Events

Kicking the Tweets
Search
Sunday
Sep202009

Love Happens (2009)

The Legacy of Two-Face

I’ve lost a bit of weight this year. A few weeks ago, my wife and I went shopping to find me jeans that don’t sag like a gangsta rapper’s. After an hour of trying things on, I left the store satisfied that I wasn’t quite ready for new pants. While the idea of trading up my old, worn jeans was tempting, I realized that the subtlety of the non-fit would ultimately make me feel uncomfortable and look ridiculous.

If only the studio behind Love Happens had that kind of restraint. It’s as if Universal Pictures took two half-formed movies of different genres—one great, one awful—and mashed them together like some celluloid Frankenstein monster. In fairness, Halloween is right around the corner.

But there’s nothing fun about the end result. This is an emotionally jarring mess that engenders anger rather than sympathy. In the movie, Aaron Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, a self-help guru on the verge of household name recognition. Having lost his wife in a car accident three years earlier, he now counsels people on dealing with grief. He touches down in Seattle for a weeklong seminar; this coincides with a big meeting that his agent (Dan Fogler) has arranged that will net Ryan millions of dollars as a Dr. Phil-type media star. The people Burke encounters range from stock comedic cat-lady-types to genuinely damaged people such as Walter (John Carroll Lynch), a former construction worker who lost his 12-year-old son. For its first fifteen minutes, Love Happens promises a compelling film about loss, with just enough airiness to not be a complete downer. Then Jennifer Aniston shows up and ruins the entire goddamned movie.

I like Jennifer Aniston, and consider her a good actress. For those who can only picture her as Rachel on Friends, I highly recommend Office Space, The Good Girl, and The Break-up; all of which showcase her dramatic and comedic talents, all of which (to varying degrees) share strong, complex scripts about relationships. For this reason, I can’t forgive her decision to appear in the soulless cash-in that is the rom-com portion of Love Happens. Sure, it’s being sold as a “romantic drama”, but Aniston’s Eloise character—a florist with a penchant for graffiti-ing obscure words in hotel hallways—is pure chick-flick caricature.

It’s fascinating to watch Eloise and Burke’s first few scenes together. In keeping with hack-movie tradition, they don’t like each other at first. But after a couple of dates, their barriers begin to break down; what makes the meet-curts of Love Happens worthwhile is that they are so awkward and painful that I stopped seeing them as conveying the characters’ apprehensions and started believing that the film itself was gagging on the bogus storyline that had been shoe-horned into an otherwise solid screenplay.

This should have been a smaller, truer film, like John Swanbeck’s The Big Kahuna. I thought about that movie a lot during Love Happens, remembering fondly the way it treated its characters with dignity and allowed them to explore grand issues by simply checking into a Wichita hotel and talking with one another. There was neither a need nor a place for a phony love interest or a tears-filled climax. The people behind Love Happens either didn’t trust the Burke Ryan material to stand on its own, or they were instructed to make the film more marketable by adding some artificial sunlight.

I’m beating up on this picture a lot because the stuff that works really works. I cried a number of times thanks to John Carroll Lynch’s tortured sincerity, and I hoped to God that Burke and Walter would help each other to move past their pain and their secrets. Martin Sheen also makes a welcome appearance as Burke’s father-in-law, who—for reasons I won’t reveal—was never allowed to move on from his daughter’s death. But these scenes were consistently cut short by another date with Eloise, or a beyond bizarre sub-subplot about kidnapping a parrot. I couldn’t participate in the emotional conversation that half the movie was trying to engage me in because of all the wacky horseshit; it was like watching a drunken standup comic give a eulogy.

The movie is worth renting for the performances in the main story, including Eckhart’s, who has redeemed himself after his schizoid bombast in The Dark Knight (though the script was mainly at fault there, too). It would be great if the DVD had a special chapter search that would allow the viewer to watch only the self-help scenes and skip the fluff; the result would be a solid 45-minute viewing experience. That won’t happen, though. We’re stuck with Love Happens as it is, not as it should have been: an honest, comforting movie that avoided looking ridiculous.

