Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dead Snow

A couple of years ago, when I first heard about Norwegian zombie movie, Dead Snow, I was completely psyched. Not only were the viral teasers super awesome, but it was also a revamping of one of my favorite, and most ludicrous subgenres of horror, the Nazi Zombie film. The only way the idea could have been better was if it was Nazi zombies emerging out of bodies of water, like Shock Waves and Zombie Lake, but I’ll take what I can get.

After the initial buzz, the news quieted down for a spell, and I went on about my life, Norwegian Nazi zombie free. When the movie was ultimately release in 2009, it met with overwhelmingly tepid reviews. Is this another case where pre-release hype doomed an otherwise worthy movie that couldn’t possibly live up to all of the advanced hoopla, or is Dead Snow really just nothing special?

My answer is, probably a little bit of both.

Dead Snow starts like so many horror movies start, a group of friends, Norwegian med students, head to a remote cabin in the snowy mountains for the weekend, far away from everything, and where cell phones don’t work. Cue ominous music. They immediately get down to the business of having lighthearted fun in a winter wonderland, and when they finally settle in for the night the standard creepy local coot, out for a stroll in the middle of a deserted, snow covered forest, stops by, demands a cup of coffee, and fills these spoiled-brat city-kids in on the sinister past of the region. Turns out that during World War II the Nazis used this region as a submarine base. Seeing as Nazis are the bad guys, they treated the local populace quite brutally. When the Nazis looted all the valuables from the area, that was the last straw, and the inhabitants rose up and chased the Nazis into the mountains, where they theoretically froze to death, never to be seen again.

You can imagine a rough approximation of what happens next.

As a straight up zombie movie, Dead Snow works pretty well. It certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but within the teenagers-in-the-woods-facing-an-unspeakable-horror framework, it is solid and enjoyable.

The problems arise when writer/director Tommy Wirkola tries to make it something more. It tries really hard to be one of those tongue-in-cheek horror movies where the characters are hip and young and aware of all the archetypes and rules of the genre. Early on the characters reference the Evil Dead movies, and one of the friends even wears a Braindead t-shirt. It feels forced, unnecessary, and even a little insulting.

When the film sticks to horror it works, but then they try to be funny. This is where it starts to fail. There are funny moments that simply happen within the frame of the story, that happen organically, and those are fine, but there are more moments where jokes are inserted into the script. These fall flat and induce groans.

I know deconstructing the causal logic and storytelling of a zombie movie can be self-defeating, but throughout I kept coming back to one question. Why now? It has been more than fifty years since the end of the war, so why are the Nazi zombies emerging now? They are obviously driven by the need to repossess their plundered gold. (It feels like there is a curse on the treasure, some connection that draws them towards it, but that is never addressed.) And obviously, someone, somewhere, found the treasure before the med students, so why didn’t Nazi zombies reanimate and reclaim what was theirs earlier? There is an element of legend, of internal mythos, that seems to be missing from the story. This isn’t a huge distraction, but again, I keep coming back to the question, why now?

Dead Snow is worth a watch for fans of the genre. It has legitimately good moments, as well as faults. If the filmmakers simply made a straightforward zombie movie, without trying to be cute and clever, it would be much more successful, despite being a standard, paint-by-numbers horror flick.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sukiyaki Western Django

Sergio Corbucci’s Django is one of the greatest spaghetti westerns of all time. Only the Man With No Name trilogy and a select few others are even in the same league. It is also rumored to have spawned somewhere between thirty to one hundred unofficial sequels depending on who you believe. Seriously, everyone is up on the Django train, and in 2007, Japan’s reigning auteur of violence, Takeshi Miike, climbed aboard with Sukiyaki Western Django.

Miike is most known for, and his best movies are, his blood-drenched crime epics, like Ichi the Killer and the Dead or Alive trilogy, and his horror/suspense movies, like Audition. He also has a tendency to go slightly bat shit fucking crazy, and the end result is a movie like The Happiness of the Katakuris, a sort of surrealist horror comedy musical with claymation.

