Friday, April 30, 2010

Where have you gone, Mel Gibson?

I recently rewatched The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Man, remember how awesome Mel Gibson was before he lost his mind turned into a crazy ass, alcoholic racist? It was pretty fucking awesome, wasn't it?


I read a handful of Elmore Leonard books when I was in ninth grade, and though I didn’t think much of them as books, I remember thinking to myself that they would probably make for good movies. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who had this thought. I was also right. Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, and a handful of others, were all Leonard stories adapted into movies, and all turned out to be entertaining translations.

Recently FX used one of Leonard’s short stories, “Fire in the Hole,” as the basis for the new show, Justified, about a shoot-first-ask-questions-later US Marshall, Raylan Givens (who also appears in a couple of Leonard’s novels). After a high profile shooting of a Miami gun dealer, Raylan is transferred to the Kentucky field office, which just happens to be his old stomping grounds. There he encounters all manner of ghosts from his past, things he was running from when he left the Bluegrass State, such as his estranged father, ex-wife, sexy-lady acquaintance who always had a bit of a thing for our lawman, and a childhood friend cum white supremacist bomber, among them.

Raylan is an anachronism. He belongs to a part of law enforcement history that is more at home in the mythology of the American west than in a modern day urban environment. He wears a cowboy hat, and dispenses his own brand of frontier justice. Of course the higher ups take umbrage with his methods, but it is pure television gold. To quell the minds of his superiors, after each quick-draw where he is invariably the faster man, he remarks, “It was justified.” In short, he is a 19th century cowboy figure transplanted into the twenty-first century.

You have to love any series where the first scene is someone getting shot, and not just shot, wild-west-quick-draw shot. When that happens you know you’re in for a rollicking good time. And quickly following on the heels of that initial shootout you watch two white supremacists blow up Doug E. Doug’s church with a fucking rocket launcher.

Not only does Raylan do battle with racists, but he hunts down escaped convicts, including Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, fights drug dealers, deals with his bat shit crazy dad who has a penchant for wrecking shit with his trusty Louisville Slugger, and still manages to hump Ava, the hot girl who has had a crush on him since they were kids. She’s a badass in her own right, her husband wouldn’t stop beating her, so she shot him with his own rifle. Fuck yeah.

And they swear. Fuck yes they swear. Justified is one of those shows that wouldn’t work if they couldn’t curse. You know that in reality these people would be as profane as a drunken nun, and you just wouldn’t buy it if they weren’t throwing around f bombs and the like. I don’t know how they get around the regulations (hell, I don’t even know what the regulations are), maybe it is on late enough that no one care, or maybe FX just doesn’t give a shit and said, “fuck it, we’ll pay you piddly little fine, FCC, kiss my ass.” That certainly would be in keeping with the character of the show.

It is refreshing to see some real badass shit on the television box, and even more refreshing that they are doing it right so far. Justified has been getting better with every episode, and until it starts to suck, I’ll keep looking forward to each new episode.


Seriously? They're remaking Commando? God fucking dammit. Why do they continually insist on fucking with me?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Friday the 13th (2009)

With the imminent release of the A Nightmare on Elm St. remake, I figured that I should finally get around to watching the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, or reboot, or reimagining, or whatever bullshit term they tried to use to make it seem like they weren’t simply raping the original franchise for money.

Of all the prodigious slasher brands of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the Friday the 13th movies were always the ones I had the strongest connection to. I was just at the right age to be aware of these movies as they happened, and I was alerted to the existence of Jason Voorhees well before Michael Meyers and the Halloween movies. After the first A Nightmare on Elm St. the quality takes a precipitous dive, and I didn’t finally see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre until junior high, so Friday the 13th is what springs to mind first when I think about the horror movies of my youth. And I swear, though no one ever believes me, that they are all good up until Jason Takes Manhattan, the eighth installment. I don’t know why people find that difficult to believe.

Friday the 13th 2009, as it will henceforth be called, tries to encompass the first three movies from the original series. I say try because, though it contains individual elements from the first three films, the story lines are entirely different. The producers claim that it includes the first four films, but that’s bullshit, it’s only three. I own all of them, including Jason vs. Freddy, and you’re more than welcome to come over and watch them with me if you want.

The filmmakers (including ultra-turd Michael Bay; director Marcus Nispel, who is responsible for Amy Grant’s “House of Love” video, which automatically makes him my enemy since few things in this world enrage me like Amy Grant; and like eight different credited writers, and god knows how many script doctors) gloss over the story from the first movie (easily the best of the bunch) with a quick little prologue, where we find out that a young Jason saw his mother beheaded in front of his eyes in 1980, despite the fact that he supposedly drowned (which is the root cause of his mother’s psychosis).

