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Sunday
Feb282010

Cop Out, 2010

Beat Downer

A wonderful thing happened this week: the Clerks blu-ray dropped from a ridiculous $24.99 to a more reasonable $14.99—keep in mind, this is the Amazon.com price, and not the $40 retail amount. Because of this, I was finally able to pick up one of my favorite movies and enjoy it in high definition. And, yes, it’s rough watching parts of it now, as the increased resolution makes all of the “charming” low-budget defects seem absolutely garish; but the new transfer also offers a wealth of new detail in the picture. On top of that, the disc is packed with great extras, and two versions of the movie.

The best part of watching Clerks is reminiscing about that magical period in the mid-90s when a small group of independent directors were discovered; auteurs whose unconventional storytelling methods would shake up Hollywood and help define the industry into the next century. The same way Robert Rodriquez broke the mold of action films with El Mariachi and Desperado and Quentin Tarantino bent the sprawling Academy epic to his exploitation- and pop-culture-loving will, Kevin Smith re-invigorated comedy with his movie about two convenience store clerks who swear at customers and complain about their sorry lives.

Smith’s raunch got people’s attention, but the earnestness of his characters and their love of alternative and geek culture built him an audience; he was a filthy Woody Allen whose films pointed out that the hum-drum slapstick of Chris Farley movies was not only unfunny, but also not the only game in town. He wrote and shot in a style that was lackadaisical but honest, at least for the hyper-intelligent, directionless, and middle-class of his generation. Kevin Smith masked real-world fears in blowjob jokes and Star Wars analogies, demonstrating that comedy could tickle the funny bone without fat people running into lamp posts, and tug at the heart strings without resorting to teary close-ups or overwrought violins on the soundtrack.

Kevin Smith should be fucking ashamed of his latest film, Cop Out.

My wife and I watched it the other night, and while we were busy not laughing, we looked at each other in horrified disbelief at the unfunny tragedy unfolding on-screen. This is the first movie Smith has directed that he did not also write, but I’m really, really curious as to what he saw in the abysmal screenplay by Robb and Mark Cullen. To call this either an homage to or a send-up of 80s cop movies is to understand neither 80s cop movies nor the concept of satire. For one thing, classics like Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon were exciting and had compelling lead characters; for another, satires are typically funny. So, why was I both unmoved and not amused during Cop Out’s nearly two-hour run time?

Maybe it’s because Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan were unconvincing as New York cops; partners, in fact, of nine years. Willis has the beleaguered-police-officer thing down, but Morgan’s dropped-on-his-head man-child shtick doesn’t lend itself to this story; especially when we see him doing actual police work, it’s hard to accept that his superiors would not have had him committed, let alone keep him on the payroll for nearly a decade.

This is not a farce, like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. In that kind of movie, it’s okay for one of the heroes to be an obnoxious, borderline mentally disturbed freak—because the whole point of the story is to watch the world react to them. Cop Out is allegedly grounded in reality; the two detectives find themselves embroiled in a war with a Mexican drug dealer whose crew deals with failure in their ranks by shooting people in the back of the head and then cutting out their tongues so that they can’t confess their sins in the afterlife (this, by the way, was the only interesting idea in the movie, but I’m sure the screenwriters just Googled “cool gang-banger shit” and copied the entry into their screenplay).

Tracy Morgan is fun to watch on 30 Rock, which is a deft TV comedy that allows him to throw weird tantrums and speak in non-sequiturs. Sadly, the Cullens’ screenplay thinks that the best use of his abilities is to drop him into a four-minute-long interrogation scene where he mumbles and thrashes about, spewing tough-guy lines from movies—while Bruce Willis stands on the other side of the two-way glass, saying the movies’ names out loud for the benefit of the zombies in the audience (please, don’t hurt yourself laughing when Morgan says, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” and Willis says, “I haven’t seen that one.”). The majority of Morgan's scenes drag on and on and on, laugh-free.

Cop Out is a real tragedy, as it’s packed with interesting actors who’ve all been great in better roles. Guillermo Diaz played a meaner, more realistic version of a drug lord on the Showtime drama, Weeds. Seann William Scott shows up as a drug addict who helps/hassles our heroes; unfortunately, he leaves his Steve Stifler character from American Pie behind, with no personality or spark in its absence. The great Kevin Pollak turns up, too, as a rival cop, and I wished really hard that we could have left the main bozos behind and just followed his character for the rest of the movie. The only actor who came away unscathed was Jason Lee, as the new husband of the Willis character’s ex-wife; is it bad that I was on his side after his diatribe about how much a loser Willis is?

