive moments comes when Libbie, sexually aroused by a day of crime-fighting, attempts to seduce Frank. Faithful to Sarah, he's not interested. But Libbie doesn't take no for an answer. I've seen the scene that follows referred to as deeply offensive, hilarious or even erotic. How exactly you are supposed to take the scene is hard to say and the movie could've functioned without it. You're also not going to forget it any time soon either.

As a visual filmmaker, Gunn has already come such a long way since “Slither.” “Super's” direction occupies two worlds. Many of the film's scenes are shot in a gritty, seemingly handheld style. Gunn's camera often follows the characters as they move around the unnamed but harshly industrial city, capturing the realistic world the film is set in. This is often contrasted with the colorful montages of the Crimson Bolt's superheroic adventures. Comic book graphics flash on the screen during these moments, gifting the movie with a sure-footed sense of whimsy. Yet there are surreal touches too and not just in tentacle-laden fantasy scenes. Frank's recollection of his first night with Sarah has the furniture casually moving around them. Or in Frank's meeting with the Holy Avenger, in a clear white room. It's a really interesting looking movie, that's for sure.

While Wilson and Page are clearly the stars of the show, “Super” does have an accomplished supporting cast. Liv Taylor often comes off as blank in other films. Here she shows a humanistic trauma during most of her scenes, even coming off as charming or insightful when Sarah is sober. Gunn regulars like Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker show up in understated roles, Henry as a cop just doing his job and Rooker as a thug that approaches his rough business casually. Nathan Fillion is hilariously uptight as the Holy Avenger, delivering preposterously self-righteous dialogue with a totally straight face. Kevin Bacon steals the show as Jacques, a childish and petty man who doesn't often considers the consequences of his actions. He even seems somewhat prissy about the nasty side of his business, Bacon playing the villain as a conceited teenage brat trapped in a grown man's body.

“Super's” world is one of contrast. It's opening credits are portrayed as a ridiculous cartoon, packed with gory violence. It's score shifts between willowy choirs and hard action movie bass. The back-and-forth Gunn brings to the material, seesawing between absurd humor and extreme violence, isn't going to appeal to everyone. Yet “Super” is a movie I grow more fond of every time I see it. Beautifully acted, deeply sincere in its emotions, and one hundred percent successful at the different tones it aims for, it all builds up to a genuinely touching epilogue. Maybe I'm alone in loving this oddball movie that is a gonzo comedy, a harsh crime thriller, an outrageous cult experience, and a strange deconstruction of the superhero concept. More for me than, because I think “Super” is fucking great. [Grade: A]

Friday, March 22, 2019

Director Report Card: James Gunn (2006)

James Gunn has had an unlikely career. He began writing movies for Troma, that New Jersey independent studio that specializes in aggressively gross and crass horror films. While Troma is usually a self-contained universe of weirdness, Gunn would somehow make the leap to mainstream movies, writing Hollywood reboots like “Dawn of the Dead” and the live-action “Scooby-Doo” movies. He parlayed that success into directing a pair of movies that recalled his work with Troma, in terms of their outrageous content. Neither was very financially successful. Somewhere, somehow, someone important saw those movies and liked them because Gunn next made the leap to directing a big budget, Marvel comics tent pole.

All along, Gunn has retained a distinct style of his own, never loosing that slightly juvenile edge but able to marry it to mature themes and some really cute ideas. Which is a big reason why I'll be talking about his movies for the next few days. Let's start.

1. Slither

It would seem that the horror genre is going through something of a reinsurance in recent years. It's hit a level of mainstream acceptance previously unseen, with horror films even winning Oscars recently. People who are actually observant of genre know its actually been going through a pretty good period since the turn of the millennium, even if critics and mainstream audiences didn't notice. Look at “Slither,” for example. A loving homage to eighties horror, few people went to the movie during its theatrical run. It was considered a commercial flop back in 2006, grossing about three million shy of its 15 million dollar budget. In-the-know horror fans latched onto it immediately and James Gunn's feature debut remains a cult favorite.