In the second part, 20 years later, a bunch of douche bag college kids with shaggy hair head out into the woods looking for a mythical weed crop. Six minutes in I’m glad to know that they are all going to die. Apparently in this version of the Friday the 13th mythology, instead of being an unkillable murder machine, Jason Voorhees is just an ugly weed farmer, who, much like Cypress Hill, gets a little upset when people, cops or otherwise, come and try to snatch his crops. (He doesn’t get full blown supernatural until around the middle of the franchise, so I don’t have a huge problem with him being mortal-ish in this, but still, weed farmer? What?)

There are a couple of cool deaths in this segment, and if you were to stop the movie at the 23 minute mark, you would walk away fairly entertained, and without having invested much time. This is the viewing strategy that I endorse.

A third segment picks up six weeks later, and introduces another set of shitty college kids. These shitty college kids are douchy in a whole different way, and are more of the rich-kid frat-boy variety. I find comfort in their impending deaths as well. There is also a pretty-boy on a motorbike. He was on some WB teen drama, I don’t care which one, and is looking for his sister, who was the only decent human being among the initial group of kids that Jason slaughtered.

The next hour is boring. We just went through a bunch of set up and back-story, and now we have to do it all again, and no one cares. Any momentum dies a slow, tedious death.

Somewhere in the middle of this subdivision, Jason dons his trademark hockey mask, an event that originally occurs in the third movie of the initial saga. Apparently that lone act is enough to qualify this as a remake of Part III, which holds the distinction of being Paramount’s first 3-D film. Otherwise it has nothing to do with numero tres.

I’m sure the producers, writers, etc., thought they were doing something akin to Psycho with this movie, you know, killing off what appears to be the main character at the end of the first act. When Hitchcock did it in 1960, he pulled it off. It was shocking and interesting, and added something different to the movie. It is also a trick that has subsequently been done over and over again, to less and less effect each time. Like the photocopy of a photocopy, the quality degrades with each pass. In Friday the 13th 2009, this is just lazy filmmaking. Instead of shocking the audience, it frees the filmmakers from exerting any effort whatsoever to fill up 90 minutes of screen time. The result is a movie that feels like a sitcom clip show.

Friday the 13th 2009 isn’t as puritanically conservative as the first version. Jason isn’t such a tight-ass as in his initial incarnation. Sure, he slaughters teens with a machete, but this time he doesn’t just kill drunk/high/sexually active kids. He’s more egalitarian, and manages to kill the girl who doesn’t have sex, and a couple who doesn’t have sex or use any sort of conscious altering substance. (Sure, they were topless wake boarding at the time of their deaths, but that’s pretty mild to a psychotic drug farmer with some serious mommy issues.)

Here is the biggest question I have. Why is Jason growing weed? He’s obviously not selling it to anyone. Does he just like to get real, real high? That’s the answer that makes the most sense to me. Maybe it’s medicinal. Maybe he needs to smoke away the memory of watching his mother die. The only other reason I can come up with is that he uses it to lure unsuspecting teens into the woods so he can hack them to bits. If that is the case, it works pretty well.

Friday the 13th 2009 isn’t awful, just unnecessary. Everything doesn’t need to be remade, or rebooted, or reduxed, or whatever, just because the first go round didn’t have a budget the size of the GDP of many small nations. If anything, many of these films were bolstered by their lack of funds, and filmmakers had to solve problems creatively, not just by throwing a lot of cash at them. Sometimes they got it right the first time.

I’ll get off my soapbox in a moment. It isn’t like I’m saying anything that hasn’t been said a thousand times already. I just have one last thing to add.

I know studios keep remaking older horror movies (I act like this has just started happening, but we all know it’s been going on for decades) because they can exploit the name recognition, produce them for relatively little money, and make bank. (Friday the 13th 2009 was produced for $19,000,000 and raked in $91,000,000 worldwide.) Still, I just wish they would call them something else. If you ditched the hockey mask and the “Camp Crystal Lake” setting, and called this A Bunch of Asswipes Get Slaughtered in the Woods, I would enjoy it so much more. I would watch it and say, “Wow, that movie was a middle of the road rip-off of Friday the 13th, Parts I-III, like so many other movies. I’m fine with that. Hmm, now I want to go back and watch all of the Friday the 13th movies, up to Jason Takes Manhattan.” Call it something else and it won’t cause me nearly so much stress. But I feel the same way about the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, A Nightmare on Elm St., etc., (I think you get the point) and it doesn’t make a difference how I feel, since nobody cares and they will continue to remake every movie ever made until they are remaking remakes of remakes.


Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2008 film, Bronson, is pretty badass. Based on the life of “Britain’s most violent inmate,” it fits nicely alongside movies like Chopper (the comparison is unavoidable) in the realm of fictionalized-character-studies-of-real-life-psychopaths-in-prison.

Tom Hardy plays Michael Peterson, a young Brit with a lifelong mean streak, who, unhappy with his own name, adopts the moniker of action god Charles Bronson as a more appropriate bare-knuckle boxing name. We see his propensity for violence immediately, as he pounds on other children at school, steals from the till at his first job, and generally raises all sorts of hell. When he knocks over a post office for a sad handful of wrinkled bills, he is sentenced to seven years in prison.

It is in prison that Charlie sets out to make his name. He wants to be famous, but he can’t sing, and can’t act, so he turns to his only real talent, fighting, to cement his celebrity. His continual violent outbursts, all of which are aimed at the prison staff (with one exception that we’ll get to later), earn him a lot of alone time in solitary confinement. Much to Charlie’s chagrin, he is transferred from prison to prison, 120 total, just as he begins to carve out his reputation in each one.

At one point the hacks lead him, shackled, beaten, and bruised, down the hallway of a cellblock while other cons cheer him on. Their applause swells and morphs into the enthusiastic applause of a black-tie crowd in a London theater.

Charlie is fueled by his quest for fame, or infamy, both real and imagined. In cut scenes he appears on stage, pandering to a highbrow audience, and hamming up his violent past for their amusement. They eat up is every word, and give him what he craves, attention. For a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, this notoriety is heaven.

The movie even plays with the conventions of reality shows, which are also stocked with limelight seekers with questionable moralities. Segments are narrated by Charlie, who looks like the bastard child of Salvador Dali and an old-timey circus strongman, in the style of reality TV confessionals, where he is alone, in the present, talking directly to the camera/audience, commenting on things that have already happened as if they are real time events.

Eventually, he winds up heavily medicated in a mental institution (the drug dulled scene where the inmates dance to the Pet Shop Boys is one of the most memorable in the film), where he attempts to strangle a child molester with a necktie (the only instance in the movie where his violence is focused on someone not in a position of authority).

Because the system is unable to deal with him, and the cost of constantly shuffling and reshuffling him, he is ultimately pronounced cured, and released into the public, only to wind up behind bars again after 69 days. Once back inside he continues his violent tendencies, and he also begins a trend of taking hostages for no other reason than to stave off boredom and provoke violent encounters with the prison guards. Out of 34 total years in prison, Charlie has spent 30 of them in solitary confinement.

For the most part, Hardy’s performance is right on. You have to give him props for the sheer number of naked fight scenes he has. In one of these scenes he forces a kidnapped guard to smear him with butter before the other screws come in and deliver the savage beating that he so wants from them. But there are times when he is in danger of becoming overly hammy. These moments are exclusive to the scenes where Charlie appears in front of his imagined public. I get it, I do, he is on stage, before an adoring, enraptured audience, finally getting what he so desperately yearns for, and loving every last second of it. However, the theatricality of these scenes feels forced and tries too hard to be artistic, which contrasts sharply with the starkness and desperation of the rest of the film, and not in a way that adds to the story, but in a way that detracts from it. In reality this is probably more a problem with the script than with Hardy himself, but he’s going to take the fall for it here.

Refn (or is it Winding Refn? I’m not sure) makes good use of the broken down, decaying environs of 1970’s and 1980’s British prisons, both visually and thematically. In most cases you look at the state of the cells and can’t help but be horrified at the conditions. If this were a zoo or an animal shelter you wouldn’t waste a moment in filing an official complaint with the proper authorities. The cells are corroded and cramped, and there are multiple times when Charlie is locked in a wire mesh cage, naked, without enough room to even sit down. In contrast to these cells, the ward at the mental hospital is almost infinite in its vastness. Instead of being physically constrained here, Charlie is restricted by chemical means, so drugged up that all he can do is sit and drool and shuffle around the bleak room like a zombie.