Note: Am I the only one who absolutely hates the title of this film? Why not name it after Burke Ryan’s self-help book, “A-Okay”? Love Happens is something you’d see ironically bejeweled on a Hot Topic baby-doll shirt.

Friday
Sep182009

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Junk or Genius?

A couple months from now, I will be co-hosting a Chateau Grrr dinner whose celebrity guest list sounds like the setup of a really weird joke: Margot Kidder, Ricou Browning, and Bill Moseley. In preparation for this special event at Crypticon Minneapolis, CG founder Chad Hawks and I have begun researching the stars’ various roles. Our hope is to keep the conversation lively and informative for everyone involved, or at least keep ourselves from looking like uninformed jackasses.

 

Here now is the first of several Kicking the Seat Home Video Reviews, Crypticon Edition!

I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a very young age. My Dad loved watching horror movies, and made no attempt to convince me that the on-screen carnage was make-believe; to this day, I can’t walk by a deep freezer without imagining a half-dead body inside.

Which I believe was director Tobe Hooper’s aim. His cinema verite approach to the story of a Texas cannibal family elevates the film above conventional slasher status: he set out to not only scare the audience but to instill in them an unshakable fear of being kidnapped and turned into award-winning chili.

Twenty-two years after the original film, Hooper made a (literally) head-scratching sequel that took a chainsaw to the subtlety and suspense he’d established. Perhaps hoping to capture the success of the many iterations of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, he turned his masterpiece into a franchise that—like those films—completely undermined the point of the original creation. To this day, however, it is debatable whether The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a sloppy cash-in or a brilliant Warholian experiment.

The plot is barely worth mentioning, but here goes:

A couple of drunk-driving yuppies crank-call an Oklahoma radio station. On the road, they encounter the murderous Leatherface and his family of psychopaths, who have lots of fun dismembering the boys and driving them off the road; all of this happens live on the air as DJ “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), listens in horror. With the help of Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), Stretch uses the tape to lure the killers back to the radio station; the plan to arrest them on sight fails miserably—as must any plot to foil movie villains, if introduced fifteen in—and Stretch and Lefty find themselves trapped in the bowels of an abandoned Texas amusement park littered with body parts and ghoulish secrets.

That paragraph was my homage to 1980’s video box synopses; it’s the only way to describe this movie without falling asleep.

Unlike other films that I’ve viewed multiple times, my perception of TCM2 never changes. It’s always a boring, frustrating experience. The opening twenty minutes build relationships and set plot points in motion, but once the radio station debacle begins, we’re left with sixty minutes of running, screaming, climbing and mutilating. And, yes, I do expect more from a movie called Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, especially if it was written and directed by the same person who created the far superior original; Tobe Hooper can’t blame young hacks for ruining his vision.

This brings me back to the notion that the whole project is a deliberate joke played on the audience. Why else would one spend the money to hire Dennis Hopper, only to have him scream, “Bring it all Doooown!” for the last half of the movie while demolishing support beams? How else to explain Leatherface’s obsession with chainsaw-fucking Stretch while licking “his” lips? Then there’s Chop-Top, a heretofore unseen member of the family, who was apparently in Viet Nam during the events of the first film; as played by Bill Moseley, he’s a nigh-incoherent masochist that enjoys scraping off pieces of his scalp and eating them. There’s a tremendous energy to the movie; everyone seems to be having fun and really getting into their roles—but if Ocean’s Twelve taught us anything, it’s that the only good time that matters is the one had (or not had) by the audience.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s only triumph may be that it is a spiritual predecessor to Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2. Both films celebrate psychosis and fuse surreality with reality. Zombie has a leg up on Hooper in that he’s populated the real world with damaged people as opposed to creating a parallel dimension where everyone is a cartoon character. TCM2 plays out like a survivor’s PTSD flashback, and that gets tiresome after ninety minutes; wholly experimental films often fail because they forget that the viewer needs something sensical to latch onto in order to go for a ride. While Hooper establishes a plausible universe for five minutes, the majority of his picture is a descent into madness, and it throws everything off balance; Halloween 2 is even-keeled in its use of bizarre intrusions on everyday occurrences.