Spaghetti westerns as an institution are an interesting proposition. They are the reimagining of the myth of the American West through the eyes of a foreign consciousness, taking a piece of Americana, something already wildly romanticized and largely fictional, and then translating and recontextualizing it to fit into another framework. Sukiyaki Western Django does this one better. Not only is this a reimagining of the myth of the American West, but it is a reimagining of the myth of the American West that has already been filtered through the Italian consciousness, and which is in turn run through the gaze of a wing-nut Japanese hipster. Miike tries to connect the Italian image of the ultraviolent American frontier with Japan’s feudal history and the culture of the samurai.

There are a lot of things I want to like about this movie. The prologue is a nod to the panoramic, Monument Valley, Technicolor films of John Ford, the ones where every color brilliantly contrasts with every other color; there are star crossed lovers; betrayal and vengeance; and the overall level of violence that we have come to expect from Miike’s films. I want to like Sukiyaki Western Django, but it falls incredibly flat.

The story is bland, spaghetti western fare. A stranger comes into a town where two factions battle over treasure. There was a couple, one from each clan, who tried to buck the system and marry, only the man is betrayed and murdered, and the woman falls into an alcoholic stupor while waiting to exact revenge. There is some shooting, some double-crossing, you get the picture.

The biggest problem with the story is not that it is uninspired, the problem it is that it is unfocused. There is no discernable protagonist. In theory, the black clad stranger is the primary locus of the story, that’s how the formula goes. But here the narrative bounces around from one character to another. Is this the history of the twos warring families? Is this the search for treasure? Is this the story of doomed lovers? It tries to tell a wide array of stories, only to fail to tell any of them entirely. You never fully care about any of the characters or their ultimate fates.

In the most successful spaghetti westerns, The Great Silence, the original Django, and The Man With No Name movies, there is a strong central character, and through that perspective, you learn what you need to about the world. That single consciousness filters the periphery. In A Fistful of Dollars we learn the plight of Marisol, but we learn it through Clint Eastwood’s character. His story is the primary concern, everything else is secondary, and you only learn about the rest as it relates to him. In Sukiyaki Western Django, however, each of these storylines is given equal weight, and the film suffers for it.

And for as many guns that fire in this movie, the result is surprisingly dull. I spent long sections of the film waiting for them to get on with it. The pacing is wildly uneven, and there is a lot of attention paid to things that don’t ever play a role of much importance.

So, this is a Japanese movie, in English. And I don’t mean that it is dubbed or subtitled. In a movie populated exclusively by Japanese actors (with one exception), everyone speaks English. It is really distracting, and at times off-putting. Some of the actors speak fluidly, but many of them sound like they are simply saying syllables, like they learned their lines phonetically. This leads to awkward, stumbling dialogue, and jarring moments that take away from the movie. Quentin Tarantino (when will people learn not to put him onscreen?) even does his lines in an accent, as if he was a natural Japanese speaker who learned to speak English. It is a really strange decision. Subtitles, or even dubbing, would work much better.

Sukiyaki Western Django seems like a good idea, but it isn’t. It doesn’t work as a spaghetti western, and it never quite gets to the level of frenetic chaos that it wants to achieve, which could have saved the movie. When I saw the guy with the lip ring and afro, and the mob of bad guys with dyed red bangs, I anticipated some seriously nutty shit. What I got instead was meh, M-E-H, meh.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cop Out

I used to enjoy Kevin Smith movies, I really did. They were chocked full of foul-mouthed wise asses with enough of a bitter streak that I felt like we could be friends. Sadly, those days are fading into the rearview mirror. Zack and Miri Make a Porno had moments, but moments are not enough to carry a film career.

And now we have Cop Out, which kills any lingering interest I still had in watching a Kevin Smith movie. Granted, it might not be entirely his fault. I don’t think the script gave him much to work with, and I walked away feeling like maybe he owed money to screenwriters Mark and Robb Cullen (who’s career highlight reel includes episodes of Las Vegas and Gary the Rat), or maybe they pulled his near lifeless corpse out of a freezing river and he directed their movie to repay some sort of life debt.