It just occurred to me that I’ve not spent any time discussing the plot of Cop Out.

Let’s get back to that Clerks blu-ray. The movie is still very funny and heartfelt and, most importantly, it has a unique voice. That voice came from a director who would never pay money to see a movie like Cop Out. He would surely consider it a generic, soulless grab at attention and relevance from someone who needed weed-and-mortgage money after his last work of passion flopped at the box office. Kevin Smith needs to funnel all of the dirty cash he made off this picture into another original work and release it independently. He needs to reconnect with the hungry, young rebel with something to say and more to give; the creator of Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and, truly, one of my favorite sequels, Clerks 2. Those movies were memorable. The only thing I’ll remember about Cop Out was that it came out the same week Clerks went on sale.

Friday
Feb262010

The Howling, 1981 (Home Video Review)

I Don't Believe in Modern Horror

The Howling is the second horror movie from 1981 that I’ve watched this week. I don’t know what was going on with the genre back then but damn, could we stand to learn some lessons.

For starters, this is a werewolf movie in which we don’t see a werewolf until it’s nearly half over. The Howling begins as a stylized crime picture in which serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) lures TV reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) into a peep show booth. The cops and Karen’s news crew monitor her movements, but something goes wrong and the sting turns bloody. At her psychiatrist’s request (Patrick Macnee), Karen and her husband take a vacation at his wooded recovery retreat. There, they meet colorful locals, New Age hippies, and one sultry nymphomaniac. Karen also begins to have visions of bizarre, hairy half-men, and hears wolves howling in the night.

The rest of the story isn’t particularly revolutionary—at least not today—but the acting, script and direction make The Howling a great, weird horror thriller. It’s part monster movie, part black comedy; a style director Joe Dante would continue to hone in his segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie , Explorers, and his most famous film, Gremlins.

Take the scene in which another reporter, Terry (Belinda Balaski), sneaks into the retreat to dig up a file on Eddie Quist, who was also under the care of the psychiatrist. She talks to her boyfriend on the phone while rifling through a file cabinet, and grows increasingly frustrated when the documents she needs don’t turn up. Suddenly, a giant clawed hand reaches into frame, handing Terry a file folder; she looks up to see a nine-foot monster standing in front of her. It’s a solid jump scare, but it’s also ridiculous—and, since this is the first time we see what the werewolf really looks like, it’s also kind of terrifying. The beast strangles and mangles Terry, a character to whom we’ve grown to like. The moment of her death feels tragic—until it’s undermined by a cut back to the boyfriend on the other end of the phone, who’s got a copy of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl sitting on his desk (he may have also been drinking Wolf coffee).

The offbeat storytelling is enhanced by Dante’s visual style, which feels inspired by the EC Comics of the 50s. The Howling is all skewed angles, dramatic close-ups, and a rich color palette that—when combined with his use of both extreme shadows and haunting twilight haze—give the movie a dreamlike quality.

It also helps that there are so many great faces and inspired cameos in the film. Monster movie fans and character-actor groupies will flip when they recognize Roger Corman, Slim Pickens, Forrest Ackerman, and Dick Miller (side note: is Dick Miller the best character actor in the history of film? Even though he plays a variation of the same guy in almost every movie, he manages to bring some new, indefinable thing to his roles that never fails to make me smile). All of the actors Dante chose bring a larger-than-life quality to the movie; they all look like they jumped out of a comic book and onto the screen. This serves to not only keep us involved in what’s going on, but also allows us to join Karen on her descent into paranoia. That’s not to say that the supporting performances are parodies—I really believed that half the cast was nuts.

The Howling came out in the same year as An American Werewolf in London, and shares that film’s reputation for groundbreaking transformation effects. I won’t compare the two right now, as it’s been awhile since I saw the other film, but I will say that effects master Rob Bottin took a different approach than I’d expected. Besides the requisite skin stretching and snout morphing, Bottin added a bubbling effect that looked alternately creepy and dodgy. And while I appreciate that this was in part an effects showcase, I think the transformations took up a bit too much screen time.

I don’t know when Hollywood lost its magic in regards to horror films (probably around the same time as The Howling III: The Marsupials), but what passes for great genre filmmaking has been on the decline for almost thirty years. It’s a disgrace that someone could put out a bloated, bloodless cash-in like The Wolfman remake and call it a horror movie; The Howling is a lean ninety minutes of scary fun, starring adults and written for them.