It just occurred to me that Rob Zombie actually remade TCM2 a few years ago, though he called it House of 1,000 corpses. That movie was also not very good, but it did improve on some of Hooper’s problems—such as casting Bill Moseley in essentially the same role, but with a slightly dialed-back brand of hysteria.

I’ll probably watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 again in a few years, if only to dispel this feeling that I’m missing something. As I said earlier, it’s not a pleasant or compelling experience, but neither was Napoleon Dynamite the first time I watched it. I have to believe that the man who gave me a paralyzing fear of deep freezers is incapable of making an utterly disposable sequel—the alternative is too frightening to ponder.

Thursday
Sep102009

Sunshine Cleaning, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Clouded Judgment

Here’s another movie I avoided like the plague when it was in theatres, and it’s comforting to know that my instincts are sharp as ever. Sunshine Cleaning is that form of unmarketable film that is half crappy drama, half laugh-free comedy known as the Independent Film; I know not all indies are like this, but there have been enough bad ones in recent years to warrant instant skepticism—much like romantic comedies.

I can’t think of another film that is so well acted and so poorly written. Sunshine Cleaning is the story of Rose (Amy Adams), a single mother and maid who balances raising her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), with her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), and sleeping with a married police officer named Mac (Steve Zahn). Rose’s misfit sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), lives with Joe because she can’t hold down a job long enough to live on her own. On Mac’s advice—and with his money—Rose opens Sunshine Cleaning, a crime scene cleanup service that pays very well. This is a fine premise, and the cast is more than up for the challenge, but writer Megan Holley mistakenly injects about five additional plotlines into the story and handles all of them poorly.

Half the problem is that none of the characters is redeemed by movie’s end. Nearly all of them are people who’ve fallen on hard times due to lives full of bad decisions and an overall lack of smarts. For example, when Rose and Norah visit a store that specializes in industrial cleaning supplies, the clerk asks them a series of questions regarding their license and the various processes they use to remove hazardous materials from crime scenes. The women are caught completely off guard, and I found it inconceivable that they would have done absolutely no research beyond slapping a logo on a used van and buying a few bottles of bleach and Windex. The scene is played as a meet-cute between Rose and the clerk (a one-armed model-maker named Winston, played wonderfully by Clifton Collins, Jr.), but there’s nothing cute about that kind of ignorance in the Internet age.

This scene also establishes what could have been a great conflict between Sunshine Cleaning and one of the other professional cleanup companies; a worker comes in, complaining about a startup that’s been “stealing” jobs. Rose and Norah listen worriedly while hiding in an aisle, emerging after the guy leaves. Fortunately for them—less so for we, the audience—the issue is never brought up again.

Another example of the film’s penchant for hinting at plotlines and then refusing to do anything with them involves Oscar’s getting kicked out of school. Rose gets called to the principal’s office and learns that her son has been spreading the story that Norah told him the night before; the last in a long line of bizarre offenses, the principal recommends Oscar be put on drugs. Rose refuses, and tells Oscar that they’ll try private school. She assures him that he’s just fine; it’s the faculty’s problem that they don’t understand him.

Fair enough. But Oscar continues to get into trouble throughout the film, and at no point do any of the adults discipline him; not even a simple, “Don’t do that.” Instead, we get tired inferences that Oscar is some kind of prodigy, as evidenced by an exchange with Grandpa that goes something like this:

“Are you bored in class?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you stare out the window a lot?”

“Uh-huh.”

“See? That’s a sign of genius.”

Or, it’s a sign you’re grandkid's a shithead. Now, I’m not for drugging up imaginative children, but the case for Oscar is flimsy at best.

The other half of the film’s problem is that it’s derivative of either bad sitcoms or bad parts of okay movies. Instead of delving into what it’s like to have to clean up after a murder or a suicide, we get a scene where Rose and Norah must carry a bodily-fluid-stained mattress out to a dumpster; it’s really heavy and awkward to maneuver, and I’ll give you one guess as to what happens before they make it to the trash. Then there’s the scene where Norah hangs from underneath some train tracks while the train rushes by overhead. It’s meant to showcase her rebellious inner turmoil; instead it demonstrates why she’s wholly unemployable (and lets us know she’s a huge Lost Boys fan).