Like the real life Mark “Chopper” Read, the real Charles Bronson (well, this particular Charles Bronson anyway) has written a number of books, including one about working out in confined spaces, and become a celebrity in his homeland. (Though as of this writing Charlie doesn’t have a hip-hop album, which “Chopper” does. And, not to play favorites, but Chopper is a slightly better movie than Bronson.) In the end he may have been beaten, drugged, and brutalized in nearly every capacity, for decades on end, but he does realize his ultimate goal, fame. Is there any indicator of fame greater than having a movie based on your life?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Date Night

If movies have taught me anything, and, let’s be honest here, movies have taught me most things, it is that having a marriage and kids is a completely soul sucking endeavor. When you give up bachelor/bachelorette-hood, settle down, pop out a couple of obnoxious children who will make every moment of your life a waking nightmare, your life is apparently over, and you spend most of your time looking at internet porn and praying for death in your sleep. Like I needed another reason to never have children. Seriously, they’re loud and obnoxious, and somehow always sticky, and they grow up to be teens, which is even worse than when they’re small. Jesus. Shiver. Even though the media inundates us with evidence that it is awful to wed and breed, people still feel the need to do it. Good for them. Just stay away from me.

But I digress.

Anyway, in Date Night, Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) are trapped in just the sort of doldrums described above, sans internet porn. (At least what we see is pornless, but I’m pretty sure Phil has rubbed a few out to the cold blue light of his computer screen. He may be looking at Cindy Lauper, but it still counts.) Their marriage is stale. Their jobs are boring. The rut they are in is so f’n deep that it has even sucked in their weekly date night. Katy, the sitter (Leighton Meester), shows up automatically without being asked, they go to the same local steak house, order the same potato skins and salmon, and occasionally top the night off with mediocre, routine sex. But only sometimes, and only if Claire hasn’t put in her mouth guard yet. That appears to be a deal breaker.

When their friends, and fellow book club members, Brad and Haley (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) announce their divorce, Phil and Claire are forced to examine their own bland marriage. In order to stave off the inevitable divorce, and the awkward alternating custody weekends it entails, they take date night on the road and into the city. They show up at the hot new restaurant in NYC, and, unable to get a table on Friday night, pretend to be another couple, one that didn’t show for their reservation. This leads to a tedious running joke. Apparently everyone they encounter for the rest of their lives is going to be appalled that they took someone else’s reservation. Gasp. How can they even live with themselves?

It turns out that the couple they are impersonating is involved in a blackmail scheme with the mob, and through a case of mistaken identity, two goons (Common and Jimmi Simpson) chase them all over town. Marky Mark turns up a couple of times in their attempts to extricate themselves from their predicament, as do James Franco, Mila Kunis, and Ray Liotta. Predictably, over the course of the night they rediscover their passion for each other, and fall in love all over again. Of course they do, everyone knows that the best time to work on your marital problems is whilst fleeing for your life from bloodthirsty gangsters and corrupt cops.

There are enough funny moments to make watching Date Night enjoyable for the most part, but overall, the comedy is rather benign, and entirely toothless. James Klausner’s script is derivative and uninspired, and you’re not going to get anything you haven’t heard many times before. It is full of running gags that don’t even work the first time, let alone the third or fourth. (What did I expect, this is the guy who penned the third and fourth installments of the Shrek franchise.)

The movie works best during the moments where it is obvious that Fey and Carell are riffing off of each other. They are both so funny and likeable that even the story they are mired in can’t entirely hold them back. These instances provide the best laughs, but the movie moves away from them all too quickly, and they are replaced by a rough approximation of the plot from Adventures in Babysitting. I wanted to see comedy, not lackluster chase scenes. Fey and Carell are criminally underutilized. It is like the filmmakers don’t want them do what they are best at.

There are a few high points, and it isn’t entirely devoid of entertainment, but Date Night isn’t something you should go out of your way to watch, and isn’t something I ever need to think about again (which has been happening a lot to me lately). The funniest moments in the entire film are the outtakes shown as the credits roll. I imagine the DVD release of this material will be worthwhile.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

I enjoyed The Men Who Stare at Goats while watching it, I did, but after it was done I realized it is one of those movies that I will never need to think about again as long as I live. This isn’t intended to be a value judgment; it is simply a fact about the world and my reaction to it.

It is worth watching to see George Clooney and Ewan McGregor banter back and forth about the Jedi, and Jeff Bridges is enjoyably loopy as a drugged out, New Age Army officer exploring uses for psychics and spoon-benders to do away with conflict and war.

There is more that I could say, but why? It is worth watching if you like any of the aforementioned actors, or if you’re just looking for a few hours of empty entertainment, but there isn’t much more to it than that. At one point it seems like it wants to say something about the war in Iraq, but it doesn’t.