In fact, I think The Howling should be re-released in theatres today, in place of The Wolfman. You wouldn’t need to re-cast it or cut it; just put the movie out again. Promote it heavily, and watch people go nuts. Sure, MGM would probably farm out some effects touch-ups to Lucasfilm—there are sequences in which the werewolves in the movie are actually cartoons—but much of the practical work still holds up. This movie is so original and smart that I don’t think modern audiences would know what hit them.

Sunday
Feb212010

Shutter Island, 2010

It's Exactly What You Think

Martin Scorsese should be very proud. His latest film, Shutter Island, is the best psychological thriller or 1995.

That’s not a typo, and this isn’t necessarily a negative review. The movie, while at times creepy, well acted, and fun to watch, feels like it came out fifteen years too late. In the post-Usual Suspects, post-Sixth Sense age, a great “twist” ending has to be spectacular, and not something that is all but given away in the trailer. I prayed going into this movie that I would be wrong, and that Scorsese had only pretended to telegraph Shutter Island’s big mystery in the previews; sadly, I could have guessed (in fact, did) all of the movie’s “secrets” before the title card appeared on-screen

But maybe I’m suffering from a case of “having seen too many movies”. I get that a lot. I’ve recently begun asking those who say that to me whether or not they would ever accuse someone of having read too many books. Digression aside, I’d like for you to play a game with me. Please read the synopsis below and see if you can figure out the big Shutter Island surprise.

The year is 1954. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal from Boston whos’ called out to a remote mental asylum to investigate the disappearance of a patient. A former soldier who helped liberate Dachau, Teddy has constant flashbacks to the war; he also hallucinates a great deal, seeing visions of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who burned to death in an apartment fire a few years earlier.

He also has a new partner on the assignment, named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), whose main job is to take notes and eye Teddy suspiciously. The two men interview the staff and the head of the hospital, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, who has, thankfully, taken up acting again), but no one will say anything about the missing patient or the mysterious note she left—which alludes to there being one more patient on the island than has been officially recorded.

If you’re like me, what’s going through your mind right now is similar to what I thought after having watched this premise be established in the trailer: “No way. There has to be more to it than that, right? I mean, they’ve just told me that Teddy is a patient at the hospital having delusions of being a detective!” Well, there’s a little more to it than that, but the film’s twisty-er story points are just nuances of the inevitable. So if you’re looking for a brain-bender, stay off this island.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to recommend here. As I said before, the actors are almost uniformly top-notch. Because we’re dealing with Martin Scorsese, we know the movie will be filled with great faces and better performances. DiCaprio fares better with his Boston accent than Mel Gibson in the recent Edge of Darkness; and his gradual unraveling is fun to behold, if a tad melodramatic in parts. Mark Ruffalo is great as Chuck. He injects this non-role with a quiet, everyman quality that balances DiCaprio’s manic eyes and hands. But the best roles in Shutter Island are those of the supporting cast. Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, and Robin Bartlett make this movie believable—possible, even. They play the wardens and the nutcases; in a movie like this, truly unnerving characters can keep the madhouse from simply being a funhouse.

The one exception in the cast is Michelle Williams, who plays her scenes as an off-her-meds Alice Kramden, by way of Cliff Clavin from Cheers. Seriously, she was better on Dawson’s Creek.

Shutter Island has a lot going for it visually, too, but—and this is the strange part—the movie is undermined by Scorsese’s poor choice of visual technique. Teddy’s visions and memories of the concentration camp are poetic short stories that we glimpse and piece together as the “A” story progresses. These aren’t typical movie flashbacks; they’re kaleidoscopic nightmares filtered through regret and suppressed rage. However, they’re undermined by Scorsese’s puzzling over-use of green-screen in just about every other scene. I still can’t figure out what the director was going for; even in scenes where two characters are talking against a nondescript wall, the edges around their shoulders and heads show the slight fuzziness of a mediocre composite job. While images of piled bodies and reanimating corpses are suitably chilling, I was most upset by the fact that most of Shutter Island looks like it was filmed in a parking lot.

This problem almost ruins the film’s atmosphere, but not nearly as much as the music does. The instrumentals of the opening ten minutes build and build, climaxing in a hammer-in-the-face barrage of ominous noise as Teddy and Chuck walk through the gates of the asylum. This is the most egregious instance, but there are several other moments where the music over-sells moments that would have been more effective with no accompaniment. Nearly every emotion and story beat in Shutter Island is spelled out before anything significant happens, and it’s an insulting distraction.