Not much happens in the small southern town of Wheelsy, South Carolina. School teacher Starla getting married to much older rich man Grant Grant or Bill Pardy getting elected to sheriff qualifies as big news. Nobody notices when a small meteor lands in the woods. After an argument with his wife, Grant comes upon the space rock. A creature from inside burrows into his chest. From there, Grant is taken over by the extraterrestrial parasite, his body mutating. Soon, Grant spawns thousands of giant worms, that crawls into people's mouths and turns them into acid-spitting monsters. Bill and Starla have to fight back if they expect to survive.

Defining any horror movie strictly on how scary it is does not really do the multi-layered genre justice. However, “Slither” is a horror movie that does get the audience squirming. Gunn's picture utilizes a lot of body horror. Throughout the film, people's bodies are invaded by creepy-crawling creatures from outer space. They enter through any orifice possibly, usually thrusting themselves into people's mouths. From there, they stretch, deform, and mutate in all sorts of nasty way. While the movie never gets true scares out of the audience, save for a pretty weak attempt at a jump-scare, “Slither” is definitely grisly enough to thrill, discomfort, and satisfy.

What really helps the film achieve this is its fantastic special effects. The practical creature make-up is pretty damn good. Michael Rooker's body slowly grows postulating sores and weird lesions all over his skin. His face swells and twists. Eventually, he becomes a squid-like monster made of lumps of twisted flesh, with a jaw that beautifully extends out into a beastly maw. The zombies that result from the outbreak are similarly gruesome, with patchy complexions and acidic slime dripping from their mouths. The film does have its share of CGI effects, which is what's used to bring the legion of parasitic worms to life. While that hasn't aged fantastically, “Slither” does a good job of balancing computer effects with traditional monster make-up, creating a nice blend of grotesque nastiness.

The best horror movies aren't just driven by gore though. “Slither” does provide a deeper meaning beneath its mayhem. Grant Grant heads out into the woods that night because his wife won't sleep with him. This sexual frustration leads him to nearly have an affair with another woman. However, he backs away at the last minute, showing that Grant is ultimately a decent guy. His alien infection prompts him to attacking Starla with probing tentacles but he holds back. Later, he then attacks the woman from earlier, impregnating her with his alien off-spring, in a scene obviously reminiscent of sexual assault. As the zombies spawn, they share a hive-mind with Grant. The zombies are emotionally needy, possessive and abusive of Starla. It seems the alien infection represents the lower desires of mankind, the base wants Grant fights against in order to function.

“Slither” is a horror/comedy though, not satisfied to make its audience yell with disgust but also laugh with delight. And it can be pretty funny at times. There's a sequence where a zombie deer attacks Bill that always cracks me up, escalating in ridiculousness until its satisfyingly blunt conclusion. A short scene revolving around an off-tune karaoke rendition of “The Crying Game” is hilarious. Gregg Henry's role as the town's foul-mouthed mayor does get some laughs, especially during a Mister Pibb-related outrage. While “Slither” definitely is funny, there are a few too many times when its jokes boil down to people reacting to some gnarly event with profanity.

Then again, the best jokes in “Slither” are a little more under the surface. Gunn knew that the hardcore horror fans were his target audience. Fittingly, the film is packed to the gills with callbacks to eighties horror. The premise recalls both “Night of the Creeps” and “The Deadly Spawn,” with alien slugs creating zombies and purple parasites arriving on Earth via meteor. A scene where a slug attacks a teen girl in a bathtub – which most of the marketing was based around for some reason – was clearly patterned after a similar moment in David Cronenberg's “Shivers.” Background gags include shout-outs to “The Thing,” “Videodrome,” Frank Henenlotter, “Tremors,” and “The Fly.” It's clear that body horror classics like “Society” and “The Brood” inspired Gunn. There's even some shout-outs to less well-known flicks like “Sleepaway Camp” and “Student Bodies,” via the presence of a curling iron and a horsehead bookend. Rob Zombie and Lloyd Kaufman have cameos. There's definitely some fun to be had attempting to spot the references, even if “Slither” is a little too self-satisfied with its countless call-backs.