At the end of the day The Men Who Stare at Goats is a pleasant, but ultimately disposable movie.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Zombies of Mass Destruction

I wish Zombies of Mass Destruction was better. I really do, for a variety of reasons. First, it was produced in Seattle, my town, and I like it when the locals do something good. Secondly, a friend of mine wrote the script, at least in part. (He is a good writer, I swear, it just isn’t on display here) And thirdly, I’m in it. I got to be an extra one night when the production crew picked up some additional shots they missed during principle photography. At 48:30 there is a shadowy figure shuffling around at the tree line. (I was this close—imagine me holding my fingers half an inch apart—to being a zombie that gets stabbed in the crotch and spews blood from a crotch-mounted blood cannon, but we ran out of darkness.) In reality all you can see is the picture on the front of my hoodie, but it is enough to identify me.

Like I said, I really wanted it to be good, but it just isn’t.

In the idyllic, picturesque island town of Port Gamble, Washington (which isn’t really an island at all, but I’ll let that slide), all is not as wholesome as it seems. Beneath the small-town veneer lurks an ugly undercurrent of racism and political discontent. Frida Abbas (Janette Armand), Iranian by descent though she was born and raised in Port Gamble, feels this firsthand. She recently dropped out of Princeton and returned home. Her ignorant, lily-white neighbors treat her differently, never quite accepting of her or her Muslim father as “real Americans”, and mistakenly calling her Iraqi over and over. Even her boyfriend subtly belittles Frida and her heritage.

Tom Hunt (Doug Fahl) is another Port Gamble-ite. He escaped to New York and now returns years later with his ultra-gay boyfriend, Lance (Cooper Hopkins), in order to come out to his mother and stop hiding his true self.

But something is amiss in the community. Namely zombies. A nefarious terrorist has unleashed a biological weapon that turns its victims into flesh eating undead cannibals. Of course the prime location for a terrorist attack is a small, isolated town in Washington. (And somehow the national news knows of this attack before any of the citizens of Port Gamble. Curious.) Over the course of the infection, the town’s latent racism and homophobia boil up to the surface, and Frida, Tom, and Lance encounter all manner of trouble because of their differences.

Zombies of Mass Destruction falls into the same category as movies like Dead Snow. It tries to be a comedy, it tries so damn hard, and that is what ultimately causes the film to fail. We get it, Shaun of the Dead was funny, but that doesn’t mean that every fucking zombie movie has to be god damned comedy. (Zombieland is the exception, it is legitimately funny.) Director/writer Kevin Hamademi and writer Ramon Isao spend too much time and effort trying to be funny, trying to force jokes and moments of levity into places where they don’t fit. The humor just doesn’t work. The jokes that try to be subtle aren’t clever enough to be funny, and the ones that try to be over the top funny aren’t big enough to elicit more than a mild chuckle (if that). This is one more example of the adage about comedy being the most difficult genre to write.

If the filmmakers had simply let the movie run its course as a zombie movie, without fishing for laughs, it would be much more effective. It still wouldn’t have been great, the acting never feels quite natural enough to be taken seriously, but it would have been better. The set up is there, and the gore and effects could have carried it through. Tom Devlin from 1313fx does a great job, an impressively good job, especially considering the budget and production scale. It is as good as anything I’ve seen recently.

Letting the movie play out as a horror would also better serve the political aspirations of the movie. It wants to make some wide reaching point about the war in Iraq, intolerance of other ways of life, religious fanaticism, and how seemingly ideal appearances can hide ugliness. These are worthy goals, but they are dealt with too simplistically, too bluntly, to make any sort of coherent statement. We never really connect with the protagonists, and consequently there is little emotional investment with them. The secondary characters are little more than caricatures, one-dimensional racists and religious fanatics. You can get away with that, but the caricatures have to be caricatures for a reason, they have to take the stereotypes to the extreme. Instead they are wind up limp and mild. The sinister preacher isn’t sinister enough to be frightening. The racist redneck isn’t racist or redneck enough to inspire dread. (He doesn’t even have a gun for god’s sake, what kind of self-respecting hillbilly doesn’t have a small arsenal stashed in his closet?) They are not taken far enough to be effective in the way they are intended to be. It feels false, like kids who grew up in the city mocking small town life without ever actually experiencing it for real. This small town is what TV and movies have told them a small town is like.

ZMD bounces back and forth between humor and seriousness, between horror and comedy, and because of this lack of focus, doesn’t work in either capacity.