On a related note, it is quite funny that the “big twist” is literally spelled out for the audience on a whiteboard. Teddy comes unglued and bursts into Dr. Cawley’s office with a shotgun, convinced he’s uncovered a huge government conspiracy; Cawley reveals that Teddy is suffering from delusions brought on by severe mental trauma (I won’t give those specifics away), and the proof is in a pair of names that are anagrams for two other names. I won’t spoil those, either, but the surprise won’t be too startling to anyone who thought, “Hmm, that character’s got a weird name; I wonder if it’ll mean anything later on?”

Shutter Island is ultimately a noble failure. It kept me going for a good chunk of the running time (about 45 minutes could have been excised from the middle), hopeful that my initial theory would be proven wrong. I’ll never watch it again, and for me that’s not the mark of a good film. I think it’s a tremendous waste of talent, time, and money. Had Scorsese gone a step further and shown Teddy not to be crazy, to have been, in fact, the victim of the conspiracy instead of the fabricator of it, this movie may have been closer to something special. As it stands, the movie’s greatest shocking twist is that there isn’t one.

Saturday
Feb202010

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

Stinky Jinx

Having just watched The Burning, it may be impossible for me to talk about Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers objectively.

But I’ll try.

Nope. Can’t do it. This movie’s not worth the effort. It’s just a bad, dull movie that tries to be something it’s not. I normally give points for ambition, but when that ambition is not backed up by solid execution, there’s nothing left but Halloween 6.

Sure, Dimension Films tried to legitimize this one by leaving the number out of the title (probably to draw attention away from the fact that the previous entry slinked into theatres six years prior), but Curse is the horror franchise equivalent of trying to turn over your car when it’s clearly dead and starting to smell. Instead of simply resurrecting the Haddonfield bogeyman for another killing spree, writer Dan Farrands tries to inject the series with a heretofore-unacknowledged mythology. You see, Michael Myers was not simply a vessel of pure evil who killed a bunch of people in the late 70’s; no, he was chosen at birth to be the weapon of an ancient cult known as Thorn, whose mission in life is to kill every last member of his own bloodline. Or something like that.

The one thing a Halloween movie doesn’t need is a bunch of people in robes walking around performing rituals. This franchise had its chance to branch out and tackle other stories centered on the mythology of the day, but after the criminally underrated, Michael-Myers-less Part 3, Season of the Witch, Dimension cast its lot with the maniac in the William Shatner mask, and this Druid shit is just plain unbecoming.

Besides, it sucks up the valuable time usually allotted to the body count; but with kills this unimaginative, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Ooh! A guy gets his throat sliced in the bathroom! Oh, no! There goes mom, with an axe to the chest—and look at all that gore on the fresh linens! At least that gag set up a later scene in which her husband finds the bloody sheets tumbling around the washing machine—and is subsequently electrocuted so badly that his head explodes. But despite the awesome effects of his skin charring and bubbling before the big bang, I couldn’t stop wondering when Michael Myers learned to do fucking laundry.

Like The Burning, Halloween 6 contains a very special acting debut; that of Clueless and I Love You, Man star, Paul Stephen Rudd. I can only guess that he landed Clueless before this movie came out, ‘cause I’m pretty sure he would have been blacklisted if this were on his demo reel. I’ve seriously never seen Paul Rudd act this poorly. He was either totally goofing on the ridiculous mutation of the series, or he underwent a significant leap in ability from his first role to his second. Either way, his portrayal of Myers survivor Tommy Doyle is so twitchy, melodramatic and weird that I wanted to throw my remote at the screen every time he showed up.

Then again, he may have been directed to those heights, if only to balance the exhausted performance of Donald Pleasance. The venerable actor returns as Dr. Loomis, the only person in the world who fully understands Myers’s threat. What began in the original Halloween as a poignant Ahab role devolved over the years into parody. Pleasance, who died shortly after this film wrapped, delivers every line as if he’d been asked to recite them for fans at horror conventions for a decade. There’s no spark in his eyes or his words, and he just looks ready to go.

The same can be said for the movie itself. Gone is the atmosphere and care that John Carpenter put into the original. Even Michael’s mask looks like a Dollar Store knock-off. The biggest crime, though, is the mid-90s synth version of Carpenter’s lovely, eerie Halloween theme. I tell you, the abominations never stop.