I really wanted to like Sunshine Cleaning. Adams and Blunt—and even Arkin, who essentially plays a resurrected version of his Grandpa character from the terrible Little Miss Sunshine—are great in their misshapen roles. In fact, this appears to be a theme of Amy Adams’ career lately: starring in movies with a great premise and lousy execution (see Julie & Julia—better yet, don’t). I just wish the filmmakers had trusted that the adults who would show up for their small film would be savvy and hungry enough for grown-up entertainment that they wouldn’t feel the need to rely on sub-moron crutches.

The movie has been marketed as a cute indie film, but there’s nothing independent about it. Sunshine Cleaning caters to the same dumb herd that made The Final Destination the number one movie in America two weeks in a row. Talk about a crime.

Wednesday
Sep092009

Valkyrie, 2008 (Home Video Review)

Achtung-Tied

My wife and I rented Valkyrie last night with some friends. It was the only thing playing On-Demand that none of us had seen (aside from Fired Up!, but who wants to watch a PG-13 titty comedy?). To our dismay, the movie was not the laugh-riot we thought it would be, and proved to be a bland historical drama with zero heft and even less German accents.

As you probably know by now, Valkyrie tells the story of a group of Brits determined to end the career of a dangerous egomaniac—but enough about Tom Cruise.

Sorry.

"Valkyrie" is the name of Adolph Hitler’s World War II contingency plan, an operation that would activate thousands of loyal soldiers in the event of his death or ouster. A group of conscientious Nazi officers (feel free to chuckle) decide to assassinate the dictator and use Valkyrie to over-throw the SS in a coup d’etat; using their newfound power, they would negotiate an end to the war with the Allies. Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a war hero who lost an eye in Africa and must now wear a patch that has more texture than the actor’s performance.

I shouldn’t beat up on Cruise, I guess. I really want to fault him for not even trying a German accent (he plays the entire movie on the same note as he delivered his “You’ve never seen me really upset” line in Mission: Impossible), but he’s apparently just following orders: director Bryan Singer populates his film with a cast made of 99% British actors—all speaking the King’s, all playing Germans. It’s so distracting that at a certain point I became convinced that the Nazi high command had been infiltrated by MI6 and Hitler was just playing along. Singer tries to make up for this Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves shoddiness by hiring every Englishman working in Hollywood today, from Bill Nighy to Kenneth Branagh, but by the time Eddie Izzard shows up, you can’t help but think he’s got something against the German people—aside from, you know, the obvious.

The film’s central failing is that there’s very little in the way of suspense. Much like The Passion of the Christ, we all know how the story ends—or at least that Hitler wasn’t assassinated. The details of von Stauffenberg’s plots are interesting, and it’s cool to see how fate intervened in some key moments, but there’s a very even keel to the proceedings; so much of the movie involves people sitting around, smoking, talking, hoping not to get caught that Valkyrie’s version of “high drama” is an officer almost walking in on von Stauffenberg changing clothes. The bunker scene, which is the first of two very drawn-out climaxes, happens way too early and Singer mistakenly relies on the audience’s ability to pretend that we don’t know what von Stauffenberg’s men don’t know: that Hitler survived the attempt. This leads to a frustrating half hour of simply waiting for the coup to unravel and for everyone involved to be rounded up and executed.

I’m glad to have missed this in the theatre, which is not something I say often. The film looks great, and you can tell the production design team had a blast building bunkers and sewing swastikas, but the film is too cold to sustain anything but appreciation for the sets. Singer usually brings more panache to his projects—The Usual Suspects is still his high water mark for suspense, acting, and mood—and it’s disheartening to see him churn out Oscar Bait that would be upstaged by a History Channel production.

If you're looking for a genuinely thrilling World War II film, I recommend Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds--and please see it on the big screen. Though it's a tall tale, the details and drama are utterly convincing and--unlike Valkyrie--unforgettable. The highlight of the movie, as I've written elsewhere, is Christoph Waltz's SS-officer-on-a-mission; the actor's multi-lingual performance screams authenticity (unlike Cruise, who at one point pronounces Joseph Goebbels' last name "Go-bulls"), and it's a shame that both films could not have been released at the same time. We might have lost the careers of both Cruise and Singer in that scenario, with audiences leaving Valkyrie in droves to behold the work of a filmmaker and lead actor with both passion and a point of view.