Another aspect of “Slither” I really like that I don't hear people talk about much is how accurately it captures life in a small southern town. The opening montage gives us a peak at what a normal night in Wheelsy is like. And there's not a lot going on. The town is quiet, practically empty. The peak of local entertainment seems to be a few stray bars. The cops are so inactive, they pass the town by measuring birds with traffic guns. People are so fucking bored that town gossip about who is screwing who is pretty much all they have to discuss. There's a lot of drinking and hunting to pass the time. As someone who grew up in a small southern town probably around the same size as Wheelsy, I'm impressed with how well Gunn captured that particular type of setting.

Though “Slither” was his feature debut, James Gunn had directed a few shorts and television episodes before, largely during his Troma days. So he definitely had a chance to develop a directorial style or visual approach beforehand. The action scenes are clear and concise, easy to follow. You can tell Gunn was working to replicate the look and feel of eighties horror. “Slither” has that same atmosphere, heavy on the blue-and-black shadows that doesn't obscure the quality of the effects either. While the film is low on stylistic flourishes, it also looks exactly like it's supposed to look, I think.

“Slither” was the first of several collaborations between Gunn and Nathan Fillion. At the time, Fillion was best known for his starring role in cult favorite television series “Firefly.” Since then, Fillion has gone on to several popular if underachieving cop shows. “Slither” came at this transitional period in Fillion's career, suggesting an alternate future where he could've been our next Bruce Campbell. Fillion has got the chin, first off. Secondly, he has a similarly easy-going charm. Fillion plays Bill Pardy as a laid-back every-dude, a small town cop equally concerned with passing time as upholding the law. After shit goes crazy, Fillion shows Pardy barely holding it together under pressure. Yet Fillion never looses that slightly cock-eyed grin, that sense of humor during crazy zombie action.

This is also the first film I really noticed Elizabeth Banks in. Banks has another similarly ideal quality for the part, nailing the charm of a small town girl with simple needs and wants. Yet Banks also emphasizes a sly intelligence for Starla, a biology teacher that knows quite a lot about the subject. She's also the movie's secret heart, driving its emotional core. See, though she might've married young and for money, Starla does care about Grant. You see it the scene where she tries to make a lost night up to him. Watching her husband turn into a giant space squid clearly has an effect on her, evident in the shock and horror Banks brings to the part. The movie manages, somehow, to get sincere pathos out of Air Supply's “Every Woman in the World” and that's largely thanks to Bank. In other words, she totally gets the part and nails it.

Yet my favorite performance in the film is Michael Rooker. Rooker has largely played heavies and psychopaths throughout the career. Which is understandable, considering the threatening aura he puts off. And, in some ways, Grant Grant fits into that type. He is a mutated space-monster that eviscerates people his tentacles. Yet there's also a tender aspect to Grant. He really does love his wife. The violence he commits in the film's second half really isn't his fault either. Rooker has to balance that humanity with a larger lack of humanity. He pulls it off, making Grant Grant a compelling movie monster.

”Slither's” box office failure was blamed on mainstream audience's inability to understand both horror and comedy existing in the same film. And that might've been true during the “Saw” era but, considering the previous success of the horror/comedy, I kind of doubt that. Instead, I think “Slither” was always a niche film. It's not like the mall horror crowd that flocked to “Stay Alive” a few weeks before where ever going to get this one. This one was directed to horror nerds and, obviously, that's the crowd that embraced “Slither.” While definitely a little smug in its fan-boy enthusiasm, you can't deny that the movie isn't hugely entertaining if you're in a very specific mindset for it. [Grade: B+]