Though there were two more sequels after this one, Halloween: Water and Halloween: Resurrection (aka Trick or Treat, Motherfucker!) before the studio laid this incarnation of the movies to rest, The Curse of Michael Myers stands out as a slasher movie that aspires to be a weighty conspiracy drama with tits and gore. Sadly, it succeeds only in wasting ninety minutes that I could have spent watching The Burning again.

Note: In fairness, there is a legitimate flaw that Curse shares with The Burning. Both films have horrendous editing in key scenes. This movie’s climax was obviously chopped to hell, as there are portions that fade to black like a commercial break and resume with the characters in different locations, talking about things that make zero sense. There’s a famously unreleased “Producer’s Cut” of the film floating around out there, but the last thing I want to see is more of Halloween 6.

 

Saturday
Feb202010

The Burning (1981)

Hot Young Talent

Forget Kevin Bacon. If you want to play a kick-ass game of movie trivia with your friends, ask them what film marked the producing debut of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the writing debut of mega-producer and former Paramount CEO Brad Grey, and the acting debuts of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens. There’s no way they’ll guess that all of these powerhouses got their start in a 1981 cult slasher called The Burning.

Following the previous year’s splatter sensation, Friday the 13th, The Burning is also about teenagers at a wooded camp who are brutally picked off by a faceless killer. Both movies share a similar look, and they even have the same effects man in common: horror icon Tom Savini. What sets The Burning apart from its better-known predecessor is not just the young-star-gazing, but also the fact that the film is genuinely scary and engaging.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that The Burning gets right in one picture what Friday the 13th failed to accomplish across eleven sequels.

It’s a weird film, to be sure. The beginning and ending teeter on comedic genius; though the robust middle portion delivers just about perfect terror. We open with a group of teenage boys playing a prank on Camp Blackfoot’s groundskeeper, a cranky drunk named Cropsy. The gag goes awry, and Cropsy is set on fire. Years later, he’s released from the hospital, where he underwent several failed skin grafts and psychotherapy sessions. His first act as a free, disfigured, black-trench-coat-wearing-man is to pick up a prostitute and kill her in an unintentionally hilarious scene.

Cut to another camp that has opened in the same woods as the now-closed Camp Blackwood, where we meet a large group of carefree counselors and kids. A number of them head out on a canoeing trip to a secluded area, and Cropsy picks them off using his extra-shiny gardening shears. As the first act progresses into the second, the script takes a lot of time to develop the relationships between the characters, and The Burning plays a lot more like Meatballs than Sleepaway Camp. These kinds of movies always include some interplay between the victims before they get sliced up, but this film takes pains to set up story arcs that build momentum; this means that when the bodies start to pile up, there’s weight to the death scenes—it feels as though actual lives are being cut tragically short.

The second act is where much of the killing takes place, and the deaths are spectacular. Tom Savini out-did his work in the first Friday film—and, in my opinion, his later work in Part 4, The Final Chapter—by amping up the brutality and realism of the wounds. These don’t feel like stylistic, “cool” ways to kill people; no, these are sloppy, undignified death scenes. The actors help sell the effects, too, their faces registering genuine surprise and fear. The third, most crucial ingredient to the suspense is director Tony Maylam’s refusal to rely on cheap red-herring scares. There are no cats jumping out of closets or hands reaching into frame that belong to a lost counselor’s friend. The shocks are all earned here, and almost each death left me sad and on-edge.

Unfortunately, The Burning’s climax is unforgivably lame. It’s a goddamned injustice. There’s a showdown between Cropsy and two of the survivors that could have been really interesting to watch had it not been impossible to see. Generally, it’s not a good idea to shoot a complicated fight scene between three characters and a flamethrower if all you’re interested in are extreme close-ups of the actors’ faces. I honestly was lost for about three minutes during what was arguably the most important part of the movie. The very end of the film is great, and—in keeping with the rest of the picture—offers an unexpected surprise (for those who’ve seen The Burning and don’t know what I’m talking about, consider what the typical horror film would have done with that last shot).

My few quibbles aside, I can honestly say that The Burning is now my favorite slasher movie. The infamous “raft scene” alone is more intense, shocking, and unforgettable than anything in any movie of this kind that I’ve ever watched. Frankly, I find it appalling that it’s been nearly thirty years since this movie came out, and of the hundreds of genre films—including all of the lame sequels and remakes—none have come close to delivering this level of scares, laughs and surprises. The Burning is a serious but flawed masterpiece; it doesn’t feel like a cash-in, but like a movie that other movies ripped off—including Friday the 13th (which, incidentally, starred Kevin Bacon).