Tuesday
Sep082009

Gamer (2009)

Tonight We Game in Hell!

Gamer would be a much more effective movie about video games if it hadn’t been made for the people who play them—specifically the First Person Shooter crowd. Full disclosure: I haven’t been interested in video games since controllers expanded beyond two buttons. And while I appreciate their artistry, I never got the appeal of FPS’s, like Halo, or rampage fantasies like Grand Theft Auto (I’m fine taking out my manly aggressions on a keyboard, thank you very much). But I digress. The new Gerard Butler movie has grit and blood to spare, but after awhile the lack of developed ideas and uneven characterization lead to an experience not unlike watching someone else play poorly while waiting your turn.

The premise is intriguing. A few years into the future, a smarmy technical wizard named Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) has developed advanced virtual reality games that allow average people to control the lives and actions of real, flesh-and-blood volunteers. The first game, Society, is like The Sims, if the cute, chirping avatars were paid actors instead of pixel clusters—down to the ability of the user to program their wardrobe. Following that success, Castle created Slayers, in which the characters are convicted felons who must survive thirty rounds of intense urban warfare in order to win their freedom. Gamer centers on Kable (Butler), the only Slayer to last more than ten sessions.

Yes, the movie is a rather shameless rehash of both The Matrix and The Running Man—with a hint of Ender’s Game and a dash of Batman Forever—and directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor pile on the annoyance with headache-inducing quick-cuts and too many ‘splosions. Sorry if I sound like a cranky pensioner, but it’s obvious from the get-go that Gamer is one giant smokescreen, masking other people’s ideas. From the slimy TV reporter (Kyra Sedgwick) who’ll do anything for ratings, to the revelation that the convict may actually be innocent, to the what-is-reality navel-gazing, Gamer spins its wheels, albeit stylishly.

Which is a shame because the movie looks great; there are more ideas proposed in the set design than in the screenplay. Kable’s prison is a giant rock pit in the middle of the desert, from which the Slayers are bussed to their combat zones. His user, a seventeen-year-old snot named Simon (Logan Lerman), is mostly only shown in his bedroom, where he controls his corner of the Internet via a virtual cloud of pictures and data while reclining on a giant memory-foam pillow. In the “real” world, Kable’s wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), works as a Society character, her office a sort of sex-filled corporate skate park. I really enjoyed these glimpses into Gamer’s world, but these were too infrequent to warrant any emotion beyond frustration.

On the plus side, Michael C. Hall was a blast. This role is a clean break from the oddly reserved neurotics he’s played on Dexter and Six Feet Under. He affects a mad drawl and the Joker’s grin in a performance whose sheer evil joy goes far in convincing the audience that he’s more than a one-dimensional villain. Hall certainly has more fun than Butler, who shoots and scowls his way through a part that has even less weight than his Leonidas in 300.

In fact, the only fun to be derived from this movie is playing “Spot the Actor”. From HeroesMilo Ventimiglia to James Roday and Maggie Lawson from USA Network’s Psych, there are some bizarre cameos in this movie; it’s as if Gamer were itself a giant VR game that any actor could pop into. Hands-down, the best appearance came from Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman; keep your eyes peeled and you’ll see him.

I don’t mean to make Gamer sound completely unworthy of your time, but it’s a renter at best. Had the filmmakers cared enough to expound upon their ideas, the project might have been salvageable. Much like The Matrix, there’s a definite stopping point for the story that occurs way before the movie ends. And it leaves anyone in the audience who bothered to bring their brain with them yearning for closure on at least five different plot points. Maybe, as the friend with whom I saw this suggested, I’m expecting too much. But I’ve always maintained that if someone is getting paid more than a thousand dollars to write a screenplay, they should—at the very least—provide a solid beginning, middle, and end, and not assume that the shiny objects on screen will mollify everyone watching. Then again, this movie wasn’t made for me.