Cop Out really is a waste. There are so many reasons why it could work. First and foremost, Bruce fucking Willis. Right there you have my attention. Tracy Morgan can be funny. I even like Sean William Scott, based solely on The Rundown, which is awesome. But there is nothing to redeem this movie.

Willis and Morgan play Jimmy Monroe and Paul Hodges, cops who, despite having been partners for nine years, spend most of the movie acting like they just met each other. They don’t play by the rules of the stuffy old police department, and get suspended without pay for a month. Now Jimmy can’t afford to pay for his daughter’s $48000 wedding. Does a New York cop really make enough money that one months salary will cover that? He has to sell his prized possession, an $80000 baseball card, or else his ex-wife’s smarmy new husband (Jason Lee) will pay for the wedding and Jimmy will look like jerk.

But all does not go smoothly. Before Jimmy can sell his card it is stolen and, through a needlessly complicated series of events, winds up in the hands of a baseball memorabilia collector/drug kingpin of Brooklyn, Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz). If you couldn’t tell Poh Boy means business from his sinister sounding nickname, the dollar sign on the back of his hand should tell you. I think it is supposed to be a tattoo, but it looks like they drew it on with Sharpie. As a matter fact, every tattoo in the movie looks like they drew it on.

Somehow Cop Out is almost two hours long. I don’t know why. There is so much that should have wound up on the cutting room floor. The subplot with Sean William Scott, the most inept parkour practitioner in the entire world, is only there so he can tell knock-knock jokes and repeat everything that Paul says. Seriously, it’s like watching a retarded man argue with a parrot. Kevin Pollack (Usual Suspects) and Adam Brody (The OC) play boot-obsessed, by-the-book cops with a vendetta against Jimmy and Paul. Paul is consumed with the idea that his wife, Debbie (Rashida Jones), is cheating on him, and mostly you just feel bad for her because her husband is such a complete turd. There is also a girl in a trunk of a stolen car. Most of this should be hacked out of movie with a fucking machete. It wouldn’t make Cop Out good, but it would make it mercifully shorter.

I like dick and fart jokes. I’m a sucker for crude, juvenile humor. I find poop, urine, and boners endlessly hilarious. Cop Out tries to employ this kind of comedy, only to fail miserably. This just goes to show that even dumb, sophomoric humor, isn’t easy to pull off, because they fuck it up on a grand scale. The only person laughing in the theater was a fifteen-year-old kid there with his mom. And even he didn’t laugh that much.

You can tell the writers thought they were being super-duper funny and clever. You can almost see them sitting around going, “Hey, you know what would be super funny, guys? There’s a car thief, and it turns out to be a ten-year-old kid. Boo-Yah!” You know what? They were wrong, dead fucking wrong.

The banter between Willis and Morgan is forced, and during the first scene where Paul interrogates a drug suspect using only lines from other movies, they feel the need to pause between each quote and tell the audience what movie it came from. Do Smith and the Cullen boys really think that no one else saw Scarface or Training Day? It feels like they’re talking down to the viewers, like they don’t have enough faith in movie fans to get a reference.

It is obvious that the filmmakers wanted Cop Out to be an homage to movies like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. They even got Harold Faltermeyer (Tango & Cash, Top Gun, and The Running Man) to lend his signature synthesized scoring abilities to the movie.

Here is a list of important lessons we’ve learned from Cop Out. Just because you’ve seen a lot of movies, and you make your stoner buddies laugh, doesn’t mean you should write a movie. Bruce Willis, though he may be a god among men, shouldn’t do comedy. Tracey Morgan is only funny in small doses as a supporting character. (Cop Out actually feels like one of his make believe movies from 30 Rock, and I wondered for a while if the filmmakers originally intended to do something like make a fake trailer for one of those movies and somehow took this steaming shit instead.)

Cop Out simply doesn’t work, on any level. Every aspect of this movie is like fingernails on a chalkboard, a gloriously unfunny chalkboard.